Carmella reviews Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Notes of a Crocodile

Trigger warning: this review discusses suicide.

What do crocodiles and lesbians have in common? Plenty of things, as I learned from Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile.

The novel, first published in Chinese in 1994, is a fragmented, broody, and often puzzling coming-of-age tale. The main story is told through journal entries by our narrator, a college student nicknamed Lazi.

In her first year of study, Lazi begins a turbulent relationship with a fellow student, Shui Ling. Although she knows her love for other women is innate, Lazi is filled with self-loathing: she sees her identity as a crime. As a result, she sabotages the relationship to avoid confronting intimacy.

Over the remainder of her college years, Lazi returns obsessively to her experience with Shui Ling, which she sees as her one great love – but only great because it ended before it could become really real. In the meantime, she forms other relationships – some romantic, some sexual, some platonic – with a variety of queer people.

Notes of a Crocodile isn’t a plot-heavy book. Rather, it’s about the introspective development of a character. Lazi is romantic but melancholic, self-absorbed but self-hating. She’s likeable, but she can also be a bit much!

Lazi’s main quest, as I see it, is to learn how to love. More specifically: how to love as a lesbian. With no societal script to guide her, it’s a messy process of trial and error. Her experiences are mirrored by her friends’ relationships, which can be seen as various models for how queer love can be. They’re a vibrant cast of characters, from a loud-and-proud bisexual gangster and his depressed journalist ex-boyfriend, to a try-hard overachiever and her slacker guitarist sweetheart. Getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of the book.

But don’t get me wrong: none of them any good at love either! Lazi has to learn from their bad examples. As she says towards the end, “On how to love well: instead of embracing a romantic ideal, you must confront the meaning of every great love that has shattered, shard by shard.”

And what about the crocodile? Well, it crops up in a series of satirical vignettes that break up Lazi’s narrative – which is much-needed, given how bleak her story can be.

The crocodile has lived its whole life wearing a human suit, trying to fit into a human-normative society. Despite its desperate longing to connect with its own kind, because all other crocodiles also wear human suits, the crocodile can’t be sure that it’s ever met another one for real. Does this sound like a familiar experience? It certainly resonated with my teenage memories!

While society hates and fears crocodiles, it’s also fascinated with them. During the course of the novel, Taiwan’s media is whipped up into a crocodile-frenzy, obsessed with finding out every detail of these outsiders who live among the normal populace. Headlines scream: “BREAKING NEWS: CREAM PUFFS ARE A CROCODILE FAVOURITE!” Should the crocodile feel flattered, or fetishised?

Oddly, although these crocodile sections are humorous, they were also the ones that touched me the most.

Around the time of the book’s first publication, lesbians were under a similar scrutiny in the Taiwanese media. That same year, a TV journalist secretly filmed patrons at a lesbian bar, resulting in many being outed without their consent. In a separate incident, two female students (who attended the same high school where Miaojin had once studied) committed a double-suicide, leading to media speculation that they had been in a lesbian relationship. Medical experts and psychologists were called to comment and analyse the girls’ motives. As Miaojin satirises, “various crocodile experts had begun to crop up” – all of them spouting contradictory pseudo-scientific nonsense.

From the outset, I was expecting this to be a sad book. I’ve read Miaojin’s other novel, Last Words from Montmartre, which is an extended suicide note. Miaojin herself committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 26. So I was unsurprised by how self-destructive the characters in Notes of a Crocodile are.

However, I was surprised by how defiant the book felt as well. Yes, Lazi is miserable, but she keeps on trying to build human connections, to find a love that will last. I didn’t come away feeling miserable. Or, at least, not too miserable. And I enjoyed its puzzles and parallels, the way you have to pick apart metaphors and pop culture references to understand what’s being said. I still don’t understand it completely – but that’s part of what makes me like it.

Carmella reviews Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

It felt like I was seeing the vibrant front cover of Girl, Woman, Other everywhere (or at least all over lesbian bookstagram), so when it won the Booker Prize for Fiction, I decided it was finally time to buy a copy and see what the buzz was about.

