The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I know there are people for whom this book leaves them entirely cold — whether the whole story falls apart for them, or the setting, or they see massive problems with certain plot points… I tried to read it more critically this time, ready to see those things and understand where they’re coming from. It didn’t work; I fell in love all over again and devoured it whole in about five seconds flat. Well, not quite, but you get the idea.
It’s the found family thing that gets me every single time, I think: the way they’ll cover for each other and work to understand each other and accept each other no matter what. This is mostly a book about good people, perhaps implausibly so: with almost everything any of them do, you can believe that they’re doing it because they think it’s right, and that it’s the right thing to do. (There is a major exception for me which I’ll discuss in a moment.) I can understand people who aren’t hooked by that, who don’t find it believable or can’t even get invested because the conflict feels implausible to them… but it’s catnip to me, apparently.
I do hate the whole plotline with Ohan, I’m afraid. Even as my heartstrings are tugged by the results of it, I loathe that Corbin takes away Ohan’s self-determination, and chooses things for them that they don’t want. I hate that the reader is manipulated into being glad about that, and to think that Corbin essentially does the right thing. Nope nope nope nope nope. It’s the dark spot in this book for me: I understand why it’s there, and I can’t help but love the bit with Dr Chef at the end… but the decision made for Ohan is not something I’m actually comfortable with.
It doesn’t darken the rest of the book for me, and as ever I actually cried cathartically for almost the last 50 pages of the book… but it’s worth knowing about, particularly if you have a disability or mental illness where other people think they know better than you about your own body. It’s very discomforting, and it’s worth knowing before you go in if that’s something you might be sensitive about.
I just love almost all the characters so much; Sissix is so darn awesome, Ashby’s a darling, Kizzy’s like Firefly’s Kaylee on speed (almost literally)… It all comes together so well for me. Pitched perfectly to my id, I guess!
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th August 2020
Drowned Country is a follow-up to Silver in the Wood. Tobias Finch has left the wood, leaving Silver behind to… well, mostly mope, actually. It’s a bed of his own making and he has to lie in it: it’s slowly revealed that he managed to drive Tobias away, despite the deep affection between them. But he has a chance to make things right: Silver’s mother returns to the wood to get him, in order to help with a particular case of supernatural shenanigans she and Tobias are dealing with. There’s a vampire roaming around, a young girl is missing, and they require Silver’s particular talents.
It’s a little disorientating to start where we do, but it makes sense: it allows a slow unfolding of how exactly Silver could mess it up so badly. We’re also in Silver’s point of view now, and get to see Tobias from the outside; that’s rather enjoyable, and the close-third POV is livelier and a little more human in outlook than the close-third to Tobias from the previous book. It gives everything a little more depth, and a different colour; the light has changed in the forest, though the trees are all the same.
It’s not a simple adventure, and the relationship between Tobias and Silver isn’t the sole driver of the plot. Instead, we get a little glimpse of other things deep and strange.
And of course, you still have to love Silver’s mother.
The two novellas are very easy reading, and beautifully written. Very worth it!
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Whoa. I did not expect to be so wildly sucked into this book. I mean, a part of me might have expected it: it’s the kind of gossipy, dramatic book with Big Secrets that is designed to get its hooks in, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else.
Evelyn Hugo is a fictional Hollywood star. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth. Her career is over now, but she’s a legend. She’s been enticing and entrancing people for years… and she wants rookie journalist Monique to write her biography. She’s going to tell her everything, under just a few conditions. Evelyn Hugo wants to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t paint her in the best light. And she’ll answer Monique’s questions in her own time.
I didn’t know much about this book until someone bought it for me in a Secret Santa book exchange, so I didn’t know what I was getting into… and it’s almost better if you don’t, if you’re into that tantalising question of what exactly Evelyn Hugo’s deal is. It doesn’t take long to get part of the answer, but if you want to be totally surprised, ignore my review and everyone else’s and go in completely fresh.
