On My Way to Liberation by H. Melt

Liberation cover 3How do you imagine trans liberation while living in a cis world? On My Way To Liberation follows a gender nonconforming body moving through the streets of Chicago. From the sex shop to the farmers market, the family dinner table to the bookstore, trans people are everywhere, though often erased. Writing towards a trans future, H. Melt envisions a world where trans people are respected, loved and celebrated every day.

Review:

Haymarket Books recently had 90% off sale on all their ebooks, so you can bet I was all over it!  This is one of the four nonfiction books I picked up and, by virtue of being a chapbook, the shortest at 28 pages.

Melt, who is trans and genderqueer, writes directly about their experience.  We sit with them as they are misgendered, deadnamed, and forced to deal with injustice every day.

But they won’t stop murdering.
Stop legislating. Stop imprisoning.
Stop claiming we are ruining our
countries, families, friendships
and futures too.

When every day
we awaken to
build them
anew.

I’m grateful that Melt put their lived reality down on the page for others to experience – the emotion comes through loud and clear. However I’m not the biggest fan of the poetry itself.  The work’s missing oomph for me, that punch that makes you want to sit with a poem after you finish it, or go back and reread it immediately.  Some of the images will rattle in my brain for a while yet but the words themselves will unfortunately fade more quickly.

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Dance All Night by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #2.5)

42379549Broadway hotshot Nik Kovalenko is a confirmed bachelor. Ballroom champion Jess Davenport is a bona fide Scrooge. Last year, they shared a midnight kiss at a New Year’s Eve party that made both of them believe—briefly—in the magic of the holiday season. The magic was cut short when Nik went on tour the next day, but he never stopped thinking about that kiss—or Jess.

When the holidays roll back around, Nik runs into Jess again. He doesn’t want to spend another year pining for the Scrooge who got away, so he tells Jess he’ll stay if she’ll give him a shot at being her Christmas Present.

Jess thinks he’s full of it, but she agrees to three dates. If Nik can make her believe in holiday magic in a place as un-wintery as Los Angeles—and convince her that he’s ready to stick around—she’ll give him a chance. But he won’t know until New Year’s Eve. If she kisses him at midnight, he’ll have his answer…

Review:

This book is exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.  Work has been rough lately and being able to escape into this book on the train ride home was just the thing.

The good:

  • Women of color written by a woman of color – excellent. (The author is Latinx.) The heroine has curly hair and it comes up several times in the plot, as in, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to sleep tonight and I’m bringing my satin pillowcase.’
  • Nik is probably the sweetest hero I’ve ever read. Not calculating sweet, or saccharine sweet, but – he thought of and did that because his freakin’ soul is just sweet. I’d give examples but I don’t want to spoil anything because:
  • The book is novella length and perfectly fits its pages. It’s all A plot, no subplot, and the story doesn’t feel stretched out or rushed. All of the emotional beats are here.
  • There’s a nice dose of holiday spirit, from sweater parties to family dinners. Nik’s family immigrated to the US from Ukraine and I enjoyed learning about Eastern Orthodox holiday traditions.
  • The Dance Off isn’t filming but there is still dancing, yea! Nik is a Broadway dancer more than a singer/actor, and the scenes where they dance as a couple are lovely.

The not-so-good:

  • The only thing I can think of is that Nik may be a little too perfect, but it’s not a thought that crossed my mind while reading. He’s the right kind of perfect for me.

A wonderful read to heal your heart and get into the holiday spirit, and the perfect book at the perfect time for me. I’m excited for the next book in the series, slated to come out in 2019, yea!

Thanks to NYLA and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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.

Mating the Huntress by Talia Hibbert

42034959Chastity Adofo knows a monster when she sees one. As soon as Luke Anthony wanders into her family’s coffee shop, she recognises the evil lurking beneath his charming smile and fantastic arse. The handsome werewolf is determined to have her—but she’s determined to cut out his heart.

Little does she know, Luke’s plans for her are far more pleasurable than murder. And when the full moon rises, all bets are off…

Review:

I’ve enjoyed Hibbert’s writing in the past but each of the two novels I read had something that was not my thing.  In Bad for the Boss it was a suspense storyline I could have done without, and The Princess Trap had some triggering subjects discussed in the here and now, which I need to prepare my heart for.

Mating the Huntress, however, is good paranormal fun.  Chastity comes from a family of werewolf huntresses but hasn’t been allowed to face them herself.  Luke runs into her scent by chance, realizes they’re mates, and manufactures a meeting.  Chas goes along because she sees her chance for her first kill, and also ’cause he’s kinda cute.

