A couple of stragglers, and then into Femslash Month. I’ll group that in its own section, because it crossed genres.
Fantasy, SF and Related Genres
The Human Division by John Scalzi
I had read the first book in the series, Old Man’s War, and why-not’d this one. I knew it was the fifth in the series, but sure why not. It turned out to be a series of linked shorts rather than a novel as it’s usually meant. (The blurb may have mentioned this, but I’d forgotten by the time I started reading.) I’m not a fan of treating books like TV, with “episodes” and “seasons,” but you gotta do what you gotta do to catch and hold an audience.
These are stories about space diplomacy — between colonial humans and aliens and between colonial humans and the homeworld. There are Dramatic Moments, but overall the tone is bouncy and snarky. This seems to be Scalzi’s wheelhouse, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t read that style 24/7, but as we covered last time, I can’t seem to read any one genre/tone 24/7.
Of the collection, my favorite from the title on down was “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today,” an extra side story added at the end. It’s just alien-meets-field-trip fluff, but it was cute.
Saga, vol. 6 – I forgot to add this to my roundup until the last minute. Insert usual raving fannishness here. BTW, they came out with action figures for SDCC, but only of Marko and Alana. As much as I like those two, THE BRAND PLEASE OMG. please? My soul would like some salving after vol. 5. Thanks.
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley
I’d had antennas up for this book for a while. Based on reviews, it sounded as though it might be one of those elusive beasts: A Historical Romance I Might Actually Like. On sale it went, and I took the bait.
And yep, it was pretty OK.
The heroine is a complete Mary Sue, but I prefer blatant over-the-top perfection to “woe is me, for I have one tiny, token imperfection, upon which I will fixate for half the book.” I didn’t hate the hero. I don’t care about all the prequel/sequel-bait brothers, but they didn’t get in the way too much. There isn’t much hand-wringing about Ruined!~ness!~, and not a lot of high-society “are we supposed to care about what those old bats think or something?”
It does — ludicrously, IMO — try to play the virgin vs. widow card on both sides simultaneously: the heroine is a widow from a happy and consummated marriage, and much is made of her worldliness and experience and how much her husband and she loved one another. And yet she has no idea what oral sex is. Because… shrug. Because nobody knows how to write anything other than blushing virgin cluelessness. Even when it’s cut with Wanton Exuberance. Even when it makes zero sense in the plot. It’s stuff like this that drives me out of the genre, people. Internal inconsistency.
Overall, though, it wasn’t boring, and although it was often contrived, it didn’t make me want to throw my Kindle at the wall. That’s a solid win.
The Fifteenth Minute by Sarina Bowen
Ughhhhh, the model on the cover is styled like such a d-bag. I might have read this book as fast as possible to get that broseph off my carousel.
This is book five of the Ivy Years series, which is themed around college hockey and Fairly Big Drama. This time around, we have DJ, the… ice rink DJ; and Lianne, an actress who grew up playing a Harriet Potter-esque role, who is now desperate to live some kind of life of her own.
First off, we need to call a time-out to address Dude’s B-plot. And if I could type this part while covering my face and peeking through a crack between my fingers, trust me, I would. *sigh*
This is not the first time this series has employed Ripped from the Headlines themes, but this one is particularly radioactive. See, Our Hero was falsely accused of rape, after a classmate with whom he had a one-night stand changed her mind the day after.
*headdesk* WHY *headdesk* WHY*headdesk* WHY would you use that as a plot oh my god
I gritted my teeth every time that plot rolled back around. Blah blah lawyers omg why did you use this blah blah… and we’re back.
Ultimately, it could have played out worse. That’s not where the villains are, in this story. Still, it took until the last minute to get behind what actually happened, it’s brushed off very quickly, and until then we have a lot of oh noes what about meeeeee.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, I liked the book fine. The leads are adorkable, there’s the bounciness that the series has employed all along, blah blah. It wasn’t my favorite of the series so far, but it was fine apart from that B-plot. But when you’re juggling knives like that, well… there are four other books in the series, and I’d recommend any of the others first.
