Alexa reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My rating: 3.5 stars

I’ve been obsessed with Mary Read ever since I played AC: Black Flag, and while nobody can live up to that interpretation of Mary for me, I was really excited to read a book about her and see a different take. I found that the title matches the book beautifully, because it is truly first and foremost a story of Mary, and her discovering herself and what she wants.

Mary and Anne are both bisexual women living among pirate men in different ways. They both have relationships with and long for men for most of the book, but at the same time, there is a budding attraction between the two of them that eventually wins. While I don’t think Mary is meant to be nonbinary, due to being forced to live her life as a man she had some “don’t belong to either gender” feelings that were personally relatable to me as a nonbinary person.

One thing that kind of ruined my enjoyment was that… every single men in this book is absolute trash (except for Paddy, who is golden, and Jack and Nat, who are mostly decent). But seriously, everyone other than them is a misogynistic, homophobic trash, and while this might have been realistic, it was not enjoyable to read about. Anne was abused by her husband in the past and spends the second half of the book trying to break free of him for good, while Mary experiences violence both as a woman, and as someone thought to be a gay man.

The ending dragged on a little for me. This book has very short chapters, and when I saw from the page number that I’m towards the end, I had six different chapter ends where I thought “oh, that would be a pretty cool ending sentence” and then it wasn’t. Everytime I thought this was the ending, the story just went on. In the end, I ended up really liking the /actual/ ending and how it all came full circle, but this was still a little strange.

One thing that might be interesting to people (especially people looking to fill a reading challenge prompt maybe… I’ve seen prompts like this before) is that this book has a dual timeline – there is a “present”, but there are also several flashback chapters that detail how Mary ended up where she was at the beginning of the book. Without spoiling much, I can say that I really liked how these two timelines “interacted” with each other and supported each other.

I had some mixed feelings about the book, but overall I liked it. It could have been heavier on pirate adventures, but I liked Mary’s character arc and discovering herself. Also, the cover is beautiful.

TW: physical abuse by spouse, (misdirected) homo- and transphobia, attempted sexual assault, general pirate-y things like violence and murder

Julie Thompson reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

My earliest memories of pirates include Muppet Treasure Island, The Goonies, and the treasure chest at the dentist’s office. Female swashbucklers, however, did not enter my consciousness until much, much later. I lived vicariously through sanitized depictions of redeemable and charming male anti-heroes. If you want more than tired tales of Black Beard or even Calico Jack (featured, of course, in this novel as one  of Anne’s paramours), then you are in for a treat with The Unbinding of Mary Reade.

Miriam McNamara immerses readers into the so-called “Golden Age” (sometime between the mid-17th to the early 18th centuries) of piracy in the Caribbean. Based on the lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Reade, 18th century women who sailed the high seas. Much of what passed for facts on piracy in that era can be taken with a grain or two of salt (or in this case, of sand). Salacious tales of blood-thirsty, unscrupulous plundering of merchant vessels and conflicts with the Royal Navy, were intended to sell books and newspapers. How much of their lives truly happened, I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. We can, however, through novels such as this one and Bloody Jack, a young adult series by LA Meyer, imagine what their lives were like and what drove them forward.

McNamara opens the story with a heart pumping action sequence as a crew of pirates led by Calico Jack take over the ship. Hidden from view, Mary “Mark” Reade beholds a fiery image of Anne Bonny, her pistol firing and wild hair flying. In that moment, it won’t be the first or the last time that Mary takes a chance on an unconventional choice.

Life in a poor London neighborhood is hand-to-mouth for Mary, the illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother. The untimely death of her brother, Mark, son of a long gone, but moneyed father, presses Mary into a role she can’t refuse. She shears her hair and attempts to pass as Mark in order to play his grandmother for financial support. McNamara’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and identity flows naturally throughout the narrative. Mary’s journey from hardscrabble city life to her eventual job aboard seafaring vessels alternates with the story’s present-day of 1719. Anne, on the other hand, takes to the seas to escape an abusive marriage and eke out freedom and fulfillment however she can.