It’s hard to say more because this is a novella and while the story didn’t feel overstuffed I wanted more pages.  I wanted a B plot, more characterization, and the world building could use some fleshing out.  Interesting elements are teased, but there’s no room to expand on them.

There’s lots to like, and lots that makes it a quick, easy read – interracial romance by a black woman author, all kinds of consent all over the place, and genuinely funny exchanges that may leave you cackling.  It helped me forgive the fated mate storyline and shorter page length.  I would love to see Hibbert build out a paranormal world from zero over the course of a series – Mating the Huntress is a start but I would love to see something with more depth.

Unbuttoning the CEO by Mia Sosa (The Suits Undone #1)

27477568As the CEO of a large tech company and a semi-reformed bad boy, Ethan Hill is used to calling the shots. But when he’s sentenced to work two hundred hours of community service-for reckless driving, of all things-this chief executive needs to keep his real identity under wraps. Which gets increasingly difficult when he can’t stop thinking about his sexy new (temporary) boss.

The moment Graciela Ramirez meets Ethan, she’s tempted to throw all professionalism out the window. She can’t afford to get emotionally involved, but after a steamy session behind office doors, a no-strings-attached fling might be exactly what they need. He’ll protect his secret. She’ll protect her heart. What could possibly go wrong?

Review:

I loved Sosa’s Acting on Impulse and wanted some breathing room before picking up the next book so I jumped to this series instead.  It turns out Unbuttoning the CEO is Sosa’s first novel, and it feels like it.  Not bad – it won a Golden Heart award after all – but uneven plot and character motivations as well as a lack of communication annoyed me.

I was surprised to find the basic setup is exactly the same as Impulse – a powerful/rich guy who goes by his middle name in business uses his first name for Reasons, and meets a beautiful lady under these barely false pretenses.

Acting on Impulse uses the tropes well – when the guy is “outed” the hero and heroine get around to talking and working through it.  Here Ethan keeps his secret much longer while having a ‘no strings’ relationship with Gracie, and neither is all that interested in communicating.  They do things to provoke reactions in each other and read too deeply into the results.  Gracie in particular does things that make little sense, like dropping a bunch of cash on a birthday present for her no-strings lover.

I’m glad I didn’t read this book first.  It reminds me that a so-so first novel can easily lead to great reads down the line, something always worth remembering.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

26073085Since 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, every time African Americans have made advances towards full participation in our democracy, white reaction has fueled a deliberate and relentless rollback of their gains. The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction was greeted with the Black Codes and Jim Crow; the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was met with the shutting down of public schools while taxpayer dollars financed segregated white private schools; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 triggered the so-called Southern Strategy and the War on Drugs that disenfranchised millions of African Americans while propelling presidents Nixon and Reagan into the White House.

Anderson pulls back the veil that has long covered actions made in the name of protecting democracy, fiscal responsibility, or protection against fraud, rendering visible the long lineage of white rage.

Review:

When I was taught African-American history in school the overall impression was that things were bad, but courts or Congress would swoop in and save the day.  There was segregation… but the Supreme Court fixed it!  There were racist policies like poll taxes and literacy tests… but they were made illegal!

White Rage makes it painfully, powerfully clear that wasn’t the case.

For example, I knew about redlining, where non-whites would be directed to housing in certain (poor) districts, creating de facto segregation at the neighborhood level. It was taught in an economic, almost geometric sense in the classroom, but Anderson shows us how slow things were to change for the better via the story of Dr. Ossian Sweet.

A successful Howard-trained doctor, he and his family moved into a bungalow in a white, working class neighborhood in 1925.  The next day hundreds of people formed a mob around his house while the police watched from a distance, even when rocks were thrown.  When the mob rushed the house some men inside, including Sweet’s brothers, grabbed guns and fired into the crowd. At this point the police arrested the entire Sweet family and the friends that had come to support them… not the mob. Natch.

Two white men were dead, the police downplayed the mob, and witnesses perjured themselves to high heaven.  It took two trials to settle the matter, and while the Sweets were eventually acquitted the doctor’s brother, wife, and baby daughter all contracted tuberculosis while in jail and died. Dr. Sweet did his best to carry on but he lost his house, was forced to move back into a redlined district, and completed suicide.  It’s the first time I’ve read about the human dimension that goes along with the awful policy.

