Marieke reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
I used to be a fervent reader of romance fiction, fed by a steady stream of free or extremely cheap ebooks supplied through BookBub (if you like historical romance, contemporary romance, new adult romance, very teen fiction, or what is titled “women’s fiction,” I highly recommend signing up for this subscription newsletter–there are no costs attached). Historical romance was always my favourite genre, especially when the story was set during the Regency era (I know nothing about this period, I just love the dresses and the heroines, okay?). Then I started to develop a craving for queer Regency romance, ideally with queer women. Turns out that particular itch is a bit hard to scratch, as most queer historical romance is about men falling in love with other men. So when BookBub fed me this wlw romp for the meagre price of £0.99, I signed up! This was my first wlw Regency romance, and while it didn’t wholly convince me, I am still interested enough to keep looking for more within the genre (if you have any recommendations, please send them through on my blog).
Besides never having read a wlw Regency romance before, I’ve also never read any kind of romance before where the main characters are aged over 60 at the beginning of the story. While you might expect the higher age of the main characters to be a factor in my hesitancy, it wasn’t, or at least not directly. I’ll admit it made me think twice before picking it up, but the fact that Courtney Milan is the author assuaged any doubts I had going in, and she definitely made the characters true to themselves. Both Violetta and Bertrice are struggling to live their lives without much of a social circle to fall back on–Violetta’s closest friends died or moved away to Boston, and Bertrice’s friends seem to have all died. While it seemed slightly unlikely to me that both characters would be so isolated, it does mean they’re also desperate enough for social contact to grow close to each other without much outside encouragement. After the catalyst of the story throws them together (Violetta requires help and Bertrice is in a unique position to provide it, albeit in a roundabout way), nothing much tears them apart.
Other than the issue of money that is. Bertrice has bucket loads of it and Violette is barely scraping by. While this is not exactly a point of contention between the two of them, it does present itself in how they handle themselves differently in social situations (Bertrice is much more abrasive, as she knows she doesn’t need anything from people who get in her way), and how they treat each other (Bertice realises that she’s allowing Violetta to prepare, cook, and clean up after their first ‘date’ as if she were a servant). It also gives each character a different view on the world, and they are very open with each other about this. Those interactions were some of the more interesting ones to read, especially because they overlap so much with their discussions on patriarchy.

This is an angry book. In the author’s notes, Milan mentions she had to re-write certain plot points because she intended to publish shortly after Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings. If I were to re-read the book with that in mind, I’m sure I would be able to earmark specific passages that hark back to the treatment of Christine Blasey Ford during those hearings. We feel the powerlessness of Violetta in the face of being fired by a man so he could get out of paying her a pension, and then being thrown to the whims of a character most often referred to as the Terrible Nephew. We then see the ease with which said Terrible Nephew is able to manipulate other people to those selfsame whims, simply by invoking the Old Boys’ Club he is a member of. It is infuriating, more so because it still happens today.

Of course, Bertrice has a tendency to ignore or bulldozer men around her as much as possible (or as the situation calls for, if you were to ask her), and she is allowed this luxury because of the huge sum of money that belongs to her. Even she is often stymied by the Nephew, and there is a moment where the Nephew intends to have her declared incompetent. Personally, I cannot think of anything worse than being legally made so powerless that you are no longer allowed to make any decisions for yourself, even (or especially) when the story is already set against a historical backdrop where women are made heavily dependent and reliant on men (unless you become a ‘surplus’ women like Violetta, an intriguing concept unknown to me before this book and one Milan explains in a bit more detail in her notes).

Obviously, the story does not allow for such an ending. This is a romance, and we read romances to make ourselves feel better despite the world we live in, and that requires a happier ending than one where a main character is stripped off all her rights. So instead Violetta and Bertrice fall in love, and have a sex scene (this is also why we read romance novels, don’t lie). It is a lovely scene, if a bit brief. While the descriptions do take into account the age of the characters, it is never presented as a positive or a negative–it just is. It is a sweet scene, and a lovely counterpoint to the exuberant antics the two get up to outside of the house (Bertrice is a pro at practical jokes with the purpose to rid themselves off the Nephew problem), as well as that background of ever-present patriarchy.

