Book Review: The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics

lady's guide to celestial mechanicsThe Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics
by Olivia Waite
Historical Romance / LGBT
322 pages
Published June 2019

This was one of two sweet, lighthearted romances I read to prepare myself for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – and it definitely helped. HEAs always lift my mood.

I was a little afraid, with the title, that we were going to be talking about astrology, but nope. Astronomy. Just from a Victorian point of view. Well. Slightly earlier, actually, as the book opens in 1816. It’s a true Regency romance, set twenty years before Victoria becomes Queen.

Lucy Muchelney, one of our two main characters, is left somewhat at loose ends after her father dies and her lover marries a man. She had been serving as her father’s assistant in astronomy calculations, but her brother, now in control of their finances, tells her she should get married and leave silly thoughts of science behind her. Then she finds a letter from one of her father’s patrons, the Countess of Moth, and runs off to London, hoping to convince the Countess she’s as good as her father.

The Countess, recently widowed, is intrigued by Lucy, and takes her on. Together they face the sexism of the exclusively male Polite Science Society, and privately struggle with a romance that can never be publicly acknowledged.

I really enjoyed this romance. I think it was actually less explicit than most of the adult romances I read, but I know LGBT romances in particular have to walk a fine line because people are all-too-ready to call them bad names as it is. It absolutely had sex scenes, just…not as dirty and detailed and prevalent as many romances I’ve read.

I liked that it dealt with issues surrounding the need to keep the relationship a secret. In that era, being gay was a crime, though usually only prosecuted against men. But it meant it couldn’t be publicly acknowledged; they couldn’t marry. So there’s a worry that there’s nothing legally binding them together, and if, say, the Countess were to get tired of Lucy, Lucy could be out on the street. The imbalance of power with no safety net puts Lucy on shaky ground, and that’s something the two women have to work out.

The bulk of the plotline outside of the romance deals with the sexism of the scientific society at the time; my Friday 56 this week quoted a particularly damning scene. Lucy gets her revenge eventually, and it’s a delight.

Fun little regency romance. There are a few authors writing diverse historical romance, and I’d love to see more!

From the cover of The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics:

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St. Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

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Book Review: Naamah

naamahNaamah: A Novel
by Sarah Blake
Historical Fiction / LGBT
296 pages
Published April 2019

It took me until just now, staring at my screen, to realize those are supposed to be water droplets on the cover, distorting the image behind them. Fitting, with the huge part that water plays in this story. Most of the narrative takes place aboard the ark during the flood – water is ever-present and overwhelming.

Naamah is an odd novel. I can’t really explain why I chose to read it; I’d heard that Naamah was bisexual in the book, and I think maybe a queer, feminist retelling of a Bible story appealed to me? It then took me a month or so to get around to actually reading it because of the Bible story part!

The narrative, while always told from Naamah’s point of view, dips into her memories, where we learn about the widow Bethel, her lover before the flood, and into Naamah’s dreams, where we meet Sarai. Sarai, or Sarah, is Abraham’s wife in the future. Well. Naamah’s future. Our ancient past. Sarai shows Naamah the far future – our present – and claims to have ascended to near godhood. She seems to take pity on Naamah’s despair, trying to show her what her time on the ark begets later. It’s strange.

Naamah is clearly depressed, and sorting out her dreams from what is actually happening is difficult for both her and the reader, I think. The whole book is fuzzy and a little dream-like.

It’s interesting, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

From the cover of Naamah:

With the coming of the Great Flood – the mother of all disasters – only one family is spared, left drifting on the endless waters, waiting for them to subside. We know the story of Noah, moved by divine word to build an ark and launch an escape. Now, in a work of astounding invention, Sarah Blake reclaims the story of his wife, Naamah, the matriarch who kept them alive. Here is the woman torn between faith and fury, lending her strength to her sons and their wives, caring for an unruly menagerie of restless creatures while silently mourning the lover she left behind. Here is the woman escaping into the unreceded waters, where a seductive angel tempts her to join a strange and haunted world. Here is the woman tormented by dreams and questions of her own – questions of devotion and self-determination, of history and memory, of the kindness or cruelty of fate.

