Close Quarter by Anna Zabo (Close Quarter #1)

35534292On a transatlantic cruise to New York, sculptor Rhys Matherton struggles to piece his life back together after losing his mother, inheriting a fortune, and finding out his father isn’t his father after all. He spills a tray of drinks on a handsome stranger, then he finds himself up against a wall getting the best hand-job he’s ever had. And for the first time in his life, he feels whole.

Rhys enjoys the company of Silas Quint, but for the eerie way no one pays attention to them even while they kiss in a crowded bar. Silas explains he’s a forest fae able to glamor the room around them—and more importantly, that he’s on the cruise to hunt vampires. Rhys thinks Silas is full of it, until he discovers vampires are real, and he’s part of their main course.

Review:

Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series (first book Syncopation) is amazing, but now that it’s over ~sob~ I wanted to dip into their backlist. The first book I came up with was Close Quarter, a paranormal m/m romance set on a cruise ship.

I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sold by the jacket copy. Fae and vampires on a cruise ship? But Zabo does a good job of introducing us to the characters and slowly building out the world. We learn about fae and vampires (called soulless) along with Rhys and while there aren’t many high level ‘why the world is like this’ answers, I don’t expect that in the first book of a series.

I’m a fan of the relationship because, thanks to some paranormal handwaving, it’s based on an intimate knowledge of each other. There’s some great banter, too.

“You’re so damn young. Beautiful. Like a spring morning.”
“What, cold, foggy, and damp?”
Silas shifted on the tub’s edge, turned his hand to capture Rhys’s fingers. “Warm and occasionally dense. But full of promise.”

As hinted in the same jacket copy, the sex starts early and happens often. I love steaminess in my romance, and a bunch of the sex scenes help us understand Rhys and Silas’ relationship and how it evolves. At the same time, I think there’s too many of them. Whenever they finish fighting a baddie it’s back to the cabin for sex. At times it feels like stalling, waiting for night to fall so they can get back to killing soulless.

While the plot is fine it needed a little more. I would expect a 262 page book to have a solid subplot, but beyond Rhys wondering about his family we come up short. Part of that is because there are precious few characters – beside good guys Rhys and Silas we have the Big Bad, his cookie cutter lackies, and a waiter on the cruise ship. That’s it.

I would argue that this book could be edited down into a 150 novella and made amazing. As is it’s still a fun read and I would continue the series, but Close Quarter was written in 2012 and there still isn’t a sequel. Ah, well. I’m looking forward to moving on to Zabo’s contemporaries.

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Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

41940477The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Review:

Trigger warning for anything and everything guns, violence, and mass murder.

The America circa 2030 that Bennett pictures is not a happy place. Take the most troubling parts of American life and shove them down the slippery slope – a lack of gun control leads to a culture where open carry is de rigueur and random gun violence is part of everyday life. Technology has evolved and a newscaster can be generated from algorithms, and live video can be manipulated to the point that you never know if what you’re watching is completely real. The West has fallen on extremely hard times and many young people in America have emigrated to places with better prospects like China and South America.

In this dystopian but eerily familiar world mass shootings approach entertainment, leading one company to develop a reality show based on that concept. Pay the owners of malls and other public gathering sites for the right to stage an episode of Vigilance at a time of the producer’s choosing, several fully armed people who want to commit mass murder are set loose on the unsuspecting crowd, and people who survive get a big cash reward. The entire ordeal is broadcast live to millions.

…disturbing as fuck, right?

The book follows the production of one Vigilance episode through the eyes of the main producer in the control room and a bartender every-woman. We see how America has changed, how hungry the public has become for this entertainment, and how many almost relish the thought of being unwittingly cast in the show to see if they have what it takes to survive.

Parts of this book are very well done. The world building in particular is tight and combined with a driving plot led me to reading the novella in a single day. (Wanting to avoid violent dreams may have been another reason….)  The America Bennett imagines may seem too far gone but the seeds of many ideas, especially with regard to technology, already exist today.

I had a bunch of issues as well, though. First, despite the female POV character I doubt this passes the Bechdel Test, and most women characters (that is, two out of three-ish) are stereotypes or a virtual personality made to fit the expectations and criteria of men.

Second, while the set up is interesting the end of the story fell flat. One character ended up being the undoing of another, and I recognized it as soon as they were introduced because I saw how the stereotypical gender dynamic was going. The story ends on a big AHA that felt not only out of left field but not in keeping with the themes he had been playing with to that point.

