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2017-07-19 10:04 pm

Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

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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2017-06-17 10:23 pm

For Real by Alexis Hall

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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2017-05-21 01:21 pm

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Maria McLemore

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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2017-05-14 08:37 pm

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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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2017-03-18 09:26 pm

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Borderline

3/5. Millie, a double amputee, is recruited out of the psych facility where she is being treated in order to work for the organization monitoring the flow of fairies into Los Angeles.

This surprised and challenged me in a good way. For one thing, when you have a lot of friends with disabilities, as I do, you can't help but notice how often disability abhors a vacuum. It brings friends. And, yeah, no shit living in this world with a physical disability can precipitate a psychological disability, too. In Millie's case it's the other way around – her injuries are the result of a failed suicide attempt – but people don't like to write about multiple disability. It's "too much." But reading about Millie felt very familiar to me, particularly how the Nexis of oppression for her could shift from the physical to the psychological depending on the circumstances. I know this girl. I've known this girl a lot. She's had a hard life, every version of her. Her narrator voice does have an unpleasant tendency to 'splain Borderline Personality Disorder in such sweeping terms that she seems to reduce herself to her diagnosis, but it's in the service of explaining a lot of the things she does to readers who would mostly really not understand her, otherwise.

The challenging part is, well. Confronting my own internalized ableism as I read about Millie and screamed internally at her a lot and just wanted her to get her shit together, oh my god woman. But she can't. That's the point. And that was hard for me, whose presentation to the able-bodied world depends so heavily on having my shit together epically. I'm working on it.

Anyway. It's a good, surprising urban fantasy. The plot sort of runs on rails and you can, like, see where the author was working through her index cards or whatever, but it's good. And there's something rich to this world, to the link between fairy and the inspiration of creative work in Los Angeles. I will be interested to see where this goes.
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2017-03-05 11:38 am

Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

4/5. A strange, rather inexplicable short short novel about a trade caravan passing through a jungle where, if you leave the path, you could end up in another time or another universe.

Which is only the palest description of this weird, frustrating book. It's a queer love story whose queerness is part in gender, part in the alienness of the protagonists with their "godlike" heritage. It's an exercise in code-switching from the trappings of epic fantasy to a very specific kind of scientific discourse to a range of equally specific dialects, most particularly African-American slang. It's playful and deliberately dislocating – there's this great joke that Wilson plays where the reader is caught out with all of their startled attention on the word "nigga" in a sentence, while the narrative lays attention on a completely different word. It plays games like that with language and the code-switching, and it is beautiful and playful and interesting.

Reviewers have said this is a novella questioning the underpinnings of traditional fantasy – its whiteness in a linguistic and cultural sense. I think that's right, but I also think there's a broader genre playfulness going on here. If you go off the path, who knows where you could end up, and this book goes way off the path.

And it ends ambiguously in exactly the way that I hate, but I'll let it go this time because this was otherwise such a unique trip.
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2017-02-26 09:47 pm

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

The Invisible Library

3/5. Irene works for a transdimensional library, which tasks her with retrieving a unique manuscript from a steampunk Britain with magic and fae and a Sherlock Holmes analog.

I liked this! I needed something uncomplicated – protip: don't read Illuminae when you are having a bad month – and this hit the spot. Bonus points for a protagonist who is some kind of queer, as yet unspecified; minus points for doing a lot of telling about the development of an unlikely friendship and not enough showing. But more bonus points for the actually terrible villain; minus points for the really really obvious setup for a later reveal which is going to be deeply wearisome Spoiler )no idea so mysterious gosh.
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2017-02-09 09:03 pm

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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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2017-01-22 01:23 pm

Serpentine by Cindy Pon

Serpentine by Cindy Pon

2/5. YA about the sixteen-year-old foundling girl serving as handmaiden in a wealthy household, except whoops she's half serpent demon.

Dislike. I should have liked this – it's an Asian setting rather than medieval europe, there's a secondary lesbian romance subplot! – but I just . . . didn't. But it's the sort of dislike where I sighed a lot in boredom and kept asking questions about the paper thin worldbuilding, and not the sort that would, say, make me not want teenage girls to read this.
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2016-12-26 04:40 pm

A Gentleman's Position by KJ Charles

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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2016-12-24 12:01 pm

A Seditious Affair by KJ Charles

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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2016-11-20 09:44 pm

Winter Kill by Josh Lanyon

Winter Kill

3/5. M/M. Small town cop meets uptight FBI agent as they investigate serial murder.

This is . . . weird? There's one perfunctory sex scene about one fifth of the way through, when the characters think they are having a one night stand and have only the vaguest of feelings for each other. What ought to be the second sex scene – and a far more interesting one as they are coming complexly and reluctantly together in the middle of a stressful situation – is, get this, fade to black.

