Susan reviews The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

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Olivia Waite’s The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is the latest in the Feminine Pursuits series, and just like last time, I’m in love. The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows explores family, the perceived legitimacy of relationships, and the hazards of marriage through the trial of Caroline of Brunswick, and the complicated relationships going on in a small seaside town.

Agatha Griffin is a sharp business woman, running her printing shop after the death of her husband and trying to keep her radical son from getting himself arrested. Penelope Flood is a beekeeper with strong opinions and an unfortunate desire to please, who Agatha turns to when she discovers that bees have taken over her warehouse. Together, they care for bees, attempt political change, and mutually pine. As a sucker for mutual pining, this got me exactly where I lived – even though I had a horrified moment near the end of the book when I realised they didn’t know they were pining.

The pacing was a little off for me; there were dramatic points where it seemed like the characters were angry about a (missing, expensive) snuff-box or (missing, beloved) statues and about to investigate – and then the chapter would end and the subject was dropped for another few chapters. The time between was used very well, mostly for slowly building Agatha and Penelope’s relationship, or bringing in more of the political context, but it was jarring to go from justified fury to peaceful scenes with bees and printing. I had a similar problem with the historical explanations and scene-setting; it was useful, but sometimes hard to tell which character was narrating or where it fit into the story because it was functionally a recitation of facts.

It was very satisfying once the story got into the voices of the characters and their political activism; reading Agatha’s hope that things might change, in 2020 of all years, was emotional and relatable! The story centres people with no right to vote at that time (women and men who don’t own property), so the character’s ability to directly influence proceedings was minimal, but the activism, organisation, and use of public sentiment felt realistic to what’s going on now.

Marriage and divorce are one of the anchors of this book; it explores the hazards of marriage for women through different relationships. George IV trying to discredit and divorce his wife is rooting the story in time; there are subplots about abusive husbands, the social pressure on Penelope to behave in a way that reflected well on her husband, the sheer luck involved in Agatha having a husband that respected her, the pressure Agatha feels to have her son get married despite her own reservations about marriage as an institution, a widow with no legal rights after her female lover dies… All of these secondary and tertiary relationships are well presented and developed, and all of them circle back to this theme.

One of my favourite things about the Feminine Pursuits series is that it explicitly argues that marriage isn’t the only avenue for formalising relationships. Characters who want ways to legally bind themselves to each other when there aren’t any publicly acceptable avenues find them or make them, which is so validating to read! There are so many people in this book who are making different choices about how they want to live and be known – and the book doesn’t shy away from how those choices are made easier by wealth and privilege. It’s genuinely heart-warming to see all of the ways characters commit to and choose each other! I’d also like to point out that these decisions aren’t only between queer couples – there are couples who do have the option of legitimacy and respectability through marriage, who choose individual freedoms instead. It means a lot, especially when as recently as 2019, RITA award panels were rejecting queer historicals as “not romances” because the characters couldn’t get married at the end.

There are some cameos and references to The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics but for the most part The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows does stand on its own. There is one scene involving Catherine from the previous book that might not be clear if you don’t know who she is or what her relationship to Agatha’s shop is, but for the most part it works! (Plus, as a book nerd: the details of how the printing shop works are great and I love them.)

But the best part of the book is how funny it is! There were several points where I had to put it down and cackle – Agatha solidly roasting the concept of gal pals in a book set in the 1820s was such a brilliant moment! And Agatha and Penelope consistently going “Oh no” about how much they adore each other was delicious.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows brings through all of the beauty and political commentary that I loved in The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, while focusing it in a different direction. I absolutely recommend it.

Caution warnings: Homophobia, spousal abuse, political demonstrations, morality policing, military-enforced censorship

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Rebecca reviews If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker

Tamsen Parker’s If I Loved You Less is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma. While I love the well-written setting, the plot and characters are underwhelming and the unconvincing romance is so slow burn that it’s practically non-existent.

Theo lives in the beautiful paradise of Hanalei Bay with her overprotective father. She spends her days running her family’s surf shop, surfing, and spending time with baker Kini who runs Queen’s Sweet Shop. Theo’s life is wonderful and she’s not interested in marrying or settling down. But, she loves playing matchmaker for others. When a new friend arrives, Theo is determined to find her a perfect match. As Theo’s scheming spirals out of control, she realizes that she’s in love with Kini and may lose her to someone else.

