Oopsies, I realized that the previous way I was doing reviews didn't really make sense, sorry! This new iteration is more streamlined and less rambly. I'll still link to related books and articles, though! (Also, I would feel weird writing actual reviews for these, since they're just written for fun and everything, but here are a few fanfics I've read recently and would recommend, as well!)

Feel free to suggest new books or just pop in for a discussion via my guestbook! Or my email and Tumblr are also always available!

General Fiction

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872) | ★★★☆☆

It's a decent enough short story, overall. It hinges entirely around the "plot twist," but literally everyone, even if they've never read the book, knows that she's a vampire. In popular culture, people basically just talk about it like, "Oh, is that the one about the lesbian vampire?" That kinda makes all of the talk about how random village women disappearing and Carmilla's "sickness" much less suspenseful, y'know?

That said, while the writing is quite stuffy and overly formal, it's more explicitly romantic than I thought it would be. Still, Laura seems confused and uncomfortable by Carmilla's affections and, as you would expect from the time period, I guess, doesn't seem to realize that homosexuality is a thing, instead thinking that Carmilla is actually a long lost relative or a boy disguised as a girl trying to court her or something. The story's interesting to look back at as the origin of the whole vampire romance trope, etc, at least.

Méphistophéla by Catulle Mendès (1890), trans. Brian Stableford (2019) | ★★★★☆

This story follows a wealthy woman, Sophie, and her unrequited love for her childhood best friend, Emmeline. She is forced to leave home after being outted and subsequently beaten by her husband for being gay, and learns the wonders of sapphic love making from Magalo, a tourist on the island she's hiding on. Still, despite engaging in copious amounts of drugs and lesbian sex, she can't stop feeling empty inside. Nothing she tries works and, seeing as Emmeline has moved on, she is left in an eternal depression, unable to escape even through death.

This was a really difficult read for a variety of reasons, both in regards to subject matter and just the way it's written. A particularly poignant example of this is when we see the main character, Sophie, being raped, from her rapist's perspective. As marital rape was first considered a crime in France in 1990 (literally a hundred years after this was written), he feels completely justified in his actions, believing that it's his right as a husband to violate her. In fact, it talks a lot about how the subjugation of women at the time, going into particular detail about prostitution (which is bad enough on its own, but the mere suggestion of Sadistic brothels is almost too much for me…).

Additionally, the narrative is very much left open to interpretation, with the narrator often doubting themself or showing conflicting information. Written just before the separation between Church and State was (very controversially) established in France, the book was first serialized in L'Echo de Paris, an extremely conservative journal. According to Stableford's introduction, Mendès was quite liberal and likely hated this conservative readership, wanting to subtly challenge their views. As a result, there's a lot of talk about demons and hell: do demons and demonic possessions really exist, or are the perceived symptoms attributable to other things like seizures or drug addiction? There's also the whole metaphor of Sophie as being demonic herself – is she evil for stepping outside of traditional gender roles and carrying herself in a "virile" manner? Is she evil for being a lesbian? Is she a lesbian / gender non-conforming because she was born of a cursed bloodline? Is she depressed because of this demonicness, because of this inability to conform to social standards? Is any of this actually wrong? [I wrote about this more in this essay, if you were curious.] It's interesting to imagine how the intended audience would've felt about all of this, if nothing else…

In summary, it’s not a particularly happy or positive book in regards to the treatment of lesbians and homosexuality, but, frankly, you wouldn’t expect it to be – 1890’s France just wasn’t a good place for women or homosexuals or anyone who wasn’t a French straight wealthy Catholic man, really. But I would definitely say that it’s thought provoking, at least…

Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs (1894) | ★★★☆☆

I've been meaning to write about this one for a while, especially since it's the namesake of the namesake of this site (the first lesbian organisation in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis, took their name from this book, mostly because it was vaguely lesbian and unknown to the general American public so it wouldn't set off any alarms). Finally getting around to reading it, though, it seems like I've built it up in my head to be something it's not...

A bit of context: in the 1880's, various archeological digs, including one site in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, lead to the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts and, subsequently, increased interest in images and themes from classical mythology and culture. It also led to a lot of people not fact checking or straight up lying about "new" poetry, etc. Essentially, this is a book of loosely related "autobiographical" poems, allegedly written by a contemporary of Sappho... but, that turned out to be an elaborate hoax. That's not, like, an issue or anything, I just think it's a neat story.

The book itself follows Bilitis through various stages of her life. In part one, we see Bilitis during her pastoral adolescence, "practicing" kissing with her friends, etc, and it ends with her getting married to some man. In part two, she leaves him and her kids to go to Mytilene, the land of Sappho, where she has many affairs, joins a Lesbian cult devoted to Aphrodite, and marries a younger woman who ends up cheating on her and poisons her idea of love. The third part has her becoming more and more bitter, and eventually prostituting herself. She finally dies at age forty after lamenting that she's too old to find love, or something... Overall, there's a lot of very beautiful imagery and poetic language, and also a lot of weird, extremely uncomfortable bits -- personally, I don't really have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other.

Still, the book's historical and artistic relevance is undeniable. For example, in her book The Amazon & the Page (1988), Karla Jay talks about how Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney were both big fans of and inspired by Pierre Louÿs, and it's pretty easy to see why -- namely, this was one of the few books at the time to mention lesbian relationships, let alone portray them in a morally neutral to even positive way (which is particularly notable, considering the earlier works involving lesbians, like Baudelaire's "Les Femmes Damnées" and Mendès' Méphistophéla, showed them as explicitly demonic and going to Hell). It also inspired a number of artworks, including Debussy's "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" where three of the poems are set to music, and various illustrations from artists like Antoine Calbet, Georges Barbier, and Willy Pogany.

