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.

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

30288282It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

Review:

Content warning for suicide and alcoholism.

The Immortalists was my second read for The Booktube Prize and right from the start I liked it better than the first.

The good:

  • The writing is punchier than White Houses and I needed that. It’s not amazing – I only highlighted a line or two – but it works.
  • The main thematic thrust of the book, pitting fate against self-fulfilling prophecy, is interesting.
  • You can tell when Benjamin writes about a place she knows because it pops off the page. I may be biased because I’ve also lived in San Francisco, but she brought me right back in an almost bodily way.
  • The character work is good. Everyone is well rounded and flawed, down to the secondary characters. Maybe it’s because they don’t have much time on the page but they ended up being some of my favorites. (Robert! 💕)
  • The author did a ton of research and it shows, both in the writing and the lengthy acknowledgements. It all rang right for me, even the medical stuff. Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • I felt trepidation picking up this book because fate! Ack! Don’t mess with it! And the beginning chapters only made it worse – the first character’s story arc is dead predictable, and the second character’s story filled me with dread.
  • At the start the fate/self-fulfilling prophecy thing was wonderfully blurry and interesting to think about, but that sense of mystery is ruined as more and more characters confront it. By the time we get to the end there isn’t much left to ponder.
  • I was hoping for more fabulist elements, but the whole thing is quite grounded in reality.
  • The only character that carries through the entire book in a meaningful way is the mother, and I would have liked to see her recognized as a constant in their lives. We get bits and pieces of her life but she is usually off to the side, and a less important presence to many of the kids than their father.

Overall the book is uneven, with some chapters I dreaded reading and others that I couldn’t put down. It ended up being an okay read, but not as amazing as all the hype I’ve heard.

The Submission Gift by Solace Ames (LA Doms #2)

20733698Newlyweds Jay and Adriana had a happy marriage and a spectacular sex life—until tragedy struck. Jay spent a year recuperating while Adriana worked as a chef to pay their bills. Though he’s made nearly a full recovery, some aspects of their intimate play will never be the same. It’s a small price to pay, all things considered.

When a long struggle with the insurance company results in an overdue payout Jay has a plan. He’ll take some of it and hire a high-end rent boy who specializes in sexual dominance as a gift for Adriana.

Paul is the handsome stranger they choose…and the one who changes everything.

Review:

Watching Jay, Adriana, and Paul fall in love is awesome but when the shit hits the fan, look out.

The good:

  • Protagonists of color written by a woman of color, which I am forever and will always be here for.
  • Paul is white while Jay and Adriana are Latinx and it’s a cross-cultural reality without becoming a focus or sticking point.  There are other people of color represented, and Jay and Paul are bisexual.
  • Man, the sex is hot.  If you like domination, bondage, and people pushing their boundaries this is for you.
  • All of the main characters relationships are well developed and rang true for me.  Jay and Adriana are married and solid, Jay and Paul are attracted to each other but Paul has to be careful not to go full Dom on him, and Paul and Adrianna have a more classic Dom/sub relationship.  All three of these pairings get scenes of their own, as well as the triad as a whole.
  • I thought that Paul’s work as an escort might squick me out but he is professional and has thought through all the pros, cons, and risks in such a way that I can nod my head and think, ‘yup, makes sense, works for him, alright’.
  • While I’m no expert it looks like Ames has done her research, portraying on social work, life as a sous chef, and the legal/practical challenges of becoming a triad in believable ways.

This gets you through the first two-thirds or so, and I was really digging it.  But then.

The not-so-good:

  • When the shit hits the fan it keeps going.  In the extended synopsis it’s hinted that Paul’s past would catch up with him, and it does.  It’s not pretty, but I’m okay with it.  But then another character gets in a situation and comes to bodily harm.  Like, you need to go to the hospital for surgery and there’s going to be a court case bodily harm.  It was too much for me, and I’m not sure the story needed that much conflict to get where it was going.  I still have a bit of whiplash from it.

