Rachel reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor cover

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If you like dark, historical novels with a brooding mystery at the center, you’ll love Jane Healey’s The Animals at Lockwood Manor. A queer novel set at a remote country estate in England at the beginning of World War II, the twists and turns of this novel—like the hallways at Lockwood Manor—will surprise you.

In 1939, war has just broken out across the world. In London, Hetty Cartwright is helping to evacuate and safeguard the natural history museum’s vast collection of specimens. Her job is to transport and maintain the large collection of mammals to Lockwood Manor, the vast and daunting estate well beyond the blast zone of the blitz. However, once she arrives at Lockwood, Hetty encounters its cavernous hallways and dark corners alongside its unwelcoming and controlling Lord and his intriguing but allegedly frail daughter, Lucy.

Soon, Hetty realizes that keeping the animals at Lockwood safe entails far more than protecting them from bombs—despite the meddling of Lord Lockwood and the servants, strange things begin to happen at Lockwood; animals go missing, museum property is destroyed, and much worse. Something seems to be stalking Lockwood and the animals within it—and maybe even Hetty herself. Hetty’s only consolation is the darkly beautiful Lucy, who is haunted by her own nightmares and demons. Soon, it falls to Hetty to protect Lucy and unravel the mystery of Lockwood Manor—are the grounds cursed and haunted by spirits, or could it possibly be something worse?

I very much enjoyed this book. Historical fiction set during any time period is a favourite genre of mine, but I especially like novels of WWII. Healey did an excellent job of bringing to life one little-known aspect of the war, and her narrow focus on these fictional events underscored the widespread effect of war on these characters. The setting was intriguing and haunting—a rambling, castle-like house on a remote estate filled with the hulking taxidermy forms of animals is the perfect setting for a creepy mystery like Healey’s. I felt fully immersed in the world throughout the novel.

Hetty’s character was an excellent perspective throughout the novel. While there are short, dream-like interjections from Lucy’s perspective, these only add to the mystery. Hetty’s voice is the primary vehicle through which we encounter the strange happenings at Lockwood and her headstrong, industrious personality was refreshing. She was someone who was easy to relate to, despite the historical setting, and it was exciting to unravel the mystery of this novel and its characters alongside her.

Lucy’s character was similarly intriguing. One thing I felt unsatisfied with in this novel, however, was the romance. While Lucy and Hetty’s partnership was enjoyable and relatively convincing, the discovery of their feelings for one another felt a bit stilted and indelicate. The novel seemed to lurch into a lesbian relationship rather than flow into one. While it is difficult to frame lesbian desire in a historical setting, I felt that, in this case, Hetty and Lucy declaring their love for one another was a bit too disjointed at times.

Nevertheless, the end of this novel was a lovely and haunting conclusion. Hetty and Lucy’s partnership was far more grounded at the end of this novel, and overall I felt that the book was an exciting historical mystery with haunting elements that kept me guessing.

Please visit Jane Healey on Twitter and put The Animals at Lockwood Manor on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. 

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.

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.

Thais reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

I hadn’t been super into romance before I had Olivia Waite’s Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. I sought sapphic representation when I chose books, but I was mostly a reader of literary fiction, so understandably a lot of what I was read didn’t have a happy ending. I didn’t even realize that was something I craved, and I was so giddy when I cracked open this historical romance and found myself enthralled.

I was very eager to read the sequel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, another regency sapphic tale. I was intrigued by Agatha in Lady’s Guide and definitely detected queer vibes coming from her, so it was no surprise when she turned out to be one of the protagonists of this book. A no-nonsense small business owner who always seemed to entangled with artists, scientists, and subversives of all kinds, Agatha was intriguing when she was introduced as a side character, but she is delightful here—grumpy and direct, but also caring and cautious when it comes to her own romantic feelings.

I also loved Penelope from her very first moments on the page, which is something I appreciate about Waite’s books. I always struggle to stick with a lesfic romance when I dislike one of the main characters. Waite always write heroines who are quirky and not necessarily traditionally likable, but they hook me completely exactly because they jump off the page as whole human beings, with flaws and unique perspectives. I loved Lucy and Catherine when I read Lady’s Guide, but I think now I love Agatha and Penelope more.

A beekeeper, Penelope comes to Agatha’s aid when the printer finds a beehive nesting inside her warehouse. After Penelope manages to carefully remove the bees and suggests placing their new home just outside Agatha’s business building, the two start corresponding.

