Tag: queer fiction

Review – The Animals at Lockwood Manor

Posted March 22, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane HealeyThe Animals at Lockwood Manor, Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor follows Hetty, an assistant at the natural history museum, elevated to supervisor due to the beginning of World War II and the loss of the men of the department to enlistment. Hetty’s in charge of the evacuation of key parts of the museum’s collection, including invaluable type specimens, to a house in the country: Lockwood Manor. At first, the site seems close to ideal, but almost immediately there are issues: valuable items disappear, things are moved around when Hetty isn’t looking, and something sinister seems to be happening which makes her begin to doubt her sanity.

It’s all very Gothic and a little spooky, with brief interlude chapters from the point of view of Lord Lockwood’s daughter, Lucy, who is clearly haunted by the wild behaviour of her mentally ill mother. Throughout, there’s a sense that either there’s some serious gaslighting going on, or Hetty and Lucy are truly haunted — even as they become close and start a romantic relationship, clinging to one another amidst the awfulness of the seeming haunting and of Lord Lockwood’s dalliances with women younger than his own daughter.

On the one hand, I couldn’t point to anything special about the book — nothing I thought stood out, or particularly made it worth reading. On the other hand, I read it practically all in one go: there’s something about it which is gripping, helped along by the connection between Hetty and Lucy (at its best before they say a thing to one another, laying tension into each scene) and the fact that I am interested in Hetty’s job and the work she’s described as doing. It was enjoyable, though not outstanding; I may not even think of it again, but it certainly whiled away a few hours entertainingly.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – When We Were Magic

Posted December 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of When We Were Magic by Sarah GaileyWhen We Were Magic, Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey has a gift for writing books I can’t put down. I steamed through this one in two sittings, and read the whole thing in an hour and a half. Since my attention’s been awful lately, for most books, that’s enough for me to rate this pretty highly on enjoyment, even if I have a lot of lingering questions.

It starts with Alexis accidentally killing a boy she’s trying to have sex with at a party, and calling in her friends to help her fix the problem. They jump somewhat awkwardly to the idea of just getting rid of the body — and they have a somewhat unique method to do that, because they can all do magic, and they know how to work together. It doesn’t go as planned, though, leaving them with pieces of his body and his weirdly ice-cold, very slowly beating heart…

The rest of the book follows them as they get rid of the pieces and cope with the consequences of their magic: each of them loses something as they get rid of the pieces of the body, and of course, the boy’s absence is quickly spotted and the cops want to talk to everyone who was at the party, and also they all have their own little dramas. I have some questions about their reaction to the boy’s death — they don’t really know him, so it makes sense that they’re not distraught, but it felt like they were shockingly put together for a bunch of kids who had to dispose of pieces of a peer’s body. Not one of them seemed likely to crack under the strain. And yeah, I get that their friendship here is meant to be unshakeable, but it kind of made them sound like sociopaths, too.

I also have questions about what exactly happened to change Alexis’ magic. It’s clear it’s the first time her magic has got out of her control like that, and they never really do much about figuring it out. How do we know she isn’t going to endanger people more?

Overall, though, it was a lot of fun. I sped through it, and I loved that Alexis has two dads and a crush on a friend who happens to be a girl, and it’s just all part of these girls’ lives. I adore the tiny glimpses we get of what her parents were like when they met, and the fact that the family background to Alexis’ life feels real; they have a history that’s played out in the book, even though it is not the focus of the book. I’d have loved a little more of that for other characters (some of the group of girls, even), but I deeply enjoyed that it was there for Alexis’ family. That’s what makes characters feel real to me.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The House in the Cerulean Sea

Posted December 2, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ KluneThe House in the Cerulean Sea, T.J. Klune

If you’re looking for a feel-good book right now, then this is a solid one to choose. It starts off with Linus Baker, the main character, finishing up his inspection of an orphanage for magical children. No sooner is he back from that than he’s handed a bigger task, a highly classified task, to go to an orphanage he’s never even heard of to check on the welfare of some very unique children. Lucy, for one — guess what that’s short for?

