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

PJ review Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindu

I’d looked forward to reading Marriage of a Thousand Lies since I glanced it on Lesbrary, and my initial reaction after finishing it was that of elation, but there was a pit left in my stomach. At first, I couldn’t understand why, but the more I pored over S.J. Sindu’s book, it began to make sense. Let’s break down the good and bad of this book:

There are so few books with South Asian representation, even few yet with LGBTQ+ characters, and even less still with that character as the main character. Having a lesbian character in a realistic setting, fighting against her parents who believe in and strictly adhere to a culture that has failed them, was so relatable it hurt. But therein lies the problem. Sindu writes in a way that comes off as surreal, dreamy, but the content is harrowing, painful. I actually think that’s a perfect mix to keep the reader going without bogging them down with too much heartache.

See, there is nothing inherently wrong with the book: it’s a fairly realistic and sobering portrayal of toxic parents in a toxic culture which bleeds into the main character’s own actions. There are a fair amount of points where she responds with the same toxic and controlling behavior she’s been raised in. Realistic. So, in one way, it’s cathartic to read about something so relatable. But, in another, it left me with a sense of hopelessness.

I realized the main issue I had: This book wasn’t about a lesbian South Asian woman who rose above all odds, it was a book about said character who was barely able to scrape by and finally managed to begin to process of cutting herself free from her toxic family.

This is not to say I wouldn’t recommend the book. I would certainly recommend it with a warning. Anyone who wants to read this book should mentally steel themselves, or at least be mentally prepared about the harrowing ride this book can take you on. The more you can relate to it, the more it’ll hurt.

But, in the end, it is great to see a story revolving around the hardships of a first generation Southasian background, and I hope to see more kinds of niche representation, South Asian or otherwise, until it’s no longer so niche!

Danika reviews Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure is about Simone, a teenager who’s been HIV positive since birth. Her dads have done their best to make sure she has the best possible life, and as long as she takes her medication every day, her day-to-day isn’t much different from her peers. The problem is not so much with symptoms or medical care, but stigma. At her last school, her peers turned on her when they found out her diagnosis, and she had to switch schools. Now, she just wants to enjoy directing the high school play and hanging out with her friends and crushing on a boy without having to think about how people would react if they knew. Which is why getting blackmail notes threatening to out her if she doesn’t stay away from her crush is particularly terrifying.

I will say up front that this has a bisexual main character, and the central romance is M/F. But even aside from the bi main character, there is queer rep aplenty: Simone has two dads, one of her best friends in an asexual lesbian, and the other best friend is also bisexual. In fact, it’s partly because Simone is surrounded by confident, out queer people in her life that she doesn’t feel like she can claim the word bisexual for herself. Sure, she has crushes on celebrity women, but that doesn’t count, right? And liking one girl isn’t enough to be able to call herself bisexual, right? An undercurrent of the story is Simone coming to terms with her sexuality, and realizing that she can claim that identity. (Also, her–almost?–ex-girlfriend is awful.)

I find this book a little difficult to describe, because on the whole, I found it a fun, absorbing, even fluffy read. Simone is passionate about musical theatre, and she is excited and intimidated to be acting as director. She is swooning over a cute guy (also involved in the production), and their romance is adorable. Simone’s friends are great–even if they have some communication issues–and so is her family. She is surrounded by support, and there is a lot of humour sprinkled throughout.

On the other hand, Full Disclosure also grapples with the stigma around HIV positivity. Simone’s dads felt that it was fitting that they adopt an HIV positive baby, after having lost so many people in their lives to HIV and AIDS. There is discussion of what living through the epidemic was like, and the extreme bigotry towards people with HIV/AIDS. Simone is being blackmailed, and she lives in fear of having people turn against her again. She doesn’t feel like she can even talk to the principal about it, because it could mean that the information could get out. Even her best friends don’t know.

There is tension between the lightheartedness of the book as a whole, and the serious underpinnings. It meshes well, though, and doesn’t feel like bouncing between emotional extremes. Instead, it portrays that HIV positive teens can have happy, fulfilling lives and also have to worry about unfair, hateful treatment. They can be carefree in most aspects of their lives, and also have to take their health very seriously.

