Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Octavius and the Perfect Governess by Emily Larkin

Emily Larkin has released a new book in her wonderful Regency-era Baleful Godmother series, and is taking the series in a new direction after a series of short stories called the Pryor Prequels.

The series began when a woman and her three daughters save a faerie child from drowning. It’s fae mother rewards them with wishes that will follow the family line – as each female descendant reaches a particular birthday, they will be granted a wish. But the Fae are scary folk, and Baletongue will trick them if she can.

Previous books have followed the female descendants, but the Pryor Prequels trace how one descendant transferred her wish to the male line, and the terrible consequences of that wish.

Now, in the first novel following that thread, we have Octavius Pryor, a wealthy young man from a family of men with special, faerie-gifted powers. His grandfather is very strict, however, on the rules of how such gifts can be used, because of what his mother wished.

Octavius in fact has chosen the same wish that Miss Appleby did back in Unmasking Miss Appleby, the book that got me hooked on this series. Like Charlotte Appleby, Octavius has chosen the gift of metamorphosis.

In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Charlotte changes into a man in order to escape her restricted life; here, Octavius first changes shape into a woman as a forfeit on a bet with his brother and cousins, and visits Vauxhall Gardens with them at night. There he discovers just how unpleasant man can be, and how little power women have in his world.

When Octavius adopts a female shape again in order to teach the vile Baron Rumpole a lesson for the attempted assault, he encounters Miss Toogood, the governess Rumpole has engaged to teach his two daughters. He determines at once to find a way into Rumpole’s household in order to protect this courageous, kind woman from the fate that has befallen other women in Rumpole’s household staff.

There follows a novel of Larkin’s usual deft charm, wit and pace. She gives the subject matter the seriousness and drama it deserves, with Octavius learning and absorbing the lessons of how the privilege of been male and wealthy are not extended to others, and how those privileges can be used to abuse others. The characters are nicely drawn, likeable but flawed, and the obstacles to their love are those of circumstance and genuine conflict rather than foolish misunderstandings that could be fixed if people would just talk.

I particularly enjoyed Octavius and his cousin and friend teaching Miss Toogood self defence – this isn’t going to be a story about a damsel in distress, but of two people with agency, learning and becoming stronger together.

The shapeshifting element of Octavius and the Perfect Governess brings an interesting undercurrent, seen also in Unmasking Miss Appleby, of body dysphoria and characters that are not transgender but whose feelings may reflect some experiences of being transgender. This is the element that first engaged me with this series and I enjoyed reading about it from the male-to-female perspective.

I’m looking forward to more books in this series – and there are hints that there may be another gay romance in the set.

You can read an excerpt of the book on Emily Larkin’s website.

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Review: Ghost Story by GV Pearce

The latest book from Improbable Press gives us a piquant blend of love story, character study and spoooookiness.

This Holmes/Watson tale has an original contemporary London/York setting and opens with John and Sherlock, married for several months now, on what ought to be a belated honeymoon but which John knows to be a case – a case which Sherlock said he wasn’t pursuing. Already it’s clear that while they love and adore each other, there’s rockiness ahead.

Sherlock’s not the only one keeping secrets, however. From the very first chapter we know that John sees ghosts, and has done since he was a child. He can’t tell anyone – people would think him unbalanced – so he avoids thinking about it whenever possible. That is not as often as he’d like.

Ghost Story is both a great little Holmesian mystery about the missing Gloria Evans: it’s a fantastically spooky tale of a man haunted by ghosts and the traumas of his past; his relationship with a man who seems equal parts obliviousness and devotion; and a study of the cracks in a loving relationship when the deceptions pile up, whatever the motivations.

The unravelling of those secrets and why they’re being kept are part of a beautifully texture of a low-key case that feels very intense in terms of its impact.

A couple of the scenes are deeply affecting and gorgeously evocative. Gloria’a abandoned flat, where greenery has invaded the spaces; the streets and buildings of York; the banks of a river; the flashbacks to John’s childhood and the attack on the ambulance convoy in Afghanistan – all of these are described so splendidly that I could almost scent the atmosphere – Gloria’s flat particularly.

One of the many things I love about Ghost Story is how it becomes gradually clear that the spirits that John encounters are not the only ghosts of the title.

John and Sherlock are both a little ghost-like themselves, not quite anchored in the world or entirely present for each other. Sherlock flits in and out of John’s life for a while, through the flashbacks of how they met and their first case, and he still keeps secrets and disappears without explanation. At the same time, in avoiding confrontation and acceptance of his unwanted gift, and the secret that he’s therefore keeping himself, combined with the effects of his war injuries, John is absent in key ways too.

It’s a beautiful theme that threads through the whole and makes the conclusion – in which the resolutions for the hauntings and John and Sherlock’s relationship are linked – particularly satisfying.

