Sunday, July 26, 2020

Fair’s Point

Melissa Scott
Completed 7/26/2020, Reviewed 7/26/2020
3 stars

Whew, finally finished this book.  It took me almost a week to get through these 240 pages.  I really just don’t care for Melissa Scott.  She has won four Lambda Literary Awards and two Gaylactic Spectrum Awards.  This book won the latter.  I only gave one of her books four stars, Death by Silver, from a different series.  The other books in this Astreiant series, Point of Knives, Point of Dreams, and Point of Hopes, I gave two and three stars.  This is another three stars from me.  It’s a complicated mystery about disappearing silver coin, murder, and dog races.  What makes it complicated is the world building.  She uses a lot of obscure words for common things.  She introduces a ton of characters with names I found difficult to remember.  She gets a lot of love from the LGBTQ+ community as well as on various review sites.  I just don’t see it.

Nicholas and Phillip are lovers who are drawn into many mysteries, Nicholas by virtue of the fact that he’s a pointsman, that is, a police officer, and Phillip as his lover and a former soldier.  This time, Phillip gets a race dog at the disbursement of an indebted estate that owed him money.  As the dog moon approaches, the dog races are beginning to heat up.  Phillip enters his new charge into the fray.  At the same time two bodies are found, one with a piece of silver coin in his chest, another silver coins riddled throughout his body.  Silver coins are also found lodged in the side of a certain building when the stars are right.  Coincidentally, silver coins are magically disappearing from the strong boxes of the bookies taking bets on the dog races.  This is all happening in Fairs’ Point, a district in which Nicholas doesn’t have jurisdiction and in which he’s quite diskliked.  He gets drawn in, though, because he’s the best and has solved other major mysteries in the past. 

The character development is decent.  Even though the two main characters have been in three other books, we do get a decent look at their comfortable relationship and their personalities.  I had a hard time following the secondary and minor characters though because I couldn’t remember who was who, except for the dog trainer, a woman from an extended family of pickpockets and thieves.  She’s a terrible thief, as her stars foretold, so she trains dogs for the races.

I find the world building really complex.  After three other books, you’d think I’d be comfortable in it.  But I find it difficult to grasp.  There’s some magic, alchemy, and astrology, but none of it intrigued me.  The land is matriarchal.  There are many people in positions of power, management, the police, and the military who are women.  That too should be interesting, but it wasn’t.  It just kind of existed.  Maybe that’s a good thing, in the sense that it is so indigenous to the culture that it’s not noticeable, and I’m just missing the boat.

As with many of her novels, I find the prose to be as complex as the world building.  It doesn’t flow for me.  It’s not a comfortable read.  Instead, I found myself going back over paragraphs to see where I was losing the flow of the story. 

I give this book three stars out of five, which is a good.  That’s a little high for all the negatives I threw out, but when all is said and done, I have to say the plot is good.  I was interested in finding out who the silver thief and the accomplices were.  It did keep me going to the end.  I’ve read quite a few reviews that said that they knew who the murderer was early on, but I missed it, I think, because I couldn’t keep the lesser characters clear in my head.  At this point, I hope I don’t have to read any more of this author’s books for a while.  But to be honest, a lot of people like her stuff, so if you’re a mystery fan, I’d say ignore my review, give her a try, and judge for yourself.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Mystic Marriage

Heather Rose Jones
Completed 7/20/2020, Reviewed 7/20/2020
3 stars

Another delightful book about lesbians in a mythical 19th century European country called Alpennia.  In the first book, Daughter of Mystery, the focus was on Barbara and Margerit and a mystical magic system.  This time, the focus is on two minor characters from the first book, Jeanne and Antuniet, and the magic explored is alchemy.  There are more subplots in this book, as Margerit and Barbara are still very much present and the court intrigue is a little more intense.  However, I felt this book suffered from the sophomore slump, with the primary plot getting lost in the middle to the subplots, as well as the introduction of too many characters.  But it is still quite a good book, a pleasure to read.  It just didn’t have the same excitement that the first book had.

Antuniet Chazillen is the sister of the antagonist from the first book.  Her mother committed suicide, her brother was executed, and her family lost their status as nobility.  Now she is working in Heidelberg, trying to develop her skill as an alchemist.  Her plan is to create a gift for the Princess that will be so profound and so beneficial to Alpennia that the Princess will return the status to the family.  She has an ancient book of alchemy from which she draws her knowledge.  However, it’s coveted by the Emperor of Austria and his men are pursuing her through Europe.  With nowhere else to go, she returns to Alpennia where she looks for a benefactor to support her work.  She asks Jeanne, a widowed heiress, well-connected socialite, and notorious flirter with young married women, to help her find someone to support her.  Because of the shame of the Chazillen family, Jeanne can’t.  But what they do find surprises them both. 

