Rachel reviews The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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Since reading Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January last summer, I have been anxiously awaiting the publication of The Once and Future Witches. I finally got to read it over the holidays at the end of last year, and it did not disappoint!

Set in an alternate history, Harrow’s novel begins in the 1890s, in a city called New Salem, where witches have been eradicated. The early burnings of witches—presented as a genocidal project that was inevitably gendered—served to almost snuff out women’s magic from the world. Stories, traditions, and spells passed from grandmother to mother to daughter have been nearly wiped from existence. Or, in the case of some characters, these spells have simply gone underground. The Once and Future Witches merges the very real suffrage movements from the end of the nineteenth century with the fantastic, and women’s political and magical powers are interestingly blended.

The novel focuses on the Eastwood sisters: James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna. Torn apart by betrayals and complex traumas, the sisters reunite in New Salem and spark a women’s/witches’ movement. However, there are dark forces that would seek to rob women of their words and ways and keep these women in their subjected position. The three sisters, along with all those women who support them, must work to overcome these forces in order to bring witching back into the world.

I loved this book. It is a fascinating product of historical/fantastical fiction that really works. Harrow is able to braid these fictional/non-fictional elements together in such a way as to truly craft an alternate history that feels very empowering for a modern reader. I adore Harrow’s writing, and have since The Ten Thousand Doors of January, but I think this book truly packs more of a punch in terms of its plot and characters. Each main character in this book is a delight to read, and they have such distinct and magnetic personalities that work so well throughout the book. Harrow has clearly done her research here both in terms of historical accuracy and fairy tale tropes. The twists never stop with this novel, and I highly recommend it.

Not to mention—it’s queer! Harrow’s lesbian characters, a pairing which includes a BIPOC woman, have that particular brand of historical lesbianism that I am unashamedly drawn to (think lots of long looks and hand touching). Harrow’s novel is an intersectional one, and she includes queer people and people of colour in this discussion of rights, oppression, and female history. I couldn’t recommend this book more, and I can’t wait to read Harrow’s next novel!

Please visit Alix E. Harrow on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Once and Future Witches on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, forced confinement, torture, kidnapping, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Mo Springer reviews The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

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Trigger Warning: This book has scenes of sexual assault.

Gilda starts out her journey as Girl, running from a plantation in which she was a slave and her mother died. She is taken in by a vampire, who gives her her name and gives her longevity, a life without end. Her journey takes her from her birth as a vampire in the 1850s, to 1870s, 1920s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 2020, and finally to 2050. Gilda learns what it means to be a vampire, part of a vampire family, the importance of mortals but also of herself, but most importantly what it means to truly love.

This was an enjoyable, episodic story that did not have a central villain or character arc, but through the different eras Gilda lives we experience different conflicts, characters, and mini-arcs that make up her whole journey. There were some recurring characters and plot threads that helped give the story cohesion and narrative flow. The different time periods were interesting to learn about from the point of view of the same person, learning and changing with society.

Gilda’s arc feels very much like it is based around the idea of found family. She runs away from the plantation when her mother dies and finds the original Gilda who turns her, and Bird, the vampire who will teach her and then leave on her own journey of self-discovery. Gilda then finds family in other vampires, Sorel and Anthony, then later in one who she turns, and in another, more ancient vampire that I won’t spoil the name of. At the beginning of her story she is alone and in danger, but through the many decades she learns to find ways to connect to the world around her.

I almost wanted to have chapters from the other vampires’ points of view. There is Bird, a Lakota woman who spends her immortal life working to help and reclaim land for indigenous and native peoples. Sorel and Anthony, a couple who spend their lives together, but one of which is scarred by a decision to turn the wrong person and the destruction they wreak. There are many more characters whose stories we are given glimpses of through Gilda, but I would have rather have seen them myself than be told about them.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but once we reached the 1970s and on I felt the story was missing opportunities to explore more of the time period. I would have really liked to have seen a discussion about how vampires would have approached the AIDs epidemic. There is a lot that goes into how and why to turn someone, and we are shown what happens when the wrong person gets turned. Gilda herself struggles with the decision of who to take into immortality.

