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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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.

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.

Counterpoint by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #2)

39675785Twisted Wishes lead guitarist Dominic “Domino” Bradley is an animal onstage. But behind his tight leather pants and skull-crusher boots lies a different man entirely, one who needs his stage persona not only to perform, but to have the anonymity he craves.

When computer programmer Adrian Doran meets Dominic, he’s drawn to the other man’s quiet voice and shy smile. But after a few dirty, demanding nights exploring Dominic’s need to be dominated, Adrian wants more than a casual distraction. He has no idea he’s fallen for Domino Grinder—the outlandish, larger-than-life rock god.

Review:

I absolutely loved the first book in the series, Syncopation, and this one is just as awesome.

The good:

  • Rep! Pansexual main character, gay main character, main character with anxiety and panic attacks, m/m relationship.  And written by a non-binary author, huzzah!
  • Adrian is a Dominant but not an asshole.  He checks in with Dominic constantly for consent and can be downright deferential at work.  He reminded me of this tweet – they do exist!

  • Being penetrated is separated from being the sub (yea!), and Adrian goes to pains to point out that BDSM may be therapeutic but it does not equal sessions with a qualified professional.  Common sense but so many romances overlook it.
  • The D/s is without humiliation or pain, but with bondage – a rare combo.Counterpoint
  • While a whole lot of stuff goes down there’s no stereotypical Big Misunderstanding because – get this – the characters are grown ass adults and talk with each other.  I know, crazy concept!
  • Zabo takes a trope I don’t like (Big Secret) and makes me appreciate it, no small feat.
  • They also write inner conflict like woah.  We saw shades in the the last book but not like this.
  • The themes resonate with me – found family, the value of doing something you love, the idea that a partner should make you more… you.

The not-as-good:

  • Zavier turned into a golden boy since the last book, losing his flaws. It’s weird considering the rest of the characterization is so good.
  • The story technically stands alone but you’re going to want to read Syncopation first.

I like this romance almost as much as the previous in the series, which is amazing considering it’s based on a trope I don’t care for.  I read it cover to cover in a day and cannot wait for the next volume.

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

How to Bang a Billionaire by Alexis Hall (Arden St. Ives #1)

31445002If England had yearbooks, I’d probably be “Arden St. Ives: Man Least Likely to Set the World on Fire.” So far, I haven’t. I’ve no idea what I’m doing at Oxford, no idea what I’m going to do next and, until a week ago, I had no idea who Caspian Hart was. Turns out, he’s brilliant, beautiful . . . oh yeah, and a billionaire.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by someone like that. But Caspian Hart makes his own rules. And he has a lot of them. About when I can be with him. What I can do with him. And when he’ll be through with me.

I’m good at doing what I’m told in the bedroom. The rest of the time, not so much. And now that Caspian’s shown me glimpses of the man behind the billionaire I know it’s him I want. Not his wealth, not his status. Him. Except that might be the one thing he doesn’t have the power to give me.

Review:

This is the second Hall book I’ve read and man, I like the way he writes romance.  The characters are well-formed, situations and feelings ring true, and any silly or crazy is enjoyed in the spirit it’s given.  I read How to Bang a Billionaire in a day during a readathon and put it down happy, excited to read the next book in the series.

Then I looked at the reviews.

It turns out it’s a retelling of Fifty Shades!  I have stayed away from any and all Gray so I had no idea.

I’m happy to report it’s an improvement of a retelling – gay as hell, written by a bi author, and not problematic (as far as I can see).  But learning the Fifty Shades connection was like a dunk in ice water – I needed to towel off and reevaluate.

The verdict:  I’m glad I read Hall’s retelling instead of the real thing.  I still want to see how these two get to an HEA, and I’m excited to keep digging into Hall’s backlist.

The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert (Dirty British Romance #1)

40785611Prince Ruben of Helgmøre knows exactly what he wants—and his current obsession is Cherry Neita. Everything from her rollercoaster curves to her fearsome attitude commands his attention. And best of all? She has no idea who Ruben is.

