Carolina reads A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

“Dark Academia” is a cultural trend sweeping Tumblr and Tiktok, an eclectic sub-community gauzed in stark, academic aesthetic and darkly gothic themes. On any dark academia moodboard, you can find androgynous tweed suits, dark libraries, sepia-tined cigarette smoke. However, the trend has little place for female characters or sapphic relationships, as it primarily focuses on classical homoeroticism. A Lesson in Vengeance eschews the male-gaze and is a wildfire of sweeping speculative historical fiction embedded in a thrilling, sapphic magic mystery, becoming my go-to dark academia recommendation. 

One year ago, Felicity Morrow’s girlfriend, Alex, died under mysterious circumstances at the hallowed Dalloway School, a boarding school for gifted girls built upon the bones of the Dalloway witches, five girls part of an occult 17th century coven whose strange and inexplicable deaths haunt the campus. Now, Felicity is back at Dalloway, torn between putting the past behind, or discovering the truth behind Alex’s death. The choice is made for her by the enigmatic Ellis Haley, the newest pupil at Dalloway, who draws inspiration for her best-selling novels through an extremist take on method-writing. When Ellis decides to write about the Dalloway witches, she and Felicity become intertwined with the past when they decide to replicate each of the witch’s deaths to uncover the truth of what happened all those years ago, and reveal the darkness that lies in their hearts.  

The vintage, macabre aesthetic of the novel is incredible, full of immaculate detail and atmospheric writing. Lee was also sure to include nods and winks to the literary canon of female horror through references to Shirley Jackson, Helen Oyeyemi and others, providing built-in book recs for those interested in female-led horror. The novel also is not limited by the young adult genre, as it is constructed with just the right amount of gore and suspense needed for a perfect horror story. Our main character, Felicity, is as thrilling and twisted as any Amy Dunne or Tom Ripley; a new sapphic star of the thriller world.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted feminist thriller about the lengths one would go through to survive. Lee takes dark academia staples, such as mystic rituals gone awry and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and imbues them with their own wit, style and uniquely queer flavor, creating a new home for sapphic women in the genre. Also, do yourself a favor and follow Victoria Lee on Tiktok, they’re a delight. 

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advanced copy!

Content Warnings: substance abuse, trauma, death, gaslighting, mental illness, violence, gore, neglect, animal abuse

Sinclair Sexsmith reviews A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee

I got my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee, which is a dark academia, witchy, teenage boarding school sapphic romance which includes seances, a three hundred year old murder mystery, and ghosts.

After seeing about it from the author herself on Tiktok, I had to keep an eye out for it. I suspected I would enjoy it, and I really did. I will definitely pick up other work by Victoria Lee.

It was easy to read, very much a page-turner. Lee set up the suspense in the story from the very beginning, trickling out bits of information from when the main character, Felicity, had attended this spooky but elegant Dalloway boarding school in the past before having to take a year off. We get many clues and hints into what happened in the past, including a romance with the brilliant and now dead Alex, but it takes a good amount of time for it to all be explained. Meanwhile, Felicity meets Ellis, new to Dalloway but already wildly popular since she is a famous novelist, and they begin a whirlwind, intimate friendship.

I don’t want to give away much of the actual plot, moreso just a feeling for the tone of it. I looked forward to reading this and found myself making time to read, which is always a good sign that I’m enjoying the book. I enjoyed the characters, and loved how the book dealt with queerness — as just reality, not necessarily something to be deeply reckoned with or to have an existential crisis over. I loved how clever and intimate the characters were, and especially the whole tone and setting of the boarding school with witchy vibes. Highly enjoyable read.

Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance is out August 3, 2021.

Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Danika reviews Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins

If you’re looking for a fun f/f YA romcom, this is the perfect fit. I’ve been on a bit of an audiobook slump lately. I am very picky when it comes to audiobooks: they have to have the right narrator, and an interesting enough plot to pull me in, but it also has to be something I can miss a sentence of and still hold the thread, and I prefer them to be fairly light. It makes it very difficult to find a good fit, especially combined with my other book tastes and my library’s audiobook selection. Her Royal Highness finally broke through that slump, and I whipped through it.

Millie has been obsessed with Scotland since she first saw Brave. When she applied to stay in a fancy boarding school there, she didn’t expect to actually get in, never mind get a full scholarship that made it a real possibility. But heartbreak gives her an excuse to take the leap, where she immediately clashes with her roommate–who happens to be a Scottish princess.

I knew this was a hate to love story, but at the beginning of the story, I was skeptical of how I could root for their relationship. Flora comes off as obnoxious and even cruel, and I couldn’t see how Millie could end up wanting to date her. Hawkins pulled it off, though, slowly making Flora a more three dimensional and likable character, and before I knew it, I was totally invested in them.