Gilda mainly enjoys and has relationships with women. She takes on several lovers during her long life, and we do get to engage with those storylines, this book is not a romance. It feels realistic in how it approaches romance, how most people love more than once, if not several times, and for vampires with immortality this would be true as well.

I do want to note that Gilda is described as a lesbian by the blurb, and I won’t gatekeep labels. However, I do feel it would be negligent not to mention that Gilda does have some erotic involvement with a man during one time period. This relationship is not described as romantic, and Gilda makes it clear she is not romantically involved with this man after they share a bed. This falls into an interesting part of the vampire lore of this book, in which vampires are described as having familial connections to one another but there are also these erotic scenes between them.

Overall, I will be honest that I am conflicted on this book. There were parts that left me feeling confused about the choices that were made in the narrative and description of relationships. Having said that, I did enjoy reading it and would recommend it to anyone interested in a story about a black, queer vampire as she explores her long life and the people she meets.

Carolina reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

It seems apt to begin 2021, a time of reflection and introspection for many, with a YA novel that feels fresh and timeless at the same time. Malinda Lo’s new novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club echoes with the same beats as my favorite “baby gay” first lesbian novels (e.g. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel), but holds nuance and depth as an exploration of the limitations and restraints of the Eisenhower Era. Malindo Lo explores the role of the “other” in white picket fence McCarthyist America through the eyes of a young girl coming to terms with historical familial trauma, her identity as a Chinese lesbian in society, and future as a woman in a male-dominated field in San Francisco’s post-war Chinatown.

Lily Hu is a “good Chinese girl.” Her father is a reputable family doctor, her mother by his side as a nurse, both parents well-respected members of their tight-knit Chinatown family. There is no room in their community’s embrace for error or deviation, as their neighborhood faces the tides of post-World War II racism and the initial waves of the Red Scare. When Lily discovers an intriguing advertisement for a male impersonator at a local nightclub, The Telegraph Club, she realizes she might not be quite like her cookie-cutter classmates as she once thought.. As the novel progresses, Lily discovers the wonder of the gay underground in The Telegraph Club alongside her close friend, and first love, Kath. Lily must delicately maintain the balance her of double life between Chinatown and The Castro in order to protect her family as they face deportation for supposed Communist ties, and save her new friends, Kath, and herself from the prying eyes of the gay-bashing police.

Last Night at The Telegraph Club has beautiful writing full of detail and care; Lo rebuilds the glitz and glitter of 1950’s era San Francisco before your eyes, situating the reader in the heart of Chinatown alongside the Hu family. The pacing was on the nose for a fast-paced, exciting coming of age novel and I could seldom put the novel down. Malinda Lo celebrates queer friendship and found families in Last Night at The Telegraph Club, one of my favorite themes that is very near and dear to my heart and seldom stressed in novels.

I loved the vignettes between chapters from Lily’s family’s point of view, as it regaled their journey to adulthood as immigrants and children of diaspora as they come to terms with their American surroundings as Chinese outsiders. Lily’s father’s fear of deportation and alienation from his American peers rings true in contemporary America. Personally, I related to Lily’s mother’s fear of being too “Americanized” and distanced from her own culture, as I am the daughter of Cuban immigrants. However, these outside perspectives interrupted Lily’s narrative and felt that they needed more depth in order to remain pertinent to the plot. I also would have preferred some fleshing out of the secondary characters, especially Shirley and Calvin, Lily’s friends who become involved in the Communist Party.

Malinda Lo’s works are already a bookshelf staple for any WLW; Ash and Huntress are often a young gay person’s first book with lesbian characters. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a fitting addition to Lo’s acclaimed literature, a wonderful coming of age novel full of love and heart. I would highly recommend this new novel, in stores and online on January 19, 2021.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher and author for the eARC of the novel!

Trigger Warnings: racism, homophobia, police brutality, family trauma, abandonment

Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

Danika reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

I finished this book back in November, but I have frankly been intimidated to review it. This is a big, twisty, ambitious novel that I’m still processing now, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book ever since I finished the last page of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This is my favourite YA book of all time, and ever since it came out, I’ve been following Danforth online to see what would come next. At some point, she talked about two different books she was working on: one tentatively titled CELESBIANS! and one that followed a copy of The Well of Loneliness throughout time called Well, Well, Well. As the years went on, I thought those had been abandoned, but after reading this book, I can see how they got incorporated into this story.

Plain Bad Heroines is a horror story that begins in a girls’ boarding school in 1902. There, a writer named Mary MacLane is getting a cult following. MacLane was a real-life figure who published her scandalous memoirs, now titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. They are feminist, bisexual, and blasphemous. (The ARC came with a page from Danforth explaining her coming across this author, and how frustrating it is that she only heard of her recently from a footnote.) There are two girls at this school who are particular fans of MacLane, and they sneak off into the woods to read it together (and to make out, let’s be honest). One day, a relative tries to split the two of them up, and they run further into the woods to try to escape. Instead, they stumble on a sprawling wasp nest and die gruesomely. They are found with MacLane’s book beside them, and more deaths begin to be associated with this copy of the book.

More than a century later, a book has been written about this history, and it is being made into a movie, and the women involved in the production begin to feel haunted by the past. There is Merritt, the young (cranky) genius who wrote the original book; Harper Harper, the “celesbian” star of the film; and Flo, a relatively unknown actor playing Harper’s love interest. They’re all queer, and they have a complicated relationship between the three of them. Merritt is critical, Flo feels out of her depth and vulnerable, and Harper tries to keep the peace between them (and hit on them). As they’re filming, though, they encounter mysterious events on set–it’s unclear whether this haunting has continue with them, or whether it’s all part of an immersive Hollywood experience.

That is the very bare-bones description of the plot, but that’s only scratching the surface. We also get the fascinating story of the headmistress’s founding of the school and the feud between the brothers on that land that is said to have started the haunting. There are so many different stories spiraling together, and almost all of them have sapphic characters (including the headmistress and her partner). The characters are flawed and complicated; they clash with each other.

This is billed as a horror-comedy, and there definitely is wry humor included. It’s self-referential and plays with horror tropes. At the same time, it is creepy and disturbing: you’ll never look at a wasp the same way again. This book is intricate and incredibly well-crafted: I was about two chapters into it when I thought, “Oh, this is how books are supposed to be written.” Even though it bounces around in time and between characters, it all locks together and never feels out of place.

I appreciated the skill involved here, and I love that this is such a queer book absolutely brimming with sapphic characters, but I’m not sure I’d say I enjoyed reading it. It was unsettling. I also felt like I couldn’t quite penetrate through to the core of the story. What started this haunting? What does it mean? I love that there are so many queer characters, but it also means that they are the ones being targeted: why? Is it a metaphor for homophobia? That feels too pat for this story, and it doesn’t quite fit. Is even asking that question too simplifying? I’m not sure I have the skills to unpack everything this story is trying to accomplish.

This is a complicated, ambitious novel that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve put the book down.

Rachel reviews Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Her Lady to Love by Jane Walsh

Jane Walsh’s lesbian romance novel, Her Lady to Love (2020), was released this fall from Bold Strokes Books, and it’s the perfect novel to read over the holidays if you love gorgeous writing, beautiful settings, and literal bodice ripping!

Set in the Regency period, Walsh’s novel follows Lady Honora Banfield who, after spending several of her eligible seasons ensconced in the country mourning the deaths of her parents, arrives in London with her aged aunt, looking for a husband. Looking to secure a future for herself and increase her financial security, Honora plans to go above and beyond to make a match. Her ambition leads her to ally with the most beautiful woman of the season—and the most controversial—Jacqueline Lockhart. Jaqueline’s a familiar face in London’s matchmaking circles and she has no plans to marry a man and settle down. She’s in her sixth season when she suddenly bumps into Honora on the dancefloor.

Nora and Jaquie’s alliance quickly turns into romance, but they both agree their affair cannot continue after Nora finds a husband. However, as the prospect of a proposal becomes more and more real for both of them, the two women struggle between convention, duty and love.

I had such a brilliant time with this book. Walsh’s novel has such an excellent sense of the time period she’s writing in and her specificity and interest in the historical aspects of her plot really allow the characters to shine. The inclusion of details, specifically related to women’s behaviour or dress, made for a vivid and exciting setting. This novel reminded me a lot of something like Vanity Fair (1847) (but with lesbians!) because of its gorgeous setting and intriguing plot.

For a shorter novel, I was surprised at the amount of characters it contained, but they were all so much fun to read. A kaleidoscope of Regency queer life, the characters maneuver around the heterosexual marriage market and showcase a range of London life. The romance between Nora an Jaquie is lovely; it felt sweet and realistic in the context of the setting. It can be difficult to write a happily ever after lesbian romance in a period where heterosexual convention and women’s lack of social mobility limited so much, but Walsh’s writing is thoroughly heartwarming and delightful.

Lesbian historical novels are totally my thing and I’d wanted to read this one for ages. It definitely didn’t disappoint. While characters were witty and the romance was generally lighthearted, I was thrilled to see that Walsh didn’t shy away from the sadder aspects of queerness in Britain in the nineteenth century. This legitimized her novel, but it also created a context in which the bravery of her lesbian/queer characters could have a significant impact. The writing was easy to read and flowed wonderfully, with a distinct blend of modern/historical dialogue that grounded the story without weighing it down.

If you’re looking for something fun to read over the holidays, I highly recommend Her Lady to Love.

Please visit Jane Walsh on Twitter or on her website, and put Her Lady to Love on your TBR on Goodreads, or purchase it from Bold Strokes Books.

Content Warnings: Homophobia, violence.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Carolina reviews The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

I’m ashamed to admit I have always preferred boy bands to girl groups. I was a massive One Direction fan back in the day, and still have so much love for each of the boys (especially Harry <3). However, despite my unfamiliarity with the girl group/pop genre as a whole, when I saw The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes as an option for my August Book of the Month, I knew I had to give it a try. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is an exploration of the destruction of the most famous 2000’s girl group, Gloss, as they come to terms with the death of one of their bandmates, Cassidy Holmes. We flashback between Cassidy’s perspective during the top of the group’s career in 2001, to the future as each member of Gloss–Merry, Yumi and Rose–comes to terms with their relationship to Cassidy, and to fame as a whole. Darker than the initial saccharine bubblegum evoked by the era, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes sinks its teeth into the black heart of the music industry by exposing the unhealthy image consciousness, rampant closeting and bearding, and abuse of power by men in the media that still persists today.

I may be too young to fully appreciate the novel’s noughties nostalgia, as I recently turned 20, but I did find remnants of my childhood in Cassidy’s treasured flip phone and the celebrity gossip buzz surrounding the fictional red carpets, reminiscent of the infamous Taylor/Kanye feud and other iconic awards show moments. Albeit, I have more nostalgia for the “Britney/Brittany” episode of Glee rather than Britney Spears’s actual career, but I definitely suggest this book if you have a strong attachment to the era, as each of the fictional celebrities leap off the page and seem as they could be really stars on MTV and tabloid columns. I also recommend listening to the author’s curated 1990’s/2000’s pop playlist in the back of the book as you read for deep immersion into the years of sequined Juicy tracksuits and frosted tips.

The comfort of the time period led to an easy read (I read this 400+ page book in a day), but I had some issues with pacing and timing. The author would foreshadow something, and then immediately reveal it in the next chapter, instantly killing any sense of anticipation that could have been built up.

I loved hearing each of the girl’s perspective on fame and how the industry changed their lives, for better or for worse. Yumiko’s storyline was the most fleshed out and poignant; Yumi discusses the challenges of being a Japanese woman in the media, and her experience with racism, fetishization and cultural appropriation. Merry’s story regarding her abusive past also rang true, evoking echoes of the #MeToo movement, as the group’s abusers received their comeuppance in the modern day. However, I wish there was more of a discussion of Cassidy’s mental health from her perspective rather than those around her. I can understand that this book does focus the feelings of questioning and misunderstanding of those attempting to come to terms with a close one’s suicide, but I would’ve liked to see more of Cassidy’s mental health struggles in her own words, rather than from her friend’s speculation.

