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!

Emily Joy reviews The Daylight Gate by Jeannette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for sexual assault and pedophilia

I must first admit that I am new to Jeanette Winterson’s books. Previously, I’ve only read Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and I know that she is a well-known lesbian author. Otherwise, I don’t know much. I picked up The Daylight Gate because I wanted to know more, and, as a historical fiction lover, I was drawn to this book, and hoped that it might get me started in the right direction. In the end, I think this book is more of an outlier for her works.

This review contains very mild spoilers, but I have been careful to preserve the twists as much as possible.

The Daylight Gate is a highly fictionalized account of the witch trials in Lancashire, England in 1612. Alice Nutter is a wealthy female landowner, and although no one quite knows her age, she is regarded as beautiful. She is a private person, and mysterious even for those who know her. This novella follows several characters, but ultimately it is about how two young women become involved with each other and with black magic, and how that relationship results in a dungeon full of suspected witches.

When I picked this up, I was imagining something akin to books I’ve read about the Salem witch trials⁠ — innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unfortunately finding themselves caught up on the wrong side of a rumor. The Daylight Gate is not that. It is the opposite of that. This is a book about black magic, and what happens when two young women become involved in it.

The two young women I mention were previously lovers, and their lives intertwine throughout this book, bringing many surprising twists and unexpected revelations for the reader. I honestly couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and the reader experience while figuring out the twists was one of the best things about this book.

[We] were lovers and we lived as lovers, sharing one bed and one body. I worshipped her. Where I was shy, she was bold, and where I was hesitant, she was sure. I learned life from her and I learned love from her as surely as I learned astrology and mathematics from John Dee and necromancy from Edward Kelley.

Their relationship is never perfect, and I could not bring myself to care about them as a couple even in the beginning. My apathy towards them seemed justified when one eventually turns to black magic, and in a bargain for her soul, sacrifices the other to “the Dark Gentleman”, for him to rape. So… that was a bit startling.

This rape is not the only one in the book. Rape is treated as very commonplace, and occurs or is mentioned in nearly every chapter. While I wouldn’t have minded the griminess and violence of this novella, the constant presence of rape was unsettling in a way that made the book itself unenjoyable for me. There is a young girl who is abused terribly by her family, and particularly by her brother who takes her with him when goes out to “pay for his drink”. I don’t want to talk about this at length, but it is worth noting that the man who rapes this girl most often is later revealed to be her father, which some readers may want to know before choosing to read this book.

Other aspects of this book, while disturbing, are not unbearable, and suit the genre. Horror is meant to illicit a physical response in readers, and this book definitely succeeded in that. The (nonsexual) violence and rather horrific magic made me shudder, which I think is a success in the horror genre.

There is also a general feeling of despair and inevitability throughout the narrative. It feels as though the idea of the “dark ages”, usually applied to the early Middle Ages, has instead been transported to the Renaissance. Everyone is unhappy, dirty, abused, and starving. Which, while that isn’t necessarily untrue of many people during this time period, this book seems to exaggerate in order to create a truly bleak existence. This kind of atmosphere, although it felt inaccurate, was compelling, and I read this book in one sitting.

As for the magic, it is truly thrilling and terrifying. As I stated earlier, I picked this up assuming it would be about innocent people caught in a rumor, and the beginning of this book does lead you to believe that the people involved are ultimately innocent. As the book progresses, however, the amount and shock value of the magic only grows, and definitely helps make this book a page-turner.

This book is a blend of horror and historical fiction, and if that is your cup of tea, you might enjoy it more than I did. While its good qualities do not outweigh the bad for me, it did keep my interest, and it might keep yours, as well.

Shira Glassman reviews Proper English by KJ Charles

Proper English by KJ Charles

I can think of no more convincing way to start my review/endorsement of KJ Charles’ new book Proper English than these words I added to a reblog of an aesthetic post on Tumblr: “I just read this yesterday! Folks, y’all know there’s an Edwardian lesbian romance that is also a country house murder mystery where the lesbians solve it and live happily ever after, right? Well, now you do.” Plus, the love interest is a beautiful, not-thin woman who is just described as voluptuous and pretty with no disclaimers.

