An Obsessive, Erotic, Vampire Gothic: An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson 

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I feel as though all my adult life I have been wishing for a Carmilla retelling that really illuminates the heart of the original novella—the obsession, intensity, eroticism, and power struggle between Carmilla and Laura that makes the text one of the most lasting examples of nineteenth-century lesbian fiction. I’ve finally—finally!—found it in S.T. Gibson’s An Education in Malice (Redhook 2024). 

I loved Gibson’s queer treatment of Dracula’s brides in A Dowry of Blood (2021) and her new novel, marketed as a sapphic adaptation of Carmilla that finds Le Fanu’s characters at a women’s college in the mid-twentieth century, is one of my most anticipated reads of 2024. Indeed, An Education in Malice doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously Gothic and addictive, every corner of this novel was a pleasure to read. 

We find Carmilla and Laura at the isolated Saint Perpetua’s College in Massachusetts. Surrounded by the history of the campus and the complex motives of both staff and students, Laura Sheridan is thrown into the thick of college life. Almost immediately she is unwittingly pitted against the captivating and imperious Carmilla, professor De Lafontaine’s star pupil in their poetry class. As Laura is drawn further and further into Carmilla’s orbit, she soon discovers De Lafontaine’s own obsession with Carmilla, and the darkness that cuts through the women’s lives. However, as Laura and Carmilla’s feelings for one another turn into something more, Laura’s own darker desires rise to the surface, and it might just be her own curiosity that leads to her doom—or her destiny. 

Not only does this novel do Carmilla (1872) and all of its lush, confusing, glorious Gothic excess justice, but Gibson has also written an entirely new novel of Gothic suspense. This is vampire fiction at its finest, with all the beauty and gore one comes to expect from Gibson’s writing. I couldn’t begin to guess how the story would unfold, and it kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. One doesn’t have to have read Carmilla to enjoy this novel—not at all. It is entirely its own text. At the same time, Gibson clearly weaves familiar easter eggs into her text for fans of the original. 

Everything—from the setting to the rivalry to the world of the vampires—is perfectly crafted to create an atmosphere of temptation and dread. The writing is so poetic I was highlighting on every page. An Education in Malice is exactly the kind of novel I wanted it to be. It’s a perfect winter read for those who are looking for something extra Gothic this February! 

Please add An Education in Malice to your TBR on Goodreads and follow S.T. Gibson on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

You can find Rachel on X @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Feminist, Latin American Vampire Gothic: Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, translated by Heather Cleary

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Recently translated into English, Marina Yuszczuk’s queer vampire novel, Thirst (Dutton, March 5, 2024), is partly what I’d hoped for in a vampire fiction, and at the same time, it was nothing like what I’d expected. 

Although it’s a Gothic, vampire novel on the surface, Thirst is really a feminist novel about two women’s experiences of life, loss, trauma, and haunting across centuries. Taking place over two different time periods in Buenos Aires, what seem at first like the totally disparate narratives of two women who live in entirely different circumstances eventually come together in a dramatic and bittersweet conclusion. In nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, a vampire arrives on a ship from Europe, fleeing the death and violence she and her sisters found there. She is less a Dracula-like figure arriving at Whitby on the deserted Demeter, and more of a lost scavenger, uninterested in human lives even as she grieves her own losses. 

As the world transforms around her—moving from isolated villages into cosmopolitan, interconnected cities, the vampire must adapt her existence in order to intermingle. In the same city in the present day, a seemingly ordinary woman struggles to cope with the terminal illness of her own mother while also looking after her young son. When she sees the vampire for the first time in a Buenos Aires cemetery at the opening of the novel, the two women are set on a collision course that promises both revelation and destruction. 

This novel is marketed for fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and I can definitely see the parallels. This is a conflicted, confused, and introspective monster novel with just enough of a dash of broken moral compass to make this interesting. Thirst is also compared to the writing of Daphne du Maurier and Carmen Maria Machado, which is something I understand a bit less—to me, Thirst is unique in its style, and it’s a fascinating take on the vampire story.