A Woman Appeared to Me by Renée Vivien (1904) | ★★★★☆

I've already written a bit about Renée Vivien here. I still have to say, I'm still incredibly intrigued by her whole vibe she's got going on!

Before I go much further, I should also note, there are actually two versions of this book, published in 1904 and 1905. This review mostly focuses on the 1982 English translation by Jeanette H. Foster, which can be found on and is based on the 1904 version, but I've also read a few sections of the 1905 version, where a few names are changed and the beginning is rewritten. [If I get around to fully reading the 1905 one, I may come back to update this review with more differences…]

Regarding the book itself, it's basically a fictionalized memoir / roman à clef where Vivien is arguing with herself, trying to figure out whether she should continue to devote her life to a woman who cannot love her back (Vally, aka Natalie Clifford Barney) or if she should move on and be with someone else. Meanwhile, Vivien is also haunted by her childhood best friend, Ione (aka Violet Shiletto), whose death at a tragically young age completely devastates her. She has a few other lovers, as well, but they're mostly unimportant. There's also San Giovanni, who is apparently an idealized version of Vivien and her voice of reason.

As you'd expect with a book that is basically just the author having a war with herself, there isn't really much of a plot -- its 63 pages are mostly held together by anecdotes, poetry, and Vivien's little musings. It's still fairly entertaining to read, though! The writing style is very poetic, and honestly all the little references to Vally being "a Priestess of some faith I do not yet know" and angsty unrequited love are very appealing to me, personally. (I just really like unrequited love stories and Greek-y BS, which both appear here in spades. <3)

Admittedly, the poetic writing does get pretty weird and confusing at times. Like, I actually did start reading the French version of this, then switched to the translation because I thought my French wasn't high enough leveled, but, I was equally confused in English, lol. Once you get a bit further in and get a feel for the sort of book this is (again, basically just overly personal stream of consciousness), it's easier to understand and appreciate.

There are also many sections that wouldn't be out of place in certain Tumblr circles, like this exchange between San Giovanni and the husband of one of their author friends:

"Why do you hate men?" he demanded abruptly of San Giovanni, fixing his heavy gaze upon her.

"I neither love nor hate men," San Giovanni answered amicably. "What I hold against them is the great wrong they have done to women. They are political adversaries whom I want to injure for the good of the cause. Off the battlefield of ideas, I know them little and am indifferent to them." (Vivien 8)

At one point, they also read through some hate mail and (even worse!) letters of admiration they've gotten. Besides several men arguing that Sappho -- excuse me, Psappha -- was into men, one letter talked about how much the writer liked San Giovanni's work and wanted her to send him a photograph. She responds:

"Far from being flattered by masculine praise, I consider it an offense and an insult." (Vivien 35)

I'm really surprised and disappointed that Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney aren't talked about much online. Rarely, someone may repost a line from one of their poems or something, but that's nothing compared to the fandoms you see around other historical figures (although, on second thought, that may be for the best, after all…). But, just imagine the crazy discourse these ladies would get into if they were alive today!

Overall, if you wanted a quick little introduction to Renée Vivien and her whole crew, I think this book would be a pretty good starting point. In that case, though, I'd also recommend reading Karla Jay's The Amazon and the Page (1988) to get extra context about their intertwined messy lives and all their associated drama -- it'll make this book easier to understand and more enjoyable. Quick disclaimer: both are highly flawed individuals...

[Bonus Content: each chapter of the original French versions of this book starts with a little snippet of sheet music excerpts from various piano compositions. Spotify user partynever compiled a playlist of all of them for your listening pleasure (the full pieces, not just the excerpts).]

[Also, while this isn't necessarily related, I just think it's interesting that San Giovanni (who is again, basically an alter ego of Vivien) specifically mentions Mendès' Mephistophela as being her introduction to lesbianism and, so, very precious to her, even if she didn't like how "bourgeois" it was. Another fun tie together to show how interconnected this era was: Natalie Clifford Barney went to the same school that Strachey's Olivia is based on (albeit a bit earlier).]

The Scorpion by Anna Elizabet Weirauch (1919 - 1933) | ★★★★★

A bit of meta to start us off: this is a trilogy of books originally published between 1919 and 1932 in Germany. In the US, they were translated and released first as The Scorpion (which comprised the first and second parts) and The Outcast, and later all together in pulp form as Of Love Forbidden (but this translation apparently really sucked). This is relevant because they were translated by different people and, for some reason, they decided to change the main character’s name, so, for ease of access, I’m just going to refer to her here as “Metta,” yeah? (Lol, "meta" about "Metta.")

We follow Metta, an anxious mess who quickly becomes overly attached to women in her life, and her journey from her restricted, aristocratic childhood to becoming her own independent person. Book one deals with her childhood and adolescence, where she meets Olga Rado and their experiences trying to run away together and the fallout of that. Book two has Metta moving out to the big city, Berlin, and making friends with a group of fellow "inverts," but ultimately feels that she doesn't belong (see the additional reading if you aren't familiar with that term). And, in book three, she moves to a small house in the country and (after a few intrusions from an arrogant, sadistic woman) finds herself content in isolation with a few friends and her pea plants.

