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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mini-review · stuff I read

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

46265702._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From Jennifer Weiner, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who Do You Love and In Her Shoes, comes a smart, thoughtful, and timely exploration of two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, richly textured journey through history—and herstory—as these two sisters navigate a changing America over the course of their lives.

Do we change or does the world change us?

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In her most ambitious novel yet, Jennifer Weiner tells a story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?

I liked Mrs. Everything, especially the relationship between Jo and Bethie and how women’s roles have changed (or not changed, see also: #metoo) over the latter half of the 20th century. But it felt very draggy to me, with some parts rendered so beautifully early in the book and then others very slapdash later. She could have used some balance in the narrative pacing.

It’s definitely an ambitious book, based on events in her mother’s life. The author’s note in the back of the Barnes and Noble Book Club edition was very informative. I haven’t read any of Weiner’s previous books so I don’t know how this compares to Good in Bed or In Her Shoes.

Read for BN Book Club. A trigger warning for a brief description of sexual assault and abortion on the page and several depictions of unwanted groping.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher to the Book Club leader.

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.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #3)

38622940Summary from Goodreads:
The Reluctant Royals series returns with a good girl searching for the life that’s not too big, and not too small, and the bad boy prince who might be just right for her…

Nya Jerami fled Thesolo for the glitz and glamour of NYC but discovered that her Prince Charming only exists in her virtual dating games. When Nya returns home for a royal wedding, she accidentally finds herself up close and personal—in bed—with the real-life celebrity prince who she loves to hate.

For Johan von Braustein, the red-headed step-prince of Liechtienbourg, acting as paparazzi bait is a ruse that protects his brother—the heir to the throne—and his own heart. When a royal referendum threatens his brother’s future, a fake engagement is the perfect way to keep the cameras on him.

Nya and Johan both have good reasons to avoid love, but as desires are laid bare behind palace doors, they must decide if their fake romance will lead to a happily-ever-after.

We were first introduced to Nya in A Princess in Theory as a chronically ill-seeming, fragile young woman under her domineering father’s thumb. She came out of her shell a little in A Duke by Default via group chat – and we get our first good look at Johan in that book, too, as an attention-grabbing, rich playboy (iirc, he pops up in A Princess on Theory but isn’t quite as memorable). Alyssa Cole puts them together as our heroine and hero in A Prince on Paper and, come to find out, these two characters aren’t so very different from one another.

Both have spent most of their lives without their mothers. Both have had to hide their authentic selves for reasons (Nya because her father was gaslighting her, Johan because he wanted to let his younger sibling grow up with less of a spotlight on them). And both really wish to share their lives with someone and put some good back into the world.

Nya and Johan provided us (via Alyssa’s brain) with a lovely ending to the Reluctant Royals Trilogy. I very much liked that the “villain” of the book wasn’t someone out to do physical harm, etc., but instead our own human fears and prejudices – of having our softer bits exposed for others to see and perhaps ridicule. Johan is so used to being the naughty, crass Jo-Jo that it becomes his default persona and hurts Nya without meaning to but he is also an incredibly decent person underneath it; his genuine ability to take care of people is written into the very bedrock of his character. Nya has spent her whole life being put down – and now feels reviled as the daughter of a traitor – and she hasn’t quite determined who she wants to be as a whole person.

I could have done without the ongoing subplot of Nya’s dating game (it got weird/overlong after a while) but the subplot of Johan’s sibling, step-dad, and the referendum on whether a hereditary, patriarchal system like a monarchy even has a place in modern democracy was stellar. Alyssa has also used her books in this series to hit back hard at racism, classism, ableism, and post-colonialism. So well-done. A Prince on Paper also delves into the dangers of our obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure it puts on individuals to conform or act out.

For anyone wondering, yes, we get to see Portia+Tav and Likotski+Fab during Ledi+Thabiso’s wedding but no, not nearly enough 😉 (omg, they’re all so adorable here but good goddamn I so want a longer epilogue or something for Portia and Tav! (unfortunately, no Reggie+Gus on the page)

A Prince on Paper is available today!

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.

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.