Winning a court battle, even at the Supreme Court level, did not bring the instant, inevitable change I was lead to believe.  Every right won had to be fought for again, and the lives ruined and potential lost in that time is immeasurable.  A quick look at the most recent US election shows that the cycle is still going strong – a white candidate for Georgia governor used his position as Secretary of State to disenfranchise African Americans at every turn.  The gutting of the Voting Rights Act several years ago meant that polling stations in African American neighborhoods could be closed with short notice and photo IDs could be made mandatory to vote. And until a few days ago former felons in the Sunshine State lost the right to vote for life.

In Florida, stunningly, felonies are not confined to burglaries and robberies but include offenses such as letting a helium balloon float up in the air, walking through a construction zone, or “catching lobsters with tails too short.”

My reading experience was good, if you can call being infuriated, shocked, and heart-broken in turns counts as good.  Everything is meticulously researched with end notes to match, and while I had trouble getting into the first chapter or two the rest flew by.

I’m grateful for a look at African American history through this specific lens, and I look forward to Anderson’s next book, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy.


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Charleston Syllabus edited by Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha N. Blain

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

38643164A housewife takes up bodybuilding and sees radical changes to her physique–which her workaholic husband fails to notice. A boy waits at a bus stop, mocking businessmen struggling to keep their umbrellas open in a typhoon–until an old man shows him that they hold the secret to flying. A woman working in a clothing boutique waits endlessly on a customer who won’t come out of the fitting room–and who may or may not be human. A newlywed notices that her husband’s features are beginning to slide around his face–to match her own.

In these eleven stories, the individuals who lift the curtains of their orderly homes and workplaces are confronted with the bizarre, the grotesque, the fantastic, the alien–and, through it, find a way to liberation.

Review:

These surreal yet grounded stories are exactly my kind of thing.

Many start in the mundane – a happy or unhappy marriage, a scene at work. One strange but believable thing happens, then something slightly more outrageous, until Motoya leads you down a path to the absolutely absurd.  It’s ridiculous, but you can’t imagine the story spinning out any other way.

Themes include knowing yourself, how we are changed by contact with other people, and the place of women in Japanese society.  Even more so than in the West, Japanese women are expected to be wives and mothers first, putting husbands and children before themselves. These women are the protagonists and navigate their way through a world where many things don’t go as planned.

The centerpiece, and one of my favorite stories, is the novella An Exotic Marriage.  A wife realizes that she and her husband look more similar as time goes on. At first she thinks it’s learned mannerisms or maybe sharing a taste in clothes, but one day she looks in the mirror and sees that her features have slipped slightly out of place, closer to those of her husband.  As soon as she notices they jump back into position, like kids caught doing something they shouldn’t, and the story spins on from there.

I was worried the longer length would mean absurdities would pile up to the point of being unbearable, but instead they’re more nuanced and layered. The page count is a strength, giving Motoya more room to develop characters and sub-plots and draw us into the world.  An Exotic Marriage won the Akutagawa Prize, arguably the highest literary honor in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.

Yoneda is an accomplished translator and her skill is well applied here.  I am in the unusual position of being able to read in both the source and target languages, but I never felt the Japanese poke through nor the need to back-translate. The reader is in good hands.

All in all I immensely enjoyed The Lonesome Bodybuilder. It’s perfect for when you want to read something delightfully different.

Thanks to Soft Skull Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Picture Perfect Cowboy by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #10)

39092063Jason “Still” Waters’ life looks perfect from the outside—money, fame, and the words “World Champion Bull-Rider” after his name. But Jason has a secret, one he never planned on telling anybody…until he meets Simone. She’s the kinky girl of his dreams…and his conservative family’s worst nightmare.

Review:

A new release by Reisz, especially one in the Original Sinners universe, is always a reason to cheer.  Here she returns with some of her favorite elements – BDSM (of course), horses, and beloved series regulars – in a contemporary erotic romance.

The good:

  • Bi (as well as maybe pan) rep by an own voices author ❤️🌈
  • Zee tropes, zey are flipped.  Instead of a baby sub, endemic in the genre, we have a baby dom who is guided by a professional submissive.
  • The couple’s romance and emotional journey is well paced and thought out… until the end.
  • Reisz is always explicitly sex positive and guilt negative, and it’s a joy to read.
    “This is what I think,” she said. “If you’re enjoying it and I’m enjoying it, then we’re doing it right.”
  • There are cameo appearances by Nora and Soren – yum.  That being said the story stands on its own, even if you’ve never read an Original Sinners book.
  • It’s small and random, but I love that speaking two languages isn’t presented as weird.  No “wow!” or “you’re so smart!” or cultural stereotyping, just the fact that the hero knows Spanish (and the heroine has a passing knowledge, as well).  This bilingual appreciates it.

