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 · stuff I read

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

44890027Summary from Goodreads:
This unforgettable memoir from a prize-winning poet about growing up undocumented in the United States recounts the sorrows and joys of a family torn apart by draconian policies and chronicles one young man’s attempt to build a future in a nation that denies his existence.

“You were not a ghost even though an entire country was scared of you. No one in this story was a ghost. This was not a story.”

When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was five years old and his family was preparing to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he suffered temporary, stress-induced blindness. Castillo regained his vision, but quickly understood that he had to move into a threshold of invisibility before settling in California with his parents and siblings. Thus began a new life of hiding in plain sight and of paying extraordinarily careful attention at all times for fear of being truly seen. Before Castillo was one of the most celebrated poets of a generation, he was a boy who perfected his English in the hopes that he might never seem extraordinary.

With beauty, grace, and honesty, Castillo recounts his and his family’s encounters with a system that treats them as criminals for seeking safe, ordinary lives. He writes of the Sunday afternoon when he opened the door to an ICE officer who had one hand on his holster, of the hours he spent making a fake social security card so that he could work to support his family, of his father’s deportation and the decade that he spent waiting to return to his wife and children only to be denied reentry, and of his mother’s heartbreaking decision to leave her children and grandchildren so that she could be reunited with her estranged husband and retire from a life of hard labor.

Children of the Land distills the trauma of displacement, illuminates the human lives behind the headlines and serves as a stunning meditation on what it means to be a man and a citizen.

I was trying to read Children of the Land at the same time I was listening to The Devil’s Highway and had to pause because I was unfortunately mixing up the two books (they aren’t the same at all except for being the stories of migrants to the US, but my brain kept swapping details between them).

It is a very poetic memoir about a poet’s childhood in the US as an undocumented immigrant contrasted with the lives of his parents and grandparents who each crossed the US border several times. There were a few sections where I think the form Castillo used muddied the story he was trying to tell but overall it is a powerful story about a family looking for a better life, the experience of being undocumented (including the experience of graduate school) then given the chance to apply for a green card, and the terror of his mother’s experience in asking for asylum at the US border in 2016. A necessary book for 2020.

Content warning: there are some depictions of domestic violence on the page.

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

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Delicate Deception (Regency Imposters #3) by Cat Sebastian

39735911Summary from Goodreads:
When Amelia Allenby escaped a stifling London ballroom for the quiet solitude of the Derbyshire countryside, the very last thing she wanted was an extremely large, if—she grudgingly admits—passably attractive man disturbing her daily walks. Lecturing the surveyor about property rights doesn’t work and, somehow, he has soon charmed his way into lemon cakes, long walks, and dangerously heady kisses.

The very last place Sydney wished to be was in the shadow of the ruins of Pelham Hall, the inherited property that stole everything from him. But as he awaits his old friend, the Duke of Hereford, he finds himself increasingly captivated by the maddeningly lovely and exceptionally odd Amelia. He quickly finds that keeping his ownership of Pelham Hall a secret is as impossible as keeping himself from falling in love with her.

But when the Duke of Hereford arrives, Sydney’s ruse is revealed and what started out as a delicate deception has become a love too powerful to ignore. Will they let a lifetime of hurt come between them or can these two lost souls find love and peace in each other?

New. Cat. Sebastian. Yes!

The last time we saw Amelia Allenby, she was co-authoring a Perkin Warbeck slash-fic novel so racy she was in danger of violating the obscenity laws. Since then Amelia has voluntarily exiled herself from the upper class Society her mother worked so hard to enter. Amelia didn’t want it. Between the whispers about her illegitimate birth and her growing social anxiety the situation was growing untenable, so Amelia just…left. In the middle of a dance at a ball, so quite dramatic, but for a year she and her ex-governess-turned-companion Georgiana have been living quietly in the countryside. Amelia has been writing less-racy historical novels and taking long walks.

Once day, there’s a man in her path. He’s large and mysterious and a land surveyor – and a Quaker. And he simply won’t go away. As we, the reader, so find out, Sydney is in the neighborhood because he is the owner of Pelham Hall – Amelia’s landlord – and he absolutely does not want to be present on the property he now owns that was the site of his brother’s and sister-in-law’s deaths. However, his old friend Lex, Duke of Hereford has summoned him. Amelia’s conversation is diverting, and her inquisitive mind challenges him, so Syd allows Amelia to believe he’s only visiting in the neighborhood. He’s not planning to stay long, so why allow formalities to come between them (which also seems to be a very Quaker viewpoint). Amelia lets down her guard….which is when Lex arrives – with several surprises for Syd in store – and upsets the delicate balance of Amelia’s life.

