All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

35656812After the death of elder statesman Lord Slane—a former prime minister of Great Britain and viceroy of India—everyone assumes that his eighty-eight-year-old widow will slowly fade away in her grief, remaining as proper, decorative, and dutiful as she has been her entire married life. But the deceptively gentle Lady Slane has other ideas. First she defies the patronizing meddling of her children and escapes to a rented house in Hampstead. There, to her offspring’s utter amazement, she revels in her new freedom, recalls her youthful ambitions, and gathers some very unsuitable companions—who reveal to her just how much she had sacrificed under the pressure of others’ expectations.

Review:

I hoped I would like this book and I did – the writing is wonderful, the story is both of its time and timeless, and the characters are lovingly drawn and realized.   What I did not expect, however, was to unsettle my husband as I read the last chapter on an airplane, wiping stray tears as I raced to finish before we landed.

“There there,” he joked as the plane taxied to the gate.  “It’s all over now.”

“Hush,” I sniffled, head down.  “Two pages to go.”


Sackville-West’s writing grabbed me from the first page. It is beautiful without being flowery and it strikes on truths with the surety of a practiced ironsmith.

They all know that nobody cares for them; that’s why they talk so loud.

Characters are fleshed out in the usual away as well as through asides that are tiny yet enlightening.

“Besides, dear Lady Slane,” said Lavinia – she had never unbent sufficiently to address her mother-in-law by any other name….

The story is about a woman who, as the wife of a politician, put her own desires aside in order to be a respectable lady that is an asset to her husband’s career.  Her children, now elderly themselves, have only seen her this way.  Now that her husband has died the offspring debate ‘what to do with mother’, not realizing that she may have plans of her own.

All Passion Spent was written almost 90 years ago but some aspects struck close to home. Women putting aside their own ambitions in order to fit more neatly into a man’s idea of them.  Women being questioned, doubted, or ignored when they are honest about how they want to spend their life.  ‘She’s old, so let’s decide this for her’, ‘she’s young, she doesn’t know her own mind, surely’, ‘she must not be a good judge of character, that guy is obviously fleecing her’, ‘she’s not acting like herself, dad’s death must’ve broken her’.  Only one daughter gets that Lady Slane is a strong soul that has finally gained some freedom and is going to do what she damn well pleases with it, thank you:

Edith alone frolicked in her mind. She thought her mother not mad, but most conspicuously sane.

I think the ending got to me as much as it did because the character work is so well done.  Lady Slane is a woman I care about, am mad on behalf of, and root for the entire novel.  And while sitting beside her as death approaches I can’t help but think about my own old age, and who I will share it with.

My point about the people I like, is not that they dwell morbidly on death, but that they keep continually a sense of what, to them, matters in life. Death, after all, is an incident. Life is an incident too. The thing I mean lies outside both.

Very nearly five stars.

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Visions of Heat by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #2)

215643Used to cold silence, Faith NightStar is suddenly being tormented by dark visions of blood and murder. A bad sign for anyone, but worse for Faith, an F-Psy with the highly sought after ability to predict the future. Then the visions show her something even more dangerous – aching need…exquisite pleasure. But the very emotions she yearns to embrace could be the end of her.

Changeling Vaughn D’Angelo can take the form of either man or jaguar, but it is his animal side that is overwhelmingly drawn to Faith. While Vaughn craves sensation and hungers to pleasure Faith in every way, desire is a danger that could snap the last threads of her sanity. And there are Psy who need Faith’s sight for their own purposes. They must keep her silenced – and keep her from Vaughn.

Review:

It’s settled – I’m all in for this series.  There’s a lot to like.

The good:

  • While the books focus on different couples there’s a strong story arc that pulls them together and advances as we go.  I love that urban fantasy and paranormal romance often are set up this way because it’s like following a favorite TV series, watching characters and events develop over a longer period of time.
  • The contrast between the touchy-feely Changelings and cerebral Psy makes for interesting conflicts.  With different species of shifters and different designations of Psy it’s easy to see why the series is going on strong over twenty books in.
  • Visions of Heat is sexy, it’s fun, it’s full of characters I’ve come to care about, and it got my mind off the real world at a time I seriously need some escapism. Excellent.

