Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite (Feminine Pursuits #2)

46041449

Summary from Goodreads:
In this historical f/f romance you’ll find:
•a grumpy widowed engraver working far too hard to keep her print-shop going until her son is old enough to take over
•a middle-aged lady beekeeper who goes striding about in trousers and loves bucolic poetry
•a Queen on trial in Parliament and the press
•luxuriant English gardens with extremely naughty statues
•satirical ballads about tight pants
•… and more than you probably ever wanted to know about early 19th century beekeeping!

Could Olivia Waite outdo herself after The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics? Yes, yes she could.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is a lovely f/f historical. We met Agatha Griffin at the Royal Academy exhibition in The Lady’s Guide and her print shop handles the printing of Lucy’s Guide. Four years later, Agatha is now a widow, running the shop with her son Sydney and her apprentice Eliza, the gifted young artist who was briefly Lucy’s maid. Griffin’s has their printworks in the nearby village of Melliton, where one odd, beekeeping lady named Penelope Flood resides. When Agatha discovers a swarm of bees who have started making a hive among the plates for a local poet’s book, Mrs. Flood is recommended to her as the person who would know exactly what to do with the bees.

Penelope is rather intrigued by the no-nonsense printer from London. Mrs. Griffin is a world away from Penelope’s rural, beekeeping life in Melliton. The two women start corresponding through letters – because of the bees – but soon strike up a friendship, then perhaps something more. Olivia Waite lets the relationship between Agatha and Penelope develop gradually through these letters, with beekeeping knowledge interspersed between exchanges about their families or friends, weaving a bond between the two women. After a while, Agatha begins to visit Melliton more often, eventually staying with Penelope for Christmas. This is a relationship that develops between two women in their forties – neither are looking for their life’s One Great Passion, they each have established lives – so the realization that they have an emotional bond that goes deeper than friendship is especially poignant.

Being poignant or a lesbian romance does not mean this book soft-pedals the plot. The book is set largely in the year between King George IV’s attempt to divorce his wife Queen Caroline and his coronation. That bit of British Royal history is largely integral to the development of Penelope and Agatha’s relationship. The printing and sale of political broadsides and raucous ballads in Agatha’s print shop runs afoul of sedition and censorship laws in England at the time, particularly that from the Radical end of politics (you know, the ones that think you should treat people as equals or not trash or actual humans or whatever, and that’s clearly bad for the Establishment). Penelope’s neighbors in Melliton – both the good ones and the rotten ones – are affected by these larger events through the enforcement “morality” in the village and squabbling over an inheritance (just a CW that there is implied homophobia, although that jerk gets his comeuppance). There’s also a lot of between-the-lines commentary on Nice White Ladies (and other people) Doing Virtue Signalling. All this impacts how Penelope and Agatha slowly slide from friendship into love.

This is a Big Plot novel, so it moves a bit more slowly than I expected, but it wraps up so, so wonderfully. Plus there’s all the stuff about bees. And Penelope’s circle of wonderful friends in Melliton. And Sydney and Eliza and their relationship. Just go read it.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is out today!

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Summary from Goodreads: In Upright Women Wanted, award-winning author Sarah Gailey reinvents the pulp Western with an explicitly antifascist, near-future story of queer identity.

“That girl’s got more wrong notions than a barn owl’s got mean looks.”

Esther is a stowaway. She’s hidden herself away in the Librarian’s book wagon in an attempt to escape the marriage her father has arranged for her–a marriage to the man who was previously engaged to her best friend. Her best friend who she was in love with. Her best friend who was just executed for possession of resistance propaganda.

The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.

Genderqueer and lesbian librarians in an alternative southwest United States? Sure! Sarah Gailey is a flipping genius at building a world without stopping to tell you all about it. Upright Women Wanted is a book set in a dystopic Southwestern United States where travelling Librarians with horses and wagons deliver “approved” materials to isolated towns. Main character Esther stows away with a Librarian convoy after her best friend – who she may also have had romantic feelings for – is hanged for possession of “unapproved” materials. When she’s discovered, the Librarians put her to work. And Esther discovered a lot about her world and her place in it. If you’re looking for a Western but need something different, this will hit a lot of buttons.

I signed up for the Reading Rush readathon this week since I’d been having serious book hangover from Mexican Gothic a few weeks ago and it’s working. I’ve finished four books so far, three of them excellent fantasy novellas from Tor.com so A+ self!

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (The Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Summary from Goodreads: With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama, Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully. Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for. At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

Praise for The Empress of Salt and Fortune

“An elegant gut-punch, a puzzle box that unwinds itself in its own way and in its own time. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Gorgeous. Cruel. Perfect. I didn’t know I needed to read this until I did.”–Seanan McGuire

“A tale of rebellion and fealty that feels both classic and fresh, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is elegantly told, strongly felt, and brimming with rich detail. An epic in miniature, beautifully realised.”–Zen Cho

I missed The Empress of Salt and Fortune when it published earlier this year, so I snagged a paper copy to read. This was such a surprising read! The world-building is so rich without pausing to tell the reader about it. It’s so skillfully sketched in through the interactions of Chih, a cleric who functions much like an archivist and anthropologist, Almost Brilliant, their accompanying niexin, and Rabbit, an elderly woman who slowly relates her tale of exile with the Empress. The way the little list of objects at the head of each chapter led into that little bit of story from Rabbit was so clever – like a little anthropology before a history lesson. It’s such an inclusive and feminist story.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

50225678

Summary from Goodreads:
Wanted:
One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go.