In the meantime, one of the possible heirs to the throne seems to be threatened.  His mother the Dowager Princess believes it to be the Ruling Princess and her son causing the threats.  Barbara is called in to help protect him.  In addition, Barbara is Antuniet’s cousin on her mother’s side, and wants no part of Antuniet’s problem.  Margerit is more patient and understanding, and draws Antuniet in.  In fact, Margerit is slowly building a little community of women, straight and lesbian, who want to learn and grow beyond the patronizing allowances of the male-dominated university. 

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this book.  Maybe it’s a little too much.  The first book kept the story line pretty straightforward and the tension even and linear.  This book was all over the place, losing the tension of the main plot while cultivating the subplots.  It all does come together in the end in a big dramatic scene, so there is payoff.  I just felt like we lost Antuniet in the middle of the book for too long.

I thought the prose of the book was lovely.  I didn’t think the author really grew from the first to the second book, but kept her writing style pretty even.  The characterization was quite good, with Jeanne and Margerit developing from the one dimensional characters of the first book to three dimensional people in this one.  I particularly liked Jeanne’s development from playgirl to serious relationship material. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s a good book, but not quite as good as the first.  I really do like this universe that Jones created, finding it well developed and the magic systems fascinating.  I like all her main characters so far, though I like Margerit and Jeanne the best.  I’m still looking forward to the third book, which is the award winner.  There’s a fourth book out as well, which I guess I’m also going to have to read. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

When Fox is a Thousand

Larissa Lai
Completed 7/17/2020, Reviewed 7/17/2020
4 stars

I really like Larissa Lai’s writing.  She writes lush prose, making her novels a lovely and readable experience.  I last encountered her with Salt Fish Girl.  This book is her first novel.  It has three narratives, that of the Fox which in Chinese folktales is a trickster spirit that can inhabit the bodies of women, that of a ninth century Taoist nun who is also a famous poet who was executed for the murder her maid, and that of a young Chinese woman living in Vancouver, BC who is not very good at relationships.  There was no real plot to the book.  It’s kind of a slice of life novel interspersed with folklore and magical realism. 

The primary story is about Artemis, who was adopted by white parents.  She goes through a series of relationships with both men and women, but her choices are not very good.  She seems to grasp onto people who like her without determining if they are good for her.  Her story is really about being young, Asian, and lesbian in 1990’s Canada, during the time of supposed tolerance and inclusivity, and trying to find your way in life.  The secondary story is Fox telling about key moments in his life as it approaches the age of one thousand.  It was there when the Taoist nun supposedly killed her maid.  And it was there when Artemis discovered one of her friends is murdered.  Finally, there’s the story of the nun, but it is rather short compared with other narratives. 

I really liked this book, but I didn’t really identify with Artemis.  When it comes to friends and lovers, her picker is broken.  It reminded me a little of a Gen X film from the 90’s, where everyone is disaffected and struggling to find themselves.  Artemis’ first relationship is a with a guy who doesn’t want to have sex with her.  Her second relationship is with a woman who is very toxic, and it’s pretty evident from the beginning she is just using her.  You just cringe as they hang out more and more.  Artemis is the victim in all these relationships, and she doesn’t see it.  As part of her struggle with her identity, she also feels that she doesn’t have a home, no matter where she lives.  And when she does find an apartment that she starts to feel comfortable in, the building is sold and she’s evicted.  On top of that, one of her exes trashes the place.  It’s all a depressing journey.  It’s beautifully told, but definitely not a positive one. 