The taste of it still lingers though, and this is where my slight hesitancy towards the book stems from. I read historical romances for escapism where possible. I can see the paradox in preferring Regency romance with its rampant patriarchy for my escapism. Even so, with a hetero pairing the author will often use that background to make their male leads look great in comparison (usually by clearing the lowest of bars, and occasionally they are still overbearing in their protectiveness). I haven’t before read a book where it is presented as it is here: pervasive and all-consuming and nigh insurmountable. In this story, the enemy is not just the patriarchy as embodied by a singular character to be beaten, the whole system is the enemy. And that was too big a shadow for me to be able to properly escape into the book.

Content warnings: mentions of rape, act of arson

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Feminine Pursuits) by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Minor spoilers toward the end

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a fun historical romance about a widowed countess and lady astronomer. Lucy wants to pick up her father’s work and do the translation for a famous French astronomer for England’s science society, but lo and behold, they’re all men and sexist as hell. Lady Catherine, the society’s main patroness, doesn’t care for that at all and takes her funds to Lucy’s endeavors. Naturally, they fall in love, and romance and angst ensue.

The driving force behind Lucy and Catherine’s meeting is heartbreak. Lucy, who’s always known she only loves women, wants to run away from home after so much loss. Aside from being rejected by her lover who chooses to marry a man, her father passes away. She loved him dearly and worked alongside him for so many years. When she comes across the work of Oléron, the famous French astronomer, among her father’s work, she’s determined to throw herself into this work as well.

Lady Catherine, recently a widow, only wants to take a lover to satisfy her needs. She doesn’t want love and romance, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married again. But her previous lover after her late husband’s death wanted to marry her, so she had to call off the affair. In comes Lucy, stirring feelings in her she never knew she could have for a woman, and the idea strikes her: if she takes on a woman as a lover, she’d never have to marry. As is bound to happen in a romance novel, when two characters are running away and most definitely NOT looking for love, they find each other.

The sweetest part of their romance is how much they support one another. While Lady Catherine finances Lucy’s translation work and assures her she’s just as brilliant as the cocky bastards in the society, Lucy validates Catherine’s own artistic talents and assures the Lady her needlepoint skills have as much merit in the art world as any painter or sculptor. Together, they help each other realize their dreams. This balance and celebration of both STEM and the arts makes Lady’s Guide a delightful narrative that highlights how these pursuits complement one another.

Waite creates a highly sensual atmosphere with the sex scenes between Lucy and Catherine. They highlight the importance and eroticism of consent, as well as taking charge of one’s pleasure and desires. There’s never any shame between the two women, even as Catherine engages in intimacy with a woman for the first time. She’s never repulsed by her feelings, but rather confused, as she never thought it possible. Lucy in turn shows a great deal of respect for her partner, making sure she’s comfortable and enthusiastic every step of the way. They both take great care to address each other’s needs.

Minor spoilers:

Perhaps one of the best moments in the book is when it’s revealed that Oléron is a woman. The whole time the society, and Lucy herself, assumed the famous French astronomer was a man. This point gets tangled in Lucy’s discovery of other women like herself who have studied and furthered the sciences through history and who were silenced or else had their work taken by their fathers, brothers and other men. It leads her to her newest endeavor, which is to collect the work of these women and continue their scientific pursuits while giving them their due credit. A wonderful feminist ending for a Regency story with misogynistic conflict.

Thais reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

I hadn’t been super into romance before I had Olivia Waite’s Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. I sought sapphic representation when I chose books, but I was mostly a reader of literary fiction, so understandably a lot of what I was read didn’t have a happy ending. I didn’t even realize that was something I craved, and I was so giddy when I cracked open this historical romance and found myself enthralled.

I was very eager to read the sequel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, another regency sapphic tale. I was intrigued by Agatha in Lady’s Guide and definitely detected queer vibes coming from her, so it was no surprise when she turned out to be one of the protagonists of this book. A no-nonsense small business owner who always seemed to entangled with artists, scientists, and subversives of all kinds, Agatha was intriguing when she was introduced as a side character, but she is delightful here—grumpy and direct, but also caring and cautious when it comes to her own romantic feelings.

