Maggie reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I was ecstatic when I heard that Malinda Lo was writing a loosely connected follow up to Last Night at the Telegraph Cub because Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a hugely important lesbian coming of age novel set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown that A) I wish I had had access to as a teenager and B) I’m so happy the youths have access to today. In A Scatter of Light, Lo attempts to recreate that same sense of teenage discovery and feelings in a more recent decade and succeeds wildly. I listened to the audiobook and had a fantastic experience. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Lo is unparalleled at invoking the teenage experience, where your feelings are huge and undefined and you don’t yet have the life experience to have perspective.

In A Scatter of Light, when recently graduated Aria West arrives at her eccentric artist grandmother Joan’s house in California for the summer, she’s upset that she’s not spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her friends as planned and doesn’t expect the summer to come to much. But Joan, rather than judging her for the high school scandal that landed Aria in California, encourages her to pursue her interests, interrogate her own perspectives, and look at things in new ways, leading Aria to both connect with her past and push her boundaries with art while she’s there. Aria’s summer is further derailed by Joan’s gardener Steph, an aspiring musician, who invites Aria into a community of working class lesbians and queer events that Aria had previously never thought about. What started out as just killing time until she could leave for college turns into a life-changing summer as Aria learns several new things about herself. Dyke marches, art history, music festivals – Lo balances the nostalgia-drenched coming of age experience with real emotion for a surprisingly solid teenage narrative.

What I loved best about this book is that Aria’s beautiful emotional queer journey happens with all the grace of getting tackled by a football player and all the emotional subtlety of a fireworks show. It’s perfect and wonderful and great fun to read because Aria feels and loves with all the explosive power of a teenager who doesn’t have the experience to put her emotions into context. And many times her narration had me screaming with glee and with the experience of an adult perspective. It was an absolute blast to watch Aria have her hot lesbian summer, I had the most fun time listening to the audiobook.

Alas for Aria, not everything is as simple as getting flirted with by several lesbians and slowly realizing her feelings are not just friendship. For one thing her grandmother Joan, her ostensible reason for being in California to begin with, encourages her to explore art, something that Aria had never considered but starts mixing with her passion for astronomy and her history with her deceased grandfather. Her mother delivers some family news that sends Aria into a minor tailspin. (spoilers) And Steph, the object of Aria’s newly awakened queer desire, comes with an established relationship, albeit one that is making both halves of it miserable. It all comes to a head when Joan’s physical condition abruptly worsens, bringing Aria’s summer of awakening to an emotional close. (end spoilers)

A Scatter of Light is a dramatic, and fun ode to early 2000’s queer culture, coming of age, and teenage feelings, and I am so, so glad that youths today can just pick it off of any shelf. The characters feel deeply, the decisions are messy, and the open mic nights are queer. And journeying along with Aria while she had a wild summer awakening was the highlight of my fall. I appreciated the masterful way Lo handled themes of growing up and reaching new emotional maturity and dealing with life’s complicated circumstances. I especially appreciated that the summer remained what it says in the title – a scatter of light, a transient experience, a bubble of time that changed everyone involved but was not a lifetime commitment at 18. This book was amazing to read as an adult, would have absolutely given me new thoughts and perspective if I had had it available as a teen, and would be a great addition to your to-read list.

Danielle reviews Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress

the cover of Sirens and Muses

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress is a novel that follows four artists as they embark first on art school before conquering New York City. I loved everything about this novel. Everything. The characters are rich: Angress has done a phenomenal job of creating realistic characters who are not always likable—which, to me, makes them even more real. The four artists are flawed, have their own anxieties and grievances, and are at times self-conscious. Despite times throughout the novel when they are extremely unlikeable, by the end of the novel, two of the four characters, Karina and Louisa, have become some of my favourite fictional characters. It’s important to note that Angress seems to be a master of character development. Cruel at times, each character stumbles. I loved watching each character change direction and reach their potentials despite their earlier suffering and anxieties.

The dynamic between Karina and Louisa is what makes Sirens & Muses for me. Its 368 pages simply don’t have enough of them together. Karina is the character I found most difficult to like at the start of the novel, while Louisa is easy to love. By the time I finished reading, I’d fallen in love with both of them. Between the lines, they have a beautiful love story: obscured by the other two characters’ stories, Angress gave just enough to pull me into their relationship, and desperately hope for some sort of sequel to their story.

