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 · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández

43192004Summary from Goodreads:
Weaving together narrative essay and bilingual poetry, Claudia D. Hernández’s lyrical debut follows her tumultuous adolescence and fraught homecomings as she crisscrosses the American continent.

Seven-year-old Claudia wakes up one day to find her mother gone, having left for the United States to flee domestic abuse and pursue economic prosperity. Claudia and her two older sisters are taken in by their great aunt and their grandmother, their father no longer in the picture. Three years later, her mother returns for her daughters, and the family begins the month-long journey to El Norte. But in Los Angeles, Claudia has trouble assimilating: she doesn’t speak English, and her Spanish sticks out as “weird” in their primarily Mexican neighborhood. When her family returns to Guatemala years later, she is startled to find she no longer belongs there either.

A harrowing story told with the candid innocence of childhood, Hernández’s memoir depicts a complex self-portrait of the struggle and resilience inherent to immigration today.

Knitting the Fog is a moving memoir told through essays and poems about the author’s childhood in Guatemala and migrating to the US at the age of 10. It’s a very slice-of-life book, full of the details that a child remembers about playing with neighbors, the oddities of the neighborhood, and being raised by strong women. However, I found the balance of poetry-to-prose memoir made it tricky to read. In my opinion, the prose essays were the stronger of the two styles and could have been enlarged.

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

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.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (The Kiss Quotient #1)

36577586._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A heartwarming and refreshing debut novel that proves one thing: there’s not enough data in the world to predict what will make your heart tick.

Stella Lane thinks math is the only thing that unites the universe. She comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases–a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn’t help that Stella has Asperger’s and French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice–with a professional. Which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. The Vietnamese and Swedish stunner can’t afford to turn down Stella’s offer, and agrees to help her check off all the boxes on her lesson plan–from foreplay to more-than-missionary position…

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but crave all of the other things he’s making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic…

I started The Kiss Quotient last year right after it came out but managed to misplace the book. (Oh noes.) Well, I found it again and restarted it and finished today. Yay!

This was a fun read. Reverse Pretty Woman plot = yes! I particularly loved Michael’s interactions with his mom and sisters. Stella was an interesting character, I really liked how she decided to attack her “relationship problem” with logic, particularly since she also has to attack the problem of internalized ableism regarding her autism spectrum disorder. Disorder? Tendencies? It isn’t quite labeled in the book but it’s also pretty clear that Stella’s facility with numbers, her particular preference for how clothes feel, etc. that she is on the spectrum. The author has also been diagnosed with ASD as an adult so I think there are many parts of Stella that come from her experience.

(Tiny spoiler: Michael’s rotten dad NEVER shows up so if returning Prodigal parents are not a thing you like then you are spared.)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Signs of Attraction by Laura Brown

28117939Summary from Goodreads:
Do you know what hearing loss sounds like? I do.
All my life I’ve tried to be like you. I’ve failed.
So I keep it hidden.
But on the day my world crashed down around me, Reed was there.
He showed me just how loud and vibrant silence can be, even when I struggled to understand.
He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever known. His soulful eyes and strong hands pulled me in before I knew what was happening.
And as I saw those hands sign, felt them sparking on me, I knew: imperfect could be perfect.
Reed makes me feel things I’ve never felt. It’s exciting…and terrifying.
Because he sees me like no one else has, and I’m afraid of what he’ll find if he looks too closely.
The only thing that scares me more than being with him? Letting him go.

I read Laura Brown’s Friend (With Benefits) Zone and liked it so I decided to seek out the first book in the series (series? I can’t find an official name but Reed and Carli make a very brief appearance at Dev’s mom’s school in F(WB)Z). I’m really torn about Signs of Attraction. On the one hand, this is an excellent #ownvoices romance between a Deaf man and a Hard of Hearing woman who each have a lot of emotional baggage they have to deal with to get to a happy ending. Reed has some guilt about his father’s death and Carli has been raised in an abusive household. On the other, there are a few plot tropes (mostly) unrelated to the above representation – an evil old girlfriend with a very complicated level of shittiness (some of which has to do with the Deaf/HoH community), perhaps not the best ways of describing race, and at least one instance where I was surprised the police were not called – that I did not like. Also, it’s written in alternating first-person POV, which grated on me. I keep trying with that narrative style and I very rarely feel like it has been done well; a close-third POV would be clearer. But overall it was a good romance with good on-page representation, in my opinion.