The book follows twelve loosely-connected characters, each section switching to a new point of view. It begins with Amma, a black lesbian playwright, whose production of The Last Amazon of Dahomy is about to open at the National Theatre. After so many years living as a counter-cultural socialist activist, making it into the mainstream is both a source of pride and worry for Amma – is it radical for her play about black lesbians to achieve such a platform, or is she selling out?

From Amma, we springboard off into the lives of the other characters. Most of them (but not all) are black British women. Many of them (but not all) are queer. Some of them are closely connected – there’s Amma’s headstrong daughter, Yazz; her best friend and former business partner, Dominique – and some of them are several degrees of separation away – Carole, the hotshot investment banker who’s attending opening night; Morgan, the non-binary influencer caught up in a Twitter beef with Dominique.

Normally when I read a book that switches between lots of characters I get frustrated. There are always some stories I’m more interested in hearing, and some characters I care about more than others. I was worried I would feel the same way going into this book.

But that wasn’t the case at all – each one of Evaristo’s voices was so compelling that I was engrossed immediately every time. The experience felt something like getting into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, where you bounce from article to article as interesting tidbits catch your eye. Then you look up and you’ve lost six hours!

Of course, there were still favourite characters among them. I loved the determination of Bummi, a Nigerian immigrant and widowed mother who’s working hard to build a cleaning empire – and looking for love again with both women and men. But I think my favourite was Hattie, a crotchety mixed race nonagenarian who grew up in the agricultural north of England. After a lifetime of hard work on the family farm, she despairs of her lazy descendants – with the exception of Morgan, who often visits with their girlfriend to help out.

Not all of the characters are so easy to like. Dominique, for example, founds a trans-exclusionary ‘women’s’ festival. Penelope holds racist beliefs her entire life, and only starts to learn at the age of 80 that things aren’t as black and white as her parents taught her (including her own DNA). But even when you don’t agree with one of Evaristo’s characters, you’re still interested to learn more about them – and it’s a mark of wonderful writing that Evaristo can switch hats and ideologies so skilfully.

Without a unifying plot, what connects these voices are the themes of race, gender, class, and identity in general. Instead of providing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to any of these, Evaristo examines them from every angle. It feels like she’s giving a cheeky wink to anyone who wants to read a novel about a black woman’s experience as a novel about the black woman’s experience.

If I’m making it sound intellectual and literary – well, it is, but it’s also captivating. I nearly missed my stop on the tube more than once because I was too glued to the pages to pay attention to anything else. It’s not a light book – it deals with serious topics like (of course) racism, as well as abuse, rape, and addiction – but it’s very readable, and there are plenty of fun, heart-warming moments mixed in there too.

I’m glad I finally gave into the social media buzz to read this book. It was well-deserving of its Booker win, and I hope it goes on to receive even more recognition in the future.

Content warnings: racism, rape, abuse, CSA, sexism, transphobia, addiction

Alice Pate reviews Choices by Tessa Vidal

Choices by Tessa Vidal

Choices is fairly true to the stereotypes of its genre. As an erotic romance, its sex scenes are plentiful, overdramatic, and unrealistic. Unfortunately, it seems that these criticisms can be extended to the entire story.

Choices is a love story between the movie star, Caro Ballad and the celebrity dog trainer, Shell Tate. Both women had their start in a trailer park in Mississippi and managed to find their way to glamorous Los Angeles where they reconnected over Caro’s new adopted dog, Dickens.

Fame has always been a difficult writing subject, because so few people have actually experienced it. Tessa Vidal has fallen victim to writing about a subject she has little experience with and the result is a celebrity character who is just… boring. The movie star life is an attractive subject, but it takes a special touch to pull it off.

In general, I had a hard time getting invested in the romance. Perhaps my own personal bias against celebrity lifestyles and the world of dog breeding and dog shows, but I’m a little more likely to blame the uninspiring romance scenes. There was no tension or build-up to the relationship, and the tiny conflict the author tried to insert was too easy to overcome.

