Susan reviews Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages cover

Ellen Klage’s Passing Strange is an award-winning fabulist romance between Haskel, a cover artist for pulp magazines, and Emily, a singer in a lesbian bar, set in San Francisco during the 1939-1940 World Fair.

It’s a beautiful, weird little story, with just a tiny touch of magic, that revolves around a friendship group of queer women. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I adore narratives about queer communities, especially when they show the importance of queer friendship groups (rather than focusing on one isolated couple who never talk to any other queer people), and Passing Strange does that! It has different varieties of queer women – queer women of colour and queer white women, queer women who are married to men and queer women who are openly living together – it shows so many different ways to be queer, and I loved it for doing that. I especially enjoyed the way that that characters reacted to Mona’s – there was a really fascinating touching-on of performative queerness as equal parts freedom and prison; the people who worked at or visited Mona’s had a space where they could be openly queer, but the price of that was also being a tourist attraction for straight couples to gawk at. The depiction of communities helping each other cope with oppression, and queer people building their own families together, is great and so welcome.

I have seen some complaints that there isn’t very much of the fantasy element in the book, and it’s definitely fair; Franny is introduced as having magic very early on, and that is almost the only reference to magic until the last quarter of the book. However, I really liked the magic that we did get! It’s presented very matter-of-factly, like of course a woman could fold a map to connect two different parts of San Francisco together, why wouldn’t she be able to do that? She’s interested in studying it scientifically, but of course it’s a thing she can do. The ordinary magic of the World Fair, or of the city waking up for the night, is presented as just as magical! That’s wonderful to me.

The writing is lovely too. I found the narrative tone to be perhaps a little distant, but I thought it worked for the story it was telling and the time period it was set in – it fits the tone of lesbian pulps that I’ve read. It does shift point of view in the middle of scenes, by the way, but it doesn’t feel like head-hopping to me; it feels like the camera trick of soap operas, where someone finishes their scene and leaves, leaving the camera behind focused on someone else. I feel the style and techniques work very well for what it’s doing. And the romance! It’s a romance about the parts of someone that surprised you, because Haskel and Emily don’t quite get along on their first meeting, but watching them surprise each other and move from that awkwardness warmed my heart. However, the relationship moves very quickly – but the characters seem to be as surprised by it as I was, which make me feel better about it, and considering the events of the novel (including an abusive ex-husband coming back), I could absolutely buy the relationship moving faster in response.

My attitude to the historical aspects is mixed; one the one hand, I love the little historical details it wove in, and quite frankly drawing on pulp media is how you get me. But I have this bone-deep instinctive side-eye for any narrative where famous, real, historical people are introduced, especially if one of the main characters has slept with them. On the other hand, I really appreciated that it did go so hard into the details of the time, because it worked. It’s fascinating and detailed and really brought the story to life. (There is a fair amount of historical sexism, homophobia, and racism, so fair warning! The latter is deliberately used as a way to get money out of white people, but it’s still worth warning about.)

The ending was bittersweet even as it made me smile – it resolved remarkably little about Haskel and Emily, but the way the story reveals the significance of Helen’s actions in her framing story more than made up for it. Passing Strange was so lovely and dear to me, and I highly recommend it. Please read it and come back to be excited with me!

[Caution warnings: spousal abuse, police harassment, historical homophobia and racism, non-graphic suicide]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.

Danika reviews The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

First of all, how amazing is that cover? Doesn’t it make you want to pick it up just by itself?

Amazingly, this was a book I was assigned in a class. I very reluctantly put down Inseparable by Emma Donoghue (which is also amazing, and I will be reviewing it later) to read The Salt Roads, but by the time I reached page 15 and there was a f/f sex scene, I changed my tune.

My library put a sci-fi sticker on this book, which is clearly incorrect, but I think the label of “Fantasy” wouldn’t be much better. Fabulism sounds closer, but I hesitate to use that either, since I am fairly sure I wouldn’t say that about a book that was rooted in Christian religion as much as The Salt Roads is rooted in West African religion.

The Salt Roads bounces between many characters and times, and each has their own distinct voice. A god has her own voice and storyline, and she and other gods make physical, observable impact on reality. The queer content is mainly in the beginning of the novel, with more of a focus on colonialism, racism, oppression, resistance, slavery, etc, but it still definitely has an impact on many of the characters.

I’m not sure how exactly to describe The Salt Roads. It goes all over the place, sometimes rocketing between characters and sometimes remaining in one place for a long time.  I was rarely ever irritated by that, though, and it was easy enough to keep the whole cast of characters straight. There was perhaps no coherent plot arc, but… with some books, it just doesn’t matter. It didn’t need one. It was about ideas, about the people. I really liked it, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for queer literature featuring women of colour (or more accurately, literature with WoC that also has queer content).