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.

mini-review · stuff I read

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

43386674Summary from Goodreads:
Who gave Jonathan Van Ness permission to be the radiant human he is today? No one, honey.

The truth is, it hasn’t always been gorgeous for this beacon of positivity and joy.

Before he stole our hearts as the grooming and self-care expert on Netflix’s hit show Queer Eye, Jonathan was growing up in a small Midwestern town that didn’t understand why he was so…over the top. From choreographed carpet figure skating routines to the unavoidable fact that he was Just. So. Gay., Jonathan was an easy target and endured years of judgement, ridicule and trauma—yet none of it crushed his uniquely effervescent spirit.

Over the Top uncovers the pain and passion it took to end up becoming the model of self-love and acceptance that Jonathan is today. In this revelatory, raw, and rambunctious memoir, Jonathan shares never-before-told secrets and reveals sides of himself that the public has never seen. JVN fans may think they know the man behind the stiletto heels, the crop tops, and the iconic sayings, but there’s much more to him than meets the Queer Eye.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll come away knowing that no matter how broken or lost you may be, you’re a Kelly Clarkson song, you’re strong, and you’ve got this.

JVN’s Over the Top is about 75% memoir and 25% inspirational/encouragement/personal growth. (It’s 100% JVN for sure, don’t worry.)

There are some really rough moments in this book where he talks about childhood sexual abuse, homophobia, his drug use, sex work, treatment for sex addiction, and finding out that he is HIV+. And bless him for being frank about how those topics are often not discussed or discussed without nuance because those conversations are so necessary to have with young people. You can tell that he’s still a work in progress, using his newfound fame to have a platform to talk about these things and also grappling with some of the problems that being so visible has brought him. And in between the darker moments are sections of pure joy, like when he talks about learning to cut hair, or psychs himself up by thinking about Olympic gymnasts or figure skaters or when he includes his sixth grade project on the Bill Clinton sex scandal for almost no reason except to give us a moment of levity before narrating the darkest moment of this life. He gives almost everyone in his life outside his family Russian names so it’s almost like War and Peace but the Gay of Thrones version.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book back when it came out.

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.

stuff I read

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

46263943Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)

Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.

Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.

*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.

I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.

Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.

 

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

38592954Summary from Goodreads:
From the writer of Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column comes a witty and clever collection of essays and cultural observations spanning pop culture—from the endearingly popular to the staggeringly obscure.

Sometimes you just have to yell. New York Times bestselling author of Texts from Jane Eyre Daniel M. Lavery publishing as Daniel Mallory Ortberg has mastered the art of “poetic yelling,” a genre surely familiar to fans of his cult-favorite website The Toast.

In this irreverent essay collection, Ortberg expands on this concept with in-depth and hilarious studies of all things pop culture, from the high to low brow. From a thoughtful analysis on the beauty of William Shatner to a sinister reimagining of HGTV’s House Hunters, Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a laugh-out-loud funny and whip-smart collection for those who don’t take anything—including themselves—much too seriously.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg (or Lavery, since he recently got married, so may have another official name transition soon) is well-known as an essayist both sincere (“Dear Prudence“) and tongue-in-cheek (Texts from Jane Eyre). Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a compact essay/memoir/humor collection that focuses on Ortberg’s philosophy of transition – many essays touch on the physical and mental aspects of transitioning from one gender to another, with commentary from Ortberg’s religious upbringing that often references Jacob wrestling with the Angel (apt, since Jacob is physically changed and renamed by the Angel at the end of their match). Interspersed among them are “interludes” that range from rejected chapter titles for this book to rewritten pieces of classical philosophy and poetry (a few of these got a bit over my head at times, particularly the Marcus Aurelius one).

Something That May Shock and Discredit You was released on Tuesday, February 11.

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.