Close Quarter by Anna Zabo (Close Quarter #1)

35534292On a transatlantic cruise to New York, sculptor Rhys Matherton struggles to piece his life back together after losing his mother, inheriting a fortune, and finding out his father isn’t his father after all. He spills a tray of drinks on a handsome stranger, then he finds himself up against a wall getting the best hand-job he’s ever had. And for the first time in his life, he feels whole.

Rhys enjoys the company of Silas Quint, but for the eerie way no one pays attention to them even while they kiss in a crowded bar. Silas explains he’s a forest fae able to glamor the room around them—and more importantly, that he’s on the cruise to hunt vampires. Rhys thinks Silas is full of it, until he discovers vampires are real, and he’s part of their main course.

Review:

Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series (first book Syncopation) is amazing, but now that it’s over ~sob~ I wanted to dip into their backlist. The first book I came up with was Close Quarter, a paranormal m/m romance set on a cruise ship.

I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sold by the jacket copy. Fae and vampires on a cruise ship? But Zabo does a good job of introducing us to the characters and slowly building out the world. We learn about fae and vampires (called soulless) along with Rhys and while there aren’t many high level ‘why the world is like this’ answers, I don’t expect that in the first book of a series.

I’m a fan of the relationship because, thanks to some paranormal handwaving, it’s based on an intimate knowledge of each other. There’s some great banter, too.

“You’re so damn young. Beautiful. Like a spring morning.”
“What, cold, foggy, and damp?”
Silas shifted on the tub’s edge, turned his hand to capture Rhys’s fingers. “Warm and occasionally dense. But full of promise.”

As hinted in the same jacket copy, the sex starts early and happens often. I love steaminess in my romance, and a bunch of the sex scenes help us understand Rhys and Silas’ relationship and how it evolves. At the same time, I think there’s too many of them. Whenever they finish fighting a baddie it’s back to the cabin for sex. At times it feels like stalling, waiting for night to fall so they can get back to killing soulless.

While the plot is fine it needed a little more. I would expect a 262 page book to have a solid subplot, but beyond Rhys wondering about his family we come up short. Part of that is because there are precious few characters – beside good guys Rhys and Silas we have the Big Bad, his cookie cutter lackies, and a waiter on the cruise ship. That’s it.

I would argue that this book could be edited down into a 150 novella and made amazing. As is it’s still a fun read and I would continue the series, but Close Quarter was written in 2012 and there still isn’t a sequel. Ah, well. I’m looking forward to moving on to Zabo’s contemporaries.

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Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

41940477The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Review:

Trigger warning for anything and everything guns, violence, and mass murder.

The America circa 2030 that Bennett pictures is not a happy place. Take the most troubling parts of American life and shove them down the slippery slope – a lack of gun control leads to a culture where open carry is de rigueur and random gun violence is part of everyday life. Technology has evolved and a newscaster can be generated from algorithms, and live video can be manipulated to the point that you never know if what you’re watching is completely real. The West has fallen on extremely hard times and many young people in America have emigrated to places with better prospects like China and South America.

In this dystopian but eerily familiar world mass shootings approach entertainment, leading one company to develop a reality show based on that concept. Pay the owners of malls and other public gathering sites for the right to stage an episode of Vigilance at a time of the producer’s choosing, several fully armed people who want to commit mass murder are set loose on the unsuspecting crowd, and people who survive get a big cash reward. The entire ordeal is broadcast live to millions.

…disturbing as fuck, right?

The book follows the production of one Vigilance episode through the eyes of the main producer in the control room and a bartender every-woman. We see how America has changed, how hungry the public has become for this entertainment, and how many almost relish the thought of being unwittingly cast in the show to see if they have what it takes to survive.

Parts of this book are very well done. The world building in particular is tight and combined with a driving plot led me to reading the novella in a single day. (Wanting to avoid violent dreams may have been another reason….)  The America Bennett imagines may seem too far gone but the seeds of many ideas, especially with regard to technology, already exist today.