My heart hurt for the characters throughout Sirens & Muses. I found myself truly caring about them, and in that sense, Angress has created a masterpiece. The novel is part academic, part love story, part art discourse, and she weaves all of those themes together seamlessly. It is a smart, well-written book that I was immediately captivated by, and have remained captivated by weeks after reading it.

It was the perfect length, leaving you satisfied yet still wanting more, and with such realistic and detailed descriptions of the characters’ art, I felt as though I was walking through an art gallery of their creations: a fictional art gallery filled with the fictional art created by fictional characters. Angress has written a vivid and captivating novel that comes to life off the pages.

Danielle is a Lesbrary guest reviewer. If you would like to submit a review to be featured on the Lesbrary, check out the About page for more information.

Danika reviews A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

the cover of A Scatter of Light

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

As I was reading A Scatter of Light, I saw a tweet from Malinda Lo discussing how hard she’s finding summarizing this book into tropes and graphics to advertise it. I completely understand. This is a book about slowly unfolding self-discovery, the practice of making art, and the beauty of astronomy. It’s about grief and messy first love and different ways of looking at time. It’s a quiet, moving coming of age story that explores complex and difficult emotions–it’s definitely not something that can be distilled easily into a few hashtags.

A Scatter of Light follows Aria as she spends the summer between high school and university (in 2008) with her grandmother, Joan, in California. I think this is such a rich setting for YA novels, because while every summer as a young person feels like a strange, transitionary, surreal time, nothing epitomizes it more than being done high school but not yet starting the next stage of your life. This is the perfect backdrop for Aria’s story, who is in a pivotal point in understanding her own identity.

This wasn’t how Aria planned her summer. She was supposed to split the time between staying with her two best friends, Haley and Tasha, while her father is at a writing retreat and her mother (as usual) is overseas–she’s an opera singer, so she is rarely home. But then a boy posted topless photos of her on Tumblr without her permission, and she faced sexist slut-shaming backlash not only from classmates but also from her friends’ parents. That’s how she ended up spending the summer with Joan instead. And that’s when she meets Joan’s gardener, Steph.

It’s through meeting Steph (who is probably nonbinary, but is still figuring out her gender identity) that Aria realizes that she’s not straight—and also that there’s so much more to attraction that the emotionally-distanced fooling around she’s done with boys in the past.

Steph’s queer friend group immediately adopts Aria, even before she comes out to them, and she is swept into a queer community celebrating the recent defeat of Prop 8 in California: gay marriages are happening all around them. I really appreciated the queer community and friendship showcased, and I especially loved Tasha and Aria’s friendship, which feels like a breath of fresh air among all the messy, complex emotions and relationships. With these new friends, Aria attends a Dyke March and a Queer Music Festival. She falls hard for Steph. Of course, the problem is that Steph already has a girlfriend.

This is definitely a story about a messy first love and about coming out: her attraction to Steph is top of Aria’s mind this summer. But it’s also far from the only thing happening. Joan is a respected artist who Aria has always been proud to be related to. This summer, she’s helping Joan with a project related to her late grandfather’s astronomy work–Aria is going to school to pursue the same field. She finds her grandfather’s old lectures on tape and watches through them. But capable, creative, inspiring Joan is beginning to lose her memory.

The process of making art and prioritizing it in your life is also woven throughout this story. Aria begins to work on her own painting to try to sort through her emotions, with influences from Bernice Bing, a Chinese American lesbian painter, as well as Adrienne Rich’s poetry. (Aria is mixed race: her mother is Chinese American and her father is white.) Meanwhile, Steph is a musician who is deciding how much time and attention she should be putting into her own art. Aria’s mother has always made her art a priority in her life–over Aria, she feels. Aria’s father is an author struggling through years of writer’s block after a successful novel.

The motifs of astronomy, time, and art weave effortlessly through this pensive coming of age story. Despite everything going on, this is a quiet story about Aria coming to terms with herself–not just the label of being queer/bisexual/lesbian/other, but with her own emotions. A Scatter of Light captures the tumultuous, heady feeling of teenage first love: how it’s all-consuming, illogical, and often ephemeral while feeling like the most important thing in the world.

For Last Night at the Telegraph Club, there’s a brief update on the main characters, but it’s only a few pages, so don’t expect this to be too closely tied to that one!

