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Best Books I Read in 2018

According to Goodreads, I’ve read one hundred fifty books this year.

Having read so many books, which were the best ones? The ones that stuck with me, that I want to grab you and tell you to read this book now. Here are ten, in no particular order.

Buy Hamilton’s Battalion here

This is an anthology of three novellas perfect for the Hamilton fan in your family. All the stories touch upon Alexander Hamilton, but they are not about him. Rather he serves to act as the connecting thread through three very different stories.

My favorite is Promised Land by Courtney Milan. It’s the story of Rachel, a woman serving in the continental army as a man and Nathan, who she tackles, thinking him a British spy. Reasonable, given his sympathies when they last spoke. Awkward, given that her husband thought she’d died of yellow fever. Rachel and Nathan are both great characters, and they have issues to work through (even putting aside the failed her own death thing) that make the story compelling.

Buy A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole here

A Princess in Theory is the first book in the Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole. I couldn’t put this book down. Ledi and Thabiso’s story is part modern fairy-tale (a prince in disguise) part secret identity exposed (prince? Or fuckboy?) and a hell of a lot of fun. I love that the heroine is a scientist and completely dismissive of Prince Thabiso, who has never been treated that way before. When an unknown disease hits Thesolo, Thabiso convinces Ledi to go there with him and help find a cure. Oh, and they’ll need to pretend their childhood engagement is back on. (I love the fake relationship trope)

Book 2 in the series was great, and I’ve pre-ordered book 3 (April 2019) and the novella that will act as book 2.5 (Jan 2019).

Buy Rosemary and Rue here

So I’m actually going to use this space to encourage you to read the entire October Daye series–I devoured the first twelve books in only a few weeks. I will say that books 1 and 2 are good but a little shaky, but once they take off in book 3 they only get better and better. October Daye is a half-human half-fae in this urban fantasy series.

It opens with her on a case as a private detective–but instead of recovering the missing people, she is turned into a fish for fourteen years. That loss of time informs the rest of the series because her partner moved on, and her daughter wants nothing to do with her. She turns her back on the world of Fae until she’s dragged back into that life by a binding spell. The secondary characters are compelling, Toby is a flawed but awesome heroine who anchors the series. I love Seanan McGuire’s books almost without exception and I’m already dying for book thirteen.

Buy Puddin here

If you’ve read or seen Dumplin’ (and you SHOULD), you’ll want to read the sequel, Puddin’. If you haven’t, Puddin’ works as a solo book, but Dumplin’ is so good, I encourage you to read both. Puddin’ is the story of Millie Michalchuck, who has gone to fat camp every year, but is determined to go to a journalism camp this year instead. Callie Reyes is in line to be the next dance captain until she leads an act of vandalism, and Millie identifies her. Callie has to work with Millie at her uncle’s gym as her punishment. An unlikely friendship forms…until Callie finds out that Millie is the one who turned her in. Millie has to battle her mother and the world’s expectations of fat girls to follow her dreams. Julie Murphy is great.

Buy Me Talk Pretty One Day here

This is actually a recommendation for the audiobook rather than the physical book. While reading the essays can give you a giggle, it’s hearing David Sedaris’s voice with all of its inflections as he reads his work that will make you die of laughter. I recommend all of his books, and just finished Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls on audiobook about a month ago.

Buy Heretics Anonymous here

When an atheist is enrolled at a Catholic school, how will he ever make friends or fit in? How will he survive any day without his eyes rolling out of his head? This is a great YA novel about faith, falling in love, and growing up. Definitely worth a re-read.

Buy Big Fat Bitch here

I gave a rave review to Big Fat Bitch here, but my fast review is that this slow burn romance is a great take on Beauty and the Beast. I love that the “beast” in this book is the woman. But it’s so much more than a romance. If you like deeply complex narratives, love stories, and books making you cry, pick this one up.

Buy Media Darling here

I reviewed Media Darling here, but my fast pitch is that this f/f romance between a movie star and a media writer is possibly my favorite romance of the past year, period. Both Emerson and Haley are well written, three-dimensional characters. They make mistakes, make love, and while it’s hard fought, they get their happy ending.

