Maggie reviews Folly by Maureen Brady

Folly by Maureen Brady

This month I read Folly by Maureen Brady, an extremely interesting working class lesbian book published in 1982. Folly is set in a small factory town and follows several women as they struggle to reconcile their desires for a better life with the reality of their jobs and lives. The title character, Folly, works with several area women, including her best friend and eventual lover Martha, to organize a factory strike after a woman is arrested after the death of her baby due to their lack of sick leave. Meanwhile Lenore, a recent high school drop-out, misses her girlfriend, who has gone to work on the Alaskan pipeline, and struggles to find community and meaning in her small town life. I found Folly to be incredibly engaging and self-aware, and I frankly can’t believe I haven’t heard of it spoken of it before either in a feminist/working class literature context or in a queer lit context. And as someone who grew up in a very small town – although not quite as small as Victory – a lot of the themes and internal struggles the characters faced struck very true for me, and of course it is very easy to get behind women fighting for better conditions.

One thing I really loved about Folly is that it shows multiple generations of women having relationships and discovering their sexualities in a variety of ways. Martha and Folly are middle-aged factory workers and best friends. They live next to each other, deal with all of their problems together, and constantly lean on each other for support. Folly is generally supportive and willing to live and let live at first, but it takes her a while to apply to concept of queerness to herself. When she finally does, she embraces it and works eagerly to incorporate her new knowledge about herself into her life, which was something I found personally very relatable. Meanwhile in the younger generation, Lenore works at the local butcher counter and misses her girlfriend, who is working on an Alaskan pipeline. Lenore is secure in her own sexuality, but is continually looking for some sort of community. She befriends Mary Lou, Folly’s daughter, who is going through the usual teenage growing pains but also finding she is not much interested in what the local boys want to get up to on dates. She is intrigued by Lenore’s independence, and, later, wants to know more so she can come to terms both with herself and with her mother’s changing decisions and priorities.  I really enjoyed seeing different queer women in different stages of their lives interacting in a small town setting. Despite all the hardships they go through, they find strength and growth in their relationships with each other, and it was really joyful for me to read that.

Another important thing I enjoyed about Folly is that it closely examines white women discovering their own biases and privileges. Folly doesn’t give much thought to the larger picture of things until she convinces Martha to back her up in calling for a strike. When Emily, a black factory worker, stands up with her, first for a reduced production rate, and then on the call for the strike, Folly slowly realizes how important it is to expand her worldview and be inclusive in her organizing. Throughout the book, she continues to listen to black organizers, learn from their viewpoints, and have empathy for others. Meanwhile, Lenore is lonely and makes friends with Sabrina, a server at the diner who is black. As she gets to know Sabrina, she has to become aware of and confront her own internal biases and the realities of interracial relationships in a town that is essentially segregated and has a Klan presence. The frank way the book approaches Folly’s growth in organizing and Lenore’s slow eye-opening to how she’s benefited from and lived under the town’s racism makes a powerful impact and can be summed up with how Folly explains to Mary Lou that “A lot of life is following one habit into the next. You got to stop yourself and peel your eyes open all the time if you want to see what goes on.” I really, deeply enjoyed how the book looked at this head-on, and had the characters really spend time thinking and reacting and changing.

The last important thing about Folly is that it is always pushing for a better future. Folly and Martha always have dreams for their futures, the women in the factory organize around their own needs and principals, and they are constantly seeking to learn, grow, and build relationships. Folly and Mabel don’t just trust the union’s goals – they recognize that the union rep looks a lot more like factory ownership than them, and doesn’t have their same priorities. Folly is constantly pushing for more goals and more progress, and doesn’t like the idea of compromising on what they want. Lenore could sink into her life of her job and her own little apartment and writing letters to her girlfriend, but she wants more than that and continually seeks out new community. The women of Folly are intimately aware of how to survive in the world they live in, but they want to work for more, and that’s very important to read.

In conclusion, Folly is a very enjoyable novel about working-class lesbians trying to build their own community and sticking up for themselves and their fellow workers to factory management. It deftly handles themes of labor relations, race, and sexuality while maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook. It moves between generations, is self-aware, and is, in general, a really gripping read. I definitely recommend tracking down a copy!

