A Twisty Sapphic Spiritualist Con: Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkins

Spitting Gold cover

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Carmella Lowkins’s new historical novel, Spitting Gold (Atria Books 2024), is a fabulously atmospheric story with a twisting plot that keeps you guessing until the very end!

Spitting Gold is set in nineteenth-century Paris. Baroness Sylvie Devereux has worked tirelessly for years to distance herself from her old life, embarking on a career of respectability with her devoted husband. However, when her estranged sister, Charlotte Mothe, appears on her doorstep with a compelling proposal, Sylvie is drawn back into a world she thought she’d left behind. The two women enjoyed a career as popular spirit mediums—all their visitations an elaborate ruse to trick wealthy patrons—before Sylvie disowned her family. But with their father sick and Charlotte’s debts climbing, Sylvie agrees to help her sister perform one final con on the de Jacquinot family, aristocrats who are convinced their great aunt who was murdered during the French Revolution is haunting the family and the house. 

As the sisters begin to orchestrate their old tricks to encourage the family to part with their fortune, strange and inexplicable events begin to occur, drawing the sisters into a haunting they begin to fear could be very real. As secrets between the sisters and the de Jacquinot’s come to light, Sylvie learns that she may not be able to outrun her past. 

As a neo-Victorian mystery novel with a sapphic subplot, Spitting Gold is a smashing good time. Lowkins draws on the history of nineteenth-century table turning and the obsession with the female spirit medium—who indeed became a kind of celebrity in this period—to stage her suspenseful plot. Add to this a dash of lesbian romance and this novel is perfect for readers of Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue. 

I was really impressed with Spitting Gold. It has a thoroughly engaging plot and the writing really draws you into the story. It’s structured so that the reader has little idea what to believe as Sylvie and her sister try to con—and then cope with—the de Jacquinot family and the strange happenings at their home. Lowkins starts us off with one kind of novel with Sylvie at the center, and then abruptly turns everything on its head with so many delightful twists. I had no idea where this novel was heading and I was thoroughly surprised by the ending!

I had such a great time reading Spitting Gold. It is the perfect summer read and great for fans of queer historical fiction and lovers of atmospheric literary novels. 

Please add Spitting Gold to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Carmella Lowkins on Instagram.

Rachel Friars is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her current research centers on neo-Victorianism and lesbian literature and history. Her work has been published with journals such as Studies in the Novel, The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, and The Palgrave Handbook of neo-Victorianism.

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

A Steamy Lesbian Historical Romance in France: An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

the cover of An Island Princess Starts a Scandal

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“A person could live a lifetime in six weeks, Your Grace. Entire lives have been changed in less.”

Picture this: it’s summer, your sunscreen is applied, and you’ve taken the day off to spend solo on the beach. You’ve already taken a dip in the ocean. You lay out your towel and get all your fun drinks and snacks ready, and you pull out An Island Princess Starts a Scandal: a steamy F/F romance set in 1889 Paris. Bliss. That’s how I read this title, and it was the perfect setting for this romp of a romance read.

I’m not usually a big romance reader, especially historical romance, but this changed my mind about what a historical romance novel could be. It has such a fun premise. Manuela is a lesbian engaged to a wealthy man, but she has a summer of freedom in Paris with her two best friends before she gets married. She plans to spend this time exploring the sapphic side of Paris in one last debaucherous adventure.

There, she meets Cora, a wealthy businesswoman giving off Anne Lister vibes. Basically the only thing of value to Manuela’s name as a single woman is a small parcel of land she inherited, and Cora needs it to complete a lucrative railway project. Manuela agrees to sell it on one condition: Cora needs to be her guide to the lesbian nightlife of Paris. Oh, and did I mention they already met once before at a queer sex club?

This made for a perfect beach read. I always love seeing the gay side of Paris in the late 1800s/early 1900s, especially the art and literary side. Manuela is a painter, so we see a bit of that: Manuela sees examples of women who have managed to make a living doing their art, something she thought was impossible.

That setting combined with the premise had me hooked from the beginning, and the dynamic between Manuela and Cora kept me reading. Manuela is reckless, indulgent, and clever, while Cora is more tightly wound and ambitious. They clash, but they’re also instantly obsessed with each other. Both are leveraging their power over each other before the land deal goes through for good, and they’re both pretending they’re fine with this being a purely physical, limited time fling.

