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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: 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: The Prince and the Dressmaker

It’s June, which means it’s LGBT+ Pride Month. I decided that my June reviews will focus on LGBT+ fiction I’ve read lately. This really isn’t a stretch for me since 75% of what I read has queer characters and was probably written by a queer author.

My first recommendation is a wonderful graphic novel I picked up at Bookcon last Sunday called The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.

princedressmaker

The story centers around Frances, a young dressmaker hoping to one day become an independent designer, and Sebastian, the prince of Belgium who is harboring a secret: he likes to wear dresses. After Frances creates a daring ensemble for a noblewoman’s daughter (much to the chagrin of society), Sebastian sends his valet to hire Frances to be his personal designer. Unfortunately, Sebastian isn’t quite out about his penchant for dresses because he fears his family (and his country’s) disapproval. Instead, he dons his new wardrobe and goes out on the town as Lady Crystallia, who soon turns into a fashion icon.

This book is absolutely adorable. Frances and Sebastian are warm and sweet and fragile. They remind the reader of that time when many of us weren’t sure where we fit into the grand spectrum of life and gender/sexuality. It’s written in such a way that the story and themes are easy enough for middle grade readers to understand without being patronizing or dull for adult readers. Honestly, I gobbled this book up in about two hours and couldn’t put it down even though I should have turned in for the night. This was due to the sensitivity with which this story was written while at the same time crushing the characters with doses of reality.

What really sells the book though is the artwork. Every page is beautifully rendered in detail and full color. The clothing is lush and textured and the backdrops scream of a Moulin Rouge era Paris. The art style is somewhat akin to what’s seen on Steven Universe but more realistic. The story itself is purposely anachronistic yet retains the historical charms of the early twentieth century.

If you like the daring costumes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Lady Gaga, queer historical-fantasy, and beautifully rendered graphic novels, then The Prince and the Dressmaker is for you.

Grab a copy on Amazon on your way out.

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