American Manifesto by Bob Garfield

9781640092808_e7adaAs is often observed, Trump is a symptom of a virus that has been incubating for at least fifty years. But not often observed is where the virus is embedded: in the psychic core of our identity. Garfield investigates how we’ve gotten to this moment when our identity is threatened by both the left and the right, when e pluribus unum is no longer a source of national pride, and why, when looking through this lens of identity, the rise of Trumpism is no surprise. Overlaying that crisis is the rise of the Facebook-Google duopoly and the filter-bubble archipelago where identity is tribal and immutable.

Review:

I was primed to like this book because I love On the Media, a public radio show Garfield co-hosts. He isn’t afraid to skewer received wisdom and group think, so I was curious to see what he thinks about the state of democracy in the United States.

Overall I agree with Garfield’s idea that we need to recognize that the internet has not been the democratization machine we’ve been hoping for (with some exceptions) and that Google and Facebook have an outsized influence on American society. I also agree that those in favor of democracy need to put aside some differences to work together for the common good.

The way these ideas are conveyed, though, is not my cup of tea. The first half of the book was hit or miss, with some chapters getting at interesting points and others feeling disconnected. It’s written in his voice, as he would write for radio, but some parts don’t work as well in print. The most glaring example is lists that are compelling when heard but easily skipped over on the page.

While the tone aims at irreverent it dips into coarse. Dick joke level coarse. I understand that he’s trying to get us mad, to funnel that anger into action, but I don’t think it works. At least not on me.

Near the end of his manifesto Garfield posits that America has split itself into too many “micro-identities”, casting themselves as a highly visible other. When you make yourself stick out, he implies, you shouldn’t be surprised that people backlash against you.

So that pissed me off.

And then he talks about a kind colleague that hinted that he shouldn’t start speeches with “ladies and gentlemen” because it’s subtly “oppressive”. You won’t be surprised to hear that I’m on the colleague’s side and think that we should try to use inclusive language that works for all people, not just those on the gender binary. His answer? It’s wasted effort when there are bigger fish to fry.

My response – it costs nothing to change a few words and as a result be kinder and more understanding of those around you. You say you want us to unite, so why are you clinging to a phrase that divides?

I was prepared to give American Manifesto a ho-hum three star review until these sections near the end of the book. There are decent points here and there, but I think they could have presented in a more engaging way, with less unnecessary coarseness.

Thanks to Counterpoint Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

873920Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

Review:

I know this is a well-loved book but man, I couldn’t get into it and ended up hate reading near the end. My only consolation was that my buddy reader Cara agreed with me!

The setup and the underlying question are interesting – is Fevvers actually a woman with wings, or simply a sideshow fraud? My interest was quickly worn away as journalist Walser joins the circus in order to find out. The plot jumps the rails (literally), and by Part Three I ceased caring about the mystery – I just wanted it to be over.

Now and again there are beautiful images and nice turns of phrase, but most of the time it feels like Carter is trying to be clever, waving and pointing at her sentences as she does so. “Look at this! Isn’t it great?” Sometimes it is, but most of the of the time I’m nonplussed.

One and a half stars rounded up to two – not for me at. all.

Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #3)

7850602._SY475_After getting caught turning wolf on national television, Kitty retreats to a mountain cabin to recover and write her memoirs. But this is Kitty, so trouble is never far behind, and instead of Walden Pond, she gets Evil Dead. When werewolf hunter Cormac shows up with an injured Ben O’Farrell, Kitty’s lawyer, slung over his shoulder, and a wolf-like creature with glowing red eyes starts sniffing around the cabin, Kitty wonders if any of them will get out of these woods alive…

Review:

After everything that happened in book two Kitty needs to get away from it all and repairs to a cabin in the woods to take a break and maybe write her memoirs. While this is a good thing for her it minimizes my favorite aspect of the series – the wonderful conversations that Vaughn writes, especially when Kitty is hosting her radio show.

The first two thirds is your usual urban fantasy. Kitty is helping someone who was recently turned into a werewolf while figuring out who is leaving curses and dead animals outside her front door. The last third, though, concentrates on a trial where the action stops dead. It feels like two different stories grafted together.

