Susan reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

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Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

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.

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.

Marieke reviews Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan
I used to be a fervent reader of romance fiction, fed by a steady stream of free or extremely cheap ebooks supplied through BookBub (if you like historical romance, contemporary romance, new adult romance, very teen fiction, or what is titled “women’s fiction,” I highly recommend signing up for this subscription newsletter–there are no costs attached). Historical romance was always my favourite genre, especially when the story was set during the Regency era (I know nothing about this period, I just love the dresses and the heroines, okay?). Then I started to develop a craving for queer Regency romance, ideally with queer women. Turns out that particular itch is a bit hard to scratch, as most queer historical romance is about men falling in love with other men. So when BookBub fed me this wlw romp for the meagre price of £0.99, I signed up! This was my first wlw Regency romance, and while it didn’t wholly convince me, I am still interested enough to keep looking for more within the genre (if you have any recommendations, please send them through on my blog).
Besides never having read a wlw Regency romance before, I’ve also never read any kind of romance before where the main characters are aged over 60 at the beginning of the story. While you might expect the higher age of the main characters to be a factor in my hesitancy, it wasn’t, or at least not directly. I’ll admit it made me think twice before picking it up, but the fact that Courtney Milan is the author assuaged any doubts I had going in, and she definitely made the characters true to themselves. Both Violetta and Bertrice are struggling to live their lives without much of a social circle to fall back on–Violetta’s closest friends died or moved away to Boston, and Bertrice’s friends seem to have all died. While it seemed slightly unlikely to me that both characters would be so isolated, it does mean they’re also desperate enough for social contact to grow close to each other without much outside encouragement. After the catalyst of the story throws them together (Violetta requires help and Bertrice is in a unique position to provide it, albeit in a roundabout way), nothing much tears them apart.
Other than the issue of money that is. Bertrice has bucket loads of it and Violette is barely scraping by. While this is not exactly a point of contention between the two of them, it does present itself in how they handle themselves differently in social situations (Bertrice is much more abrasive, as she knows she doesn’t need anything from people who get in her way), and how they treat each other (Bertice realises that she’s allowing Violetta to prepare, cook, and clean up after their first ‘date’ as if she were a servant). It also gives each character a different view on the world, and they are very open with each other about this. Those interactions were some of the more interesting ones to read, especially because they overlap so much with their discussions on patriarchy.

This is an angry book. In the author’s notes, Milan mentions she had to re-write certain plot points because she intended to publish shortly after Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings. If I were to re-read the book with that in mind, I’m sure I would be able to earmark specific passages that hark back to the treatment of Christine Blasey Ford during those hearings. We feel the powerlessness of Violetta in the face of being fired by a man so he could get out of paying her a pension, and then being thrown to the whims of a character most often referred to as the Terrible Nephew. We then see the ease with which said Terrible Nephew is able to manipulate other people to those selfsame whims, simply by invoking the Old Boys’ Club he is a member of. It is infuriating, more so because it still happens today.

Of course, Bertrice has a tendency to ignore or bulldozer men around her as much as possible (or as the situation calls for, if you were to ask her), and she is allowed this luxury because of the huge sum of money that belongs to her. Even she is often stymied by the Nephew, and there is a moment where the Nephew intends to have her declared incompetent. Personally, I cannot think of anything worse than being legally made so powerless that you are no longer allowed to make any decisions for yourself, even (or especially) when the story is already set against a historical backdrop where women are made heavily dependent and reliant on men (unless you become a ‘surplus’ women like Violetta, an intriguing concept unknown to me before this book and one Milan explains in a bit more detail in her notes).

Obviously, the story does not allow for such an ending. This is a romance, and we read romances to make ourselves feel better despite the world we live in, and that requires a happier ending than one where a main character is stripped off all her rights. So instead Violetta and Bertrice fall in love, and have a sex scene (this is also why we read romance novels, don’t lie). It is a lovely scene, if a bit brief. While the descriptions do take into account the age of the characters, it is never presented as a positive or a negative–it just is. It is a sweet scene, and a lovely counterpoint to the exuberant antics the two get up to outside of the house (Bertrice is a pro at practical jokes with the purpose to rid themselves off the Nephew problem), as well as that background of ever-present patriarchy.