To risk a pun, this entire story was anticlimactic. Tessa Vidal included a side-story to run parallel the main couple. It follows Ryder, Shell’s twin brother, who is on the run from the FBI, and it’s hinted that he’s involved in something incredibly dangerous. This side plot was a nice rush of action for when the romantic plot fell flat, but in the end there was no big exciting peak to Ryder’s story.

Likewise, there’s a scene where Caro is being blackmailed by a private detective about her not-so-glamorous past, and this is never revisited. Caro claims she won’t pay him the money he demands to buy his silence. But he still has a hold of this information on her that she tries to keep covered up. Loose ends like this tend to point to rushed drafts and a lack of editing, and it could have potentially livened up the story where it dragged.

Overall, I was fairly unimpressed with Choices. The author has since released a few more erotica titles that appear to be set in the same creative universe, but I doubt I’ll ever pick them up.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November by Cameron Darrow

Remember, November follows Millie, Elise, Victoria, and their coven of witches as they learn their powers in the aftermath of World War I. The coven is under the employment of The Allied Directorate for Alternative Means (ADAM), a government-sanctioned operation that wants to use magic to fight wars.

On Christmas night, Victoria goes missing. The split point of view narration reveals that she has lost her memory and doesn’t know she’s a witch. After a series of strange mishaps that seem impossible, she submits herself to the mercy of a psychiatric hospital, hoping to find answers. But the kind doctor and hospital are not all they appear to be. It’s up to Millie and Elise to rescue their lost friend.

The mysterious plot combined with historical fiction and a bit of romance between Millie and Elise make this novel a delightful read. It’s easy to keep turning the pages as the action never gets bogged down in too much detail. The moments of character development give the reader an opportunity to breathe and get inside the characters’ heads.

Each character has a strong, distinct voice that makes readers want to get to know each one on their own. But that doesn’t mean their relationships with one another fall by the wayside. The bond that is created between the three new witches as well as their mistresses, ancient witches who are mentoring the new generation, comes through clearly as they do anything and everything to protect one another.

While the writing is strong and compelling, it’s not particularly tight. There are moments where the story is hard to follow because typos and convoluted grammar make it hard to follow. It felt like the book needed more effective editing before going to publication. But the narrative is still strong enough to keep readers wanting more.

Darrow’s writing ability shines through during moments of introspection. Each main character is developed within their own thoughts. As Millie and Victoria navigate their world and consider their relationships with other characters, their voices are clear and distinct, making them complete and rounded-out people. It’s an impressive feat with Victoria, as for most of the book she is without her memory.

The novel establishes Elise and Millie’s romantic relationship early on. But for fans of a slow burn, their pining makes up a great deal of this romance. Everything about their feelings always feels genuine and organic. Millie’s characterization is especially sweet as her demeanor softens when she’s around Elise, whereas with others she tends to be sarcastic.

As the story unravels and readers go along for the ride, there are clues and details that may lead them to certain conclusions. That’s why the plot twist with how Victoria lost her memory packs a powerful punch. It’s a possibility that doesn’t pop up at the top of the list of answers to the question, “What happened?”

One aspect I wish had been explored more was the correlation between science and magic. Darrow touches upon the relation between two seemingly opposing concepts with Elise and Victoria, but the idea never blooms further than a few buds. The story could have been made richer with a deeper dive into how science and magic go hand in hand.

Alice Pate reviews A Line In The Dark by Malinda Lo

A Line In the Dark by Malinda Lo cover

Trigger Warnings: drug use, underage drinking, referenced underage sex, adult/teenager relationship

Note: Not all trigger warnings are present in this review, but they are present in the book in question.

A Line In The Dark may be marketed as a YA thriller, but I personally believe all the best parts of the story have nothing to do with the mystery.

