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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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Everfair

2/5. Alt history turn of the twentieth century story of a nation state founded in the Belgian Congo by a mixed bag of black and white socialists and proselytizers, and how they aim for "utopia" and . . . miss.

Yeah, it's inadequate to say that this book did not get my attention. More accurately, this is the book I read on the cross-country flight I took a week after the Inauguration in spite of the metaphorical trashfire in my work inbox out to see my parents, from whom I have been estranged for years, and specifically to say goodbye to my father, who went from having a bit of pain to being told he is dying in the course of a week. So like. There's some stuff going on.

This book is okay? I think? It's not to my taste – it is written in hundreds of tiny fragments loosely strung over thirty years. Not so much a tapestry as a bunch of carefully placed but unwoven pieces of thread. The fantasy elements are strange and, as they are rooted in religious practice and conflict, somewhat off-putting to me. Oh, and there's a long, painful central lesbian romance between AU E. Nesbit and AU Colette which would probably have meant more to me if I knew anything about either of them. I wanted to like their conflict over not!E. Nesbit's racism, but I found its resolution unsatisfactory.

Basically I described this book to my wife, who got more and more excited the more I complained about the bits I didn't get, so clearly there is an audience for this who is not me. But mostly, let's be fair: I read this two weeks ago and for the life of me can't clearly remember a damn thing that happened in it now, so. Don't take my word on anything.
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Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

4/5. A three-strand narrative. A young woman in the fourteenth-century learns to paint from her artist father and is sent to a convent. In 2015, a girl goes with her artist father to China on a business trip while mourning her mother and working on her own art – hand-sewed jean jackets. In the twenty-second century, a young woman returns to the parthenogenic household she shares with her sister to take a job at a restitution institution, whose goal is to resurrect the reputations of women artists unfairly suppressed by history.

So I spent the first half of this book a bit bored and confused by it. Someone – I was pretty sure – had told me it was brilliant, but maybe I was misremembering? This writing was so plain, these scenes so straight-faced, these threads so disconnected.

Then a switch flipped and I sat up and said "Oh, it is brilliant."

It is. There is such a complex, folded structure underneath all that simplicity. About women's art and women's work and women's spaces – the convent, the cloistered partho household where multiple generations of women bear children without men's input. It all lines up not directly, but at unexpected angles, creating strange intersections of thought. And these three women, spaced over eight hundred years, are positioned to tell us with the shape of their lives about a change in women's places and spaces over time. It is far from a triumphalist story of women's liberation, but also not quite 'the more things change the more they stay the same.' But something complicated in between.

And over it all, this book is about the mind sliding off women's work and women's art. Dismissing it, downplaying it, ascribing it to men, contextualizing it by men. And to do this, the book's mind slides off women's work, too, in a way. A deliberate, telling way. This incredibly plain writing is so subtle, I very nearly missed it entirely.
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A Gentleman's Position

4/5. M/M historical. He is a titled gentleman of means, he is his ferociously competent valet who shines boots and makes scandals disappear.

This is also great. Admittedly, it hits a lot of my buttons –there's a 'power behind the throne' vibe that, yeah. But also this book inverts and reverts the power dynamics between them in fun and interesting ways. And maybe the foregrounded running argument they have about class difference and pride and the appropriateness of having power over someone you love is not terribly subtle, but it is interesting and to a purpose

So in sum I found the first book in this trilogy uninspiring, but the second and third are great, and I do recommend. And it's that loose 'friends group' structure that romance series use, so you can skip the first one without too much bother.
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A Seditious Affair

4/5. Historical M/M. He is a radical bookseller and pamphleteer, he is a wealthy and conservative Home Office investigator. They have friends in common and meet regularly for sex with power dynamics. No strings. Totally.

Okay, this book does two impressive things. One, it has sex scenes that are, wait for it, actually hot. I do not tell a lie. That is, it turns out, not contractually prohibited in commercial M/M. And even more astonishing, this book has BDSM that is actually hot! Mostly because Charles is smart enough to know the hot is all in the psychology of the thing, and not in the set dressing. This book is just so unapologetically kinky, it's amazing. At one point they dirty talk each other through a fantasy sorta prostitution play scenario involving a stranger, and when they're done there's no "but of course we would never do that" and "of course not" but instead "yeah, that might be fun." Imagine! A book about kink that isn't ashamed of itself!