The narrative of the Fox is taken from Chinese folklore tales.  I struggled a bit with it as I did not have any familiarity with this trickster spirit.  Its story is also a sort of ghost story.  It infuses its soul into that of recently dead women and haunts the living.  In one tale, it reanimates the mother of several daughters who killed her accidently thinking she was an evil spirit, only to live with them for another year before the Fox reveals itself, driving the daughters to suicide.  It’s not a pleasant story but demonstrates what the Fox is capable of. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  The only trouble I had with it was the middle part which kind of dragged as I was looking for a plot.  Once I realized there really was none, I was able to enjoy the rest of it.  This is not really a happy book.  It’s about racial identity and racism, sexuality identity and homophobia, and trying the break the cycle of being a victim.  But it is beautifully written and enjoyable to read despite the seriousness of the issues.  I wasn’t surprised to find that Lai has also published two books of poetry. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Daughter of Mystery

Heather Rose Jones
Completed 7/13/2020, Reviewed 7/13/2020
4 stars

I started the Alpennia series because the third book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which I want to read.  This book was nominated for one a few years prior, but didn’t win.  Nonetheless, it’s a terrific fantasy about an unlikely heiress and her bodyguard with a mysterious background set in an imaginary country in Europe.  I got a little lost with all the names, as there are a lot of characters, but it didn’t deter me from enjoying the book.  The fantasy aspect is a little unusual in that the magic system is called mystery and calls upon the power of the saints.  So there’s a theological aspect to it.  I also liked that the romance was a very slow build and didn’t dominate the book.  All in all, it was highly entertaining and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

Margerit Sovitre is a young woman of less than noble birth who is the goddaughter of a baron.  When he dies, she inherits his fortune and his bodyguard.  Called an “armin”, she only goes by one name, Barbara.  The circumstances of her birth are a mystery.  Though Margerit inherited the fortune, the title and most of the baron’s estate went to his less than honorable nephew.  Barbara must protect Margerit from the nephew who believes he deserves the fortune and will do anything to get it.

Margerit and Barbara, needless to say, are two good, strong, female characters.  Margerit has a gift for seeing the results of the mysteries performed at Mass and in honor of the saints.  She can see the energy as it flows from the saints.  She has her own ideas of her future.  It includes going to university to study theology, although education is a man’s world.  It does not include getting married, as is expected of all young ladies in this early Victorian-like world.  She’s always been strong-headed, but now with her fortune, she’s able to get a little independence from her guardians, who are more concerned with her new position in society and her marriageability rather than her own wishes.

Barbara is really interesting because she’s a young woman in a man’s role.  She’s even killed a man in a duel for the Baron she used to work for.  Her transfer from the Baron to Margerit is unexpected.  She was supposed to gain her freedom upon his death.  Instead, she has to work for Margerit until both women reach their majority.  Fortunately, the two women had developed a decent relationship and she acquiesces to her new role.  However, that role of armin may be compromised by Barbara’s growing love for Margerit.  In the meantime, she searches for her own origins to try to dispel the mystery how she became an orphan and how she came to be a servant for the Baron in the first place. 

The whole theology of the mysteries is very interesting.  When Margerit goes to university, she takes theology and philosophy classes.  She is asked to join a guild to study mysteries and to build one of their own.  The process is described really well as is her power to see its effects.  And what’s really cool about it is that Barbara is also somewhat of an academic and assists Margerit in the process.  Of course, that’s done secretly as Barbara is below the station of Margerit and her academic peers.  Barbara’s main focus has been law, which she uses to figure out what she can and cannot do as an armin.  It also comes into play later on in the book as Margerit’s life comes into some serious danger from the Baron’s evil nephew.

I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s a very well-done period fantasy that’s well written and intriguing.  The magic is different from anything else I’ve read.  The romance is very realistic given the period and the circumstance.  Right from the beginning, I was able to identify with the main characters, even though Barbara is aloof for quite a way into the book.  Whenever I’m reading a series in preparation for one of the later books, I often dread the time and effort I have to make to read all the precursors.  But with this book, I was pleasantly surprised and am glad I’ve started from the beginning.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Invisible Soft Return

Roberta Degnore
Did not finish 7/11/2020, Reviewed 7/11/2020
1 star

This book was painful to read.  It felt like an overblown rumination on reality and existence.  It hardly had a plot.  The point of view often changed between first and third person without warning.  It was also difficult to tell who the main character was talking to at any point, and it was hard to tell who was speaking at any given time.  Every character sounded the same, using the same haughty philosophical language as they pondered reality versus virtual reality.  There was a second story within the story which was somewhat coherent, but I never figured out its relationship to the main story.  I got within fifty pages of the end and simply could not bring myself to finish it.  So if there was any sort of reconciliation between the main story and the secondary story, I didn’t get to it.  For some reason, this book was nominated for a Lambda Literary award for SF/Fantasy/Horror in 2014.  It must have been a slow year, being nominated just because it had some lesbian content.