The author, Malinda Lo, really shines in her portrayal of relationships, both romantic and platonic. Perhaps this stood out so much to me because I’m reading her book immediately after slogging through some pretty mediocre writing, but the emotions shown in her characters felt so rich, and full, and satisfying. The main character, Jessica Wong (Jess), has a secret crush on her best friend Angie. Every word in the first few chapters about this crush felt like it was pulled straight out of my own closeted high school brain. So naturally, when Angie starts seeing this other girl, Margot, who goes to a nearby boarding school in town, I could feel my own heart breaking right along with Jess’s.

But this isn’t your typical love triangle. Remember how I mentioned this book is a thriller? About halfway through the book goes from a quiet and reflective piece about the main character and her internal struggles to a drama fueled “he-said-she-said.” The death of Margot’s best friend, Ryan, has the cast of characters trying to find the culprit and pointing fingers.

While this transition was a little rocky, Lo ties in all of those beautiful emotions and relationships she’d crafted in the first half of the story to form the puzzle pieces needed to solve the mystery. The tone may have shifted pretty dramatically, but the story is still intriguing enough to reel you back in to find out whodunnit.

Ultimately, A Line In The Dark was incredibly entertaining, and at a little over 300 pages, it’s a pretty fast read. I highly recommend picking it up if you have the time.

Carmella reviews The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton

Elise Morceau is enjoying a winter’s walk on Hampstead Heath when a striking older woman catches her eye. It’s attraction at first sight for the pair of them. Soon Elise is being whisked away by Connie – a successful author whose book is being developed into a Hollywood film.

Does this sound like the plot to a romance novel so far? Although romance is an important part of the book, the genre’s about to turn into a mystery.

Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for the mother who left while she was still a baby. All her father will tell her is that Elise’s disappearance is linked to two books from the 80s.  Between her unfulfilling job and her failing relationship, Rose is ready for some intrigue. When she tracks down the author, she manages to bluff her way into a job interview using a fake identity. Now she suddenly finds herself assistant to this arthritic stranger, Constance Holden, helping her to work on a third novel after a long spell of inactivity. But how did Constance know Elise, and how will Rose get the truth out of her?

The Confession is Jessie Burton’s third novel too – and one that’s been hotly anticipated after the bestselling success of The Miniaturist and The Muse. I loved Burton’s attention to historical detail and the authentic character voices in her other books, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on The Confession to see if it lived up to them.

Just like in her previous work, the bonds between characters are Burton’s greatest strength: the rocky passion between Elise and Connie, Rose’s fizzling-out love for her boyfriend, the guarded intrigue Rose feels for Connie, and – at the centre of it all – the absent space where a mother-daughter bond should connect the two timelines. All of these are written so believably that I really felt transported into the psychologies of the characters.

Although I (of course) love a tumultuous romance between two women, the most compelling strand for me wasn’t actually the story of Elise and Connie’s relationship, but the modern-day plot where Rose tracks down Connie. I really enjoyed watching Rose trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to her mother, and the tension of whether Connie would uncover Rose’s true identity. It’s like Chekhov’s gun: you know it has to go off at some point, so you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time waiting for it to happen.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 80s more. I think it was an issue of pacing: the start of Connie and Elise’s relationship unfolds so quickly that I didn’t feel like I’d had the chance to watch them fall in love. Because of this, I wasn’t so invested once things start to get difficult between them.

Even so, the modern day sections had enough drive behind them that I was still propelled through the book.

I also appreciated Burton’s refreshing take on writing about motherhood. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it doesn’t fall back on the tired narrative of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment. Burton isn’t afraid to write about postpartum depression, [Spoilers:] or to show that, for some women, a happy ending is deciding not to have children at all. [End spoilers]

Burton has definitely continued the momentum of her first two novels in The Confession, and I’m excited to see where and when she’ll take us next. Hopefully she won’t follow in Connie’s footsteps and make us wait three decades for another book!

Trigger warning: abortion, child abandonment, postpartum depression

Sash S. reviews Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

Wilder Girls by Rory Powers

“The Tox took teacher after teacher. Rules crumbling to dust and fading away, until only the barest bones were left.”

