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.

stuff I read

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

43682552Summary from Goodreads:
From award-winning poet Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir written at the crossroads of sex, race, and power.

“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’ ”

Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

I have followed Saeed Jones on social media and read his articles for a long time so I was so excited when his memoir was announced. And then How We Fight For Our Lives got picked as a Barnes and Noble Fall 2019 Discover title.

Wow. Simply, wow. Not a word wasted, not a word out of place. How We Fight For Our Lives is a beautiful, spare, rich memoir about being black and gay and how little space is given to those men as they grow from childhood to adulthood, especially when they grow up in a very conservative town. Internalized self-loathing is so common among these pages that I can’t even imagine the work Saeed must have done to be able to bare those emotions for the reader. The book is also a love letter to his late mother, those last few chapters cut me to the quick. A must-read, one of the best books of 2019.

How We Fight For Our Lives is out today.

Dear FTC: I read an advance copy of this book provided to my store for the Discover program.

stuff I read

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

41880609Summary from Goodreads:
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Would you like to be slowly, tenderly, and exquisitely murdered by a novel? If yes, read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If no, read it anyway.

This debut novel is a beautiful extended letter from a son to a mother who may not ever choose or be able to read it. Little Dog’s narrative is damn near plotless but reveals very slowly, like attempting to peel off a Band-Aid, so many traumas and scars left by war, racism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We get vignettes of Little Dog’s grandmother Lan raising a biracial child, of Little Dog witnessing his mother abused by his father, of Lan lost in a haze of PTSD and schizophrenia, of Little Dog’s mother working herself to the bone as a manicurist, and of Little Dog himself as he deals with racism from other children and homophobia from his first lover, a boy named Trevor who is also a victim of the growing opioid crisis.

If you liked Alexander Chee’s writing, particularly Edinburgh, you will love Vuong’s writing.

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this book because I was savoring it too much to merely just read a digital galley.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Counterpoint by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #2)

41808799Summary from Goodreads:
Twisted Wishes lead guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves. A self-imposed exile makes it impossible to get close to anyone outside the band, so he’s forced to get his sexual fix through a few hot nights with a stranger.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder—the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Dominic is reluctant to trust Adrian with his true identity. But when the truth is revealed prematurely, Dominic is forced to reevaluate both his need for Adrian and everything he believes about himself.

One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!

Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Mackenzie Walton

The Netgalley gods smiled upon me and granted me access to Counterpoint – and just in time since I was tearing through the end of Syncopation.

I was really intrigued by the character of Dom in the first book – a quiet, bookish guy who has created a “public” stage persona to handle the social pressure of being an emerging rock guitarist. I imagine that this is a problem that rears its head for a lot of musicians – how public is too public is you are a naturally private person or have social anxiety? I mean, I probably wouldn’t handle “getting photographed by paparazzi or randos while buying toilet paper at the store” levels of celebrity well. I can only imagine how intrusive that is and understand why the Lady Gagas of the world have such out-sized stage personalities.

Counterpoint opens as Dom is out at dinner, enjoying a book, when he makes the acquaintance of an attractive man, Adrian, who turns out to be a computer programmer for a bank and also has an interest in the book Dom is reading (vintage gay literature). A conversation leads to dinner, leads to a future date, leads to a very, very hot night of bondage and sex. Dom eventually decides to tell Adrian who he is, particularly that he’s an over-the-top Goth-ish killer guitarist for the hottest new rock band on the charts as opposed to the bookish, glasses-wearing twink he’s shown Adrian thus far. And this leads to a lot of soul searching on both their parts, how to be both private and public with their sexual preferences (both have suffered homophobia and Adrian, as a pansexual, has received some awful garbage from his family), and where they want this new relationship to go.

This is a fabulously well-crafted, kinky, queer romance. I do love quieter romances (plot-wise), ones where the tension in the relationship doesn’t come from outside forces like murder, shady dealings, society, etc. but from the stuff that each person brings to the relationship. A good relationship brings out the best of each person, and I think Zabo shows an absolutely lovely couple on the page.

Zabo lists some content warnings on her Goodreads “review” (covering specifics that I didn’t peg during my reading, but some readers might need to know about).

I do hope Zabo has a book planned for Mish, the last but certainly not least member of Twisted Wishes and the only woman, who really plays her sexuality close to her chest in Syncopation and Counterpoint so I look forward to seeing where she goes. (Mish is the bassist, she’s awesome.)

Counterpoint is out today.

Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley and I plan to buy it when it’s available.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

untitledSummary from Goodreads:

There’s no resisting the thrum of temptation in this male/male rock-star romance from genre-favorite author Anna Zabo!

Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter. If Ray’s up for the challenge.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. And Zavier has always had big dreams; this gig was supposed to be temporary. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!

Carina Press acknowledges the editorial services of Mackenzie Walton

I got pitched the second book in this series (Counterpoint, coming out in September, so keep your eyes peeled) and it sounded so damn good that I immediately bought Syncopation and inhaled it.

This novel is So. Good. It starts with an emerging rock band, Twisted Wishes, on the edge of stardom (think Fun. or a harder-edged version of Family Crest – this is kind of a music subgenre where I’m not super-up on what’s new) when a) their drummer quits/gets kicked out due to substance abuse and b) footage of the blowup ends up on the internet. They need a new drummer ASAP and none of the applicants do well until Zav shows up. Zav was a few years ahead of Ray and Dom, lead singer and guitarist respectively, in high school and in the intervening years has been a tympanist and the enfant terrible of the classical music scene. Except he’s now been fired from his gig due to an (ill-advised, in my opinion) relationship with his conductor and persona non grata in the symphonic community. Zav nails the audition and hits the ground running with the group’s upcoming tour.

Zabo captures the life of a an up-and-coming touring musician so well: the decidedly unglamorous tour bus life (no matter how swanky a bus), living out of hotels, the groupies, the shitty media and paparazzi presence that only increases as Twisted Wishes climbs the music charts. And speaking of things that increase…the sexual tension gets tighter and tighter. It is so bonkers that when Ray and Zav FINALLY get it on around the 50% mark I’m pretty sure that all the secondary characters sighed in relief right along with me. (So hot though. So hot. *fans self*) I kind of guessed the plot twist, but it was still a delicious denoument.

Definitely going to read the next book.

Update: Zabo lists some content warnings on her Goodreads “review” (covering specifics that I didn’t peg during my reading, but some readers might need to know about).

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.