mini-review · Read Harder · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Graphically · stuff I read

Ladycastle, written by Delilah S. Dawon, illustrated by Ashley A. Woods and Becca Farrow

34466854Summary from Goodreads:
When the King and all the men of the castle die, it’s time for the women to knight up.

When King Mancastle and his mighty vassals ride off on a crusade, the women left behind are not at all put out—that’s a lot less armor polishing to do. Of course, when the men get themselves eaten by a dragon and leave a curse that attracts monsters to the castle . . . well, the women take umbrage with that.

Now, Merinor, the blacksmith’s wife is King, Princess Aeve is the Captain, and the only remaining (and least capable) knight, Sir Riddick, is tasked with teaching the ladies of the castle how to fight, defend, build, and do all manner of noisy things the men had done while the women assumed they were just drunk.

Novelist Delilah S. Dawson (Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon, As Wicked as She Wants) brings her first original series to the graphic novel world, and is joined by breakthrough illustrator Ashley A. Woods (Niobe: She Is Life) for a rollicking fantasy adventure in Ladycastle.

What do all the women of Mancastle do when all the terrible dudes they are married to/related to go off and get themselves eaten by a dragon and the castle cursed by a wizard? They do all the stuff the men were doing – but better, with more cooperation and much less violence. (The only dude left is the most inept knight who looks like the Santa Claus version of King Pellinore.) They take advice from a Lady in the Pond who dispenses swords, the Well-Hag Hagatha, and a badass castle librarian in a wheelchair to fight off salamanders, werewolves, harpies, and a surprising Big Bad. And they re-name the castle Ladycastle.

I really enjoyed this funny, rompy take on Arthurian legend-ish tales. There were a lot of riffs on Disney movies, musicals, and Monty Python jokes. The writing does hit you over the head with very obvious criticisms of gender norms/stereotypes, compulsory heterosexuality (maybe?, no one seemed to be in a happy heterosexual marriage but no one was in a non-hetero relationship, either, and no one was exactly bemoaning having no dudes around for sexytimes; it wouldn’t have hurt to put an explicitly non-heterosexual partnership or actual genderqueer character on the page rather than some implied coding), and toxic masculinity (all the dudes these women were related to or married to were the actual worst). But sometimes we need the blindingly obvious, though. I very much enjoyed reading Ladycastle and the art was excellent, very straightforward. This is an all-ages comic, not a whole lot of violence, no language or sex.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book to read for the Graphic Novel Book Group at my store. It fulfilled the “read a comic from a publisher other than DC, Marvel, or Image” task for Read Harder.

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Reading Matters · stuff I read

An additional thought about By the Book by Julia Sonneborn

I was puttering around on Goodreads, reading a few other reviews about By the Book, and then read an article about DACA/DREAMers. The juxtaposition of the two items solidified an idea I’d been noodling on for a bit: that making Adam in By the Book a former undocumented child immigrant was a way to evoke the cross-class snobbery that lies beneath much of the plot in Persuasion.

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, is so obsessed with class and bloodline that he is introduced in the first paragraph of Persuasion as a man who reads only one book: the Baronetage, specifically the entry about his own family. He aspires to move among the aristocracy (he courts the favor of an even snobbier, more ridiculous cousin, Lady Dalrymple, who is a vicountess), is deeply in debt because a baronet must live in a certain style, and looks down upon the British Navy as an institution that allows men to rise through its ranks from lower into upper classes. At the time Austen was writing, class mobility had become more common. Through trade and industry, some of the middle-classes were able to move into the landed gentry and, hence, position their children to marry “up.” This mobility obviously caused a good deal of hand-wringing among the upper classes.

In twenty-first century America, class is somewhat less of a stratified thing (even though “good” family bloodlines, or the “wrong side” of the tracks, are still a thing of sorts). But lately there’s a lot of squawking about who is “allowed” to be here, and where we all come from – which is rich coming from a nation founded out of the people that no one wanted in European countries and who took out their inferiority complex on the native populations of the Americas and enslaved people imported to prop up the economy. DREAMers and DACA recipients are at the white-hot center of this stalking. How many stories are there in the news of DREAMers brought here as children – because their parents knew that to give them any sort of chance they had to get out of whatever situation was going on in their country of origin – who are now teachers and doctors and lawyers?