The taste of it still lingers though, and this is where my slight hesitancy towards the book stems from. I read historical romances for escapism where possible. I can see the paradox in preferring Regency romance with its rampant patriarchy for my escapism. Even so, with a hetero pairing the author will often use that background to make their male leads look great in comparison (usually by clearing the lowest of bars, and occasionally they are still overbearing in their protectiveness). I haven’t before read a book where it is presented as it is here: pervasive and all-consuming and nigh insurmountable. In this story, the enemy is not just the patriarchy as embodied by a singular character to be beaten, the whole system is the enemy. And that was too big a shadow for me to be able to properly escape into the book.

Content warnings: mentions of rape, act of arson

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.

Thais reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

I hadn’t been super into romance before I had Olivia Waite’s Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. I sought sapphic representation when I chose books, but I was mostly a reader of literary fiction, so understandably a lot of what I was read didn’t have a happy ending. I didn’t even realize that was something I craved, and I was so giddy when I cracked open this historical romance and found myself enthralled.

I was very eager to read the sequel, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, another regency sapphic tale. I was intrigued by Agatha in Lady’s Guide and definitely detected queer vibes coming from her, so it was no surprise when she turned out to be one of the protagonists of this book. A no-nonsense small business owner who always seemed to entangled with artists, scientists, and subversives of all kinds, Agatha was intriguing when she was introduced as a side character, but she is delightful here—grumpy and direct, but also caring and cautious when it comes to her own romantic feelings.

I also loved Penelope from her very first moments on the page, which is something I appreciate about Waite’s books. I always struggle to stick with a lesfic romance when I dislike one of the main characters. Waite always write heroines who are quirky and not necessarily traditionally likable, but they hook me completely exactly because they jump off the page as whole human beings, with flaws and unique perspectives. I loved Lucy and Catherine when I read Lady’s Guide, but I think now I love Agatha and Penelope more.

A beekeeper, Penelope comes to Agatha’s aid when the printer finds a beehive nesting inside her warehouse. After Penelope manages to carefully remove the bees and suggests placing their new home just outside Agatha’s business building, the two start corresponding.

As Agatha and Penelope started exchanging letters, I found myself nearly racing to finish the book, because I just wanted these two to be happy already. I had to read it again to appreciate some of the story beats and I’m sure I will read it one more time to swoon over the beautiful prose Waite writes, but the first time had me breathless with anticipation, and even the promise of a happy ending that comes with a romance couldn’t make me relax and slow down.

I don’t usually enjoy characters who pine for each for very long. One of the reasons I loved Lady’s Guide was that there was little wait before the main characters got together and the focus was on their burgeoning relationship and past wounds. I wasn’t sure if I would be the audience for a book that withholds the payoff for so long, since I tend to resent when there are too many misunderstandings and obstacles and people just won’t talk to each other. This book is unabashed about the pining and the silly misunderstandings. But it’s so well-done, with Penelope’s hesitation to come out and Agatha’s resentment of Penelope’s marriage and assumptions about what that means, that I was captivated.

I did miss the diversity from the first book, however. Lady’s Guide has more than one character of color and really came alive for me for painting a portrait of what Regency Britain might really have been like. Waspish Widows has several queer characters instead, which is nice, especially as Agatha and Penelope spend a lot of time supporting and conspiring with the other queers, but I still craved more diversity from the book, probably because I know Waite can deliver it and do it well. I assume Mr. Biswas is Indian, but can’t remember him being that big of a presence in the book, and that’s a pity.

I also really appreciated the side story with Queen Caroline and the real danger it brought to the characters that we cared about. I just wish the plot had been wrapped up a bit better. I felt like we heard way too much about this historical context in the beginning and then interest seemed to wane and narrow on the fictional plots that sprouted from it, but that too is sort of set aside at the end, and we only get an assurance that it was resolved by a certain character moving away. I was a bit disappointed.

The middle of the book has amazing tension due to Waite weaving so many threads exceptionally well and creating explosive confrontations. The writing is well-paced, so it propels you forward, making you want to know how it will all come to a head. So I felt a bit cheated that main antagonist in the story disappears off-page and the political tensions are resolved by people just losing interest.

Nevertheless, none of that ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s a testament to Waite’s brilliant storytelling that even when my brain is picking on tiny things and I’m frustrated with bits and pieces, the whole narrative is still impactful and satisfying. Her character work in particular shines. All these people she creates stay in your imagination. Those characters live outside the page, leave a mark on the reader. When Catherine appeared briefly for a cameo in this book, I nearly shouted in excitement. When Mr. Frampton was mentioned, I felt nostalgic and sad that we hadn’t seen him in this book yet. And I would pay any amount of money for a book focusing on Joana Molesey and Aunt Kelmarsh, because there are so few sapphic romances between older women, and after reading Waspish Widows, I would love more.

I certainly can’t wait to go back to this mini world and see them once again, and while I know that Waite has only planned one more book for this series, I can’t help but hope she will pen many more historical sapphic books. I would certainly read them.

Thais is a Brazilian WOC queer. Her degree in Media Studies has slowly grown useless, even though she literary Majored in how to be good at social media (but can’t understand it better than twelve-year-olds) and she currently lives with her parents. She is an Editor and has too many opinions on books she should be reading for fun.

You can find her on Goodreads or Twitter (@ThaisAfonso).

Sera reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waites

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

When I first read The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, I remembered being enchanted by the writing, the world building, and the gorgeous, tender romance at the heart of the story. It was one of the smartest historical romances I’d read in a long while, and it fed both my heart and my brain. In the same spirit, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, while markedly different in pace and character, satisfies in the same way.

I’m a sucker for first lines, and enjoyed the way Waite’s novel catches the attention with these:

“The corpses were giving Agatha the most trouble. They looked too much like people.”

Besides grabbing the reader, the opening is excellent as an introduction to Agatha Griffin, a forty-five year old widow who runs a print house. She worries about her son’s penchant for staying out all night, as well as his inability to keep his hands off her brilliant assistant, Eliza. She also worries about keeping the print press going given the political climate, the oppressive taxation, and her son’s lack of business sense.

When she finds a beehive in her warehouse, it’s the last problem in the world she needs.

In comes Penelope Flood, a gorgeous beekeeper who helps her remove the beehive. Living in a small village where everyone knows too much about each other, Penelope spends much of her time with her bees, while her husband and brother work as whalers and are often at sea. When she and Agatha meet, it sets off a friendship that grows into love.

It takes time for the relationship between two women to develop–they don’t actually share a first kiss until three-quarters of the way through the book. However, what we do get is a great deal of deep connection and pining, evolving into a smoldering passion that sweeps Agatha and Penelope away. In the meantime, there are subplots involving Queen Caroline and Penelope’s village, as well as discourses on the politics of the time, the workings of print presses, and the art of beekeeping. I enjoyed the political commentary about the importance of a free press and the need to maintain its independence from the state, a topic of direct relevance to the times we live in today.

It also thrilled my 40-ish heart to see older protagonists depicted in romance, and especially in a Sapphic romance as this one, where both women have lived rich and interesting lives and are no longer at their peak. It’s an important story that isn’t often told. Even with the obvious constraints on the lives of Agatha and Penelope, both because of their gender as well as their sexual orientations, these are two fully-realized women who also find a way to be happy.

As a corollary to this, secondary queer characters in both novels have satisfying relationships that are not shrouded in secrecy and shame, but accepted by others. It is high time to modify our understanding of queer relationships throughout history, how much more common they were, especially Sapphic ones, which had a bit more space within which to be carried out.

Waite makes a point of centering women’s occupations, and illustrating their value. She demonstrates this brilliantly in the The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and continues to expose the reader in this novel. The entire arena of female engagement is revealed, from print shops and beekeeping, to poetry and political activism. The story of Queen Caroline weaves throughout the fabric of the story, providing a wider historical arc against which Agatha and Penelope’s love story develops. The centuries change, but what matters to women doesn’t.

If you are looking for an intelligent, layered, historical romance featuring women of a certain age, then you will enjoy the book. It works well at the level of historical fiction, though as a romance, it does take a minute for it to take off. But when it gets there, the passion is wild and gorgeous. It is a romance that rewards a reader’s patience.

Susan reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is a historical romance that revolves around two queer women creating a space for themselves in art and science. Lucy Muchelney’s lover has just married someone else, and her brother is trying to get her to give up on astronomy; her only recourse is to fling herself on the mercies of Lady Catherine St Day, who’s seeking a translator for a french astronomy text so that she can wash her hands of her late husband’s legacy once and for all. Lucy, with her excellent French and understanding of mathematics and astronomy is the perfect person for the job! … If she can convince the scientific establishment to accept that.

I adored The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, but it was so stressful as a reading experience! I was absolutely certain the whole way that there couldn’t be any true catharsis in it, because every sympathetic character is up against structural oppression and the sheer societal weight of white men and their gatekeeping. Over and over people who aren’t white men get dismissed and undermined, both professionally and personally, and it’s as infuriating in fiction as it is in real life! Especially because Olivia Waite does such a good job of showing the way that this form of bigotry wields politeness and reputation as weapons against marginalised people having the audacity to, say, want credit for their work! Or to be accepted as experts in their fields! But there is some catharsis – not just individual victories, characters explicitly doing the work to make science and art more welcoming, and I’ll accept that as a start.

It helps that the characters have believe in each other throughout the book. Lucy believes that Catherine’s embroidery is as much art as anything her brother has done with paint and canvas, and Catherine knows that Lucy – and many other marginalised people she knows, including herself! – are knowledgable scientists or talented artists, and while she might not always know what the best way to encourage those skills, she tries. The supportive relationships are such a good counterpoint to the Polite Science Society.

(And the descriptions are so lush! They give the book so much texture, and the characters so much depth just from what details they notice. Honestly it’s worth reading just for the gifts Catherine makes for Lucy.)

But it’s also a romance, so let’s talk about that! Lucy and Catherine are both freshly out of terrible relationships; Lucy’s ex-girlfriend is petty and manipulative even after they’ve broken up, while Catherine’s late husband was explicitly abusive. There’s no abuse explicitly on page, but Catherine’s reactions to relationships are heavily influenced by the abuse, and are completely believable to me! But if you’re in the market for a romance that’s supportive and kind, where the power difference between characters is actually acknowledged, and the characters find beautiful ways to demonstrate their commitment to each other, this is the book for you! I adored both of the characters and the ways that they tried to make their worlds and interests more accessible for each other! The ways that they work together warmed me right through. Honestly, my biggest frustration with the romance is that there’s a conflict between them near the end that could be solved by actually talking to each other that they just don’t deal with, which felt a little artificial considering that up until that point they’d tried to communicate! But on the whole, the romance was wonderful!

At its heart, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics is about recognition and community. At every turn, the characters are asked to choose whose recognition they value – whose recognition is valuable – and what they want their community to be. Watching them answer those questions and discover a community that they didn’t even know was available is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

[Caution warnings: racism, misogyny, past abuse, structural oppression, manipulative exes, dubious consent in backstory]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Maggie reviews Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

For reasons I can no longer remember, I was reading an article about operas when it mentioned an opera about lesbians called Patience & Sarah, which I am sort of upset I have never heard of since I have worked at two different operas. Then I looked into it more and found out it was based on a book, which in turn is based on two real women. Since I find a book a lot easier than I can summon forth an opera production, I eagerly picked up Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller, a book about two ladies in 1800s Connecticut who want to take up a life together.

The best thing about Patience & Sarah is that our protagonists take approximately half of one conversation to fall violently in love with each other. Patience is an “old maid” who lives with her brother and his wife under the strict provisions of her father’s will. Sarah has been raised as her father’s “son” since he has no sons and she is the oldest, and she has a plan to leave and get herself a farm out in central New York. Patience takes one look at this tall, awkward lumberjack woman with a half-formed plan and is immediately like “I would die to protect this precious cinnamon roll.” A sentiment echoed by many readers, I feel. They’ve barely been alone together before Patience asks Sarah to take her along when she leaves to buy a farm. They face resistance from other of their families, and Sarah goes journeying on her own for a while, (CW: there is vague and non-descriptive violence against Sarah from her father in the form of a beating), but they are both so steadfast in their growing affection for each other that they succeed in carrying out their plan and set out to buy a farm together.

Patience & Sarah has a persistent theme of journeying, both literal and emotional. Their main goal is to journey together to buy a farm. When their relationship is (temporarily) broken up by their families, over Sarah’s strenuous objections but due to Patience’s reluctant capitulation, Sarah heads off buy herself, disguised as a boy, and spends some months on the road. She takes up with a traveling salesman called Parson and learns a lot about how the world operates outside her home county. Parson also teaches her how to read. They also finally get to journey together to purchase their farm, growing even closer and figuring out how they’ll support each other when they’re on their own. Emotionally, Patience reacts to her family’s negative reaction by retreating from the relationship out of fear of community shunning. She doesn’t feel like she’s wrong to love Sarah, but she’s not sure she can bear the consequences. Her emotional journey is the slow realization of what she does and doesn’t want to live without. She flips the script upon Sarah’s return, and is the one to insist that they fight for a place where they can live their best lives, while Sarah, made cautious by the hardships she’d endured, is now more willing to settle for whatever they can get in a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. It made for a compelling plot, because I was rooting for them to figure themselves out the whole time.