To be honest, I think this was written for a very specific type of person living in 1920’s Germany. There are pages and pages where characters just discuss their favorite German Romanticism authors and other culturally specific things that I just don’t have the context for and, often, Weirauch would off-handedly mention something that would send me off into a Wiki rabbit hole for hours – but, also, I don’t think I’ve ever personally related more to a book in my life!

The main characters were really fun! Metta has such over-the-top internal reactions to everything, but, externally, due to her aristocratic upbringing, she just keeps a stiff upper lip while thinking about how much she wants to jump out the window after an awkward situation or whatever. At one point, Olga Rado talks about how much she loves a certain author (Fraulein Günderrode) that she wants to astral project and meet her, because they were certainly meant to be together! Damn the centuries between them!! (Relatable.) Honestly, Olga really reminds me of a mixture of Ms. Frizzle and an old Russian Lit professor I had, a couple years ago. Also, there's a lesbian couple in the second book – everyone parties at their house, and Nora is portrayed as the "queen of the castle" and Sophie, her loyal page. I love them and want what they have someday…

I really, truly would recommend reading this for yourself, honestly, not even just as a “historically important lesbian book,” but just as a really good coming-of-age novel (with a female protag, no less!). Please, I want to be able to talk about this with someone!!

Related Reading:

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (1949) | ★★★☆☆

We follow the titular Olivia reminiscing about her experiences at a girls' school in France and the joys and sorrows of one's first love. In the first chapter, she talks about how after you've experienced it once, you spend the rest of your life trying to chase that high and analyzing yourself, trying to decide whether you're actually in love or just emulating some poetry you've read or something – whereas that first time, you're genuinely, uncontrollably experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion. I thought that was interesting.

Looking beyond that, the school she's at was opened by Mlle Julie and Mlle Cara. They had always been very close, but their relationship has been strained recently due to the addition of some new teachers (as well as Olivia, herself…). Mostly because the teacher closest to Mlle Cara, Frau Riesener, has been purposefully trying to sow the seeds of jealousy and mistrust, but there are definitely big issues with their relationship, as well. Everyone takes sides on which they like best and the girls make bets on whether new students will be a "Cara-ite" or "Julie-ite." Cara cries whenever another one picks Julie over her.

After one meeting with Mlle Julie, Olivia falls in love with her and they have long one-on-one discussions in the library after class about poetry and literature. During one of these meetings, in a fit of blind passion, Olivia takes Mlle Julie's hand and kisses her, and it kinda snowballs from there.

The last straw comes when Mlle Cara sees Mlle Julie going to Olivia's room one night – they decide to officially separate (which is handled like a divorce), with Mlle Cara taking over the school and Mlle Julie moving to Canada and opening another there. However, two days after the papers have all been signed, Mlle Cara turns up dead, an apparent overdose. It's officially considered an accident, but…

Mlle Julie is devastated. The light is extinguished from her eyes. She treats Olivia coldly as she says her goodbyes and dies shortly after moving to Canada.

Again, it is definitely more explicit than you would expect a fairly mainstream book about lesbians from the 1940's to be. On top of Julie and Cara being described like a married couple, there are lots of other lesbian affairs and loves going around the school – the only ones Olivia, the narrator, really seems to care about involve Mlle Julie, though, so we see her dancing with students, kissing them on the neck, etc. Also, Mlle Julie's TA (just referred to as Signora) is also deeply in love with her, and runs off with her to Canada. I'm not actually sure if Julie knows, though, and Signora is perfectly fine just taking care of her and being beside her.

Overall, I just didn't really get that into it. It's a bit too short and written a bit too distantly for me, I think. (The whole underage thing also kinda freaks me out, uhh…)

Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon (1957) | ★★★★★

This is technically the first in a series of five pulp novels, but they can stand alone, so I’m going to talk about them separately, yeah? In this one, we follow Laura and the course of her relationship with her roommate, Beth. They have to keep their relationship a secret, to the point of fake dating men to avoid suspicion:

She needed a man just then as insurance against a dozen ills. Charlie stood for Laura-likes-men, men-like-Laura, everything-is-right-with-Laura-so-look-no-further.

It's really interesting (if sometimes extremely uncomfortable!) to see the cultural differences between the 1950's and today. A notable example is how differently consent is treated – it really is a lot like the song, "Hey Baby, It's Cold Outside," where, due to strict moral codes and shame, men will make and continue to make sexual advances while women are expected to politely refuse and everything just laughs this off and thinks it's cute…

Another interesting thing is how they seem to view lesbian relationships as having a "boy" and a "girl," an "active" partner and a "passive" partner… It's not quite a "butch / femme" dynamic, because, here, the roles change relative to who you're with rather being than a specific, fixed identity. (This comes up more in the next book, though.) Still, there's a fear of "looking queer:"

Laura sat up and pulled away from her. "I don't care what he thinks. I don't care, I'm not ashamed. Are we doing something dirty or wicked to be ashamed of? Are we, Beth?"

"No," She shut her eyes and said slowly. But other people don't understand that, Laur. We have to keep it secret – absolutely secret. People will say we're queer–"

"But we're not! I know what queer is. I've seen people–"

"Laura, we're just as queer as the ones who look queer," Beth said sharply, looking at her. "We’re doing the same damn thing. Now, let's not kid ourselves. Let's be honest with each other, at least." Her own deception shut her up.

Honestly, I really loved the characters, their relationship, the tenderness (and eroticism – like, this is weird to talk about, but the kissing scenes here are much better than modern lesbian fiction!). The ending is kind of bittersweet yet hopeful – with them breaking up and Laura moving to the big city, New York, to better connect with the gay community out there. I really would recommend reading this! It's obvious Bannon put her whole heart and soul, hopes and anxieties into her writing.