My overall impression was mediocre, and not helped by the depiction of a skinwalker, which is a figure from Navajo tradition. A quick look at the wikipedia page shows that Dené folk would rather white people not appropriate the idea. The issue came to the fore when J.K. Rowling did just that, which put it on my radar. Kitty Takes a Holiday was written before the hullabaloo so I’m willing to overlook it to a point, but I’m not sure about the quality of the Native rep, period, and I’ve yet to find an own voices review.

The grafted stories, rep I’m not sure about, and miasma of meh did not work well for me. I’ll be pushing though to the next book soon in hopes that things get better.

There There by Tommy Orange

36692478There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Review:

Trigger warnings for alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and violence in general.

This is my second read for The BookTube Prize and it did not go as well as the first.

The good:

  • There There is an own voices story about urban Native Americans and the issues they face, from the trigger warnings above to loss of culture and traditions. It’s an important story that I’m so happy to see being told, and to such acclaim.
  • The introduction and interlude, essays about being Native American today, are powerful and affecting.
  • The story is told via many narrators, allowing for windows into many different Native experiences.

The not-so-good:

  • None of the narrators are particularly fleshed out. We learn who they are, what demons they may be fighting, and how they are related to the pow wow. But that’s it. I never felt connected with the characters as people, only as a set of circumstances.
  • …when I could remember them. My edition of the book has a detailed cast list in the front, with a paragraph for each main character. This made me suspicious – the book should make each character memorable enough for this not to be a problem. A list of names and one line description, sure, but paragraphs?
  • I am not a fan of the writing. It’s going for punchy more than lyrical, but I found it choppy and plodding.
  • The voice changes from first person to third and back again, which I found interesting at first. I was particularly intrigued by one chapter in the second person – what is Orange trying to say by making us, the reader, this particular character? But I don’t see any rhyme or reason to which character gets what treatment. The author Q&A at the end confirms my suspicion, as Orange says, “The final POV for each chapter in some cases wasn’t decided until the end of writing the book.” And that second person POV character becomes third again later. I would have liked more intention in the choices.
  • When it comes down to it I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. You can tell that they’re all coming together for the pow wow, and that something big will happen.
  • At the end this big thing happens, but that’s it. No exploration of it while it’s happening, no aftermath.
  • The biggest detractor for me was that I had to fight to get through this book. I seriously considered DNFing at 85%, and definitely would have done so earlier if I weren’t reading it for the BookTube Prize. Not to mention it put me in a reading slump. Gah.

It’s an important story and I’m glad Orange is telling it, but the method of telling wasn’t for me.

Twice as Hard by Amber Bardan

33976005They caught me. Naked, shivering and dripping after a spontaneous swim in the forest. Two rugged men whose hard gazes captivated and scared me all at once.

They warned me. Told me I was on private property and I needed to obey the law…or I would be punished.

The idea of them both punishing me, pleasuring me, kept tormenting me. I couldn’t want them. I shouldn’t. But I did.

Review:

I knew I was getting into an erotic, possibly slightly taboo story, but I was not expecting the mind fuck – for the reader, not the heroine.

There are people out there who will enjoy it so I don’t want to give it away, but the first half of this book made me uneasy around issues of consent. And the heroine straight up lies in her inner monologue, compounding the problem. I love a good mind fuck when it’s directed at a character (see The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz) but this isn’t quite for me.

If you know what you’re getting into with BDSM kink you may want to try Twice as Hard, but proceed with caution.

Sleeping Together by Kitty Cook (Perfect Drug #1)

44082618Vanessa Brown is having nightmares ever since her husband, Pete, mentioned he wanted to start a family. So when she catches her slacker-cool coworker, Altan Young, stealing sleeping medication from the pharmaceutical company they both work for, she decides to try the pilfered pills to finally find some rest.

But side effects of Morpheum include possible mind melding—a fact Ness and Altan stumble upon when they share the same freaky sex dream. (Awkward.)

