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Book Review: Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne

January 23, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A high level view of a room with a large fireplace and a wall of bookshelves. There are plants near the rafters. Two people sit in cozy chairs near the fireplace.

A sapphic (wlw) cozy fantasy where a woman commits treason by running away from her lifelong job as the Queen’s private guard to start a remote tea shop with her girlfriend.

Summary:
After an assassin takes Reyna hostage, she decides she’s thoroughly done risking her life for a self-centered queen. Her girlfriend Kianthe, the most important mage in all of the land, seizes the chance to flee responsibility. Together, they settle in Tawney, a town nestled in the icy tundra of dragon country, and open the shop of their dreams.

What follows is a cozy tale of mishaps, mysteries, and a murderous queen throwing the realm’s biggest temper tantrum. In a story brimming with hurt/comfort and quiet fireside conversations, these two women will discover just what they mean to each other… and the world.

Review:
This might be the first time I’ve ever impulse read a book on my kindle’s “recommended for you” list. I was precisely in the mood for something lighthearted and escapist, and none of my library books or currently owned ebooks fit that bill. When I saw this title, I laughed. Then I read the description and, delighted to see it was a cozy fantasy decided to give it a whirl. (What exactly is cozy fantasy? It’s a newly defined genre, but I like the devoted Reddit subgroup’s definition. The Kenosha Public Library is a little more specific in their definition.)

I mostly expected a plot about opening a tea shop in a fantastical land with dragons. That was really one of three plots. The other two involve Reyna’s treason and Kianthe’s role as the most powerful mage. It was a little more high stakes than I was expecting. People’s lives are at stake at quite a few points. It didn’t particularly stress me out, but I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of – oh no we’re out of honey and can’t get anymore for a month because the dragons are blocking supply chains – sort of thing. That said, even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it was still a relaxing, escapist read to me.

I like the main couple. They have a sweet dynamic with things to overcome. Mainly that Reyna was raised to a role of servitude to those born to power, and Kianthe was born to power. Reyna has to come to understand her worth, and Kianthe does amazingly supporting her through that. I also loved the dragons and griffons. There are two nonbinary secondary characters, both of whom use they/them pronouns. Although the word isn’t used, it’s strongly hinted at that a secondary character who is a woman married to a man is bisexual.

Kianthe is a woman of color, although I personally was left confused by what exactly her skin tone is. It is described as “the color of drying clay” (page 42). I checked on Writing With Color’s skin tone guide, and they do suggest clay as a reference. From the picture on their page, I think it’s supposed to denote reddish-brown. For me, though, when I was reading, I thought of gray clay. Writing With Color does state that creative descriptions can be confusing to the reader and suggests using additional descriptives to help. I don’t think drying brings much clarity to the sentence. Who’s really stood around watching clay dry? They also suggest to consider the associations that come up with a word. Clay is malleable, and I think Kianthe is anything but. Similarly, while Reyna’s hair is described many times as the typical shimmery blonde, I’m still not sure what Kianthe’s looked like due to a lack of description.

The tea shop itself ends up being a giant room full of plants that Kianthe keeps magically alive in the cold climate. I loved that aspect of it. The tea itself is largely inspired by our own world’s tea, and the goodies are essentially the same as here as well. The only exception being bagels with “creamed cheese.” The bagels are treated as kind of exotic and that confused me. Why are bagels exotic and not the scones? Why is cream cheese spelled differently and not bagels? One other thing that bugged me so much I ran an Instagram poll about it is that the tea shop owners make tea incorrectly. They add tea bags to cups of hot water. While this is totally fine in one’s own home when using a microwave and in a hurry, the proper way to make tea is by pouring the hot water over the leaves. Only one respondent in my entire poll said they do it the other way around, and they messaged me to tell me they do it that way because they have to microwave their water. This is a nice tea shop, and Reyna and Kianthe don’t make tea correctly! It hurt my escapism a bit. I wanted scenes of making various types of tea in the various different ways required. I wanted a matcha whisk and special timers for different steep times and different pots for black tea and green tea and herbal tisanes. I wanted Kianthe and Reyna to offer to make special mixes for customers based on something about them like this one tea shop in Portland, Maine did for me once. Essentially, I wanted less book time spent on the stakes and more on the tea. Bonus points if there was a fantastical tea with some wild steep requirements like, I don’t know, you have to add a molted scale from a dragon.

