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Heroine Complex

3/5. A cute entry in the flourishing subgenre of reimagined superhero stories, this one featuring the lady sidekick to San Francisco’s lady superhero who is her boss and her childhood best friend, and there are demon cupcakes and bloggers and Asian-American cultural issues and karaoke and lesbians and a lot of fashion.

By “cute” up there I met aggressively cute. Take no prisoners cute. So cute it verges on over-engineered.

This is good if you like this sort of thing, but want more women in your superheroes. I like that sort of thing . . . ish, but wasn’t wholly taken in by this. It has that sprint pacing of a story that is prose but really a comic at heart, and like a lot of comics it has that . . . this is going to offend people, but here goes. It has that comics sort of character work where everyone’s feelings go to 11 at all times over all things and everyone is fundamentally irrational. I find that exhausting, and not particularly interesting, so.
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The Lawrence Browne Affair

3/5. He is a reclusive nobleman scientist who is probably on the autistic spectrum; he is a new manservant come to hide from his criminal past.

Nicely executed but not something that will stick with me. It’s not a fair comparison because the two books are about entirely different things, but K.J. Charles’s master/servant is far more complex, painful, and electric. This book isn’t intended to be painful, and its complexity is unobtrusive, undemanding. Which is a feature, not a bug, in a lot of circumstances, so there’s that.
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The Core of the Sun

3/5. Translation from the Finish. A weird (that's a genre designation, to be clear) specfic alternate history where women have been "domesticated" – i.e. genetically and socially altered to be stupid, docile, and of a specific blonde stacked phenotype. I assume it serves as sufficient content notes to say that this is a society where depriving a man of heterosexual sex is considered a violation of his human rights. Our protagonist was born with the right look, but the wrong mind. She can pass as an "eloi," but she's actually a morlock, or one of the women too smart to be allowed to reproduce (yes, that's an HG Wells reference). Anyway, all of that is backdrop to an exceedingly strange story about her addiction to capsaicin and the synesthetic, transcendental high she can get from it.

So let's talk about the omegaverse, since I spent most of this book thinking about it. The thing is. The thing is. I have always been dubious of the omegaverse, occasionally entertained by it, occasionally impressed by it. And this book made me think about it a lot because it's another universe where a gender's sociopolitical inferiority – and its status as sexual and reproductive slaves in all but name – is specifically rooted in biology. In actual biology, I mean, not in the largely illusory things that are supposed to define the difference between men and women in our world. Women in this book are genuinely unintelligent and genuinely unable to care for themselves; it's lack of schooling, yes, but it's also physiological. Omegas in a lot of "traditional" omegaverse are physiologically programmed for social and sexual submissiveness and passivity to the point where consent and autonomy no longer have any meaning.

And I just. I have come to be pretty certain that a universe in which rape culture is coded into biology isn't going to be telling me anything particularly new or interesting or insightful about our universe, in which rape culture is encoded into . . . culture.

This book didn't (though it was doing a number of other interesting things . . . did I mention the capsaicin addiction? And our protagonist's missing sister, and a last-minute turn to the . . . weirdly fantastical?). And very, very, very few omegaverse stories ever have, either, though many of them explicitly claim to be doing so. Which is not a huge surprise, but it was nice that this book worked me through my thought process on it.
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Whistlestop: My Favorite Stories from Presidential Campaign History

4/5. What it sounds like. Yeah yeah, I'm a nerd, don't I get enough of this stuff already, blah blah blah.

But let me explain something about John Dickerson, journalist, pundit, historian. He's an extremely successful history nerd who has the air of someone from a different era, and his sense of humor is – I mean, he's a walking dad joke. But here's what I actually like about him.

He quotes women.

Not just about women's suffrage or "women's issues." Not occasionally. But all the time. In every context. Talking about politics. Rendering their political opinions. Being involved in power. He quotes women senators from seventy years ago and women convention floor bosses. He just . . . quotes women. Like they're a part of history. I had no idea how extraordinary this was until I read it, and was astonished.