I had a bunch of issues as well, though. First, despite the female POV character I doubt this passes the Bechdel Test, and most women characters (that is, two out of three-ish) are stereotypes or a virtual personality made to fit the expectations and criteria of men.

Second, while the set up is interesting the end of the story fell flat. One character ended up being the undoing of another, and I recognized it as soon as they were introduced because I saw how the stereotypical gender dynamic was going. The story ends on a big AHA that felt not only out of left field but not in keeping with the themes he had been playing with to that point.

I think Vigilance works as a piece of speculative fiction in that it shows what America, ruled by greed and unchecked gun possession, could become. The idea of the reality show is fascinating, and I kept reading to see how this sort of thing could possibly be set up. Once we get past the setup, though, there’s a whole bunch of disappointment. It’s a haunting read, to be sure, and the idea behind the book will stick with me longer than the so-so writing, plot, or characters.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend?

Review:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a graphic novel in English, and a single-volume, full-color graphic novel at that. But I visited my mom’s local library on a trip home and this beauty called out to me from the shelf. It was fun to read while sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom.

I’m not sure I’m the best person to review it, though, because I have so little to compare it to. I like the art, the story is stinkin’ cute, and I blew through it in one setting. The queer factor is a plus, too. The only major drawback is that while the art suggests a historical setting the dialogue does not. The conflicting messages messed with my brain.

For now I can recommend The Prince and the Dressmaker as a quick, fun read, but I’ll need few more graphic novels under my belt before I feel comfortable calling it great.

Flinch: A Grenton PD Short Story by L. Setterby

32502525David Bourdon isn’t over his ex.

He misses their old life. He misses Ann-Marie’s laugh, her sultry voice, the way she swears like a sailor.
He had good reasons for leaving her. She can do better than him. He’s fucked up; she’s not.

But now Ann-Marie wants him back. On one condition: he has to be honest with her, for the very first time. About what he likes. What he wants her to do to him.

He thought leaving her took all the courage he had. He was wrong.

Review:

I’m not a big short story person when it comes to romance, but Wendy the Super Librarian loves Setterby and suggested Flinch as an introduction to her work. And who am I to complain when it’s free and I have a long flight ahead of me?

It’s truly a short story, clocking in at under 30 pages, and as a result there’s not much story here. David needs pain in order to enjoy sex, but he never told his ex that. He tells her when they meet by chance, leading to an erotic hotel room encounter.

On the good side, masochistic men are thin on the ground so I’m glad to see one as the hero. The writing is fine, the sex scene is fine, it’s.. fine.

Flinch didn’t blow my mind, but it’s unfair to expect that at this length.  I liked it enough enough to try out Setterby’s novels in the future, so there’s that.

Reverb by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #3)

43185688Twisted Wishes bass player Mish Sullivan is a rock goddess—gorgeous, sexy and comfortable in the spotlight. With fame comes unwanted attention, though: a stalker is desperate to get close. Mish can fend for herself, just as she always has. But after an attack lands her in the hospital, the band reacts, sticking her with a bodyguard she doesn’t need or want.

David Altet has an instant connection with Mish. A certified badass, this ex-army martial arts expert can take down a man twice his size. But nothing—not living as a trans man, not his intensive military training—prepared him for the challenge of Mish. Sex with her is a distraction neither of them can afford, yet the hot, kink-filled nights keep coming.

When Mish’s stalker ups his game, David must make a choice—lover or bodyguard. He’d rather have Mish alive than in his bed. But Mish wants David, and no one, especially not a stalker, will force her to give him up.

Review:

What a wonderful end to an amazing series!

