Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reading Rec: The Descent of Monsters

Have you ever read something called silkpunk? An infusion of Asian flare with a punch of magic and technology. If not, you need to get your hands on JY Yang’s Tensorate series beginning with The Black Tides of Heaven. In the third book of the series, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes us further into the world of tensors and strange hybrid creatures.

descent of monsters

Part Jurassic Park, part noir-ish crime story, The Descent of Monsters begins where The Red Threads of Fortune leave off but from the point of view of an investigator charged with figuring out why everyone at the Rewar Teng Institute of Experimental Methods was slaughtered and how a naga raptor hybrid escaped. Told through file entries, diaries, letters, and interrogations, it fleshes out not only the mystery of the murders but what happened to Rider’s twin and how it is tied to the institute.

“Get livid.” The Descent of Monsters begins with a call to arms from its readers. Investigator Chuwan has seen the atrocities the government has not only covered up but sponsored and she wants your rage. This call sets the tone for the story, and it’s one of the things I absolutely love about Chuwan. While most of the characters in the Tensorate series have been very human, Chuwan is at times the most relatable. She is angry and fed up and just wants to get to the bottom of what’s going on, especially since the government put her in charge of the investigation figuring she would cave and sweep the evidence under the rug. WRONG. She has the investigative chops and enough moxie to go against the government.

What I love about this series is the slow building of rebellion. With the first book, we get the inner workings of the government from the view of the children of the ruler. Then from the point of view of exiles, and now, we’re getting bits and pieces from an investigation from the government and a detective going rogue. I look forward to seeing what will happen when the fourth book comes out, and hopefully this interesting progression will continue. This is where I should comment more on the format. There are interrogation scripts, files from the investigation, letters, and Chuwan’s diary/memories. If you don’t like that format, you may not like this book, but Chuwan’s voice is strong and has that no-nonsense detective noir vibe. It’s hard not to picture the scenes in dramatic black and white.

One of the things I love about Yang’s books is how effortlessly they create their world. It’s rich in the sights and textures of Asia while still being infused with futuristic technology and magic. Somehow Yang manages to make them live side-by-side without feeling awkward or mismatched. The magic, or tensing, is intricate yet simple at its heart. It makes for an interesting magical system, especially regarding how different characters interact with the slack (the magic in everything). Within their world, queer characters are commonplace, and there is even a coming-of-age ceremony where children choose their gender and name. Other characters appear as nonbinary and/or non-straight, and there is even a brief discussion of pronouns in Descent of Monsters.

If you wished the latest Star Wars trilogy was even more daring, political, and had cooler creatures, you should check out JY Yang’s Tensorate series, beginning with The Black Tides of Heaven. Grab their latest book, The Descent of Monsters, now.

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Reading Rec: Salt Magic, Skin Magic

I received an ARC of Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch in exchange for an honest review.

saltmag

When Lord Thornby was dragged back to his father’s estate, he never imagined he wouldn’t be able to leave. Fearing his sanity is slipping when he can’t move past a seemingly invisible barrier, Thornby worries he has no chance of escaping until John Blake arrives. Masquerading as a guest, Blake has his own mission, to figure out what witchcraft is going on at the estate. When Thornby realizes Blake is the key to his escape, the men team up to fight the forces at play only to discover Thornby is more than he appears.

In the tradition of writers like Jordan L. Hawk and K. J. Charles, Lee Welch takes us on an adventure of magic, romance, and of course queer characters. Don’t mistake my reference to other authors of queer historical-fantasy as saying Welch’s work isn’t original. The magical system is wholly her own. What I loved about it was how it artfully combined the mystique of Victorian beliefs in faeries and paranormal creatures while also aligning with the heavy industrialism of the era. Magic can come in several ways, through faerie folk, demons, and by utilizing commonplace objects. This comes with a set of preconceived notions involving class and misconceptions about magic due to this rigid structure. The interweaving of these aspects of the Victorian Era keep us grounded in a historical reality while expanding it [logically] to contain magical elements.

Thornby and Blake are charming characters, each determined to find their way out of this magical muddle, and while there is a little friction at first, they quickly become a well-oiled team. They have fantastic chemistry, and more importantly, I loved how quirky they both can be. Thornby seems like an eccentric at first, but as the story progresses, his behavior begins to make more sense. With Blake, he is like Thornby’s foil and offsets his emotional and quirky side with a more utilitarian calm.

My only real quibble with this book was at times I found the romance aspects a bit gratuitous. I know that is a convention of the genre, but even for paranormal romance, it felt like a lot. This may have been because I read the book rather quickly and it only felt compressed. The scenes themselves though are written well and varied in terms of emotional and physical intimacy.