I say it’s a feel-good book, but it’s not always: Linus Baker works for DICOMY, which supervises magical children. All magical beings must be registered and monitored, and though Linus cares deeply about the welfare of the children in the orphanages he inspects, he might be the only member of DICOMY who does for all we can tell. It’s a dystopic world, and one that’s not a far cry from our own: “See something, say something” is a recognisable slogan that also haunts the book.

The reason it’s a feel-good book is that Linus is a good person. A very ordinary person in many ways, but one who cares deeply. He tries not to sacrifice his objectivity, and sometimes it’s hard, but he genuinely tries to do his best for the children he oversees… and pretty much everyone he meets. That makes him the right caseworker for Marsyas, a rather unique orphanage, holding unique and troubling children. Talia, a female gnome; Phee, a powerful young sprite; Chauncey, a protean creature of unknown origin; Sal, a shapeshifter with a history of being abused; Theodore, a wyvern with a penchant for buttons… and Lucy, short for Lucifer, and yes, it means that Lucifer. Not to mention Mr Parnassus, the master of the orphanage.

As you’d more or less expect, Linus quickly finds himself losing objectivity, feeling incredible tenderness for the children and concern for them. He also quickly comes to like their caretakers, Mr Parnassus, and the island’s resident sprite, Zoe. He accidentally becomes part of their family, standing up for them against prejudiced villagers, and coaxing the children to come out of their shells — even coaxing Mr Parnassus to give them a little more freedom, rather than protect them too closely.

In terms of the plot, it is predictable, but what’s satisfying is just watching Linus be a good man, and watch him figure out what he needs to do, and where he wants to be. The fact that I found it was predictable didn’t make it a whit less lovely. I shan’t say any more about it, because there are some surprises, and they’re worth it.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Evie and the Pack-Horse Librarians

Posted November 8, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Evie and the Pack-Horse Librarians by Laurel BeckleyEvie and the Pack-Horse Librarians, Laurel Beckley

Received to review via Netgalley

Accused of leaking a manuscript she was supposed to edit, Evie gets exiled from her normal job as an editor to work as a librarian distributing literature via literally riding from homestead to homestead on a pack-horse, far from her usual home. Oh, and her girlfriend is the one who betrayed her, she barely knows how to ride a horse, and the place she’s going is full of privation and coal dust. Charming!

This is a very short book, but there’s a lot going on with the world-building (explicitly queer-positive: kids transition to a chosen gender as well as to adulthood, same-gender relationships are common or perhaps even the default; there’s some magic of various types, quite poorly defined; there’s some kind of law requiring literacy, hence the pack-horse librarians)… and yet there’s not a lot of detail on any of that. It feels like a side-novella in a known universe or something like that, though as far as I know that isn’t the case.

I found it a bit oddly paced, with instaluv into the bargain and a really obvious “twist”. It feels like a lot of elements were included to pad things out but didn’t actually get wrapped up. The romance is cute, but we barely know the love interest, who gets introduced pretty late. There were a lot of elements I found interesting, but overall it was kinda meh, I’m afraid!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Little Library

Posted November 5, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Little Library by Kim FieldingThe Little Library, Kim Fielding

Elliott is recovering from an awful betrayal, holed up in a small house not far from where his brother lives, and buying books in place of therapy. After a good deal of prodding and some awful interviews as he tries to get back into academia, Elliott decides to share some of his books by building a Little Free Library. And hey, it’s a cliché, but books can bring people together, and so it proves for Elliott — not all the connections he forms are deep and lasting, but it gives him a connection to the community which he was lacking, and starts to wake him up a bit.

Simon is a police officer, or was, before he was shot in the knee. He meets Elliott while walking for physiotherapy, and has something of an awakening as he gets to know Elliott, and browses the books in his library, which include books on queer history. Although he’s in the closet to his family, and Elliott’s planning on moving to wherever he can get a job, the two of them decide to try to make something of it.

The Little Library is, overall, really sweet. Neither Elliott nor Simon are totally perfect, but they are doing their best, and though they have miscommunications and mismatched needs at times, they work through it like adults. We see both of them in their family relationships as well, and there’s no clear-cut awfulness or greatness — just people being people, not always good to each other, but in the end being a family and making things work. The drama isn’t big huge world-ending stuff, and they don’t treat it that way; these are very definitely adult men, figuring things out, making their way through things.