I could get all psychological here and theorize that it's because of Dickerson's mother, who is a legend in her own right, and who had an extraordinary impact on him. He wrote a book about her, in fact, so clearly he is used to the idea of women being movers in history. But the truth is, I don't care why he does it, I'm just glad he does.
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Winter Tide

4/5. How to explain this? It's Lovecraft mythos transformative work. Aphra's people spend some years on land when they're young before living out their long lives in the sea. Until the U.S. government raided their town in 1928 and interned them all. Decades later, Aphra and her brother are the only survivors of the camps, and they go home in the company of an FBI agent to reluctantly do work for the government that destroyed their world.

You need zero fingers to count the number of fucks I give about Lovecraft. Never read it, never going to, don't care, don't care, don't care. Also, I had not read the free online novelette that is the prequel to this book; I didn't even know it existed until I started going wait a minute…this is assuming I've read something that I haven't. Something other than Lovecraft, even.

So this book had a hard uphill climb, is what I'm saying. And yet . . . and yet . . .

It's strange and a little chilly and extremely conscious of who its monsters are. Hint: they aren't the Lovecraftian horrors from the deep, they're us. There's a lot of time in libraries in this book, and time performing magic in groups; lots of still scenes while people rub complexly and uncomfortably against each other. This is roughly 80% character work by volume, and an indeterminate amount Lovecraft stuff. I don't even know enough about Lovecraft to more than guess what is canon and what is invention. Except I'm pretty sure Lovecraft's work wasn't a sustained, pained meditation on the complex faces of privilege and oppression and monstrousness.

Which is why I'm not reading that, but did read this.
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The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

4/5. Middle grade. Every year the townspeople leave a baby to die in the forest to appease the evil witch. The evil witch, who has no idea why they keep doing this terrible thing, finds the babies new and happy homes in other lands. Until the one baby that she accidentally enmagics…and keeps.

A lovely, sad, charming book. It's all miniature dragon who thinks he's absolutely enormous! Sweet-tempered swamp monster named Glerk! Found family! Oh also women imprisoned for their madness grief and predators who consume sorrow and centuries of oppression coming to a head.

A little bit Patricia Mckillip and a little bit Kat Valente, and a lot about being . . . oppressed is not quite the right word. Crystallized in time. Held back by parents who think they know best, or by actual oppressors. And the sometimes explosive escape.
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Amatka

4/5. My vacation* book. A woman goes to a neighboring colony for work, gets involved with her (lady) housemate, and discovers that there is something very, very wrong with their world. Oh, and by the way, this is on a planet(?) where objects only hold their shape/meaning if they are properly and repeatedly labeled with the right word. Trust me, it makes more sense in context. Well . . . it makes more thematic sense.

This is weird and wonderful and requires a lot of work. It's in translation (from Swedish), but it's a very skillful one, as far as I can tell. Which is necessary for a slim, intense, calculated book like this, where words really count. I keep thinking about this book – about how it intersects language and oppression, and about its explicable-if-you-work-hard ending. And the worldbuilding – it's spare but sharp as a knife, as the contours of this authoritarian democracy come into relief. For example, there's a wonderful detail that seemed to open up the whole book for me, about how poetry serves an entirely different function in this world than it does in ours.

And I really like the protagonist's slide into disobedience. Her inability to play along anymore is part old personal history, part recent stress and it makes sense. But not in a paint-by-numbers tragedy-happens-to-a-plucky-person way. More like . . . yes. That is how you slide a tiny bit out of step with your community, then a tiny bit more, and a tiny bit more, and suddenly, bam. You're in a different world.

Content notes: Discussion of reproductive coercion, some forced medical stuff by the authorities, etc.

*Vacation: in which we went to see my dying father and I don't know if I'll ever see him again, and also I retired my dog and settled her with her puppyraisers and I don't know if we'll ever see her again, and then we did some hiking. Do I know how to decompress from work or what?
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Carpe Demon

3/5. Demon-fighting soccer mom.

