Review of “Mistress Moderately Fair”, historical f/f romance between actress and playwright

This review originally appeared in The Lesbrary

The English Restoration, i.e. when Charles Stuart II returned to England to take his father’s throne back from the Puritans, fascinates me for being a renaissance of both art and hedonism. Theaters opened again after being banned, and all kinds of sexual openness flourished. I purposely sought out queer lit set in this time period – not that there’s much, given that historical LGBT romance skews heavily Regency – and was rewarded with Mistress Moderately Fair by Katherine Sturtevant. I think it’s out of print, but WorldCat has it at these libraries and Amazon has used copies.

Mistress is about a woman who comes to London to become an actress, and in the course of doing so falls for the lady playwright who’s been helping her hone her skills. It delivers most generously on lesbian romance, on plot twists and turns, and on evocative language. The author’s also done a remarkably good job at bringing a time period to life pretty vividly without falling prey to “look at meeee, I’m so well researched!” I felt the exciting earthiness of the time.

The actress, who is going by Amy but that isn’t her real name – she’s the Beauty with a Mysterious Secret Tragic Past trope – is scarred across her face, prompting the line: “I know I have a garden in my face – the roses and the thorns.” How it got that way, and what she’s hiding from, comprise the main conflicts of the book. She’s never heard of queerness before she came to London, not understanding why she’s so immensely, irrevocably drawn to her playwright friend Margaret, until one of her fellow actors gossips to her about their gay boss. Wait, that’s a thing people can do? Is that why I–

And straightaway, beautiful sensual sapphic prose starts gushing out all over the reader:

“I have deceived you,” [Margaret] said. “I have no poetry to share with you.”

“You are deceiving me now,” Amy said in a shaking voice, “For you are yourself a poem, and I have been hungering for you to share yourself with me.”

Their sex scenes glorify in sensuality, with that enthusiastic appreciation of breasts that validates my own impulses so soothingly. Amy is “my type” – a buxom, squishy, gorgeous brunette with luxurious hair and a tragic past. Margaret is one of those independent, outspoken, able to live slightly outside of society’s rules widow characters. They have chemistry from their very first encounter, and are totally believable as a couple.

“MARGARET AND I HAVE BECOME FRIENDS!” Amy gushes into her diary, too cautious to write what she really means. She goes on to add “I will say that we wrote poetry together, and whenever I read those words, I will know what they mean. And they are true indeed, for we have writ such poetry as I never dreamed of!”The metaphor doesn’t stop here, so the book is almost worth it for the “cunnilingus = poetry” jokes alone.

I love the way this book talks about writing inspiration and the way we create idealized and alternative versions of the people in our lives to interact with on the page. So very relatable.

The liveliness of the time period is evident in the snappy dialogue:

“I heard you had returned from the dead,” says the gay theater owner to someone recovering from violence. The man’s reply is “I did not like being dead, for the plays in heaven were quite dull and not the least bawdy.”

In one scene the two leading ladies recognize and mourn how it was easier for a man to be accepted for sleeping with men than a woman with other women, mainly because of misogyny. Incidentally this is a book that recognizes bisexuality as a phenomenon (without actually anachronizing by using the word), which was a nice touch.

My one quibble, and it’s a major one that’s the reason for the missing star, is the treatment of the book’s minor characters of color. Since it’s out of print, it would satisfy me deeply if this book were to return to print with those parts reexamined especially since they could be tweaked with zero impact on the actual story itself. I like the fact that the enslaved cook from next door insists right away that the main character call her by her real African name instead of the English name her own captor gave her–and that Margaret immediately does so–and I like the fact that the main character buys her and frees her at the end. But both she and her friend, another African captive, speak in broken English that felt awkwardly executed to me, and there are passages exoticizing her religious beliefs without actually adding anything to the story itself. I’m glad she was freed at the end but it would have been even more satisfying if she’d left England with the main character’s blessing after being freed instead of being asked to stay on as a servant and sneak out.

