LGTBQIA+, mystery

Mystery series: Josephine Tey

Another week, another post about a mystery series. This time it’s Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey mysteries as the new one comes out next week (and I’ve even read it!

This is another mystery series based on a real life person solving mysteries, usually murders – in this case the crime writer Josephine Tey. She was a playwright as well as a novelist – and the first book in the series is set in the final week of the run of one of her plays, when a woman Josephine met on the train to London is murdered and the detective investigating thinks Josephine may be at risk. In the grand tradition of the books of the era, the detective, Archie Penrose, is connected to Josephine and becomes part of the cast of regular characters.

As you may have surmised these have their roots in the golden age detective novels that I love but several are also inspired by real crimes. And perhaps is the latter that means that these are always darker than you expect and on the edge of being too dark or bleak for me. I have read seven of the ten in the series and one of my reviews on goodreads say things like “these are consistently grimmer than I want them to be”. I’ve also read them out of order – and my note on the first says that if I’d read that one first, I might not have continued with the series. All of which I realise sounds a bit down on them. But for all that they are on the edge for me on the grim scale, I know that my line is a long way back from the sort of thrillery, psychological crime that a lot of other people really like – and this is closer to the historic version of that. And I do really like the 1930s world that you see in the books, so here’s a bit more about book 10 to show you what I mean.

Dear Little Corpses starts as the mass evacuation of children takes place in London. Josephine and Marta are at Josephine’s cottage in Suffolk where the village is preparing for an influx of children. In London, Archie is investigating the death of a rent collector before heading down to visit them for the village fete and so Josephine can meet the woman that he has started seeing. But at the fete a young girl goes missing without a trace and the search for her threatens to expose long hidden secrets in the community. The portrait of the village waiting for the evacuees is great and this also goes over into Essex and places that I am actually familiar with and I’m a total sucker for that. But I spent a lot of this hoping that it was going to all turn out ok and thinking that this was going to be one of the less bleak books in the series – and then boom, the ending happened and it was every bit as bad as it could be and a little bit more. And that’s the story of the series: I go in wanting it to be much closer to the lighter, cozy mystery end of the historical crime series spectrum than it is and at the end.

At some point I will read the biography of Josephine Tey that I have sitting on the to be read bookshelf and see how the facts of her actual life stack up to the books, but for now I can’t really vouch for that either way. If you want to dip your toe in the water and see if they suit you, I have some suggestions: London Rain was the first in the series that I read, and is the one I have liked the most – and I don’t think it’s just because it’s set around the recording of a radio play. The Death of Lucy Kyte is the first one set in the village that also features in Dear Little Corpses, and Fear in the Sunlight is set in Portmeiron and features Alfred Hitchcock and the 1930s film industry. So there are plenty of options. As you can see from the cover montage, they’ve been through two designs for the covers so they should be fairly easy to get hold of – Dear Little Corpses came from NetGalley but I’ve had copies of others in the series from the library (ebook and actual book) as well as the charity shop and the dearly departed magic bookshelf at work.

Happy Friday everyone

Book of the Week, Forgotten books, LGTBQIA+, mystery

Book of the Week: Death Goes on Skis

Yes I finished this on Monday. So yes it’s cheating. But it is a book set in a ski resort and I spent the part of my weekend that I didn’t spend in London watching the Winter Olympics so I am going with it!

Death Goes on Skis is one of a series featuring Miriam Birdseye, written in the years following the Second World War. Miriam is a revue artist and has a champagne lifestyle and a coterie of hangers on. This is the first in the series that I have come across (and isn’t it gorgeous!) but Good reads tells me it is the fourth in the series. It sees Miriam on holiday in a ski resort popular with Brits. Her fellow travelers include a ballerina and her night club owner husband, a playboy, his wife and their children and their governess and a wealthy couple whose family make their money from perfume. Most of these people are awful, but when they start dying in mysterious circumstances, Miriam and her friends investigate. But, crucially, they’re investigating because they are bored and not because they have a burning passion for justice or to see the criminal behind bars.

