Meagan Kimberly reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, illustrated by Sara Lautman

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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The book starts with The Story of Mary MacLane, a real-life figure in writing. It’s this book that the girls of Brookhants School for Girls center their Plain Bad Heroines Society around. But when three girls die and the book is found at both death scenes, it soon becomes a feared object. Even the women who run the school, Libbie Brookhants and Alexandra Trills, partners, have different experiences with the curse. Jumping to the modern-day, the contemporary heroines, author Merritt Emmons and actors Harper Harper and Audrey Hall, are working to bring the story of Brookhants to life.

Each generation of stories tied to Brookhants finds girls exploring their sexuality and following their desires. But it’s also a place where tragedy befalls so many of the heroines who only wanted to live freely. The horror of Brookhants embodies the curse that is the patriarchy against queer women.

Through the contemporary storyline, Danforth explores the exploitative nature of horror. The characters set out to tell the story of Brookhants and the tragic deaths, but their director, Bo, turns it into a found-footage documentary about the making of the movie. To do so, he engages in unethical behaviors and gaslighting.

Overall, the novel is never terrifying so much as it is atmospheric and creepy. It’s the epitome of Gothic horror, creating an environment that messes with the characters’ sense of reality. It makes the reader question whether or not they’re actually experiencing hauntings or if it’s all simply in their heads.

SPOILERS BEGIN

After so much build-up though with the curse of Brookhants, the yellow jackets and Orangerie events, the ending is anticlimactic. When establishing his plan to create a documentary, Bo enlisted Audrey to be his “inside woman,” telling her she’d be the only one who knew this plan. But it turned out they all knew what was happening and no one was really out of the loop. So it begged the question: Did any hauntings actually happen?

SPOILER ENDS

Among the characters, there aren’t any particularly great protagonists to root for, which is the point. The women aren’t plain bad heroines, but they’re not pillars of virtue and goodness either. They’re human, messy, capable of making good and bad decisions, and simply interesting. It’s hard not to become engrossed in their lives, even if they can be frustrating.

Danforth expertly created unlikable characters, especially with Bo and all the Hollywood types. They definitely give meaning to the phrase La La Land. Everyone in the three heroines’ circles has an agenda and openly uses and manipulates them, all for the sake of art. It’s this kind of toxic behavior that makes it easy to sympathize with Audrey, Harper and Merritt, even when they’re at their worst.

The writing is deft as Danforth switches back and forth between the timelines. The voice for each character is distinct, including the unnamed narrator. It’s even distinguished between the different timelines, the voice adapting to each era from historical to contemporary. 

Rachel reviews The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal abuse.  

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

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

Rachel reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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A dark, haunting, gothic novel, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) is a delightfully dark queer book with a complex and fun premise that was right up my alley.

Set across two separate timelines, the first begins in 1902 Rhode Island at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are known to be uncommonly devoted to one another and to a writer named Many MacLane and her book. The two girls form The Plain Bad Heroine Society based around their love of each other and the book. But when their secret meeting place in the school’s apple orchard becomes the scene of their violent and startling deaths, a series of bizarre events begin to take place on the campus—haunting the students and staff until the school shutters for good five years later.

The second timeline finds us in the present day. Merritt Emmons publishes a hugely popular book about the darkly queer history of Brookhants School. The book inspires a film adaptation that introduces the reader to a cast of main characters. These three heroines will return to Brookhants for filming, but as they do, “past and present become grimly entangled” and the haunting forces that terrorized the Brookhants Heroines from a century ago may not be quite finished with their curse.

A layered story with multiple timelines and black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman, Plain Bad Heroines is an example of the neo-Gothic at its best. I absolutely loved this book. I ordered a copy as soon as a heard about its release, and I was not disappointed. Dark and Gothic, with characters that are thoroughly compelling and mysterious. The book alternates timelines and perspectives across chapters, but I never felt lost or confused. The narrative of Danforth’s novel is a complex one—it has many clues, red herrings, and conspiracies that constantly kept me guessing. And even then, I couldn’t guess the ending. I loved Danforth’s use of symbol and metaphor, and her investment in making both of her timelines as real and vivid as possible. In addition, the narration—with a cheeky narrator who addresses the reader and draws attention to the ‘storied’ nature of the novel—was fun and exciting and helped to organize the book’s complex plot.

