Passing Strange, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Netgalley; released 24th January 2017
Passing Strange is a lovely novella which takes its own sweet time. As it opens, you expect one story, one protagonist… as it continues to unfold, you see that you were wrong. In my case, I didn’t mind that bait-and-switch at all, but I imagine some people will find that shift in POV a little jarring. Though I didn’t mind, I did find myself briefly wrong-footed by it.
The novella is set in San Fransisco, 1940, among a community of queer women whose lives intersect. I’ve seen a review where someone felt that the takeaway from this book was “yeah, yeah, we know gays back then had a hard time”. There’s that, of course, but there’s also that community, and that’s what I really enjoyed. I don’t really want to say too much about it; I think it’s best if the story unfolds itself for the reader in its own time.
I’ve also read a complaint that the speculative aspect isn’t integral. It is, but it’s subtle; the fact that it’s there, quietly but throughout, allows the ending that otherwise couldn’t be mysterious or touching or bittersweet. It’s an ordinary sort of magic, in the way that the women use it — it’s a tool that happens to be to hand.
I enjoyed the story a lot. And it’s another of the Tor.com novellas that feels like it was meant to be exactly this length, no longer, no shorter.
Dreadnought, April Daniels
Received to review via Netgalley; released January 2017
Dreadnought is an #OwnVoices book featuring a trans girl whose dreams come true when she takes on the mantle of a superhero at the moment of his death. Things don’t go easily for Danny, but nonetheless, she navigates being finally seen as a girl (in school, with her parents, with her best friend) and suddenly having superpowers. It’s a whole new world for her in both ways and I love the way the story makes you feel that. At the start, she hides in an alley to paint her toenails; at the end, well… spoilers. But suffice it to say that she’s pretty comfortable in her skin and her identity.
It’s not always the easiest read, because it’s not pure wish fulfilment. Though Danny’s transformation is outwardly perfect, she wouldn’t be able to have children, for example. And the other superheroes around her aren’t the people you’d hope they would be. Scarlet Witch — sorry, I mean, Graywytch is a trans-exclusionary feminist, while Carapace is a douche who can’t get her pronouns right and even a queer member of the team puts his foot in it. Doctor Impossible and Valkyrja are pretty awesome, though, and a young superhero called Calamity who doesn’t fall in line with the Avengers (sorry, the Legion) also befriends her.
All in all, the plot is pretty pacey and fun, and it’s not all about Danny’s transformation. It’s also about responsibility and handling any big life change, about figuring out where you belong in the world. Danny’s family aren’t great at it, and nor is her best friend, and there’s generally plenty of transphobic stuff that might be quite hard to read. But ultimately, I found it more fun than it was upsetting — and anyway, upsetting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just something the vulnerable might want to know going in.
The Prince of the Moon, Megan Derr
Received to review via Netgalley
The Prince of the Moon is a fairytale-like story of princes, queens and curses, along with true love, a pure heart, and other such trappings of the genre. The difference being that the witch burning may not be entirely justified — certainly there are at least two good witches in the story — and the people who have been cursed may just deserve it somewhat. Oh, and the romantic couple are both men, but that’s becoming more common lately and honestly didn’t feel like the point of the story. Which is kind of exciting, actually! M/M fairytales which aren’t just about changing genders, but also about interrogating other aspects of the story, like the wicked witch and her son.
It’s pretty short and mostly sweet, and the romance feels a little bit rushed… but on the other hand, of course it does: this is coming out of fairytales, after all. The only thing I honestly don’t get is why Solae keeps trying to help his family, when it’s fairly clear no one has ever stretched out a hand to him. He’s a good person, and yet he’s learned that goodness all out of nowhere.
Then again: it’s a fairytale. Who taught Rapunzel to be good?
The sex scenes are, well, not terrible or laughable or awkward, but neither were they necessary to the story. I just skipped past them, given lack of interest. But there is sex in this book, if that matters to you.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I picked up The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet after much urging, expecting to read a chapter or two and then find time to do something else. Then I read the whole thing through. People who liken it to Firefly are right (only with more diversity). People who mention the loveable characters and LGBT relationships are also right. People who say it’s a feel-good sci-fi are right. And yeah, people who complain that it’s definitely soft SF are also right: this is about people who happen to be in space, not about people in space, if that makes sense.