For me, much of my enjoyment of this novel came in the first half. The first chapter had me completely hooked and I loved reading about the vampire’s origin story. Dark, gory, and dramatic, the image of the nineteenth-century queer female vampire wreaking havoc on Buenos Aires society amidst an abundance of crime and death was gripping. I couldn’t look away! 

The second half, which focuses much more on present-day Buenos Aires, was less exciting for me, although I loved the relationship between the two women. It felt at times in the second half like this was a feminist novel with a Gothic overlay, and that the vampire plot was secondary to the narration of these women’s lives. This disrupted my expectations and made me enjoy the novel a bit less, although I may have been more engaged had I understood from the beginning that this was more of a novel about the way women see the world. 

Thirst is absolutely worth reading if you’re looking for a new and exciting feminist Latin American author, or if you’re a fan of queer vampire stories and historical fiction. I think it’s an interesting addition to the canon, and I would love to read more by this author. 

Please add Thirst to your TBR on Goodreads.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Misogyny and Murder: Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll 

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In her most ambitious novel yet, crime writer Jessica Knoll—author of Luckiest Girl Alive (2015)—blends fact and fiction as she adapts the events surrounding a series of killings committed in Tallahassee, Florida in 1978.

Bright Young Women (2023) begins in January 1978. Patricia Schumacher is president of her sorority at Florida State University. She takes pride in her organized, fair, and exacting leadership. One fateful night, Patricia is awoken in the early hours of the morning by a strange sound. What—and who—she encounters in her sorority house will change her life forever. With two of her sisters dead and two others horribly maimed, and Patricia the only woman to clearly see the man responsible, she is immediately immersed in a mystery that began long before 1978 and, unbeknownst to her, will continue for decades afterwards. Patricia’s encounter with the killer will lead her to join forces with the eccentric but driven Tina Cannon, who believes the man who entered Patricia’s sorority house that night is the same individual who abducted Ruth Wachowsky from late Sammamish State Park years before. As Patricia and Tina weave together the complex threads of this case, battling the media, misogyny, and utterly useless police along the way, a story of sisterhood and survival emerges. 

Choosing to adapt the crimes of Ted Bundy for a fictional context is a bold endeavour; not only are his crimes so famous, but the misplaced mythology surrounding Bundy as a figure means that any novel dealing even in part with the murders he committed risks being overwhelmed with that mythos or worse, replicating it. Bright Young Women seems aware of these risks and actively works against centralizing Bundy: his name appears nowhere in the novel (he is only referred to as The Defendant), and Patricia and Tina repeatedly insist that whatever “power” attributed to him is actually grounded in a more widespread misogyny. Knoll puts it most succinctly when she writes that The Defendant is a “loser” and always has been. Popular culture is responsible for his overblown intellect, instinct, and criminal mind, and the man himself remains entirely below average. 

Bright Young Women is more concerned with representing the women affected by these events, and the ways in which they are strengthened and drawn together by a shared goal. Patricia’s narrative voice is powerful and direct, and Tina’s devotion to Ruth is palpable throughout the entire novel. By highlighting the rampant misogyny these women face in this text, Knoll highlights that, over forty years on, we seem to be having the same conversations around victimhood, value, and blame. Bright Young Women is more than crime fiction—it reads as a stunningly critical and emotional novel about women’s lives. 

While I loved the novel and I think it’s an important piece of crime fiction, I’m not sure if I can figure out what the addition of a lesbian subplot adds to the text. I can see the importance of decentering heterosexual plots in crime fiction generally, but with Bundy in the mix and with the novel ending the way it does, I’m not sure I found reading lesbians in this novel at all comforting. Perhaps being discomfort is the intention. Or perhaps the lesbian plot is self-consciously critical of the kind of victim society values (as much as it can be said to value them at all in this novel) by disrupting the narrative of the young, white, heterosexual female victim that is immediately associated with these kinds of crimes. 

Regardless, while I think this novel is excellent, it is also tragic, and therefore not for everyone. I’m fascinated by Knoll’s writing in this book, and I highly recommend Bright Young Women for fans of crime fiction. 

Please add Bright Young Women to your TBR on Goodreads

Content Warnings: Murder, rape, conversion therapy, violence, death, gaslighting, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

The Perfect Sapphic September Read: The Adult by Bronwyn Fischer 

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The moody, fraught, and atmospheric energy of Bronwyn Fischer’s novel The Adult (Random House, 2023) is the perfect September read that reflects the joy and the chaos of a new academic year! 

The Adult follows Natalie, an eighteen-year-old student who has just arrived in Toronto to begin her first year of university. Moving from her remote, rural hometown to a bustling city is destabilizing to say the least, and on top of it all everyone around her seems to fit in perfectly, while Natalie always stands apart. From the beginning of the novel, we can tell that Natalie is searching for an identity—for the exact code that will allow her to effortlessly blend into her new life without all the sharp edges she can’t seem to stop running into. She studies her would-be friends, searches online, and spends most of her time contemplating just how apart she feels from everyone else. 

Enter Nora, an older, mysterious woman who suddenly takes an interest in Natalie after a chance meeting. As Natalie is drawn further and further into Nora’s life—and into her intense, all-consuming feelings for the other woman—she wonders if this relationship contains the answers she’s been searching for. However, because Natalie fears how her friends will react to her relationship with an older woman, she quickly begins to lead a kind of double life while attempting to keep her time with Nora separate and sacred. But eventually, Natalie must reckon with the discovery that Nora is not all that she seems, and that the secrets she keeps could have devastating consequences for Natalie’s life. 

The Adult is a fabulously literary lesbian novel all about coming of age and coming out. In many ways, it’s easy to sympathize with Natalie’s insecurity and her desperation to fit into a world that seems to fast-paced and unfamiliar. We spend so much of this novel deep inside Natalie’s head, privy to her cyclical thoughts, her fears and anxieties, and her overwhelming obsession with Nora—an obsession that is made worse by Nora’s unclear feelings. It’s impossible not to find this novel immersive and captivating. 

While the plot of this novel is slow to unfold and the text is driven forward by the characters, I still found myself unable to put it down. Fischer’s writing carefully unveils the intricacies—and inconsistencies—of Nora’s life, which left me desperate to uncover (as Natalie eventually is) what all of the clues meant. It was fascinating the way Fischer played with readers’ expectations and then subverted or denied them at every turn. While the end wasn’t a huge surprise to me, I’m not sure it’s intended to be. Instead, it seems that what Fischer really wants to focus on in Natalie’s response to and growth from her relationship with Nora. I loved the way this novel was woven together. In some ways, it really did keep me guessing until the very end. 

There are certain plot twists I wasn’t overly captivated or convinced by, and I wasn’t sure how to handle them as a reader—especially when Natalie’s character struggles to cope effectively with anything. The twist I’m thinking of definitely added some intensity and urgency to the novel, but that could have been accomplished more effectively in other ways, I think. 

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Adult and I think it’s an excellent novel to read for fall! 

Please put The Adult  on your TBR on Goodreads.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars

The Perfect Sapphic Historical Fiction for Your Fall TBR: Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue

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Emma Donoghue’s much-anticipated new novel, Learned by Heart (29 August 2023), is a heartfelt biofiction about the life—and love—of Eliza Raine and her relationship with the famous Anne Lister. Drawing on Lister’s copious five-million-word diaries, Donoghue brings Raine’s story to life in this vivid novel. 

While Anne Lister’s life and work have become enormously famous over the last five years, with Sally Wainwright’s ground-breaking television series Gentleman Jack centralizing Lister’s lesbian life and diaries, Learned by Heart approaches Lister’s early years through a different lens. Donoghue’s novel is characteristic of Donoghue’s historical biofiction, which rarely tells the stories of famous historical subjects but rather seeks out history’s fragments or outright silences. In this case, Eliza Raine and her life are central to Donoghue’s writing. As an orphaned young girl from India, Eliza arrives in England at six years old with the distinct and lasting sense from those around her that she is other. However, when she meets the young, brash, and brilliant Anne Lister at the Manor School for young ladies when the two girls are fourteen, Eliza finds a kindred spirit—and more. 