I can’t leave off that this is perhaps the steamiest romance novel I’ve ever read. There are a lot of sex scenes, everything is described, and everything is described in detail.

I did sometimes get hung up on the writing style, because there are a ton of sentence fragments. They’re a stylistic choice, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write that way, but they’re frequent. I did sometimes snag on that and get distracted from the story.

This is part of a trilogy of romance novels, each following one of three friends as their love stories play out simultaneously during this summer. I liked seeing glimpses into those stories, and though the other two are straight romances, I still might pick them up, since I had so much fun with this one. This is the second book in the series, technically, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by starting here.

If you’re looking for an immersive and sexy romance to escape with for a while, I highly recommend this one.

Rachel reviews The Disenchantment by Celia Bell

the cover of The Disenchantment

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Celia Bell’s debut novel, The Disenchantment (Pantheon 2023), is a stunning example of queer historical fiction at its finest. 

Set in seventeenth-century Paris, The Disenchantment follows Baroness Marie Catherine, who lives in a world of luxury, entertainment, and intrigue. However, there is also an undercurrent of darkness racing through Parisian nobility: rumours of witchcraft, deliberate poisoning, and fraud abound, and the voracity of the rumour mill means no one is completely safe. Marie Catherine hides her own secrets. Her tyrannical and distant husband is an oppressive and regulatory force, and when he is home she does all she can to protect her children from him by telling them fairy stories. However, when he is away, Marie Catherine is free to engage with her intellectual pursuits, including salons and spirited conversations with female scholars and writers. 

Furthermore, at the heart of Marie Catherine’s liberated existence beyond her husband is Victoire Rose de Bourbon, Mademoiselle de Conti. Androgynous, bold, and seemingly fearless, Victoire and Marie Catherine are lovers, and Victoire quickly proves to be a source of joy in Marie Catherine’s life. She admires Victoire’s confidence and freedom, and as the situation becomes more and more volatile in her home, Marie Catherine knows she must escape. When a violent murder occurs involving those close to Marie Catherine, she is faced with a choice, and the one she makes leads her down a path she could never have predicted, and toward people who are committed to protecting their own interests. 

I loved this novel. It’s difficult to talk about this book without giving too much away, but the twists and turns of this plot are completely gripping. Bell’s writing is immersive, and captures the atmosphere and drama of this plot so thoroughly that I was hardly able to put it down. Lesbian historical fiction is undeniably my favourite literary genre and this book did not disappoint. The Disenchantment is well-researched, comprehensive, and draws on little-known moments of French history, expertly weaving fiction and fact together to create a wholly original novel. This book is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (2022) or Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (2008). 

Marie Catherine and Victoire were characters I loved and believed in, and Bell captures their unique and sometimes warring motivations. However, Bell doesn’t only pay attention to upper-class perspectives in this novel, and the text is a much wider examination of Parisian society in this period. This novel felt like a mix of genres in the best way—part literary fiction, historical fiction, crime fiction, mystery, and Gothic. It kept me guessing until the very end and felt like a thoroughly original, gorgeous historical portrait. 

I highly recommend The Disenchantment for fans of queer historical fiction and/or literary fiction. This is undeniably one of my top queer reads of the year. 

Please add The Disenchantment to your TBR on Goodreads and follow Celia Bell on Twitter.  

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.

Carmella reviews All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui

Content warning: this review references sexual assault

In the first chapter of her auto-fictional novel All Men Want to Know, Nina Bouraoui (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) writes: “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for; I trace the thread of my past back as far as it will take me, making my way through the mysteries that haunt me, hoping to unravel them.”

This is just what the book sets out to do, exploring the narrator’s adult sense of identity–lesbian, writer, French, Algerian–through her past. Born to a French mother and an Algerian father, Bouraoui lived in Algiers until the age of fourteen, when her family relocated to France. Through this fictionalised narrative, Bouraoui ‘unravels’ her personal history, from a sun-baked childhood idyll in an Algeria threatened by the looming civil war of the 90s, to her search for connection as an 18-year-old in the lesbian nightlife of Paris, to her mother’s own life and experiences of sexual assault.