I was 18 in 2008, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this took me back to my teenage self and my own messy first love. Despite this being a quietly unfolding story of self-discovery, I was rapt and couldn’t stop flipping the pages. If you appreciate introspective, character-driven YA, I can’t recommend this highly enough, whether or not you’ve read Last Night at the Telegraph Club.

Note: some of these content warnings are spoilers, but I know they’re also dealbreakers for some readers, so consider that before reading.

Content warnings: cheating, hospitalization, stroke, death of a loved one, grief. Content note: on page sex scenes.

Kelleen reviews The Inconvenient Heiress by Jane Walsh

the cover of The Inconvenient Heiress

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I have elected myself president of the Jane Walsh fan club that does not exist. I am painting us Lavender Menace-style t-shirts with stencils and foam brushes and I’ll order broaches on Etsy. I’ll wear a backwards baseball cap as my crown and shout my allegiance from the roofs of all of the buildings because I LOVE JANE WALSH.

I, like so many of us, have been feeling increasingly as though my world is crumbling around me, so imagine my utter elation when I received an email from Bold Strokes that contained the gift of Jane Walsh’s new historical romance novel, The Inconvenient Heiress. There is nothing in the wide world that brightens my day faster than a Jane Walsh novel and this book brightened my world.

This book—the start of a new series for her—has impeccable vibes. Let me paint you a picture (this is a clever joke because one of the heroines is a painter): Two poor women on the regency coast, friends to lovers, all the pining, an unexpected (and rather inconvenient) arrival of an unknown family fortune, the much more expected threat of losing the fortune, determined suitressing, a curvy heroine, a rockstar community of proud lesbian spinsters, two loving families, finding literally any excuse to kiss your best friend even though you’re just gals being pals, and the most stunning cover I have ever seen.

This book is so tender. It’s soft and aching and delicate while at the same time being all the things I ever want in a historical romance novel—dramatic and lush and dynamic. Each word is so steeped in culture and convention and then with some magic flick of her wrist she’s flipped it all upside down onto its head. Jane Walsh writes with such a reverence for women and womanhood while embracing a vast and wondrous queerness.

Reading a Jane Walsh novel is a dream with every page. It’s a reminder that we have always been here, that we have always been finding community and finding love, that we have always risked it all and been rewarded for our bravery, that queer love is about the quiet moments as well as the loud ones, that we deserve to wear flowy gowns and make our art and find our future, that we deserve to have our love and care returned to us in spades, that we deserve and deserve and deserve.

Pick up a Jane Walsh romance novel. You won’t regret it. And there’s always room in our fan club.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bold Strokes Books for this ARC. Out August 16th, 2022.

You can read more of Kelleen’s reviews on her bookstagram (@booms.books) and on Goodreads.

Danika reviews Slip written by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Aatmaja Pandya

the cover of Slip

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Content warning: This review contains discussion of suicide.

This is a YA graphic novel about Jade, who is preparing for her future as an artist by going to a summer art intensive. She knows this opportunity is make or break for her chances of building a portfolio, getting a college scholarship, and following her dreams. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also exciting and inspiring.

Just before she leaves, though, she gets devastating news. Her best friend, Phoebe, has attempted suicide and is now in the hospital. Phoebe and Jade have always been incredibly close, and Jade can’t even process this information. But Phoebe doesn’t want visitors and is concentrating on her own recovery, so Jade has nothing to do but go to the Art Farm, even though her art is now the farthest thing from her mind.

This is, unsurprisingly, an introspective and melancholy story. Jade is struggling to process all of her emotions: she’s sad and afraid for Phoebe, she’s angry, she feels betrayed that Phoebe didn’t tell her what she was going through, she feels guilty for her anger—and on and on. Now that she finally has this opportunity to build her portfolio, she has no inspiration for what to create. While the people around her make beautiful, thought-provoking pieces that intimidate her, she feels completely stuck.

The colour palette used is limited and muted: mostly blue, with pops of red. I think this style communicates well Jade’s state of mind: she feels disconnected and numb, and those flashes of red are the moments when she can really connect, especially with her anger.

