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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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Faking It (Dempsey Book 2)

2/5. Contemporary romance. She's a gallery-owner and former forger. He's a conman. They meet in a closet while burgling the same house.

I so wanted to like this. And I did like it. Bad sex that gets better with work! People pretending to be law-abiding until they realize that they are both crooked and that makes them super hot for each other! Close communities of women! A cute dog!

But it was all so rape culturey, I just can't. JFC, he has sex with her while knowing she's not enjoying it, then gives her endless shit for faking an orgasm. Crusie has a really bad track record on exactly this issue, and I just. Yick. Clever banter does not make up for rape culture.
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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.
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Crash & Burn (Cut & Run Series Book 9)

3/5. Ninth? . . . in this M/M series about the FBI agents. I'm not gonna lie, this (and the prior couple books) have been really disappointing, since they seem to fundamentally misunderstand what is good about this series. Namely: a sense of genuine hilarity, and tropes tropes tropes.*

Let's review the glory days. The second book brought us wilderness survival straining a tenuous relationship with – if my recollection does not fail me – actual huddling for warmth. Oh, and the third book gave us pretend-to-be-married and kept boy roleplay. The fourth book gave us temporary disability, but let's not talk about that. Oh but the fifth book, that gave us zany road trip with bonus hitmen. Ooh, and the sixth book is peak whacky, with bonus meet-the-family and cowboys, and a random tiger (trust me, it's funny).

Damn, this series was good when it was good.

And, I mean, I guess you could read the first book if you want (partners who hate each other but fall in lust), but eh, it's not the best.

*Though in its defense, this ninth book did have 'roleplaying dubcon to fool the cameras while actually having intense, consensual, kind of hilarious sex.' So that's okay.
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Fangirl: A Novel

3/5. The story of Cath's first year of college. She has an anxiety disorder, and her twin isn't talking to her, and she has lots of work to do on her slashy fanfic magnum opus, oh and there's this boy….

Aw man, this book was so hard to read because reading about anxious people makes me super anxious. But don't let my issues stop anybody else, because this is awesomesauce. Actually, more accurately, this is so fucking truefax. Cath's struggles with writing original fiction, the intensity of her feelings for her fanfic, the beautiful way this book creates intimacy between people by having them share fanfic read aloud . . . yeah. Been there.

I love the way this book is about slash. It's just part of who Cath is, and some people get that and some people don't. And if the reader doesn't, well, whatever, basically. There are excerpts sprinkled throughout from Cath's WIP and her older work, and from her canon book, and they made me facepalm and chortle in turn. Cath's writing is that awkward but compelling stuff that an eighteen-year-old with genuine talent will turn out . . . and that will horrify her a decade later. Yes, also been there, thanks.

My only objections are (1) that I was utterly uninterested in the romance here. Just . . . nothing; and (2) Cath's fannishness is oddly isolated. She doesn't seem to have real online friends, just fans, which is a little weird.

But if it's a young adult book that normalizes and validates fannish behavior you want, then here you go, this is a good one.
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Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Lost Stars

3/5. Star Wars expanded universe, spanning about fifteen years before, during, and after the original trilogy. The best of friends grow up together, fly together, go to the imperial academy together. And then Alderaan happens, and they start asking questions. But the answers they arrive at are very different, and take one through defection to the alliance, and the other up the imperial command chain.

So, confession: Star Wars was my first fandom. Like 'make up dreamy nonsensical fanfic playlets in my head while my second grade teacher droned on and on about things I already knew' fandom.

I suspect this is Claudia Gray's fanfic. Except hers is way way way better than mine. Hers is thoughtful and humane. The two main characters love each other deeply, and agree on most basic points of philosophy and ethics. But that takes them in opposite directions for utterly plausible reasons. They argue, and get mad, and get hurt, and they don't understand each other, except how they still do, to the very end. The catchphrase of this book is look through my eyes, which says a lot.

And, I mean, there's only so much depth and sympathy you can add to the imperial cause when they actually named the thing the Death Star. Because, uh, like, what did anyone think it was for? But Gray does a damn sight better than anyone else I've ever read.

That was nice.
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Fair Play (All's Fair Book 2)

4/5. M/M mystery featuring a retired FBI agent turned college professor digging into his father's radical past.

Brains are scary sometimes. I read the prequel to this book five years ago over a long night of hospital waiting. I finished the sequel on Thursday in a waiting room. During surgery this time, not after, but jeez! I totally did not plan that. Well, not purposefully, anyway.

Anyway. Needless to say, this series is tied up with medical stress for me. The sequel was as appropriate as the first book – soothing, just involving enough to be useful, emotionally satisfying. Lanyon has such a good grip on writing established relationships; the tensions between them, the push-and-pull, the sense of working together to build something difficult but lasting. They both struggle with trust in this book, and their mutual intimacy issues, and, uh, yeah, this works for me.

Now I just hope the next book isn't timed for another surgery.

Note: Kindle version is currently $3.99, which I assume is some sort of sale. Then again, M/M pricing is a continual mystery and puzzlement to me, so.