The story is told through beautiful vignette-like chapters that flicker between time periods and locations, mixing past and present, Paris and Algiers. It’s an experimental form that risks becoming frustrating, but I found the short chapters page-turningly compelling. The lack of fixed time and location represents Bouraoui’s own feelings of belonging between places: “I can’t choose one country, one nationality, over the other, I’d feel I was betraying either my mother or my father.”

In the Algerian chapters, headed as ‘Remembering’, Bouraoui writes vividly of desert holidays with her mother and sister alongside the horror of political unrest and violence. Roadblocks, harassment, and murders intertwine with family anecdotes and capers with her childhood best friend Ali.

As an 18-year-old in Paris, Bouraoui begins frequenting a women-only nightclub, looking for love but too terrified to act upon her desires. In this intimately anonymous setting, she feels part of the gay community (“I like these two words, they don’t so much belong to me as own me”) but experiences disconnection from her new lesbian social circle (“The women I spend time with are my rivals, women I go out with, not my friends”). Away from the club scene, she also begins to write. These chapters–headed ‘Becoming’–are reminiscent of the Parisian chapters of The Well of Loneliness as well as the works of Qiu Miaojin in their haunting sense of alienation.

The final narrative strand offers an account of Bouraoui’s mother’s youth in a war-torn France and the barriers surrounding her cross-cultural marriage. These ‘Knowing’ chapters mix family oral history with omniscience – how much would the narrator have been told and how much has been imagined?

All Men Want to Know is an evocative, heartfelt novel that explores psychological questions of self, belonging and knowing. While it covers distressing topics, it’s ultimately a beautiful and hopeful account of coming of age while straddling opposing identities.

Content warnings: rape, sexual assault, suicide, racism, murder, war, addiction, homophobia, sexism

Anna Marie reviews Women Lovers, Or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney 

Women Lovers or the Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney is an intense and poetic modernist novel about three women (N, L and M) deeply devoted and in love with each other, and chronicles the transformation of their relationship. The idea of the “Third Woman” is not only a reference to one of the women in the novel being left out by the others, but also to the idea that being a lesbian was being part of a “third sex” (something also explored at around the same time by Radclyffe/John Hall in The Well Of Loneliness and by various sexologists circling around at the time). The novel is also an exceedingly thinly veiled autobiography about Barney’s relationship with Mimi Franchetti and Liane de Pougy, both key figures in sapphic Parisian (generally immigrant) circles in the 1920s.

The language of the novel (in translation from French) is electric and so alive and sensual, just as the love story and relationships it depicts are. L is a decadent woman whilst M is frenzied and soft – “Her hands are more evolved than she herself is, and they get hurt on everything, just as souls do.” Barney’s description of herself, of the character N, is a potent snapshot of a person who constantly feels like the odd one out: “she communes with humans through joyful pleasure, even though she seems to miss out on it in every other way”. I think something in this novel that made it even more captivating than a queer love and loss story might have been is this positioning of some people as “thirds”, as constantly missing out because they don’t have a singular partner or relationship that consistently puts them first. It reminded me a little of this article that Caleb Luna wrote about being “denied intimacy and care… who reserve it for others” the ways that people undermine platonic relationships by focusing so intensely on romantic coupling. Obviously N in the novel has multiple other pairings, so its not an entirely accurate comparison, but I think it adds interesting current contexts for the novel.

The earthy but whimsical tone of Women Lovers as well as the descriptions charmed and inspired me so much. As someone studying the period, it’s also interesting to see who else weaves their way into and through the narrative, from their “Dearest Friend” (the artist and long term partner to Barney, Romaine Brooks) to “The Newly Miserable Woman” (Djuna Barnes author of Nightwood and The Ladies Almanack), as well as references to Radclyffe/John Hall and her partner Lady Troubridge.

Although this word is never used in the novel, it is clear that N and the women she is involved with are in some way polyamorous: they generally participate in and create non-monogamous relationships with each other, overlapping intimacies, so it’s a record of the way that historical queers connected separately and related to their communities and their partners/lovers/friends. The other really enjoyable part of reading this novel is the many ways in which the current sapphic and queer community I witness and participate in mimics these wild lesbian and bi+ women from almost 100 years ago! Just like when I read The Ladies Almanack, this novel/autobiography made me really feel like nothing has changed – we make the same jokes, we care about the same things, we use similar imagery and vocabularies, we have the same issues to work through, we are all dating each others exes and so on!