Lauren reviews The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel by Vincent Cross

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The Little Sisters of The Holy Vessel is a short story about an order of nuns that administer exorcisms. In particular, readers are introduced to Sister Teresa and Sister Elizabeth. The sisters have traveled to a small village to assist Father Gregory with a recent crime that he believes will require a spiritual interrogation. At first, nothing seems odd about the nuns. They are dutiful with religious and cultural etiquette. Fast-forward past the opening and Cross unveils the “worldy” side of these women, which removes the veil between the reader and the historical setting, and allows Teresa and Elizabeth to add deeper hues to the story.

Given this is a short story I can’t delve into the plot without risking spoilers. Therefore, I’ll shift to the parts of the narrative that interested and concerned me.

First off, Little Sisters is erotic, which augments the relationship between the characters, as well as the banishment of evil. The erotic is more than sexual. It exists in several layers. It’s physical and spiritual and romantic. On this same note, there is a layer of Cross’ eroticism that pestered me as the story escalated and climaxed. And it started with this sentence:

“We want the thing to smell our scent, but we don’t want our bodies to betray us.”

Sparing the details, I asked myself why is it necessary for these women to use their vessels in such a risky way? Arguably, they are asked to sacrifice their sanctity. Do their actions convey that women are powerful beyond measure? Or, is this just another instance of women “using” what God gave them to make themselves relevant in an unequal world and an attempt to maintain balance between good and evil? Which, ultimately, saves men. If the tables were turned and male clergy were responsible for the exorcism, how would the climatic event in this story change? To me, it would be much different.

There are times when the erotic can be liberating.  There are times when the sexuality and the erotic gaze are self-serving and only maintain sexist ideals. I feel that Little Sisters walks a fine line. The story is well written, but where (and if) readers teeter along this line is subjective, of course.

I would have liked for Cross to allow the nuns to address two of my lingering questions: first, who are they protecting, and second, do they feel their holy vessel is the only way?

As a reviewer, I rarely feel the need to strike an iron hammer by recommending or not recommending a read. Therefore, I’ll end as I usually do. Little Sisters is story for those who enjoy short stories and want to venture into an old world, erotic, and paranormal read featuring religious women that boldly face demons.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter,www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

Julie Thompson reviews A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

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“There is so much we don’t know, can’t know, in doing historical research. Emma Donoghue writes, in the afterword of her collection Astray, ‘when you work in the hybrid form of historical fiction, there will be Seven-League-Boot moments: crucial facts joyfully uncovered in dusty archives and online databases, as well as great leaps of insight and imagination. But you will also be haunted by a looming absence: the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost, that can never be recovered.’” (Postscript)

A Thin Bright Line, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, tells the story of a life lived fully, yet not quite openly. Bledsoe starts from the end of her namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe’s, life and proceeds to build on the available fragments. The two women’s lives follow amazingly similar career paths and sexual orientation, despite decades and miles apart. Bledsoe was nine years old when her aunt died in an apartment fire in 1966. As a result, she has few clear memories of her aunt, a vague, albeit benevolent, figure who made periodic visits and sent gifts. The woman was a benign mystery to her family. In an era without social media and portable devices tracking every move, it was much easier to leave without a trace, or else leave behind few clues about who you were.

