Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

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Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life 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.

Vic reviews Valiant Ladies by Melissa Grey

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Melissa Grey’s Valiant Ladies, inspired by two real seventeenth-century vigilantes, centers around two teenage girls’ quest for justice and love for each other. While Eustaquia “Kiki” de Sonza and Ana Lezama de Urinza spend their days in the fine home of Kiki’s wealthy father, they spend their nights on the streets of Potosí, engaging in gambling and fighting and other “unladylike” activities. After the murder of her brother on the night Kiki’s engagement to the viceroy’s son is announced, Kiki and Ana set off to discover what really happened while also confronting their feelings for each other.

Perhaps because it is based on real people, this book delights in being separate from actual history, which served the book very well. The characters speak and think in more modern language (though not distractingly so), and the girls are free to be brazenly in love with each other with little more than a scandalized gasp or a “hey, that’s wild” from the people around them, which allowed me, as a queer reader, to also indulge myself in the fantasy of kicking ass, taking down the patriarchy, and getting the girl in the end. (It also means I don’t feel like I’m snooping on real people, because obviously it didn’t happen like this, but it’s still really cool either way.)

That being said, it is not a rosy, completely-divorced-from-history fairy tale either. The world felt well-drawn from the rigid and wasteful aristocracy to the bars and brothels where Ana grew up, and while I always trusted this book would have a happy ending, it also did not pretend life is great for teenage girls at this time. Ana’s background in particular gave the novel plenty of room for acknowledging and criticizing the ways the nobility and specifically Spanish colonizers suck, which, for the most part, it took.

As for the characters, both Ana and Kiki were delights. Their voices were distinct (and so funny), and while they were certainly badass, they were badasses who felt like people, with feelings and vulnerabilities as well as snark. Their romance was likewise really sweet. This is friends-to-lovers at its best. They had the established camaraderie of lifelong friends, as well as some of my favorite pining that I’ve seen in a while, and while romance and crime-solving can be difficult to balance, the one never distracted from the other.

I would not have known about this book if it hadn’t been recommended to me, but I’m so glad it was because it was so good. I didn’t realize before I started reading, but this is the book I have been wanting to read for I don’t know how long. It was fun, it was funny, it was sweet, it was badass. I just had an all-around great time while reading it. I definitely recommend it to anyone who loves badass historical sword lesbians with a little bit of mystery (and really, how could anyone not love that?)

Larkie reviews The Girls are Never Gone by Sarah Glenn Marsh

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I love a good horror movie, and can never resist a classic haunted house, so when I heard that The Girls are Never Gone is about a podcast host investigating a 30 year old murder and possible haunting of a dilapidated old mansion, and it’s sapphic, I jumped on it. This book was a lot of fun, first of all. It had a fairly lighthearted tone overall, as the story followed three friends caught up in solving a 30 year old mystery and unveiling some of the even older history in the house.

The friendship in this book was one of my favorite parts. Of course I was expecting a bit of romance and tension, since I did pick up a sapphic horror book, but I wasn’t expecting to have so much fun as the three girls (Dare, Quinn, and Holly) worked to restore the Arrington estate. It made me want to grab a couple of friends and go explore somewhere spooky and then have a sleepover because we’re too nervous to be alone afterwards.

I will say that I do kind of wish the book was a bit scarier. There were some excellent spooky scenes, but they were mostly sandwiched between more lighthearted aspects of three teenagers having fun and exploring together (and shenanigans with Waffle, the blood sugar signaling dog who does a better job at detecting ghost activity). With all the creepy elements, you’d think that this book would be scarier overall, but it wasn’t really. This might be a good thing if people enjoy horror aesthetics without wanting to be terrified, but it missed the mark slightly for me. However, lots of the scary lake aspects were excellent. I love it when people vomit up lake water, what can I say?

Danika reviews Florida Woman by Deb Rogers

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Jamie has always lived a bit of a bumpy life. Her dad left when she was young, and her mom took off with a new boyfriend not long afterwards. She and her brother weathered the foster care system together until he was arrested for dealing drugs. Since then, she’s been working minimum wages jobs with very few connections, just scraping by.

But one strange night changed her life forever, and not for the better. A combination of bad decisions and unlikely circumstances turned her into Twitter’s main character of the day: A “Florida Woman” headline. All she wants to do is put her head down, serve her time in community service, and wait for it to blow over.

In this worst time in her life, though, she’s stumbled on some luck: a lawyer who’s taking her on pro bono, and a sweet community service opportunity that seems more like voluntourism than something comparable to jail time. Her lawyer has arranged for her to volunteer for a macaque monkey sanctuary. She’ll have her room and board paid for, and she’ll serve out her time in the Florida jungle helping prepare the monkey’s food, clean up after them, and generally be helpful.