In By the Book, Adam’s mother escaped from Guatemala with him when he was two. Through hard work and sheer good luck, they are eventually granted asylum with the opportunity to earn a green card and eventual citizenship. Adam earns a scholarship to Princeton and eventually earns a law degree then works his way up the collegiate administrative chain to president of a college.  It is the ultimate rags to riches story, to go from literally nothing but your life to one of the most respected positions in academia. But Adam also suffers from others’ classist, and probably racist, treatment of him as a scholarship student and person of color in what are traditionally bastions of white privilege: the students at Princeton who mistreat him at his job in food service, Rick’s very pointed attempts to discredit Adam in Anne’s eyes (Rick has some other problems as well), and Anne’s recollection of her family’s treatment of Adam when they met him. Sonneborn doesn’t lean into these issues explicitly, in the way that Austen does in the original, but they do lurk around between the lines.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Beards & Bondage #1)

34745311Summary from Goodreads:
A week-long getaway…

City girl Claudia Cade’s carefree life is plunged into chaos when a camping trip with her brother in the national forests of Northern California turns into a deadly dash for her survival.

A solitary world turned upside down…

Nature photographer Shepard Olsen has resigned himself to a quiet existence, with only his dog by his side, until a woman in need of his protection shows up on his doorstep and throws his universe into disarray.

Two lives linked by tragedy…

Claudia is desperate to heal from her traumatic loss, but can’t stop thinking about her run-in with evil….or the grizzled mountain man whose quick thinking and good aim saved her life. When she shows up on Shep’s doorstep again, she finds she isn’t the only one who can’t move on.

…saved by bliss.

The two begin an intense, passionate relationship of Dominance and submission, pleasure and pain, but with dark memories haunting them and decisions about the future rapidly approaching, Claudia can’t help but wonder…how long can they be each other’s haven?

*** WARNING: This book contains a sexual relationship between a fashionista and a cranky mountain man who are dealing with physical and emotional trauma. And a very big, cuddly dog.***

Rebekah Weatherspoon has been popping up in lists of romance authors recommended to me for a while now. And I’ve been intrigued, but her usual genres (contemporary, BDSM) aren’t always my bag. I’ve had good luck with contemporaries of late and I was told that Haven would be a good place to start so I decided to give it a whirl. (I was also tickled by the series name: Beards & Bondage.)

Haven takes off like a rocket right from the first page. Shep, a large bearded mountain man with a penchant for bondage, saves Claudia’s life when she turns up at his cabin bleeding and running for her life. When her attacker steps out of the woods, and offers to share her with Shep, Shep gives one warning and then shoots the man. On the way down the mountain to the hospital, she relates a horrific story: she was camping with her brother when they were attacked by two men. As Claudia recovers from her injuries Shep tries to give her some comfort, simply holding her so she can sleep. Although they each try to return to their previous lives, the experience has irrevocably changed both of them. Claudia soon returns to Shep’s town, to find closure and explore her attraction to the man who saved her.

I’ll probably never be a fan of 1st person POV in my romance reading, but it worked for this book. Weatherspoon would give us several chapters in one POV before switching to the other, so it wasn’t too much back and forth. Shep isn’t some sort of grizzled, nasty dude in a shack; he’s a very rugged, fit nature photographer with a modern cabin who just happens to be an introverted Dom. The conversations that Weatherspoon gives him with Claudia, where they discuss exactly what she wants from her time with Shep and what a D/s relationship with Shep would entail, were refreshing; no one does any quibbling about feelings before getting down to business. This isn’t a sweet or funny romance (although Claudia is a smartass with excellent one-liners). It’s a story about two people who work through some very, very heavy emotional stuff mixed with incredibly hot sexytimes (if you’re like me and the pain thing is really not your jam, the scenes lean into the Bondage portion of BDSM more than anything else). The only part of this book I really felt didn’t work was that the HEA didn’t seem earned. I totally got the instant emotional connection between Shep and Claudia – they both went through something traumatic and it created an instant bond worth exploring. But they’re given a week – which is eventually cut short by a plot point, so maybe 4 days – and it just doesn’t seem long enough for them together. They each work through some things separately, but I would have liked them together in one place for collectively more than a week.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book on my Nook.

Austenesque · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

By the Book by Julia Sonneborn

35297218Summary from Goodreads:
An English professor struggling for tenure discovers that her ex-fiancé has just become the president of her college—and her new boss—in this whip-smart modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion.

Anne Corey is about to get schooled.

An English professor in California, she’s determined to score a position on the coveted tenure track at her college. All she’s got to do is get a book deal, snag a promotion, and boom! She’s in. But then Adam Martinez—her first love and ex-fiancé—shows up as the college’s new president.