For some of you, that’s all you’ll need and you’ve already one-clicked it or requested it at your library. But if anyone else needs convincing, here are some more details.

The leading lady, Pat, has never been married and likes to go hunting with the men in her social sphere (specifically, “shooting”, which is birds.) There’s an awesome conversation between some of the female characters about vegetarian objections to hunting (in the person of the book’s Indian character, Miss Singh) vs. objections from a meat eater who is merely squeamish about where her food ultimately comes from, vs. the hunter herself. It’s cool to see women talking about “issues” in a book that combines two genres in which one doesn’t usually expect deep philosophy — fluffy romance and country-house murder mystery.

But it is a book with deep bits, small ones that are easy to swallow. Pat’s love interest, Fenella, for example — her storyline is all about her frustration and heartbreak with how often her personality is misread by everyone with whom she interacts. She can’t live up to her own potential so she ends up living down to people’s expectations, therefore proving them true. She’s able to grow through her contact and eventual romance with Pat, who tells her — and this is great advice I had to learn myself, as a baby queer — “People are awfully lazy, and ready to take other people at the value they put on themselves without thinking twice.” (It doesn’t always work; I know that. But it’s at least a useful tool occasionally.)

I forgot this was going to be a murder mystery until the book’s most annoying character, a racist piece of excrement married to the host’s sister, was a no-show for two meals in a row. Then the fact that I’m the kind of nerd who owns 95% of Agatha Christie’s output and even has then on their own special bookshelf kicked in and I realized, oh, wow, no wonder the author made him so over the top annoying! Because that’s a favorite technique of Christie’s, too — and she’s the reason we have country-house murder mysteries — to make the murder victim super awful so that 1. we don’t miss them as a reader and 2. so there will be a healthy crop of suspects because of how many people would breathe easier without Mr. Excrement walking the earth. “The house is full of motives,” as Pat tells Fenella.

There are no Agatha Christie books where the lesbians walk merrily off into the sunset together. Believe me, I’d know. Instead we get dead lesbians, guilty lesbians — all implied, all under the surface — or just no sapphic representation at all, which I prefer to the depressing stuff honestly. So to have my favorite genre of literature include a f/f HEA was a real treat!

I won’t say this book totally scratched my puzzle itch, so its strength is mostly as a romance novel. That’s fine. I wanted to write a Christie-style mystery my whole life and once I tried it (A Harvest of Ripe Figs) I realized how astronomically hard it is to pull off a surprise solution that is truly a surprise. But the world definitely has too few happy, fluffy lesbian historical romances, so it’s nice to have a nice solid new one.

Historical romance also granulates, inasmuch as “Regency romance” is a subgenre separate from “medieval romance”, etc. As far as I can see it, every era of f/f romance is important, because they will always be filling their own niche. After all, one can find a m/f romance set in any era one wants (for example: I love reading about 1660-1770 because of the gigantic skirts and Baroque architecture!) so it would be nice if readers of f/f had the same opportunity. So this book is a nice good quality contribution to that cause!

(P.S. I can’t remember the details but these characters show up in a m/m country house/spy thriller set a few years later, Think of England, which I reviewed back when I wrote it. So this is their backstory.)

Shira Glassman is the author of extremely fluffy, sometimes sexy, f/f fantasy and contemporary romance. Read her latest: Cinnamon Blade, Knife in Shining Armor (superhero/damsel in distress) or Knit One Girl Two (sweet contemporary.)

Marthese reviews Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

“We’re not allowed to touch any of them, no matter what they do to us”

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley was a difficult book to read, but an important one. While it is a fiction book, it is realistic; it could have happened. I found this book at the library. It hadn’t been on my radar but don’t you just love when you recognize books as being queer that’s to their covers?

Lies We Tell Ourselves is set in 1959 in Virginia during Integration and it tells the story of Sarah – one of the first few black students who are trying to integrate into a previously all white school – and Linda, the daughter of a newspaper editor who heavily influences people and is against forced integration. Sarah is one of three senior, who try to take care of their younger peers. Sarah’s sister Ruth also is one of the new students and so Sarah is constantly worrying about her.