The good:

  • Mish is a pansexual cis woman, David is a trans man, and they’re in a book full of lots of queer folks written by a non-binary person. All the yes.
  • The romance is like-likes-like, which I don’t see very often. Mish and David both see themselves as protectors and have a similar personality type, and as a result they have a feel for what makes each other tick. It brings them closer while also contributing to issues down the line.
  • I love that Zabo doesn’t have Big Miscommunications in their books. People talk to each other about their feelings like the adults they are – insert mock gasp of shock here. 😉
  • The found family dynamic runs through the series and is extra strong here. You can sense that the group is nearly complete and that David is the last puzzle piece. And him fitting goes both ways – the band accepts him as part of the family, and he has to realize and accept that he both fits and is wanted.
  • There’s a natural friendship between David and Adrian as the two guys who are with the band but don’t play on stage and it works so well.
  • The queerness of the band is never forgotten, and they are totally there for their fans and each other, from lead singer down through the roadies.
  • Little realities of touring ring true and make sense. For example, when they get donuts at a rest stop they make sure to buy the most garish ones they can find because they’ll look good on Instagram.
  • There’s tons of positive modelling, showing how delicate situations should be handled. When David sees a crew member hesitating to enter the men’s room, unsure of their reception, he warmly says “come with me” and strikes up a conversation.
  • In a similar vein, David is cis-passing, so Mish doesn’t realize that he’s trans. We see him come out to her from his point of view, worried she won’t be accepting. Her reaction is honest, real, unforced, and utterly respectful and accepting. We see how much it means to David, and I fell in love with both of them even more.

Neither here-nor-there:

  • The BDSM element so strong in the first two books is really light here. That being said, if you’re interested at all in this series I suggest you start with book one, Syncopation, in order to enjoy the character arcs and warm fuzzies to their fullest.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing in particular!

I’m both sad to see this series end and excited to see what Zabo does next – it appears that Twisted Wishes’ opening band could get its own spin off series and I hope it does, and soon!

Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

36628420It has been years since Helen Franklin left England. In Prague, working as a translator, she has found a home of sorts—or, at least, refuge. That changes when her friend Karel discovers a mysterious letter in the library, a strange confession and a curious warning that speaks of Melmoth the Witness, a dark legend found in obscure fairy tales and antique village lore. As such superstition has it, Melmoth travels through the ages, dooming those she persuades to join her to a damnation of timeless, itinerant solitude. To Helen it all seems the stuff of unenlightened fantasy.

But, unaware, as she wanders the cobblestone streets Helen is being watched. And then Karel disappears. . . .

Review:

Content warning for war atrocities.

After a run of decidedly meh books for The Booktube Prize the beginning of this book excited me – a mystery, yea! It morphed a bit as it went on, from mystery to Gothic horror-ish to historical fiction. And I can’t say I like the work as a whole.

I don’t want to spoil anything so I’m going to be (annoyingly?) vague. The central narrative follows Helen but flashes back to several different times and places through the use of “primary” documents. Normally I love this sort of thing, and some of the tales stood out as fine short stories in their own right, but it didn’t feel cohesive. The reader is tipped into and out of story lines with the grace of someone emptying a wheelbarrow.

While the writing doesn’t bother me the literary devices do. Symbolism isn’t merely used, it’s beat over our heads until I rolled my eyes at every mention of a jackdaw. In the middle a connection is made between the atrocities of the past and those of today. It could have been an, ‘oh, wow’ kind of revelation, but it’s done in a ham-handed way that strips it of any power. And the “twist” at the end is meant to give goosebumps but only made me yawn.

All in all it was disappointing for my first Sarah Perry.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

36679056Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

Review:

The Incendiaries is my third read for The Booktube Prize and I was curious what kind of book it would be. I cringed when I saw the table of contents – strictly rotating points of view, here among the three main characters, is not my sort of thing.

It works though, in large part because Will is our narrator, relating information about the other characters in hearsay. From an early chapter marked Phoebe:

She’d have sat in the circle, holding a kidskin journal. Though I’d driven Pheobe here, I was outside, going home. It’s a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn’t. Instead, I’ll add what details I can.