I think Vigilance works as a piece of speculative fiction in that it shows what America, ruled by greed and unchecked gun possession, could become. The idea of the reality show is fascinating, and I kept reading to see how this sort of thing could possibly be set up. Once we get past the setup, though, there’s a whole bunch of disappointment. It’s a haunting read, to be sure, and the idea behind the book will stick with me longer than the so-so writing, plot, or characters.

Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #5)

40404706Although beautiful young widow Phoebe, Lady Clare, has never met West Ravenel, she knows one thing for certain: he’s a mean, rotten bully. Back in boarding school, he made her late husband’s life a misery, and she’ll never forgive him for it. But when Phoebe attends a family wedding, she encounters a dashing and impossibly charming stranger who sends a fire-and-ice jolt of attraction through her. And then he introduces himself…as none other than West Ravenel.

West is a man with a tarnished past. No apologies, no excuses. However, from the moment he meets Phoebe, West is consumed by irresistible desire…not to mention the bitter awareness that a woman like her is far out of his reach. She’s the daughter of a strong-willed wallflower who long ago eloped with Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent—the most devilishly wicked rake in England.

Review:

West has been developing as a character over the entire course of the Ravenel series so I was excited to see that he is the hero of book five. He’s become an awesome guy and deserves a happily ever after! While Devil’s Daughter is a solid romance in the Kleypas mold I was hoping West’s story would be my favorite of the bunch, but alas.

The good:

  • Kleypas has been writing historicals for a long time and she knows what she’s doing. No major problems with the plot and the characterization is good, making for a solid read.
  • There are many cameos of characters from previous books, both in the Ravenel series as well a her previous Wallflower series. She succinctly reminds us who each person is and no one overstays their welcome, and there’s a nice balance between old and new that didn’t stress me out.
  • Yea for fun banter! I think I like West and Phoebe together best when they’re in this mode, especially the quips over dinner. There’s also a lovely rejoinder to the all to common line, ‘I don’t deserve him/her’ that will stick with me.
  • Phoebe has two small children and they act like children. The one year old is most notable for overturning his applesauce and making a mess, and the preschooler is most interested in playing in the river. No plot moppets here!
  • Part of the non-romance plot revolves around how farming was changing and becoming more technological. Some people wanted to continue the way they always had, but West is committed to changing with the times.
  • Phoebe’s dead husband isn’t villainized, nor is their love put forward as something less than the love between Phoebe and West. They’re merely different, and it tickles me that the book asserts that a person can have more than one “true love” in their life. It’s lovely to see.

The not-so-good:

  • While the kids weren’t plot moppets a cat was used as one. Cute as all heck, moved the plot along… and was never mentioned again once it served its purpose. Gah.
  • I’m done with the trope where a kid is timid around people in general, but gloms onto the love interest because fate. ‘Normally my son’s shy around strangers, but he’s crawling all over the guy I like!’ Sigh.
  • The main conflict starts as stated in the jacket copy, with Phoebe deciding she hates West before he even meets him. It resolves quickly enough then transitions to West worrying that his sordid past will be used against Phoebe’s sons if they get married. Each conflict is fine on its own but they’re not linked together very well, making for some disjointedness.

Devil’s Daughter is another solid book from Kleypas, but considering that I had such high hopes for West’s story I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Hello Stranger is still my favorite Ravenel book, no question.

Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World by Isabel Gillies

42099132When we talk about being cozy, most of us think of a favorite sweater or a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day. But to Isabel Gillies, coziness goes beyond mere objects. To be truly cozy, she argues, means learning to identify the innermost truth of yourself and carrying it into the world, no matter your environment.

From old family recipes and subway rides to jury duty and hospital stays, in Cozy Gillies shows readers that true ease stems not from throw pillows and a candle, but from opportunities to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and learn to make ourselves at home no matter where we are.

Review:

This book could also be subtitled, ‘How to be Cozy Anywhere’. According to Gillies cozy is more than hot tea and fuzzy slippers, it’s knowing what calms and centers you. She finds it both in places you would expect (baths) and places you don’t (jury duty). If I had to boil it down I’d say that

cozy = self-awareness + mindfulness + self-care

The book starts on a personal scale then broadens out to feeling cozy in your home and in your community. She emphasizes that we’ll all find different things comforting, and that part of the journey is figuring out what’s cozy to us. Instead of ‘this is cozy, do this,’ it’s ‘these things work for me, your mileage may vary.’

I’m thankful for that, and it did get me thinking about what I find cozy. There’s curling up with a blanket and a good book and preferably a cat, of course. Fresh flowers on my desk. Libraries. I think Gillies and I would agree on these points. But she finds walks with friends cozy, while I would much rather go on treks across town by myself. And that’s fine.

