The Love Song of Sawyer Bell by Avon Gale (Tour Dates #1)

34824809Victoria “Vix” Vincent has only two weeks to find a replacement fiddle player for her band’s summer tour. When classically trained violinist Sawyer Bell shows up for an audition, Vix is thrilled. Their friendship soon blossoms into romance, even though Vix tries to remember that Sawyer’s presence is only temporary.

Sawyer’s parents think she’s spending the summer months touring Europe with a chamber ensemble. But Sawyer is in dire need of a break from the competitiveness of Juilliard, and desperately wants to rediscover her love of music. Going on tour with her secret high school crush is just an added bonus. Especially when Vix kisses her one night after a show, and they discover that the stage isn’t the only place they have chemistry.

But the tour won’t last forever, and as the summer winds down, Sawyer has to make a tough decision about her future—and what it means to follow her heart.

Review:

If you like romance be sure to check out Cats and Paperbacks, where Natasha writes reviews highlighting lgbtqia+ books.  She posted a list of her favorite books with lesbian main characters and I jumped on this one – rock band! Touring! Queer romance meets stardom!

In my ‘must read NAO’ haste, however, I missed that while the book covers a diverse rock band, they are not rock stars.  The group crams into a van, drives all night between gigs, and at times plays to half-empty houses.  There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, it makes for lovely romance – but it pushes the book out of Kazen catnip territory.

Moving on, the book!  Sawyer is a Julliard violinist but she loathes going back to school.  Instead of touring with a prestigious chamber orchestra she tries out with a rock band and gets the part.  Over the course of touring she sparks fly between her and the lead singer Victoria, they fall in love, and things happen.

The Love Song of Sawyer Bell is one of those books that’s very good at what it does while simultaneously not being quite my thing.  If you’re looking for a realistic contemporary f/f romance you won’t go wrong.

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When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

31684565Katie Daniels is a perfection-seeking 28-year-old lawyer living the New York dream. She’s engaged to charming art curator Paul Michael, has successfully made her way up the ladder at a multinational law firm, and has a hold on apartments in Soho and the West Village. Suffice it to say, she has come a long way from her Kentucky upbringing.

But the rug is swept from under Katie when she is suddenly dumped by her fiance, Paul Michael, leaving her devastated and completely lost. On a whim, she agrees to have a drink with Cassidy Price-a self-assured, sexually promiscuous woman she meets at work. The two form a newfound friendship, which soon brings into question everything Katie thought she knew about sex—and love.

Review:

While reading I kept thinking, “this is the perfect category romance, filled with LGBTQIA+ folks that make it even more awesome.”  So much to love.

Cassidy is in the mold of a Harlequin Presents hero, a high-powered New York lawyer that works hard and plays harder.  She wears exquisitely tailored suits by day and plows through a large swath through the NY lesbian scene by night. Katie, on the other hand, has become unmoored from her social network after her engagement is broken off by her cheating fiancee Paul.  She pulls herself together to do the lawyer thing and ends up in a boardroom negotiating with Cassidy, another firm’s counsel.  Their immediate connection makes Katie wonder if she’s ever truly known herself, while Cassidy wonders why she can’t toss Katie aside like her other lovers.

So we have an alpha heroine, another heroine that wants more from life, glamorous work in a stunning city, topped off with a meet-cute.  Straight-talking best friend? Check. Romantic weekend getaway? Check. Two people falling in love, both because and in spite of their best efforts? Check and check.

It reads fast, is perfectly plotted, and kept me invested in the love story throughout.  The characters are well-rounded and have fully-realized motivations, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding that makes me want to smack a heroine on the upside of the head.  Katie and Cassidy’s love is earned, and it is delicious.

The writing is good, too:

Katie had never been a fantasizer of any kind.  She was more of a planner, a doer. She was a pleaser of others – not one for exploring self-pleasure or whatever….