How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life by Heather Havrilesky
Advice columns. They come in many flavors, and to me, they don’t serve the purpose you might think they’d serve. I don’t read them thinking that they’ll tell me how to live. I read them because they’re entertaining, not in a trainwrecky/gawky sense, but because people are entertaining. Reading the questions/letters, you see how people see their own lives and issues, how they describe them, how their framing and choice of details can inform you of much more than they originally intended.
What one gets from the answers really depends on the author’s style. There’s the “more or less directly answer the question” pole (ex. Dan Savage, Carolyn Hax, and most classic columns like Dear Abby) and the “ramble about my own life and ~Life in General~, only occasionally touching upon the question” pole (ex. Cary Tennis, Dear Sugar). There’s also a “big squishy well of soft-pedaled compassion” vs. “well-deserved smackdown of Uncomfortable Truths” spectrum, which I’d align on the Dear Sugar (squishy) to Dear Coquette (smackdown) axis. Some columnists specialize: Dan Savage reigns on sex advice, of course, but there are also writers like Dr. NerdLove, who specializes in Entitled “Nice” Guys, Auntie Sparknotes for teenagers, and Captain Awkward, who tends to write to/for anxious, conflict-avoiding introverts (it me, as they say). And, of course, there’s anything in between on all of those spectra.
Having laid out my taxonomy, my favorite right now is the recently-revamped Dear Prudence on Slate, helmed by Mallory Ortberg. It only took a couple of columns before I was on the YES MORE OF THIS boat. But since that’s only a few months old, there is no book.
On to this book. I don’t actually read Ask Polly every week, but I catch up in spurts and have more of it bookmarked than most advice columns. I’d say it’s about halfway along the direct/rambly axis and the squishy/smacky axis: the answers are essays about Life and Things touched off by the original question, but they also circle back to actual actions that the questioners should probably take (like exercise more, which is generally good advice and is included in this book so often that it seems like a dare or a drinking game). It seems more grounded than some of the more essay-ish columns, and the letters are varied.
The book is divided into sections by theme, and the themes are more abstract than literal. It’s not, say, “Marriage Questions,” but things like “Uncertainty.”
Short, but enjoyable. And I promise not to repeat this whole pile of words when the Ask Coquette book comes out (have it preordered!)
How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good by Bryan Cohen
More of a long pamphlet, but that’s okay. This guide, by one of the hosts of the Sell More Books Show podcast, is just what it says on the tin: a guide to writing book descriptions / blurbs / back cover copy type stuff.
And now begins Femslash Month! With the TBR pile just over 100 at this point, I hope to knock out a few swaths by skimming through the list and looking for themes other than “books I bought shortly after signing up for Bookbub.” I tried Historical Romance Month, Indie Month, and now Femslash or F/F Month. (I wouldn’t call it specifically Lesbian Romance Month, because I don’t think any of them are genre romances. They’re science fiction, fantasy, etc.)
Sure, this would make more sense in June for Pride or in February for alliteration, but better late than never, I suppose.
I developed a little rubric for a few elements that irk me, which are in bold below.
Proceeding in order in which they were read, i.e. no order at all.
Sword of the Guardian by Merry Shannon
Did somebody say Rose of Versailles, spiritual ancestor to my favorite anime of all time? Whee! — my reaction upon seeing this listing in the SBTB email digest (oddly, though, I am not an Oscar/Marie shipper at all)
I can’t really talk about this book’s issues without spoilers, so SPOILERS.
Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: about 15%, but it’s about 75% of Talon’s internal monologue. The remaining 25% is “wow, the princess is REALLY REALLY TINY”, leading me to picture her as a 5-year-old for the first half of the book.
Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Hell yes. Even though all the clergy are female and they have magic plot-wielding powers, everyone is an asshole to women and considers them worthless. This is never questioned or considered a bad thing. It’s sort of weird.
Also, nobody has ever heard of same-sex attraction. Ever. Except when they have, and shrug it off as no big deal. Except when characters have to hide it or face dire consequences. It’s confusing.
Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Nope! Fantasy! All the misogyny and homophobia is lovingly crafted and inserted on purpose. *jazz hands*
I feel like I’m kicking a puppy by not liking this book enough, because the author starts out by telling us that she started writing it when she was 12. Now, I began to write at about that age, and I could not have written something this coherent, flaws and all. But I do feel like some of the book’s issues stem from “well, this is how it has to go because I made up the plotline at 12 and I love these characters SO MUCH that logic doesn’t enter it” syndrome. It’s an easy trap; I fight against it all the time myself.
But when the king makes a completely nonsensical decision just to kick the plot into gear, or the literal Goddess literally appears to dole out Get Out of Plot Free tokens, I, uhhhh… I think some plot points were grandfathered in via 6th-grade logic.
This was, mind you, a real live published book and not indie/self-published, so I put the editors fully on the hook for all of this. It’s your job, people. Just say no to plot-solving magic fire that appears out of nowhere, unmarked head-hopping, and “hey stranger, be my daughter’s bodyguard because reasons.” You’re supposed to be the ones to make this better than anything we lowly indies could do, OK?
So anyway. This book is about the fragile (when the plot dictates, anyway), bratty, and VERY TINY princess and her stoic, crossdressing, secretly-a-woman bodyguard. Despite some backstory violence and a villainous rape threat, it comes off as pretty YA-ish for all but one chapter. (The consummation-of-the-main-romance chapter is moderately explicit.)
I’d say it would make a fine distaff counterpart to A Call to Arms, were it not for That One Chapter. (There’s also an extremely puzzling PG-13 scene in which the princess comes across the bodyguard and her friend-with-benefits having a roll in the hay, which is fine. Except that the way it’s written, it seems to be a hands-free PIV situation annnnnddddd… wwwwwhat? Is this intended merely to drag out the “Princess doesn’t know that Bodyguard isn’t a cis man” thing, or do you not know that other acts are possible? That scene just sticks in my head like a thorn. Argh.)
It’s cute and harmless and contrived, with ridiculously clear-cut, slimy, rapey villains, literal gods coming down whenever the author needs to get the plot out of tight corners, and an enormously pat ending.
Plus: The bodyguard is attracted to other ladies, avoiding the “You’re the Magic Exception to the Rule” trope, of which I am not a fan. She has a FWB/Gay Sherpa for a while, who is lightly slut-shamed (see below) but is generally cool. FWB might have been my favorite character.
Plus: for at least brushing past the matter of menstruation while trying to pass as male. Once was enough, but at least it was acknowledged.
Minus: unmarked head-hopping.
Large Minus: Any woman in this book who is not the central couple or a priestess is cast as untrustworthy or slutty, if not both. The FWB mentioned above is described as though she’s some shady harlot for…? Daring to do exactly the same thing that the main character is, and not angsting about it? I get the impression that the narrative voice itself is jealous of anyone other than the princess who gets close to the bodyguard, which is deeply weird and very offputting.
Not sure what to make of it: All straight people are evil or die by the end of the book — which might be an interesting reversal of the old tropes about queer characters, except that I fear it was accidental. If it was intentional, points for upending the usual trope. If accidental, uhhh, why is anything accidental in a real live edited book?
Overall, though I had a lot of quibbles about this book (don’t I always), I got through it pretty painlessly and was curious about exactly how it would shake out. The only lasting bad taste in my mouth was at how unexamined the sexist/homophobic universe was. After all the hell they’ve been through, they still stay closeted because Reasons, and they think that’s OK. Not because the bodyguard wants to live as a man (though she’s comfortable with it), because I get the impression they still kind of think they’re doing something wrong, no matter how flowery perfect their flowery perfect love is.
Gurl you’re the goddamn queen. Why are you doing this to yourself. What is the point. Whyyyyyyyy.
Deep Deception by Cathy Pegau
The first time I’ve ever seen any merit to fans’ whining about switching subgenres in the middle of a series: Assuming that Pegau specialized in only one type of book, as, well, everyone supposedly does, I opened Caught in Amber first. It took about two paragraphs before I realized that Caught in Amber is a hetero romance. Uh, whoops. I mean, normally I would read that first — it seems to come before Deep Deception in the series — but this is Femslash Month, dammit.