A detailed entry for Lucybelle, found by chance in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, as well as an obituary in the Journal of Glaciology, sparked years of research leading to this novel. Bledsoe scavenged her father’s memories of his sister. Among them, her aunt’s aspirations to write a novel; her penchant for organizing school-wide jokes and flash mob-type performances; and reciting humorous poetry. As for the adult Lucybelle became, there is far less information available. A handful of primary documents, such as the reports left behind following the fatal apartment fire, and interviews with the remaining people who knew her aunt in some capacity, were all that remained of a seemingly rich and vibrant life.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was born in 1923 to a devout Christian household in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Her mother was a housewife and her father had a dual career as a farmer and county judge. As a child, Lucybelle displayed a keen intellect, as evidenced by her voracious reading habits and ability to pass the Arkansas bar without having had attended law school. The novel spans a decade and opens on New York City, 1956, about ten years after she left her hometown. The former country girl had by this time built a successful career for herself at the Geological Society of America as an Assistant Editor. She shares an apartment with her longtime girlfriend, Phyllis, and their dachshund, L’Forte. She also enjoys the city’s nightlife with a core group of friends. Everything seems good enough, even if it involves a bit of compromise. However, her life is upended when her relationship shatters and a sudden job offer is pushed at her by Henri Bader, a European ice scientist working for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The novel flows from New York to Chicago to Vermont. Along the way, Lucybelle experiences overt and vague threats from her employer and sources unknown. She learns how to compartmentalize her life, balancing her employer’s demands that she refrain from dating women with a challenging career. The novel is full of coded terrain: her workplaces at Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and her private and family lives. Through her relationships and career, Lucybelle makes sense of the path she wants her life to take. Despite having her life extinguished just as she seems to fully realize it, the novel is an incredible tribute.

Bledsoe paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of her aunt, displaying an understanding of the period’s public, private, and personal politics, and social mores. Some of the characters are works of fiction, such as Lucybelle’s Chicago girlfriend Stella, her cluster of friends in New York City, and coworkers at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. However, the many lives that factor into this story all reflect some aspect of life during the Cold War, in the period covering 1956-1966. Each of the women featured react differently to societal pressures and offer a sort of option for how Lucybelle might conduct her own life. A Thin Bright Line is an engaging and immersive story, featuring strong, intelligent women.

Mid-century queer history is fascinating and complex. Most of the literature and sources mentioned in the novel can be borrowed via public libraries in the United States or purchased online. I acquired the first two volumes of collected issues of The Ladder via my local public library’s interlibrary loan system. I recommend supplementing your reading with the titles listed below.

  1. Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé

  2. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

  3. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur.

Marthese reviews Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin

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“Isabella was joy and excitement and adventure and everything else seemed dull in comparison”
Silhouette of a Sparrow is set in 1920s America and follows the story of Garnet. I had been meaning to read it since it came out; the chapters of the book all feature a different bird which is a quirky concept that ties in well with the story.
Garnet is 15, finishing high school and loves birds. She had to conform to her mother’s expectations, so instead of bird watching, she does bird silhouettes on the spot. She is sent to live with the Harringtons over the summer for many reasons, but primarily because her father suffers from PTSD after the war and her mother needed some time alone with him.
The Harringtons are not very interesting company, so Garnet finds a job at a hat shop–interesting choice for a bird lover. But Garnet is not just a bird lover: she is an activist as well. At the shop, Garnet meets and makes friends with Isabella, a flapper who is close to her age. Isabella wakes up Garnet’s more rebellious side and soon she has to make a choice between freedom and conformity.
This book is more than this plot. To me, it is also about complex parental relationships. Parents who have their own story, who only want the best for their  children but do not always know what that is. It is also about love for ones family, and the choices one has to make to incorporate them in their future. It’s about taking a stand for your future and growing into someone’s true potential.
The ending is open with potential. Things are just starting. It is not a fairy tale ending but it is far from sad or tragic. It is realistic.
It was interesting to read this book–to learn more about birds, but also to reflect on the importance of families while enjoying a cute love story that was bound to happen. I feel that most people would enjoy this book.

Rachel reviews The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue

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A new lesbian novel has just been released, The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue. It is a historical romance with a few elements from Beauty and the Beast, as well as a good feminist theme.

The story begins in England in the late 1800s with Patience, a spirited noblewoman. She is the youngest of four siblings and the only daughter left unmarried. Patience has had a regimented life she cannot stand, so when her parents tell her they’ve arranged for her to marry a nobleman she finds repulsive, she runs away from home that very night. But Patience soon realizes how exhausting (and dangerous) her life can be always on the run. By chance she finds a house deep in the woods and sees a strange creature occasionally roaring out the door and window. While her first instinct is to stay away, hunger and chill finally draws Patience to sneak into the house. She meets a young woman named Ada who lives here with the beast, and after much pleading, Ada allows Patience to stay in the house. But the conditions include staying away from parts of the house and never interacting with the creature guarding the place. Ada herself is kind and intelligent, but there are clearly things she’s hiding about herself and the house. The girls become friends and later on there’s a deep love that completes them. But outsiders stumbling in are always a real threat to their secrets.