Overall, this is a different fantasy read featuring a w/w couple at the lead. It’s a fun universe to visit and was escapist for me. Recommended to readers looking for a quick, light read who don’t mind some stakes in their cozy.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 339 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Kindle Unlimited

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

January 16, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A white woman with a high bun stares at two nearly identical photos of palm trees.

Revisit the land of Sliding Doors in this exploration of two different paths one life can take due to one decision.

Summary:
At the age of twenty-nine, Hannah Martin still has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She has lived in six different cities and held countless meaningless jobs since graduating college. On the heels of leaving yet another city, Hannah moves back to her hometown of Los Angeles and takes up residence in her best friend Gabby’s guestroom. Shortly after getting back to town, Hannah goes out to a bar one night with Gabby and meets up with her high school boyfriend, Ethan.

Just after midnight, Gabby asks Hannah if she’s ready to go. A moment later, Ethan offers to give her a ride later if she wants to stay. Hannah hesitates. What happens if she leaves with Gabby? What happens if she leaves with Ethan?

In concurrent storylines, Hannah lives out the effects of each decision. 

Review:
I consider the 1998 movie Sliding Doors to be a cult classic. Whether or not you agree, the term “a sliding doors moment” has entered the lexicon, meaning a moment in a character’s life where their seemingly innocuous decision has far-reaching impact on how their life plays out. I had been curious to read a Taylor Jenkins Reid book. The mention of her name stirs up controversy. Some folks love her work. Others find it problematic. I wanted to read one for myself to see. I thought it would be the most fair to read the one that appealed to me the most, and that was this one.

I found it to be an enjoyable piece of contemporary chick lit. To be fair, it’s hard for a book with a sliding doors moment to turn me off. I just love the idea so much. Evidence of this fact is how much time this book spends in a location I dislike, the fact that I didn’t like either of the potential love interests, and that health sciences careers are featured prominently…which is something I prefer not to visit in my leisure reading. But I still gave it four stars. Because I just love the sliding doors moment so much. So for me it was an enjoyable read. But after the fact, I did get to thinking about the things I didn’t like, and it left me kind of scratching my head as to why I enjoyed it so much. Beyond the fact it was simply just really lighthearted, which I needed at the moment.

A non-controversial issue I had with it is that I don’t think the sliding doors moment is really in the spirit of a sliding doors moment. In the movie that gave us the phrase, it’s literally simply whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow’s character catches a subway train or has to wait for the next one. Whether the doors slide closed in her face or not. In this one, it’s whether or not the main character stays at a bar with her high school ex-boyfriend after not seeing him for years and moving back to town. That just simply feels like a life-defining moment in a way that catching or missing a subway train (that usually come a few minutes apart) does not.

To address some of the criticism about how Taylor Jenkins Reid, a white woman writer, handles race. I want to be crystal clear – I’m a white woman author too. So this is not a critique from a BIPOC voice. I can see what the author is trying to do. She’s trying to be inclusive and accurately reflect the diverse world of LA. But I can also see why how she depicts race rubs some people the wrong way – and this isn’t one of the books where the main character is a woman of color. Hannah is white. So I can see how it would be more of an issue in one of those books. The biggest issue in this book to me is that characters are default white unless Taylor Jenkins Reid describes them as not white. (Andrea J. Johnson discusses this in point 3 of her very insightful post from the perspective of a Black woman author on writing race.) She does mention Hannah is white, but every other character defaults to white unless described otherwise. Hannah’s best friend is Black, and there is a cringe moment where Hannah asks her in a flashback if her new college friend is a closer friend because she’s Black too. On the one hand, I appreciate flawed characters. On the other hand, I’m not sure why that scene was even included. It was part of introducing how Hannah and Gabby are best friends but Hannah is white and Gabby is Black and it’s no big deal. Interracial friendships are great and belong in literature! But how it was handled in this book definitely made me cringe.

A related moment that made me cringe, is when Hannah and Gabby lay in a bed together and just wish they weren’t straight so they could just simplify their lives and remove all men and just be together tee-hee! As a bisexual, queer woman this makes me see red. It’s not an endearing moment. It’s not cute. I absolutely loathe it when straight women do things like this. Because, as someone who is capable of being attracted to many genders, what keeps a friendship from progressing to a romantic relationship isn’t at all simply what body parts someone has. With my really good friends whose sexual orientations line up with mine, what kept us from becoming romantic partners was far more nuanced than that. At its simplest, it’s that romantic love and friend love are not the same thing, and I’m not in romantic love with them. (I am in romantic love with my spouse.) I have to admit, I didn’t read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo because it has a bisexual main character, and I knew Taylor Jenkins Reid is straight, and I just was not in the mood for dealing with questionable representation. Having read this book and this moment, I think I made the right choice for me.