As Agatha and Penelope started exchanging letters, I found myself nearly racing to finish the book, because I just wanted these two to be happy already. I had to read it again to appreciate some of the story beats and I’m sure I will read it one more time to swoon over the beautiful prose Waite writes, but the first time had me breathless with anticipation, and even the promise of a happy ending that comes with a romance couldn’t make me relax and slow down.

I don’t usually enjoy characters who pine for each for very long. One of the reasons I loved Lady’s Guide was that there was little wait before the main characters got together and the focus was on their burgeoning relationship and past wounds. I wasn’t sure if I would be the audience for a book that withholds the payoff for so long, since I tend to resent when there are too many misunderstandings and obstacles and people just won’t talk to each other. This book is unabashed about the pining and the silly misunderstandings. But it’s so well-done, with Penelope’s hesitation to come out and Agatha’s resentment of Penelope’s marriage and assumptions about what that means, that I was captivated.

I did miss the diversity from the first book, however. Lady’s Guide has more than one character of color and really came alive for me for painting a portrait of what Regency Britain might really have been like. Waspish Widows has several queer characters instead, which is nice, especially as Agatha and Penelope spend a lot of time supporting and conspiring with the other queers, but I still craved more diversity from the book, probably because I know Waite can deliver it and do it well. I assume Mr. Biswas is Indian, but can’t remember him being that big of a presence in the book, and that’s a pity.

I also really appreciated the side story with Queen Caroline and the real danger it brought to the characters that we cared about. I just wish the plot had been wrapped up a bit better. I felt like we heard way too much about this historical context in the beginning and then interest seemed to wane and narrow on the fictional plots that sprouted from it, but that too is sort of set aside at the end, and we only get an assurance that it was resolved by a certain character moving away. I was a bit disappointed.

The middle of the book has amazing tension due to Waite weaving so many threads exceptionally well and creating explosive confrontations. The writing is well-paced, so it propels you forward, making you want to know how it will all come to a head. So I felt a bit cheated that main antagonist in the story disappears off-page and the political tensions are resolved by people just losing interest.

Nevertheless, none of that ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s a testament to Waite’s brilliant storytelling that even when my brain is picking on tiny things and I’m frustrated with bits and pieces, the whole narrative is still impactful and satisfying. Her character work in particular shines. All these people she creates stay in your imagination. Those characters live outside the page, leave a mark on the reader. When Catherine appeared briefly for a cameo in this book, I nearly shouted in excitement. When Mr. Frampton was mentioned, I felt nostalgic and sad that we hadn’t seen him in this book yet. And I would pay any amount of money for a book focusing on Joana Molesey and Aunt Kelmarsh, because there are so few sapphic romances between older women, and after reading Waspish Widows, I would love more.

I certainly can’t wait to go back to this mini world and see them once again, and while I know that Waite has only planned one more book for this series, I can’t help but hope she will pen many more historical sapphic books. I would certainly read them.

Thais is a Brazilian WOC queer. Her degree in Media Studies has slowly grown useless, even though she literary Majored in how to be good at social media (but can’t understand it better than twelve-year-olds) and she currently lives with her parents. She is an Editor and has too many opinions on books she should be reading for fun.

You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@ThaisAfonso).

Danika reviews Rescued Heart by Georgia Beers

rescued heart georgia beers cover

I’ve been wanting to get into the romance genre lately, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I enjoyed Fresh Tracks several years ago, so I knew I liked Georgia Beers’s writing style, and that combined with the premise made for a book I couldn’t resist. A lesbian romance centred around a rescue shelter? Lesbians and puppies??

Rescued Heart is told in dual perspectives: Lisa’s and Ashley’s. Ashley is a cute-as-a-button cookie baker who volunteers at the shelter and has spent her life passively going with the flow of things. Lisa works at the shelter and comes across as uptight. She is determined to not have to take care of anyone (anymore), though she’s also reluctant to give up control.

Ashley and Lisa are obviously drawn towards each other, and both find themselves acting in surprising ways with the other’s influence. They have good chemistry, but it’s the setting and background characters that really make the novel for me. Junebug shelter seems like a real place, and it’s populated with a whole host of characters. Beers is obviously setting up for a series, but it also gives the whole story more depth. Characters weave in and out of their story without being essential to it.

The tension is also not just between the main characters. Ashley is contemplating her role at the bakery, and she’s let herself get stuck in a tepid romance. Lisa is struggling to avoid the mother that walked out on her as a teen and is now trying to establish a relationship with her decades later. And, of course, dogs and cats are prominent on the page, both at Junebug and in Lisa’s home.