In fresh and modern language, Blake revisits the story of the ark and discovers the agonizing burdens endured by the woman at the center of it all. Naamah is a parable for our time: a provocative fable of body, spirit, and resilience.

Series Review: The Conqueror’s Saga

and i darkenAnd I Darken / Now I Rise / Bright We Burn
by Kiersten White
Alternate History
475 / 476 / 416 pages
Published 2016 / 2017 / 2018

I’ve heard a lot about this trilogy, but it was a close friend of mine gushing about it that finally brought it to the top of my reading list. Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I wish I had read it sooner, as the entire trilogy is excellent. It’s a dark trilogy – it’s based on Vlad Dracul, not Dracula, and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his story. Except in this trilogy, it’s her story. And I Darken tells the story of Lada’s childhood alongside her brother, Radu. How their father left them with the Ottoman Empire’s sultan as hostages against his good behavior. How they found a place there and started to grow up and possibly even make friends, or at least allies. It specifically details their friendship with the Sultan’s son and heir, Mehmed.

now i riseThe second book, Now I Rise, covers the early years of Mehmed’s reign as sultan, and the siege of Constantinople. Most of this book is spent on Radu, as the siblings are doing different things in vastly different places at this point. We still get glimpses of Lada’s life, but Radu is definitely the star here, which is good, as I like him much more than Lada.

I don’t think Lada is supposed to be liked. She is vicious, and brutal, and while you can see where the brutality comes from, and why she thinks she must be this way, it’s still not exactly an easy trait to like. I much prefer Radu and his unusual marriage.

The third book, Bright We Burn, brings Radu and Lada back together again. There’s not much I can say here, for fear of spoiling things, but it is an epic and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

bright we burnTaken together, these three books are an epic story. They span the length of the Ottoman Empire, involve love affairs with powerful people, hidden passions, and bastard children. There is blood and death and plague. Cities fall and fortresses are built. The story is true to the bones of Vlad Dracul’s history; gender-swapping Vlad into Lada was an absolutely inspired bit of storytelling.

There’s no magic in these books, so it’s not exactly fantasy, it’s alternate history, but it reads like fantasy. Swords and shields and sieges and medieval politics.

If you like epic fantasy, and don’t mind a bit of brutal combat – if you like Game of Thrones – you’ll like these. I loved them.

There’s a good bit of LGBT rep – Radu is very gay, and Lada is aromantic. There’s also a lesbian pair.

From the cover of And I Darken:

NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL.

And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend – and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against – and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point. 

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes the first book in a dark, sweeping new series in which heads will roll, bodies will be impaled . . . and hearts will be broken.

Book Review: All Out

all outAll Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages
Edited by Saundra Mitchell
Short Story Anthology/Young Adult/Historical Fiction
353 pages
Published 2018

I have no explanation for why young adult story anthologies are SO. GOOD. But they are. This particular one revolves around queer teens in historical times. That’s about the only commonality; the genres vary from normal fiction to fantasy to magical realism. There are gay, lesbian, transgender, and asexual teens represented. I am a little annoyed that there don’t seem to be any bisexual teens in the anthology; it could be argued that at least one if not more are bi simply because they had opposite-sex relationships before the same-sex romance in the story, but that’s also common before realizing your sexuality/coming out. No one is explicitly bisexual in this book. There were also two transmen but no transwomen.

There was a decent amount of cultural diversity while remaining mostly centered in the US; Chinatown in 1950s San Francisco, 1870s Mexico, Colonial New England, 1930s Hispanic New Mexico, Robin Hood-era Britain.

The stories were really good, I just wish they’d included a bisexual story and a transwoman. They did have an asexual girl, which is a sexuality often overlooked, so that was nice. (I posted an excerpt from her story on Friday.)

It’s a great collection of stories, just limited in scope. They could have cut a few F/F stories and added in bisexual, nonbinary, and transwomen, and lived up to the open umbrella of the “queer” label a bit more. I really enjoyed it, I think I’m just a little disappointed because I was expecting more of the spectrum.

From the cover of All Out:

Take a journey through time and genres and discover a past where queer figures live, love, and shape the world around them. Seventeen of the best young adult authors across the queer spectrum have come together to create a collection of beautifully written diverse historical fiction for teens.