A brief CW for discussion of suicide and depiction of physical and verbal abuse on the page.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book on my Nook.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

18214164Summary from Goodreads:
Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything—even destroying planets—to get their hands on her!

Jenn at Get Booked also has recommended Ascension multiple times. So when I had a hankering for a space opera, I remembered that I had this on my nook.

Koyanagi created an intriguing world both inside and outside the transport ship Tangled Axon. Ascension itself as a book is somewhere between a three and a four star read. Primarily, it could use a bit of editing since the plot is a little poky and unnecessarily convoluted in places. But, damn, I really enjoyed what the author was getting at with found families, faith, chronic illness, and metaphysics. Alana is such a wonderful character, very complex, and she plays against Tev so very well.  I’d love to read more in this world, with these characters (uh, one of the characters is a humanoid male who either is also a dog or has a dog spirit or something and I have questions because this is interesting), so I really hope that Koyanagi writes more.

Dear FTC: I read the copy on my nook.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

For Real by Alexis Hall (Spires Universe)

25500803Summary from Goodreads:
Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

After whetting my appetite with M/M romances written by straight ladies (which I liked), I was casting around for M/M romances written by gay men. I got several recommendations for authors (Santino Hassell for one) but then I got a rec for For Real by Alexis Hall, which was pitched to me as the sweetest, filthiest, May-December D/s romance. BDSM, etc. are not really my bag (it’s interesting to me from a philosophical/ideological standpoint, but it doesn’t turn my crank, if you know what I mean) but I was intrigued by the sweet/filthy/age difference idea.

And it’s really good! The recommendation was spot-on. If you are looking for a sweet-but-very-very-very-hot m/m BDSM romance (edges toward erotica maybe?) this is for you. I loved the development of the relationship between Laurie and Toby. There’s a seventeen year age gap between the two, so combined with the basic romance plot are some growing pains, some old broken-heart issues, and the complications that arise when the Dom is the younger of the couple and still working out how to go about with his kink. (How do you even find your people to learn how to do that safely if that’s your thing?)

Laurie’s super-snarky inner monologue had me from page 1; the book opens as he’s trying to gain admittance to a dungeon (dungeon? private sex club? terminology?) where his friends are waiting for him, and he’s had a long day and he’s come straight from work (he’s a trauma surgeon) and he is REALLY annoyed that the doorperson won’t let him in bc he’s not wearing “the right” clothes and he’s pissed that he has to put on a costume to get his rocks off as a sub. I loved him (and he’s right – does it really matter that the D or the s is wearing leather pants?). Toby is also a good cook, so be prepared for serious foodie envy, plus there is a scene in the kitchen that gets so filthy… (I was reading that scene on break while doing an overnight shift at the bookstore and I actually had to tell one of the other booksellers not to look at me because I was sure I was about seventeen colors of “omg this is the hottest thing I’ve ever read but I’m in public and OMG” tomato red), also the trip to Oxford….

Dear FTC: I bought the copy I read on my Nook.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Summary from Goodreads:
Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a very insightful collection of essays about the experience of living with chronic pain. Huber uses a lot of different essay forms to discuss parenting with pain, how to describe pain (and the inability of a scale to convey “pain” to her medical team), what it is like to be a patient with chronic pain and not have access to a coordinated care team, negotiating a partnership (both emotional and physical) with a lover, and how her writing changes depending on her pain level. Most of the pieces were previously published in blogs and journals, so they overlap on occasion, but this is a must-read collection.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy.