Susan reviews We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire by Jules Grant

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We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed by Fire by Jules Grant is wonderful. It revolves around a group of lesbian gangsters in Manchester, which is the perfect intersection of two of my interests and my hometown in ways that I didn’t even know I wanted. Donna and Carla lead the Bronte Close Gang, an all-female and all-queer group of gangsters who sell drugs and work with other gangs in the area… Until Carla helps her lover, the wife of a rival gang-leader, escape an abusive marriage and gets killed in retaliation. From there, Donna has to try to keep her gang together, support Carla’s ten-year-old daughter Aurora, and get revenge for Carla’s death.

It’s really good.

The story itself is tense and dramatic, although I don’t feel like it sticks its landing (Aurora’s storyline wraps up a little too easily, and the ending of Donna’s was actively disappointing in how it resolved.)
The characters are really well-handled; even the minor characters are built up from tiny details lthat layer and layer until the story ends up with a gang of fierce, supportive women who are well-described and well-built as characters. Donna and Aurora especially are so believable in voice and character – Aurora in particular feels like such a kid, trying to be responsible for the adults around her and messing it up because she is ten. Believably and convincingly ten, and her reactions to everything that happens breaks my heart. (She does make some unintentionally racist assumptions while trying to prove that she’s not racist though, fair warning.)

The relationships are amazing. Donna and Carla’s relationship is complicated because of all of the things they had and were to each other (there’s so much trust and love and history and frustration in their relationship) and all of the things they weren’t. Donna loves Carla painfully and can’t admit it; Carla adores Aurora; and the Bronte Close Gang are so close and protective of each other. Speaking of the gang; I was so delighted by the fact that the Bronte Close Gang is also part of a network of queer communities! I’m used to stories that have tiny queer communities, maybe half-a-dozen people at most? Even in the specifically queer lit! So having this beautiful network of groups and individual communities blew my mind, especially the moment when Donna put the call out and got such a response.

The narrative voice and style were my favourite parts, and they really worked for me. It is a very stream-of-conciousness narrative, which may not work for everyone. The entire book is in present tense and there is no speech marks at all; the dialogue is entirely woven into the narration ( never got confused about what was speech and what was narration, but your mileage may vary). The effect is quite lyrical, and feels a little like someone sitting down with you and just talking. Plus, the voices of this story sounded right to me, this was recognisably how my family and I talk. (I’ll be honest; I don’t live in Manchester any more, but reading this book made my accent revert like I’d never been away, and I don’t think I can praise a book’s voice higher than that!)

Jules Grant also writes very recognisably about Manchester; I knew so many of the places and streets the characters go through, and my specific part of Manchester even got a brief nod! I can’t speak to how it reads to someone who isn’t familiar with the city, but for me it felt very true to life.

I have seen concerns before that the inciting incident for the plot is the murder of a queer woman, but I think that We Go Around In The Night handles it the best it could be handled. Carla dies, but it is treated as the tragedy that it is. Plus, it doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” death; Carla’s death is not specifically because she’s queer, nor is she the only queer character in the story. All but maybe two of the adult women in this book are queer, which meant that Carla’s death didn’t feel like a point about queer characters and their role in fiction.

I genuinely enjoyed this book, and if you enjoy lesbian crime fiction with strong character voices, I definitely recommend it!

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Queer death, offscreen spousal abuse, drugs, violence, child endangerment (runaway, kidnapping, neglect), unintended racism

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-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Rachel reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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British novelist Sarah Waters is known for her historical novels, some of which take place in Victorian England and/or have lesbian protagonists. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet, first published in 1998, is viewed as a lesbian classic by many readers.

The story opens in Whitstable England, 1888, with eighteen-year-old Nancy Astley, who helps her family run their oyster business. Restless and wanting new experiences, she attends a theater one evening and gets her first glimpse of Kitty Butler, a performer who dresses as a man for her act. After becoming friends, Nancy grows strong romantic feelings and eventually joins Kitty’s act, taking the stage name “Nan King” and earning countless admirers. She is thrilled when she and Kitty admit their love for each other and begin a relationship, although Kitty insists on keeping it a secret. After an unexpected betrayal, Nancy leaves Kitty and takes to the streets, resorting to prostitution and masquerading as a boy to make ends meet. She is determined to forget her past, becoming reclusive because of it. Over the years she comes across countless people who shape her decisions. While a lot of the changes she experiences are difficult, others offer Nancy hope of turning her life around and falling in love again.

Sarah Waters’ writing is extremely rich in substance as she describes Nancy’s world, the people she meets, and the hidden lives of homosexuals. Scenery and surroundings are so well-detailed there was never any doubt where Nancy was or what was around her. The writing style seemed authentic for the time period, making Tipping the Velvet appear to have been published in the 1880s instead of a century later.