I was also left confused about what the book’s message is about fate. Without spoilers, there are three hugely impactful aspects of a person’s life – whether or not they partner, if they do with whom, and what their career is. Some of these are the same in both lives and some of them are not. What is this saying about fate, then? I found the mixed message puzzling, especially when Gabby’s life seemed nearly identical in both storylines.

Overall, while I found this to be a fluffy and very readable book, in retrospect I’m left wondering how I managed to enjoy it so much. There are cringey moments in it, and even the sliding doors moment itself is a bit too big to really count. From what I’ve seen in this book, I can see why there’s controversy. I think I’ll be getting my fluffy reads from other sources in the future. Recommended if you’re a sliding doors moment enthusiast who really wants to have consumed all the media out there with such a moment.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 342 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

Summary:
It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Review:
I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Golden Couple by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

December 12, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover A rose sits in the bottom left. The title and author names are in black above it.

Avery may have lost her professional therapist license, but her career is much better as a consultant who isn’t held to any of the pesky rules like “don’t tell a client what to do” and “don’t spy on clients.” At least until a couple going through what seems to be a classic case of infidelity walks through her door…

Summary:
Wealthy Washington suburbanites Marissa and Matthew Bishop seem to have it all—until Marissa is unfaithful. She wants to repair things for the sake of their eight-year-old son and because she loves her husband. Enter Avery Chambers.

Avery is a therapist who lost her professional license. Still, it doesn’t stop her from counseling those in crisis, though they have to adhere to her 10 sessions full of unorthodox methods. And the Bishops are desperate.

When they glide through Avery’s door and Marissa reveals her infidelity, all three are set on a collision course. Because the biggest secrets in the room are still hidden, and it’s no longer simply a marriage that’s in danger.

Review:
I was on the waitlist for the digital copy of this forever at the library but then I stumbled upon it on the physical “Lucky Day” shelf. At my library, a few limited copies of popular books become “Lucky Day” books, They can’t be put on hold, and they only check out for two weeks. The theory is you “get lucky” by coming across them on the “Lucky Day” shelf. This just tells you how popular a Hendricks/Pekkanen thriller is.

I didn’t read the summary before reading the book. I’m such a fan, I knew I wanted to read it regardless of what it was about. Personally, I’m usually not about a book that shows much empathy at all for infidelity. Although it certainly is an expected trope in thrillers, I personally am less ok with it when presented as something to overcome together in a marriage.. While I’m still not on Marissa’s side – I feel like this is a case of two terrible people with a sweet kid – I loved Avery. She held the book together for me.

The story is told in chapters alternating between Avery and Marissa. Interestingly, Avery is first person point of view, and Marissa is third person. This helped because Marissa isn’t super likeable so the distance was good. It also helped keep some secrets hidden. There’s also a fun subplot involving someone coming after Avery for doing an honorable thing. So while some readers might feel she overstepped with her clients in the situation that led to her losing her license, she’s redeemed by this other subplot.

There are just enough twists. I had my suspicions about just what the something extra going on with the married couple was, but I didn’t figure out the final twist until just before it happened. So there were enough clues but also sufficient red herrings to make it enjoyable.

While this wasn’t my favorite Hendricks/Pekkanen read (that honor goes to The Wife Between Us, review, which I found to be incredibly imaginative), it was still a fun thriller that I was motivated to get to the end of. Other readers more able to relate to Marissa might find it more immersive than I did.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 329 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)


Book Review: A Restless Truth by Freya Marske (Series, #2)

December 5, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A green background with blue flowers coming out surround two women in silhouette. They are in 1900s period costume and are in yellow. An empty bird cage hangs above them.

A murder mystery on an ocean liner cruising from the US to the UK in the early 1900s being solved by two women – one of whom is a magician. Both of whom are into each other. Things get spicy…and dangerous.