Jamie was fully expecting to spend time behind bars, so this is an incredible opportunity, even if she does have to wear an ankle monitor. When she arrives at the sanctuary, Atlas, she finds the three full-time staff members are a very close-knit group of women. They’re definitely hippie types, and they believe the monkeys have spiritual wisdom to share with them. Jamie can’t help but be envious of the way they move through life, and she yearns to belong in this community.

Meanwhile, interspersed with Jamie’s chapters are excerpts from the sanctuary’s website, which include ominous lines like “We are a supportive circle, but remember: circles are closed for safety and wholeness. You are either with us or against us. There is no other way.” Jamie sleeps in her own hut deep in the jungle, away from the other women. She swears she can hear the monkeys screaming at night, but she’s told she’s dreaming it or confusing it with other noises.

This is a story that has a creeping sense of unease, which pairs well with the oppressive, dizzying heat and humidity of Jamie’s surroundings. Atlas feels a little cult-like, but Jamie is completely bought in. She’s vulnerable on multiple levels, and she desperately wants to be part of this community who seem to accept her and value her, even knowing her embarrassing headlines. She devotes herself to them and Atlas, ignoring the red flag that pop up, and as readers, we’re just waiting for this house of cards to come down.

I feel like with slow burn suspense like this in a story, it can turn out a couple of ways. One is that you get exactly what you were anticipating the entire time, and it feels like they were just dragging out the few plot points they had. Or, as is the cast for this book, it can slowly keep gathering steam towards an explosion at the end. While this book start off fairly slow-moving, it is effective in building tension, and that is definitely paid off.

I will also say this has a sapphic main character, but it’s far from a romance.

I wasn’t sure exactly what genre this was going into it: horror? Litfic? Thriller? And to be honest, I’m still not sure by the end. I’d say thriller meets litfic would probably be the closest to accurate.

This was a compelling read, especially with the fascinating setting. And I was invested in Jamie, who is so hungry for connection that she’s willing to overlook a lot to find it. This is a thriller, so I recommend looking up content warnings, because some of them would be spoilers for specific reveals.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

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Every year the witch queen of Caldella must choose a lover from the town to sacrifice to the dark tide, saving the island and its people from annihilation. Every year another boy is taken and everyone accepts it. But when Lina’s brother is in danger of becoming the sacrifice, she can no longer sit idly by. Tomas—her crush and the only boy who ever escaped the witch queen’s sacrifice—helps her keep her brother safe, but ends up being taken again. Feeling guilty and not wanting to lose him, Lina sets out to his rescue and takes his place. Lina and the witch queen, Eva, butt heads at first, but they soon come to know each other better until they’re willing to fight for changes.

Perhaps it was the audiobook narration, but the overall story was underwhelming. The world-building and magic were the strongest aspects of the story. Magic is established straightaway as a luxury to be bought as spells and potions. It’s also shown that the dark tide is only kept at bay when the witch queen’s sacrifice is truly a sacrifice, meaning she has to love them.

The characters’ relationships never feel organic. On paper, they’re written as falling in love, with all the familiar markers of enemies to lovers. But the connection between Eva and Lina never feels authentic. Similarly, Lina’s love for Tomas is more of a crush. But this speaks to Lina’s tendency to romanticize everything. She lives in fantasy, thinking the world works as good and evil, with good prevailing and true love winning the day.

Lina’s relationship with her brother, Finley, is one of the more interesting dynamics that only touched the surface. Coming from her point of view, it seems like she and Finley fight like normal siblings. However, it’s established from the beginning that his anger was so violent that he ended up hurting her, leading to her broken ankle. Every time she thinks about the incident, she makes excuses saying she shouldn’t have made him angry and that he really loves her, but his temper gets the best of him. It’s the narrative her family has been telling her whole life, so of course, she believes that his actions are mistakes and not abuse. It’s not until Eva tells her that Finley abuses her and that she doesn’t have to accept that abuse that Lina begins to see their relationship differently.

Lina, with her head in fantasy and giving people the benefit of the doubt, plays the role of the “good girl,” while Eva, the literal witch who doesn’t allow others to disrespect her boundaries, is “evil.” These dynamics are the more intriguing storyline, but the book gets bogged down in trying to make their eventual romance the focus.

Content warning: abuse

Til reviews My Whole Truth by Mischa Trace

the cover of My Whole Truth

Trigger warnings: sexual assault, gore, pregnancy, abortion

My Whole Truth tells the story of Seelie, who readers meet in the aftermath of a vicious attack. She’s bleeding, scared, and teeth-gritted determined to survive. As the novel progresses, Seelie recovers physically with therapy and emotionally through support from her friends, but faces both a legal trial and harassment at school.