If you’re a fan of noblemen in emotional crisis or magic in a unique form, then Salt Magic, Skin Magic should be moved to the top of your to-be-read pile. Grab a copy here, and congrats to Lee Welch on their new release!

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Reading Rec: Wild Beauty

If you follow me on Patreon, you may have read my post about Bookcon and how Anna-Marie McLemore’s book signing and ARC giveaway was the ONE event I knew I had to attend. I was elated to find a signed copy of Wild Beauty at Bookcon, which I didn’t realize was signed until I got home (bonus!). After reading Wild Beauty, McLemore has been added to my auto-buy list.

wild beauty

For years, the Nomeolvides women have been trapped on the grounds of La Pradera, growing plants from their hands on the forgotten estate of the Briar family. More mysterious than their magical abilities is that if they step off the land, they die a painful death and those the Nomeolvides love go missing, never to return. Then, a boy in antiquated clothing and covered in dirt appears in the garden. Estrella and the other women wonder if he is a blessing from the garden or a warning, but Fel cannot remember where he came from or who he is. Estrella and her cousins must figure out who Fel was and how to escape the grip of La Prader before it’s too late.

I love Anna-Marie McLemore’s style. It’s an ingenious blend of the normal and surreal where magical flower growing women live along side cotton candy and instant mashed potatoes. Her prose is effortless to read, and her world is rich in texture and beauty. Magical realism is hard for some to deal with because of that intermixing of real and unreal, but if you can suspend your disbelief in this pocket of magic, it’s well worth it.

One of the things I worried about with this book was how it had an obvious aesthetic: flowers. What I mean by that is that some authors beat you to death with repetitive imagery and metaphors. While McLemore makes reference to flowers constantly throughout the story, it is done in such a way that it comes off as varied and artful. She capitalizes upon the sheer number of flowers available to utilize in metaphors and combines them with interesting actions and images. One of the other aspects I love that other readers may miss or think is a fault in the writing is how McLemore makes the Nomeolvides women interchangeable for the most part. Each generation there are five women, and they tend to be names without obvious identities apart from the plants they create. I feel this is done purposely and shows how the outside world sees the women versus how they are easily able to tell each other apart.

The story itself speaks to the impact of history on real people and we often try to sanitize or bury our pasts. This feels very relevant with what is going on in America politically. While McLemore doesn’t explicitly state this, readers should be able to see the parallels and understand why we must dredge up the bloody parts of our history in order to learn from them and grow.

I don’t want to give too much away because this book builds layer upon layer until the story truly unfolds at the end, and I don’t want to spoil that. If this review piqued your interest, you can pick up a copy of Wild Beauty on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

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Reading Rec: A Gentleman Never Keeps Score

Cat Sebastian is one of my favorite romance writers, and her latest novel, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, delivers a sweet yet poignant story.

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As the second book in the Seducing the Sedgwick series, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score follows Hartley Sedgwick, the preening, prissy brother of Ben Sedgwick from It Takes Two to Tumble. Hartley has gone from social butterfly among the ton to pariah after it comes out through the rumor mill that he received his townhouse after an *cough* arrangement *cough* with his now dead godfather. Retreating into his home, Hartley becomes a glorified recluse looking for a way to get back at his godfather and whoever spread the rumor. His plans get thrown for a loop when he meets Sam. Barkeep and ex-boxer, Sam has created a haven in the Free Black community and does all he can to help his patrons. His brother’s girlfriend comes to him with a unique problem. Someone painted a salacious portrait of her when she was a teen and she wants it back before she marries Sam’s brother. The commissioner of the portrait was none other than Hartley’s godfather.

For anyone who says romance is shallow, I would like to point them to Cat Sebastian’s work (among several others I can name off the top of my head). This story not only grapples with the long-lasting scars of sexual abuse but racism/racial profiling, PTSD, the complexities of consent, and the fluidity/rigidity of class in Regency England. There’s a lot that can be unpacked from this novel, but above all else, it’s a satisfying romance between two lovable characters. All of the issues and topics mentioned above are done with an immense amount of sensitivity and obvious research.

Hartley is a popinjay. A preening dandy who uses his clothing and impeccable manners as a shield against the world. He’s been hurt in the past and has a lot of issues to work through, but it makes him feel human and complex. For as onion-like as Hartley is, Sam comes off as a much more even presence. He began life as boxer, like his father before him, and now makes a living running his pub, The Bell, along with his brother. Life is never easy as a black man in London, but he tries to make life a little easier for his patrons and friends. Sam is a wonderful foil for Hartley as he is a calming force while still maintaining a lively air and a realistic range of emotions. I mention this because it is often the calm characters who come off as cut-outs.