Marthese reviews Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

Not Your Average Love Spell by Barbara Ann Wright

“Camille reminded herself that they had a lot of indoctrination to undo”

Not Your Average Love Spell is a not-so-average book that I discovered thanks to Netgalley, for which I am grateful. From the start, this book was one adventure after another, yet it didn’t feel rushed and was well-paced. Not Your Average Love Spell stars four main characters: Sydney – a knight, Camille – a master researcher, Rowena the Hawk – a witch and Ember – a homunculus.

This fantasy book is set in a world where the knights of the flame have been trying to capture all witches after the Witch Wars, which set people against witches. However, a new threat emerges, and Sir Robert instructs Major Sydney to make conduct with the Hawk to transport their troops in order to fight the Kells, who are dangerous because they believe other people are dreams. Sydney has Camille’s help as a master researcher. The two soon develop a fling. However, after the two are separated is when things get even more interesting.

Rowena, known as the Hawk, is a benevolent but grumpy and reclusive witch. She lives on top of a mountain with Ember, who she created and Husks. Ember is a highly energetic, curious and fiery woman who wants to go out and explore, though misses Rowena, and eventually has a ‘Rowena was right’ stage, like most youth when they grow up.

These four characters get tangled up together in all kinds of ways. Sydney and Rowena are rivals who reluctantly work together, sometimes admire each other, and for certain are too stubbornly similar to each other. Sydney and Camille were cute together, but something seemed off, and this was more evident once they found new partners that suited them better. I won’t give other dynamics away, but I liked the fact that even frenemies or new friends got time to put their heads together. I found this refreshing, because not a lot of books explore relationships in this way.

There was enough time for good character development. Characters learn to accept hard truths, to challenge themselves and their beliefs, to change their behaviours, and so on. The characters, and not just the couples, encourage each other directly and indirectly to be better. This was such a healthy way to portray relationships. This depth of characters is also shown by the fact that at first, I disliked the characters a bit (except perhaps Ember), yet as the characters developed, I couldn’t help but root for them and support them. All characters are flawed in realistic manners, such as their fears, snapping and shutting out others, and overcompensating. None of them come out as perfect from the start. The different forms of femininity and diversity of characters is definitely a plus too.

The adventures, as mentioned above, were plentiful. There are pirates and warriors, a yeti, giant spiders, a possible dragon, lizard people, and in general, a lot of tough-headed knights. The plot was definitely interesting, with a lot of twists and turns. It took me a while to realize that the Kells-plot was not concluded, but the whole overall plot was so great that I didn’t mind.

The writing was seasoned with beautiful writing and truths. The cover was lovely too! It was what first draw me to read the plot of the book so I’m grateful for that. The title is an overall hint to the character development and plot: it’s not average.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of fantasy and to those that want characters to be challenged to deconstruct what they know and learn how to live together. It’s a beautiful book!

Bee reviews Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

Euphoria Kids by Alison Evans

I’ve been reading Alison Evans’ work for a while. The main appeal for me is that they are a Melbournian author, and their YA sci-fi/fantasies always have a basis in the city and surrounding areas. I think I’ve written here before about how much that appeals to me. When their newest book, Euphoria Kids, was announced, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Euphoria Kids is an urban fantasy that turns magic into an everyday thing for its core group of teens. Iris was grown from a seed in the ground, giving them an affinity for plants and their magical properties. They are a lonely kid, with no human friends – only the faeries that visit them in the house they live in with their two mums. That is, until they see a “new” girl on the bus one day – Babs, who was cursed by a witch and sometimes turns invisible. Babs is made of fire, and lives with her mum, who has fibromyalgia, but still practices magic. A third member is added to their group when they meet a boy who hasn’t chosen his name yet, but who also has something magic about him – what exactly is uncertain.

As is probably clear, this is a diverse group of friends. Iris is non-binary, Babs is a trans girl, and the boy is also trans. Iris’ mums are obviously lesbians, and Babs makes it clear that she is too, as well as a secondary character who works in a café which they love going to. The trio also encounter dryads and faeries – dryads who have no gender, and cannot understand why humans do; faeries who shift between as many genders as they like, as easily as they can change their appearance. I’m loath to say “It’s great representation”, because I often feel that the word “representation” is just used as a catch-all for an identity named in the story, even when that identity isn’t given justice or used naturally. However, that isn’t what Evans is doing at all. The genders of the teens are tied to the magic they learn and explore, almost like being trans is a magic in and of itself.