My least favorite member of Gloss was Rose, Cassidy’s love interest. I enjoyed having a morally grey sapphic female protagonist, but I felt that she was very manipulative and dismissive of each of the girl’s needs. If the author wanted me to root for Rose and Cassidy’s burgeoning romance, then it needed to be fleshed out more with more attention to Rose’s tender side, which we only receive brief glimpses of. I would have preferred the love story if Cassidy fell for Emily, her sweet and steadfast dog sitter.

I also found the discussion of Rose’s coming out as a publicity stunt and the implication that she would be celebrated and gain popularity for her coming out as problematic. So many individuals have lost their careers, their audiences, or even their lives for being brave enough to come out. I felt that it was frankly dismissive of out and proud musicians and the struggles they’ve faced; Harry Styles has taken considerable flack for his androgynous clothing choices and rejection of sexuality labels, and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! lost members of her punk community audience after coming out as a transgender lesbian. Equating the real life struggles of LGBT individuals to a simple plug for diversity and public clout is fraught and simply not true.

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes is a reflection on what it means to be a woman in the music industry. We are right by Cassidy’s side as she faces homophobia from the media, gaslighting by the men in charge of her music and image, and an ever creeping sense of dread as her mental health struggles loom larger and larger. The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes exposes the ugly sides of our current celebrity culture and illustrates the true tradeoff between happiness and fame.

Trigger warnings: racism, stalking, suicide, self harm, discussion of mental health, disordered eating, paranoia, bulimia, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, gaslighting, substance abuse, sexual assault, rape

Rachel reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s novel, The Mercies (2020), is a vivid, sapphic, historical novel that I couldn’t bear to put down. I read this book in nearly one sitting and its dark, passionate story will likely have you doing the same.

Hargrave’s novel is starts in Finnmark, Norway, in 1617. It follows twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter as she watches a sudden storm overwhelm the male fishermen trapped on the sea. Most of the men in the village, including Maren’s brother and father, are drowned, and the women must fend for themselves in an isolated world of rock, ocean, and dangerous weather.

Three years later, when Absalom Cornet arrives, carrying with him a reputation for burning witches in Scotland and his new Norwegian wife, Ursa, tensions build in the town as Absalom sows seeds of unrest and rumours of witchcraft among the women. Was the storm a natural disaster, or the work of a curse? Meanwhile, in the lives of these independent women, Ursa encounters a new way of life, perhaps a life that involves Maren in ways neither of them ever anticipated. But Absalom sees only evil brewing in this community of women left without men to guide them, and as tensions build and violence escalates, survival becomes even more difficult.

I heard about this book because a lesbian author I follow on Twitter was reading it and couldn’t recommend it enough, so when I bought it on my ereader a few months ago, I was so excited to read it. The Mercies is a beautiful novel in terms of its wonderful poetic language that is sweeping and immersive. Some of the descriptions of the landscape are so captivating that this book really can take over your day. Hargrave’s novel is also very raw, portraying the dangerous and volatile life of this village with stunning clarity. However, it’s also incredibly dark. Based on the true story of the Vardø storm and the 1620s witch trials, the tragic violence in this book perpetrated against the women in this novel is unsettling and sometimes difficult to read, but told from Maren and Ursa’s dual perspectives, it is also a powerful story of resilience.

Maren and Ursa’s characters are two sides of the same coin—both women trapped without knowing it in a male-dominated world where their paths of marriage and family are laid out for them from birth. However, they are both pushed away from those paths and towards each other as they become alienated and isolated from those around them. Hargrave captures the chaos of suspicion and fear and the relief of finding an ally and a safe place in another person. This book was gorgeous and there really is nothing I love more than historical lesbian fiction. It’s not beautiful and glamorous, like a Sarah Waters novel, rather, it’s raw and dangerous and the peace that both women find with each other is sharply juxtaposed against an unforgiving landscape filled with dangerous accusers.

