Nat reviews Plain English by Rachel Spangler

the cover of Plain English by Rachel Spangler

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Rachel Spangler is probably one of my most read authors of sapphic romance because they are so darn reliable. I’ve never been disappointed. In my mind, I often refer to Spangler as “the author who writes sports romance,” and yeah, I’m a big sucker for a feel-good sports story. But Spangler’s writing is much more diverse than that label gives them credit for, and their newest book Plain English showcases that range.

I’d already read Full English last year, the first book in the English series, which is set in the small English town of Amberwick. Plain English, the third book, features many of the same characters. (I somehow missed the release of Modern English, the second book – more on that later.) It doesn’t matter much if you read the three English books out of order, but it’s always fun to have that experience of already knowing some of the established cast. That said, from the synopsis I was generally expecting a pretty straightforward continuation but with more royalty, angst and motorcycles. 

We’re introduced to a very flawed, sometimes infuriating protagonist Lady Phillipa Anne Marion Farne-Sacksley of Mulgrave. (Titles, titles, titles, announced in my best Robert Baratheon voice.) Lady Mulgrave, whose preferred name is Pip, or also literally any name that isn’t “Lady” Mulgrave, is a bit of a playboy with a Peter Pan complex. Here for a good time, not for a long time. We meet Pip in a way that immediately showcases their gay disaster profile: while sneaking out of a one night stand’s bedroom and wrecking a vintage motorcycle in a field within the span of a couple of hours. 

Enter Claire Bailey, a financially struggling artist looking to find her way after trying to keep her head above water in London for the last decade. Claire might be a bit of a mess herself, but she’s well on her way to getting that mess sorted. Learning (mostly) from past romantic mistakes, and moving forward with a new chapter of her life. Claire unexpectedly meets Pip by way of the aforementioned embarrassing motorcycle fiasco, and she immediately catches the aristocrat’s eye. Of course Pip is exactly Claire’s type, a type that embodies some big red flag energy wrapped up in a handsome, irresistible package. Claire knows any kind of relationship will end in disaster, and that Pip has a life and a path already mapped out due to the nature of English custom and aristocracy. And thus the perfectly reasonable idea of embarking on a short term relationship with plenty of boundaries (ha!) and absolutely no complications whatsoever (haha!). 

Don’t let the cheeky, playful banter between these two fool you. Claire and Pip are some of the most raw, vulnerable characters I’ve seen on the page in romance recently. The first love scene and the communication between them as they both navigate uncharted waters was perfectly executed. I also appreciated how Claire and Pip’s close friends set aside their personal feelings and frustrations to support someone they care about in their time of need, while acknowledging that Pip still has their own issues to work out. There’s a lot of hurt/comfort happening throughout, so buckle in. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) Please excuse me while I jump forward to gush a bit about Pip’s character. We see a lot of adult characters in romance processing past trauma, healing, grieving – but we don’t always get to see them in the midst of a full-fledged identity crisis. Especially one involving gender identity. This was an unexpected aspect of the book, and I cannot stress how much I loved it. There were some moments in the book, especially as Pip deals with their conservative, controlling family, that really punched me right in the feels. I want to tell you so much more about it, but it’s best to just experience it for yourself. (End spoilers.)

Back to this book existing as part of a series – one reason I might recommend checking out Full English first is to experience the growth of a particular side character who returns in Plain English. We first meet Reggie in Full English when she’s just a pup, experiencing her adorably awkward and earnest interactions with the adults who recognize something familiar in her, which is explored further in Plain English. It is precious. You will love her. 

That said, I also realized while reading the book that I’d missed the second installment in the series, Modern English, and caught up after I started writing this review to make sure I hadn’t missed anything big. If you want more of an introduction to how aristocracy works and all those stodgy English rules, then maybe you’d prefer to read all three in order. Of the three books, Plain English was hands down my favorite, but as a series, they complement each other so well that it would be a shame not to read them all.  

Rachel reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor cover

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If you like dark, historical novels with a brooding mystery at the center, you’ll love Jane Healey’s The Animals at Lockwood Manor. A queer novel set at a remote country estate in England at the beginning of World War II, the twists and turns of this novel—like the hallways at Lockwood Manor—will surprise you.

In 1939, war has just broken out across the world. In London, Hetty Cartwright is helping to evacuate and safeguard the natural history museum’s vast collection of specimens. Her job is to transport and maintain the large collection of mammals to Lockwood Manor, the vast and daunting estate well beyond the blast zone of the blitz. However, once she arrives at Lockwood, Hetty encounters its cavernous hallways and dark corners alongside its unwelcoming and controlling Lord and his intriguing but allegedly frail daughter, Lucy.

Soon, Hetty realizes that keeping the animals at Lockwood safe entails far more than protecting them from bombs—despite the meddling of Lord Lockwood and the servants, strange things begin to happen at Lockwood; animals go missing, museum property is destroyed, and much worse. Something seems to be stalking Lockwood and the animals within it—and maybe even Hetty herself. Hetty’s only consolation is the darkly beautiful Lucy, who is haunted by her own nightmares and demons. Soon, it falls to Hetty to protect Lucy and unravel the mystery of Lockwood Manor—are the grounds cursed and haunted by spirits, or could it possibly be something worse?

I very much enjoyed this book. Historical fiction set during any time period is a favourite genre of mine, but I especially like novels of WWII. Healey did an excellent job of bringing to life one little-known aspect of the war, and her narrow focus on these fictional events underscored the widespread effect of war on these characters. The setting was intriguing and haunting—a rambling, castle-like house on a remote estate filled with the hulking taxidermy forms of animals is the perfect setting for a creepy mystery like Healey’s. I felt fully immersed in the world throughout the novel.