GV Pearce has written us a wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully paced book – it may take a little time for case/relationship/ghostiness to come to a head, but every step is deeply involving and the reader is fully engaged with wondering how all the elements will turn out. It is in turns poignant, charming, funny and unsettling, but it’s deftly wound together in a conclusion that satisfies without being heavy handed.

I hope Pearce considers another book for Improbable Press – in this universe or any other they care to write in. I’ll pounce on it the minute I can!

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Review: In Her Footsteps from Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet has been doing some lovely themed books recently, and the latest is this lush tome – In Her Footsteps (though it appears in Goodreads as The Feminist Tour).

Over 30 writers contributed to the 200+ entries about influential women throughout history and across the globe. Some entries are particularly lively, and some lovely illustrations by Lauren Crow among the photographs.

I knew of a lot of these women, but by no means all, so it was fantastic to read through the entries under Activists, Artists, Pathbreakers and Icons and expand my knowledge.

“…let the artist have the last word on her own work”

Not every entry is for a really admirable person – people can be notable trailblazers for not-good reasons too, like Borgias and Medicis – but every entry tells about a woman who made a significant mark in her own world, and often in the wider world too. Women from all over Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

Michelle Obama and Jo Cox are listed; Murasaki Shikibu who wrote the first novel in around 1012AD and Mary Shelley; Pussy Riot and Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor; aviatrix Bessie Coleman and Samoan longboat rower Zita Martel. Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai; Grace Darling and Moomin creator Tove Jansson.

I was delighted to find plenty of queer representation among the entries, and several trans women as well: women like Anne Lister, Lile Elbe, Christina of Sweden, a famously bisexual 17th century queen and of course Sappho.

Really, the only thing I found frustrating about the book was the lack of a map. For each entry, the writer has suggested a place where you might visit – from Egyptian ruins associated with Nefertiti and a statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in honour of Ella Fitzgerald and the Gabriela Mistral Museum in Vicuna, Chile.

“the girl who practically invented emo”.

As I’m off to Europe for a 6 week trip at the end of April, I would have found a world map a bit more useful to see what sites on my route I could visit to learn more about significant local women. There’s an index which mentions countries and cities at the back, but I do so like a nice map.

That quibble aside, In Her Footsteps is a gorgeous hardcover book, and even if International Women’s Day is over for now, you can celebrate incredible women every day buy picking up this book and using it as a guide to read more about the women who fill its pages.

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Review: Life Minus Me by Sara Codair

I’ve been really enjoying some more diverse fiction, especially books with non-binary and trans characters – these are books which reflect much more of the world around me and the people I know! Among these beautifully written and fresh books are Alison Evans’ Euphoria Kids and Highway Bodies; Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here; and works by Mary Borsellino and Tom Cho.

This week I read Life Minus Me by Sara Codair, which features humans (including two people using ‘they/their’ pronouns, human-hybrids, some dogs with heaps of personality, and some folks with difficult mental health issues.

The novella begins appropriately with a warning about depictions of suicide, suicidal ideation and related issues. If these are triggering topics for you, do be mindful before starting this book.

Life Minus Me is a prequel in Sara Cordair’s Evanstar universe, which I haven’t read. This makes the somewhat complex backstory a bit tangled from time to time, and exposition a little heavy, but once that slight clunkiness is out of the way, you can get into the story.

We open with Mel, who is part human, part angel, part elf; she’s also a healer and a medical student. Her cousin Erin remains not thrilled with Mel, due to Mel’s intervention in saving their life after a suicide attempt. Erin also has paranormal gifts, about which they are unaware, and so their prophetic dreams about the death of Baily, part owner of the Barks and Bits pet store.

Baily is another person struggling with daily life and suicidal thoughts. When their uncle has a stroke, Baily’s barely-coping coping mechanisms break down. Mel, who can read thoughts, decides if she can’t help Erin, she might be able to help Baily. At the same time, Mel is clearly neglecting her own health in her drive to help others.

It’s a fairly dark world into which the reader steps, full of people finding life difficult to manage. It is, however, also a hopeful world, where solutions aren’t simple or easily gained, but there’s light on the path.

The characters read sympathetically,and of course the presence of Baily’s and Erin’s dogs perhaps embody that best.

Mel’s family business of being demon hunters is a background note which later and a bit suddenly becomes more foreground – I’d just about forgotten an earlier reference to it. That story element will clearly be more of a motif in the rest of the series.

Life Minus Me is dark at times, but it doesn’t wallow in the darkness. It’s a bit densely packed with backstory for a novella, but it certainly offers a solid foundation for the novels of the series: where I hope we might see more of Baily and their dog, of Erin and their secret abilities, and Mel getting a better grip on life.

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