Welcome to session one of Rhian’s Rainbow Roundup!
I’m sure I’m not the only one who left 2020 hoping to broaden the scope of my reading. Plus, I think we could all do with something a little brighter to look forward to in 2021. What better way to achieve both of these goals than by setting out to splash colour all over my to-read shelf?
Each month I’ll be focusing on a different letter along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, with some stops along the way for big events like Pride month and LGBT History month. I’ll then be sharing the best of what I’ve found with you!
As a kid, reading shaped my understanding of the world, and I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder or compassion as an adult. There’s so much joy to be had in deepening and broadening our understanding of lives that differ from our own – or as George R.R. Martin puts it; ‘A reader lives a thousand lives’.
Whether you’re new to reading queer literature or looking to refresh a well-stocked rainbow shelf, I’m hoping there’ll be something in here to interest everybody. The type of books I’m going to cover will be as diverse as their subjects. Fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and reality, graphic novels, photography, essays, we’re going to have it all.
This is not a book group as such, but if you’re thinking of buying some of the books I mention, I’d love to hear your opinions on them. There will be far more fantastic books out there than I can ever hope to fit into a quick little roundup like this too, so if you’ve got a recommendation, we’d love to hear those as well!
And so, without further ado, let’s start the year off with the L of LGBTQIA+ – Lesbians!
I wanted to choose books where lesbian characters were at the front and centre of the narrative. As a queer person myself, it’s pretty annoying when you’re sold a book as ‘queer fiction’ that turns out to be a three-sentence cameo. We’re having no lesbian afterthoughts here!
As much as I’d have liked to have an excuse to re-read If Not, Winter or Fingersmith, one of the challenges we’ve all faced with our bookshops being closed is how to find out about new releases, and that’s one of the aims of this feature. As such, there’ll also be a list of upcoming lesbian releases at the bottom, because we all need more things to be excited about at the moment.
To be honest, starting here was half an excuse for finally reading a book I’ve had my eye on for a while.
Who is Vera Kelly? came out in the USA nearly two years ago now, and it is finally coming to the UK on January 28th. I’m not usually one for a spy thriller, but something about this one caught my eye. Probably the cover, which as it turns out, captures the essence of its subject perfectly.
This is a novel that is more of a bildungsroman than a thriller. Rosalie Knecht started her career in literature as a translator, and it shows. This is a novel where everything is carefully considered. It takes place across two timelines, one in 1966 while Vera is working for the CIA in Argentina, and one in 1962(ish), following Vera’s tumultuous childhood from a juvenile detention centre to life in Greenwich village. These two parallel stories, one of Vera discovering herself, and one of her building a false identity, are light on plot but incredibly readable. And then the plot gets its boots on, and oh boy. This book is a wild ride. Political, personal, and quietly and masterfully tense, I flew through it.
Who is Vera Kelly? is a fascinating and suspiciously timely portrayal of life not going the way you’d planned, and how you recalculate your sense of self multiple times over a lifetime. As it turns out, I’m glad I’ve had to wait so long to read it too, because the sequel, Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery, is due to be published on April 6th.
That said, it left me in the mood for something lighter.
That’s when Ciara Smyth stepped in. The Falling in Love Montage is a bit of a summery read for January, but I couldn’t care less. Sometimes, a good teen romance is exactly the ticket.
Now I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to YA books. And romance too, for that matter. Like many genres, both of these labels cover such a wide scope, it’s pretty much guaranteed that some of the books that fall within them are right up my alley, and some of them really, really aren’t.
The perfect way in for me is a cynical main character (like me!), and Saoirse is definitely a cynic. This book takes tropes and runs with them; it’s a wry, self-aware lesbian rom-com that knows exactly what it’s doing, and I love that. There are a lot of books that try to do what Smyth does, but far less successfully. The Falling in Love Montage walks that line between enjoyably light storytelling and satisfying depth of character with grace and ease. And strangely, despite the ending not being a typical one, it felt like exactly what the story and the characters needed. I won’t say any more, but if you’ve read it and have opinions about the ending, I’d be keen to know.
It’s taken me a while to get to it as it came out last June, but as it turns out, Ciara Smyth’s next book, Not My Problem, is due in May and sounds like a hilarious, hot gay mess. The Falling in Love Montage was an incredibly competent debut, and based on how much I enjoyed Smyth’s writing, I am definitely going to be reading Not My Problem.
And last but not least…
Guys, I did it. I finally knuckled down to The Priory of the Orange Tree. This is a book that I have owned since it came out way back in 2019. And yes, I know I’m already breaking my ‘recent releases’ rule, but I’ll bet I’m not the only person who was put off by its length. Everybody I’ve spoken to who’s read it has told me that they loved it. It’s been compared to Tolkein, Sanderson, and even Dune. But it’s nine hundred pages, guys!
I love fantasy, I really do. But in 2020, the year that you’d think I’d be most enjoying escapist reading, I had trouble finding the headspace for it. The worldbuilding, the characters, it all requires so much more involvement from the reader. This is not a small, easy read at the best of times, and calling 2021 the best of times would be… generous. But my book group chose it for their January read. And then a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while messaged me just to tell me that they’d read it over Christmas, and knew that I’d love it. Sometimes when the universe is telling you to sit your ass down and read 900 pages of a lesbian fantasy epic (with dragons), you just have to do it.
And I’m here to lay the record straight… they were all right, I loved it and I should have read it years ago.
I’ve saved the best for last, because Samantha Shannon is the star of this month’s roundup. She has dragged me out of my fantasy-reading rut kicking and screaming. If I tried to describe the plot, we’d be here all day, so I won’t subject you to that. Suffice it to say that this is a novel of incredible depth and scope. And for all that, it’s easy to read. Told from the perspective of four characters, each of their stories interconnected in ways it’s impossible to imagine at the beginning, this is not a novel that is long for the sake of being long. It’s fascinating – tense, plotty, twisty and so rich with detail that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. The lesbian romance is front and centre, but consider yourselves warned – it’s an excruciatingly slow burn.
So, if like me, you were put off by the length – don’t be. It’s worth it and, I must say, an absolute joy to digest slowly if you’re the kind of reader who likes to break books up rather than swallow them all in one go.
So there we are!
A spy thriller, a romance and a truly epic fantasy. A pretty good start to a reading rainbow, if you ask me.
You can find all three of the books I’ve reviewed on this list here: https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/book-lists/rhians-rainbow-roundup-januarys-lesbian-lit/
Plus a more extended list of our lesbian recommendations here: https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/book-lists/rhians-rainbow-roundup-recommended-lesbian-fiction/
And a list of upcoming lesbian releases here: https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/book-lists/rhians-rainbow-roundup-upcoming-lesbian-releases/