Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence

Carmella reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is an atmospheric gothic novel from debut author Jane Healey. Set during World War II in an English country house, it contains all the genre’s staples – supernatural disturbances, hidden rooms, spooky dreams, dark family secrets – along with a good helping of sapphic romance. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre and thought “OK, but what if Jane fell in love with Bertha Mason instead?”, then this is one for you!

When the Natural History Museum’s collections are evacuated during the London Blitz, a menagerie of taxidermied mammals are sent to Lockwood Manor – along with their newly-promoted director, Hetty Cartwright. What with the manor’s imperfect storage conditions, the creepy atmosphere, the unwelcoming servants, and Major Lockwood’s sexist arrogance, Hetty would have enough trouble keeping her collection in order. But then some of the animals start to go missing.

While Hetty investigates who’s responsible for her missing charges, she grows closer to the Major’s delicate daughter, Lucy. Lucy’s mother and grandmother both passed away recently in a horrible car accident, causing Lucy’s childhood nightmares and sleepwalking to relapse. In her dreams, she wanders the house, desperately searching for a room that doesn’t exist, and remembering her mother’s warnings about la diablesse – a devil-woman in white who haunts the manor.

The romance between Hetty and Lucy is slow to build, and it’s touching to watch them slowly discover their attraction to one another. Healey is a master at ‘show don’t tell’ when it comes to her characters’ feelings.

And how could I review this without mentioning the eponymous animals? The taxidermied collection in Hetty’s care are characters in their own right: the truant panther, the faded hummingbirds, the towering polar bear. Hetty worries about them constantly, and you feel invested in their welfare too.

Then there are the human animals. Throughout the novel, Hetty compares other characters to the creatures in her care: Lucy is a cat, the housekeeper is a Rüppell’s fox, one of the maids is a chipmunk. This adds a fun flare to character descriptions, but also reflects that people can be just as beastly as animals – particularly Hetty’s host, Major Lockwood.

The Major is a wonderfully dislikable antagonist. He reminds me of gothic leading men like Rochester, Heathcliffe, or Maxim de Winter. Except that instead of asking us to believe he’s actually a romantic love interest (despite his patriarchal beliefs, violent temper, and mysteriously dead wife), Healey lets him be the villain of the piece. As someone who always wants gothic heroines to realise how awful their leading men are, I appreciate a novel that finally gives me what I’m looking for!

I’m a big fan of gothic literature, so I was delighted by Healey’s inclusion of so many classic gothic elements. If there’s a gothic trope you can think of, it’s probably in this book. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel predictable or formulaic – the tropes are thrown in more like nods to Healey’s predecessors. You can feel the influence of Jane Eyre (fun fact: Healey was named after her), Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Angela Carter, The Woman in White – and probably a load more that I’ve missed on my first reading.

If you’re a fan of gothic or historical fiction – particularly authors like Sarah Waters, Laura Purcell, and Daphne du Maurier – then I would highly recommend The Animals at Lockwood Manor. It’s a tense, claustrophobic read, full of opulent descriptions and chilling twists. The novel is published on 5 March by Mantle in the UK and 10 March by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Elinor reviews A Fairytale of Possibilities by Kiki Archer

British wedding planner Lauren is in the business of making dreams come true for other people. But in her own life she’s been pining over her straight best friend Rachel since they were teenaged university students together. In their eleven years of friendship, Lauren has drifted from girlfriend to girlfriend every several months while nursing her secret crush. Rachel, meanwhile, married the boyfriend she met at university, had a son and became a stay at home mom, and was widowed. It’s been two years since her husband died and Rachel decides she’s ready to get back out there–possibly with women. After so many years of fantasizing, though, making Lauren’s dreams real isn’t as easy as the fairytale she’s had in mind.

Lauren and Rachel’s friendship is full of banter and flirtation from the first pages of the novel and has the shared language of long-time friends. The pair’s conversations hooked me and are just plain fun to read. It made sense to me that Lauren didn’t want to risk a friendship that fulfilled her in so many ways by making advances she thought would be rejected. It also made sense that Rachel had more complicated feelings for her friend than she’d previously explored.