Trigger warnings: sexual assault in a flashback, and also for a brutal attack sustained by the gay supporting character from his lover’s brother’s henchmen. I found the lesbian positivity in the book so overwhelmingly affirming that it didn’t bother me as it ordinarily might have, but it’s there all the same.

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My top LGBTQ+ book recs at the Alachua County Library

Thank you for having me to speak at my alma mater yesterday! You have a wonderful space, and I wish we’d had something like that when I was there. I’m so happy for you that it exists.

Below is a list of some of the books at your local county library that I’ve enjoyed the most.  The links go to my reviews, which have plot details without spoilers, trigger warnings, etc. Remember, if you don’t see something you like, use their suggest purchase page (max. 5 requests per week) to bring it in, or go through interlibrary loan to ask them to borrow it from somewhere else. WorldCat.org is a good way of looking up if anywhere else in the Southeast has the book — I don’t think they’ll be able to import things from Australia, for example. And yes, the Suggest Purchase page works on eBooks, too.

Lesbian or bi lady Real-world Romance
The Red Files by Lee Winter (suspense/mystery)
For Sizakele by Yvonna Fly Onakeme Etaghene (love triangle between three Black women)
Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton (Welsh village romance)
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (YA, lesbian Latina learns about how to escape White Feminism)
Under the Lights by Dahlia Adler (YA)
A Wartime Love by Shiralyn Lee (WWII)
Warming Trend by Karin Kallmaker (suspense)
Date With Destiny by Mason Dixon (suspense)
Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (YA)

Lesbian or bi lady Sci Fi or Fantasy
Promises, Promises by L-J Baker (LotR/D&D parody)
Prayer of the Handmaiden by Merry Shannon (warrior priestess)
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones (19th cent costume drama w/political intrigue) and its sequel The Mystic Marriage
Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (queer disabled women fighting Big Pharma in space)
Good Enough to Eat by Allison Grey and Jae (vampire rom-com)
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie (pirates and sea monsters)
Letters to Zell by Camille Griep (“princess” parody; Snow White winds up with a girlfriend)

Trans lit
A Safe Girl to Love by Casey Plett (short stories)
A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde (nb/trans m billionaire romance)
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (trans girl YA)
When The Moon Was Ours by Anna Maria McLemore (YA fantasy, trans m/cis f)

Polyamory
She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery (Regency f/f/m, bi ladies)
Kneel, Mr. President by Lauren Gallagher (m/m/f, bi men)

Men with men
The Rules of Ever After by Killian Brewer (YA fantasy)
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (YA)
The Bears of Winter (anthology of erotica by and for gay bears, winter settings)
Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz (YA)
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (YA)
The Marrying Kind by Ken O’Neill (rom-com)

Misc
Fierce Family – anthology of short stories on the theme of “positive representation of queer families in sci-fi/fantasy”

Two notes: two queer ensemble cast post-apocalyptic-yet-heartwarming adventures, RoAnna Sylver’s Chameleon Moon (my review) and Claudie Arseneault’s Viral Airwaves, are both at the library, but both authors have revised their books to include more on-the-page representation and take care of some other issues so you’d be better off seeking these books out another way. (Chameleon Moon stars a trans woman in a triad marriage with two other women and Viral Airwaves features an all-male love triangle, but the new versions include that plus more nonbinary characters and asexual representation.)

Some recommendations for other books that the library doesn’t have, but should–so I heartily recommend them:

Peter Darling by Austin Chant – Peter Pan is trans and grows up to confront toxic masculinity and fall for Captain Hook
Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones – the third book in the Daughter of Mystery series, mentioned above
Roller Girl by Vanessa North – roller derby f/f romance starring a trans woman
Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee – superhero YA, f/f, Asian-American lead and author
Black Art by VT Davy – modern-day noir/suspense starring a trans man
The Dyke and the Dybbuk by Ellen Galford – Jewish lesbian paranormal comedy

And of course, I’d be over the moon if you’d check out my books, too ^_^ (I write fluffy queer fantasy in an imagined, Florida-like Jewish setting. Happy endings and friendly dragons guaranteed!)

