Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (Wayward Children #1)

25526296Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Review:

This book is the perfect way to get out of your brain and set aside the world for a time. It will only be a short while but oh, how wonderful it is.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is for children who have slipped away into different worlds. Some went to fairy lands that are akin to Alice’s Wonderland. Others visited darker places, or weirder places, or places that weren’t happy to see them. For various reasons they have returned to the real world, and many would do anything to find that door out once again.

The story is short with a simple whodunit at its core. But, much like Palimpsest, I wasn’t here for the plot. The various words described are intriguing and I want to know more about them. The characters are simply drawn but still deep and flawed and human. I especially love how the main characters cover a full range of gender and sexual identities.

And the writing! Overall it’s not difficult, pitched at the lower end of YA with a few expletives thrown in, but McGuire pops in observations that make you gasp and say “Yes, this”.

Call it irony, if you like, but we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women.

Some are like life lessons:

We don’t teach you how to dwell. We also don’t teach you how to forget. We teach you how to move on.

So good. As much as I loved this book, though, there are some things I would change. First, I wish it were longer because 1) I’m greedy and 2) a subplot would have helped round out the narrative. The plot felt thin for a world this rich and well thought out. Second, the characters annoyed me with their obsession for categorizing the worlds they visited. The basic classification is interesting and helpful, but the characters’ preoccupation with it drove me nuts. Granted, this has parallels with the real world (pigeonholing, stereotyping) but still. Grah.

I’m excited to see that this is the first in a planned series – I can’t wait to return to McGuire’s world.

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

31843383San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself.

Review (short version):

Guaranteed to be one of my top books of the year, if not number one.  I actually made myself put it down after a chapter or two each night so I wouldn’t finish too quickly.  Part of the joy is going in blind and I suggest you do the same, so if the blurb interests you go read it.  Now-ish. :)

Review (long version):

I’m going to say as much as I can while giving away as little as possible.  Characters live and breathe in a city that does the same.  The plot is wonderfully paced within an intriguing structure and the writing is as beautiful as it is unobtrusive.

Our heroines live the best life they can despite the homophobia and racism and other miasmas that hang over San Francisco in 1940.  They struggle, but they are not defined by that struggle.  They aren’t damaged or any less themselves.  These women do what they can, do what they must, and above all, persist.

I know I haven’t done the book justice so… go.  Read it.  An enthusiastic, wholehearted recommend.

Thanks to Tor and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

For Real by Alexis Hall

25376011Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable. Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

Gaaaaah this book is wonderful and I’m thrilled to see it won a RITA for its awesomeness.

The good:

  • I love flipped tropes and this one is particularly delicious.  While most BDSM romances have a hunky alpha dom here Laurie, the sub, is the one with age and muscles on his side.  Toby is young, scrawny, and inexperienced so no one takes him seriously as a dominant but he convinces Laurie to give him a shot.
  • Similarly, it’s refreshing to have being penetrated separated from being the sub.  Universe – more of this, please!
  • The characters are masterfully drawn and realized.  They are flawed but it’s subtle, no unnecessary “oooo I wonder what his awful secret is!” angst.  We learn more about the heroes as the story goes on and each detail reinforces what we already know.
  • The large age difference is addressed and dealt with well.  It ends up being the largest sticking point of the relationship which rings true for me.
  • Chapters are told from each hero’s perspective and they could not be more different.  Laurie sound like the older, educated gentleman that he is, and Toby’s point of view is more casual and slang-filled.  The difference carries over into their speech so the whole book feels more unified than I was expecting with different POVs.
  • Laurie is a doctor and my (partially trained) eye didn’t find any medical weirdness or errors.  This is more rare than you would think.
  • The story is plain ol’ good.  I loved watching the couple fall in love and swallowed chapters in greedy gulps.

The only not-so-good things I can think of are nitpicks and not even worth mentioning.  If you like BDSM romance, or gay romance, or just plain ol’ romance For Real is a wonderful read.

Rogue Magic by Kit Brisby

32714776While trapped in a stalled subway train on his morning commute, PR rep Byron Cole flirts with Levi, a young waiter with adorable curls. But Byron’s hopes for romance crash and burn when Levi saves him from a brutal explosion—with outlawed magic.

When Levi is imprisoned, Byron begins to question everything he’s ever believed. How can magic be evil when Levi used it to save dozens of lives? So Byron hatches a plan to save Levi that will cost him his job and probably his life. If he doesn’t pull it off, Levi will be put to death.

Byron must convince Levi to trust him, to trust his own magic, and to fight against the hatred that’s forced him to hide his true nature his entire life. The more Levi opens up, the harder Byron falls. And the more they have to lose.

Ooo boy, is this book timely.  In a world very much like our own magic is a real thing.  Not everyone can use it, and those who can are forced to register with the government and are vilified by the public.  (See that? Yup.)

Bryon works for the company that confines mages and believes the party line until he meets Levi, who saves his life with a well placed magical shield.  Bryon wrapping his brain around this new information is one of my favorite parts of the book.  We watch him struggle with long held beliefs, do his best to open his mind, and become friends with people he formerly would have brushed aside.  The process takes time and feels right.

