Thais reviews Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I immediately binned the other review I had planned for this month, even though I do not have the slightest idea of how to properly describe and criticize this book. I know a lot of people hated Catherine House, so I wanted to make this clear from the get go—I loved this book.

I tend to love experimental works of fiction and Catherine House is very much that. It mixes gothic horror and the campus novel genre to tell a story better suited for a thriller, and it does so by using a structure that is unashamedly literary, heavy in atmosphere and imagery that drips with details and repetition of motifs.

There is still plenty of plot, even some elements that put the book in the speculative fiction category, but Catherine House is the story of a young college girl still in the grip of depression and guilt for falling with the wrong crowd and spiraling through a couple of neglected years that led to trauma and self-loathing, and you will get exactly that from the narration.

Ines is depressed and at times (and for long stretches of time at that), the book follows her depression, her inability to pull herself out of her fog, to follow up on her curiosity, to even be alarmed at the sinister undercurrent that seems surround this place to which she has just committed three years of her life. And that is a hefty commitment.

Because Catherine House is not just any fictional elite college, it is a place that demands its students distance themselves from everyone in their lives, including their past selves. Like a cult, Catherine House demands that each student gives themselves to the school completely, and we start a story with the new class of students that has done just that arriving at their new, secretive home.

Some of them are already a bit cautious, but for the most part, students are seduced into this free, top-tier institution that promises them success in life, if they surrender every part of themselves to it.

Even to me, it felt seductive. I tend to avoid any media that has elements of horror, because I struggle with insomnia as it is. I was reluctant to pick this up, but the beautiful prose lured me in, and soon I was moving deeper and deeper into the house with Ines, wondering with her what ‘plasm’ was and why it had so many of her classmates so obsessed, getting horrified with her by the creepy meditations the school imposed. But like Ines, I also felt drawn to School Director Viktória, even as I could tell from the start that she was evil.

Viktória might have actually been the most seductive part of all. Ines is bisexual and that is established early on in the narrative, so her obsession with the beautiful, mysterious older woman who runs Catherine House felt sexual at first. Ines did not yearn for Viktória quite that way, but her eyes still follow Viktória whenever she is around, keeping herself apart from everything and overly involved with everyone at the same time. In a room full of people, Ines only ever has eyes for Viktória, for every minute detail of her appearance and demeanor.

It is not romantic, but Ines’ gaze feels desire. She can’t stop drinking in Viktória, basking in her presence.

Viktória, for her part, seems all too happy to cast herself as nurturing and maternal, but also seems to display a predatory interest for Ines, never crossing the line, but often making sure she gets Ines alone and disarms her with long talks, probing questions into her interests, lingering touches.

At the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than allured by the school, Ines was allured by Viktória, and that the horror of the book lies primarily with this deeply dysfunctional relationship.

While Ines has a long-term relationship with one of male characters, Theo, even that felt like tethered to Viktória—Viktória tells her to be social, to immerse herself in the school, to make deep ties that anchor her to Catherine and Ines does.

Other than her friendships with her roommate Baby and with another young black woman called Yaya, all of Ines’ actions seem performative even to herself, a way to show that she’s becoming good, that she’s becoming worthy.

No matter how sinister the school got, I found it impossible to pull away and I think the main reason for that were all those entangled, complicated relationships between women (and mostly women of color at that).

I was so entranced by the relationships in the story that it didn’t bother me very much that the aspects of the book that tended a bit towards science fiction were never fleshed out or that a lot of the later reveals in the book are a bit predictable. I also imagine some people might have had problems with the pace of the story, but like I said before, I expected literary, experimental, with small touches of horror, and Catherine House delivers on that.

If you want a satisfactory plot with clear resolutions, this might not be the book for you, but if you are craving something moody, with lots of description of winter in rural Pennsylvania and complex (and sometimes infuriating) female characters, I think you will like this.