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A (trans) Pan/Hook slash novel by a trans guy releases next week and it’s the best thing I’ve read in 2017 so far

At long last, my review of Peter Darling, by Austin Chant. Fair warning: Peter Pan and the idea of Captain Hook as a love interest are important enough to me that this review has turned into a post on a recipe blog–in other words, there’s going to be a preamble 😛 If this is too much for you, skip to the words “imagine, therefore, my delight.” (Now imagine Hook saying these words. OK, bye.)

 

Some years ago, fantasy erotica writer Tof Eklund and I discussed the thematic differences between the original J.M. Barrie Peter Pan and multiple movie versions. The novel’s focus is on youth, whereas the movie versions become a fascinating meta-analysis of make-believe itself. After all, Neverland is concocted out of children’s play. At the time the book is set in its real-world scenes, English children were fascinated by pirates and by the environments their parents’ friends had colonized –Neverland seems like a casserole of Caribbean and African plants and animals. A 1960’s Neverland might be an alien planet, for example, because kids had moved on.

 

The most distilled example of this is Captain Hook himself. In at least two live-action versions, the same actor (for example, Cyril Richard or Jason Isaacs) portrays both the children’s father Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. What purpose can this serve other than to emphasize the fact that the children are only playing pretend, or that their imaginary villains are inspired by an intmidating figure from their real life? Darling is, after all, a strict and distant figure.

 

Tof had a fabulous way of summing up the Darling-Hook connection: “Daddy in a hat.” After all, if Cyril Richard goes from being their father to a fearsome pirate captain just by putting on an anachronistic hat with a huge feather, then that pirate captain allows them to explore the thrill of interacting with a villain without actually being dangerous. It’s just a hat.

 

I cribbed this line, with a dedication to Tof and their family, in my short story “The Generous Princess” (Tales from Perach), because the princess’s wizard grandfather-figure is playing Haman in the Purimspiel. He becomes, therefore, “Zayde in a hat”, which as one of her moms explains to her makes him a safe way to interact with the idea of bad guys. In fact, this line is a microcosm of my entire philosophy in creating the wizard in the first place: what we like about appealing villains isn’t their villainy, most of the time, but their swagger, smirk, and distinctively weird clothing.

 

Imagine, therefore, my delight when I discovered that not only was there to be a Pan/Hook novel out there, but that author Austin Chant feels the same way about villains that I do, including the clothing fascination! His Hook is definitely a snappy dresser. In fact, one of the most endearing things about him is that part of the treasure he seeks includes particularly unusual and awesome things to wear instead of just gold. It’s not even played as camp or frivolous. He’s completely macho, while coveting fancy boots.

 

I have to admit when I hear “Pan/Hook slash!” the first place my mind goes is very surface-level and very physical. What I got instead was something I wound up liking a lot more: Chant gets inside the minds of the characters and really explores who they are to each other, which changes and evolves by the chapter.

 

Pan/Hook slash, to be good and not to be insulting to the reader–who is presumably there because they like the original mischievous smartass vs. blustery villain dynamic and doesn’t want to be shortchanged–has to start with that dynamic. Chant doesn’t disappoint. We get an opening skirmish that has all the teasing and violence you’d expect from these two.

 

But soon the novel starts to ask whether the Boys Vs. Pirates setup of the island is even fair — imagine a Disney princess starting to question the idea of idealizing monarchy in fairy-tales — and with each interaction, Hook and Pan draw closer together, even if only by millimeters. Most of the book is slow burn, despite any early attraction, because of the antagonistic nature of their history. The friendship sort of grows in a “you dipshit”-becomes-“my dipshit” sort of way.