Second, this book is attempting to do a thing where it plays the consensual power games in the bedroom against the non-consensual power games that constitute the rigid class structure of the time. I actually don't think this is successful, as a literary tactic, but. This book is doing a thing! With, like, nuance and complexity! My bar is pretty low here, but imagine an M/M historical that does that.
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Imprudence (The Custard Protocol)

3/5. More steampunkish airship supernatural nonsense, interchangeable with the rest of Carriger's books in being entertaining nonsense. Except this one includes a charming trope inversion where the virginal young lady selects a young man of her acquaintance to learn sex things from and proceeds to ruthlessly dally with him. That was pretty great, even if it ends in romantical feelings everywhere.
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A Fashionable Indulgence: A Society of Gentlemen Novel (Society of Gentlemen Series Book 1)

3/5. M/M historical. Young radical is found by his wealthy grandfather and brought back into society. And then there's the gentleman tasked with teaching him manners.

Finally trying Charles, dog years after everyone else. This is nice, I guess, though the antecedents (Pygmalion and that musical I hate) don't interest me.

But the thing is, this held little to no interest as a romance. I found that aspect quite dull. But the rest of the book – and this is supposed to be a romance, so you'll understand how amazing this is to say – but the rest of the book stands on its own and was a pleasant diversion. There's a density to Charles's world building, and a little extra zing to the historical detail. And this book manages that nearly impossible feat of being about a largeish group of queer men without being about how everyone is magically gay. Instead, it's about like finding like, and co-existing together without ever really talking about it, and the pressure they are all under, and the danger they are in.

Note: Currently $.99 on Kindle.
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The Countess Conspiracy (The Brothers Sinister Book 3)

3/5. Historical romance. He's a controversial and successful scientist investigating inheritance patterns! She's the woman whose work is presented under his name because that's the only way it will be accepted!

Oh man, I'll say one thing for Courtney Milan, she always leaves me with a lot to think about.

This is almost awesome. It's full of things I like, including frank discussions of infertility, sex other than penis-in-vagina (this is quite rare in historicals), a network of women looking out for each other, female genius, difficult families.

But I just can't. If I wanted to make a joke out of it, I would say that I've never read a het romance during which I muttered "have these people never heard of anal sex?" so many times. (For real though, endless drama about how she can't ever ever risk pregnancy, so penis-in-vagina sex is really fraught even with birth control, but this is a het historical so even Milan won't go there). I could say that I found the extreme emotional pitch of this book way out of my taste. The hero and heroine have fraught, quavery-voiced conversations from page one to the very end, and it was just too fucking much.

But here's the real heart of it. This book is, as most people will conclude from reading the synopsis, about a kind of coming out. The heroine tells the truth about her work, eventually, to various people in various ways. And while the book does an . . . okay job presenting the social and familial consequences that come down on her head for it, the structure is enraging. It aligns the coming out with the heroine's journey to reclaim her self-worth and identity, and I hate these narratives. You know what I'm talking about, where a piece of media implicitly tells you that being in the closet is about the closeted person's issues, not about, you know, danger or fear of reprisal or privacy or or or. When done in queerness narratives, this sort of framing is poisonous. It's not much better here, in my mind, where a secret is kept to protect a woman from misogyny, but hey it's cool, she can bust the closet door down once she believes in herself. Because, as we all know, that's how you overcome misogyny. Aaaargh.

Whatever. This is a very good historical about mostly feminism, and it will not drive many people bonkers the way it did me. Also, it's on sale right now, if that's relevant.
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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

3/5. Telegraphist in the London Home Office is given a mysterious pocket watch which saves his life from a bomb. So he goes looking for the watchmaker, and finds a Japanese man with a secret. And a friend. And something else.

Okay, several of you guys are going to really like this one. I came close, but I was distracted by my initial misunderstanding of this book. I had the vague impression that it was a historical spy thriller with a supernatural thread. It's actually – and you'll note this is quite different – a queer philosophical romance with a supernatural thread. Whoops.

This is slow, thoughtful, atmospheric. Very concerned with gesture and the ticking of a weird, pretty mechanism at the heart. One character can predict human actions – he knows what you'll do as soon as you decide it. Which is . . . complicated, when it comes to loving someone you haven't met yet, based on the might be.

Anyway. It's pretty. And unusual. Not as clever as it set out to be, at least not to me, and I think Pulley didn't really have control of the dismount. But I've never read anything quite like it. And it'd probably help to know what it is going in.
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The Cure for Dreaming

3/5. Portland, 1900. Olivia's anti-women's-suffrage father hires a mesmerist to hypnotize her rebelliousness out of her. Except the mesmerist tells her that she will "see the world as it truly is," and when she wakes up, she does. The world is full of monsters.