But Cassidy was hot. And the only other women Katie ever thought of as hot were the ones she wanted to be. Not do. Be.

She could almost see the other photos in a family album somewhere, of the two of them bullet-belted, toting rifles, flashing huge grins over some enormous dead animal. They were the kind of guys Cassidy would cross the street to avoid because her intolerance of them was palpable, yes, but also in fear they’d attack her for sport, too, if she came too close.

I love When Katie Met Cassidy and hope Perri keeps writing books in this vein – brava.

Thanks to G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Translated by Srinath Perur

30267604A young man’s close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamic begins to shift. Allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background.

Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings—and consequences—of financial gain in contemporary India.

Review:

This book has been on my radar for a while so when it was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award I was happy to pick it up on audio.

Ghachar Ghochar may be short, clocking in at 128 pages, but it packs a punch. The history and current circumstance of a rags-to-riches family is built in layers.  Mosaic, non-linear chapters give the sense that something is going on here, and Shanbhag leaves spaces for your mind to fill with the most diabolical possibilities. I blew through the book and thought about it for days.

On one hand I’m glad I listened to the audio, as the male narrator has the accents and pronunciation firmly in hand.  The male voices are especially varied and fun to listen to. On the other hand there are times I feel the prose would pop even more on a page than in my ears, and the narrator only had one female voice that he pitched up and down for different characters.

Overall a very good read, one I may find myself returning to in print form.

The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #9)

35497678Reisz is one of my favorite authors, so much so that I ration out her books, saving them for 14-hour flights and other such “emergencies”.  After a particularly difficult day at work I started The Chateau and it was just what I needed.

If you like erotic romance get thee to The Siren, the first book in the Original Sinners series, of which The Chateau is book nine.  The story is a flashback so you don’t need to read the previous eight books but the more you know about the characters the more you’ll enjoy it.  For reference I’ve only read through book five (I know!  Rationing!) and only a line or two at the end left me with a ‘huh’.

Anywho, The Chateau!  Here we follow Kingsley in 1989 when he’s doing secret missions for France’s special forces.  He’s asked to extract someone from a sex cult and… things happen.  From an author Q&A included with the advance copy:

Q: Inside the cult’s chateau, women reign and men are their willing slaves.  How did the idea for such a community come about?

A: Wishful thinking?

It’s a gender-flipped and toned down take on The Story of O.  Everything I love about Reisz’s writing is here – amazing characterization, hot and kinky sex, and beautiful writing that packs a gut punch.  Her favorite devices also take a turn including stories within stories and an exquisite mind fuck.  As with all the books in this series there’s own voices bisexual rep.

An idea that runs through all of Reisz’s work is that sex should be fun and enjoyable for everyone involved.  You should be able to crack jokes in bed and delight in your partner’s pleasure as well as your own.  It shouldn’t feel revolutionary but, sadly, it kinda is.  Here we see many people having sex, both as part of the main plot and side stories, and everyone is having the time of their life.  The only shame is for causing someone (unwanted) pain and anguish, and let’s just say that guy is dealt with justly.

Props all around for another kinky, sex-positive novel-length addition to an amazing series.  Reisz has two more books coming down the pipe – western contemporary and fantasy-esque erotic romances – and I cannot wait.

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

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

36142487Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.

Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

Review:

An amazing gut punch of a book.  Heads up – Oshiro faces police brutality (including murder by cop) straight on.

