Review: The Vanisher Variations, a Jewish Regency mystery mostly set in Brighton

The Vanisher Variations is definitely one of the Libi Astaire Jewish Regencies that stands out in the series for well-constructed plot, satisfyingness of the mystery’s solution, representation of diversity, and even just how much fun I had reading it.

At the center is a gentile foreigner, Lady Lennox, who married into the English gentry and who the UK Jewish community has been put in a position to protect. From her husband? From someone else? Unraveling what’s really going on takes the cooperation of several of the varied and diverse Jewish cast. Each of the main characters has a distinctive voice, from the imaginative teenage girl (who I will persist on ‘shipping with her female best friend even if only to amuse myself–there’s a whole paragraph on how pretty she thinks she is!) to the eccentric devil-may-care young pickpocket to the middle-aged mother and chef to the world-weary wealthy widower.

There’s other representation as well: the historical figure of an Indian man who converted from Islam to Christianity to marry an Englishwoman and open a restorative bath cure in Brighton is one of the characters in the book, although the author reveals in a postnote that her timing is slightly off for the month and year of her chosen setting. And an important character is revealed to have plot-relevant PTSD from the Napoleonic Wars, and although I haven’t the experience to speak first-hand on this, as an outsider it seemed like a sympathetic and three-dimensional treatment. I will warn the audience that chapter 27 may be triggering and if you’re super sensitive to war crimes that’s the one to read carefully, as it has a completely different feel from the rest of the book (which is relatively light-hearted as these books are basically cozies.) I will say that there is discussion of an assault averted, though, if that makes a difference in your reading choices.

For the most part, it’s comforting escapism in which Jewish readers can rest reassured that we have our parts to play as protagonists of costume drama just like gentiles do, and gentile readers are safe with subtle explanations for cultural details they may not already know. We bat away microaggressions but aren’t fighting for our lives, and the setting for most of the book is a vividly portrayed seaside resort town. You’ll practically hear the waves and seagulls as you read.

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A quick & easy guide to all my bi characters

Since I’m bi, I tend to write a lot of characters who are bi as well. Like other minority demographics, we don’t always get satisfying or accurate representation. Tropes will call us flaky, selfish, hedonistic, or unreliable. That’s not to say we can’t be all of those things! But we are no more likely to have–or not have–any of those traits than straight, gay, or ace folks. Erin Jeffreys Hodges asked me for a list, and I realized the only one I’d done was in a Twitter thread (in which multiple people admirably brought up the joke “Fantastic Bi’s and Where to Find Them.”) So here goes.

The bi character who shows up the most in my books is Aviva, who starts out as the palace’s Second Cook and ends up as Queen Shulamit’s (wife or partner depending on which book; I switched it up) as well as her personal chef.

She has her own short story in the Tales from Perach collection, “Aviva and the Aliens”, where she escapes from alien abduction in time to get home for Pesach.

Aviva and the Aliens

Next comes Prince Kaveh, the youngest son of the king of a neighboring city-state. He’s hard-working and big-hearted but a bit anxious. He falls for a labor activist who’s also a huge nerd in Climbing the Date Palm, and becomes part of Queen Shulamit’s extended household long distance.

climbing the date palm opening scene

Aviva finds Prince Kaveh in the opening scene of Climbing the Date Palm

Chef Yael, the bi trans widow in The Olive Conspiracy, starts out the book by lodging a formal complaint with the queen about someone bothering her, and it ends up being a clue that leads to saving the whole country from economic and agricultural devastation. You can also read about her and her husband Aaron being cute together and the ups and downs of their restaurant life in the short story “No Whining” in the Tales, linked above.

yael-doesnt-like-lizards

How do you work with the royal police when the police spy is literally a lizard?

Moving away from Mangoverse, both lonely grad student Adina and her vintage Hollywood actress crush Rose, who comes back as a ghost to give her a manicure and sexy cuddles, are bi in the short story “Wet Nails.”

wet-nails

Lauren Stern from Lioness in Blue, my m/f age-gap contemporary romance novelette about oboe players in a symphony orchestra, is also bi.

Lauren and Dan from Lioness

and last but not least — for now — is Martin Meyer from my anti-biphobia short “The Artist and the Devil”, who protagonist Noah crushes on from a distance while making all kinds of silly assumptions about him–starting from the premise that he’s literally Satan himself.

artist_devil-tie-FLAT-3

Thank you for reading! Art credit for these pictures goes to Rebecca Schauer, Ceili Braidwood/Jane Dominguez, Becca again, then Agaricals, then Laya Rose, then Jane again.