The novel’s characters each had their own differing views and personalities; it’s obvious that Waters put a great amount of effort into creating them all. Nancy herself was a bright young woman who did make some poor decisions, but also had a strong will to keep going. Her impulsive, vocal character both clashed and complimented with Kitty, who was a quiet thinker.

Two other people in the novel stand out for me the most, and they’re both polar opposites. Diana Lethaby was wealthy and well-connected, taking Nancy in at one point in exchange for a sexual relationship. But though she provided Nancy with nice clothes and an elegant home, Diana was really possessive and treated her lover like property. I despised her character and shared Nancy’s shock at her actions.

The other character is Florence Banner, a charity worker Nancy later befriends. She was easily one of the most complex characters in the book. Her personality shifted between cheery and grim, and sometimes she worked so hard helping others she didn’t think much about her own feelings. I was intrigued by her and wondered about her family and what kinds of experiences she had. As the story progressed and I learned more about her, it was much easier to sympathize with Florence and see the true, gentle-hearted person she really was.

Tipping the Velvet was an interesting take on sexuality in Victorian London. All through the book, Nancy meets a whole underground of gays and lesbians, which adds to her story because, although homosexuality was seen as a crime and perversion, there were still countless men and women who were trying to live their lives yet also acknowledge their feelings. Very little is really known about this world as it was almost never spoken of. But Waters makes strong parallels between then and now. Like today, there were bars and social circles where gays and lesbians found their refuge, and literature they read in secret, like Sappho’s poems.

Tipping the Velvet is a wonderful story for lesbian literature, although some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotica tone. I found it to be a masterpiece and look forward to reading Sarah Waters’ other books.

Bessie reviews Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

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Gut Symmetries is a beautifully written love triangle involving two physicists and a poet. It’s a romance between science and mythology. Jove and Stella seem like an odd couple, the scientist and the poet, who knew each other since they were children and are destined to be together. Jove and Alice look like an obvious story, the older man and the young pupil. These two pairings seem like things we should understand — things get interesting when Stella meets Alice. Instead of jealousy and anger the two women begin a relationship of their own.

Jove is a self centered man, who never imagined the women in his life existing beyond him. Stella and Alice had expectations about who the other was going to be, but they surprise each other. As their relationship blossoms they move away from Jove’s influence.

There is one line from the first time Alice and Stella first had sex that I really appreciated. Winterson writes that, “Desiring her I felt my own desirability. It was an act of power but not power over her. I was my own conquest.” It really resonated as to why women appreciating each other can be a huge thing in a patriarchal male gaze world.

The beginning was slow, but it picks up as it starts to explore the world around the characters, how they got to the tangled mess of their relationship, and how their lives got them to this place. Winterson starts catching us up with action that has already happened. The plot doesn’t provide much forward momentum until close to the end.

Winterson comments on the nature of the novel that she’s creating. As her character relays her own past, Winterson writes, “I should have preferred it to be neater, tauter, the pace of a mystery, the thrill of a romance. What I had were fragments of colored glass held up to the light . . . This is my signal flashing towards you.” They’re absolutely beautiful fragments.

The ending gets a bit gory, but always wrapped in beautiful imagery. The prose is consistently wonderful. Winterson uses the language of science and mythology to draw up an intricate world.

The chapters get their titles from tarot cards. Winterson juxtaposes the ways science and mysticism think about how the world is bound together. She incorporates physics into her poetry. She uses superstring theory as metaphor, and the novel gets its title from GUT symmetries, a concept that I’ll admit to not absorbing the science of. She discusses planetary movements in terms of both science and astrology, all getting to the idea that the universe works in a way that is larger than any one person.

Stella and Alice and Jove are their own actors, but also their families and heritage. The world she describes works within systems. There are patterns that are older than people, bound to repeat, or maybe not. Winterson writes that:

“In the Torah, the Hebrew ‘to know,’ often used in a sexual context, is not about facts but about connections. Knowledge, not as accumulation, but as charge and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Instead of a hoard of certainties, bug-collected, to make me feel secure, I can give up taxonomy and invite myself to the dance: the patterns, rhythms, multiplicities, paradoxes, shifts, currents, cross-currents, irregularities, irrationalities, geniuses, joints, pivots, worked over time, and through time, to find the lines of thought that still transmit.”

In Gut Symmetries Winterson explores the dance between a world with rules and repetition, and a world with spontaneity and love change who people are.

