It Takes a Thief & Between Two Thieves (CBR13 #34-35)

In the Counterfeit Capers Series Sloane Steele is going for a feeling like the television show Leverage and as I had just finished binging through the original, I was in just the right mood for what Steele was after. Unfortunately for me these books didn’t quite hit the mark. The basic set-up is Jared and Mia, the children of two notorious conmen and thieves who got away with a Ponzi type scheme decide to use their abilities and access to make as right as they can for the victims and punish the people who helped their fathers. To that end they recruit a thief, a hacker, and a forger to help them plan and execute a dozen art thefts in a few months.

The first book in the series, It Takes a Thief, covers the first heist and the building of the crew. Because these are romances, we also get the story of Jared and Audrey, the Hacker, whom have been flirting for ages as Jared hired her for previous jobs under her alias Data. Now that they have met the flirtation has only increased. But, Jared and Mia aren’t upfront with Audrey and the other members of the team (Nikki the thief and London the forger) about who they are and why they are organizing these thefts. When Audrey finds out, it halts the relationship she and Jared have just begun and puts their plan of running the remainder to the thefts together in jeopardy.

The second book, Between Two Thieves, picks up with action already in progress. Nikki runs into Wade while casing a house for a robbery and immediately knows they have problems. She and Wade used to work with her father in cons and thefts and have an intense romantic history that went up in smoke when Nikki went out on her own and Wade didn’t follow. In order to get her father out of hot water Wade needs Nikki’s help, but Nikkis has to balance the work she’s doing with Audrey, London, Jared, and Mia with how much she’s willing to let her father and Wade back into her life.

What I like about these books is the characters. Steele builds characters with great backgrounds. Jared and Mia’s father’s betrayals, and what it has done to their own reputations layers in easily understood motivation, and how Jared is completely comfortable living and working in life’s gray areas, while Mia has made her peace with having to get dirty in order to do right. Audrey’s focus on her grandmother and providing her the best care she can make her loveable, as does her insistence that she and Jared must function as equals. Nikki is an absolute livewire, she has been on her own, truly on her own, for years and agreeing to work for Jared and Mia, but most importantly with Audrey and London is an experiment in letting people in – an experiment she doesn’t realize she is doing until her ex, Wade sneaks his way back into her life. At the end of two books we know the least about London but she fits in seamlessly with Audrey and Nikki, providing the optimistic, artistic counterweight that the team needs.

What I don’t like – the pacing. These read very slowly for me, and they really should be crisp, quick, fun reads. While I appreciate that Steele gives herself the time to indulge in the planning/plotting/executing of the heists the reading experience suffered for me in the shifting gears from revenge plot to emotional arcs. All the Mia chapters felt out of place in the narrative and that is part of the reason I’m not sure about book three, which is kind of funny because emmalita’s review of To Catch a Thief is what got me reading these in the first place.  It is entirely possible that you will enjoy these more than I did, but they were solidly three star for me combined, with Between Two Thieves the stronger with its interconnected plotlines keeping things moving.

Latitudes of Longing (CBR13 #33)

Latitudes of Longing

Latitudes of Longing is a book that only made it to my list of books to read this year because of the Reading Women 2021 Challenge. The first task on the list is to read a book longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature which is an award presented each year to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian author. I went digging through the lists and Latitudes of Longing was both longlisted and shortlisted in 2018, the first year of the award. Latitudes of Longing is Shubhangi Swarup’s first novel. It’s the kind of first novel that I love, it is the book of someone who really loves written language. Swarup weaves in such beautifully evocative imagery while also being tight and skillful in construction. The book rewards those who pay close attention, and the way Swarup uses language makes you want to pay attention. Swarup uses her metaphors to create the links between the four novellas that make up the narrative.

The book starts with the story of an arranged marriage between two very different people that grows into genuine love. We follow Girija Prasad, a scientist educated in the west, and his wife, Chanda Devi, a clairvoyant who speaks to the trees her husband can only study. Their journey towards love and family is the epicenter of the novel and the rest of the book flows out from it. Swarup’s prose is both the novel’s highlight and what holds it back. On the plus side, there is no sensory detail or wisp of an idea that goes unexplored. Water, time, and topography are all fleshed out. However, while this style of writing can be exhilarating in small doses, it can also lead to fatigue.

Outwardly, what connects these narratives is their geography, the earth around the characters plays the role of an active participant throughout. But the real connecting theme of the book is desire, and what separates each character from what they want. It is also a book full of ghosts, spirits, and the supernatural which can comfortably place this one in the realm of fantasy. But it also leans towards the more science fiction side of things with its in-depth understanding of plate tectonics, forestry, and biology. Swarup builds a world where creation and destruction co-exist, where hard science and magical realism can live side by side. While Latitudes of Longing starts out with great intensity, but somewhere along the way, it loses its strength – but this is still a good read.