The characters shine in this book. I really appreciated that Rachel’s son Parker behaved like an actual kid. Writing children can be tough and I’ve read a few romance novels featuring single moms in which the kids are placeholders. Not so here. Parker is his own character. Plus Lauren has her own loving relationship with Parker, another thing she doesn’t want to risk. Rachel is a devoted mom doing the right things: taking her son to a grief support group, keeping him connected to her in-laws, trying to determine what’s best for him as she considers what she wants. Other highlights include Lauren’s ridiculous, but ultimately helpful, assistant Trudy, and Lauren’s absurd clients, whose relationships offer some unexpected lessons in love. Though Rachel’s pestering brother-in-law is a cartoonish antagonist and could be much more nuanced, he keeps the story moving along.

The obstacles in the way of the relationship develop, and are resolved, organically. Lauren’s competitiveness and Rachel’s conflict avoidance pop up throughout, so when these cause problems, it makes sense.  I appreciated that Rachel doesn’t have an identity crisis about her interest in women and that it’s Lauren’s idealizing that throws many a wrench in things. I also liked that Rachel’s late husband isn’t an afterthought, and he and his accidental death have an impact throughout the novel. Near the end this involves a pretty intense conversation that neither main character handles well. I thought this made sense and that a romance involving a relatively recent widow is going to have some painful moments. Also, a friendship as intertwined as Lauren and Rachel’s will have clashing perspectives and hidden fears about shared grief. It might be heavier than some readers want, though, especially because the rest of the book is quite light and at times pretty silly. I liked the angst near the end but if you don’t want that, skim this conversation and skip ahead a bit.

Overall, Archer combines great dialogue, occasional low-brow humor, and hot sex for a fun read.  This is a great easy read for lesbian romance fans.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, out this month. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com


Marthese reviews The Princess Affair by Nell Stark

princessaffair

“You deserve a princess, Kerry, but a princess who will hold your hand in public” – Harris

I admit that I am not much of a romance book reader, but this summer I was travelling and wanted to read something light that didn’t get me hooked, so I could drop it if I needed to. The Princess Affair, for being a romance story was quite good. I was in the awkward position of liking a few clichés but disliking others and I think that this book, did well with that.

This is a romance story between sporty, nerdy and American Rhodes scholar Kerry and Princess Sasha (Alexandra) from the house of Carlisle. The chapters varied in POVs between them. The Royalty factor is the cliché bit, but I have to admit that I could be a bit of a romantic and the idea of a royal romance story leaves me with a warm feeling. I wanted the story to be realistic; to be romantic because it was do-able and I think this book succeeded in that.

Princess Sasha comes off as pretentious and wild (“the princess seemed wild around the edges”) but there is more to her and she had depth, she’s not perfect but she’s human. Kerry is quite likable and I could relate to her a lot. Sasha and Kerry learned to see through each others’ masks and see the baggage the other one had. I liked the chemistry that the two women had together it seemed genuine. They also talk about their relationship and though at times there are misunderstandings they work for the relationship to work but they have trust issues. Sasha doesn’t think she can have a real relationship while Kerry doesn’t think Sasha will stay with a women for the long run.

A thing that I liked was that they did not have sex from the start; at first not for lack of trying but then they decide to take it slow so it was towards nearly the middle of the book when it happened. It was not insta-love although there was insta-attraction.

As usual, I have a tendency to like side characters. I liked Ian and Harris as characters and what they gave to the plot. I liked that they were gay and their friendship and working relationship with queer women. I also like how Ian warms up to Kerry while still being protective of his charge and how Harris helps Sasha and still being on Kerry’s turf. However, I didn’t particularly like Miranda. In her scene with Kerry in the club towards the end, she was less annoying but I still do not think she was redeemed from haven proven that she was not a good friend to Sasha.

The cherry on top was their trip to (North) Ireland. I was reading that bit when flying to (South) Ireland so that gave it more perspective for me.

In the end I love how Sasha stood up for herself and all she represented. How she stood up for gay rights (though I think she meant this as an umbrella term for queer people considering her previous comments) and learning (dis)abilities. I liked the tidbits of politics and architecture thrown in and media assumptions and affects. It has a good ending I think and worth a read if you want to read a queer women romance.