stuff I read

Mad & Bad: Real Heroines of the Regency by Bea Koch


Summary from Goodreads:
Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.

Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes. But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don’t fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father’s family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother’s assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.

As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as “historically accurate” for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.

Mad & Bad is a fun overview of women bucking accepted norms during the Regency and surrounding eras. Now, I have a pretty strong background in feminist history from this time period, so this book doesn’t dig deep enough for me. I’m also a Regency nerd. I know who the Patronesses of Almack’s are and what their foibles were (I even have a WIP where they appear – don’t get excited, it’s still only four chapters long), Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane covers the non-Jane Austen writers of this period in depth, I’m a female scientist so Caroline Hershel, Mary Somerville, and Mary Anning are not new to me, I’ve read Anne Lister’s biography by Anne Choma, and Sarah Siddons and her follow actresses thread their way through theatre books I’ve read. So for me, much of this book is just a review.

But if you are less well-versed in this period of history, particularly women’s history, this book is a great entry to the period. I could really feel where this book pushed back hard against the people who complain about “revisionist” or “politically correct” historical romance novels that include women of color, queer women and nonbinary people, and working women – and if you are one of the people whining about “political correctness” you should probably pipe down and read Mad & Bad. The point here is that these people have always existed and were gradually erased as historical romance codified itself into an exclusionary world of cis-het, gender-conforming white women in ballrooms (I love me a Georgette Heyer romance, but she definitely has some issues). Koch’s writing is fun and poppy and quippy and it reads very well. It would also make a great book for a teen interested in history.

The one thing I would definitely change is to pull Princess Caraboo out of the chapter about women of color as a major figure. She is interesting, particularly in the aristocracy’s response to a “foreign” princess, but doesn’t fit very well into a chapter about women of color who didn’t have the privilege of passing as white. Put another woman of color in her place – because there are only two Black women profiled in the chapter, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Mary Seacole, then Caraboo – and maybe footnote Caraboo at the end of the chapter about the Ton.

Mad & Bad is out today, September 1!

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Summary from Goodreads:

Award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson returns with a bold reimagination of the novel, one that combines narrative and poetic fragments through a careful and fierce reclamation of Anishinaabe aesthetics.

Mashkawaji (they/them) lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain. Each attempts to commune with the unnatural urban-settler world, a world of SpongeBob Band-Aids, Ziploc baggies, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, and coffee mugs emblazoned with institutional logos. And each searches out the natural world, only to discover those pockets that still exist are owned, contained, counted, and consumed. Cut off from nature, the characters are cut off from their natural selves.

Noopiming is Anishinaabemowin for “in the bush,” and the title is a response to English Canadian settler and author Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir Roughing It in the Bush. To read Simpson’s work is an act of decolonization, degentrification, and willful resistance to the perpetuation and dissemination of centuries-old colonial myth-making. It is a lived experience. It is a breaking open of the self to a world alive with people, animals, ancestors, and spirits, who are all busy with the daily labours of healing — healing not only themselves, but their individual pieces of the network, of the web that connects them all together. Enter and be changed.

Noopiming is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking work blending fiction with Anishinaabe storytelling. It feels almost experimental, the way the characters – who are physical manifestations of Mashkawaji* in the modern urban world – interact with one another. All the characters connect with one another in their search for community and a connection to the natural world, even as White Western culture swallows it up and covers it up with roads and garbage. There is a beauty in how unmoored this story feels, with no discernible “plot” – I had to work to put all the pieces together but it was very worth it. I definitely would like to check out more of the author’s work.

*Mashkawaji is not a god, in the way the Western tradition would define a god-like being, but more a representation of community and tradition held in suspension; they are hard to explain as a character outside of the narrative but when reading their introduction at the beginning of the book that was the feeling I got.

Noopiming is out September 1! (Note: I’m not sure if this date includes the US, since I can’t find any pre-order links at this time, but if this changes I will update.)

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

Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones

Summary from Goodreads: Stephen Graham Jones returns with Night of the Mannequins, a contemporary horror story where a teen prank goes very wrong and all hell breaks loose: is there a supernatural cause, a psychopath on the loose, or both?

Praise for Night of the Mannequins

“Stephen Graham Jones’ has one of the most gripping, stream-of-consciousness voices in horror fiction. Night of the Mannequins is propulsive and poignant, capturing the mundane terror of adolescence, and adding that ever-so-essential dab of killer mannequin. You won’t put it down.” —Sarah Langan

I’ve never read Stephen Graham Jones before but he kept coming across my radar as a really good horror writer. Small wrinkle: Melissas don’t like horror novels. (Hey, I like to sleep at night. I had to put Geek Love, which is NOT a horror novel, in the freezer FOR REALZ because I was convinced that circus geeks were going to steal my toes in the middle of the night.) But in the interests of diversifying my reading – both in terms of genre and author diversity – I decided to give Jones’s new novella a read.

