Maggie reviews New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids

New Ink on Life by Jennie Davids is about apprentice tattoo artist Cassie Whiteaker coming to finish her apprenticeship at the shop of MJ Flores. MJ is initially put off by Cassie’s shyness and appearance, but takes her on because they both have the same former mentor. MJ also learns that Cassie is a cancer survivor who wants to do cover-ups of mastectomy scars. They strike a deal wherein MJ will finish Cassie’s apprenticeship and teach her how to be more assertive and stand up for herself, and Cassie will help with new business ideas for the shop, which is still struggling to find its feet after a messy breakup between MJ and her former girlfriend and business partner.

New Ink on Life had a lot of things I liked in it – tattoos, cancer survivors, quitting corporate jobs – but I felt like the relationship did not find its feet until the second half of the book, and it took me that long to feel like the main couple really worked together. From the start, MJ is overly abrasive – I have no idea how she found enough people to run her shop with like that – and Cassie seems too timid to give her a chance. It felt like there was too large of a gap between them, it made it hard to believe them clicking long enough to have their admittedly excellent sexual chemistry. It’s nice when they get along better – they even go antiquing, although that doesn’t necessarily go smoothly.

But the second half of the book does flesh out their relationship much better. Although we don’t get much insight into MJ’s old relationship and shop, we do get some backstory with her family and how it contrasts with Cassie’s backstory with her family. We also get more about Cassie’s history with cancer, and how she is coping with life after. MJ eventually softens her attitude some and becomes endearingly supportive of Cassie. The time they spend together fleshes out their relationship enough that by the last third of the book, I think they really work well together by the end, even if I can’t believe they made it long enough to get that far. Cassie does some good business plan ideas for the shop, and there’s some good contrast with how poorly MJ’s ex’s shop is run. It made me believe that Cassie really did love tattooing enough to quit her job and take an unpaid apprenticeship for it.

If you really love a dynamic of an abrasive personality being softened up by a nicer partner, maybe this book would be more for you. Or if you love any romance centered around tattooing, you should absolutely take a look. But, although I ended up enjoying it by the end, I think I’ll look in another direction for my romance reading.

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.

Maggie reviews Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis

Boots of Leather Slippers of Gold

October is LGBT History Month in the US and Canada, so I thought I’d switch it up from romances and review some nonfiction. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis dives deep into the lesbian community of Buffalo, NY from the 30s to the 50s. Through hundreds of personal interviews with 45 women, Kennedy and Davis create an oral history of the community, covering such topics as the locations they frequented, class divisions, racism, butch/femme dynamics, sexuality, and dress, among other topics. Not only is it a book focusing solely on women, it is full of absolutely amazing personal anecdotes and quotes from all of their interviews. It is a phenomenally rewarding read that I whole-heartedly recommend.

This is an academic work, stretching over 13 years of research and interviews, and the care and attention to detail show. Kennedy and Davis meticulously document many aspects of the Buffalo community, how they related to the greater Buffalo community, and how the community changed over time. I really appreciated that the authors clearly laid out how they defined and were framing each topic and how it relates to other topics. It is an academic piece, but the writing is clear and easy to follow. Each theme is treated as a separate topic but also as simply one aspect of a whole community. I learned so much reading this – it rewarded slow reading so I could think about each topic, but it also would be easy to skim for topics of interests.

Even if you are not interested in a thorough analysis of the history of Buffalo’s lesbian community, this book is worth it for the personal anecdotes and firsthand accounts that pepper the book. The authors conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of people who participated in the community. It’s jam-packed with personal stories, quotes, and details that are often left out of books. One page might recount the narrator’s experience in buying butch clothes, while another might describe how my new role model Sandy would fight back when men would harass her in bars, and then when the men pressed assault charges on her, would dress in borrowed femme clothes for court and get the charges thrown out by the judges, who didn’t believe that a woman could beat up a man that badly. It brings readers directly into the community, in the words of the women who participated in it. It’s not just an impersonal listing of facts, it’s a detailed portrait of real people.

In conclusion: if you are at all interested in lesbian history, this book is a must to track down. Not only did I learn a ton about queer history of this era, I spent so much time excitedly texting my friends about the interviews. I was delighted not only to learn about a broader time period, but also the little details that make it easier to connect to the past. The line between making the stories personal and archiving the history of the community in detail is fine, but this book walks it with confidence. I’m still resisting the urge to just mail it to my friends and demanding they read it.

Maggie reviews Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West

I was perusing Hoopla’s queer romance section since I have been on a romance kick lately, and I came across Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West. A lesbian romance about union organizing? Set in Indiana? With a pun for a title? As a queer lady whose roots are in Indiana and whose friends have recently organized a union drive, I had to read it. It proved to be an interesting read, although the fate of the factory was, at times, more interesting to me than the fate of the main romance. Still, it was good to read a queer romance set more off the beaten path, as you will.

Hoosier Daddy features Jill “Friday” Fryman as she works in a factory in her small hometown. Conditions are rough in the factory, there’s rumors of a buyout, the annual Pork Festival is coming up and emotions are high, and in the midst of all of this a couple of “union agitators” roll into town to try to drum up interest in unionizing the factory. One of the union reps, El, catches Friday’s eye. Friday has to navigate her feelings for El, her professional life and opinions as a line supervisor at the factory who is getting dragged ever deeper into management politics, and how it all interconnects with her small town life. This book struggles a little in attempting to balance scenes of small town life, factory and union politics, and scenes of queer romance in a straight rural town, and it shows in how Friday struggles to make any sort of proactive sense of her own choices as events progress. There are some homophobic incidents, but all of Friday’s personal relationships are positive, albeit sometimes that special brand of rural supportive that is also sometimes backhandedly insulting.