It depends what you’re looking for. For me, all of that is exactly my cup of tea. Not that I drink tea. My cup of hot chocolate, perhaps.
Not all the characters are loveable, or faultless: that would be the wrong impression to take from this. Instead, they’re all understandable, and even the alien ones have, well, you can’t call it humanity… but compassion, decency. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is just lovely: negotiating around the fact of their differences, while finding common ground. The same goes for Jenks and Lovelace. I love the differences of the aliens, the fact that they do have different sensibilities to the humans. I’d happily read more of the adventures of almost every single character here (long may they fly together).
The only complaint I have about this book is that all the tensions, all the plot entanglements, seem to dissolve very easily. Things turn out more or less how you’d hope, every single time, and with barely time to get worried about it. It reads more like a serial in that sense — a burst of tension to make you read the next installment, with the overall arc being somewhat backgrounded for most of it. It makes things seem a little too easy at times.
All the same, I found it very enjoyable, and I’m eager to pick up A Closed and Common Orbit. Thankfully, I did get it on one of my trips through London, since the bookshop I usually go to in Belgium has no plans to stock or even order it.
A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson
Received to review via Netgalley; published 26th October 2016
I want to like A Taste of Honey, just as I wanted to love The Sorceror of the Wildeeps. There’s some fascinating world building in the back of this, and some beautiful, lyrical, sensual language. And there’s LGBT characters! And the cover looks awesome! It actually gives me more of the background I wanted from the other novella, and the relationship was also much more up-front; obvious from the start.
Knowing other people really enjoy both Wilson’s novellas for Tor.com, I guess I just have to include it’s a case of “it’s not the book, it’s me”. It’s harder to even put my finger on what I didn’t like about this one — it just felt so disjointed, so opaque.
It’s a shame, but unless I hear something very different, I probably won’t read Wilson’s work again. It just doesn’t work for me.
Fair Chance, Josh Lanyon
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 1st March 2017
Fair Chance is a follow-up to other books featuring Elliot and Tucker, Fair Game and Fair Play. As such, no wonder I wanted to get my hands on it! I enjoy the relationship between Elliot and Tucker. The lack of stereotyping in their relationship is refreshing. It doesn’t hurt that I also like the background characters around them. Elliot’s dad Roland is a key figure, for example. Elliot and Roland still have a fascinating bond, despite the events of the previous book.
The emotional connections feel real, and the mystery feels urgent. Particularly in this book, where Tucker is the one in real danger. I enjoy that though he’s stereotypically masculine, he expresses his feelings more than Elliot. He’s the one more prepared to discuss and compromise and figure things out. And better, Elliot is beginning to really trust this. The doubts are still there, but he’s getting used to the idea he can rely on Tucker. The deepening emotional closeness adds to the urgency.
Like I said, development.
It also feels good that at the end of the book, Elliot gets a shot at going back to the life he wanted originally. I did enjoy that he was ex-FBI, that he was a professor and had adjustments to make. All the same, it’s satisfying to see him ‘come home’ and find a new place for himself, doing what he wanted all along.
The resolution of the mystery isn’t too obvious or anything like that. I feel it relies too heavily on coincidence, and Elliot’s ability to connect the dots. It’s still a satisfying conclusion to that thread of the story. Or at least, one hopes it’s the end of that story, and Elliot’s now finally done with Corian.
On a final note, the sex scenes are okay: not too awkward, anyway. They make sense as part of depicting Elliot and Tucker’s relationship. They’re also skippable if you’re just here for the emotional content.
Carry On, Rainbow Rowell
Didn’t I just read Carry On? It’s true, I read it not that long ago, but after the US elections and various personal stresses (I have how many assignments due?), I needed some comfort reading. Harry Potter doesn’t work for me — for one thing, I’ve never been that big a fan, and for another, I had to read the second and third books five times each in a week on a school trip, since my mother only let me take two books. Since then, and especially considering how miserable the other kids made me, I’ve rather gone off Harry Potter.