Anne should be able to keep herself distracted. After all, she’s got a book to write, an aging father to take care of, and a new romance developing with the college’s insanely hot writer-in-residence. But no matter where she turns, there’s Adam, as smart and sexy as ever. As the school year advances and her long-buried feelings begin to resurface, Anne begins to wonder whether she just might get a second chance at love.

Funny, smart, and full of heart, this modern ode to Jane Austen’s classic explores what happens when we run into the demons of our past…and when they turn out not to be so bad, after all.

First of all: Persuasion is my absolute favorite Austen novel. Would pay good money to get Ciaran Hinds to read Wentworth’s letter aloud over and over (the movie fades Hinds’s and Amanda Root’s voice-overs back and forth and I’m not a fan of that, Hinds only please). Any Persuasion re-telling churned out of the Austen fan-fiction machine gets extra side-eye and skepticism from me.

Second: I have an extra-helping of skeptical for retellings that chain themselves to the original plot in lock-step. (There are retellings out there for Pride and Prejudice to which you can set your watch.) Some of the best retellings/modernizations/sequels take what they need from the bones of the story and jettison what no longer applies to twenty-first century novels.

By the Book was recommended to me by author (and bookseller) Sarah Prineas, so I decided to take a chance on it. In this setting, Anne Elliot, lonely, over-looked, middle daughter of a class-obsessed, cash-poor baronet, has been transformed into Anne Corey, an over-worked, under-appreciated English professor trying to get a tenure-track position at her liberal arts college Fairfax. Captain Wentworth, gallant naval captain rising through the ranks via his success in the Napoleonic Wars, is now Adam Martinez, a former undocumented child immigrant from Guatemala who has risen through the ranks of collegiate administration to become one of the youngest college presidents in the United States. He is Anne’s ultimate boss…and her ex-fiancé (Anne had got some less-than-stellar life advice from her advisor, Dr. Russell – cue Lady Russell – about not having a serious relationship in grad school). Entering from stage right is our Mr. Elliot – in this iteration rock star author Richard Forbes Chasen, very sexy, British, and successful, who has just taken the job of writer-in-residence at Fairfax (he gets to give a JFranz burn, and I laughed forever).

These are the bones of Austen’s original: a hero and heroine with a second-chance romance and a bit of a villain. And this is all that By the Book needs. It is a sweet and charming campus novel about a professor who is lonely and uncertain in their job prospects. It does not lock-step its plot to the original, so if you are very familiar with Persuasion (like me) you won’t quite guess the path to the denouement (y’all, if you can’t guess how this book generally ends you need to read more Austen and romance novels). Austen fans will enjoy all the little bits pulled out of Persuasion and used to flesh out the plot. Sonneborn even borrows a little bit of Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. But if you have never read Persuasion, you don’t need it to enjoy By the Book.

Anne is our protagonist throughout this book. We feel all her indecision, uncertainty, and frustration at being a single woman trying to get some respect and job security in a really, really tight job market (there is a rejection letter for her book that almost made me punch my iPad). And maybe also find a boyfriend because loneliness is the worst sometimes. I had a good chuckle every time Anne and her work-husband, Henry James-teaching professor Larry, had to deal with their tone-deaf department chair because lack of insight in administrators is a real thing. Speaking of Larry, I really liked his character. He’s an adaptation of Captain Bennick, the grief-stricken, poetry-obsessed friend of Wentworth. As Anne’s best friend, Larry is a hopelessly romantic gay man who becomes embroiled in an illicit affair with the hottest actor of the moment who is starring in an obvious Twilight-esque teen movie where Jane Eyre is a vampire (it’s hilarious, I’m not kidding). He’s always got a good quip, some timely text emojis, and an unironic love of a terrible mash-up movie (based on an uneven genre mash-up novel) even while stating he doesn’t read novels published after 1920 (see also: I laughed forever at this, too). I felt so much for him at the end of this book.

I’ve been reading some reviews of By the Book that don’t quite feel the romance or tension between Anne and Adam. This may be a fair criticism. Anne and Adam don’t spend a lot of time together (especially alone) in the book, particularly compared to genre romance novels so expectations may not be met on the page. But, in my opinion, this makes sense in the end especially given that Adam is the college president where Anne is very much his subordinate; no one with even half of Adam or Anne’s intelligence would jeopardize their academic career to get a leg up with the boss. This goes triple for women and people of color, which Anne and Adam are. Adam also makes a nice speech at one point that brings up plot-specific reasons for not trying to get with Anne once he’s at Fairfax, which I won’t spoil here. In addition, this separation between characters is exactly what happens in Persuasion. The only person who flirts with Anne Elliot is Mr. Elliot, making everyone, including Wentworth, believe that those two will marry.

