Mallory Lass reviews Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

When I heard another book in Jones’ Alpennia Series was to come out this year, I was both excited and sad because I knew I would read it in a day or two and then the window into Alpennia would be closed again until the next in her series was released. I never dreamed I might love Floodtide more than the books that came before it. It can absolutely be read as a standalone, but some of my favorite players from the first three books make appearances and I think the experience is richer having read the others in the series as well. The timeline of Floodtide straddles part of the second and third books in the series, but from a whole new perspective. I can’t wait to go back and catch new details in those stories.

Floodtide is told in first person from Rozild “Roz” Pairmen’s point of view. A laundry maid when we first meet her, over the course of the story her role changes and evolves like water moving underfoot. I thought this was a story about Roz, but it’s actually about the city of Rotenek in the way The Wire is more about Baltimore than any of the named characters in that show. This is a testament of Jones’ storytelling abilities, to be able to weave such rich worldbuilding seamlessly around a gripping tale of a young woman bearing many secrets (some her own, some of others); having left the countryside for work, she is trying to find her place in a complex new city.

I often tell people Jones’ Alpennia Series isn’t really about romance but it is about love. She writes “found family” better than anyone I’ve read. I’m fascinated by our queer foremothers and these books have fleshed out one universe where people who love other people of the same gender not only survive but they thrive. More than that they look out for each other, and in Floodtide we find out the affinity for people like themselves, people different in notable ways, transcends race and class.

There is a line in the film Ocean’s Eight about women going unnoticed, and in Floodtide that adage is applicable to the serving class going unnoticed. I say this book is about Rotenek because Roz, being in service, can go places the high society protagonists of the earlier books in the series could never go. Roz and her merry band of friends – an unlikely bunch that includes: the daughter of the town’s dressmaker, her best friend Celeste; younger cousins of book one protagonists Barbara and Margerit, Brandal and Iulien respectively; the youngest palace prince and possible heir to the throne, Aukustin; and a riverboat woman, Liz – take the reader into the underbelly of Rotenek and flesh out the inner workings of the town. Oftentimes Roz is too young and/or too inexperienced at life to understand the trouble or danger she could be in, but that kept me on the edge of my seat and turning the page.

Even more than in the other books in the series, the fantastical elements of Alpennian society, always filling the cracks of Rotenek, are at the core of the story. There is a constant sense of adventure and hope, even when the characters are facing the bleakest of circumstances.

I can’t remember the last time I was moved to tears by a book, but Jones managed to make me full on sob with happiness, not once but twice!

This is simultaneously both a fantastic entry point to Jones’ Alpennia Series, and a wonderful compliment to the stories that came before it. As one of my favorite books of the year, I hope you’ll give it a try and fall in love with the goings on in Rotenek as much as I have.

Susan reviews Heathen Volumes 1 & 2 by Natasha Alterici and Rachel Deering

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Natasha Alterici and Rachel Deering’s Heathen follows Aydis, a lesbian Viking maiden trying to smash the patriarchy through the medium of rescuing a Valkyrie from a curse. In theory this is exactly my thing! In practice, I’m conflicted.

The art style feels rough and scribbly, which works perfectly for the narrative and gives it a real sense of motion and urgency. And I am absolutely here for queer warriors and women supporting other women and threatening bigots. But I do think that the story could have been set in a second-world fantasy (perhaps a magical apocalypse!) and it would have made more sense. HEAR ME OUT, it’s not for the reason you think! I don’t find the lesbian Vikings unrealistic, I find the homophobia unrealistic. The way that characters react to queerness feels anachronistic, because it sounds more like modern-day conservative Christian bigotry than anything else, which is weird enough for a historical setting, and doubly so for a setting where Christianity is explicitly only just making inroads, and thus shouldn’t have the infrastructure and laws to enforce that bigotry. I know the rule is that claiming things aren’t historically accurate when there are talking horses and mermaids is silly, I’m just confused as to how Odin became the mouthpiece of Christian values.