The best part of Plain Bad Heroines is that nearly everyone is queer. Queer people abound across both timelines and I was particularly interested in Danforth’s portrayal of the queer women. Not only does Danforth link her modern and historic queer characters with each other through their shared and haunting experiences, but she also imagines a version of queer life in the early twentieth century that has an element of realism amongst her haunting and supernatural plot.

I could not recommend this book enough for those who love queer historical fiction, horror and the Gothic, or a good and dark mystery!

Please visit Emily M. Danforth on Twitter or on her website, and put Plain Bad Heroines on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia

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

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

Mo Springer reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Lily Hu has always been at least somewhat aware of her attraction to women. But after seeing a lesbian novel in a store, a poster for a male impersonator, and her classmate Kath in the Telegraph Club, she knows she has to be honest with herself. However, this honesty and living with it even what small amount she thinks she can afford, could put herself and her whole family at risk. But 1954 America is not only discriminating violently against gay people, but also Chinese people, who are at risk for deportation as well. But Lily wants to have a life of her own, to date who she wants, and to be happy with Kath.

Lily is a dynamic character who you sympathize with and understand very well at every point in the story. She’s mature for her age because she has to be, but also is a teenager who is experiencing so many firsts while also under immense pressure that no teen should have to bear. Through her, we get to see a large cast of characters similarly feel real and complex.

In particular, I really loved how much we got to see of Lily’s family and how each member stood out with their own needs, wants, and opinions. The chapters from the point of view of her parents and aunt were great to see the background of Lily’s culture, family, and how all of that has led to the current situation.

Kath and the women Lily meets at the Telegraph Club similarly feel real and complex. Lily has to deal with finding a queer community for the first and also with the reality so many of us face: not everyone in the community will be your best friend, or even your friend at all. There is a unity we see in the people who go to the club, but Lily stands out as the only Asian American there.

Lily and Kath’s relationship is endearing and cute, and I found myself cheering them on, but also biting my nails in anticipation of what happens next. Her relationship with her best friend Shirley was also a roller coaster ride of emotions that created a mirror to her relationship with Kath.

This is one of those great historical novels that don’t make you feel like an outsider looking in, but does a great job of engaging with the reader so that the time period feels natural. I loved learning about the history of this time and place, but also never felt like I was being lectured. This story is incredibly immersive, and you forget you haven’t actually been there.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in sapphic romance sent in 1950s America.

Rachel reviews Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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I read Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) about a month ago, and I’m still thinking about it. If you’re looking for a slice of mid-twentieth-century lesbian culture with some wonderful Chinese American representation and rich social history, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is for you. Having read many of her books over multiple years, including Ash (2009) and Huntress (2011), I believe that this novel is Lo’s most stunning achievement to date. The world needs more lesbian fiction like this, and I couldn’t get enough.

Set in 1954 San Francisco, the novel follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a young Chinese American girl growing up amidst social, political, and cultural changes—many of which could place her and her family in danger. But Lily’s struggling with more than what’s happening in the world—she’s begun to wonder about herself, too. About who she might be beyond the context of the Red Scare and her family’s expectations. When she and her friend Kathleen Miller arrive at the long-coveted lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club, Lily’s world opens up in ways she has never allowed herself to imagine. But these discoveries are not without consequences, and Lily and Kathleen must struggle against the various influences that threaten them on all sides.

I was unable to put this book down. The rich, immersive quality of Lo’s writing really painted a picture of queer life in 1950s San Francisco that was alternately tantalizing and educational. So much of this novel reminded me of Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998) in the best way—not just because of the aspects/erotics of male impersonation that Lo employs, but due to Lo’s sophisticated writing and careful detail. It’s clear that this novel was heavily researched, and it really is the kind of Young Adult fiction that shows an immense interest in telling queer stories correctly and for all audiences. Lo obviously has a grasp of various cultural touchstones for queer communities of the period, and her work with lesbian pulp fiction was alternately heart-warming and thrilling—who among us hasn’t encountered our own version of Strange Season?