Full Disclosure is masterful, including well-rounded characters, an adorable love story, and a protagonist who grows and matures over the course of the novel. I highly recommend this, and I can’t wait to read more from Camryn Garrett.

Black Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations for Black History Month and F/F February

February is Black History Month, and I thought I’d use this time to promote some black lesbian books! (And black bisexual books, black sapphic books, black queer books, etc.) Black lesbian fiction is one of the keywords that leads a lot of people to the Lesbrary, and I can see why. A quick Google search doesn’t bring up a lot of helpful posts. The Black Lesbian Literary Collective is a fantastic resource, though, and I highly recommend checking it out.

To help add to your Black History Month TBR, here are 15 black bi and lesbian books that I love. Most are by black authors and feature black characters, but there might be a few that are just one or the other. Let me know in the comments what your favourite black lesbian fiction is, or any other black queer books you recommend!

I’m going to start out with 15 black sapphic books that I have read and loved, and then I’ll share some of the top ones on my TBR. I talked about them in my latest Book Riot video, or you can scroll down if you’d rather read my thoughts on each!

Fiction:

The Color Purple by Alice WalkerThe Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is a classic for a reason. It does have brutal subject matter, including rape and racism, but it somehow manages to have an overall message of hope and resilience. My favourite part about this book was the huge cast of diverse, complex female characters that all form a network of support with each other, finding connections across difference.

Speaking of relationships between women, the description of this book often downplays the queer content. Celie is proudly gay. She has romantic and sexual relationships with women in this book. It’s not subtext: it’s a major part of the plot.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

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

The overwhelming image I get when trying to describe The Summer We Got Free is the moments just before a summer thunderstorm: the charged anticipation, the humid heat, the claustrophobia of it. This is about a family and a house haunted by its past. In an alternating structure, we learn about Ava as a vibrant, unrestrainable child, and the closed-off and dulled person she is now. Slowly, we build up to the event that caused this shift. This is a brilliant and affecting book that should be recognized as a classic of black lesbian fiction and of literary fiction in general.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

YA and Middle Grade:

This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca BarrowThis is What it Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow

Who can resist a literal getting the band back together book? Dia, Jules, and Hanna used to be inseparable. But the band and friendship fell apart when a) Dia’s boyfriend died b) Dia discovered soon after that she was pregnant and c) Hanna’s alcoholism landed her in the hospital. Dia cuts ties with Hanna, and Jules sides with her. Now, Hanna is sober, Dia is a mom of a toddler, and there’s a Battle of the Bands that could change all of their lives, if they can mend their friendship. These are multifaceted people with complex relationships with each other. There’s also a cute F/F romance (with Jules)!

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Little and Lion by Brandy ColbertLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert

A quiet, thoughtful book that deftly handles subjects like race, sexuality, and mental health. Suzette is black, bisexual, and Jewish, and those aspects of her identity all interact and affect her everyday life. I liked how it addressed the challenges of coming out even in a fairly positive environment: the embarrassment in having to announce this intimate part of yourself, the tension in seeing what people’s reactions will be, the irritation of having it involuntarily become your defining feature, the general awkwardness. But this story isn’t about Suzette’s sexual identity. It’s about her relationship with her brother, and how they’ve recently grown apart, to her dismay. Lionel has recently been diagnosed as bipolar, and shortly after that, Suzette was sent away to boarding school. They haven’t seen each other a lot, and they aren’t sure how to go back to the closeness they once shared. It’s painful. This is a beautiful book with a lot of depth.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda PetrusThe Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline WoodsonThe House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson

This is a tiny (99 pages) book with a lot of layers. It’s the story of the summer when Staggerlee was fourteen, and when she felt confused and alone. It’s also the summer when she met her (estranged, adopted) cousin Trout. It’s atmospheric and emotional. Staggerlee is struggling with being small-town famous for her grandparents dying in an anti-civil rights bombing. She feels set apart for being mixed race, and is also questioning her sexuality. She is able to process a lot of this with Trout, finding ease in not yet having the answer. “Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t be gay.” This is a slow, thoughtful read.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender coverHurricane Child by Kacen Callender

A middle grade novel with a lot of complexity. It’s set on the US Virgin Islands, and Caroline is struggling with a lot: she is ostracized at school, her mother has gone missing, and as she begins to develop feelings for a new girl at school, she is met with waves of homophobia. This is a difficult and sometimes surreal book–Caroline sees spirits. This is a messy story, not in writing skill, but because it realistically depicts this overwhelming and confusing point in Caroline’s life.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Goldie Vance Volume 1Goldie Vance series by Hope Larson (Author) and Brittney Williams (illustrator)

This is an all-ages comic with a black teenage girl detective! The plot is a little more serious/political than I’d expect with something like Lumberjanes, but this is still a lot of fun.

