Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (The Sacred Dark #1)

43689541._SY475_Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

Review:

Content warnings for fantasy violence, suicide, mind control, and homophobia.

What a ride!

The good:

  • We have nonbinary protagonist Mio (he/him pronouns) and immortal Rhodry (male) together as a couple, written by a nonbinary author.  Hell yes.
  • There’s a major power imbalance between the two, but it’s handled with care. Rhodry checks in with Mio often, makes sure he doesn’t feel forced in any way, and backs out of some situations where he fears consent may be freely given, even if only in part.
  • The relationship is incredibly sweet overall. I’m a fan of these two.
  • There’s more than the romance, though – a lot of plot is going on. The world is vaguely European and teeming with fantasy elements. There are mages and moon souls, ghosts and bear shifters. Political machinations? Yup. Family drama? You bet. A pivotal scene that takes place at an opera house? Check!
  • The happy for now ending satisfies and excitement looms on the horizon.

The not-so-good:

  • Worldbuilding is easier, I think, when you start with a small scene and expand out in the world. Here the world starts kinda big and focuses down on events in a single house over time. It’s jumping in the deep end, and I’m not sure it’s the most successful.
  • The fantasy elements feel like a hodge podge that don’t quite gel together, at least not in this first book. I can see it working on a series level, but having so many supernatural beasties from the start is a lot to take in.
  • There’s a bit of talk about dying to be with someone, which makes sense in a world where ghosts are real, I guess, but it may still rub you wrong if you’re not into it.

It took me a while to wrap my head around the plot and characters, but once I was immersed I couldn’t put the book down. I’m super curious to see where Peterson takes the story next now that the worldbuilding and important relationships have been fleshed out.

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

Better Off Red by Rebekah Weatherspoon (Vampire Sorority Sisters #1)

10161265It’s rush but college freshman Ginger Carmichael more has important things on her mind, like maintaining her perfect GPA. No matter how much she can’t stand the idea of the cliques and the matching colors, there’s something about the girls of Alpha Beta Omega—their beauty, confidence, and unapologetic sexuality—that draws Ginger in. But once initiation begins, Ginger finds that her pledge is more than a bond of sisterhood, it’s a lifelong pact to serve six bloodthirsty demons with a lot more than nutritional needs.

Despite her fears, Ginger falls hard for the immortal queen of this nest, and as the semester draws to a close, she sees that protecting her family from the secret of her forbidden love is much harder than studying for finals.

Review:

I love Weatherspoon but her next book is half a year away (gah!) so I’ve decided to dip into her backlist. Better Off Red, a paranormal erotic romance, is her first book.

The good:

  • Huzzah for own voices queer romance! And if you’re looking for hot sapphic sex, we have lots of it here.
  • The plot is built around an interesting idea – that vampires would use a somewhat secretive institution, like a sorority, to recruit people to feed on. The world building in general is deeper and more well thought out than I was expecting in a debut.
  • I didn’t even think about rushing a sorority, so I like the look and observations about a corner of college life I know little about.
  • I’m a fan of the vampire mythology and ethos. Humans aren’t used merely as food – they’re carefully selected and protected for their entire life. It’s a loving relationship, both in feeling and deed.

The not-so-good:

  • There are some typical debut wobbles. The plot gallops a bit at the end, and I’m not sure I buy everything that happened.

Not amazing, but enough for me to pick up the next book in the series.

Tentacle by Rita Indiana

translated by Achy Obejas

40679930._SY475_Plucked from her life on the streets of post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, young maid Acilde Figueroa finds herself at the heart of a Santería prophecy: only she can travel back in time and save the ocean – and humanity – from disaster. But first she must become the man she always was – with the help of a sacred anemone. Tentacle is an electric novel with a big appetite and a brave vision, plunging headfirst into questions of climate change, technology, Yoruba ritual, queer politics, poverty, sex, colonialism and contemporary art. Bursting with punk energy and lyricism, it’s a restless, addictive trip: The Tempest meets the telenovela.