Edited to add that Ronit, who appears as Micah’s girlfriend in the short story “Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” in Tales, is bi in my head because of what used to be my life, but there was never really a way to establish her bisexuality in the story so 1. she can be straight or pan if you’d rather and 2. it’s not on the page so it may not count for some people. Here’s Becca’s art of her, though.

micah-and-ronit

Edited again to add Danielle Solomon from Knit One, Girl Two, my new contemporary Jewish f/f romance set in South Florida. Danielle is an artist, mostly of wildlife paintings but also fan art for her favorite fandoms, and she’s outspoken, passionate, and nursing some painful life changes when the heroine Clara first meets her. Danielle is on the right in this illustration by Agaricals.

commish sheep3

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Full list of my new releases in 2016

Sorry I disappeared from reviewing for a while. I’ve had some sadness. But it’s time for me to make a full list of everything I wrote that was published for the first time in 2016 in case any of you wanted to nominate them for things.

The Olive Conspiracy – novel, fantasy, f/f. Queen Shulamit uncovers plot to tank her country’s economy via agricultural sabotage. She & her found-family of wife, dragon, witch, and warrior woman must find the culprits both international and domestic, including a foreign princess she had a crush on as a teenager. 60,000 words.

Tales from Perach – short story collection, probably about 32,000 words but this is a guess. Five of the shorts are new in 2016; the other two were first published in 2015. The five new ones are listed here:
“Your Name is Love” – cis f/f, 6300 words. Fantasy inasmuch as the characters get into a friendly debate over whether non-magical conjuring is harder or easier than magic.
“No Whining” – bi trans f/cis m, 4700 words. Technically not SFF except that it takes place in the Mangoverse universe.
“Every Us” – cis m/m, one of whom is bi, 850 words. Technically not SFF except that it takes place in the Mangoverse universe and the main character is a prince.
“Take Time to Stop and Eat the Roses” – trans m/cis f, 2350 words. Fantasy about teenagers who encounter a malicious fairy.
“The Generous Princess” – ensemble cast from the Mangoverse royal family (so, background cis f/f and m/m, and includes a dragon.) 3400 words. Fantasy about celebrating Purim.
Again, “Rivka in Port Saltspray” and “Aviva and the Aliens” first came out in 2015 and are not eligible for 2016 awards.

Non-Mangoverse SFF:

“Treasure Hunt” – short fantasy story in which a dragon who doesn’t get out much watches two guys hooking up in his cave. Cis m/m, X words. Sold both on its own and in the Torquere anthology Twisted Fables. I will be reposting this one in 2017 since Torquere is giving everyone their rights back. In the meantime, Goodreads link. 3600 words.

Non-SFF: contemporary musician romance novelettes

Fearless – cis f/f. A newly-out-of-the-closet band mom falls for an orchestra teacher while snowed in at All-State. 8200 words.

Lioness in Blue – cis bi f/m. Oboists in a symphony orchestra engage in an age-gap, mildly femdom romance in between rehearsals. 9500 words.

Also non-SFF but shorter still

“When Daisies Choose a Vase” – cis m/f set in Québec. A young artist has to prove to the older man she loves that she’s sincere. Approx. 2700 words.

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“Miss Jacobson’s Journey” – Jewish Regency spy-romance-adventure

Miss Jacobson’s Journey by Carola Dunn is a lighthearted spy romance set during the Napoleonic wars and starring an Ashkenazi Jewish hero and heroine. I am so glad I found this book and read it on Shabbat. It was a quick read, the more tense/adventurous/suspenseful parts were exciting instead of stressful, and it was fun watching a hero and heroine combat adversity first and only deal with their feelings as a side dish. Reminds me of SFF shipper fandom, where, alongside the various pairings of Cap and his various hypothetical boyfriends and girlfriends, he’s still Captain America fighting aliens and supercriminals.

Miriam has been helping her uncle with his medical research, having adventures all across Europe and making friends with every Jewish family she meets. When he dies in the middle of the war, she needs to get home to England. In order to do so against… a blockade, I guess?… she gets embroiled in a plot to deliver gold to Wellington behind enemy lines. Accompanying her are her middle-aged lady’s maid/chaperone and two Englishmen. She and her maid are there to lend credibility to their “no, we’re totally not spies!” cover, and they’re there to give the two ladies safe passage–although Miriam winds up saving them a few times (surprising nobody who knows what kind of books I recommend.)

It’s not often I get to read swashbuckling adventure where people are regularly speaking Yiddish, or talking Jewish philosophy, or having to sidestep period-appropriate antisemitic microaggressions. But this book has value beyond “hey, they’re Jewish!” — between the plot and the romance I had a good romp. I especially enjoyed the running gag with French gentile policemen insisting Yiddish was a secret code.