I did have one cringing moment while reading this, however. [Spoilers] Ashley and Lisa agree at one point that they should go on a date without sleeping together, in order to deal with their issues. At the end of the date, Lisa pins her against a wall and they have sex anyway, even as Ashley feebly reminds her that they weren’t supposed to. They are both happy and satisfied during and after, and Ashley clearly doesn’t feel like Lisa went too far or that she was not consenting, but it still threw me out of the story. [End Spoilers]

Overall, Rescued Heart lived up to its premise, and I’m excited to read more in the Puppy Love series as they come out. Junebug is definitely a place I want to revisit.

Marthese reviews Pegasi and Prefects (Scholars and Sorcery #1) by Eleanor Beresford

pegasi

“I take my questions and shining little badges with me”

Keeping in line with my recent reviews, I read another short fantasy book. This time, I read Pegasi and Prefects which is the first in the Scholars and Sorcery series. I found it to be a somewhat good introduction but it focuses more on the main character, Charley rather than world building. At times it seemed slow but I quite enjoyed that. The book is only 138 pages so a quick read overall.

The story is about Charley, who attends Fernleigh Manor, a school for gifted people which are people that possess talents that are somewhat different from each other as no gift is the same. Charley has an affinity to communicate with fabled animals. Her family has a business in raising fabled beasts and in fact, Charley has a pegasus named Ember. She is friends with Esther and Cecily who are quite popular and so by default but not only, is Charley. They are in their last year of studies and Charley wants a quite year but her year is anything but that as she is made a senior prefect and a games captain- a sort of peer trainer for all the years and hockey teams.

Charley’s year is also rocked when two new girls transfer in their last year at the Manor. She has to share a study room with Diana, who many people are charmed by but not Charley. Moreover, She has to be friendly to Rosalind, a very shy girl but in the end this would not be a problem as Charley develops feelings for Rosalind after the two girls take care of an animal together since it turns out that they both share an affinity to fabled beasts.

Charley is what could be called a tomboy and we see some gender relations and how different people treat her because of this- namely Esther, Diana and her brothers. Charley learns not to fall into prejudice and also learns to be less selfish. This seems also a theme about her love life, where she assumes things about Rosalind and is jealous but at the same time wants to be selfless.

World building is slow and sometimes confusing but things eventually got clearer. We get to know more about different animals and about the history of the reality that the characters live in. When reading fantasy I tend to assume that it’s a different world and so I was surprised when things like cars or hockey got mentioned but when they were, it helped me understand and relate better.

Despite it’s slowness, I found it to be a calming book and it also kept me interested and as such, I read it very quickly. I recommend it to people that like fantasy books but that are looking for something different from the usual epic battle or action theme. It is also suitable for young audiences and more focused on Charley’s self-reflection.

Danika reviews Call Me Softly D. Jackson Leigh

I’ve got to tell you, I am perhaps unreasonably impressed by this book. I’ve been reading a lot of self-published lesbian fiction, and I’m sorry to say that that often lowers the bar.

Besides, Call Me Softly even corrects some common published lesfic annoyances, in that it has a plot unrelated to the romance. A plot! There is mystery and suspense and murder and family secrets and horses! I mean, there are actual things happening other than girl meets girl, girls fall in love with each other, girl inadvertently screws it up with girl (usually due to a tragic misunderstanding), and girls eventually get together after all. Other things! So, if you are not as easily impressed by these things, I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it.

Oh, and also, the writing doesn’t distract from the story! Okay, well, I have to admit that the sex scene writing seemed a little odd, and in places awkward to the point of being unbelievable (the dialogue, especially), but that was the only place I had a problem with it.

Did I mention horses? See the horse on the cover? They feature prominently in the novel. If you went through a horse phase growing up (or still love them now!), this will probably be a plus. Even if you don’t have a particular interest in horses (like me), however, I don’t think you’ll find it distracting. Unless maybe you’re not an animal person at all.

Usually I avoid mysteries because I’m so terrible at picking up on clues that I feel completely lost by the end, but in this one I could see one of the big reveals coming. Again, I don’t think it really detracts from the novel, but you most likely won’t have to think too hard about the mystery aspect, especially if you’re an experienced mystery reader.

The ending seemed to be rather sudden and dramatic, but in retrospect I’m not sure how else it could have been done. I would have preferred, however, and epilogue or something to get back to the slower pace the rest of the novel has, but that’s a very minor point.

This review is a bit all over the place, but overall I think this definitely an above-average lesbian romance and I would recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a little more interest in their lesfic.

Check out MFred’s review for more info about the plot and characters (and let’s face it, a little more cohesive of a review).