Marieke reviews The Confessions Of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton cover

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This is not a happy book. It tells you that in the title already: the ‘confessions’ refer to Frannie’s written musings that she notes down while she is on trial for the murder of her employer and his wife–the latter of whom she happened to be in a romantic relationship with. Make sure to take note of the content warnings, and be ready for some gruesome scenes. All of this grimness does make for an appropriate setting to the troubles that Frannie is dealing with in the present moment of the story, but it can be overwhelming.

As Frannie recounts the events of her life that have led her to her current predicament, it takes a while for her supposed victims to take the stage, to the point I was becoming slightly impatient with the pacing. It opens with her life as a slave at the Langton plantation in Jamaica (which gave her the name she bears), where she was forced to serve her master as he carried out pseudo-scientific experiments with the aim to prove that African people were not human. That in itself is extremely horrific, and almost numbed me to the further events in the story. Of course, this history is important to understand–both in terms of general history and specifically for Frannie as a character. Still, even knowing that we are learning this history through the writings of Frannie herself, I couldn’t help but wish she would hurry up. Her lingering on this earlier part of her life creates a tense atmosphere, preparing the reader for all the awfulness to come, but this is an approach that either doesn’t work for me or I simply wasn’t in the mood for at the time.

Once Frannie arrives in London, her life becomes even more complicated. She is changed from a slave into a maid, as officially slavery was illegal in England at the time (ca. 1820). This is one of the main moments on which the story turns, where her plantation master gifts her to be employed by his friend, a practice that was still legal and is based on historical fact. It is in this position that she joins the Benham household and meets her employer and his wife (Madame Marguerite or Meg), as well as the other staff, who receive her with mixed feelings. It is also in this position that Frannie grows closer to Madame.

While I believe they both love the other at certain points in the narrative, I couldn’t say that they loved each other at the same time or even in the same way. Their relationship is so inherently shaped by inequalities: Frannie is black, of mixed race, a former slave, a maid, and on top of all that she is educated–which occasionally forces her into the position of sideshow. Madame is wealthy (through her husband), pretty, and of high society, though her being French seems to count as much as a mark against her as in her favour depending on the situation. Most complicated of all though, is the fact that the Benham wealth is generated through slavery, and this cannot ever be removed from the relationship between Frannie and Meg.

On top of all that, Meg has an opium habit that worsens over the course of the book, and she involves Frannie in covering it up so her husband won’t grow aware. There are so many secrets in this story, and the opium secret is an early indication of the bleakness that lives in the Benham marriage, creating another layer to the women’s relationship. It presents a theme often explored in historical fiction: while Madame seemingly has everything she could ever want (husband, wealth, beauty, youth), she either holds these things through her husband or her own age–which of course only ever advances in one direction. She is isolated and even needs drugs to numb the loneliness of her life. In one moment, Frannie suggests that white women are also the property of white men. Still, that doesn’t mean Meg and Frannie suffer the same pains, but the story does a good job of suggesting that the rules of society can protect as much as they can hurt and trap someone. Frannie and Meg just happen to be trapped in different ways.

In the end, these entrapments lead to the death of the Benhams and the imprisonment of Frannie, who is trying to figure out what happened that fateful night. The later chapters where she notes down the proceedings of her court case (all her writings are addressed directly to her lawyer, in the hopes that he can either figure out a defense or share her words, depending on the outcome of the case) come closest to feeling like a murder mystery. There are witnesses, evidence, a judge, and lawyers trying to make the best of it all. This is also where Frannie has a chance to figure out what she did (if anything), as her trauma seems to have blocked her memory. As she unravels the various threads being spun by the background characters in the court case, it becomes clearer to the reader how many more secrets lived in the Benham household, and you begin to question ever more what is and isn’t true.

