Meagan Kimberly reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado cover

In this collection of short stories, Carmen Maria Machado does what skilled horror writers do best: she examines real-world beliefs through a lens that highlights that real horror isn’t monsters, but our own societies. This collection grapples with the trauma and horror women and women’s bodies are put through by a patriarchal society that wants to see them submit.

In the first story “The Husband Stitch” a woman gives her lover everything he desires but keeps one thing to herself–the secret of her prized green ribbon. He’s so entitled that he constantly demands to know why she’s so attached to it, but she refuses to give him this one thing she wants to be hers. They even have a son together and one day after hearing his father ask about the ribbon, he asks about it too, but she doesn’t tell him, creating a rift between mother and child. It’s a poignant moment that illustrates how toxic masculinity is taught and passed down from one generation to the next. Finally, at the end of the story, tired of the questions and demands, she lets her husband remove the ribbon and her head falls clean off. It’s a not so subtle metaphor displaying how the demands and entitlement of the patriarchy end up killing women.

“Mothers” tells the story of a woman left with a child she doesn’t really want, not without her partner at least, who left them. But Machado’s narrative twists to make it seem like the main character had a mental breakdown and that the child, Mara, never existed. Rather, it appears as if the protagonist has broken into another family’s home and abducted their daughter. What made this story particularly scary was the inability to tell which narrative was real. It’s a tale that plays with reality and the psyche.

Machado dives into pop culture with “Especially Heinous – 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” Each snippet acts as a summary of an episode, but they’re not episodes of the real show. At least, that becomes clear as the story goes on. But at the beginning, it’s truly hard to distinguish if the synopses are real or not as they sound like actual plot lines from the series.

In “Real Women Have Bodies” an employee of a boutique fashion shop witnesses the strange phenomena of women disappearing and becoming invisible beings. They haven’t died, they’re just no longer corporeal. Even more horrific, these women are getting stitched into the very clothing the store sells, showing the still solid women stepping into their places. With this tale of horror, Machado depicts how the patriarchy keeps women controlling each other, doing men’s dirty work for them.

One of the most fascinating stories, “The Resident,” takes classic horror elements to create a sapphic scary story that’s part The Shining and part The Haunting of Hill House. This story highlights Machado’s skill in creating erotic horror out of lush and sensual language, with lines like, “a voluptuous silence that pressed against my ear drums.”

Every story features a queer main character, making the horrors and trauma they experience that much more terrifying. Because even though these are fictional stories, are they? Haven’t queer women–specially queer women of color–been subjected to unspeakable horrors in real life? At what point do stories and reality merge? Machado’s writing truly leaves readers with a sense of unease in trying to untangle those threads.

Meagan Kimberly reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics (Feminine Pursuits) by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Minor spoilers toward the end

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a fun historical romance about a widowed countess and lady astronomer. Lucy wants to pick up her father’s work and do the translation for a famous French astronomer for England’s science society, but lo and behold, they’re all men and sexist as hell. Lady Catherine, the society’s main patroness, doesn’t care for that at all and takes her funds to Lucy’s endeavors. Naturally, they fall in love, and romance and angst ensue.

The driving force behind Lucy and Catherine’s meeting is heartbreak. Lucy, who’s always known she only loves women, wants to run away from home after so much loss. Aside from being rejected by her lover who chooses to marry a man, her father passes away. She loved him dearly and worked alongside him for so many years. When she comes across the work of Oléron, the famous French astronomer, among her father’s work, she’s determined to throw herself into this work as well.

Lady Catherine, recently a widow, only wants to take a lover to satisfy her needs. She doesn’t want love and romance, and she certainly doesn’t want to get married again. But her previous lover after her late husband’s death wanted to marry her, so she had to call off the affair. In comes Lucy, stirring feelings in her she never knew she could have for a woman, and the idea strikes her: if she takes on a woman as a lover, she’d never have to marry. As is bound to happen in a romance novel, when two characters are running away and most definitely NOT looking for love, they find each other.

The sweetest part of their romance is how much they support one another. While Lady Catherine finances Lucy’s translation work and assures her she’s just as brilliant as the cocky bastards in the society, Lucy validates Catherine’s own artistic talents and assures the Lady her needlepoint skills have as much merit in the art world as any painter or sculptor. Together, they help each other realize their dreams. This balance and celebration of both STEM and the arts makes Lady’s Guide a delightful narrative that highlights how these pursuits complement one another.

Waite creates a highly sensual atmosphere with the sex scenes between Lucy and Catherine. They highlight the importance and eroticism of consent, as well as taking charge of one’s pleasure and desires. There’s never any shame between the two women, even as Catherine engages in intimacy with a woman for the first time. She’s never repulsed by her feelings, but rather confused, as she never thought it possible. Lucy in turn shows a great deal of respect for her partner, making sure she’s comfortable and enthusiastic every step of the way. They both take great care to address each other’s needs.