Night of the Mannequins is a wry psychological horror novella with a teen slasher (ish? but no actual slashing) vibe. The book opens with Sawyer narrating from the future. Apparently, he and his friends once found a mannequin in the woods and carried it around and used it to play pranks for years. They play one last prank on a friend at a movie theatre….and then everything goes wrong. People start dying. Maybe there’s a rogue mannequin. Maybe not? And then the plot takes a bit of a turn. Saying more is a spoiler but I will say that I got a whiff of the black comedy of Heathers and some of the goofier teen slasher movies from the 1980s.

Night of the Mannequins is out Tuesday, September 1, just in time for the weather to (maybe) start growing cooler.

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

stuff I read

City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick

God was in his Heaven—which was fifteen miles away, due east.

Far in Earth’s future, in a post-utopian hell-hole, Hanson works ten solid back-breaking hours a day, shoveling endless mountains of coal, within sight of the iridescent wall that separates what’s left of humanity from their gods.

One day, after a tragedy of his own making, Hanson leaves York, not knowing what he will do, or how he will survive in the wilderness without work. He finds himself drawn to the wall, to the elusive promise of God. And when the impossible happens, he steps through, into the city beyond.

The impossible was only the beginning.

City Under the Stars completes a journey undertaken by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick 25 years ago, when they published the novella The City of God. Over two decades later, the two realized there was more to the story, and began the work of expanding it. Now, after Gardner Dozois’ tragic passing, the story can be told in full.

Ehhhhh, I can’t decide if reading the authors’ previous work “The City of God” would have helped or not.

City Under the Stars is an extremely setting-heavy dystopian novella about a man who flees after committing a murder and then becomes a prophet (?) after visiting The City of God. I honestly am not sure what was going on. It felt very familiar in tone, like it’s similar to Christopher Priest’s Inverted World or Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation in the familiar-yet-wildly-different-and-abstract-setting.

It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t particularly like it. Check it out if you’re a fan of the authors.

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

stuff I read

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley


Nearly 20 years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of ‘Beowulf’ – and 50 years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world – there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley that brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, re-contextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history – ‘Beowulf’ has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of ‘Beowulf’, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s long-awaited (hey, she made an adorable Grim in the middle, so we’ll accept the wait) translation of Beowulf has arrived.

It might sound weird to say a translation of an Old English poem is “bouncy” but it is. It has a very jaunty, devil-may-care feel to it since Maria mixed older words like “scop”, descriptive terms like “opened his word-hoard” (which is such a great way to set up a long speech), and of-the-minute soundbites like “hashtag: blessed” (got a zing off that one because it nails the rhythm of the line and gives it an ironic cast). Even the choice of “Bro!” as the opening “Whaet” (or however we represent that Old English term that doesn’t have a direct translation to modern English) makes me think of a bunch of dudes sitting around drinking and someone goes “Bruuuuhhhh, tell me about that time Chet went snowboarding naked” (or whatever Chets do). So fun.

The introduction really sets up Maria’s attitude toward this translation and why she made the choices she did. And while you don’t have to be familiar with other translations of Beowulf, if you’ve read the Heaney or, especially, the Tolkein translation you can really see where this new translation is finding new ground. It’s very similar to Emily Wilson’s introduction to The Odyssey which also brought new facets to an old classic.

Beowulf: A New Translation published on Tuesday, August 25!

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

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Like Lovers Do by Tracy Livesay (Girls Trip #2)

Summary from Goodreads: Tracey Livesay continues her fun-filled Girls Trip series with this romance that will tug at your heartstrings.

Sometimes faking it can lead to the real thing…

Driven and focused, Dr. Nicole Allen is an accomplished surgeon. With a tough past, Nic’s gone above and beyond everyone’s expectations. But when she disciplines an intern—a powerful donor’s son—a prestigious fellowship she’s awaiting is placed in jeopardy. 

Coming from a successful family who runs a medical business empire, Benjamin Reed Van Mont is the black sheep, having chosen to start his own business instead. Though he’s not ready to settle down, he knows when the time comes it definitely won’t be with a workaholic doctor like his friend Nic—even if she’s had him re-examining his edict…more than once. 

When Ben’s status-climbing ex-girlfriend finds her way back into his orbit, Nic proposes a swap of services. She’ll spend the week with Ben on Martha’s Vineyard, pretending to be his girlfriend—but only if he’ll have his family intervene on her behalf so she won’t lose her fellowship. How hard can the charade be? 

But as they’re about to discover, they’ve sorely underestimated their true feelings for each other…

For my 140th read of 2020 (which completes my Goodreads reading goal in August, woo!) I present: mind-blowing hammock sex.