Cat Sebastian has once again created a warm-hearted romance that deals with deeply personal issues while leading readers into the next romance featuring Ben and Hartley’s brother Will and a down on his luck nobleman who seems to be having more issues than he’s letting on. If you like historical romances with prickly yet lovable characters, you need to grab a copy of A Gentleman Never Keeps Score.

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Reading Rec: Emergency Contact

There are few books I give five stars to, but this one has made its way to the top of my list for best books of 2018.

emergency contact

Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi tells the story of two misfits, Penny and Sam, as they accidentally embark on an unlikely texting friendship. Penny is starting college with a Mary Poppins bag full of supplies and a dream of becoming a writer. Well, that and enjoying an escape from her overly extroverted, overly involved but loving mother, Celeste. Sam’s life is a mess. He’s dealing with his break-up with Lorraine, an Instagram star who was the best and worst thing in his life. When Sam’s life is turned upside down, he runs into Penny, they become emergency contacts– the one person you can always talk to when life is going crazy.

This book… I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a while, and the main reason I enjoyed it was because the characters were so vulnerable. Because Penny and Sam use texting to communicate rather than face-to-face interaction, they are more open with each other. They talk about their anxieties, their pasts, and their hopes for the future without the judgmental gaze of another person present. The story is written in narrative as well as texting conversations, and I’m sure for some that will be off-putting, especially if you aren’t a texter, but it makes the conversations flow with an easy back and forth and also distinguishes between real life and the screen.

Penny and Sam are awesomely awkward. They aren’t the cool kids on campus or even friends with the cool kids. They’re messed up in their own way and each character is an individual with issues of their own. Choi does a fantastic job of making her young adults very human without turning them into caricatures.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that it isn’t really a romance but it still kind of is. What I mean is that the story focuses on the platonic friendship between Penny and Sam through most of the book, and a platonic relationship between male and female characters is so rare. There’s a lot of will they, won’t they, but this book is more about human connection and trust than kissing and hook-ups. If you have read this blog before, you know I love romance, but sometimes it’s nice to step away from passion and fire, especially when discussing new adult or young adult stories where love and sex are held on a pedestal over the foundation of a stable relationship, which should ultimately be friendship.

I may be a little biased because my relationship with my partner began much like Penny and Sam’s, but if you like college-age stories with awkwardly charming characters who struggle and grow, then Emergency Contact should be at the top of your to-be-read pile.

You can pick up a copy of Emergency Contact here.

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Reading Rec: The Mystery of Nevermore

It is Pride Month, so I have decided to recommend a bunch of books that have LGBT+ main characters. Today’s book du jour is The Mystery of Nevermore by C.S. Poe, and this review is just in time to pre-order the third installment of this series, entitled “The Mystery of the Moving Image” (which will be out in September).

mysteryofneverore

Sebastian Snow runs the Emporium antique shop in NYC, and while he enjoys his job, he isn’t enjoying his relationship with a man so far in the closet, he won’t acknowledge their relationship after four years. His world is turned upside down when he finds a heart under the floorboards of his shop. The lead investigator turns out to be the attractive and mysterious Calvin Winter, but Sebastian feels torn between his old relation and the fear of reliving past mistakes. More importantly, a criminal is targeting the local antique shops and reenacting Poe’s most famous and macabre works.

If you like Hallmark Channel’s mystery movies or Murder She Wrote, the Snow & Winter series is like that but with the raunchiness level of a Lifetime movie. There’s definitely a bit of murder mystery cheese going on with this story, but this story is a hybrid between a cozy mystery and a romance novel so it is to be expected. In terms of the gore level, The Mystery of Nevermore has a less is more approach and instead focuses on a Poe-esque/literary inspired atmosphere. If you’re a nerdy English major who enjoys Edgar Allan Poe references, then you’ll probably enjoy the tone of this book.

The main reason I wanted to include this book in my LGBT+ recommendations is due to the representation. Some of you are probably like, yeah, okay, it isn’t like your recs are skewed toward m/m romances anyway, Kara. Wrong type of representation! Sebastian Snow has achromatopsia, which means he is totally colorblind due to his cones (visual receptors in your eyes) not working and in addition has other visual issues, such as light sensitivity and poor eyesight. This medical issue appears throughout the story, affects how Sebastian lives his life, and is not the be-all and end-all of his character! I say all of this because it shows that his disability was written well. In addition, Calvin suffers from PTSD, which is also portrayed in the story but to a lesser extent.