Content warnings: slavery, prison, physical abuse, emotional manipulation, blood, gore, body horror, racism, suicide, murder, violence, miscarriage, rape mentions

Rachel reviews The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter cover

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Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite lesbian writers, and one of my favourite genres is historical biographical fiction. Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter (2009) is a masterfully paced, well-plotted literary novel with a lesbian twist. And it’s based on real events!

The Sealed Letter is told from three perspectives. The first is Emily “Fido” Faithfull’s. She’s a spinster and an early suffragette living in Victorian England. When her estranged friend, Helen Codrington, returns from India with a reasonable explanation as to her absence, Fido is once again drawn behind the curtain into the sordid details of Helen’s marriage, her husband’s aloofness, and Helen’s own affairs with army officers. While Fido tries to help her friend without soiling her own reputation in the process, things are not as simple as they seem, and as Helen’s divorce case moves to the public forum of the courtroom and Helen’s husband and Fido discover more of the truth, more than one secret will come to light. Based on the real events of the Codrington Divorce Case in the 1860s, Donoghue’s novel is neo-Victorianism at its best.

As always with Donoghue’s historical biographical fiction, I found myself enthralled with her writing. For anyone interested in the nineteenth century and historical fiction generally, Donoghue’s voice clearly inhabits the period, and her characters are always so vivid and clearly differentiated. This was the case in The Sealed Letter. With a cast of three primary actors who are all moving in disparate directions with conflicted desires and motives, the power of the novel is in its intrigue and in the questions that arise from long-ago friendships. Donoghue is an expert at clarifying a subtly queer undercurrent that draws on historical ideas around women’s relationships, as well as modern understandings of what some of those women might have truly meant to one another.

Although this book’s plot might seem rather straightforward, there are a number of twists and turns that kept me guessing until the very end. I had a hard time putting this one down, and, as always, Donoghue’s afterword provided brilliant insight into the real people she has made characters of in the book.

If you’re a fan of Donoghue, queer historical fiction, or courtroom dramas, The Sealed Letter is the book for you!

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Sealed Letter on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Trauma, emotional abuse, verbal 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.

Rachel reviews Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

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A dark, haunting, gothic novel, Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (2020) is a delightfully dark queer book with a complex and fun premise that was right up my alley.

Set across two separate timelines, the first begins in 1902 Rhode Island at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are known to be uncommonly devoted to one another and to a writer named Many MacLane and her book. The two girls form The Plain Bad Heroine Society based around their love of each other and the book. But when their secret meeting place in the school’s apple orchard becomes the scene of their violent and startling deaths, a series of bizarre events begin to take place on the campus—haunting the students and staff until the school shutters for good five years later.

The second timeline finds us in the present day. Merritt Emmons publishes a hugely popular book about the darkly queer history of Brookhants School. The book inspires a film adaptation that introduces the reader to a cast of main characters. These three heroines will return to Brookhants for filming, but as they do, “past and present become grimly entangled” and the haunting forces that terrorized the Brookhants Heroines from a century ago may not be quite finished with their curse.

A layered story with multiple timelines and black and white illustrations by Sara Lautman, Plain Bad Heroines is an example of the neo-Gothic at its best. I absolutely loved this book. I ordered a copy as soon as a heard about its release, and I was not disappointed. Dark and Gothic, with characters that are thoroughly compelling and mysterious. The book alternates timelines and perspectives across chapters, but I never felt lost or confused. The narrative of Danforth’s novel is a complex one—it has many clues, red herrings, and conspiracies that constantly kept me guessing. And even then, I couldn’t guess the ending. I loved Danforth’s use of symbol and metaphor, and her investment in making both of her timelines as real and vivid as possible. In addition, the narration—with a cheeky narrator who addresses the reader and draws attention to the ‘storied’ nature of the novel—was fun and exciting and helped to organize the book’s complex plot.

The best part of Plain Bad Heroines is that nearly everyone is queer. Queer people abound across both timelines and I was particularly interested in Danforth’s portrayal of the queer women. Not only does Danforth link her modern and historic queer characters with each other through their shared and haunting experiences, but she also imagines a version of queer life in the early twentieth century that has an element of realism amongst her haunting and supernatural plot.