From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.

Book Review: Confessions of the Fox

confessions of the foxConfessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction
329 pages
Published June 2018

Confessions of the Fox is an #ownvoices novel – written by a trans author, about a trans professor writing about a manuscript about a trans eighteenth-century thief. In that way, it’s quite unique, and valuable for its observations about being trans.

But story-wise – it drug on about a hundred pages too long, got bogged down by the footnotes that tell the professor’s story, and ultimately went off on some conspiracy tangent that added nothing to the plot. It got weird. I think the book would have been better if it had just been Jack Sheppard’s story, without the “professor-annotating-the-manuscript” framework built around it.

Jack is a very compelling character, but we keep getting distracted from his story by the professor’s career and love life problems, so it feels very fragmented. I did enjoy the colorful, metaphorical language constantly being used to talk about sex, though! Make no mistake, this is a dirty book. It’s mostly dirty in the most flowery of terms, so it’s more entertaining than titillating, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of gifting it to someone!

Ultimately, I wish I’d skipped it. I know there are people that like the book-within-a-book framework, and I do sometimes, but I feel like it distracted from the story I really wanted to read, here.

From the cover of Confessions of the Fox:

Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.

Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript – a gender-defying exposé of jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack – a transgender carpenter’s apprentice – has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary.

Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined – and only a miracle will save them all.

Confessions of the Fox is, at once, a work of speculative historical fiction, a soaring love story, a puzzling mystery, an electrifying tale of adventure and suspense, and an unabashed celebration of sex and sexuality. Writing with the narrative mastery of Sarah Waters and the playful imagination of Nabokov, Jordy Rosenberg is an audacious storyteller of extraordinary talent.

Book Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

lady's guide to petticoats and piracyThe Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
by Mackenzi Lee
Young Adult/Historical Fiction/LGBT
450 pages
Published October 2018

I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and it did not disappoint! In The Lady’s Guide we continue the story of the Montague siblings, with the book opening on Felicity showing up at her brother’s flat in London while she figures out how to get into medical school. I love the sibling relationship between these two, and Felicity’s friendship with Monty’s partner Percy. The three of them just make an amazing little group, so supportive and understanding of each other.

Felicity strongly hinted at being asexual in The Gentleman’s Guide, and through the course of this book, that is cemented. Even when she comes to care for someone, sex just…isn’t her thing. Romance isn’t really either, making her both asexual and aromantic. It’s fantastic representation for an identity we don’t see very often in books. Or, perhaps, an identity we don’t see explicitly mentioned in fiction. Many books don’t have romantic plots and just don’t investigate that aspect of their characters, but to investigate that aspect of a character and say NO, they are NOT interested in that is unique.

Similar to The Gentleman’s Guide, this is an adventure story. Unexpectedly, we veered into magical realism in this book, with the existence of some fantastical creatures I wasn’t expecting to see. Nothing about The Gentleman’s Guide had implied that the world they inhabited was not exactly ours, but The Lady’s Guide does deviate. So that was a big surprise, and I’m not sure I like it. It felt a little forced. I think the “secret” that someone was protecting could have been written as something real instead of a fantastic creature.

That minor quibble aside, I really loved this book, just like I did the first. These two are GREAT books, and the characters are outstanding.

From the cover of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy:

Felicity Montague is through with pretending she prefers society parties to books about bonesetting – or that she’s not smarter than most people she knows, or that she cares about anything more than her dream of becoming a doctor.

A year after an accidentally whirlwind tour of Europe, which she spent evading highwaymen and pirates with her brother Monty, Felicity has returned to England with two goals in mind – avoid the marriage proposal of Callum Doyle, a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh, and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a small window of hope opens. Dr. Alexander Platt, an eccentric physician who Felicity idolizes, is looking for research assistants, and Felicity is sure that someone as forward-thinking as her hero would be willing to take her on. However, Platt is in Germany, preparing to wed Felicity’s estranged childhood friend, Johanna. Not only is Felicity reluctant to open old wounds, but she also has no money to make the trip.

Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid. In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.