Writing on Reading // Queer Retellings

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So, I kinda went hard ranting on twitter the other day. I went hard, because I had just read two short stories and one anthology of queer retellings of fairytales, and they were all tragic disappointments. I was dissecting why, how, what the fuck… and then I realised I actually had a book blog. Like, a space on the internet specially carved out for me to talk about books and reading.

And I was also debating whether to repost my reviews for those novellas here, considering the gist of the short write-ups was ‘disappointing’… why not turn it into one big rant about the concept as a whole?

Brilliant idea. So, here I shall.

Here’s the thing. A really, really high portion of LGBTQ fiction out there is a retelling of some sort, or a queer ‘twist’ on an existing story. Fairytales and folklore are the most common, but plenty take on myths, or classic literature. In such a small genre – compared to hetero fiction – this becomes really apparent, because of how very little LGBT fiction is being written, published and self-published. When so much of it has a blurb with ‘a gay/lesbian twist on the classic story of X’, you really have to sit back and look at what these stories actually are.

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Review // The Well // A murder mystery with a few twists

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Copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review! And finally, a novel that I’ve requested has turned out to be genuinely good!

It’s a sharp, concise mystery novel, focused on the murder with a M/M romance.

This isn’t an adventurous or genre-changing plot but it made a damn solid novel for an afternoon at home. Twelve years ago a group of teens – Haven, his cousins Linsey and Elise and a few others, including the boy he’d had his eye on – broke into an abandoned haunted house to hold a seance. By morning, Elise had vanished. Twelve years later, Haven is contacted by his old crush, Pierce, and his twin – now paranormal investigators – for help in hunting down the truth. The plot is a page-turner, no wasted words in telling the story of ~what happened on that spooky night~ – and the added diversity is always a point in a book’s favour.

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It was really good fun! The unfolding investigation always kept me interested, it was easy to follow and the conclusion and eventual murderer reveal wasn’t contrived at all. There were some really great, genuinely suspenseful moments towards the end of the novel where I couldn’t stop reading and didn’t want to – I would have read this in two sittings instead of three, thanks to work lol. The twists in the mystery were fun and definitely heightened my interested instead of making it convoluted, and the paranormal twist was especially fun – I enjoyed that it was used, primarily, for a really emotional touch rather than spooooky happenings. I was actually quite pleased with how the ending focused on resolving the murder for the mystery as well as in an emotionally satisfying way.

The M/M romance was a really nice addition

The ridiculous teenage longing and resulting adulthood reunion was sweet and added more emotion and depth to a story that always had plenty. I enjoyed that Haven’s emotional connections were given equal importance between his lost cousin and his love interest – in a mystery novel Elise would have taken precedence, and in an M/M novel her importance would have been (rather stupidly) downplayed in favour of ~sexy gay love~ so I’m glad Sexton gave both aspects the pagetime they deserved to be explored. And yet, because this was a mystery first and M/M romance second, the romance plotline in the present section wasn’t as compelling as it could have been – it was a sweet complement to the mystery, but this novel would have gripped me even more if it had put more effort into the relationship building.

My only qualm, really, is that I wish there had been more

And not because it was lacking – I just genuinely had fun with it, and felt more could only improve the experience. I really did enjoy all the characters, the various dynamics going on between the supporting cast and the mains. I would have adored this if it had been a 400 page novel. Sexton is absolutely a competent writer with great, clear prose, but this barely scrapes up to 200 pages – it did a lot of things that I enjoyed but it only touched upon them, the fast-paced plot taking precedence. The flashback chapters were perfectly concise and well paced throughout the novel, I wouldn’t change them, but I would have loved more on the present day. If it had gone into greater details on the facets of Haven’s life, as a writer, on living life after such a great tragedy; on bringing the town of Hobbsburg to life; on injecting even more tension and longing into his relationship with Pierce, or exploring Pierce and Jordan’s life… honestly, I enjoyed all of it, I would have happily read more Sexton had to write about any part of this story.

Overall, 4/5. A lot of fun, and I could have easily read more – I wish there had been more.

Review // The Watchmaker of Filigree Street // Magic, Watches and a Love Story

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So, someone must have let slip to Natasha Pulley what my literary kinks are. It is insane how much this book pandered to everything I love. Victorian England? Set in the only part of London (South Kensington) I know well? Meiji era Japan? Diversity in historical settings? Spirited female scientists and the existence of migrant communities throughout history? Japanese linguistics? Hell, even foreign affairs offices, blithely teasing me about my career goals? And most important of all – a happy, loving queer relationship ❤️

It’s about a telegraphist, Thaniel Steepleton, in the London Home Office in the 1880s who goes home to find a mysterious pocket watch left in his room – months later it ends up saving his life from a bomb. He seeks out the watchmaker for answers, and finds Keita Mori, a Japanese man with secrets of his own. And from there, their relationship begins.

