The Night Mark by Tiffany Reisz

30698729Faye Barlow is drowning. After the death of her beloved husband, Will, she cannot escape her grief and most days can barely get out of bed. But when she’s offered a job photographing South Carolina’s storied coast, she accepts. Photography, after all, is the only passion she has left.

In the quaint beach town, Faye falls in love again when she sees the crumbling yet beautiful Bride Island lighthouse and becomes obsessed with the legend surrounding The Lady of the Light—the keeper’s daughter who died in a mysterious drowning in 1921. Like a moth to a flame, Faye is drawn to the lighthouse for reasons she can’t explain. While visiting it one night, she is struck by a rogue wave and a force impossible to resist drags Faye into the past—and into a love story that is not her own.

Review:

If you like time slip romances The Night Mark is a good entry point into Reisz’s work.  The historical elements are well researched and, barring a couple of short info dumps, well presented.  The writing is good and the characters are fully developed, from top to bottom.  Props for all kinds of presentation (POC, deaf, gay) with nods to what that means in different points in time.  Reisz doesn’t ignore inconvenient parts of history, and I wish more authors did the same.

That being said this standalone lacks the extra oomph I love in the rest of her books.  While the characters feel real the relationships between them are a bit lacking.  Some are distant, some are short, and some are with people who died long (or not so long) ago.  Many characters feel like islands – well connected to neighbors with bridges and tunnels and waterways, but islands all the same.

I’m glad Reisz is expanding the genres she writes in and hope this book will get her more mainstream attention, but it didn’t quite hit the spot with me.

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Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #1)

14461Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver radio station – and a werewolf in the closet. Her new late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged is a raging success, but it’s Kitty who can use some help. With one sexy werewolf-hunter and a few homicidal undead on her tail, Kitty may have bitten off more than she can chew?

Review:

When I read the first book of a long series I’m not looking for perfection – I’m looking to be drawn in. Kitty and the Midnight Hour does just that.

Kick-ass heroines are a time-honored trope in urban fantasy and Kitty is not one of them. She’s at the bottom of the supernatural pecking order and it’s refreshing. I’m used to seeing pack politics from the top down, but here we get a look from the bottom up. What is life like for the weakest members of a pack? What is it like to be the protected instead of doing the protector? Some reviewers see it as a weakness – how dare the heroine not be strong from day one! – but it allows her to develop as a person and hopefully avoid the power-up trap many series fall into.

Speaking of development, the characterization is on point and deep for everyone from Kitty down to the guests on her radio show. While some parts of the plot don’t strike me as believable – weres are outed and accepted in society too quickly for my taste – the characters always ring true. I can’t wait to meet them again in book two.

Give this a go if you’re in the mood for fun urban fantasy that colors outside the lines.

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

28186071First published in Paul Robeson’s newspaper, Freedom, and composed of a series of conversations between Mildred, a black domestic, and her friend Marge, Like One of the Family is a wry, incisive portrait of working women in Harlem in the 1950’s. Rippling with satire and humor, Mildred’s outspoken accounts vividly capture her white employers’ complacency and condescension—and their startled reactions to a maid who speaks her mind and refuses to exchange dignity for pay.

Upon publication the book sparked a critique of working conditions, laying the groundwork for the contemporary domestic worker movement. Although she was critically praised, Childress’s uncompromising politics and unflinching depictions of racism, classism, and sexism relegated her to the fringe of American literature. Like One of the Family has been long overlooked, but this new edition, featuring a foreword by best-selling author Roxane Gay, will introduce Childress to a new generation.

Review:

This collection of vignettes is a joy.

Marge, I sure am glad that you are my friend… No, I do  not want to borrow anything or ask any favors and I wish you’d stop bein’ suspicious everytime somebody pays you a compliment.  It’s a sure sign of a distrustful nature.

Even more than the joy, though, 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.  When Mildred riffs one Christmas about what peace would look like she dispenses with “no war” quickly – peace would be not being turned away from an apartment because of her race.  Peace would be not seeing signs on the subway asking for “tolerance” “regardless” of what other people are.  And,

…if nobody wanted to kill nobody else and I could pick up a newspaper and not read ’bout my folks gettin’ the short end of every stick… that would mean more peace.

How little has changed.