And that is the difference to other Murder mysteries of the era that I have written about – this is a farce and a (black) comedy and doesn’t quite follow the genres connections that you might expect. Think Evelyn Waugh does murder mysteries. And it works very well. You’re not going to like any of the suspects, and the children are truly awful, but it’s really quite entertaining. It also comes neatly broken up into nice small chunks, which makes it perfect for bedtime reading – which is mostly what I’ve been doing with it, although I did read some of it on the sofa on Monday night because I wanted to finish it!

If the name Nancy Spain sounds familiar, well that may be because she’s one of the women featured in Her Brilliant Career, but in brief she was a great niece of Mrs Beaton (of household management game) she went to Roedean and then became a journalist after being asked to write about women’s sport. She served in the WRNS in the war and afterwards started writing detective fiction. This got her a newspaper column and also turned her into a personality who appeared regularly on TV and radio. Her partner was editor of She Magazine, Joan Werner Laurie and they lived openly together in what sounds like a somewhat complicated household with the rally driver Sheila Van Damme. They were friends with Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich and she was the inspiration for a song. Spain and Laurie died in a plane crash at Aintree in 1964 – they had been travelling there to cover the grand national.

I bought my copy of Death Goes on Skis as a birthday present for myself, and I’ve already ordered another one of them, as Virago have helpfully reissued several of them now, all with delightful covers in this style. They’re also on Kindle and Kobo and in a matching audiobook to this from all the usual vendors.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Fabulosa!

A few options under serious consideration from last week, but in the end I settled on Paul Baker’s Fabulosa! because it was really, really good and I’m not sure it will have come onto people’s radar. So this week’s BotW could be seen as the latest in a line that has already included Legendary Children and Diary of a Drag Queen – and also Art of Drag – which you can actually see in the background of my photo below.

In case you don’t already know, Polari is a language that was used mostly by gay men in the first half of the twentieth century. It had a brief moment in the limelight in the mid 1960s when it featured in Julian and Sandy sketches on the radio show Round the Horne, and then dropped away again. In Fabulosa! Paul Baker examines the language’s roots – in Cant, dancers’ slang and Lingua Franca – the reasons why it was spoken and the reasons for its decline. Baker is a linguistics professor and the foundations for the book are from of his PHD research – and interviews conducted with surviving speakers of Polari.

This is part linguistic study, part social history and really very enjoyable. There are a fair few word which crossed over into common usage from Polari – as well as the origins of a few of the words you may have encountered in Drag Race. One of the main roles for Polari was a means of communicating with a level of camouflage – but it’s hard to work out at this distance how successful that was. Baker is very frank that it was hard to find people who spoke it to interview, and there is very littl documentation about it and so it’s hard to work out how Polari was actually used – and whether it ever reached the level of a language rather than a variety, and whether people who didn’t speak Polari would have recognised it as something spoken by the gay community and been able to expose this and thus defeat the object.

IF you’re interested in language or social history – or both, this is well worth a look to discover a hidden part of the recent past. I bought my copy from Foyles – where the hardback is now out of stock but they do have the paperback, but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo. You’ll probably need a reasonably large or specialist bookshop to be able to wander in and pick up a copy.

Happy reading!

And one last bonus – here are Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick reviving Julian and Sandy – on camera for a BBC programme in the late 1980s, shortly before Paddick’s death. Both this and the clip above are discussed in the book.

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, romantic comedy

Book of the Week: Boyfriend Material

Another week, another contemporary romance pick for BotW.  This time it’s Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material, which has been much buzzed about, to the point where it took months for my library hold to come in, but it was totally, totally worth it.

Cover of Boyfriend Material

Luc’s parents were rockstars – and back in the day they made some of their best music together. And then they made him. And it means that he’s sort of famous – even though his dad walked out of his life when he was small and his mum hasn’t made any new music in year. But now his dad is making a comeback – and that means more interest in Luc as well. After an unfortunate picture of him tripping up coming out of a club puts his job (fundraiser at a charity trying to save the dung beetle) at risk, Luc decides that the solution is to get himself a nice normal boyfriend. That’s where Oliver comes him. He’s as normal and sensible as it comes – a barrister, an ethical vegetarian and absolutely scandal averse. The only things that they have in common are the fact that they’re single, gay, and they both need a date for a big event. So they come up with a deal. They’ll be fake boyfriends until Luc’s job is safe and Oliver’s family party is over. Then they’ll never see each other again. Simple. Except this is a romance and we all know these sort of arrangements never go to plan!