The high school is a hostile place. Almost nowhere is safe and almost no one stands up for them. What follows from day 1 isn’t just bullying, it’s torture. Sarah thinks it won’t get better and she isn’t wrong: mostly because in public, things stay the same but in private, thanks to the classic group project, she starts to befriend (or be cordial with) Linda and her friend Judy who doesn’t mind that Sarah is black. Judy was in fact Sarah’s first connection. The development of Linda and Sarah’s relationship was realistic. It took time and they had a lot of disagreements.

Deep down, Linda knows she is wrong. Linda is trying to escape her father’s house by getting married to an older man. Despite being a public figure due to her father, even when she had not yet realized that she was wrong, Linda is compassionate. Yet, she cares very much what people say about her. Breaking down such ingrained feelings is evidently hard. The same goes for Sarah. She lets her parents dictate her life for her and to take her life back from them, it’s a long journey. The chapter titles and themes are all lies that Sarah and Linda tell themselves and the slow deconstruction of them.

Sarah and Linda both feel invisible despite being so public, no one knows who they really are. This bonds them in a way that nothing else would. They grow together and decide their own future. The romance part of the book I think was not as important as the rest of the plot but if romance were to overshadow something so harsh like integration and systematic racial hatred and discrimination, it would be a problem. Romance is not a solution, simply a by-product realisations and character development.

Every step is a struggle. The plot deals with some major triggers of violence. I found myself scared for the black students at every page that took place in school. There were some major incidences of violence, although I can safely assure that no one dies. There is also a lot of victim blaming, so beware.

It’s a difficult read but an important one. There is plenty of build-up for the relationship and issues aren’t magically resolved through attraction, which I appreciated. There is great character development, and I grew attached to the side characters as well: they were all so strong.

I’d recommend for anyone that has enough strength to read something like this. Something that didn’t necessarily happen as is, but with the possibility that the different instances did happen to people in the past and with the hard truth that some of these things still happen.

Ren reviews Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

Tell It to the Bees by Fiona Shaw

During a classic late-night spiral down an internet hole, I happened upon the trailer for the not-yet-released movie based on this book. The trailer appeared to follow the same depressing arc we accept in film as As Good As It Gets For Us, but the book was available at my local library, and the carefully-skimmed-to-avoid-spoilers review I glimpsed on Goodreads promised me a happy ending. I was still wary, but the book was a short one, and let’s be honest: a whisper of queer representation and we all start running headfirst into walls. So I picked it up and went in with the lowest of expectations – mostly just hoping I could get through it without putting it down too many times.

I have pretty specific needs when it comes to period pieces; while I certainly have exceptions, generally speaking, I don’t go out of my way to read period sagas of war or famine or heartache. I want Jane Austen. I want some bumps and misunderstandings that end in the bad guys getting what they deserve, and the good guys coming out on top.

Suffice to say, queer period pieces are usually very much not my thing.

I’ll read them/watch them for the three seconds of pleasant content – because I’m gay and I can’t help myself – but I’m always mad from the get-go because we know how these things tend to play out.

Tell It to the Bees took me wholly by surprise. Shaw is not in a hurry to tell her story, and while I’m not always in the mood to have the plot move along so slowly, the book as a whole is such a quick read, I was okay with sitting back and letting her paint her picture in her own time. Much of this book was read in the company of my girlfriend – currently a nurse, but a Zoology Major in another life – and I constantly interrupted her down-time to fact check bits of information about bees and hive mentalities as I read. There were so many interesting threads to this book, and they were woven together delicately and deliberately. This was my first introduction to Fiona Shaw, and I am now very curious to see what else she has to offer.

Jean is the town doctor. Single. A pretty big deal, for 1950s Scotland. She’s rational and a little distant, and she spends most of what little free time she has between her best friend Jim, and her bees. A fight on the schoolyard brings Charlie Weekes into her clinic; Charlie is quiet and precocious, and drawn to a honeycomb Jean keeps in her office. The two of them bond over her bees in their reserved, introverted fashions.