Related Reading:

  • The Ladder: a lesbian newsletter also from the late fifties that gives more context about what life was like for lesbians back then

I Am a Woman by Ann Bannon (1959) | ★★★★★

The second book in the Beebo Brinker series. This installment follows Laura settling into life in New York, getting introduced to the gay scene out there, and falling helplessly in love with her new (straight?) roommate, Marcie.

Honestly, I cried constantly while reading this, both out of happiness, sadness, fear – the highs of learning that there are other people like her out there, the lows of her basically speedrunning ruining every personal relationship she has… God. It also talks a lot about the pain of unrequited love with straight people and performing little acts of service, hoping without hope that somehow that will change things, even though you know it won't (which unfortunately is so relatable…)

We also meet the eponymous Beebo Brinker in this installment and she's great, such a little shit! Laura absolutely hates her from the moment they first met, but often runs off to her house to "let off steam" whenever things get too unbearable around Marcie… It also talks about the whole "butch / femme" bar culture (without using those specific words) and how butch / gender non-conforming women were seen and treated by society.

Again, just like the first book, I love the characters and their dynamics! …And, again, a lot of uncomfortable bits.

[click here for spoilers / a warning]

I've been trying to avoid giving warnings, but this one is just so big and weird… There's a whole Freudian bit here where Laura's talking to her estranged father, who hates her because there was a boating accident when she was a child and he could only save Laura and not her mother. Then he starts talking about how much Laura reminds him of her mother and tries to kiss her… She bashes him over the head with an ash tray and runs away. There's also the implication that he "made her gay" by being a distant father or something? What the hell was that??

Overall, it was still quite a good read, honestly!

The Marquise and the Novice by Victoria Ramstetter (1983) | ★★★☆☆

It’s a cute enough story about a young woman, Kathleen Thorn, who briefly leaves her convent to work as a governess and English tutor to Raoul, the son of la Marquise Anneliese de Rochelle. At first, Kathleen is really intimidated by la Marquise, but eventually they grow close after many meals, games of chess, and horseback riding lessons. Also, she learns the secrets of the house, ranging from how the townspeople are all wary of la Marquise (because they think she’s a witch who killed her husband) to all the secret lesbian rendezvous occurring in and around the estate.

Honestly, I bought this book because I wanted to own something from this specific indie publishing company, the Naiad Press, more than anything. Like, the pacing's a little funky in places and the tone can be weird, but, also, it's the kind of story where the author's mother is a featured review on the back, y'know? Even the preface is a neat piece of history, where Ramstetter thanks various women's groups and members of local feminist book clubs for encouraging her while writing. It makes me nostalgic for a time I never knew…

Related Reading:

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018) | ★★★★★

I told my mom about this book, how it's about a woman, Keiko Furukura, who is likely autistic and bases her entire life and personality around her job at a conveninence store. "Oh, that's really sad," she said. But I see myself in this book to such an uncomfortable extent, honestly...

The major theme of the story is Keiko having trouble understanding how the world works, why people do the things they do, and what others expect from her. By strictly following the store manual instructing her how to greet customers and reminding her about the importance of self maintainence, as well as observing her coworker's speaking patterns and clothing preferences, she is able to basically assimilate and become "a normal cog in society." This method was working well enough for her for 18 years, but then people started asking questions: have you ever been in love? When are you planning on getting married? Are you really just going to be a part time convenience store worker for the rest of your life?

Around the time this starts, a weird incel-type guy, Shiraha, starts working at the convenience store and promptly gets fired for stalking random women, desperate to get married. Keiko starts talking to the guy about how they're both outcasts from society and how society has no patience for those who don't conform. Then, she suggests maybe they should get married, just to give off the appearance of normalcy and appease others. When she mentions that she's living with him (or as she put it, "adopted" him like a pet), everyone is so happy it takes her off guard. None of her coworkers are actually working, they just keep talking incessantly about their dreamed up conceptions of her "love life"! Why are you wasting time on this foolishness when there's stock to be put away?!

There's one particular section towards the end (I guess this is a spoiler if that matters to you) that really gets me, when Keiko's sister comes to visit after hearing the "good news," only to be disappointed upon hearing her explanation:

"Will you ever be cured, Keiko...?" She looked down, not even bothering to remonstrate with me. "I simply can't take it anymore. How can we make you normal? How much longer must I put up with this?"


"Ever since you started working at the convenience store, you've gotten weirder and weirder. The way you talk, the way you yell out at home as if you were still in the store, and even your facial expressions are weird. I'm begging you. Please try to be normal!" She began crying even harder.

"So, will I be cured if I leave the convenience store? Or am I better staying working there? And should I kick Shiraha out? Or am I better with him here? Look, I'll do whatever you say. I don't mind either way, so please just instruct me in specific terms."

"I don't know anymore..."

She kept crying uncontrollably without responding to my request. Lost for something to do I took a custard pudding out of the refrigerator and ate it as I watched her sitting there sobbing.

This is perhaps overly personal, but I can't begin to tell you how many awkward conversations I've had with my mom, about her being concerned about me not reaching the "proper markers of society." Once, I told her I was talking to a guy online and she was so happy -- "Oh! Do you like him? Are you sending pictures back and forth? Y'know you can always reinvent who you are online, you aren't stuck with just being like this!" She seemed very disappointed when I told her we were just having in depth conversations about sexism and gender roles... (For context, besides, y'know, all of this, I'm also not out...)

