Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2)

35564594Summary from Goodreads:
Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Content Warning from Author: This book includes a main character who was sexually abused in the past; abuse happens off page but is alluded to.

The squealing that happened when I found the digital galley for A Gentleman Never Keeps Score on Edelweiss….I apologize to everyone in a three-county radius.  I was that excited.  Because I have wanted to read about Sam Fox ever since I read Cat Sebastian’s description of the book on her Twitter.

Sam is an ex-prize-fighter and publican, the owner of The Bell which Sam sees as an integral part of the Free Black community in London. It’s a place to get news, get a hot meal, get a decent drink, and socialize with other members of the small London community. When Sam’s friend (and future sister-in-law and community midwife) Kate asks him to recover a nude painting she posed for as a younger woman in need of money, he agrees. With some trepidation because a Black man caught house-breaking in Regency London would not come to a good ending.

In the course of planning out his house-breaking, Sam runs into Hartley. In the alley behind Hartley’s own Brook Street house – the target of Sam’s mission. Hartley was bequeathed the house from Sir Humphrey Easterbrook (more on this below) and after a series of comical misunderstandings Sam and Hartley get down to business.  The painting.  Which, unfortunately for Sam, is likely no longer in the house because the artwork had been removed from the walls before Hartley took possession.

But this doesn’t mean Sam’s mission is at an end because Hartley would also like to recover a painting from Sir Humphrey’s collection. Hartley allowed himself to be a sort of “kept” man by Sir Humphrey when a teen because it would ensure that his brothers would be able to attend school or university, and not be destitute. And now that Hartley has inherited the house, and a little money, and has the clothes, and the curricle this means his is a gentleman – he feels like what he gave up to Sir Humphrey has been worth it, even the fact that he can’t bear to be touched.  Except that someone has spread a rumor about Hartley’s sexual orientation and now he’s an outcast in Society. If this painting is ever made public, he could lose his life.

So the most unlikely pair begins to work together to find these paintings. They also begin very, very cautiously to work toward each other and find middle ground as a gay, cross-class, bi-racial couple in Regency London. Along the way they create a family of non-Society “outcasts,” from Kate and Nick (and other members of the Black community) to Hartley’s valet/man-of-work Alf, a young gay man, and Sadie, a young unwed mother abandoned by her “respectable” family due to her pregnancy who becomes Hartley’s cook. Hartley’s brothers Ben and Will also pop up (although I was slightly disappointed that Ben did not bring his “sea captain” and the kids).

I love this book. Sam Fox is the sweetest man ever invented, I swear. He’s such a cinnamon roll. Hartley is a wonderfully multi-layered character with the way he uses his privilege to mask his hurt and protect Sam. The way Sam and Hartley actually talk through their issues and misunderstandings is just A+.  Also, there is a scene late in the book that just filled my heart to bursting. (Incidentally, there is also a scene that is so hot that you will need to fan yourself. Holy cannoli. This book gets steamy, y’all, and it’s so well-written.)

Small trigger warning, as the author herself stated in the description, Hartley was abused/coerced as a young man, alluded to in the previous book, It Takes Two to Tumble, and clarified here, but Sebastian does not go into details on the page. Just FYI if you need to know ahead of time.

Now, I am intrigued at all the places Cat Sebastian is going these days.  Her next book, due in the fall, is A Duke in Disguise, about a guy who doesn’t want to be a duke (I think?) and a bookseller who just wants to get on with her publishing business.  And then we get a book the third Sedgwick brother, Will, who is apparently involved with Sir Humphrey’s son Martin and that was a twist I was not expecting (nor was Hartley, who then gave us a hilarious aside wondering about the probability of all the Sedgwick males being gay).

Dear FTC: I read this thing like yesterday once the galley was downloaded on my iPad and I’ve had this pre-ordered on my Nook since that was possible.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr

35959197Summary from Goodreads:
A new volume of poetry from the New York Times bestselling and esteemed author of The Liar’s Club and Lit.

Long before she earned accolades for her genre-defining memoirs, Mary Karr was winning poetry prizes. Now the beloved author returns with a collection of bracing poems as visceral and deeply felt and hilarious as her memoirs. In Tropic of Squalor, Karr dares to address the numinous—that mystery some of us hope towards in secret, or maybe dare to pray to. The “squalor” of meaninglessness that every thoughtful person wrestles with sits at the core of human suffering, and Karr renders it with power—illness, death, love’s agonized disappointments. Her brazen verse calls us out of our psychic swamplands and into that hard-won awareness of the divine hiding in the small moments that make us human. In a single poem she can generate tears, horror, empathy, laughter, and peace. She never preaches. But whether you’re an adamant atheist, a pilgrim, or skeptically curious, these poems will urge you to find an inner light in the most baffling hours of darkness.

I’d never read Mary Karr’s poetry before, didn’t even know she had previous collections 🙀 but I have read her memoir Lit and loved it. I found Tropic of Squalor very interesting. I liked the poem cycle that made up the last half of this collection. (I am the worst reviewer of poetry – can I speak critically about the work? Nerp, not a clue. But I enjoyed reading it.)

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley from the publisher.

mini-review · stuff I read

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Peter Grant #1/Rivers of London #1)

16033550Summary from Goodreads:
Probationary constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London’s Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he’ll face is a paper cut. But Peter’s prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter’s ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and a long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

I finally clawed my way back to the top of the library hold list to finish Midnight Riot!

I really enjoyed the story of brand-new constable Peter Grant as he comes to learn about magic and the paranormal when he gets apprenticed to the decidedly weirdest Detective Superintendent in the entire London constabulary. It was quite an intricate plot, with all the details and bits of magic and history, but it didn’t feel bogged down by details. The narrator of the audiobook, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, really nailed Peter’s voice and the myriad London/non-London accents called for in the book. A+ to the publisher who did NOT Americanize the language (which sadly happens more often than not and annoys me greatly). I think Aaronovitch was a little heavy on the “Peter is hard up for a lay” part of Peter’s psyche; it got boring/old/tired/dude, get over yourself after a while. This book scratched all my “need a new Thursday Next” itches, so I am definitely going to read more.

Note: I do not like the new US audiobook cover (above) considering that Peter doesn’t carry a handgun as a London constable. I much preferred the map drawing.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this via the library’s Overdrive system.

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.

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.