Queer Book Club: Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater

Call Down the Hawk coverThis is the first in a new trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, set in the same world as the Raven Cycle and featuring some of the same characters, particularly Ronan and Adam. Whereas the Raven Cycle focused around a group of school friends uncovering a supernatural mystery, the new trilogy focuses on the world of dreamers like Ronan, who can bring back objects from their dreams and, on the other side, people who believe them to be a serious threat to the world. The action is set after Ronan and Adam have left school and Adam has begun college, so whilst the Raven Cycle was solidly YA, this novel is at the upper end of YA, edging into adult. Genre-wise, the story sits somewhere between paranormal and fantasy.

If you read my Raven Cycle review, you’ll see I’m quite the frothing fan boy of the first series, so I was excited to get my hands on this new book. The new story has a different feel to it: the world is harsher, the stakes are higher, the action is more violent and the future feels bleak. There’s more compromise than hope as Adam, Ronan, and Ronan’s older brother, Declan, negotiate their way around living adult lives with the dangers dreaming can bring. There are new characters: Jordan Hennessey, an art forger, and the copies of herself she repeatedly dreams and brings back in a nightmare she can’t escape; Carmen Farooq-Lane, a member of a shadowy extra-governmental organisation tasked with taking out dreamers, who they believe will end the world. I particularly enjoyed Hennessy and Jordan, her first copy who she gifted with her first name, and Hennessy’s interactions with Ronan. Carmen Farooq-Lane is harder to like, but her character also shows the most growth in the space of this book and I could see her coming to a confrontation with her fellow hunters in the future.

I’ve seen Stiefvater come in for some criticism in the past for her characters being overwhelming white, and some additionally felt the Asian character in the fourth book was mishandled. Jordan Hennessy is black and Carmen Farooq-Lane is POC. It’s not really for me to say whether she succeeds with these characters, but the cast of characters feels more racially diverse than the Raven Cycle, so I’ll be interested to see reactions to them. Hennessy is also bi or pan which, although only referenced, is cool.

As an Adam/Ronan fan, it was a joy to see their story continue. Their relationship was such a lovely surprise in the Raven Cycle – one of the rare times in my life where I’ve thought I was reading a het-only story and been pleasantly surprised by an apparently incidental homoerotic vibe actually blossoming into something. Their story lines generally represent the darker elements of the original series, so it’s no surprise this shift in focus has led to a darker book. Ronan’s dreaming is explored in much more detail in this story, including the limits it places on his life. Ronan becomes trapped both by the need to dream and the need to be close to the West Virginian ley line that seems connected to him and his dreaming. We see Adam go off to college and try to reconcile the poverty and violence of his past with what he hopes will be a brighter future. The greater exploration of Declan’s life and motivations was another rewarding aspect to this story, with glimpses into the shady underworld their dreamer father frequented.

Then there’s the mysterious Bryde, an apparently powerful dreamer who haunts Ronan’s dreams, whose name is whispered with excitement in the occult underworld.

There was plenty here to pull me in, from Stiefvater’s well written, complex, morally nuanced characters, to the mysteries of the overall story arc, from Bryde to the impending dream apocalypse. I love how the dream magic is written and how everything is edged with danger. Stiefvater’s prose isn’t perfect, but it’s alive and enthralling and I found myself drawn into this story in a way that doesn’t happen all that often. The first half of the story is fairly slow in pace, in a similar way to early Raven Cycle books, but I found enough in the establishing of characters and plot to keep me involved and the slower start made for a richer story. My only criticism was that occasionally Hennessy’s Britishism sounded slightly off to my British ear. And that “crumbs” as a favourite curse word has already been claimed by Danger Mouse sidekick, Penfold, in the British children’s cartoon series, which was slightly distracting. These were minor points, though, in an overall extremely rewarding read.

As a rule, I’m not generally a fan of series where the books don’t have some sort of self-contained narrative arc, and this one very much ends on a cliffhanger, but having read the first series, I knew what to expect and know it’s worth coming along for the ride.

I think this story would probably make sense without reading the Raven Cycle. There’s enough background information fed in and enough that’s new to this trilogy that it works as its own thing. But I’m not going to be the one to recommend you don’t.