I’m not sure what I was expecting for Alexis Hall’s new Sourcebooks Casablanca release, Boyfriend Material, but it definitely wasn’t a hilarious rom-com narrated by Luc, a neurotic, paparazzi-averse twenty-something. His parents are rock-star famous but his dad walked out when he was three. Luc accidentally gets some (more) bad tabloid press, which affects his fund-raising job at a coleoptera charity – hilariously acronymed CRAPP – and must acquire a respectable, “proper” boyfriend ASAP. He gets set-up with Oliver, a very, very respectable, upstanding barrister with a stable, very staid, acceptable, non-paparazzi-bait lifestyle (incidentally, Oliver is also incredibly hot in his three-piece suits). So they agree to fake date – Oliver will appear in some “good” paparazzi photos and attend the Beetle Drive as Luc’s plus-one and Luc will come to Oliver’s parents’ ruby wedding anniversary do. (FAKE DATING, WHEE!!!!) So when does fake dating – involving sweet dinners at vegan pop-up restaurants, glass sculpture exhibits, quick lunches by the Gladstone statue, and meeting Luc’s batty-but-sweet mom Odile and her “special” curry and her mad-as-pants bestie Judy – become real dating with vulnerability and feelings and OMG PANIC??

Much of Boyfriend Material is Luc freaking out about feelings and learning to have feelings and be an adult and then maybe learning that Oliver isn’t quite as put-together as he thought. The entirety of the book is narrated from Luc’s perspective which makes his journey from panicked, emotionally-fraught bellend back to functional-ish adult feel very intimate and personal. You are 100% in Luc’s corner as the reader even if you want to bonk him over the head for being such a twerp on occasion. It also helps some of the tension in the plot, since it keeps Oliver’s point-of-view off the table throughout the book. When you hit the point-of-no return in this plot, when Oliver also to meet Luc halfway emotionally, it is delicious in the resolution.

Luc has a turn-of-phrase that had me snort-laughing in many places. For serious. On Luc’s and Oliver’s first “date” Oliver, who is a criminal defense attorney, says Luc can ask him that question that people always ask. Luc panics and asks if Oliver ever has sex in the wig….I died. Because that definitely isn’t the question Oliver is thinking of. Hall also absolutely shreds upper-class posh manners. One of his work colleagues is a posh twit, with an even posher, twittier girlfriend, who is a walking punchline about the declining mental acuity of the British landed aristocracy. There is a running joke about “dick pics” that includes the deepest deep cut from The Slipper and the Rose, a Cinderella musical from the 1970s (I screamed in delight, I love that movie). There’s a birthday party with Oliver’s friends that is delightful and then there is Luc’s friend group who are the absolute best, loveable friends who are there for him throughout the book despite said bellend-ness (and they’re hilarious).

I’m going to give a content warning, delightful though this book is. Both Luc and Oliver experience some really garbage casual homophobia – that very casual upper-class British kind that approves of being a Good Gay and not a Bad Gay. There is also an instance of really, really shitty casual homophobia (look, three out of four of Luc’s and Oliver’s parents are garbage, two of them because of said homophobia among other things). Given that this is an #ownvoices novel from Alexis Hall, I think this experience is probably fairly true to life, unfortunate as it is. I trust how Hall has shown how these situations play out. But it doesn’t make it any easier to read especially since Luc and Oliver are so likeable.

The steam level is low-boil/fade-to-black but definitely not G-rated. It definitely fits with this couple. Oliver is a character who doesn’t have casual sex and Luc is trying to turn his relationship-status around. A more descriptive type of sex scene would feel intrusive in this book. (For reference, the only other Alexis Hall book I’ve read is For Real which is SO HOT that I was sure my face was going to catch on fire during one scene, the pie scene. You know the one.)

I would love to see this adapted for a movie. My brain has already cast Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys as Oliver and Luc (look, Matt Rhys always looks vaguely nervous about something IRL and I shipped them hard in Death Comes to Pemberley) although they’re twenty years too old. I would also accept as Luc the guy who plays Jaskier in The Witcher, Joey Batey, who is both closer to the right age and can handle Luc’s humor but I’m not sure who would match him for Oliver then.

Boyfriend Material is out tomorrow, July 7!!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley – but our finished copies arrived at the store on Friday while I was finishing this review so OF COURSE I have already purchased one.

stuff I read · YA all the way

Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy (Faith Herbert Origin Story #1)

Summary from Goodreads: From Julie Murphy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’, comes the first in a two-book origin story of Faith, a groundbreaking, plus-sized superhero from the Valiant Entertainment comics.

Faith Herbert is a pretty regular teen. When she’s not hanging out with her two best friends, Matt and Ches, she’s volunteering at the local animal shelter or obsessing over the long-running teen drama The Grove.