If you’re into triads and BDSM this is an easy recommend, just know that ending will get worse – much worse – before it gets better.

White Houses by Amy Bloom

35876524Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life.

Review:

Content warning for abuse, rape, and animal cruelty.

This was my first read for the Booktube Prize, and while it wasn’t on my radar at all the description drew me in – a historical f/f relationship! A look at Eleanor and FDR’s open marriage! And written by an lgbtqia+ author to boot. I was happy to pick it up.

Thing is, the book started slow and stayed slow. The narrative is hung on the days after Franklin’s death, when Hickok and Eleanor meet in New York City for the first time in a long time. Some incident is remembered or a letter arrives, and the narrative jumps to a flashback from Hickok’s point of view. Then we move forward a few hours in the NYC timeline and start again.

The narrative centers squarely on Hick (as she is known) and Eleanor’s relationship. After diving into Hick’s past we see how they meet, their “honeymoon” phase, Hickok moving to the White House and becoming known as the First Friend, and the uncertain times that follow.

I only knew the most basic facts about their relationship and very little about FDR’s own affairs so I was glad to learn more. As a whole, though, the book left me underwhelmed. There’s no drive to the plot so we just float along from flashback to flashback, and if I weren’t reading this book on deadline I’m not sure I would have made it to the end. The characters are fine and some, especially those in Hick’s childhood, are memorable, but we don’t see much of them. Historical context is also lacking, and I would have liked to see the characters placed in more concrete moment of time. The plot floats, the relationship floats, the setting floats, and the writing is capable but forgettable. I only marked a line or two in the 300+ pages.

So not a great start to my Booktube Prize reading. As I write this I have a hard time imagining it will be one of the three books I put forward for advancement to the next round. Meh on top of meh.

Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

13255416As a child Hester Wyatt escaped slavery, but now the dark skinned beauty is a dedicated member of Michigan’s Underground railroad, offering other runaways a chance at the freedom she has learned to love. One of her fellow conductors brings her an injured man to hide, the great conductor known as the “Black Daniel”, but Hester finds him so rude and arrogant she begins to question her vow to hide him.

When the injured and beaten Galen Vachon awakens in Hester’s cellar he is unprepared for the feisty young conductor providing his care. As a member of one of the wealthiest free Black families in New Orleans, Galen has turned his back on the lavish living he is accustomed to in order to provide freedom to those enslaved in the south. However, as he heals he cannot turn his back on Hester Wyatt.

Review:

This is one of Jenkins’ best loved historical romances for a reason – it starts off with a bang and I was hooked from the start. In the last third I started losing interest, but that probably has more to do with me than the book.

The good:

  • I was all in from the start. Hester’s life story riveting, and I love the look at the abolitionist movement in Michigan.
  • Everything is well researched and there’s tons of history here. I learned so much about not only what life was like in this particular time and place, but the laws and events that shaped the era.
  • Racism is a big topic, of course, but Jenkins also dives into prejudice within the Black community at the time and a bunch of other spoilery complexities.
  • There are lots of side characters that we get to know and love, from servants and neighbors to random people in town.
  • The writing is solid, and I would expect nothing less from Jenkins.
  • Hester is a strong woman with a sharp tongue and it’s wonderful watching her do her thing, from helping someone break out of jail to bantering with the hero.
  • Galen is awesome with for consent… until he isn’t.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • This book reminded me of Night Hawk in that the plot isn’t a solid arc. There’s one concern with a slave catcher that drives most of the conflict but it’s forgotten for chapters at a time so people can move from place to place or hold a fundraising fair. It’s not bad, but go in expecting episodic narrative interspersed in the main plot.