Body horror. Boarding school. Queer girls.

Wilder Girls promises a lot of cool things. Marketed as ‘a feminist Lord of the Flies’, one expects a grimdark pastiche of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, mixed with comfortingly familiar tropes of YA romance and maybe some creep-factor akin to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series or Erin Bowman’s Contagion.

Instead what happens is a mix of half-executed ideas that drift away from their potential, fizzling out and sadly getting lost.

Our story starts at the Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school on an island which is under quarantine due to a virus. The ‘Tox’ is deadly to some and not to others. Some are irreparably transformed, some cough up blood, some are taken to the infirmary and never seen again. This set-up is really cool and raises a lot of questions: What was this place like before? Why are the effects of the virus so wildly different? Who are all these teenage girls and how are they coping?

Unfortunately the backstory is never fully explained. Instead we get a feel for the loose structure of things on the island, just barely held together by the Headmistress, one other surviving teacher and the hope of an eventual cure. There’s routines of sorts and a strained peace between the different cliques of girls, dynamics that could have been compelling had the author spent just a little more time fleshing them out. Our main trio are a bundle of intense ride-or-die friendship and simmering romantic feelings, until two of them have an argument and the third goes missing.

And that’s where it all falls apart, as the novel phases out many of the things which initially made it interesting.

The main character’s internal monologue is full of stumbling, halted sentences and half-finished thoughts, a style that meshes well with some readers but may not for others. Her decisions, frustratingly, don’t always make sense. We don’t get much character development from her in the first instance and she comes across as fairly flat without an engaging narrative voice. The breaking of the trio emphasises this lack of development further; we don’t get much time to see them bouncing off one another, or invest in their relationship. As the story moves away from the school setting, we see less of the background girls who seemed so full of potential.

In short, things just… happen, without a lot of payoff.

The body horror is excellently written and one of my favourite parts of the book. There are gloriously creepy descriptions of transformed girls and strange things in the woods. There’s tension around the island and in the cliques, all built up as a ticking time bomb of female teenage fury waiting to explode into the second half of the novel. Sadly, the mystery falls flat. The author drops tantalising hints at the world outside of the Tox, but fails to deliver. The lack of resolution is disappointing, though the ending does leave room for a sequel, so maybe that itch for world-building will be scratched in the future.

There is also a secondary plot written from a different point of view which hints at hidden depths to a particular character, but again, lacking in payoff.

There’s romance, too, but it’s not the focal point of the novel. Our leads are unapologetically queer – “Even when she came out to me, it was like a weapon. ‘Queer’ she said then, as though she was daring me to disagree” – and directly address this in one of the most powerful lines in the novel. It’s great and so, so necessary to see a fiercely, unapologetically queer teenage girl in YA fiction and I fully appreciate that about Wilder Girls.

However, the romance builds, comes to fruition, clatters to a halt and subsequently isn’t mentioned again. It’s almost treated as an afterthought. The true feeling of love comes from the main character and her missing best friend, which is touching, but if you were expecting an explicit queer romance set against the backdrop of a horror story, you’re out of luck.

Wilder Girls seems to have a mixture of reviews on the extremes of those who either love it or hate it, so it’s worth checking out just to see for yourself. There are good bits, namely in the body horror and setting and raw potential, but it’s hard not to be disappointed, as as it’s certainly not the modern Lord of the Flies that was promised.

Rating: **

Danika reviews Heathen, Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen Volume 1 by Natasha Alterici

I feel like Heathen is a book that lots of people are looking for, but they don’t know it’s an option. It’s about a lesbian viking taking on the patriarchy. Norse mythology with a queer lead! That’s what made me pick this up in the first place, but I mistakenly thought this would be incidentally queer: that the main character liked women, but it wouldn’t come up much. Instead, the basis of her arc is that she was banished from her community–and meant to be killed–for kissing a girl. Instead of feeling shame, she feels outrage at a system that punishes her for this. She decides to free Brynhild, a Valkyrie who is imprisoned in fire by Odin.