Between the book description and what I could eke out of the story, the plot is about a woman named Evet who writes virtual simulation programs in a world where everyone is always accessing simulations.  Nobody does anything in reality anymore.  Evet kills her daughter and her cat, or so it seems.  A woman named Bear B. is a police officer who is trying to get a confession out of Evet.  Some sort of sexual energy forms between Bear B. and Evet.  In the second story, a middle ages woman named Sophie is a metalsmith who is a genius in her craft.  She makes incredible things using alloys.  She wants to go to Strasburg to apprentice to a master metalsmith to learn how to make moonlight from metal.  She leaves her family behind, joins a strange unsanctioned convent of women artisans who are jealous of her.  The local priest, realizing her talent, gets her an apprenticeship with a master who is a woman disguised as a man.  But he is using her as a leverage against the nuns. 

In the first story, there is no character development whatsoever.  I had no sense of who Evet and Bear B. were nor any of the secondary characters.  Almost all the text, including the dialogue, was philosophical.  It often had to do with the Sim programming that Evet did.  For example, she would have sex, but her lover became her cat.  It didn’t make sense to me either.  The second story was more traditional in that there was some character development.  Sophie was driven as a metalsmith, despite being a woman in a man’s trade in the middle ages.  She had a twin brother who loved his cat more than her.  The other sisters in the convent were conniving, particularly Agnes, the leader, and Blessed Mary, a woman who is trying to be a saint by concocting miracles.  Yeah, the plot of that story is pretty strange, but I was able to follow it.  There just wasn’t enough of it to keep me going to the end of the book. 

I don’t often give books a one-star rating, but this is my second this year.  This is going to be a stark contrast to the three five-star ratings this book has on GoodReads.  When putting together my LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction Resource List on Worlds Without End, I used Amazon and GoodReads as review sources for the books I was pulling from the Lambda Literary and Gaylactic Spectrum Awards.  At the time, I didn’t realize that the small number of ratings and reviews should be a red flag.  The one professional review I found noted that some people won’t get this book.  Well, I guess I’m one of those people.    

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne Jones
Completed 7/7/2020, Reviewed 7/7/2020
3 stars

I feel like a humbug giving this beloved book only three stars.  I liked the book, but wasn’t magically transported like I was expecting to be.  I didn’t identify with the main character, but liked things about her.  I actually liked some of the secondary characters better.  I thought the world-building was alright.  There were some fun, fantastical happenings, but overall, I wasn’t blown away.  The prose was very matter of fact, which I guess would be expected of a children’s novel.  Still, I thought it could have been written with a little more oomph. 

Sophie is the oldest of three girls.  That traditionally means she’s going to have an uninspired life.  When her father dies, her step mother sends one younger sister to apprentice to a witch and the other to apprentice to a baker.  Sophie she asks to stay and apprentice at the family hat shop.  One day, the Witch of the Waste comes into the shop and angrily turns Sophie into an old woman.  Distraught, Sophie leaves the shop and goes to Howl’s moving castle to see if he can lift the curse.  Of course, the rule of the curse is that she cannot speak of it, so she poses as a housekeeper and cleans the inside of the castle while waiting for Howl to lift the curse.  Besides Howl, she meets Michael his apprentice and Calcifer, a demon manifested as fire in the fireplace.  She befriends Michael and Calcifer, but Howl is kind of a slimy, slippery guy who she seems to aggravate at least once a day.  As the castle moves about, they have many adventures, like running from the animated scarecrow, convincing the king not to choose Howl as the Royal Wizard, and going into a parallel universe (ours). 

My favorite characters were Michael and Calcifer.  Even though Michael isn’t very present in the book, I found him to be really sweet.  He tries his best to be a good apprentice, as well as a help to Sophie.  Calcifer was pretty cool.  He’s a fire demon who has a contract with Howl to support his magic.  Just like Sophie’s inability to explain her lot, he cannot tell anyone how to break the contract.  Sophie promises to try though, in exchange for breaking her own curse.  Calcifer has a good relationship with Michael and Sophie, but like them, not a very good one with Howl. 

Sophie, however, is the main character.  She doesn’t mind being old because she is a healthy old woman.  She does mind being the eldest child of the family though, believing she won’t amount to anything.  Her low self-esteem runs through most of the book, even though she grows by leaps and bounds during her time in the castle.  Perhaps her most notable growth is when she realizes she has some magical ability.  But she spends most of her time resentful at her lot in life and angry with Howl.  I thought it got kind of old.  I would have liked to have seen her realize her growth and have that reflected in her behavior as the book progressed. 