Charlie’s father leaves him and his mother for another woman, and Charlie – bearing his mother’s sadness on top of his own – withdraws further into himself and the world of the bees. Jean eventually invites Lydia and Charlie to dinner; from there, Jean and Lydia form a tentative connection of their own through Jean’s library.

Already, we’ve touched on a good number of my favourite tropes. We have:

  1. Single Lady Doctor Who Does Not Have Time For Townfolk Judgement
  2. Young children with old souls who notice everything
  3. Books. So many books

In the usual fashion, Jean has a male best friend. Jean and Jim grew up together. Jim proposed to her when they were young and was subsequently turned down. Because reasons. Jim marries a pleasant enough woman named Sarah, and (again, in the usual fashion), there is an underlying note of competition between these two women over who best knows the man keeping the two of them together. There are so many pure moments in this book, but the note that struck me occurs just after Jean accidentally outs herself and Lydia during a dinner party. Jean panics and leaves the room. Sarah goes after her. I – the anxious reader – pull my blanket higher in anticipation of the impending dramatic moment when Sarah gets confrontational and threatens to out her to the entire town.

Only, it doesn’t happen.

Instead, in a display of human decency that should be so basic but isn’t (and thus, still took me out at the knees), Sarah accepts it all in a moment and moves straight to comforting this woman who is really only her friend because of her husband.

Men hear things differently from women, Jean. Even Jim, who’s better than most, and knows you as well as anyone. I don’t think he heard you. At least, not as I did… I don’t really understand. But I don’t think your love is wrong, and I’ll defend you against all comers.

It was more than a queer story. There was something so delightfully normal about it that I wanted to stay in the pages forever. I’m glad that we have so many deep, hard-hitting books to choose from, but every once in a while, I just want a queer version of that Jane Austen read. I want to know that there may be some bumps and misunderstandings, but at the end of the day, the bad guys are going to get what they deserve and the good guys are going to come out on top.

Despite what Goodreads tried to tell me, I was stressed to the max while reading this book. Some characters were lovely, and others were so horrid that I was certain either Jean or Lydia had to die/move away/marry a man and pretend the affair never happened. There were tense plot points. There were moments that struck close to home and really captured the rage that can occasionally take you by surprise when you are a queer person living in a hetero world, and can’t do things like hold your partner’s hand in public without it being A Thing. But the queers live happily ever after, and I will be buying my own copy of this book.

Megan G reviews The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique Grant has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime and she has no idea why. Reclusive Hollywood idol Evelyn Hugo has decided that it’s time for the world to know her story – the full, unabridged version – but she refuses to tell anybody other than Monique. Knowing this could completely change her life, Monique gratefully accepts and begins the task of recording Evelyn Hugo’s story. Still, the question lingers: why Monique? And why now?

I’d been wanting to read this book for quite some time before I finally got my hands on it, and let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a fictional biography of the titular Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1950s. Her story is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. From a far-too-young age, Evelyn is forced to make decisions that could potentially harm herself or others in an effort to remove herself from the poverty and abuse of her childhood. Her story takes us from her poverty-stricken childhood to the lap of luxury of her adulthood without missing a single untoward detail. She makes for a very ethically ambiguous protagonist, with deep, ever present flaws. She’s also a woman who has been through hell and back more than once, and who stirs up a great deal of empathy within the reader.

One of Monique’s first questions to Evelyn is, “Who was the actual love of your life?” This is apparently a popular question within Monique and Evelyn’s world, and one that Evelyn refuses to answer right away. Soon, though, it becomes clear that it was actually none of her seven husbands. You see, Evelyn Hugo is bisexual, and there was one woman she loved above anybody else throughout the course of her life.

This is the true heart of Evelyn’s life and her struggle. Her desire to be with the woman she loves mixes with her fear of being outed and losing everything she’s worked for. This fear often causes her to make frustrating decisions, ones that might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective. Still, it’s clear no matter where she is in life, who she is married to, or what she’s doing who her true love is, and how desperate she is not to lose her.

