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A Bunch of Brief Reviews

Wednesday, March 2, 2022 - 07:00

I’m feeling trapped between my (entirely personal, self-made) commitment to review (almost) all the media I consume, and how thoroughly behind I am at doing so. Hence, my all-in-one micro-review roundup, in which I give my impressions of everything on my “to review” list since last June. It may take me a couple more days to transfer these into the various review sites.

Short story: “At Words Point” by Carolyn Elizabeth – a teaser story set in the world of her Caribbean pirates novel The Raven and the Banshee. Like most f/f pirate stories, a bit light on history and heavy on swashbuckling. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like it.

Audiobook: City of Brass (book 1 in the Daevabad series) by S.A. Chakraborty – epic fantasy in an alternate and magical Near East, focused largely on the internecine conflicts of the various djinn tribes. Very atmospheric, although I felt the central plot-line was formulaic and I kept wanting to give the female protagonist a good shake.

Audiobook: Network Effect (part of the Murderbot series) by Martha Wells – a highly praised series that many of my friends are devoted fans of. I guess I can see the appeal? But it was a bit too much action-thriller for me. Much like my reaction to superhero movies, I wish I could filter out the loving technical depictions of battles and just get the characters and their interactions.

Audiobook: Rosemary and Rue (book 1 in the October Daye series) by Seanan McGuire – urban fantasy overlaying the world of the fae onto the SF Bay area, with its roots in the hardboiled detective genre. Very imaginative with intricate worldbuilding. It doesn’t hit my sweet spot largely because of that “hardboiled detective” thing. I just don’t care for “we going to throw endless amounts of physical and psychological damage at our protagonist to continually raise the stakes.”

Non-fiction: The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger – literary analysis of a story structure that runs in different lines from the “hero’s journey.” A great work of analysis aimed at those who want to analyze or write fiction. This book helped me take a structural look at some of the things I do in my own fiction and gave me tools to talk about those things. Recommended.

Move: Elisa & Marcela – based on the real life story of two women who married (one while presenting as a man) in early 20th century Spain. There’s a lot of angst and trauma, though if I follow the ending correctly, the two do stay together after emigrating. (Though I’m not sure if that part is accurate to the historic figures?) Not a happy movie but not entirely a tragic one either.

Audiobook: The Wife in the Attic by Rose Lerner – sapphic reconfiguration of Jane Eyre with an extremely gothic flavor. This had me riveted to my earbuds and biting my nails through to the final chapter. Very well written and gripping. Don’t mistake this for “a romance” but the erotic relationship between the two women is central to, and drives, the plot. Content note for various types of abuse, violence, and gaslighting.

Short fiction: “Mary’s Secret Desire” by Tilda Templeton – sapphic Jane Austen fan-fiction in which Mary Crawford (of Mansfield Park) falls in with a lesbian sex club masquerading as an order of nuns. Ridiculous from a historical point of view and the writing is stiff and awkward. Basically an excuse for some erotic scenes.

Novel: Lucas by Elna Holst – another entry in my “sapphic takes on Jane Austen” binge. This novel builds on the premise that Charlotte Lucas (of Pride and Prejudice) now Mrs. Collins, harbored a secret and never expressed passion for Lizzie Bennet. Having resigned herself to Lizzie’s happiness as Mrs. Darcy, and deeply unhappy and unsatisfied in her own marriage, she finds herself falling for the sister of the local doctor, a woman with a mysterious and ultimately horrifying backstory. A somewhat uncomfortable psychological novel, though structurally satisfying as a romance. But there were several plot twists and backstory scenarios that stretched my willing disbelief to the breaking point. The writing is quite good, though.

Novel: Gay Pride and Prejudice by Kate Cristie – see previous note about sapphic Austin binge. This adaptation does something that simply does not work for me: taking the existing text of P&P and making minor modifications to tell a slightly different story. The premise that Caroline Bingley’s real issue with Lizzie Bennet was that she was madly in love with her, and that the close friendship between Darcy and Bingley was a bit more than friendship, has some intriguing potential. But this version of that premise was simply lazy and pointless.

Novel: The Heiress by Molly Greeley – the best of the sapphic Austen lot. What’s the real story behind the sickly and nearly invisible Anne de Bourgh (of Pride and Prejudice)? Greeley begins with the premise that Anne was the victim of a laudanum addiction, begun to quiet a colicky infant and continued through young adulthood because her withdrawal symptoms were interpreted as a medical crisis. After she decides to take charge of her own life and beats the addiction with the help of a cousin, Anne finds happiness in the arms of a female companion. Not structured as a romance novel, but definitely has a happy ending. The writing is marvelous and evocative and the author captures the context of passionate friendship in a believable way.

