Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape

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

SPONSORED REVIEW: Comet’s First Christmas: The North Pole Chronicles by Delilah Night

Comet's First Christmas by Delilah Night

As we enter into the end of 2020, if you’re someone who celebrates Christmas, you’re probably having some strong emotions about it right now. Maybe you want to forget the whole holiday, because we probably can’t celebrate it the way we usually do. Or maybe you, like me, are filling your Netflix queue with holiday romances and stocking up on eggnog, because we deserve a tiny sliver of hope and happiness this year! If you are looking to dive headfirst into Christmas, Comet’s First Christmas is a great way to kick it off.

This is about Claudia, a reindeer who has just been brought in to act as Comet this Christmas season. Yes, this is about reindeer shifters. And yes, all nine of Santa’s reindeer are lesbians. As you might expect, this is a book overflowing with Christmas cheer. Everything is themed: Claudia drinks candy cane coffee, her assistant is an elf, and her phone comes equipped with a Naughty-Or-Nice app.

This overwhelming festivity reminded me more of a classic kids’ holiday movie, initially: it is an unapologetic celebration of Christmas that can verge on the tooth-achingly sweet, but is perfect for if you want to be completely immersed in the holiday. I’d love to see this series get cartoon covers in the style of Shira Glassman’s Mangoverse series, Clare Lydon’s holiday books, or even Talia Hibbert’s Brown Sisters series, because I think that would better match the mood of the this story.

The conflict is that someone is going around convincing people to not believe anymore. Claudia has to try to stop this nefarious villain before they lose any more Christmas magic! Although it sounds like a kids’ movie, this is a romance novel, which means we see 25-year-old Claudia earnestly asking other adults why they’ve stopped believing in Santa. It was a little jarring, but in this world, adults who believe do get gifts from Santa every year, so it makes sense in this context.

Did I mention that this is a romance? Of course, you’re coming to the Lesbrary not just for generic holiday cheer, so you’ll be happy to know that this includes a very sweet romance. It definitely falls into the instalove category, but it works for this very cute book. Claudia crushes on Jillian hard when they meet. Jillian is technically her assistant, but because the role of Comet changes and Jillian’s job stays the same, it didn’t feel like a power difference to me: they both seemed like equals. They made for an adorable romance, starting with clueless lesbian flirting (she’s obviously hitting on you, Claudia!) and including lots of healthy communication.

Although this is a sweet book with a pretty straightforward plot, there are a lot of details to enjoy as well. I loved seeing Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy get a shout-out (I’ve got the sequel on my bedside table right now!), and there’s a Star Trek-loving reindeer who swears in Klingon. Claudia is visiting New York for the first time, and she revels in getting the classic Christmas in New York experience, including going to Macy’s, Times Square, seeing The Nutcracker, and more. Claudia also has anxiety, which is own voices representation. She manages it with breathing exercises and other techniques, which it was nice to see included.

This is the first book in the series, so it’s not surprising that everything isn’t tied up completely, but it did feel a bit anticlimactic in terms of the overarching plot, though Claudia’s story concludes nicely. I feel like I guessed the mystery really early in the book, but I’m not sure yet if I’m right. I look forward to the next book in the series, which seems to be about Prancer–will every reindeer get their own story?

In the afterword, Delilah Night says she wrote this because “after how bruising 2020 has been, can anyone blame us for wanting something a little sweet?” This definitely fits the criteria for sweet, but be prepared: only pick this up if you’re ready for a heavy dose of Christmas cheer!

Maggie reviews A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I picked up A Memory Called Empire as part of my ongoing fling with space opera as a great antidote to quarantine. There’s something about complicated plots, action, and space, that is really great for pulling me out of my apartment and into a nice brain space right now. This was a lovely book, full of meticulous, engaging world-building, fascinating plot developments, and a really interesting look at identity. If you are at all looking for some space opera right now, add it to your list.

Mahit is the new ambassador from Lsel Station on her way to the Teixcalaanli Empire to replace a long-term ambassador who has been killed. But she is facing more problems than just figuring out a cause of death. Tiny, self-contained Lsel Station has survived by making sure skills and experience survive and are passed down via neurological devices called imago machines. Once successfully integrated with a compatible successor, the imago machines mean that the full years and experience of previous imago owners of that line are passed down and integrated into the host’s own personality. But the previous ambassador Yskander has, somewhat suspiciously, been avoiding coming back to the Station to update his imago file, and so the imago that Mahit has been fitted with is almost 15 years out of date. It then goes on the fritz almost immediately after she steps foot in the Empire. Which leaves Mahit woefully unprepared for the situation she is stepping into, Lsel Station diplomatic training relying largely on imago memory. And so, almost blind and with only the help of her liaison Three Seagrass, Mahit has to navigate a new culture, the politics around an uncertain line of succession, the Empire’s interest in imago machines, and the feeling that something even more dangerous than the upheaval happening in the City is coming.