There is a running joke in my household about my TBR pile. I was trying to find something to read towards the end of June [N.B.: I billed more hours in June 2017 than in any other month of my career] and my TBR was . . . dire. I was scrolling, and it was, "apocalypse . . . apocalypse with zombies . . . reproductive dystopia . . . ooh I think teenagers burn to death in that one." Yeah.

So I read this instead! Which is an extremely fluffy, comfy book about a suburban SAHM dealing with demons. She has a great best friend and a cute teenager and a dark past demon hunting for the church. Like you do. This goes the expected places – it's subliminally about the ways homemaking and running a family are like preventing the apocalypse – but it's also breezy and fun. And would make a great TV show, actually. Would watch. While collapsed half-dead with a glass of wine at the end of the week.
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For Real

DNF. M/M romance about the uptight emergency services doctor who sort of accidentally picks up a nineteen-year-old top at a kink mixer.

I should have liked this. It's well-observed and thoughtful and unashamed of its kinks, of which it has many. And it's playing with tropes in a way I appreciate – the financial and class and experiential power in this relationship is all with the sub, which is frankly refreshing. But it also hit a lot of my hard cringe embarrassment squicks. There's the classic 'mistaken for father and son,' for one thing.

The thing is, though, that I'm having one of those years where I don't seem to like half the things I'm reading, and I have no idea if that has anything to do with the actual books. Instead of just being an artifact of the year I'm having. As an example, June is on pace to be the month with the highest billable hours in my entire career, and my father is about to die, and my dog is retiring. So what the fuck do I know at this point? Not much.
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The Whitefire Crossing

2/5. Fantasy about the smuggler hired to get a runaway mage across the mountains to the sort of rival magical city.

Meh. It's not just that this book alternates between first person and close third, which is one of those things you can totally do . . . if you have a reason for it. There is no reason here.

It's not just that. It's mostly that there's a pattern to the women in this book, such as they are. They're either tortured and murdered to fuel male angst . . . or kept as an unwitting hostage by one man to control another . . . or lied to and shuffled offstage the moment the plot starts happening to keep them safe or . . . actually, I think I've run out of women.
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Six Wakes

3/5. Locked spaceship mystery in which six clones wake up with missing memories on a generation ship lightyears from earth in the bloody wreckage of their prior deaths.

When I say that this book is "fun" and "a palate-cleanser" it should be understood that includes stabbings. Lots of stabbings. And six cagey, pissed off people running around an enclosed space alternately feeding and attempting to kill each other. There's this vague philosophical underbelly going on about the things you might expect – immortality and the ways it changes you – but let's be real, I was here for stabbings and plot twists and revenge schemes.

But I mostly wanted to talk about the fact that the author reads the commercial audio. This is a thing that is happening more often, and I get why it seems like a good idea. But you know what? Audio narration is a skill, and it takes practice, and probably also some innate talent. Mary Robinette Kowal has been doing it for a while, and she was pretty good reading her own stuff. Same with Emma Newman, who has extensive experience and who really knocked her own Planetfall out of the park (and who has the advantage of a lovely voice to work with). Lafferty does podcasts, but that really isn't the same thing as performative reading, and well. She's just not that good. She's also not bad, but she's a little affectless, a little forced. And this is how she'll get better, I guess, but it really pointed out how a mediocre narrator can make awkward writing truly thud. The dialogue in this book is, well. How do I put this? A really good, seasoned performer probably could have saved a lot of it with effort. Lafferty could not.
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When the Moon Was Ours

2/5. A girl with a complicated past grows roses from a wound in her wrist; the local "witch" girls want the roses for their own ends.

Well, on the plus side, this is a great example of a book where representation works so much better when it's not done on the 'one and only' model. There are two trans characters in this book who are in very different places in re their identities, their bodies, and their transitions. And because there are two of them, it is so much easier to take each of them where they are, as a person, rather than – unfairly but inevitably – as some sort of comment on trans people in general, or transition in general, or or or.

On the other hand, this book is 70% symbolism by volume, with a plot tossed over top. These are not the proportions I like my fiction to have. I spent this whole book like, "Wait, that wasn't a metaphor, the pumpkin literally turned to glass? Oh-kay . . . what does that mean? What do the paper moons mean? What about the – oh, for fuck's sake."