Anne and Mary develop a strong, Thelma & Louise kind of friendship, that buoys the pair in world dominated by men. In addition to nuanced explorations of gender, we also follow Mary’s developing attractions for her childhood friend, Nat, and Anne. McNamara weaves well-placed details and develops supporting characters to bring the realities of life at sea and society (as a woman) to life. Readers familiar with their story will still find much to enjoy in this engaging drama.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the history of female pirates, check out these books:

Danika reviews All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages edited by Saundra Mitchell

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages by Saundra Mitchell cover

One of the challenges of finding a queer community is not only connecting with your people, but also unearthing your history. Queer people have always existed, but our existence has been covered up and buried. It can feel like we have no history, which is alienating. All Out is a much-needed book, because it locates queer people (teens in particular) through time. It is also optimistic historical fiction. It imagines not only queer teens in the past, but how they might have found happiness there. It rejects the idea that queer people don’t have a history–or that if they do, it is fundamentally tragic.

Although all the stories are historical fiction, they do sometimes play with genre by including magical realism, fantastical elements, or fairy tale retellings. There are trans, gay, lesbian, asexual, and aromantic characters. (I can’t remember bi characters? But I may have missed that.) There are a lot of different time periods (~1200s-1999) and cultures involved, although I would have liked to see more stories set outside of North America and Europe.

The story that really stood out to me was Malinda Lo’s. It’s about a Chinese girl in San Francisco in the 50s, and the male impersonator she has a crush on. It incorporates race, sexism, space exploration, the Chinese immigrant experience, and lesbian pulp fiction–all in such a short space! I really loved that story, and maybe it’s unfair to want a short story to be a novel, but… I do. Luckily, I think we might be getting it! There’s definitely enough here to flesh out, so I’m eager to get my hands on the novel version.

That’s my favourite, but I really enjoyed most of the stories. Dahlia Adler’s contribution that features two girls coming out to each other at Kurt Cobain’s vigil was another memorable one, and you really can’t go wrong with a story about two girls sailing off into the sunset together. (Well, you could, but they didn’t.) There are fun, captivating stories that make the world feel a little more open and inviting, so I have to give this 5 stars.

Susan reviews Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

Stone Mad is the sequel to Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory (which I reviewed here last month!), so there might be some unavoidable spoilers for Karen Memory from here on out!

In Stone Mad, Karen and Priya are settling into their life together and celebrating their new ranch with a night out for dinner and a magic show – except that their dinner companions happen to be a widowed sceptic and illusionist, a pair of Spiritualists who might be sisters and are almost certainly con women, and whatever is haunting the hotel’s dining room. It as dramatic as you would expect.

Stone Mad is really different in scale to Karen Memory. The first book covered schemes and murders that stretched across North America at least, even though the majority of the action took place in Rapid City. In this, the action is very local and personal, and the drama is mainly interpersonal instead of conspiracy, which makes for a somewhat different tone to the action and consequences. The steampunk elements are quite toned down, presumably because of the space, but the bits that we do get are well set up and dramatic, and I enjoyed them a lot! Instead, we get a little more folklore, which is great when the characters can acknowledge that tommy-knockers and jackalopes are probably real, but ghosts and Spiritualism might be a step too far.

I really like Karen’s narrative voice. She is very frank and matter-of-fact in her narration, especially about her past as a sex worker; I really liked that she could recognise the tricks that the Arcade sisters were using on her from that, and had professional respect for it, as well as the way she talked about things she’d learned from clients. The narration has a really conversational tone, which works well for when Karen digresses onto a different topic – the digressions seem to go a little further afield before they loop back to the actual narrative than they did in Karen Memory</em, but that could be a trick of my memory. Her voice also has great descriptions, especially for the tommy-knocker – Karen has a great eye for people and details, as a character, and those really come through in the narrative.

But I did read great swathes of this book from behind my hands because one of the central dramas in Stone Mad is that relationships are not easy, as evidenced by Karen and Priya’s first real fight in their relationship. And it’s one of those fights where the actual problem and the thing that the fight’s about are two separate things, so solving it is not a simple matter. For those who spend books going “Why can’t you solve this relationship drama by talking to each other like adults?!” this might be worth checking out – I found the way they reckoned with each other and the way they helped each other with problems to be quite realistic, especially the way they talk about family.