My love for Carry On is totally separate to anything I feel about Harry Potter, though. I’m aware I’m in the minority there, but I only read four of the Harry Potter books, and never experienced the end of the series or got into the fandom. So I felt in the position to just love this: love the way the magic works, the way it permeates their thinking; the way Simon and Baz have always been drawn to each other; the way even their love scenes read a little bit like fighting in place.
There are things I don’t love — the constant POV switching, for example. It’s particularly jarring when it happens several times in what should just be a paragraph. And I don’t love feeling like Penny, Ebb and Agatha had their own stories that needed telling, and that they came so close to being able to tell them… before being cut off by the inevitability of Simon and Baz, and Simon’s victory. Particularly in Agatha’s case. I thought the descriptions of her feelings toward Simon were great, and I’d have liked to see some closure between them. In fandom, it’s always been the female characters that suffer from people’s attempts to pair up the boys, and it’d have been nice to get a fuller picture of Agatha. Simon’s still very much the Chosen One, narratively.
But these are things that could probably only be addressed by whole books that deal with these tropes, and deal with the lives of the women around Simon and the Mage. I don’t think there really was space here. Penelope Bunce still rocks the heck out of the book.
And it’s still a book I enjoy very much.
The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, Joseph Hansen
This is one of those mysteries where you can’t root for the mystery to be solved for the sake of the victim, a man who was a bully, a racist, and thoroughly unpleasant in almost all his interactions. Instead, the characters surrounding them need to get their hooks into you, and in this case that didn’t really work for me. Much more central was Dave’s sadness over his father’s illness, his disconnection with Doug, and the connection he does form with Cecil — one that rather surprises a reader familiar with Dave, who doesn’t seem like the type to be very appreciative of cheating, and yet does so himself.
It gets a little bit too convoluted in solving the mystery, in order to bring in a bunch of red herrings and implicate several different characters. That made it frustrating, and not quite as smooth a read for me as the earlier books. It’s still enjoyable, but not a favourite.
Troublemaker, Joseph Hansen
Reading this a second time, I’m definitely sure it’s not my favourite Brandstetter novel. Some of the characters are just… such gay stereotypes, and I prefer it by far when Hansen steers away from that — which, luckily, he does with Dave and Doug. The mystery itself was interesting enough, with plenty of red herrings, but I felt like the background stuff was lacking — the best bit was when Doug calls Dave for help with his mom, and that’s kind of ruined by the fact that Dave can’t even go to help because he’s too busy somehow trying to save someone’s life.
(And how, how does Dave always end up involved in these cases?)
Still, Hansen’s writing and plotting is always solid, and though it isn’t one of the standouts of the series, it’s a worthy installment.
Death Claims, Joseph Hansen
The first time I read this, I commented on the descriptions — saying that at times they were laid on too thick — and style, and also that Hansen somehow manages to make you care about the characters, even minor ones. I disagree with the first one now, perhaps because I knew going in what Hansen’s style was like: it still reminds me very much of Chandler, even if he doesn’t have quite the same knack for the well-placed word or reference (no “shop-worn Galahad” here). And I still agree with the second one: a particular character doesn’t show up for most of the story, and yet I very much cared about how things worked out for him, and about what he tried to do.
I also commented on the subplot between Doug and Dave, which I loved: I loved the fact that they’re both damaged and imperfect, that their past lovers (both dead, and therefore idealised) get in the way, and their responses to that. I love that Dave decides it’s time he did some work to keep the relationship going, and then he does — but also that he’s a self-righteous ass about some things, not some paragon of virtue. Their relationship feels real, both in the way they disappoint each other and in how they match.
I can’t remember the individual books well enough to decide where it sits on my mental ranking of the series; I look forward to discovering that in the rereads to come, I think. But it’s solid and I enjoy it, and especially for Dave’s life outside the cases, even where it’s relatively background. He has a life outside the cases — much more so even than another favourite detective of mine, Peter Wimsey, whose life outside cases is mostly spent discussing the case anyway, or touches on it. Perhaps that’s part of why I love Dave Brandstetter so much.