Monique, the woman writing Evelyn’s story, is just as complex – though maybe not in the drastic ways that Evelyn is. While she’s getting to know Evelyn, she also struggles with her own failed marriage (to which she has yet to receive closure) and a career that hasn’t gotten her as far as the wanted to be. While I couldn’t help but love Evelyn despite it all, Monique was easy to fall in love with. She’s relatable, flawed, and struggling in ways that most of us do. She is also written in a deeply emotive way that often had me reaching for the tissues, even in scenes that aren’t necessarily overly emotional.

While I cannot recommend this book enough, you should be warned that this book deals with a myriad of potentially triggering issues, such as emotional and physical abuse (spousal and parental), homophobia, internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these issues are dealt with tactfully and respectfully, though, and never feel as though they have been included simply for shock value. They make sense in the context of the story and of the worlds in which Evelyn and Monique live.

I truly cannot express how deeply this book made me feel. It is a true tour de force that must be read to be fully understood. Pick this book up as soon as you can.

Tierney reviews One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

It is so exciting to experience the current burgeoning of middle LGBTQ fiction: it feels absolutely amazing (not to mention freeing) to have enough books out there to be able to pick and choose and categorize, and set aside what misses the mark in favor of reading the good stuff. Shannon Hitchcock’s One True Way is the good stuff.

After the death of her brother and her parents’ subsequent separation, Allie moves to North Carolina with her mom, hoping for a fresh start in the fall of 1977. Despite being the new girl at Daniel Boone Middle School, she quickly finds her footing, thanks to the kindness of Sam, the easygoing star basketball player who is friends with everyone. As an intrepid would-be reporter writing for the school newspaper, Allie is no stranger to asking tough questions–but she has to turn her gaze inward as her deepening relationship with Sam brings up questions she must ask herself–and Sam–and new feelings she has to navigate, while trying to figure out what kind of support they can get from the adults around them.

Coming out stories may be more oversaturated in fiction and pop culture geared toward adults and young adults, but a middle grade story like this (especially one that is so well-written, thoughtful, and tender) is nothing less than stunning–especially one starring a 12-year-old girl, set in the 1970s, and in North Carolina no less. This kind of historical fiction is sorely needed representation for today’s queer youth–and One True Way is all the more special for the representation it skillfully weaves in for its protagonist. Allie has a strong network of adult queer role models, from her Uncle Jeffrey, who is mentioned in passing, to Coach Murphy and Miss Holt, two teachers at her school who are quietly in a relationship with one another (and are friends with her mom). Hitchcock has built a world that reflects a possible reality–one that is neither maudlin nor saccharine, that showcases beautiful, unabashed queerness in many forms without shying away from depicting the existence of harsh realities (unaccepting family members, intolerant religious institutions, an inability be out for fear of losing one’s job…) for her queer characters.

Today’s queer youth deserve tender historical fiction about a girl and her new best friend realizing they have crushes on one another–with all the ensuing teenage angst, and a decent portrayal (without being gloomy or heavy-handed) of some of the serious aspects of being a queer middle schooler in the South in the 1970s. And even more than its portrayal of a queer love story, One True Way’s portrayal of queer community is a bold and important statement to share with queer and questioning middle schoolers. While I so wish I had had books like this growing up, I am so grateful that today’s kids have works like this to read (and have even more to choose from, depending on what tickles their fancy!): One True Way fills a much-needed niche, and beautifully so.

Danika reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If “lesbian steampunk Western” doesn’t already pique your interest, I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll give it a try! Karen is a “seamstress” (a sex worker at bordello) in Rapid City, in the Pacific Northwest. She’s satisfied enough with her life–the girls at Hôtel Mon Cherie are a tight-knit group, and she’s saving up money to train horses–when, well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking: “Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap-a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.”

Although there is a murder mystery aspect to this, Karen Memory is much more of a fast-paced adventure, as Karen and her friends get tossed into increasingly more dangerous and daring situations. The steampunk element starts off pretty minor–it took me a long time to realize that the “sewing machine” was some sort of mechanical exoskeleton and not just a typical sewing machine–but by the end of the book, there are all sorts of wild steampunk elements that I don’t want to spoil for you.