I loved this so much. I’ve written a lot here about my quest to find more of the funny but romantic books that I love reading and which seemed to be everywhere in the early 2000s, but which seem to have vanished off the face of the planet these days, in favour of really angsty books where everyone has a miserable backstory or comedies where the comedy is based on humiliation or people being terrible at their jobs (and either not really caring they’re rubbish at their jobs or not realising they are) which is really not my thing. But this was just in that sweet spot. It’s witty, it’s fun, the characters are charming and good at their jobs and the secondary characters are hilarious. It’s just a joy to read. I could have read another 200 pages of Luc and Oliver trying to work out how to have a proper relationship. It really was exactly what I needed last week.

It’s had loads of buzz, been various bookclub and magazine picks and so clearly I’m not the only person who wants to read books like this, and fingers crossed it’s the start of a renaissance. If you’ve got any recommendations for books that do the same sort of thing, please drop them in the comments, because the Goodreads and Amazon suggestions aren’t helping me any! This was also my first Alexis Hall book, so I’m off to dig into the back catalogue, although having chatted to my romance reading friends, I think that the steam levels on some of the others is much higher than this – this is kissing and then pretty much closed door. I’ve already pre-ordered Hall’s next book – Rosaline Palmer Takes All the Cake, which is out in May because a romance set on a baking show is exactly what I didn’t realise that I need in front of my eyeballs!

My copy of Boyfriend Material came from the library, but it’s available on Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook. It’s a paperback too, but the shops have been closed so long now I’ve lost all sense of what is going to get stocked where and so don’t know how easy it will be to get hold of if you’re trying to order from your indie, but Foyles have it available to order if that’s any indication.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, Fantasy, LGTBQIA+

Book of the Week: The House in the Cerulean Sea

Along with 500+ pages of Amelia Peabody, I did read some new stuff last week – amongst it a book of Terry Pratchett essays that I had been saving because there’s only a limited amount of his writing that I haven’t already read, but also the rather charming The House in the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune.

Cover of The House in the Cerulean Sea

Linus Baker leads a quiet orderly life. He works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth as a case worker overseeing the well-being of children in government sanctioned orphanages. He’s been doing the same job for years and never moved up the ladder – and is happy with that – so when he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management it’s already enough to send him into a panic. Then he’s sent on a highly classified mission to an orphanage on an island where six “highly dangerous” children live along with their guardian Arthur Parnassus. As Linus investigates the home on Marsyas Island and its residents, he (and his cat) get to know the children – a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, a green blob of an as yet unidentified species, a Pomeranian and (most worryingly) the Antichrist – and Arthur and start to discover some of the island’s secrets. But at the end of the end of his allotted four weeks, he will be faced with difficult choice.

This is a wonderful story about what family is and finding your place in the world. It’s beautifully written and incredibly descriptive – I could absolutely see the island and its residents in my head and was rooting for them all all the way. It reminded me (in a weird but good way) of Studio Ghibli movies and the magical alternative reality worlds that they create. Its enough to make me wish that Hayao Miyazaki would make another film after the one he’s currently out of retirement to make! I’m struggling to think of books to compare it to, because it’s a bit different – I’m not alone though because the Goodreads “readers also enjoyed” list seems to be struggling too and the the genre list o has it down as both Adult and Young Adult as well as romance, fantasy, LGTB and (weirdly) audiobook. It’s turning up a few romances like the Honey Don’t List and Girl Gone Viral, which are not similar at all, but do suggest that I’m not the only contemporary romance reader who has enjoyed this one.

Anyway, if you’re in need of some escapist reading at the moment (and again, who isn’t really), this would be a lovely choice. It’ll make you think, but it has a resolution and I think you’ll be happy with it when you get there.

My copy of the House in the Cerulean Sea came from the library, but it’s available in Kindle, Kobo and audiobook as well as paperback – although that might be slightly harder to get hold of.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, new releases

Book of the Week: Slippery Creatures

I said yesterday that I had a harder week concentrating last week so retreated to favourite authors, and this came out last week so it was perfectly timed. It’s the first part of a trilogy, and I can’t for the life of me find a pre-order link for part two and it is driving me mad. Anyway, to the book.