Similarly, I got a job to hopefully "become a functioning member of society," but I have a coworker who keeps asking me, "Do you really want to keep working here all your life? Why not go back to college?" People keep telling me to do different things and I'm very confused... All of this angst is essentially why I started this site, even -- to try to look at how other women in history have dealt with similar feelings of being out of place...

Overall, this was a great read, even if it made me feel uncomfortably seen. Also, I really liked the author's sense of humor and Keiko's bluntness.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (2020) | ★★★★★

...Oh, wow, fuck, okay. I mentioned that I had started reading this on my Bookbug page, but then, like, immediately after writing that, I read the rest in one sitting. And then had to take a couple of days to digest it to even try to write a semi-coherent review. I first heard about this book quite a while ago from Cabbage's review, and aside from that, pretty much went in blind.

Earthlings is pretty much a deeper dive into themes explored in Convenience Store Woman, like how society wants to force you into being a productive member of society by having a "worthwhile" career and / or having children. The main characters believe themselves to be aliens because they just don't fit into the roles that society / the Factory wants them to fulfill.

At first, they try to do whatever they can to force themselves to assimilate: for example, Natsuki dissociates to try to cope with being abused and Yuu is an extreme people pleaser. Natsuki even gets married to try to get everyone off her back, meeting her husband on a site called "" (which translates to "to slip through, to make one's way through quickly") -- which is reminiscent of Keiko and Shiraha's situation in Convenience Store Woman, but actually much healthier, with them sharing chores and bills and basically just being platonic roommates. No matter how hard they try to be "normal," though, the Factory's pressure to reproduce never lets up! Finally, they decide to flee human society entirely and live as the aliens they truly must be...

[click here for spoilers!]

While Cabbage did refer to the story as "wild" and "unhinged," those words have really been diluted by Tumblr, so this... wasn't what I was expecting at all, lol. I thought it'd be more like CSW, but, apparently, *that's* the outlier in Murata's work and she tends to do more surreal stuff like this. I linked to an article about her below which also gives a bit more very helpful context, by the way (like she actually did work in a convenience store for 18 years, and only stopped when a "fan" started stalking her). Anyway, I feel that simply saying "wtf the fuck did i just read" or "what drugs was she on when writing this??!1!! 0_o" or whatever people are saying on Goodreads isn't a useful review, so I'll try to go into more detail.

Natsuki's abuse and subsequent dissociation (and everything was comes with it) was well-written and, again, viscerally uncomfortable. Particularly, how she's been raised to have such a low or even non-existent amount of self-esteem, constantly putting herself down or pretending she doesn't exist so her sister and parents can be a happy family unit without her, and how her family and friends either don't believe her when she tells them her teacher has been sexually abusing her, or say it's her fault and she should just get over it. The effect that this all has on her is heartbreaking...

In regards to the ending... my first thought was to compare it to French Decadent novels, if only because that's my sole experience with this sort of thing, but that isn't really what's going on here at all. While they both deal with splitting away from traditional morals / society, the Decadents and Libertines were more interested in hedonism and fucked up sex, while the Popinpobopians reject sex entirely and decide to "reproduce" by "infecting" humans with their beliefs, instead. Like, arguably, you could say Tomoya's whole "I want to fuck my grandfather!"-thing is hedonist-esque, but really, it's just a symbolic thing for him due to being so taboo, rather than an actual matter of lust. Also, to be honest, I couldn't handle the Sadism in Decadent novels, so the lack of any of that was a huge relief to me. Their divorce ceremony was interesting and played well into the theme of survival, especially when it came back up at the end.

In summary, this is a niche book; it's not going to appeal to everyone and that's okay. That said, I'm fascinated by Murata's whole vibe, and now I really want to pick up her Life Ceremonies, too!

Related Reading:


The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer (2011) | ★★☆☆☆

A lesbian Hades & Persephone retelling. Whereas I feel that Captive in the Underworld kinda failed on the romance front but did pretty well as a mythical retelling, this book failed on both fronts, unfortunately. I feel like this interpretation of Hades came off as too soft and motherly (she was even described as "motherly" in the text!) that not only did it not seem authentic to the mythical character of Hades, but also ruined the romance between her and Persephone – they just didn't feel like equals (also, they're still each other's aunt / niece -- it's just bizarre because the book is trying so hard to be "wholesome" or whatever...).

The presentation of morals also seemed very heavy handed in this story. Like, I think Diemer tries to show Zeus as the physical embodiment of the patriarchy and how everything bad in the world is all either directly Zeus' fault or due to his influence – besides outright rape on multiple occasions, he's also personally responsible for every lingering doubt in people's minds, for every war that's ever been declared, etc. I don't necessarily think that's a bad metaphor on its own, but, considering the way he's defeated:

[click here for spoilers!]After a number of peptalks from various characters, Persephone finally stands up to Zeus and wraps him up with vines to the point that he is humiliated and begs for mercy. His ego is apparently so broken that Olympus itself (the condition of which is tied to his sense of self-esteem) falls from the sky – he later dies offscreen and is sent to Tartarus (basically Hell). The final battle lasts all of two pages and everything wrong with the world is magically fixed with him gone…

It's just so anticlimactic! There's also such a preoccupation with the idea of being a "kind, just god," which is literally a Christian ideal and not relevant in Greek Mythology. Honestly, the majority of the book feels like an extended afterschool special with exaggeratedly black and white morals – like, you would normally excuse this by saying it's made for a young adult audience, but the rest is weird graphic sex and explicit rape scenes, so I have no idea…

The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (2019) | ★★★☆☆

I don't necessarily think this was a bad book or anything. The plot is interesting enough, with a rich, widowed countess sponsoring a woman as she's translating a recent scientific book and them slowly growing closer. It also talks about how women were discriminated against in early 19th century England and the ways women would work together to get around that – like opening their own literary societies and publishing houses, employing each other, etc. I also appreciated the discussions about how women's art (like embroidery) was considered inherently lesser to men's art, and how women were structurally excluded from places of higher learning and their work misattributed to men. Additionally, the writing is very pretty and descriptive with phrases like, "her touch is like the warm golden silky rays of an embroidered sunset." I think it would be a really good choice of reading for a feminist book club, honestly!