Learned by Heart is one of my most anticipated novels of 2023, and I was delighted to receive an early copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This novel is another stunning addition to Donoghue’s impressive catalogue of historical fiction, and while series like Gentleman Jack focus on Lister’s later years, with her lovers remaining central but ultimately supporting characters, Donoghue flips the script in her biofiction. Eliza is our protagonist here, and we grow along with her as she moves through a journey of self-discovery. As Anne becomes more and more central to Eliza’s life, she paints a fascinating portrait of the other young girl’s earlier years. 

This novel was everything I hoped for and more. Learned by Heart transports its readers to nineteenth-century York with its vivid descriptions and minute details, and typical of Donoghue’s writing, no part of nineteenth-century girlhood is overlooked. Years of research and dedication shine through in this novel, especially in the supplementary information at the close of the text. While this novel is a sweeping narrative in its own right, Lister researchers and historians will also adore Learned by Heart

I can’t recommend Learned by Heart enough as the perfect historical fiction to read this fall! Learned by Heart hits shelves on August 29, 2023. 

Please add Learned by Heart to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Emma Donoghue on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Fraught, Erotic Fever Dream: Mrs. S by K. Patrick

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Every so often I read a novel that just has the perfect summer energy about it—and even though I read a review copy of Mrs. S by K. Patrick (Europa Editions, 2023) in the spring, I was thinking of summer the entire time. Perfect for fans of novelists like Emma Cline, Mona Awad, or Leon Craig, Mrs. S is an unforgettable novel. 

This novel is the kind of fascinating, character-driven historical fiction I’m drawn to. Set at an English boarding school sometime in the second half of the twentieth century (the timeline isn’t clear), an unnamed narrator arrives under the position of matron at the school. As butch lesbian from Australia, our narrator feels like an outsider in more ways than one. That is, until she meets Mrs. S, the headmaster’s alluring and captivating wife. At first, Mrs. S seems to be the narrator’s opposite in many ways—primarily through her self-assuredness and her carefully performed femininity—but as the summer wears on and the two women grow closer together, the narrator comes to realize that the two have far more in common than she thinks. 

A lesbian affair conducted in secret at a British boarding school? There is no novel I would rather read. Plus, a butch lesbian protagonist is a refreshing perspective. I read Mrs. S in one sitting, and it was exactly the kind of fraught, erotic, fever dream novel I hoped it would be. I loved the narrator’s insular personality and her struggles with her queerness were issues I could both sympathize and identify with. Although this novel is framed as the narrative of an affair, it is really more about the narrator and her thoughts, feelings, and journey to come to terms with who she is—a journey that isn’t close to complete by the novel’s end. 

The narrator’s relationship with Mrs. S has the kind of chaotic, fated, anxiety-inducing intensity that I hoped for. Mrs. S has an untouchable, unknowable air about her that always keeps the narrator (and us) on the outside, even when she appears to let us in. Nevertheless, we fall in love(?) with her alongside the narrator, and the second half of the novel seems to hurtle toward the end. While it seemed to take a long time to get to any kind of movement in the plot between these two characters, I now think that that’s a result of this novel really being about the protagonist’s trying to find a place in the world. 

Speaking of places, the boarding school setting is so fabulous, and there’s a reason why queer authors return again and again to the idea of a girls’ boarding school, a place that supposed inculcate “proper” heterosexist codes of femininity and often ends up complicating them instead. Mrs. S’s status as the headmaster’s wife further undermines the “power” of the boarding school as an institution and I think there’s so much to be said about the usefulness of this setting for Patrick. The atmosphere of this novel—contributed to by Patrick’s sensual descriptions—is part of what kept me reading. 

I highly recommend Mrs. S as your queer novel of the summer! 