Other note: So Josh Lanyone "came out" as a woman, and . . . yeah. Thanks for that live fire demonstration of how you are utterly steeped in misogyny, pro M/M community. Jesus.
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Stranger on the Shore

3/5. M/M. A reporter investigates a twenty-year-old child abduction, and clashes sexily with the attorney of the victim's wealthy family.

A good book that wasn't to my taste. Lanyon does these standalone mysteries that exist somewhere in the hinterland between pastiche, homage, and fanfic. Here, the predecessor work is The Great Gatsby, and well, I kind of loathe Gatsby, so this book's contemplations and gestures were lost on me. I mean, our protagonist is an outsider to wealth, which is part of the point of this book about outsiderness in your own life, but honestly . . . Gatsby. Meh.

But if you like Gatsby, or the sort of book where there would be haunting music playing in the distant background of every scene of the movie version, you'll like this, because it's Lanyon, so it's actually well done.

Note: If you are such a person, looks like the kindle edition is currently discounted.
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Dangerous Ground

3/5. Collection of novellas about partners in a made up government security service who do a lot of running and shooting punctuated by sleeping together. And good grief, he really really likes his law-enforcement/military guys, doesn't he?

There's nothing wrong with this – Lanyon can write, which distinguishes him from a lot of people in this genre – but there's also nothing right, specifically for me. My favorite thing about Lanyon is that he likes established relationship as much as I do, because he understands that the hard part doesn't end when you get together, it's just starting. So his established relationship stories are full of negotiation and work, and I love that.

But the particular work here is the work of a couple where one of them is way more into it than the other is – or at least that's the way they both perceive it, at various points – and it's just . . . not what I came for. Not what I come to this genre for, specifically. Other people may really enjoy this, because it is a grown up, thoughtful examination of that dynamic. I just don't like that dynamic. Probably because the worst relationship of my life, in retrospect, was the one where I was the one way less into it, and argh, nope, that is not the fun relaxing brain candy place.
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The Royal We

4/5. The Fug Girls do 'American exchange student falls in love with a British prince.'

I assumed, going in, that this would be a bubbly, young adult romp full of fashion porn and one-in-a-million romance. It is, in fact, a thoughtful adult novel containing very little fashion (our protagonist does not really care about clothes) which is perhaps more concerned with the relationship of two sisters than with all the boy-girl nonsense. It is also deft and pointed regarding the cost of fame. Not in the oh woe is me, it's so haaaard being rich and famous way, but of the sympathetic and awful, So now we find out which people we love are actually just using us way. I think the Fug Girls are peculiarly well-situated – and sufficiently thoughtful and self-aware – to get at that sort of thing.

I am supremely uninterested in talking about whether this book is Will/Kate RPF or not, and which incidents are true to life and which aren't. I just am so so so over having a version of that conversation, the exact same way I'm over talking about which young adult novels are fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. Like, for real, it is 2015. And yet we are all supposed to still be gatekeeping and classifying and arguing over how much transformative workness is good and how much is bad? Really? Color me un-fucking-interested.

It's a lovely book about family and England and love and friends and being young-and-fabulous and young-and-afraid and doing hard things and screwing up with everyone watching. It made some . . . choices . . . regarding mental illness that I'm still thinking about because I'm not sure I'm down with them, and you can still see some of the places where the authors apparently cut large amounts of material, but. It is what it is. And I liked it.
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Welcome to Temptation (Dempsey Book 1)

3/5. A rather slapdash romance about two women coming to a small town to film what turns out to be porn (sort of) and the straight-laced mayor who may not want to win his next election and etc. Giving it good....ish marks only because it got me through the second major dog surgery/hospitalization in under eight weeks, so okay.

Not her best by far, but I don't really want to talk about that. I want to talk about sex.

This book is . . . confused about sex, let us say. Nonconsensually bringing a third party in to watch a couple having sex in order to fulfill a discovery fantasy that the dude never even stopped to ascertain whether his partner even has? That's apparently fine. Filming two consenting adults having sex? Disgusting and reprehensible, apparently.

This book is so confused, I can't even put my finger on what issues Crusie is putting out on the laundry line here. But boy, they sure are out there. This is one of those books that is sex positive right up until the point when it snaps back to incredibly shaming and sex negative, and I just have no.freakin'.clue.why.

Well, I know why. We all know why. Just, y'know. Confused.
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All In with the Duke (Gambling on Love Book 1)

2/5. M/M historical inexplicably titled with reference to gambling when it's actually about a duke and a prostitute.

This is competently written, and appears to have pleased people who like the duke/prostitute thing, but. There is just something intensely claustrophobic about this book. It contains two main characters, who spend most of the book shut up together alone in the country, and roughly 0.75 other characters. I started developing suspicions halfway through, checked, and yup: the only other two characters in the book with more than a couple of speaking lines are product placement main characters for the rest of her series.

And I just, look. Publishing is a business, and the business is selling books. But for real, if you can only ever be bothered to create a character for the purpose of selling a book he headlines, you have a problem.

And you also write shallow stories, with no depth or texture.
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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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Back to text links for now.