But, first and foremost, I bought this as a lesbian romance novel and I just thought the romantic aspects were dull. Repeatedly as I was reading it, I found myself thinking, "This is too cute and soft and happy…" And that's kind of an issue that permeates through the rest of the book. Like, the ending, where it's revealed

[click here for spoilers!] that Oléron, the highly respected French astronomer and mathematician whose work Lucy has been translating, is actually a woman, and that makes the men realize they've been wrong to exclude women from the Polite Science Society this whole time.

Everything that you want to happen in this book happens – the women emerge, victorious and in love, having successfully defeated the evils of patriarchal oppression! It feels like it was designed to particularly appeal to modern day readers rather than ring true for the actual setting. That's kind of just nit picking, but I do think that it makes the book undermine its own message and that's why I rated it kinda low.

Captive in the Underworld by Lianyu Tan (2021) | ★★★☆☆

A lesbian dark romance retelling of Hades & Persephone. There were some things that I think the book did really well and some that were horrible and made me extremely uncomfortable. My biggest issue was the romance as a whole: namely, the weird Stockholm Syndrome aspects…

Aside from that, though, the actual prose was very enjoyable and I appreciated how much detail went into the worldbuilding. Tan ties together other myths and classical characters, like Theseus and Pirithous kidnapping Persephone and Daedalus and his nephew Perdix desperately trying to out invent each other, as well as detailed descriptions of ancient clothing and foods. I also am just such a sucker for coming of age stories and it's so satisfying to see Persephone really find herself over the course of the story – not only does she go from a child who was beaten into submission into a grown, resourceful woman who sets her own boundaries, we also see how she changes the world around her as she grows and begins making decisions as a co-leader of the Underworld!

I also found Demeter and Hades (besides the entirety of the romance arc!) to be interesting characters, with a certain godly indifference to human morality that I've found lacking in other mythical retellings. That's why I think the way that romance is approached in this story is that much more upsetting, because of how the narrative seems to try to soften Hades' actions or even justify them (she's just so lonely and in love! she waited as long as she could, but—!). I think the story would've been better if these things were left raw, rather than having a convoluted ending that somehow leads to a happily ever after.

Comics / Manga

Tomie by Junji Ito (1987 - 2000) | ★★★★☆

Besides the one short story from the meme ("This is my hole, it was made for me!"), this is my first actual venture into the world of Junji Ito. There are also a lot of screencaps and memes circulating around this series, so when I saw an omnibus on sale at a local bookstore, I picked it up.

Before we get into anything else, I want to say: looking at the series as purely a weird eldritch horror sort of thing about a weird teenage girl who can't die, it is admitted very well executed and enjoyable! It's really bizarre and imaginative and the art style's really unique and visually interesting. Tomie's trademark sadism and misandry were also fun!

It seemed like a lot of reviewers on Goodreads were complaining about every chapter being too similar, but I thought the way Ito explored different aspects of Tomie lore -- how she ruined different people's lives, even from them just finding a couple of locks of her hair, and her interactions with "other Tomies" and the implications of her regenerations and whatnot -- were all pretty cool, honestly. It kinda has a similar over the top, 'oh, I guess this is happening now'-vibe that you get with Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, where you're just kinda brought along for the ride.

With those formalities out of the way, we can get into the fun bit: interpretation! When I first set out to write this review, I had a completely different outlook on this story. The first draft started with a link to this Onion article about turning off the feminist part of your brain in order to enjoy things and I struggled a lot with how you're supposed to approach that -- where, on one hand, you like something, but it still has certain ~unsavory implications~. At first, I was trying to just ignore my instinctual discomfort at frankly the whole premise of the series and just "enjoy the ride," so to speak, but I ended up crashing and started looking up other people's interpretations.

So many questions: Are we supposed to sympathize with Tomie and her being constantly being victimized by men? Or is this a criticism of the fragile male ego and their inability to accept the word no? Or is Tomie the personification of men's stereotyped view of women -- whether as purposeful satire or not? Is Tomie a figure to look up to, to fear, to envy, to hate? The book itself doesn't seem to contain a definitive answer.

In an interview with Grape Japan, Junji Ito talks about how his initial inspiration for Tomie was a classmate suddenly dying in a traffic accident when he was younger and how he kept thinking he might suddenly show up again. He wrote the original oneshot for a girl's horror magazine, Gekkan Halloween, and ended up changing a few things, like having a female protagonist. When asked why Tomie was so popular with that specific audience, he replied that, as well as her immortality, it seems like they really envied her sense of freedom. He also says:

Ito: Some girls even wrote that they were aspiring to become Tomie (laughs).