Of course, what really made me love this is the queer content. Goldie meets Diane and is immediately enamored with this girl rocking the James Dean look. Their romance is adorable, and I look forward to seeing more of them.

(Note: Brittney Williams is the co-creator, and she does the illustrations in this first volume, but isn’t involved in the subsequent volumes.)

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Science Fiction & Fantasy:

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi coverAscension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Alana is a black lesbian spaceship mechanic with a chronic illness, who ends up in a found family polyamorous relationship. What’s not to like?

The strength of this book is the fully realized characters, who all have intricate relationships with each other. The romance is a subplot here, and although I really liked it, it’s no more important than Alana’s complicated and frustrating relationship with her sister.

I am really hoping that Jacqueline Koyanagi continues this series, because I’m invested–in the characters, in the world, and in the plot. This works well as a standalone, but I want more.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Salt Roads by Nalo HopkinsonThe Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

This is historical fiction following three black women in different places and times (18th century Haiti, 19th century Paris, and 4th century Egypt). All three are sometimes possessed by Elizi, a spirit.

The Salt Roads is a hugely ambitious book exploring racism throughout time, and how these women survive and fight back. It is also incredibly queer. I was assigned this in a university class, and I was pleasantly surprised to find 2 lesbian sex scenes within the first 15 pages.

This is a stunning book that made me a lifelong Nalo Hopkinson fan.

Skip my review and check out Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian’s.

Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson coverFalling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

Did I mention being a lifelong Hopkinson fan? I’ll admit that this collection only has one sapphic story, but it is the longest story in the collection, and there are other queer stories. I was hooked  from the first sentence: I didn’t used to like people much.

“Ours Is the Prettiest” is part of the Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl

This is a steampunk alternate history of the Belgian Congo. It is a brilliant, dense, thought-provoking story about colonialism told from a huge variety of perspectives. This means that you get to see the story from so many angles: the well-meaning white supporters of Everfair, the existing king and queen of the region trying to regain control, the Chinese workers brought in by the Belgium king, mixed-race European Everfair inhabitants, etc.

The story spans decades, tackling politics, war, espionage, grief, love and betrayal. There are three queer women point of view characters, and the complicated, deeply flawed, compelling relationship between two of them is at the heart of this story.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

This follows a vampire from just before her change, when she is escaping from slavery, to two centuries afterwards (yes, to 2050). It is almost like a collection of short stories, each set a decade or two after the previous one. It really imagines the scope of being immortal. It also is just as much a history of racism and slavery in the United States.

I also loved how Gomez incorporated vampire mythology (about running water and connection to the earth) as well as developing a vampire moral code: Vampires are able to manipulate people’s thoughts, reading what a person needs (comfort, decisiveness, hope, etc), and leaving that with them. They also heal the wounds they cause, making it, in their opinion, an even exchange.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Better Off Red by Rebekah WeatherspoonBetter Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon

Another lesbian vampire book, but with a very different tone. This is an erotica (vampire sorority sisters!) I did have some issues with the plot, but overall this is a really fun, sexy story that manages to convincingly have vampires with consensual relationships.

Despite the vampire orgies, this ends up having compelling characters. I look forward to reading the next books in the series, especially because focuses on my favourite supporting character, Cleo.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Nonfiction:

Hunger by Roxane GayHunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones).

Despite the subject matter, Gay writes in approachable style that feels like she’s having a conversation with you, making this easier to read than I was expecting. She also discussed coming out as bi, and some of her relationships with women. This is dark, sometimes brutal book, but it’s also a masterful one.

Check out my full Lesbrary review.

