TB reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters


After I read Tipping the Velvet, the debut novel by Sarah Waters, I was hooked on her writing. She published Fingersmith in 2002 and it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize. It won the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger award for Historical Crime Fiction.

The descriptions in Tipping the Velvet wowed me. What dazzled me in Fingersmith was her ability to keep me guessing. At times I started to get angry. Every time I thought I had it figured it out I realized I was completely wrong. I started to feel stupid. This sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t.

The novel chronicles Sue Trinder’s life. Sue is an orphan under the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer” living in Victorian England. Mrs. Sucksby raises Sue as if she were her own. The house is always full of babies doused with gin to keep them quiet. Also, they share a home in the slums with fingersmiths, petty thieves.

Sue’s life changes drastically when Gentleman, a con man, enlists her help to swindle a rich heiress, Maud Lilly. Maud will inherit a large sum of money when she marries. The plan involves placing Sue into Maud’s home as the heiress’s maid and Gentleman will seduce Maud and marry her. Once the money is safe and sound, they’ll ditch Maud in a lunatic asylum. What could go wrong with this plan? Trust me, you have to read it to believe it. Each twist caused me to gasp. This novel kept me on the edge of my seat and I stayed up past my bedtime several nights in a row.

Not only did the reversals shock the heck out of me, but the subject matter in this novel angered me. The treatment of women in the lunatic asylum hopefully will make you shudder. My friend who recommended this novel calls Waters a social historian. I readily agree. Not only does she know how to spin a fantastic yarn, but I learn so much from her stories.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.

Maryam reviews Affinity by Sarah Waters

Affinity was my first venture into the writing of Sarah Waters, and I have to say that I particularly enjoyed it.  This novel in particular came well-recommended: firstly by Amazon(!), and seconded by my advisor, thirded by a friend who owned the book and wound up giving it to me(thanks, Emily!). I especially appreciated the recommendation by my advisor, a religion professor specializing in Spiritualism.

Sarah Waters weaves the tale of Margaret “Peggy” Prior, an upper-class woman in 1870s England who is recovering, it would seem, from a suicide attempt – something only vaguely touched on, as it would be in society back then – and her project of becoming a visitor to a women’s prison to help her spirits rise(and also to get her out from under the wings of her overly protective mother). At Millbank Prison, she meets Selina Dawes, a medium who has been imprisoned after a séance gone horribly wrong.

Sarah Waters is a wonderful writer; she begins with the night of the séance, and Selina’s backstory is woven in with the first-person narrative of Margaret’s diary entries.  My advisor is doing a research seminar this semester on Spiritualism, and in class we read selections from Susan Willis Fletcher’s Twelve Months in an English Prison – it is clear that Sarah Waters took this account as inspiration for this novel. At one point, Peggy goes to a Spiritualist reading room to check the accounts of Selina’s trial, and there are some definite parallels to the amazing occurrences that happen between Selina and Peggy. Affinity is a bittersweet novel – well-written, wonderfully crafted, but still resonating with the difficulties of the time it takes place in. It is not a novel for those who want their endings happy – once the reader realizes where the plot is headed, it is a rough ride to the finish – but it is well wrought, and well worth reading.  I appreciated the historical realism of how Spiritualism was treated, and now that I’m well into the research seminar, I can appreciate the historical realism of the prison system at the time. But perhaps “appreciate” is not quite the right word…

If you’re interested in Ms. Waters’ work, but don’t have time for her longer works(such as Tipping the Velvet  or Fingersmith), I would definitely recommend Affinity – but prepare yourself for a bit of supernatural heartbreak.