Summary:
When Maud voyages from the US to the UK on RMS Lyric, she finds a dead body, a disrespectful parrot, and a beautiful stranger in Violet Debenham, who is everything—a magician, an actress, a scandal—Maud has been trained to fear and has learned to desire. Surrounded by the open sea and a ship full of loathsome, aristocratic suspects, they must solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy that began generations before them.

Review:
I’m not sure how I ended up with an advanced copy of the second book in The Last Binding series – when I hadn’t read the first. I’m assuming either I requested it, not realizing it was a second book or it was sent to me based on my reading history with the assumption it didn’t matter. The series aspect is less “the story happens in a row” and more “everyone featured is living in these alternate history version of the early 1900s plus magic.” Apparently the first book in the series features a m/m pairing (Amazon, Bookshop.org), whereas this one stars a f/f pair.

I didn’t struggle too much to figure out what’s going on. The author does refrain from explaining much for the first chapter or two. But that’s because the book starts essentially in media res – with the murder happening. After that has occurred we slow down for a minute, and there’s a refresher of the rules of the universe. It didn’t take me too long to catch up and get into it.

One thing that did surprise me was the spice level of this romance. I was expecting very light spice with most encounters occurring off-screen after a fade to dark. That is not the case. Things get very explicit. Let’s put it this way….at least one of the scenes would have had to have been cut to manage to squeak in an R rating for explicitness. There are three scenes total, and each takes up a whole chapter. To me, this much spice feels like erotica jammed into a romance. I prefer the two separately.

The pairing here is grumpy/cheery. Violet is the grumpy, and I adored her. I liked Maud too, but Violet was someone I could see a whole book’s perspective on. Perhaps I’m biased since Violet is bisexual and the quintessential theater geek. I just really enjoyed her. But Maud is nice enough too. I liked their pairing well enough.

The mystery is substantial enough to hold up a plot. I enjoyed the animals and sneaking around the boat. I did think a bit more attention could have been paid to the class and race issues that sort of came up and got a bit glossed over. I don’t expect preaching in a book but it might have been interesting to at least have Maud and Violet see the second or third class areas of the ship on one of their many attempts to outrun their pursuers. (Somehow they always seemed to end up in the cargo hold instead). Maud talks with disdain of her parents only giving charity when others can see it, but Maud herself doesn’t seem to do much giving either. Violet, at least, offers to become the patron of an all-Black opera. (The real history of Black opera.)

Overall, I liked getting to know Violet, and it was an interesting world to visit. But the spice level was far too hot for what I personally prefer in romance, sliding more into an erotica category in my opinion. It also seems to me that the first book may have been quite different from this one, so readers of the first should come in aware of these differences.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 388 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Dark Between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

October 11, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. We are in the aerial perspective above a forest. Some are fir trees and others are deciduous. An eye with horns coming out of it is in the top center third. the book title is in the middle.

Summary:
Northern England’s Moresby Wood. The locals call it an unnatural place of witchcraft where the devil walks by moonlight. Five women head into it on a historian’s academic expedition to discover what happened to a unit of 17 Parliamentarian soldiers in 1643. Only 2 soldiers survived the wood. How many women will?

Review:
This is a book for those steeped in academia who want the mystery to remain a mystery.

The telling alternates between the perspective of the five modern day women and the 17 soldiers in 1643. I liked how the journeys of the two groups paralleled each other while having enough different things occurring to remain engaging. But I never felt like I truly got to know any one character in a well-rounded way. They all felt like two-dimensional drawings. I don’t mind this in a traditional horror/thriller. The point isn’t the characters. But this story struck me as a less traditional mystery that remains unsolved. It’s not like Scream or Cabin in the Woods. It takes itself seriously and, thus, my standards for characterization are higher and remain unmet.

I like the monster in the woods. It has a cool name – the Corrigal. It’s deliciously creepy. But it’s essentially dropped in the last few chapters as a red herring. That would be fine if something scarier replaced it. But it doesn’t.

As someone who spent many years in academia, this book reads like a speculative wish fulfillment. The lead historian is a woman who others in her department think is wrongfully obsessed with the woods. She struggles to win awards when the man in her department does. It took her years to fund this trip. The narrative tells us this over and over again. The book tries to show us that the historian was right. If a bit cruel to her postdoc student. But I was left feeling like this was a speculative exploration of everything wrong with academia without the text being self-aware that this is what it was doing.

I’ve categorized it a mystery, because to me it wasn’t thrilling or horrific. It was a puzzle the women set out to solve and fail to do so in any satisfying way. The bit of chills that built in the beginning fizzle by the end.

