Rachel reviews The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

If you like dark, historical novels with a brooding mystery at the center, you’ll love Jane Healey’s The Animals at Lockwood Manor. A queer novel set at a remote country estate in England at the beginning of World War II, the twists and turns of this novel—like the hallways at Lockwood Manor—will surprise you.

In 1939, war has just broken out across the world. In London, Hetty Cartwright is helping to evacuate and safeguard the natural history museum’s vast collection of specimens. Her job is to transport and maintain the large collection of mammals to Lockwood Manor, the vast and daunting estate well beyond the blast zone of the blitz. However, once she arrives at Lockwood, Hetty encounters its cavernous hallways and dark corners alongside its unwelcoming and controlling Lord and his intriguing but allegedly frail daughter, Lucy.

Soon, Hetty realizes that keeping the animals at Lockwood safe entails far more than protecting them from bombs—despite the meddling of Lord Lockwood and the servants, strange things begin to happen at Lockwood; animals go missing, museum property is destroyed, and much worse. Something seems to be stalking Lockwood and the animals within it—and maybe even Hetty herself. Hetty’s only consolation is the darkly beautiful Lucy, who is haunted by her own nightmares and demons. Soon, it falls to Hetty to protect Lucy and unravel the mystery of Lockwood Manor—are the grounds cursed and haunted by spirits, or could it possibly be something worse?

I very much enjoyed this book. Historical fiction set during any time period is a favourite genre of mine, but I especially like novels of WWII. Healey did an excellent job of bringing to life one little-known aspect of the war, and her narrow focus on these fictional events underscored the widespread effect of war on these characters. The setting was intriguing and haunting—a rambling, castle-like house on a remote estate filled with the hulking taxidermy forms of animals is the perfect setting for a creepy mystery like Healey’s. I felt fully immersed in the world throughout the novel.

Hetty’s character was an excellent perspective throughout the novel. While there are short, dream-like interjections from Lucy’s perspective, these only add to the mystery. Hetty’s voice is the primary vehicle through which we encounter the strange happenings at Lockwood and her headstrong, industrious personality was refreshing. She was someone who was easy to relate to, despite the historical setting, and it was exciting to unravel the mystery of this novel and its characters alongside her.

Lucy’s character was similarly intriguing. One thing I felt unsatisfied with in this novel, however, was the romance. While Lucy and Hetty’s partnership was enjoyable and relatively convincing, the discovery of their feelings for one another felt a bit stilted and indelicate. The novel seemed to lurch into a lesbian relationship rather than flow into one. While it is difficult to frame lesbian desire in a historical setting, I felt that, in this case, Hetty and Lucy declaring their love for one another was a bit too disjointed at times.

Nevertheless, the end of this novel was a lovely and haunting conclusion. Hetty and Lucy’s partnership was far more grounded at the end of this novel, and overall I felt that the book was an exciting historical mystery with haunting elements that kept me guessing.

Please visit Jane Healey on Twitter and put The Animals at Lockwood Manor on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. 

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

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

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!

Danika reviews Missed Her by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan E. Coyote is one of my very favourite queer writers. When giving recommendations for les/bi/etc books, Sarah Waters and Ivan E. Coyote are at the top of the list (though their styles are pretty different). Ivan is often described as a “kitchen table storyteller,” and it’s true. Their stories read as if one of your good friends is relating an anecdote to you, if your friends are really good at telling stories. If you ever get the chance to see Ivan perform in person, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, pick up their books.

Missed Her is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories–Ivan treads the line between memoir and fiction. Some common themes run through the stories, including being queer in a small town. I find this especially interesting, because when the “It Gets Better” project was getting a lot of coverage, there was some criticism about how many of the stories talked about getting out of small towns, and how it didn’t address how rural communities can change, or the positive aspects of them, or even how constantly moving queer people out of rural environments and into urban ones just perpetuates any bigotry in hostile towns (not that anyone has an obligation to stay in a threatening environment, I want to clarify). We’re used to queer stories being set in the big city, so it’s interesting and pertinent to have another narrative. (Ivan currently lives in Vancouver, so it’s not all small town, but growing up in the Yukon made a strong impression on them.)