 

“Pan,” Hook said. “You saved my life.”

 

[…]

 

“I had to,” he said finally. “If you’d died there, I wouldn’t have been the one to defeat you.”

 

Hook gave a low chuckle. “Your obsession is flattering, Pan. And I share it.”

 

“Obsession?”

 

“Is that not what they call it,” Hook said, “when two men can think of nothing but each other?”

 

I was amazed at the way Chant took the very meta-nature of the Peter Pan story and wrapped it into a fancy bow in ways I never before imagined. This is a story about Peter Pan, but it’s also a story about Peter Pan, if you follow me.

 

Since Peter is transmasculine, I found myself dreading the inevitable “reveal”, and was pleasantly surprised to discover there wasn’t one. At all. Austin Chant actually wrote one, originally in an early draft, before realizing like many of us do that when it’s your book, you don’t have to include the parts you don’t like. There’s a piece of writing advice that says that those parts you skim or skip when reading? Don’t write those parts. This, as Austin points out in his amazing blog post about why he didn’t include a coming-out scene, goes double for scenes that aren’t just boring but actually make you unhappy. As he puts it:

Maybe the coming out scenes I kept writing were uncomfortable because cramming them in only served to entertain the idea of Hook rejecting Peter. I was putting Peter’s trans status on the table as something that had to be addressed and scrutinized before his relationship could proceed, as if they couldn’t be together if I didn’t include that scene.

 

Fair warning that there is deadnaming, misgendering, and even suicidal ideation in Peter’s flashbacks to his life in the Darling household, but these sections are brief and clearly demarkated so you can read them with your mental armor on, if you need it. Plus, this book is a trans man writing a trans man’s experiences, so he’s allowed to write that down. Peter Darling has the sweetest of happy endings — I think they’re even up an apple tree or something old-fashioned like that — so don’t worry, the sunlight is waiting after the storm.

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Review: The Vanisher Variations, a Jewish Regency mystery mostly set in Brighton

The Vanisher Variations is definitely one of the Libi Astaire Jewish Regencies that stands out in the series for well-constructed plot, satisfyingness of the mystery’s solution, representation of diversity, and even just how much fun I had reading it.

At the center is a gentile foreigner, Lady Lennox, who married into the English gentry and who the UK Jewish community has been put in a position to protect. From her husband? From someone else? Unraveling what’s really going on takes the cooperation of several of the varied and diverse Jewish cast. Each of the main characters has a distinctive voice, from the imaginative teenage girl (who I will persist on ‘shipping with her female best friend even if only to amuse myself–there’s a whole paragraph on how pretty she thinks she is!) to the eccentric devil-may-care young pickpocket to the middle-aged mother and chef to the world-weary wealthy widower.

There’s other representation as well: the historical figure of an Indian man who converted from Islam to Christianity to marry an Englishwoman and open a restorative bath cure in Brighton is one of the characters in the book, although the author reveals in a postnote that her timing is slightly off for the month and year of her chosen setting. And an important character is revealed to have plot-relevant PTSD from the Napoleonic Wars, and although I haven’t the experience to speak first-hand on this, as an outsider it seemed like a sympathetic and three-dimensional treatment. I will warn the audience that chapter 27 may be triggering and if you’re super sensitive to war crimes that’s the one to read carefully, as it has a completely different feel from the rest of the book (which is relatively light-hearted as these books are basically cozies.) I will say that there is discussion of an assault averted, though, if that makes a difference in your reading choices.

For the most part, it’s comforting escapism in which Jewish readers can rest reassured that we have our parts to play as protagonists of costume drama just like gentiles do, and gentile readers are safe with subtle explanations for cultural details they may not already know. We bat away microaggressions but aren’t fighting for our lives, and the setting for most of the book is a vividly portrayed seaside resort town. You’ll practically hear the waves and seagulls as you read.

