Welcome to July's Queer Fiction Blog!
For this month we have several interesting things to share with you, including a classic murder mystery novel turned into a podcast, a contemporary fiction novel with lots of taxidermy and a family splintering apart, and an historical romance/mystery duo featuring both a lesbian and a gay couple.
Title/Author: Lay Your Sleeping Head podcast, opens a new window by Michael Nava
Nava, Michael (2019)
Summary: Henry Rios, a Latino lawyer driven to drink by professional failure and personal demons, meets a charming junky struggling to stay clean. He tells Henry an improbable tale of long-ago murders in his wealthy family. Rios is skeptical, but the erotic spark between them ignites an obsessive affair that ends only when he turns up dead. Refusing to believe the death was accidental, Henry’s hunt for the killer uncovers the secrets behind a legendary California fortune and the reason the man he loved had to die.
Series/Standalone: Henry Rios series book one
Book Format: Podcast
Length: 18, 20-minute podcast episodes (all currently available in The Henry Rios Mysteries Podcast)
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Gay
Violence:The violence happens mostly off-page. Drug abuse and the sexual abuse of a minor are also discussed.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written, though abridged, so some of the steamier scenes are cut short.
Would I Recommend?: Yes
History of Henry Rios: Initially inspired by Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandstetter mystery series, the first book in the Henry Rios series was published in 1986 and was titled The Little Death. Nava then published seven books in the series through 2001. In 2016, Nava rewrote The Little Death as Lay Your Sleeping Head, a book that holds onto the original plot, but deepens the themes of erotic obsession and personal alienation. In 2018, Nava wrote an abridged podcast script from the new novel and in 2019 the podcast has been going live over the course of the first six months.
Availability: The Little Death is out of print and the library no longer owns a copy, however, we will be ordering a print copy of the novel Lay Your Sleeping Head in July. The library does have two other books in the series The Burning plain and Rag and Bone, and will also purchase the re-releases of the series as the books come out later this year. Nava plans to publish a new 9th book in the series this fall. You can access the podcast for free on Michael Nava’s website. (Note that only 7 episodes have been posted here so far), Stitcher, Player.fm, Radio Public, or through iTunes.
Personal Thoughts: I greatly appreciate the diversity of the cast for this project! The fact that the actor voicing Henry Rios, Armando Rey, is also gay and Latino, is a huge deal for the book’s authenticity and he does an amazing job with Henry’s voice, making you feel every emotion he’s going through. He almost had me in tears a few times! The other actors are also very good and sound natural for their characters and the time period. The sound effects and background music work seamlessly with the actors, though the repeated introduction at the beginning of every episode does get tiring if you listen to several in a row.
I read the original work The Little Death, in 2014, and loved the gritty, realistic feel to it. This series is really about life, as well as being a good mystery. With plenty of social commentary, the AIDs crisis, and personal family drama, Henry realistically grows and changes to meet the demands of his surroundings. Nava’s writing style is wonderful, easy to read, and flows well. The podcast changes some of that because it’s an abridged script of the novel, but I think the story works very well in this medium. This is a gripping, edge-of-your-seat read with characters you don’t want to leave behind at the end. If you like murder mysteries, especially with gay characters of color, then this is a series not to be missed!
To learn more about Michael Nava’s podcast project, check out this article from the Bay Area Reporter.
Title/Author: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Summary: Jessa's family is falling apart at the seams. Her father has committed suicide in the family's taxidermy shop. Her grieving mother is sneaking into the shop and using the taxidermied animals to create obscenely sexual works of art. Her brother Milo is withdrawing into himself and drifting farther apart from Jessa. The wedge that was driven between the two of them when Brynn (Milo's wife, Jessa's best friend and the woman she loved) left is growing even larger. It’s up to Jessa to pull this family together: it’s what her father would have wanted.
Genre/Sub-genre: Contemporary Fiction
Book Format: Ebook
Length: 346 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: Lesbian
Violence: Violence against animals
Well-written/Editor Needed: Very well-written
Would I Recommend?: To the right reader, yes!
This is definitely not a book for everyone. Trigger warnings include:
1. Animal death. The act of taxidermy is depicted in graphic detail. This is not a book for the faint of stomach!
2. Animal murder. A side character actively kills animals. While you do see this "onscreen" on one occasion, it is not a violent act.