… Also for a comic that specifically called out Vikings wearing horned helmets as an inaccuracy, putting most of the female characters into bikinis was an odd choice! There is an in-universe explanation for it, but as written it sounds like the character designs came first and the reason came later. The fact that the crew of the ship that Aydis ends up on do manage to have real clothes, although again, they’re a mix of styles and influences that I would have accepted without question in a second-world fantasy, but was slightly surprised by when side-by-side with someone in fur and a bikini. (By the way, there is a crew of POC sailors and I am very invested in their story.)

All of that said, I do like stories about queer women banding together to punch misogyny in the face, and the way it specifically adapted the mythology of Odin’s missing eye and Brynhild works very well! When it’s being funny or sincere, it commits completely, and the panelling and art style evoke mood perfectly! It’s just that the story’s roots feel disconnected from what it actually is.

Caution warning: homophobia, misogyny, forced marriage, fridging, abusive marriages, mind control, mentions of slavery

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 as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Alice Pate reviews Choices by Tessa Vidal

Choices by Tessa Vidal

Choices is fairly true to the stereotypes of its genre. As an erotic romance, its sex scenes are plentiful, overdramatic, and unrealistic. Unfortunately, it seems that these criticisms can be extended to the entire story.

Choices is a love story between the movie star, Caro Ballad and the celebrity dog trainer, Shell Tate. Both women had their start in a trailer park in Mississippi and managed to find their way to glamorous Los Angeles where they reconnected over Caro’s new adopted dog, Dickens.

Fame has always been a difficult writing subject, because so few people have actually experienced it. Tessa Vidal has fallen victim to writing about a subject she has little experience with and the result is a celebrity character who is just… boring. The movie star life is an attractive subject, but it takes a special touch to pull it off.

In general, I had a hard time getting invested in the romance. Perhaps my own personal bias against celebrity lifestyles and the world of dog breeding and dog shows, but I’m a little more likely to blame the uninspiring romance scenes. There was no tension or build-up to the relationship, and the tiny conflict the author tried to insert was too easy to overcome.

To risk a pun, this entire story was anticlimactic. Tessa Vidal included a side-story to run parallel the main couple. It follows Ryder, Shell’s twin brother, who is on the run from the FBI, and it’s hinted that he’s involved in something incredibly dangerous. This side plot was a nice rush of action for when the romantic plot fell flat, but in the end there was no big exciting peak to Ryder’s story.

Likewise, there’s a scene where Caro is being blackmailed by a private detective about her not-so-glamorous past, and this is never revisited. Caro claims she won’t pay him the money he demands to buy his silence. But he still has a hold of this information on her that she tries to keep covered up. Loose ends like this tend to point to rushed drafts and a lack of editing, and it could have potentially livened up the story where it dragged.

Overall, I was fairly unimpressed with Choices. The author has since released a few more erotica titles that appear to be set in the same creative universe, but I doubt I’ll ever pick them up.

Emily Joy reviews Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

Women in the Shadows by Ann Bannon

I’ve steadily been making way through the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a classic lesbian pulp series by Ann Bannon, for quite some time. Women in the Shadows is the third book in that series and by far the most difficult to read so far.

This review, by nature of being for the third book in a series, contains some spoilers for the first two books. That said, let’s get into it.

Women in the Shadows picks up after the second book, I Am a Woman, and quite some time has passed. Laura and Beebo are living together in Greenwich Village, and both are very unhappy. Laura feels that she is falling out of love with Beebo, and Beebo is only holding on more tightly, which only pushes Laura further away. When Laura finds herself attracted to Tris, another woman, things start spiraling out of control.

Trigger warnings for this book include domestic abuse (physical and emotional), animal abuse, self-harm, and rape. These are also mentioned and briefly discussed in my review.

When I read lesbian pulp, I always come across parts that are uncomfortable to read. Some of the language used to talk about LGBTQ identities and people of color is jarring. Ideas about sex and consent are very different, too. By nature, pulp fiction is supposed to be sensational and shocking, and I think the effectiveness of the sensation and shock only grows larger as the years pass. Some of the uncomfortable themes are also due to outdated social norms and ideas. I definitely don’t read lesbian pulp with any expectations for it to meet my contemporary ideas, and I think that’s okay.

