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Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Content Notes: This review contains significant spoilers for the entirety of Passing Strange, including the ending. I don’t think knowing what happens ruins the book, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss my messy, complicated feelings about it without these spoilers.

Speaking of messy and complicated, I’m going to discuss Klages’s depictions of homophobia, anti-Asian racism, sexism, domestic violence, sexual violence, police brutality, and suicide. If you’d rather not read about these subjects, I’d recommend skipping both the review and the book.

The cover of Passing Strange depicts two women (one in a tuxedo, one in a backless jumpsuit that looks like a dress) in front of a large, moonlit window. The night skyline of San Francisco is sketchily visible in the background.

Passing Strange is a difficult-to-categorize novella . Google calls it an LGBT fantasy about five women’s interconnected lives in historical San Francisco, which I think is wrong on all counts except the setting, but definitely more marketably pithy than my description. I’m going to call it a lesbian time traveler’s guide to San Francisco in 1940. You, lesbian time traveler, will learn all the best places to eat, drink, and sightsee, along with some helpful tips for dealing with law enforcement.

You’ll also get a cute love story and some lengthy explanations of why two separate magic systems cannot be explained. Which won’t matter to you, as you presumably have your own magic system, unless you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler. If you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler, perhaps you’ll enjoy the late-nineteenth-century-sci-fi-story-style dinner parties in which scientists describe their research at unnecessary length.

I enjoyed the dinner parties, the cute love story, the sightseeing, and many other elements I’ll touch on later. That’s part of what made Passing Strange such a frustrating read.

The frame narrative takes place in 2014. In the beginning, the elderly Japanese-American lawyer Helen Young has just received confirmation that her unspecified illness is terminal, and we follow as she finalizes her estate, revisits her favorite places in the city, and takes her own life at home. Her primary errand is to retrieve a pastel painting from an underground Chinatown labyrinth and sell it to a rare bookstore owner for everything he has.

Strangely, this section of the book is the most fun. Helen clearly has a plan for her last days. She carries it out with self-satisfied precision and without explanation, similar to a criminal mastermind pulling off a heist. It’s not clear how the smug bookstore owner is going to regret his purchase, but it’s clear that Helen’s come out ahead in this transaction.

After Helen’s death, the book jumps back to 1940. Helen attends one of the aforementioned dinner parties with the artist of the pastel painting, a white woman named Haskel who primarily paints pulp magazine covers. Helen sometimes poses as an “inscrutable Asian villain” for Haskel’s covers. Neither woman seems particularly uncomfortable with this arrangement:

Helen let her arm drop to her side, the prop knife dangling. “I like playing dress-up, but Dr. Wu Yang needs some summer-weight clothes.”

[…]

“Next time you can be the terrified victim.” Haskel lit a cigarette and leaned against a worktable covered with pastel chalks, jars of paintbrushes and pencils. “But Oriental fiends are harder to find.”

“That’s a relief.”

Also at the dinner party is Emily, a young white woman who makes eyes at Haskel. Haskel brushes her off, but later they run into each other at Mona’s Club 440, where Emily sings in drag. They fall in love almost instantly and spend the rest of the book making love and exploring the city. Helen more-or-less ceases to exist until Haskel and Emily need her help after the climax.

Castiel from Supernatural says, “I’ll just … wait here then.”

This is my primary problem with Passing Strange: Klages clearly wants to tie the 1940s queer experience to the 1940s Asian-American experience, which makes sense both historically and thematically, but her only Asian-American character exists to facilitate the romance between the white leads.

Frieda Kahlo appears briefly to fulfill a role that is similar to Helen’s, but worse. Worse both because she was an actual, real person, and because at least Helen gets to win sometimes. Frieda just gets to be crazy and tragic and sexy in an exotic, crazy, tragic way. (Haskel slept with her, but only once. Her mustache tickled.)

Like Helen, Emily and Haskel both have to flatten and commodify their identities as marginalized people in order to survive. Emily has a beautiful voice, but as a lesbian, she can’t perform in any respectable club. Instead, she sings in a tux and a mustache as Mona’s, where:

Visitors who’d come to San Francisco for the world’s fair ventured nervously […] to gape at curiosities that would astound the guys at the office, the ladies in the bridge club back in Dubque or Chattanooga.