Buy The Autumn Bride here

I got this book from The Ripped Bodice (indie romance bookstore–buy from them!) as a “blind date with a book.” I haven’t read much Regency era romance, but it was my blind date, so I decided to give it a chance. Abigail and her three closest friends are practically starving. So Abby does something she’d never imagined–she goes over some rooftops and breaks into a house, desperate to find something to buy–or eat. Instead she finds Lady Beatrice, an old woman being abused by her servants. Abigail and her friends save Lady Beatrice from her servants and are promptly adopted as her “nieces”–the Chance sisters.

When her real nephew, Max, returns from abroad, he’s certain that the girls are gold diggers at best. Sparks fly between him and Abigail, and the rest is history. Each of the four books (Autumn Bride, Winter Bride, Spring Bride, and Summer books) works as a stand alone, but they’re better read back to back as a series.

Buy Nate Expectations here

Nate Expectations is actually the third book in Tim Federles’ series about Nate, a small town boy who becomes a Broadway Actor. In this book, Nate’s show closes down and he has to go back to small town life. When he’s assigned a project on the book Great Expectations, he decides to put on a musical. The book centers around this. There’s great secondary characters and Nate continues on his journey to figuring out who he really is.

You don’t need to read the first two books in the series, but if this book appeals to you, read them first.

 

What was/were your favorite book/s of 2018

 

 

 

ARC Review: Unforgettable by Elle Spencer

Buy Unforgettable here

4/5*

Published 11.13.18

 

Unforgettable is actually two novellas bundled together. I’ll be reviewing each separately below.

 

In Forget Her Not, Samantha King queen of the one night stand with men, has woken up next to Mia Rossi—and she can’t remember a thing about their night, only that it changed something within her. But the obstacle to their relationship isn’t that Sam can’t quite remember what happened, or even that they live far away from each other–the biggest two are that Sam thinks she’s a huge fuck-up and that Mia is her ex-boyfriend’s little sister.

That the love interest is the little sister of the man she dated for quite a long time, even to the point of him proposing to her, is a new twist on the dating someone who is known very well by the protagonist. That part is done well, including a showdown between Samantha and her ex.

However, the thing that slows down the book is that Samantha has only one method of coping–self sabotage. There’s a point, though, after which I thought Mia was crazy to keep running after her. But I was rooting on each of the women individually–for Sam to see that she deserves love, and for Mia to kick ass, but it was hard to root for them as a couple. But I suppose that’s the point–love isn’t always logical

***

In Forget Her Never Abby hooks up with the incomparable Kendall and they have an amazing night together. Only for Abby to find out that Kendall is married. Worse, she’s Kendall Squires, half of the lesbian power couple that’s changing New York’s skyline, and Abby is an architect. When Kendall’s wife finds out, she threatens Abby’s job.

Abby tries so hard to do the right thing, but is miserable. Kendall, on the other hand, is tired of living in a loveless marriage, and can’t get Abby out of her mind. When Abby and Kendall try to be just friends, their chemistry makes it impossible.

Of the two novellas, I think I bought into this one better. Kendall and Abby have the kind of raw chemistry that drags you in. I was rooting much more for them as a couple, even when the way forward seemed impossible.

***

Spencer does a good job of providing two very distinct stories, both in the “a night so amazing you’ll never forget it” trope. All four women involved have distinct voices and motivations. Each love has its unique barriers.

But for me, the biggest test is whether the book holds my interest. While there were moments when the stories dragged, it was never so much that I started to consider looking at another book instead.

 

ARC review: Media Darling by Fiona Riley

Media Darling by Fiona Riley can be purchased here

4.5/5*

published 11/13/18

 

I received an arc of Media Darling from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Media Darling is a f/f queer romance between a star and a celebrity reporter.

Haley is a would-be screenwriter who works at the Sun to make her bills. When she is asked to fill in at a media event for another reporter, she’s determined to get something done. When she can’t get Emerson’s attention on a red carpet, she lets out a piercing whistle, which unfortunately silences everyone around her, which gives a paparazzi the opportunity to yell an embarrassing question about Emerson and Rachel.