I could not recommend this book enough for those who love queer historical fiction, horror and the Gothic, or a good and dark mystery!

Please visit Emily M. Danforth on Twitter or on her website, and put Plain Bad Heroines on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, physical and verbal abuse, homophobia

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 The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry cover

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I have been so excited by all the f/f fantasy coming out lately, and The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an excellent addition to the genre. It’s a fast-paced adventure story laced with a sweet romance, set in a sort of Victorian-inspired society with the addition of magic, trolls, and other fantastical elements.

Dellaria Wells is a fire witch and con artist from the bad part of town. With her mother being addicted to drugs, Delly has had to take care of herself from an early age, with greater or lesser success. Stuck between paying her rent and being cursed, Delly takes a wild chance and talks her way onto a gig with a team of female bodyguards to guard a high-class bride from assassination until her wedding day. Delly is anticipating an easy couple of weeks and a rich payday, but she didn’t count on multiple wizardous attacks, murder, or undead animal familiars. Soon after, Delly and her companions are embroiled in the underground drug market in a wild bid for justice (and a huge reward). Along the way, Delly is astounded to find herself having feelings for one of her fellow bodyguards, and, even more surprisingly, those feelings are reciprocated.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that it was a good, solid adventure story, but at the same time, the romance was so soft. Delly tries to talk a good game that she’s only out to set herself up in a good situation, but as a reader you know both characters fall head over heels almost right away. Delly is a funny, competent main character–able in her magic and confident on the streets–but she’s not prepared to dabble in the affairs of the rich. Winn, on the other hand, moves through life with well brought up confidence, but isn’t used to less than straightforward endeavors. She’s also utterly enamored with Delly. Watching them circle each other sweetly while embroiled in high stakes adventure is a treat, and I love how nice they are to each other. It doesn’t feel like as much as an afterthought or a grim plot device as fantasy romances often are.

I also thought the plot was really engaging. From the fish out of water element of Delly amongst the nobility to several ripping good fights to Buttons the undead mouse, I was never bored or waiting for something else to happen. The author has a clever turn of phrase that brings one into Delly’s point of view and sets up a lively mood. And Buttons is really a whole mood in itself. I also liked that Delly was frequently out of her element, but also very good at her job–she just needed an opportunity to prove herself.

In conclusion, this was a delightful read with a thrilling fantasy adventure plotline and a very soft romance. If you like Victorian-themed magic, excellent world-building, and girls having intense feelings for each other but wanting to go slow, this is a great add to your to-read list. I’m definitely going to be recc-ing it around to my friends.

Danika reviews The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh by Molly Greeley

The Heiress by Molly Greeley

I’m not a big Pride and Prejudice fan, but for some reason, I’m drawn to P&P retellings–especially queer ones. The Heiress is a Pride and Prejudice novel: not exactly a retelling, a prequel, or a sequel, it fills in the story from one of the minor characters of the book: Anne de Bourgh. In case you forgot, Anne is Mr. Darcy’s original fiancee, and Catherine de Bourgh’s sickly daughter. In the original book, Anne doesn’t leave a strong impression. This novel gives her centre stage, and makes her a compelling and empathetic character.

Anne was a fussy baby, and she was prescribed laudanum drops to quiet her. She continued to be lethargic and delicate, and when she missed her drops, she had horrible reactions (shaking, sweating, sensory hallucinations, etc), so she stayed on these drops her whole childhood. Essentially, Anne has been drugged on opium her entire life. Any time they try to stop, she goes into withdrawal, which they interpret as her sickness getting worse. This leaves her, understandably. listless and easily overwhelmed. She’s never known anything other than this, though: at no point in her life has she been able to be clear-headed and sober for more than an hour or so at a time.