Snagged off last year's Tiptree longlist. The concept made me hopeful that this would be a watered down Frances Hardinge. (And I don't even mean that disparagingly, it's just no one who isn't Frances Hardinge can do her thing like she does it).

Unfortunately for this book, it is not that. It's a perfectly lovely 'introduction to feminism 101 for teenagers' type book! But I was not in the market for one of those, so, y'know. This book is just so incredibly on the nose; at one point Olivia's ability to speak her mind when she is angry is removed and – the book carefully explains to us on at least three occasions – this is just like being disenfranchised. Do you get it? Do you? Do you?

Anyway, ignore my crankiness. It's a good book, and it's got things to say. Just, those things are written on the sides of anvils. And since you can't fit much on the side of an anvil, they're also very 101 level things, with all that implies. But 101 level books are important, too; I'm sure there are lots of teenagers who would be surprised or enlightened by this book.

Content note: One scene of attempted sexual assault. Trust me, you'll spot it coming a mile off, and it's easily skipped.
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Cuckoo Song

4/5. 1922. The thirteen-year-old daughter of wealthy parents wakes up after a near-drowning. With gaps in her memory; and a bottomless, terrifying hunger; and hair that turns into leaves overnight; and dolls that try to flee her; and a sister who calls her a "thing" and hates her guts.

I talk about what I'm reading a lot with my nearest and dearest. Seriously, my poor wife gets the disorganized and incoherent thought soup that I yank these reviews out of. You know, my sparklingly coherent and organized reviews. You know.

But anyway, I keep saying "Frances Hardinge" to people, and they keep saying "Who?" And that. I do not understand that.

So hear ye, hear ye.

Frances Hardinge. Frances motherfucking Hardinge.

She writes young adult…ish. Fantasy….ish. Her brain is a magical tree that bears strange fruit, and I want to eat every single one, even when I know there are teeth on the inside. And people do not know who she is, which is incomprehensible to me, because she's written more than a half dozen books by now, and they only get better.

As a first Hardinge, I recommend Fly By Night, which beings with our young lady protagonist starting a fire and gets more madcap and wonderful from there, or Gullstruck Island which is the best young adult about colonialism I have ever read. Both of those books will give you a sense for Hardinge's powers, the way she yanks stories off their tracks and drops them into new ones, and where she puts the bite (spoiler: everywhere), and how no one can stop her writing amazing young women relating complexly to each other.

This one is kinda advanced level Hardinge. The first quarter is a slow motion, claustrophobic interpersonal car accident, and it kind of fucked me up. And then the accident happens, and the book leaps right off the road, and we have sisters, and jazz, and spells to trap the dead, and magic by architecture, and a motorcycle with a sidecar, and a woman chased by perpetual winter, and other kinds of sisters. It's a wonderfully prickly, complicated book that made me brace, on every page, for pain. And then surprised me, at the end, with a drop of mercy. Not her most accomplished, on a technical level, but there is something . . . unrestrained about the horror at the center of this book that really got to me.

Frances Hardinge, you guys.
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And thus begins a year of reading only women. Or, more accurately, not reading men.

The House of Shattered Wings

4/5. House politics and old curses in alt history post war Paris ruled largely by fallen angels.

This novel is basically manga. Just, you know, *gestures*, the esthetics of the thing. This book is all fallen-down churches, and underwater dragons in the Seine, and trees squeezing buildings to death, and fallen angels wearing wings made of metal and blades.

I would have said, if I'd known what I was getting into, that this isn't my sort of thing. But this worked for me anyway. These fallen angels don't remember why they fell, or much of what came before; they cannot expect miracles or answered prayers, and there is a hole in their lives where God no longer is. The whole book is, in the negative spaces, about that lack, without ever being particularly about religion, if you get me. It's a book about being betrayed, and falling from grace, and falling….and falling. The same story plays out a good half dozen times here, with the angels and their God, with the angels and their students, with a soldier and his emperor, and each person falls in their own way.

Lovely, with a flavor of decaying decadence about it. Not my thing, and yet somehow my thing.
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Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal Novel, A)

4/5. Napoleonic fantasy. The tale of the black man who finds himself, unwillingly and infamously, at the head of British magic, and what happens when Prunella comes into his life. Prunella being – well, rather indescribably marvelous.