If you enjoy 1600s history interspersed with modern day academics flailing helplessly about in the woods and don’t mind an unresolved mystery, then this will be a great match for you.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 304 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty

Image of a digital book cover. A white woman's face is half in light and half in shadow. She wears sunglasses. A bee and planets can be seen reflected in her sunglasses.

Summary:
Mallory is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when she gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she takes it. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is aliens. But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, humans and aliens alike begin to die…

Review:
A scifi mystery with creative imaginings of multiple alien species and a queer cast.

My favorite part of this book is the various alien species present on the space station. The Gneiss formed from rocks. They don’t ever really die but hibernate then come back in a new form. They can be pebbles, humanoids, or even shuttles. The Phantasmagore have a symbiont vine growing on their ankles that let them camouflage into their surroundings. The Sundry are a hivemind of bee-like creatures that are mysteriously divided into blue and grey factions. Most interesting is that all alien species evolved to have a symbiont. This is another species that merges with them for a mutually beneficial relationship. Only humans didn’t. Why they don’t have one is one of the mysteries of the book.

In spite of the fact that many of the characters are aliens, this still manages to be a diverse book. Multiple characters are Black, one is Korean-American, and the automatic translator uses human names from around the globe to substitute for alien names that humans couldn’t possibly pronounce. (For reasons like that they can’t vibrate to communicate like the Gneiss do).

The marketing I saw was Agatha Christie in space. The storytelling isn’t comparable. Agatha Christie novels are mostly one pov. Third person from the detective’s perspective. This book uses multiple povs. This annoyed me, because at many times, we the readers know things Mallory doesn’t. It removes a lot of the mystery. We end up just sitting there waiting for her to find out something we already know. And it’s not just switching pov in a seen. There are multiple flashback chapters where we go and see a character’s whole backstory. It’s important for an author to know all this detailed information, but not for the reader to. An example is one character who the military recruits to something. We have a whole chapter of flashback to the military recruiting her. Then later Mallory finds out. We didn’t need this chapter about the recruitment. We could have just seen Mallory find it out. More suspense and less dead time (pun intended) waiting for flashbacks to be over. While I liked the story itself, the style of telling it wasn’t for me.

The queer content is that Mallory is bisexual. Another character is a trans gay guy. Another minor character is gay. I appreciate that these identities are not a big deal and mentioned in passing like a character’s hair color. I was a little uncomfortable with one scene with the trans character, Phineas. His brother is trying to reassure him that they’re definitely related. For some reason, the way he reassures him of this is to say his deadname and explain why their father gave him that name. It just seemed like a completely unnecessary use of the deadname to me. (Could have just said…dad named you what he did because of X and that’s why he’s definitely your dad too). I don’t mind characters making mistakes. But it would have been nice to have established Phineas doesn’t mind hearing his deadname. Or to have his brother realize his mistake and apologize.

Recommended for mystery readers who like scifi and multiple povs.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: Paper Is White by Hilary Zaid

September 29, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. The words "Paper Is White" are imposed over a picture of a pile of papers.

Summary:
Oral historian Ellen and her girlfriend decide to get married in 1990s San Francisco. As they beat an early path to marriage equality, a Holocaust survivor draws Ellen into a secret. How much do you need to share to be true to the one you love? 

Review:
This is a rich exploration of two things simultaneously. What it meant to be in a same-sex relationship in the 1990s before marriage equality. And what it means to be Jewish in the shadow of the Holocaust.

There is a sad beauty in how Ellen and Francine find a way to experience the joy of being brides even in the face of rejection and homophobia from many sides. The fact that their wedding can’t be legally recognized. How that is most people’s first reaction. Their parents struggle with accepting and loving them as they are. There’s a real ache to how their parents come down on, essentially, well a lesbian daughter is better than no daughter at all. As a child of the 90s, I recall how that was often viewed as the pinnacle of acceptance from a parent. How sad that was. How well-represented here. But there are still scenes of delightfully bride moments, like Ellen struggling to get the shoes she wants. Or the rabbi who agrees to marry them getting serious about how marriage is about sticking through the hard things too.

