Review – Fingersmith

Cover of Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith, Sarah Waters
Originally reviewed 1st July, 2009

It’s hard to see this book as primarily a work of historical fiction when everybody considers Sarah Waters to be a lesbian writer. Have to confess, I have a tendency to turn my nose up at books that are toted as “modern feminist writing” or whatever, which is bad of me. Never judge a book by its cover, etc. But I remembered reading a few passages from it in a seminar, early in the spring semester, and wanting to see how it fit into a longer novel. Also, Sarah Waters is Welsh, which helps.

I don’t think it’s the best book that was ever written. I can’t speak for the quality of the research, but the settings are quite well described and vivid, and the language is lively enough to make my synaesthesia spark. It “tasted nice”, as I say, but at the same time, it wasn’t the best overall taste ever. There are some gorgeous passages and there are indifferent sections — I couldn’t put my finger on why, but that was my impression. It just “tasted” blander. I always wonder if maybe those points are when the writer lost focus or got bored for a moment.

The plot is twisty and turny. I actually read spoilers in advance, which was silly, because I didn’t really get the full benefit of the surprises or any moments where everything clicked into place. I think that feeling might have been nice, with this book — but at the same time I wonder if it was probably led up to… I suppose Susan does constantly drop hints that Maud is not what she seems, in the end. Sometimes I did feel that big surprises were thrown into the readers’ faces just for the shock value. I don’t really mind that so much when I’m reading, but for a book that is relatively slow paced and detailed, it seems… somehow inappropriate. Then, at the same time, how else would one keep it interesting? It felt like breaking character, though… reading actual Victorian books, like Charles Dickens, the writing is as slow — slower! — but it still keeps me interested, and even the plot twists don’t seem quite so sharp.

The format, with the Susan POV followed by the Maud POV recounting the same events, was irritating. It was nice to get both sides of the story, on the one hand, but the intricacies of the Gentleman’s plot could have come out without it, and Maud’s POV didn’t bring anything really new to it. The transition wasn’t bad — at least it didn’t say in block capitals, “You are too stupid to understand this, but there is a POV change here”! But it wasn’t great, either, it wasn’t entirely necessary, and the book could have been tighter and neater without it.

Character-wise… I don’t know. I guess nobody struck me that sharply. I ended up being in it more to see exactly how the plot unfolded, rather than for the characters, which is unusual for me. I thought some of the interactions between Maud and Sue were good, and liked the ending; I had a strange fondness for Dainty throughout. But I didn’t get wildly caught up in it as I would if I really, really cared about the characters.

Rating: 3/5


Review – Timeless

Cover of Timeless by Gail CarrigerTimeless, Gail Carriger

If you’re enjoying the series, then this is basically more of the same sort of tone and plot, relationships, etc. There are a couple of nice developments — Biffy and Lyall’s relationship is particularly nice, and if you’re a fan of happily ever afters, then Conall and Alexia have a solution to something that was a problem, mostly unspoken, from the beginning. It ties up a lot of plot threads, including stuff about the God Breaker plague, Floote’s mysteriousness, and Alexia’s father.

Plenty of drama drama, silly nicknames and sex-positivity, and general silliness. I’m glad to have finished the series, but I’m a bit reluctant to jump into Prudence… The silliness has always been a touch beyond my interest, and I’ve heard other critical things about it. We’ll see. I do own it, so I might as well try!

Rating: 3/5

Review – Dark Metropolis

Cover of Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn DolamoreDark Metropolis, Jaclyn Dolamore

I was recommended this initially because there’s some LGBT content and an asexual character. Well, just to deal with that upfront: there’s a character who is, at least, not straight, and there’s a character who isn’t interested in sex. However, she’s not interested in sex because she’s not human, so that’s kind of… not asexuality. If you interpret her as ace, though, she’s also arguably aromantic.

Still, it’s an interesting story/world. It’s got a reasonably unique take on zombies, and an interesting historical background — there’s history and economics driving the plot, which makes it feel that much more fully realised. The main characters are all pretty young, and they mostly seem to react to things in a normal way for their age. Pacing and writing are reasonably good, too.

I think the only reason this is standing out, though, is because of the LGBT/ace characters; it has potential, but it didn’t sparkle for me. It was easy to read, but not unputdownable. I know there’s a second book, and I’m not in any hurry to get hold of it. It lacks a compelling spark of life, I think.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Cover of The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth DickinsonThe Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson
Received to review via Netgalley and a won proof copy

I first heard of this via Kameron Hurley’s enthusiastic response on Twitter, and requested it pretty much based on that. It was only later that I read critical reviews/thoughts, like Foz Meadows’ and Liz Bourke’s, and while it made me feel a little more wary, I decided I was going to give it a go anyway. And I did, and to me, that central thesis that this is a book with a message, “Homophobia Is Bad”, which brings the message across by all queer people being unhappy… isn’t true. Nobody here “suffer[s] unbearably because of their orientation”, but because of the imperialist, colonial reaction to their sexual orientation.

It’s not a Queer Tragedy story where the main character is gay and struggling. She’s not struggling because she’s gay. She’s struggling because the Empire of Masks believes that the customs of her homeland are wrong, she disagrees, and she is determined to fight it at whatever cost. Everything that happens to her is her choice. It would be more of a Queer Tragedy if she was eventually manoeuvred into the position she’s in at the end of the novel, if it wasn’t her choice. But it is. And I don’t think this is saying there’s no hope for Baru, either; yes, she has done some terrible things, betrayed every cause except the one closest to her heart. But she’s holding onto that. She’s not broken. She does not accept a gilded cage.

As for “the evil empire is too evil” criticisms… well. The British Empire used all these methods to assimilate colonies. Maybe not at the same time, in the same place, but they did. The issue is not whether those things are going on, but control of the information: these things do look very bad to us now, partly because we see them in our past and know the harm they caused, partly because we get a privileged view. If the Masquerade don’t publicise those things are happening, people might know that some of it is going on. They can write it off to bad management, to unfair application of policies, to a particular person being corrupted — rather than seeing it as a whole, a pattern, that defines the empire. That’s pretty clearly shown to be in effect here, as far as I can see. We see the Empire for what it is, and so does Baru with her carefully split and guarded identity, but just because we as readers can doesn’t mean we would’ve in real life when these things occurred.

And, a thought that I suspect is very uncomfortable for a lot of people, we don’t now. You can ignore an awful lot of shit when you’re not the one who directly faces it.

Anyway. Going back to just the story — I loved it. It’s a painful, wrenching story, and yes, it goes through the dark side of capitalism and colonialism a lot. It explores what one person has to do, has to change, to try and make a difference, and the pain it brings them. It’s really well written: this is a story with an accountant at the centre, as the hero, and yet her machinations are still as fascinating as any duel. It also deals with people being people: complex, split in their loyalties, unpredictable. Driven by emotion. I believed in every character here, and that they thought they were the hero of their own story.

I recommend it. Sending the proof copy to my sister ASAP, though I suspect she may kill me when she reads the end.

Rating: 5/5

What Should Diversity Mean?

Last weekend, I was following posts and tweets about Maggie Stiefvater (a white writer) being on a panel called “Writing the Other”. You can get some background here, but it’s not necessary for my post. The gist of many of the posts was that Stiefvater, a white writer, had no place on such a panel. There is a certain argument for that — that whatever else she is, Stiefvater still has a certain amount of privilege that means her voice doesn’t need promoting as much. And her definition of “Other” was fairly loose and included “writing about places you haven’t visited” and examples like that, which is not usually what we mean when we’re talking about “the Other”.

To pause and briefly define terms, when we’re talking about “Otherness”, it’s usually (in my understanding) about other identities, rather than other experiences. So gay people, people of colour, people with disabilities, Jewish people — groups of people who are “Othered”, who are treated as a distinct group with common traits.

But I did like something Stiefvater said in her original post, which I’ll quote here:

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write [sic] about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

To me, this definitely has a place on a diversity panel. I can tell you that as someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve definitely been Othered. Even just as a Welsh person, I’ve had experiences that sometimes echo those of people of colour — for instance, when I read Catrin Collier’s introduction to Margiad Evans’ book, Country Dance:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

Sound at all familiar? It did to me — both from the experiences of post-colonial people (which arguably, includes the Welsh) and from my own experiences. I didn’t know there was any Welsh literature. Raised in England, I was vaguely under the impression that writing was not a thing Welsh people did, that we didn’t have a written culture. Or not one worth exploring, at any rate.

Imagine my surprise at university, at the age of 21, when I signed up for a ‘Welsh Fiction in English’ class, and discovered a whole world of Welsh writing!

So what should diversity mean? The assumption seemed to be that Maggie Stiefvater could not be Other, could not represent diversity, because she’s visibly white.

Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too. The very fact that people immediately assumed that Stiefvater couldn’t be Other is a little worrying — there are invisible illnesses and disabilities, there are people who aren’t out, there are people whose racial/cultural background isn’t obvious. Diversity panels obviously shouldn’t be made up solely of white people, but let’s make an effort to think about the non-obvious forms of diversity, too. Just because you can look at someone and see white skin, a majority culture and a boyfriend, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about diversity.

I haven’t read any of Stiefvater’s work yet, nor do I know anything about her mental health; the fact that she wanted to talk about it, though — and that the person who criticised her involvement in a panel didn’t even seem to consider that angle — struck a chord. If Stiefvater has things to say about OCD and suicide from personal experience, then we need to make space for that. If not in a panel about ‘Writing the Other’, then where? What is more Other than a group of people who’ve been literally demonised throughout history?

Now, if there’s a panel made up entirely of white people, we should definitely criticise it. And we should criticise any sign of homogeneity in such panels, if we end up at a point where a panel is all white gay men, or all white women with mental illnesses. But perhaps not by targeting an individual and saying, essentially, ‘you have no right to talk about being Other‘. Maybe, instead, we could ask, ‘Why do you feel you’re qualified to talk about being Other? What do you bring to the table?’ Let’s make a space for people to say, “I have an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to talk about how ‘crazy’ people are represented in fiction.” Or, “Well, I’m a woman dating a guy, but I’m actually bisexual and I’d like to talk about bi-erasure and problems specific to bisexual people.”

And if the answer is, “Well, actually, I’m not from a minority group at all, but I have thoughts about how they should be portrayed in fiction,” then we can say, “Maybe you should step down from the panel in favour of people who’ve lived those experiences.”

Mind you, I don’t know if that’ll work, because some people will always think they have something worthwhile to say, whether they do or not. Some people will always privilege their voices above others. But I’d like it if people would just stop to think about what diversity really looks like — whether it looks like anything at all, or whether we need to hold back on some of our assumptions.

Maybe it does need to look diverse. I just read Justina Ireland‘s post about diversity panels, and the fact that her experiences show that having a person of colour on the panel — just one! — already means a lot to other people of colour. Maybe we need to make sure that the people we have to speak on diversity panels are not just diverse, but intersectionally so. Black and mentally ill. Gay and Jewish. Genderqueer and Islamic.

For damn sure, diversity panels right now are sending a message, and it’s not the right one.

Review – Palimpsest

Cover of Palimpsest by Catherynne M. ValentePalimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente
Originally reviewed 2nd May, 2010

This book is beautiful. The language of it is mesmerising and enticing and sometimes cloying, there’s so much of it, it’s so thick with description and invention and ideas. I remember commenting about China Miéville’s work, and how the cities of his work almost seem to be characters themselves — I can see why people compare Palimpsest to his work, although in Palimpsest it’s more true than ever.

Reading this book is like exploring the city in the same limited way as the characters. Sometimes frustratingly: there’s a bit you want to see or understand or get to, but you can’t, not yet. You have to give it time for it to unfold.

I can understand why it has quite a lot of love-or-hate reactions. If you give it time, it’s a beguiling, rewarding book, but if you don’t have the time or the patience or the inclination, it’s impenetrable.

I didn’t really feel like I got to know the characters or the city as well as I would want to. Ordinarily, that would be a major turn-off for me, but there was enough to keep me satisfied, and the writing, the richness of the detail, was enough to compensate for the lack of my usual favourites. If there’s any criticism, it’s that the characters didn’t feel as rich and as real to me as I wanted them to — there were enchanting details about them, but I didn’t get to know them as I would like to.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Unspeakable

Cover of Unspeakable by Abbie RushtonUnspeakable, Abbie Rushton

I’m so used to reading YA set in the US that I was actually surprised when I realised, oh hey, this is British! They’re doing their A Levels! So if that’s something you might be interested in, that’s another draw alongside the fact that it’s an LGBT story. (Well. Mostly just L.)

I originally had this as an ARC, but neglected it for so long that I ended up picking it up in the bookshop. I’m a little disappointed about that, because it turned out not to be for me. It’s pretty simply written, and while I like the issues it engages with, it was too obvious for me. There’s a mystery/thriller aspect, but I called it. And the characters… as I keep saying, teenagers may well act like that, so overblown and ridiculous, but I’m twenty-six and didn’t act like that even when I was a teenager! Much. I think. I hope. It’s just unpleasant to read about, because I just want to shake the characters — like seriously, you’re getting worked up because of what?

Even the adults seemed a little like that; I’m thinking of Megan’s mother. Granted, she was prone to drinking heavily and such, but still… It all felt a bit like a caricature, if that makes sense.

All the same, I’m going to donate this to the local library. Having LGBT stories there is important, and I don’t think this could possibly offend anyone, and it might be more to someone else’s taste.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Cover of Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David LevithanWill Grayson, Will Grayson, David Levithan, John Green

I had this from Netgalley at some point, and now I have it from the library, and I’d always been kind of intending to read it anyway. I liked Boy Meets Boy — it was cute — and so I expected to like David Levithan’s part of this more than John Green’s, since I have read some of John Green’s work and found it completely bland. Oddly enough, it was the other way round; it wasn’t my thing, but the first Will Grayson’s friendship with Tiny Cooper was oddly compelling. In fact, the vividness of it reminded me of Boy Meets Boy, so that I was surprised to find those were Green’s chapters.

But. I don’t really ‘get it’. The tone doesn’t work for me, and the teenage concerns are… well, I’m not sure I had patience with it when I was a teenager, and now I’m an old lady (nearly twenty-six!) I really don’t have patience with it. And I just find the sections all in lower-case hard to read.

Get off my lawn, etc.

Rating: 1/5

Review – The Dark Wife

Cover of The Dark Wife by Sarah DiemerThe Dark Wife, Sarah Diemer
Originally reviewed 19th June, 2011

I don’t exactly remember how I came upon The Dark Wife the first time. I don’t think it was in the usual way — I seem to remember that someone posted a to do list, and they were going to buy this book if they completed it. Something like that. Anyway, I was enchanted by the whole idea: a lesbian retelling of the Rape of Persephone, consensual and with a genderflipped Hades. A reclamation of a horrible story, in both a feminist sense and an LGBT sense. Apparently, it’s based on older versions of the myth, where Persephone chooses to go down into the Underworld.

Sarah Diemer’s blog has several interesting links about it: These Are Not Your Stories impressed me when I found it, in particular. It reminded me of a conversation in reviews here on GR, about how horrible it was for Malinda Lo to ‘steal’ Cinderella and write an LGBT version. I argued then as now: that it’s a powerful thing for LGBT people to take these stories and write ourselves into them, make a place for ourselves. Straight people can look to these stories as a dream of theirs: while fairytales remain exclusively heterosexual, gay people are shut out of ‘happily ever after’ dreams. It’s no use to tell us to go and make up our own, because going to make up our own shuts us out of the tradition that we may well have adored and loved as children, the old familiar stories that we never get tired of.

Sarah Diemer recognises the power of the old familiar stories. She even offers The Dark Wife free, as a PDF, here, for anyone who needs it — which is exactly why I bought her book, personally, because I can afford to and I want her to write more. At fourteen, fifteen, I needed it, and it wasn’t there yet.

I enjoyed the story itself a lot. I read it in about an hour, just a bit more than that, and in one go (aside from when I had to stop a moment to look up concert times — ugh, how dare people interrupt my reading?). I’m a little unsure whether I think it deserves three or four stars: I love the idea, and it was a good read, but I didn’t sink as deeply into it as I’d have liked to. It was, well, fairytale like, which meant I already believed it would turn out okay in the end, and which kept me from really feeling the tension.

I thought it was clever, though, the use of the pomegranate, the parts about the Elysian Fields… And I thought Cerberus was cute.

I was a less wowed by the ‘After’ section, which didn’t quite seem to fit.

Definitely not worth a five star “it was amazing”, but it’s enjoyable, fun to read, and necessary.

Rating: 4/5

Review – A Suitable Replacement

Cover of A Suitable Replacement by Megan DerrA Suitable Replacement, Megan Derr
Received to review via Netgalley

Wow, this was really clumsily written. I don’t mind the dramatic plotline — I have an embarrassing enjoyment of silly tropes like compulsory marriage and the way it can throw characters together. But the characters didn’t feel real, the writing was a mess, and the plot just bounced around rather randomly. I notice from Goodreads that it is listed as part of a series: I have no idea if that has anything to do with it.

But really, I couldn’t get past the infodumps, bad dialogue, etc. I’ve enjoyed other books from Less Than Three press, but this one, wow. Nope.

Rating: 1/5