So put that in the plus column. I also like the book’s themes, especially as it examines faith – losing it, searching for it, and what people will do in it’s name.

On the other hand plot is thin on the ground. I was avoiding the jacket copy but I felt forced to turn to it a third of the way through, as nothing was happening and I wanted to have an idea of what may transpire. It turns out those two paragraphs are the entire plot, and everything else is characterization.

That’s not a bad thing, but combined with an overwrought writing style that I don’t care for, I never felt fully involved in the story. All in all it was an okay read, but sadly not particularly memorable.

The Rose by Tiffany Reisz (The Red #2)

38827724On the day of Lia’s university graduation party, her parents—wealthy art collectors with friends in high places—gift her a beautiful wine cup, a rare artifact decorated with roses. August Bowman, a friend of her parents and a guest at Lia’s party, tells her it’s known as the Rose kylix and it was used in the temple ceremonies of Eros, Greek god of erotic love, and has the power to bring the most intimate sexual fantasies to life.

He dares her to try it for herself, and when Lia drinks from the Rose kylix she is suddenly immersed in an erotic myth so vivid it seems real—as though she’s living out the most sensual fantasy with August by her side…

Review:

There’s so much to love about this book! Reisz is one of my favorite authors for a reason. 🙂

The good:

  • Reisz is bi and August, our hero, is also bi. Yea!
  • I don’t care about mythology but the way the gods are depicted kept me interested. It made me want to know more about them as “people”, not just the stories they’re depicted in.
  • The romance is just wonderful. Lia first experience with sex wasn’t all that great – nothing non-consensual but in the way that, for a lot of women, your first sex isn’t great sex. After that the guy heaped all kinds of baggage on her and it affects how she feels about sex even now. August is understanding and supportive, and without pushing her farther than she wants to go helps her enjoy sex in the way she wants.
  • The book as a whole is as feminist as hell. There’s little things like Lia’s mom (the heroine of the previous book in the series, The Red) calling the walk of shame a ‘walk of fame’. Why should a woman feel ashamed for having an amazing night of sex? Men can rock it, women should rock it, too!
  • Big things are talked about, as well. There’s lots of discussion of which myths have been passed through history and why – namely because men have decided this or that story is worthy of being immortalized in a painting or play. If there are myths that scare men, maybe showing them as silly, stupid, or weak in the face of a kick-ass woman, there’s a much lower chance that the story would survive the centuries when the gatekeepers all have dicks.
  • At one point the ending steers towards bittersweet, which made me feel conflicted. On one hand I love these two particular characters so much that I want them to have a carefree happily ever after, on the other hand Reisz is stellar at bittersweet resolutions and I know she would make it worthwhile. We ended up getting an unambiguously HEA (yea!), but I can’t help but wonder what a bittersweet ending would have looked like.
  • Speaking of the ending, as with many romances based on Greek myths there’s a deus ex machina at the end. I’m not usually a fan of an all-powerful character sweeping in and fixing things with the sweep of a hand, but here it feels oddly earned. There’s enough strife and heartache to balance things, and it doesn’t feel like an authorly ‘get out of jail free and save the romance in one fell swoop’ card.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • The first book in this series was indie published, while this one was picked up by a major publisher. I noticed that a couple of lines weren’t crossed here, most notably anal sex. There’s no mention of the word, the action looks like it may stray in that direction for a second with all kinds of euphemisms), but it always veers away again. Reisz doesn’t shy away from much of anything sexual, so I figure it must have been a restriction from the publisher. I have no idea about the reasoning, but if that’s the case – boo.
  • If you’d like to try erotic romance by Reisz but aren’t into BDSM this would be a decent place to start. While the sex is adventurous and fantastical it’s light on themes like bondage and submission.

Another awesome work from Riesz – brava! And Lia has three brothers (not to mention some best friends), so there’s no telling where things will go from here. ~rubs hands together greedily~

Thanks to MIRA and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

 

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.

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.