This is Royals Book 2, but reading the first (m/f) book isn’t all necessary for this one. It gives you some fun insight into some side characters in this one, but that’s all. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for the kind of sweet and angsty love story that comes out of hate to love stories. Check out the audiobook if you want the Scottish and Texan accents!

Susan reviews On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

On a Sunbeam by Tillie WaldenTillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam is a beautiful f/f science fantasy graphic novel that started life as a webcomic. The first half is split between Our Protagonist, Mia’s, present, where she’s part of a crew that restores old buildings IN SPACE, and her time at boarding school where she has a fledgling romance building with the sweet-but-unusual Grace. The second half shifts up a gear into Perilous Adventure as the crew of the Sunbeam go looking for closure.

I’ve mentioned how much I like Tillie Walden’s art before, and On a Sunbeam keeps up the tradition. I love her use of colour and space, and the way her art carries so much of the world building and storytelling. Everyone lives on tiny chunks of land in space and spaceships are fish, it’s never explained, and I am quite happy to roll with that because it looks really cool! (Please recommend me more stories where space is treated like the sea, I’m always here for them.) There is a real sense of history and age to the buildings that Mia and the Sunbeam’s crew work on, and different architecture across the galaxy. Plus, Tillie Walden’s use of limited palettes across the entire story means that it’s always clear what time you’re in and which characters you should be expecting.

I was so fond of all of the characters – they all felt realistically complicated and had tangled relationships with each other, and I love them? And they all have their own things going on, or their own secrets in their pasts, and I like that! Especially the non-binary non-verbal badass, who is an actual force of nature. (As fair warning: for the most part, everyone’s really respectful of Elliot’s pronouns and not speaking, but there is one minor character who doesn’t even try, despite how upfront Jules is about making sure people know. She does get dressed down for it, and only has maybe three scenes total, but it is a factor.)

Spoilers in the next paragraph!

There’s something so realistic in the way that Mia talks about her life after Grace – it went on as normal, and the way she talks about that is refreshing and warming. Yes, there is life after whatever dramatic events happen to you, and sometimes they are ridiculously normal and boring! And the way the story opens up in the second half is like a magic trick; the Staircase comes across as a weird space full of culture and dangers that are completely alien to everyone. A lot of it went unexplained, but I thought that worked with the style of the story itself. We get bits and pieces from Mia’s memories of Grace, and from Elliot. It’s very character focused, even in the section that’s most full of action and drama, which means that we get the pieces of information most relevant to the characters, rather than getting all of it in chunks. And the ending is so hopeful, to me. I appreciated that Mia and Grace don’t fall straight into each other’s arms; they’ve grown into different people, and now they’ve got an opportunity to work out who the other one is!

End spoilers!

And because I’m me, I would like to take a second to wail about the families in On a Sunbeam! There are families of origin, families of choice, families who love each other and drive each other up the wall and will do whatever it takes for their family! It’s delightful and sweet, even with all of the drama and peril.

Basically, I adored On A Sunbeam in all its weird space-fish glory, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

[Caution warning: bullying, misgendering]

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.

Danika reviews As I Descended by Robin Talley

As I Descended robin talley

When I heard a YA book was coming out that was a lesbian boarding school Macbeth retelling, I was already on board before I had even heard that it was by Robin Talley, the author of one of my favourite lesbian YA books.

This isn’t a direct retelling of Macbeth, but it does cover most of the main plot points, and it delivered exactly the kind of broody atmosphere full of revenge plots that I was hoping for. There are some great nods to the original story, including the chapter titles all being lines from the play, but it also works if you haven’t read or seen the play–or if, like me, you read it years ago and have to Wikipedia the plot details. The haunted boarding school (built on a former plantation) adds to the creepy factor, pulling in a strong Southern Gothic vibe.

As I Descended immediately drops us into this atmosphere, with the main characters summoning spirits with a Ouija board. I really enjoyed this brooding story, but I was surprised when the genre started to slip slightly into horror territory. I would definitely warn anyone planning on reading it that there are triggers common to horror, including blood and violence, as well as a blurring of reality.

It’s probably silly to mention in a review of a Macbeth retelling, but this gets very dark. If you only read LGBTQ books with a happily ever after, this isn’t the book for you. These are deeply flawed people, and the relationship at the heart of Descended is an unhealthy one. Maria (read: Macbeth) and Lily (read: Lady Macbeth) obviously are devoted to each other, but Lily knows how to manipulate Maria and uses that information. Maria initially seems to be an ideal student and friend, but as soon as she begins to lose that moral high ground she can’t seem to stop slipping.

It’s enough to have a lesbian YA Macbeth retelling, but there are other elements going on in this narrative as well. Maria is Latina, and her understanding of what’s happening to her and the spirit(s?) in the school comes from her relationship with Altagracia, her childhood nanny, who taught her how to communicate with spirits. Mateo is also Latino, but he has a different understanding of the spirits at the school. Lily is desperate to overcome being seen as just “the girl with the crutches”, and is terrified of adding “lesbian” to that.