The setting is so vivid and beautifully written. I also love the inclusion of Kini’s bakery and the delicious Hawaiian food that is mentioned throughout. I didn’t mind having to constantly Google the names of dishes and terms because I appreciate the exposure being given to indigenous Hawaiian life. I also really appreciate the diversity. Although Theo is white, Kini is native Hawaiian and Theo’s friend Laurel is of East Asian descent.

Theo is selfish and pushy. However, I didn’t hate her because she is lively and well-meaning at times. I’m disappointed that she doesn’t grow. Although there is a turnabout at the very end, it feels unnatural because she never really attempts to change. Although I do like kind Kini, I wish she was more developed. She just seems to be there to bake and give advice to Theo. Additionally, the other characters lack personality and are completely forgettable.

The book really fails to live up to its summary. It mostly focuses on heterosexual relationships and any actual romance between Kini and Theo only happens within the last few pages. But, it is a faithful retelling of Emma. However, certain outdated plot points do not translate well. This novel also doesn’t improve on aspects of the original story that didn’t work. The plot is slow and uninteresting. There are several twists that are insufficiently resolved while the underdeveloped characters often act implausibly. Theo’s friendship with her childhood friend Austin is unrealistic. Although she hasn’t seen him in decades, she is obsessed with the old-fashioned belief that they will be best friends and get together because their fathers liked the idea of them as a couple.

The romance between Kini and Theo is unconvincing. The familial nature of their relationship is constantly reiterated as Kini often acts like a mother or an older sister to Theo. Although the age gap isn’t an issue, their supposed interest in each other is puzzling because Theo is immature while Kini is wise and reserved. They have no chemistry together. Furthermore, Theo only realizes that she is in love with Kini near the bitter end of the book. Parker rushes towards a happy ending without sufficiently building a tangible romantic connection.

Moreover, while I understand that sexuality is fluid and labels can be restrictive, readers may find certain aspects of this book problematic. The way that the book handles Theo’s sexuality and her obsession with Austin as a potential future husband can be reflective of the stereotypical belief that lesbians simply haven’t found the right man yet.

I was really disappointed with If I Loved You Less. While I love the beautiful Hawaiian setting, the plot dragged and the unconvincing romance is almost blink and you’ll miss it. The book had a lot of potential but it just misses the mark.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

Rebecca reviews Back to the Start by Monica McCallan

Back to the Start by Monica McCallan cover

Monica McCallan’s Back to the Start is an okay read featuring the trope of rekindling first love. Although the book has a wonderful love interest and interesting plot twists, it’s bogged down with tedious writing and an unlikable protagonist.

Our protagonist is Remy who must leave San Francisco and return to Farmingdale after her grandmother dies. Although Remy only lived there briefly and hasn’t been back in twelve years, the small town left an indelible mark on her. She’s vowed to forget everything that happened there, especially Fallon, the beautiful and popular girl who broke her heart. However, their paths inevitably cross. As misunderstandings are cleared up and Remy and Fallon form a tentative friendship that blossoms into something more, Remy must decide exactly what she wants from life.

I struggled with this book. Although the plot is decent, I dislike McCallan’s writing style. Every other page is filled with phrases like “the blonde said” or “the brunette did” and it’s frustrating and boring to read. The writing is very flat and lacks emotion. I really would have liked some relevant descriptions because I struggled to picture people and places.

Remy is an unlikable, selfish, and narrow-minded protagonist. I couldn’t connect with her at all. But, she does experience some much-needed growth by the end of the book. However, I really would have liked the narrative to feature more of Remy’s change in attitude toward the town and other people. On the other hand, Fallon is the perfect love interest who is honestly too good for Remy. She’s a great and relatable character who is generous, caring, and sweet.

While the plot isn’t ground-breaking, it’s well-paced and kept my attention. There is a decent amount of tension and sweetness in the romance. I like that there isn’t an instant love reconnection between Remy and Fallon. Instead, they take time to rebuild their relationship, move past their issues and learn about each other. I particularly like the last few twists which finally allow Remy to show some growth.

Back to the Start is an okay take on the rekindling first love trope. While I love Fallon and the plot held my attention, I couldn’t fully get into this book because of McCallan’s writing and Remy’s off-putting personality. I wouldn’t read this one again. But, if you like the rekindling first love trope and well-written love interests, maybe you can give this book a go.

Rebecca is a Creative Writing student and freelance proofreader. Come say hi: https://rebeccareviews.tumblr.com/

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!

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?