My Year in Books 2019

Year in Books 2019Here’s my Goodreads page for this year: a light one for me, as my non-fiction reading slowed me down. I’m still working on the Gothic novel that saw me digging in to some nature writing.

My Goodreads Year in Books Page 

I’d hoped to have more queer books to share. It ended up being the older ones I enjoyed more this year, though I’m still stewing over how to review Maupin’s Tales of the City, which filled me with both joy and discomfort. I’ve already reviewed my favourite, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. My plan for next year is to focus back on queer fiction again and hopefully I’ll find some more recent recommendations. I still have a few I plan to review from this year.

My top three recently published fiction novels were My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Normal People by Sally Rooney and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. My Sister, the Serial Killer was a surprisingly quick and darkly funny read for a book that deals with both murder and child abuse. It’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read. Definitely worth a look. Normal People is the story of a relationship that begins in school and goes on into adulthood. What stood out for me with this one was both the naturally flowing storytelling style and the way Rooney handles trauma and other mental illness. I’m a fan of Ottessa Mosfegh’s Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a woman’s wilful descent into narcotic annihilation – another darkly funny story that, like Eileen, takes the ugliness and awkwardness of existence head on. (None of these have queer characters, I should mention.)

My favourite horror read was The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, a disturbing story of a village where the women have died and the arrival of The Beauty, a species of fungus people who the villagers hope will replace them. The story is full of primal fear and the precariousness of existence, and underneath, darker currents around desire, gender roles and body horror.

I’m currently snuggled up with a copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Call Down the Hawk, a little Christmas present to myself. I’m a big fan of her Raven Cycle, and this is the first of a new trilogy set in the same world, with some of the same characters. There’s no way I’m going to finish it today, so that’ll have to wait until next year. I’m enjoying it so far and am fairly confident there’ll be a review coming soon.

All the best for the New Year.

 

Queer Book Club: The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch coverThe Night Watch is an adult historical fiction novel with four point of view characters; it begins in 1947 and goes back in time, through 1944, to 1941. I adored Fingersmith, so I’ve no idea why it’s taken me so long to pick up another of Waters’ books. I’m glad I did.

This book was first published in 2006 – not a new one, but new to me. It reads beautifully and I found myself immediately immersed in the world of post-war Britain. The backwards chronology has the effect of creating a puzzle out of the characters’ pasts, but for me that wasn’t the most intriguing factor about moving back in time, but rather the ways we see the characters as almost different people at different times and so clearly shaped by their circumstances. Some thrive in the war, others are nearly destroyed by it – none of the narratives are obvious, they all hold surprises and challenge reader assumptions, and catching myself making those assumptions added another level of interest to the story.

The narrative is split between Kay, Helen, Viv and her brother Duncan. Kay thrives in wartime, where her traditionally male clothing and dynamic ambulance driving are welcomed. Post-war, Kay is broken by the loss of her role and the loss of her lover to a wartime romance. Helen is her ex-lover, an outwardly calm and confident woman who is overwhelmed by insecurities and jealousy in private. Viv is another who indulged in a wartime romance, but with a married man. After the war, she can’t seem to move on with her life. Duncan is sensitive and vulnerable, drawn to more forceful personalities who can easily overwhelm him. I’m wary of saying a lot about Duncan’s story for fear of giving away spoilers, as I think his is the storyline with the most unexpected twists and perhaps the most complicated personal relationships. My enjoyment was very much enhanced by being completely in the dark about the ins and outs of the characters’ pasts, so I won’t give more away.

The book is a feast of queer representation, with varied complex and nuanced characterisations and relationships. There’s a really beautiful subtlety to the observations of how people are shaped by time and place, and by those around them. Some really stunning historical scene-setting adds to the atmosphere. There are also many astute observations about the clash of personal gender expression, gender roles and societal pressures.

Looking at my back catalogue of reviews, it will be obvious I’ve a weak spot for quality historical fiction, and this definitely ticks my boxes on that front. I particularly appreciate queer historical fiction, given the straight-washing of much history and fiction. I would unreservedly recommend this book and will definitely be picking up more Sarah Waters.

