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.
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.
Strangers in Company, Jane Aiken Hodge
Received to review via Netgalley
Very much in the vein of Mary Stewart’s work, and possibly Heyer’s more adventure-driven romances, Strangers in Company takes two women and throws them into a perilous situation. They become involved with local politics and have issues with local people, and of course, their bravery and resourcefulness — or that of their friends — sorts everything out in the end. And there’s a spot of romance, too, to leaven the mystery and politics.
Marian isn’t the most vivid character of the type, though she does have a well thought out background: a short-lived marriage to a pop idol, twin children who have left her to be supported him, and a raft of resulting anxieties. All of that makes sense for her character, and motivates her throughout the book — or rather, causes her to be the fairly colourless, passive creature she is. Stella is a little more vivid, with strange sulks and mood swings. Overall, there’s enough characterisation to make it a little group of people you can care about for the purposes of the story, although they don’t stick in the mind.
The landscapes and atmospherics aren’t as well done as Mary Stewart’s typical wont; I felt much less a part of the events and the landscape, though the story is intriguingly tied into the landscape and its history. Overall, it’s enjoyable without being a sudden favourite; more of a potboiler than a solid, memorable story. And such things have their place.
The Toll-Gate, Georgette Heyer
I don’t normally get along with cases of instantaneous love, but some authors can make me go along with it. Heyer is one of them, and this mystery/romance works well. Both the male and female lead are capable and likeable, and they treat each other with respect (unlike in, say, Faro’s Daughter). All in all, it’s an appealing combination, and Heyer shows off her research in her use of thieves’ cant and dialect. If your favourite Heyer novels tend to be the ones with mysterious highwaymen, capricious noblemen who don’t mind pretending to be commoners, etc, then it’s definitely one for you — more like The Talisman Ring than The Grand Sophy.
The only problem for me was that I’m not very knowledgeable about period-appropriate dialects and thieves’ cant. Some of it I didn’t follow very well, and at times it does hinder you in understanding exactly how a certain character gave themselves away, etc. But for the most part, it becomes obvious if you keep reading.
Heyer writes with humour and flair, as ever, and the afternoon I spent devouring this was well worth it.
Camelot’s Shadow, Sarah Zettel
I’ve read this several times now, and I always go back and forth on it a little. Initially, I think I was a teeeeeny bit ashamed to be caught reading something that is a romance in both the modern and the medieval senses of the word. Then I included it in my dissertation and had to think about it critically. And now… now I get to read it just for pure fun. Which is great: it makes me realise how much this version of Gawain is exactly what made me love the character in the first place, and that this retelling of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’s story was what guided me toward reading and loving the Gawain ballads.
It’s fun, with and without the romance; I love this version of Camelot, which is practical at the same time as romantic. There’s the knights, but there are also Saxon boys staying at the court as hostages. Guinevere is a queen and a figure of romance, but she’s also Arthur’s other half, managing Camelot alongside Kay, maintaining a whole set of duties belonging to queenship. There’s no polite ignorance of the need for an heir: Gawain is openly Arthur’s heir. (And definitely worthy of it; this version of Gawain doesn’t kill women or go on mad rampages yelling for blood. He’s courtly, though human — somewhere between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte Darthur‘s least flattering sections.)
And Rhian is a great character too: determined, but not foolhardy; clever, but not infallible; cautious, but not immune to Gawain’s pretty face. Brave, but not insensible.
The two make a great pairing, and it’s a joy to read — as it’s also a joy to read of Arthur and Guinevere’s genuine love.
There are some frustrating aspects to this, like a certain judgemental quality around women who have sex (but not men), and an unfortunate editing slip-up where even when “father” is being used as a name, it isn’t capitalised… but it’s still fun, and I’m glad I got the chance to read it in a relaxed way like this.
Sidenote: I don’t understand why the US version has changed Rhian’s name to Risa. Well, probably to avoid people thinking it’s pronounced “Ryan”, but that doesn’t mean I like the decision — Rhian is a pretty and Welsh name, and it fits much better in the context than “Risa”.
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.