The not-so-good:

  • This is the second book in a row where a woman Psy who is cut off from her emotions is paired up with a red hot Changeling male.  Nothing wrong with it, but I’m looking forward to the trope flipping in future books.

Huzzah for finding a new series to gorge on!  I’m not the type to swallow series I love whole, though, so I’m planning to leave two months or so between books so they have room to breathe properly in my brain.  I guess paranormal romance is like fine wine. 😉

The Star King by Susan Grant (Star #1)

35805990Years ago, Air Force pilot Jas Boswell believed she met the love of her life. She shared a mesmerizing encounter with a stranger after a terrible crash. As soon as rescuers arrived, the mysterious golden-eyed man disappeared. She has spent the last two decades trying to convince herself it was all a dream…

Once heir to a galactic kingdom, Rom B’kah is captain of a starship of derelicts and smugglers. He remains haunted by the memory of the “saving angel” he met during wartime and who vanished without a trace. His loyal crew thinks he has pined for this fantasy woman long enough. Then Jas suddenly returns to him and sets their lives on a collision course with destiny…

Review:

I was hooked early on but as the story developed I lost interest and got more and more annoyed.

The good:

  • The world building early on is well done and kept me curious about what this Earth was like and who the aliens who want to visit are. The story is contained and moves at a good pace.
  • At the beginning Jas’ development as a character is realistic and interesting.  She works hard to learn an alien language from scratch and while she’s a quick study Grant lets her grasp for words and speak awkwardly.  As someone who lives and interprets in a second language learned as an adult I can totally relate.

The not-so-good:

  • Once the action moves off Earth and into space the tightness of the world and plot fall apart.  The setting is expanded tenfold with all kinds of planets and peoples and things to take in, losing what groundedness it had.
  • Jas gets an case of being too stupid to live.  Rom leaves her to wait in a hotel with all kinds of warnings – keep your hood up so people don’t realize you’re from Earth, don’t stray far, oh and here’s a bodyguard to keep you safe.  So of course Jas immediately talks to random people and accepts their invitation to go up to a remote mountain retreat because, something.  And when they give her a necklace that freaks the hell out of birds she doesn’t get suspicious, just thinks ‘ah, silly birds, scared of a benign piece of jewelry.’ Gah.
  • While early on Jas’ language acquisition is within the realm of suspendable belief later she’s all, ‘I’m picking up this completely different alien tongue just by eavesdropping on conversations for a few days’.  Maybe if she was with three year olds or something, but high-level political conversations when you don’t know the grammar or how to read it?  I call bull.
  • The hero and heroine have sex on the top of a giant snail.  For real.  It’s the sort of thing that could be amazing in a crazy way if done right but I’m not even sure why the scene is there.

If the second half were as good as the first this would be an amazing read but alas, I don’t even think I’m going to pick up the next in the series.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

32768606Struggling to cope with urban life – and life in general – Frankie, a twenty-something artist, retreats to her family’s rural house on “turbine hill,” vacant since her grandmother’s death three years earlier. It is in this space, surrounded by countryside and wild creatures, that she can finally grapple with the chain of events that led her here-her shaky mental health, her difficult time in art school-and maybe, just maybe, regain her footing in art and life.

Review:

A Line Made by Walking is a frustrating book for me because as I’m reading I can tell the writing is amazing.  I mean, right here on page five is a passage that speaks to me and my life with an image I never would have dreamed up:

Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.

I highlighted pages’ worth of passages even more wonderful than this.  When I’m in the book it’s beautiful, even a little haunting.  But after putting the book down it took a lot of effort to bring myself back to the page, namely because there is no plot to speak of.