What I really loved about this book was the slow, inexorable build of pressure. As Mahit slowly figures out what is going on, so does the reader. Mahit feels extremely disconnected from events and from her position, because of the malfunction of her imago machine. Its absence strips her of whatever pre-knowledge she might have been able to access about the political situation on Teixcalaanli, and her disconnect is the reader’s disconnect. It was delightful, peeling back all the plot layers. Who killed Yskander becomes what was Yskander up to before he died. The heating up of the Emperor’s successor becomes intimately involved with her own small station becomes a looming threat greater the politics of one city. And through it all is a delightful exploration of what constitutes a person’s self and how the imago machines affect them.

Also delightful is that this kind of sweeping political space opera turned out to be queer. Mahit’s continual struggles with identity and who she is with and without her imago machine already have a strong queer element in them, but her snarky, flirty relationship with her liaison Three Seagrass is refreshing. When it becomes more than just off the cuff flirting, I gasped in delight. This isn’t a queer romance for the ages or anything, but it adds another great layer to this wonderfully layered book. And if you’re looking for space opera in general, knowing one is queer is a great reason to steer towards it.

In conclusion, I started this book looking for some standard space opera and was inexorably drawn into amazing worldbuilding, an intricate plot that kept me guessing, and a queer relationship that I did not expect but embraced whole-heartedly.

Shannon reviews Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but the synopsis of Half Broke, a memoir written by Ginger Gaffney, peeked my interest. It’s not a story about being a lesbian. Rather, it’s a heart-warming story about a woman who loves horses and how she uses that love to change the lives of a group of convicted felons. Ginger is a lesbian, and although her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story arc, it’s an important part of who the author is, and I’m so glad she didn’t choose to shy away from discussing it.

The story starts with a call for help. Ginger, a well-respected horse trainer, is asked to assist a group of prison inmates serving out their sentences on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico. It seems the horses on the ranch have been exhibiting some strange and dangerous behaviors, and since no one on the ranch has much practical experiences with horses, they’re in need of professional help. Ginger, who is somewhat of an introvert, reluctantly agrees to assess the troubled horses and help out if she is able. She’s not sure what to expect when she arrives on the ranch, but it soon becomes clear she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of both the animals and the prisoners.

The ranch is run almost exclusively by the prisoners themselves. There are numerous rules and policies that keep things running smoothly, and it takes Ginger some time to truly become comfortable in this new environment. Fortunately, her strong desire to promote healing for the horses serves as a sort of in-road for her, and she eventually comes to care deeply for a number of the prisoners and all of the horses.

This could have been a really sappy book, but Gaffney’s approach is wonderfully down-to-earth. She doesn’t paint herself as the white knight, sweeping in to save the day. Instead, she reflects on the numerous ways people and animals were able to work together, creating a better world for all involved. Her strong sense of personal responsibility toward those she works with shines through, as do her personal vulnerabilities. Her life hasn’t always been easy, and she’s quite candid about the mistakes she’s made along the way.

At its core, Half Broke is a love letter to horses and those who work tirelessly to partner with them. It’s an unflinching look at the American justice system and how it both helps and harms those who get caught up in it. Certain chapters proved painful to read, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. It was exactly the book I needed this fall.

Sinclair reviews The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

A friend recommended I read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison, saying it was one of her favorite novels, and I trust her taste, so I picked it up. I was hooked immediately.

I didn’t know a ton about it going into it, so I don’t want to say too much about the plot so as to give you that same satisfaction of watching the events unfold.

I will say that it’s a speculative fiction novel, with a woman main character who is bi, and a lot of feminist commentary about surviving in a post-virus US. There’s a fair amount of survival skills and navigation happening throughout, too. I read it early on during sheltering in place, and while it was eerie to think we might be heading there, I still just could not put it down.

If you love speculative fiction that is queer, feminist, very thoughtful, and badass, this is the one for you. Just a warning, though — it was very violent in parts, and sometimes disturbingly so.

The book is the first of in a trilogy, and it only gets more queer, and the violence continues, as it goes along. I loved the last book, called The Book of Flora, and it goes even deeper into what it means to be a woman, to have a place in culture, if it’s possible to be redeemed or forgiven, how choices bring similar people to vastly different conclusions, and more big human themes.

What was so great about it? The entire world that Elison built is fantastic, and I love how much it reads like a historical document because of how she’s set up the unfolding of the timeline. (You’ll see what I mean when I read it.) It’s incredibly well written; I adore these characters and I feel the way I felt after finishing the TV show Six Feet Under: that I miss these characters and want to hang out with them. Perhaps I feel they have something to teach, or I have something to learn from them?