With the stress of being caught between the men of her literal and figurative dreams (not to mention her nightmare of a boss), Ness starts to enjoy snoozing more than being conscious—and the company of her work husband more than her real one. If she doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee soon, her dreamy escape could become a dirt nap in this feisty debut novel about the dark side of dreams’ coming true.

Review:

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, addiction, and infidelity

I picked up this book because it was listed as “Romance/Women’s Fiction” on NetGalley but has decisively unromantic jacket copy. I’ve seen left-my-husband-for-a-better-guy story lines work before, usually because the husband is awful and undeserving of his lovely wife, and I was curious to see how it would be handled here with a science fiction twist.

Vanessa and her lawyer husband are going through a rough patch because he wants to have kids and she doesn’t for reasons connected with being gang raped in college. She hasn’t told him this, though, so he becomes understandably frustrated with her elliptical reasoning.

She’s stressed so when she catches her kinda handsome coworker Alton stealing experimental sleeping pills from work she takes some, hoping she’ll find peace. Instead Vanessa and Alton end up having hot, sexy, shared dreams.

Up to this point I’m not thrilled, but I’m mostly okay. Vanessa desperately needs to see a professional to work through past trauma, but I get that she may not be ready or able to do that. She has a loving husband who is doing his best to meet her in the middle, and there’s one episode of dream sex before Alton and Vanessa realize the dreams are shared, but then they stop. We’re still in romance territory, even if it’s a bit darker than my usual.

But after that things pile up plot-wise. It ends up being a story of addiction, full stop. Vanessa spends more and more time asleep, traversing dreamscapes with Alton while ignoring her sweet, reasonable husband at every turn. Her boss makes work a living hell complete with sexual assault, she cannot function without taking the drug every night, and it becomes a story of adultery and being tempted by a young, unproven guy over the husband who has treated her amazingly well and whom she still feels a deep love for.

One common definition of a romance is that it’s a story where people form a loving relationship while overcoming difficulties. This, however, is a woman falling into the dark pit of addiction and finding a somewhat handsome guy at the bottom. She needs all kinds of help, help that her husband is ready to find and provide, but running off with the guy who for all intents and purposes is her drug dealer is more appealing.

I feel like Cook is trying for a hopeful, happily-ever-after-for-now ending but I don’t buy it. Vanessa doesn’t learn anything and runs away from problems without solving them. She still needs to get clean and doesn’t have much desire to do so. She throws away one of the few good things in her life… and this is the uplifting ending. GAH.

Those are the plot problems, but I have more. I am not a fan of the writing. Cook drops similes all over the place and they’re weird and distracting rather than insightful. Characters quoting movie lines at each other is seen as the highest form of humor. It’d make sense in YA, maybe, but not here.

The cast of characters is small considering the page length, and even so the only one that’s fully developed is Vanessa. Alton turns from an annoying, coarse, “slacker cool” guy in real life into the sweetest guy in her dreams (literally). There’s no trigger for this change other than the fact that it’s more socially acceptable to flirt with a married woman in dreams than reality. It calls to mind the YA trope of guys being borderline mean to girls because they “like her so much”, which is kind of toxic and definitely not my thing. Also, his entire personality can be summed up in three simple traits, which isn’t a good look for a main character.

On top of all this the end of the book ignores a whole bunch of stuff. Questions are left unanswered, relationships are tossed up in the air, and narrative threads are dropped never to be picked up again. This is the first in a series but the teaser for book two hints that it’ll be with different characters, so I’m not sure what the end game is here.

All of that being said, there is some good stuff here, especially in the first couple of chapters. I appreciate Cook examining the dynamic of a relationship where one partner wants kids and the other doesn’t. She also explores the differences in how men and women approach the world with regard to their personal safety. It was a bit too on-the-nose by the end for me, but some of the beginning parts are well done.

Overall I’m mad this was in the romance section because it’s not a romance, but putting that aside I don’t consider it a successful work of general fiction, either. Only pick it up if it’s exactly your thing and you can get along with the trigger warnings.