As Roxanne Gay says in the foreword, it’s “political without trying to manipulate the readers’ sensibilites, without ever forgetting that a novel, political or not, must first and foremost entertain.”  The short chapters go down easy and are perfect for reading on the train or at the doctor’s office.  I’m thankful that Childress wrote down the experience of this overlooked slice of society.  I’m so glad I read it.

Jacked Up by Samantha Kane (Birmingham Rebels #3)

32506423Linebacker Sam Taylor feels like a ticking time bomb. He left the army with emotional wounds as fresh as the scars on his back. Sam’s been living like a monk, but his best friend, defensive lineman King Ulupoka, wants to get him laid. Easy for him to say. The larger-than-life Samoan is a hard-bodied, tribal-tattooed fantasy. Sam agrees, under one condition: King stays to watch.

ER nurse Jane Foster is done being a good girl, and nothing says wild like picking up two of football’s sexiest players and bringing them back to your hotel room. Trouble is, she can’t decide which one she wants more. Sam is hot, sweet, and vulnerable. Jane’s more than willing to ride him into oblivion. But King’s intense gaze from across the room promises that the best is yet to come.

Sure, King has had his choice of girls and guys in the past. That doesn’t mean he’ll jeopardize his relationship with Sam over a case of locker-room lust—until a naughty nurse pushes them both out of their comfort zones. Seeing Jane and Sam together turns King on more than he ever imagined. If they’re game, he’s ready to tackle a three-way play.

This book has a lot going for it but man, its flaw is a fatal one. First,

The good:

  • The series revolves around a football team where all of the guys seem to end up in poly relationships. I am so here for this.
  • Representation is everywhere. One of the heroes is a person of color, the other is a veteran who has been scarred, literally and figuratively, by a recent deployment. In the background there’s a neurodiverse character, a female veteran in the process of recovering the ability to speak, and a couple more people of color. Excellent.
  • The sex is hot and two of the main characters are explicitly bi. It makes for a nice threesome.
  • Secondary characters are fleshed out and human, making it fun to guess who will be featured in the next book. (Nigel, please!) In fact I’d say characterization is the best thing Kane has going.

The not-good-for-me:

  • The story is much more psychological than I was expecting, especially over the first half. This isn’t a problem per ce, but part of my day job is interpreting psych counseling, so I don’t look forward to reading two full sessions in my romance. Your mileage likely varies.
  • I don’t buy all the football stuff. The wife and girlfriend dynamics don’t ring true, and some logistical things don’t quite work for me.

The no-good-at-all:

The word slut comes up over two dozen times, almost always by Jane in reference to herself. In an early scene she has a one night stand with the two heroes and, while having sex, totally enjoys it. But afterwards she cries and moans, ‘I’m a good girl, but look at what a slut I’ve become!’

It’s an understandable thought after her first experience, and another character talks her down, but Jane doesn’t let it go. Like, ever. Check out this quote from 82% in, when a friend yet again tries to talk sense into her:

“As long as everyone involved is an adult and no ones gets hurt who isn’t asking to be hurt, no harm, no foul.”

“That’s what everyone keeps saying,” Jane said miserably, turning away from Margo. “But it doesn’t feel normal. It feels like everyone is staring and pointing fingers because I’m a freakish slut who’s with two guys at the same time.”

“No one is doing that,” Margo said softly.

“I know,” Jane admitted.

She created a ton of problems by not opening her eyes to reality and continuing to believe in crazy notions without a shred of proof. ‘My job put that guy who got arrested for DUI on night shift, so heaven knows what they’re going to do to me for sleeping with two men at once!’ Seriously? Do you hear yourself?

The way this slut/bad girl language carries over into the sex also bothers me. I mean, it obviously is a triggering thought for Jane. But then there are scenes like:

He leaned over and pinned Jane’s hands above her head. “Dirty girl, you are so bad. You want to watch me get fucked? Is that what you want?”

She bit her lip and nodded with hooded eyes and flushed cheeks, looking like a sex kitten with her pretty hair spread all over the bed around her.

I just… no. No.

Despite all that I still think I’ll go back and read the previous books in the series. They’re well written, the (non-Jane) characters are interesting, and I like the direction Kane is headed in. Here’s hoping the other books are better.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

25489134At the edge of the Russian wilderness Vasilisa spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review:

I haven’t read much straight up adult fantasy lately and this books reminds me – why the hell not?! Reading like a grown-up fairy tale, The Bear and the Nightingale wove its spell around me just when I wanted to get away from the world.