If you like Poe, cozy mysteries, and a steamy romance to round it out, you will enjoy C.S. Poe’s The Mystery of Nevermore. Grab a copy on Amazon before you go.

 

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Reading Rec: All Out

During Pride Month, I have decided to review as many LGBT+ books as I can that I have read recently. The book I’ll be talking about today I actually read in May, but because it was the end of the semester and I’m a professor, I forgot to review it. All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages was edited by Saundra Mitchell and contains short stories from seventeen queer authors.

all out

Rather than discuss every story in this anthology, which would take forever and be incredibly boring, I’m just going to talk about a few highlights along with its strengths and weaknesses.

Some of my favorite stories from this anthology are from YA authors I’m already familiar with, including Malinda Lo, Mackenzie Lee, and Anna-Marie McLemore. McLemore’s story, “Roja,” falls in line with her usual tales, magical realism with a Latinx flare. In this case we have a heroine who is a witch trying to save a trans boy, the Wolf, from execution by the government. If you read my review of Blanca & Roja, the stories are completely different despite the similar titles. In “New Year,” Malinda Lo takes us into China Town during Chinese New Year in 1955 where a young woman has her first brush with a lesbian culture and the allure of a forbidden gay club. Mackenzie Lee’s work is always an adorable hoot and “Burnt Umber” is no different. We have gay Dutch painters learning from the masters while trying to master the art of not getting an erection while sketching nude models.

Overall, All Out is a fabulous anthology in terms of sexual/gender diversity and cultural diversity. We have characters from different cultures, races, time periods, etc. There are also characters who are transgender, nonbinary, asexual, bisexual, gay/lesbian, so there is something for nearly everyone. All of the stories were historical fiction due to the theme of the anthology, but the tones of each story are very different, which makes it a fun read.

The downside to an anthology is often the same as the good side: variety. There are some clunkers in All Out as well. “Every Shade of Red” by Elliot Wake was not the most uplifting story, especially when the only transgender character is facing a less than optimistic. The other story that sticks out in my mind as meh is “The Coven” by Kate Scelsa, which features Gertrude Stein but is incredibly dull, especially compared to the other stories in the anthology featuring witches. Often, comparison is what kills some of these stories.

Overall though, All Out would be a great anthology to use in an undergrad LGBT+ literature class, especially since all of the stories are written by queer authors. The sheer variety of sexual and gender identities lends itself to individual discussion of the pieces. Obviously, some stories will be enjoyed or understood more than others, but the tone shifts make this anthology anything but one note.

You can grab a copy of All Out on Amazon.

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Reading Rec: Unfit to Print

June is LGBT+ Pride Month, so I decided to review LGBT+ books for the month. I’m hoping to write 10 reviews this month, so here is number 5: Unfit to Print by K. J. Charles. I received this novella as an ARC, and Unfit to Print will be out July 10th.

unfit to print

Vikram Pandey’s job as a lawyer crusading to better the lives of Indian immigrants living in London brings a case of a missing youth. The only clues are a photograph of the young man in question and that he has been spending time with gentleman, in a manner of speaking. Going door to door on Holywell Street, Vik runs into his best friend from school, Gil Lawless, who now happens to be the proprietor of an illicit bookshop. Together they search for the lost boy and find they share more than memories.

I am a sucker for grumpy, uptight characters. Perhaps it’s because I feel a kinship with them, being an over-wound person myself. Either way, Vikram is one of my favorite characters thus far in K. J. Charles’ world. He is confident, well-versed in the law, a hard-ass of the highest order, and a soft heart. In the other corner, we have salt of the earth, Gil Lawless, seller and writer of unlawful smut who lives in the moment and lives with (note: I didn’t say owned) a cat named Satan. They go together like grape jelly and chili sauce (don’t look at me like that, it makes good sweet and sour sauce). Their dynamic is fabulous, but in the story, I wish there was a little more of them as a couple outside of the missing person search. Unfit to Print is a novella, so there is only a certain amount of space.

The mystery itself is well-written with enough intrigue and violence to keep you turning the page without being convoluted. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the Victorian pornography angle. Nothing in the story is described in a way to make it overt erotica, which it isn’t, but it’s an interesting topic in that the Victorians had A LOT of porn floating around for such a seemingly morally uptight society. The story touches upon the various avenues through which the Victorians met their sexual needs and the hypocrisy surrounding the industry as well as how vulnerable people fall victim to it.