Aside from that: I found the scenes with the tommy-knocker to be effective and unnerving, the magic show was really vivid, and I really appreciated that Elizabeth Bear actually kept and used the repercussions she set up in Karen Memory; not just the social aspect of them being heroes of the town, but also Karen’s tinnitus and chronic hip pain, and Priya’s PTSD (which in particular I thought was really well-done – the details of her being embarrassed by her own reactions rang really true for me).

Plus, I always love historical stories where every female character is explicitly Done with men, and Stone Mad goes in on the perception that the greatest woman will never be taken as seriously as the most mediocre man, How to Suppress Women’s Writing style.

Basically, this is a fun sequel to Karen Memory, and it was great to go back to that world and see how the characters were doing, even if the answer made my clutch my face in my hands! I really enjoyed it, and if you liked Karen Memory it’s worth checking this out too.

[Caution warnings: mentions of historical racism, sex trafficking, and abuse]

[This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher.]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews Daughter of Makha by Nel Havas

I look across the years in astonishment, for in the distance I see a simple, trusting girl. She is a stranger to me, yet she is familiar; her land alien, but it is mine. In unbroken chain, hand-in-hand with ghosts of myself, over the days and the hours, over years measured in heartbeats, I am linked to her.

Daughter of Makha is a retelling of the biblical story of the epic of Absalom (2 Samuel 13:1-19). In the original story, Tamar, daughter of King David, is raped by her half-brother. When her father does nothing to punish him, Tamar’s mother and brother plot revenge (and attempt to seize power), which tears the family apart and leaves a large death toll. Tamar serves only as a catalyst n the narrative, disappearing quickly after that. Daughter of Makha expands on this character, exploring what this must have looked like for Tamar, who is trapped in a family tearing itself apart.

This is the third of Nel Havas’s books that I’ve reviewed at the Lesbrary, and although this book departs from the Ancient Egypt setting of the previous two, I can see the parallels in these stories. Like her Egyptian novels, Daughter of Makha has a matter-of-fact writing style and features thorough research–though sometimes that research veers into info dump territory, describing every road the characters take and its landmarks, or dropping in some historical story that doesn’t quite match up with the narrative.

All three books also feature court intrigue and elaborate plots to gain power. The women, especially, in these novels scheme to gain influence. They may not have a lot of legal power, but they use the resources available to manipulate their circumstances, whether it’s to shore up power, peace, or protection for their family. Makha and Bathsheba are the principal players here–both wives of King David, both trying to ensure that their son becomes the heir. But they are not the only women using whatever influence they have: Tamar spends the novel trying to turn the course of history, attempting to prevent bloodshed. I was especially impressed by the quiet shrewdness of Shoshana, who finds a way to protect her (and Absalom’s) sons no matter the outcome of the war.

Although it is the wrong against Tamar that launches this war, she is horrified by it. She doesn’t get a say in her mother and brother’s revenge plan, and it becomes obvious that they are acting for their own gain more than any attempt to defend her “honor.” I thought that Havas captured the terrible and engrossing power of war. Tamar is continually disgusted by her loved ones’ blood lust, but the battle is brutal and bloody and giddy—it inspires a morbid fascination.

As for the queer content, it comes in about half way through the book. Hana is a few years older than Tamar and has acted as a pseudo servant/caretaker/surrogate sister role at various times in Tamar’s life. They are reunited after a long separation, and they travel together to try to prevent the final battle. Hana crossdresses, disguising herself as a warrior to defend them from any conflicts on the road. Their relationship has subtly shifted; they both seem to have grown since they were last together, and they see each other with new eyes. I did like the slow build of their relationship—the tentative flirtation—but I wish there was a little bit more of it. [spoiler] Specifically, I wish there was more detail of their relationship from the end of the battle to their happily ever after. They seem to kiss for the first time, separate… and then a while passes and they’ve grown old together. I’d like to see more of their fumbling first steps in their relationship. [end spoiler]

And, of course, I have to mention their donkey, Pimi. Pimi is with them on their journey, and she’s an adorable animal sidekick.

I do have some criticisms, however. Like Nel Havas’s other books, I think the strength of the story is in the ideas and broad strokes. It could benefit from more intense editing. For instance, some paragraphs are a few lines, while others take up more than an entire page. Although overall I though the second half of the book was more interesting, some of the travel could be condensed, especially by not describing every single road they took. I was also surprised that [spoiler] Ahithophel’s suicide is casually mentioned and isn’t really a plot point.[/spoiler] Also, I know this is based on a Bible story, so arguably you can’t really “spoil” the ending, but on page 300, right before the final battle begins, the narration gives away who wins the battle, which takes away some of the tension in the moment.