My favourite part was the relationship between Karen and Priya. Priya is a recent Indian migrant, who was trapped in a human trafficking situation. She has escaped to the Hôtel Mon Cherie, and Karen immediately falls for her. This could fall under insta-love, I suppose, but I don’t really see the problem in being intensely attracted to someone at first and then building a relationship together, which is what happens here.

There is a diversity of side characters, including trans characters and black, indigenous, and Asian characters. They are, for the most part, well-rounded, but they are often described in ways typical of the time period. [Highlight for the particular language/slurs included:] The trans character is described as  having a “pecker under her dress,” but that it was “God’s cruel joke”, and she’s “as much a girl as any of them.” The indigenous character is described as a “red Indian” many time. The N word is included, though not said by the protagonist. There are more, similar descriptions used, but this gives you an idea. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that, and I’d like to read some reviews by trans, black, and indigenous reviewers to see what they think of it. I can see how it would be a response to the typical Western, by having a diverse cast, but still staying true to the time period, but I’m not sure you need to include slurs or racist descriptions to do that.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator did a fantastic job. I really got a sense of Karen’s voice. On the other hand, I have trouble following action-packed plots at the best of times, and by listening to the audiobook, I definitely dropped the thread a few times. I think I enjoyed it more by listening to it, but I probably would have understood what was happening better if I had read it. I’m sure this would be a fantastic read for fans of Westerns or steampunk books, especially if you wish they were a little less straight and white, but it wasn’t the perfect genre match for me. I prefer stories that concentrate on characters, and although I got a sense of Karen’s voice, I didn’t get to know her as a character as well as I would like.

Despite those notes, I did like it enough to immediately pick up the other book in the series, and it looks like I’m going to like Stone Mad even more: Victorian spiritualists are my jam.

Danika reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

I have been anticipating this book for a long time. I collect lesbian pulp, and I’m fascinated by the history of this period of lesbian literature. Pulp is a YA novel from two perspectives: Abby, a modern day out and proud lesbian, and Janet, a 1950s teenager just discovering that she’s a lesbian, and what that means for her life. Both of them discover lesbian pulp at the beginning of the novel, and it inspires them and their writing, though in different ways. I had very high expectations for this, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to them.

First, I have to talk about the pulp aspect. This is something that I really nerd out about, and it’s not often that I bump into someone else as interested in lesbian pulp as I am. So I was delighted to read about Abby discovering pulp–the wonder at the over-the-top but incredible covers, the initial disdain then growing appreciation for the genre as a whole, and the fascination with how these books fit into real people’s lives, authors and readers alike. I could relate to Abby’s obsession, is what I’m saying. There are also great easter eggs, if you are a lesbian pulp fan. Not only are real pulp titles name dropped (including Satan Was a Lesbian, which I have as a canvas print in my living room!), but a ton of the characters have the last names of famous lesbian pulp authors/pen names, including Aldrich, Sloane, Hastings, and Bannon (“Bannon Press” is the publisher’s name). And no wonder: not only did Ann Bannon (author of The Beebo Brinker pulp novels) have a blurb on the front cover, she also gave notes on an early draft of this novel!

But enough about my own obsession. Into the actual story! I thought it was balanced nicely between the two perspectives. They mirror each other in some ways (both lesbians, both authors, both enamored with a particular lesbian pulp novel), but they have very different personalities and settings. In Janet’s timeline, I appreciated learning more about the Lavender Scare, particularly in Washington, DC. I had heard of it before, but seeing how it infiltrated every aspect of these people’s lives was chilling–the smallest thing could mean being outed as a “homosexual” and therefore a threat to the nation. You could lose everything, just because someone thought your haircut was too short or that your friendship was too close. You could never let your guard down. Although I liked both main characters, I was particularly drawn to the present day protagonist, Abby.

I should have known I’d like Abby, just from all the reviews that mentioned hating her. I’ve found that any female character who expresses pain is usually seen as annoying by reviewers. Abby is in a horrible sense of stasis: she’s about to graduate, but she can’t even think about college. College means change, and change means acknowledging that her family is falling apart. Abby’s parents are barely home–always travelling for work–and they’re never home at the same time. Meanwhile, Abby’s girlfriend broke up with her last summer, and although she assumed it would be short-term, they don’t seem to be getting back together. When Abby discovers lesbian pulp, she latches on to one particular novel with a happy ending, becoming obsessed with it and the author. This is the kind of love that lasts forever–and what’s the point of love that doesn’t last? Abby is in a lot of pain, and as long as her parents refuse to acknowledge what’s happening, her and her brother can’t begin to process it.