The not-so-good:

  • As the romance evolved it got into some not-for-me tropes. There’s the virgin who has sex not knowing it may make her pregnant, and the hero who showers the heroine in luxurious gifts that she doesn’t want and fill up entire rooms.
  • And the claim that he was able to have dozens of dresses made because he’s felt her up enough to figure out her measurements? I’m not buying it.
  • Late in the book Galen takes away Hester’s agency in a very public way that she is unable to fight against. All the side characters are like, “I’m so mad for you! I can’t believe he did that! You must be so mad!” which helps, but she forgives him in less than 24 hours because love, I guess.

If you’re interested in reading Indigo I urge you to check out Wendy the Super Librarian’s review. She talks about it way more intelligently than I can manage at the moment and makes some amazing points about the loose-ish plotting not being a fault because Jenkins is writing what she calls a “community based romance”. Her insight has given me a lot of food for thought so go read that review to soak it in.

All in all a gangbusters beginning fell flat at the end for me but there is still so, so much to recommend this book. 3.5 stars.

All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by Sue Black

9781948924276_23ebfDame Sue Black is an internationally renowned forensic anthropologist and human anatomist. She has lived her life eye to eye with the Grim Reaper, and she writes vividly about it in this book, which is part primer on the basics of identifying human remains, part frank memoir of a woman whose first paying job as a schoolgirl was to apprentice in a butcher shop, and part no-nonsense but deeply humane introduction to the reality of death in our lives.

She recounts her first dissection; her own first acquaintance with a loved one’s death; the mortal remains in her lab and at burial sites as well as scenes of violence, murder, and criminal dismemberment; and about investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident, or natural disaster, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She uses key cases to reveal how forensic science has developed and what her work has taught her about human nature.

Review:

As is probably well established by now I love medical nonfiction so I was excited to pick this book up, especially because the publisher compares Black’s writing to Caitlin Doughty and Mary Roach. When I think of Doughty and Roach the first word that pops into mind is “funny”.

It’s unfortunate because while this book is many things, it’s not funny.

From the beginning it’s clear that Black is not a forensic pathologist, determining causes of death via autopsy, nor an overly science-y person all together. Her first job was at a butcher shop and she carried the experience forward, studying anatomy in college and becoming a forensic anthropologist concentrating on the bones of the deceased.

The first third of the book reads like a memoir. In addition to telling us about her start in the field Black muses on the nature of death, the meaning of identity, and discusses the last days of three family members in great detail. There’s nothing wrong with this per ce, but it’s a hundred pages in the front that’s completely separated from what I thought I was getting – crime! Analyzing bones! Maybe some gory stuff! If you don’t know what’s coming you may be tempted to give up here.

Around a third of the way in we finally get into some cases and the narrative takes off. A lot of Black’s work revolves around disaster victim identification, or DVI. She has gone all around the world to help return those killed in war or disaster to their loved ones, from Kosovo to Thailand. As you can guess she sees the aftermath of horrific events, and the stories are quite touching (as well as possibly triggering, fair warning). I love that she talks about the cognitive and emotional difficulties of the job and the strategies she uses for her own mental health.

Luckily not every case is heartbreaking in the here and now. Black was on a BBC show where, along with a team of fellow scientists, they examined remains of people who lived hundreds of years ago in an effort to figure out who they were and how they died. She speaks of the interesting people she meets as part of her work in a university anatomy department, and delicate but not awful experiences like giving a potential full body donor a tour of the cadaver lab in use. And there are some stories from court, including the surreal experience of giving testimony and having no idea what to expect from either the prosecution or the defense.

I admire the work that Black has done over the years, from teaching to disaster response, from the BBC show to founding an anatomy lab.  She also gets love because she shouts out the interpreters her team worked in with Kosovo and recognizes to the mental and emotional toll of communicating the words of those who have been through such horrors.

But when it comes down to it the book is split into two parts – memoir and philosophy in the first 100 pages, and your standard forensic nonfiction in the rest.  The accounts of her parents’ deaths can be skipped over completely with no loss, so I wonder why they’re given so many pages in the first place.