And finally, a few warnings. This is based on a Bible story, but it is from an atheistic perspective. Characters (especially Makha) scoff at these beliefs, and there doesn’t seem to be any character who is religious and also a good person. I will also include a trigger warning for Tamar’s rape, which is described in some detail.

I am not a religious person, so I was not very familiar with this story, but reading the Bible story and Daughter of Makha back-to-back was a very interesting experience. I appreciated how Havas gave Tamar (and the other women of the story) agency, even when they were restricted by both misogyny and story constraints.

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

Shira Glassman reviews That Could Be Enough by Alyssa Cole

                         Alyssa Cole’s drawing of her characters

That Could Be Enough, the lesbian offering in the early American romance collection Hamilton’s Battalion, is everything a gentle historical f/f romance should be. Both characters, Mercy the servant/secretary and Andromeda the dressmaker, are fully fleshed out even within the novella’s small scope — it feels fully complete and I truly felt like I watched their courtship unfold even though it’s less than a hundred pages (in my Kindle app, anyway.)

The skeleton is your basic “woman has been hurt Really Badly and finally opens up to love again despite all her fears” trope, but the prose is so approachable and the characters so vividly painted that it felt completely fresh to me. When Mercy first sees Andromeda in the doorway of the house where she works, she’s affected in a soul-claiming way that I don’t often see represented in the romances I read but have definitely experienced in the presence of a gorgeous and captivating lady.

Mercy’s a poet, but she shut all of that down because of the way a previous girlfriend treated her poetry as part of a cruel, fatalistic breakup. “There’d been a time,” Cole writes, “when she’d felt beautiful things acutely.” This is someone who’s natural personality wants to appreciate and worship all the glories the world has to offer, but can we blame her for being terrified and walled-in after such treatment, and with nobody else in her life – before Andromeda – contradicting her ex’s pronunciations about the fate of queer lives? However, when she starts emerging from her shell again, the poem Cole gave her to write is truly beautiful. I’d put it in the review, but I want you to discover it for itself 😉

In this respect Cole herself is a bit like Mercy, inasmuch as she did some truly stunning things with language. For example, close to the story’s opening, Mercy accidentally wrote “Yearned” in her diary when she was too tired to stop herself. The next morning, she scratches it out, in progressive horizontal lines compared to a wall, and replaces it with “Slept.” That’s some powerful imagery right there. We feel her sense of perpetual retreat.

I also really liked the scene where Andromeda whisks Mercy away to something truly cool that the local Black community is working on, something that feels so in tune with Mercy’s own interests that there’s narration about how “seen” she feels, by Andromeda’s choice. I can relate to that a lot; being truly seen is high on my list of things that I’m hoping will get me out of my current, Mercylike frame of mind, romantically.

It does contain That Old Standard Trope where someone believes the worst and doesn’t ask for clarification, but from misunderstanding to pain to happy resolution there really aren’t that many pages and honestly I can’t say I’d have behaved any better in her place because when you’re scared of rejection, asking frankly is… difficult.

Andromeda is clever and enterprising and devoted to her community, especially to her fellow Black women, and Mercy is sweet and deserves lots of pampering and reassurance and validation after the kind of self-denial in which she’s been wallowing.

Author Alyssa Cole did her research and shows us a dainty, yet earnest portrait of what life might have been like for two relatively fortunate queer Black women in the early days of America. We queer women deserve a part in the costume drama world that dazzles many of our imaginations. So do Black women, not that I can speak for them, obviously. Cole’s plot solution/resolution is completely realistic, which makes it far more enjoyable for me because it’s easier for me, personally, to enthusiastically embrace a happy ending if it’s set up to be a plausible one.

That Could Be Enough fulfills its mission. The setup and resolution affirm that yes, while the road has never been a guaranteed red carpet, it has always been possible for WoC and those of us who are queer to have a far more decent life than the hungry eyes of non-queer white literature with its appetite for exploitative tragedy would have us believe.