Of course, this only scratches the surface! Here are a few more on my TBR pile:

In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand  The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera  Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Barnett  Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair  Don't Explain by Jewelle Gomez

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole  Treasure by Rebekah Weatherspoon    Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron  You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin  Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology edited by Barbara Smith    The Complete Works of Pat Parker    Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney

If you like what we do here at the Lesbrary, consider supporting the Lesbrary on Patreon! At $2 or more a month, you’re entered to win a queer women book every month! You can also check out the Lesbrary Amazon page for lists of all the sapphic books I recommend.

Danika reviews The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus

It’s the classic story: girl meets granddaughter of pastor, girls falls in love, girls get caught and sent away to separate countries. That is only the beginning, though.

Audre loves her Trinidad home, and she is heartbroken to leave it–and her love, and her friends, and her family–behind. Her grandmother assures her that Spirit lives in America, too, and that she can find meaning in this change in her life. There, she meets Mabel, the other main POV of this story. They quickly bond, and that only gets stronger when Mabel begins to get sicker and sicker.

This is a book with a strong voice and focus. It begins with a poem, and then: ‘Yuh fa’ and arrow and sensual and mango,’ Queenie tells me, ‘so, Audre, please put some molasses in yuh feet for dis walk, it ain’t supposed to go fas’.’ … My heart feeling like it get bus’ up for calling somebody mother a jagabat. Because of the slang and style in narration, I found it difficult to get started, but after a few chapters, I acclimatized. I appreciate that this isn’t written to pander to a white American audience–it trusts that readers will ether understand or accept being a little lost. It makes for an immersive, powerful read.

The focus of the book is on Audre’s adjustment to life in America and Mabel’s acceptance of her terminal illness, and the relationship that develops between them. On top of that, though, there are a lot of other elements being juggled: spirituality and astrology permeates the whole story. Mabel finds meaning and comfort in pursuing astrology, and Audre’s connection with Spirit and what she learns from Queenie (her grandmother) allows her to know how to help and comfort Mabel–without suggesting that she knows best or that she has any quick fixes.

Poetry is also interspersed between chapters, all with an astrology-themed title (Gemini Season, Capricorn Season, etc). Mabel finds comfort in Whitney Houston, and the text affirms Whitney Houston also having a relationship with a woman. Another aspect is that Mabel finds comfort in reading the prison writings of someone named Afua. His book is what leads her to astrology, and his grappling with his life on death row helps her come to terms with her own struggles. We also get a few chapters with Afua’s point of view, illustrating how he ended up in jail, and how he finds meaning in his life.

I of course loved the character of Queenie, Audre’s grandmother who is accepting and teaches her spirituality and medicine. Queenie is the definition of a free spirit. I did find it a little awkward, though, that we get flashbacks of Queenie’s life in Mabel’s chapters–the idea is that through Audre’s “dreamo therapy,” she is developing a link to Queenie’s memories. These are written exactly as if they were just from Queenie’s perspective, though, and I found it confusing to imagine Mabel having these prolonged, detailed flashbacks. I would rather have had them be their own POV chapters.

Near the end of the book, we find out what happened to Neri, Audre’s Trinidadian girlfriend. [Mild spoilers:] I appreciated that she still is reaching out to Audre. I feel like usually in these stories, especially since Audre found another love interest, it would turn out that Neri had rejected their earlier relationship. Instead, Neri finds her own queer community in Trinidad after running away from a hateful home situation. I really appreciated that although most of the story takes place in the U.S., we get this glimpse of how queer teens in Trinidad might build their lives. [end spoilers]

I really appreciated the skill at work here. Audre and Mabel are well-rounded characters, and I loved their relationship. Mabel pushes away the people in her life when she becomes seriously ill, and they also don’t know how to be around her. Audre is determined to keep their friendship, and she continues to show up for Mabel. They develop a stronger relationship through this. Audre is also still dealing with the rejection from her mother, and slowly becoming closer to the father that she has spent very little time with in her life. Although she is outgoing, she’s also hurting–she begins being in her new home thinking “Most adults I know want you to say just the right thing to them, in just the right way, so they can love you.” The relationship that was a source of joy and light in her life has been torn away from her, and labelled as immoral. “All I know about love is how to find its hurt and its endings after I find its sweetness.” I appreciated seeing Mabel and Audre grow together. This is a powerful story, and I’m grateful that we’re beginning to see more stories like this getting the attention they deserve.

Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Danika reviews Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie GillmanI love Melanie Gillman’s art. The use pencil crayons, and the detail is incredible. I always spend half the time reading their books just admiring landscapes. In Stage Dreams, Grace is in a stage coach, on the run. The coach is being driven through an area that’s being haunted by the Ghost Hawk, a supernatural giant hawk that swoops down on carriages and robs them! When Grace’s coach is targeted, she discovers that the Ghost Hawk is, in fact, Flor: a Latina woman who robs coaches, with her (regular-sized) pet hawk–not the story stagecoach drivers like to tell about the experience!

When the stagecoach fails to produce any worthwhile goods, Flor takes Grace instead, in the hopes of getting some ransom money from her family. Her plan falls apart when she finds out that Grace is trans and is running away from her family. Instead, the two end up hatching a plan together to pull of another heist–one that could set them both up for life.

This is a short, snappy story: I got to the end and felt like I must have skipped something, it was over so fast. Once I considered the book as a whole, though, I had to admit that it told a complete story. I just wasn’t willing for it to be over yet! My favourite part was a surprise at the end: Gillman includes endnotes that explain the historical context of many of things on the page, including their research about trans historical figures at the time. It added a lot of depth.

Although I would have liked for this to be a little longer, I really enjoyed the art, characters, and historical context. Westerns are not usually my genre, but I was sucked into this story. Definitely pick it up for a quick, engaging read with a diversity characters not often seen in this setting.

Danika reviews In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Trigger warning: This review discusses emotional abuse. 

I have been simultaneously excited for and dreading reading In the Dream House since I first heard of its existence. I absolutely loved Her Body and Other Parties as well as Machado’s edition of Carmillaso those put her books on my automatic must read list. This memoir, though, is about a same-sex emotionally abusive relationship: a subject I think needs to be discussed more, and is also something that gets under my skin. I knew that Machado would handle it incredibly–but I also knew that skill would carry the risk of reliving some painful moments in my own history. I was right on both counts.

Machado is an incredible writer. This is a book that experiments with the genre of memoir, explores the history of abuse between women (and its invisibility in the archive), includes a choose your own adventure section, and manages to make a recap of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode a chilling counterpart to the main narrative. In the Dream House is divided into very short sections, usually between 1-3 pages. Each examines the “dream house” (where this relationship took place) from different angles: “The Dream House as Gothic Romance,” “The Dream House as Folk Lore,” “The Dream House as Famous Last Words.” Some are vignettes from her relationship. Some are academic essays on topics like 1940s Gothic Romance movies, or queer-coded villains. I found myself taking picture after picture on my phone of these short works, wanting to refer back to them.

Although this is not a book of theory by any means, Machado weaves in the academic so that it complements the story–and also makes me, for a second, want to be back in academia. Her explorations, regardless of the topic, are fascinating. Did you know that 1946 had the highest divorce rate in the U.S.? Do you know why? Throughout the book, there are footnotes referring to the MotifIndex of Folk-Literature, a book I was confident didn’t exist (Machado used a similar technique in Carmilla), but I see now is a real, 6 volume catalogue. For example, in “Dream House as Famous Last Words,” the woman in the dream house (she never gets a name), says “We can fuck, but we can’t fall in love.” The footnote that follows refers to “Omens in love affairs.”

Of course, this is a book about abuse. It follows their relationship from its cheery promise to nightmare reality. It’s not my experience, but it still felt like someone putting words to an experience I have never been able to properly voice. Machado explores the nature of abuse in queer relationships: the tangle of feelings about “lesbian utopias” being shattered, about violence and abuse as gender-coded, about feeling the need for both of you and your relationship to be positive representation. That by naming the abuse, you will only validate homophobic people’s views. “Years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad.'”

