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 Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!

Carmella reviews The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton

Elise Morceau is enjoying a winter’s walk on Hampstead Heath when a striking older woman catches her eye. It’s attraction at first sight for the pair of them. Soon Elise is being whisked away by Connie – a successful author whose book is being developed into a Hollywood film.

Does this sound like the plot to a romance novel so far? Although romance is an important part of the book, the genre’s about to turn into a mystery.

Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for the mother who left while she was still a baby. All her father will tell her is that Elise’s disappearance is linked to two books from the 80s.  Between her unfulfilling job and her failing relationship, Rose is ready for some intrigue. When she tracks down the author, she manages to bluff her way into a job interview using a fake identity. Now she suddenly finds herself assistant to this arthritic stranger, Constance Holden, helping her to work on a third novel after a long spell of inactivity. But how did Constance know Elise, and how will Rose get the truth out of her?

The Confession is Jessie Burton’s third novel too – and one that’s been hotly anticipated after the bestselling success of The Miniaturist and The Muse. I loved Burton’s attention to historical detail and the authentic character voices in her other books, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on The Confession to see if it lived up to them.

Just like in her previous work, the bonds between characters are Burton’s greatest strength: the rocky passion between Elise and Connie, Rose’s fizzling-out love for her boyfriend, the guarded intrigue Rose feels for Connie, and – at the centre of it all – the absent space where a mother-daughter bond should connect the two timelines. All of these are written so believably that I really felt transported into the psychologies of the characters.

Although I (of course) love a tumultuous romance between two women, the most compelling strand for me wasn’t actually the story of Elise and Connie’s relationship, but the modern-day plot where Rose tracks down Connie. I really enjoyed watching Rose trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to her mother, and the tension of whether Connie would uncover Rose’s true identity. It’s like Chekhov’s gun: you know it has to go off at some point, so you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time waiting for it to happen.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 80s more. I think it was an issue of pacing: the start of Connie and Elise’s relationship unfolds so quickly that I didn’t feel like I’d had the chance to watch them fall in love. Because of this, I wasn’t so invested once things start to get difficult between them.

Even so, the modern day sections had enough drive behind them that I was still propelled through the book.

I also appreciated Burton’s refreshing take on writing about motherhood. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it doesn’t fall back on the tired narrative of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment. Burton isn’t afraid to write about postpartum depression, [Spoilers:] or to show that, for some women, a happy ending is deciding not to have children at all. [End spoilers]

Burton has definitely continued the momentum of her first two novels in The Confession, and I’m excited to see where and when she’ll take us next. Hopefully she won’t follow in Connie’s footsteps and make us wait three decades for another book!

Trigger warning: abortion, child abandonment, postpartum depression

Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Carmella reviews This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide

This novella was sold to me as “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s love letters, but in an enemies-to-lovers time travel agents au”. I’m not normally a big fan of SFF, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued by a pitch like that!

Red and Blue are operatives fighting on opposite sides of the time war. Both come from different post-human futures: Red is from a technologically-enhanced race (think androids) working for the Agency, and Blue from the environmentalist society (think wood elves) of Garden. Although they are non-human beings with seemingly different social constructions of gender, both use she/her pronouns.

The plot begins on a bloody battlefield. The agent Red discovers a handwritten letter marked ‘burn before reading’. What follows is a chain of coded correspondence as Red and Blue chase each other across parallel pasts and futures–different ‘threads’ of time which operatives manipulate with the aim of bringing about an eventual victory either for the Agency or Garden.

The novella is mostly told through these letters (although ‘letters’ is a loose word–messages can be hidden in anything, from the feathers on a goose to the flavour of a berry) as we see Red and Blue’s relationship develop. Are they falling in love? Are they playing one another to gain a tactical advantage? Where do their loyalties lie? What does ‘winning’ actually mean? And all the while, they are both being trailed by a mysterious Seeker.

There’s an obvious Romeo and Juliet influence going on, especially towards the end [Spoilers, highlight to read] when we get into the territory of apothecary poisons and fake-out suicides, but I can reassure you that in this case there’s a happy ending in sight. [End spoilers]

I think the Virginia/Vita comparison was also pretty apt. Red and Blue come from completely different cultures and have no fixed context (thanks to all the time travel). As Red writes in one letter, “Mrs. Leavitt suggests relying on metaphors one’s correspondent—that’s you, I think?—will find meaningful. I confess I don’t entirely know what’s meaningful to you.” This means they have to communicate in the abstract, in poetic language and high-fluted imagery. The resulting beautiful, lyrical prose style is one of my favourite aspects of the novella.

El-Mohtar and Gladstone do a great job of conveying the characters’ passionate emotions without it ever getting too sappy (although maybe it is a little pretentious here and there – if you’re not into purple prose this may not be one for you).

However, the abstract nature of the letters was also one of the things I found most frustrating. This may sound odd from someone who isn’t generally into SFF, but I found myself wishing there was a little more explanation of the mechanics of the world! In some ways I respect that the authors chose to focus more on the characters’ emotional journey rather than on the hard sci fi world-building–for example, I like their decision never to explain how the agents actually time travel–but at times I did find myself getting lost. I could have done with a few more concrete markers to help me follow the plot.

Even so, I did manage to enjoy the story a lot. The time loop shenanigans are great fun (although thinking too hard about them might result in some head-scratching over paradoxes) and the romance between Red and Blue is beautifully developed. And it’s always good to see diversity in SFF–a story with two queer female(ish) leads, one of whom is specified as having dark skin, is a welcome arrival.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to everyone, but if you enjoy poetic writing and don’t need to know all the world-building details to enjoy a sci-fi setting, then this may be for you! Plus who doesn’t love the red/blue trope in their gay romance?