I expect a certain amount of discomfort when I read lesbian pulp. I think the discomfort is often worth the satisfaction of reading and developing a greater understanding of this fascinating part of lesbian literary history. Even with all of this in mind, I had a very difficult time reading Women in the Shadows.

I think the most difficult part of this book is domestic abuse, both emotional and physical. Primarily, Laura is the abuse victim, as Beebo constantly gaslights her, physically overpowers her, and emotionally manipulates her. If readers are meant to root for Laura and Beebo as a couple, I was definitely doing the opposite and rooting for her to get out of that situation as soon as possible. The abuse is truly hard to read, and anyone who can potentially be triggered by it should be cautioned.

Highlight for spoilers. A particularly uncomfortable scene is when Beebo fakes being assaulted and raped by multiple men, who also graphically killed her dog. Now, I say faked, but when this scene first occurs we read it from Laura’s perspective, and she believes it to be true, so it can be very triggering under the assumption that this truly happened to Beebo. We later find out that Beebo faked it to gain Laura’s sympathy in a play to keep their relationship and keep her from leaving. This means that Beebo beat herself, and also gruesomely kills her dog. Later, when a friend gives her a new dog, she kills that dog too. It’s not fun to read. It’s not entertaining. It’s just difficult.

In the edition that I read, there was an author’s note addressing some of her errors in writing this book, and ultimately, I read pulp with a grain of salt anyway, so I wasn’t entirely put off by what could be considered “problematic”. However, others may feel differently and have different reactions than I did. There is certainly triggering material in almost all pulp novels, but Women in the Shadows seems to have an extra dose, so please do read this with caution if any of the triggers listed at the beginning are not okay for you. Otherwise, this book is a part of lesbian history as all lesbian pulp is, and especially Ann Bannon’s works. That alone makes it worth the read to me, no matter how hard it was to get through at times. But… I highly doubt I will ever reread this.

Bee reviews The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai cover

Spoiler Warning

Trigger warnings: character death, violence, body horror, gore

I should say upfront that I don’t read much sci-fi. It’s definitely not my genre of choice, so I am unfamiliar with the conventions and the tropes, and the general methods of worldbuilding. The only reason I picked up The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai was that it won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction this year. A hint of gay is enough to get me picking up any sort of book – and I am unbelievably glad that in this case, I did.

The Tiger Flu is set in a future overrun by its eponymous disease, forcing the population into quarantine levels, with the maligned and anarchic Saltwater City at the centre. In the outermost quarantine ring is the Grist Village, a secluded commune of women exiled from Saltwater City due to their genetic mutations: they are a society built around “doublers” – women with the ability to clone – and “starfish” – those who are able to regrow their own body parts, and so donate them to Grist women who need them. This is the home of one of our perspective characters, Kirilow Groundsel, a groom who cares for her starfish lover, Peristrophe. When an invader from Saltwater City brings the tiger flu with them, a weakened Peristrophe succumbs to the disease, sending Kirilow on a revenge quest to both kill the responsible “Salty” and find a new starfish to protect the Grist way of life.

In Saltwater City, Kora Ko helps her uncle grow potatoes for their tiny family, hoping to prolong their lives even though both her brother and uncle show signs of the tiger flu. Although the illness mostly affects men, Kora is still in danger of contracting it – and so the family decides to send her to the Cordova Dancing School for Girls, also a commune of sorts in the depths of the city, where girls are taught to dance and thieve. Kora only wants her family reunited – but perhaps her brother, K2, is more dangerous to her than she thought.

Something which I appreciated greatly about Lai’s writing was that none of the worldbuilding was explanatory. In fact, very little explanation is given, and so it is mostly up to the reader to deduce what is going on and how the characters fit within this dirty, diseased world. The prose is enough for this, with everything being slightly off-kilter, enough that you come to understand what has happened to the world in this year of 2145. It was hard for me initially, it being a bit difficult to get into the sci-fi headspace, but I did find it consuming in the best of ways.

