It's a tale as old as time: someone is wagered and won in a game of chance. It's a romance trope I love, though I can see why some readers might shy aIt's a tale as old as time: someone is wagered and won in a game of chance. It's a romance trope I love, though I can see why some readers might shy away from it, given the implied lack of agency. Thoughtful writing and thoughtful twists make it work for me, and there's so much emotional chewiness at work in this trope that I'm not surprised it's such a favorite: there's rescue fantasy, there's competence porn (skillful at cards/dice/whatever, or skillful at elegantly cheating at the same), there's a tangling and untangling of complicated desires, there's obligatory intimacy, and there are exciting hijinks going on around the protagonists. It's a hold-your-breath, don't-know-what-to-hope-for but I-can't-wait-to-see-fate-unfurl-here kind of trope. Maybe best of all, it highlights the internal workings at love and romance: that there is so much at risk in falling in love, and that love entails giving and taking irreplaceable pieces of one another.
Rose Lerner's elegant "All or Nothing" centers around understanding and owning complicated desires. The characters felt like real people, with appealing messiness and well-developed strengths and weaknesses, and it was so rewarding to watch Simon and Maggie fall into a partnership, then intimacy, and then love. I liked how attentive Lerner was to what it feels like to live outside the straight white context of what Romancelandia Regency usually looks like (but is certainly not limited to!), and the interesting ways disconnections and connections can be made. Also? I thought this was ridiculously hot, the kind of hot where the sex scenes (and any scenes with sexiness, really) hinged acutely on the characters and their personalities and desires. There was no trace of genericness anywhere. My only complaint about the novella was that the writing style was a little too florid and metaphor-heavy for me at times, but I'd still probably be tempted to rate this novella five stars on its own.
Jeanne Lin's well-paced "The Liar's Dice" was my draw to this anthology. I love her Tang Dynasty romances, and I think she's excellent at shorter-length romances. I'm the world's pickiest person when it comes to first-person single-POV romances, but Lin's craftsmanship is superb: those moments with subtle hints at Gao's tension and inner turmoil, and Wei-wei's obliviousness or misreading of them, were so beautifully executed that it was actually a fun experience to await Wei-wei coming to understand him and her feelings for him--and his feelings for her. I still haven't read second Lotus Palace book (this novella is set after it), but that didn't hinder my enjoyment of this book. Wei-wei--Bai Huang's scholarly little sister who does what she can to keep her family protected--was a delightful heroine, even though I am generally of the belief that, if you find a dead body/witnesses a murder, you should leave the investigation to the professionals, even if you are worried about whether your once feckless brother has drifted from the straight-and-narrow again. I know that means we wouldn't have gotten a story out of this, BUT STILL. Don't investigate murders if you're not a professional!!
I skipped Isabel Cooper's novella, "Raising the Stakes," having bounced off her writing before and knowing my own tastes. The setting was intriguing, but "elven warrior" and "fairy powers" are hugely unappealing elements to me.
Molly O'Keefe's exquisitely angsty "Redeemed" was so difficult but so gorgeous. Tackling the difficult aspect first: both protagonists are struggling with addiction/addiction recovery, she's being held captive by a villain, both are haunted by the Civil War, nearly everything about everyone's life is harsh, and I found this sooo bleak (though it has a happy ending, and a particularly awesome one, at that!). Darker than I usually want from my romances, in other words. But I'm so glad I read it, because it was so vividly gorgeous. Like, I want gif sets of so many of these scenes! They were rendered so eloquently and with such evocative emotion, that in a couple years, my spaghetti-strainer of a memory will probably have convinced me that it'd had been some TV show or movie when I'm remembering the scene where she's in the bird cage, and he sees her shame at him seeing her like this, and then he waits at the top of the staircase until she meets his gaze, and then he bows to her, the only thing he can do to recognize in her the dignity others want to deny her, and ALL I WANTED WAS THEM TO KISS ALREADY OKAY?