The Beast at the Door is a relatively short read (208 pages) and while I liked a lot of the story, I had the feeling that more subplots and characters could have been added in to make it fuller. Patience and Ada live in a time where women were restricted by rules and marriages, but they both defied the expectations forced on them. Both were avid readers and always came to their own opinions about the things they learned. While Ada’s father had understood about letting his daughter read, Patience’s family decided what was appropriate for her. Her brother Mason was the one that secretly lent her the books she really wanted and helped shape her into the bright, forward-thinking woman she is in the story. Ada especially is resourceful in tight places and with Patience’s assistance they’re quite a team. Althea Blue was wonderful with her portrayal of these two women and their love story is beautiful. It’s not the central plotline for Patience and Ada but clearly their love for each other strengthens them.

However, there were very few character interactions in The Beast at the Door. Most of it was between the two women at the house, and I think the story would have been more engaging had there been other regular characters with their own stories. The pacing of the book seemed to go too fast, and that further gave the impression more subplots would have helped. There were also questions raised early on about a couple characters that were never answered. I thought I would learn what was happening with them but at the end nothing had been revealed. That and the epilogue didn’t feel like strong resolutions to me. Then again, I don’t know if Althea Blue is planning to write a sequel to this book, so perhaps these questions will be addressed later.

Even though I can’t recommend it, The Beast at the Door is still a good story and will draw in readers, especially those who love books centering on history and women’s rights.

Kathryn Hoss reviews Juliana by Vanda

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Juliana is actually the story of Alice Huffman, “Al” for short, a small-town girl who moves to the Big Apple in the 1940s to pursue a musical and acting career. She ends up spending very little time working on said career, and more time alienating her friends while having a constant, back-and-forth existential crisis about her sexuality.
I knew I was in trouble when the book began with an apology:
“I wrote this novel to be accurate for its time. That means there may be occasional words used to refer to certain groups of people that would be consider [sic] inappropriate today; therefore, I wish to formally apologize to Roman Catholics, African Americans, Jews, the Japanese, and the disabled.”
That apology could have also gone out to the LGBT community. Though this is a story about and supposedly for queer women, there is so much homophobia depicted in these pages that I was tempted to give up 10% of the way through– and would have, if I wasn’t reading to review.
We pressed our own noses against the glass to see what was going on. Inside there were real homosexuals eating breakfast. When they saw us staring, the men homosexuals did a fairy dance like they were girls and the girl homosexuals, wearing suits and ties, kissed each other on their mouths. It was disgusting.
Worse than the homophobia surrounding Al is her own internalized homophobia. Every time it seems as if Al is about to grow from an experience, she immediately backtracks. In one scene she is kissing Juliana, in the next berating her for leading her down an immoral path. I failed to understand why a semi-successful club singer like Juliana would be interested in such a stick-in-the-mud, unless she wanted to take advantage of Al’s insecurity and naïveté.
The unhealthy nature of their relationship may be the main reason this novel didn’t work for me. At no point do we get a window into Al’s feelings, aside from sexual desire for Juliana. And even while Al’s body is saying “hell yes,” her mouth is saying “no.” Juliana pursues a sexual relationship with her anyway, making this an extremely uncomfortable read for people like me, who value such things as consent.
If the (lack of) consent between Juliana and Al isn’t questionable enough, Al is also sexually assaulted by one of her closest friends earlier in the story. She immediately forgives him and acts as if this violence never happened for the remainder of the novel, a response which I cannot logically reconcile without deciding Al is just an inconsistent character.
The supporting cast is not much better. The only living, breathing part of this novel, for me, was the setting. Vanda grew up in Huntington NY according to her bio, which is where this story begins. It is clear that plenty of research went into the location and time period, sometimes to the detriment of the plot. I got the impression that the author was more keen on hitting all the historical bases than in telling a coherent story. Yes, the setting is beautifully portrayed, but at what cost?
 