Something which I found it hard to get past was that the plot was put in motion by the death of Peristrophe; is it an example of Dead Lesbian Syndrome? On the one hand, it means that the narrative as a whole is framed by Kirilow’s love for Peristrophe – it is what haunts and drives her, and leads to almost every inciting decision she makes. On the other hand, there is something a little Willow/Tara about it all, where Kirilow’s development as a character is only kicked into gear when her lover is killed. For a lesbian literature award winner, I’ll admit that I was expecting the relationship to feature in a different way. It was startling to have Peristophe’s death hit the page so quickly, and with no real sense of justice eventuating from it.

What I did appreciate was that the women were allowed to be – and I love the opportunity to use this word – feral. In this dystopic world, the women protect themselves from corrupt and diseased men by being violent and ugly, unwashed and aggressive. The Cordova girls are frequently referred to as “stinky”, and Kora’s own scalp crawls with lice. Kirilow isn’t afraid of blood, and readily performs surgery and amputations. It’s always refreshing to read women in this way, especially when beauty and perfection are shown to be corrupt facades. I read this as a sharp assessment of womanhood under patriarchy, in a book full of sharp assessments on a number of topics.

From the sanctuary of her Grist Village, Kirilow isn’t even aware of what a man is, except for stories she has heard about how “Salties” reproduce, a relic of how society used to be. There is something a little cisnormative about this, with the Grist process of cloning – or “doubling” – still being dependent on wombs. In a world more sharply divided into men and women, I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion around the multifaceted nature of gender – especially considering this is sci-fi.

All of that said, I am still grateful that I read The Tiger Flu. It is a singular book, which constructs a confronting world filled with complex characters who don’t always behave in the way you’d think. Even in the world that Larissa Lai creates, one which is harsh and at times grotesque, these characters are driven by love, in their own ways. The prose is arresting, and the world is consuming, and it is all a sort of welcome fever dream. As someone who does not read sci-fi, I am glad I read this one – and I think you will be, too.

Mary reviews Gingerbread Hearts by Judy Underwood

Gingerbread Hearts edited by Judy Underwood

Up until recently I’ve avoided short stories. I wanted a nice, full novel to sink my teeth into and take my time with. But now I have a full-time job with a long commute and reading full novels becomes a bit more challenging. So with that, now I love short stories, which brings me to Gingerbread Hearts by a multitude of authors.

“Holiday Outing by” Alison Grey

Susanne plans to come out to her family while they’re all together for the holidays. Her sister has her back, but saying a few simple words turns out to be harder than she thought. Plus, she has to navigate each family member and their quirks throughout the night leading up to the reveal.

This was a fun little snippet. I wish I had gone on longer, it felt like the ending was only the beginning. The family was realistic and each person had their own personality that was fun to get to know.

“It’s in the Pudding” by Emma Weimann

Ida’s family has a Christmas tradition that whoever finds the almond in the pudding gets to make a wish. Ida’s wish was to let go and find love by next Christmas, not to go to the dentist when the almond disagrees with her filling. But when the dentist turns out to be someone from Ida’s past, she thinks maybe the almond wasn’t so wrong.

This was a great meet-cute that I didn’t see coming. Ida and her family, especially her friendship with her sister-in-law, had a nice and fun dynamic that was engaging to read. There were also clear sparks between her and the dentist, Theresa, that leapt off the page.

However, this story had a few fatphobic comments that were not needed or entertaining.

“Devgo” by Corinna Behrens

Rebecca has rejected and isolated herself from her friends and family, broken up with her girlfriend, and surrounded herself in her wealth and power. Now, a being both from heaven and hell, Devgo, visits her on Christmas to give her a last chance.

This was another really short one that I thought could have been expanded more. It felt like an introduction to a longer story I would really like to have read. The introduction of Devgo was interesting and believable. Rebecca was clearly a horrible person, but the author does a good job of still making her engaging as a character despite that
.
“A Magical Christmas” RJ Nolan

Erin’s ex-husband broke a promise to their kids right before Christmas, leading her girlfriend Kris to plan a surprise getaway for the family. But both Erin and Kris have things to work through and obstacles to work through together to make this Christmas theirs.

This was my favorite story! Erin and Kris, their relationship, and dynamics with the kids felt real and wonderful. I could really believe they had been together for a while, and that they had some real issues to work through. At the same time, it was still romantic and fun. I wish I could read more about them.