Review:

Tentacle is hard to explain. It’s queer. Some sections are science fictional, others historical. There’s time travel. It touches on the health of our oceans, climate change, politics, indigenous culture, colonialism, and the art world. All in 160 pages.

While I enjoyed the book it’s not exactly a satisfying read. First of all, I recommend that you read it in a day or two, in long bursts. There’s a lot going on here – two disparate story lines in three different historical eras that end up uniting by the end. Character names change several times. The fresher the details are, the better. I ended up reading it in long spurts but over a week, and I found myself flipping back and forth to double check names, relationships, and places.

I may have gotten more out of this book if I were familiar with Dominican politics and history. I get the feeling Indiana is touching on broader issues that I don’t know about and am having trouble identifying. And I want to mention that one main character is racist and misogynist and uses slurs against people of color and women on the regular.  It gave me pause because I’m not sure it had a point other than to show how awful he is, and that’s obvious even without the slurs. Which reminds me, content warning for an animal being killed to spite someone. Sigh.

The ending leaves the reader hanging out to dry. It’s not vague, but it feels odd and left me with a lot of questions. I had a moment of, ‘but then why did I read this?’ I think Indiana is making a point about how humans are (ineptly) dealing with climate change, and how current comfort can affect our thinking more than vague, long-term consequences.

Tentacle was a mind-bending trip and while I’m glad I read it, I’m not sure it’s a book for me.

Fire on the Ice by Tamsen Parker (Snow & Ice Games #4)

36471949Blaze Bellamy is the bad girl of the short track speed skating world. She’s got a punk attitude to match her provocative dress and her dyed hair, and she’s determined to get onto the front pages of the papers regardless of how she has to do it.

Maisy Harper is the workhorse of the Canadian women’s figure skating team. Maisy would prefer to win her victory on the ice rather than in the press, and is exasperated by Blaze’s antics. After they both failed to make the medal podium at the last Snow and Ice Games, they drowned themselves in gin—and each other.

Despite their hookup being drunken, they both harbor fond memories of their night together and are keen for a repeat. But they’ve got different ways of going about getting what they want, and Blaze’s willingness to go to any lengths for the spotlight could ruin any chance she has with Maisy.

Review:

Fire is right! ~wipes brow~

The good:

  • The Snow and Ice Games stand in for the Olympics, because copyright, and it’s fun to watch people from totally different sports interact. Blaze only wants to go to events ruled by the clock, while Maisy wants to check out curling and ice dancing.
  • Maisy and Blaze’s public personas are near opposites, but their personalities have enough in common to make this thing work.
  • Their sports have given them very different bodies – the thick thighs of a speed skater, the petite build of a figure skater – and they love each other for it.
  • Yea for a name check of Surya Bonaly, who is badass.
  • Blaze is bi, poly, and out and proud, while Maisy prefers to shield her private life, including being lesbian, from prying eyes. Her homophobic parents, who have repressed her in all kinds of ways her entire life, are part of that.
  • There’s bunches of interesting conflict to drive the story forward. Will this be a hookup like before, or a relationship that lasts? Can Blaze resist the urge to drag Maisy into the spotlight? Will Maisy ever go against her parents?
  • Harmful stereotypes about people who are bi, as well as those who are poly, are challenged head on. They talk about how important communication is in a relationship, and they actually do it. Woot.
  • The story fits the length, a novella-esque 169 pages. There’s nothing slapdash, no hanging ends.
  • There are a bunch of lovely sex scenes, all different and smoking. However…

The not-so-good:

  • …they all come at the front of the book. It makes sense – this is a re-hookup, and both ladies are eager to get back into bed as soon as possible. It slows the story to a crawl, though, when you spend that much time doing one thing, no matter low lovely it is. For a while there I was worried the whole book would be pron without plot.
  • The story is there, almost all in the second half, and the sex dries up to nothing. It all makes sense as far as event timing goes, but at the same time I would rather the sex and plot were more balanced.