Ending the anthology is master plotter Joanna Bourne's sparkling "Gideon and the Den of Thieves." I've only read the first book in this series, quite a few years ago, but I think this would be an excellent place to start, given that it seems to be set earlier than all the full-length novels. Anyway, Bourne excels at writing smart, strategic characters and putting them in stories full of stratagems and complicated moves, and what I liked best was that Aimee remained competent from start to finish. Shameless scene-stealer Hawker drives a lot of this story, but I found the romance between Aimee and Gideon satisfying and believable. I had a couple things I didn't really like (the colonialist shit--like, I'm sorry, but I have zero faith in a romance novel hero's affected honor and attempts to reassure that his fortunes-made-in-the-East was all due to legitimate business; the highlighting of the heroine's unbelievably-kept-virginity, which I didn't like in The Spymaster's Lady, either, though in this book, there was some nuance and doubt), but overall, it made me realize I need to read more Bourne, and soon.
This is an excellent, very evenly high-quality anthology, and immensely satisfying in how the novellas played with the "gambled away" trope.
FTC Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book....more
Unfurls slowly but steadily. Hutchinson's elegant style in constructing this book, in constructing this world, made this a rewarding and thoughtful reUnfurls slowly but steadily. Hutchinson's elegant style in constructing this book, in constructing this world, made this a rewarding and thoughtful read that holds up its own among both spy thrillers and science fiction novels. It's obscure when it needs to be, and witty but not over-indulgently so. This is science fiction among multiple axes of science, and I was particularly pleased it was, very prominently, political science fiction....more
A fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Cavendish. There's not a lot of intimacy or psychologizing"Reading it back, I realized I believed it."
A fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Cavendish. There's not a lot of intimacy or psychologizing: this is a theme book (or a pretty language book), not an events-and-plot book. It's a story about finding (and creating) worlds within and without yourself, and about the craving for agency and recognition, and about female ambition. I knew very little about Margaret Cavendish prior to reading this, and what I knew was basically just The Blazing World's place as an early piece of SFF, but I don't think knowing anything about her is necessary for enjoying this book.
I loved the dreamy prose: fussy and carefully curated, but still ornate. Dutton kept creating these gorgeous kaleidoscopes of impressions in single sentences and short paragraphs, sliding from beautiful to grimy in an elegant fashion. It suited the subject matter well. I have mixed feelings about the switch from first-person to third; I can kinda grasp reasons for the switch, but I feel like I should have been hit harder by it (as I was with the switch in Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman, for example). I did think the distance helped bring across the sense of frustration Margaret felt during this time of her life, but maaaybe that was just me frustrated by wanting that first-person voice back.
Margaret's characterization as shy and awkward really made this book for me: those traits were portrayed believably, and it was so compelling to watch her struggle with both the lack of recognition and the out-of-control spiral of her notoriety. It's not a dynamic that I often see depicted with a lot of nuance, and I loved how Dutton handled it. I believed in all her unstudied social fumbles and in her untamed need to live outside herself ("[t]o live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains") that burst through at inopportune times and in the lostness she felt in her own self:
"Do you think you are Cleopatra?" he asks.
Margaret bristles. She fingers the mask. "I had rather appear worse in singularity," she says, "than better in the mode."
"Do not quote to me from your books," he snaps.
The driver flicks his whip.
Margaret says nothing. She replaces the mask. The black bead rattles her teeth. Yet despite her continuing silence, she does see what she's done, sees it clearly, but from way down in, as if there is another masks she wears beneath the mask that she has on. She is a monster, she thinks, and hateful, after everything he's done.
Twenty years ago, Breq was still the Artificial Intelligence that ran a massive troop carrier, the JustiSolidly fun and thought-provoking space opera.
Twenty years ago, Breq was still the Artificial Intelligence that ran a massive troop carrier, the Justice of Torren. Now, she's the sole remaining segment of that AI, and here on an icy, hostile planet, she's outside of the empire's gaze as she stolidly progresses on a secret mission of her own. But then she discovers the dying body of someone she used to know--someone who had once served as her lieutenant, a couple thousand years ago, and then was present for a pivotal point in history before disappearing. Someone who shouldn't be alive still, someone who shouldn't be on this planet, and someone who is going to make Breq's mission very much harder.
Aside from the initial friction of juggling names and worldbuilding cues in my mind (which lasted a couple chapters, for me), this was a rather deliciously effortless reading experience. Leckie uses a really neat technique of often writing in something like first-person omniscient POV, given the nature of the multi-bodied AIs, and there was zero laboriousness to following along and enjoying watching that technique at work. Everything Leckie did with fractured selfhood was intriguing and exciting and thoughtful, and that filtered down to all of her other themes and plotlines, especially dealing with empire unity and colonization. GOOD STUFF.
The gender stuff ("she" and other "female" identified words as the default person linguistic signifier, namely) was less radical than I expected it'd be. It still relentlessly assumed a binary gender system and left no space for nongenderedness. But I liked the confrontational experience of all those female linguistic signifiers. ...more
So, the thing is I finally worked up the nerve and the interest to read A Little Life, but the library holds on both the physical and ebook copies werSo, the thing is I finally worked up the nerve and the interest to read A Little Life, but the library holds on both the physical and ebook copies were in the triple digits, so I thought, "Well, this one is also supposed to be relentlessly bleak, too, and the landscape-of-all-men-all-the-time in ALL is one of the reasons I didn't feel motivated to read it, so I'll read this one instead."
And long story short, I read this one instead and now I'm flattened by the relentless and graceless grimness, and I don't think I have the emotional wherewithal to read anything about this intense about childhood sexual abuse in the near future. Sorry, ALL. Maybe in another decade.
My enjoyment and appreciation for this book probably stems from the fact that the language really worked for me. I struggled a bit through the first chapter, but then it all just clicked. I loved the sentences with their inside-out formations, the excessive fragmentation, the blurring of subjects, and the disarmingly steady coherence of those sudden bursts of hymns and liturgy and scripture. I felt the words, held it all in my head and in my chest. At times, it didn't feel like my eyes were involved in processing this book--I wasn't reading sentences, I was just absorbing everything. It was a very experiential read for me, which is what I assume McBride was after, so in that, I was an ideal reader (experiencer).
But content-wise? So very, very bleak. A searing approach to sex, and there's a lot to think about and mull over in regard to gender. ...more
OK, that's it for me when it comes to T.S. Joyce's bear shifters. Sawman Werebear was the peak, and I should step away before I hate out of one-note eOK, that's it for me when it comes to T.S. Joyce's bear shifters. Sawman Werebear was the peak, and I should step away before I hate out of one-note exhaustion. Her worldbuilding is fun if nonsensical, and she has such fun set-piece scenes (the push-up contest in the second Saw Bears book!!), and the romantic arcs are almost exclusively focused on the fluffy fun stuff of romance (the fantasy of being loved, fitting into a community, no drama or doubt or zero need to work through feelings). But I really disliked the greater external plot in this book (and am not interested in that kind of bigger picture plot in this world), and the books and characters all a bit too much the same and too shallow for me to feel compelled to read more....more
Lucy spends nine suffering weeks in a NYC hospital during her rocky recovery from an appendectomy. Much to her surprise, her estranged mother shows upLucy spends nine suffering weeks in a NYC hospital during her rocky recovery from an appendectomy. Much to her surprise, her estranged mother shows up at her bedside to comfort and watch over her. For five days, they talk about people from their hometown. They do not talk about Lucy's life now, nor about the trauma that lined Lucy's childhood.
And that's it.
The beauty of this book is in the tension between wanting to protect oneself from digging deeper into pain already inflicted and wanting to protect that pain itself as what has borne you: the only you you will ever have, so something precious by default. The tension between acknowledging and the different ways of not acknowledging. Strout walks a thin line here, between something recklessly emotional and something far larger & darker than can be handled by her clear, declarative sentences and stubbornly drifting memories. She managed that balance for me, but I can see how it might tip toward being too wafflingly melodramatic without enough concrete payoff for some readers.
What worked for me was that the ambiguities, and the secrets that get sheltered in the novel, aren't the point. At times, Strout deftly uses vivid bursts of memories: the snake and the truck, the clothes her brother steals and what happens afterward (I'm being vague, though, because the intensity of these moments are close to the experiential point of the book, I think, so probably falls under the umbrella of what counts as "spoilery"). But there is a more significantly unspeakable trauma that occurred during Lucy's childhood that we only know as the Thing, and it can't be completely reconstructed in the reader's imagination even when the absence of this information is delineated and marched around in Lucy's narrative. I could make guesses at who the trauma involved, what happened, who was complicit…but that's all it would be. Guesses.
But the process of understanding what it all meant to Lucy is the point of the book. And it's done without the baggage of slotting characters into roles of victims and instigators.
I feel like a broken record whenever I state this, but I love, love, love books that highlight the narrative forces in our lives. Books that make it clear that what we know about others, what we know about ourselves, is through the medium of storytelling. This is a book of gossip and seeing through others' eyes and doubting your own, and oh the tyranny of family stories,and about celebrity magazines and writing fiction with truth in it. Lucy is telling this story of the story: how she's come to write this story down, and a little bit about the process of doing so. It's not explicitly, wink-y type of meta: it's fairly stolid meta with overt lampshading going on, what with a writing workshop where Lucy finds she does not need to shy away from the cliche of poverty-and-abuse, when she's told to brace her story with acknowledgment of its weaknesses (which I think happens frequently throughout the book, and that was part of the book's charm for me). It's not a particularly clever or fun game played with the reader; it's just what it is. And I really appreciated that heavyhanded straightforwardness is a book otherwise concerned with ambiguities and preciously pedestaled feelings.
One of the more interesting aspects of this book to me was something that I was surprised by. Normally I'm pretty skeptical of characters for whom other people's tragedies are part of the backdrop for their own story. Throughout the narrative, Strout evokes three genocidal-level, modern-day tragedies: the destruction of Native Americans during the "settling" of the west, the Holocaust, and the '80s AIDS epidemic. We hear the stories told about these events, guilt over complicity, shame about romanticizing aspects, the struggle of living with continued echoes. The Little House books. Lucy's shame about being jealous of victimhood community. The dark shadows cast by (and over) the characters who were veterans of WWII. The revelation of a Swiss bank account.
Strout lays out the act of not looking away from these things, these events marked by contemporaneous complicity and contemporary guilt. These are murky, awful waters, but they're the waters that we swim in. A gurneyed Lucy in a hospital corridor, forced to meet the burning gaze of a man quietly, angrily dying of AIDS; later, horrifiedly wondering if she should have recognized him. The excavation of a childhood memory: attending the Black Hawk Festival with her father, who watched the dancers with genuine interest and a desperate empathy. A recurring dream where she and her daughters--descendants of a man who once killed two German boys during WWII--are to be killed by Nazis. Her brother, once cradled in his bed by their father after something awful, who now sleeps with condemned farm animals on the night before they're killed.
Strout ties together all these things--Lucy's personal suffering, her suffering that intersects with these epochal tragedies, and the larger imprint these events have left on generations of those who suffered and those who inflicted suffering--loosely but with graceful, insistent repetition.