History buffs may find Juliana an engrossing read, but for those of us looking for lesbian romance, it leaves much to be desired.

Korri reviews Petticoats and Promises by Penelope Friday

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I love historical romance novels, especially those featuring women who love women (see Pembroke Park). The high stakes of that love when women could not earn a living and had to secure their livelihoods and social position through strategic marriages automatically creates tension and drama. Petticoats and Promises, a Regency romance by Penelope Friday, is a mostly entertaining read in that genre.

A few weeks before their joint coming out ball, Serena Coleridge is astonished to realize that she is in love for her best friend, Clara Battersley, and that the feeling is mutual. As the young women discuss the fact that their debut is an announcement of availability on the marriage market, Serena confesses that she cannot imagine loving someone as much as she does Clara. Their tête-à-tête is interrupted that afternoon but their feelings do not remain unspoken for long; soon the girls share passionate kisses and sensual encounters. On the eve of their coming out ball, Serena’s father’s stocks plummet, leaving no money for a season. Serena does not mind the loss of the social whirl – she is more concerned about losing access to her beloved. An invitation to visit the Coleridges in London is the perfect excuse for Clara and Serena to be together – until they are caught by Clara’s mother, who sends Serena home in disgrace. The rest of the novel follows the aftermath as Serena is cut off from Clara, who quickly marries; deals with her parents’ sorrow and mortification; and navigates the turbulent waters of society. She is sponsored in town by her Aunt Hester and becomes friends with the awkward but kind Mr. Feverley and Miss Kate Smith, another “invert,” which helps her to heal.

Penelope Friday doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer imitating Jane Austen) – she allows Serena Coleridge’s first person narration to render acute observations about social interactions and give readers a glimpse of what life was like in the Regency period. Friday is good at depicting the constraints of the era – never being alone or having time to oneself without servants or parents around, the need to abide by rules and strictures of good breeding. The problem with such insularity, of course, is that the novel focuses solely on Serena’s internal emotional life and yearning for Clara, without the cutting wit and sense of irony that makes Jane Austen’s writing so beloved. Since Clara and Serena share so much history then spend most of the novel apart, it can be difficult to feel invested in them as a couple. The endless misunderstandings between Serena and Clara are another issue with the novel; if only they spoke openly and thoroughly, their happily ever after could have come much sooner. But there is a happily ever after indeed!

 

Lauren reviews The Beast at the Door by Althea Blue

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Confession: I’m new to steampunk-themed fiction. Therefore, I was excited to fall into The Beast at the Door— tagged as a steampunk fairy tale.

Immediately, the author (Althea Blue) hits readers with a big dose of pathos, which is delivered by the teenage protagonist, Patience.

Patience lives in a cage. A cage constructed of rigid decorum, never-ending pretense, and swift punishment. She’s prodded by rules and subdued by her family’s wealth. Despite the lavish lifestyle she’s afforded, Patience is drowning in a world that stifles her voice and potential.

When Patience’s parents surprise her with an arranged marriage, she finds the courage to set herself free. She flees from home and embarks on a rough journey with a dash of danger until she stumbles upon a garden and the lure of sanctuary. Out of desperation and survival, Patience resorts to behaviors short of her moral code.

Blue sprinkles tiny nuggets of foreshadowing, but they come later in the plot—mainly due to the story’s very slow pacing. Nearly halfway into the book, Blue drops a golden nugget before her reader’s eyes. The enticing hint comes during a low moment of Patience’s journey and propels the heart of The Beast at the Door into a coming-of age-story.

Saving plot spoilers, romance lands at Patience’s feet when she least expects it, which grants her refuge in the form of emotional freedom. This feeds my favorite aspect of the story. Patience’s vulnerability is authentic and bubbles over into the thrills of young adulthood, budding love, and friendship.