Danika reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

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I had high expectations for this book. I’ve heard really good things about Shamim Sarif, and one of my favourite lesbian movies is I Can’t Think Straight, which is based on Sarif’s novel of the same name, and is directed by her as well. I was actually so confident about this that I saved it until I really wanted a book I was sure to like. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that for me.

I was really intrigued by the setting for this novel. I haven’t read many books that take place in South Africa during apartheid, and I definitely have never heard a story involving an Indian community in South Africa. Although this was interesting, it ended up being distracting to me. Despite the setting, apartheid is really only a subplot in the novel. Although the main characters do experience racism, they don’t face the sort of brutal treatment that black Africans in the same community do, and those characters are minor and seem undeveloped. It seems odd to set the story during this time period if you’re not going to really deal with it in a major way.

On top of that, [spoilers, highlight to read] one of the black African characters that we do get is Amina’s biological grandfather, who was a servant? worker? who raped Amina’s grandmother. Why you would include a story about a poor black man raping a more well-off non-black woman in a story that should be about antiracism is beyond me. [end spoilers] This seemed completely unnecessary, especially since there are only really two other black characters in the novel, and only one who gets a minor subplot (Jacob, Amina’s business partner).

Add to that the mentally ill character who seems to exist only to show how hard done by Miriam is for having to take care of her [spoilers] (except when she exists as a plot device to unintentionally betray her sister-in-law) [end spoilers] and I was really pulled out of the story. The (main) characters were strong, and I liked the dynamic they had, but the plot and romance were not strong enough to draw me back into the story. Finally, the weak conclusion made me a little regretful I had picked it up at all.

I will probably still give I Can’t Think Straight a try, because I loved the movie so much, and because The World Unseen is Sarif’s first novel, so hopefully her writing just improves from here.

Danika reviews My Education by Susan Choi

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I have a weakness for media about a certain kind of relationship. The passionate, destructive, almost-certainly-doomed kind. (This probably doesn’t say anything good about me.) My Education fits neatly into this category, and it definitely delivered the kind of drama that I was looking for.

Regina, a university grad student, can’t resist the urge to take a class with a professor notorious for sleeping with this students. She finds herself drawn to him and his wife, and soon her life is absorbed in this love affair. I could relate all too well to Regina’s inability to extricate herself from an obviously damaging situation. She is convinced that this kind of love takes precedent over anything else, and when the inevitable moment arrives when it all comes crashing down, she is shocked. My Education deals equally with this relationship and the fallout, even more than a decade afterwards.

This was well-written and evocative, but I suspect that you’ll have to be a certain kind of reader to enjoy it. All the characters are insufferable in their own ways, but they’re understandable. They make the mistakes we wish we didn’t also make. Susan Choi effectively draws you into Regina’s emotions and perspective even when you know that she’s mistaken.

I found it funny that while listening to the audiobook, I found myself constantly thinking Of course you think that, you’re so young. This is a story about being young and feeling everything intensely. But Regina is 21, and I’m only a few years past that myself! I wouldn’t be surprised if some teenagers read this and had the same reaction, though. Maybe it’s less to do with age and more to do with having one’s first all-consuming love.

I really enjoyed this one, keeping in mind that all the characters are flawed and I disagreed with some of the things they would say. I thought this worked well as an audiobook, too. If you’re intrigued by catastrophic love stories, give My Education a shot–dip your toes into literary fiction with a generous helping of soap opera.

Elinor reviews The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

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Like basically every other queer lady bookworm my age, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith matter to me. Until recently, though, I hadn’t tried Sarah Waters’ other work.  I read The Night Watch on a whim, and I’m glad I did. This quiet slice-of-life novel is slow, but I fell in love with the characters. This novel is told backwards, starting with a couple weeks in 1947, then covering a few months in 1944, and finally showing the events of a handful of days in 1941. It tells the intersecting tales of three women and one young man in London. Each is, in their own way, privately reeling from past hurt, and the reasons for their pain are teased out over the course of the book.

The novel opens with Kay, a masculine lesbian who is renting a flat from a faith healer. Kay spends her days walking, going to the movies, and visiting a friend she met as an ambulance driver during the war. The story soon shifts to Viv and Helen, friendly colleagues who each have secrets. Helen lives with her girlfriend, a writer named Julia, but to the world they pretend they are only friends. Viv has illicitly been seeing her boyfriend, Reggie, for years, and their once passionate relationship has fizzled. The narration also focuses on Viv’s brother, Duncan, a young man living with an older man who he calls his uncle. Duncan works in a factory, and once a week takes his “uncle” to the faith healer below Kay’s flat. When Duncan unexpectedly encounters someone from his past, it threatens to upend his life as well as Viv’s.  Each character’s post-war life is presented matter-of-factly and with a tinge of mystery of what how exactly they ended up with their present struggles. Why is Kay lost and depressed? What keeps Viv with Reggie? Why is Helen so paranoid about her relationship with Julia? Why is Duncan underachieving and living with this “uncle”? What connects Viv, Helen, Duncan, and Kay?