That’s it. That’s the review.

Jk. But the first time Nic and Ben have sexytimes they do it in a goddamn hammock and this is the “can you have sex while on horseback” question of 2020 contemporary romance. It’s amazing. Tracy Livesay is a queen.

Ok, for realz, Nic is a rockstar chief resident in orthopedic surgery headed to a prestigious sports medicine fellowship and Ben has been her landlord and best friend for three years. Nic is career-driven and avoids long-term relationships, preferring short hook-ups, and Ben is balls-deep in love with Nic but doesn’t want a career-driven partner because his parents were awful about putting him second to their careers. Near the end of Nic’s residency, she reprimands a new resident (intern?) – rightly – for blowing off a Black man with health problems and a septic joint to go watch a [sexy] spinal-fusion surgery. However, Racist Bro Surgeon goes whining off to his daddy, who is a major donor to the hospital, and Daddy threatens not only the end of Nic’s residency but also her fellowship placement. Nic doesn’t have a lot of ammunition at her disposal to fight back – she’s a woman, she comes from a less-advantaged background, she doesn’t have a prestigious family name, and she’s Black. She’s a tiny, tiny minority in a very dude-heavy, dick-swinging surgical specialty.

She does, however, have an ace up her sleeve. Ben’s family the Van Monts have generational clout in medicine from generations of doctors. When Nic tells Ben what happened, he offers to ask his parents to put in a good word for her. It’s what friends do, after all, despite the fact that he a) refused to go into the medical profession and b) walked away from working for the family foundation to start his own financial advising firm. When Nic hears that Ben’s ex Tinsley has invited herself to a friend vacation with plans to get Ben back in her clutches – which Ben definitely does not want – Nic offers to accompany Ben as his girlfriend. [Note: I want to make clear – as Ben does in the book – that this is not a quid pro quo situation and that Nic is not obligated to fake date Ben so he’ll call his mom for her.] But while they’re on Martha’s Vineyard, fake dating leads to realistic kissing to maybe something so much more.

I love it.

Nic is amazing and smart and strong – and a much more communicative orthopedic surgeon than I’ve ever encountered because we’re working with some of them on a couple of projects and they’re all allergic to checking their email – and Ben is such a cinnamon roll. The trope at play might be Friends to Lovers but there’s really no thunderblot “wow, Friendo is hot now!” moment. It’s this slow realization that the love between Ben and Nic has existed quietly for some time and they have to take the risk that being intimate and opening up is worth it.

Around the developing romance are two really good examinations about family and relationships. First, through the elitist and racist actions of Tinsley toward Nic, Ben starts to examine his own blind-spots and unintentional microaggressions about race. It leads to him developing a better relationship with Nic and also with a new client at his firm (I kinda hope, given the way Livesay wrote a few scenes with this character, that he’s being set up for a future book because we aren’t given many details about him and I’d really like to know more). Second, both Ben and Nic have built their lives and careers in reaction to perceived choices made by each of their parents. So they, separately, have to clear up some misconceptions with the older generation before they realize they can make a life together.

Did I mention that I love it?

Content warning: Ben’s obnoxious ex-fiance Tinsley is the Spoiled Racist Barbie among the cast of characters in Martha’s Vinyard but you definitely don’t sympathize with her and wish the rest of the characters would just murder her and put her body in the Sound. Also Spoiled Racist Bro Surgeon, but he’s on the page less. [Spoiler: the racists get their comeuppance.]

Like Lovers Do is out now! Even though it’s a book 2, you can definitely read it out of order, because I have book 1 but haven’t read it yet (SORRYYYY) but definitely need to go read it now! And look at that pretty cover.

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

stuff I read

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady

Summary from Goodreads: The definitive history of the dynasty that dominated Europe for centuries

In The Habsburgs, Martyn Rady tells the epic story of a dynasty and the world they built — and then lost — over nearly a millennium. From modest origins, the Habsburgs gained control of the Holy Roman Empire in the fifteenth century. Then, in just a few decades, their possessions rapidly expanded to take in a large part of Europe, stretching from Hungary to Spain, and parts of the New World and the Far East. The Habsburgs continued to dominate Central Europe through the First World War.

Historians often depict the Habsburgs as leaders of a ramshackle empire. But Rady reveals their enduring power, driven by the belief that they were destined to rule the world as defenders of the Roman Catholic Church, guarantors of peace, and patrons of learning. The Habsburgs is the definitive history of a remarkable dynasty that forever changed Europe and the world.

The Habsburgs was a pretty readable work of history. I was interested in reading this new book about the Habsburgs – I’ve had a mild interest ever since I visited Austria because that family has history all over Europe – and wanted to compare it with a much older book I read by Andrew Wheatcroft The Habsburgs: Embodying Empire since there are thirty years of change in how we write about history between the two.