The good:

  • The author is queer, Latinx, and lives in Oakland where the story takes place, so all kinds of own voices representation.
  • Overall the range of rep is as wide as can be – black, brown, Latinx, queer (including bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, ace, and nonbinary), undocumented immigrant, and adoption (specifically interracial adoption).  One character uses a wheelchair, another has a chronic invisible illness, another wears a hijab. There’s rep for anxiety and mental illness as well.
  • Specifically in regard to a nonbinary character, I love that Oshiro describes them in such a way that there is no clue what their assigned gender at birth was, or what gender people perceive them to be.  It’s pure – they are them, and that’s just how they want to be.
  • I had my heart ripped out and stomped on in the best way.  It almost seems dystopian in a “this can’t be real” sense, but then you think about news you’ve seen recently and you realize it’s happening right now.
  • The writing is solid.  I believe all of these characters as people, and even though there are a ton of secondary characters I was able to keep them straight.  Many got a turn in the sun and a chance to show their awesomeness.
  • And the themes – the power of family, the power of friends, the power of gathering, the power of women in making change, the power of teenagers, the power of love.  The power of saying their names.

My brain is still wrapping itself around this one so I’m having trouble finding more to say – just know that Anger is a Gift is amazing.

Thanks to Tor Teen and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)

32718027I normally have two or three books going at a time but once I got into The City of Brass I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else.  “Why would you want to start another book?  What is this one lacking?”  Nothing.  So I kept reading.

Nahri lives in 18th century Cairo and ekes out a meager living as a con artist, diagnosing mysterious aliments and driving out spirits.  She doesn’t believe in spirits but her marks do, so no harm, right?  That is, until one day she inadvertently calls a djinn warrior to her side and they are forced to go to the titular city of brass, Daevabad, while being chased by nasties of every description.

Huzzah for own voices Muslim fantasy!  I know next to nothing about this time and period which is just pitiful.  So many other series riff off the the same European medieval-eque fantasy that the setting nearly paints itself, but here my only cultural frame of reference is the Disney movie Aladdin.  I am so, so glad to expand on that.

The story is epic and has everything – fights, political intrigue, a varied cast of characters, and a touch of romance.  There are discussions of religion, colonialism, poverty, and governance.  What sway does your past hold over you, even when you can’t remember it?  Can the cost of standing up for your beliefs run too high?

It’s nuanced and absorbing.  There are no heroes or villains – nearly every character has made choices both admirable and abominable.  There’s so much that I may have to reread The City of Brass before moving on to the next book, scheduled to be published later in 2018, but I’m very much looking forward to it.

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

28953569The story Bhattacharjee covers is fascinating – in December of 2000 an FBI agent got a hold of coded letters sent to the Libyan consulate.  They were sent by a CIA analyst and offered to sell classified material to the foreign power at the price of millions to be wired to a Swiss bank account.  As proof of his access the writer included several top secret documents and promised information about US reconnaissance satellites, defense systems, and more.  It’s information that could put the US military and security in grave danger, not to mention kick strategy back a decade or two if it falls into the wrong hands.

I was excited to dig in – a whodunit, yea!  …except that we learn who the culprit is early on.  Heck, his name is in the first few lines of the jacket copy.  From there we could have gone down one of several paths – a why-dun-it, a how-dun-it, or a how-they-caught-him-…it.  But instead of picking one and committing Bhattacharjee gives us a little of each, and that lack of a single driving force made the read fall a bit flat for me overall.

Listening to the audiobook didn’t help, either, as alphanumeric code gibberish doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  I got the sense that if the ciphers were laid out on a page it would all come together but in my ears it remained largely incomprehensible.

So… ‘Danger tonight’ would be enciphered as four dot one dot fourteen dot seven dot five dot eighteen star twenty dot fifteen dot fourteen dot nine dot seven dot eight dot twenty.

@_@

Not the narrator’s fault, not anyone’s fault, but it did make some parts tough going.

Overall the story is interesting and at 1.8 speed it’s a quick and fun listen, but while serviceable it didn’t tip over into awesome.  If you’re into codes or espionage you’ll want to give The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell a go, but do yourself a favor and stay away from the audiobook.