The other interesting thing about this book is its exploration of queer acceptance in rural areas, gender roles, and family. Sarah was raised as her father’s son – not as a boy, but in the role a son would take. She helps him with his lumber business, dresses in men’s clothes, and is inexperienced in more traditionally feminine dress and pursuits. She has no problem setting off as a boy, has confidence in her skills at building and running a farm, and later on thinks of herself as Patience’s husband. Everyone in town looks at her as a very improper woman, and feel that Patience, who is of a higher social status, should not associate with her. Still, everyone either doesn’t or takes care not to guess at the physical nature of their relationship until they can’t anymore. Patience’s relationship with her family is equally as interesting. It seemed like her father never expected her to marry – did he guess? – and her brother Edward, while feeling like he has to act conservatively, actually helps her and supports her as much as he is able. He ends up one of their most necessary allies. It makes for an interesting picture, not just of the 1800s when it was set, but the 60s during which it was written.

In conclusion, I’m not sure how this book isn’t more talked about as an early gem of lesbian fiction. It was delightful and at times very sweet. The characters and plot were nuanced, and yet, despite the at times heavy themes of homophobia, the book kept its light and hopeful spirit. I have spent a decent amount of time in my head building out the ending and making their farm together a successful, idyllic place. I would highly recommend tracking down a copy and spending a delightful couple of hours rooting for these two precious cinnamon rolls.

Maggie reviews The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite

I was very excited when I got my copy of The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite. I wanted to read some romance, and I really hope that f/f regency continues to grow, because I love it. This book hit a lot of buttons for me, and I felt like every chapter brought even more delightful happenings.

The setup is that Lucy Muchelney had been assisting her father in astronomy for years, and had been taking over more and more of his math calculations and correspondence in the years leading up to his death. After his passing, Lucy seizes a chance and presents herself to Catherine St. Day, the Countess of Moth, as someone who can translate a groundbreaking new astronomy text. Catherine is a widow, coming out of a loveless and emotionally abusive marriage in which she was forced to put all her own interests to the side and babysit, as well as bankroll, her husband’s scientific ambitions. New to acting on her feelings towards women and wary of once again competing with science for someone’s attentions, Catherine nonetheless sets out to mentor Lucy into London’s polite scientific society. Lucy, in return, struggles to live up to Catherine’s project, navigate the close-minded Fellows who are determined to be the gatekeepers to scientific progress, and encourage Catherine to pursue her own creative ambitions. Together, they try to figure out how to fit themselves and their ambitions into society and build something permanent.

One of the great things about this book was the presence of multiple queer ladies! Not just the main characters! Not only is Lucy’s former lover, the infamous Pris, around casting shadows on Lucy’s current life, Lucy strongly implies that she and Pris were not the only ones in their school interested in some Sapphic exploration. Lucy also instantly connects with Aunt Kelmarsh, one of Catherine’s friends who is revealed to have been in a happy relationship with Catherine’s mother. This inter-generational queer connection is really great to see. Not only do Aunt Kelmarsh and Lucy’s schoolmates establish a covert culture of queer relationships that buoy and validate each other, Aunt Kelmarsh provides the knowledge that attitudes and lifestyles were different in her youth than in the present, setting Lucy and Catherine’s relationship into a greater history of women having relationships with each other. They know that they do not love in isolation, they know they aren’t the first to set up such an arrangement, and they know that such relationships happen no matter how society’s attitudes about them cycle around. Such a context makes it possible for us to have the dynamic where Lucy, the younger of the pair and from the rustic countryside, is the more experienced of the two in having relationships with other women. It’s all delightful, give me all the networks of ladies loving and supporting each other.

The other thing I love was the element of creating and creativeness. Throughout the book Catherine hones her embroidery talents, showing them not just to be fancy work in a sampler, but also practical in making and decorating clothes for Lucy. Astronomy may be a science, but Lucy not only has great scientific knowledge, but also shows great creativity in taking her project from a straight translation into a more accessible volume. The care and talent she puts into her writing is very touching. There is also their developing relationship with the publishing house they use for Lucy’s project. This book would be entertaining enough for just with two talented ladies practicing their crafts for each other, but at the end the author projects their prodigious talents to greater future heights and again connects them to other women doing the same.

I am fairly easy to entice with queer regency romance, but this book really lived up to the hype I had heard about it. Not only are there are the elements of a good regency romance you look for and enjoy, the book sells the romance between Lucy and Catherine while also expanding its focus, giving them a place in a wider queer and artistic world. Definitely give this book a read if romance is your genre.