mini-review · stuff I read

Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (The World of Riverside #1)

68485Summary from Goodreads:
The classic forerunner to The Fall of the Kings now with three bonus stories.

Hailed by critics as “a bravura performance” (Locus) and “witty, sharp-eyed, [and] full of interesting people” (Newsday), this classic melodrama of manners, filled with remarkable plot twists and unexpected humor, takes fantasy to an unprecedented level of elegant writing and scintillating wit. Award-winning author Ellen Kushner has created a world of unforgettable characters whose political ambitions, passionate love affairs, and age-old rivalries collide with deadly results.

Swordspoint

On the treacherous streets of Riverside, a man lives and dies by the sword. Even the nobles on the Hill turn to duels to settle their disputes. Within this elite, dangerous world, Richard St. Vier is the undisputed master, as skilled as he is ruthless–until a death by the sword is met with outrage instead of awe, and the city discovers that the line between hero and villain can be altered in the blink of an eye.

I picked up Swordspoint a while back because it kept popping up on lists of fantasy novels with good queer rep on the page, which it definitely has. But this is also the ur-“mannerpunk” novel, a smash-up of Jane Austen, Baroness Orczy, and fantasy. I really liked the world-building and the writing. The premise is fantastic – a quasi-Georgian alternate England (where the old aristocratic system has morphed into something that thinks it’s a republic of sorts) where master swordsmen are hired to settle disputes in duels (upper class swords are only for show and it’s frowned upon to actually learn swordfighting). There’s a lot of gay and bisexual rep on the page but one question: there were a lot of male perspectives on sex but really only one woman who seemed to have agency in this area so it was hard to tell if women in this world formed non-hetero pairings or not unless I missed it.

The major drawback, for me, is that this is a book that holds the cards of its plot extremely close to its chest. It’s Politics, in the way that Kushiel’s Dart or ASOIAF are about Politics, but this is all boardrooms and bedrooms and double entendres and behind-the-back-deals instead of war and soldiers. It’s very subtle so you have to pay attention. I occasionally lost the thread of the plot – heyo, I was into this for the sword fights, of which it has many, A+ – and at the end I’m still not exactly sure what happened. This is definitely more of a character- and setting-driven book than a plot-driven one.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy on my Nook.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Rafe: A Buff Male Nanny by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Loose Ends #1)

42900442._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
All Dr. Sloan Copeland needed was someone to watch her kids. What she found was the man of her dreams…

After a nasty divorce and a thousand mile move, Dr. Sloan Copeland and her twin daughters are finally getting the hang of their new life in Los Angeles. When their live-in nanny bails with no warning, Sloan is left scrambling to find a competent caretaker to wrangle her smart, sensitive girls. Nothing less will do.

Enter Rafe Whitcomb. He’s all of those things, not to mention good-natured and one heck of a whiz in the kitchen. He’s also tall, and handsome, and bearded, and ripped, and tatted, wrist to neck.

It doesn’t take long for the Copelands to invite Rafe into their home. Just as quickly, both Sloan and Rafe find themselves succumbing to a heady mutual attraction, neither of them wants to deny. With every minute they spend under the same roof, this working mom can’t help but wonder if Rafe can handle all her needs…

Rafe is a solid “what if Chris Hemsworth was a ginger with way more tattoos and also real good with kids” fantasy where a genius cardiac surgeon (single mom with twins) needs a nanny in an emergency and this real tall hot bearded dude with excellent references happens to be available. And then they realize very quickly that they’re attracted to each other, like attracted to each other. Then have amazing sex when neither of them have kid duty. Loved it. Plus Rafe’s family is so awesome.

Picked up my copy at The Ripped Bodice almost exactly one year ago and had Rebekah sign it for me because she just happened to be working 💖

Dear FTC: This copy is fucking mine.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

8880488Summary from Goodreads:
This is New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Crusie’s novel about long shots, risk management, true love, and great shoes. . . .

Minerva Dobbs knows how to work the odds.
Calvin Morrisey always plays to win.

But when they face off, neither one is prepared.
Because when real life meets true love, all bets are off. . . .

Minerva Dobbs knows that happily-ever-after is a fairy tale, especially with a man who asked her to dinner to win a bet, even if he is gorgeous and successful Calvin Morrisey. Cal knows commitment is impossible, especially with a woman as cranky as Min Dobbs, even if she does wear great shoes and keep him on his toes. When they say good-bye at the end of their evening, they cut their losses and agree never to see each other again.

But fate has other plans, and it’s not long before Min and Cal meet again. Soon they’re dealing with a jealous ex-boyfriend, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a determined psychologist, chaos theory, a freakishly intelligent cat, Chicken Marsala, and more risky propositions than either of them ever dreamed of. Including the biggest gamble of all—true love.

Bet Me has been on my very long Romance TBR forever but Sarah and Jen at Fated Mates finally tipped me over the edge. I loved it. Cal and Min are fantastic and their surrounding group of friends are just a hoot. It’s basically a fairy-tale disguised as a rom-com so that’s a solid intersection of my interests – plus many, many little tidbits in this book have direct correlations to 90s rom-com movies starting with the Julia Roberts Movie Playlist for Diana’s wedding. Even the ending to “the bet” turns out in an extremely screwball rom-com fashion.

I would have been forced to poison all the parents tho, YIKES. Min’s mom is EXTREMELY fatphobic and the heroine has internalized a lot of negative body image so if those things are triggering for you this may be one to skip. But Cal is basically “you’re attractive as fuck just as you are also we should eat good food because eating is pleasure” so I’m down with him. (I also read a review that was really critical about how much chicken marsala is eaten by the characters, especially Min, and clearly that person has never found their absolute favorite food or had their favorite dish at a favorite restaurant ever.)

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this on my Nook because the library is closed to the public and they didn’t have a copy on Overdrive. (Which, by the way, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ST. MARTIN’S – the ebook is $11.99 and the paperback is $25.99, for a book first published in 2004. This is how you price a book out of circulation. I’m a bookseller – if I get a trade paperback (and the current cover is awful, yo) into the store to sell and it’s priced $25.99 and NOT 1500 pages long or an academic title it won’t sell. Because a romance reader can buy 2-4 books for that price.)

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

The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig (Pink Carnation #12)

23398702Summary from Goodreads:
In the final Pink Carnation novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, Napoleon has occupied Lisbon, and Jane Wooliston, aka the Pink Carnation, teams up with a rogue agent to protect the escaped Queen of Portugal.

Portugal, December 1807. Jack Reid, the British agent known as the Moonflower (formerly the French agent known as the Moonflower), has been stationed in Portugal and is awaiting his new contact. He does not expect to be paired with a woman—especially not the legendary Pink Carnation.

All of Portugal believes that the royal family departed for Brazil just before the French troops marched into Lisbon. Only the English government knows that mad seventy-three-year-old Queen Maria was spirited away by a group of loyalists determined to rally a resistance. But as the French garrison scours the countryside, it’s only a matter of time before she’s found and taken.

It’s up to Jane to find her first and ensure her safety. But she has no knowledge of Portugal or the language. Though she is loath to admit it, she needs the Moonflower. Operating alone has taught her to respect her own limitations. But she knows better than to show weakness around the Moonflower—an agent with a reputation for brilliance, a tendency toward insubordination, and a history of going rogue.

I reached the point in this COVID-19 zoo where I had to read my “break glass in case of emergency” book: The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig, the final book in the Pink Carnation series. I was introduced to this series waaaay back in 2006 by my sister-in-law Kristen (I was reading The Thirteenth Tale and she was reading Pink 1, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, and we kept sneaking looks at each other’s books 😂) and since then had happily devoured each book as it came out. My favorites are books 3 and 7 (Geoff/Letty and Turnip/Arabella forever 💖💖). But when book 12 came out, the final book, the actual Pink Carnation’s story, I couldn’t read it. I bought it on release day but could not make myself open it. It was the last book, and Lauren wasn’t committed to ever write any more. So it sat and stared at me from the top of my Pink Carnation stack for five years.

So I guess we can thank the coronavirus because last night I sat down in my reading chair, looked over at my Pink Carnation stack, and just picked it up. I read almost the whole thing straight through. It’s good and sweet and brings back a lot of familiar characters and lines up nicely with my James Bond rewatch (only less misogyny and more flowery French spies). And now it’s done. Guess I’ll go re-read Turnip’s book now.

Dear FTC: I read my own damn copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

How to Be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books by Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer

52436930._SX318_SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A humorous and insightful look into what advice works, what doesn’t, and what it means to transform yourself, by the co-hosts of the popular By the Book podcast.

In each episode of their podcast By the Book, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer take a deep dive into a different self-help book, following its specific instructions, rules, and advice to the letter. From diet and productivity to decorating to social interactions, they try it all, record themselves along the way, then share what they’ve learned with their devoted and growing audience of fans who tune in.

In How to Be Fine, Jolenta and Kristen synthesize the lessons and insights they’ve learned and share their experiences with everyone. How to Be Fine is a thoughtful look at the books and practices that have worked, real talk on those that didn’t, and a list of philosophies they want to see explored in-depth. The topics they cover include:

Getting off your device
Engaging in positive self-talk
Downsizing
Admitting you’re a liar
Meditation
Going outside
Getting in touch with your emotions
Seeing a therapist

Before they began their podcast, Jolenta wanted to believe the promises of self-help books, while Kristen was very much the skeptic. They embraced their differences of opinion, hoping they’d be good for laughs and downloads. But in the years since launching the By the Book, they’ve come to realize their show is about much more than humor. In fact, reading and following each book’s advice has actually changed and improved their lives. Thanks to the show, Kristen penned the Amish romance novel she’d always joked about writing, traveled back to her past lives, and she broached some difficult conversations with her husband about their marriage. Jolenta finally memorized her husband’s phone number, began tracking her finances, and fell in love with cutting clutter.

Part memoir, part prescriptive handbook, this honest, funny, and heartfelt guide is like a warm soul-baring conversation with your closest and smartest friends.

How to Be Fine is a  book I somehow got from William Morrow for review (not sure if I requested it or if it just came with something else? oh well). I hadn’t listened to the podcast this is based on, though I did know about it. I was dreading this would be a fifty-chapter summary of each book they read, like a mini-podcast, and was delighted to see that this isn’t it. The authors divided up their work into a section of “advice that worked”, a section of “advice that didn’t work”, and a section of “advice we wish people would recommend more often.” So this makes for a good discussion about the self-help “industry” and the ways that it assumes a classist/racist/misogynistic/homophobic stance and can actively promote harmful viewpoints.

A quick read.

Dear FTC: I read a review copy sent to me by the publisher.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Virgin and the Rogue by Sophie Jordan (The Rogue Files #6)

43700828Summary from Goodreads:
Continuing her bestselling Rogue Files series, Sophie Jordan brews up a scintillating romance about a timid wallflower who discovers a love potion and ends up falling for a dashing rogue.

A love potion…
Charlotte Langley has always been the prudent middle sister, so her family is not surprised when she makes the safe choice and agrees to wed her childhood sweetheart. But when she finds herself under the weather and drinks a “healing” tonic, the potion provokes the most maddening desire… for someone other than her betrothed.

With the power…
Kingston’s rakehell ways are going to destroy him, and he’s vowed to change. His stepbrother’s remote estate is just the place for a reformed rogue to hide. The last thing he wants is to be surrounded by society, but when he gets stuck alone with a wallflower who is already betrothed… and she astonishes him with a fiery kiss, he forgets all about hiding.

To alter two destinies.
Although Charlotte appears meek, Kingston soon discovers there’s a vixen inside, yearning to break free. Unable to forget their illicit moment of passion, Kingston vows to relive the encounter, but Charlotte has sworn it will never happen again—no matter how earth-shattering it was. But will a devilish rogue tempt her to risk everything for a chance at true love?

The Virgin and the Rogue is a rompy historical kicked off when a prudent, staid young lady (Charlotte) is accidentally given an aphrodisiac by her herbalist sister (it was supposed to help with PMS cramps) and she ends up getting off with her brother-in-law’s stepbrother (Kingston, an infamous rake, who is REAL surprised that this is happening but he doesn’t take advantage of the situation)…who is not her fiance (who is boring and has terrible parents, no surprise there). Oops. Many FEELINGS ensue.

Jordan does take a risk with this book. By giving her heroine Charlotte what is essentially a drug that affects her behavior without her knowledge, this could have gone in very questionable places regarding consent. But since the drug is given to her by her sister – who clearly didn’t intend harm to Charlotte – and Kingston doesn’t act on Charlotte’s advances while she’s under the influence, Jordan keeps the consent for sexual activity in Charlotte’s court. I think it works and unlocks a part of Charlotte’s self and thinking that she had been suppressing for a long time (of course, your mileage may vary so this plot may not work for every reader). Kingston is also a rake trying to reform himself and his image and it works so well opposite Charlotte’s situation.