Brisby’s New York is delightfully rooted in the reality of our own, and I appreciate that the medical details are (to my knowledge) accurate.  The friendships are especially satisfying, maybe even more than the insta-romance that pops up.

The world building is good early on but, like the plot, it loses steam. I would have liked more info about the history of mage suppression or theories on where the magic comes from and why only some people can use it. A lot gets swept under the rug with ‘it’s outlawed, so we don’t know’ which works in the beginning but gets frustrating as the story goes on. In a similar vein the ending left me with some unanswered questions as well as doubts that everything could have changed so quickly.  And if you like your allegory subtle this is anything but.

Still, I enjoyed Rogue Magic.  A diverse, escapist urban fantasy that manages to both address and take my mind off of current events?  I’m here for that.

Thanks to Riptide Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Her Halloween Treat by Tiffany Reisz (Men at Work #1)

29095423It was a devastating dirty trick—Joey Silvia just found out her boyfriend of two years is married. What. A. Dick. Joey knows her best chance to get over one guy is to get under another. Of course, heading home to her family’s remote cabin in Oregon poses some challenges in the “available men” department…until she discovers this cabin comes with its own hot handyman!

Holy crap, Chris Steffensen. When did her brother’s best friend turn into a hard-bodied pile of blond-bearded hotness? He’s the perfect Halloween treat—and a surprisingly dirty rebound guy. For a couple of weeks, anyway. Except that Chris has other ideas…like proving to Joey that this blast from the past is a whole lot more than a naughty Halloween hookup.

Review:

Reisz is one of my go-to authors and she delivers again with this category romance. Categories are shorter romances that are part of a line, a niche that is dominated by Harlequin.  They tend to be shorter, rarely topping 250 pages, and the lack of real estate means the story is concentrated on the couple and their developing love story.  Wendy the Super Librarian does a great job explaining the appeal over at Heroes and Heartbreakers.  Personally I like that they’re conveniently packaged, perfect for when my brain has scattered to the winds. (2016 – good riddance.)

Shorter books are a natural fit for Reisz, who has a habit of breaking up anything over 300 pages into smaller chunks.  The plot is tight, the characters are fully realized, and the sex is oh-so-hot.  I love that there are LGBT characters whose past struggles and current joys ring true.  Sometimes categories give me emotional whiplash when a character’s development is cut short but Reisz has all the beats covered.  Joey acts more rashly than I would at times, but given her circumstances it’s completely understandable.

I also like that Joey’s best friend is real-world wise, not parent-y or moral authority-y wise.  Here’s Kira when Joey laments that the last two years of her life have gone “down the toilet”.

“Look, I know breakups are hard.  And they’re ten times harder when somebody lies or cheats.  I know.  I’ve been there.  But Ben was not your whole life. You have a job you love that you kick ass at… You have friends – me, for example – and what more do you need than me?  And you live in fucking Honolulu, Hawaii, so close to the beach you can see actual whales from your apartment window.  Can you really tell me that’s all down the toilet?  Really?  Go look.  Go look in the toilet and tell me if you see any whales in it.”

“Kira…”

“Go. Look. For. Whales. In. Your. Toilet. Right. Now.”

All in all a hot, satisfying, quick hit of romance from the incomparable Reisz.

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

Synopsis:

17751274Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything–even destroying planets–to get their hands on her.

Review:

Are you looking for a novel with people of color… in space? How about queer people… in space? Or people dealing with chronic disease… in space?

Ding ding ding! This is your book right here. I liked it for all those reasons and more, but there are some parts I wish were done better.

First, the good:

  • A protagonist of color that’s also queer and neuroatypical. Intersectionality, we haz it.
  • The world is interesting and drew me in. There’s spaceships, different worlds, and an interesting mix of two different kinds of technology.
  • Alana is very good at her job but by no means perfect. Her failings feel natural and human. Most of the characters are well-developed with interesting motives and hang ups.
  • The Tangled Axon feels like it lives and breathes. I love it when a ship or environment becomes its own kind of character.
  • Koyanagi’s care and investment in the story comes through loud and clear. I love knowing that it was written by a neuroatypical, queer person of color – she knows of what she speaks. Little lines like this discussion about Ovie make me happy:

“He’s no small canine, that’s for sure, just like he’s no small man.”
“I don’t get it.”
She patted my leg. “You don’t have to. People don’t exist for us to get.”

