Mary reviews Hidden Truths by Jae

Hidden Truths by Jae

I loved the story of Luke and Nora in Backwards to Oregon by Jae, in which a woman in disguise as a man marries another woman in what starts as a fake relationship to help each other on the long Oregon trial, turns into a romantic, slow burn favorite of mine. You can find my review for that here. Hidden Truths is the sequel set 17 years later and focuses more on Luke and Nora’s eldest daughter Amy and her romance with newcomer to the horse ranch, Rika. Amy has grown up under the love of her parents and given much more freedom than most women in her age. She also feels an attraction to women that she struggles with but is able to keep locked down – that is until she meets Rika. Rika comes to Oregon pretending to be her her dead friend to be a mail order bride to a man who works on the farm. Along with all of that, Luke still hasn’t revealed to her two daughters that she is a woman, despite them both being old enough to keep the secret.

Hidden identity is a theme I love and here it was explored so well. Luke is hiding her gender, Rika is hiding her name and history, and Amy is hiding her sexuality. All of these conflicts and storylines weave together and build off of each other. Each character moves the other forward in their arc and development. Everyone gets a moment to shine, which I’m glad for as I was worried when I saw how big the cast is.

The romance between Amy and Rika was very engaging. I could really believe who they slowly took time to get to know each other, then to trust one another, and then to slowly fall in love. At the same time both are struggling with secrets they have from each other.

However, the romance isn’t the only plot. Luke takes some of his horses to another state to sell them and Amy is left in charge of the ranch. She has to deal with men not wanting to follow her command in an era where women were nothing more than wives.

I also really appreciated the world building and the clear expansive amount of research the author had put in. I love historical fiction and nothing can ruin a story more for me than feeling plots points and character movements are out of place for the era. At the same time, it can be just as damning to have too much exposition on the world and the time period. Jae masterfully weaves in the information with the characters and their stories.

Overall, this was a great read I recommend to anyone who likes historical fiction and/or stories with hidden identity. This is a sequel, but I think it stands very well on its own if you want to start here instead of Backwards to Oregon (but I do highly recommend that one as well).

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.

Susan reviews Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory is a steampunk alternate universe set in Seattle during the Gold Rush, following a prostitute named Karen Memery (“like memory but with an e”) as she and her colleagues investigate the murders of streetwalkers, attempt to help rescue of women who have been trafficked, and also have to deal with a rival brothel owner trying to drive them out of business using mad science and mind control. I feel like everyone I know has read and recommended this book at least once to me since it came out, and they were exactly right because it falls squarely in the middle of my interest in both queer mysteries and genre-crossing SFF!

Karen’s narration is written in a really strong voice – it felt quite natural and dialectic to me, although knowing that every “should of” or non-standard grammar choice was a deliberate choice from the author really helped me to shut off my inner grammar snob. Some of the descriptions were hard for me to follow, though – I could not for the life of me parse what was going on with the street levels of this city, and learning that they’re real has honestly actually clarified everything magnificently; and I honestly had no idea what to picture for the Singer sewing machine at all until Karen started using it in ways that definitely were not intended by the manufacturers and I went “OH, IT’S A MECH!” – but it worked out.

(The mix of real history with the alternate universe and steampunk elements are really cool by the way – the man who comes looking for the murderer, Marshall Bass Reeves, was a real person, and Rapid City’s raised streets are based on the actual Seattle Underground (which I didn’t know was a thing until I started reading around for this review!)

And the characters! I adored Karen and her friends; Karen in particular is very well drawn, and her awkwardness in trying to show her interest and regard for Priya warmed my heart, especially because it’s such a slow-moving romance and it’s really sweet – and her admiration for Priya is so sincere! I love that completely. Plus, the friendships are lovely between all of the women, and the way that everyone goes out of their way to help each other in the face of racism and stigma against their profession, I also like that despite the majority of characters in this book being sex workers, there’s no actual onscreen sex – it’s very much depicted as a boring job that people have different preferences about. It’s refreshing!

But yes, Karen Memory is fun and action-filled, with a sweet romance running through it and some really cool ideas and inventions – see also, sewing machine machine mech – and all of the social commentary that you’d hope for in a steampunk story. My only real complaint about the book is that the pace and scale of the last quarter or so of the book escalated really suddenly. It makes sense, considering that its supposed to read like a dime novel (Was I delighted by that aspect of the story? Of course I was.).

I did think that this was a standalone book, but it turns out that there’s a a sequel called Stone Mad due out on the 20th of March, and I am really excited, so that might be worth keeping an eye out for! But in the mean time: hello, this is a book about sex workers investigating murder and using a sewing machine as a mech, it’s great.

[Caution warnings: misgendering, historical racism, human trafficking, mostly off-screen torture and abuse, off-screen murder of sex workers]

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.

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?