You might remember the character of her mother better. She is controlling and has very strong opinions, not allowing Anne to do anything that might strain her, like learning to play an instrument or reading novels. She is more like an object in her own life: she is often ignored or pitied by guests, and even in her twenties, her mother treats her like a small child. She mostly just watches the people around her. Although she has no agency in her day-to-day life, she is the heiress of their estate, which is extremely rare: she doesn’t have to marry to keep the land.

She loves the house and grounds–and she feels like it loves her back. She can hear it whisper to her after she’s had her drops. But she also lives under the shadow of the estate that will one day be hers. She feels incapable of managing it: she can’t even manage a conversation.

One of the only people who treats her like a human being is her governess, who tries to tell her that she is capable of more. She attempts to warn Anne about the medicine, but Anne doesn’t want to hear it, and her governess knows that pushing too hard will leave her without a job. Anne gets a crush on her, naturally, but the governess leaves and is replaced by a bland woman who acts as a puppet of her mother.

Eventually, Anne begins to internalize what the governess told her, and she realizes that the drops that she has been depending on may be the cause, not the cure, for how she feels. Impulsively, aware that her life is in danger, she dumps her medicine and flees to her cousin’s house in London, one of the few people who has ever treated her like a person. There, Anne tries to learn how to be independent, and how to fit in.

This is also where the book turns into a lesbian historical romance! It’s exactly the kind of excruciating historical lesbian slow burn you love to see. As Anne tries to fit into London society, she becomes fast friends with a woman who is a little too loud and boisterous for Victorians, but Anne can’t pull herself away from her. Eliza introduces her to novels and takes her shopping for fashionable clothing. Soon, they are spending almost all of their time together.

This is a book that fits together with Pride and Prejudice, but could also completely stand on its own. Without the references, it would still be a fascinating look at a woman who lived most of her life in a haze and the struggles of coming out of it. The last half of this book is also a beautiful, absorbing F/F romance. It manages to be both a Victorian historical novel and feature a drug addict lesbian main character with no apparent clash between those ideas!

I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction, whether or not you are a Pride and Prejudice fan.

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Where to Start Reading Lesbian Gothic

Haunted mansions! Thunder and lightning! Brooding antiheroes! Women running down corridors wearing long white gowns! I love the tropes of Gothic literature: they’re campy, they’re spooky, they’re sexy. What more could you possibly want from a genre? Well, sapphic romance, obviously.

As it happens, the Gothic is a pretty gay genre to begin with. Its themes of buried secrets, psychological crisis, and the instability of social boundaries all lend themselves perfectly to queer narratives. Despite this, I’ve always found it difficult to find recommendations for specifically lesbian and bi women’s Gothic literature online. But, dear reader, you don’t need to share my plight: I’ve done the work for you! Here is a selection of ten great Gothic works with sapphic characters to get you started with the genre…

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu,Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

A classic of 19th century Gothic literature, Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction. Laura and her father live in Styria in the remote Austrian countryside. When a mysterious carriage crashes outside their castle, they agree to take in one of its passengers, a frail girl named Carmilla. Laura and Carmilla are immediate friends, but as the relationship grows more and more intense, Laura’s health starts to decline and Carmilla’s to improve – almost as if Carmilla is sucking the life out of her host.

 

Rebecca by Daphne du MaurierRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

After a holiday romance with the handsome widower Max de Winter, his new bride returns with him to his country estate. Instead of being made welcome, she soon realises that her new home is ‘haunted’ by Max’s first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is kept alive by the loyal housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As the bride realises that she doesn’t know her husband at all, she starts to wonder just what happened to Rebecca. Although this isn’t an explicitly lesbian novel, it’s a cornerstone of the Lesbian Gothic: besides the heavy implication that Mrs Danvers was in love with Rebecca, the novel is also steeped with du Maurier’s repressed feelings for women – with whom she would have affairs later in her life.