The writing and story are, in a word, tender. The trio of teenagers are just so sweet and wide-eyed, experiencing this magical word with wonder and care. Their friendship is fierce and loving, and the way they band together to overcome obstacles is very endearing. It is a very kind book – a book that is careful with its characters, with its reader, and with all of the people who may see themselves represented in its pages. The descriptions of magic are ethereal, and the use of plants and connection to nature is filled with all the joy of walking in a secluded forest and seeing light pouring through the trees. It is all just so gentle; the perfect book for reading under a blanket with a cup of tea (and the characters drink a lot of tea too, so you won’t be alone in that).

Something which Evans does very well is write otherworldly things in a convincing way. Of course planting a jar of herbs in the garden works as a protection spell; of course a lesbian couple can nurture a seed that turns into a child; of course a girl can light fires with her touch. Theirs is the type of writing that draws a reader in, and enfolds them in the world that has been created. It’s a book filled with comforting imagery and beautiful turns of phrase – the world of magic is easily pictured, and the use of the Australian bush is wonderful.

I am usually not much of a fantasy fan; I find it confusing at the best of times. But for me, this type of real-world magic is easy to get behind. With friendships at the core of the story, there is something to root for. The characters are all also very appealing – the adults all have magic of their own as well, and treat the three teens with love and respect. It’s just plain nice to read, honestly. While it’s a good entry-level fantasy, it’s also a very witchy story, full of enchantment. And I was enchanted, definitely. It’s a world I would gladly fall into, again and again.

Sash S reviews Don’t Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell

Don't Go Without Me by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

“Two lovers get separated on a night out in a parallel dimension. A ship that runs on memories malfunctions in the dead of space. A giant prophesised to wake from its centuries-long slumber beneath the sea.”

This graphic novel is a delightful triptych of stories, all queer, all exploring themes of love and loss in various sci-fi/fantasy settings. I pledged for this particular version in Valero-O’Connell’s recent Kickstarter and I could not be happier with such a gorgeous quality book.

Art-wise, the book is so beautiful. Each story is coloured in a different pastel shade and emphasised with well-chosen line weights and deep blue, almost black shading. The art style is soft and easy on the eyes, but with tons of visual interest as the creator quite literally draws us into three otherworldly settings. Machinery and florals alike are depicted with tons of intricate detail, making each page a work of art in its own right.

Don't Go Without Me page

The stories themselves are simple, yet well-told. The pacing is great, with the particulars of each setting slowly unfolded in a way that doesn’t leave the reader drowning in exposition. There’s also just enough left unsaid that you can’t help but let your imagination stretch out to what the rest of the world might entail – particularly so with the open-ended nature of the final story. A shout-out to “What Was Left,” previously published as a stand-alone comic, for literally bringing tears to my eyes with such a dreamy, romantic concept turned to tragedy, then acceptance, then hope. Each romance is strongly defined, each character is someone you can root for, each character dynamic is compelling and unique.

It’s hard to write too much about short stories, especially ones where half the experience is visual. But if you like graphic novels (or even if you don’t, really, give this a shot!) and you want to read more stories about queer women that are also about love and loss and mystery and community and dozens of other things, you couldn’t go wrong with this book.

Rating: *****

Bee reviews I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale

I often see people complaining that there is no WLW equivalent to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I’m not really sure what the complaint is about: the popularity of the books? The tone? The content? The writing? I think that what people mean when they say this is that they are looking for a book with similarly affecting prose, with a convincing romance and a kind of wistful tone. While I’m sure that everyone reading this could probably offer up five, ten, twenty books that meet the brief, the one that does it for me is I am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale. This is my personal WLW Ari and Dante – the book that makes me feel special things. To me, it is superior in every way.

I am Out With Lanterns is a companion novel to Gale’s book The Other Side of Summer. The focus is shifted from the titular Summer Jackman to her sister Wren, goth and moody and furiously bisexual. Along with Wren, there are five other teenage narrators, each giving their own voice to what it means to be young in Melbourne. Part of the reason why the book resonates so strongly with me because it is entrenched in my home town: the landmarks are real and tangible, and I can perfectly picture every scene. There is such a strong sense of place in this novel, and the characters only reflect the diversity of living in this city.

Aside from Wren, we are introduced to Adie, returning to Melbourne with her artist father after time in Europe and Tasmania. Juliet remembers Adie from their childhood together, but Adie doesn’t have the same recollections. There is also Wren’s neighbour and best friend Milo, who is autistic and also in love with Wren. Ben, a boy who mercilessly bullies Milo, is also afforded a POV. This may seem like a lot of perspectives, but the stories are deftly interwoven. The characters are connected in a web, one leading to the next, and the way they perceive each other is engrossing and believable.