16 Brilliant Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction Novels to Keep You Thinking

Bi and Lesbian Literary Fiction to Keep You Thinking graphic

When I say that I read mostly bi and lesbian literature, people often assume that means F/F romance. Although I like the occasional romance novel, the truth is that it makes up very little of my reading life. There are sapphic books in every genre: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, nonfiction, etc. One of the genres I gravitate towards is bi and lesbian literary fiction—which is a tricky thing to describe. What makes a book literary fiction? Well, usually it is more character-driven than plot-driven. It may deal with “big ideas” and concentrate more on questions than on action. It’s often seen as complex and “well-written”—but all of these qualities are subjective. I’m not interested in getting a perfect definition. Instead, I want to offer some book recommendations that will likely appeal to you if you read books that are marketed as “literary fiction.”

This is in no way a complete list of every bi and lesbian literary fiction book out there. They’re just some of my favorites. To simplify, I decided to leave out the “classics” of lesbian literature: The Well of Loneliness, The Color Purple, Rubyfruit Jungle, and other books published in the early days of queer lit. These are not all recent releases, but they are biased towards books that have come out in the last decade or two. Did your favorites make the list?

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude by Ellis Avery

This is historical fiction based on Tamara de Lempicka, and it made me fall in love with Ellis Avery as an author and Tamara de Lempicka as an artist. It’s about the artist’s relationship with one of her models, Rafaela, who was the inspiration for six paintings. It’s beautiful and melancholy, and completely pulls you into 1920s Paris. It will make you think about art, doomed romance, discovering your sexuality, our relationships to our bodies, queer history, and the nature of betrayal.

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne BrandIn Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

This is about two women in Trinidad: one a sugar cane worker, another an activist attempting to unionize the workers. They are immediately drawn to each other, but their relationship is threatened by outside forces, including racism and homophobia. This book will make you think about belonging, and feeling caught between (and left outside of) two communities. It will make you think about immigration, and what it means to be “illegal,” about justice and belonging, and about individual choices in an unjust system.

My Education by Susan ChoiMy Education by Susan Choi

This books at first glance seems to be the very stereotype of a literary novel: a young university student begins taking classes with a professor rumored to sleep with his students. They begin sleeping together. When Regina meets his wife, however, she is far more interested in her—and that’s the dynamic at the heart of this novel. This book will make you think about trainwreck relationships—the kind you can’t quite resist, about flawed main characters, and about the mistakes you make in early adulthood.

Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana CurrimbhoyMiss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

This is an atmospheric, absorbing book about teaching at a boarding school in India in the 1970s during the monsoon season. Sheltered Charulata is only a handful of years older than the students, but she changes quickly, especially when she has two sordid, tragic love affairs (one male partner, one female). Then a student turns up dead, and the mystery element begins. This will make you think about coming of age and discovering your own identity.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-BennPatsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy has just taken her chance to move to the U.S., leaving her small Jamaican hometown behind—as well as her 5-year-old daughter. Patsy follows the main character and her daughter over years, and how they both reconcile with this decision, and what it means for their relationship. It will leave you thinking about family, independence and interdependence, gender, and sexuality. Be sure to also check out her previous novel, Here Comes the Sun.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma DonoghueThe Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

This title is standing in for a lot of Donoghue books: she’s one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction. The Pull of the Stars is set during the 1918 pandemic in a small hospital ward, which is either exactly what you want to read right now, or exactly the opposite. It will leave you thinking about the parallels between that pandemic and ours, about justice in healthcare, pregnancy and childbirth, and motherhood.

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This book is an experience. It follows three women in different countries and time periods: Mer in 18th century Haiti, Jeanne in 1880s France, and Meritet in ancient Alexandria. Binding the three together is the spirit Ezili, who inhabits each of them at different times. This book has an F/F sex scene in the first 15 pages, and let me tell you, when I was assigned this in university, I was not expecting that. This book will leave you thinking about freedom and oppression, what’s worth sacrificing, misogyny and racism throughout time, sexuality, spirituality, the beauty of language, and so much more.

when fox is a thousand by larissa laiWhen Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai

This is told in three perspectives: the eponymous fox, counting down until her thousandth birthday when she will acquire power and knowledge; Yu Hsuan-Chi, a real-life poetess from 9th century China; and Artemis, a young woman in modern-day Vancouver. This is told like folklore, with fables woven throughout. It’s beautifully written, I firmly believe it should be considered a classic of lesbian literary fiction. This will make you think about toxic friendships, about activism uninformed by compassion and respect, and about queering folklore.