The story then moves back years earlier, during the war, and provides a dramatically different view of the same characters and their relationships. The bulk of the story takes place in this period and reveals most of the reasons for their post-war malaise. Finally, the novel concludes with a single event in each character’s life that placed them on their course.

The book was heartbreaking and very beautiful. I loved the inventive structure and once I was invested, I cared about the characters. The horrors of the blitz are portrayed in visceral detail, as are other private horrors that the characters face. Discovering how each character ended up in their situation is fascinating, and incredibly sad. Waters knows how to evoke emotion without being cloying or sentimental, and she does not pull punches with this book.

I loved it, but other readers may find The Night Watch too depressing. I felt emotionally drained when I finished it. For me, it was worth it, but fans of happy endings might disagree. Whether or not you enjoy the book depends largely on the degree to which you engage with the characters, and not everyone will like these reserved Londoners and their private struggles. This is not a novel with an action-packed plot, which keeps the reader close to the main characters. If you don’t connect with the characters during the 1947 section, you probably won’t enjoy hundreds more pages with them. If you appreciate them, however, the book is haunting. I particularly felt for Kay, a gallant butch with the ability to stay calm in a crisis, whose bravery was essential in World War II but seems to have no place in 1947. I rarely see characters like Kay, even in lesbian books, though she incredibly true to people I’ve known in real life. I sometimes wished the book was just Kay’s story plus Helen’s, as I found Viv and Duncan sort of boring initially. By the end Viv and Duncan won me over, and Duncan’s 1941 scene was incredibly powerful and emotionally devastating, but Kay was still my favorite.

Did I like The Night Watch more than my long-standing Sarah Waters favorites? No, but it was gorgeous. I highly recommend it. Just keep some tissues handy.

Casey reviews Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

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Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy, might be described as a mystery, a classic whodunit murder story.  But it can also equally be called a romance, a coming of age story, and an historical novel set in 1970s India.  It’s perhaps because this book is all those things and more that makes it such a successful, entertaining read.

Don’t start Miss Timmins’ School for Girls right before you go to bed, because this is a book that sucks you in immediately with a flash forward to the death that is central to the plot.  Of course, you remember that this death is going to happen as you keep reading, but because you hadn’t met any of the characters at that point, it starts to feel fuzzier and fuzzier until mid-book, when it actually happens and it’s shocking, and you can’t believe you’re only half way through the story.  What could possibly happen next?

The first part is a lot of fun to read: you follow Charu, a 21-year-old middle class “good Brahmin girl” whose parents are tentatively letting her out into the world, to work as a teaching at a British boarding school tucked away in a monsoon-ridden mountainous corner of India.  It’s the 70s, right, so there’s all that talk of free love, mind-expanding drugs, and new freedoms, and Charu has never heard of any of it until she’s introduced through her new friends, including a white girl raised in India who also happens to be a lesbian.  You can probably guess the romance that buds between the two women, and it’s pretty cute, and exciting, and realistic.  Currimbhoy does a great job with characterisation, making both women likable, flawed, and just complex enough to frustrate the reader sometimes.

But it’s only the first half of the book that focuses on the romance: just when I wondered how Currimbhoy was going to continue telling the story, she switches narrative perspective, and we suddenly start hearing it from the point of view of one of the girls at the school.  This was disorienting at first, but plot-wise very effective, allowing Currimbhoy to describe the action from a less emotionally involved and knowing angle.  In some ways I don’t want to say much about the second half, because it somehow feels like a spoiler, even though you actually find out who dies in the first few pages of the book.  But I think you’re meant to kind of forget, or at least this was my experience, so I don’t want to ruin it for you.

One thing I will tell you, is that we discover Charu isn’t exclusively attracted to women, which was a nice surprise for me, always on the lookout for dynamic bisexual characters.  Also, the teenage girls were really great to read about too: there’s something about the trope of all these girls pent up in a boarding school—especially this one, where the monsoons keep them stuck inside—that creates an atmosphere ripe for all sorts of mischief.  Also, I think I’m just attracted in some perverse way to the routine and orderliness of a boarding school—I’ve always kind of wished I could have gone to one (and got to wear the uniform).