I am not Jewish myself, but I did attend a historically Jewish university, and one of my closest friends is Jewish. (She had an interfaith same-sex wedding). So I do have some familiarity with Judaism, while still acknowledging my position as an outsider. From my perspective, this book does a great job depicting the struggle to be Jewish in a way that works for you while under the shadow of the Holocaust. The weight of responsibility many Jewish people feel to carry Judaism forward while also being true to themself.

Something that shows how this can be a struggle is how Ellen and Francine attend a meeting with well-meaning Reform rabbis. They say they want to help same-sex couples have marriages. But Ellen and Francine notice how they keep talking about commitment and not marriages or weddings. They then meet with a different rabbi at the suggestion of a friend. They’re surprised to discover he is part Chinese. And he is more than happy to give them a Jewish wedding. He is non-traditionally Jewish but still Jewish. This is an aha moment for Ellen. Over the course of the book, she comes to talk more about how the Judaism she’s living isn’t what her ancestors would have imagined, but it is still Judaism.

Ellen’s grandmother was someone she had a special relationship with. At the start of the book, her grandmother has been dead for years. Her grandmother was not a Holocaust survivor, as she was an American Jewish person. But Ellen in some way seeks to bond with her grandmother through her work interviewing Holocaust survivors. I won’t spoil the surprise in the book. But I will say that how Ellen comes to terms with her relationship with her grandmother is eloquently handled.

Overall, this is a book that manages a delicate balance. It’s realistic about what it was to be a Jewish lesbian in the 1990s while also depicting both queer and Jewish joy. I highly recommend it.

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5 out of 5 stars

Length: 318 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Horror Stories by Richard Matheson

September 6, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a book cover. A figure stands on the wing of a plane in shades of blue, gray, and black.

Summary:
Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone and Bart Simpson saw it too. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have insinuated themselves into our collective imagination.

Here are more than twenty of Matheson’s most memorable tales of fear and paranoia. Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, these and many other stories, more than demonstrate why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest and most influential horror writers of our generation.

Review:
I picked this up because I remembered enjoying I Am Legend (although my review is only 3 stars, when I looked it up just now…) I also had familiarity with The Twilight Zone episode based on the first story in the collection. I individually rated each of the twenty stories then calculated the average to give the collection a rating.

I rated two stories 5 stars. “Mad House” (made me make shocked and thrilled faces) and “First Anniversary” (I called it timeless in my notes). The former is a very meta commentary on being a writer. The latter reminded me of Buffy in that who you’ve fallen in love with changes, only in this case it was the woman changing instead of the man.

There were quite a few stories that I found moderately engaging and enjoyed their historic vibe. Like “Disappearing Act,” whose whole idea is it’s someone’s personal notebook left in a cafe. Or “Crickets” whose idea is what if crickets’ chirps are really a form of Morse code?

But there are also two stories where, just, the entire structure idea is racist. One “The Children of Noah” involves the idea that a town’s inhabitants are all the descendants of a sea captain and his Pacific Islander bride. The racist part is that they’re dangerous BECAUSE of being part Pacific Islander. The story “Prey” is about a “Zuni” doll that’s inhabited by the spirit of a great warrior. The whole idea made me cringe. One story, “The Distributor” confused me so much that I’m still not sure what the overall point was. A character who I think is a bad guy uses the the n word and another racial slur, but it’s a little unclear to me if he was meant to be a bad guy.

There are also definitely outdated gender ideas here. The least offensive is that it’s oh so scary for teenage girls to wage war as witches in “Witch War.” The worst is “The Likeness of Julie.” Most of the story is from the perspective of a college undergrad male rapist. That’s bad enough. If you want to know how it manages to get worse, check out the spoiler paragraph below in brackets. 

[The twist ending is that the college woman he rapes, Julie, in fact got inside his mind supernaturally and made him rape her. It’s the worst victim blaming I’ve seen in forever, and I honestly wanted to scrub my own brain out with soap. I’m suspicious that Matheson knew on some level how awful this story was, because the collection notes that he published it under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson in Alone by Night, which appears to have been some sort of anthology.]

So, there we have it. Some stories manage to be timeless. But definitely not all. Come into this collection prepared for a mixed bag.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: In the Event of Love by Courtney Kae

Image of a digital book cover. This is a cartoon style drawing Pine trees make up the background. On the left is a blond white woman in a pink coat, torn jeans, and knee high boots with a cowboy hat. On the right is a brunette woman in a red flannel shirt, khakis, and work boots, holding an axe on a stump. There's a Christmas wreath behind her.