If those who don’t want spoilers have bailed out…
Let’s talk about the queer content. The big secret of Evelyn Hugo’s life turns out to be that she was bisexual and in love with another film star. Husbands came and went, with several of her domestic arrangements just providing cover for an on-again, off-again relationship. I don’t know if Reid is bisexual or how she identifies, but Evelyn’s voice and experience of bisexuality rang generally true to me as a queer person. The Hollywood setting provides a backdrop to Evelyn’s yearning and messing up and trying again when it comes to her secretive affairs with women. Or mostly just one woman, which is the bit that maybe rings less true for most people: Evelyn has sex with men frequently, and falls in love with some of them too, but when it comes to women we only actually see one attraction, one love.
Now that kind of rings true for me with some of the things she says early on about what sex and attraction mean to her. She has sex in a lot of cases because it’ll get her what she wants, not out of genuine connection; she seems to find real passion only once she’s made connections, once there’s some kind of relationship, and she only finds that with another woman once. She only lets herself find it once, maybe. But it still seemed a little odd.
When it comes to the relationship itself, the beats are familiar and not at all surprising: we can’t let anyone find out! We have to hide! We have to fake it with men! Oops, one of us actually slept with the man and now she’s pregnant! Break up! Make up! Secretttsss! It was a fun read, but I’m really side-eyeing anyone who calls it “groundbreaking”, especially when it comes to the queer content. It rings true, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I’d have been more impressed if the two of them made a go of it without breaking up constantly, maybe?
There is also a whole racial side to the book when it comes to Monique Grant, who defines herself as “biracial”, and to Evelyn, who is Cuban and completely hides it to become a blonde bombshell. I don’t know what Reid’s experience is there, but to me these portrayals felt clunky. Monique literally says she “felt like two halves”; it feels like a cliché to me. There’s one moment that rings maybe a little more true, and that’s when Evelyn’s maid speaks Spanish in front of her totally without realising she can understand, and she realises she’s buried her Cuban identity so deep it’s disappeared… but this is not really a story I feel very familiar with and mostly I feel unqualified to comment on whether it’s representative of real experiences.
In both the sexuality and the racial content, though, it feels like accounts I’ve read before, like it’s been cut out with the same cookie-cutters as a whole bunch of other stories. There’s a reason the cookie-cutters are that shape, but the shapes produced are 2D.
I don’t know if that all makes sense, but it’s how I felt about the book.
The best thing about the book for me was Harry Cameron. He was Evelyn’s best friend, and there is something real and true in the way they protected each other, made things work for one another, made a family together. I would have loved this theme to be stronger — that there was no passion between them, but he was her true partner who stuck with her through everything, who made things work even when it was hard. Evelyn’s female partner and what they did for each other paled for me compared to the truth of two queer people sticking together to make things work, and being a family even when it doesn’t conform.
Evelyn herself… she’s a strong character, and there’s a lot to like and hate about her. Again, I wouldn’t say she’s a particularly groundbreaking character, and I called most of the twists and turns of her motivations and manipulations.
In the end, it was a fun read. I tore right through it. I don’t think it was the best book in the world and I wouldn’t call it profound, despite the evident effort to make us believe in a love that transcended Evelyn’s seven husbands, the real love of her life. The answer should’ve been Harry Cameron, and for me, it missed its mark in downplaying his importance.
I was feeling fidgety, so I decided to read for a book by K.J. Charles I hadn’t read yet. Unfit to Print is a standalone, following Gil Lawless and Vikram Pandey, the owner of a dirty bookshop and a high-flying lawyer, respectively. They knew one another at school, but have been separated for quite a long time, with Vik believing Gil to be dead. He’s looking for the son of a local Indian family, though, and that takes him to the street where Gil keeps his bookshop… and there they run into one another again.
Gil’s been hurt a lot and is as prickly as a hedgehog, while Vik’s not been interested in anyone since Gil’s disappearance from their boarding school. They quickly fall into their old intimacies, though Gil finds it hard to offer anything other than the physical and Vik finds it hard to take the physical aspect without the feelings getting in the way. At the same time, Gil needs to help Vik find out what happened to the boy he’s looking for, while trying not to get his reputation all smeared up for him…
It’s a lovely little second chance, and I quickly fell for both characters and their silly desperate attempts not to get hurt more when they’re already stumbling along with plenty of hurt to spare from their pasts. Their interaction smoulders as usual — holding hands was never so sexy — and it was a really fun read overall. The mystery aspect was a little bit perfunctory; it felt a bit of a letdown for the answer to be that easy, but it did make sense as well.