3. Lots of crude sexual imagery. Jessa’s mother uses taxidermied animals as a jumping off point for creating obscene artwork.
4. Cheating and adultery. Brynn has sex with Jessa while she is in a relationship with Milo, both before and after they are married.
5. Past sexual relations between teenagers and adults. When recalling her teenage years, Jessa recounts some instances where she was touched by or touched adults. I wouldn't say it's glamorized, but it's not exactly portrayed in a negative light either. Those events of the past are just things that shaped her into who she is today.
For all of these trigger warnings, I still loved this book! I loved the messiness of all the relationships, and how human each the characters were. I loved the different ways that everyone processed their grief, and all the complicated feelings that come with it, including resentment and anger. I loved the family drama as this dysfunctional family falls apart at the seams. I loved gradually coming to know all the characters. It really was a fascinating journey. The reader has a certain image of each character right from the start, because they’re seeing everyone through Jessa’s eyes. Over the course of the book, these perceptions shift as Jessa dips into memories of the past and, in the present, finally talks to her family.
While this book is largely about family, Jessa’s lesbian identity is always present. It’s always there in the flashbacks to her relationship with Brynn. She develops a relationship with another woman during the course of the book. She casually talks about her love life with her young teenage niece. Her whole family is aware of her sexuality and accepts it. They have plenty of issues they need to deal with, but they have no issues with sexual identity, which was super refreshing!
Overall, I just really enjoyed this book, even though it dealt with a lot of taboos and some very unsavory topics. I found it captivating and definitely learned a lot about the strange world of taxidermy!
Summary: Two country house parties, two queer romances, two unexpected murders! Both of these novels feature characters who are trying their best to do right in circumstances that challenge their previously established views of the world. In Proper English, Pat Merton (sportswoman, champion shooter, kind-hearted but deeply pragmatic) is taking some time to decide what she wants to do with her life. She soon meets Fenella, her friend's beautiful fiancée, who seems to have all the feminine virtues Pat lacks. In Think of English, Archie Curtis (a morally upright and inflexible man of privilege adjusting to life after being permanently injured in an explosion) sends himself on an espionage mission. He collides with Daniel da Silva — a poet he despises for the damning trifecta of Judaism, foreign birth and outright effeminacy — who turns out to be an actual spy investigating the same man.
Series/Standalone: Pat and Fen appear as minor characters in Think of England, but both books stand alone
Genre/Sub-genre: Historical romance/mystery
Book Format: Paper
Length: 243 + 239 = 482 pages
LGBTQ+ Orientation: lesbian and gay
Violence: Well, they are murder mysteries. People die. There are also some potentially triggering scenes in Think of England: a claustrophobic character is left underground as a form of torture, two characters are compelled by an outside force to have sex with each other and are uncertain whether the other is genuinely consenting, and there are flashbacks to a military disaster involving death, injury, and explosions. The POV character in Think of England uses period-typical racist and homophobic slurs and has a generally prejudiced attitude that he slowly comes to perceive is wrong over the course of the novel.
Well-written/Editor Needed: Well-written
Would I Recommend?: Yes! I liked Proper English better of the two, but both were solid.
Personal Thoughts: I specifically read Think of England before Proper English because I knew that was the publication order, but as it turns out Proper English is a prequel. If you're not sure what order to read them in, I would actually recommend reading Think of England second. Proper English is a less challenging read, not because it is any less interesting or well-written, but because Pat doesn't need to change as much as Archie does in order to earn her happily ever after. Archie thinks some truly horrible things about Daniel when they first meet, and overall has to spend a lot of time confronting his own internalized homophobia. Pat, on the other hand, is already a pretty well-adjusted person who quickly realizes that she's made unfair assumptions about Fenella based on her appearance and apologizes for them.
Think of England does feel like a higher-stakes narrative than Proper English, with higher levels of drama – at least on my part, I never doubted Pat's competence or ability to ultimately shoot her way out of trouble if necessary. Due to the difference in the way lesbians and gay men were treated under law at the time, the threat of exposure for Pat and Fen is also significantly less dangerous than for Archie and Curtis. I tend to prefer lower-stakes stories, so I liked Proper English better, but if you love a good redemption arc, complete with the archetypical heartfelt apology to the wronged love interest, I think you'll find Think of England very satisfying! I will say, without giving too many spoilers, that several delightful tropes get put to excellent use.