Queer Book Club: Proxy by Alex London

Proxy coverAs promised, it’s a Queer Book Club review!

Proxy is a young adult science fiction novel set in a dystopian future where the poor pay off their debts by acting as whipping boys for the children of the rich. And when everything costs money – from your care as an orphan, to your education, essential tech and healthcare – debt is impossible to avoid, as the main character, Syd, has found. Syd is a proxy for Knox, the son of a wealthy Patron, head of the biggest security company. And Knox has some serious daddy issues that land Syd in constant trouble. Then Knox crashes his car and kills someone and the boys must go on the run if Syd is to survive.

I originally picked this book up for my (12 year old) son, but it turned out to be a bit old for him, so I read it instead. I enjoyed that it felt like proper sci-fi, not romance with a sci-fi skin. The main character is gay, but there’s not even a whiff of romantic sub-plot. Knox is possibly pansexual, though that’s not 100% clear. The book is extremely fast paced – most of it is some sort of chase scene – and the characters don’t have time for anything on the side. I was cool with the matter-of-fact handling of Syd’s sexuality and that it was a part of his story, but not the whole story. However, the pacing did feel a little too fast in places, for me at least, keeping in mind I’m not the target audience. I’d have liked more time to get to know the characters in between them escaping their certain doom. I enjoyed Syd and Knox’s interaction and watching them grow, but I could have handled a lot more of that.

Another positive for me was the treatment of debt in this world. I’ve not seen that really tackled head on as a main theme and this book certainly brings home the soul-crushing nature of unavoidable debt and extreme economic inequality in a very timely manner. The world is dark and violent, so it’s at the older end of the YA age spectrum.

The main plot doesn’t really get going properly until halfway through, as Syd starts off clueless about a lot of things, and there was a point after that where I wasn’t totally sure the plot makes sense (I’m still not), but I decided to roll with it and carry on. Without spoilering, it edges into chosen-one territory, which isn’t my favourite thing, but I understand it is a big thread running through a lot of YA.

I should warn anyone thinking of picking up a copy that the ending doesn’t pull its punches, so if you like your endings happy, be warned. I haven’t picked up the sequel yet, so I can’t comment on that. I expect I will one day as I’m curious to see how the plot falls out. I’d say this is worth reading for the themes it presents and if you’d like to read a YA sci-fi novel with a gay character and no romance, which, let’s face it, is pretty rare. But it’s definitely one for people who favour action over character.

Update: Poetry Tarot and More Queer Book Club

rainbow books close up

Need more green queer books! (Image belongs to Ambrose Hall.)

It’s been one heavy year-and-a-bit for me and I’ve slacked off on the blogging while focusing on other things. But I’m missing it. The other day, I happened to look at the stats for this blog and was surprised to find that, despite my absence, people still visit every day. I always hoped my index of queer book reviews would be a helpful resource, so it’s great to see it being used. Maybe it’s time to add to it.

So, I’m going to get back to writing reviews of queer books I read: that’s, by my definition, any book with significant queer characters in it, of any genre. (Or LGBTQIA+ characters, if you prefer.) I’m hoping particularly to root out some good queer horror and dark fiction from the past 10 years. As always, I’ll only review books I feel broadly positive about. I’ve been scouring genre lists in preparation. I’ll include some recent and some older books. I won’t be bankrupting myself buying piles of expensive hardbacks, so I make no claims that this will be a “latest books” resource, but I will make sure to include more recent books.

In writing news, I’m pleased to share that I’ve just had a poem accepted for the blood orange tarot. As a secular tarot enthusiast, I’m really excited to be part of this project. The poem comes from a month’s poetry challenge I did in November with a couple of poet friends on Scribophile (online writing community). It was a Chapbook Challenge (courtesy of Juliette van der Molen at Mookychick). I didn’t manage 30 poems, but as an occasional poet, I was very pleased with the 16 I wrote.

All My Fiction Publicly Visible on Medium

I’ve not been writing a whole lot of shorter work recently, as I’ve been focusing more on longer projects, but I’ve decided to make all my work on Medium publicly visible.