Normally, this self-imposed limitation is not a thing. But it was an odd feeling to 1) back out of a book for a reason I’d usually call silly and 2) realize that some authors do cross those lines. I will get around to Caught in Amber soon enough, don’t worry. (Turns out there’s another book, too, but since I am trying to burn through my TBR pile, I will not worry about it right now.)
Most world-building boils down to “blah blah (real life thing they’re building on plus snappy name) blah blah,” so blah blah space drug trade, blah blah space cops. No problem. And I like a space story that takes place on a planet/colony or series thereof, rather than spaceship battles all day every day. (I have mentioned I’m a Niner. This is not surprising.)
This story is about an undercover mission to a mining space colony — deception in the deep! Layers! A space cop — currently under investigation on trumped-up charges — goes off the record investigating corruption in a mining company with a former flunky to a space drug lord. (Previous book, sounds like.) Crime thrillers are not my usual thing, but I was never really lost, and rarely bored.
Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: Zero, hallelujah! I thought the future setting might help, after the issues I had with Sword of the Guardian. Added bonus points: One of the two was previously married to a man, and it is never once a thing. That was refreshing.
Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Doesn’t seem to be at all. There’s an old salt-of-the-earth (salt-of-the-planet) character who acts as the resident shipper.
Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Nope! The Future~!
The romance noveliness of the book clocks in regularly, every 15% or so — break from the investigation to make out / no, we mustn’t for some unexplained reason (hint: to keep the story going) / back to the investigation. It was kind of charming in its not-at-all-romantic nature. The two know literally nothing about one another. Still, it sold the insta-lust believably, and neither lead was robbed of agency or infantilized (like SOTG’s “little fingers” — shudder).
So while I still don’t generally go for thrillers, it was fine.
Confessions from a Coffee Shop by T.B. Markinson
I marked this as a DNF at 15%, but then kept coming back to push through, hoping it would change. “I’ll keep going until it stops flashing back. — Till it gets to the plot. — Till… um…”
Our lead is surrounded by assholes, and neither she nor the author seem to realize it. The lead is herself kind of shallow and misogynistic, waving off her girlfriend’s shopping habit-plus-joblessness with “well she’s hot, and she just doesn’t liiiiike work, poor dear.” (I guess the rest of us just do it for fun.) She proceeds to work 3 jobs, avoid medical care, etc. while GF buys shoes and tells her to be nicer to her ragingly narcissistic mother. Yet GF is not the villain here; she’s painted as sweet and cool and hot.
“Painted” is perhaps too strong a word. Why tell us what a person says/does when you can just inform the audience what it means? So we get descriptions like “She looked hot as hell sitting there.” OK, since you won’t tell us how or why, we’ll take your word for it, I guess?
Backing up, I am really biased when it comes to the “one partner is The Realistic Caretaking One, one partner is the Delicate Soul Who Is Only Fit for Eating Bonbons, Despite Any Practical Barriers to Doing Other Stuff” dynamic. So when some readers may nod along like “oh, yeah, it’s cool for GF to buy all the shoes while the lead starves, because great ass,” I’m more like “you stupid doormat, lead, you deserve everything you get, stop whining about this ‘problem’ that you actively encourage.”
So yeah, once a reader is rallying against the protagonist, the situation is not as intended.
I did get far enough for my rubric!
Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: Zero. Though Lead is Too Cool for Pride, which is kind of gross.
Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: It’s set now-ish in Boston?. Some people are homophobes and some aren’t. The lead herself — and the author doesn’t seem to realize this — is ickily misogynist, though, harping repeatedly on how shrill, “shrieking” and “bitchy” gay men all are. You know, like women, who are inferior! Yay!
I’m also playing Fallout 4 now, which is (definitely) set in Boston. Is it bad if I imagine all of these characters dropped into a post-apocalyptic drabscape until they shut the hell up about their first-world problems?
Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Yes and no, it being modern. Depends on the exact place and social class. It did fine on that count.
Finally, at about 25%, no plot had surfaced, and I could not stand these characters any longer. The prose was tell-don’t-show, but light and zippy, and it had several fun lines. But I hated the characters just too much. The only one I didn’t want to drop-kick was Samantha, the ex-cheerleader / other future? love interest.
The fatal words applied: I don’t care what happens to these people.
Torch Song: A Kickass Heroine, A Something That Gets Cut Off By My Kindle, Sorry, You Spent All That Effort Keyword Stuffing Your Title And This Happened Anyway by Shelley Singer
I never took the Cherchez la Femme perk in Fallout: New Vegas. So that’s how it plays out.
Anyhow, this is a fine, serviceable post-apoc of the “people scrape up a living and the internet still exists, even though it’s spotty” variety. Not the anarchy of a Mad Max, not the elaborate allegory about high school of a YA series. Just more hardscrabble and a little futuristic.
There was nothing really wrong with this book, and I recommend it if you are in the mood for that type of post-apoc. I just got kind of bored. Eventually the two mob families will have it out and the lead will uncover some schemes and so on and so forth. You know the drill. And so do I, so why keep reading? It’s there, it’s okay, it’s neither bad nor awesome. It’s a book. I have 100 more of them yet to read. I shrugged and DNFd at 28%.
Nice cover, though. I’m not even being flippant. It has a little bit of melancholy that suits the downbeat-and-thoughtful-for-a-merc main character.
Hood by Emma Donoghue
A “literary” book, meaning that it doesn’t run on obviously pre-determined rails, by the author of the gut-punch-in-book-form Room. We are also not in for a gleeful thrill ride this time, although the two books have very little in common otherwise.
At the opening of Hood, Pen(elope), a 30-ish closeted lesbian in Dublin, finds out that her “housemate” Cara — actually her girlfriend, since middle school — has died in a car crash. The next week or so slowly unfolds, one cup of coffee and window-washing at a time, as the news spreads to relatives and friends, through the funeral and a lesbian co-op hippie wake. Meanwhile, memories crash in, as they do, flashing back to Pen and Cara’s complicated relationship.
What I probably appreciated most about this book was its specificity. This is not about “fill in your own personality here” protagonists, but these two particular characters, shaped by their particular backgrounds and era (the early ‘90s, in the “present day” of the story). Pen works as an elementary school teacher in the same Catholic school where she and Cara met, and Catholicism hangs over the story, but doesn’t drive it or eclipse it.
Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: Maybe 5%, but it is of the “I’m going to lose various people’s support if I come out” type, not “o woe liking girls is wrong.” There’s none of that.
Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Well, gay marriage was illegal in Ireland at the time, so yes. However, each character / group of characters has a different point of view, and apart from a samey crowd of young lesbian hippies, none of them seem like stand-ins or tokens. (And even then, the Hip Young Collective is more of an audience / backdrop to some of the events than individualized characters with individual effects on the plot.)
Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Yes, it’s based in a particular real-world time and place.
I know I’m an enormous snob and nobody is even listening anymore, but look, this is why I cleave to literary fiction. Stories about particular characters — not you, the reader, in a trenchcoat — and the particular forces in their lives and their particular choices. Stories that don’t hold the reader’s hand through all the same plot points they’ve seen a thousand times before. Ideally, I steer clear of the oh-god-this-again Angst of the Middle-Aged White Man style, but that still leaves a lot of room for a lot of stories.
I want to be pulled into someone else’s story, not bored out of my face by paint-by-numbers sameyness. Is that so much to ask? Does that make me such a terrible person?
Don’t answer that. I know the answer.
The Pirate’s Booty by Alex Westmore
Did somebody say Princess Sarisa Scherwil Tycoon of the kingdom of Tycoon, pirate captain, BFF to sea serpents and great overlooked character of the Final Fantasy canon? Woo! — my reaction after seeing this on sale (free, actually?)