A reason why this book works so well for me is that it understands what it means to be 17 and yearning for another person. Crushes in various forms play out on the page, and whether it be Milo’s interest in Wren, or Wren’s interest in Adie, the intensity of teenage feeling is given ample time and respect to develop. This is the wistfulness I mean; it is a pleasure to read YA which amplifies warm feelings about our teen years, when it is so easy to write them off as an embarrassment. This book champions the tumult of young love, in such a way that I was left looking back on my high school crushes with true fondness.

The identities of each character are also given respect and care. Whether it be Milo’s autism, Wren’s bisexuality, Juliet’s two mums, or the introduction of Hari, a lesbian, these parts are all shown to be integral to who these characters are as people: their foundations are clear, and their journeys are relatable and realistic. It is diversity which reflects the real world, and shows how important a sense of identity is to our formative years.

I am gushing, because I love this book. It is an excellent example of Oz YA, which is a small but thriving community which could always use more readers. It is beautifully told, with some gorgeous turns of phrase which truly reflect the Emily Dickinson poem referenced in the title. It is raw and real, full of complicated relationships and unrestrained feelings. If you’re looking for a YA read that will fill you up and leave you ruminating, this is a first class choice.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Maggie reviews Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

For reasons I can no longer remember, I was reading an article about operas when it mentioned an opera about lesbians called Patience & Sarah, which I am sort of upset I have never heard of since I have worked at two different operas. Then I looked into it more and found out it was based on a book, which in turn is based on two real women. Since I find a book a lot easier than I can summon forth an opera production, I eagerly picked up Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller, a book about two ladies in 1800s Connecticut who want to take up a life together.

The best thing about Patience & Sarah is that our protagonists take approximately half of one conversation to fall violently in love with each other. Patience is an “old maid” who lives with her brother and his wife under the strict provisions of her father’s will. Sarah has been raised as her father’s “son” since he has no sons and she is the oldest, and she has a plan to leave and get herself a farm out in central New York. Patience takes one look at this tall, awkward lumberjack woman with a half-formed plan and is immediately like “I would die to protect this precious cinnamon roll.” A sentiment echoed by many readers, I feel. They’ve barely been alone together before Patience asks Sarah to take her along when she leaves to buy a farm. They face resistance from other of their families, and Sarah goes journeying on her own for a while, (CW: there is vague and non-descriptive violence against Sarah from her father in the form of a beating), but they are both so steadfast in their growing affection for each other that they succeed in carrying out their plan and set out to buy a farm together.

Patience & Sarah has a persistent theme of journeying, both literal and emotional. Their main goal is to journey together to buy a farm. When their relationship is (temporarily) broken up by their families, over Sarah’s strenuous objections but due to Patience’s reluctant capitulation, Sarah heads off buy herself, disguised as a boy, and spends some months on the road. She takes up with a traveling salesman called Parson and learns a lot about how the world operates outside her home county. Parson also teaches her how to read. They also finally get to journey together to purchase their farm, growing even closer and figuring out how they’ll support each other when they’re on their own. Emotionally, Patience reacts to her family’s negative reaction by retreating from the relationship out of fear of community shunning. She doesn’t feel like she’s wrong to love Sarah, but she’s not sure she can bear the consequences. Her emotional journey is the slow realization of what she does and doesn’t want to live without. She flips the script upon Sarah’s return, and is the one to insist that they fight for a place where they can live their best lives, while Sarah, made cautious by the hardships she’d endured, is now more willing to settle for whatever they can get in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. It made for a compelling plot, because I was rooting for them to figure themselves out the whole time.

The other interesting thing about this book is its exploration of queer acceptance in rural areas, gender roles, and family. Sarah was raised as her father’s son – not as a boy, but in the role a son would take. She helps him with his lumber business, dresses in men’s clothes, and is inexperienced in more traditionally feminine dress and pursuits. She has no problem setting off as a boy, has confidence in her skills at building and running a farm, and later on thinks of herself as Patience’s husband. Everyone in town looks at her as a very improper woman, and feel that Patience, who is of a higher social status, should not associate with her. Still, everyone either doesn’t or takes care not to guess at the physical nature of their relationship until they can’t anymore. Patience’s relationship with her family is equally as interesting. It seemed like her father never expected her to marry – did he guess? – and her brother Edward, while feeling like he has to act conservatively, actually helps her and supports her as much as he is able. He ends up one of their most necessary allies. It makes for an interesting picture, not just of the 1800s when it was set, but the 60s during which it was written.