I also enjoyed a lot of the side characters in Abby’s story. She has an out lesbian teacher! (I’m about to become a teacher, so that stood out to me.) One who is knowledgeable about lesbian pulp and can advise Abby on her project revolving around that topic! Abby also has a queer group of friends, including bisexual and non-binary characters (one who uses they/them pronouns). Abby is Jewish, and there are Black and Brazilian side characters as well. And one tiny thing I liked: Abby and Linh (her ex-girlfriend) bonded over reading m/m fanfiction before they dated! That’s how me and my high school girlfriend got together!

I really appreciate this book. Lesbian pulp is something close to my heart, so I hope that this novel introduces queer teens to it, so they can discover the ridiculousness and appeal of it themselves. Personally, I loved Abby as a main character. She is hurting, so she may not always make the best decisions, but that just means that when she does finally break through–when she does begin to face the difficult changes in her life and even embrace them–it’s all the sweeter. Highly recommended!

Megan G reviews Pulp by Robin Talley

Pulp by Robin Talley cover

Janet Jones and Abby Zimet are two lesbian teens living in Washington DC, separated by sixty-two years. In 1955, Janet discovers lesbian pulp fiction and finds herself truly represented for the first time in her life. In 2017, Abby decides to complete her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction, becoming obsessed with one particular author: Marian Love.

This is the second Robin Talley novel I’ve read in a short period of time, and to be perfectly frank I think I am falling in love. Her writing pulls me in from the moment I open the book and has me wanting to keep turning pages deep into the night, even when I know I will regret it in the morning. Her characters are real and independent, always having unique and powerful voices.

In Pulp, Talley does a magnificent job of contrasting the difference in the lives of two lesbian teenagers living in the same city only sixty-two years apart. While Janet struggles with the constant threat of being discovered (which would effectively ruin her life as she would lose her place in college, her job, and would be cut off completely from her family), Abby struggles with an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to get back together as much as Abby does, and her parents’ inescapable divorce.

I will be honest – at some points in the novel, I felt frustrated with Abby because of this. Janet’s problems felt so much more real and life-altering, whereas Abby continually made poor decisions because of something that most likely over 50% of the population experiences. Talley deals with Abby’s parents failing marriage and the threat of Janet’s homosexuality being exposed with similar weight, which I felt was wasn’t completely fair. Yes, the point is that even though Abby doesn’t have to deal with as much oppression regarding her being a lesbian she still has problems, but those problems feel trivial when compared to Janet’s experiences.

Still, despite my frustrations with this comparison, I did appreciate that Talley allowed Abby to be a flawed human being. She doesn’t make perfect decisions (and she often doesn’t even make good decisions), but she grows from her mistakes, she learns from her failings, and by the end of the novel it is more than clear that she is headed down a good path.

The only other thing I was a little iffy about is that, in having Abby and Janet’s stories run concurrently, there was often a fair bit of repetition. [minor spoiler] It’s clear that Janet is Marian Love, the author that Abby becomes obsessed with. Often chapters told from Janet’s perspective mirror whatever Abby has just learned about her in the present, which can feel a bit redundant [end spoiler].

Overall, I found this book to be engaging and thought-provoking. Seeing the way lesbians were treated back in the 1950’s is horrendous, but also incredibly important. Getting to contrast that with the life of a modern lesbian, who came out at fourteen and is part of a friend group where everybody is queer, feels even more important. The message of this book is clear, and vital: don’t forget where we came from, and especially don’t forget who fought for all the rights we have in the present. Some of us younger queer people (myself included) often forget how things were, and how they still are in some parts of the world. We never, never should, and this book illustrates that perfectly.

WARNINGS: homophobia, internalized homophobia, sexism, misogyny, compulsory heterosexuality, heterosexism