In terms of representation, this is a win, especially if you have been following the ridiculous comments romance publishers have made about PoC being main characters. Both characters in Unfit to Print are PoC, and the theme of identity and what it means to be a first-generation immigrant are discussed in the story.

If this review tickles your fancy, you can pre-order Unfit to Print now.

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Reading Rec: It Takes Two to Tumble

June is LGBT+ Pride Month! That means LGBT+ book reviews, which means books I probably would have read on my own, but now, I’m making myself review them consistently. *drops voice* You don’t know how little follow-through I have while my house is a construction zone.

Anywho, I am a LGBT+ romance fan, so today’s recommendation is a historical-romance by Cat Sebastian entitled It Takes Two to Tumble.

it takes two

I’m pretty sure my first reaction upon finishing on of Cat Sebastian’s books is “That was so cute! I need more!” Her series are often the kind that follows families, such as in this series where we will follow the Sedgwick family (brothers mostly, it seems), and we begin this series with Benedict Sedgwick, unlikely vicar and free spirit, alongside the solemn, stern Captain Dacre as he comes home from two years at sea.

The Dacre children are hell-spawn. Left to their own devices after the death of their mother, they turn to terrorizing the town while their father is at sea. As a good natured vicar who devotes his energy to bettering his parishioners’ lives, Ben is called upon to wrangle the children into behaving until their father returns. Capt. Dacre reluctantly arrives home, not looking forward to facing the family he feels he abandoned and the house where his father made life miserable. He expects to see his children waiting by the front door as they did when his wife was alive only to find chaos and the vicar at the center of it.

I love the dynamic between Dacre and Ben in It Takes Two to Tumble. They are able to balance each other out without being polarizing. What I mean by that is that both characters have quirks and shortcomings that prevent them from being one-note. They come off as real people with idiosyncrasies, histories, and complications that muddy the waters of their relationships and their abilities to function apart.

On top of this, we have characters who are seemingly dyslexic. I say seemingly because it’s the early 1800s, so it doesn’t have a name, but it’s refreshing to have neuro-divergent characters who are able to work around their struggles without it becoming the core of who the character is. So far, this has been one of my favorite romances this year. Eventually, I will write a post about the importance of romance, and this book will be a core piece of that.

If you like romances where seemingly opposites attract, wayward children run amuck, and not-so-holy vicars come to terms with who they are, then you should check out It Takes Two to Tumble before book two comes out.

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Reading Rec: Blanca & Roja

Since June is LGBT+ Pride Month, I decided that I would read and review books written by and about LGBT+ people. I finished several books over the past week while the house was being torn apart (and still is), so expect a few more reviews to come your way this week.

Today’s review is of Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore, which won’t be out until October. I received this book as an ARC at Bookcon (you can read more about Bookcon on my Patreon), but I couldn’t help but read it as soon as I got home.

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Blanca & Roja follows the tale of two sisters at the mercy of a family legacy where one of each pair of del Cisnes girls are taken by the swans. Blanca is fair and sweet while Roja is headstrong with hair so red it’s nearly black. Blanca and Roja do their best to trick the swans into giving them more time by trying to act the same to make it harder for the swans to pick which sister to take. Intertwined with their story is the tale of two friends who give themselves to the forest to escape their lives. Blanca & Roja is a riff on Swan Lake as well as Snow White & Rose Red.

What I loved about Blanca & Roja was how the story was aware that they were repeating history through the archetypal tales mentioned above. The fact that the characters are aware makes the story a little more interesting than most retellings. The style of the story is less fantasy and more magical realism. I feel the need to point this out because it begins more like a fairy tale and then suddenly there are cars and school. My rule of thumb for magical realism is to just roll with the weirdness. Swans steal girls in this world and turn them into swans. Take that as fact and move on. Stylistically, McLemore’s work is similar to Louise Erdrich and Maggie Stiefvater but with a queer, Latinx flare.

Her characters are archetypal yet realistic, and her worlds are full of lush texture and greenery. McLemore is a master of magical realism, making it easy to suspend disbelief long enough to sink into the world of her characters. Within that world, the characters are diverse and complex. Being a self-described queer Latinx, she makes certain to include characters of varying sexual and gender identity. These identities flow seamlessly into the work and are taken in stride by the characters without making a big to-do about it.

My only issue with Blanca & Roja has more to do with the back blurb’s representation of the characters versus how they are in the story. The blurb feels too simplistic and polarizing and does a disservice to the characters, especially Roja.

If you’re looking for a rich magical world hidden within our own with characters who are diverse and complex, you should pre-order Blanca & Roja before it comes out October 9th.

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