For me, that really hit home. It made me think about the trap that queer people find themselves in an abusive relationship: the need to protect our abuser in order to protect the greater queer community/image. Also, the idea that our partner can’t possibly be abusive, because they are a victim. They are marginalized. In the victim/oppressor binary, someone can’t occupy both spaces, right? But I realized that it goes one step further than that, something that likely every person in an abusive relationship has felt: protecting the relationship in order to protect yourself. Because to show the abuse is to show that you were wrong. Misguided. That you misjudged the situation. You were foolish. Everyone else could see it, so how could you not? The more obvious the abuse, the more shameful it is to voice it or to attempt to escape. It’s an emotional sunk cost fallacy. Of course, this isn’t true. Victims of abuse should never be judged in this way. But it’s another way to keep people trapped.

Carmen Maria Machado is an incredible author, and I will continue to pick up anything that she ever writes. I highly recommend In the Dream House, but be prepared for an in-depth exploration of emotional abuse.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Marthese reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

“Even that which seems impossible at first, may be overcome with strength of mind and heart”

Girls of Paper and Fire, the first book in a fantasy series, follows Lei, a paper cast girl, who is forced away from her home to go and serve the king as a papergirl.

Lei’s birth pendant still hasn’t opened, since she is not 18. She wishes for a quiet life in her village, but that seems to not be in store for her. In a world where paper cast are at the bottom on the chain, under steel cast and especially moon cast, she has to continuously struggle to fight, to hold her own while being careful not to end up dead. This proves to be difficult, but Lei is stubborn and enjoys her freedom.

Lei is taken from her home, coerced to leave, to become a papergirl because of her unique golden eyes. The bull king is rather superstitious and the general who kidnaps her wanted to score points with the heavenly king. Lei has no choice. However, she vows to go back to her family and find out what was her mother’s fate.

Lei meets the other papergirls. Among them, there is Aoki, who she feels protective of, and Wren, who she is immediately intrigued by, but it takes them a while to open up to each other. Both have secrets which they protect and hold close to themselves.

Lei wants to be strong and free, but she has to battle a lot of guilt. She feels like a traitor to her own people even though she did not have much of a choice.

This books will make you angry. A lot. First of all there is sexual assault and sexual coercion, not just on Lei but many girls. There is a sense of hopelessness, especially for the paper cast. The king and moon cast demons are too powerful and they abuse this power, at least most of them. Lei is told several times that she is no better than her job as a papergirl – a job that entails serving the king in and out of the bedroom and attending to the court. She is also called a whore several times even though she had no choice… She is also told several more times that she should be grateful since being a papergirl is prestigious and at least she’s not just a common prostitute. Moon cast also have a lot of entitlement, and there is a societal hierarchy that is usually enforced, with some exceptions. Be warned there is off screen rape and a lot of sexual assault. It’s not romanticised.

While this book will make you angry, it will make you angry for all the right reasons. Because it’s not right, how she and other paper casts and women are treated. It’s also realistic while being fantasy, because these things do happen – in society, people of different casts, ethnicities, etc are discriminated against. Powerful people do abuse their power (and possibly lost a bit of sanity along the way) and double standards – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – do happen in real life. In this world there are also double standards for queerness, which happen in real life too, because while males are accepted, female couples aren’t even thought of. While Moon casts are usually depicted as discriminatory, we meet different Moons that are kind and show us that not everything is black and white.

There is slow but strong character development and the budding feelings between Wren and Lei are slow but so worthwhile. Wren’s character is intriguing. While at first it may seem that Lei could develop feelings for her captor (she first describes the king as handsome), don’t worry: this won’t happen. There is lesbian activity! It just takes her a while to realize her feelings for Wren. With her growing romantic feelings, there is a growing sense of rebellion.

There is a sense of found family, and the story shows that even in darkness there is hope. Lei makes friends, and she learns to be stronger, despite all the things that keep on bringing her down.

As almost all magical fantasies plots, there is a prophecy: a prophecy of fire and redemption. The plot overall is solid. The characters are diverse (not just in their demon/non-demon forms), and the setting is a fantasy Asia, not Europe.

Since this book is part of a series, the epilogue introduced a fact that I guess will lead to the second book. The only thing that I didn’t like was the too-long flight scene towards the end, but apart from that, even the abuse that got me angry had a purpose in the plot. I’d like to see what happened to the other papergirls, but I am not sure if we’ll get to see that.

I recommend this book for anyone that likes fantasy and can stomach sleazy and discriminatory characters and practices.