I was eager to read a queer romance set in a rural setting, because, obviously, queer people do exist in rural areas but media often leaves them out. And I think Hoosier Daddy gets a lot right. Friday’s friends and family profess their brand of support for her sexuality (usually starting with some form of “it doesn’t bother me but”) while on the other hand Friday’s car is vandalized twice because of her relationship with El. It’s a rural dynamic that allows El and Friday to have a relationship where Friday can introduce El to her Grammy and friends but still means that there’s no doubt as to why the air gets let out of her tires at the bar. Other details also struck true to me, including all the descriptions of the Pork Festival, the community importance of the fish fry at the VFW, and how it’s impossible to escape meeting people who are related to someone else you know. Everyone in town being intimately aware of all the drama also feel accurate. Friday’s immersion in the community is vividly brought to life in a very vivid and familiar way, which I liked, because in that small a setting it is very hard to separate.

Which is why the plotline of whether the factory will unionize is as big of a deal as Friday and El’s romance, because the mood of the community directly effects Friday and El’s relationship. The book itself seemed strangely ambivalent on whether you should root for this unionization effort to succeed or not. The factory clearly needed to unionize. Safety regulations are routinely ignored. Friday’s boss verbally harasses her several times. What you get to eat at the cafeteria is dependent on whether the cafeteria manager likes you. Management engages in blatant union-busting rhetoric and bribery. Public opinion is constantly against the “union agitators” except for the few radicals they manage to attract right away. It all culminates in a death, which finally swings the momentum towards unionizing. But then the buyout goes through and the new management seems genuinely good while also pushing anti-union rhetoric. I was left very confused as a reader as to who the book was rooting for, since the union clearly needs to happen even while it paints new management so glowingly. I was also baffled as to why Friday couldn’t seem to maintain a consistent opinion on what was happening at her job or her relationship with regards to these changes, always reacting rather than acting.

Which leads to the purpose of this book: Friday and El’s relationship. From the get-go their chemistry is of an instant, physical sort. They end up having a lot of hot encounters (too many of them in public restrooms for my taste but still fun), but it takes them forever to have any sort of real conversation or connection. In my opinion, Friday and El make more sense as a summer fling. It would be right for them to avoid discussing their work if this was a short term affair, but if they really want to make this work long term they need to discuss professional and social boundaries and be upfront about it. It makes sense for them to continue to hook up in bathrooms if this wasn’t a relationship that was going anywhere, but if they both really felt a deeper connection – Friday has her own house or El has a hotel room right there, no bathroom stalls without doors included. I’m glad that El had the wherewithal to get herself into a place where the relationship made more sense by the end of the book, because for much of the book they felt like a floundering, although passionate, mess.

All in all, while it was refreshing to read a queer romance set in a rural area, the romance itself got lost in the setting and the plot line that consumed the whole town. Friday and El were always so caught with reacting or dealing with their surroundings that they had little time to develop their own relationship past a physical level. Plus, while there are lots of dogs appearing in this book, every single one of them has flatulence which is described in detail? Which is really an unnecessarily gross level of description that no one really needs, in my personal opinion. Overall, I had a lot more feelings about the state of the factory’s union than Friday and El’s union, but the setting puts this book at a 3/5 stars in my book. Small town girls deserve queer representation too!

Maggie reviews A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian

A Little Light Mischief by Cat Sebastian

Hello, my name is Maggie and I’m very excited to be reviewing here at the Lesbrary. I’m even more excited that Cat Sebastian, one of my favorite queer romance authors, published a new f/f novella in time for my first review! A Little Light Mischief is a charming romp about some very nice ladies falling in love and doing some crime. Technically, it is part of a previously published m/m series, but don’t let that scare you off if you haven’t previously read Cat’s work–this novella is only very loosely set in the same verse and can easily be read as a standalone (in fact, I have read and loved the rest of the series but couldn’t remember the connection until the end, so the connection is very loose). There are a few trigger warnings to be said: one of the main characters comes from a physically and emotionally abusive childhood and was turned out of her home as an adult when a man exposed his genitals to her. None of this happens in the current story line but is addressed in memories and conversations.

A Little Light Mischief features Molly, a ladies maid with a heart of gold, and Alice, a ladies companion who is accustomed to hard work and usefulness as they work in the same household. One of the characteristics that I love most about Cat’s work is that most of the conflict is external, so what you get is a lot of very soft scenes about characters falling in love with each other and helping each other solve the external conflict. A Little Light Mischief follows this formula deliciously. Both Molly and Alice have already admitted their feelings towards ladies to themselves, and the result is a period of them cautiously looking at each other before coming together in an uncertain situation, drawing comfort from their feelings to fuel their actions (“There’s only one bed!” I shrieked, clutching my phone to my bosom at one point). The conflict arrives when they accompany their employer to a house party. The man who exposed himself to Alice and got her kicked out of her family home is also a guest, and they have to work together to prevent him from ruining her current situation, and maybe even find a little restitution.

That’s the other thing I love about Cat Sebastian stories: they build to very natural and satisfying conclusions. Molly wants to keep her somewhat shady past in the past and build a stable life for herself. Alice wants to do something more satisfying than remaining an idle ladies companion, no matter how nice her employer is. It’s true, the magic bullet here for them to achieve that is crime. But it’s crime in the name of justice. And queerness. So that’s fine. Who among us does not love to read about very soft and competent lesbians with a side of abusers getting their comeuppance? And the situation they end up with is one that is very good and believable for both of them.

If you’re looking for a fun and soft read as a pick-me-up or a light summer romance, A Little Light Mischief is an excellent choice. I enjoyed every second of it, and I hope Cat Sebastian will gift us with more f/f stories in the future.