Speculative fiction (particularly books geared more toward YA, but adult too) is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve read it more than ever this year, despite our world feeling like we are in a novel like that sometimes. I go to it for escape and entertainment, but also because it grapples with big questions, particularly around trauma, survival, and psychology, and I love sitting with them and pondering. Now more than ever, we have to figure out how to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and take care of the planet. The cutting edge writers of speculative fiction have been pointing us toward motivation, inspiration, and action for a long time, and it’s time to listen.

In short, there’s some horror in this book. Nasty behavior of a sick, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, racist, and colonialist society. But there’s hope, too, and beauty, and love, and illumination of so many things worth fighting for, and worth living for.

Casey A reviews The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

The Prom by Saundra Mitchell

In October 2018, The Prom premiered on Broadway. It was a musical inspired by real events with a great deal of glitter thrown on top, and I was one of the people lucky enough to see the original cast on Broadway, because a good friend surprised me with tickets on my trip. The musical was fantastic, but sadly had a much shorter run than deserved, but it’s a book now, and we can all bask in its glory. The book is adapted from stage by Saundra Mitchell. Obviously the stage show has coloured my reading of the book, much like when you watch a film adaptation and you know all the bits they missed out. So I’m going to keep the comparisons vague to avoid spoilers, but I will still reference the show in my reading.

The story is set in Edgewater, Indiana, where our narrator Emma Nolan, informs us that it is a bad idea to be gay. Heads up, homophobia is a very presiding theme in this story, so if you are looking for a cute romance with no obstacles or politics, this may not be your read. Emma’s story preceding the book has been a difficult one, all too familiar to a lot of queer readers, but sadly a story that still must be told. The second narrator is Alyssa Greene, love interest, student body president, and perfect daughter to the overbearing leader of the PTA. The tension in the story all revolves around the fact that out and proud(ish) Emma would dearly like to go to prom with her closeted girlfriend. The PTA gets in the way, Broadway actors find out about the scandal and try to help. All hell breaks loose.

I’m torn over the structure of the book. On the one hand, I really enjoy swapping between Alyssa and Emma’s narratives, and this structure actually gives Alyssa a lot more agency and power than she has in the show. However, there are glimpses of scenes which exist on stage that they had to cut due to a lack of POV character, and are mentioned as asides, which make little sense. It’s a bit like only watching half of a crossover episode and wondering what you missed out on. The Prom is a nice short read, clocking in at just over two-hundred pages, so I think it might have made more sense to either expand to allow more points of view, or simply axe some of those asides altogether and focus on the main plot. The weirdest of these is perhaps that the book opens with reference to a broadway show flopping, and then doesn’t allude to this at all for about fifty pages. It makes a lot more sense by the end, but I personally think that the articles which serve as prologue and epilogue detract a little from the main narrative and are really only there for fans of the show.

The tone of the book is inescapably teenage highschooler. It’s a YA novel adaptation and it knows it. Pop culture references are abound, and if you aren’t up to date on your American High School slang (I am not), you might find yourself rereading a few sentences. But for the most part, I found the pop culture references hilarious and engaging. Emma’s narrative has a sarcastic and witty snap to it which is delightful to read even when things are going wrong. It also spans a decent range from memes, music, and tv, as well as inevitably a large number of broadway shows. This book genuinely made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions, and it’s chock full of genuinely wise quotes about homophobia, acceptance, and life in general.

(This bit is only about differences to the show, so if you aren’t already a fan, be ready for spoilers.) Firstly, there are some great little cast easter eggs in the names of the characters, some very obvious and some quite sneaky. The words of many (if not all) of the musical numbers have also made it into the writing one way or another, with several of them providing a lot of backbone to the plot, and others acting as throwaway lines which maybe don’t quite work. As I’ve already alluded to, the broadway characters don’t get a point of view. Dee Dee and Barry are still in it, but Trent and Angie have been axed entirely (despite the cast of Godspell still being present). Dee Dee really is turned into a caricature of what was already a largely than life character, but Barry somehow manages to retain depth and dignity, despite soaking up most of Trent’s role in the narrative.

Seeing the show and then reading the book definitely changed my reading of the book, and I’m very interested to know what others think who haven’t read it. From an adaptation standpoint, I thought it was a very cute read, with a lot of power, which overall took the narrative from a new angle and made sure we got more of the love interest’s side of the story. I would recommend this book highly to people who have seen or know the show, and and anyone who just wants a nice triumphant story about love against all odds.

Sash S reviews Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

Second Wind by Ceillie Simkiss

No matter how old you are, there’s always a chance for romance. 