Her Body and Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado coverHer Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This is a beautiful and unsettling collection that takes familiar stories and exposes the misogyny beneath them. They are thoughtful, metaphorical stories: women who fade away until they are imbued into objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, and urban legends transformed. Read this to think about gender, stereotypes (a writer is accused of writing a stereotype, and she explains that she’s writing about herself—her gay, anxious self), folklore, feminism, and more.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia MckenzieThe Summer We Got Free by Mia Mckenzie

This book feels like the moment before a summer thunderstorm. It’s about a family dealing with the fallout from a tragedy they can’t bare to talk about. We alternate between Ava’s childhood, when she was free-spirited and passionate, and her closed-off, practical adult self. Read this to think about race and racism (particularly anti-Black racism), societal norms, growing up, family secrets, and the possibility of kissing a strange woman who shows up at your doorstop.

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

Mala is sent to Paradise Alms House after she is declared unfit to stand trial for suspected murder. Slowly, she begins to unravel her life story to her nurse, Tyler (a gender-nonconforming person of indeterminate gender). Two queer love stories emerge: one in Mala’s past, one with Tyler. This story will make you think about homophobia, racism, and the intersections between them; about inter-generational queerness; and about hope.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo OkparantaUnder the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

This story is about two star-crossed lovers in Nigeria: they’re both girls, and from different ethnic communities. They are thrown together during civil war—but this is not a romance, and they are torn apart. Ijeoma has to learn what do about this part of herself that has to be hidden for her safety and acceptance. Read this to think about the the dangers of being out in different places around the world, to consider how much is worth sacrificing to be your whole self, and how these impossible choices may change over time.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique is shocked when Evelyn Hugo picks her to pen her biography: Hugo is an aging starlet whose biography is sure to be a bestseller, and Monique is an unknown writer with some magazine credits. Still, she takes the opportunity, and listens to Hugo unravel her life story, which reveals how she stayed closeted about her sexuality (bisexual) and ethnicity (Latina). Read this to think about the cost of fame, bi-erasure, complex female characters, racism, and 1950s Hollywood.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

You might find this in the sci-fi/fantasy section, but this is more alternate history than steampunk. It’s a reimagining of the colonial history of the Republic of Congo, and also follows a tumultuous, decades-long relationship between two women of very different backgrounds. Read this to think about colonialism, racism, white “passing,” complicated F/F relationships, intersectionality, war, and the story structure of including a staggering amount of point of view characters.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is my favorite author, so this is a stand-in for all of her books, but I especially recommend picking up Fingersmith, too. Tipping the Velvet is a “lesbo-Victorian romp” (that’s the author’s description) about a small-town girl falling for a male impersonator and joining her on the road. Read it to think about being queer in Victorian England, male impersonators and gender, first loves, socialism, relationships that develop from friendships, and love after loss.

Written on the Body by Jeanette WintersonWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of the big names in lesbian literary fiction, so there are a lot of her books I could have included, but I especially recommend this and The PassionWritten on the Body is remarkable for not stating the gender of the protagonist explicitly at any point, but it’s generally regarded as a classic of lesbian literary fiction. It’s about the narrator’s adoration of Louise, a married woman, and singing the praises of her and her body. Read this to think about gender assumptions and signifiers, and about being passionately in all-consuming love.

Bonus book:

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max GladstoneThis Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Okay, you’ll almost certainly find it in the science fiction section: it’s about two women on opposite sides of a war across space and time, leaving each other letters—at first taunting, and then romantic. The letters between Red and Blue are so beautiful and lyrical that you’ll forgive me for including it on this list. Read this to think about poetry and love letters, war and time travel, and recognizing the humanity of people we’ve been taught to dehumanize.

Those are my picks for bi and lesbian literary fiction that will leave you with much to ponder! This is only a brief introduction: there are many more sapphic literary works, and more are being published all the time. If you pick up any of these, let me know what you think on Twitter! I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to also offer any recommendations of bi and lesbian literary fiction you think I’d enjoy! I’m always looking for more.