Haskel, a domestic violence survivor, fills her covers with scantily-clad women in terror, about to be devoured by monsters.

Unlike Helen, however Emily and Haskel actually get the room to have complicated emotions about their experiences. Emily bemoans the pressure to define herself as either and only a butch or a femme. After a confrontation with her husband, who’s been out of the country for “three or four years,” Haskel decides to stop painting images of violence. And in the end, Emily and Haskel get to opt out, escaping to a fantasy world of their own making.

Helen–who is, again, a Japanese-American woman living in San Francisco in 1940–has to stay behind and see to their affairs.

That makes it hard to recommend this book, even though there are parts I love. Klages’s prose is beautiful, detailed, and precise in a way that reminds me of DMing tabletop games. You could draw a map from her descriptions.

Haskel and Emily’s love story is genuinely sweet and swoony. Like, look at this:

“Not quite. A little more–” Haskel set the sketch pad down and knelt by the bed. “–like this.” With one hand, she turned Emily’s head slightly to the side, her fingers entwined, for a moment, in auburn curls. Emily felt her arms go all goosebumps. Their faces were inches apart. She could feel the warmth of Haskel’s breath on her cheek, smell coffee and a drift of smoke.

A moment passed. Neither of them moved. Then she heard Haskel sigh and felt a tickle of hair against her neck, lips brushing her own, lightly at first, and then, when she offered no resistance–none at all–with unmistakable desire.

“Golly,” Emily said, when there was air again.

I died. I died when I read it, and I died again when I sent it to all my friends, and I died a third time typing that up for you. In lieu of flowers, please send nail polish. I need a good green, but I’m not picky.

When Haskel and Emily get into trouble and it seems like there’s no escape, their found family of other lesbians step in to care for them in a way that feels both heartwarming and familiar. “People like us, we help each other,” Helen says. (This theme is part of why I find it so frustrating that they left Helen behind! In 1940!)

Jack from Titanic, handcuffed to the sinking ship, says, “I’ll just wait here.”

There’s so much sweetness and light, it’s not hard to see why people frequently recommend it as a cute, fluffy sapphic romance. Kind of like Passing Strange itself, I see where they’re coming from, and I’m also really frustrated by it.

Corey Alexander wrote a blog post back in 2018 called “On being careful what we call fluff,” which sums up my feelings about these recommendations well.

This is not a fluffy book. I’ve already touched on the racism, homophobia, sexism, and domestic violence, but I want to be clear that these are not just incidental as a result of the setting. They are pervasive and they hit hard. There’s a scene of homophobic violence and sexual assault against a side character that makes me so sick to remember that I can’t honestly say whether or not it furthered the plot or themes or whatever.

This is a heavy book with a cute romance and a more-or-less happy ending, closer to Keeping You a Secret than The Princess Affair.*

I think that if you’re the kind of person who generally enjoys 1990s lesbian fiction, or if you have an interest in queer history and a high tolerance for suffering, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re more than a year into a global pandemic and feeling helpless about police brutality and anti-Asian racism, maybe check out The Princess Affair instead.

More Info

Publisher: Tor.com
Paperback Page Count: 215

Ellen Klages is an American science, science fiction and historical fiction writer who lives in San Francisco. Her novelette “Basement Magic” won the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Novelette. You can follow her on Twitter and buy the book on Bookshop or Amazon.

Resources

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*I haven’t actually read The Princess Affair, but my friend assures me it’s for-real fluffy.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Run With the Hunted 3: Standard Operating Procedure by Jennifer R. Donohue

Cover image for Run With the Hunted 3: Standard Operating Procedure by Jennifer R. Donohue

Dolly’s book is not at all what I expected. It’s … nice? Which feels weird for the traumatized ex-supersoldier-turned-criminal-weapons-and-vehicles-expert who spent most of the precious books salivating over the prospect of facing off against multiple black ops organizations, but I’m here for it.

For the uninitiated: Run With the Hunted is a cyperpunk novella series about a group of friends (“associates,” Bristol would say) who travel the world, bicker, take care of each other, and sometimes steal literally priceless objects. Each novella is narrated by one of the friends: book one is Bristol’s, book two is Bits’s, and book three is (finally!!!!!) Dolly’s. Also, Dolly is the best.