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A quick & easy guide to all my bi characters

Since I’m bi, I tend to write a lot of characters who are bi as well. Like other minority demographics, we don’t always get satisfying or accurate representation. Tropes will call us flaky, selfish, hedonistic, or unreliable. That’s not to say we can’t be all of those things! But we are no more likely to have–or not have–any of those traits than straight, gay, or ace folks. Erin Jeffreys Hodges asked me for a list, and I realized the only one I’d done was in a Twitter thread (in which multiple people admirably brought up the joke “Fantastic Bi’s and Where to Find Them.”) So here goes.

The bi character who shows up the most in my books is Aviva, who starts out as the palace’s Second Cook and ends up as Queen Shulamit’s (wife or partner depending on which book; I switched it up) as well as her personal chef.

She has her own short story in the Tales from Perach collection, “Aviva and the Aliens”, where she escapes from alien abduction in time to get home for Pesach.

Aviva and the Aliens

Next comes Prince Kaveh, the youngest son of the king of a neighboring city-state. He’s hard-working and big-hearted but a bit anxious. He falls for a labor activist who’s also a huge nerd in Climbing the Date Palm, and becomes part of Queen Shulamit’s extended household long distance.

climbing the date palm opening scene

Aviva finds Prince Kaveh in the opening scene of Climbing the Date Palm

Chef Yael, the bi trans widow in The Olive Conspiracy, starts out the book by lodging a formal complaint with the queen about someone bothering her, and it ends up being a clue that leads to saving the whole country from economic and agricultural devastation. You can also read about her and her husband Aaron being cute together and the ups and downs of their restaurant life in the short story “No Whining” in the Tales, linked above.

yael-doesnt-like-lizards

How do you work with the royal police when the police spy is literally a lizard?

Moving away from Mangoverse, both lonely grad student Adina and her vintage Hollywood actress crush Rose, who comes back as a ghost to give her a manicure and sexy cuddles, are bi in the short story “Wet Nails.”

wet-nails

Lauren Stern from Lioness in Blue, my m/f age-gap contemporary romance novelette about oboe players in a symphony orchestra, is also bi.

Lauren and Dan from Lioness

and last but not least — for now — is Martin Meyer from my anti-biphobia short “The Artist and the Devil”, who protagonist Noah crushes on from a distance while making all kinds of silly assumptions about him–starting from the premise that he’s literally Satan himself.

artist_devil-tie-FLAT-3

Thank you for reading! Art credit for these pictures goes to Rebecca Schauer, Ceili Braidwood/Jane Dominguez, Becca again, then Agaricals, then Laya Rose, then Jane again.

Edited to add that Ronit, who appears as Micah’s girlfriend in the short story “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” in Tales, is bi in my head because of what used to be my life, but there was never really a way to establish her bisexuality in the story so 1. she can be straight or pan if you’d rather and 2. it’s not on the page so it may not count for some people. Here’s Becca’s art of her, though.

micah-and-ronit

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Full list of my new releases in 2016

Sorry I disappeared from reviewing for a while. I’ve had some sadness. But it’s time for me to make a full list of everything I wrote that was published for the first time in 2016 in case any of you wanted to nominate them for things.

The Olive Conspiracy – novel, fantasy, f/f. Queen Shulamit uncovers plot to tank her country’s economy via agricultural sabotage. She & her found-family of wife, dragon, witch, and warrior woman must find the culprits both international and domestic, including a foreign princess she had a crush on as a teenager. 60,000 words.