Banthology: Stories from Unwanted Nations ed. by Sarah Cleave

39737311Reading can be an escape, something transportative that takes you to different countries, cultures and states of mind.  It can take you to all the places that Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go.
(introduction)

Huzzah for Deep Vellum bringing this book to the US – it highlights stories we need to hear. Writers from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya were “asked to develop a fictional response to Trump’s discriminatory ban, exploring themes of exile, travel, and restrictions on movement”.  The resulting short stories, all in translation, range from realistic to fantastic.

I ended up reading each story in one gulp, often while on the train to work.  When I got to the end I’d sit with it while the landscape slid past – people are going through this.  It’s fiction, but it’s real.  Even the most fantastic stories have an air of ‘lying to tell the truth’, using unbelievable circumstances to skewer reality.  All but one use first person, holding us close, refusing any comfort afforded by distance.

We follow someone doing whatever necessary to get to safety, visit a fantasy-like village above the clouds, and follow refugees as they put on a play (of sorts).  As with any collection I liked some stories more than others, but they all got me out of my brain and own life experiences, which is the point.  A great starting point for anyone interested in the people and cultures that some in power would rather we ignore.

Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Lang (Tensorate #1)

33099588Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. What’s more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?

Review:

I’ve been wanting to read more nonbinary authors and this book looked fascinating, taking place in a fantasy world where children are born without gender.  By puberty most pick the gender that suits them and switch from they/them to he/him or she/her pronouns.  I love the idea and how it’s executed.

The world building is good and sucked me in from the beginning.  Set in Asia with elements from several cultures there’s a magic system and fantastic creatures that are explained without being overwrought.  Yang strikes this balance by throwing in just enough of the familiar (elemental forces, phoenixes, etc.) and it works with the lower page count.

The plot, however, left me less satisfied as time went on.  In order to cover 35 years there are large jumps in time and while some work, especially while the twins are younger, the later skips left me wanting.  It seems like a lot should have happened to Akeha in six or twelve years, but not all that much changes, considering.  I especially would have liked to see how his relationship with Yongcheow evolved instead of just the beginning and end points.

While there’s a Big Happening at the end it’s not a resolution while also not being a cliff hanger.  Gah.  In sum I like the world, I like what Yang is doing and how they’re doing it, but the story doesn’t quite work for me at novella length.

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

33931697Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

Review:

Part memoir, part anecdote, and part research, Invisible does an amazing job looking at women society deems “too young” or “too pretty” to be sick.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for both health issues and being queer, which is awesome in its own right, and her conscientious efforts mean…
  • …it may be the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Lent Hirsch mentions how each woman interviewed identifies and the range across race, sexuality, religion, and gender is amazing.  She goes into how each of these identities affect how a woman interacts with health care as well as friends, family, coworkers, and romantic partners.
  • This care is reflected in own voices reviews for Invisible.  My favorite is by Corvus who identifies as Queer, trans, and disabled.  They write, “This is the first book of this kind that I have read – that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations – that didn’t let me down.”  Their whole review is wonderful, go check it out here.
  • There’s a thoughtful discussion with several people about using the word “disability” in relation to themselves, and why they do or don’t embrace it.  There are many answers to this question and I like how so many different angles are covered.
  • Large sections of the text are straight from discussions the author had with women of all sorts.  While reading I thought – if a straight cis white man wrote this book he would only grab the juiciest quotes and summarize the rest through the lens of his own experience.  Lent Hirsch, however, has each amazing woman speak for herself and the book is stronger for it.
  • Even though my own experience as a patient is thankfully limited there are still parts that hit close to home.

    The new pharmacist was great.  He never commented on my looks or how my body made him feel.  What a low bar I was holding him to: he was ‘great’ because he didn’t harass me.

The not-so-great:

  • Only one thing here – I would have liked the 30,000 foot level writing to be stronger.  There are themes that could have been developed to make the book gel as a cohesive whole and their lack feels like a lost opportunity.

Invisible is an insightful look at what women of all sorts go through while dealing with chronic illness.  It’s a must read if you have any tiny bit of interest in the subject – I loved it.

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