What I remember from reading the Wheatcroft is that it really pays a lot of attention to biographical detail about the individual members of the Habsburg family, so that you can really see how the family spread out and intermarried (wow, the intermarriage, ew) and it felt very evenly spaced out over time. This new history by Martyn Rady tilts more toward modern history: the seventeenth-century onward, particularly the rather cluster-f*** ending of the empire via Franz Joseph and WWI. Rady also really brings to life the rise of nationalism and the disparate nature of the many different cultures and states that were never truly sewn together into one imperial nation-state, much to the chagrin of many Habsburg rulers. So while I feel like the Wheatcroft is more of a long biography, this new Rady history is more about how the Habsburg family saw itself and how that translated into their successes and failures as sovereigns.

The Habsburgs: To Rule the World is out August 25!

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

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

From Alaska With Love by Ally James

A soldier has six weeks to convince the only woman he has ever longed for to take a chance on life with him in Alaska….

Sara’s letters were the only bright spot during Gabe’s devastating tour in Iraq. With each new correspondence he fell harder, needed her more, wanted to be with her. Now, after initially rejecting his offer to meet, she’s shown up at the door of his isolated cabin in Alaska looking for…what? Gabe’s not sure what made Sara change her mind, but he knows he never wants to let her go.

Major Gabe Randall is everything Sara Ryan wants but nothing she feels she deserves. A modern-day spinster, Sara hides behind family obligations and the safe, quiet life she’s resigned herself to living. But secretly, even though she may have stretched the truth about who she is in her letters to him, she wants Gabe. Will he still want her when he discovers the real woman behind the pen?

Once they meet, Gabe asks her for six weeks in Alaska. Six weeks to spend getting to know each other, and then she’ll have to decide whether they are better together or apart.

I’ve had the galley for From Alaska With Love kicking around in my iPad for a while so it caught my eye while I was scrolling around for something to read (I apologize to all September galleys, my brain is like a hamster with a squeaky wheel right now). Now, there’s going to be a spoiler in this review, so be forewarned.

This was a sweet but ultimately just OK contemporary romance. I loved the meet-cute – a random Letter to a Soldier, posted on a whim, sparks an email conversation, and eventually Facetiming sessions, between a career military man deployed in Iraq and a woman stuck in her life as the unappreciated nanny to her niece (who she loves, she doesn’t begrudge her little niece any of that, it’s the rest of the family that proves the problem). So after developing a lovely long-distance relationship where they get into the reality of Gabe’s deployment and Sara’s kind of garbage family, Gabe and Sara agree to meet – he buys her a plane ticket to meet him in Alaska where he’s stationed when not on deployment. But he decides to surprise her at her home in North Carolina first – and this is where I got real mad at a choice the author made in this book.

Here be a spoiler: Sara’s brother answers the door and when Gabe introduces himself, THE BROTHER SAYS HE’S SARA’S HUSBAND. And the scene devolves into something really uncomfortable from there. Gabe is hurt, very hurt, because Sara hasn’t told her family about him, and has also not told them she has agreed to visit Alaska in one week, and Sara can’t articulate why she thinks she owes her (omg, such garbage) family despite the way they treat her. AND NEITHER OF THEM IMMEDIATELY THROAT PUNCH HER BROTHER. Y’all, I have two younger brothers and there is no way on this Earth would either of them just say that as a joke or to protect me from some perceived rando dude because GROSS. They would just be like “I’m her brother, who the hell are you?” And done. You’d get the same fallout and revelations from the scene without the shitty panic and grossness of that statement.

So I had to pause a bit – did I want to finish the book after this scene? It happens about halfway through the book. I went ahead and finished, because the correspondence between Gabe and Sara was so nice and I was hoping the author would get that level of sweetness back.

It did get there, although Gabe was an ice-cold twerp for a week after Sara arrived in Alaska. He only thawed toward her after overhearing a phone conversation Sara has with her cousin where he realizes how her family treats her and why she kept him a secret. From there he has a one-eighty in his attitude and we’re back to that lovely relationship from the first half of the book. So the romance turns out in a satisfying way (the letters come back into play and allll the heart-eyes for that). There are some beautiful scenes in Alaska with the Northern Lights and a fancy Christmas party before we get to the HEA. But Gabe and Sara never really TALK about the elephant in the room, namely why she never told anyone about Gabe except for her cousin. The reader knows how poorly she was treated by her mother, her sister-in-law (who I wanted to push down a well), her brother, and various extended relatives (the opening page of the book is kind of infuriating with respect to which family member you dislike the most). But I felt that Gabe and Sara didn’t quite do the emotional labor for this part.

So there are a lot of sweet scenes around one big, honking stumble. Plus a cute dog.

Dear FTC: I read a galley I got from the publisher via Edelweiss.