In conclusion, I’m not sure how this book isn’t more talked about as an early gem of lesbian fiction. It was delightful and at times very sweet. The characters and plot were nuanced, and yet, despite the at times heavy themes of homophobia, the book kept its light and hopeful spirit. I have spent a decent amount of time in my head building out the ending and making their farm together a successful, idyllic place. I would highly recommend tracking down a copy and spending a delightful couple of hours rooting for these two precious cinnamon rolls.

Mallory Lass reviews Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

Floodtide by Heather Rose Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marthese reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

“Even that which seems impossible at first, may be overcome with strength of mind and heart”

Girls of Paper and Fire, the first book in a fantasy series, follows Lei, a paper cast girl, who is forced away from her home to go and serve the king as a papergirl.

Lei’s birth pendant still hasn’t opened, since she is not 18. She wishes for a quiet life in her village, but that seems to not be in store for her. In a world where paper cast are at the bottom on the chain, under steel cast and especially moon cast, she has to continuously struggle to fight, to hold her own while being careful not to end up dead. This proves to be difficult, but Lei is stubborn and enjoys her freedom.

Lei is taken from her home, coerced to leave, to become a papergirl because of her unique golden eyes. The bull king is rather superstitious and the general who kidnaps her wanted to score points with the heavenly king. Lei has no choice. However, she vows to go back to her family and find out what was her mother’s fate.

Lei meets the other papergirls. Among them, there is Aoki, who she feels protective of, and Wren, who she is immediately intrigued by, but it takes them a while to open up to each other. Both have secrets which they protect and hold close to themselves.

Lei wants to be strong and free, but she has to battle a lot of guilt. She feels like a traitor to her own people even though she did not have much of a choice.

This books will make you angry. A lot. First of all there is sexual assault and sexual coercion, not just on Lei but many girls. There is a sense of hopelessness, especially for the paper cast. The king and moon cast demons are too powerful and they abuse this power, at least most of them. Lei is told several times that she is no better than her job as a papergirl – a job that entails serving the king in and out of the bedroom and attending to the court. She is also called a whore several times even though she had no choice… She is also told several more times that she should be grateful since being a papergirl is prestigious and at least she’s not just a common prostitute. Moon cast also have a lot of entitlement, and there is a societal hierarchy that is usually enforced, with some exceptions. Be warned there is off screen rape and a lot of sexual assault. It’s not romanticised.

While this book will make you angry, it will make you angry for all the right reasons. Because it’s not right, how she and other paper casts and women are treated. It’s also realistic while being fantasy, because these things do happen – in society, people of different casts, ethnicities, etc are discriminated against. Powerful people do abuse their power (and possibly lost a bit of sanity along the way) and double standards – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – do happen in real life. In this world there are also double standards for queerness, which happen in real life too, because while males are accepted, female couples aren’t even thought of. While Moon casts are usually depicted as discriminatory, we meet different Moons that are kind and show us that not everything is black and white.

There is slow but strong character development and the budding feelings between Wren and Lei are slow but so worthwhile. Wren’s character is intriguing. While at first it may seem that Lei could develop feelings for her captor (she first describes the king as handsome), don’t worry: this won’t happen. There is lesbian activity! It just takes her a while to realize her feelings for Wren. With her growing romantic feelings, there is a growing sense of rebellion.

There is a sense of found family, and the story shows that even in darkness there is hope. Lei makes friends, and she learns to be stronger, despite all the things that keep on bringing her down.

As almost all magical fantasies plots, there is a prophecy: a prophecy of fire and redemption. The plot overall is solid. The characters are diverse (not just in their demon/non-demon forms), and the setting is a fantasy Asia, not Europe.

Since this book is part of a series, the epilogue introduced a fact that I guess will lead to the second book. The only thing that I didn’t like was the too-long flight scene towards the end, but apart from that, even the abuse that got me angry had a purpose in the plot. I’d like to see what happened to the other papergirls, but I am not sure if we’ll get to see that.

I recommend this book for anyone that likes fantasy and can stomach sleazy and discriminatory characters and practices.