I think this is an interesting perspective; it kinda leans into how today true crime is very popular with basically the same demographic. Not only would this sort of story seem to have a similar appeal, but we also see the victim "fighting back" and, again, her extremely self-confident attitude / outright superiority complex is also very appealing and stands out against other female characters in popular media.

How else can we look at this story? I think that Reddit user u/xiaoyu_22 has a really good explanation (archived)

of some of the different interpretations of Tomie. Xiao starts out talking about the whole Madonna / Whore complex and how women are demonized in media and harshly punished for stepping even a little out of line, then discusses victim blaming and how desperate people are to "justify" the horrible things that happen to women. She continues to say there are two major responses you can have to this:

  1. the real monsters in this story are the men who harass and abuse Tomie, viewing her as just an object, as well as the women who just see her as "an uptight bitch" who deserves what she gets -- in other words, society "created" Tomie, so to speak, and everyone just projects the worst aspects of "femininity" onto her and treats her accordingly,
  2. or, as seems to be most popular with horrible Reddit men, believing Tomie is “asking for it” or “is a terrible person who provokes people to do this,” that she is simply a succubus, an inhuman monster.

If you continue to look at r/junjiito, you see a similar pattern of women relating to Tomie and/or feeling bad for her, while men consistently say the most horrific, vile things, which just affirms Xiao's hypothesis. Also, unsurprisingly, the arguments they make against Tomie seem suspiciously similar to the arguments made against Amber Heard and other similar victims of abuse…

In summary, I really did like the series, overall; the different bizarre scenarios and body horror were cool, and Tomie is obviously a really fun character to read about. My favorite chapters were probably "Painter" and "Little Finger." :3 And, again, one of my favorite hobbies is looking up at the clouds and thinking excessively about the world, and this series definitely didn't fail to deliver on that!

On that note, if anyone happens to have any Tomie theories or thoughts they'd like to share or wants to discuss the series, please feel free to drop by my guestbook or any of the other links above! I'm still not really sure what my personal take away is yet, but I think it's really interesting to hear what other people think!

Related Reading:

Gunjou by Ching Nakamura (2007 - 2012) | ★★★★☆

This was bizarre... I read it all in one sitting and cried multiple times.

It's about a woman who, seeing no other option, asks her lesbian 'friend' who was desperately in love with her to murder her abusive husband, and their subsequent experiences on the run from the law. It also talks about the tangled webs of their lives before and after the murder and how it affects others around them.

The main women obviously come to care a lot for each other, but are horrible about actually talking about their feelings and lie and lash out a lot. They also manipulate each other and violently attack each other at multiple points. I feel like this is the sort of vibe Killing Eve was trying to go for with both characters dragging each other deeper into hell, but still unable to break away.

It was incredibly fucked up and both women are incredibly flawed people... I really liked it, honestly! I'm sad that it doesn't seem to be on many people's radars.

Renai Idenshi XX (Love DNA XX) by Eiki Eiki & Mikiyo Tsuda (2009 - 2013) | ★★☆☆☆

The premise is pretty interesting: after all the men have died, the remaining all female population is split into two classes, Adams and Eves, to maintain the social hierarchy. Relationships between two Adams are forbidden and, if discovered, result in a duel where the loser is 'demoted' to an Eve. It does have the 'yaoi but yuri' vibe going on, and the main couple are pretty cute together...

Other than that, unfortunately, the plot is shaky at best and the pacing is garbage. There's also a lot of weird fan service-- like why would you even do this?? It's pretty short with 17 chapters, but I'm not really sure if it's worth reading, honestly.

Her Tale of Shim Cheong by seri & biwan (2017 - 2020) | ★★★★★

Based off a Korean folktale, this retelling focuses on Shim Cheong (the impoverished daughter of a blind man whose mother died shortly after she was born, leaving Cheong to take care of both her father and herself from a young age) and the young new wife of a local minister who falls sick shortly after their marriage. Both are simply trying to survive in this world in the only ways they know, but their involvement in each other's lives fundamentally changes them both.

A simplified version of the original story can be found here and a clip of a p'ansori performance (a traditional Korean form of narrative singing accompanied by drums) can be found here. In summary, a daughter sells herself as a human sacrifice to be married to the Dragon King in hopes of helping her blind father be able to see again. The dragon King is so touched by her actions that he sends her back to earth as an empress; there, she holds a party for all the blind men in the country to see her dad again. So overjoyed upon being reunited with his daughter, the father opens his eyes and can now see. The major theme of the original story was filial piety, a foundational aspect of Confucianism which states that children should do whatever they possibly can to ensure their parents' comfort and health (and so much more -- look at the recommended readings for more info).

In contrast, this webcomic is a feminist retelling -- while I've unfortunately grown to loathe that phrase, it actually is fitting here! Not only are all the female characters fleshed out and three dimensional, we really get to look into their psychology and see their outlook on the world and the motivations behind their actions. It also really digs into various aspects of how women were mistreated by society, criticized while men were praised, held to impossible standards in regards to beauty, etiquette, etc.

One of the most touching parts was when the main characters talk about how women are either completely forgotten by history or only remembered as "dutiful daughters" and "perfect wives." To really hammer this in, the audience never actually learns the minister's wife's name, she is simply referred to as "the minister's wife" or "Madam" or some other term of status -- it's even mentioned that many women at the time never received personal names at all. In response, they swear to at least remember each other as they really were, if no one else will… (╥﹏╥)

There is so much more I could say, but I don't want to spoil anything more than that because it really is such a beautiful experience, both in terms of storytelling and art! On top of that, the romance is very sweet, as well! I'd highly highly highly recommend it! <3

(P.S. - Be sure to read the epilogue and side stories, also!)