It all evened out into an average read for me, and I’m interested in reading more from Parker even though I won’t be searching it out right away. It’s rare for a single romance series to have differently gendered pairings, and I love how this one has m/f, f/f, and m/m all mixed together.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

35412372Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Review:

Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, self-harm, self-destructive behavior, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

I went into Freshwater, my first read for the semifinal round of The BookTube Prize, with little information. My friends loved it but were cagey in their reviews.

I’m going to join their ranks.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful in a lyric, understated way.
  • I enjoy watching all these personalities, Ada and the spirits, rub against each other and unsettle each other. Many take turns as narrators, allowing the narrative to slip backwards or forwards in time in a seamless way. I’ve read a bunch of books that do this poorly, but it’s a great device when used well, like here.
  • It took me a while to get into the story, especially as I felt the narrators out. But once I did, wow. I read the last 40% in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.
  • We see the legacy of abuse and how trauma experienced as a child can shape you.
  • Ada shares traits with the author, and it feels like a deeply personal story.
  • Emezi slowly cracked open my mind so a reality that I never imagined could pour in. They patched me up when they were done, and I’m a better person for it.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing major or of particular note.

I am more than excited to read more of Emezi’s writing. They have a YA fantasy coming out this fall and more books in the pipeline – I can’t wait.

Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju

43496429Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.

Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.

Review:

I love this book for all of the own voices elements and the loving depiction of drag, but it doesn’t escape some first book shakiness.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for lgbtqia+, POC, and drag king rep. Huzzah!
  • Nima’s father is awesome, never a given in YA. He’s absent later in the book so she can do her thing, which is more usual, but yeah. At least he’s awesome.
  • Diedre is a fairy godmother of a drag queen. It toes the line of believability for me, but I know there are good people in the world like this, helping queer kids find their way.
  • The drag scenes jump off the page. I could read Boteju describing drag shows all day, they’re so full of joy and energy.
  • I love love love that Nima is questioning her sexuality throughout the book. Literature often looks at coming out, completely skipping any questioning phase. The only other book I’ve read with decent questioning rep is Dress Codes for Small Towns, but I’m hoping for more. (The recent release Red, White, and Royal Blue has good questioning rep, I’ve been told.)
  • The characters are diverse in race, gender, and sexuality. One disabled character has a one page, non-speaking appearance.

Neither good-nor-bad:

  • The plot doesn’t tie up every thread neatly. It will annoy some, I’m sure, but it feels true to life. A 17-year-old figuring out her sexuality, connecting with family, trying drag for the first time, and falling into a perfect romance, all in the course of one summer? Not happening. I was fine with the loose ends but your mileage may vary.

The not-so-good:

  • It’s a debut and feels like it. The plot, especially, has clunky points in need of polish.
  • A bunch of this is me coming to YA as an adult reader, but I have a hard time when teenagers make obviously stupid decisions and we have to cringe through both the act and the consequences. Here someone decides that getting smashed at a party would be a cool thing to do, and I quickly pushed through that part to get to the other side. I get that young people can get a lot from reading these scenes, and that seeing the results on the page is much better than experiencing them in real life, but that doesn’t make me cringe any less.

All in all Kings, Queens, and In-betweens is a fun read. Normally I would sell a three star read back to the used bookstore, but I’m keeping this one on hand so I can hopefully give it to the right person at the right time.

A Prince on Paper by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #3)

38622940Nya Jerami fled Thesolo for the glitz and glamour of NYC but discovered that her Prince Charming only exists in her virtual dating games. When Nya returns home for a royal wedding, she accidentally finds herself up close and personal—in bed—with the real-life celebrity prince who she loves to hate.

For Johan von Braustein, the red-headed step-prince of Liechtienbourg, acting as paparazzi bait is a ruse that protects his brother—the heir to the throne—and his own heart. When a royal referendum threatens his brother’s future, a fake engagement is the perfect way to keep the cameras on him.