“The Christmas Grump” and “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” by Jae

These two stories are in the same universe with the same characters, so I put them together.
In “The Christmas Grump”, Rachel is a mall security guard during the worst time of the year to be working at a mall. Last year she has a terrible Christmas, and now she’s anything but in the holly jolly spirit. Then she meets Tyler and his single mother, who has a reason to not be in the Christmas spirit.

In “Kissing Ms. Santa Claus” it’s been a year since their first Christmas together, and Rachel and Lillian are happy. But Rachel doesn’t know what to get Lillian, and she doesn’t know exactly what Lillian wants with her in the long term.

These two were my second favorite in the collection. Jae does a great job of slowly building the characters, the world and the relationships. I feel like I could have read a whole book about these people. Rachel and Lillian have a sweet and romance dynamic. Tyler is also a great child characters, which can be hard to do, especially in the length and time constraints of a short story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Christmas short story collection and recommend it to anyone looking for a chance to get in the holiday spirit. You can download the e-book for free directly from Ylva’ Publishing’s website.

Sheila Laroque reviews Maiden, Mother Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes by Gwen Benaway

Maiden, Mother, Crone edited by Gwen Benaway

I became aware of Gwen Benaway this fall on twitter (@GwenBenaway) with the controversy that was happening in Toronto with the public library and a hateful speaker. More of Gwen’s writing on her experiences of these events can be found here. Also, this fall she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for her work Holy Wild. While I was on the waitlist at my library for her work of poetry, I decided to pick up this collection of short fantasy stories that feature trans characters. I’m really glad I did.

I’m trying to read outside of my usual genres, and fantasy stories fit that for me. I know there are many fans of fantasy; but for me this is a new genre. Knowing that all of the stories presented here would have trans heroines and queer elements; along with other tropes of fantasy writing. In a way, this was like having a twist on a classic comfort food. I had an idea of what I was getting, but was always pleasantly surprised. Having all of these stories feature trans characters so seamlessly highlighted the ways that fantasy writing can (and should) feature more diverse characters, without breaking genre conventions. After all, is it really that far of a stretch of the imagination to think that characters wouldn’t be able to use magic to change their gender? Or to live in worlds where there are different gender conventions and acceptance of this?

My favorite stories were “Mountain God” by Gwen Benaway, “Potions and Practices” by Gwynception and “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis. It’s hard for me to really narrow down exactly why, because all of these stories are different. But I think I just really enjoyed the characters and getting to have short glimpses into their fantastical worlds. Much like how Love Beyond Space and Time can serve as a guide to Indigenous writers and storytellers, this book can be a good introduction for those who are seeking more trans-inclusive reading in their fantasy collections. I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more from these authors.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November follows Millie, Elise, Victoria, and their coven of witches as they learn their powers in the aftermath of World War I. The coven is under the employment of The Allied Directorate for Alternative Means (ADAM), a government-sanctioned operation that wants to use magic to fight wars.

On Christmas night, Victoria goes missing. The split point of view narration reveals that she has lost her memory and doesn’t know she’s a witch. After a series of strange mishaps that seem impossible, she submits herself to the mercy of a psychiatric hospital, hoping to find answers. But the kind doctor and hospital are not all they appear to be. It’s up to Millie and Elise to rescue their lost friend.

The mysterious plot combined with historical fiction and a bit of romance between Millie and Elise make this novel a delightful read. It’s easy to keep turning the pages as the action never gets bogged down in too much detail. The moments of character development give the reader an opportunity to breathe and get inside the characters’ heads.

Each character has a strong, distinct voice that makes readers want to get to know each one on their own. But that doesn’t mean their relationships with one another fall by the wayside. The bond that is created between the three new witches as well as their mistresses, ancient witches who are mentoring the new generation, comes through clearly as they do anything and everything to protect one another.

While the writing is strong and compelling, it’s not particularly tight. There are moments where the story is hard to follow because typos and convoluted grammar make it hard to follow. It felt like the book needed more effective editing before going to publication. But the narrative is still strong enough to keep readers wanting more.