Please add Mrs. S to your TBR on Goodreads and follow K. Patrick on Twitter

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

A Fabulously Smart Summer Read: The Fake by Zoe Whittall

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A short novel with a lot of heart and an unputdownable plot, Zoe Whittall’s The Fake (2023 Ballantine Books) is a fabulously smart story. 

The Fake follows Shelia and Gibson, two unconnected characters who are drawn unwittingly into the same oppressive scheme. Shelia is still reeling from the sudden death of her wife, whose loss has left a bottomless pit of grief in her life. Gibson is similarly in limbo, having recently divorced his wife and moved into his own bachelor’s apartment, which, for Gibson, could not be more depressing. Both Shelia and Gibson are at their lowest when they suddenly meet the stunning, charismatic, deeply relatable Cammie. 

Shelia finally finds someone who can relate to her grief and trauma. And when Cammie unfairly loses her job and reveals that she is in treatment for kidney cancer, Shelia comes to the rescue, finally discovering a new sense of purpose after weeks lost in grief. Gibson can’t believe his luck: Cammie is so beautiful, it almost seems too good to be true that she’s actually interested in him. But eventually, both Shelia and Gibson begin to sense that something isn’t right about Cammie, and as more inconsistencies start to crop up, the two begin to wonder: is Cammie really who she says she is, or is she a con artist? As Shelia and Gibson come together to solve the mystery that is Cammie, they begin to confront the things about their own characters that haunt them.

I actually purchased this book on Canadian author Heather O’Neill’s recommendation. I’d never read Whittall’s fiction before, but I was delighted by this novel. Its short, punchy character kept me engaged and reading. Shelia’s very real, very queer, and very domestic grief over the tragic loss of her wife was so heartfelt and relatable. She was absolutely my favourite character—she felt very honest and unique. Shelia is also a character with a great deal of mental health struggles, and her visceral pain made her seem both vulnerable and brave. 

Shelia’s relationship with Cammie was captivating, and so was Cammie as a character. Whittall really keeps you guessing as to who Cammie is and what her motivations are. We, like Shelia and Gibson, can’t tell truth from fiction when it comes to her. It’s easy to see how characters are drawn into her orbit, and it’s clear that Whittall did a great deal of research into how these types of manipulative personalities function. Between the three central characters, Whittall did careful work to show us how the flaws and strengths of each figured into their interactions with one another. 

I really recommend The Fake if you’re looking for an excellent, short summer read that you’ll keep thinking about after you’ve read the final page!

Please add The Fake to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Zoe Whittall on Twitter.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Sci-Fi Meets Historical Fiction Meets Classic Lesbian Vampire Novel: The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Equal parts science fiction, historical fiction, and lesbian fiction, The Gilda Stories (1991) by Jewelle Gomez is a classic queer vampire novel. 

The novel begins in the Southern United States in the 1850s and follows Gilda, who escapes from slavery and is taken in by two lesbian brothel proprietors who also happen to be vampires. After the women turn Gilda, the novel unfolds across two hundred years, stretching into the present and the future, as Gilda tries to navigate an uncertain world that seems to become more and more un/familiar with every chapter.  

I very much enjoyed this novel. The Gilda Stories is unlike any vampire novel I’ve read before, and I can see why it’s won two Lambada Literary Awards, including the award for science fiction. Indeed, this novel is more sci-fi than gothic, and Gomez envisions an expansive world in which her character searches for connection, community, and companionship as she moves around the country in different times and incarnations. 

I did feel that the novel struggled with pacing at times, because the text is so focused on Gilda and her perception of herself/connection to others. It is often very introspective in a way that could at times be slow/confusing. The Gilda Stories is a novel that requires careful reading even though it is relatively short. Gomez manages to pack a lot of character development into only a few pages. 

The Gilda Stories is hugely representative of the kind of inclusive, representational historical fiction that reconsiders and represents marginalized perspectives in the past, and I really recommend this novel for its status as classic lesbian fiction! 

Please add The Gilda Stories to your TBR on Goodreads

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. 

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.