While some of the things she mentions can be enjoyed for free many require disposable income, free time, or comfortable circumstances, and Gillies acknowledges that not everyone has those things. She’s also quite determined to find cozy in the most trying circumstances, and I personally draw the line at when you’re sick and in pain in a hospital waiting room. She concludes that the nurses’ scrubs looked soft and therefore cozy, but… yeah.

The most valuable thing I got from this book is that it shifted my perception of cozy towards situations as well as things. Tea and my reading chair are cozy, for sure, but so is visiting the library and going to the florist to pick out a flower for my desk. So while not life-changing, this book did make me more open to seeing the cozy around me and more comfortable making my own.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend?

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a graphic novel in English, and a single-volume, full-color graphic novel at that. But I visited my mom’s local library on a trip home and this beauty called out to me from the shelf. It was fun to read while sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to review it, though, because I have so little to compare it to. I like the art, the story is stinkin’ cute, and I blew through it in one setting. The queer factor is a plus, too. The only major drawback is that while the art suggests a historical setting the dialogue does not. The conflicting messages messed with my brain.

For now I can recommend The Prince and the Dressmaker as a quick, fun read, but I’ll need few more graphic novels under my belt before I feel comfortable calling it great.

Flinch: A Grenton PD Short Story by L. Setterby

32502525David Bourdon isn’t over his ex.

He misses their old life. He misses Ann-Marie’s laugh, her sultry voice, the way she swears like a sailor.
He had good reasons for leaving her. She can do better than him. He’s fucked up; she’s not.

But now Ann-Marie wants him back. On one condition: he has to be honest with her, for the very first time. About what he likes. What he wants her to do to him.

He thought leaving her took all the courage he had. He was wrong.

Review:

I’m not a big short story person when it comes to romance, but Wendy the Super Librarian loves Setterby and suggested Flinch as an introduction to her work. And who am I to complain when it’s free and I have a long flight ahead of me?

It’s truly a short story, clocking in at under 30 pages, and as a result there’s not much story here. David needs pain in order to enjoy sex, but he never told his ex that. He tells her when they meet by chance, leading to an erotic hotel room encounter.

On the good side, masochistic men are thin on the ground so I’m glad to see one as the hero. The writing is fine, the sex scene is fine, it’s.. fine.

Flinch didn’t blow my mind, but it’s unfair to expect that at this length.  I liked it enough enough to try out Setterby’s novels in the future, so there’s that.

Reverb by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #3)

43185688Twisted 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.

Review:

What a wonderful end to an amazing series!

The good:

  • Mish is a pansexual cis woman, David is a trans man, and they’re in a book full of lots of queer folks written by a non-binary person. All the yes.
  • The romance is like-likes-like, which I don’t see very often. Mish and David both see themselves as protectors and have a similar personality type, and as a result they have a feel for what makes each other tick. It brings them closer while also contributing to issues down the line.
  • I love that Zabo doesn’t have Big Miscommunications in their books. People talk to each other about their feelings like the adults they are – insert mock gasp of shock here. 😉
  • The found family dynamic runs through the series and is extra strong here. You can sense that the group is nearly complete and that David is the last puzzle piece. And him fitting goes both ways – the band accepts him as part of the family, and he has to realize and accept that he both fits and is wanted.
  • There’s a natural friendship between David and Adrian as the two guys who are with the band but don’t play on stage and it works so well.
  • The queerness of the band is never forgotten, and they are totally there for their fans and each other, from lead singer down through the roadies.
  • Little realities of touring ring true and make sense. For example, when they get donuts at a rest stop they make sure to buy the most garish ones they can find because they’ll look good on Instagram.
  • There’s tons of positive modelling, showing how delicate situations should be handled. When David sees a crew member hesitating to enter the men’s room, unsure of their reception, he warmly says “come with me” and strikes up a conversation.
  • In a similar vein, David is cis-passing, so Mish doesn’t realize that he’s trans. We see him come out to her from his point of view, worried she won’t be accepting. Her reaction is honest, real, unforced, and utterly respectful and accepting. We see how much it means to David, and I fell in love with both of them even more.

Neither here-nor-there:

  • The BDSM element so strong in the first two books is really light here. That being said, if you’re interested at all in this series I suggest you start with book one, Syncopation, in order to enjoy the character arcs and warm fuzzies to their fullest.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!