The oh-so-close:

  • The final conflict hinges on a misunderstanding. It’s not a Big Mis, and it makes sense, but the category length (~200 pages) means it comes up and is resolved very quickly, with a facile epilogue.  All the emotional beats are there, though, so yea for that.
  • Reisz gravitates to shorter page counts but I like her at novel length, damn it.  The characterization is so wonderful that I want to see more of everyone.  Here the best friends, Luke especially, would have benefited from fleshing out.
  • I love that the story is low angst… but that started giving me angst.  “What’s the end conflict going to be?  Groupies discovering the girlfriend?  A sexy video or text getting hacked?  What if he forgets the condom ahhhhhh” (He doesn’t, by the way.  Perfect gentleman.)  This is a me thing, though, and you’ll probably be fine. 😅

Three cheers for Reisz in the mode I like her best.  It’s also a good entry point into her work if the summary and shorter length appeal to you.  If you’d rather skip the BDSM try Her Halloween Treat instead.

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard

34684624Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have written an entertaining and uniquely practical guide to personal and professional success in modern life. These Washington insiders share what they’ve learned through first person examples of their own glamorous (and sometimes harrowing) moments with celebrities, foreign leaders and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.

This book is for you if you feel unsure of yourself in social settings, if you’d like to get along more easily with others, or if you want to break through to a new level of cooperation with your boss and coworkers. They give specific advice for how to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it, ways to establish your reputation as an individual whom people like, trust, and want to help, and lay out the specific social skills still essential to success – despite our increasingly digitized world. Jeremy and Lea prove that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire, and tell the stories of their own unlikely paths to becoming the social arbiters of the White House, while providing tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served.

 

Review:

Social secretaries plan all kinds of events, from state dinners and the Easter egg roll to Congressional picnics and private lunches.  The authors speak from their own experience about how it’s done while dispensing advice on, as the title suggests, treating people well.

Berman and Bernard talk about their time at the White House under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.  The tips they give aren’t groundbreaking (begin with confidence, be consistent, listen first and talk later) but they’re things we should all be reminded of.  I learned some new things, too, like good ways to start a thank you note. (Hint: it’s not “Thank you for…”)

What I enjoyed most were the anecdotes about working in the White House.  Both authors have a glowing admiration for the presidents and first ladies they served and it shows.There are tales of near disaster, like when Berman who, when an interpreter refused to move to their proper seat, tipped them out of their chair (!).  They also talk about how they came into the position, especially interesting for Bernard as he was both the first man and the first openly gay person to be social secretary.

Fitting presidential quotes round things out.  I listened to Treating People Well on audio and like that the authors narrate their own stories and experiences.  A third narrator covers the introduction and interstitial text.

While I wouldn’t say it’s an authoritative volume about being your best at work nor the best White House memoir, it is an enjoyable combination of the two.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

31203000Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers’ style of dress and speech patterns so that she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life, but is aware that she is not living up to society’s expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko’s contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Review:

I didn’t do the best job reading this book, and it’s my own fault.  Knowing how popular and lauded it is – they don’t give the Akutagawa Prize to just anything! – I decided to tackle it in the original Japanese.  Luckily the text is pretty straight forward, and while I had to look up rare kanji or readings it wasn’t too difficult.  That being said I read more slowly in my second language than my first, meaning I was marinating in the text for quite a while.

And the middle of this novel is not something you want to marinate in.

36605525Furukawa has to deal with all kinds of crap from her family, friends, and society in general.  It set my teeth on edge because this is stuff I’ve seen or experienced here in Japan, verbatim.  Coworkers are gossipy and while it may look like they’re concerned about your well being, often they’re more interested in a juicy story to pass around.  Those who jump the expected track of college, full-time job, marriage, and kids have a lot to explain to friends and family, especially if they’re a woman. And even when you follow the plan you can be punished. My friend didn’t tell her employer about her marriage because she knew it would ruin her chances for a promotion.  Why would you give more responsibility to someone who’s going to have a baby and quit soon, anyway?

So yeah, lots of anger on my part.  If I were reading this in English, as probably should have, I would have been able to get through it quickly enough.  My slower Japanese reading, though, made the middle part almost unbearable.  The crap that one guy spews towards Furukawa made me particularly rage-y, and now and then I had to stop to look up a word, dragging out the ickyness.  “Shady character.” “To be bored to death.” “Rail at.” Sigh.

That’s all on me, though.  It’s a great book and deserving of all its praise, including in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s English translation. Just do yourself a favor and gulp it down in one or two sittings instead of dragging it out like I did.