In Run With the Hunted 3: Standard Operating Procedure, Bristol is still coping with the events of book two, and the rest of her team decides to help her out with that by going along with her very good, very smart, very well considered plan to steal the world’s most expensive dog. Even though none of them know how to take care of a dog. Even though they don’t really know why this particular dog is so valuable or who’s going to be paying them to get her.

This is not important to the plot, but I feel like potential readers should be aware: There are actually two dogs in this book. One is a robot. Both are very good dogs. Neither dies. Like I said, this is a nice book.

In a lot of ways, Standard Operating Procedure feels a prequel. The stakes are lower, and as the most contemplative member of the team, Dolly’s narration is full of flashbacks and character details. We learn what Dolly thinks her life would have looked like if not for the super-solider program, and we learn more about what her life actually has looked like until this point.

The memories of her childhood in the rural south deliver a pitch-perfect blend of nostalgia and despair and yearning. Then someone from her childhood shows up in her present, and that’s perfect too, tense and hopeful and sometimes hilarious.

Other highlights include the incredible action sequence on a bridge that I will be writing fanfiction about until I die and the way Donohue always writes dogs as though she is the world’s foremost dog expert. (She is.)

I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the previous two, as well as to people who are on the fence. If you wanted book one to deliver more found family feelings and you wanted book two to explain things more clearly, you will love book three. Hell, I love this book and its big, tough, secretly soft narrator so much that I’d recommend reading the first two books just to get this one, and I loved the first two books. The only bad thing I can say about this one is that I’m going to have to wait through two more books to return to Dolly’s narration.

More Info

Publisher: Self-published
Paperback Page Count: 156

Follow Jen Donohue on Twitter or her blog for writing updates and pictures of her Doberman. Then you can get the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop.org, or you can buy it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Run With the Hunted 2: Ctrl Alt Delete by Jennifer R. Donohue

Cover image for Run With the Hunted 2: Ctrl Alt Delete by Jennifer R. Donohue

If Run with the Hunted was a lighthearted heist story in the vein of Ocean’s 8, Ctrl Alt Delete is a buddy road trip story similar to Thelma and Louise, minus the sexual assault. The second book in the series manages to raise the stakes not by adding a third or fourth shady government agency, but by making the danger more personal and the path forward even less clear. I was genuinely so worried about Bits (the narrator of this story) and a new side character that I had to put the book down and take a break a couple of times.

An uncertain number of months after the diamond heist, Dolly pulls Bits out of VR immersion—and out of hiding—for a much more personal job. They need to steal Bristol back from the black site where she’s being held before the government realizes exactly who she is. It’s too complicated and dangerous a job for Dolly to do alone, but Bits is suffering from unexplained migraines, lost time, nose bleeds, memory loss, and a strange inability to even hear what happened between the diamond heist and Bristol’s arrest.

Like the first book in the series, Ctrl Alt Delete is fast paced and short enough to read in an afternoon—assuming you don’t have to take breaks because of how worried you are about the characters. I liked getting to know Bits and Dolly (my love! who gets significantly more screen time in this book than the last) more intimately, and I loved the way that new knowledge fills in little gaps and recontextualizes information from the first book. Really, though, the strength of this series is in the relationships between its main cast, and watching Dolly take care of Bits while she recovered made me fall so hard for these women all over again. My only complaint is I wanted it to be at least 20% longer.

Fans of book one will not be disappointed, but I’d recommend book two particularly to fans of found family stories, VR hacking stories, conspiracy theories, and badass women who can easily carry you up and twelve tons of firearms up six flights of stairs while chain smoking and not break a sweat. Now, where is my Dolly book????

Click here to read my review of Run With the Hunted 3: Standard Operating Procedure.

More Info

Publisher: Self-published
Paperback Page Count: 156

Follow Jen Donohue on Twitter or her blog for writing updates and pictures of her Doberman. Then you can get the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop.org, or you can buy it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Run With the Hunted by Jennifer R. Donohue

Cover image for Run With the Hunted by Jennifer R. Donohue
Glitchy diamonds!

Run with the Hunted delivers the experience of watching a fast paced, twisty heist movie in a quick novella with characters you don’t want to say goodbye to at the end.

