But… where are the murders?: January 2023 Reading Log

Book Review, Books, Literary Fiction, Queer Literature, Speculative Fiction
Photo credits: Cuba Gallery

We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGTBQ+ Rights, edited by Amelia Abraham

I read Amelia Abraham’s Queer Intentions last year and really enjoyed it. Her writing style is very engaging and she covered many interesting LGTBQ+ topics that I wasn’t aware of (I found the chapter on drag really fascinating, for example). We Can Do Better Than This contains essays by thirty-five different writers, artists and LGTBQ+ advocates. To fit in so many essays they are – understandably – all relatively short which is all in all a good idea to include a vast array of perspectives. Some essays, written by authors from countries like Nigeria or Bangladesh, where being gay is illegal, are particularly heartbreaking.

I resonated with Beth Ditto’s essay on the importance of representation. I remember seeing her for the first time on Spanish TV in 2009 – a music video of Gossip’s song Heavy Cross. I was startled at how gorgeous and queer she looked. Another essay by Naoise Dolan – whose novel, Exciting Times, I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago – also resonated. ‘I wish the concept of sexuality hadn’t come to me through bulling’ she writes. I think that’s an experience some of us can relate to – how we need to first survive the words and then reconstruct a whole new identity and meaning around them. She also writes about the importance of opaque terms such as queer that allow for different understandings, identities and perspectives, all under the same word. Funnily enough, queer never had a negative connotation to me as I first came to it in the 2010s first through the series Queer As Folk. Once I moved permanently to the UK in 2014, many of my friends used it to describe themselves. I like it too precisely because of that in-between Dolan talks about.

Other interesting topics covered in this book are ageing as member of the LGTBQ+ community, the intersection between disability and marriage (and the fact that queer people may lose their disability benefits if they were to marry their partners) and the aromantic and asexual communities.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I did a fair amount of travelling during the winter holidays which included long stretches by train, waiting for hours in the airport and so on. I needed something light and entertaining to forget how much I hate flying so I picked this book. I find cults fascinating and I knew the story featured one. I should also add that I very rarely read crime and thriller – nothing personal, it’s not a genre I usually gravitate towards. I have to say I spent most of this book wondering when someone was going to get murdered since I thought this was crime fiction and thought that was requisite. From the very beginning, it was a very psychological book – every chapter went into the perspective of different characters, sharing lots of intimate details about them, to the point that you felt you knew them very well by the end of the story. They were all flawed but likeable (because who’s perfect anyways?). Several times during the book I thought I disliked a particular character and then, when I read a chapter told from their perspective, I found myself empathising with them. The main character (main as in, she got more chapters than any other in the book) is Frances, a self-deprecating romance writer. I was entertained through my travels and beyond and even though no one dies in the end (honestly, that made me a tad disappointed) I liked Moriarty’s varied cast of characters and commentary on mental health, grief and the cult of health retreats.

One of my favourite parts of this book was Frances, the romance writer, having a meltdown after getting a really bad review (basically, a young critic accusing her of writing plots that are blatantly old-fashioned and anti-feminist) and discovering her publisher of more than twenty years is dropping her because her books don’t sell as they used to. I found the little insights into the writer’s life through her character funny and relatable. I also quite enjoyed the fact this fifty-something-old woman never wanted children, loved her friends fiercely and had no issue enjoying food, wine and other pleasure (that is, she wasn’t obsessed with maintaining a slim figure at any price). I want to read more main characters like this.

A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos

I read a lot of books from my local library, which I adore, (actually, all the books from January are from the library). That means that sometimes I end up grabbing books on the spur of the moment. This was one of them. A friend from my bookselling days who also loved Charles de Lint (one of my favourite fantasy writers) used to talk wonders about these series. I was intrigued by the premise so I picked it up – even though when I read it was about a young woman being betrothed to a cold stranger something in me went uh-oh… is this going to be a romance? Because I don’t really enjoy the premise of ‘I got betrothed/kidnapped against my will but I found myself falling for this distant cold man who doesn’t even treat me well’. I tried anyways. Where to start?

Well, let’s go to the things I most definitely enjoyed. The world-building is superb, which is one of the things I care the most about when I’m reading speculative fiction. It’s steampunk-ish and bizarre in the best ways. I loved the idea of cities floating into space, of living goddesses and gods that can have children and of people who can travel through mirrors. The descriptions of the twisted and terrifying city of Citaceleste very good – especially the idea of having a place as arid as the North Pole covered in magic illusions that create gardens and luxury out of nowhere.

Things I didn’t enjoy? The love story between the main character (Ophelia) and her fiance (Thorn) who I’m afraid may become her love interest in the other three books of the saga (I’d be pleasantly surprised if he didn’t). Poor Ophelia wasn’t only taken away from her family and everything she knows at the shortest notice by a rude guy, she’s then relentlessly abused by him and his family for such a long time that I did wonder why she was sticking around (unless she’d developed Stolkhom’s Syndrome). For someone who can travel through mirrors AND ‘read’ objects with her hands (seeing all the memories associated with them), I was surprised she didn’t show more agency. After reading the first book I was intrigued by the premise and I may read the rest of the series at some point. Maybe. Still not sure.

Wonderful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I’m writing about a religious cult in the novel I’m working on at the moment and a friend recommended I read Women Talking (which I just finished, so I’ll talk more about it next month). Yet I found the first third so shocking I literally had to stop and pick a Sally Rooney book instead. I read a lot of horror and I have a predilection for dark, twisted plots. But Women Talking is a bit too much and I needed a break. I had read Normal People ages ago and remember going through it very fast – a bit like I do when I read books by Haruki Murakami, there’s something hypnotic in both their prose. Wonderful World Where Are You wasn’t the exception. Overall entertaining even though somehow predictable in the end.

I enjoyed its representation of a complicated female friendship and personally I was more touched by the relationship between Alice and Eileen than the bonds they both establish with different men, Felix and Simon. There a few bits of queerness that I enjoyed and wished she’d explored more. And even though I’m not one who usually enjoys romance, Rooney made me care about the two couples featured in the book. They are both quirk in their own way – Simon, who is five years older than Eileen, had a (mutual) crush on her since she was fifteen. Felix has some questionable sexual fantasies and a mean side – he hates that Alice is ‘smarter’ than he is and that she thinks she’s more than him. Yet he seems to care about her and is the only character who says what he feels all the book through. Rooney writes sex scenes in a delicate yet enticing way. I feel there’s a lot there to learn from as a writer. She also had bits of socialism peppered here and there and I found myself nodding when I read those passages. I’m from Sally Rooney’s generation and the troubles her characters muse on are (some) of the troubles that worry me too (lower salaries, the inability to afford a place on my own… and so on). I enjoy Rooney’s detailed yet minimal prose.

I’ve read that Rooney gets criticised because she only writes about middle-class, white characters. That is, largely, true. But I don’t hear people complain of the same thing when they read other male writers who also write about middle-class white people. (Even if in this last book you could argue that Felix is a working-class man. Maybe. I’m still learning about the British conception of class, which is different to what I understand as class myself, coming from Spain. I recently had a friend explain to me how it was as much a mindset as someone’s financial status). I am pretty eclectic in my tastes as a reader and honestly, as long as a story carries me from the beginning to the end I think there’s something to say about the skills of its author.

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