Tag: queer fiction

Review – The Murder Next Door

Posted September 15, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Murder Next Door by Sarah BellThe Murder Next Door, Sarah Bell

At first, reading The Murder Next Door felt like reading the nth book in an ongoing series. There were references to previous investigations, and bits of one of the protagonists’ past were peeping through, and it just felt like there was a whole previous book or even series being referenced. I knew it was the author’s debut, though, from other reviews, so I stuck with it and can confirm that the information you need is all contained within this book, that you don’t need to know about the previous investigations (aside from that they were ill-received by the local police), and that the characters and their motivations all fully make sense by the end.

The story itself is not so unique: the couple next door have always seemed a little haughty and aloof, but beneath the surface, the husband was abusive and unfaithful, and the wife was terrified and fed up. Louisa and Ada become involved when the husband suddenly dies, and it’s clear it was poison: Ada saw the wife fleeing with her young son, and is haunted by another woman who was once arrested for murder.

Where it becomes a little less typical is the fact that Ada and Louisa are a couple, with Ada acting as Louisa’s ‘companion’ in order to hide the truth of their relationship. What’s more, Louisa is actually asexual (though she doesn’t have that word for it), and her relationship with Ada is a balancing act of trying to read cues she doesn’t understand, and trying to ensure the relationship is also satisfying for Ada. That aspect of the book was handled pretty well: that navigation between them rings true.

Overall, it was a fairly enjoyable story once I got into it and felt sure that all the pieces would be present in the same book (and that I wouldn’t have to find some other book to figure out why Ada was so affected by the case). I did find the characters a little… wooden, I suppose, in some ways? There were some scenes where things definitely rang true, and then others where it felt that the characters were arguing or agreeing solely because that’s what the plot needed in order to proceed. Sometimes it felt like a bit of a shortcut, I suppose.

So I guess the upshot is that it was enjoyable, just not brilliant.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

Posted September 8, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Queer Principles of Kit Webb by Cat SebastianThe Queer Principles of Kit Webb, Cat Sebastian

I pounced on this as soon as it came out, of course, and wasn’t disappointed. There’s a bit of a vibe of K.J. Charles’ Any Old Diamonds about the plot (except I guess it may also be reminding me of The Gentle Art of Fortune-Hunting, in some ways), and I’m totally here for that, any time. The relationship between the two leads is very different to that book, with far less power-play (and less cold-blooded criminality), but there’s an element of getting your own back that’s delicious.

Speaking of the relationship between the two leads, it’s a sweet one. It takes quite a long time to develop, though the seeds are obvious from the start in their strong physical attraction to one another. The best part, of course, is the slow development of trust between them, despite their disparate backgrounds, despite the harsh parts of their past.

There were a few twists and turns that I spotted coming, but nonetheless made shocked noises when they did happen, because oh! no! how dare! etc. So that was fun, and in general it was just everything I needed — if, in the end, the happy ever after felt rather easy to come by, I completely didn’t mind, because I was charmed by the characters. And in this plague year 2020-gone-2021, we can all do with some happy endings. I don’t want to talk too much about why I felt it was easy to come by, because that’s a spoiler, but suffice it to say that it’s very neat. It feels believable for the characters, but people usually find it harder to make wholesale changes like that!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Necropolis

Posted July 29, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Necropolis by Jordan L HawkNecropolis, Jordan L. Hawk

I took a bit of a break from the Whyborne and Griffin books, not entirely intentionally (I have a problem with things being out of sight, out of mind) — so it was nice to come back with a bang into a book that goes some different places (literally, geographically) and involves some significant development for Christine, my favourite character. We learn a little more about her, and more about the work she does. I’m a big fan of archaeology, fiction or non-fiction, so I was allll on board for this.

So okay, there wasn’t a lot of digging, because there wasn’t much time — it was all action. Which is not a bad thing. I read this in just a few chunks, tearing through it, and it was great fun.

I had issues before with Whyborne’s low self-esteem, because I just didn’t enjoy the same conflict happening every book with him deciding he’s not good enough for Griffin. It does feel like there’s some progress there, and that both of them are learning, so that kind of puts my worries to rest — though I hope that development continues happening. Slow is fine, as long as it’s happening.

So yeah, really enjoyable, and it’s nice to see Whyborne stepping up and figuring out some important stuff, too.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Iron Widow

Posted July 25, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Iron Widow by Xiran Jay ZhaoIron Widow, Xiran Jay Zhao

Received to review; publication date 7th October 2021

Well, this was a heckuva ride! This is a world protected against an invading force by pilots in giant mecha suits which transform according to their particular mental capabilities. Two pilots are required, yin and yang: the stronger male pilot, and the balancing female pilot… who often ends up a sacrifice, drained of her life force by her fellow pilot to power the suit in battle. Wu Zetian has volunteered as a pilot in order to kill the pilot who killed her sister, not in battle but somehow outside of it. Now she’s expected to become his concubine…

Think you know where it’s going? Well, the book has some surprises coming for you, about which I shouldn’t say too much for fear of spoiling them! However, I think it’s worth mentioning the fact that this features not a love triangle but a poly relationship: Zetian ends up with two boyfriends, and her boyfriends are boyfriends, too.