That’s only the beginning, though. This is a quest to take down the patriarchy, and along the way Aydis and her allies defend other outcasts. She also runs into some talking wolves and a talking horse as well as Freyja, goddess of love. Oh, and of course, she picks a fight with the most powerful enemy you can find in Norse mythology: Odin.

I really like the art, which has muted colours and a scratchy quality that makes it more dynamic. I’m not going to be able to explain it well, so just look at the page below for an idea of the style. My only qualm, and it’s a small one, is that Aydis and many other female characters are wearing very little clothing, especially considering that this scene takes place in winter. It is own voices lesbian representation, though, so I’m not going to get too hung up on clothing choices. This is a fun, feminist take on Norse mythology, and I’m looking forward to picking up volume 2!

Page from Heathen

Mallory Lass reviews Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

Everything Grows by Aimee Herman

CW: suicide, homophobia, family trauma, parental character death (remembered) and child abuse

Have you ever picked up a book and the whole time you’re reading, it feels like somehow the universe aligned and you were meant to find it, to soak in the words and glide through the pages? Well this is how Aimee Herman’s Everything Grows was for me. This young adult book is set in the early to mid 90’s and so many of the experiences and references (Audre Lorde! Bikini Kill! Adrienne Rich!) jumped off the page and reminded me I am not alone. While no queer experience is universal, queer people have a lot of shared history, and this book brought that into sharp focus. If you are a fan of found family and queer discovery and mentorship, this might be a book for you.

This book tackles heavy subject matter, but provides its own healing along the way. The main plot jumps off from the suicide of a teen boy named James; Herman explores the issues of identity, survival, and navigating life from the perspective of James’ classmate, Eleanor, which lightens the load a little bit. It is written in epistolary style, composed almost entirely of Eleanor’s letters to James, who also happened to be her school bully. It reads almost like a diary, the most intimate details of Eleanor’s developing mind laid bare and exposed for the reader to relish in.

Eleanor is 14 when we meet her, and the book takes place over her school year. This is a period of immense growth and self discovery, and we are privy to her journey in a way that made her highly relatable for me. She tries to make sense of her mother’s recent suicide attempt, the suicide of James, and typical coming of age experiences like puberty, masturbation, and sex all the while trying to make sense of her own gender and sexual identity. There are no easy answers, but if there is any single message to take away from Eleanor’s story, it’s that our voice matters. Ask questions of ourselves, of others, and listen patiently for honest answers. The answers don’t always come easily or the first time you ask.

It felt like big parts of her coming out experience were my experience and also a good chunk of her exploration of her gender identity were completely foreign to me but still relatable. Getting to read Eleanor’s thoughts as she pours them out almost daily to James made it seem as if we had been friends for years.

Everything Grows has a full cast of supporting characters who all play a role in Eleanor’s journey: her friends Dara and Aggie, Shirley (her mom), her sister and her dad, plus her mom’s lesbian friend Flor. Additionally Ms. Raimondo, her English teacher, and a trans woman she meets named Reigh, both play an important role in her road to self discovery.

The book underscores the importance queer mentors can play in young adult lives and inversely the tragic consequences for queer youth who have no one in their corner, no one to say, “Who you are is okay, is worth loving, is worth being here and taking up space.” I was lucky to have these type of mentors in my life, and I am more appreciative of it now than I’ve ever been.

Through Eleanor’s journey I was also reminded of the importance of queer people as creatives, of the artists and writers who have come before us and have laid the groundwork to help us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Ultimately this book is confirmation that the human condition is real and life is hard. But the best thing about it is Eleanor gives me hope that if we can keep working to uncover our own mysteries and help each other do the same along the way, the world will be a better place.

There is a line in the book, “…I wonder if there were more books and movies about us, would we feel less alone?” And at least for me, Herman answered that question with an affirmative ‘YES!’.

This book filled a place in my heart from my childhood that I didn’t know was missing. I hope you will open it and give it a chance to grow inside you as well.

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.