There is a touch of fantasy or fabulism here as well. When Jade burns her drawings of Phoebe, they briefly come to life in the flames, and she can speak to her best friend to try to understand how she got here. Later, her sculptures come to life and fight back against her or run away—which, apart from making her feel like she’s hallucinating, also makes it even more difficult to complete her portfolio in time.

Meanwhile, she’s also beginning a romance with another girl at the art collective. Mary is upbeat and confident, and Jade quite abruptly finds herself kissing her. But this adds a whole new layer of confusion and guilt: how can she be happy when Phoebe is suffering? How can she be crushing on someone and flirting when her best friend is going through something so huge and awful?

This is one of those tricky books to recommend, because it’s not an upbeat or exciting read. It’s fundamentally about a teenager stumbling and raging and weeping through something really difficult. She lashes out at others. She makes bad decisions. Her journey through this is messy and nonlinear. But that’s also what makes this feel real and what made me feel for her so much.

I hope this is one that makes its way to classroom and library bookshelves, because I can imagine that a lot of teenagers especially will appreciate this honest portrayal of what it’s like to love someone who is going through a mental health crisis—the helplessness and grief and anger and every other tangled, overwhelming emotion that comes with it.

Maggie reviews The Hellion’s Waltz by Olivia Waite

The Hellion's Waltz cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

The Hellion’s Waltz is the third installment of Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series, and where the first two involved astronomy, printing, and beekeeping, this one revolves around music, weaving, and crime. With the re-surfacing of the hit tv show Leverage, I was quite excited to read a crime romance, and this series hadn’t let me down yet.

Maddie Crewe and the local weaver’s guild are planning a con on a businessman whose unsavory practices are taking advantage of the local weavers and pushing them out of business or into dangerous factories. With their ability to legally organize coming down the pipeline, Maddie and her friends need one good score to properly fund their guild and give their future organizing some teeth. Meanwhile, Sophie Roseingrave’s family has just arrived in town after being forced from London when a con artist’s scheme ruined their reputations and forced their family shop to close.  When she accidentally brushes up against the opening stages of Maddie’s con, she’s torn between her instant attraction to the other woman and her instinctive revulsion towards a scam, no matter how well-intentioned.

As usual with this series, the characters are charming to read.  I loved that they were both talented women in their own fields – Maddie as a weaver and Sophie as both a musician and piano tuner. I loved that neither had any sort of queer awakening during this; being attracted to a woman and acting on that desire wasn’t news or a shock to either of them. They’re both quite taken with each other and are willing to act on their attraction. It’s still refreshing to me to read historical romances where both characters are confident and confidently queer, and I adore it.

Also, who doesn’t love a good crime crew when they’re out to take down a heinous rich guy? And crime to fund a union is especially delicious. The con itself is a little complicated and far-fetched to seem entirely plausible, but it’s fun, and its hilarious hijinks are a good contrast to Sophie’s memories of getting taken in by a dastardly con man who but their piano-making business out of order. Maddie and the weavers are not out to harm families, but rather to protect them. The confidence they have to stand up for themselves helps Sophie to face her lingering trauma after her family’s own experiences and take up music again.

In conclusion, The Hellion’s Waltz is a fun little romp through crime, protecting a community of craftspeople, and letting yourself have good things. It’s fun, not especially deep, and the queerness is established rather than a plot point. It was a very diverting and fun read, and I recommend it if you are looking for a nice f/f historical romance that’s on the light side.

Danika reviews Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Messy bisexuals, this one’s for you. ❤️

One of my favorite things to read about is flawed main characters. Characters who make mistakes–mistakes they really knew better than to make, but they did it anyways. I can’t stand negative reviews of books based on the protagonist having flaws, which is making me want to gather this book up to my chest and defend it from those negative reviews I can see looming. Lee is lost, she’s messy, and she’s hurt people–but she’s also finding herself and trying to work her way through them, and I am firmly in her corner.

Indestructible Object takes place in the summer between high school and university. Lee is an artist from a family of artists, and she has devoted herself to a podcast she makes with her boyfriend called Artists In Love. Her picture-perfect relationship and her passion both shatter simultaneously, though, when he breaks up with her to move to another city for university. Now she’s trying to figure out what to do with herself, and in her panic, she endangers the job she loves (doing sound for a cafe) as well as any chance she had of Vincent and her getting back together.