I mean, I don't read commercial M/M for the sex scenes. That would be foolish at best, because oh lordy most of these authors drop straight into fanfiction.net territory when it comes to that. But the lack of sex scenes here is just so weird that it made me focus on the other weirdness. How this is a mystery first and foremost, until about 2/3 of the way through when the book is like oh shit, hot gay romance, um hang on, gimme a sec. Which would be fine if the mystery were more interesting, but, uh. You don't read a Josh Lanyon for the mystery. Though TBF this one has a surprisingly big and well-drawn cast.

I don't know, it's not like Lanyon is knew here and doesn't know how to put a book together. This one is just clearly way more interested in the small town cop shop and the arguments over community policing versus federal policing than, like, staying on brand. O…kay?
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2016-11-19 09:59 pm

The Mermaid Murders by Josh Lanyon

The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder Book 1)

3/5. M/M mystery romance where the young up-and-coming FBI art crimes specialist tags along – for reasons – with a profiler revisiting a serial killer case that might be active again.

This, on the other hand, I read in a day flat. It's bog-standard Lanyon – serviceable mystery foregrounding a couple where one half is the uptight hardened law enforcement type and the other half is a younger, gentler, more artistic sort. I wanted bog-standard Lanyon for the zing of sexiness and the occasional depth of emotion. This one mostly delivered, but it did leave me wondering, exasperatedly, if Lanyon gets these names out of the freaking phone book. Jason West? Sam Kennedy? The law enforcement types always have these cookie-cutter white guy aggressively American names, which got me scouring my memory for a single Lanyon book featuring a person of color, and I couldn't come up with a single freaking one. Anybody?
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2016-11-19 09:48 pm

Fellside by M. R. Carey

Fellside

3/5. Jess wakes up in a hospital burn unit to the news that, while high, she set a fire that killed her neighbor boy. She ends up in a women's prison and, while doing the slow work of hunger-striking to death and out of her guilt, she begins to see the dead boy, and to hear him enough to know he needs her to help him.

For the record, I started this book on October 15, read no other books alongside it, and did not finish until November 14. That is not my normal reading speed. Work was happening. So you can see how this really didn't have my attention, so when I say that it's good, but it's no The Girl With All the Gifts, who the fuck knows what my judgment is worth.

I do know that this book is made up of a hundred tiny chapters, some only a few hundred words, rotating through a surprisingly large cast of inmates, guards, healthcare professionals, drug dealers, etc. My indelible impression is of this book as a pile of glass shards in the sunlight: each piece reflects light, but at a different angle. That is the mechanism here – each character is so blinkered by his or her own circumstances that they all are coming at the world thinking they understand each other when they almost never do. Jess's search for a scrap of absolution intersects with a drug operation in the prison, intersects with an old murder, intersects with the politics of privatized prisons, intersects with the prison infirmary staff, intersects with – you get it. There are no surprises here – there's a "twist" that even I, giving this book approximately two neurons of attention, spotted half a book before Jess does, but it's not because she's stupid. It's because she can't see it, not until she has to. It's all very skillful, and accomplished. And depressing as hell, punctuated by echoes of a really beautiful, strange, queer love story.

Carey is just going to keep right on being good, though.
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2016-08-31 01:44 pm

A Fashionable Indulgence by KJ Charles

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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2016-07-17 01:02 pm

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan Mcguire

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)

2/5. The one about the school for kids who went to a fantasy realm and then got sent home and who are really upset about it.

I picked this up – despite my . . . lackluster response to other McGuire – because I'm working my way through Kat Valente's tremendous Fairyland series, about a girl who goes there and comes home repeatedly. Thematic, y'see.

And that was a mistake, because comparing these writers and these books, uh. They're just a different class of talent doing a different class of thing. So after the density of Valente's thorny whimsy, Mcguire's straightforward – and so painfully obvious, the characters should be considered accomplices for not solving it sooner – murder mystery simply thudded. And after Valente's playful, stylish, tricky, complicit, kind, cruel, lovely narrator, who stitches those books together so beautifully. After that, the random and inexplicable swerves Mcguire's book takes into the omniscient view seem pointless. And in one case, where we get a girl's backstory and then she is killed and the omniscient voice pops in just long enough to tell us where the doorway back into her realm that she had been living and dying to find actually was, it seems simply mean for the sake of being mean.

So yeah. Did not fare well by comparison. Might be better on its own? It's a novella with a lot of interesting stuff going on – axes of classification for fantasy realms, an explanation as to why the school is mostly populated with girls that made me grimly nod, a transkid who got kicked out of his adventure because his tale did not respect his identity. And the title is great. But yeah. Not a good comparison.