Canyon of Dreams (CBR13 #32)

Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon

It is obvious from the get-go that Harvey Kubernik, a veteran music journalist who hails from Laurel Canyon, loves his subject. The problem is that love, and the love of his version of the Canyon, may have artificially narrowed his view of his subject. This is no small book, while its dimensions don’t quite fit the definition of ‘coffee-table book,’ it is a large and difficult book to hold that is chockfull of photos which make it a good choice to casually peruse at a table. In fact, I would suggest reading this book that way, as opposed to reading it cover to cover because there is no real sustained narrative here. At times I felt as though I was reading the begats section of the Bible (this musician led to that musician led to this other musician…).

And, alas, this book really isn’t an examination of the Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon as the subtitle promises. It is instead a nostalgic reminiscence with surprisingly varied points of view. Kubernik conducted interviews with figures from the Canyon, including members of The Seeds, The Byrds, Little Feat, Three Dog Night, The Doors, John Mayall, Rodney Bingenheimer, Steve Cropper, Andrew Loog Oldham, Slash, and dozens of others which simultaneously works at uncovering the myths of the area but provides precious little substantial insight into this coveted area outside Hollywood. And, given the return of the Laurel Canyon sound, precious little space is given to its contemporary status.

The book itself is beautifully produced. What I appreciated most was that Kubernik takes us back to the origins of the neighborhood as it began in 1927 with the Garden of Alla (later Allah) apartment complex, at the canyon’s entrance through its time as home to experimental architectural design all before the musicians started arriving in force. But I think if you’re interested in the Laurel Canyon sound you’re better off with the documentary, Echo in the Canyon.

All the Feels (CBR13 #31)

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All the Feels publishes October 26th, 2021.

All the Feels (Spoiler Alert, #2)

Last year I read and loved Spoiler Alert and was excited to see that there would be another book in the universe. All the Feels takes everything I loved about the first book and deepens it, makes it stronger and better. All the Feels is very likely going to make it into my top three books of the year.

All the Feels is born in the sidelines of Spoiler Alert, but I don’t think you necessarily need to have read the first to enjoy the second. When Alex Woodroe, best friend of Marcus Caster-Rupp and Cupid on the extremely popular God of the Gates, managed to get arrested in a bar fight, the show’s producers saddle him with a minder to keep him on the straight and narrow through the end of filming and the show’s eventual airing. Enter into Alex’s life Lauren Clegg, cousin to one of the producer’s and a former ER therapist who just wants to take a vacation after burning out at work but instead finds that she can’t say no to the job being offered to her. Lauren is not overawed or intimidated by his fame.The plot of the first half of All the Feels runs parallel to Spoiler Alert, and then we are off to the races. On the basis of a friendship that has developed over their months spent together when Alex does implode his career he makes it his mission to keep Lauren in his life, and as they are no longer employed by the same company he lets himself pursue her romantically.

I was charmed immediately by the nature of Alex and Lauren’s relationship with each other. Alex has ADHD and it makes him hyperverbal, while Lauren has closed herself off from the world in a subconscious way to protect herself from the constant onslaught of trauma she saw in the ER and the lack of resources available to her to help those who crossed her path. Alex makes it his goal to coax Lauren’s personality out because he finds her captivating (he is enthralled by her Big Harpy Energy t-shirt). I laughed so hard I snorted during the early portions of the book and the banter between the two just gets better and better. Dade writes such human characters, Alex and Lauren each have baggage they are working through, traumas that haunt their pasts and influence their actions, and neither fixes the other, but their growing love inspires each to make the growth they need.

Fanfiction plays an important role in the book. Alex writes and reads fanfiction for various purposes (venting his anger about the character assassination and downright dangerous messaging in his character’s final season arc as well as reading to blow off steam). Alex is also highly conversant in tropes which proves a delight in the back half of the book as he calls out the tropes as they are occurring and talks Lauren into role playing a few. I’m telling you – this book is a hoot with a big damn heart.

I can’t wait for it to come out and everyone else to get a chance to read it, nor can I wait to dive into my personal copy when it comes in the mail, since I had already pre-ordered this anyway. I immediately wanted to go back and read this story again, I don’t know a better compliment I can pay it.

The Hellion’s Waltz

The Hellion's Waltz (Feminine Pursuits, #3)

I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Hellion’s Waltz is the third book in Olivia Waite’s Feminine Pursuits series (the first book, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics was published in 2019 and the second Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows last year). As I said in my review of The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, one of the things I love most in good romance writing is when authors interact with larger themes. These books aren’t just sexytimes, nor are they just character studies, they are in fact observations about living with emotions. In order to unpack the emotional lives of the characters the world around them are grown out and investigated, and in historical fiction there is plenty of political turmoil to muck about in. Waite does just that in The Hellion’s Waltz using the backdrop of England’s evolving textile industry to explore how corrupt men will corrupt systems, and occasionally in order to do good you must go against the rules.