Because Seelie survived. And she did so by ensuring her attacker was dead.

Just as a book, this is a quick but just-okay read. It’s fast-paced with a twist or revelation around every corner. Relationships between Seelie and her friends were another positive; they felt genuine. As I read, I felt like I could see the author’s plotting, and it’s not inherently bad. Threads are introduced and resolved in a reasonable timeframe. Multiple storylines overlap—they just didn’t feel cohesive. One in particular related to drug-dealing. It took up a fair few pages, yet seemed mostly to provide context, not to impact the story itself. This proves most problematic at the conclusion: marked by dramatic yet unimpactful revelations, it felt silly.

The representation is balanced far better than the story itself. Seelie’s queerness, disability, and size all felt very organic to me. Anyone who’s ever been an awkward teenager will recognize themselves in her under-articulated crush on her best friend. Seelie’s recovery from a stab wound to the leg is slow and requires her to use mobility aids for much of the story. Reading it, the pain and frustration seem palpable. Finally, her feelings about her size are well-incorporated and feel realistic from little details like self-consciousness regarding specific body parts. People who have never been fat rarely understand just how personal it can be to hate one’s knees.

Most impressive of all, this is never a story about a queer girl or a disabled girl or a fat girl, it’s a story about Seelie. The narrative doesn’t feel the need to handhold readers. Instead, it’s very normalizing.

This was a just-okay book, but its representation is excellent. So despite the just-okay-ness, I had a good time reading it.

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion 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.

Sam Reviews The Telling by Ursula K Le Guin

the cover of The Telling

Did you know that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a science fiction novel with a lesbian protagonist? I wouldn’t blame you if not; The Telling is not one of her more popular books. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to review it—I try to feature sapphic authors with my reviews here, if at all possible. But I have a soft spot in my heart for The Telling, and I do believe that it is highly underrated when it comes to Le Guin’s esteemed corpus of work.

The Telling is part of the fan-dubbed “Hainish Cycle,” a group of loosely connected books and short stories that boasts some of Le Guin’s most widely respected works, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. They weren’t exactly intended to build a cohesive canon between them, but the general gist is that humans originally spread throughout the galaxy from a planet called Hain. The Hainish colonies (including Earth) all eventually lost contact with and then memory of each other; each book or story then shows a planet at or shortly after the moment when contact is re-established. It’s a useful way to frame the classic sociological sci-fi writing that Le Guin is known for—an Envoy or Observer from the slowly burgeoning coalition of planets can arrive at a completely new human society, which Le Guin can then use to dissect and explore some facet of real life through speculative worldbuilding.

That said, The Telling feels a little different compared to the rest of the Hainish Cycle. And for good reason—released in 2000, The Telling is the first full Hainish novel Le Guin wrote since The Dispossessed in 1974. It reads softer, more intimate than the books that came before, feeling almost more like fantasy than science fiction at times. The Telling follows Sutty Dass, an Observer who arrives on the planet Aka to record its history and culture while Hain makes its diplomatic overtures. During the time dilation of Sutty’s near-light space travel, however, Aka experienced an intense social upheaval that saw a tyrannical capitalist hegemony take power over the planet and attempt to wipe out the entirety of Aka’s long history. It then falls to Sutty, who grew up under religious oppression on Earth, to uncover and understand Aka’s historical and spiritual traditions as they are actively being eradicated by the corporation-state.

The gay content in The Telling is rather subtle and subdued, but it isn’t an afterthought. Sutty’s lesbianism is an important aspect of her character, and when she starts meeting maz, the keepers of the Telling, many of them are gay couples as well. There is a quiet romanticization of gay monogamy throughout The Telling that moved me when I first read it, and although not every aspect of the novel has aged as well, I’m still very endeared of it for that reason. If you enjoy classic science fiction, where the point is less a thrilling story and more the discovery of a brand new world, The Telling is by far my favorite of the bunch.

Content Warnings: homophobia, suicide

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Nat reviews Sour Grapes by Eliza Lentzski

the cover of Sour Grapes

If you’re mostly familiar with Eliza Lentzski from her Don’t Call Me Hero series (which I really loved) you’ll notice this is quite a departure from that grittier, mysterious style and more in keeping with the contemporary vibe of her more recent novels, including The Woman in 3B. Sour Grapes was an especially fun read for me, because my day job is in the wine and spirits industry, and I love it when my interests collide. Sapphic romance in a winery? Always a yes, and thank you. One of the things I really enjoyed about Sour Grapes was the attention to detail around the winemaking and even the agricultural aspect involved. A lot of the book is dedicated to discussing the craft with accuracy, so if you’re studying up on your level one Sommelier test, this might be a fun way to ingest some wine knowledge.