The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GomezThe Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

In 1850s Louisiana, Gilda escapes slavery and finds sanctuary with two brothel-women who also happen to be vampires. After being initiated into eternal life, Gilda spends the next 200 years living through African American history (and future), searching for community and somewhere to call home. With its exploration of race, sexuality and identity, The Gilda Stories was a completely new take on vampire fiction when it was first published in 1991, and it still feels as fresh today.

Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is the fantastic Dickensian novel behind both the BBC miniseries of the same name, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Raised amidst thieves in the slums of Victorian London, Sue Trinder is happy to help when Gentleman – a conman and family friend – calls on her with a plan. Sue will pose as a lady’s maid to help Gentleman seduce the wealthy heiress Maud Lilly. After the two are wed and Maud’s inheritance is secure, Gentleman will have her committed to an asylum and split the winnings with Sue. However, Sue grows fond of her new ‘mistress’, and things aren’t as simple as they first seemed.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four strangers – one of them the paranormal investigator Dr Montague – plan to stay at a notoriously haunted house, with the aim of discovering empirical proof of the supernatural. The four make friends quickly, and Eleanor, a fragile young woman with a history with poltergeists, is especially drawn to Theodora, who is fresh out of a quarrel with her female ‘roommate’. The group are faced with spooky occurrences that grow ever more sinister as the night progresses, until it seems that the house itself is plotting against them.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsThe Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton, a servant and former slave, stands accused of murdering her employers. Although she can’t remember anything that happened on that fateful night, she knows that she couldn’t have done it – because she was in love with her mistress. Slipping between a childhood on a Jamaican sugar plantation and her domestic service in Georgian London, Frannie’s defense is her life story – a story that exposes crimes far greater than a couple of murders, committed in the name of science and empire.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

During the London Blitz, the Natural History Museum’s collection of taxidermied mammals are evacuated to the countryside, along with newly-promoted director Hetty Cartwright. Their new home is the creepy Lockwood Manor, presided over by the bullying Major Lockwood and his troubled daughter Lucy. Lucy walks the house at night and has nightmares of la diablesse – a devil-woman in white that haunts the manor. Despite Hetty’s burgeoning friendship with Lucy, her residence at Lockwood grows impossible when the animals start to move about on their own.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria MachadoIn the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Studying at the Iowa writers’ school in her late 20s, Carmen Maria Machado met ‘the woman in the dream house’ – a petite blonde Harvard grad living in a cabin in Bloomington, Indiana. What began as a passionate relationship turned sour when the woman became psychologically and physically abusive, and the ‘dream house’ became a nightmare setting. Machado recounts her own experience while also examining the history and study of abusive romantic relationships between women, in a genre-defying work that blends memoir, gothic literature, academic study, and short stories.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura CarlinThe Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Against a backdrop of Georgian London, where the city’s poor inhabitants can disappear with no questions asked, Hester White is desperate to escape poverty. When she gets caught under the wheels of Calder Brock’s carriage, she seizes her chance to be taken in by his aristocratic family, including the fierce Rebekah Brock. Rebekah tutors her in the ways of gentility – although she seems interested in more than just Hester’s education. Then Hester receives a note telling her to leave before she gets hurt. Together, Rebekah and Hester begin to uncover a dark web of penny dreadful-worthy mystery and crime with Calder at its centre.

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

In a vast house on the cliffs of Dover, twins Miranda and Eliot are in mourning for their recently-departed mother. In the wake of the tragedy, Miranda develops the eating disorder pica – where she hungers for inedible substances like chalk, dirt and plastic – and begins to hear the voices of women trapped in the walls of the house. Then one night she vanishes, leaving behind her loved ones, including her girlfriend Ore, her father Luc, and the house itself, to tell the story.

Sash S reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

It’s a new year and a new decade, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate an old classic. For that reason, I’m starting the year by revisiting Tipping the Velvet, which was published in 1998 and is set in Victorian England.