I recommend this book both for its writing and for its lesbian plot. I think my only criticism would be that it could have used a better ending, or at least one that did some of the characters more justice. Nevertheless, this novel cuts right to the heart and I couldn’t be happier that I read it.

Please visit Kiran Millwood Hargrave on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Mercies on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Physical and psychological torture, execution, domestic abuse.

Rachel Friars is a creative 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 queer 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 @MsBookishBeauty or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.

Maggie reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I’m not going to lie, I did not know if I wanted to read The Pull of the Stars before I started it. I haven’t read a lot of Emma Donoghue before, and I wasn’t aware that The Pull of the Stars had an f/f relationship. I knew that a couple of my friends had liked it, and that it was about the Spanish flu pandemic, and I questioned whether I wanted to read a book about another pandemic while living through one. But it was a shorter read, and I do love historical fiction, and I’m trying this new thing during quarantine of reading books soon after they come out rather than three years later, and I’m glad I moved this one to the top of my to-read list.

The entirety of the book takes place over about three days, and most of it takes place in one small room of a Dublin hospital. Julia works long shifts at a hospital with no leave, and off shift she goes back to the house she shares with her brother, who was invalided out of the army with what is obviously a severe case of PTSD. Julia is a nurse in the maternity ward, but since the flu had become an epidemic, the hospital she works at has quarantined women with flu symptoms into one room with three beds, away from the other women, and Julia is assigned to this room, having previously gotten and recovered from the flu herself. Closed in together, Julia and her patients might as well be in their own little world–she can rarely even get a doctor to come in to assist in emergencies or to sign off on orders that Julia knows are right but doesn’t have the authority to do herself. It creates a very intense mood that distills down an already intense subject matter. In just the few days that the book covers, Julia deals with the full spectrum of birthing experience, from success to tragedy, with the flu heightening everything and making everything more difficult. Any book I read these days is an escape from my small apartment, but this time I read avidly, feeling connected to these characters who are also closed in and struggling and scarred in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Even simple things become more difficult when systems are overloaded, as we all well know now, and reading about Julia doing her best to do her job and help her patients was strangely cathartic.

The whole book isn’t about midwifery and plague though. When Julia arrives for her first shift at the beginning of the book, she is assigned a new runner, an orphan named Bridie Sweeney who has been sent by the nuns who attend to the hospital. Bridie has no nursing experience, but she’s willing to learn and is good with the patients. Her sunny eagerness and the joy she takes in even the small good things are an instant bright spot in the stuffy fever ward, and Julia finds herself taking Bridie under her wing and teaching her the beginnings of nursing. Alone and dependent on each other to get their wards through each night, Julia and Bridie grow closer and closer together in the crucible of the hospital. Julia finds herself opening up to Bridie, and also finds herself keenly drawn towards the other woman as she learns more about Bridie’s past. Now, since this review is appearing in a queer book blog, a discerning reader can probably guess the way this relationship is headed, but I, having done no research and knowing nothing about this book before starting it, did not, and it was delightful. For one endless night, things were getting better for Julia and Bridie, and they even stole enough space and time for themselves to breathe and dream, and it was so so good.

Vague spoilers:

Unfortunately, this is a book about a plague and the end of a war, and the dreams do not last. The flu doesn’t care about tragic backstories or hopes or dreams. Even as Julia rails against the lack of help she has to give her patients, and the circumstances that led to their present conditions, and the increasingly disturbing facts about Bridie’s childhood, all she can do is her best, which isn’t enough in the face of such overwhelming odds. But somehow, even though the ending was emotional and sad, it pulled it all together in a way that made me long for more. The Pull of the Stars was a fast read, a fascinating read, undoubtedly a difficult read, and yet an incredibly satisfying read. I connected with it on a personal level due to our current circumstances without it being too overwhelming, and in the end it was about the importance of doing what you can to keep going, and about the good you can do along the way. As an entry into the halls of f/f historical fiction, I heartily recommend it.

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.