mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Daring Arrangement and A Scandalous Deal by Joanna Shupe (The Four Hundred #1 and #2)

33783452Summary from Goodreads:
Set in New York City’s Gilded Age, Joanna Shupe’s Avon debut introduces an English beauty with a wicked scheme to win the man she loves—and the American scoundrel who ruins her best laid plans…

Lady Honora Parker must get engaged as soon as possible, and only a particular type of man will do. Nora seeks a mate so abhorrent, so completely unacceptable, that her father will reject the match—leaving her free to marry the artist she desires. Who then is the most appalling man in Manhattan? The wealthy, devilishly handsome financier, Julius Hatcher, of course….

Julius is intrigued by Nora’s ruse and decides to play along. But to Nora’s horror, Julius transforms himself into the perfect fiancé, charming the very people she hoped he would offend. It seems Julius has a secret plan all his own—one that will solve a dark mystery from his past, and perhaps turn him into the kind of man Nora could truly love.

35068754Summary from Goodreads:
Joanna Shupe returns with another unforgettable novel set in the glittering world of New York City’s Gilded Age…

They call her Lady Unlucky…

With three dead fiancés, Lady Eva Hyde has positively no luck when it comes to love. She sets sail for New York City, determined that nothing will deter her dream of becoming an architect, certainly not an unexpected passionate shipboard encounter with a mysterious stranger. But Eva’s misfortune strikes once more when she discovers the stranger who swept her off her feet is none other than her new employer.

Or is it Lady Irresistible?

Phillip Mansfield reluctantly agrees to let the fiery Lady Eva oversee his luxury hotel project while vowing to keep their relationship strictly professional. Yet Eva is more capable—and more alluring—than Phillip first thought, and he cannot keep from drawing up a plan of his own to seduce her.

When a series of onsite “accidents” makes it clear someone wants Lady Unlucky to earn her nickname, Phillip discovers he’s willing to do anything to protect her—even if it requires A SCANDALOUS DEAL.

This will be a two-for-one review. I didn’t make it to A Daring Arrangement before the galley expired, so I let it slide for a little bit.  But now that the release date has come for book 2, A Scandalous Deal, I needed to catch up on everyone.

Joanna Shupe’s  Avon debut, The Four Hundred series, is a lovely entry in the historical genre, especially given that Gilded Age novels set in New York City and environs are not thick upon the ground. If you really like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence  but maybe want more romance/a happier ending, definitely give them a try.

I liked A Daring Arrangement a lot, although it wasn’t a total slam dunk for me. There’s a later plot point that I guessed easily (which is kind of a spoiler) but I wasn’t quite sure that the story earned. This is a “get an outrageous fake fiancé to annoy daddy enough to let you wed the unsuitable artist fiancé” plot and we all know where that leads.  If the “fake engagement” trope is your kryptonite, this is for you. Hatcher is an interesting character, as the self-made man trying to out-do the Old Money crowd.

I liked A Scandalous Deal a bit more. Partly because of Eva, struggling to be recognized for her work in what was (and is still) a very male profession, but also because Shupe pushes a bit more into how women were treated at the time of the Gilded Age.  There is a secondary character who is at risk of being committed to an asylum because she doesn’t conform (I know we all laugh about that meme going around with reasons women got committed but that was a real thing). Phillip is interesting because he is very Alpha Male who then has to learn to be a Beta at times for Eva. (I also think he looks like Matthew Macfadyen so I’m down with it.)

Dear FTC: I read book 1 on my nook and book 2 as a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging by Alex Wagner

33931748Summary from Goodreads:
Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another–and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities–was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are.

When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story-introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history–Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history.

The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us?

The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.

I had a little trouble getting into Futureface. I’m not sure if it was the structure or the writing style. When Wagner digs into subjects like the history of Burma/Myanmar and her family’s role in it’s history or the underlying data structure of the 23andMe, etc. genetic ancestry companies the book is really interesting.  But for me, a lot of times it was….just fine, not necessarily compelling. Her dad was originally from Iowa (Allamakee County, specifically) so that was an unexpected connection.

Dear FTC: I read most of this as a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss, but it expired with about 30 pages to go so I had to round up a paper copy to borrow.

mini-review · stuff I read

My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

35820405Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.

American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.

When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.

Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

When I finished My Oxford Year I had to sit with it for a little bit. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. (It was certainly better than my last go-round with an “Americans at Oxbridge institutions” novel, The Madwoman Upstairs).