If the lost job, failed relationship, and finished podcast weren’t bad enough, her parents are separating. They haven’t been properly together for years, but they’re finally moving into separate places, and her mom is travelling while he packs up. That’s when Lee finds three objects that make her doubt the validity of her parent’s relationship in the first place: a passport belonging to her dad that was dated months before she was born, a hidden videotape of their engagement party that can’t find a VCR to play, and a book of poems by her mother dedicated with love to another man. She decides to start another podcast trying to put together the pieces of the mystery of her parents’ marriage. Why did they get together? Was there a fatal flaw to begin with? And if so, can Lee avoid it so she can find real, lasting love?

What Lee isn’t admitting about her relationship with Vincent is that it was never perfect. In fact, she was cheating on him with Claire from the coffee shop she worked at. She’s closeted, and she’s confused by Vincent’s disinterest in sex–it’s not an excuse, but her decisions make sense, especially while she’s struggling to understand herself. I appreciated this passage, as she admits to cheating to a queer friend who tells her she’s enacting a negative stereotype:

“That’s not fair,” I say. I’m not trying to defend what I’ve done, but I also don’t think I should be expected to model ideal bisexual behavior–whatever that is–at all times. When straight people cheated, they weren’t failing the whole straight population. They were just failing one person.

This could be considered a spoiler, but I think it’s important to note that Lee also realizes that she’s polyamorous and doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship. (She commits to honesty in her relationships going forward, of course!) It’s still very rare to see YA tackle polyamory, so I was happy to see that! (In fact, that’s what convinced me to pick this up in the first place.) My heart hurt for when she finally realizes what she really wants out of her life and she tears up because it’s “too much to want,” an impossible dream–at least, that’s what it seems to her.

I also thought Max’s subplot, the queer friend mentioned earlier, was fascinating. He has two queer parents, one of whom is non-binary, and when he came out as gay, they were–unsurprisingly–supportive, especially of his relationship with an idyllic boyfriend. Now, though, he has experienced sexual fluidity, falling for a girl, and he has picked up a punk aesthetic from her. His parents don’t approve, and he feels rejected now that he’s an “untidy queer” instead of what he refers to as a “Love, Simon gay.” This is a complicated queer story, which I am always here for–especially because I also experienced sexual fluidity after identifying as a lesbian for a decade, and it was a rough transition.

I also really enjoyed that this story is told partly in podcast transcripts, especially because they sounded like a podcast I would listen to. Lee is trying to do an investigative podcast of her own family history, but it isn’t so easy to sum up into a coherent narrative, especially the more she delves into it. It also foregrounds Memphis as the setting, digging into the problems and appeal of this city.

I’m going to leave you with a quotation near the end of the book, so it could theoretically be considered a spoiler, but I love it, so I’m including it.

Hearts are made for this. They’re made to be battered, filled up with big feelings, emptied out again. They’re made to swell and ache and break and piece back together again.

They’re made to be used, even if everything you’re ever going to use them for ends.

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

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Carmella reviews LOTE by Shola von Reinhold

LOTE by Shola von Reinhold cover

I first discovered the Bright Young Things at an exhibition of Cecile Beaton’s photography. His pictures capture the dazzling, decadent world of these young British socialites of the interwar period–their fabulous costume parties, heavy drinking, artistic flair, and taste for excess. After tearing through a number of biographies, my favourite figure became Stephen Tennant. He was–in the words of writer Lady Caroline Blackwood – “just an eccentric gay who didn’t really do anything”. What a magnificent way to be remembered!

The narrator of LOTE, Mathilda Adamarola, is also fascinated by Tennant and his friends. She experiences what she calls ‘Transfixions’–intense emotional and sensory connections to historical figures that can be strong enough to leave her in a giddy daze. Like Mathilda, most of these figures are queer and many are Black. In order to emulate her Transfixions, she has constantly reinvented her identity over the years in a series of ‘Escapes’, transforming into an ever-more dramatic version of herself. This isn’t without its problems–Mathilda explains that “People rarely allow for Blackness and caprice (be it in dress or deportment) to coexist without the designation of Madness”–and she’s certainly capricious. As a narrator, she’s wonderfully fun to spend time with.

While volunteering in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Mathilda is delighted to discover a new photograph of Stephen Tennant. But what is even more exciting is the young Black woman posing with him, dressed as an angel: a forgotten Scottish modernist poet called Hermia Drumm. Mathilda is immediately Transfixed and becomes determined to learn all about her.