Until the paparazzi catch them in a dark alley, her scarlet lipstick smudged, and his hands somewhere naughty…

All Cherry wanted was a night or two with the hottest man she’d ever seen. Turns out, that man is actually a prince, and now he needs her to play princess. Well, princess-to-be. One year as his fake fiancée, and he’ll make all her problems disappear. Easy. Right?

Wrong.

Review:

Trigger warning for child abuse and domestic abuse as well as some racist remarks.

At one point I was reading five books, none of them romance. (I don’t know how it happened, either.)  So as soon as I finished one I dove into my digital to-be-read pile and came up with The Princess Trap.

The last Hibbert book I tried to read opens with scenes of abuse and I had to put it down.  I’m okay with mentions, especially when they’re of past events, but extended scenes told in the present tense are hard for me to read.  Luckily the opening of this book is fine – heroine working at a job she doesn’t care for meets a “hidden royalty” hero, sparks fly, etc.  Being discovered in a compromising pose leads to an engagement of convenience, jetting to an island kingdom, and some steamy scenes as they fall in love.

So lots of good stuff.  The author is a woman of color, the relationship is interracial, the hero is bisexual, and side characters indentify as LGBTQIA+ in slick, ‘this is totally normal’ ways.

She’d never brought a boy home.  Her sister had never brought a girl home.  They had no point of reference for [how their parents would react].

Love it.

the-princess-trap.jpgFurther on in the book, though, we flashback to child abuse (present tense), domestic violence is insinuated, and we see the aftereffects of more child abuse to a different character.  As a result I struggled.  I love that the author has hotline numbers and encouraging words in the acknowledgements, and the whole situation is handled incredibly well, but still.  I had a hard time getting through.

The only other thing that bothered me was the hero’s convenient BDSM-lite.  It allowed him to show an alpha side early on and hint at delicious wickedness, but it wasn’t revisited after the first sex scene.

Despite the personal minuses I still started and finished The Princess Trap within 24 hours, so… ~shrug~.  I learned my lesson though – I’ll be checking reviews for trigger warnings before I pick up another book by this author, as much as I like her work.

Syncopation by Anna Zabo (Twisted Wishes #1)

37648566Twisted Wishes front man Ray Van Zeller is in one hell of a tight spot. After a heated confrontation with his bandmate goes viral, Ray is hit with a PR nightmare the fledgling band so doesn’t need. But his problems only multiply when they snag a talented new drummer—insufferably sexy Zavier Demos, the high school crush Ray barely survived.

Zavier’s kept a casual eye on Twisted Wishes for years, and lately, he likes what he sees. What he doesn’t like is how out of control Ray seems—something Zavier’s aching to correct after their first pulse-pounding encounter.

Despite the prospect of a glorious sexual encore, Ray is reluctant to trust Zavier with his band—or his heart. But touring together has opened their eyes to new passions and new possibilities, making them rethink their commitments, both to the band and to each other.

Review:

I absolutely loved Syncopation and gobbled it up.  There’s so much good here. Speaking of…

The good:

  • A nonbinary author writing about a queer rock band is all.the.yes. Loads of rep including aromantic, gay, and pansexual.
  • This is the first time I’ve read a romance with an aromantic character and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work.  The dynamic that develops between Zavier and Ray is wonderful and let me grok what one version of an aro relationship may look like.  It’s one of those cases where fiction gets something into your brain better than non-fiction ever could.Syncopation copy3
  • Ray doesn’t know that he’s into BDSM kink and Zavier guides him there with support and consent all the way.

    “I don’t want to be manhandling you and pressing you against a wall if that is not your thing.  Consent is sexy.”

  • I love not just the main relationship but the entire band.  Zabo fleshes the characters out and, at the same time, leaves you wanting more.  HEAs for everyone, I say!
  • This book has the best anaphylactic shock scene/rep I’ve seen in fiction.  If you suspect allergic shock Epipen first (while someone else calls an ambulance), ask questions later!  This is how you save lives, people.  All of the hospital stuff was thoughtfully done and this medical interpreter appreciates it.

The not-so-good:

  • The manager had so much more coming to him.  I needed more catharsis after all his crap.

I’ve never read Zabo before and I’m excited to check out more of their writing!  The next book in this series, Counterpoint, is an instant add to my TBR, and they have some backlist, too.  Oo.

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.

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.