Evie 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!
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.
This is Kind of An Epic Love Story, Kacen Callender
This book is very much YA, which I expected, so it was a nice choice when I didn’t feel like I had much focus, and it proved to be a really quick read. What drew me to it was that the love interest, Ollie, is deaf and uses sign language, and I read from reviews that the narrative explains the signs a couple of times and then expects you to remember them. I’m not super visual, so I thought that might be tricky, but I definitely wanted to see how it worked out.
The main character and narrator, Nate, isn’t deaf, but he learned some sign from Ollie when they were younger. Ollie moved away — and left their friendship rather broken-off, as it ended with Nate trying to kiss Ollie and Ollie running the heck away — but now he’s back, just as Nate’s broken up with his best friend, Flo. Ollie’s still trying to make a long-distance relationship work, but Nate can’t help but hope they can pick things back up again…
The sign language thing was really well done; even if you’re not great at actually picking up and remembering the signs, the context does tell you what’s happening, without repeatedly translating the same signs over and over. It also avoids translating directly from sign to English, though it supplements the signs it describes by the boys typing messages to each other via their phones.
The teenage web of friendships are all pretty well done, too; I could totally believe in Flo and Nate’s awkwardness with each other, and their slow feeling out of the new boundaries, and I believed in their little group of friends. It’s mostly sort of sketched in, but the sketch works.
I found Nate’s repeated fatalism rather grating, in some ways — every time something doesn’t go his way in some tiny way, he just gives up on it… but that’s kind of the point of the story, so you have to bear with it a bit. I thought Flo and Nate’s friendship was sweet, for all its ups and downs; Ollie’s probably too good for Nate, but maybe Nate’s starting to learn, at the end…
I found myself kinda wrong-footed by the total lack of homophobia anywhere in the book. I don’t know how representative of a teen experience it is now, but my teens were completely swallowed by the homophobia of other kids and people around me. Sure, that’s 12 years ago, and in a conservative sort of school which only let girls start to attend a couple of years before I joined the school… But it felt very weird to read a book where homophobia was just not a problem. I know why some authors prefer to do it — and I’d like to think maybe it is people’s experience now — but it was really pretty odd to be reading a certain sort of YA, expecting it at every turn of the page, and just… not finding it. Not a bad weird! Just weird.
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.)
This was an impulse purchase that worked out very well for me! Alva Webster is notorious, a widow who supposedly held orgiastic parties right before her husband was murdered. She’s moved back to the US after his death, has bought a house called Liefdehuis, and wants to re-design it and create a lovely place to live… while writing a book about the process aimed at middle-class people. They’ll buy her book because of her notoriety, she reasons, and then some will enjoy her work.
She runs into Sam Moore, a scientist, who really wants to look into the local folklore surrounding Liefdehuis. There’s a ghost, supposedly, and he’s eager to put that to the test. Alva’s not keen, but is eventually driven to seeking him out for that.
If you’re a fan of the Veronica Speedwell books, I suspect this would be up your alley. Alva is a bit less independent than Veronica, partly due to her rather traumatic past, but there’s a kinship there. The love interest, Sam, is just a delight — bright and optimistic most of the time, oblivious to the stupidest societal things, protective and full of love. I could maybe wish Alva was a little less tentative in some things, but some of the breakthroughs of the story are hers and her slow but sure understanding that her past is done is well done. Sam’s family are also a delight, and I could definitely wish for a few more books with them and Henry…
The book does contain references to domestic violence, and some violent scenes. Alva is blackmailed, and her family are also abusive (though more in a neglectful sort of way). There are several fairly explicit sex scenes, which do somewhat further the relationship between Alva and Sam, but are probably skippable too. I don’t know enough about the period to say whether it’s historically accurate, but it felt like there was some license being taken about how Alva’s servants (for instance) would react.
I normally love Susanna Kearsley’s work, in much the same way as I love Mary Stewart’s, but The Firebird didn’t really work for me. I stalled out halfway through, and then eked my way through a couple of hundred pages before I found my way back into it again. Partly it might have been mood, but partly I think it was the structure: The Firebird follows Nicola, in the present, as she searches out the history of an item for a client, and a girl called Anna, in the past — the girl who once was given the item, a firebird, by the Empress Catherine.
I was interested in both the historical fiction and in Nicola figuring out her issues — including her psychic talent, which sits sort of awkwardly next to the grounded reality of the historical plot — but… well, that’s the problem, I think: for me, it sat oddly. The time wasn’t evenly divided between the two, with odd stops and starts of action and then long, long stretches spent with the past.
I don’t mind the past/present juxtaposition in principle, and there are books that pull it off. This one, though, just didn’t come together for me, and I didn’t remember enough about the other books this one is related to in order to be pleased by the cameos and references, either. A bit sad, honestly; I wanted to love it. I think there’s a lot there for other folks, particularly those interested in the Scottish and Russian parts, and there’s a solid romance as well, in both the historical story and the part set in more-or-less the present.