Two things: if the blurb seems thoroughly obvious, don’t worry; the “twist” is revealed 27 pages in so they don’t have to spend the whole book talking around each other. Also, there’s a love triangle with a “hot” gentile who starts out fairly antisemitic but gradually learns his lesson through observing how we really are up close; don’t worry about him. He gets better and still doesn’t get the girl.

Content note that this is ‘sweet’ romance with no premarital sex, but I didn’t miss it. There’s some mention of how Jewish men are supposed to pleasure their wives on Shabbat, which is true! And TW for a lot of the gentile characters coming out with antisemitic remarks, but they’re all dealt with and contradicted in-text. (My opinion on the gentile character’s reason for resenting the hero’s father: if someone owes you money and resents you for the fact that they need to pay it back, that’s almost gaslighting.)

Kudos to the author for including Sephardim in the book as well, not just Ashkenazim, since part of the book took place in and near Spain.

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Book review: polyamorous SFF about bi girls w/pink and purple hair escaping from evil fairies

Humanity is full of folktales about fairies who steal people away; Poison Kiss by Ana Mardoll is the story of what happens when some of them escape. They emerge back into “earthside” with only the faintest traces of their human memories before fairy captivity, and so cling together in healing, solidarity, and friendship. Two of them, the pink-haired MC, Rose, and her lilac-haired love interest, are bi ladies who escaped together but are afraid to truly be together because the fairies gave the MC a venom she can’t control–the book’s eponymous poison kiss. Their lives are thrown into confusion by the escape of a silver man who the fairies were using as an actual sword (the bored, sadistic fairies like to playact according to human myth and one of them decided to cosplay King Arthur.)

They both like him, and he likes both of them, and the stage seems set for the usual smoothings out of a polyamorous romance, with insecurities needing to be put down, friends smirking affectionately from the sidelines, and plenty of communication. However, the fairy pretending to be King Arthur wants his sword back, so our heroes wind up in tighter and more dangerous predicaments with each new portal that opens up into the land of their former captivity.

I think the main character will appeal to anyone who’s ever vicariously enjoyed the innocence-guilt of the Winter Soldier, but would rather spend time with a pink-haired bi girl instead of Bucky Barnes. Is Rose culpable for the way she was compelled to use her venom when she was a fairy queen’s captive? In my and the other characters’ opinions, not really, but her guilt is completely understandable and watching her work through it is cathartic and moving. Plus, her venom gives her a reason to hold a distance she longs to close, a physical manifestation of the emotional distance some people maintain in their lives when they feel they are too damaged by trauma to love.

Mardoll made some really creative and exciting choices with where to take the SFF aspects of the story, by the way. I applaud the unexpected yet logical twists in the author’s resolution. The characters were basically between a rock and a hard place and I’m thrilled as a reader to be given a way out, a third option, that made so much sense once it was in front of me but that I didn’t think of until it was presented in text, until the characters and I were propelled there by the high point of the plot.

This book actually gives me a really firm foothold on which to argue against that “pandering to diversity” accusation lobbed at so many queer-focused SFF families-of-choice narratives. I’ve always said that real life is full of folks in the LGBTQ+ umbrella clinging together in an often unfriendly or at least alienating cis hetero world, so for a story starring two bi girls to also include a m/m couple, some ace women, nonbinary characters, and a pan lady is not unrealistic at all. However, Poison Kiss’s setup introduces a second very good reason for such a cluster – what if the fairies (and Mardoll never comes out and says this, but it occurred to me in the car) specifically sought us out and took us? What if they took the ones who felt the most alienated, the most isolated, the ones who had the least support?

Anyway, that would certainly explain why so many of the escapees are in the umbrella. (Or, you could go with the alternative theory that the time in fairyland had left the captives inherently LGBTQ+ somehow, but I don’t prefer that theory because I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of this stuff being easily changed by outside influence. I begged the anesthesiologist to reassure me that going under wouldn’t turn me straight, back in 2009. Yes, please laugh at me. I’m laughing at myself. I wasn’t laughing in 2009, though.)

Also, there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through that basically knocked me over with happy tears. I can’t tell you what it was or it won’t have the same effect on you at all, and it’ll only be meaningful to some of you. But, wow. Damn.

TW for very sci-fi violence including a villain’s severed limb and a lot of references to blood and venom. The triad is happily together and alive at the end and the book overall is very low on death of named characters.

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Venison lemon lettuce boats

So, to make this kosher you’d have to skip the pat of butter; I suppose try coconut oil? there are no pictures because oops we ate them all!