Oh gosh, you guys, just go read this. It is witty and indulgent, in the way period fantasy must be. But it is also about the victims of imperialism, living their lot every day from the inside. It has balls and dragons and complicated families and faeries and the quiet, subtle slipping into love of two very alone people, and that crackle of wonder and mystery of magic. And Prunella, who is the best.

This delighted me, and entertained me, and occasionally upset me, in exactly the right proportions and the right ways.

Highly recommended.
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Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School Series Book 2) And Waistcoats & Weaponry (Finishing School Series Book 3)

3/5. A couple more titles in that young adult alt Victorian urban fantasy finishing spy school series.

There is something not quite right about this series. The adult titles maintain this airy soap bubble of frothy charm, and they make it look effortless. But there's some internal wobble in the young adult set that I can sort of put my finger on, but also sort of can't. Like, okay, in one of these books, our heroine is thinking about someone on the opposite side of a conflict from her, and notes that he's not bad, he's just evil. "Not that there was anything wrong with that." Which typifies this universe, and this series more specifically; it's not about good and evil having any particular valence, because good and evil are really just words that have a lot more to do with how people dress than anything.

That's the charming part.

But – here's where I get a bit hazy about it – but the racism. This is an AU where servants have been replaced largely with mechanized laborers, and yet – it is carelessly implied – there is still an African slave trade, and all that flows from that fact. It is still a scandal for a young lady to fall in love with a black laborer, specifically because of his race more than his class. And I just. Idk.

I guess I just really don't want to be reading a book whose charm is that evil is an esthetic choice, but oh also racism, ha ha. I'm not drawing this connection very clearly, but yeah. No. This series isn't right.
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Prudence (The Custard Protocol)

4/5. Cute steampunk adventure set a generation after the Parasol Protectorate books.

Just the thing for that week where you're five days into being sick and still getting sicker, not better. Fun, frothy, and occasionally downright pleasing (our largely virginal lady heroine makes advances upon a young gentleman, and she is rightly concerned about the state of his delicate sensibilities and nerves at various points. He's fragile, you know).

As usual, I'm not quite sure how seriously to take these books. On the one hand, their entire point is not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, this one includes an offhand, if apparently sincere, defense of imperialism? So, uh, okay? Everyone should eat more custard and we should have another couple pages discussing Victorian fashion, how about that.
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Dreaming Spies: A novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

3/5. Another Russell/Holmes book of the usual formula – going back in to fill in a previous gap in the timeline with an international adventure which, in the middle of the book, catches up to narrator-standard-time in England.

Eh, you know, the charm is wearing off here.

Things I am in this series for: (1) the picture of a marriage of two very smart, very independent people who love each other, but do not need each other and they both know it; (2) Holmes's disguises; (3) partnership; (4) cleverness.

Things Laurie R. King is in this series for, these days: (1) Cultural tourism (Japan, this time); (2) set pieces.

This was competent, and I am bored. More clever sleuths loving each other but living their own lives, less travelog, please.
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All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

2/5. Historical about two teenagers – one blind French girl, one German underaged soldier – who intersect briefly in 1944.

So for background, my father-in-law is a darling man who knows I'm a reader and, because he is a darling man, likes to buy me books from Audible. He, however, is not a reader. What he does read is The New Yorker. You can see where this is going.

Sigh. It's not just that World War II stories are easy to find; it's more that good World War II stories have been told and told and told. This one – about radios and cursed diamonds and children sent to war – is aggressively well-written, I'll give it that. But it's also one of those war stories that is supposed to elevate the suffering of the commonplace or whatever, and instead just ends up 95% suffering porn.

The other 5% being a lot of lit fiction symbolism bullshit where a diamond is supposed to metaphorically speak to the sweep of human history or whatever, and it's all just so meaningful, and you can totally see the author daydreaming about the landscape shots in the movie after its optioned for seven figures.

That's lit fiction for you. Set out with the goal of illuminating the suffering of the commonplace, but totally fail to resist trying to make it about OMG the humanity, and in the process lose authenticity and grip on real people, so in the end it's just suffering-suffering-suffering-thematic moment-suffering-suffering.

I swear one day I'm just going to decide that I will henceforth never again read a book subtitled "A Novel," and my life will be instantly improved.
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The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book 2)

Note: I discovered in the process of linking this that it's currently $0.99 on Kindle, if that's of interest to anybody.