This article originally ran on Book Riot.

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Mo Springer reviews Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Lucky is a lesbian, but in her conservative Sri Lankan family, that’s not an option. She married her gay friend Kris and they go to gay bars, have lovers, and still have the approval and conditional love of their family. When her grandmother falls and Lucky has to move back home to help take care of her, the lies become harder and more pressing. Then, Lucky’s childhood sweetheart Nisha is getting married, and Lucky wants to save her. She’s trapped in the obligations of a family that has many of its own problems–her father divorced her mother for her best friend, her sister entered an arranged marriage she didn’t want but seems happy, and her other sister ran away. Lucky wants to escape this life of duty without happiness, but how can she leave her family behind?

This was a hard story, I won’t lie. There is a lot of honesty and truth in this book, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Lucky is miserable, and her obvious depression bleeds through the page. Having said that, it’s important to note that this is not a bad story–this is an amazing story that surrounds sad events.

Every single character is so unique and well-rounded that by the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people personally. Lucky’s mother clings to these traditions and cultural rules so desperately as a way to keep control of her life that has been destroyed by these same rules (her husband who left her is accepted in their society, but not she, the divorced woman). Her grandmother has always been very dear, and has lived an amazing life, but now puts Lucky into a panic with talk of grandchildren. Nisha wants her family to love and accept her, but she also wants to have her own life and happiness. Kris is desperate to be different from what he is, to keep up this lie as much as possible, to never let go, no matter the cost to Lucky.

A lot of these characters come across as unlikeable for good reason. Lucky’s mother is unquestioningly homophobic. At times it seems that Nisha is using Lucky more than caring about how her decisions have an affect on her. Kris, similarly, seems to be using Lucky.

Kris in particular I had a hard time giving as much empathy to as I was with the other characters. As much as I hated Lucky’s mother’s decisions, I can understand them. I felt all of her Lucky’s pain every time Nisha did something to hurt her, but I can also sympathize with where Nisha is coming from. But with Kris, at times it really felt like he just saw Lucky as a means to an end, the end being his acceptance in their community and his family. Lucky wants to lie to keep her family happy, but Kris seems to want more than that. He wants to be normal and have the social status he would have if he was straight.

Social status and community acceptance are themes for all the characters. The author does a great job of explaining the Sri Lankan culture and traditions, creating an immersive experience that also helps to inform the reader of the characters’ motivations. As much as I didn’t like what a lot of them did, I understood them and stayed engaged with their story arcs.

The writing itself is also amazingly beautiful. The exact and specific imagery that flows through the narrative pulled me so effectively the real world felt like a blur. I think I must have highlight lines on every page, it was so stunning.

This is a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It’s not a light and fluffy read, so don’t go into it expecting that, but it is fulfilling.

anna marie reviews Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai is a gooey treat of a book, full of nauseating smells, intoxicating feelings and so much juicy/murky/enticing fluid. In other words it was really great, even better than The Tiger Flu (2018) in my opinion, which I read last year and enjoyed immensely too. Both novels in fact share certain preoccupations with gross bodily queerness as well as dystopian capitalist futures and clones.

Published in 2002, the novel tells a dual or even quadruple story at once. It floats out of time frames, bodies and characters but the main focal points are two protagonists. Nu Wa & her story, generally in nineteenth century China, and her experience falling in love with the salt fish girl who works at the market and Miranda, who’s growing up in the technocapitalist Pacific Northwest from 2042 onwards, and who has the pungent smell of the durian fruit constantly emanating from her whole being and whose family is trying to find a cure.

I was prepared to love the book, it had been recommended to me by a friend, and, as I said I’d already enjoyed another of Lai’s novels. From the first lines I knew I would like it–lines on the first page about loneliness and primordial sludge made me pause with wonder. I was sold; “It was a murkier sort of solitude, silent with the wet sleep of the unformed world,” writes Lai. Salt Fish Girl has this incredible, in many ways relatable, blending of a gross, pervasive sickness/smell with a sensitive, handsy queerness that vibrantly articulates something very truthful, I felt, about the experience of being a child dyke. Full of clumsy encounters and fraught yet attempting-to-be-loving relationships which the novel clung to me, and I took, much like the smell of durians following Miranda, to bringing the book with me into any room or space that I went to, whether or not I actually did any reading.

