Mini Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

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.

19 comments

    • I’ve got high hopes for the hippo cowboys, which is on my TBR for 2020. This lady writes really fast — I think she comes out with two novellas per year — and as a lover of strong novellas, I try to support those who write them.

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  1. I generally don’t listen to short form fiction. I like my books to go on and on for hours. This one it seems you got out of humour with it. I don’t blame you, if the reader blurs the characters together the listener has no real way of following the story. Lots of post apocalyptic fiction posits a return to the C19th, and this one sounds like it was trying to have a bit of fun with the lesbians and the librarians.

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    • I think you hit the nail on the head. When it comes to audiobooks, I actually prefer them to be shorter, as a twelve hour novel can feel like it goes on and on and one. However, as a long-haul trucker, I can see why you would like a longer book. If you got something only 5 hours long, you’d like have to start a new book the same day.

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  2. Sorry this didn’t work out for you, and it had such an interesting premise, too. I honestly don’t know a lot about Westerns so a horse pulling a wagon would pretty much fit my knowledge of it… which is probably a sign of its scant world-building. 😅 What would be a clincher for me, though, would be how indistinguishable the characters are from each other—it feels like such a waste to have a diverse cast of queer or gender-nonconforming characters without setting them apart as individuals. Great review; I’ll be taking this off my TBR. (Which is honestly a bit of a relief, given my pile!)

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    • Do you have any of Gailey’s other novellas on your TBR? I had the hippo cowboy one, River of Teeth. Wait, what is it with her and cowboys? Someone in my book club brought up how Gailey is flipping the cowboy narrative on its head by integrating queer cowboys, but another book club member who is doing her PhD in something in this area noted that there was actually a thriving queer cowboy culture back in the day. I imagine it was similar to the ancient Greek soldiers who often took make lovers.

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  3. Hmmm that’s too bad. I sympathize with people trying to write about an issue they feel passionate about, because it’s so hard to turn these issues into stories, but that’s what differentiates a ‘good’ writer from a ‘great’ writer 🙂

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    • I keep thinking about how Kiley Reid in Such a Fun Age wrote a great novel about issues that affect society without making it an issues novel. Perhaps Gailey needs some more beta readers? I know some writers only choose people who are endlessly supportive because “all art is beautiful,” but then they’re surprised when their book doesn’t hit all the right notes with other readers.

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  4. Oh wow! I’m so confused about the setting here. I had no idea that it was set in the future!! I definitely thought it was a western set in the past! I also thought it was going to be similar to the other horse-riding librarian books you mentioned, so I was really interested in hearing your thoughts about it. I was hoping it would have more grit than The Giver of Stars which I liked but didn’t love. Now this sounds like a read that I’ll skip. Oh well, one down off the ever-growing TBR!

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