Incidentally, the story does contain some bits here and there that will probably make more sense to people more familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, but I was mostly able to piece together from context what Mercy’s inner voice was thinking about and don’t worry if they lose you anyway; they’re not key to enjoying the story itself. (He’s not even alive anymore when the story takes place.)

I don’t remember this having any of the most common triggers I usually warn for. It does have a sex scene, so if that’s your preference, enjoy!

Shira Glassman writes affirming fantasy and contemporary fiction centering mostly on queer Jewish women. Come join Queen Shulamit as she saves her country’s farms with the assistance of a dragon and a witch in The Olive Conspiracy, or hang out with Clara Ziegler as she dyes yarn to match a cute girl’s wildlife paintings in Knit One Girl Twowhoops, she just accidentally dyed the cat pink, too!


Megan G reviews Grrrls on the Side by Carrie Pack

Tabitha doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. Her ex-best friend is now her number one bully, and the only friend she has is only her friend because they smoke together and enjoy the same type of music. One night, her friend, Mike, invites her to a concert, where Tabitha is introduced to the Riot Grrrls. Soon, she finds herself with a new group of friends, an increased desire to smash the patriarchy, and some interesting new feelings for a fellow Riot Grrrl.

Before I jump into my (potentially muddled) thoughts about this book, I need to start with some Trigger Warnings for this book, because they are extensive: This book contains racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault. Another warning I feel is important to add is that these issues are not always dealt with in the best of ways.

Now that that is out of the way, let me start trying to unravel the range of emotions I felt while reading Grrrls on the Side.

As you can probably tell from the trigger warnings, this book deals with some heavy content. The problem is that it doesn’t often deal with it in an appropriate manner. Often, conflicts are resolved within a page or two, and the resolutions feel half-assed. Most of the time the conversations about issues like racism, homophobia, biphobia, fatphobia, and sexual assault, read more like after-school PSA specials than actual real-life conversations. It’s frustrating, because I feel like this book scratches the surface of something that could have been wonderful, but never allows its characters to go deep enough to truly get to that wonderful place.

I had a hard time being invested in the main relationship, as well. Here we have an unaware racist bisexual white girl, dating a biphobic black lesbian. Any time Jackie, Tabitha’s girlfriend, brings up issues she has with the Riot Grrrls regarding race, or issues she has with things Tabitha says that are racist, Tabitha either doesn’t accept her explanations, or tells her that she gets it while it’s obvious that she really doesn’t. [major spoiler] Tabitha only seems to fully understand the issues Jackie deals with due to the intersection of being a black lesbian after she has a conversation with a white woman, which is pretty problematic considering her girlfriend has been telling her the exact same things the entire book [end spoiler]. On the other hand, after a bout of irrational jealousy, Jackie blurts out some majorly biphobic sentiments. She immediately tries to retract them, and the issue is seemingly resolved, but it left an awful taste in my mouth. Things like that don’t just come out of your mouth when you’re angry unless you genuinely believe them. I had a really hard time rooting for these two, and in fact often wondered what they even see in each other that would make them stick through this clear lack of acceptance of integral parts of each other.

Something I feel very conflicted about is the way that the Riot Grrrls interactions are portrayed. Almost every single scene that involves more than two Riot Grrrls ends in a fight breaking out. One character, Marty, is unapologetically racist, and although she is called out on it, it’s always quickly swept under the rug. The fact that Venus, who is the usual subject of Marty’s racism, continues to stick around the Riot Grrrls despite this is pretty implausible. Racism aside, though, there is a strong amount of internalized misogyny in these patriarchy smashers. We have two instances of female relationships breaking apart because of a man (one of which I will discuss more in a moment), and I can only think of one scene in which two or more Riot Grrrls being together doesn’t end in a massive fight. These girls are meant to be friends, but that doesn’t come across through the text. In fact, more than once I found myself scratching my head and wondering why any of them even bother hanging out with each other, since they obviously dislike each other so much. I don’t know much about the original Riot Grrrls movement, but from my limited understanding, the point was to form a sisterhood. To join together against the patriarchy. I can’t even tell you a single thing that any of these girls have in common with each other. They are simply thrown together and fight.