The novel is about sickness, as well as about the bizarre coupling of mutation, love and reproduction (again much like The Tiger Flu). It also has mermaids and a mythic focus and swelling that was so compelling and really quick to read. The pacing never fails to feel exciting and the dual story pulls you along so that it’s hard to put the book down, each storyline pulling you along to the next installment and on and on.

Funnily enough, the compulsion that pulled me through the book, after the first few chapters settled me into the story, is how I feel about picking up another Larissa Lai novel! I’m really looking forward to reading When Fox is a Thousand, which was her debut in 1995, and rereading The Tiger Flu when I’m next near my copy.

Sash S reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

It’s a new year and a new decade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate an old classic. For that reason, I’m starting the year by revisiting Tipping the Velvet, which was published in 1998 and is set in Victorian England.

‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’ isn’t an especially striking opening line on its own, but after the incredible journey this book will take you through, it’s one of those opening lines that sticks with you as something incredibly iconic. The direct address to the reader, the reminder of our protagonist’s humble beginnings, how evocative the concept of oysters becomes after hearing the protagonist describe her family’s oyster restaurant in fond detail. The way Nancy’s love interest describes the smell of her like “a mermaid”. Waters’ prose brings everything vividly to life.

It’s a coming of age story about Nancy, who falls in love with the performer Kitty and follows her to London. But it’s so much more than that. Tipping the Velvet is a huge novel which spans a time full of change in Nancy’s life, taking us through various areas of London in the process. This review is light on details because a lot happens, but it’s best just experienced.

It’s wonderful to have a protagonist so refreshingly frank about her sexuality. She realises she’s in love with Kitty and that’s it–there’s no crisis about it, that’s just how she is. Nancy is a lovely character to follow through this story, so fully realised that you can see just why she makes all of the decisions that she does. There’s sex and heartbreak and everything in between on Nancy’s journey.

There’s so much, too, to relate to in this book that transcends the time period it’s set in: realising who you are, falling in love for the first time, moving from your hometown and realising you don’t fit there any more when you try to go back; seeking validation in love and sex; realising what’s truly important in life. Waters holds up a mirror and reflects back at us these incredibly poignant life experiences that are relatable no matter who you are or what your sexuality is.

It’s a love story and it’s a story about Nancy learning to love herself and pick herself up and move on as much as it is about her romantic and sexual relationships with women. The ending is something that I think anyone who’s had a first love, or believed in any strong cause, will relate to. it is so, so emotionally raw and incredibly hopeful.

I love this book. I’ll always love this book. It’s a delight. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Rating: ****

Danika reviews The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey DragerThis is a story about storytelling, which means I was immediately invested. The Archive of Alternate Endings explores the story of Hansel and Gretel, as it plays out in the returns of Halley’s comet throughout time. From the first chapter, I was delighted by the skill at play here. Two stories, which concern different people in different time periods, wind around each other and play off one another. The first chapter felt complete in itself, a bittersweet story set during the AIDS crisis while also being about the Grimm brothers. I wasn’t sure how this would play out in novel format, but the next chapter lived up to it, following different people and times, but with enough threads that I felt sure they would twine together by the end of the book.

It turns out that Archive attempts to do many things: it’s not enough to be about storytelling as demonstrated in the tellings of Hansel and Gretel over the ages while being framed by Halley’s comet. Until very recently, something this experimental wouldn’t also be queer. At least, it wouldn’t be queer the way this book is, introducing multiple gay men protagonists in the first chapter and lesbian protagonists in the second. Only a few years ago, you might see a novel like this end up queer—they might slip that in later in the book—but it wouldn’t be right away. That would be seen as limiting your audience even further. I’m relieved to finally be in a place where books like this are published, where they aren’t limited.