Now, this is a very individual thing.  It’s one of the reasons I dive into romance and urban fantasy but have to pick my way around the edges of Booker longlists – more often than not nothing happens!  I once heard literary fiction cheekily defined as ‘white people sitting around talking’.  That isn’t true for the entire genre, of course, but it’s the part I like the least, and the part this book falls into.

If literature (with a capital L or in scare quotes, your pick) is your thing A Line Made by Walking is the book for you.  I admire the writing and the depiction of mental illness in an up close and personal way.  Baume’s descriptions of performance art sent me scurrying to the internet and YouTube to see pieces for myself.

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts from several thousand other films, the complete history of cinema. Each extract represents a minute of the day. Mostly, though not exclusively, by means of a clock face. Wherever the film is screened, it is played in sync with actual time. But I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. I love that an idea can be so powerful it doesn’t matter whether I’ve seen the artwork for real or not.

I was there for each moment of the book but the lack of direction and nothingness of the plot kept me from engaging.  A five star read for some people, but a three star read for me.

Dark Lover by J.R. Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood #1)

Synopsis:

42899In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there’s a deadly turf war going on between vampires and their slayers. There exists a secret band of brothers like no other – six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. Yet none of them relishes killing more than Wrath, the leader of The Black Dagger Brotherhood.

The only purebred vampire left on earth, Wrath has a score to settle with the slayers who murdered his parents centuries ago. But, when one of his most trusted fighters is killed – leaving his half-breed daughter unaware of his existence or her fate – Wrath must usher her into the world of the undead – a world of sensuality beyond her wildest dreams.

Review:

I really wanted to fall head over heels for this book, considering that I keep seeing this series again and again in paranormal “best of” lists.  While the character development is awesome there are too many things that distracted me to warrant a higher rating.

First the little stuff – this book is close to being timeless except for the pop culture references, grah. In my ebook edition one of them was slugger “Sammy Sousa”. Ahem. There were also a couple of phrases that annoyed me, like “weed out… the best”. No, you weed out the worst so the best can survive. Sigh.

The story changes focus quite often, following several characters’ stories until they merge for three minutes at the end. Speaking of – the final fight was over way too fast and had next to no suspense. I mean, the bad guy’s animals were better fighters than the actual bad guy. Disappointing.

Choices come easily to these characters but most are explained. Beth and Butch chose new lives because their previous ones were sad sack. Wrath seems to be driven by fate or what have you, and I can accept that. The rest of the brothers obviously have their own moral codes so we’ll see how their stories pan out in later books.

The Reading Year Ahead – 2018

Last year I was all about the goals and, uh, it didn’t go so well.  Let’s recap:

  • Read 36,000 pages

I counted by pages instead of books this year, hoping it would encourage me to read longer books.  But… no.  Not only did I miss the goal (31,000 pages read in 2017) but my average pages per book went down.  Eep.  Part of this is due to a huge reading slump I had late in the year so while I’m not happy I missed my goal 110 books is awesome in its own right.

  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing 20th Century list
  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing Dewey list (hopefully 10+)

No and no.  I had maybe one or two for each list.

  • Have 30%+ of my reading be by authors who are people of color or otherwise diverse

This is the one goal I rocked. 33% of books were by authors who are PoC or from other marginalized groups.  Most excellent.

One out of four goals is an awful percentage, and I’m beginning to wonder if these year-long goals are the best thing for me right now. The 20C and Dewey lists, in particular, had no bearing on what books I picked up.  Making sure at least one book in three is by a marginalized author has become ingrained but the rest has fallen by the wayside.

It’s time to shake things up.

2018 Reading Un-goals

I know they say that goals should be worded positively as something you will do, not something you will avoid. But seeing as how last year went I feel a new approach is justified.  Bring on the un-goals!

  • I will not set a hard number of books or pages to read.

I’m still going to put a number in the Goodreads challenge to give myself some kind of pace to measure by, but I will edit it whenever I start getting stressed out.

  • I will not join any challenges that dictate what books to read (with one exception).