You can find my stories and poetry on my profile here: https://medium.com/@ambrosehall

Or you can access it through this collated list I’ve made: https://medium.com/@ambrosehall/a-collection-of-curious-things-475cb2d8d8cc . There’s a mixture of genres and subject matter, so this might be the easiest way to navigate.

I hope you enjoy reading my stories.

Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales (on Medium)

child readingMyths, folklore and fairy tales have a big influence on my writing. This is my first foray into non-fiction on Medium: “Why Telling Queer Myths, Folklore and Fairy Tales is an Act of Healing”. It’s a mixture of personal experience, writing about writing, and reflections on the impact of queer representation (or lack of) in the stories we grow up with. You can read it for free, it’s not behind a paywall. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, too.

Short Story: Falling, Parts 1-4

black snake scalesI’ve posted all four parts of my new short story, “Falling,” on Medium. Here’s a short excerpt from the beginning and a friend link to all parts below, so you can read them for free if you’re not a Medium member.

His body stretches across the Cour Napoleon, surrounded by the rubble his fall has made, the cracked stone and concrete. If he moves a leg, his foot will crash through the glass pyramid, but he’s still. He must move. He must shrink his vast body to fit the proportions of the mortal world. But he can’t find the will required. A light breeze ruffles the feathers of his wings.

Few in the crowds of tourists can bear it. Some have fallen to their knees and are openly weeping in the street. Most turn away, gather up their loved ones and return home, or the closest haven they can find. One or two hardened souls point their iPhones at him. He sheds tears for them, for their lost awe and wonder, these maimed souls. His tears puddle beneath his face.

A hand touches his arm. A small hand, but he knows it doesn’t belong to a human.

“Gabriel.”

Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. There are also friend links within each part that you can use to navigate by. I hope you enjoy the story.

Check out the hosting publication, The Mad River, for stories and poems of magic and madness. They have a Dark and Holy Writing Challenge coming up.

Short story: Falling on Medium

 

white feathersGabriel has fallen to Earth and God has left his throne. Read Part 1 of Falling.

I’ve just had the first two parts of my short story, Falling, published in The Mad River on Medium. It’s four parts in total and will all be published in the next few days. I’ll stick links to the whole thing up here when it’s finished. (Medium have created new friend links to get past the paywall, so I can now share those here, but the first part is free, anyway.)

Falling is a story of queer angels, old gods, syncretism, identity and social media tribalism. Some sort of hybrid mythic sci-fi mix. (I’m not very good at sticking in one genre, but I’ve really blown the envelope up here.) I hope you enjoy it. Most of my short stories have been coming out pretty long this year, so this is a bit of experiment in posting a longer work in parts, to see how it goes.

Flash Fiction in Infernal Ink Magazine

Here’s some horror for the month of October. Infernal Ink Magazine has published my flash fiction, “Doll Parts”, in the Fall/Winter issue. It’s a little erotic horror story about a rubber doll.

Here’s the blurb for the magazine. Please be aware that this is an adult magazine of erotic horror and contains some extreme content. The stories and poems are mostly not queer. (My story is gender-bendy.) My poet friend, Kristin Garth, who I interviewed on this blog a little while ago, has one of her sonnets in this edition too.

Infernal Ink Magazine Fall/Winter 2018

IIM Cover Fall-Winter 2018 smallr

Infernal Ink Magazine is a literary magazine with a focus on publishing extremely dark and violent adult fiction and poetry. Consider your triggers warned.
In this issue we have our interview with musician and vocalist David Ingram, who discusses with us music, life, and Dr. Who. In the “The Author Bordello” we have Rajeev Singh, author of The Erotic Muse. In addition to this we have fiction and poetry from Thomas R. Skidmore, Sean Mulroy, Kristin Garth, Sidney Williams, Michael David, Matt Scott, Douglas Ford, Wendy A Rohn, Victor H. Rodriguez, Ashley Dioses, Jaap Boekestein, Ambrose Hall, J.B. Toner, and an anonymous poet.
This magazine contains adult content and themes and is not meant for readers under eighteen years of age.