As I mentioned, this attempts to be a lot of things. Each story has a pair of siblings: stand ins for Hansel and Gretel. This isn’t just a book about stories, it’s also concerned with the relationships between siblings. I ended up liking those first two chapters best, because as this story spirals, it seems to lose cohesion: it’s about not just storytelling and Hansel and Gretel and Halley’s comet and sibling relationships, but also the end of the world, the AIDS crisis, spider webs, and even mouths become recurring themes.

So many characters don’t have names, just relationships with each other, and it was only near the end that I started to understand how they fit together: I felt like I had to take notes to realize how characters like “the illustrator” and “Halley’s niece” were related. It seemed like I’d have to immediately start the book over again to have any chance of really getting it. When I read the notes at the end, I learned that this was originally several short stories published separately and reworked into a novel. For me, they don’t really cohere. I love the concept, but I didn’t feel like it was pulled it off. I lost interest as it continued. There are definite moments of brilliance, and so much potential, but I think I would have enjoyed this better if I had just read the first two short stories, or maybe if it had been packaged as a collection of related short stories instead of being advertised as a novel.

Of course, this is a demanding, ambitious book, and I fully admit that it might have just gone over my head. This may be one I have to come back to and spend more time with to fully appreciate.

Mary Springer reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterspoon

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trigger warnings for mentions of homophobia and abuse

The relationship between sapphic women and Christianity is a complicated and sometimes tragic and violent one. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a semi-autobiographical story based around the author’s life raised by an evangelists in an English Pentecostal community while discovering her attraction to women.

Jeanette is devoted to her religion and the Christian path her mother has determined for her. She’s admired for being a good Christian girl and absolutely faithful to her community. That is, until she falls in love with another girl, Melanie.

Their relationship makes Jeanette so happy she tell hers mother about it, but only finds her mother angry and upset. Up until this moment, Jeanette has been everything her mother wanted her to be, and her mother in turn as loved and supported everything she did (because everything she did was what her mother told her to do). This change is traumatizing enough for Jeanette without what happens next.

Jeanette and Melanie are forced to undergo exorcisms at the church. Melanie, who has always been the more subservient and less confident of the two, repents. Jeanette refuses and is locked in her parlor by her mother. This whole process takes several days and the author does not shy away from it, probably because she experienced something close to, if not that exactly as it was.

Jeanette eventually pretends to repent simply out of a desperate need for food. However, she remains steadfast in her belief that nothing is wrong with her love for Melanie and that she can maintain that love alongside her faith.

Jeanette remains faithful to her religion because of its ties to love. She loves her mother and believes her mother loves her back. She loves the people in her church and up until this moment they have always loved her back. She loved Melanie, and didn’t see how that love was any different than those others felt. Alongside all of this is her, her love in the God of her church and her belief that he loves her back.

Her church takes an opposite perspective, turning to hate her in a snap judgement of her different sexuality. Jeanette finds herself alone, without the love her community that she was so devoted to.

The bravest part of Jeanette is that despite all of this not only does she not stop loving herself, but she never stops being compassionate and kind. She doesn’t let the hatred of her church sink her from her beliefs in her religion or herself.

The book does a great job of showing how the hatred of the Church members is so contrasted by Jeanette, the lesbian’s, purposeful love, kindness and faith. This book was published in 1985, a time when such depicts would have been shocking. The author takes her time to show the community and it’s members, so you grow attached to them alongside Jeanette, and then feel the same pain she does when she is rejected.

The story is empowering in Jeanette and her ability to take everything in stride and continue to love herself and those around her.

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

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danika reviews Stray City by Chelsey Johnson

Stray City by Chelsey Johnson cover

Wow. This was an emotional journey for me. The description promises this is warm and funny, and although it contains those things, I also found it uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing at times. I did really enjoy the story overall, and I think it had a satisfying payoff, but I do think there are some barriers to entry here.

