A Rapidfire History of Queer Women’s Spaces: A Place of Our Own by June Thomas

A Place of Our Own cover

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This year, I’m doing the 2024 Read Harder Challenge—well, I should hope I am, because I’m the one running the challenge and writing the newsletter this time! (You can subscribe if you want recommendations plus weekly updates on my reading, though some of it is for paid subscribers.) One of the tasks is to ask a librarian for a recommendation, so I asked a librarian friend of mine, and they recommended this one. A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture is just what it sounds like: an exploration of queer women’s spaces, including lesbian bars, feminist bookstores, softball fields, lesbian separatist communities, sex toy stores, and queer women events.

I really liked the idea of this book, and it’s written in an accessible, easy-to-read style, so don’t be worried if you don’t read a ton of nonfiction or history books. There are plenty of interesting facts packed in. For example, I was surprised to see acclaimed children’s book author Jacqueline Woodson pop as someone who fought against racism in lesbian event spaces. The feminist bookstores chapter especially made me nostalgic for a time I didn’t really live through: you really see how much the bookstore owners cared and how they truly created community centres, unlike so many stores that claim that today without doing a fraction of the work these bookstore owners were doing.

At the same time, I think this book had a lot more potential. It felt a bit scattered, jumping around in time within chapters. It also sometimes went on tangents—like talking about Harvey Milk starting a camera store—that don’t really fit into the theme and would have been better left to a footnote. Also, a few times the book skims over what seem like the most interesting stories, like offhandedly mentioning a lesbian bar being firebombed in one sentence but going into depth about the history of another bar instead.

The author is clearly passionate about this subject; they include a lot of personal interviews with the subjects. It sometimes feels like a friend getting so excited to tell you about their interest that they go in a bunch of different directions at once, for better or for worse. There are some really interesting aspects, like reflecting on how lesbian bars are expected to be all things for all queer women: inclusive, but an escape from men and the straight world. A place for dancing and cruising, but also a place where people can chat and find community without having to yell over the music. A high-end cocktail bar and a cheap place for beer. That’s something I also appreciated in Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America by Krista Burton.

I’m glad I read this, but it’s not one I can whole-heartedly recommend because of that scattered feeling. It can also at times feel overly apologetic of the transphobia and racism of these spaces in different decades—but then later calls it out explicitly. In some ways, I think it’s an impossible task to try to cover all of these different histories in one book. I think I prefer reading about just one of these categories in greater depth. Still, if this looks interesting to you, it’s worth picking up. Just be prepared to fall down a few rabbit holes along the way.

A Cozy Queer Bookstore Fantasy: Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

the cover of Bookshops & Bonedust

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This is a prequel to Legends & Lattes, which I adored. It’s a cozy fantasy novel with low stakes and impeccable vibes. Let me skip the conclusion of this review: if you liked the first book, I can’t imagine you won’t also like this one. And if you didn’t like Legends & Lattes, why would you be picking this one up?

There are a lot of the same beats as the first book. While in that one, Viv retired from adventuring, in this one she’s temporarily laid up with an injury. Until her leg heals, she has to wait it out in a village. She’s only been with her adventuring group a couple of months, so she’s antsy to return and nervous of being left behind. Still, she has no choice: for the next few weeks, she has to take it easy.

In book one, we saw Viv build and run a coffee shop with the help of some new friends. In this one, she continues the theme of accidentally collecting friends despite her gruffness, but this time, she’s helping to fix up a bookstore! Viv isn’t a reader, but being barred from strenuous exercise drives her to visiting a rundown bookstore looking for escape. Fern, the rattkin bookseller, manages to make her a reluctant bibliophile. Along the way, Viv helps her to try to save her failing business, starting with a redesign.

One fun difference in the format of this volume is that we get excerpts from the book she’s reading! Fern sensibly starts her with an adventure novel, and then convinces her to try a romance. The excerpted books have their own writing styles, and most of them are sapphic, too.

Speaking of sapphic, I was curious about how the romance element in this prequel would go. I was invested in the romance I knew unfolded later in Viv’s life, so how much could I enjoy a doomed relationship in years prior? That turned out not to be an issue. Both Viv and her love interest know she’s only in town for a few weeks, and they’re both going into this knowing it’s temporary. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but there are no hard feelings. Also, I really liked the love interest, who I won’t name because I had fun trying to figure out who it would be. I’ll just say I can see why Viv was interested.

At a glance, this can look like just a retread of the first book: a ragtag group of new friends help to renovate a small fantasy business in a cozy, low-stakes setting. Just swap the coffee shop for a bookstore. In some ways, that’s true—this might have a little more plot and one higher-stakes chapter, but it’s still very cozy and has many of the same elements as the first book. I don’t know what to say other than that it works. Like a cozy mystery series, the repeating elements are a feature, not a drawback. It had exactly the cozy, comforting feeling I was looking for, and I’d honestly read ten more books in the series just like it.

Besides, Bookshops & Bonedust has a big advantage over Legends & Lattes: Potroast the gryphet. (He’s the pug/owl little guy on the cover.) Also, I love that Fern and Viv end up accidentally adopting an animated skeleton.

If you’re a cozy fantasy fan, you have to pick up this series. I think you can read them in either order. In fact, I’m not sure I know which one would be better to start with. Either way, I will be eagerly awaiting the next book set in this world, and I’ll keep these two ready for whenever I need a comforting reread.

Shana reviews Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could be by Chelsea Cameron

Who We Could Be is a fluffy, heartwarming romance about supposedly straight best friends who fall in love with each other. The story loosely reimagines two of my favorite characters, Anne Shirley and Diana Barry from Anne of Green Gables. I sometimes find coming out stories too predictable and trite. I loved this gooey, angst free story anyway, and recommend it for when you need an inclusive, low-conflict read.

Tessa is a quiet, nurturing, librarian who falls asleep most nights while giggling over the phone with her best friend Monty. She’s engaged to be married to a guy no one much likes, especially outspoken Monty. The two friends are fiercely and unapologetically each other’s most important person.

Monty works at a bookstore owned by her lesbian trans aunts, and is also engaged to her sweet friend Gilbert Gus, who she adores, but is more likely to play games with than kiss. When Tessa’s lackluster fiance cheats on her, Monty takes her on an alternate honeymoon. This leads to the two going on practice dates to help Tessa ease into dating again. Along the way these two figure out what everyone around them already knows: they’re perfect for one another.

Tessa and Monty have an intensely loving friendship, and watching them discover their romantic side left me squealing with joy. Their dynamic is a balm for every fan who sighed over two straight characters who clearly should be dating each other, whether that’s Rizzoli and Isles, or Diana and Anne.

Who We Could Be has an idyllic, fairy tale quality. It’s set in a progressive small New England town, and cocoons the characters within this supportive atmosphere. Instead of leaning into the drama of ended engagements and newfound sexuality, the story resolves potentially obstacles easily, letting Tessa and Monty’s playful relationship take center stage. I appreciated that the characters come to recognize their queer sexuality before falling in love with one another, and the role Monty’s aunts play in their drama-free coming out process.

Cameron specializes in stories about BFFs who fall in love, and after reading Who We Could Be, I devoured her backlist. This remains my favorite version of this trope. Highly recommended for fans of quiet romances.