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The packaging of this novel was definitely misleading – but for me it ended up being a pleasant surprise.

It very much wanted readers to think the novel was going to tell a completely different story than what it ended up telling – and I think this is the root of a lot of the negative reviews I see for this. This is definitely a trend I’ve noticed very specifically with LGBT+ fiction in literary or speculative genres – publishers try to remain as vague as possible about the very central LGBT+ content inside in every way possible. And I think it would help readers to enjoy it more knowing exactly what it was going in.

The blurb seemed to hint at maybe a historical crime thriller, or maybe a Holmesian mystery with supernatural threads – and those elements were there. But that wasn’t the story. The story was, above all else, about a magical romance between two men. It’s about how Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori find each other, come to love each other, and the magic within Mori that brought them together. It’s about knowing you’re going to fall in love with someone before you even meet, simply based on thousands of possibilities of how your lives are going to unfold – chance and magic. And I have no doubt very different elements of the book would have been emphasised in marketing if either of them had been female – but. That’s another rant.

adored their romance. I loved how the writing portrayed their unfolding relationship; thoughtful and slow, almost drifting along. It was a way of writing the relationship which, by the climax of the novel and of their relationship, makes a alot of the novel make a lot more sense in retrospect. Every scene between the two was very atmospheric – their world in Filigree Street came to life for me. I loved their characters, I grew so fond of Thaniel and so charmed by Mori. I could read any number of novellas about Mori and Thaniel’s post-novel life, oh my god. The author has a short story online from 2010 which inspired this novel, and if it’s as lovely as the story itself I definitely want to read it.

EDIT: half an hour after posting this review I discovered the author is writing a sequel about Thaniel and Mori due to be published next year. I am blessed ❤️

Everything else, really, was dressing to complement the romance.

The historical settings of late Victorian England and its troubles with Irish nationalism, the sweeping political changes in post-civil war Meiji Japan, the rapidly evolving technology of the time, the difficulties of women in academia and public spaces in this time, and the magical realism in this world where clairvoyants and seers are rare but accepted – but, oh man, I found it such an interesting dressing. There wasn’t a great deal of synthesis between these events and the Thaniel/Mori love story at the heart, which was definitely a failing.

Even though I say that, I also found it no great coincidence that this character whose magic made all those around him see him as dangerous based simply on just could be and potential to – and that this character was a queer man, a stigmatised ill-begotten son in his own society and a racial minority in British society in an era with the “Yellow Peril”. This was never really explored in the novel, but it didn’t escape my notice.

I liked all the supporting characters too – even if they weren’t drawn out in great detail or even did a whole lot, there was something about them that seemed vivid to me. Dolly, Fanshawe, Ito and Matsumoto were are ally enjoyable for me – even Annabel, who only had a few speaking lines, was a distinct character for me from the way Pulley painted her from Thaniel’s perspective.

There was one main thing that left me unsatisfied.

And pretty damn conflicted overall, too – and that was the character of Grace. Initially she had all the fantastic qualities of female characters that I enjoy – especially supporting female characters in M/M novels – but she ended up being more of an antagonist force. While I understand why – the decision Thaniel has to make between Grace and Mori is the central conflict of the novel in the end – I just didn’t like that Pulley made that decision. Grace could have been a very fun secondary heroine – she had a lot of character, she was stroppy, headstrong and selfish, focused on her goal of becoming a scientist and to make a grand discovery, to a fault, but good-hearted, with a lot of room to grow. These qualities, that were fun in the beginning, actually manifested in a way that made Grace a very unpleasant person by the end of the novel. I wanted her to leave, to let Mori and Thaniel’s relationship be, and it was too much of a ‘ew get the horrible WOMAN away from the gay ship’ experience than I’m EVER comfortable with. I don’t think Pulley was trying to villainise Grace, considering her ending, but it very much left me with a reading experience I’m very uncomfortable with when reading M/M content.

I found the prose itself lovely – a little slow, but for me it came off considered – and the dialogue was all strong and delightful… but at times the execution of certain scenes didn’t work, especially towards the end of the novel. There wasn’t enough tension being built into the writing, but there was enough that through the context of the story I was able to feel the build up and climaxes so it wasn’t left lying completely flat – but I don’t think she quite managed to land the ending the way she wanted to. Honestly, it read like an author’s first novel – which, hey, it was.

Definitely a 4/5 – I adored it, but there were some little flaws which were just too much for me to ignore.