Short fiction: Complementary by Celia Lake – an f/f volume in an ongoing series  about a magical society embedded in the “real world” and responsible for taking care of unfortunate magical “incidents.” A sweet mystery set in an artists’ colony in the early 20th century, with a parallel plot about two women discovering that they fit into each other’s lives very comfortably. Well-written with an interesting series premise. The world-building didn’t quite grab me enough to pursue other books in the series, but I very much enjoyed this one and it can reasonably stand alone.

Audiobook: A Study in Scarlet Women (book 1 in the Lady Sherlock series) by Sherry Thomas. I picked this up when browsing included-in-membership titles in Audible and recalled hearing the author talk about the series on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Podcast show. (I’m pretty sure I’m remembering that connection correctly.) The premise is that the famous Sherlock Holmes was entirely a creation of Charlotte Holmes, who needed an outlet for her compulsive analysis of the world (and a way to support herself after deliberately becoming a “fallen woman” to avoid family expectations). The series has some interesting representation. Charlotte comes across as aromantic and somewhere on the autistic spectrum. One of her sisters has crippling anxiety, while another has an intellectual handicap, and Charlotte is trying to find a way to provide loving support for them as well as a way to make her own living in the face of their parents’ condemnation and disavowing her. The narrative has a non-linear structure, with bits and pieces not only of the mystery but of Charlotte’s backstory being revealed gradually in unreliable ways. For me, this was compounded a bit by consuming it in audiobook, so I couldn’t flip back and forth to compare passages as details were revealed. I ended up listening to the entire book over again to figure out exactly what had happened. Fortunately, this was no hardship because the book is extremely well written and the characters—though occasionally maddening—are likeable and intriguing. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I’ve picked up the next two books in the series, also in audiobook.

Novel: The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (book 2 in the Feminine Pursuits series) by Olivia Waite. Waite is doing some really fun things with non-standard heroines in her Regency-era sapphic romance series. This is very well written and has realistic and enjoyable protagonists, with a slate of similarly interesting side characters. If the book has a flaw, it’s that there were far too many side-plots going on. There were times the narrative flow seemed to lose momentum, and one aspect of the eventual social crisis broke my suspension of disbelief a little, though not due to any fault in the history. (I do wish the series had a better cover designer or at least a budget for models with more appropriate clothing. The cover models look like their wearing a 21st century business suit and a prom dress respectively. Honestly, it doesn’t say “historical” to me.)

Audiobook Series: Sins of the City (An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice, and An Unsuitable Heir) by K.J. Charles. I knew that K.J. Charles was a giant figure in m/m historical romance, but her one f/f novella that I’d encountered (Proper English) was pleasant but a bit thin. My tour through Audible’s free-with-membership titles led me to try this Victorian-era series to see what the fuss was about. And…wow, Charles blew me away with her mastery of complex characterization and interwoven plots. I wish this same talent had shone through in Proper English so I might have tried more titles earlier. (I do have to say that the sex scenes are intensely “meh” for me. Just not interested in that level of detail, and sex scenes don’t really do anything for me in general. So the fact that the writing makes me willing to set that aside is a significant recommendation.) At this point, I figure I’ll eventually make my way through all of Charles’ catalog. In fact…

Audiobook Series: Society of Gentlemen (A Fashionable Indulgence, A Seditious Affair, A Gentleman’s Position, short fiction “The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh”) by K.J. Charles. This one’s a Regency-era series, revolving around a close and mutually protective social circle of upper class men who love men. Basically the same comments as before: masterful characterization, great historical setting, finds the balance between accurate portrayal of the social realities while writing happily-ever-after romances…and, once again, the sex scenes simply aren’t my thing but I’m willing to put up with them for all the rest. Speaking of which…

Novel series: A Charm of Magpies (The Magpie Lord, Jackdaw) – there are more in the series that I haven’t ready yet. This one is another Victorian-era series, but with a magical twist. In the first book, a magician and an aristocrat with a magical heritage who have every reason to dislike and distrust each other must combine forces to fight a common enemy. Oh, and they might need to fight their mutual attraction along the way. Same basic review as before. This series has a few more interested female side characters than the previous two series.