This is…good. I almost quit reading after the first few chapters because I really didn’t get the whole get a Rhodes –> get told no one cares what you do at Oxford because you’re a Rhodie –> here’s a political job. And then there’s the wrinkle that, for someone so obsessed with getting to Oxford, Ella seems really clueless about how Oxford actually operates (i.e. where to buy books, where to buy gowns, how the housing works, etc). But I stuck with it because Ella’s neighbor Charlie is a hoot and the chemistry between Ella and Jamie was good. Their relationship becomes really interesting. Whelan also gets in an extraordinary amount of wonderful literary criticism about love and poetry (particularly Tennyson) and the expectations of women in the political sphere. There is a lot going on in this book.

But I will tell you that this is “romantic” in the way that Me Before You and many of Nicholas Sparks’s book are “romantic” (although this is far less maudlin, in my opinion). Whelan digs very deeply into the push-and-pull of loving someone with a serious and possibly terminal illness, the adjustments that both partners have to make, and the changes that you have to accept for the relationship to exist for the time that is given to you. This is a very much “Happy For Now” book.

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

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations edited by Sarah Cleave

39737311Summary from Goodreads:
In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, effectively slamming the door on refugees seeking safety and tearing families apart. Mass protests followed, and although the order has since been blocked, amended and challenged by judges, it still stands as one of the most discriminatory laws to be passed in the US in modern times.

Banthology brings together specially commissioned stories from the original seven ‘banned nations’. Covering a range of approaches – from satire, to allegory, to literary realism – it explores the emotional and personal impact of all restrictions on movement, and offers a platform to voices the White House would rather remained silent.

Banthology is a slim and lovely collection of seven short stories from authors who claim countries caught in the “Muslim Ban” as home. The pieces range from hyper-realist to bordering on fantasy. All deal with displacement, grief, and loss. Somali-Italian author Ubah Cristina Ali Farrah’s story about a teenage refugee in Italy is heartbreaking.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this story collection almost as soon as I heard of it’s forthcoming existence.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Unmasked by the Marquess by Cat Sebastian (Regency Impostors, #1)

35270780Summary from Goodreads:
The one you love…
Robert Selby is determined to see his sister make an advantageous match. But he has two problems: the Selbys have no connections or money and Robert is really a housemaid named Charity Church. She’s enjoyed every minute of her masquerade over the past six years, but she knows her pretense is nearing an end. Charity needs to see her beloved friend married well and then Robert Selby will disappear…forever.
May not be who you think…
Alistair, Marquess of Pembroke, has spent years repairing the estate ruined by his wastrel father, and nothing is more important than protecting his fortune and name. He shouldn’t be so beguiled by the charming young man who shows up on his doorstep asking for favors. And he certainly shouldn’t be thinking of all the disreputable things he’d like to do to the impertinent scamp.
But is who you need…
When Charity’s true nature is revealed, Alistair knows he can’t marry a scandalous woman in breeches, and Charity isn’t about to lace herself into a corset and play a respectable miss. Can these stubborn souls learn to sacrifice what they’ve always wanted for a love that is more than they could have imagined?

Thus far in her writing career at Avon, Cat Sebastian has created four compelling, smart m/m romances. For her fifth book, she hit us with a surprise: her new couple was not comprised of two gay men.

Unmasked by the Marquess begins as the stodgy, grouchy, and very proper Marquess of Pembroke – whose father was rather notorious in his gambling and womanizing ways – is called upon by a complete stranger to grant a favor. The young Mr. Robert Selby has a very pretty younger sister in need of a good launch into Society and could Pembroke, as a very respectable member of the aristocracy, perhaps pay her some notice? Other gentlemen (i.e. of the titled, moneyed kind) would then notice Louisa and she would then be able to make a very good match. After a bit of back and forth – and a fortuitously loose bonnet ribbon – Pembroke agrees to the request and also becomes a bit interested in the bold young man who orchestrated the whole thing.

The rather interesting wrinkle in this relationship is that Mr. Selby is not a “mister” nor perhaps a “Selby” – he is Charity Church, an orphan raised as a maid, but who was sent off to Cambridge to receive a first-rate education under the guise of “Robert Selby” at the behest of her master, the real Robert Selby. The problem facing Charity now is that Robert Selby died unexpectedly of the influenza leaving behind Charity-as-Robert and a very (very) pretty sister Louisa and not very much money, since the estate will now pass to a cousin. So Charity and Lou concealed Selby’s death and have gone on as “Robert” and Louisa for the last two years while concocting this plan to get Louisa a husband to provide for her.