Over the past couple of years I fell hard for group challenges on Goodreads and while they were good for me at the time they feel stifling now.  I want the freedom to read what I want without outside pressure.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be skipping out on all challenges, though!  Anything based on a time frame (Dewey’s, 24 in 48, Bout of Books, and so on) are still fair game.  You didn’t think I could give up cold turkey, did you?  I’m also working a major exception in: Reading with Style, a Goodreads group I’ve been with for over four years now.  The challenges there are more an invitation to branch out in your reading, and hopefully that will soak up any challenge-y energy I have.  Ideally RwS will be the frame my 2018 reading is built on, but we’ll see.

  • I will not update my Dewey Decimal and 20th Century lists monthly.

It doesn’t matter when I crunch the numbers so I can wait until the end of the year if I want.  Time and peace gained, no harm done.

  • I will not hold myself to these goals if they’re not working for me.

One year is a long time to stick with something I’m not happy with, so I reserve the right to revisit and change goals as I see fit.  I might want to do a personal challenge or follow a shortlist or do Nonfiction November again, and I can decide at the time if it’s working for me.  Maybe I’ll check in quarterly, maybe not – no pressure, no worries.

The one thing I haven’t touched on is my diversity goal, but it’s for a good reason – reading diversely has become second nature (yea!)  Whenever I open my read shelf on Goodreads I scan the covers, making sure at least two of the six books on the first row are by PoC and other marginalized folks. I may aim for a higher percentage in the future but for the moment this is working great.

Those are my un-goals for 2018!  Have you changed your goals drastically this year?  Which one are you most excited about?

 

My Favorite Books of 2017

Yea for best of lists!  I’ve had putting fun putting this together, as looking through 2017 through the lens of my reading is better than nearly any other lens out there. (And we thought 2016 was bad!)  Here’s hoping that 2018 turns things around, or at least provides as many quality reading experiences as this year.

The list is pretty representative of my intake as a whole – evenly split among non-fiction, romance, and other fiction; plenty of authors from marginalized groups; and the overwhelming majority are written by women.  It’s nice when it works out like that!

So without any further ado here’s my ten favorite books of 2017, in reverse alphabetical order by title and linked to reviews where possible:

29242461When the Marquess Falls by Lorraine Heath

The perfect novella topper to the Hellions of Havisham series.  It doesn’t work as a standalone, though, so be sure to start with Falling into Bed with a Duke.

25189315Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

A look at what it means to have a good death, written by someone who has been closer to that abyss than most.  Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?), things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?), and things we should really think about (what do I want to become of my remains?).

30347690A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. Guerriero takes us to a competition in Argentina where winning means never dancing the malambo again.  The writing is exquisite and the story sticks with you like no other.

30755704The Red by Tiffany Reisz

Reisz is at her best in erotica mode and it’s all left to hang out here – kink, mind-bending twists, and fine art (for good measure).  Not for the faint of heart but everyone else? Jump in.

31843383Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

The book I’ve pushed on recommended to more people than any other this year – the best bits of historical fiction, queer stories, and magical realism rolled into a tight novella.  I rationed it out to myself so I wouldn’t finish too quickly; the writing is that wonderful.

28186071Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress

These vignettes are a joy, and I love the look at what it’s like to be a black domestic worker in 1950’s New York. While the way of life is different there are other parts that are eerily familiar, making it a forever timely read.

25376011For Real by Alexis Hall

A BDSM, LGBTQIA+ romance that flips all.the.tropes in a satisfying, hefty way.  Each hero’s point of view is specific and completely different from the other, making the story believable and authentic even though it’s far from the usual.  Totally deserving of its RITA.

32311672Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life by Jessica Nutik Zitter

My favorite Nonfiction November read.  Zitter says that doctors are awful at helping patients having a good death because as far as they’re concerned dying on their watch is a failure.  She examines what the “end-of-life conveyor belt” and how to avoid it with engaging stories and cases.  Not an easy read but an essential one.