I liked the form of the book.  The chapters were episodic, with a different adventure happening every time.  It made the book very easy reading.  Of course, it’s a children’s novel and one would expect it to be easy reading.

So I give the book three stars out of five.  It was good and enjoyable, but left me wanting something a little more toothsome.  When I compare it to the early Harry Potter novels, it feels like it was missing something the HP books had, a warmth, some character development, empathy for Sophie.  Having read the book now, I’d like to see the movie again.  I saw it quite a few years ago and would like to see it again just to see how it compares to the book.  If it were just me, I wouldn’t recommend this to adults unless you were reading it to your children.  But my opinion is not the general consensus out there.  A lot of people LOVE this book.  So I’d recommend it to see if you have the same reaction as I do, or if you are in the majority.

Sunday, July 5, 2020


Hal Duncan
Completed 7/5/2020, Reviewed 7/5/2020
3 stars

I literally don’t know what I just read.  It’s beautiful, but nearly indecipherable.  The prose is magnificent, almost poetic, with occasional alliteration as well as run on sentences that make internal sense.  It has many story lines, including at least one that is meta.  What it doesn’t have is a discernable plot.  The story line is non-linear, jumping between past, ancient past, future, and present.  If it weren’t for the book’s description on jacket flap, I would have never known what it was supposed to be about.  Reading it was a cross between joy and penance.  I’ve read lots of reviews of the book, and they are all over the place.  Many people love it, many people hate it.  Enough people gave it love to get several awards nominations, winning the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for 2007.   I would not have been so generous.  That probably means I wouldn’t like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” if I were ever to attempt that novel.

So the Vellum is the fabric of everything and somewhere in it was lost The Book of All Hours.  It is a book that supposedly contains the accounting of every being that’s ever existed.  It is effectively the work of God.  It is sought after by angels and demons who walk the earth and are at battle with each other.  They used to be human.  Now they are unkin.  The story more or less follows several unkin.  Some used to be ancient gods, somehow became human, then became unkin.  A lot of time is spent with Seamus Fannin, an unkin who does not take a side in the battle, and Phreedom Messanger, who once was a Sumerian goddess, and her brother Tommy.  There are some gay characters who seem to part of the meta-story, but also appear within other story lines.  There is a prologue that introduces us to several characters who find the book and an epilogue that seems to be about some people after the battle. 

At this point in my reviews, I usually launch into character development, but this time I can’t.  It’s difficult to describe any one character, but I can tell you what I’ve gleaned.  As I said in the plot, we do spend a lot of time with Seamus, who doesn’t take sides in the war between angels and demons.  He, like Phreedom, existed in ancient times.  He also fought in WWI and in the Spanish Civil War.  He also exists in the book’s present, 2017, which is actually the tens year after the publish date, so it’s actually the future.  He says fooking a lot, is ornery, and gets into a lot of trouble throughout his long life.  He goes on long soliloquies that are amazing to read.  Phreedom was interesting as the Sumerian queen and goddess Inanna.  In the present, she’s a biker chick trying to find her brother Tommy.  He appears several times in the book and was also the brother of Inanna.  He’s also known as Puck, Tamuz, and Matthew Shepard, the gay young man who was murdered in Wyoming about twenty-five years ago.

There’s one character, Jack, who I think is an angel.  And I think he was in the prologue, and maybe in the epilogue.  It was hard to tell if they were different Jacks or the same person.  He went by the name Jack Carter and Jack Flash, as in Jumpin’.  We spend a lot of time with him, but I never figured him out.  I did get that he was in love with Tommy.

The who mixing of timelines was immensely confusing.  As one reviewer said, it’s like the author wrote out multiple stories on index cards, shuffled them, that was what was published.  The way I resigned myself to reading the book was to just take every paragraph as an independent thought.  If it continued the thought from the previous paragraph, great.  If I was able to relate it to someone or something I already read, great.  If I couldn’t figure out where it belonged or why it was even brought up, I just enjoyed the prose and continued on.  It’s not a great way to read a book, but it got me through it.

Why then would I give the book three stars out of five?  Normally, three stars means good.  Was this book good?  I can’t say, but neither can I say that the book was excellent or terrible.  It was just very hard to read when I was looking for coherency.  Once I gave up, it became like poetry; I can marvel at the form and the effort, but I don’t get it.  Three stars seems like a decent compromise.  This book is the first of a duology.  The second book is “Ink”, but I just don’t think I want to make the effort to get through that book as well.