Moving on to other authors…

Novel: Scales and Sensibility (book 1 of Regency Dragons) by Stephanie Burgis. Burgis does very well with light-hearted comedy of manners books with magical Regency settings. This one starts a series with the premise “what if Jane Austen…but with shoulder-dragons?” Our heroine is not only an exploited poor cousin, driven to run away with the pet dragon her cousin simply must have as the ornament for her coming-out ball, but now she finds herself back in her cousin’s home under an enchantment that makes her appear to be a domineering figure of high society. A fun romp, with a very Austenesque sense of human frailties, though perhaps a bit too driven by the characters’ utter refusal to confide in each other at key points. But I have yet to read anything by Burgis that wasn’t delightful. Speaking of which…

Short story: “Spellcloaked” by Stephanie Burgis (#2.75 in the Harwood Spellbook series). A bit of a coda to the events of Moontangled and probably not very comprehensible without having read that book. This atmospheric sketch provides closure and the deserved happy ending to two side characters from that novel. Feel-good magical sapphic Regency stuff.

Non-fiction: Medieval Underpants and other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn. The intent of this book is to provide a guide to writers of historic fiction in how to avoid silly blunders in their historical world-building. I picked it up largely because, having written a research paper on the topic of medieval women’s underpants (or lack thereof), I was curious to see Alleyn’s take on how to approach historic accuracy. Unfortunately, for all its good intent and useful tips, I’m not sure this book will go over well with the well-meaning but clueless beginning writers it purports to be intended for. There’s a bit too much of an arch snideness that suggests its real audience is “those of us who know better and can laugh at the silly blunders other people make.” That attitude is ok for a private chat channel where you can vent your frustrations with other experts, but it’s a bit unhelpful and cruel when done in public.

Audiobook: Hell’s Belle by Marie Castle. I picked this up from Audible somewhat on a whim, although contemporary paranormal isn’t usually my thing, but Marie Castle and I were almost debut-sisters at Bella Books, with this book coming out one month before my own debut novel. I think this book is aimed at a reader who wants a much higher constant level of erotic tension in their fiction than I enjoy. The basic premise involves a hereditary line of witches, some unfortunate (or fortunate?) leaks between the fabric of parallel universes, and a plethora of magical races coexisting in our contemporary world, with all the awkward social work-arounds that sort of arrangement requires. Our heroine spends a lot of time either getting nearly killed in magical encounters, or dealing with the consequences of supernaturally-induced horniness. The writing is ok, but the overall tone is simply Not My Thing.

Novel: Her Lady to Love (not sure if this is a series or just a group of unrelated books in the same era?) by Jane Walsh. Sapphic regency romance, which by rights ought to be my catnip, but I stopped reading halfway through (and had been skimming for half of that). This book had two main problems for me. One was that there is very little awareness of the social and economic forces that underpinned Regency society. I mean, we all make allowances for the protagonists of Regency romances to be extraordinary within their setting, but they still need to be plausible. Very little about the heroine’s family context or voiced expectations made any sense for the era. The attitudes and interactions felt very “modern people dressed in costume.” And on top of that, I simply didn’t like the protagonist as a person. I could find no reason to root for her to get her happy ending. I really wish I could have like this book more, especially given that the author appears to be on quite a roll with three sapphic Regencies out as of this month and a fourth on the way.

Novella?: Highland Hogmanay by Meg Mardell. This is Mardell’s second annual holiday-themed queer historical and I hope it continues to be an annual occasion. (I wouldn’t even mind something more frequent.) A runaway heiress, a mistaken identity, and a Scottish highland estate in desperate need of a more diligent landlord make for a sapphic romance worthy of a Hallmark movie. Mardell’s writing is solid and the delightful characters make one willing to ignore a few petty little plot-holes.

Audiobook: Elatsoe by Darcie Littlebadger. I added this contemporary YA fantasy to my queue knowing I was going to be on a convention panel with the author at Worldcon. In a “slightly stranger America” full of magical creatures and abilities, Elatsoe has a talent passed on from her Lipan Apache heritage to raise the ghosts of dead animals. When her cousin is killed, she doubts it’s the accident that it first appears and—with the support and wisdom of her extended family—uses her talents to uncover the truth. An enjoyable (if occasionally macabre) story with fabulous worldbuilding and casual asexual representation in the protagonist.

I have a couple more items on my “to review” list, but it’s bedtime and better to call this complete for now than to wait and then fail to post it.

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