The newfound freedom works to Patience’s advantage by making her a relatable character; however, this book lightly treads on steampunk. The most tangible steampunk element hinges upon a single character, Ada. Other subgenre-related characteristics (i.e., the setting and time period) are captured in the story, but they are secondary to Ada’s role and don’t necessitate Patience’s development. The fairy tale element was steeped in the main characters’ overall cheerful dispositions and the essence of oral storytelling (which is mimicked in the writing style), but stunted by the story’s realism.

Granted, I’m .5 of an ounce biased. Maybe I was in the mood for a sprinkle of fantasy where I’m transported to a slightly alternate world. Or, maybe I was in the mood for a gritty European subculture. But hey, isn’t that the beauty of fiction? Readers indulge, digest, and then regurgitate all sorts of thoughts and feelings from a single story.

With that said, if you’re in search of weighty speculative fiction, The Beast at the Door may not satiate your curiosities. You’ll need a meatier portion of steampunk. However, this novella will be a delightful read for those who seek dashes of lesbian and steampunk flavors.

Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, “The Dawn of Nia.” Outside of reading and writing, she volunteers as a child advocate and enjoys new adventures with her partner of thirteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, www.lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.

 

Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.

SPONSORED REVIEW: Danika reviews Sekma by Nel Havas

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Back in December, I reviewed The Apprentice Queen by Nel Havas. Recently, the author contacted me about her new companion book to that novel: Sekma. (I say “companion” because this book can be read before, after, or independently from The Apprentice Queen, but they are linked.)

Sekma is a character that fascinated me in The Apprentice Queen, so I was intrigued by the idea of a book with her back story. In this novel, we see her as a young woman, at the beginning of her rise to power. If I expected to see her transformation into the cold, ruthless woman we meet in The Apprentice Queen, I was mistaken. Sekma as a young woman is just as manipulative, power-hungry, and unfeeling as she is as an aging queen. She just has fewer resources accrued.

Although this is Sekma’s story, it’s not from her point of view. It’s from the perspective of Neferkara, a woman who was once nobility, but was enslaved when Egyptians invaded. Now she serves Sekma in Egypt, seething with rage at the king who ordered the invasion–and the entire country by extension. There are definitely parallels between the protagonists in the two books: both are fish out of water, though Mitti is raised up from a commoner’s lifestyle to a noble’s, while Neferkara tumbles in status. Both work closely with Sekma–against their wills–and grow to grudgingly respect her skill while being horrified by her personality.

I found Sekma to be just as compelling in this narrative. She is calculating and cold–not cruel, because that would imply more passion than she possesses–but captivating. This background on Sekma doesn’t make her more sympathetic per se, but it does provide more perspective. We see how she built her network and resources from very little, and the trajectory of how her scheming became so sophisticated later in her political life. More than her capability, it’s her motivation that makes me pause to reconsider my opinion.

Sekma is unflinching in destroying anyone who stands in her way, whether they are guilty, a potential threat, or inconvenient bystanders, but everything she does genuinely benefits the kingdom (at least in her eyes). She seeks power, but she really is the most capable person to wield it. We see how infighting and pride started wars and sabotaged progress in Egypt previously. No one close to the throne is as good with organization and management or diplomatic relations. Without her seizing control of Egypt, it really seems like the kingdom would be worse off, right down to the common people. Although Sekma is apathetic to their personal well being, the average person seems to be better off under her leadership than her competitors. I found this aspect to be really thought-provoking, and ended up fueling lengthy conversations between my partner and me.

Because Sekma takes center stage in this story, I found that although Neferkara is the main character, she’s often hardly noticeable: just providing the eyes to see Sekma through. Her story line gets less attention. This also means that although there is queer content in the book, it is definitely not the focus. Neferkara befriends another slave who later becomes her lover. Meritaten teaches her to find happiness even in her new, bleak life. It is sweet, but fair warning: this isn’t a romance, so there’s no guaranteed happily ever after.