I had really fond memories of Nine Coaches Waiting, and while I wasn’t wholly wrong that I enjoyed it a lot, it wasn’t as great as I remembered — perhaps because I found that the tension was drawn out just a little too long, and the fiendish plot of the bad guy a little too convoluted. It took a while to get to the payoff of the scenes between Linda and Raoul as they find their understanding… though the payoff is pretty fun, classically dramatic as it is.
Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Linda is the protagonist, a half-English half-French girl orphaned quite young, and travelling to take up a post as a governess to a small boy in France. There’s something a bit weird about it all, including the suggestion that they don’t want her to be able to speak French… but she needs to escape her boring life of teaching in England. The boy she becomes governess to is shy, unhappy, orphaned himself — and his guardians don’t seem to like him, and have a rather proprietary attitude to the house and grounds he actually owns, and which they only take care of during his minority.
It takes quite a few suspicious accidents to really put Linda on the alert, though, and in the meantime she falls in love with the son of her charge’s guardians. I felt like, reading it this time, this relationship really wasn’t given room to breathe at all; that’s the case with all of Mary Stewart’s books, to be honest, and I don’t know why it struck me so much here — perhaps because, at over 400 pages, you’d expect a bit more depth.
What Mary Stewart always did well was evoke a sense of place, and she does beautifully here, from the house to the woodland to the little village; I can never “picture” anything, but she doesn’t just describe anyway. She can also make you feel a place, and it works here, from the woodlands to the house to the little villages.
Still a very enjoyable read, but not as great as I’d remembered, anyway; perhaps it’s best if you read it all in one go, which this time I didn’t. Maybe I just had too much time to quibble!
A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth outing in the Veronica Speedwell series, and is much like the other books: a quick, fun, fairly anachronistic read which somehow still manages to sink its claws into me and make me desperate to read more. Veronica and Stoker continue to be absolute soulmates, and the obvious romantic arc continues beautifully here… though we also get to see more of Stoker’s elder brother, Tiberius, and what really moves him.
(The bit about their obvious romantic arc is not to say that I don’t wish they could’ve remained platonic. Reading Veronica as aromantic would make a lot of sense with some of her previous statements and dalliances, and it’s always kind of cool to read something where a man and a woman can just be friends. That said, Deanna Raybourn was obviously going to go there, so it’s misplaced to fret about wishing it’d steer away from the romance!)
The setting is fun as well, being relatively constrained. No dashing about London here, but instead an exploration of an old castle on an island, and the old mystery of a young bride who disappeared on her wedding day a few years before. I’ll admit I kind of called it, for no reason other than a kneejerk reaction, because I immediately suspected a character so ubiquitous and *nice* sounding.
It’ll be interesting to see how the events at the end of the book impact the next. I’m hoping it isn’t bloody Jack the Ripper, though. That would be a cliché too far for me, most likely… though who knows? I practically eat these books up with a spoon; it’ll take something egregious to shake me.
I don’t usually get on well with books that are meant to be funny, or books described as satirical, but The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo was great fun. Jade (or Geok Huay, but Jade is a translation and the name she uses in Britain) has a great voice: it took me ages to decide what it reminded me of, until I saw someone else mention I Capture the Castle. Yep, really quite like that, though I think also I’m being reminded of Mori from Jo Walton’s Among Others… there’s something in the curious, practical, analytical tone (not divorced from dreaming, but approaching things with a sort of scientific curiosity) that is both endearing and entertaining.
The story does feature one moment of the sort of horrible miscommunication that makes me writhe with second-hand embarrassment… but Jade’s voice carries it beautifully, and though I wasn’t passionately interested in how things turned out for her (actually, I felt it could be entertaining no matter what), I was glad that she had her happy ever after. And in the meantime, I thought the descriptions of kissing with the guy she doesn’t really have any feelings for were quite hilarious:
In ordinary kissing one aligns one’s lips with the kissee’s lips, and presses them together, but in well – i can’t think of a better term – in sex kissing the insides of one’s mouth is involved, and it is quite difficult to make it so the respective lips are aligned. One folds one’s lips on top of the other’s. But caution is required: if everyone’s lips stray too far beyond the mouth it gets very damp and one feels as if one is being eaten by an excessively friendly lion.
And that is exactly why french kissing baffles me quite a bit, on a personal level, though I know very well that others don’t see it in quite such mechanistic bodies-are-silly ways. It’s such a great way of showing both the lack of emotion between the two characters involved (at least on Jade’s side), and Jade’s general attitude to sex.
All in all, very fun, and often funny — even to me, and I hardly have a sense of humour.
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!