Either this novel really ought to have been novelette length, at most, or it is so so so so not for me. Or both.
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The Iron Hunt

3/5. Urban fantasy about the loner woman with demons who live in her tattoos trying to slot herself into a life with a partner and friends while the potential apocalypse comes.

Yeah, so, most people probably know Liu now through her comics, but I knew her from a long-ago series of recs from several different people that left me with the strong impression that she writes delightfully batshit stuff with, like, hot gargoyle-on-lady action. So I finally grabbed this book – being one of the few options available in audio – and. I am saddened to report there is no hot gargoyle-on-lady action here. I mean, it's nice? There's lots of plot and cool worldbuilding and oodles of backstory barely hinted at. And a central relationship that is established and quietly awesome (he's so respectful of her, it's actually confusing!)

So I went and looked at Liu's website and it turns out this series is listed as "urban fantasy," and she has another series listed as "paranormal romance" which I suspect is what was recced to me.

And here's my question: why oh why oh why can't I have lots of plot and worldbuilding and interesting backstory and hot gargoyle-on-lady action? This does not seem so hard!*

And yet. Genre rules, kids.

*Aside from the gargoyle dick.
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Amberlough

4/5. Alt universe that I'm calling fantasy for lack of a better label. A queer intelligence operative reluctantly turns traitor against his government and supports the rise of a conservative coup, partly in an attempt to get a way out for himself and his not-really-ex, the burlesque-dancing drug smuggler.

Oof, this is good. It has the ugly brutality of a really good spy novel (the only sort of spy novel I can generally stomach). And, well. It miiiiiight not have been my best idea to read this book – about the things freaks and queers do to survive the fall of democracy and the rise of fascism – on the train every morning on my way to work. But I did, and in the end I'm not sorry.

This is sad and angry, and it has a big dose of if only they'd talk to each other, and I have complicated feelings about the ending, which is spoiler ). But I'm not mad about it because it turns out this will be a trilogy, and also it was . . . earned. In several different senses.

One of the smartest things this book does is introduce Cordelia – the desperately poor former prostitute – as a POV character. She's brought in as a beard at one point, and in most spy stories she'd be disposable. In this one her arc is towards increasing agency, increasing anger, increasing righteousness, increasing courage. She brings a really good angle to this book, which would otherwise be far too much about well-connected, very rich men moving chess pieces around a board.

Recommended. Not for the faint of heart.

Content notes: Torture. Written in a style that, were it filmed, would manage to be disturbing without actually showing you much.
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Beyond the Grave: the Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money to Your Children and Others

3/5. A quick, plain language review of all the major estate topics – how to think about division, trusts, property, pets, second marriages, estrangement, etc. with an emphasis on the interpersonal and familial aspects of inheritance planning. I never took trusts and estates in law school, which I have come to regret. Particularly now that I'm probably going to need a living trust in the next couple years. Adulthood, what the fuck?

Yes yes, I realize that I actually read this book because my father Is dying and it was this weird free association sideways think way of coping with that, what of it.

Anyway, this is genuinely useful, if deeply heteronormative. And also just . . . weird? I mean, I shouldn't be surprised to discover just how tied up the notion of traditional family – and specifically blood relation – is with the passing of money. But boy. There are very few of the many, many anecdotes in this book that aren't about someone believing as a law of the universe that marriage and sharing DNA entail the intergenerational transfer of money, and any other arrangement is morally wrong. The intensity of this belief, the unthinkingness of it, it's just . . . weird to me.
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All the Birds in the Sky

4/5. She's a witch; he's an engineer. They find each other in the pressure cooker of junior high, lose each other, then come together again as adults in the weird petri dish of San Francisco on the brink of climate? Apocalypse.