‘Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster?’ isn’t an especially striking opening line on its own, but after the incredible journey this book will take you through, it’s one of those opening lines that sticks with you as something incredibly iconic. The direct address to the reader, the reminder of our protagonist’s humble beginnings, how evocative the concept of oysters becomes after hearing the protagonist describe her family’s oyster restaurant in fond detail. The way Nancy’s love interest describes the smell of her like “a mermaid”. Waters’ prose brings everything vividly to life.

It’s a coming of age story about Nancy, who falls in love with the performer Kitty and follows her to London. But it’s so much more than that. Tipping the Velvet is a huge novel which spans a time full of change in Nancy’s life, taking us through various areas of London in the process. This review is light on details because a lot happens, but it’s best just experienced.

It’s wonderful to have a protagonist so refreshingly frank about her sexuality. She realises she’s in love with Kitty and that’s it–there’s no crisis about it, that’s just how she is. Nancy is a lovely character to follow through this story, so fully realised that you can see just why she makes all of the decisions that she does. There’s sex and heartbreak and everything in between on Nancy’s journey.

There’s so much, too, to relate to in this book that transcends the time period it’s set in: realising who you are, falling in love for the first time, moving from your hometown and realising you don’t fit there any more when you try to go back; seeking validation in love and sex; realising what’s truly important in life. Waters holds up a mirror and reflects back at us these incredibly poignant life experiences that are relatable no matter who you are or what your sexuality is.

It’s a love story and it’s a story about Nancy learning to love herself and pick herself up and move on as much as it is about her romantic and sexual relationships with women. The ending is something that I think anyone who’s had a first love, or believed in any strong cause, will relate to. it is so, so emotionally raw and incredibly hopeful.

I love this book. I’ll always love this book. It’s a delight. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Rating: ****

Danika reviews That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

Let me start this review at the end: The Author’s Note, which cleared up some things that I had been processing arguing with myself about the entire time I read reading it:

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a smallish story that takes place in a very big world. I wanted to be sure to include that world, not the least because in real life, Victorian England was kind of the worst. It would be unfair to paint it over with a glossy sheen, undoing all the colonial wrongs, in the name of Alternate History. To that end, I attempted to make everything slightly better than it was in real life. Throughout history, there are always people who say “What if we did this instead?” before those in power do something awful. They are almost always ignored, but in my made-up world, those people were listened to.

Basically, this is a book that is set in a world where the British Empire went very differently. Queen Victoria married off her children to people around the world, ensuring that the whole royal line is mixed race. Indigenous nations are recognized. The U.S. as it is today is three different countries in this world: the U.S. (Northern states which are… not doing well), the South (an independent nation of mostly former slaves, who are doing quite well), and Mexico. And that’s just scratching the surface. The Victorian Era has stretched on, because it is adaptive. The Church is made up of many different beliefs. The empire is not anti-gay. But it’s also not perfect. You can’t make colonialism a good thing. And I was worried that this alternate version was trying to present this shiny, happier, multicultural version of colonialism. But the author’s note put me more at ease, and there are moments when characters mention the horror that is the history of the empire (colonizing North America and the slave revolts in Haiti in particular).

You may have noticed that I’m well into this review and haven’t mentioned the main characters. Well, that’s because the setting does loom larger than the plot or characters in this case. This is an interesting world, and we’re clearly only seeing snippets of it. It’s not that I didn’t like the characters or the plot, but I kept coming back to thinking about the world and its implications. There are three main characters: Margaret, the princess and next in line for the crown. She wants to experience life outside of the royal bubble, so she’s in disguise for the summer, to try to get a taste of what her life would be if she wasn’t a princess. Helena is a very practical character who has her life completely planned, and is reluctantly drawn into a celebrity/royal party (where she meets Margaret). And August, who… I was not as interested in. He wants to run his dad’s lumber company, and everyone expects Helena and August to get engaged any minute now.