Tales from Perach – short story collection, probably about 32,000 words but this is a guess. Five of the shorts are new in 2016; the other two were first published in 2015. The five new ones are listed here:
“Your Name is Love” – cis f/f, 6300 words. Fantasy inasmuch as the characters get into a friendly debate over whether non-magical conjuring is harder or easier than magic.
“No Whining” – bi trans f/cis m, 4700 words. Technically not SFF except that it takes place in the Mangoverse universe.
“Every Us” – cis m/m, one of whom is bi, 850 words. Technically not SFF except that it takes place in the Mangoverse universe and the main character is a prince.
“Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” – trans m/cis f, 2350 words. Fantasy about teenagers who encounter a malicious fairy.
“The Generous Princess” – ensemble cast from the Mangoverse royal family (so, background cis f/f and m/m, and includes a dragon.) 3400 words. Fantasy about celebrating Purim.
Again, “Rivka in Port Saltspray” and “Aviva and the Aliens” first came out in 2015 and are not eligible for 2016 awards.

Non-Mangoverse SFF:

“Treasure Hunt” – short fantasy story in which a dragon who doesn’t get out much watches two guys hooking up in his cave. Cis m/m, X words. Sold both on its own and in the Torquere anthology Twisted Fables. I will be reposting this one in 2017 since Torquere is giving everyone their rights back. In the meantime, Goodreads link. 3600 words.

Non-SFF: contemporary musician romance novelettes

Fearless – cis f/f. A newly-out-of-the-closet band mom falls for an orchestra teacher while snowed in at All-State. 8200 words.

Lioness in Blue – cis bi f/m. Oboists in a symphony orchestra engage in an age-gap, mildly femdom romance in between rehearsals. 9500 words.

Also non-SFF but shorter still

“When Daisies Choose a Vase” – cis m/f set in Québec. A young artist has to prove to the older man she loves that she’s sincere. Approx. 2700 words.

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“Miss Jacobson’s Journey” – Jewish Regency spy-romance-adventure

Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn is a lighthearted spy romance set during the Napoleonic wars and starring an Ashkenazi Jewish hero and heroine. I am so glad I found this book and read it on Shabbat. It was a quick read, the more tense/adventurous/suspenseful parts were exciting instead of stressful, and it was fun watching a hero and heroine combat adversity first and only deal with their feelings as a side dish. Reminds me of SFF shipper fandom, where, alongside the various pairings of Cap and his various hypothetical boyfriends and girlfriends, he’s still Captain America fighting aliens and supercriminals.

Miriam has been helping her uncle with his medical research, having adventures all across Europe and making friends with every Jewish family she meets. When he dies in the middle of the war, she needs to get home to England. In order to do so against… a blockade, I guess?… she gets embroiled in a plot to deliver gold to Wellington behind enemy lines. Accompanying her are her middle-aged lady’s maid/chaperone and two Englishmen. She and her maid are there to lend credibility to their “no, we’re totally not spies!” cover, and they’re there to give the two ladies safe passage–although Miriam winds up saving them a few times (surprising nobody who knows what kind of books I recommend.)

It’s not often I get to read swashbuckling adventure where people are regularly speaking Yiddish, or talking Jewish philosophy, or having to sidestep period-appropriate antisemitic microaggressions. But this book has value beyond “hey, they’re Jewish!” — between the plot and the romance I had a good romp. I especially enjoyed the running gag with French gentile policemen insisting Yiddish was a secret code.

Two things: if the blurb seems thoroughly obvious, don’t worry; the “twist” is revealed 27 pages in so they don’t have to spend the whole book talking around each other. Also, there’s a love triangle with a “hot” gentile who starts out fairly antisemitic but gradually learns his lesson through observing how we really are up close; don’t worry about him. He gets better and still doesn’t get the girl.

Content note that this is ‘sweet’ romance with no premarital sex, but I didn’t miss it. There’s some mention of how Jewish men are supposed to pleasure their wives on Shabbat, which is true! And TW for a lot of the gentile characters coming out with antisemitic remarks, but they’re all dealt with and contradicted in-text. (My opinion on the gentile character’s reason for resenting the hero’s father: if someone owes you money and resents you for the fact that they need to pay it back, that’s almost gaslighting.)

Kudos to the author for including Sephardim in the book as well, not just Ashkenazim, since part of the book took place in and near Spain.

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