I have a few installments of the Rogue Files series hanging around, but I hadn’t read any yet, so you can totally read this one if you aren’t current on the series.

The Virgin and the Rogue is out today!

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

Apropos Shakespeare · mini-review · stuff I read

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter

33310390._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
‘A part we have played is like a person we once met, grew to know, became intimately enmeshed with and finally moved away from. Some of these characters remain friends, others are like ex–lovers with whom we no longer have anything in common. All of them bring something out in us that will never go back in the box.’

In a varied and distinguished career, Harriet Walter has played almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines, notably Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra, mostly for the Royal Shakespeare Company. But where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death? Why didn’t Shakespeare write more – and more powerful – roles for mature women?

For Walter, the solution was to ignore the dictates of centuries of tradition, and to begin playing the mature male characters. Her Brutus in an all–female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse was widely acclaimed, and was soon followed by Henry IV. What, she asks, can an actress bring to these roles – and is there any fundamental difference in the way they must be played?

In Brutus and Other Heroines, Walter discusses each of these roles – both male and female – from the inside, explaining the particular choices she made in preparing and performing each character. Her extraordinarily perceptive and intimate accounts illuminate each play as a whole, offering a treasure trove of valuable insights for theatregoers, scholars and anyone interested in how the plays work on stage. Aspiring actors, too, will discover the many possibilities open to them in playing these magnificent roles.

The book is an exploration of the Shakespearean canon through the eyes of a self-identified ‘feminist actor’ – but, above all, a remarkable account of an acting career unconstrained by tradition or expectations. It concludes with an affectionate rebuke to her beloved Will: ‘I cannot imagine a world without you. I just wish you had put more women at the centre of your world/stage… I would love you to come back and do some rewrites.’

4.5 stars. Some of the earlier chapters of Brutus and Other Heroines, which were drawn from other pieces she wrote for various publications, etc., felt undeveloped. But the later chapters created specifically for this collection are amazing in giving us a peek inside how an actor develops a character – and specifically a character that has been played so many times by so many other actors. I always enjoy Harriet Walter in anything I’ve seen her in so this was a delight to read.

And if you can catch it, the Julius Caesar where she plays Brutus is phenomenal. I haven’t seen the Henry IV (or Tempest, which she doesn’t get into) yet but I hope I can.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran

45046838Summary from Goodreads:
For anyone who has ever felt like they don’t belong, Sigh, Gone shares an irreverent, funny, and moving tale of displacement and assimilation woven together with poignant themes from beloved works of classic literature.

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Phuc Tran immigrates to America along with his family. By sheer chance they land in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a small town where the Trans struggle to assimilate into their new life. In this coming-of-age memoir told through the themes of great books such as The Metamorphosis, The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad, and more, Tran navigates the push and pull of finding and accepting himself despite the challenges of immigration, feelings of isolation, and teenage rebellion, all while attempting to meet the rigid expectations set by his immigrant parents.

Appealing to fans of coming-of-age memoirs such as Fresh Off the Boat, Running with Scissors, or tales of assimilation like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Displaced and The Refugees, Sigh, Gone explores one man’s bewildering experiences of abuse, racism, and tragedy and reveals redemption and connection in books and punk rock. Against the hairspray-and-synthesizer backdrop of the ‘80s, he finds solace and kinship in the wisdom of classic literature, and in the subculture of punk rock, he finds affirmation and echoes of his disaffection. In his journey for self-discovery Tran ultimately finds refuge and inspiration in the art that shapes—and ultimately saves—him.

Sigh, Gone is a solid memoir about how punk music, skate culture, and books helped an immigrant kid from Viet Nam find community in Pennsylvania. It is a little bit hard to read in places since Tran does recount instances of terrifying physical abuse from adults in his family. I also wish he’d gone a bit further in the book and added his college years, since I thought that would have been interesting to see how his reading “curriculum” changed.

Fun fact: I own two editions of The Lifetime Reading Plan, the original and an updated edition edited by Fadiman’s daughter.

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