Maddison reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is a steampunk-esque novel set in gold rush era Washington. Karen Memery and the other “seamstresses” working for Madame Damnable at Hôtel Mon Chérie in Rapid City have their lives turned upside down when ex-prostitue and current “crib whore” savior Merry Lee shows up shot outside their Bordello with her latest charge, Priya. As Priya and Merry recover from the incident and Priya finds her place in Madame Damnable’s, a slow building romance begins to develop between Karen and Priya. The romantic elements of the book sit on the back-burner as the more salient issues of mystery, murder, and mayhem come to light. 

The book manages to bring the world to life with interweaving plots that encompass the personal, the economic, and the political. It also addresses issues like gender and sexual identity, racism, classism, and patriarchy.

The main cast of characters are lead by Karen who is the point-of-view character of the novel. While her fellow “seamstresses”–a code for prostitutes–and Madame Damnable’s employees like Crispin and Connie, are important and interesting characters, the novel focuses on Karen, Miss Francina, Priya, and Merry. As the adventure continues to unfold US Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche posseman also become integral to the story.

The book hosts a curious cast of characters with a gay African-American bordello bouncer; an African-American US Marshall and his Comanche posseman; the Chinese “crib whore” savior Merry Lee whose name has been bastardized by English tongues; and the brave, beautiful, and loyal trans woman Miss Francina to name a few.

The book doesn’t spare too many words in discussing sexuality, but it does remark upon LGBT characters and brings attention to the issues it may cause them. It does have a happy ending! Karen and Priya and the rest of the gang have a happily ever after.

I do think that Karen Memory has excellent representation and a very diverse cast and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. However, I found it hard to push my way through the beginning of the novel as I struggled to understand the way in which the book is narrated. Karen is intended to be undereducated young woman whose speech lacks some eloquencies and so it was difficult to get a grasp on some of the grammatical choices. However, as the book went on I was really pulled in by the story, and I became more used to the style of writing.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Karen Memory!

Maddison reviews Bingo Barge Murder by Jessie Chandler

I have a major soft-spot for cozy mysteries and am always on the lookout for one featuring a lesbian protagonist. So imagine my joy when I discovered The Shay O’Hanlon Capers by Jessie Chandler. Even better than a finding a single cozy mystery with a lesbian protagonist, I had managed to stumble across a whole series.
Bingo Barge Murder is the first in the series and introduces Shay O’Hanlon and her wacky gang. Shay runs and co-owns a coffee shop in Minneapolis with her best friend, and fellow lesbian, Kate. Shay’s quiet existence is thrown into chaos when her best friend Coop shows up at the coffee shop begging for Shay’s help after his boss is murdered and Coop is a suspect. Things only get more complicated when JT, Minneapolis detective and heartthrob, enters the shop on her way to work. Shay is forced to find the real murderer to save Coop all while balancing her growing romance with JT. Shay welcomes the help of Eddy, Shay’s mother figure, and her gang of gambling grannies. The stakes are high, and I ended up plowing through the book in one sitting.
I fell in love with Shay, Eddy, Coop, and JT throughout the story and rooted for Shay and JT’s romance the whole way through. Within the rules of the genre, there is no explicit or gory violence and, in later books, no explicit sex. This is part of why I love cozies: you get the tension and thrill of mysteries without the gore of crime fiction.
However, Bingo Barge Murder was clearly a debut novel, and the inexperience showed in the writing. Pacing was rushed during the novel, and it came in rather short at under 200 pages. There is also a character to whom I have mixed feelings. Rocky has an unnamed intellectual disability at at times through the books is used as a sort of comic relief character–the characters of the book think on him fondly, and his character arc does go through some development, but his character is somewhat of a caricature. I feel like Chandler is trying to be inclusive when writing Rocky, but it can sometimes come across as disrespectful and ableist.
Following Bingo Barge Murder, the issues with pacing and novel length improve. While Chandler might not be the most impressive writer I have ever come across, her novels are well within the standard quality of cozy mysteries.
All in all, I would recommend The Shay O’Hanlon Capers if you are looking for a light mystery with lovable characters and, of course, lesbians.