Mateo, Brandon, Lily, and Maria are all queer, so no one character has to represent all of queerkind. That way, although a Macbeth retelling has a low survival rate, this doesn’t feel like a “Bury Your Gays” situation, because a) it’s a genre that demands a high death rate and b) no one character is The Gay.

I did feel like I couldn’t quite understand why Maria changed so drastically over the course of the book, and I was surprised at the tone change from “delightfully broody” to “I’m legitimately horrified”, but those are small complaints.

I would definitely recommend this one, especially on a blustery fall evening.

Marthese reviews Elves and Escapades by Eleanor Beresford

elvesandescapades

“you’ve grown up more than you want to admit”

Elves and Escapades is the second book in the Scholars and Sorcerers series. The book is only 136 pages and you’ll fly through it like a Pegasus (heh).

This book picks up after the events of the first one and is similar in its tender tone and adventures. It’s filled with hot-headed and strong characters and so many friendships that could serve as an example in real life!

We see more magical creatures in this book and also we learn more about some students, especially young ones with crushes on Charley and Kitty, the trouble-maker from the fifth.

We see a development to the characters as well. Rosalind, despite appearing so fragile is also very strong and takes initiative. As she says, she makes her own choices. Cecily is as supporting as ever and has Charley’s back no matter what and this is reciprocated. Esther is loyal despite being self-centered and she asks for little in return. Gladys and Frances are interesting characters for some drama. Diana, from her end, is back to causing trouble though you cannot help but feel sorry for her.

The romance happens! Of course, there were some misunderstandings but Charley and Rosalind do manage to solve them like grownups. There’s a bit of misplaced jealousy from both sides, but nothing that is triggering. At times, especially during the holidays, it feels like Charley and Rosalind are in their own tender bubble. They discover intimacy together and you see the rush of first love.

Charley and Rosalind are two gentle people, that are kind though Charley is sometimes crass and they are both powerful. Clearly, they make a good power-couple!

Towards the end, two things make an appearance, one can be guessed by the title, the other based on the previous book. The adventures seem to be escalating! The book ends with hope for the future on all fronts and it is so uncomplicated in its way that it makes you feel better. There was a scene that I think did justice to ‘virginity’. I am not that comfortable with the whole concept overall but during the end, it was clear that ‘untouched’ didn’t mean simply by a man and that was validating what the couple had (although there was no need, it was nice).

On a side-note, I like the Pegasus graphic in chapters! I think they’re cute. Also, Rosalind’s surname is Hastings and I couldn’t not imagine her as a Pretty Little Liar Hastings! These are small things that make the reading experience better.

Overall, this was a sweet read, with some spice and adventure. I would recommend reading soon after you read the first book and without much breaks as my enjoyment was diluted due to commitments and flights that wouldn’t let me continue reading it. It’s a short fantasy adventure, set in a boarding school with magical creatures and more queer characters than the main ones, so be sure to give it a read if you are into that!

Guest Lesbrarian: Shanna

Another guest lesbrarian post! I love these. Please, please feel free to submit your own! Thank you, Shanna!

“‘And those awful rumors the students are spreading,’ Laura continued in a whisper. ‘Half the student body should be in the care of a psychiatrist, in my opinion.’”

So, at one point in my not-too-distant history, I was actually locked in a garage.  That is, someone locked me in the garage.  Yes, and it is all the fault of vintage lesbian pulp fiction.  I was out there, just hanging out and reading this giant encyclopedia of cheesy, bosom-heaving goodness, when my housemate thought it would be terribly funny to lock me out.

Whatever.  I promise that is related to this post. My point is, this stuff was bestselling back then because of it’s awesome, raunchy, over-the-top plots and forbidden love.  And you know what?  It’s still awesome, and I want to kiss Monica Nolan for bringing it back.

I’ll admit, I was sucked in by the amazingly campy cover of this book, perched enticingly on the new books display at Central Library.  This “First Shocking Printing” of Nolan’s third novel didn’t disappoint, either, and once again, I am rewarded for judging books by their covers.

The book is a campy mystery at an elite boarding school for girls.  Who killed the companion of the Metamora’s headmistress?  Did she jump from the tower in the middle of the night, or was she pushed?  Who is the glowing bicyclist that the students report seeing in the forest?  Are some of the girls actually able to communicate with the spirit world?  And how is it possible that girls from St. Mary’s were able to defeat the Metamora field hockey team?

The book is pure fun: full of sports puns, pulpy girl romance, and a funny cast of characters.  I am delighted to see the lesbian pulp fiction genre resurfacing with this light-hearted author, who doesn’t disappoint when she serves up this intrigue-laced romance against the perfect backdrop of the terribly cliched boarding school.  What’s not to like?

Happy Reading!

Nolan, Monica. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher. New York: Kensington Books, 2010.  290 pp.

Author’s website: http://www.monicanolan.com

Thanks again, Shanna! You can check out her blog here.