All in all, plenty of fun, though not for all the family!
Princess Princess Ever After is a short graphic novel which features a familiar fairytale trope (a princess in a tower)… with a few additions, such as the fact that another princess comes to rescue her, and the fact that her sojourn in the tower was of her own choosing (to some degree) thanks to her sister undermining her and making her feel worthless. The prince they come across needs help from them… and in the end, the two princesses get married!
It’s really really cute, and I appreciate Sadie’s anxieties and difficulties — Amira is completely kickass, but Sadie is strong in her own sweet soft way; they’re very different people and yet both strong. The art is cute too, and I want Amira’s haiiir. (Also I don’t, because long hair is a pain in the butt, but it looks cool.)
It is a bit expensive for how slight it is, but it’s full colour and beautifully presented, and suitable for quite young readers.
I liked Miranda in Milan more than I expected from the reviews I saw around before I read it — I was curious, but not wildly interested, and mostly just picked it up now because I’m reading a lot of short fiction because that’s what’s working for my brain. And it turns out… I really liked it. I started reading it and figured I’d have to stop halfway through for work; halfway through, I damned work and carried on until I was finished.
It’s a semi-retelling, semi-sequel to The Tempest; a retelling because it plays with some of the facts and embellishes them, a sequel because it’s set after the play. It follows Miranda after she and Prospero return to Milan. The servants whisper about her, and she’s forced to wear a black veil to hide her face, but luckily a young Moroccan servant is happy to talk to her and explain things to her. They quickly become close, and this develops (fairly quickly) into a romantic relationship. I’m a little nonplussed by reviews feeling it came out of nowhere; I didn’t actually remember this was f/f, and was hoping for the romance to happen from the first hints of it.
It’s probably a good thing I read Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban quite a while now, because the prose would suffer in comparison! As it is, I found it worked well for me: I wouldn’t say it’s going to stick in my head for beauty, but it succeeded in conjuring an atmosphere for me.
It all resolves a little simply and in the way I kind of expected, and I do appreciate the criticism that Prospero has no complexity and is basically a big evil bogeyman — though I also appreciated the way Miranda had to go over her memories and figure out where the lies and gaps were. It’s a little realistic hint of an abusive relationship that rang very true. Agata could have been just completely horrible, too, so I enjoyed that we got to see another side of her and understand a little of her bitterness and fear.
All in all, it worked really well for me; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
There’s a lot to like about Cinnamon Blade: Cinnamon Blade herself is a cat burglar turned superhero who also happens to be Jewish and bisexual, and her background — and that of her more religiously observant best friend — are baked into the story in little ways. Her relationship with Soledad, a woman she has ended up rescuing again and again, is passionate and at the same time dorky and cute.
Unfortunately, I think maybe I just don’t quite get on with Shira Glassman’s writing, which just doesn’t do much for me… and I definitely didn’t work well with the jump-start the romance got, heading straight off into mildly kinky (public) sex and more or less staying there, with superhero interludes. I wanted more of the other stuff — Blade’s relationship with the team, for instance, because the little we got to see of Captain Werewolf (the aforementioned more religiously observant best friend) was pretty cool.
It has its moments, and it wasn’t a bad way to beguile a half hour, but not quite my thing either.
Knit One, Girl Two is a short, low-stakes f/f romance. Clara’s into dyeing yarn, but she’s looking for inspiration for a new set of colours. She finds that inspiration in paintings by Danielle, a fellow Jewish woman, and Danielle is just as excited as she is by the chance to collaborate. They bond through the shared endeavour, which goes big time thanks to Danielle’s famous uncle, and a shared fandom. The only conflict in the novella is something that’s going on for Danielle, leaving her unable to paint and unhappy.