Venison lemon lettuce boats, invented by accident by Shira Glassman (or maybe Chef Aviva): naturally gluten-free

1 pound frozen venison burgers, thawed, or ground venison from your friend who goes hunting
1 heart of romaine lettuce, taken out of the bag (as many leaves as you need)
2 lemons, juiced
ground coriander
gluten-free soy sauce (aim for the aged stuff)
rice
1 cucumber, diced
rice vinegar
Pat of butter
Sesame oil
Red pepper flakes
As much chopped garlic as you want–more is better!

Cook the rice in a rice cooker and put most of it away for later because you only need a little. You can toast the rice in a dry frying pan if you want.

Set the cucumber aside to marinate in a tiny bit of the lemon juice and a lot of the rice vinegar

Melt the pat of butter and add the sesame oil. Toss in the chopped garlic. Fry the venison burgers, chopping the meat into little pieces with a spatula as you go. Add the coriander, red pepper flakes, and after things get nice and browned, the soy sauce and the rest of the lemon juice. Cook until you see no more red. Be safe.

When the meat has nice crispy bits all over, load into the cup of a romaine leaf with rice and cucumber. Watch your guests make happy faces!

Also, the leftover grease in the pan is basically lemon fat and makes a tasty salad dressing if you want to stand there with more of the lettuce eating it like I just did.

3 large leaves full of meat, rice, and cucumber per person is a safe estimate based on a sample of the two of us.

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Fantasy lit review: LETTERS TO ZELL, fairytale princesses as wine-bar book club friends trying to fix their lives; includes f/f HEA

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep is a powerful, beautiful book using the veneer of Western European fairy-tale princesses living in a magical realm just a portal away from ours to tell a familiar, timeless story about four female friends struggling to redefine themselves, and their friendship, in the face of lives that don’t match up to “happily ever after” expectations. This is partially due to the fact that structure of the magic world is such that there are rules that, when broken, lead to a ripping in the fabric of reality.

I think that’s a great metaphor for “other people’s expectations” (and our own) carrying unnecessary weight, but it also leads to some good SFF plot and conflict. For example, one of the princesses has already suffered a romantic loss before the story even opens. The author also explores the realistic implications of the canonical elements of dysfunctional family in several of the fairy tales–stepmotherly betrayals, absent fathers, etc. This is far more nuanced, fleshed-out, and fun to read than many of those clickbait posts making fun of what if Disney princesses were real. The leading ladies in this book were compelling, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.

Let me reassure you that this is an official Shira Glassman endorsement, which means that yes, this book does include a happy f/f resolution. My sapphic sisters, you may safely proceed. Moving along: it’s also a bittersweet and powerful story because some situations aren’t salvageable, and it does go down some dark roads although by the end I embraced the entire package. I also loved how no matter how angry the friends got with each other, they still remained friends and loved each other–they could discuss I’m angry with you without breaking up the friendship. That is valuable.

The focus of the book is on platonic love, mostly between the princess leads, but there are also satisfying dips into m/f and f/f romance. I’ve seen many people looking for fantasy books where m/m and f/f relationships aren’t treated as remarkable, and this is one of those books – there is never any kind of negative reaction to the f/f subplot, or indeed literally any kind of comment about it being unusual, and some of Snow White’s dwarves are in relationships with each other (which I’m sure will make @tofeklund very happy.)

I loved the clever bits of worldbuilding, like how the portal to the “real world” is near enough to Disneyland (Cali, not FL–we’re “world”) that nobody would question people popping out of thin air in princess garb. I loved the complexities the author drew out of familiar, relatively simple stories. I loved the fact that one of the points she was making was that we aren’t getting less imaginative like a lot of technophobes seem to think–we’re getting more imaginative, with more and more variations on the old stories, and adding new ones. The princesses step out of their world into ours astonished at all the things Disneyland got “wrong” because we’ve done so many new things with the old legends! (I mean, I was definitely struck by the pointed way all four princess protagonists’ lives adhere to the storybook originals, rather than the Disney version.)

TW for a suicide metaphor that winds up being a lot less painful than real suicide because of some worldbuilding-specific magical elements that smoothed it over to a point where I, as a reader, felt soothed. I do feel like the grieving portions of the book rang true to my experiences with loss. (Also, I hope the author was being tongue in cheek when she said the cellist was the one who suggested Pachelbel’s Canon for a wedding–most cellists would rather fall out of a tree than willingly offer to play it! The cello part is the same eight notes over and over again. I’m a violinist, so I’m fine with it :P)

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