Thanks to Brass Anvil Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Branded by Fire by Nalini Singh (Psy-Changeling #6)

 

5628753Though DarkRiver sentinel Mercy is feeling the pressure to mate, she savagely resists when Riley Kincaid, a lieutenant from the SnowDancer pack, tries to possess her. The problem is not simply that he pushes her buttons; the problem is that he’s a wolf, she’s a cat, and they’re both used to being on top.

But when a brilliant changeling researcher is kidnapped from DarkRiver territory, Mercy and Riley must work together to track the young man – before his shadowy captors decide he’s no longer useful. Along the way, the two dominants may find that submitting to one another uncovers not just a deadly conspiracy, but a passion so raw that it’ll leave them both branded by fire…

Review:

This book, the sixth in the series, has the first same “species” pairing but I wasn’t sold on it.

The good:

  • Singh got this far because she’s a good writer, and the basics are taken care of here.
  • The world building continues, and the overall story arc is advanced some.

The neither here-nor-there:

  • There are so many characters, and I waited too long to read this after the last book. There are five HEA couples (and I’m pretty sure they all make cameo appearances), as well as heaps of other people. I had to give up remembering people perfectly, but hints in the text ensure that everything makes sense.
  • The cast expands out even more, probably to seed future installments. The heroine has three brothers, and two super hot guys from South America come to visit. How convenient.

The not-so-good:

  • The plot felt like a rehash of previous books, retreading the same tropes and themes. Terrorists are trying to hurt people, a changeling child is put in harm’s way, and two people with major differences end up falling in love.
  • But are they really all that different? Both Riley and Mercy hold similar leadership and enforcement positions in their packs. They’re both dominant, and Mercy especially has trouble walking the line of “I want someone strong, but not too strong.” Her leopard doesn’t watch a slouch, but neither does it want to give an inch.
  • This, along with Riley being a wolf, provides most of the relationship conflict. Sure, they’re from different packs, but they’re alliance partners so I didn’t buy this obstacle to their love.
  • Then, at 76%, the real difficulty is dropped and it makes perfect sense. Why didn’t Singh mention this important fact earlier? I would have been much more interested and invested.

Compared to the other books in the series Branded by Fire fell flat. The quickly expanding world feels like it’s only to justify more books, and the plot was nothing new. A meh installment, but I’m still invested enough to read on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little x by Elna Holst (A Tinsel and Spruce Needles Romance #2)

42835577Malmö, Sweden, 1996

Sofie Andersson is a dyslectic born under the star sign Aries, who drives the local buses for a living. Her hobbies include knitting terrible hats and intermittent lesbianism. This December she is on the point of moving into her first flat of her own, figuring out her place in the world, when an instant attraction to a handsome stranger leads her to question everything she’s taken for granted.

Review:

I picked up this story because it’s from a LGBTQIA+ publisher that I love and because it’s an f/nb romance. How often do you see that? It’s a short story so I won’t say much beyond the blurb.

The good:

  • The author is LGBTQIA+, and I think this is the first romance I’ve read with an intersex protagonist.
  • Roz is misgendered often, being addressed as he when they use they/them pronouns, but it’s usually corrected quickly on the page.
  • The story is set in Sweden in 1996, something I haven’t seen before.

The not-so-good:

  • The writing and plot are confusing. We’re introduced to lots of people quickly and given the barest of connections between them – mother, best friend, older sister.
  • Some past events are alluded to but glossed over.  It turns out this is the second in a series but I didn’t realize that until after I finished.
  • Little attention is paid to the where. Conversations feel like they’re floating, not anchored to a space. I started assuming location – the best friend is a fellow bus driver, so they must be at the depot, I guess. And so on.
  • The conflict, which revolves around Roz having to go back to America at the end of the semester, is sloppily handled.

A quick read thanks to its length, and I love seeing a f/nb relationship on the page, but it could have been much better.

Thanks to Nine Star Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark (Fairwick Chronicles #1)

11436723Since accepting a teaching position at remote Fairwick College in upstate New York, Callie McFay has experienced the same disturbingly sensual dream every night. Callie’s lifelong passion is the intersection of lurid fairy tales and Gothic literature—which is why she’s found herself at Fairwick’s renowned folklore department, living in a once-stately Victorian house that, at first sight, seemed to call her name.