But Pembroke isn’t a fool, nor is he as straight-laced as he seems. When his aimless younger brother takes an interest in Louisa, and Pembroke becomes interested in Selby as more than just a friend, Pembroke begins to investigate a few cracks in Selby’s story. And he blows Charity’s secrets wide open.

img_9600Unmasked by the Marquess is an amazing, smart romance novel about an intelligent, genderfluid/nonbinary person and a bisexual aristocrat in the Regency period. The characters are funny and charming but so heartfelt and ready to walk right off the page. It is also a novel with a lot of consider about gender performance versus sexual preference. In Sebastian’s “Author Note” she provides more than enough historical context for anyone who needed proof that non-binary people could exist in the Regency (they’ve always existed, which is the point, and existed throughout history often at great risk to their lives). Charity, later renamed Robin in the book since she is neither a “Charity” nor a “Robert,” uses female pronouns, a choice Sebastian made and one that makes sense to me, but really creates a place for herself to exist in the world that is not “male” or “female” but rather in-between or both.

Pembroke really grows with Robin as he realizes that, first of all, he’s been a right bastard to his half-sisters because of his father issues, and second, if you have money and privilege the rest of Society will either get behind you or will stay out of your way. In this way, Pembroke is the polar opposite of Dain from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. Dain starts out as the most hedonistic, “wicked” aristocrat, able to do whatever he likes because of his immense wealth and rank, who becomes less of a prickly jackass once he finds a woman more than capable of dealing with his bullshit (spoiler: she shoots him). Pembroke is the stuffiest of Stuffy, Uptight, British Males until Robin comes along and makes him realize that he denies himself a lot of joy and happiness in the pursuit of “respectability.” (Richard Armitage is now Pembroke, I accept this headcanon. I’ve got three words for you: North and South.)

So, a smart genderfluid ex-maidservant + a bisexual stuffy marquess + Regency + secrets + hijinks = Cat Sebastian upping her game. I loved it so much. Y’all will want to read this immediately. It’s out now, by the way.

I do have to say, though, a petition is needed to have Avon get Cat Sebastian better covers. The general design is fine but they need to look less like student Photoshop projects. (Like, is Pembroke missing a thumb here?) And if you look up her next book on Goodreads, the cover shown there looks very much like two dudes pasted together from different stock photos. (Although, I need the text of that book in my eyeballs immediately because I do so want a cinnamon roll publican and bored socialite – whatever the male version of socialite is – heist m/m romance novel like yesterday.) Her books are selling, so spend a little more money on the actual art.

Dear FTC: I read the digital galley of this book and immediately pre-ordered it on my nook.

dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

mini-review · stuff I read

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

34964868Summary from Goodreads:
Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife. . . But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his living room. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.

I first heard about The Trauma Cleaner from Liberty on the All the Books podcast in a round-up of anticipated 2018 releases. Lib has never steered me wrong, so I pulled up the galley on Edelweiss and devoured it.

The Trauma Cleaner is an absolutely fascinating book that twines three stories into one: the surface-level business of trauma cleaning (the cleaning done after a person has died or is in a hoarding situation, etc), the heart-rending biography of the woman who owns the business and how she has managed to survive with such compassion for others still intact, and the thread of the author’s own story with her own history of trauma. The story of Sandra Pankhurst is also the story of the struggle of LGBT+ persons in Australia against discrimination and for trans-men and -women to live as men and women with the same legal rights as everyone else. This is a rough, rough book to read though.  Pankhurst endured a lot of physical abuse from her parents and sexual assault as an adult. All the trigger warnings. Be prepared to step back and take a breath.

As one of Sandra Pankhurst’s doctors said, it is astounding to think how much she has accomplished given that she is physically ailing and how much more she could accomplish given better health or opportunities earlier in life.

The Trauma Cleaner is out today in the US.

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

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

35297351Summary from Goodreads:
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Another outstanding short story collection for 2018. Thompson-Spires has bookended darkly comic and satirical stories about being black in America, including one about two feuding mothers who communicate through notes in their daughters’ schoolbags and another about an able-bodied woman who develops a fixation on men with physical disabilities – I found this to be ingenious commentary about white men who fetishize/objectify women of color), with two moving pieces about the violence perpetrated on young black men by law enforcement. The writing and form are superb.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy for my nook because the digital galley file wouldn’t open.