It’s interesting to see how the two books slot together. There’s enough kept under wraps that you can read this before The Apprentice Queen and not be spoiled, but reading them the other way around reveals how some of the events and reveals came to be, including unforeseen consequences of Neferkara’s actions.

I was impressed with the attention to detail in the setting. I don’t know enough about ancient Egypt to say definitively that it’s accurate, but it certainly appears to be well-researched. The writing is serviceable, and seems a little cleaner than her earlier book, including fewer time jumps. Foreshadowing is used liberally, but it worked for me and kept the tension during slower sections. On reflection, however, I’m not sure that the plot hangs together without context. It was interesting as a deeper exploration of an interesting character from the first novel, but I’m not sure it has a strong arc of its own. The Apprentice Queen seemed to be clearly about how someone can become a monster, which was an interesting psychological premise. I didn’t have a central theme pop out at me in the same way in this volume, except maybe examining what makes a villain and questioning whether Sekma can be both monstrous and necessary? It felt a little more muddied to me.

That’s a minor point, however. I enjoyed learning more about Sekma, and I liked the journey Neferkara goes on. I feel like this is a stronger read as a follow-up to The Apprentice Queen, but that could be my own personal bias. I do recommend both books if you’re interested in the premise!

(Warning: don’t read the Amazon synopsis for Sekma! It gives away most of the plot.)

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Tierney reviews Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger

Veras Will by Shelley EttingerVera’s Will is a beautifully-told queer family saga, one that is by turns heart-wrenching and heartwarming, and at every moment an entrancing read. Ettinger tells the tragic story of Vera’s life, from her family’s flight from Russia after anti-Jewish violence at the turn of the 20th century to her lonely death in the 1970s, with many family tragedies and missed opportunities for love in between. Interspersed with the chapters detailing Vera’s solitary and repressed life are brief sections told from the point of view of Randy, Vera’s granddaughter, as she learns about her family’s past and makes her own way in the world. Both women are lesbians, but their lived experiences vary wildly.
The two mirrored narratives showcase two vastly different time periods. One woman lives a loveless and unhappy life, unable to live as her true self, while the other is able to live her life freely as a lesbian, overcoming the hardships she encounters along the way thanks to her own sense of self and her certainty in her own identity and values. Randy lives Vera’s “what could have been,” gay liberation come to a boil after decades of repression and unhappiness.

Ettinger deftly interweaves social critique into her narrative: she touches upon homophobia, racism, sexism, worker’s rights, and more, without the story ever feeling forced or preachy. Instead these issues come up naturally, and add to the richness and depth of the story as Ettinger faces them head-on in the novel’s plot.

A well-written cast of secondary characters (both lovable and loathsome) also enriches and deepens the story, making it feel all the more epic and engrossing.

The story is intricate and delicately balanced between the two narratives, but despite Ettinger’s skill, some plot points are left hanging. Randy’s Aunt Bud is an intriguing character whose backstory is never fully explained, and who seemingly exists only to further the plot. Aunt Bud brought Randy to her first gay bar as a child – where Randy narrowly misses crossing paths with Vera, in a strange lesbian convergence. Aunt Bud herself seems to be a lesbian, but Ettinger glosses over her narrative potential and uses her character rather clumsily. This minor flaw in the novel stands out only because the rest of the novel’s characters are so well-written: this one puzzling element does not detract from the rest of the book.

Vera and Randy’s stories in counterpoint to one another make for a beautifully bittersweet novel, one that is both melancholy and heartening – the best bits of both emotions. It’s the kind of novel you want to read in one fell swoop, despite its length: Ettinger meticulously lays bare Vera’s entire life, taking the reader on an emotional rollercoaster that is simultaneously heightened and soothed by Randy’s confrontation with her family’s past and journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

The story provokes that perfect combination of emotion and introspection. I loved Vera’s Will for its epic, multigenerational take on the lesbian coming of age story – it filled a void in queer fiction that I didn’t even know I needed, and left me hungry for more queer sagas of such far-reaching proportions.
[Trigger warning for descriptions of rape and violence.]