I still have some unformed thoughts about how names are used in this book. I have to admit I found the title offputtingly declarative and encompassing, but it indicated to me a need to look closer at names and labels in the book. The nickname her mother has for her ("Whizzle") and the nickname her husband has for her ("Button") go unexplained, and the frequent discordant use felt like little pinches, a reminder of the distance between Lucy and two of the people whom she wants most be loved by and connected to. And it's the nurse nicknamed "Toothache" who comforts Lucy during one of her lowest moments at the hospital. Some recurring characters are named, and others are not, and this doesn't map onto their significance in either the story or in Lucy's life. The artist, Jeremy, Molla, Kathie Nicely. Sarah Payne. Mom and Mommy. Stepmother versus father's wife. Cookie, Toothache, Serious Child. The best woman friend that Lucy ever makes, she's present only briefly and not even named. How Lucy's mother knew of Christina's birth but did not know her name--and how this lack of knowledge was so significant to her. Her mother-in-law, making tongue-in-cheek introductions: "This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing."
That quotation drew my attention to what, I think, this book is so concerned with: the (un)knowability but intimately, undeniably shared nature of the formative forces of one's personhood. The title of an unrelated, newly released book that caught my attention recently: The Mother is Known . Those words stuck in my mind while reading this book. Only very infrequently can mothers hide the connection between themselves and who they bore. But how do we even know our mothers? How does she know herself? What can she trust that she knows? One of the book's saddest moments, for me, was Lucy's recounting of her telephone-based relationships with her siblings after their parents' deaths, how none of them knew each other or how to explain themselves or their parents. Here are the people who were molded in the same clay and shaped by the same hands, and they don't know each other. Or:
I kept thinking of my brother and my sister and the bewilderment in their faces when my father died. I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another's hearts. My husband said, "But you didn't even like them." And I felt especially frightened after that.
The structure, exacting self-examination, and NYC-ness of this book reminded me of Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. I think it's also tempting to say this book reminded me a bit of Alice Munro's work--girl grows up rural poor has a reckoning about her childhood--but Munro's more ruthless than Strout. And this is a sticking point inside the book, a writer's ruthlessness--specifically, that Lucy is accused of ruthlessness by virtue of being a writer.
But, no, neither Lucy nor Strout is ruthless. They're full of ruth. That ruth is what gives us this story....more
This is some smart, funny chick lit (not a romance novel, though (view spoiler)[it has a happy ending (hide spoiler)]), unafraid to be a bit twisted aThis is some smart, funny chick lit (not a romance novel, though (view spoiler)[it has a happy ending (hide spoiler)]), unafraid to be a bit twisted and a bit unreal (this is set mostly in L.A., after all) in pursuing its commitment to its characters. I read this in a series of quick gulps, each plot twist and emotional sea-change making me want to read faster.
It's particularly bright and agile about identity--race and color in particular--and just about brilliant about high school archetypes and about the narratives we use to try to make sense of ourselves and to tame/control/understand our ideas of love. Readers wanting a martyred, able-to-pick-up-the-pieces-in-healthy-ways Cinderella/Molly Ringwald of a heroine might be disappointed, but I enjoyed Davie's complexity and complicity immensely. How is this not a movie yet?
This does have some unfortunate language usage: a slur about transgender people is used at one point, and the term "crazy" is pointedly used throughout the narrative in ways that doesn't explicitly map onto mental illness (a repeated meme, for example, is "Invitation to Crazy.") I point this out because while this book is great at looking at the identity issues it does look at, it may fall short in other ways.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Enjoyable. I especially liked Nyree, with her determination (and hard work to back it up, not just wishful thinking) and her assertiveness. Dale's strEnjoyable. I especially liked Nyree, with her determination (and hard work to back it up, not just wishful thinking) and her assertiveness. Dale's struggle with believing he wasn't good enough--and the circumstances behind that--was also movingly depicted.
I really dislike the presence of overprotective brothers in romance novels (guess whose sexuality does not fall under your purview, men? well, no one's except your own, actually, but that definitely means you do not control or oversee the sex lives--or lives in general--of the women you're related to!), but Rochon made it work in this context, not just because Nyree solidly rejected it, but also because the way her brothers--and not just themselves, but also their status in her family, in her community--controlled and affected her life negatively--was portrayed in a nuanced and effective way....more