Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Set in the eighteenth century London underworld, this bawdy, genre-bending novel reimagines the life of thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard to tell a profound story about gender, love, and liberation.

Recently jilted and increasingly unhinged, Dr. Voth throws himself into his work, obsessively researching the life of Jack Sheppard, a legendary eighteenth century thief. No one knows Jack’s true story—his confessions have never been found. That is, until Dr. Voth discovers a mysterious stack of papers titled Confessions of the Fox.

Dated 1724, the manuscript tells the story of an orphan named P. Sold into servitude at twelve, P struggles for years with her desire to live as “Jack.” When P falls dizzyingly in love with Bess, a sex worker looking for freedom of her own, P begins to imagine a different life. Bess brings P into the London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with London’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of an oncoming plague abound. At last, P becomes Jack Sheppard, one of the most notorious—and most wanted—thieves in history.

Back in the present, Dr. Voth works feverishly day and night to authenticate the manuscript. But he’s not the only one who wants Jack’s story—and some people will do whatever it takes to get it. As both Jack and Voth are drawn into corruption and conspiracy, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them both.

An imaginative retelling of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Confessions of the Fox blends high-spirited adventure, subversive history, and provocative wit to animate forgotten histories and the extraordinary characters hidden within.

Confessions of the Fox snagged my attention in catalogs last year and I started trying to read it as a digital galley. However, the structure of Confessions of the Fox is such that it makes digital reading very hard – there are MANY footnotes – so I waited to pick up a hardcover to try and read it. And then I realized that it required some involved reading time given the nature of how the story is told. So I started this book several times before I finally parked my butt on the couch during 24 in 48 and read the entire thing in one sitting.

This. Book. Is. Wild. 

The book opens with Dr. Voth, ostensibly telling the reader that the manuscript we are about to read was discovered as the university he works for emptied the stacks to make way for fancy administrative offices and that it is a ground-breaking work. The manuscript is purported to be the memoirs of one Jack Sheppard, a legendary outlaw in eighteenth-century London who serves as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera and Mack the Knife. As “Jack” tells his story, the details of his life twist away from known sources. In this source Jack is a transman and his girlfriend Bess refers to herself as “lascar,” making her a woman of South Asian descent. As the narrative shifts and twists it seems to grow beyond the page…but is it real? Is Jack a narrator we can trust? Or Bess?

In between Jack’s story we get two sets of footnotes: 1) the annotations made by Dr. Voth noting deviations in the text from known facts about Jack Sheppard and explanations of seventeenth-century slang and 2) Dr. Voth begins to narrate the absurd twists his life takes after his discovery of the manuscript. As a transman, Dr. Voth is deeply invested in a manuscript that, if authenticated, would bring a significant contribution to trans and queer literature and history. And it is this emotional connection to the manuscript that opens Dr. Voth to manipulation by less-than-savory sources. It creates a second narrative within a frame around the Jack Sheppard narrative.

Jordy Rosenberg has given us a novel that is at once a purported eighteenth-century memoir and a narrative that morphs into a rallying cry against the commoditization of bodies, of prison abolition, of anti-colonialism, of anti-racism, of trans self-determination. Surrounding this is a framing narrative in footnotes of the professor annotating this tale and his fight against a university increasingly beholden to shady corporate and pharmaceutical interests, veering from Sterne-ean to Vonnegut-like levels of absurdity. Confessions of the Fox is a very complex book but well-worth the read.

I will give a trigger warning for this book. There are several instances where cis characters express an intrusive (and in one instance, gross) interest in a transman’s genitalia. There is also a scene of a surgery that is very appropriate to the historical setting in its details. Given that Rosenberg is a professor of queer and gender theory as well as eighteenth-century literature, I think the subject matter and situations in this book were handled very well. 

Dear FTC: I started reading a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but wound up having to buy a copy because of the formatting.