Speaking of studying up, June St Clare, who’s recently purchased a winery with no winemaking knowledge or even a desire to own said winery, knows absolutely nothing. But owning a winery had been her partner’s retirement plan for them — at least until her untimely, and fairly recent, death. The timing of events was something I struggled a bit with, how quickly June processed her partner’s unexpected death, or more accurately didn’t seem to process. Her partner Alex has only been gone a few months, but there’s a distinct lack of fresh grief from someone whose lover of 20 years has just suddenly died, which I think might have seemed less strange if the author had included a bit more internal dialogue. There are some indications throughout the book that their relationship was less than perfect, but June’s behavior felt more in line with someone whose spouse passed away at least a year or two before, and that detail nagged me quite a bit.

This brings us to our grumpy love interest. I love an Eeyore, and Lucia Santiago doesn’t disappoint. She was definitely my favorite character of the book, and I would have really enjoyed reading from her viewpoint as well, but then maybe that would have made her much less mysterious and brooding. Lucia is the assistant winemaker of June’s new venture, who is brilliant when it comes to viticulture and hatching amazing ideas, but severely lacking when it comes to people skills. Of course Lucia is less than thrilled to meet the clueless, new owner of the winery where her family has been working for decades behind the scenes. Her issues with the doors money can open leads to an interesting sidequest, where Lentzski uses Lucia’s character, who’s Mexican-American, to effortlessly bring attention to immigration issues, farm labor, and unions. If Jorts the cat could read, he’d be so proud!

Overall, this was a solid showing with a few scrapes here and there. The ending felt a bit rushed, almost frantic. I know a common complaint with some romance novels is that that the characters get back together too quickly after one of them does something incredibly stupid in the third act. When the “Bad Decisions” part of this book came along, the last couple of chapters kind of sped out of control. Lucia’s acceptance of June’s return felt very out of character with her brooding, better-off-alone persona, and I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more. I also didn’t love June’s constant pity parties, and by the end I almost felt that Lucia could have done better, but the heart wants what it wants! Despite the flaws in Sour Grapes, all in all it remains a fun summer read that would pair well with a Napa cab sauv.

Maggie reviews Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia

the cover of Another Appalachia

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Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place by Neema Avashia is part memoir, part collection of essays as Neema Avashia recollects growing up as part of a tiny Indian community in a majority white community in a corporate town in West Virginia and her subsequent relocation for college and then for a career in Boston. Through a series of anecdotes, she remembers the kindness of neighbors and coaches as she grew up and whenever she visits, her family’s experiences in creating their own small Indian community and what that meant for their kids, and how she reconciled those experiences with her adult life away from West Virginia. Avashia’s queer realization happened later in life, once she’d already left West Virginia, but she spends plenty of page time talking about her efforts to integrate being queer, being Indian, and being from West Virginia, while being a Boston Public School teacher.

I always love a narrative about being from a rural area and being queer. Indiana is a little different flavor of rural than West Viriginia, but the underlying themes still resonate strongly. I especially resonated with her continual meditations on being happily settled in an urban area on one hand, but missing the sense of community or some traditions on the other, and on yet a third hand being unable to fit back in when driven to re-visit.  It’s a theme that I think will be familiar with many readers from rural areas who left, as are her continual efforts to decide who is safe to introduce her wife to, and to integrate her family and friends’ expectations for how a relationship progresses into her lived reality as a queer woman. Avashia handles these topics deftly, balancing good memories with bad and childhood nostalgia with a more nuanced adult perspective in a way I appreciated.

Avashia also spends a lot of time on her roots versus her moving on with her adult life, which I deeply felt reading this on a bus in Pittsburgh while reflecting on my own roots. Her meditations on her father’s expansive and caring definition of community, how her neighbors growing up took care of each other, and her efforts to apply those values to her urban life in Boston, where she didn’t even know her neighbors, is impactful and emotional. She struggles with her identity as an Appalachian writer who lives in Boston, as an Indian woman who connects to her heritage and culture differently than her parents and extended family because of where she grew up, and as a queer woman who had no context for that growing up. Avashia’s blunt, honest writing attempts to bridge the gap between past and present and is extremely easy to fall into, covering a wide range of topics in one, conveniently travel-sized book.

In conclusion, if you are looking for an impactful memoir to read this summer, Another Appalachia is an excellent book to check out. It’s not a long read, but it’s emotional. You could make an afternoon of it, or it’s perfect for small moments like a commute.  If you resonate with the material, you will appreciate the nuance, empathy, and compassion she brings to the rural experience. And if you’re new to the experience, this collection will be full of depth and understanding. I can’t recommend it enough for people looking for a queer memoir.