Also, the ending. Can someone who liked this tell me whether you were okay with the ending, because it bugged me a lot.
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2016-06-18 10:40 pm

The Fire's Stone by Tanya Huff

The Fire's Stone

3/5. The one where the alcoholic prince, the suicidal thief, and the young lady wizard go on a mission to retrieve the stolen gem that keeps the volcano from erupting under their city.

Ahaha, bless. This is some kwality 1990 fantasy, this is. Written back when Tanya Huff was not, uh. Well, she wasn't very good, you guys. Points for queer romance, though they get taken away again for the way this book is about a poly relationship, but just can't ever, you know, come out and say that.

But the M/M/F triad is sweet, and clearly the heart of this otherwise kind of boring story. Which makes up for the wild overabundance of daddy issues, and the consistent erasure/irrelevance of mothers, and that terrible thing where a book signals to you that one of the heroes is a good guy because he decides not to have sex with a thirteen-year-old, what a good guy, you guys, applause. So all the things you'd expect, really.

Uh, the triad really is cute? And the book is currently $2.99, if any of this is speaking to you.
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2016-05-08 12:44 pm

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows

4/5. Fantasy heist caper where the team of lowlifes and outcasts has to break someone out of the unbreakable prison, also politics.

"Caper" seems like the wrong word. Far too cheerful for this tense book that manages to balance grimdark with humaneness better than anything I've read in a while.

One of those books that I think is classified as young adult only because the protagonists are under eighteen. (Well, and because YA is often more lucrative). Because this is otherwise an entirely adult book about adult themes – the costs of survival, the rigged game of life when you don't hold power, being the dupe, being the one duping. I really liked this. The heart of this book is partly the heist, but it's mostly the team, and its interlocking sets of relationships, romantic and otherwise. It would be a wild oversimplification to say that this book is about hardened people coming to care for each other, because it is vastly more messy and satisfying than that. But if simplification you must have, there you go.

Oh, and did I mention half of the team is composed of persons with disabilities? Because it is.
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2016-02-20 04:21 pm

Planetfall by Emma Newman

Planetfall

4/5. Twenty years after a group of colonists follow a woman's post coma visions to settle on an alien planet, a surprise survivor born after the initial planetfall reaches the settlement. And then things start falling apart.

File this one under it was great. Never ever reading it again.

The narrator of this book – bisexual lady engineer in her seventies – is the sort of unreliable narrator who is mostly unaware of her unreliability. The first third of the book has that slow, creeping quality you get when this is done really well: you are following along, it's interesting, it's scifi, and then once in a while you go "wait…what?" And then you start to put things together, and the narrative pulls tighter and tighter, and the narrator's sense of overwhelming, impending disaster eats you up. This is one of the more terribly skillful renderings of someone with an anxiety disorder that I've ever read. And not just the narrator – her entire colonial society is gripped by it. So much so that I had to put the book down and walk away for two days in order to calm down. (I also nearly noped out of a huge huge public humiliation squick at a climactic moment, so take that under advisement).

So yeah. This is masterful, as psychological work. Psychological horror in some places. Not horror at mental illness, to be clear – the book is in other parts of its mechanism playing with some classic horror tropes, including Poe. The scifi elements are less successful, to my mind; I was frankly disappointed with that resolution in the last 5% of the book. It was reaching for something about the co-existence of religious belief and scientific belief, but it just didn't get there, I don't think.

Happy to supply specific spoilers/content notes in comments if desired.
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2016-02-20 12:17 pm

How to Howl at the Moon by Eli Easton

How to Howl at the Moon

M/M. A professional horticulturist, refugee from a betrayal, moves into a small town which just happens to be populated by shifters (dogs into people, not the other way around). And the sheriff (border collie, natch) thinks this guy is growing weed, so poses as a dog to investigate. Like…you…do…

DNF. This is fine! Some of you will totally dig it! I…could not.

I'm trying to be more selective about M/M. I mean, I have such a low hit-rate on this stuff, it gets depressing. So I've been trying to go with more friend recs. And this is good! Easton is competent and a little creative and funny in the right ways.

But oh God I cannot with this book. It turned me into a horrible person. It turned me into a victim-blamer. But for real, the horticulturist's backstory of being taken advantage of was pitched in such a way that I snapped, "oh for fuck's sake, how stupid do you have to be to get rolled like that?" Which is on me. What's not on me is the way this book likes his ineptitude, and the way it frames a sort of learned helplessness as attractive to the other hero. That is, like, the opposite of my buttons.

Read if you like dogs and, uh, presumably relationships where one person was briefly the other's pet? This book'll deliver on that.