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Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

Austentatious: The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans by Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein

cfacdfe7-e9a7-45da-a4ee-119630f54791Summary from Goodreads:
The amount of fan-generated content about Jane Austen and her novels has long surpassed the author’s original canon. Adaptations like Clueless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen’s Fight Club, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have given Austen fans priceless opportunities to enjoy the classic texts anew, and continue to bring new and younger fans into the fold. Now, through online culture, the amount and type of fan-created works has exponentially multiplied in recent years. Fans write stories, create art, make videos, and craft memes, all in homage to one of the most celebrated authors of all time.

This book explores online fan spaces in search of “Janeites” all over the world to discover what fans are making, how fans are sharing their work, and why it matters that so many women and nonbinary individuals find a haven not only in Jane Austen, but also in Jane Austen fandom. In relatable chapters based on firsthand experience, the authors explore how Austen fandom has and continues to build communities around women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Whether Janeites are shrewdly picking up on the latent sexual tension between women in Emma or casting people of color in leading roles, Luetkenhaus and Weinstein argue that Austen fans are particularly adept at marrying fantasy and feminism.

New book about Jane Austen and fan culture? Where and when? *grin* This is very much my jam.

Austentatious is a fun yet academic examination of Austen fan culture, from fanon, online communities, and shipping to book-to-screen adaptations and queer representation. I really appreciated Chapter 2 about the adaptation of Austen’s Emma into the movie Clueless (total Betty!), which probably shows my age. There are good chapters near the end about Austen and LGBTQ+ themes/ships which provided some interesting perspectives about how the canon novels can be interpreted and how they are adapted via shipping. The book is a little short, with only nine chapters, so I would have liked a few more chapters poking into more crevices.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

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.

stuff I read

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita

39987021Summary from Goodreads:
When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl’s room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of life that didn’t fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life. Then Mom and Dad announce that they’re going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning–from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie. But what does “making things right” actually mean? And what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that mistakes can be fixed with honesty and communication, and that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self.

When Aidan Became a Brother is a heartwarming book that will resonate with transgender children, reassure any child concerned about becoming an older sibling, and celebrate the many transitions a family can experience.

When Aidan Became a Brother is a lovely and wonderful #ownvoices picture book about a little boy, assigned female gender at birth, who is about to become a Big Brother (very important) but worries about getting everything “right” for the new baby. A big worry for Aidan is what happens if this baby is also assigned the wrong gender at birth? It’s something that he has to discuss with his parents. Aidan is brought to life with beautiful and fun illustrations by Kaylani Juanita, making this an intersectional book. Aidan is a brown child, with a brown family. This is a wonderful picture book to add to every library, preschool, kindergarten, and personal collection. Books are windows and doors and mirrors – there are children who might need to hold this book to see themselves or to look through and see a sibling or friend. I sincerely hope I see this book on the ALAYMA award lists come 2020.

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

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Reverb by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #3)

43198518._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
The tougher they are, the harder they fall.

Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess—gorgeous, sexy and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: a stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing—not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training—prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice—lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

This book is approximately 105,000 words.

Reverb is a lovely wrap-up to the Twisted Wishes series, with the band back on the road for a new tour and album. The story starts in media res, in the aftermath of an attack on Mish by a stalker who obtained a lock of her hair. As much as Mish fights it, saying she doesn’t need protection, lead singer Ray hires a bodyguard for her. Ostensibly, David will be running security for the whole band and crew but since the only identifiable threat is targeting Mish, he’s really for her. Mish is pissed the decision to hire David was made without her input. David, for his part, is used to being security for celebrities and he is ex-military, after all, so he knows what he’s doing. But neither of them are quite prepared for the mutual attraction that flares between them. The tough-as-nails, six-foot-tall, bass-playing rock goddess and the tough-as-nails, ex-Army veteran trans man are going to have to come to some sort of agreement both about maybe David guarding Mish (professionally) out in public and definitely David blowing Mish’s mind – and vice versa – in private.