But Callie soon realizes that her dreams are alarmingly real. She has a demon lover—an incubus—and he will seduce her, pleasure her, and eventually suck the very life from her. Then Callie makes another startling discovery: Her incubus is not the only mythical creature in Fairwick.

Review:

When life gets crazy and migraines threaten I turn to paranormal romance.  I’m not looking for a mind-blowing read, necessarily, just something to take my mind off the pain while being entertaining.  The Demon Lover was more urban fantasy than romance, kind of entertaining but also full of faults.

The good:

  • The story takes place in upstate New York and the author nails the ambience and setting.  I’m happy to see she lives in the area – she gets it.
  • At its core the book has an interesting story that may get better through the later books.  The execution, though….

The not-so-good:

  • The author goes for a lot of meta and it’s heavy-handed.  Look, our protagonist writes about Gothic novels, then finds herself in one!  Let’s point out every way the story mirrors elements found in Jane Eyre! Let’s have asides like:

    Great, now I was becoming like one of the heroines of the books I wrote about, jumping at noises and imagining faces in the mist.

    And:

    “I’m just pointing out that you always had the setup to turn into the heroine of one of those Gothic romances you’re always reading… and now you have.”

  • The worldbuilding is haphazard and unsatisfying.  Many different creatures are thrown at us and we’re not given a chance to get to know or feel comfortable with them.
  • Likewise, a lot of characters are introduced quickly and in bunches.  They are rather flat, often serving one key purpose and fading into the background after that.  If there were a hierarchy of some sort, with minor characters staying minor, it may have been fine, but all are given equal weight, muddying the narrative.
  • Callie doesn’t make many decisions, more often than not they’re made for her and she goes along.  It probably fits well into the classic Gothic romance theme but it happens so often I got annoyed.
  • As a professor Callie interacts with students and she gives them Sage Advice about Life ~eye roll~ that doesn’t ring true.
  • The plot is segmented and broken into pieces, leaving this reader unsatisfied.

Overall Demon Lover was a disappointing read.  There’s a chance things will pick up in the following books now that the world has been introduced, but I’m not sticking around to find out.

The Seduction Hypothesis by Delphine Dryden (Science of Temptation #2)

17825418Wildlife biologist Lindsey thought attending a fan convention with her new boyfriend Ben was a great idea—until their relationship fizzled. Lindsey still lusts after her ex—but if he wants her, he’s going to have to prove it.

Ben will do anything to win Lindsey back, and when he sees her in her skimpy black vinyl convention get-up, he realizes what she’s been craving all along. And he is inspired to finally give in to his own dark desire to take complete sexual control…

Lindsey is surprised by her reaction to Ben’s kinky new seduction techniques, and suddenly sees him in a different light. After several erotic encounters she’s falling for Ben all over again. And wondering if the intimate connection will last once they head home…

Review:

I didn’t like this one anywhere near as much as the previous but I’m a little conflicted.  First, this tweet was rolling around in my head:

Ben is a baby Dom and has no clue what he’s doing.  He’s super possessive and an alpha-hole to any guy that enters Lindsey’s orbit.  Ivan, the hero from the previous book, is more in line with the tweet – respectful and a normal, nice guy outside of the bedroom.  Another Dom side character sticks up for Lindsey in a gentlemanly way.  I liked these guys better than the hero.

Both characters know very little about the practical side of BDSM and jump in after a dollop of research and a trip to the sex toy store.  This bothered me, not in a ‘you’re doing it wrong’ way but in a ‘eeep someone may get hurt’ way.  After finishing I checked out the reviews on Goodreads and someone* made a good point – a lot of couples get into the lifestyle this way.  They see something they like and jump in with both feet, whether they’re ready for it or not.  By the end of the book Lindsey and Ben are planning to go to a club and get their learning on but it was too late for me.  During the sex scenes I was more worried than anything else. (‘Why are you using rough rope? Do you know what you’re doing?!’)

Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not my thing.  Here’s hoping the third book is better.


*I’m not sure if her reviews are private so I’m going to avoid linking without permission