Mary Springer reviews Backwards to Oregon by Jae

Backwards to Oregon by Jae

This book was every trope and every plot device I ever wanted all rolled into one. This is one of those books that you put down and it stays with you for days afterward. I immediately purchased the sequel and the short story collection that is in this same series.

Nora works in a brothel to survive and provide for her child, Amy. One day her friend that brothel’s madam, Tess, has her take a special customer, Luke. He won’t touch her though, won’t do anything with her, and there’s something strange about him. A few days later she meets him again when he saves Amy from the anger of the man running the stables. He offers her marriage and a journey on the Oregon trail–a chance at a better life not only for herself but also for Amy.

Luke has disguised herself as a man since she was 12 not only in order to survive but in order to have the life she would not otherwise be able to have. When she meets Nora and Amy, she can’t help but offer them a chance at a better life–an arrangement that will also help her better conceal her identity in the close proximity to other people in their wagon train.

Luke and Nora agree that this will marriage will be a business agreement and there doesn’t need to be anything else to it. However, when dangerous challenges befall them on the Oregon trail, they can’t help but grow close and sparks fly.

The characters really made this story come alive. In some romances it can be hard to imagine the characters outside their relationship, but here I could easily see Luke and Nora with their own stories. There was also a good amount of side characters that felt equally real and interesting to the main characters, which I always appreciate. Tess was really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading one of her stories in the short story collection. Other families on the Oregon trail were also really engaging. There was Nora’s friend Bernice who helped her learn how to be a pioneer woman and her husband who becomes a good friend of Luke’s. There was Emmeline, who’s husband is abusive.

This is also a serious slow-burn romance, and it’s done so achingly well. Both Luke and Nora have baggage and issues that need to be worked before they can begin to open up to each other. They take their sweet time with it, but it’s so satisfying in the end. This also made it much more believable and engaging as their relationship progressed.

Another thing I really appreciated was how clearly well researched this was. The setting and historical time period really felt like it came alive.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes stories about hidden identities, westerns, or just a good old slow-burn romance.

Danika reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

If “lesbian steampunk Western” doesn’t already pique your interest, I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll give it a try! Karen is a “seamstress” (a sex worker at bordello) in Rapid City, in the Pacific Northwest. She’s satisfied enough with her life–the girls at Hôtel Mon Cherie are a tight-knit group, and she’s saving up money to train horses–when, well, I’ll let the blurb do the talking: “Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap-a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.”

Although there is a murder mystery aspect to this, Karen Memory is much more of a fast-paced adventure, as Karen and her friends get tossed into increasingly more dangerous and daring situations. The steampunk element starts off pretty minor–it took me a long time to realize that the “sewing machine” was some sort of mechanical exoskeleton and not just a typical sewing machine–but by the end of the book, there are all sorts of wild steampunk elements that I don’t want to spoil for you.

My favourite part was the relationship between Karen and Priya. Priya is a recent Indian migrant, who was trapped in a human trafficking situation. She has escaped to the Hôtel Mon Cherie, and Karen immediately falls for her. This could fall under insta-love, I suppose, but I don’t really see the problem in being intensely attracted to someone at first and then building a relationship together, which is what happens here.

There is a diversity of side characters, including trans characters and black, indigenous, and Asian characters. They are, for the most part, well-rounded, but they are often described in ways typical of the time period. [Highlight for the particular language/slurs included:] The trans character is described as  having a “pecker under her dress,” but that it was “God’s cruel joke”, and she’s “as much a girl as any of them.” The indigenous character is described as a “red Indian” many time. The N word is included, though not said by the protagonist. There are more, similar descriptions used, but this gives you an idea. I’m honestly not quite sure what to make of that, and I’d like to read some reviews by trans, black, and indigenous reviewers to see what they think of it. I can see how it would be a response to the typical Western, by having a diverse cast, but still staying true to the time period, but I’m not sure you need to include slurs or racist descriptions to do that.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought the narrator did a fantastic job. I really got a sense of Karen’s voice. On the other hand, I have trouble following action-packed plots at the best of times, and by listening to the audiobook, I definitely dropped the thread a few times. I think I enjoyed it more by listening to it, but I probably would have understood what was happening better if I had read it. I’m sure this would be a fantastic read for fans of Westerns or steampunk books, especially if you wish they were a little less straight and white, but it wasn’t the perfect genre match for me. I prefer stories that concentrate on characters, and although I got a sense of Karen’s voice, I didn’t get to know her as a character as well as I would like.

Despite those notes, I did like it enough to immediately pick up the other book in the series, and it looks like I’m going to like Stone Mad even more: Victorian spiritualists are my jam.

MFred reviews Bittersweet by Nevada Barr

The back copy of Nevada Barr’s Bittersweet promised me a truthful, accurate portrayal of two women living together in the 1800s West.  Imogene, a spinster teacher, is forced from her job in the East when her secret affair with a female student is revealed.  She ends up in small Pennsylvania farming town, where she starts a friendship with Sarah Mary.  However, malicious gossip eventually finds her again, and Imogene and Sarah are chased out to Nevada, where they try to start again.