One thing I enjoyed a lot was how Clara dealt with hearing that something was going on for Danielle, via a rumour. She knows she can look it up… but she doesn’t, and instead sends a message to Danielle explaining that she knows something is happening, but she doesn’t want to pry. It’s a really cool and respectful way to go about it, which helped smooth over something I’d have found rather awkward.
The writing is fairly simple and matter-of-fact; the dialogue and descriptions didn’t really take off for me. It’s a cute story, and I’m so glad it’s out there providing f/f representation, Jewish romance, and low-stakes happiness… but I’m afraid it probably won’t stick with me. It’s a good companion for half an hour of reading, especially because it is low-stakes: things happen which you can care about, in the way you care about your friend’s latest drama or your sister’s work issues… but it tugs lightly on the heartstrings, rather than playing one of Paganini’s Caprices.
I loved Provenance the first time I read it, focusing on Garal Ket and somewhat on Tic Uisine as being particular awesome points. I also enjoyed the gender-neutral characters included as a matter of course, and seeing something from outside the Radch, from a human point of view. Also, getting some screentime (so to speak) for the Geck! It’s all pretty awesome, but this time all of it was a background to Ingray’s journey, for me. If you’re used to Breq, she’s a much less put-together main character, and we also may feel less close to her as it isn’t a first-person narrative. Nonetheless, her journey to true self-sufficiency — and her healing from some of the wounds of a childhood spent competing with foster siblings — is great.
The book opens with her disastrous attempt to have a neman returned from Compassionate Removal (a sort of prison planet). The captain of the ship she’s about to travel on refuses to take anyone on board who isn’t fully consenting and aware of their destination, so the neman is awoken right there in the dock… and says e is not the person Ingray thought she asking for. Nonetheless, she ends up offering em the fake identity she bought to take that person home, and e ends up accepting — and throwing in with her to scam her family into believing e is the person she was hoping to find. Then the Geck get involved…
It’s an interesting society, which includes some stuff quite casually — part of adulthood is deciding on your gender and choosing your adult name! there is a third, officially recognised neutral gender! Ingray has a lesbian romance with a friend! — which I really enjoy as a) setting this planet apart from the Radch or from our own Earth, and b) the inclusiveness. The idea of the importance placed in this society upon “vestiges”, physical remnants that have been touched by one’s ancestors, is an interesting way to build up the society, too. Ingray’s relationship with her mother and brother are interesting and sad and ultimately rather affirming: despite mistakes made in the past, they remain a family and find a way through it all.
It remains a very enjoyable book, and I ate it up the second time as swiftly as I did the first. That said, if you’re looking for more of the Radch, or for a character more like Breq, this isn’t going to scratch the same itch.
Moontangled is a novella in the Harwood Spellbook world featuring two of the minor characters: Miss Banks and Miss Fennell. If you don’t remember them, they’re the two who had a clandestine relationship while Juliana attempted to learn magic and Caroline attempted to become a high-flying politician. In this world, women do politics and men learn magic, and ideal partnerships for political women are with men who can do magic. Juliana is one of the first women to learn, and Caroline… well, she’s now in disgrace because of her mentor’s failings, and she thinks it’s time to end the relationship with Juliana before it brings her down.
I’m not a big fan of the kind of misunderstanding that drives this novella: just sit down and communicate, people. It’s not that difficult, I promise you. (As I frequently joke, I am the Relationship Advice Dalek: COMM-UN-I-CATE! COMM-UN-I-CATE!) There’s ample room for it in the letters they send each other, for goodness’ sake. It doesn’t help that it’s exactly the same kind of misunderstanding as in the previous books I’ve read in this world: “I’m going to do things to protect you, including end our relationship, regardless of what you might actually want and oh, wait, what do you mean you didn’t want what I thought you wanted?”
Still, even if their misunderstanding is completely daft, their care for each other is sweet. I found the plotline a little obvious, but it’s fun to watch it play out anyway. Highly original this isn’t, but a sweet escapist romance with a touch of magic? It delivers. I read it all in one gulp when I should probably have been doing something else; it doesn’t need to be more substantial than this.