The Talisman Ring, Georgette Heyer
I was feeling a bit stressed, so it felt like the perfect time to revisit The Talisman Ring (and maybe also The Grand Sophy, if I get the chance). Heyer’s books are the perfect light reading to my mind: relatable characters, witty dialogue, entertaining set-ups… In this one, two cousins are supposed to get married, despite being completely unsuited; hijinks (and a few more cousins joining in) ensue.
The joy is really in the exuberance of the two ‘heroic’ characters, as I think of them, Eustacie and Ludovic, coming up against the two ‘sensible’ (ish) characters, Tristram and Sarah. They all end up in absurdly dramatic situations, of course, and it quickly becomes obvious that Eustacie is much more suited to Ludovic than to Tristram. And in the background, unnoticed by Eustacie, Tristram and Sarah begin to have a greater regard for each other — while sniping at each other, of course. (Though less so than in, say, Faro’s Daughter, where the relationship was so adversarial and the male lead so supercilious, it was hard to enjoy.)
I make no claims for this book’s depth; I just enjoy the characterisations, the dialogue, the wit. It’s vastly fun. Though, Heyer being the person she was, the historical details and such are probably very much in the right places.
The Wind off the Small Isles, Mary Stewart
A new-to-me Mary Stewart! Alas that it’s only a novella. Still, it’s characteristic of her work in the fine and detailed sense of place, in the sudden sweet relationship between the male and female characters, and in the atmospheric setting. Most of it would really have benefitted from a longer book: I really wanted to see more of this post-cataclysmic scene in Lanzarote, the lava beds and lack of trees… it’s not how I imagine the place, and it’s a fascinating glimpse of a whole different time — a time when tourism on Lanzarote was barely beginning, because volcanic activity had scoured the island.
The relationship, too… I can suspend my disbelief somewhat, but it would’ve been so much better to have a full novel of this, a full novel to explore the story and the development of the relationship. Just two brief encounters seemed very little.
I’d have also liked to see more of Perdita’s relationship with her employer; a female writer who may in some ways have echoed Mary Stewart herself, a strong relationship between two women… alas that the intended third story about Perdita, a full-length book, was never written.
Still, for a bit of atmosphere and setting — wow.
Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
Featuring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, Sarah Badel as Harriet Vane and Peter Jones as Bunter
Busman’s Honeymoon, or: the Wimseys will never, ever catch a break.
Honestly, despite the fact that it is a murder investigation, this one is fun. It has plenty of Peter-Harriet banter, plenty of Bunter being the ridiculously amazing manservant that he is, and plenty of heart as well. Peter and Harriet have finally got married, and they’re letting each other in, and Busman’s Honeymoon sees their first hiccups of married life — where Peter’s work as a detective makes Harriet feel like a traitor to friends who are under suspicion, and they have to decide who compromises… I like Sarah Badel’s version of Harriet, laughing and teasing, but warm too.
It’s not just about the relationship, though: there’s a solid mystery at the back of it, which is fun in its own right. And at least with this one, you really feel no pity for the criminal…
Faro’s Daughter, Georgette Heyer
I spent an unfortunate amount of this wincing with secondhand embarrassment about the misunderstandings between the two main characters. Their adversarial behaviour is pretty delightful, until you think seriously about how horribly Ravenscar is treating Deb, and without real evidence that she’s actually doing anything he suspects her of. I mean, she doesn’t do much to dissuade him after his first misapprehension, but still, the things he calls her — and then at the end to suddenly declare that they’re in love! It’s a bit too sudden to me; particularly as we don’t get much from Ravenscar’s point of view that explains his softening towards Deb.
The side plot with Adrian and Phoebe, though, is pretty adorable.
It’s fun, but more fun if you try not to think about it too much, perhaps. Especially on the subject of the fond aunt, who despite the fondness, keeps suggesting various odious things to Deb to pay off their debts — we’re told she’s doting, but she seems to have bad judgement and worse taste when it comes to how she should treat her niece.
The best thing about this book is Deb’s stubbornness, her sense of honour, and her insistence that she won’t be cowed.