My pick for the Hugo. (The Jemisin is also great, but it's middle-book-of-a-trilogy great, so). This is just weird and not quite like anything else and prickly. And surprisingly sincere. I tried to describe it and was deeply irritated to hear myself saying "it's sort of about genre," which is true in only the least interesting sense of this book. I mean, yeah, she lives in a fantasy novel and he lives in a science fiction novel, and their stories bleed together, but whatever, that's not interesting. And yeah, this book is slippery as a fish – it eels through a sort of grimly humorous A Series of Unfortunate Events phase, and then does this incredibly and specifically San Francisco twenty-something romance thing, oh and then there's an apocalypse, but whatever, lots of books change their spots. So then I asked myself what exactly I meant by "genre," and.

This book is about different modes of not just nerdiness, but of freakishness. And it's about different ways of approaching the big problems of humanity. Those are both pretty good definitions of genre, in this instance.
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Iron Cast

3/5. Boston on the brink of prohibition. Two girls – one black, one white, one the poor daughter of immigrants, one the daughter of wealthy socialites, one an empath through her music, the other able to bend reality with poetry – exercise their powers for good and for profit as the political tides turn against them.

I liked this. And, unusually, I liked it more the more I thought about it. I did spend the first third grumbling to myself about why this wasn't the queer romance it so clearly should be, but ultimately both of the male love interests turned out to be acceptable. Well . . . 1.5 of the love interests turned out to be acceptable.

This is jazzy and a bit flimsy to start, with more speakeasy! Gangster! Atmosphere than, you know, actual book. But it grows and turns and deepens as our heroines start to question themselves and the things they do. I mean, it could have deepened a lot more – for a book partly about bigotry, this one comes down awfully hard on the personal responsibility side of the scales, without giving adequate shrift to the role being the object of discrimination plays in a person's choices. But. I liked this.

Content notes: Some frankly disturbing depictions of institutionalization, medical torture, medical experimentation, etc.
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Kinda Like Brothers

3/5. It's all well and good for our protagonist's mom to take in foster babies. But the most recent baby comes with the baggage of an older brother, and that just doesn't work for our protag thank you very much.

I think this was a disabilityinkidlit rec? It had to be a rec from somewhere because I don't pick non-specfic YA lit without a prompt these days. But this is great. Well, okay, it's cringily great. Our protagonist is terribly eleven – he's convinced everything is criminally unfair and he's a little shit roughly 90% of the time, with the other 10% being overwhelming sweetness. And he's eleven, and this book is super honest, so there's enough social embarrassment going on here to make me use my one-minute audio skip button more than once.

But really, it's great, particularly if you have a thicker skin than I do. Non-traditional families of all sorts, relationships that don't fit a tidy box, complicated adults doing their best. And there's a lot in here about being a community of color, from the overt – a totally wrenching scene in which an older man teaches a roomful of pubescent black boys how to act when they are stopped by the cops because it might save their lives one day – to the more subtle work embedded in the unfolding of everyone's backstories. I'd definitely buy this for a kid.

P.s. The commercial audio is A+++. John Clarence Stewart is hilarious and pissy and sad and just perfect.
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If Then

2/5. Post economic collapse. A small community lives under the rule of The Process, an algorithm programmed to run their lives to maximize fairness and happiness. Then there's a lot of brain implants and philosophical arguments and violently awful World War I battle simulations, and it's all weird as hell.

The best book that I've viscerally disliked in quite a while. It is good – there's all sorts of chewiness to this. Pieces that you can keep turning and turning after reading. I could go on about self-determination and collective violence and collective inaction and whatever.

But. But I didn't like it's smug omniscient slant. And I really didn't like the way my back had tensed up by the 20% mark. I'm not sure I can put my finger on all the subliminal cues I was picking up, but I was just waiting for a steaming pot of misogyny right to the face. Which didn't quite happen – in so many words – except. You know when a dude writes a woman thinking about sex, and it is just so incredibly a dude writing a woman thinking about sex? Like, you can spot the dude component of that from space? Yeah.

Basically, I felt totally vindicated when I discovered, around the 75% mark, that the author is the sort who will publicly complain about a review of his book that he doesn't like. Which is just. Never ever ever a good look. Particularly when the reviewer is a woman who called out some potential misogyny.

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