I also loved Penelope from her very first moments on the page, which is something I appreciate about Waite’s books. I always struggle to stick with a lesfic romance when I dislike one of the main characters. Waite always write heroines who are quirky and not necessarily traditionally likable, but they hook me completely exactly because they jump off the page as whole human beings, with flaws and unique perspectives. I loved Lucy and Catherine when I read Lady’s Guide, but I think now I love Agatha and Penelope more.

A beekeeper, Penelope comes to Agatha’s aid when the printer finds a beehive nesting inside her warehouse. After Penelope manages to carefully remove the bees and suggests placing their new home just outside Agatha’s business building, the two start corresponding.

As Agatha and Penelope started exchanging letters, I found myself nearly racing to finish the book, because I just wanted these two to be happy already. I had to read it again to appreciate some of the story beats and I’m sure I will read it one more time to swoon over the beautiful prose Waite writes, but the first time had me breathless with anticipation, and even the promise of a happy ending that comes with a romance couldn’t make me relax and slow down.

I don’t usually enjoy characters who pine for each for very long. One of the reasons I loved Lady’s Guide was that there was little wait before the main characters got together and the focus was on their burgeoning relationship and past wounds. I wasn’t sure if I would be the audience for a book that withholds the payoff for so long, since I tend to resent when there are too many misunderstandings and obstacles and people just won’t talk to each other. This book is unabashed about the pining and the silly misunderstandings. But it’s so well-done, with Penelope’s hesitation to come out and Agatha’s resentment of Penelope’s marriage and assumptions about what that means, that I was captivated.

I did miss the diversity from the first book, however. Lady’s Guide has more than one character of color and really came alive for me for painting a portrait of what Regency Britain might really have been like. Waspish Widows has several queer characters instead, which is nice, especially as Agatha and Penelope spend a lot of time supporting and conspiring with the other queers, but I still craved more diversity from the book, probably because I know Waite can deliver it and do it well. I assume Mr. Biswas is Indian, but can’t remember him being that big of a presence in the book, and that’s a pity.

I also really appreciated the side story with Queen Caroline and the real danger it brought to the characters that we cared about. I just wish the plot had been wrapped up a bit better. I felt like we heard way too much about this historical context in the beginning and then interest seemed to wane and narrow on the fictional plots that sprouted from it, but that too is sort of set aside at the end, and we only get an assurance that it was resolved by a certain character moving away. I was a bit disappointed.

The middle of the book has amazing tension due to Waite weaving so many threads exceptionally well and creating explosive confrontations. The writing is well-paced, so it propels you forward, making you want to know how it will all come to a head. So I felt a bit cheated that main antagonist in the story disappears off-page and the political tensions are resolved by people just losing interest.

Nevertheless, none of that ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s a testament to Waite’s brilliant storytelling that even when my brain is picking on tiny things and I’m frustrated with bits and pieces, the whole narrative is still impactful and satisfying. Her character work in particular shines. All these people she creates stay in your imagination. Those characters live outside the page, leave a mark on the reader. When Catherine appeared briefly for a cameo in this book, I nearly shouted in excitement. When Mr. Frampton was mentioned, I felt nostalgic and sad that we hadn’t seen him in this book yet. And I would pay any amount of money for a book focusing on Joana Molesey and Aunt Kelmarsh, because there are so few sapphic romances between older women, and after reading Waspish Widows, I would love more.

I certainly can’t wait to go back to this mini world and see them once again, and while I know that Waite has only planned one more book for this series, I can’t help but hope she will pen many more historical sapphic books. I would certainly read them.

Thais is a Brazilian WOC queer. Her degree in Media Studies has slowly grown useless, even though she literary Majored in how to be good at social media (but can’t understand it better than twelve-year-olds) and she currently lives with her parents. She is an Editor and has too many opinions on books she should be reading for fun.

You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@ThaisAfonso).

Shira Glassman reviews Proper English by KJ Charles

Proper English by KJ Charles

I can think of no more convincing way to start my review/endorsement of KJ Charles’ new book Proper English than these words I added to a reblog of an aesthetic post on Tumblr: “I just read this yesterday! Folks, y’all know there’s an Edwardian lesbian romance that is also a country house murder mystery where the lesbians solve it and live happily ever after, right? Well, now you do.” Plus, the love interest is a beautiful, not-thin woman who is just described as voluptuous and pretty with no disclaimers.

For some of you, that’s all you’ll need and you’ve already one-clicked it or requested it at your library. But if anyone else needs convincing, here are some more details.