So much is satisfying – the prose is weighty in the right places and beautiful throughout. The story could feel segmented but holds together well, having a cohesive instead of episodic feel. And perhaps above all, Arden trusts the reader. There is no semantic break down of character nicknames; we figure them out for ourselves. Plot threads are put aside until they are needed instead of being needled to death. If there is a romance it’s a super slow burn… I love slow burns! And while there’s a solid ending it leaves the door open for more books. Once I finished I learned it’s going to be a trilogy – callooh! Callay!

A strong recommendation for anyone who loves fantasy, especially for those who are looking for more than YA can offer. I’m excitedly looking forward to the next installment.

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

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen after I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

Prisoner of Love by Beverly Jenkins

18898429Kansas, 1884
Abandoned by her husband, Elizabeth Franklin is struggling to keep up with the chores on her 60-acre farm. Desperate to stay in the only home she ever loved, the resourceful Elizabeth agrees to marry a prisoner, Jordan Yancey – an arrangement that will set him free while affording her the farm help that she so urgently needs. But what Elizabeth never expects is that this former prisoner will arouse the kind of passion and desire she’s only heard about and capture her instead…

Jordan Yancey would do anything to get out of prison, and the arrangement with the pretty, but prim Elizabeth seems like a good bet – his freedom for a little farm work, and a wife on paper. He never imagines that his pretend bride will become the most magnificent woman he’s ever met…and that his sensuous little ‘jailer’ will be the one to free his heart…

Review:

I needed a quick hit of romance and stumbled upon this Jenkins novella at the library. A marriage of convenience historical set in the American West? Yes, please!

Jenkins usually writes novels in the 385-page range and it shows – there’s a lot of story considering the two digit page count. The conflicts are resolved quickly and easily with a single conversation. Elizabeth warms up to Jordan quickly, which is a bit hard to swallow because he was a convict when she married him.

In fact, the plot is so minimal that the story ventures into porn-without-plot territory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind – the love scenes are great! – it’s just not what I expected.

Her writing and historical chops are on fine display, so fans of Jenkins’ other historicals will enjoy this quick hit of romance. If you’re looking for an un-rushed story, though, you may want to try one of her longer titles like Breathless or Night Hawk.

Everneath by Brodi Ashton (Everneath #1)

9413044Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.

Review:

Complicated feelings about this one.

The good:

  • A mythology-based story that I don’t want to throw against the wall! This is super rare.
  • The plot was pretty interesting, and the world has been thought out. Things stay pretty consistent… but are not sufficient. More on that below.
  • I like love triangles in general (don’t hate!) and this one is particularly well balanced. The good guy/bad guy roles are stereotypical (high school football star vs rock musician dressed in black) but the affection each has for Nikki shines through.

The not-so-good:

  • While the world is thought out I had a bunch of niggles and questions that aren’t addressed. If Feeding fuels an Everliving for 100 years, why does Cole feel so drained within a year of topping up? It seems like everyone Feeds at the same time so all kinds of Everlivings on the Surface, as well as the people they Feed on, disappear from Earth at once. Wouldn’t that sudden spate of missing persons cases get noticed? What is the point of letting Forfeits return for an arbitrary six months? And so on.
  • On a similar note, the characters’ motivations are muddled or unclear.
  • The book could have done with a better edit. It felt like people jumped around in their actions – like someone sitting is somehow lying in bed half a page later. I didn’t spend time dissecting but it was still there.
  • The writing didn’t get in the way but it didn’t add anything to the story, either. The prose is simple, even for YA.
  • Each section starts off mentioning not only a time reference (good as the plot bounces around) but also a wholly unnecessary place reference. From chapter nine:

NOW
My bedroom. Four months left.

“Time’s flying for you, Nik.” Cole was sitting in the darkest corner of my bedroom….

  • I don’t remember a single person of color or minority character of any sort. It’s set in Utah so my hopes weren’t high, but still.

I don’t see myself continuing the series as the jacket copy for the next two books tells me pretty much everything I want to know plot-wise. I would like to read Ashton in another context, and am excited to see she’s one of the authors of My Lady Jane. It’s currently on hold at my library, so hopefully it’ll arrive before too long….

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.