A Twisty Sapphic Spiritualist Con: Spitting Gold by Carmella Lowkins

Spitting Gold cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Page-Turning Mess of a Queer Love Polygon: The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

the cover of The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan

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If you’re looking for something fun, marathonable, the right amount of messy, and full of queer love polygon drama, then look no further than The Happy Couple. I listened to this as an audiobook (a short and snappy 5.5 hour experience) and I found myself always looking forward to my next drive or run just so I could hear what happened next. 

Celine and Luke are engaged, and their wedding date is quickly approaching, but will they go through with it? Luke is a pretty obvious serial cheater and Celine is so focused on the work of being a concert pianist that she has just ignored it. Yes, the oh so happy couple. Additional layers of drama unfold as more and more angles of their love polygon are exposed. Archie is Luke’s best man as well as Luke’s ex-lover who is definitely still in love with the groom-to-be. Celine’s ex, Maria, shows up at the engagement party and stirs the pot. Celine’s sister Phoebe knows Luke has something to hide and is convinced to get the bottom of it. And Vivian, yet another ex of Luke’s, is willing to call people on their craziness and bring some tough love to her friends in this mess.

Buckle up, folks. This cast of wild characters really brings the drama that can only be fully encapsulated by interrobangs. Luke doesn’t show up to his own engagement party?! It’s hours before the wedding and Luke needs a new shirt but who comes to switch shirts with him other than his ex-lover, Archie?! Celine’s ex is having long heart-to-hearts with Luke?! 

The Happy Couple felt like reality TV in the best way. I was immersed in this story’s twists, turns, and reveals that provided a welcome distraction when my brain needed a break from the current world. But what I loved most is that it didn’t just feel like gossip that pulls me in but at the end of the day makes me feel icky. Naoise Dolan writes her indeed flawed characters with a kindness and nuance that allowed me to see them for more than their often infuriating actions and reflect alongside them in the gray decisions they find themselves having to make. It was a delightful balance of unhinged meets kind. 

If you’re driving home for the holidays and need a book you can finish in one road trip, I highly recommend pressing play on this one!

Content warnings: toxic relationships, drug use and abuse, infidelity, suicidal thoughts

Natalie (she/her) is honestly shocked to find herself as a voracious reader these days – that certainly wasn’t the case until she discovered the amazing world of queer books! Now she’s always devouring at least one book, as long as it’s gay. She will be forever grateful for how queer characters kept her company through her own #gaypanic and now on the other side of that, she loves soaking up queer pasts, presents and futures across all genres. Find more reviews on her Bookstagram!

Rachel reviews The Disenchantment by Celia Bell

the cover of The Disenchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon reviews She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

She's Too Pretty to Burn by Wendy Heard

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As the weather begins to warm up here in the midwest, I find myself in serious need of books set during the warm summer months. There’s something so magical about long days spent in the sunshine, even if the characters’ daily activities aren’t ones I’d recommend. Books set in the summer just have a certain kind of hypnotic feel, and it’s exactly that feeling I was searching for when I picked up She’s Too Pretty To Burn, the latest novel by Wendy Heard. It’s a young adult thriller with charismatic characters and a swoony romance, and I devoured it in a single sitting.

Veronica is a photographer living in San Diego with her mother. When we first meet her, she’s pretty bored with life, hanging out at a party she’s not enjoying and just wishing for something exciting to happen. She loves photography, but even it isn’t providing her enough mental stimulation to fight off her feelings of boredom.

Then, she meets Mick, a complicated and beautiful young woman who seems to speak right to Veronica’s soul. The reader knows pretty early on that Mick is a troubled character, but Veronica doesn’t pick up on this for quite some time. She just knows that she’s captivated by Mick, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with photographing her, even though Mick herself hates having her picture taken.

Mick’s home life isn’t the greatest, so spending time with Veronica serves as a sort of escape for her. The two begin spending all their free time together, and it’s not long before Veronica introduces her to her good friend Nico, an activist with a passion for performance art. He’s a couple of years older than Mick and Veronica, definitely more worldly than them, and he has a plan he thinks will shake up the city in some necessary ways.

At first, Nico’s plan seems harmless enough, but as time passes and Mick falls deeper under his spell, things take a dangerous turn. Veronica, desperate to make it big as a photographer, doesn’t notice the danger Mick and Nico are putting themselves in right away. Will she figure things out in time to stop something catastrophic from happening, something with the power to affect the trajectories of all their lives?

She’s Too Pretty To Burn is pretty dark, definitely not a good fit for those looking for a story on the sweeter side of the young adult spectrum. Their are some blurred lines when it comes to consent here, and readers who are triggered by discussion of abuse might want to do additional research before picking this up.

The characters aren’t all good or all bad. Instead, they exist in that big gray area that makes them super relatable but also difficult to categorize. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite, since each is incredibly well-drawn. They all make bad decisions at times, but then, that’s a regular part of being a human being, and something I definitely want in my fiction. Perfect, cookie-cutter people aren’t all that interesting to read about.

I enjoyed watching the relationship between Mick and Veronica blossom. The author does a phenomenal job showing how complex love is, especially for teenagers who are working hard to figure their lives out. Certain scenes between the two are poignant and beautiful, while others serve to amp up the tension of the overall story.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced novel that’s dark and twisty and filled with characters who remind you of people you’d meet in the real world, you could do far worse than She’s Too Pretty To Burn. It’s probably not a book that will appeal to every reader, but it landed firmly in my wheelhouse and I’m so glad I gave it a try.