After discovering that Hermia spent some time in a small European town, Mathilda applies to an artists’ residency there–winging the application and phone interview without knowing anything about the programme–and is soon travelling overseas to continue her detective work.

Mathilda’s fellow residents turn out to be fanatical adherents to Thought Art–an obscure strand of theory centered around minimalism, discipline and self-effacement. They are an almost unbearable contrast to the luxury-loving Mathilda. The residency is a brilliant satire of academic bullshit, with Mathilda forced to sit through mind-bogglingly dull, jargon-filled conversations about ‘Markation’ and ‘Dotage levels’. Von Reinhold’s send-up of predominantly posh, White institutions is one of the best features of the book.

While Mathilda assumes at first that there can be no connection between the residency’s austere academia and the vibrant Hermia, she soon finds something that did link them together: an enigmatic group known as LOTE. But what was LOTE? What happened to Hermia? How does it all link together? The questions become ever more tangled the more Mathilda learns.

Mysterious, decadent, and unapologetically flamboyant, LOTE is a dazzlingly good read. Behind all the champagne and cults, it’s also an intelligent interrogation of the politics of aesthetics, eurocentrism, and the presence/absence of Black figures in the artistic canon. It asks us: in a world that remembers Stephen Tennant, how many Hermia Drumms have disappeared into the archives?

Susan reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a historical romance that revolves around two queer women creating a space for themselves in art and science. Lucy Muchelney’s lover has just married someone else, and her brother is trying to get her to give up on astronomy; her only recourse is to fling herself on the mercies of Lady Catherine St Day, who’s seeking a translator for a french astronomy text so that she can wash her hands of her late husband’s legacy once and for all. Lucy, with her excellent French and understanding of mathematics and astronomy is the perfect person for the job! … If she can convince the scientific establishment to accept that.

I adored The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but it was so stressful as a reading experience! I was absolutely certain the whole way that there couldn’t be any true catharsis in it, because every sympathetic character is up against structural oppression and the sheer societal weight of white men and their gatekeeping. Over and over people who aren’t white men get dismissed and undermined, both professionally and personally, and it’s as infuriating in fiction as it is in real life! Especially because Olivia Waite does such a good job of showing the way that this form of bigotry wields politeness and reputation as weapons against marginalised people having the audacity to, say, want credit for their work! Or to be accepted as experts in their fields! But there is some catharsis – not just individual victories, characters explicitly doing the work to make science and art more welcoming, and I’ll accept that as a start.

It helps that the characters have believe in each other throughout the book. Lucy believes that Catherine’s embroidery is as much art as anything her brother has done with paint and canvas, and Catherine knows that Lucy – and many other marginalised people she knows, including herself! – are knowledgable scientists or talented artists, and while she might not always know what the best way to encourage those skills, she tries. The supportive relationships are such a good counterpoint to the Polite Science Society.

(And the descriptions are so lush! They give the book so much texture, and the characters so much depth just from what details they notice. Honestly it’s worth reading just for the gifts Catherine makes for Lucy.)

But it’s also a romance, so let’s talk about that! Lucy and Catherine are both freshly out of terrible relationships; Lucy’s ex-girlfriend is petty and manipulative even after they’ve broken up, while Catherine’s late husband was explicitly abusive. There’s no abuse explicitly on page, but Catherine’s reactions to relationships are heavily influenced by the abuse, and are completely believable to me! But if you’re in the market for a romance that’s supportive and kind, where the power difference between characters is actually acknowledged, and the characters find beautiful ways to demonstrate their commitment to each other, this is the book for you! I adored both of the characters and the ways that they tried to make their worlds and interests more accessible for each other! The ways that they work together warmed me right through. Honestly, my biggest frustration with the romance is that there’s a conflict between them near the end that could be solved by actually talking to each other that they just don’t deal with, which felt a little artificial considering that up until that point they’d tried to communicate! But on the whole, the romance was wonderful!

At its heart, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is about recognition and community. At every turn, the characters are asked to choose whose recognition they value – whose recognition is valuable – and what they want their community to be. Watching them answer those questions and discover a community that they didn’t even know was available is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

[Caution warnings: racism, misogyny, past abuse, structural oppression, manipulative exes, dubious consent in backstory]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.