I really enjoyed By the Book. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly the update in plot was handled and I loved the warm-fuzzy feeling I got while reading (I love second-chance romances in general). I think this is also a good entry in the “campus novel” genre, because I recognized a lot of real-world things that happen on college campuses (raise your hand if you’ve ever been “volunteered” for institutional fundraising drives?). A definite recommend.

Comment: I do not like the US cover. It says “charming novel about young love set in a bookshop in the French countryside” not “campus novel about tenure-track professors at a liberal arts college within driving distance of Beverly Hills/Los Angeles.” Does anyone even ride a bicycle in this book? (There’s a motorcycle, but I don’t remember a bicycle.)

By the Book will be available on February 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss after someone whose taste I trust told me they thought I might like it. I’ll probably buy a paper copy to put with the Austen collection.

mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Women · stuff I read · translation

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

35969593Summary from Goodreads:
An award-winning debut story collection by Karin Tidbeck, author of Amatka and heir to Borges, Le Guin, and Lovecraft.

A child is born in a tin can. A switchboard operator finds himself in hell. Three corpulent women float somewhere beyond time. Welcome to the weird world of Karin Tidbeck, the visionary Swedish author of literary sci-fi, speculative fiction, and mind-bending fantasy who has captivated readers around the world. Originally published by the tiny press Cheeky Frawg–the passion project of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer–Jagannath has been celebrated by readers and critics alike, with rave reviews from major outlets and support from lauded peers like China Mieville and even Ursula K. Le Guin herself. These are stories in which fairies haunt quiet towns, and an immortal being discovers the nature of time–stories in which anything is possible.

I had heard that Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka was a good book but I hadn’t got around to reading it, yet. So I was really interested in reading the new edition of her collection Jagannath, originally published by the Vandermeers’ indie press Cheeky Frawg in 2012. Jagannath is an unexpectedly lovely and unsettling collection of short stories that occupy a liminal space between reality and folktales (with a few dips into more mainstream fantasy). This is a collection for fans of Sofia Samatar, Margo Langergan, Amber Sparks, and Laura van den Berg, excellent company indeed. Tidbeck did her own translations for those pieces originally published in Swedish and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between those originally written in English and the translations.

The new edition of Jagannath is available on February 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

35137915Summary from Goodreads:
I AM, I AM, I AM is a memoir with a difference – the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count.

A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell.
It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

Put this on your to-get list for 2018. O’Farrell has constructed a riveting memoir focused on the seventeen (17!) times she came close to death. Each brush with the “undiscovered country” is a bit different, some less-harrowing (almost leaning too far into the street as a car is passing) and some sensational (she almost runs afoul of a murderer as a teen). The construction of I Am, I Am, I Am is very compelling. The events are told out of sequence, and she seeds in references to the experience as she builds up to the most-significant death-brush: the onset of viral encephalitis as a child that left her with numerous challenges to battle. In addition, the book closes with a chapter about her daughter, born with a life-threatening medical condition, and for whom the book was written (a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to charity).

I Am, I Am, I Am is available February 6 in the US.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Readathon · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

35259631Summary from Goodreads:
A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Everyone, and I mean everyone, has been talking about Jasmine Guillory’s debut romance novel. And when Roxane Gay starts tweeting about an excellent, smart, and sexy romance novel she’s reading you put it on your TBR. During the 24in48 Readathon this weekend a needed a much lighter book to balance some unexpected heaviness (Kent Haruf, I was not planning to read your book but I needed a short audiobook and whyyyyyyy did you do that to me?) so I pulled up my galley of The Wedding Date and dove right in.

Cue all the squealing. Guillory has provided us with a super-cute contemporary romance about a smart woman who gets stuck in an elevator with a hot guy who turns out to need a date for a wedding that weekend. Which turns into a one night stand. And then turns into something else entirely unlike what Alexa and Drew expected. I was hooked almost immediately by the meet-cute. Super-hot dude gets stuck in an elevator with you and makes jokes about needing snacks? Yes, please. And then he asks you to be his hot date for a wedding? I’d be willing to over-look the “oops I panicked and said you were my girlfriend” thing, too. The plot kept me turning pages until late into the night (good thing it was Saturday). 