I’m both sad to see this series end and excited to see what Zabo does next – it appears that Twisted Wishes’ opening band could get its own spin off series and I hope it does, and soon!

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

36628420It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.

But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .

Review:

Content warning for war atrocities.

After a run of decidedly meh books for The Booktube Prize the beginning of this book excited me – a mystery, yea! It morphed a bit as it went on, from mystery to Gothic horror-ish to historical fiction. And I can’t say I like the work as a whole.

I don’t want to spoil anything so I’m going to be (annoyingly?) vague. The central narrative follows Helen but flashes back to several different times and places through the use of “primary” documents. Normally I love this sort of thing, and some of the tales stood out as fine short stories in their own right, but it didn’t feel cohesive. The reader is tipped into and out of story lines with the grace of someone emptying a wheelbarrow.

While the writing doesn’t bother me the literary devices do. Symbolism isn’t merely used, it’s beat over our heads until I rolled my eyes at every mention of a jackdaw. In the middle a connection is made between the atrocities of the past and those of today. It could have been an, ‘oh, wow’ kind of revelation, but it’s done in a ham-handed way that strips it of any power. And the “twist” at the end is meant to give goosebumps but only made me yawn.

All in all it was disappointing for my first Sarah Perry.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

36679056Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

Review:

The Incendiaries is my third read for The Booktube Prize and I was curious what kind of book it would be. I cringed when I saw the table of contents – strictly rotating points of view, here among the three main characters, is not my sort of thing.

It works though, in large part because Will is our narrator, relating information about the other characters in hearsay. From an early chapter marked Phoebe:

She’d have sat in the circle, holding a kidskin journal. Though I’d driven Pheobe here, I was outside, going home. It’s a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn’t. Instead, I’ll add what details I can.

So put that in the plus column. I also like the book’s themes, especially as it examines faith – losing it, searching for it, and what people will do in it’s name.

On the other hand plot is thin on the ground. I was avoiding the jacket copy but I felt forced to turn to it a third of the way through, as nothing was happening and I wanted to have an idea of what may transpire. It turns out those two paragraphs are the entire plot, and everything else is characterization.

That’s not a bad thing, but combined with an overwrought writing style that I don’t care for, I never felt fully involved in the story. All in all it was an okay read, but sadly not particularly memorable.

The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality: From Ace to Ze by Morgan Lev Edward Holleb

9781785923425_f78cfThere can be confusion around the appropriate terminology for trans and queer identities, even within the trans community itself. As language is constantly evolving, it can be especially difficult to know what to say. As a thorough A-Z glossary of trans and queer words from ‘ace’ to ‘xe’, this dictionary guide will help to dispel the anxiety around using the “wrong” words, while explaining the weight of using certain labels and providing individuals with a vocabulary for personal identification.

Having correct and accurate terminology to describe oneself can be empowering, especially with words and phrases that describe gender identity, sexuality, sexual orientation, as well as slang relevant to LGBTQ+ rights and anti-discrimination, queer activism, gender-affirming healthcare and psychology.

Review:

When you have a question about a term used in the LGBTQIA+ community it can be hard to find a definition that is trustworthy. There’s the internet… but it’s the internet, and some pages are sketchy.  The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality is a place to go with these questions, if you just want some info, or if you’re interested in related history.

Holleb, who is trans, bisexual, nonbinary, and uses he/him pronouns, writes with an unabashedly activist point of view that I’m glad for.  He has no problem saying that we shouldn’t use a certain word, or that a particular (often hateful) way of looking at the world is wrong.  In the introduction he also says that we, the reader, are not obliged to agree with him on everything, and are free to cross out passages and rip out pages as we see fit.  I find the invitation refreshing and welcome.

I read the book straight through, as is my wont, and had a mixed experience.  The information itself is great.  A bunch of questions that have been stewing in the back of my mind were clearly answered, and learned some words that I didn’t even know existed.  Some are terms used within the community, others are words that have fallen out of fashion or the times but nevertheless are still good to know.

However, as a whole the writing is uneven.  It feels like it’s trying to be academic in parts but sourcing is inconsistent and clunky. Some sections give lots of facts and percentages that don’t serve the reader as well as a thoughtful summary would.  More than a few glossary entries stray into essay-length reiterations of history, and while at times enlightening they are often lists of facts, like the names and dates for organizations connected with a certain cause.  The information isn’t bad, I just wanted it synthesized a little more.

Overall it’s okay.  I learned a bunch, but it could have been put together more cohesively. As a result its a bit hit-and-miss as a resource, but it will definitely start you on the right track.

Thanks to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.