There is something so high-stakes and fast paced about this novel that kept it from leaving my hands. You’re desperate to see what will happen, which keeps you hurtling towards the end. Lily’s anticipation and desire are infectious, and by the time she enters the Telegraph Club for the first time, I was just as desperate to see inside as she was. What I truly appreciated about Lo’s novel was how universal she rendered queer experience—there were so many moments where I recognized myself (both as a teenager and now) in Lily or Kathleen’s characters. What is particularly special about novel’s like this one is that they make an effort to identify a queer community beyond two individual (and often isolated) love interests. That’s what truly makes this novel so rich and unique, and it makes the reading experience so much wider and worthwhile.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about or recommending this book to everyone I know. It’s such a heartwarming story that will appeal to queer readers and beyond.

Please visit Malinda Lo on Twitter or on her Website, and put Last Night at the Telegraph Club on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia.

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

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

A copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Rachel reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue 2020), is perhaps one of her most compelling historical fictions to date. A fast-paced, stunning novel, I was unable to put down The Pull of the Stars until the early hours of the morning. It drew me into its world in a way that was so riveting and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel.

Shockingly serendipitous, The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic. Already torn apart by war and struggling to fight this new and deadly disease, the novel is told from the perspective of Nurse Julia Power. Julia works in an understaffed and over-full hospital in Dublin in a cramped Maternity-Fever ward full of ill expectant mothers who must be quarantined together. Over a period of three days, Julia must attempt to save the lives of these women and their babies, even as the flu threatens to take them from her. As she works, two other women walk into Julia’s ward (and into her life): Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a Rebel with a complicated past attempting to care for patients while dodging the police, and a young volunteer who has seemingly appeared out of thin air, Bridie Sweeney. In a novel that takes place over three harrowing days, the lives of these women and their patients will become irrevocably intertwined. Birth, death, love, and loss all conflict and persevere in this novel.

The Pull of the Stars could not have been more wonderful. I was captivated by the breakneck speed that Donoghue affects in her writing. Moment to moment, life for Julia Power on this ward is intense and deeply moving. While a pandemic rages on alongside war and political unrest, Donoghue focuses in on the microcosmic relationship between three women and three beds over three days. In a hospital full of othered bodies—queer bodies and disabled bodies—all ravaged by war in different and equally traumatic ways, the novel juxtaposes the weight of war abroad with the war on disease at home, fought by valiant people who have perhaps been forgotten in the wider scheme of the war effort.

Donoghue’s choice to focus on obstetrics is fascinating. She highlights through the figure of Julia, a queer woman working tirelessly to save the lives of her expectant patients—all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are equalized by their pregnancies and this disease—and not always succeeding. The tragedy of death and the miracle of life happen all around Julia in this novel and repeatedly astound her. The compelling and mysterious presence of Bridie Sweeney and the grounding force of Doctor Lynn widen Julia’s perspective of the world in different ways as she attempts to navigate an entirely changed global landscape.

The research and the writing in this novel were stunning and so carefully crafted. This book’s links with the pandemic aside, I think this novel has a lot to say about women’s health, knowledge, and incredible power during the 1918 pandemic and today. The book has the effect of reading like a play—much of the action takes place in one room and involves a small cast of characters. However, this ‘slice of life’ setting often moves beyond the narrow confines of the ward to delve into the three very different and very telling backstories of each of these three women. The structure of the book has an ominous bent to it, and I was compelled to read without pausing until the very end. This book runs the gambit of feelings and it will definitely leave you experiencing the full force of a measure of the emotional whiplash Julia repeatedly encounters in herself and her patients in this novel.

Donoghue integrates lesbian life in her novels so expertly that it seems to occur almost organically. There are some gorgeous scenes here that really did warm my heart, and there is something so powerful about placing lesbian characters in a maternity ward—especially a historical one.

I cannot recommend The Pull of the Stars enough to anyone who is a fan of lesbian fiction, historical fiction, or of Emma Donoghue. It is a triumph.

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Pull of the Stars on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, death, infant death, trauma.

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

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

Rachel reviews The 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.

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.

Carmella reviews The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Set in 17th century Norway during a time of witch trials, The Mercies is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first book for adults. It was all over book Twitter earlier this year, and the more I heard, the more excited I was to read it. Beautiful cover? Check. Witches? Check. Sapphism? Check. What more could I want from a book?

When a storm kills the fishermen of Vardø – an island town in the north of Norway – its women are left behind to fend for themselves. 20-year-old Maren must learn to take care of ‘men’s work’ such as fishing and building, while grieving for her lost father, brother, and fiance.