Recommended Reading:

  • "A Critique on Traditional Korean Family Institutions: Kim Wönju's 'Death of a Girl'" (1999) by Yung-Hee Kim: this article discusses a couple of feminist short stories written in Korea in the 1920's, criticizing filial piety. In Kim Wönju's "Death of a Girl," for example, a young girl commits suicide to avoid being sold as a concubine to an older man by her parents. A particularly telling quote:

    Her choice of suicide is the ultimate blow, because it transgresses the first article in the Confucian hyo principle, which prohibits self-injury, since one's body is given by one's parents and therefore is not one's own. Seen in this light, suicide is one drastic form of rejection of parental authority to undermine its relevance and validity. It also may be seen as the last weapon of the entrapped, or "the politics of the power of the powerless, or resistance in the face of the radical absence of choice." In this sense, Myöngsuk personifies a revolutionary ideological challenge, which subverts parental hegemony. (Kim 28)


Mädchen in Uniform (1931) | ★★★★☆

Set in the later years of the Weimar Republic, this film follows fourteen year old Manuela and her experiences at a girl's boarding school. All the other girls claim to be in love with their kind, affectionate governess, Fräulein von Bernberg, but Manuela becomes particularly attached.

While celebrating after a class play, Manuela gets drunk and proclaims her love for Fräulein von Bernberg in front of the whole school. The headmistress is disgusted and is about to have her expelled on the spot when she receives word that the princess is arriving later the same day. To avoid making a scene, the headmistress instead decides that everyone should just shun Manuela for the rest of her time at the school to teach her a lesson. Fräulein von Bernberg goes against this order and calls Manuela to her room to comfort her and gently explain the situation – that she is going to be moved to a different dorm and they won't see each other again.

Shortly after this conversation, Manuela goes missing. The other girls frantically search the whole dorm for her while Fräulein von Bernberg is chastised by the headmistress for insubordination. Eventually, the girls find her: at the top of the staircase, ready to jump… They run up and pull her back over the railing. The headmistress is initially angry at them for disobeying as well, until Fräulein von Bernberg explains that they prevented a tragedy that would haunt both of them for the rest of their lives.

The cinematography was interesting with frequent headshots at different angles (like, at one point, while the headmistress is angry at Manuela, the camera is looking up at her to show her as more imposing) and stuff like the scene at the very end where the headmistress just quietly walks off into the distance after being told off – a lot of symbolism!

The ages in story are a little, uh… but, actually, the lead actresses (Hertha Thiele and Dorothea Wieck) were the same age, 23, when the film was made. In fact, of the few actresses whose ages I could find, it seemed like they were all in their mid-twenties or older… But, especially compared to modern shows about teenage girls, they weren't sexualized at all which is a nice change of pace.

In fact, typically, teen girls are shown from a very unsympathetic outsider's perspective, but here I was surprised by how lively and authentic they were, honestly! Even though books and magazines and most forms of personal expression frankly are banned by the extreme authoritarian Prussian headmistress, the girls still find ways to smuggle things in and be themselves – like, they were very goofy and frequently mocked authority figures once they turned their backs, and one girl, Ilse, has a shrine to her favorite movie star hidden behind a piece of cloth in her locker.

I think it was an engaging movie, overall! I was crying by the end – anything about suicide always gets me… Also, Dorothea Wieck (Fräulein von Bernberg) has a very pretty and expressive face!

Related Reading:

  • "Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany" by Meghan C. Paradis: talks about how lesbians viewed themselves and how society viewed them at the time. The article also talks about the significance of suicide in gay and lesbian media.
  • While not specifically related to this film, I'd also recommend Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto (1936). It describes the rise of fascism in the Weimar Republic with a backdrop of stage acting, theatre, and interpersonal drama. I also wanted to bring this up because Klaus' sister Erika Mann stars in the film, as one of the teachers.

The Handmaiden (2016) | ★★★★★

In Japanese-occupied Korea, a pickpocket teams up with a conartist to try to scam a rich Japanese woman out of her fortune...

I'll get the non-spoilery things out of the way first: the set design, cinematography, costume design, etc were all amazing. The ways certain lines were repeated in different contexts through the film and the way the actors switched back and forth between Korean and Japanese was also really interesting! I also loved how the story was presented in different chapters -- it really keeps you guessing! Many sex scenes, but they were plot-relevant and fairly tasteful, especially compared to most films like this. And I think that's all I can say without going into more details...

[[spoilers start here]]

Sook-hee being a fatally earnest thief, while Hideko is actually tricking her all along, even to the point of stabbing herself with a knife to make it look like she and the conman actually consumated their marriage. And how Hideko drugged him and left him to be captured by her uncle's men and tortured while she went back and rescued Sook-hee from the mental hospital they planned to leave her at... Like, honestly, even if it just stopped at part one and the whole movie was just Sook-hee taking care of Hideko, I would've been fine with that, but the backstabbings and double-double crossings -- fantastic!

Also, omg, I love a good revenge story! The scene where Hideko shows Sook-hee her uncle's library that he groomed her to read and sometimes even act out since childhood -- where she opened up a book with a weird print of a woman and an octopus... she pauses for a second, then asks, "This is what he makes you read to him?" and rips it up! And goes around the whole library, ripping up all the books and paintings, squirting paint on them, throwing them in water, etc. After a while, Hideko joins in, as well. *chef kiss* So good.