Emerson is a star under siege when her ex-girlfriend Rachel (who was kicked off the movie they were working on together) accuses Emerson of smearing her reputation and that it was all Emerson’s fault. After the red carpet incident with the paparazzi, Emerson tells her assistant that she never wants Hayley near her again.

Later that night, when Hayley gets between the same cruel intentioned paparazzi and Emerson, Emerson decides to investigate Haley. What she learns makes her decide that Hayley is the right person to tell her side of the story, including the explosive secret Emerson is terrified that Rachel will weaponize. As they spend more time together, sparks fly. But when their relationship is outed (pun intended), they need to decide if what they have is real, or just Hollywood magic.

Riley is a strong writer. Each of the women have a distinct voice. This is especially important in f/f or m/m or multi-partner couples because pronouns, which serve as shorthand in m/f romance can often make things blurrier. Despite seemingly oppositional occupations (in fact, their first encounter leads to a horrible paparazzi encounter for Emerson) Riley lays the groundwork for why these characters could work. The sex scenes sizzle.

The only thing that took it from a 5* to a 4.5* is that the real villain is so obvious that it’s surprising that it takes any effort to figure it out. But even with that, I didn’t mind the ride to see how the characters figured it out, and how they’d react. The writing is strong enough, though, that I think that it could’ve been masked a little better.

Check out Media Darling when it drops next week, or pre-order today!

 

Book Review-Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

autoboyography

Buy Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

5/5*

Published September 2017

Tanner is a bisexual teenage boy. This was not a big deal in Palo Alto, California, where he used to live. But in Mormon Provo, Utah, it is his family’s secret. He’s made it to his final semester of senior year, and is looking to the future when he can leave Utah for a more liberal and accepting environment. Then he signs up for The Seminar–a challenge to write a book in a year–and everything changes. The Seminar’s TA is Sebastian Brother, a freshman at BYU, and the most famous graduate of The Seminar whose book has been sold and is being published very soon from the start of the book.

Sebastian is everything Tanner should stay away from–handsome, straight (right?), and Mormon. But when Fujita, The Seminar’s teacher assigns Sebastian to help Tanner, something begins to bloom between them. Something deep, and forbidden.

I loved this book. The language and descriptions are so beautiful that they just transport you to the world of the book.

As he faces the class from the front now, his eyes flash when they meet mine–for a tine flicker of a second, and then again, like a prism catching light, because he does a double take. That fraction of a heartbeat is long enough for him to register my immediate infatuation. Holy shit, how quickly he recognizes it. This must happen to him all the time–an adoring gaze from across the room–but to me, being so instantly infatuated is entirely foreign. Inside my chest, my lungs are wild animals, clawing at the cage.

Tanner is a very likeable character. Your hearts bleeds with him, and breaks for him, and rejoices with his because you become so emotionally invested in the book. He is still three dimensional with faults and blindspots, though. Sebastian is an equally engaging and complex character–to the point where I would buy the same book written from his point of view and I always scorn those as cheap cash grabs (coughGREYcough). He is the Bishop’s son, expected to leave for his mission right after his book tour, with the expectation that he’ll return in two years to finish up at BYU and get married to a woman and start having kids.

That Tanner’s mom is a former Mormon only adds depth to the story. She left after her parents kicked her sister out of the house for being gay. So when her son falls for a Mormon boy, her own wounds re-open and she is scared for him.

The author clearly researched Mormonism. I used to be close with a Mormon family, and even investigated joining the church and this feels very honest.

I feel like this is one of a growing trend of YA books that is creating queer love stories in a mainstream environment. Romance publishing isn’t that progressive unless you go to the smaller houses. Adult fiction in general doesn’t have a lot of queer representation. So congrats to YA for moving that ball forward. And this isn’t just a YA book–I think the adult market would emotionally engage with the book. (The person who recommended the book as well as I are both around 40, for example.)

I honestly struggle to find a fault or area of improvement for this book, so it’s getting a rare 5* review from me.

 

 

 

Book Review–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

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Magic’s Pawn   by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 5/5 stars

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.  Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.

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Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.10.08 PMMercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.