So far, her senior year has been spent trying to sort out her feelings for her maybe-crush Johnny and making plans to stay close to Grandma Lou after graduation. Of course, there’s also that small matter of recently discovering she can fly….

When the fictional world of The Grove crashes into Faith’s reality as the show relocates to her town, she can’t believe it when TV heroine Dakota Ash takes a romantic interest in her.

But her fandom-fueled daydreams aren’t enough to distract Faith from the fact that first animals, then people, have begun to vanish from the town. Only Faith seems able to connect the dots to a new designer drug infiltrating her high school.

But when her investigation puts the people she loves in danger, she will have to confront her hidden past and use her newfound gifts—risking everything to save her friends and beloved town.

I ran across this Faith origin story by accident. I haven’t been reading much YA lately so hadn’t been checking the right catalogs. But I ran across this novelization by Julie Murphy so of course I needed to read it.

And this is fun! If you don’t already know who Faith is, she’s a plus-sized superhero psiot WHO CAN FLY ❤ from the Harbinger universe of Valiant comics. She’s a pop culture nerd and a journalist. In this book, the plot takes place the fall after Faith’s psiot abilities have been activated by the shady Harbinger Foundation and she escaped from the facility (the cover story was that she went to journalism summer camp). So now she’s back home, starting her senior year of high school, keeping the secret that she can fly from her best friends Matt and Ches, worrying about her grandma who might have developing dementia, working her after school job at an animal rescue, writing for the school paper, and her favorite show – for which she runs a major fan blog – has started location shooting in her town. And then weird things start happening and people start disappearing. Faith is the only one who can connect the dots.

Overall, this is a great way to get into the Faith-verse and Julie Murphy captured Faith’s personality really well. Faith’s world has always been very diverse and Murphy makes that very explicit in the book, both with respect to race/ethnicity and sexual orientation/gender, and Faith’s exploration of her own identity. However, every character introduced is immediately given a character description in one to two sentences, from Faith herself right down to the driver who picks her up at the TV show production parking lot and drives her to the office and is never seen again. After a while it got extremely rote, particularly because the book is narrated in the first person by Faith so the immediate descriptions felt awkwardly shoehorned in. But I enjoyed this fun look at how Faith developed her superhero alter-ego Zephyr so if you’re a comics fan, give it a try.

FYI: this is a prose novel since I keep seeing “graphic novel” coming up to describe this book; the character comes from comics but this book isn’t a comic itself.

Faith: Taking Flight is out Tuesday, July 7! (Edit: my notes previous had the release date as June 30)

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

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

Homie by Danez Smith

44094014Summary from Goodreads:
Homie is Danez Smith’s magnificent anthem about the saving grace of friendship. Rooted in the loss of one of Smith’s close friends, this book comes out of the search for joy and intimacy within a nation where both can seem scarce and getting scarcer. In poems of rare power and generosity, Smith acknowledges that in a country overrun by violence, xenophobia, and disparity, and in a body defined by race, queerness, and diagnosis, it can be hard to survive, even harder to remember reasons for living. But then the phone lights up, or a shout comes up to the window, and family—blood and chosen—arrives with just the right food and some redemption. Part friendship diary, part bright elegy, part war cry, Homie is the exuberant new book written for Danez and for Danez’s friends and for you and for yours.

I picked up Homie a few months ago at Brandon’s reading for Real Life and WOW. Such beautiful flow and rhythm to the poems and they’re arranged so well into the book. Definitely going to back up and get their earlier volume of work.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby

49960031Summary from Goodreads:
A new essay collection from Samantha Irby about aging, marriage, settling down with step-children in white, small-town America.

Irby is turning forty, and increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin. She has left her job as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, has published successful books and is courted by Hollywood, left Chicago, and moved into a house with a garden that requires repairs and know-how with her wife and two step-children in a small white, Republican town in Michigan where she now hosts book clubs. This is the bourgeois life of dreams. She goes on bad dates with new friends, spends weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “skinny, luminous peoples” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” and hides Entenmann’s cookies under her bed and unopened bills under her pillow.

New Samantha Irby essays! Wow, No Thank You. is a group of personal essays that are much more “current” as opposed to some of her previous collections. And what I mean by that is that more of the topics appear to stem from events that happen now – working in LA as a writer on Shrill, learning to step-parent (a little bit), moving from Chicago to Michigan with her wife. That’s not to say she’s done with using her childhood experiences as topics, it’s just that they’ve shifted, less autobiographical and more “this is how growing up poor and Black impacts how I manage money now as a forty-something pretend-adult” and “I haven’t had a lot of breaks and all of a sudden I’m writing for Lindy West’s TV show and WTF is happening.” All in that signature Sam Irby, dry-as-the-Midwest-in-week-12-of-a-drought, self-deprecating style. I loved the mix-tape essay.

I read this essays one or two at a time at night before bed, once the book was out (and once I had obtained it from my store since we had just closed to in-store shopping due to COVID-19 and hadn’t quite worked out curbside or anything). Because I wasn’t fancy enough to get a galley.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because duh.