So yes, not all of those things, but we start with a hilariously dumb title and just go on from there. (According to the also-bought links, the other books in this series are Shiver Her Timbers and Fire in the Hole. I love stupid pun titles.) This story features Sweet Polly Oliver pirate Quinn Gallagher, who runs off to a pirate ship with her identical fraternal twin brother to rescue her childhood friend, who was kidnapped by a different band of pirates. Quinn, a.k.a. Kieran Callaghan, discovers a talent for piracy, and is mentored by actual real life lady pirate captain* Grace O’Malley.
* maybe not actually a pirate; it’s complicated; moving on
Quinn/Callaghan has All The Pirate Adventures — storming a castle, rescuing people from drowning and so on — and woos both a Fine Noble Lady and an Understanding Bar Wench, plus any other babe who crosses her path. It’s dumb and entertaining and if it weren’t for the eye-bleeding dialect (wait for it), I’d have enjoyed it more than I did. Robots > pirates > ninjas > zombies. Sorry not sorry, internet.
Percentage of the book dedicated to angsting about being queer: Maybe 5%, mostly about how she is the only lesbian in the ENTIRE WORLD (spoiler: she is not). Plus 10% of Oh No I Like Being A Pirate, I Can’t Like Being a Pirate, Even Though I Keep Going ON About How Much Being a Noble Lady Sucks And I Keep Having Adventures and Quaffing Ale and Ladies Throw Themselves At Me, This Is Terrible, I Can’t Possibly Love This Life, What’s Wrong With Me.
Side note, Quinn identifies as female but tells all her partners that she’s a cis-dude who just really likes to give and not receive. So she is sleeping with them under false pretenses. That is not okay. That line of angsting (which she also does) is relevant. But “oh noes they wouldn’t sleep with me and therefore I can’t tell them” isn’t… really… the line of reasoning you want here, I think.
Does this book take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Eeeehhh… Technically yes, but everyone who susses out Quinn’s true identity is 1000% cool with it, so she never actually faces the blowback she constantly fears. It is heartening that Quinn hates the life of a Noble Lady without actually being an asshole to actual Noble Ladies like her childhood friends and love interest. There’s “I bloody hate corsets,” but no “you’re all simpering idiots who only care about looks blah blah blah.” Points.
However, the points are immediately rescinded: when Quinn is cornered and nearly sexually assaulted by another pirate while in drag, she immediately blames herself for coming off as too feminine. WTF ARGH. On top of that, there’s no reason for her victim-blaming anyway, because it turns out her almost-attacker is The Only Gay Pirate. (Because she’s twinkish as a guy, I think it’s suggesting. I just… I’m stopping here.)
Does it have to take place in a sexist/homophobic universe: Well, it’s at least aiming at a particular real-life time and place, despite the druid magic and nonstop swashbuckling and lack of scurvy. So I don’t fault it for making vague motions in the direction of the real world’s homophobia of the time.
I will say at this point that I got all the way through this book, in part because I was having a crappy week and kept plowing forward rather than bother finding a different book to read. However. We need to talk about the dialect.
This book uses a kind of choppy, search-n-replace Irish pirate dialect in the dialogue that made my proverbial eyeballs bleed. Don’t mind rhythm or how the lines flow; just search & replace “to” with “ta”, “you” with “ya,” and “every” with “erra,” and you’re done!! So even when the characters are speaking Latin, they’re all “ya” and “ta” somehow. You also get stuff like “ya are” in lines that would scan as “ye’re,” except no. You get “ta” in weird places in the phrases where they would probably not be, because the stresses don’t land right.
I skimmed a lot of pirate dialogue. I had ta. Ya know how it is, erraone. (See, though, that scans okay.)
After this point I read The Fifteenth Minute and then started on another book that might have fit (sort of) into Femslash Month, but I ran out of month before finishing the book. I look forward to including it next time.
TBR at start of July: 104
TBR at end of August: 99, YEAAAAAAHHHHHH!
Feels good to be in 2 digits.
I haven’t picked a theme for September/October yet. Doors on the cover? Cover models without heads? Alphabetical order till I can’t take it anymore? Wiping out the remaining YA titles in my pile? We’ll have to see.