The book is equally Imogene and Sarah’s stories, which I found difficult.  Imogene is older, more experienced, and to me, much more interesting.  She is described as exceedingly tall and strong for a woman – so not only is she old, single, over-educated, but she also physically embodies the characteristics of spinsterhood.  Barr is not an explicit writer – the queerness of Imogene’s character is implied more than it is spelled out.  I wanted more of her, her inner feelings and struggles, than I got.

Sarah, on the other hand, is introduced as a child.  When she reaches around 15, she is married to a local neighbor.  Her life is difficult and hard; she is immature in both age and experience.  Her friendship with Imogene, I think, has more to do with Imogene’s loneliness than with a lot of commonality of character.  It takes Sarah quite a long time, in both page numbers and in plot, to become an interesting character.  Most of the time, I felt that Sarah was just a victim for Imogene to protect, not a true partner.

Without being too spoilery, here is Sarah trying to decide her future:

She squeezed her eyes shut and willed the words to heaven.  When she opened them she was alone and small under the ring of mountains, the little grave at her feet.  “If not, Lord, I’m going to cast my lot with love.”  The defiance returned and she added, “Half a year. I’ll listen half a year.” (198).

I think Bittersweet runs a bit slow and overly long, but Nevada Barr is a gifted writer.  The Old West comes alive, without cliche, in her writing.  Where Barr succeeds is in telling the lives of women– mothers, daughters, wives, and spinsters.  I found it fascinating and interesting, even when the story slowed down.

allis reviews Valley of the Wolf by Kay Royalty

Valley of the Wolf by Kay Royalty is the story of Ruth, owner of a ranch, and Hannah, married to Josh (whose profession seems to be playing cards and drinking) who just arrived in town. The story evolves around those two women falling in love with each other while having to deal with the constant menace that Josh represents. The premise is simple but attracted me by being placed in a western setting. I am unfamiliar with that period in the USA and wanted something different than my usual readings, so this novel was perfect by being romance and western. That is definitely not a mix you find in my bookshelves.

The start of the novel offers a very beautiful and intriguing scenery with a horse racing against a train. This introduction caught my attention very rapidly and I was eager to learn more about the characters. However once this introduction is over, the writing becomes a bit shaky and put me off for a while. It seems that the author wants to give the reader as much information as possible from all points of view. Sadly the changes of point of view happen too fast and make the story hard to follow. You never stay with a character long enough to get used to its voice that you are already shifting to another one. But, once the exposition phase is over, the novel finds a more stable pace and we can follow the characters more easily, enjoying their story.

The love story between the two girls feels a bit forced at times. They fall in love at first glance (which I didn’t mind) but the way their feelings are described lack in subtlety, especially from Ruth who is supposed to have no idea what is happening to her. I would have liked to see her character struggle a bit more with herself. For example, after their first kiss she seems upset but very quickly she is not anymore and falls into the arms of Hannah, fully accepting her love for her and not questioning anything anymore. I guess the proximity of Jed and Jodie (a gay couple) and the exclusion of any other people around them helped Ruth not to question anything but it did seem a bit strange that almost no thoughts of doubts appeared in her mind.

I was also a bit saddened by the island the ranch provided. The characters rarely go into town and consequently the western aspect of the novel is not really exploited. Though the isolation of Ruth and Hannah with Jed and Jodie provides some really sweet « family » moments between the four of them.

The constant danger that Josh provides to the story is a good idea as it brings some action, but it is too easy to guess when and how he is going to act. He is the bad guy and that’s it. He seems to only be used as a plot device.

All in all it is not a bad read but the novel could gain in subtlety in its narration to make the actions and feelings of the various characters less obvious. The lack of any suspense whatsoever kept putting me off. As a result of this lack of depth I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as I expected to and I know it’s not going to end up in my « to reread » pile of books.

If you are looking for a light, quick and easy read about two girls falling in love in a vague western background – with a bonus of gay cowboys – this might be the book you’re looking for. Otherwise I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to you.

Guest Lesbrarian Stefanie reviews Marthy Moody by Susan Stinson

Welcome to our first Guest Lesbrarian post! This one is by Stefanie for lesbian writer Susan Stinson’s book Martha Moody, published in 1995. She also recommends some of Stinson’s  other fiction, including Venus of Chalk and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. Please, send in your own guest lesbrarian review!

Susan Stinson’s Martha Moody is an extraordinary and evocative book. Set in the “Old West,” it tells a complex and uneasy story of two women loving each despite their familial and community commitments. I wanted this book to keep going, never to end, so that I could stay suspended in Stinson’s poetic voice.This book is unconventional in many ways (its characterizations, its lush language, its integration of stories within stories) and seeks to fully explore how two individuals choose and are forced to act within their social and personal circumstances. A gorgeous read.

Have you read any of Susan Stinson’s books? What did you think?