The last two thirds make for a solid, but not outstanding, addition to a shelf about death. Just know that you can gloss over the aforementioned sections and you won’t miss a thing.

Thanks to Arcade and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals, #2.5)

42128976While her boss the prince was busy wooing his betrothed, Likotsi had her own love affair after swiping right on a dating app. But her romance had ended in heartbreak, and now, back in NYC again, she’s determined to rediscover her joy—so of course she runs into the woman who broke her heart.

When Likotsi and Fabiola meet again on a stalled subway train months later, Fab asks for just one cup of tea. Likotsi, hoping to know why she was unceremoniously dumped, agrees. Tea and food soon leads to them exploring the city together, and their past, with Fab slowly revealing why she let Likotsi go, and both of them wondering if they can turn this second chance into a happily ever after.

Review:

Man, Cole’s contemporaries are not quite my thing. This novella should have been everything I love, but it wasn’t.

The good:

  • Yeaaa f/f romance in what, to this point, has been a heterosexual romance series!
  • If you’re into second chance romance, this is that.
  • There’s a great look at immigration policy that I was not expecting.
  • The characterization is good, and everyone’s reasons make sense.

The not-so-good:

  • I came in nearly blind, having DNFed Princess in Theory early on. As a result Likotsi’s almost mechanical way of thinking was a shock, and it took a while to understand and get into her character. Just as I managed to do that the book was over. :/
  • The story bounces between two timelines, and while that isn’t a bad thing I kept thinking, “No, go back!” each time it did.

Overall it was more lackluster than I was hoping. I’m going to give Cole one more chance with Prince on Paper because I’m intrigued by the hero’s story, but if that doesn’t go well I may have to stick to her historicals.

Fit by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Fit #1)

21801485Violet Ryan loves the delicious food she gets to eat on the reality shows she produces for The Food Channel. What she hates is her expanding waistline. Determined to drop the pounds, Violet hatches a plan to kick start a fitness regimen. She knows she needs a new approach and possibly a new trainer—one with a lighter touch.

Grant Gibson has always managed to mix business with pleasure, but now this trainer by day, and Dominant by night, is bored. Even though he owns one of L.A.’s hottest private gyms, his personal life is sorely lacking. He’s in no hurry to take a new lover under his wing. Not until the voluptuous Violet falls into his lap.

She may be wary of his unorthodox approach of using sexual gratification as a reward, but even before her initial weigh-in Violet can’t seem to stay away from the sexy fitness god. She may have to let Grant show her there’s more than one way to get in shape…

Review:

The perfect one-sitting read for an insomniac night.

The good:

  • Yea for interracial relationships written by a Queer woman of color! Violet is Chinese-American and Grant is white.
  • Violet is fat and is aiming to get fit, not skinny. She wants some of the weight to come off, of course, but being healthy comes first, not getting down to a certain dress size.
  • Grant makes a big blunder when they first meet and the way Violet handles it is real and funny.
  • Without getting spoilery, I like that Grant acknowledges that there are good and bad reasons to miss a workout. Once in a lifetime experience? Sure. Third girls’ night out of the week? Maybe not.
  • The BDSM is gentle and fun and full of consent. Yea happy D/s!
  • I’m a fan of Weatherspoon’s writing and I wasn’t let down.
  • The story fits the page length and there’s even a small B-plot, which is a hard thing to do when the book is only 80 pages. It works out great.

The not-so-good:

  • The beginning was info dumpy but soon forgiven.

I’m so glad I had this on my e-reader – time to pick up the next book in the series for my next insomniac emergency!

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

FifthRisk.inddWhat are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works? Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course.  Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

Review:

This is my first book by Michael Lewis but by all rights it shouldn’t be, considering that he’s written Moneyball and The Big Short. Here he looks at how three government agencies have transitioned from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.

…it didn’t go well. Surprise, surprise.