Ivan presents a different image of being queer in a small town. Their family was supportive, and they appreciate that the people they meet in these towns are more likely to simply ask what they’re thinking instead of skirting around the issue. They have a story set in a small town in which a bunch of men gather around so they can teach them how to properly tie a tie. They do still acknowledge the disadvantages and even dangers of some of these small towns, however, especially when they describe trying to find a rural doctor accepting of their gender presentation.

Ivan’s stories have all sorts of variety, though. There’s some heart-breaking ones and some hilarious ones, though usually it’s a bit of both. (Some topics: looking for an old-fashioned barber in Vancouver, teaching memoir-writing to seniors, repeatedly being mistaken for a gay man, stories about their family, and musings on their butch identity and the policing of the label.)

There’s not much more to say than that I highly recommend it!

Danika reviews The Long Way Home by Rachel Spangler

I haven’t read a lot of lesbian romance, and I wasn’t sure how much I would like the genre; I’ve never had any interest in the straight romance genre. Well, Rachel Spangler has made me a convert.

My favourite part of The Long Way Home is the premise. I read it while there were a lot of criticisms coming up about Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project. One of the more intriguing ones was discussing how Savage’s original video especially concentrates on this reaction to “small town mentality” and finding acceptance in a big city, and how this anti-rural sentiment not only gives small towns too little credit in their ability to be accepting and progressive, but also encourages queer people to keep draining out of small towns and heading to big cities, which only makes the situation worse. (Cities are more accepting because there are more queer people, but there are more queer people because queer people move to cities, because cities are more accepting…)

The Long Way Home tackles that anti-rural sentiment by telling the story of a woman who “escaped”, who left her small town and made a living talking about her escape story at various colleges around the country (the US), becoming a quasi-famous lesbian because of it.

But once she gets a little older, the calls stop coming for speaking arrangements: people don’t want to hear the same story anymore. Raine, as she’s known now, or Rory, as she was known in her home town, is forced to return to the place she escaped from if she wants to have a paying job. Raine/Rory comes face-to-face with the people she knew, the family she left behind, and the town she grew up in. While there she discovers the escape story she’s been telling for years may not be the only interpretation that should be drawn.

This is a romance, obviously, so Rory/Raine discovers a lot of this through an old school mate, including being introduced to a small-town queer community, something she couldn’t fathom of before. The romance is sweet and interesting, and I liked both of their characters, but it was the underlying message that really drew me in.

The only minor quibble I had with The Long Way Home was the occasional over-explaining, like this:

“Are you out of your fucking mind? I’ve spent my entire life getting away from that place. I’m Raine St. James, the one who survived.” Raine needed to remind herself that she’d made it out alive.

I’d rather the speech stood on its own, but that’s hardly noticeable. Overall, I definitely recommend it.

Have you read The Long Way Home or another of Rachel Spangler’s books? If so, what did you think of it?

Guest Lesbrarian Stefanie reviews Marthy Moody by Susan Stinson

Welcome to our first Guest Lesbrarian post! This one is by Stefanie for lesbian writer Susan Stinson’s book Martha Moody, published in 1995. She also recommends some of Stinson’s  other fiction, including Venus of Chalk and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. Please, send in your own guest lesbrarian review!

Susan Stinson’s Martha Moody is an extraordinary and evocative book. Set in the “Old West,” it tells a complex and uneasy story of two women loving each despite their familial and community commitments. I wanted this book to keep going, never to end, so that I could stay suspended in Stinson’s poetic voice.This book is unconventional in many ways (its characterizations, its lush language, its integration of stories within stories) and seeks to fully explore how two individuals choose and are forced to act within their social and personal circumstances. A gorgeous read.

Have you read any of Susan Stinson’s books? What did you think?