Summary:
With her career as a Los Angeles event planner imploding after a tabloid blowup, Morgan Ross isn’t headed home for the holidays so much as in strategic retreat. Breathtaking mountain vistas, quirky townsfolk, and charming small businesses aside, her hometown of Fern Falls is built of one heartbreak on top of another . . .

Take her one-time best friend turned crush, Rachel Reed. The memory of their perfect, doomed first kiss is still fresh as new-fallen snow. Way fresher than the freezing mud Morgan ends up sprawled in on her very first day back, only to be hauled out via Rachel’s sexy new lumberjane muscles acquired from running her family tree farm.

When Morgan discovers that the Reeds’ struggling tree farm is the only thing standing between Fern Falls and corporate greed destroying the whole town’s livelihood, she decides she can put heartbreak aside to save the farm by planning her best fundraiser yet. She has all the inspiration for a spectacular event: delicious vanilla lattes, acoustic guitars under majestic pines, a cozy barn surrounded by brilliant stars. But she and Rachel will ABSOLUTELY NOT have a heartwarming holiday happy ending. That would be as unprofessional as it is unlikely. Right?

Review:
This is a thoroughly queer holiday romance for your holiday needs. It has the returning to my small town from the big city to try to save a small business trope. It also has the second chance love trope.

The two main characters in this sapphic romance are BOTH (!) bisexual (and say the word), which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a romance. There’s a secondary male character who I think is bisexual, although it’s possible he’s gay and has dated women in the past (no one ever says which). There’s another secondary gay character, and a trans woman of color. The owner of the business Morgan works for is a woman of color. A tertiary character is a woman of color married to a Jewish man. Chrismukkah happens briefly. There’s also a pine tree decorated for a mix of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The sex scenes are steamy and on-screen (all f/f), and there were at least three? Maybe more? I lost count. There’s also one ahem, self-love scene, which I honestly skimmed over because that’s not something I’m personally into reading. I appreciate that it did move the plot forward and wasn’t pointless though. (The character essentially clears her head in this way and then is able to solve a problem she’s been puzzling over).

The one thing I didn’t like was how alcohol is handled in this book. Rachel (the love interest)’s dad has alcoholism. That’s absolutely fine to include. In fact, it’s generally something I’m happy to see. But the representation of this struck false. The main thing that really bothered me is how Rachel interacts with alcohol herself. The book establishes that she’s traumatized by her dad’s alcoholism. It tore the family apart in high school. He’s been in and out of rehab that her and her brother pay for. Her mom left the family after Rachel (the youngest) graduated high school. Rachel routinely drops by her dad’s apartment (that she and her brother pay for) to check for signs of alcohol. YET she STILL drinks regularly. Not occasionally. Regularly. Most people I know who’ve seen this much of the negative impacts of alcohol won’t even allow it in their homes, let alone go out drinking themselves regularly.

Plus, there’s the whole instigation event to Morgan coming back to Fern Falls. (I don’t consider this a spoiler because it happens in chapter one). She gets wasted out at a bar and accidentally kisses the fiancé of someone whose wedding she’s organizing. He’s “in disguise” because he has a hoody on, but we all know she’d have recognized him if she wasn’t drunk. Anyway, everyone knows about this because the news wrote it up. We know Rachel knows about it. She still goes for Morgan. No way. No adult child of an alcoholic would set themselves up like that. I overlooked it because it’s a cheesy romance, but this is not a realistic depiction of an adult child of an alcoholic who’s actively engaged in their recovery. Adult children of alcoholics tend to fall either into the camps of also alcoholics themselves or sober. Rachel falls into neither. I feel weird complaining about realism in a holiday romance novel, but this is real life for a lot of us, and I disliked it being used as a plot device poorly. Alcoholism is serious, and Rachel wouldn’t be casually getting drunk with some love interest who’s only home because she became a hashtag while doing something drunk. In fact, I think this was a missed opportunity for some real bonding. They could have been at a town event and both noticed they were drinking hot chocolate. Rachel reveals the stuff about her dad. Morgan reveals she’s decided to dial it way back with the alcohol after possibly losing her career on that night out. Instant believable bond. But no….they just share spiked drinks.

All of that said, I still gave it four stars because this is a fun holiday romance. It’s not supposed to be that serious! And the bisexual rep is so uncommon and needed. I just wish the alcoholism/adult children of alcoholics rep was just as well done.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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