Cover of Slippery Creatures

Will Darling made it through the Great War. After signing up at the start, he made it back to Britain with a lot of medals and a lot more mental scarring. But it turned out that the country he’d been fighting for didn’t really have much use for him. Sometime just before getting rock bottom he writes to a great uncle he’s never met and gets invited to help out at his book shop. But when the great uncle dies he finds himself caught between the War Office and some very unsavoury characters who want a secret he doesn’t possess. Enter Kim Secretan, attractive and helpful but with a murky past. And maybe present. But Will is trapped in a game of cat and mouse over a deadly secret – and Kim might be the only person who can save him.

The blurb says that this is a m/m romance in the spirit of Golden Age pulp fiction and I think that’s pretty spot on. It reminded me of some of the thrillers I’ve read by authors like Molly Thynne and some of the more adventure-y Albert Campion stories. A warning for the romance readers thought: this is very much part one of the story – and everything is not tied up at the end. If you only want Happily Ever Afters, maybe wait until the whole series is out and then you can read right the way through to the end without having to wait. I could just about handle not having proper resolution because the story and the characters were so much fun. I’ve read about half a dozen of KJ Charles books before, but they were all Victorian set. I raced through it and if it has been possible I would have gone straight on to the next part. But it isn’t so I’m having to wait. I happen to like a 1920s setting more than a Victorian one, and I love an adventure story, so this ticked all my boxes really – and I love that authors are moving into this period a bit more. If you read and liked Hither, Page last year, then this would scratch that itch while you wait for another instalment there. Although obviously: more waiting!

Anyway, I bought my copy of Slippery Creatures on pre-order and it’s out now on Kindle and Kobo and in paperback via Amazon (in what looks possibly like print on demand because I can’t find it via Waterstones or Foyles).

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Legendary Children

So, anyone else watching the latest series of Drag Race? I could bore you for hours about my latest obsession. And in fact some of my work colleagues have had to put up with me going on at them as I binge my way through the entire back catalogue (sorry guys). So now I’m going to tell you all about Legendary Children – don’t worry, it’s not boring!

So Fabulous Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life does exactly what it says on the tin – it uses Drag Race – and RuPaul as a framing device to examine queer culture over the last one hundred years. Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez are a married couple who run Tom + Lorenzo – which looks at celebrities, fashion and pop culture and they bring their breadth of knowledge to walk you through the lives and struggles of LGBTQI+ people that have got us to a point where a show about Drag Queens competing for a crown has won a bunch of Emmys. It doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies the show (or Ru) has seen, but to be honest, the show is the way in to the wider issues. This is not a history of what happened on Drag Race and if you come to it expecting that, well you should have read the subtitle better. Insert your own Reading is Fundamental joke here, it’ll be better than anything I come up with.

I learnt so much from this book. The authors say they want you to be googling as you go along while you’re reading this – and boy was I. I look forward to seeing what Google ads serves up to me after this – because my search history is a riot. And I had to go googling some stuff beyond the people, because this is a book written for a queer audience, not the those of us who need explanatory commas (which by the way, is exactly as is should be). Fascinating, clever and touching – and you’ll watch Drag Race with new eyes afterwards. And the first episode I watched afterwards had a actual Tom of Finland mention and I felt so in the know you wouldn’t believe it.

I’m off to worry about whether the ‘Rona will be over in time for me to still get to see BenDeLaCreme in London this summer. You got Dela megamix video because it’s (mostly) safe for work. Tom of Finland is… not. Legendary Children is out now in paperback, Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook  (read by Tom and Lorenzo!).

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+

Book of the Week: Proud

Picking a BotW this week was a mix of hard and actually quite easy this week. I read a lot of stuff, but actually didn’t love a lot of it – and some that I did like were by authors that I’ve already written a lot about. But then there was Proud. And it was Pride in London this weekend and I spent my Saturday walking through happy, rainbow-bedecked crowds – firstly on their way to the parade, which started by work and secondly wandering through the after parties in Soho on my way to the theatre in the evening and then back to my hostel afterwards.

Proud is a collection of Young Adult short stories poetry and art edited by Juno Dawson and featuring a mix of new and established LGTBQ+* authors. There’s a huge range of experiences and identities here – including a few that I haven’t seen represented much in my own reading.