25489134The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This book reminded me that adult (as oppossed to YA) fantasy is straight up awesome.  A fairy tale of sorts set in a Russian winter, Arden gives the reader all the respect they deserve while telling engrossing tale with magic and demons and a tiny hint of love.  The second in the series just came out and I can’t wait to get to it.

35297339Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize this one – it hasn’t come out yet but I had to include it.  Halliday weaves two completely unrelated stories together in a mind-blowing way that only gets better the more you think and reflect on it.  A longer (and even more gushy!) review on its release day in February.

There we have it, my favorite books of 2017!  What was your top read of the year?  Is there anything I should keep my eye out for in 2018?

An Extraordinary Union and A Hope Divided by Alyssa Cole (Loyal League Series #1 & #2)

I love historical romances, and while I’ll never turn down a good Regency I’m getting more and more interested in other places and periods.  The Civil War era is often ignored by Alyssa Cole has stepped in with two well researched and plain awesome books, the beginning of her Loyal League series.

30237404In An Extraordinary Union Elle is a former slave that is working as one again, but this time undercover, to spy for the Union Army.  Her path crosses with Malcolm who is also undercover but for Pinkerton’s Secret Service. They discover a Confederate plot and end up teaming up and doing all their sneaky spy stuff to save the day.

To be honest sneaky spy stuff is not my thing but I really like this book anyway.  I love that Elle is smart and has tons of agency and doesn’t let Malcolm’s charm get to her.  The interracial romance has lots of obstacles, as you can imagine, which makes getting over them all the sweeter.  So while An Extraordinary Union isn’t exactly my sort of thing it made me excited to pick up the next book.

34570037A Hope Divided follows Marlie, a free black woman that learned the art of making tisanes, poultices, and other medicines from her mother.  She’s a scientist type, always extending her knowledge and finding ways to hone her craft.  While she’s at it she attends to men at a Confederate prison, using the access to pass coded messages and aid those who are fleeing the South.  There she meets Ewan, who is working for the Union from the inside, and they end up saving each other in turns as they do their thing.

I liked this book even more than the first, mostly because the spying stuff wasn’t as nail-biting.  We get to follow another interracial couple navigate their relationship and this period of history in an unvarnished, unflinching way.  I learned a ton and eagerly await further installments.

Perfect for those who like historical romances that are not set in ye olde England and are true to their time without pulling any punches.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire (Wayward Children #2)

31450908This book languished on my to be read list for a long time, but not because I was putting it off.  On the contrary, I thought about picking it up constantly but was looking for the “right” moment.  A moment I needed an escape, a moment long enough to devour 189 pages in one sitting, a moment I could be quiet and sink into the world McGuire introduced in Every Heart a Doorway.  Those moments lined up on an evening in late December – add a proper cup of chai and you have a near perfect escape.

The Wayward Children series is about children who fell into other worlds via some sort of portal (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia) and, for whatever reason, eventually found their way back to the real world. This is a happy thing for some but twin sisters Jack and Jill have a… let’s call it a complicated relationship with both the realm they grew up in and and the realm they slip into.

I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll end the particulars there.  I’m a fan of McGuire because she builds worlds right under your nose, no info dumps required.  The narrator is not part of the story, not really, but relating it to the reader.  It’s a remove that lets McGuire talk to us directly – we’re all around a campfire, hanging on her every word.

There are moments that change everything, and once things have been changed, they do not change back.  The butterfly may never again become a caterpillar… [the girls] will never again be the innocent, untouched children who wandered down a stairway, who went through a door.

They have been changed.

The story changes with them.

I highlighted many passages from Doorway for this reason, but fewer in Sticks and Bones.  On the whole this book is more solid and assured in its plotting and length but I still liked it a touch less than the series opener.  The message – we should let kids be who they are and not impose gender or other roles upon them – is awesome, and I appreciate that there is LGBTQIA+ representation (f/f relationship), but it hasn’t stuck with me as much as I hoped.

Fear not because the next installment, Beneath the Sugar Sky, comes out in a few weeks.  I’ll keep my chai close at hand, ready for that elusive perfect moment.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.