Darrow’s writing ability shines through during moments of introspection. Each main character is developed within their own thoughts. As Millie and Victoria navigate their world and consider their relationships with other characters, their voices are clear and distinct, making them complete and rounded-out people. It’s an impressive feat with Victoria, as for most of the book she is without her memory.

The novel establishes Elise and Millie’s romantic relationship early on. But for fans of a slow burn, their pining makes up a great deal of this romance. Everything about their feelings always feels genuine and organic. Millie’s characterization is especially sweet as her demeanor softens when she’s around Elise, whereas with others she tends to be sarcastic.

As the story unravels and readers go along for the ride, there are clues and details that may lead them to certain conclusions. That’s why the plot twist with how Victoria lost her memory packs a powerful punch. It’s a possibility that doesn’t pop up at the top of the list of answers to the question, “What happened?”

One aspect I wish had been explored more was the correlation between science and magic. Darrow touches upon the relation between two seemingly opposing concepts with Elise and Victoria, but the idea never blooms further than a few buds. The story could have been made richer with a deeper dive into how science and magic go hand in hand.

Maggie reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

I was very excited when I got my copy of The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite. I wanted to read some romance, and I really hope that f/f regency continues to grow, because I love it. This book hit a lot of buttons for me, and I felt like every chapter brought even more delightful happenings.

The setup is that Lucy Muchelney had been assisting her father in astronomy for years, and had been taking over more and more of his math calculations and correspondence in the years leading up to his death. After his passing, Lucy seizes a chance and presents herself to Catherine St. Day, the Countess of Moth, as someone who can translate a groundbreaking new astronomy text. Catherine is a widow, coming out of a loveless and emotionally abusive marriage in which she was forced to put all her own interests to the side and babysit, as well as bankroll, her husband’s scientific ambitions. New to acting on her feelings towards women and wary of once again competing with science for someone’s attentions, Catherine nonetheless sets out to mentor Lucy into London’s polite scientific society. Lucy, in return, struggles to live up to Catherine’s project, navigate the close-minded Fellows who are determined to be the gatekeepers to scientific progress, and encourage Catherine to pursue her own creative ambitions. Together, they try to figure out how to fit themselves and their ambitions into society and build something permanent.

One of the great things about this book was the presence of multiple queer ladies! Not just the main characters! Not only is Lucy’s former lover, the infamous Pris, around casting shadows on Lucy’s current life, Lucy strongly implies that she and Pris were not the only ones in their school interested in some Sapphic exploration. Lucy also instantly connects with Aunt Kelmarsh, one of Catherine’s friends who is revealed to have been in a happy relationship with Catherine’s mother. This inter-generational queer connection is really great to see. Not only do Aunt Kelmarsh and Lucy’s schoolmates establish a covert culture of queer relationships that buoy and validate each other, Aunt Kelmarsh provides the knowledge that attitudes and lifestyles were different in her youth than in the present, setting Lucy and Catherine’s relationship into a greater history of women having relationships with each other. They know that they do not love in isolation, they know they aren’t the first to set up such an arrangement, and they know that such relationships happen no matter how society’s attitudes about them cycle around. Such a context makes it possible for us to have the dynamic where Lucy, the younger of the pair and from the rustic countryside, is the more experienced of the two in having relationships with other women. It’s all delightful, give me all the networks of ladies loving and supporting each other.

The other thing I love was the element of creating and creativeness. Throughout the book Catherine hones her embroidery talents, showing them not just to be fancy work in a sampler, but also practical in making and decorating clothes for Lucy. Astronomy may be a science, but Lucy not only has great scientific knowledge, but also shows great creativity in taking her project from a straight translation into a more accessible volume. The care and talent she puts into her writing is very touching. There is also their developing relationship with the publishing house they use for Lucy’s project. This book would be entertaining enough for just with two talented ladies practicing their crafts for each other, but at the end the author projects their prodigious talents to greater future heights and again connects them to other women doing the same.

I am fairly easy to entice with queer regency romance, but this book really lived up to the hype I had heard about it. Not only are there are the elements of a good regency romance you look for and enjoy, the book sells the romance between Lucy and Catherine while also expanding its focus, giving them a place in a wider queer and artistic world. Definitely give this book a read if romance is your genre.

Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!