That all being said, a part of me actually appreciated this. There seems to be a misunderstanding that being a feminist automatically assumes that you will put women’s desires first, or that your ideals will always match with your actions. The truth is that a lot feminists, even intersectional feminists, can be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc. Hypocrisy can run wild, and that is brought out in this book. My only issue with this is that there is no contrasting portrayal of genuine female connection. I know that Jackie and Tabitha are supposed to exemplify this, but their obvious difference in world views (see above) kind of cancels out any healthy relationship they may have. The only character who seems to be kind and open with everybody is Cherie, the sole non-white and non-black character in the novel, but she is relegated to the role of sidekick and given, at most, one important scene in the book.

The way that sexual assault was handled here was, at best, sloppy. A sexual abuse survivor sits in a room, sobbing, while two other girls debate whether the word “rape” should be used for anything other than… well, rape. Later, Tabitha is groped and forcefully kissed by a man, touting lesbophobic sentiments, and when she confronts her then-girlfriend Kate, she is rebuffed. Kate, who earlier was so concerned with how using the word “rape” for any type of unwanted attention devalues it for rape survivors, nonchalantly tells Tabitha that the man is “harmless” and that he only did it to “get back at her” (he’s an ex-boyfriend). They break up, and the issue is dropped (with a brief mention that the school has transferred the boy out of Tabitha’s classes). Kate eventually apologizes in a supremely mediocre way, and Tabitha accepts, even though this makes no sense. Then, we are informed that Tabitha’s mean ex-best friend is dating her assailant. She is rude to Tabitha when she tells her about it, so Tabitha does not inform her of what kind of man she is dating. Because this is never mentioned again, it kind of comes across as Tabitha deciding that, since Heather is mean, she deserves to be with a man like that.

Again, though, part of me does appreciate the way Kate reacts to Tabitha’s confession of assault, if nothing else because it’s real. That does happen, even coming from the most outspoken feminists. I just wish that this reality had been treated less flippantly than it is.

One of the things I did appreciate was the inclusion of the zines throughout the text. They added a lot to the plot, and added an extra sense of nostalgia and realism to the book. It was also cool to hear from character’s other than Tabitha in such a deep, personal way.

Overall, I feel like this book wanted to be more than it was. It’s clear that Pack’s intent is in the right place, but the execution falls a little flat. I wish more of the story had focused on genuinely dealing with Jackie’s biphobia and Tabitha’s racism (which, again, is shocking and continuous), instead of throwing out PSA-style conversations about random issues every now and again. Even if they had not ended up together in the end (which, really, I think would have been better for both of them), I would have felt more satisfied if I’d seen actual growth from the girls in these issues than I did watching them get a pseudo-happy ever after. It should also be mentioned that trans issues are not broached once, and the book comes across as quite ciscentric. One could justify this by claiming that it’s natural for a book set in white suburbia in the 90’s, but coming from a book that is so clearly meant to be preaching about intersectional feminism, it feels like a glaring omission.

Marthese reviews Carol by Patricia Highsmith

”How would the world come to life? How would its salt come back?”

Finally read this classic! Carol, originally published as The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith in 1952, was written in the late 40s, taking some inspiration from Patricia Highsmith’s real life and running away with it.

The story is about Therese, a young woman who at first works in retail but is hoping to get jobs as a set designer. She’s currently dating Richard but she does not love him and he knows it. Therese grows a lot during the story and becomes less awkward, but first, she has a few existential crises. One day, during the Christmas rush, she helps Carol select a gift for her daughter, Rindy. Carol has grey eyes and poise and Therese is immediately taken with her. They meet again and begin a friendship that is obvious where it will lead, although there is some resistance.

This book is often described as the first lesbian story with a happy ending. I’m not sure whether the story could be said to be happy – because for sure there are scars – but Therese and Carol are true to themselves. It is also a realistic description of the time and feelings.

Since this book was made into a movie, many may know the story, so I will focus on themes and elements within the book.

One of the things that immediately struck me was all the descriptions of things that are seen. It made for visual and captivating prose. Highsmith also describes emotions vividly.

The character of Therese is introspective. As I mentioned, she has existential crisises. They are not about her sexuality mostly – she’s never been in love and she immediately makes a connection – they are about her work and the place she has in life. This is something that everyone can relate with. Although she starts of as really insecure, she doesn’t have a problem saying ‘no’ to things she doesn’t like! I could also relate to her because she pushed a lot of people out of her life when she needed a change – she knows when a goodbye is a goodbye.