In a book slim enough to feel like three extended essays Lewis goes over the highly varied missions of three federal agencies, what they normally do, and how that’s all been turned upside down by the incoming administration. Remember the news stories about the Trump transition being anemic and ill-planned? We see all of that in its full glory.

But it’s more than tales of woe. Lewis also highlights former administrators and the work they did fixing government. You’ve probably never heard of them, but they’ve kept the rusty wheels of bureaucracy turning with smarts and a dedication to public service. It’s inspiring how many people work for the government with this sense of duty.

And the potential disasters that keep them up at night can be truly frightening – misjudging North Korea and inadvertently starting a war, nuclear waste flowing into a major river due to poor storage. Others “merely” bode poorly for our long term prospects, like the lack of funding for cutting-edge scientific research.

Other than these facts, what struck me most is Lewis’ assured and slightly casual writing style. It never felt academic and always welcomed me back to the page.

At the same time, I can’t say I’m blown away. It’s an interesting and well-written book but it will fade from memory all too soon, which is a shame considering the subject area.

Claimed by Stacey Kennedy (Club Sin #1)

Synopsis:

17609863Presley Flynn is ripe to experience her secret fantasies . . . and Dmitri Pratt wants nothing more than to fulfill them. Once inside the elite Club Sin in Las Vegas, Presley is nervous but excited—and determined to surrender to her every desire. Dmitri is her Master, and his touch is like fire. With each careful, calculated caress, he unleashes her wildest inhibitions, giving her unimagined pleasure.

Presley is different than the other submissives Dmitri has mastered. The BDSM lifestyle is new to her, and so are the games they play at Club Sin. From the start, Presley stirs emotions in him far beyond the raw purity between a dom and the perfect sub. For the ecstasy they share goes beyond the dungeon igniting a passion that claims the very depths of the heart.

Review:

Claimed starts off with a disclaimer saying that this series of books is “not intended to be an actual portrayal of the BDSM lifestyle; nor [is it] meant to be a real representation of a BDSM club”. Kennedy could have just said, “This club is too good to be true and could never exist. Please don’t leave your husband and job to find it no matter how bad you want to kthx bye.”

Casino president Dmitri is a “true” ~eyeroll~ dominant. Without a fix in the bedroom his professional life goes to hell so he built a mansion with Club Sin in the basement. Membership is free (of course) as Dmitri is looking to help others with a love of dominance and submission while fulfilling his own need. Help is a big theme here – our heroine Presley needs help getting into the lifestyle and breaking free from her controlling ex, Demitri needs help so he can allow himself to love, someone else needs help moving on after her husband dies.

BDSM as healing or therapy or whatever isn’t new but it always strikes me as… odd. It’s like like saying writing is therapy – it can have a therapeutic effect but I’m not sure it replaces someone with a Ph.D and a funky couch. It seems to me that getting into the lifestyle can help you work through things, but maybe not in the “have this powerful/troubling scene, become enlightened, be ‘cured'” way Claimed and other BDSM erotica sets forth.

Anywho, the story follows Presley’s introduction to submission, from a trial period and contracts to finding her perfect dom. I found her journey to be believable – while she’s primed to be a sub she still has reasonable doubts and fears that have to be worked through. Sure, she landed in Club Amazing with Mr. Perfect, but the internal challenges are all there.

For external difficulties we have Presley’s cheating ex-boyfriend with stalker tenancies. Maybe I’m just sensitive because I’ve read two books with this type of character back to back but the ex as stalker/enemy/evil dude trope is starting to get to me. Perhaps this is why I read paranormal – it’s so much easier to write evil dudes when they can be devils or vampires or shapeshifters.

The oft-covered “submissive does not equal doormat” topic is done well here, with examples of women happy as bedroom submissives and sex slaves both.

When it comes down to it Claimed is a light, fun tale of wish/fantasy fulfillment. If you’ve been neck deep in depressing literary fiction or just want everything to go right for once you’ll enjoy this fast read.