Nya and Johan both have good reasons to avoid love, but as desires are laid bare behind palace doors, they must decide if their fake romance will lead to a happily-ever-after.

Review:

Trigger warning for abuse.

I’ve had very hit and miss experiences with Cole’s other contemporary novels, but this is my favorite Reluctant Royals book by far.

The good, in no particular order:

  • Like most of Cole’s books it’s own voices Black representation.
  • There are several LGBTQIA+ characters. One’s queerness becomes a plot point, but the others are simply themselves and that is awesome.
  • Nya has some trauma in her past and it isn’t info dumped but you get it.
  • All the consent! Nya is not experienced in the sexual department and Johan rushes nothing and asks for permission before everything. Love.
  • Nya and Johan both have a bunch of emotional issues they’re dealing with, but their baggage matches. It’s great to see two people who help each other with their stuff constructively, and don’t set each other off.
  • At one point it looks like we’re headed for a Big Misunderstanding but the characters talk to each other like adults. The way it should be!
  • There’s some great positive modeling, including how to bring up the subject of pronouns with someone who may be questioning their own.
  • As always Cole brings in current events. Johan’s country is largely white and a former colonial power, and the government and people are going through growing pains, figuring out what they want their future to look like. How do you interact with your former colonies? Do you welcome refugees? What is the place of a monarchy in this day and age?

The not-so-good:

  • While I love the romance the plot is disappointing, especially the ending. It has good elements overall but I don’t feel like Cole stuck the landing.

I’m happy I stuck with the series through a DNF and two mediocre reads, and am looking forward to whatever Cole may come out with next.

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.

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.

The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality: From Ace to Ze by Morgan Lev Edward Holleb

9781785923425_f78cfThere can be confusion around the appropriate terminology for trans and queer identities, even within the trans community itself. As language is constantly evolving, it can be especially difficult to know what to say. As a thorough A-Z glossary of trans and queer words from ‘ace’ to ‘xe’, this dictionary guide will help to dispel the anxiety around using the “wrong” words, while explaining the weight of using certain labels and providing individuals with a vocabulary for personal identification.

Having correct and accurate terminology to describe oneself can be empowering, especially with words and phrases that describe gender identity, sexuality, sexual orientation, as well as slang relevant to LGBTQ+ rights and anti-discrimination, queer activism, gender-affirming healthcare and psychology.

Review:

When you have a question about a term used in the LGBTQIA+ community it can be hard to find a definition that is trustworthy. There’s the internet… but it’s the internet, and some pages are sketchy.  The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality is a place to go with these questions, if you just want some info, or if you’re interested in related history.

Holleb, who is trans, bisexual, nonbinary, and uses he/him pronouns, writes with an unabashedly activist point of view that I’m glad for.  He has no problem saying that we shouldn’t use a certain word, or that a particular (often hateful) way of looking at the world is wrong.  In the introduction he also says that we, the reader, are not obliged to agree with him on everything, and are free to cross out passages and rip out pages as we see fit.  I find the invitation refreshing and welcome.

I read the book straight through, as is my wont, and had a mixed experience.  The information itself is great.  A bunch of questions that have been stewing in the back of my mind were clearly answered, and learned some words that I didn’t even know existed.  Some are terms used within the community, others are words that have fallen out of fashion or the times but nevertheless are still good to know.

However, as a whole the writing is uneven.  It feels like it’s trying to be academic in parts but sourcing is inconsistent and clunky. Some sections give lots of facts and percentages that don’t serve the reader as well as a thoughtful summary would.  More than a few glossary entries stray into essay-length reiterations of history, and while at times enlightening they are often lists of facts, like the names and dates for organizations connected with a certain cause.  The information isn’t bad, I just wanted it synthesized a little more.

Overall it’s okay.  I learned a bunch, but it could have been put together more cohesively. As a result its a bit hit-and-miss as a resource, but it will definitely start you on the right track.

Thanks to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.