Aside from the boarding school teen girl antics, there is of course a murder to be solved. I am notoriously terrible at this kind of investigation, so those readers who are schooled in figuring out whodunit would likely fare better than I did.  I was totally stunned by every twist, but, again, mystery is not my literary forte.  The thing is, the mystery is really only part of the novel, even in the second half, so if you’re either a mystery buff or someone who normally doesn’t read mystery, I think there’s a little something for everyone from this really standout first novel from Nayana Currimbhoy.

Danika reviews The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

PayingGuestsSarah Waters is my favourite author, with Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith tied as my all-time favourite books. When I discovered her books, she had already published four novels, which I rapidly devoured. In 2010 she released another book, The Little Stranger, which I enjoyed, but was less eager to get my hands on because it was her first novel with no lesbian content. So ever since I heard about The Paying Guests being released I’ve been chomping at the bit for a chance to read a brand new (lesbian) Sarah Waters novel. It’s one of the very few books that I immediately bought the day it was released. And then, oddly, it sat on my shelf for about a month. My excitement to read it has transformed into a kind of dread. I haven’t read a Sarah Waters book for 4 years: longer than that since I read a lesbian book of hers, which was back when I was a teenager. What if it wasn’t as good as the others? What if I don’t like her writing as much as I used to and it’s not like I remember?

So I went into The Paying Guests with a lot of expectation, though very little knowledge of the plot. I knew it was set in 1920s London, and that involved a woman who takes in a young couple as lodgers, and that there was lesbian content. As I started to read, I relaxed a little. Sarah Waters has a skill of establishing place and mood, and I was soon submerged in the setting, which is different than the more freewheeling flapper stories that I’ve previously read about set in this time period. For Frances, the main character, the Victorian era isn’t that far in the past. I also instantly loved Frances, who struggles to take care of a huge house as well as her aging mother, but still remembers her life when she wasn’t so tied down. The paragraph were Frances first charmed me was

There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires… But they were physical matters mostly, and she had no last-century inhibitions about dealing with that sort of thing. It was amazing, in fact, she reflected, as she repositioned her mat and bucket and started on a new stretch of tile, it was astonishing how satisfactorily the business could be taken care of, even in the middle of the day, even with her mother in the house, simply by slipping up to her bedroom for an odd few minutes, perhaps as a break between peeling parsnips or while waiting for dough to rise–

A movement in the turn of the staircase made her start. She had forgotten all about her lodgers. Now she looked up through the banisters to Mrs Barber just coming uncertainly down.

She felt herself blush, as if caught out.

It’s interesting how the feel of the time period seems to straddle the line between historical and modern, which was interesting to compare to Waters’s previous books. I found myself thinking that I would love to read them in order of the time period in which each book is set, because she seems to convey the subtle attitude changes through the decades so well.

I enjoyed the romance as well, which seemed natural and compelling, though occasionally verging on the soap operatic. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the overall tone to the book, which is fairly bleak. It feels similar to Affinity in that way. Most of the book revolves around an event that happens about a third of the way through the book, and because I wasn’t expecting that to be the focus, I was thrown. Even after finishing the book a couple of days ago, I still feel like I’m processing it. It is an excellent book, which definitely lives up to her previous books, but it felt emotionally jarring to me, which is probably because I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark. I would still recommend this one, but I wouldn’t start here as your first Sarah Waters novel.

The rest of my thoughts are spoilers. Highlight to read. I definitely wasn’t expecting The Paying Guests to get so bleak. The description of falling in love is sweet, if realistically syrupy. But the descriptions of falling out of love, of finding yourself hating the person you love, of finding yourself becoming someone you never thought you would be–they were absolutely cutting. Sarah Waters doesn’t just understand setting, she really knows how to portray tangled, messy human emotions. And that–more than the murder, more than the trials–was what horrified me in The Paying Guests. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I definitely found myself on Lillian’s side more than Frances’s. Frances lashing out at Lillian, beginning to treat her in ways reminiscent of Leonard, it inspired a visceral disgust in me. At the same time, though, I could all too easily understand why Frances was acting the way she was, and could relate in ways that I didn’t want to.

I thought that the ending would really determine what I thought of the book overall. I couldn’t see how Waters could possibly write an ending that was emotionally satisfying, but she managed to find pretty much the only ending that could have worked. It’s more bitter than sweet, but there’s still an element of hope, and maybe some redemption. It didn’t erase the gut reaction I had to the story, though, which I feel like I’m still carrying around. I wasn’t sure how to rate this book after I read it, because it seems unfair to mark it down for being too emotionally affecting, but I also don’t know how to look at it objectively. In the end, I have to think that anything that evokes this kind of response has to be recognized, at the very least, as incredibly skilled. If you feel like having you heart very slowly torn out, pick up The Paying Guests.