The leading lady, Pat, has never been married and likes to go hunting with the men in her social sphere (specifically, “shooting”, which is birds.) There’s an awesome conversation between some of the female characters about vegetarian objections to hunting (in the person of the book’s Indian character, Miss Singh) vs. objections from a meat eater who is merely squeamish about where her food ultimately comes from, vs. the hunter herself. It’s cool to see women talking about “issues” in a book that combines two genres in which one doesn’t usually expect deep philosophy — fluffy romance and country-house murder mystery.

But it is a book with deep bits, small ones that are easy to swallow. Pat’s love interest, Fenella, for example — her storyline is all about her frustration and heartbreak with how often her personality is misread by everyone with whom she interacts. She can’t live up to her own potential so she ends up living down to people’s expectations, therefore proving them true. She’s able to grow through her contact and eventual romance with Pat, who tells her — and this is great advice I had to learn myself, as a baby queer — “People are awfully lazy, and ready to take other people at the value they put on themselves without thinking twice.” (It doesn’t always work; I know that. But it’s at least a useful tool occasionally.)

I forgot this was going to be a murder mystery until the book’s most annoying character, a racist piece of excrement married to the host’s sister, was a no-show for two meals in a row. Then the fact that I’m the kind of nerd who owns 95% of Agatha Christie’s output and even has then on their own special bookshelf kicked in and I realized, oh, wow, no wonder the author made him so over the top annoying! Because that’s a favorite technique of Christie’s, too — and she’s the reason we have country-house murder mysteries — to make the murder victim super awful so that 1. we don’t miss them as a reader and 2. so there will be a healthy crop of suspects because of how many people would breathe easier without Mr. Excrement walking the earth. “The house is full of motives,” as Pat tells Fenella.

There are no Agatha Christie books where the lesbians walk merrily off into the sunset together. Believe me, I’d know. Instead we get dead lesbians, guilty lesbians — all implied, all under the surface — or just no sapphic representation at all, which I prefer to the depressing stuff honestly. So to have my favorite genre of literature include a f/f HEA was a real treat!

I won’t say this book totally scratched my puzzle itch, so its strength is mostly as a romance novel. That’s fine. I wanted to write a Christie-style mystery my whole life and once I tried it (A Harvest of Ripe Figs) I realized how astronomically hard it is to pull off a surprise solution that is truly a surprise. But the world definitely has too few happy, fluffy lesbian historical romances, so it’s nice to have a nice solid new one.

Historical romance also granulates, inasmuch as “Regency romance” is a subgenre separate from “medieval romance”, etc. As far as I can see it, every era of f/f romance is important, because they will always be filling their own niche. After all, one can find a m/f romance set in any era one wants (for example: I love reading about 1660-1770 because of the gigantic skirts and Baroque architecture!) so it would be nice if readers of f/f had the same opportunity. So this book is a nice good quality contribution to that cause!

(P.S. I can’t remember the details but these characters show up in a m/m country house/spy thriller set a few years later, Think of England, which I reviewed back when I wrote it. So this is their backstory.)

Shira Glassman is the author of extremely fluffy, sometimes sexy, f/f fantasy and contemporary romance. Read her latest: Cinnamon Blade, Knife in Shining Armor (superhero/damsel in distress) or Knit One Girl Two (sweet contemporary.)

Elinor reviews Bound By Love by Megan Mulry

Bound By Love is a Regency era novella about Vanessa and Nora, women who have been together for twenty years. They’ve raised Vanessa’s children from a previous marriage and built a happy life together in the English countryside. Then Nora learns that her daughter, who she believed was stillborn just before she met Vanessa, may in fact be living nearby–and that Vanessa may have known there was a possibility Nora’s daughter was alive all along.

This is such an interesting set up for a story! It starts off strong, with alternating chapters in 1810 and in 1790, when Vanessa helped rescue Nora from her abusive husband and the two women fell in love. I’m not a huge Regency person but I thought the tone was fairly on point. I liked having a long term couple at the center of the story. Megan Mulry’s imagined pansexual, kink- and poly-friendly Regency England is charming.

