About mini reviews:
Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .
Although Sarah Gailey has been releasing novellas at a rapid rate in the past couple of years, this is the first one I finally got to. Upright Women Wanted is a futuristic Western. Cars are useless because there is no fuel, and so librarians travel on horseback to deliver materials (no, it’s nothing like The Giver of Stars or The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek). Considered upright women of the time, being a librarian is a way to stay out of trouble and gain respect all while delivering state-approved reading materials.
The novella opens with Esther stowed in the wagon of a travelling librarian. She has run away from home because her lover, Beatrice, was hanged. Since Beatrice’s husband apparently really needs a wife, he is now going to take Esther. Ew. Esther goes on the lam in the hopes of convincing the librarians to give her a job so she won’t be viewed by society as a runaway and lesbian. She’ll be upright.
However, the librarians she hooked up with are lesbians, too. And one of the “packages” they pick up are a trio of women in a polyamorous relationship to be delivered in a state that is more friendly to the LGBTQ community. Really, these librarians don’t need a trainee because they already have one, a gender non-conforming person who goes by “they” in private and “she” in public.
There were three key issues with Upright Women Wanted. I did not get a sense of the setting as either Western or futuristic. Yes, there are horses and wagons, but a horse pulling something does not a Western make. Nothing suggests there was technology before except thinking about how fast books could be delivered with a car. What about all the personal tech that we use that the characters no longer have? Are we so far in the future that they didn’t even get to use cell phones and computers? If that’s the case, why did cars hang around so much longer that they remember them. I had no idea when this book was set.
Two, all the characters in groups are indistinguishable. I couldn’t tell the lesbian librarians apart, I couldn’t tell the polyamorous characters apart, and, eventually, I couldn’t tell Esther apart from the rest of them. When voice actor Romy Hordlinger reads, the voices slowly start to meld. Where Esther sounded “normal” at first, she takes on the high-pitched voice of another character as the story moves forward.
Lastly, Sarah Gailey works too hard to make this a book about a topic instead of a story. Repeatedly, Esther is told that it’s not bad that she had feelings for Beatrice. In two audio-book hours, the gender non-conforming character says, “Call me ‘she’ in public and ‘they’ in private!” to Esther three times, even though Esther learns so fast that she remembers every horse breed she’s taught after being told once.
Without a clear setting and distinguishable characters, a story that strains to convince readers that queer people are just people comes across more like an article than a book. I chose to DNF just after the halfway mark because I found myself simply not caring what happened next because I had little sense of the story. There just wasn’t enough complexity for a novella about queer social activism published in 2019.