I enjoyed it a lot, and thought Simon was terribly sweet. They make for a good pair, each offering something to the relationship and to each other, and it was fun to watch it happen.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stormhaven

Posted November 1, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Stormhaven by Jordan L. HawkStormhaven, Jordan L. Hawk

The third Whyborne and Griffin book is rather fun! My main issue with the previous books was a sort of general squick about Whyborne’s total lack of self-worth, which translates into a lack of trust in Griffin. I’m pleased to note that that’s a bit better in this book, though I shan’t say too much about it because sssh! Spoilers!

In any case, this book features Griffin facing a number of things about his past. One is his adoptive parents, who are coming on a visit and mustn’t know about his relationship with Whyborne. And another is a doctor at an asylum who has ruled that Griffin’s client’s brother, accused of murdering his uncle, is insane. He happened to do the same for Griffin at the end of his career with the Pinkertons, you see. So Griffin has all that on his plate — and Whyborne is hallucinating about a vast underwater city…

A couple of things didn’t turn out as expected, which is always nice, and Whyborne and Griffin move forward a bit with their relationship and find some more comfort and security with one another, which is lovely. I could always do with more communication (talk! about! your! problems!) — but it was a good step forward, and a believable step in them figuring out their relationship.

So I think my issues with the earlier books are, if not completely shelved, then partially assuaged. (I should emphasise that that’s a very personal nitpick, and not necessarily something that will bother other people.)

Oh, and Christine is still absolutely the best.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Proper English

Posted October 31, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Proper English by KJ CharlesProper English, K.J. Charles

Proper English is the story of Pat and Fen, who I previously encountered in Think of England — this book is set before that, but reading them in either order is completely fine, because you don’t need to know much from either book to appreciate the other. It opens with Pat and her brother travelling to a shooting party at a country house, where it transpires that there’s a whole party invited, including their host’s fiancée, Miss Carruth. She turns out to be a sweet but apparently fairly silly girl, rather prone to giggling and girlishness: a pretty stark contrast to Pat, who is a women’s shooting champion, and expects to be treated practically as one of the men.

Most of the rest of the company aren’t nearly that nice, and it quickly becomes apparent something is very wrong, as their host allows his brother-in-law to lord it over everyone and say awful things, while clearly hating that it’s happening. Pat tries to just enjoying the shooting, but quickly finds that Miss Carruth (Fen) is a lot smarter than she likes to let on. Also, Pat is not at all immune to her charms, despite the differences between them. Their friendship and romance is adorable, and they quickly find that they’re not so much opposites as complementary to each other.

Because this is a K.J. Charles novel, of course, that’s not the end of it: in classic country house mystery style, on a miserable rainy day when no one can go out or leave, one of the company is found dead. Pat and Fen are all too aware of all the secrets in the house, one of them being their own, so they decide to figure it out and try to present the police with a fait accompli

It’s all very fun, exactly as I would expect from K.J. Charles, and I’m a little disappointed I’ve finished it already.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Two Rogues Make a Right

Posted October 18, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat SebastianTwo Rogues Make A Right, Cat Sebastian

This was exactly what I needed to read last weekend, and I didn’t know it yet. It’s the third in a series, but it’s one of those loosely connected series which share some characters and details, but which don’t necessarily need to be read in order. I probably still would, because it helps to have had things that impact all the characters revealed in order, but I reckon it’d be a perfectly satisfying story either way. It follows Martin and Will, childhood friends who always had a spark of something more, but who have never acted on it. Martin is consumptive and ill, though, and Will practically kidnaps him to take him to the country and nurse him to health… and in that closeness, they finally start to explore that something more.

It’s very sweet, and though there’s a bit of angst in the middle and a couple of misunderstandings, it’s not infuriatingly so, most of the time. You can see where they’re each coming from, even though it’s totally stupid. And despite Martin’s abusive father and Will’s unhappy past in the Navy — not to mention the former’s consumption and the latter’s addiction — it stays reasonably light, focusing on the future they can make together if they’re brave enough. It’s not quite as light-feeling as the first book, but the progress isn’t as painful and hard-won as in the second book.

