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.

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.

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.

 

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.

mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.

Reading Diversely · Reading Graphically · Reading Women · stuff I read

Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern

40680980Summary from Goodreads:
From the creator of the hit webcomic My Life As a Background Slytherin comes a hilarious graphic novel pastiche of classic Romantic literature led by a trio of queer misfits—and several angry vampires.

Set in early nineteenth-century Britain, Bloodlust & Bonnets follows Lucy, an unworldly debutante who desires a life of passion and intrigue—qualities which earn her the attention of Lady Violet Travesty, the leader of a local vampire cult.

But before Lucy can embark on her new life of vampiric debauchery, she finds herself unexpectedly thrown together with the flamboyant poet Lord Byron (“from books!”) and a mysterious bounty-hunter named Sham. The unlikely trio lie, flirt, fight, and manipulate each other as they make their way across Britain, disrupting society balls, slaying vampires, and making every effort not to betray their feelings to each other as their personal and romantic lives become increasingly entangled.

Both witty and slapstick, elegant and gory, Emily McGovern’s debut graphic novel pays tribute to and pokes fun at beloved romance tropes, delivering a joyous, action-packed world of friendship and adventure.

I’ve long been a fan of “My Life as a Background Slytherin” so when I saw that Emily McGovern had a Regency-romp graphic novel coming out I downloaded it immediately. Bloodlust & Bonnets is a goofy send-up of both the Regency and paranormal romance genres. It’s unapologetically queer – Sham is transgender, Lucy is bisexual, and Byron is, well, Byron (he’s fabulous in drag). Throw in a telepathic French eagle, a questionable Society matron, a vampire cult, and a magical, omniscient castle with a security problem and this puts the capital R in Romp. The plot has a lot of the same energy and humor that Nimona brought to the table, though this is not a YA graphic novel (some swearing and one very nekkid succubus). McGovern takes a lot of potshots at genre tropes, to the point that the book is perhaps overstuffed to the detriment of the plot. But it’s so much fun to read.

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

stuff I read

The Stonewall Reader edited by New York Public Library

41180913Summary from Goodreads:
For the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, an anthology chronicling the tumultuous fight for LGBTQ rights in the 1960s and the activists who spearheaded it

June 28, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising – the most significant event in the gay liberation movement and the catalyst for the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States. Drawing from
the New York Public Library’s archives, The Stonewall Reader is a collection of firsthand accounts, diaries, periodic literature and articles from LGBTQ magazines and newspapers that documented both the years leading up to and the years following the riots. Most importantly, this anthology shines a light on forgotten figures who were pivotal in the movement, such as Lee Brewster, head of the Queens Liberation Front and Ernestine Eckstine, one of the few out, African American, lesbian activists in the 1960s.

The Stonewall Reader is a small but very diverse anthology centered on LGBTQ+ experiences before, during, and after the Stonewall riots of 1969. It took a bit to read because the structure of some pieces wasn’t straightforward (there is a long, dense stream-of-consciousness piece by Jill Johnston that is a prime example). But the collection highlights how Stonewall came about – with all the ambiguity around exact events – how far we’ve come as a society in the intervening 50 years, and how far we still have to go.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book when it was published.

stuff I read

Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister by Anne Choma, Sally Wainwright (Foreword), read by Eva Hope and Erin Shanager

46749454._SX318_Summary from Goodreads:
In 1834, two women openly celebrated their marriage to one another for the first time in British history. This is their remarkable story, now the basis for a major new eight-part HBO series.

Gentleman Jack offers a remarkable and unlikely love story, set in the complex, changing world of Halifax – the cradle of the industrial revolution. After years of exotic travel, Anne Lister returns home in 1832, determined to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home Shibden Hall. To restore Shibden to its former glory, Anne must re-open her coal mines and marry well. But charismatic, single-minded, swashbuckling Anne Lister – who dressed head-to-toe in black and charmed her way into high society – has no intention of marrying a man. For Anne has set her sights on the wealthy socialite, Ms. Ann Walker. Relying on never-before-published entries from Lister’s coded diaries, historian Anne Choma brings to life this momentous period in the life of an 18th century landowner, industrialist, explorer, lesbian, and feminist icon.

I originally picked up Gentleman Jack in paperback, but saw the library audio was available – which is really interesting because they got a second narrator to read the longer diary excerpts. She used a Yorkshire accent, so we got to hear something approaching Anne Lister’s own accent. It’s a wee bit boring in places, since this is book concentrating on letters and a diary so it is hard for the biographer to “plot” the book. However, Anne is a fascinating contradiction of a woman and this is an excellent companion to the TV series.

Dear FTC: I read an audiobook edition of this book from the library and bought a copy when it came out in paperback.