At the same time, King Christian IV is introducing laws against witchcraft, particularly targeting the Sámi people indigenous to the north. This leads to the appointment of Scottish witch-hunter Absolom Cornet, who installs himself in Vardø along with his new wife, Ursa, disturbing the budding matriarchy and stirring up a frenzy of superstition.

I didn’t know much about the context beforehand, but Millwood Hargrave writes so immersively about the era and politics that it’s easy enough to follow along without any prior knowledge. Domestic scenes of baking bread, cleaning the household, or visiting neighbours are all crammed with historical details which bring Vardø to life. It helps that Ursa is an outsider both to the village and to domestic work, as we can learn exposition naturally through her eyes.

When Ursa realises she’s unprepared to run a household, she engages Maren to teach her the basics. What ensues is an indescribably slow-burn romance. Now, I certainly enjoy a bit of repression in my fiction, but I have to admit that after 300 pages without a single kiss I did start to grow impatient! Instead, we get chapters upon chapters of accidental hand-brushes and lingering eye contact – which are at least very beautifully and believably written.

Alongside a sapphic romance, I was also promised witches. Instead, Millwood Hargrave writes about innocent women unjustly persecuted for showing independence, defying gender roles, or simply (as is the case for Maren’s sister-in-law) being Sámi. It wasn’t what I had expected from the blurb, but it was a sobering reminder of the true history of witch trials.

The Mercies is a story about female resistance in a patriarchal society, and about the fear felt by men in power when faced with a strong woman. However, it is not a happy ending for the women of Vardø. I don’t want to include too many spoilers, but I do want to forewarn you that [Spoilers, highlight to read:] Maren and Ursa don’t get to live happily ever after, and there is a main character death at the novel’s close [End spoilers]. It’s a depressing (although probably realistic) finale.

While the book didn’t offer the ‘OMG lesbian witches’ escapism that I was hoping for when I first picked it up, it’s a well-crafted story that brings light to women’s histories and speaks to some very modern themes.

CONTENT WARNINGS: Sexual violence, genocide, suicide, racism, torture, miscarriage.

Carmella reviews The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

“How can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”

It’s 1826, and Frannie Langton is standing trial for the murder of her employers, the Benhams. She can’t remember a thing from that night, but she’s certain she didn’t do it – because she was in love with Mrs Benham. As she awaits sentencing, Frannie makes use of her time in Newgate prison to write her confessions.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins is a Gothic murder mystery/romance reminiscent of Alias Grace or The Paying Guests, by way of Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea. It takes us from a Jamaican plantation, where Frannie – a mixed-race house slave – is taught to read by her bored mistress, to a London townhouse, where she works as a maid for the beautiful Marguerite Benham. As Frannie writes of her emotionally-charged affair with Marguerite, she also reveals the traumatic secrets of her childhood, unravelling the two time periods side by side.

The concept alone would have been enough to win me over: it meets all my literary tick-boxes, and how often do you get to see a Black lesbian protagonist in mainstream historical fiction? (As Collins says, she was inspired to write about Frannie after questioning “why hadn’t a Black woman been the star of her own Gothic romance?”)

But alongside that, Sara Collins is a fantastic character writer. She crafts a strong and distinctive voice for Frannie, who makes a compellingly unreliable narrator, veering from intimate truth-telling to coy amnesia so you’re never sure if you should trust her. It takes a confident author to pull off a ‘whodunit’ where the main character is both the lead suspect and the lead detective, but Collins sustains the mystery to the end.

It’s important with historical fiction to transport your readers into the time period, and this is another place where Collins is adept. Her descriptions of life on a plantation and in 19th century London are beautifully vivid. They’re also clearly the product of careful research, with events and characters like Olaudah ‘Laddie’ Cambridge (a former servant of the Benhams now turned celebrity boxer) inspired by true history – in this case Bill Richmond. Although topics of racial, sexual and gender identity are often considered a modern preoccupation, Collins embeds them seamlessly into her historical setting, where they seem perfectly at home.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an intense, twisty read, which would appeal to anyone interested in Gothic romance, historical fiction, or a good mystery. I would give one word of caution, which is that the novel contains multiple depictions of gore and violence. It’s not for the faint-hearted (or weak-stomached) – but if you’re a fan of the penny dreadful genre then it’s perfect for you!

CONTENT WARNINGS: Slavery, racism, miscarriage, rape mentions, murder, violence