I ended up reading it almost all in one go, which I think is a recommendation all on its own. Also, hey! Tuberculosis!

(Disclaimer for those who don’t already know me: tuberculosis is exciting to me because it’s one of my research interests in my other life as an infectious diseases postgrad student.)

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Burning Roses

Posted September 15, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Burning Roses by S.L. HuangBurning Roses, S.L. Huang

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 29th September 2020

Burning Roses combines a mixture of different fairytales/folklore: Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks… and Hou Yi, an archer from Chinese mythology. It blends all these disparate-sounding elements together with aplomb, remixing Hou Yi’s story in the meantime to make Hou Yi a trans woman, and winding in what reads as a racism metaphor in the grundwirgen (magical beings with animal qualities or animal forms, all of whom Rosa rather virulently hates in a way inherited from her mother and compounded by a ghastly experience as a child — you can guess what that experience was when you consider the Red Riding Hood story).

I didn’t think that all these stories could be combined like this so comfortably; for me, they’re all on quite different formal registers. I don’t know much about Hou Yi and how that story is usually told, of course, but the version I heard was rather formal and in the context of an anthology of mythological stories. On that basis, it initially seemed oddly placed next to a nursery story like Goldilocks. Just settle in and trust the author: in my opinion, it works out. I especially enjoyed the way that the story used both versions of the Hou Yi story that I knew of, showing they’re essentially the same story from different angles, depending on who is telling the story.

The grundwirgen (which I read as a metaphor for racism) theme feels a little heavy-handed at first, but when I think about the story now that doesn’t really register. The image that sticks in my head is that of both Rosa and Hou Yi working to be worthy of their families, failing and being human, and finding their way through it. It’s not a story of young and giddy fairytale love, but of love that endures through pain, love that forges a true family which you can’t walk away from.

I haven’t read the short stories in this world, but I don’t think it’s necessary to appreciate and enjoy this novella.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Four Profound Weaves

Posted September 14, 2020 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. LembergThe Four Profound Weaves, R.B. Lemberg

I originally had this to review, but ended up buying a copy on release because I’m generally picking up physical books much more regularly at the moment, and I really did want to give this a try. I’m actually wondering if I’ve read one or two of the stories set in this world before, and somehow forgotten, because some things felt really familiar.

In any case, it took me a while to get into the story — partly because I didn’t properly take notice of the POV shift, and partly because I felt like I was assembling the world from pieces of a puzzle I’d briefly seen before. It was a bit weird, as a feeling, but I settled in and ended up racing through the novella all in one go. It begins with two older people, long known to each other but not of the same cultural group, deciding to go in search of what they feel they’re missing: a name, in the case of one of them, who has just completed his long-awaited transition after a life lived as a woman for the sake of his family; and the other, in search of her aunt, and the things her aunt promised to teach her.

The story is less important, I think, than the claiming (and re-claiming) of one’s voice, one’s identity, one’s true self. Both the main characters have to find that and learn to grasp it, in their own ways, and it is only through that that they can be whole and the neglected threads of their lives picked up and woven in.

I wasn’t always in love with the story: I felt thrown in at the deep end, though I suspect some of my confusion came from expecting something else (either from reading a previous story in this world, or just something with some similar elements… it’s hard to say, because I can’t put my finger on it). I didn’t feel the two voices were entirely distinct, despite what I said about the theme of the story, and there were at times some clumsy things — like the repeated reminders that Uiziya repeats questions until they’re answered. That felt like the ultimate “show, don’t tell” violation (even though sometimes telling can be very effective):

“What’s going on?” I asked.


A thin green snake slithered in the dusk between us, as if drawing a boundary I should not cross. I stepped right over it.

“So what is going on?” I had a habit of repeating a question until it was answered.

That really, really could’ve been shown — we didn’t even need to know at that exact moment that this is a habit, we could’ve just seen it throughout the scene, the story… Telling can be a powerful tool, especially with a first-person narrator like this, but this — and the repetitions of it later, to make sure the reader notices — didn’t quite work for me.

Overall I found it really enjoyable; I just had a few niggles, I think.

Rating: 4/5

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