Minor spoilers:

Perhaps one of the best moments in the book is when it’s revealed that Oléron is a woman. The whole time the society, and Lucy herself, assumed the famous French astronomer was a man. This point gets tangled in Lucy’s discovery of other women like herself who have studied and furthered the sciences through history and who were silenced or else had their work taken by their fathers, brothers and other men. It leads her to her newest endeavor, which is to collect the work of these women and continue their scientific pursuits while giving them their due credit. A wonderful feminist ending for a Regency story with misogynistic conflict.

Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.

Danika reviews Biketopia edited by Elly Blue

A smart person once told me that the key to having a good life in the face of world’s uncertainty is to find something that is meaningful for you and go all-in for it. For me, that’s the real appeal of both bicycles and science fiction–no matter how grim the world looks, each other can take you to a place where you can see another perspective, explore your options, and even if they each have the potential to create as many problems they solve, at least you’ve gone somewhere in a way that feels good.

The introduction to Biketopia 

If I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that my favourite part of Biketopia is the cover. That’s not a slight on the stories! It’s just that the sight of this beautiful illustration of a badass woman raising a bike above her head is arresting. Add on to that these are speculative fiction, feminist, bike-centered stories? I’m sold several times over!

There are only two blatantly queer stories in this collection, but all the stories do focus on women and their relationships with each other. The premises range, including semi-utopias, horrific dystopias, classic sci fi, as well as settings that seem all-too-possible.

The first sapphic story is “Meet Cute” by Maddy Spencer, the only comic of the collection. It is wordless, and shows our main character bringing her bike-powered bookmobile through a town. Although we obviously don’t get a big backstory, this seems like a peaceful, cooperative place, and bikes look to be the only means of transportation (other than by foot or wheelchair). When her bikemobile tips over, an adorable mechanic with an artificial (robot? magic??) arm repairs it for her, and hands her a phone number while they both blush furiously. It’s very short, but super cute.

The other queer story is “The Future of Flirtation” by Leigh Ward-Smith. Mika runs a mobile shop in a post-climate-change, water-starved world. When a 6-foot-something muscled figure strides up to her stand, she is immediately smitten, even though she has no idea the gender or even species of the person behind the mirrored helmet. She spends the story attempted to flirt with them, while bartering over a cold can of Coke.

This was a fun read, and although there weren’t many stories that were incredibly memorable, I did find the variations on “feminist bicycle science fiction” stories interesting. They definitely went in different directions. This is actually the fourth volume of the Bikes In Space series, each of which explore feminist sci fi stories about bicycling, so that sounds like your style, you should pick one up! (Probably this one. It has queer stories and a sweet cover.)

Lesbrary Sneak Peek (or: Stuff I Got In the Mail This Week)

I’ve got one hundred unread lesbian/queer women books I own (one hundred and four, to be exact) and probably about three hundred more at the library I can access at any point, so even the queer women books I have I’m probably not going to read for a while yet. That’s why I have Sneak Peeks: a look at books that I’ll eventually be reviewing, but I haven’t read yet. I got three queer women books in the mail this week (thanks Bookmooch!), so I thought I’d do my first sneak peek post on them.

Stone Butch Blues is a queer classic and it’s one I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It’s by trans activist Leslie Feinberg and is about the character Jess Goldberg who deals with being differently-gendered/butch in a blue-collar town in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This is said to be one of the first novels that explicitly dealt with transgender issues. I’ve heard this is an incredibly powerful book and I’m very much looking forward to reading it and sharing it at the Lesbrary.

On a completely different note, I also got the book Night Mares in. I haven’t read a lot of mystery… as a matter of fact, I think I’ve only read one mystery, one of the Rita Mae Brown Sneaky Pie Brown ones. I didn’t like it very much, and now that I think about it, that might have been all that it took to turn me off the entire genre. I know that’s ridiculous, so I’ve been searching for queer women mysteries to read and challenge that. This one features a lesbian veterinarian. I doubt I’m the only lesbian that grew up wanting to be a vet, so I figured this would be a great place to start. It’s the second in the series, but I doubt that will make much of a difference.

This one I think speaks for itself. Lesbian feminist science fiction? Sign me up! I haven’t read a lot of scifi, but again, I’m trying to start. This collection is from the 70s and 80s, so it’ll be interesting to get that viewpoint.

Lots of fun new books! Have you gotten any queer women books lately? Are there any you’re particularly excited to read?

Also, have you read The Needle on Full, Night Mares, or Stone Butch Blues? What did you think of them?