Lesson: being unreasonably vague about the circumstances of one’s life and trying to hide from it are extremely bad for the development of trust in one’s closest relationships. This cuts both ways because Amelia hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about who she is to Syd.

A Delicate Deception is a very quiet book – Lex and his Duke-sized ego aside – about working through one’s complex social anxieties to meet your partner halfway. Sebastian seeds in bits from beloved English canon novels (you’ll know them when you read them) and also gives Amelia some really lovely things to say about how we (still) view virginity and the position of children born to unmarried parents. However, I would have loved a few more scenes between Amelia and Syd “falling in love” – I didn’t quite feel them connect like Robin/Alistair and Verity/Ash did. The resolution of the HEA is very interesting in this book and I’m glad to see Sebastian working on an ending that fits the genre but is less traditional.

This has to be the queerest non-erotica historical I’ve ever read – all the presumed straight people are either deceased (Syd’s brother and sister-in-law), in America (his parents), or very minor characters who don’t really matter (the vicar and his wife, Lady Stafford, etc). Amelia is bisexual (or pansexual, possibly, since at one point she says something about kissing interesting people) and Sydney is bisexual. Lex is Syd’s ex-lover and best friend and definitely gay (he is also blind and gets all the best lines, because of course he does, he’s the duke) and Georgiana appears to be asexual or aromantic. Keating, from Unmasked by the Marquess, is here as Amelia’s groom/handyman and apparently making the rounds of the local gay men. AND ROBIN POPS UP RIGHT AT THE VERY END. (Omg, Robin and Keating greeting each other is like the “hey, bitch” of Regency romance I never knew I wanted; but we are denied a meeting between Lex and Alistair and you will understand why when you read this book *give it, do want a short story*)

Also, PLEASE can we have the Perkin Warbeck slash-fic novel? Will read, I promise 😂

A Delicate Deception is out today, December 10!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and you know I had this preordered like last decade.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Duke in Disguise by Cat Sebastian (Regency Imposters #2)

39009917Summary from Goodreads:
One reluctant heir
If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller
All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself.

One disaster waiting to happen
Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Alrighty, NEW CAT SEBASTIAN NOVEL!!!! *sends alert* A Duke in Disguise drops tomorrow on ebook, mass market May 28.

This is the second book in her Regency Impostors series, but the timing of the book puts it during Unmasked by the Marquess rather than following it. So if you’re hoping for a little Pembroke-and-Robin action, like I was, they don’t appear as characters here *womp womp*. However, Mrs Allenby and Amelia appear as wonderful additions to this story, Mrs. Allenby specifically as an ex-lover of our heroine, Verity. 

So Verity Plum is a printer, with her brother, who is pushing the boundaries of the sedition and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) at the time. Her best friend Ash, an engraver, returns to rent their upstairs room after Ash’s mentor leaves England for a warmer climate due to his health. When her brother has to hide out in the Americas after publishing a pamphlet that would definitely get him arrested, Ash promises to look out for Verity. Ash has been in love with Verity for as long as he can remember, but Verity is hesitant to potentially ruin their friendship. What actually throws a wrench into their plans comes in the form of a duke’s sister who wishes to have engravings made of her botanical specimens….

She turns out to be Ash’s aunt, meaning Ash has the opportunity to have a family and save a lot of people, but he might lose Verity, who is very much in the sans culottes camp regarding the need for class reform. (Meanwhile, there is a hilarious B-plot involving Verity printing a Perkin Warbeck historical novel – now there’s a deep cut – in parts and it turns out to be an erotic novel.)

I loved this friends to lovers romance – it’s one of my favorite tropes – with a wee bit of sedition and Perkin Warbeck slash-fic. Verity and Ash have such good conversations and Cat Sebastian brings in so much about the problems of the aristocracy, the 1 Percenters who use up the lives and resources of the lower classes and give nothing back. Also cheese. What’s not to love?

(To the cover designer: Verity would NEVER wear that gown. That’s for aristos, not seditious printers.)

(Also: Cat has said she’s thinking about finishing the Warbeck slash-fic – which is hilariously gothic and kind of terrible in an overblown way – and I hope she does. Would totally read it.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and I had a copy pre-ordered on my Nook.

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.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · Readathon · Reading Diversely · stuff I read · YA all the way

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (Guide #1)

29283884Summary from Goodreads:
Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is ridiculous, rompy, and touching YA novel about Monty (a grade-A, Capital D, Capital R “dissipated rake” and bisexual, sent on the Grand Tour by his dad to shape up or face disinheritance), Percy (Monty’s bestie and unrequited crush), and Felicity (Monty’s younger sister and a bluestocking) in the 1730s. There are pirates, accidental garden nudity, French political shenanigans, and an alchemical secret that chases them across Europe. This was a delightful one-sitting read.

Dear FTC: I read Read My Own Damn copy.