Narrated by Bristol, who studies pirated finishing school classes and hides weapons in her hair pins, it’s the story of a trio of women who accidentally take something more valuable (and more deadly) than just the diamonds they set out to steal. Their fence backs out, and they have to find a new buyer while evading shadowy organizations that want them dead.

I fell in love with the trio (especially weapons-and-guns expert Dolly, who is basically a bisexual Labrador in a bulletproof vest) and their world. As cold and polished as her stolen diamonds, Bristol has never truly gotten to know her associates before she’s forced to hide out with them. Watching a world-class manipulator awkwardly fumble her way towards genuine friendship is heart warming and adorable, even if she’d kill me for saying so.

The cyberpunk setting delivers ‘80s aesthetics—video games, VR goggles, Cold War paranoia—and leaves ‘80s social values in the past, where they belong. Bristol is a traumatized ice queen, but she isn’t waiting for a man to thaw her. Her best friend is a nonbinary gallery owner. There are no happy little suburban nuclear families, and no one gets punished for who they are.

This book is so quick and so much fun that I’d honestly recommend it for everybody, but especially fans of A Fish Called Wanda, Ocean’s 8, vending machines, good cop/femme fatale romances, playing spy at sleepover parties, and reading reviews of Michelin-starred restaurants online because you can’t afford to eat there.

Click here to read my review of Run With the Hunted 2: Ctrl Alt Delete.

More Info

Publisher: Self-published
Paperback Page Count: 136

Follow Jen Donohue on Twitter or her blog for writing updates and pictures of her Doberman. Then you can get the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop.org, or you can buy it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Cover art for Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
Apparently, there is a spoiler hidden in this cover.

Beneath the Rising is a beautiful, exciting, hilarious, devastating, breathtaking, intimate adventure novel about power and privilege, and about friendships that smother and sustain us. There are a lot of books “about power and privilege” coming out right now, but Rising isn’t about rich white people behaving badly—not really. It’s about surviving and maybe even fighting back against them.

There are really three main characters here—Johnny, the genius: rich, white, and exceptional in every way; Nick, the narrator: poor, brown, “ordinary,” and nearly invisible in her shadow; and their friendship. They have been each other’s best and only friends for so long that the relationship between them has not only gravity but also personality and will of its own.

At seventeen, Johnny has already cured AIDS and dementia, made strides towards ending hunger and houselessness, and solved the plastics crisis. She’s already changed the world, but her newest invention, a clean energy device with limitless capacity, is going to
make it unrecognizable. Assuming the eldritch Ancient Ones the device awakened don’t destroy it first. Johnny embarks on a globe trotting quest to find a way to stop them, and their friendship drags Nick along with her, even though they both know he’s powerless to help her.

I said it already, but Beneath the Rising is just gorgeous. It’s a vivid sensory experience full of heart and humor and odors so meticulously detailed they could almost be indie perfume descriptions. It starts slow and builds momentum in a way that cleverly mirrors Nick and Johnny’s friendship, so that by the halfway point, even when I knew I should put it down and try to get some weekend chores done, I just couldn’t.

One thing I loved about this take on Lovecraft’s mythos is that it isn’t a Wicked-style “What if the monsters were good?” retelling. The monsters are still incomprehensibly evil, but like a chiropractor, Premee Mohamed has aligned them the way they always should have been, not with the marginalized but with the powerful. AND she manages to sidestep the way that powerful magical villains often come off as cool and aspirational. The Ancient Ones are too inhuman and too rarely seen to try to emulate, and their human allies are invariably greedy, selfish, shortsighted, and kind of pathetic.

But mostly I loved Nick—hardworking, responsible, loyal Nick, who is (with one exception) never recognized for the great kid he is but goes on trying his best anyway, even though he doesn’t believe it will make any difference. He broke my heart. I love him so much. I want to double knot his shoes and make sure he remembers his lunch. I hope good things happen for him in the sequel, because he deserves so many good things.

More Info

Publisher: Solaris
Paperback Page Count: 416 pages
Audiobook Listening Length: 11 hours 24 minutes

Premee Mohamed is delightful on Twitter and on her blog, so check those out. Then you can get the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop.org, or you can buy it on Amazon.