Laura reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

So, I know that Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters is, like, the lesbian book. But I’ve got to be honest with you: I really wasn’t all that into it. Terrible, I know! But hear me out.
Background:  Tipping the Velvet is set in Victorian England in the 1890s. It’s a coming of age “lesbian romp” involving singing drag kings, prostitutes, sugar mommas, and suffragists. Just about every type of lesbian activity you can imagine is portrayed in this book. (And I don’t mean that in an erotic sense, although there’s quite a bit of that, too.)
This book’s 1998 publication and subsequent literary reception and commercial success paved the way for many other lesbian books. And I am so, so happy about that. But the actual content of this book didn’t do much for me. Here’s why:
    1. The main character, Nan, was completely awful. The way she treats other people is totally wretched. Her irrational behavior is so unrelatable. I really just wanted to smack her. Repeatedly. Ugh.
    2. The plot just sort of… rambled. And on the one hand, that’s sort of how life is, right? Directionless? Unexpectedly veering off into weirdness? A little smutty? I would say yes. But on the other hand, books are not real life. And I prefer books with a little more structure.
    3. Oysters. Before she left home to fulfill her lesbian destiny, Nan’s favorite activity was sucking on juicy oysters. Which, I mean, really? Really?
I’m not saying this was the worst book ever.Tipping the Velvet was okay (and in fact, much better than many other works of lesbian literature I’ve read). I just felt let down after hearing so many great things about it! And after having read Fingersmith, I had really high expectations! All dashed!
Anyway, I think you should still read this. Or at least watch the BBC miniseries adaptation. But don’t expect it to be life changing or whatever. This is more like homework, so that you can converse intelligently with other people on the subject of queer media. Because if most people have only encountered one lesbian book in their lives, it’s probably this one. (Sigh. Can we change this? Can we all get together and take a vote? Where are my lesbian literati at? Call me, ladies.)
Tipping the Velvet has also been reviewed for the Lesbrary by Ami and Danika.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.

The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)

Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction

Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!

Mslexia Interview with Sarah Waters

Mslexia has a great, if short, interview with my favorite author, Sarah Waters, here.

She seems to usually dislike writing, much like another one of my (non-lesbian) favorite authors, Douglas Adams. He’d take as many baths in a day as he could to procrastinate. Well, I’m glad some of these authors slog through it for our sakes.

Have you read any of Sarah Waters’s books? What did you think of them?

Guest Lesbrarian Ami reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

We have another guest lesbrarian! Her name is Ami, and here’s her review:

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters


My rating: C

Summary: At 18, Nancy Astley is a fishmonger in coastal Whitstable, working with her sister and parents in the family oyster parlour. Smitten by male impersonator Kitty Butler, Nancy attends every show at the Canterbury Palace until the star notices her. A stunned Nancy finds herself Kitty’s companion and dresser, and sexual tension keeps the pages turning as she becomes first Kitty’s sweetheart, then her partner (“two lovely girls in trousers, instead of one!”) in a wildly successful stage act. (Summary thanks to amazon.)

Spoiler: If your looking for a book about two women whom first become friends, and later lovers, and those the two women face hardship and doubt, but at the end of the day love conquers all… This is not the book for you!

I pick up Tipping the Velvet for one reason: I wanted to read a Sarah Walter book, but I knew very well that they screw with the main characters lives.( I was a bit unsure about that since I am a normally love conquers all reader, but it’s oddly hard to find a love conquers all book that involves two women.) I did a google search of all her books and narrowed it down to two. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, because I had seen both on T.V. I ended up choosing Tipping the Velvet because I had more unanswered questions (Mind you I can’t remember what the questions were since I had seen the miniseries years before, but I remember having questions.) Of course now I want to read Fingersmith, go figure…

I want to point out that most would have given this book a higher rating than me. The plot itself draws you in. I believe I finished this book in two days; it is a really good book. I, personally–and I tried–couldn’t like Nancy. To me, her character wasn’t particular interesting. Almost all of Nancy choices in the book are selfish, if her choice somehow hurt someone else, oh well, it is all about the good of Nancy. And then when Nancy does find herself on hard times, she goes looking for those people whom she hurt to get her a hand out. I couldn’t like the main character, but I did like the book and other characters in it.

Ami’s Livejournal account is here. Please send in your own review! Just click “Guest Lesbrarians” at the top.

Have you read Tipping the Velvet, or Sarah Waters’s other works? What did you think of them?

Personally, Tipping the Velvet is my favourite book. I found the writing exquisite, and I loved the ending. But not all books are for everyone!

Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with queer women books, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first lesbian book you read! If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgender, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Young Adult

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumored to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.


1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully).

Thanks for reading!