I loved Alexa. Sharp, decisive, and with a love of doughnuts (yes, girl, always with the sprinkles). Guillory gave her a great job and purpose that just leap right off the page; Alexa doesn’t exist within the confines of this book, she could be a real person who is a mayor’s chief of staff trying to start a program for troubled kids. I liked Drew as a character, but I had trouble finding reasons for his commitment problems outside of being a busy doctor.  He didn’t come across as a Player player, no one accused him of cheating or two-timing or anything, so I couldn’t quite figure him out.

Holding up Alexa and Drew’s relationship was whip-smart multi-layered writing, infusing the book with discussions about body positivity, race, and privilege.  When Alexa arrives at the rehearsal dinner, she asks if she’s going to be the only Black person there, letting the reader know that not only will Alexa stick out as a new face attached to Drew (who has some history with the bridal party), she will be unable to blend in with the guests at any point; later, the discussions about which parts of Berkeley are supportive of her diversion program are similarly revealing. Alexa also has some thoughts about places she wished wouldn’t jiggle quite so much while having sex, which I’m sure most women have had, but Guillory makes it clear that Drew finds Alexa’s curves very sexy (every once in a while I’ll read a romance where there’s a “hero-loves-heroine-despite-her-chubbiness” vibe and that’s a definite “ew” but totally not a thing here). Ordering food and enjoying a meal are also big parts of this story, whether the main characters are alone, together, or in a group; there’s no food-shaming. Guillory also gets a Gold Star for condom usage EVERY time one was called for in addition to writing very consent-positive sex scenes.

The Wedding Date is on sale today! Pick it up at your favorite bookstore. (And apparently there’s going to be a sequel, with Drew’s buddy Carlos.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Surrender to the Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highlander #5)

34848198Summary from Goodreads:
Edith Drummond owes her life to Niels Buchanan and his brothers. Waking after an illness to a castle overrun by rugged Highlanders is disconcerting, but so is learning that she’s slowly being poisoned. Niels insists on staying by her side, and Edith soon discovers that even more dangerous is her wild attraction to the fierce warrior.

Niels has never met a more courageous—or enticing—woman than Lady Edith. The idea of such a bonny lass being forced to enter a nunnery is more than any red-blooded Scotsman could bear. He’ll gladly marry her himself. But while sweeping her off her feet is easy, it’ll take all his skill to defeat her family’s relentless enemies, and convince her to surrender to his sweet embrace.

Lynsay Sands’s Scottish romances are ridiculous, and silly, and occasionally frustrating and impossible for me to quit. The last outing in her Highlanders series was a bit of a disappointment, so I was hoping Surrender to the Highlander would be a course correction. And I did like Edith’s and Niels’s romance quite a lot. So often in a Sands romance there’s a danger to the heroine and the hero restricts her activities to the extreme and then she goes and does something stupid out of frustration. *cue eyeroll* But with Surrender to the Highlander Edith and Neils actually discuss plans of action. Edith is treated like a smart person (which she is) who knows the castle and its people better than any of the Buchanans; Neils insists on many guards, but even though they get underfoot, Edith goes along with it because she’d really prefer not to be deceased. If you’ve read a lot of Sands, then the murder poison plot feels a bit rehashed but oh well. Sands could use an editor for the language (if you take the time to pepper in “ken” and “sgian-dubh” you can do the research for a suitable Scots epithet instead of “ai yi yi”). There is one scene where Edith asks the maid how to please Neils, because she’d like to return the favor (if you know what I mean), and gets some VERY TERRIBLE BUT FUNNY advice.

I am glad to see the next book coming is for Aulay (finally) then perhaps one for Rory, since he’s actually expressed that he’d like to fall in love compared to the remaining single-guys-get-all-the-ladies attitudes of the younger brothers. Bad news for the cover designer though – tartans are the same color in one family (Dougall’s cover had a blue-ish tartan, this one is red, and Aulay’s is green for the next one – they’re all brothers).

Surrender to the Highlander is out Tuesday January 30.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The ending was an interesting one, but after sitting with it for a while I have a bit of a quibble. I’ll put it behind a Read More tag (trigger warning for discussion of rape and suicide).

(ETA: well, beans, I guess the Read More only works if you’re on the blog’s main page, not the post itself, so feel free to stop reading here if you wish.) Continue reading “Surrender to the Highlander by Lynsay Sands (Highlander #5)”