It is worth noting as well that this isn’t a nice world, and Zetian isn’t a nice girl. It’s a world loosely based on ancient China, meaning that Zetian has had her feet bound to become “lotus feet”, and the effects of that aren’t shied away from. And of course, our heroine starts the book planning a murder, and has few hesitations throughout the book about making life and death decisions for other people. We root for her because we also see the helpless position she’s put into, but we also know she’s not someone we want to know. There’s a line in one of Thea Gilmore’s live albums where she describes the personality of someone she wrote a song about: “She has the kind of personality that’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”

Well, Zetian’s personality is an entertaining place to visit, but you definitely, definitely don’t want to live there. That you can root for her at all works because you can sympathise with her motives and reasons.

On a final note, oof! That ending! I’m guessing there’s more to come from Wu Zetian, and I intend to read it if so.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Phoenix Extravagant

Posted July 19, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha LeePhoenix Extravagant, Yoon Ha Lee

This was, I must admit, not quite what I’d expected from the author of Ninefox Gambit et al; it’s a more straightforward story, and one whose audience I found a little hard to place. I think a lot of my reaction to the book is because of that clash between expectation and reality, rather than a comment on the book. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but I ended up having difficulty putting together what I think and feel about it because of that difference.

There was a lot I loved immediately, of course: a book where the protagonist shares my preferred pronouns is always a thrill, and the fact that it mostly goes unremarked on in the story was nice too. (It’s not quite ignored; there are a few references to Jebi’s gender and presentation. What we don’t get — as far as I remember anyway — is any clear description that marks out what sex Jebi “really” is, which was a huge relief to me.) Vei is great as well — I loved her! Arazi, the giant dragon automaton, is also pretty awesome and has some cool abilities.

Howeeeever, I didn’t really understand the relationship Jebi forms with Vei, and the level of loyalty the two of them have for each other. It feels slightly out of nowhere, and I felt like some threads weren’t super well dealt with. (The fact that Vei killed Jebi’s sister’s wife, for instance.)

I guess in the end the whole thing didn’t quite come together for me, and the ending left me with a rather melancholy, trailing-off feeling. It was an enjoyable read, and yet it didn’t quite work out for me. I’m positive part of that is because I found Ninefox Gambit et al a challenge in a way I really enjoyed, and this is not that kind of book instead. It takes a long hard look at colonialism, so it’s not that it’s an easy book… but I guess it just didn’t spark with me in the same way.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Plain Bad Heroines

Posted July 11, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Plain Bad Heroines by emily m. danforthPlain Bad Heroines, emily m. danforth

In some ways, I guess it’s a surprise I picked this up, since it relies heavily on horror tropes and on the reader recognising horror tropes and horror movies and sly little references. That’s never really been my thing, though one or two authors have tempted me into that realm, or interesting concepts, etc. Anyway, the blurb tempted me in despite my total wussiness, and actually, I can’t say I was ever really creeped out.

It follows three women in the present as they make a movie about events of the past, when a girls’ school seemed cursed and some girls died in weird and unpleasant ways. It starts to seem like maybe the curse is real, because weird things keep happening around these three women now in the present. Or is it just the movie getting under their skins?

The book plays with that ambiguity throughout, and it feels like it’s building toward something explosive and genuinely frightening — there is a real tension and weirdness to it, but for me it never quite came off. The revelations that happen actually diminish the climax of it: now you know what’s going on, it seems much more mundane, even when weird stuff is still happening. It didn’t hold onto enough of the unknowable weirdness to really be unsettling. In the end, you get some answers, and for me at least, it was too many answers. It never managed to reach the fever pitch it was trying to build — I didn’t get even a little bit unsettled.

One thing that did work is the charge between three of the female characters — and the love between two of the characters in the past/flashback portions of the book. Those relationships work very well, and the way those relationships are far from idyllic, but sometimes capture moments of bliss, really works out for me.

Rating-wise, I feel like 2 is pretty fair. I didn’t DNF it, so there was stuff that kept me hanging on… but it was 600+ pages of waiting for it to live up to the promises it was making, and for me, it didn’t.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – After the Dragons

Posted July 7, 2021 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of After the Dragons by Cynthia ZhangAfter the Dragons, Cynthia Zhang

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th August 2021

I seem to have picked this up mostly on a whim and for the promise of dragons, because I didn’t know much about it going in. Which was quite nice, actually: I wasn’t looking for the love story, wasn’t expecting the discussions of chronic illness, responsibility, family, etc. I just knew there were dragons, and I wasn’t disappointed there!

If you’re looking for Western-style dragons, of course, you might find this disappointing. So too if you’re wanting huge dragons that rule the skies. The dragons of this alternate world are small, stunted by pollution, and used and abused by humans for fights and as pets. Kai cares deeply about dragons, carefully taking them in and splicing their broken wings, disinfecting their cuts, and trying to bring them back to health. Eli is in Beijing to study and do research, but his supervisor drags him out to the dragon fights — which is where he meets Kai. They’re instantly antagonistic, not dramatically so, but because Eli wants to help and heal, and Kai refuses to be pitied.

The love story that develops is a quiet one, wrapped around Kai’s concern for the dragons and Eli’s exploration of some of his family roots. It feels a very tender story: there are no huge dramatic events, but a normal and healthy relationship that’s trying to find room for both parties, and find a balance.

As a warning, the ending is not a “Happy Ever After” but a “Happy For Now”; much can happen, given Kai’s illness and the plans he makes. The future isn’t wrapped up neatly in a bow — but nonetheless the story is one of hope.

Rating: 5/5

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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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