Of all three Twisted Wishes members, Mish was the hardest member to get a grasp on in the previous two books. She came across as a very older-sister-will-kick-the-crap-out-of-anyone-who-hurts-my-boys type and a talented musician, but beyond that Zabo played Mish’s personal life very close to the chest. Mish came across as pansexual so the possibilities of her romantic partner (or even partners, since that also might have been on the table?) in Reverb were myriad. David is an excellent counterpoint to the fiery Mish – level-headed, logical, and prepared for anything except, perhaps, falling in love. He struggles so beautifully with the whole “I am a professional doing a job but I have fallen in love with the client now what do I do” problem in his conscience.

The dynamic between all the characters is great, a true “found family”, and one that David desperately wants to remain a part of but doesn’t know how to accept (when you pride yourself on being able to handle “being alone” for so long it’s really, REALLY hard to break that habit and change). Mish is wonderfully fabulous, which we already knew. There was a shade too much Instalust for my taste, on both sides, but that’s definitely a YMMV situation.

Also: MUCH STEAMINESS, but a lot less kink than then the previous two books (although not much could have been kinkier than any of the D/s scenes in Syncopation or rope+pie in Counterpoint 😉).

If you liked The Bodyguard but wanted a different (read: better, happier ending rather than her leaving on a jet plane, literally) get Reverb – it’s out TODAY. (I do wish that Twisted Wishes was a real band, because the idea of their songs/setlists is amazing.)

Addendum: If you need them, the author has listed some content warnings on the “review” of their book at Goodreads. It is a very comprehensive list, and very thoughtful, but if you’re worried if David is ever deadnamed, to quote Zabo: “FYI, no one is deadnamed. Don’t even ask, ’cause I don’t know.”

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the author via Netgalley.

mini-review · stuff I read

Without Protection by Gala Mukomolova

41745837Summary from Goodreads:
In poems rich with sensuality and discord, Mukomolova explores her complex identity―Russian, Jewish, refugee, New Yorker, lesbian― through the Russian tale of Vasilyssa, a young girl left to fend for herself against the witch Baba Yaga. Heavy with family and fable, these poems are a beautiful articulation of difference under duress.

I saw the cover for Without Protection in the Coffee House Press catalog and decided to give it a go. These poems are raw and spare, in some cases autobiographical (there are Notes, which I can’t decide were necessary or not). It was a hard collection to read; it didn’t flow well. I think this is a case where the arrangement of the poems in the collection did a disservice – it felt jumbled and confusing.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

40611197Summary from Goodreads:
Wherever Hel looks, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. As one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States—an alternate timeline—she finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts—a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback—and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.

But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.

I came across Famous Men Who Never Lived through the Tin House Book Club (you put your name in the hate for advances every once in a while). I didn’t get lucky this time, though, but I liked the premise of the book enough that I requested the galley on Edelweiss.

And it’s a really, really good premise – using the idea of two divergent Earths and their histories to explore the idea of forced migration and Otherness, “belonging” to a group, grief, and mourning. It has some interesting parallels to the plight of migrants from the Middle East and Central America. Where I struggled with the book was when the sections of the fictional book “The Pyronauts” from Hel and Vikram’s world were included in the narrative – the technique was distracting here and didn’t work as well as it did in a book like Station Eleven.

Famous Men Who Never Lived was published last month.

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

stuff I read

Figuring by Maria Popova

40277347Summary from Goodreads:
Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries–beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.

Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists–mostly women, mostly queer–whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman–and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

I was really interested in Figuring because of Popova’s Brain Pickings writing. And the book doesn’t disappoint, but it did take a while to get rolling. For the first third or so of the book I wasn’t quite sure what Popova was really getting at. There were a lot of historical figures surrounding her “main” subjects and I was having a little bit of trouble keeping up with the jumps back and forth (and I kept confusing Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller, oops). But then Popova got to her chapters on Emily Dickinson and just wow. Blew me away. That was when the book began to gel for me and I started to really understand that Popova was drawing all these parallels between geniuses ahead of their times, their successes and set-backs, the rich relationships they formed (some romantic, some not, some that could be considered queer, some more “conventional”), and how their work creates a web from generation to generation, from Kepler to Dickinson to Rachel Carson. This is not a book to rush through – you’ll want to savor it.

Figuring is out on Tuesday, February 5, in the US.

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