Second Wind follows Martha Appleby and Pamela Thornton, women in their seventies who reconnect on a flight to Glasgow following the death of Martha’s husband. During their trip, the two women begin to rekindle their childhood bond, support each other through difficult transitions and understand why they parted ways all those years ago.

With endearing side characters, idyllic settings and an uplifting, romantic storyline, Second Wind promises to whisk you away and, with its short page count, makes for a lovely, breezy read.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a love story about older protagonists, and particularly queer women. The main characters brim with personality, quips, quirks and distinctly different temperaments. Martha’s relationship to her deceased husband is never dismissed or downplayed, yet it never overshadows her blossoming romance with Pamela. The two simply exist together in the same story, Martha’s story.

Second Wind is short enough that we don’t get as much background on the main characters as readers might like, outside of the flashback chapters, but there’s a lot to fill in considering their decades-long personal histories. For this reason, some readers might find it lacking, but the story itself, following these characters at this point in their lives, is an absolute delight. It’s sweet and simple, heart-achingly romantic and abundantly hopeful. The stakes are mundane but intensely real.

Not all books have to be dark and full of complicated twists and turns in order to be enjoyable. This novella is charming and refreshing in its simplicity, reminding us that you can still find love (and specifically, queer love) no matter your age.

 

Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Maggie reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I’m not going to lie, I did not know if I wanted to read The Pull of the Stars before I started it. I haven’t read a lot of Emma Donoghue before, and I wasn’t aware that The Pull of the Stars had an f/f relationship. I knew that a couple of my friends had liked it, and that it was about the Spanish flu pandemic, and I questioned whether I wanted to read a book about another pandemic while living through one. But it was a shorter read, and I do love historical fiction, and I’m trying this new thing during quarantine of reading books soon after they come out rather than three years later, and I’m glad I moved this one to the top of my to-read list.

The entirety of the book takes place over about three days, and most of it takes place in one small room of a Dublin hospital. Julia works long shifts at a hospital with no leave, and off shift she goes back to the house she shares with her brother, who was invalided out of the army with what is obviously a severe case of PTSD. Julia is a nurse in the maternity ward, but since the flu had become an epidemic, the hospital she works at has quarantined women with flu symptoms into one room with three beds, away from the other women, and Julia is assigned to this room, having previously gotten and recovered from the flu herself. Closed in together, Julia and her patients might as well be in their own little world–she can rarely even get a doctor to come in to assist in emergencies or to sign off on orders that Julia knows are right but doesn’t have the authority to do herself. It creates a very intense mood that distills down an already intense subject matter. In just the few days that the book covers, Julia deals with the full spectrum of birthing experience, from success to tragedy, with the flu heightening everything and making everything more difficult. Any book I read these days is an escape from my small apartment, but this time I read avidly, feeling connected to these characters who are also closed in and struggling and scarred in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even simple things become more difficult when systems are overloaded, as we all well know now, and reading about Julia doing her best to do her job and help her patients was strangely cathartic.

The whole book isn’t about midwifery and plague though. When Julia arrives for her first shift at the beginning of the book, she is assigned a new runner, an orphan named Bridie Sweeney who has been sent by the nuns who attend to the hospital. Bridie has no nursing experience, but she’s willing to learn and is good with the patients. Her sunny eagerness and the joy she takes in even the small good things are an instant bright spot in the stuffy fever ward, and Julia finds herself taking Bridie under her wing and teaching her the beginnings of nursing. Alone and dependent on each other to get their wards through each night, Julia and Bridie grow closer and closer together in the crucible of the hospital. Julia finds herself opening up to Bridie, and also finds herself keenly drawn towards the other woman as she learns more about Bridie’s past. Now, since this review is appearing in a queer book blog, a discerning reader can probably guess the way this relationship is headed, but I, having done no research and knowing nothing about this book before starting it, did not, and it was delightful. For one endless night, things were getting better for Julia and Bridie, and they even stole enough space and time for themselves to breathe and dream, and it was so so good.

Vague spoilers:

Unfortunately, this is a book about a plague and the end of a war, and the dreams do not last. The flu doesn’t care about tragic backstories or hopes or dreams. Even as Julia rails against the lack of help she has to give her patients, and the circumstances that led to their present conditions, and the increasingly disturbing facts about Bridie’s childhood, all she can do is her best, which isn’t enough in the face of such overwhelming odds. But somehow, even though the ending was emotional and sad, it pulled it all together in a way that made me long for more. The Pull of the Stars was a fast read, a fascinating read, undoubtedly a difficult read, and yet an incredibly satisfying read. I connected with it on a personal level due to our current circumstances without it being too overwhelming, and in the end it was about the importance of doing what you can to keep going, and about the good you can do along the way. As an entry into the halls of f/f historical fiction, I heartily recommend it.