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.

Queer Book Club: Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Regeneration cover

An actual book review from me, for a change. I’m rather late to the party with these ones, as they were published in the 90s, and the first one has since been made into a film, but I enjoyed them so much I thought I’d dust off my reviewing hat and recommend them here. I’ll cover the whole trilogy in one review, as I read them back to back in a frenzy of enthusiasm, and would now probably fail to separate them very well. The trilogy is adult historical fiction, comprised of: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

The trilogy is set during WW1 and begins in the Craiglockheart Hospital, where Dr W.H.R. Rivers is treating soldiers experiencing battlefield trauma. The characters are a mixture of historical figures, including Rivers, and the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, as well as fictional characters, such as Billy Prior, who becomes the focus of the second and third novels in the trilogy. The trilogy doesn’t shirk from featuring the sexuality of the characters, particularly as the trilogy progresses.

What I liked most about this trilogy is the way Barker tackles the subject matter with compassion, but not sentimentality. The characters are complex, often difficult, and morally conflicted. There are no easy answers served up for any of them, and their understanding, both of themselves and the world around them is always a hard-won thing. Billy is a brilliantly drawn character—acutely aware of the class divide he awkwardly straddles, as an officer from a working class background, at peace with his bisexuality, but troubled by his sadistic desires, wryly self-aware of his own limitations in some ways, whilst self-deluding in other ways. Whilst the portrayals of the historical figures were interesting and well done, it was Billy that really made the trilogy for me.

This is human nature, in all its messy complexity. These books have gone straight onto my list of favourites. I can’t recommend them enough.

More queer fiction reviews coming up in the near future, as I have some on my reading pile.

Happy New Year

Wishing all my readers a Happy New Year and good things to come in 2018.

I have lots of final edits to complete in the first half of the year, from my 1920s Lovecraftian horror novel to a fantasy-romance novella with a trans main character. No more avoiding editing by starting new projects! My reading from last year is a weird mix of horror and romance, reflecting my writing projects, with some historical fiction and a few other genres thrown in the mix for variety. Here’s my cute year in view page on Goodreads. At least no one can ever accuse me of getting stuck in a genre rut with my reading choices.

My other plans for this year are to complete my vampire trilogy with a final novella and start a new novel exploring trauma and self-discovery. I want to really push myself with that project and try new narrative techniques and writing styles. I’m going to keep going with the short fiction on Medium, as well, as I love sharing work there with other writers and it’s a good way to try new things and keep my work fresh. If you haven’t given Medium a look, check it out. They pay writers, which makes them okay in my book.

Good luck with all your plans and goals for the New Year.

Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

Queer Book Club: Every Day by David Levithan

every-day-cover

Every Day is YA speculative fiction. Every morning, A wakes up to find themself in a different life, in a different body. They spend only a day in each person’s body and then move on. A has always moved from life to life, unable to make long-term relationships, careful not to leave a lasting mark on the lives they touch. But then they meet Rhiannon and fall in love and everything changes.

Every Day was a random second-hand bookshop find for me, although I read and enjoyed another Levithan book earlier in the year (you can find the review in the index), so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Each life that A touches was well realised, a brief glimpse into someone else’s reality. Levithan jumps from life to life with incredible skill.

A is effectively gender fluid, taking on the gender of the person whose life they’re borrowing. They’re also pansexual/bisexual. I’m not sure why there is a male pronoun used in the blurb as A is explicit about not identifying with one gender more than another in the story. Probably marketing department shenanigans. Gender is handled quite subtly for most of the story—for A it’s not that big a deal, but it’s clear in the way the A interacts with others that their varied experience has given them a lot of empathy for others. This particularly comes across in A’s concern for the way that Rhiannon is treated and devalued by her shitty boyfriend and there’s a nice feminist undercurrent to that. There’s a little more explicit gender reflection towards the end and in some ways I preferred the more subtle gender and identity stuff because the whole model for the story gives ample opportunity for that sort of reflection. The trans person that A hops into towards the end becomes a bit of a vehicle for this. I liked the diverse representation (and overall there is plenty), but found it a bit odd that this was the only character that got an enormous coming out back story.

The only thing that is missing for me in the story is a little more existential reflection from A. There is a little, but as the whole set-up is such a huge opportunity for that, I think more big questions could have been asked. There are some slightly bland generalisations about people being 98% similar and religions all being similar which I was fairly ambivalent about. I guess that the big questions of existence are just something Levithan didn’t want to go near, maybe so as not to alienate people, so the story keeps a tight focus on personal experience and identity. Having said that, I’m happy that no explanation is provided for A’s hopping, though I’m sure it would drive some readers nuts.

This is worth reading for the deft way Levithan realises the different lives that A glimpses. Each chapter is a day and there are so many different experiences brought to life in the story. For me that’s really the main attraction of the book.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castle-coverThe one name in horror I’m recommended more than any other is Shirley Jackson. This is reckoned to be her best novel, so I picked up a copy. Here’s a review of a gothic horror modern classic for Halloween.

Published in 1962, We have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the two remaining Blackwood sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat). They live with their Uncle Julian in the large old family home. The other members of the Blackwood family died six years ago, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar for dessert. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the shadow of guilt hangs over her. Suspicious of Constance, and resentful their late parents high-handedness, the local villagers treat the Blackwood sisters with simmering hostility. Then cousin Charles comes to stay, sniffing around the family safe, and their fragile, reclusive world begins to crumble.

The narration, from Merricat’s point of view, captures the paranoid, agoraphobic mood perfectly. Merricat is obsessive and painfully isolated from the outside world. She collects objects and performs her own form of magic, placing little fetishes about the family estate to ward off the sense of doom she feels. But Merricat’s paranoia isn’t completely unjustified. The hostility the villagers feel towards the family is real, waiting all the time to bubble up, and Merricat is acutely aware of that. The relationship between the sisters is close to the point of possessive interdependency—Constance does for Merricat the ordinary functions that she can’t cope with, whereas Merricat protects her sister from the threat of the outside using a mixture of her peculiar magic and impulsive violence.

The whole story, focused almost entirely around the once grand Blackwood house, is tensely gothic. Underneath Merricat’s idiosyncratic view of the world lies the truth, tantalisingly close. A masterful study in isolation, possessive family attachments and social resentment.

Queer Book club: Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson

beloved-poison-coverEspecially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.

Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.

The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson  could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.

My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.

I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.