3/5. Historical. Heiress makes herself deliberately repellant to suitors for her own reasons; she and a blossoming politician fall in love, much to their mutual irritation.

Sweet, with a core of genuine complexity, because it really is an actualfacts bad idea for this couple to get together, in ways that aren't just silly authorial manufacturing.

But here's something I've just figured out about Courtney Milan. A bunch of reviewers have complained about the historical anachronism in the fact that she writes about social justice. Her characters are involved in labor movements, women's rights, economic justice, etc. I find it quite problematic to call that anachronistic – doing that is to suggest that social justice is itself an anachronism, which is obviously incorrect. Laborers and women fought for their rights in the nineteenth century, and fought and fought and fought, and wrote about it, and thought very hard and complexly about it. Saying its anachronistic for characters in a historical romance to be concerned with these things is to erase that struggle and those people, and also to participate in the myth of progress, the idea that the past was a land of injustice and that the arc of justice bends solidly to now. Injustice having been defeated, don't you know.

So I don't agree with that critique at all. But there is something . . . comfy wish-fulfillment about Milan's social justice writing. And I've finally figured out what it is.

Her characters are all conscious of oppression. They all understand what it is, they all can perceive its dimensions as it comes down upon them, they all recognize it in the moment. I realized this when reading the POV of a minor character who is an Indian gentleman, subject to overt and covert racism at every turn, and who has a pithy observation or a pointed comment for each micro and macro aggression, no matter how blatant or subtle, with an ability to put things immediately in context.

And that's the fantasy of these books. Not that historical people resisted oppression, but that they all, on a person-to-person level, could spot it in the wild. Because that is one of the most insidious things about oppression – it can have its foot on your throat, you can have spent your life resisting it, and sometimes, often, you won't know. I have spent over a decade and a half thinking and writing about the various sorts of intersectional oppression I have experienced, and still, on a regular basis I don't recognize it until long after the fact. I'm sure I miss aspects of it all the time. Several times a week I will walk away from an encounter with a slow, creeping feeling down my back, and then days later it will occur to me out of nowhere that, oh, huh, that guy was absolutely trying to put me in my place for daring to be younger and more successful than him; that medical professional was attempting to make me straight by sheer force of will; that cab driver was fundamentally offended that I refused his help to the door because I didn't match his notions of what disability looks like and it made him angry.

You live in the ocean; you don't see the ocean.

Courtney Milan's characters see the ocean. All the time, in every situation. That's the wish-fulfillment fantasy, being able to name oppression and label it, and see it coming and see it going. That's the part I don't believe.
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The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister, #1)The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


He's a duke with a rather obnoxious case of the privilege guilts. She's an apparently timid young lady whose tragic past, for once, has nothing to do with illegitimate children. They do exactly what you think they are going to do.

A lot of my friends rave about Courtney Milan. I thought this book was okay, if not spectacular (the duke's aforesaid angst about the terribleness of being so wealthy and powerful grated on my nerves, but ymmv). And I really think a book with a reference to war in the title and a setup promising a competition should have . . . you know . . . more competition. But that's just me being disgruntled because I love romances where the leads spend the whole time attempting to best each other, and this said it was that but really was not.

But what I meant to say is, the entire book was saved by the wedding night sex. Which, first time through, was terrible. Ahahaha, I love it. And our heroine is flat out like, "no, you totally did that wrong, that can't be it." The whole book was worth that.

Not sure where to jump to next in her catalog – thoughts?




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The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard TimesThe Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Late-life memoir recalling the author's youth as a midwife in London's East End in the 1950's.

Picked up for the from-the-trenches view of birth (not that much has changed in 60 years when what you're talking about is midwife-assisted, largely unmedicated delivery). Kept for the other 70%, which turned out to be a rich, compelling, complicated, sometimes uncomfortable personal/social history. And for Worth herself, who was smart, and driven, and talented, occasionally racist, and often struggling to find compassion. This is a memoir of someone who was powerfully compelled into exhausting, difficult work that challenged her social comfort zones for reasons she never fully understood, and that resonated with me. As did her explicit recounting of her repeated struggle to see the person under the most abject degradations of poverty. The book is not so well-observed when it comes to ethnocentrism and, in a few startling instances, gendered violence, but there is something about the strength of Worth's writing that makes it all go down as a capsule, her strength and her charm and her painful blind spots.

I want to watch the TV show now.




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