How males interacted with her was also interesting. At first, Phil and Dannie (her boyfriend Richard’s friends) ignore her and it seems like she gets jobs because of her connection with Richard. However, she managed to become friendly with them and she also gets jobs based on her connections.

The character of Richard was also interesting. At first, although I didn’t like him, I pitied him. He and Terry also appeared to at least have a good friendship when they laughed, but as time went on, he become more bitter and more sexist, using the ‘but I’m a nice guy’ and ‘you’ll change’, he gaslighted her and threatening to expose Terry. These are pretty common tropes, but it was done well, and keeping in mind when it was written, I cannot help but feel that on many accounts, Highsmith was a pioneer and beyond her time.

Carol’s character I can imagine as being very poised and having a ‘resting bitch face’ that hid her emotions. She does care a lot but never begs too much and her voice and expressions are usually controlled. She is also very direct and is not afraid to criticize. Although there was hesitation at first and a few misunderstandings when problems escalated, these two know how to maturely communicate! One thing that I noticed, is that Carol seems to be depressed: ”Carol was happy only at moments” (page 168).

As with regards to gender, I believe that this book was really progressive. It humanized a lot and voiced a lot of probably unpopular opinions. One thing that bothered me a bit was the use of ‘men’ vs ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’, something which is still done today.

It also offers a complex view of sexuality. For example, at one point, sleeping with the same people is described as a habit. Carol also has loved Harge, the husband she’s getting a divorce from and also another female before Therese. And although Therese did not love Richard, she seems attracted to another man for a while. There are no explicit sex scenes, but there are allusions to a good night!

This book is a historical fiction, but it was written in the same time (so at the time, it was a contemporary read). This was really felt. It was, for example, really interesting to see how humans interacted with so little technology. People used to amuse each other, go out to eat, go for car drives and talk, and so on. We still do it, but it had a different vibe to it.

I would recommend to read this book especially at this time. The story starts before Christmas and although it’s not really a ‘Christmas/Holiday read’ because it goes beyond the holidays, there is still a holiday feeling with shopping, presents, and celebrations. This book is a classic because so many of the themes are applicable today, so many of the emotions felt we can nod to.

One question that I have after reading the book is…how many hotels did these two pay for and not stay in? I hope they managed to get a refund! Time to watch the movie now! I still haven’t…


Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Danika reviews Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

When I finished Honey Girl, I was eager to dive into the sequel–mostly because I was absorbed by the setting (1972 Californian beach culture), but also because Riptide Summer promised to break the rule that “Girls don’t surf.”  I’m glad that I got see more of Nani and her life, but overall I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first book. I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about this book that is different from the first book, just a few thoughts:

[Spoilers]

  • It’s not surprising that Nani’s relationship with Rox fell apart. I was rooting for them, but it was despite the obvious instability in their arrangement. It was disappointing, but not unrealistic, for them to so quickly turn on each other.
  • I felt like the characterization wasn’t as strong in this volume–Claire, for instance, is barely present, and I completely forgot her personality.
  • I did like that Nani started surfing, but it wasn’t until halfway through the book, and in secret. I would want to see more of her after the secret came out, and how she dealt with this new side of beach culture.
  • My favourite part of the whole book was Windy, the new love interest, and we barely get to see her at all! If there is another sequel that focuses on them and Nani’s new surf life, I would pick that up.
  • I wasn’t sure from the last book whether Nani was bi or gay, but despite wanting to kiss and date guys, she seems to decide that she’s a lesbian by the end, because she enjoys sex with women more. Unfortunately, this is also wrapped in a lot of biphobia: she tells Rox that she’s a lesbian, no matter what she says, and says she doesn’t want to be one of those funny kine girls who also date guys. The idea that someone can be attracted to more than one gender and that’s fine doesn’t really come up at all.

[End spoilers]

This series felt a little fractured, actually, like they were originally supposed to be one story and then were separated into two volumes. Riptide Summer didn’t seem to have its own arc; it just followed along where Honey Girl left off. I wish this had been condensed in some way, whether that was making Honey Girl and Riptide Summer one book, or skipping over a lot of Riptide Summer and getting more into the surfing plot line and the romance with Windy.