Stray City begins in Portland in the 90s. 24-year-old Andy has found her family and community in the queer/punk/diy scene here. She came here for school, but after she came out, her Catholic Midwestern parents stopped footing the bill for tuition. Now she’s part of the activist group The Lesbian Mafia, hangs out with the lesbian band The Gold Stars, and does graphic design (mostly in the form of artsy/folksy wedding invitations) and works at an antique shop to pay the bills. She has been recently dumped, and when she sees her ex-girlfriend making out with one of Andy’s closest friends at a show, she’s grateful for any distraction she can get. That distraction comes from Ryan, a straight guy who plays drums in a local band. Andy likes talking to someone outside of her circle for once. His attention is simple. Uncomplicated. It still comes as a surprise to her, however, when in the alley out back after the show, she starts kissing him.

This is where I think Stray City will lose a lot of Lesbrary readers. This is, essentially, a story about a relationship between a lesbian and a straight guy. Unlike something like Ramona Blue, however, this isn’t about someone on a journey to a greater understanding about their orientation–or maybe it is, but it leads right back to where she started. This is something that I see a lot more in real life than I do in fiction: lesbians who have casual sex with men, even though they’re not attracted to them. Because it’s easier, or because they’re looking to get something out of sex that doesn’t require intense attraction or romantic attraction. For Andy, she’s clearly looking to be desired. She’s been hurt in her previous relationship, and it’s nice to be wanted. It even feels a little scandalous, at first, to be with a guy. And she does enjoy his company… she’s just not attracted to him.

Reading about Andrea and Ryan’s relationship made me cringe. I wanted to like Ryan, because I wanted to see what Andy saw in him, but there were definite warning signs: he really seems to see Andrea as a “challenge.” He destroys things when he’s angry. He gets itchy feet staying anywhere too long. Andy wants this uncomplicated connection with someone: an assurance of being wanted, both sexually and personally. She likes hanging out with him, playing Scrabble, talking all night. And making out is fun! But, of course, this gets very complicated. Ryan wants more from their relationship. Despite the open communication happening, despite Ryan knowing she’s a lesbian, he still holds out hope that she will fall as passionately in love with him as he is falling for her.

Andrea’s flirtation with going back into the closet is really interesting (if uncomfortable) to read about. She marvels at being able to go out (in a different town) and hold hands with him without anyone caring. Although she has kept this relationship from her friends, although it felt exciting and illicit there, she realizes that in the greater picture, it’s completely encouraged.

I feel like what follows is a spoiler, but it’s clearly outlined in the description, and it is the heart of the story, so I feel like it’s worth knowing about before you get into it!

Andrea has a powerful moment where she realizes that she is done faking anything for anyone, and she’s ready to let Ryan know exactly where they stand… and then she finds out she’s pregnant. She immediately makes an appointment with the women’s clinic to have an abortion, but now that the possibility is there, she can’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to like to raise a kid in her found family? A kid surrounded by queer people? A kid who didn’t have to have the same rigid restrictions she had? Couldn’t that be something incredible?

Andy soon finds out, though, that some of her new, cool, queer circles have just as rigid demands as Catholocism, and being a pregnant lesbian doesn’t fit them. She has to face the judgement, and sometimes rejection, of her community. (As someone who came out as bisexual after IDing as a lesbian for a decade, I really felt this.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Ryan gets even more complicated and strained.

I thought this was a fascinating, thought-provoking and emotional story–even if it did make me want to crawl out of my own skin at times. I found it funny how nostalgic the beginning felt for me: I was not in the right decade or even country that Stray City describes, but that queer political/punk/diy/mid-20s scene has not changed much over time or distance. I also loved the descriptions of Bullet, Andy’s pitbull, and how she says that queers and pitbulls are in the same family.

I was surprised to find that the novel jumps ten years in the final third, but that section is such a breath of fresh air. All the tension built in the previous sections is released, and we get to see Andy where she really belongs, with the family that she has chosen.

I do recommend this one, but I know it’s not for everyone. Most of the book does deal with Andrea and Ryan in a sexual, semi-romantic relationship. On top of that, there is some biphobia–although I don’t think it’s endorsed by the narrative, Andy and her friends all scoff at the idea of being bisexual. If you can get through the discomfort in the middle of the narrative, I do think the pay off is worth it. I especially recommend the audiobook!

11 Literally Perfect Sapphic Novels

Here’s another one of my recent booktube videos, this time discussing the sapphic novels and short story collections that I’ve rated 5 stars!

Books mentioned:

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