And the not-so-good:

  • I feel like the author is going for science fiction with romantic elements, as they say, or science fiction with a philosophical bent. But it ends up starting as the latter with a straight up (and oddly unsatisfying) romance plopped into the middle.
  • We don’t learn a lot about Ovie and he feels more like a plot device. I get that his story is probably left to be unspooled in later books, but an air of mystery would be nice. He feels dull even though he’s a kind of man kind of wolf… guy.
  • The plot doesn’t pick up in the way you’d expect, and it stops dead in the middle for that romantic bit. I lost my interest about halfway through and it never really came back. And that thing they’re aiming for seems to be forgotten now and then, more of a general want than Important Thing We Need.
  • I have a lot of unanswered questions. The captain says they’re short on money, but how would they normally earn it? Isn’t someone due an inheritance at the end, and wouldn’t that solve everything? The tech relies on magic a bit too much for my liking, too.
  • Philosophical is cool, but conversations trip over into preachy too many times for my liking. A bit blunt and on the nose.

So as much as I wanted to outright love this book I merely like it. I do hope there’s a sequel so I can see where the characters end up and how Koyanagi’s craft evolves.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Synopsis:

21948042On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma-City style, and to leave “a lasting impression on the world.” Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence-irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting “another Columbine.”

When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window — the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris, and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

Review:

My husband is Japanese and the same age as the Columbine shooters so I asked him, what do you know about the shooting? What news made it over to Japan? His answer – two guys, revenge at jocks, Trench Coat Mafia, killed a girl for believing in God.

It turns out only the first two words of that answer are true.

It is an axiom of journalism that disaster stories begin in confusion and grow clearer over time. Facts rush in, the fog lifts, an accurate picture solidifies. The public accepts this. But the final portrait is often furthest from the truth.

We all watched Columbine unfold on TV but how many of us followed the investigation in the many months and years after? What we learned during those first few days stuck. We never bothered to update our mental map of the massacre, but Cullen did. He was at the school in the first days after the attack and stayed with the story for ten years.

The most masterful part of this book is the structure. Often books about a disaster talk about all the exciting stuff that happened the day of first, then spend the remaining 70% rehashing legal battles and roads to recovery. It’s chronologically accurate but increasingly tedious. In Columbine Cullen starts with the very basics of the attack, introducing us to key survivors and victims. He keeps that story rolling forward while interspersing it with Dylan and Eric’s life and actions leading up to their own deaths. The tension between the two story lines keeps the narrative gripping throughout, and the transitions are mostly smooth.

Myths are busted left and right, from bullying to the idea that something made Eric and Dylan “snap”. We get a fascinating deep look at the killers’ psyches and, thanks to their journals and video tapes, what they were thinking and planning.

I read an updated edition that includes a map of the school, pages from said journals, and a detailed timeline of events. There are no photographs on purpose; the rationale is explained in the introduction. I’m not sure what I would do but I respect the decision. (And really, if you want to see that sort of thing the internet is here for you.)

The main part of the book is pure journalism and very well done. In 2016 Cullen added an additional epilogue with his personal reflections and I’m not sure how I feel about it. There are some interesting passages but I usually like keeping the author and the work separate.

All in all Columbine is an intriguing look at what actually happened. It was recommended to me as an excellent example of journalism and I wholeheartedly agree.

 

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)

Synopsis:

9780778313533_smp.inddNotorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different—more serious, more personal—and she’s sure it’ll be her breakout book… if it ever sees the light of day.

Zachary Easton holds Nora’s fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards—in six weeks—or it’s no deal.

Nora’s grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining… and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous—staying away from him… or returning to his bed?

Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.

Review:

Warning: this is not a romance novel. There is no happy ending and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Continue reading “The Siren by Tiffany Reisz (Original Sinners #1)”

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #1)

Synopsis:

16255San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous – unmistakably the handiwork of Armistead Maupin.

Review:

Oh, how I love this book. I’m have to say right up front that I’m biased – I lived in San Francisco for a few years and location is a big part of the book. The story should be just as enjoyable even if you’ve never visited, but the vivid images I was able to pull up of neighborhoods and street corners is a plus.

And it was designed that way. Continue reading “Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City #1)”

Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Synopsis:

605663A provocative manifesto, Whipping Girl tells the powerful story of Julia Serano, a transsexual woman whose supremely intelligent writing reflects her diverse background as a lesbian transgender activist and professional biologist. Serano shares her experiences and observations—both pre- and post-transition—to reveal the ways in which fear, suspicion, and dismissiveness toward femininity shape our societal attitudes toward trans women, as well as gender and sexuality as a whole.

Serano’s well-honed arguments stem from her ability to bridge the gap between the often-disparate biological and social perspectives on gender. She exposes how deep-rooted the cultural belief is that femininity is frivolous, weak, and passive, and how this “feminine” weakness exists only to attract and appease male desire.

In addition to debunking popular misconceptions about transsexuality, Serano makes the case that today’s feminists and transgender activist must work to embrace and empower femininity—in all of its wondrous forms.

Review:

I’m a feminist but I’ve never taken a class in gender studies or otherwise groked the different schools of feminist thought. Serano is there for me, breaking down trans/gender theory (as it stood when this book was written) and how it relates to her as a trans woman. She goes through the myriad forms of sexism and misogyny, the depiction of trans women in the media, and how LGBTQIA people of different sorts figure in feminist thought.
Continue reading “Whipping Girl by Julia Serano”