I can’t pick a favourite of the stories, because they’re all good and there were several that I really liked. I love a Pride and Prejudice retelling, so I Hate Darcy Pemberley really appealed to me. But then so did The Courage of Dragons – a story about a group of Dungeons and Dragons playing friends who band together during prom to right some wrongs done to one of their number. And then there is Penguins – about prom and crushes and two male penguins who have fallen in love.

Although I read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, I don’t really read a lot of YA – because I find it can tend towards the depressing – particularly when dealing with LGTBQ+ issues. But this is the opposite of that – the stories are affirming and joyous and romantic which is exactly what you want in a book called Proud.

My copy came from NetGalley (yes, I know, I’m super behind because this came out in March and I’ve only just read it) but you should be able to get a copy of Proud from any good bookshop and it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Here’s a bonus picture of the post-Pride march parties.

Partying in the street in Soho near the King Edward Theatre which has Rainbow flags on its big screens

Happy reading!

* I’m using LGTBQ+ here as this is how the book itself describes itself and its contributors.

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, memoirs, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Diary of a Drag Queen

First up a bit of housekeeping: don’t forget last week’s BotW, Death of an Angel is out on Thursday! If you saw the WiB yesterday, you’ll know that there was a bit of a theme to last week’s tired, last night train reading, but actually it’s a non-fiction pick this week.  For once I’m almost relatively timely – because it’sa new book.  Well by new, it only came out on the 7th, Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen. Doesn’t it have a great cover?

Cover of Diary of a Drag Queen

Crystal is the drag name of Tom Rasmussen, a writer, Drag Queen and Céline Dion super-fan and their first book is a raw, honest, no holds barred, letting it all hang out look at one year in the author’s life. You follow them back to London after a difficult spell trying to make it in New York, trying to break the fashion industry, find a place in the drag scene and work out where they fit in the LGTBQIA+ community and their own personal manifesto. If you are squeamish, if you can’t deal with reading about other people’s poo, be warned: there is a lot of that here. But Crystal -has a lot they want to tell you and it is worth sitting up and listening.

I think this might be the most honest memoir I have read since Viv Albertine’s Boys, Clothes, Music. Crystal is setting their life and their truth out there on the page, without a filter (or at least not one that I could spot) and seemingly without hiding anything. At various points Crystal talks about having had to tone their life down for their partner or to be accepted or even just to be exist and it feels like this Diary, this book is their life as they want it to be seen, in all its imperfections, messiness, mistakes and triumphs. Here is Crystal explaining their approach in the introduction:

I spent a lot of my life in the violent, painful clutches of shame, which manifested itself in various modes of self-harm, self-destruction, and other untenable, unsurvivable behaviours.

I learned, however, that the antidote to this shame is not pride, or honour, or even celebration. That comes later. The antidote to shame is honesty. Stark, crass, funny, powerful honesty. Honesty that smashes through notions of taboos and inappropriatenesses. I am not shameful, because I’ve done nothing wrong. It’s the same with being gay, queer, femme, non-binary, a drag queen.

Crystal tells these stories with caustic wit, biting insight and what might be considered a reckless disregard for the secrets of the bedroom, if it wasn’t for the fact that they have assured us at the start that some names and details have been changed to protect identities. Phew. A lot of Crystal’s life is a long way from my experience and my background. And, again as I thought with Viv Albertine, I’m not sure that Crystal would like me. There were times when their critiques of various things made me squirm in my seat with the knowledge that I might have skirted the edges of doing some of the things they were railing against. But as they say, we have all made mistakes it’s how you deal with the mistakes and learn from them that makes a difference. And I’m always trying to do better. We should all always be trying to do better.  Here’s Crystal again:

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/questioning, Intersex, Asexual and + (not you, straight guy who loves glitter a bit but thinks bum sex is gross). Yes, it’s a long acronym, yes, it’s seven whole letters, but I learned the national anthem even though borders are constructs, so you can learn seven letters.

My copy of Diary of a Drag Queen came from NetGalley, but it is out now in hardback and you should be able to lay your hands on a copy fairly easily – I’d expect it to be in any good-sized actual bookshop. Crystal is also out and about on a book tour, so they may soon be coming to a store near you. I know I’m looking to see if I can make one of the dates – and if you can’t, the audiobook is read by the author and the sample on Amazon is a fairly representative section of the book. And of course it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!