Unfortunately, the tension wasn’t allowed to build enough, so the emotional pay off was limited. Even very serious issues are resolved quickly and without much lingering impact. I wanted the story to dive deeper, especially when Nora meets her possible daughter. Some problems seemed tacked on, which was unnecessary considering the potential for conflict and emotion provided by the premise. I had fun reading this, but in the end it seemed more like a draft than a finished novella.

This book is the second in a series of queer Regency romances by Mulry, which include kink, poly relationships, and which all connect. The final section of this book is the lead in for the next in the series and didn’t tie into the central plot all that well. If you have been longing for queer Regency, you might like to explore the series, especially if you just want a light romp. As a stand alone book, though, this didn’t impress me too much. Hardcore f/f Regency fans might want to check it out, but you’re not missing much if you skip it. Two out of five stars.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Korri reviews Petticoats and Promises by Penelope Friday

petticoats-and-promises-cover

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!

 

Korri reviews Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin

pembroke park michelle martin

As an avid reader of historical romance novels and lesbian fiction, I have long known of Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park; it has a legendary status among readers, which is only heightened by the fact that it is currently out of print. When I got my hands on a copy via AbeBooks, I eagerly delved in.

Published in 1986, Martin’s delightful book (billed as the first lesbian Regency novel) is more in the vein of Jane Austen than contemporary romance novels. The social intricacies of the era are observed: the heroines know each other for months before addressing each other by first name; gossip spread at public balls in the Herefordshire countryside can ruin reputations; and the villains of the story are an arrogant, overbearing brother and propriety rather than some dastardly foe with a complicated scheme.

Amid this simplicity, it was wonderful to read about the growing attachment between new neighbors Lady Joanna Sinclair and Lady Diana March. Though Lady Diana’s habit of riding astride shocks the locals, including widowed Lady Joanna, the two women become close. Who could help but love the unconventional Diana, a woman who is free in her speech, exotic in her attire, and who was once hauled before a court in Alexandria ‘on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct, assaulting an officer of the law, liberating a trader’s camel, and soliciting the English Ambassador for prostitution’? Joanna’s playfulness with her daughter and repressed talent for painting endears her to readers and to Diana.

The slow-building attraction between Joanna & Diana is charming. The secondary characters offer other portrayals of same-sex love and ground Joanna & Diana within a community. I only wish the happily ever after had given us more time with the heroines, showing readers what their life was like as a family with Joanna’s daughter Molly. This novel has earned a place on my keeper shelf next to other Regency romances.

Audrey reviews Bound with Love by Megan Mulry

boundwithlove

If you used to like Georgette Heyer and still love Jane Austen but are a little gayer than you used to be, perhaps it is time to check out Megan Mulry’s Regency Reimagined series. Bound with Love is a confection involving lurid pasts, long-kept secrets, and at its center, a smolderingly sensual relationship between Vanessa, an English aristocrat, and Nora, a Spanish-born portrait painter.

Although tragic events brought the women together, they’ve loved each other and raised a family together. Their world is perfect–at least, it’s perfect until the day a letter arrives that throws their knowledge of the past into uncertainty, and jeopardizes their future happiness.

Vanessa and Nora are a passionate, sophisticated couple; they’re secure enough in their love for each other that they’re much more exploratory than one might expect from a standard Regency romance. Actually, everyone is much more exploratory than one might expect. There are all kinds of romantic combinations contained herein, and pretty much something for everyone.

The emphasis in this volume is on Vanessa and Nora, but it should be noted that this is the second book in a series. While it can easily be read as a stand-alone, this title is a novella, and the first and third titles (about Nora’s daughter’s relationships and Nora and Vanessa’s neighbors’ alliance with Vanessa’s daughter, respectively) are both novels. I’m not sure why this one didn’t get the full novel treatment, especially as it pulls together the whole group of characters.

One might speculate that this was not Mulry’s favorite grouping. I didn’t get that from the Nora/Vanessa scenes. They were fun. However, the ostensible plotline wrapped up rather suddenly, and the book simply–stopped. It does appear that the book is available only in Kindle form, and at a much lesser price than the other two volumes in Kindle form. And the other two books are also available in print. So…maybe this is an interstitial title? Written to appease those of us who might be more interested in the more “mature” lesbian couple, than in the carousing of the 20-somethings?

Not a clue. But for $2.99, it would be a worthwhile, fun erotic historical frivolity, if that’s your thing.