In a hypnotic tale of sisterhood, first love, and hauntings, a wedding in a small English village stirs up unsettling magic and forces a troubled family’s secrets out into the open.Amazon
This is my SPOILER-FREE Book Review for
Small Angels by Lauren Owen
I intend to use the ***ASPECT method for my discussion and will not spoil the ending.
This review is cross-posted over at the Fresno LGBT News Link website under the “Book Flow” tab. under “More”
I loved this book.
But before we get started…
Let’s talk for a quick second about genre.
Most of us have a few genres we are drawn to and a few that we shy away from. I, for example, will read almost anything under the “speculative fiction” umbrella (sci-fi, fantasy, dystopia) but have a hard time talking myself into reading things labeled “romance” or “World War 2.”
In the last few decades, genres have shifted. Some, like YA, have grown and expanded, encompassing now all sorts of subgenres. There are YA sci-fis and YA romances, etc.
A relatively new -to the mainstream- genre is LGBT or Queer Lit.
Queer Lit can technically be either the primary genre type or a subgenre. However, in most places and spaces, a book is LGBT first and then whatever else second. So, a Gay Romance. A Queer Historical Fiction. A Lesbian Mystery.
Now, whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will be a mix of personal opinion and historical baggage. One must wonder if the reason that such gay romances are called “gay” romances is to make sure that no one accidentally reads a romance and is surprised to find gay people inside it. We wouldn’t want that, would we? People ought to know if there will be gayness in their books before they start! How else can close-minded bigots avoid maybe encountering people (characters) outside their comfort zones?
The other side of the coin is maybe more valid. Representation matters and queer people deserve to be able to find and read books that reflect their community.
Again though… will a book be limited in terms of the audience if it carries the LGBT tag? Will it be ignored or passed over by general readers who are drawn more to the other labels, that of “mystery” or “horror” or whatever? Will people assume that if it is a queer book it is only for queer people? And just how queer does a book need to be to get that label? Queer characters…. Sure, but do they have to be the main characters? What if the LGBT characters are just bit players? What if there’s only one? Who gets to decide if a book is queer enough to be considered Queer Lit?
So where does that leave us?
Well, this is a book review, not an Op-Ed, so where that leaves us today is discussing Small Angels: a ghost story that features magic, superb writing, a mystery, and -oh yes- queer characters.
As usual, I will use my ASPECT method.
A: Atmosphere (tone).
It can be difficult to balance between a ghost story that feels like a fairy tale and a contemporary story that has enough tension and character development that we actually care about what happens. Owen manages to do this. We are in a very specific setting. The woods, the farms, the town, the pub… the country lanes sparsely populated with villagers and ghosts alike create a place that the reader can instantly envision. Owen’s writing is almost cinematic in terms of creating the feeling of the village, the church, and the forest paths… and the reader is quickly drawn into the story.
There are several stories within the story. More than just flashbacks, these are fully fleshed-out narratives that stitch together as the book progresses. Some readers might get frustrated with the movement back and forth through time or the fact that the ghost story and village urban myths are talked about in the same tone as the more mundane aspects of village life. Our parallel storylines do intersect and the merging of the two neatly sidesteps any clunkiness by the reader’s own realization that they have been getting the story in the same pieces and order as the characters.
This is a ghost story first and foremost. There is a magic that must be dealt with. There is also a wedding, a family in need of reconciliation, a village in need of acceptance, a ghost in need of a sacrifice, and a pair of lovers in need of reunion. This is not a short book but it is paced well. There is a definite build-up of tension even if it is a relatively slow build, and the climax is appropriate in scope.
Yes. This isn’t a page-turner by any means, but I was curious about how it would all shake out. There were no twists, per se, but there were a few “a-ha” moments. I was invested in the mystery and drama, and I found myself emotionally preparing for a variety of different outcomes. The page count might seem high, 383, but it never stopped being interesting.
This is a spoiler-free review so I won’t go into too much detail, but one thing I feel I must say is that the collective group of the villagers was fascinating. Very few were multi-dimensional, they were, after all, the background side characters. However, the fact that the villagers know about the magic but either turn a blind eye or refuse to accept what they can clearly see…. And the fact that they allow some pretty messed up things to occur because those things were happening to “others” and not them, were probably some of the most sinister and recognizable parts of the book. It’s hard not to see parallels of our own society in the actions of these willfully “ignorant” (read, apathetic) community members.
I would be remiss to not mention the lesbian couple as this book does hold the label of Queer Lit. Here’s the thing though, the lesbians in this book are treated in the same way as the straights. Yes, there is a thwarted love and yes there is drama and miscommunication and people having to compromise… but the same could be said for the other main couple in the book, the hetero couple.
And… I loved it. I loved that the queerness of these women was not their driving motivation, their main personality traits, or even all that important. Yes, they were lesbians. But the reason others were against their pairing was more about familial obligations and family secrets. The queerness was moot. And that made it even more refreshing. The queer and straight main characters -the three women- were all written well and felt like authentic people. They were complicated and interesting.
T: This… as in, Why THIS book? (AKA, Would I recommend it?)
I’ll admit that I found this book on an “LGBT Books of 2022” list. And… of course, I am glad that it is on that list, and I am glad to have enjoyed the company of the lesbians within its pages.
Yes, I would recommend it… however, I would recommend it to anyone who wants a ghost story fairy tale about magical woods and literary levels of how society treats outsiders. It isn’t overly spooky, but the prose is beautiful, the magic was folkloreesque, the ending satisfying, and bonus… a lesbian couple!
I do think that this is a great book that happens to have queer characters rather than a strictly queer book… and I hope it finds an audience beyond just the LGBT community. In my humble opinion, we need more books like this one. Books that eschew the confines of genre and labels in the same way that many of us do and deserve to be read (loved) for their individualism and uniqueness. This book was great not because it had queer characters, but because all the characters were written wonderfully and the story was engaging and beautiful.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?