The Boy With The Painful Tattoo: Holmes & Moriarity 3

4/5. M/M, third in the mystery series featuring two writers.

I started this last night when I took the dog out for her evening constitutional, and then it kept me company through the 4 a.m. insomnia. I didn't read this for the mystery (fine, but not engaging) or the genre jokes (many and charmingly bad). I sorta read it for the relationship, which is delightful and unusual in that these are two grownups who often fight with each other about things that grownups fight about! Imagine that.

Really, I read it for the protagonist. He's forty with a bad back and a vicious streak and a career on the rocks and a commitment to misanthropy that delights me. He's got piles of baggage and he doesn't fight fair, and he's the sort of guy who will say, "You're only hearing this once," over some romantic expression. He is just so cranky and vivid, and he doesn’t like kids, and he snarks on absolutely everything. He is aging ungracefully and he's a lot of work to love, but he's still allowed to be sexy. And falling in love has nothing to do with learning to smile or love the kid: it just involves wrangling boundaries at every turn. And I dig it.

Ugh, I really needed good satisfying M/M with actual human beings in it. Josh Lanyon is here for me.
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Playing with posting formats.



2/5. M/M of the married with kids with law enforcement entanglements variety. Points for boring me, rather than actively pissing me off. I mean, these guys appear to have one kind of sex in the physical sense (always penetrative, same guy always tops) and about 1.5 kinds of sex emotionally (quote claiming end quote) but the kids are actually a realistic amount of work and disruption so whatever, fine, be that way.
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Parting Shot (A Matter of Time, #7)Parting Shot by Mary Calmes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


It's the first grudge read of 2015! …That didn't take long.

Grudge read, btw, meaning a book you desperately want to throw across the room less than halfway through, but you continue on to the bitter end just for the satisfaction of knowing for sure that it really is that terrible. And also so you can slam it in full knowledge.

So yeah. M/M of the cop and billionaire variety. This book is an unholy mess – disorganized, confused about who its unlikeable protagonists are, full of random BDSM content with no accuracy or emotional context or, uh, sexiness.

But whatever. A bad book is a bad book. Here's what's offensively bad about this one.

So both our heroes were closeted, right, very purposefully and to the detriment of previous relationships. Until – you can see this one coming – they meet each other and that all changes. Here's what our narrator, the cop, has to say about it: "It made me almost sick that I had waited so long to be brave and stand up. That was crazy, but I felt like I owed someone an apology."

That's right, kids. A queer person staying in the closet is failing to be brave and stand up. Coming out being, you see, entirely a function of the queer person's courage (and also whether he is in real love) rather than, say, oh just some random options – physical safety, job security, maintaining familial stability, I could go on.

Staying in the closet isn't a failure of courage. It is often a carefully calculated decision, and an essential or very smart one. This book and it's repeated refrain of how coming out was so much easier than expected – the executive board doesn't care! The police captain doesn't care! – isn't just erasing homophobia, it's placing responsibility for the consequences of homophobia on queer people. Queer people aren't in the closet as a random cultural artifact! The closet exists because of a vast and terrifying history of oppression and violence which is still alive and well today!

But, well, if only those queer people would be braver. Problem solved.




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All Kinds of Tied DownAll Kinds of Tied Down by Mary Calmes

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I generally like Calmes's contemporary romances more than her fantasies (which in my experience are epically batshit). This one, about two federal marshals, is a decent bit of vaguely power dynamic-y porn wrapped around some boring action/adventure nonsense, sprinkled with, like, every character from other books of hers she could awkwardly shove in. This book is almost interrogating the usual Calmesian tropes – she takes a vague stab at mixing up which of her usual types tops, and for her that's, like, serious subversion because she's one of those authors who is deeply, deeply concerned with who penetrates and who gets penetrated, that being, like, an intrinsically and vitally important aspect of everyone's personality or whatever. Not that this genre is fucked up or anything….

Anyway, whatever, it's fine, a little incompetent around the edges, nothing exciting.




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In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.




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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.




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The Dickens With LoveThe Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M Christmas novella about the antiquarian book dealer with a tragical past and the British professor selling a lost Dickens book. Cute, with all the expected grace notes – deception, misunderstanding, self-hatred, the sort of resolution where everything works out because people just spontaneously decide to trust each other. So, you know, fine.

But man oh man, don't read Josh Lanyon for the porn. Don't get me wrong, at his best (which this is not) he's totally worth the investment for the depth of character and emotional range. But there's something so very dated about his style of sex scene -- the writing gives me intense nostalgia for late 90's fanfic, back when everyone was still scared of using the word 'penis.' And by dated, I mean hilarious.

That pump and pull was like a hammer striking the golden frame of angel wings, pounding them into shining, glinting pennants. Perspiration sheened our bodies, and our breath grew harsher as we bent our backs and worked this forge. And then the wings began to beat, trying to take flight, moving faster and faster, and we seemed to lift right off the ground, right off the pillows and bedding and hang there, transfixed as warm white halle freakin lujah surged through.


…Loooool.




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