Hetty’s character was an excellent perspective throughout the novel. While there are short, dream-like interjections from Lucy’s perspective, these only add to the mystery. Hetty’s voice is the primary vehicle through which we encounter the strange happenings at Lockwood and her headstrong, industrious personality was refreshing. She was someone who was easy to relate to, despite the historical setting, and it was exciting to unravel the mystery of this novel and its characters alongside her.

Lucy’s character was similarly intriguing. One thing I felt unsatisfied with in this novel, however, was the romance. While Lucy and Hetty’s partnership was enjoyable and relatively convincing, the discovery of their feelings for one another felt a bit stilted and indelicate. The novel seemed to lurch into a lesbian relationship rather than flow into one. While it is difficult to frame lesbian desire in a historical setting, I felt that, in this case, Hetty and Lucy declaring their love for one another was a bit too disjointed at times.

Nevertheless, the end of this novel was a lovely and haunting conclusion. Hetty and Lucy’s partnership was far more grounded at the end of this novel, and overall I felt that the book was an exciting historical mystery with haunting elements that kept me guessing.

Please visit Jane Healey on Twitter and put The Animals at Lockwood Manor on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. 

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Rachel reviews The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter cover

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Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite lesbian writers, and one of my favourite genres is historical biographical fiction. Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (2009) is a masterfully paced, well-plotted literary novel with a lesbian twist. And it’s based on real events!

The Sealed Letter is told from three perspectives. The first is Emily “Fido” Faithfull’s. She’s a spinster and an early suffragette living in Victorian England. When her estranged friend, Helen Codrington, returns from India with a reasonable explanation as to her absence, Fido is once again drawn behind the curtain into the sordid details of Helen’s marriage, her husband’s aloofness, and Helen’s own affairs with army officers. While Fido tries to help her friend without soiling her own reputation in the process, things are not as simple as they seem, and as Helen’s divorce case moves to the public forum of the courtroom and Helen’s husband and Fido discover more of the truth, more than one secret will come to light. Based on the real events of the Codrington Divorce Case in the 1860s, Donoghue’s novel is neo-Victorianism at its best.

As always with Donoghue’s historical biographical fiction, I found myself enthralled with her writing. For anyone interested in the nineteenth century and historical fiction generally, Donoghue’s voice clearly inhabits the period, and her characters are always so vivid and clearly differentiated. This was the case in The Sealed Letter. With a cast of three primary actors who are all moving in disparate directions with conflicted desires and motives, the power of the novel is in its intrigue and in the questions that arise from long-ago friendships. Donoghue is an expert at clarifying a subtly queer undercurrent that draws on historical ideas around women’s relationships, as well as modern understandings of what some of those women might have truly meant to one another.

Although this book’s plot might seem rather straightforward, there are a number of twists and turns that kept me guessing until the very end. I had a hard time putting this one down, and, as always, Donoghue’s afterword provided brilliant insight into the real people she has made characters of in the book.

If you’re a fan of Donoghue, queer historical fiction, or courtroom dramas, The Sealed Letter is the book for you!

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Sealed Letter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse.  

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Mary reviews Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame

Courting the Countess by Jenny FrameI loved Downton Abbey. Was it a classist, heteronormative, and super white show? Yes, it was trash. But it was my trash. It was the kind of show that I loved not just for my engagement with the characters, but because of what could have been. One character in particular that kept me coming back was Thomas, the gay footman. He was kind of a jerk, and it was explained away that homophobia made him a jerk, and maybe that’s something to analyze at another time – but the point is there was one single gay character in the whole show. And I, a lesbian hopelessly drawn to the historical fiction genre, was left in want.

Now, years later after Downton Abbey has ended and it’s ending for Thomas left something to be desired, I’ve now found a book that feeds my hopeless desire for a gay historical drama around a small English town: Courting the Countess by Jenny Frame.

Harry Knight is an archeology professor at Cambridge who sleeps around and avidly avoids emotional attachments, scoffing at the idea of love. When her father dies and leaves her as the Countess to Axedale Hall, she must return home to see that her grandfather’s wish of bringing it back to its former glory is fulfilled.

Annie is a single mother with a difficult past who remains positive and hopeful no matter what. When she is hired on as housekeeper for Axedale Hall, the last thing she expected was a handsome butch for the Countess. However, no matter how much she wants a happily ever after, above all else she will strive to do what’s best for her daughter, Riley.

Harry and Annie immediately have this insane chemistry that leaps off the page. Their romance was passionate as well as cute. Harry resists because of her past, which lead to many challenges and dramatic twists. Annie is determined to, as the titles says, court Harry and push down her walls. There was never a dull moment with them.

Another part I loved was how alive the town was. All the side characters felt like they could have their stories and I actually enjoyed reading about them as well as the main cast. This is important to me, because in romance stories so often the side characters are just one dimensional soundboards only there to get the two heroines together. That was not the case in this book. It really did feel like Downton Abbey in this aspect and I kept waiting to see a switch of POV to someone else.

Annie having a child was something that worried me before I started reading. Kids can be tricky characters to pull off, but Riley was just as real and vibrant as Harry and Annie. I really identified with her, having also been the nerdy kid that didn’t get along with everyone immediately. Watching her bond with Harry about archeology was sweet and added an extra layer to the story.

Overall, this was a really fun romance that I highly recommend!