The Helena/Margaret romance is sweet, but I wasn’t particularly invested, and August never piqued my interest. The plot mostly involves these three characters’ collective emotional lives getting more and more tangled. (Spoiler) Helena finds out she’s intersex, which is its own subplot, but isn’t dealt with in a lot of depth. I’d be interested about what an intersex reviewer thought about this story line.

One other point I kept getting caught on is that in this world, people enter their genetic make up into a computer, and it connects them with good “genetic matches.” This is optional, and it seems to encourage people to match with other ethnicities? But although this may not be discriminating by race, isn’t this inherently a form of eugenics? What make a good genetic match? Is it trying to screen out the possibility of having children with disabilities? The whole thing made me uneasy, and it’s only really addressed as being a ‘limited tool’–useful, but not able to make matches based on love.

As you can probably tell by this scattered mess of a review, this book left me with a lot to think about. I imagine that I didn’t enjoy it as much because my philosophical brain latched so hard on to these two ideas (is this supposed to be nonracist colonialism? eugenics by dating app?) that all I could see was what connected to those. Browsing the Goodreads reviews, I can see plenty of people really liked it, but personally, I was too up in my head to really connect with the characters enough to properly enjoy it.

Megan G reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder has been brought up to be a fingersmith – a petty thief. She lives with a baby “farmer” named Mrs. Sucksby, who has raised her as her own. One day, a man known to Sue as Gentleman arrives at Mrs. Sucksby’s house to enlist Sue’s help in a plot to gain the fortune of a lady. Sue is to be the maid of the lady, Maud Lilly, and convince her to marry Gentleman, after which they will abandon her to a madhouse. With the promise of a share of the lady’s fortune, Sue embarks on a journey away from the home she’s always known, unknowingly entering into a game far more dangerous than she could have expected.

Over the past few years, I’ve sometimes felt like I am the only queer woman in the world who has not read Fingersmith (or any Sarah Waters’ novels, for that matter). Well, maybe not the only one, but one of a handful. After years residing on my dauntingly large “to-read” list, I finally managed to pick it up, and oh, was it worth the wait!

Mystery is possibly my favourite genre, and Fingersmith delivered more than I could have hoped. I knew it would be a twisty tale, but I did not realize going into it just how many twists and turns the story would take. Every time I felt I’d just regained my footing after a plot twist, Waters threw another at me. Some were a little predictable, others caught me completely off-guard. Because of how many mystery novel’s I’ve read in my life, let me tell you, that is a pretty hard thing to do.

The love story is subtle, but poignant. There are very few explicit mentions of the women’s feelings toward each other until the end of the novel, and even then, it is dealt with in a way true to its time. Still, you can’t miss the obvious love these two women feel for each other, and despite all the deception and backstabbing they involve each other in, you can’t help but root for them. [Major spoiler] I also have to mention how wonderful it was to see a story like this end on a hopeful note for its lesbian protagonists. It would have been very easy for Waters to write their feelings off as a fluke, or to have them move on from one another, but instead she gives the reader, and the women, hope. It was refreshing, and allowed the story to end on a hopeful note, something I didn’t think would be possible [end spoilers].

If you have not read Fingersmith yet, I highly encourage you to do so. Although not technically considered one, I would easily classify Fingersmith as a classic. That being said, it is not without it’s warnings. There is a lot of explicit ableism and abuse (one extended scene of abuse taking place in an asylum had me cringing the entire time I read it). There are hints of rape, and very strong implications of a pedophilic relationship, as well as of pedophilic feelings from several men. [Major spoiler] A young woman is made to read sexually explicit stories aloud to men from a young age. As well, a character heavily implied to be gay dies in a very violent way [end spoilers].

If these are all things you can look past, I strongly encourage you to pick up Fingersmith if you can. Trust me, if you’re like me and haven’t read it before, you will be so happy that you did.


Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

tipping the velvet by sarah waters

When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.