Raisins and Almonds, Kerry Greenwood
I try not to think too much about the way Phryne’s lovers are described at times — Lin Chung and Simon (Chinese and Jewish, respectively) are described as exotic and beautiful and… yeah, I’m starting to get uncomfortable the more I think about it. Likewise, there’s a certain amount of stereotyping that goes on with the Jewish and Chinese characters in particular. It’s not negative, but it is so… generalising and annoying.
On the other hand, the first time I read this I enjoyed it because it puts one of Phryne’s lovers in serious danger, and there’s an incredibly powerful family scene which just felt completely raw and not “cosy” at all. I felt the same this time, and that somewhat mitigated the rather lower star rating I’d have given.
Plus, while I do find aspects of these books problematic, I still adore the idea of Phryne’s character, the way nothing gets in the way, the way she controls her own sexuality and uses it. There’s still a lot of fiction that pretends women are more asexual by default, and it’s annoying. (Yep, even to me, even though I have no actual interest in reading about Phryne having athletic sex.)
Trial by Fire, Lore Graham
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 31st May 2017
This is a fun superhero novella which is supremely conscious of the need to include more diversity in fiction, and to be socially aware (e.g. of issues like people’s relationship with the police). The main character dates women, her love interest is trans, there are non-binary characters, etc, etc. It’s really refreshing that it didn’t really do a 101 on it, either; ‘here are the pronouns, the narrative is going to use them from here on out’ was the most you get. It’s also refreshingly frank about communication between couples, negotiating trans body issues (or non-issues), figuring out what people like… and even safe sex, as the use of a dental dam shows.
This is not my thing on one level, because I could happily go forever without knowing what genitalia anyone has, and I’m not that interested in reading sex scenes just for the sake of sex — sometimes it can be important to character development or express something interesting or make you re-evaluate the whole relationship between the characters… For example, I’m thinking of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books — a lot of the sex scenes contain plot-important characterisation and even information. And when it comes to some characters/relationships, you’ve been waiting for it so long and it means so much for the characters that you can’t help but pay attention. But I’m not that interested in the mechanics, and I wasn’t invested enough in these characters to be particularly interested in the mere fact of them having fun sex, much as I appreciated the theme of clear communication.
If the fact that the story includes sex is a major nope for you, I can say that I think the scenes would be totally skippable without missing anything important; the rest of the story is fun, although relatively light on plot and heavier on the characters getting to know one another and getting together.
Alchemy of Fire, Gillian Bradshaw
If you’re looking for thoughtful, well-researched historical fiction, Gillian Bradshaw is a good bet — and she doesn’t always stick to the beaten path, producing stories about Caesars and Cleopatras. Island of Ghosts, for example, surprised me by having a Samartian hero, serving the Roman army in Britain. Not an Italian, not a Brit, but a whole different view I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do before. Her writing reminds me of Rosemary Sutcliff, at times — it scratches the same sort of itch — though her books are more adult.
Alchemy of Fire is set in Constantinople, and follows the fortunes of the owner of a perfume shop. There’s intrigue and politicking, and there’s romance as well, and the story is set against the backdrop of the Arab attacks on Constantinople. It’s the invention of ‘Greek fire’, but it also deals with motherhood and the experience of seeing a child you love grow up, with grief, with falling in love against all sense and without realising, but not in some instantaneous magical way. The emotional journey felt real, and I was rooting for it from the beginning because it didn’t feel as though Anna was somehow destined to marry. It felt like it could have remained friendship, or ended badly, or… anything.
I found it touching and absorbing, even though I wouldn’t call it “unputdownable”. It takes its time, for all that it only comprises 250 pages or so. It didn’t strike me with brilliance like a couple of Bradshaw’s other books, but I enjoyed it.
Ruddy Gore, Kerry Greenwood
I might’ve enjoyed this a bit more the second time than I did the first time, though it’s by no means one of my favourites. It does introduce Lin Chung, but I don’t really enjoy Phryne’s attitude to female characters like Leila Esperance. It’s that slightly bemusing attitude that all actors are the same, and all musicians, even to the extent that all trombonists are a pain in the neck and inclined to murder (see: The Green Mill Murder), and following that attitude, the consequent assumption that all actresses are fluttery and silly and not very smart.
Still, the puzzle comes together well, and it is the book that introduces Lin Chung and all the connections his family will bring. There’s a nice social awareness to the way Lin and Phryne are treated in society, making it more than just wishful thinking — even if Phryne herself is over-the-top liberal. Or perhaps that’s not the term for Phryne, just… “permissive”, maybe.
This Rough Magic, Mary Stewart
If you know Mary Stewart’s work, you know what to expect from this one — which is entirely why rereading her books is comfort reading for me, of course. It has danger, a plucky heroine, a mystery involving smuggling and, possibly, murder… and a handsome young man with whom, of course, the heroine falls utterly in love. Not without some rocky bits along the way, including not being entirely sure which one of the potential love interests is actually a bad guy.
The bad guy in this book gives me chills at times, in his utter amoral self-absorption. There are moments when you think he might be decent, but no. Still, I find the heroine’s relationship with both men delightful — she stands up for herself, gives as good as she gets, and weighs the evidence to come to a logical conclusion. No “but he seemed so nice” from this lady.
In terms of the usual sense of place and atmosphere you get with Stewart’s books, this one isn’t the best: it’s set on Corfu, and there are a couple of scenes early in the book which really do work. At other times, the condescension to the locals is just a bit too much, even allowing for the work as a product of its time.
Best character: the dolphin, of course.
Solidly enjoyable, featuring one of Stewart’s more resourceful heroines.
Birthright, Missouri Vaun
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017
Birthright is a fun, fast-moving story of a sort typical in fantasy: the lost heir to a throne taken by a tyrant. And this version is a fun example of the genre, with strong female characters coming out of your ears — and falling in love with each other, too. The love story is at least as important to the plot as the lost heir, which is worth keeping in mind; it motivates the way the end of the story shakes out, and takes up a good amount of the narration. I enjoyed that though Aiden is boyish and Kathryn more feminine, there’s no stereotyping — both can fight, both can rule, both know what they’re doing.
There are a couple of moments where I felt things rushed by a little too fast — the connection between the two characters grows very quickly in just a couple of scenes — and where I’d have liked a bit more depth, like the characters of Frost and of Gareth, or even Rowan. Without more background, for example, Kathryn’s jealous moment made little sense, especially since how we got to that moment felt a little contrived.
Nonetheless, it’s fun and has a happy ever after, and I’d definitely recommend it to people looking for lesbian fantasy.
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.