A Slow-Burn Romance About Rival Cartoonists: Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

the cover of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey

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The dedication at the start of Outdrawn by Deanna Grey reads, “For oldest daughters who have become creatives obsessed with perfection.” This perfectly encapsulates this slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance about the importance of valuing yourself and finding people who value you. 

Noah Blue is an up-and-coming cartoonist who just got her big break as a head artist for a relaunched classic, Queen Leisah. Unfortunately, she’s sharing that role with Sage Montgomery, her rival since college, who has been at the company for years and does not want to share her own big break with a newbie. Meanwhile, their personal webcomics are competing for readers on the same website, with Noah only recently beginning to threaten Sage’s ranking. While Noah strives to surpass the woman she sees as her primary obstacle, Sage works just as hard to defend her throne.

They bring this competitive dynamic into the workplace, trying to one-up each other for their higher-ups’ approval rather than collaborating. Of course, with this being a romance, as they inspire each other to greater heights and form an undeniable chemistry, it becomes clear that working together will get them further than tearing each other down.

While they’re equals in passion for their art, Noah’s pastel pink cardigans and people-pleasing habits contrast with Sage’s leather jackets, motorcycle, and aloof demeanor. Noah’s webcomic is a mermaid romance that Sage definitely hasn’t comfort binged, and as the story progresses, Sage starts an action-packed sci-fi comic about enemy spaceship captains with a suspicious amount of chemistry.

The development of this dynamic was a highlight of the book for me. Their fierce rivalry transitions gradually and believably into an alliance, and finally, a romance. Throughout, the characters learn to emphasize communication. One challenge with this sort of dynamic is allowing the pair to keep the banter that sells this type of setup, without having it feel mean-spirited within the actual romance. Additionally, even as their personal relationship changes, they’re still in the same competitive field and can’t share every opportunity. Because they talk through these challenges and set up proper boundaries, I fully bought into their happy ending, and the third act manages to have plenty of conflict without a dramatic breakup or misunderstanding.  

I mentioned that this book is ultimately about valuing yourself. Throughout, the characters struggle with giving up their time, health, and emotions to people and companies who don’t value those things. They have experienced creative burnout and physical injury, sometimes with little payoff. It shows the different facets to working in a creative industry, as they’re both passionate about their work, using art as their lifeline in so many ways. However, there becomes a point where they have to step back and take care of themselves. This is where it becomes important to team up rather than pushing themselves even further in the name of competition. Due to working in the same field, they understand each other’s passions as well as setbacks, allowing them to support each other.

In contrast, their families do not always offer that support. As the eldest daughter in her family, Sage stepped up at a young age to care for her younger brothers in the wake of their father’s alcoholism and their mother subsequently shutting down. Almost a decade into Sage’s career, she is still financially supporting her family, who assumes she does not need help in return, and she has become used to shouldering that pressure alone. Meanwhile, Noah’s family claims to be supportive, but they do not understand her work as an artist, often making belittling comments that lower her confidence. As a result, she experiences a lot of anxiety, and part of her drive comes from a need for validation. 

Better support comes from their coworkers, who create a charming office dynamic. Within their relationship, the duo channels their rivalry to inspire each other to greater heights while ultimately giving each other a safe place to land. I also enjoyed the debates the pair have within the office as they pitch their own visions for the Queen Leisah comic. They have opposing storytelling sensibilities and strengths as artists, but neither is presented as right or wrong, and there’s no conclusion drawn on the one ‘right’ type of story to tell or way to tell it. 

This book also touches on the importance of representation. Noah is an out lesbian while Sage is out as bi, and their impact on a younger generation of artists is demonstrated. Some of their struggles are brought up as well. Queen Leisah, a Black woman with goddess powers, is considered a cult classic character, and the company piles the pressure on their team to make her reboot an instant lead title. Their editor points out that they can’t afford to be mediocre the way that the company’s other teams can, as the higher-ups won’t give them that grace. Some of the debates Noah and Sage have center around how to flesh out Queen Leisah’s character. It provides a mirror to Sage and Noah’s own experiences, as they want her to be portrayed as a whole person rather than only being valued for her sacrifices. 

In addition to covering serious topics, this book oozes charm. The romance and friendships are precious, and there are even illustrations after some chapters showing character profiles or samples of the characters’ sketch pages. 

My critiques are on the technical side: I feel that the book could have benefitted from one more editing pass to catch errors, as well as tighter pacing near the end. While I appreciate the emphasis on communication within the relationship, as a reader, I got to a point where I felt the story’s message had already been communicated and would have been happy with some of the later scenes being more concise. These are minor notes, however, and overall I recommend this to anyone who could use some warm, fuzzy feelings.  

The author’s content notes: “This book includes brief discussions of biphobia and lesbophobia, parent struggling with alcoholism, parentification, a brief mention of suicidal ideation, and sexually explicit scenes.”

A Steamy Lesbian Historical Romance in France: An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

the cover of An Island Princess Starts a Scandal

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“A person could live a lifetime in six weeks, Your Grace. Entire lives have been changed in less.”

Picture this: it’s summer, your sunscreen is applied, and you’ve taken the day off to spend solo on the beach. You’ve already taken a dip in the ocean. You lay out your towel and get all your fun drinks and snacks ready, and you pull out An Island Princess Starts a Scandal: a steamy F/F romance set in 1889 Paris. Bliss. That’s how I read this title, and it was the perfect setting for this romp of a romance read.

I’m not usually a big romance reader, especially historical romance, but this changed my mind about what a historical romance novel could be. It has such a fun premise. Manuela is a lesbian engaged to a wealthy man, but she has a summer of freedom in Paris with her two best friends before she gets married. She plans to spend this time exploring the sapphic side of Paris in one last debaucherous adventure.

There, she meets Cora, a wealthy businesswoman giving off Anne Lister vibes. Basically the only thing of value to Manuela’s name as a single woman is a small parcel of land she inherited, and Cora needs it to complete a lucrative railway project. Manuela agrees to sell it on one condition: Cora needs to be her guide to the lesbian nightlife of Paris. Oh, and did I mention they already met once before at a queer sex club?

This made for a perfect beach read. I always love seeing the gay side of Paris in the late 1800s/early 1900s, especially the art and literary side. Manuela is a painter, so we see a bit of that: Manuela sees examples of women who have managed to make a living doing their art, something she thought was impossible.

That setting combined with the premise had me hooked from the beginning, and the dynamic between Manuela and Cora kept me reading. Manuela is reckless, indulgent, and clever, while Cora is more tightly wound and ambitious. They clash, but they’re also instantly obsessed with each other. Both are leveraging their power over each other before the land deal goes through for good, and they’re both pretending they’re fine with this being a purely physical, limited time fling.

I can’t leave off that this is perhaps the steamiest romance novel I’ve ever read. There are a lot of sex scenes, everything is described, and everything is described in detail.

I did sometimes get hung up on the writing style, because there are a ton of sentence fragments. They’re a stylistic choice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write that way, but they’re frequent. I did sometimes snag on that and get distracted from the story.

This is part of a trilogy of romance novels, each following one of three friends as their love stories play out simultaneously during this summer. I liked seeing glimpses into those stories, and though the other two are straight romances, I still might pick them up, since I had so much fun with this one. This is the second book in the series, technically, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by starting here.

If you’re looking for an immersive and sexy romance to escape with for a while, I highly recommend this one.

Danielle reviews Sirens & Muses by Antonia Angress

the cover of Sirens and Muses

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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

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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

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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 Indestructible Object by Mary McCoy

Indestructible Object cover

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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.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

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

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

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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.

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.