Our main pair is Sophie Roseingrave, piano teacher and composer, and Maddie Crewe, silk-weaver. Sophie’s family have moved to Carrisford (p.s. I’m pretty sure most of the names in this are shoutouts to A Little Princess) following a conman who ruined her and her family’s reputations and left them in a position of having to sell their piano shop. Maddie has deep roots in town, and specifically with the Weavers’ Union with whom she is plotting to take down the evil Mr. Giles. Sophie overhears part of the swindle and goes about putting herself in Maddie’s way; regardless of any attraction she may feel. The story then pings back and forth between the sexual and romantic relationship between Sophie and Maddie and the ever more complex plot to give Mr. Giles what he has coming and make the Weaver’s Union financially secure.

My favorite part of Waite’s work is that she populates the books with a variety of characters who are living their lives in a variety of ways that fall outside what society might accept. This book is free of any inner struggle about can the main pair be together – they’ve both been in previous relationships and know how to bend around society’s rules. They also receive no push back from family or community; their relationship is accepted (even by Maddie’s stepmother in some of my favorite dialogue in the book). Which brings me to my least favorite part of this book: while I bought how quickly the pair jumped into a sexual relationship (seriously, its fast) Waite just didn’t get me there on the romance side of things, the love that these two characters are meant to be feeling in order to have chosen to stay with each other by the end of the book. The emotional side of the book felt very underdeveloped in comparison to the swindle plot.

There’s a great variety in this series, the books are wildly different in character backgrounds and pace as well as plot type and tropes. If this one isn’t for you (its my least favorite of the series) then odds are one of the other two is more up your alley.

Queer: A Graphic History

Queer: A Graphic History

I tried to sneak this one in before the end of June but the library just wasn’t with me. One of the tasks in Read Harder challenge this year is read a LGBTQ history and the hunt for that book stumbled me across Queer: A Graphic History, and while this isn’t a history of queer folk (more a study of the word, theory, and the worldview) I’m glad to have read it if only to help shore up some gaps in my own knowledge base (I am thinking of a conversation with my partner about identity politics that made my brain hurt A LOT, but now I’m seeing more clearly). This is a great book for those of us who have no real interest in becoming a queer studies scholar but do want to have a better understanding of queerness and queer theory.

Structurally this book is basically a textbook-style introduction with comic-style illustrations. In being that it meant to be introductory Barker and Scheele use quick, clear sentences and art to clarify terminology and chronology (there are a lot of moving parts here) including a distinction between queer theory and queer activism. This is a bit of a mile wide and inch deep approach, the book covers (very quickly) 19th-century sexology and Freud to modern queer theorists. While the goal of the book is to help make the theories applicable and understandable – one that it achieves – it unfortunately was a bit of a slog. I do however appreciate its intersectional approach. The authors look at how race, disability, ethnicity, nationality, and class interplay with and are, in fact, foundational to queer theory. Throughout, the book is inclusive of bi, trans, ace, and other people including disabled people and people of color.

The Cooking Gene

I think to understand what The Cooking Gene is, you have to have a picture of its author. I’ve known Michael Twitty on Twitter for about a decade, Museum Twitter can be a small space sometimes in the best possible ways. Besides being a hoot to spend time with during political debates, Twitty is also a Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas. Basically, he’s one of the people you want to talk to if you want to talk historic foodways.

The Cooking Gene is a tough book to categorize, simply because it isn’t one thing. It is equal parts cookbook, memoir, history, and genealogical survey. It examines the many debts contemporary American food culture owes to the enslaved and their descendants. To that end, the meat of his book derives from Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour, a trip though the South both to find his family roots and trace food routes from the colonial and antebellum South. The tour makes its way through to Twitty’s grandparents’ childhoods, themselves only one generation removed from enslavement.

Twitty uses his own genealogy as a map, and to me that is the standout of this book, the thing that makes it unique in the field. Twitty is telling a personal history (a project that remains underway) which allows him to not only examine the foodstuffs and foodways that are often equated with African American cooking and those foods that get grouped together as soul food, but also the lesser known:  rice grown with the farming expertise of West African natives, and the role of the enslaved in creating and preparing the haute cuisine of the antebellum period.

Since its publication in 2017, it has justifiably received critical praise and a number of accolades, most notably from the James Beard Foundation, which honored the book with the Book of the Year and Best Writing awards in 2018. The Cooking Gene is only recently out in paperback, so now may be your time to follow Michael on his path of traveling to discover.

Second First Impressions (CBR13 #27)

Second First Impressions

I can see how Second First Impressions, Sally Thorne’s third book, isn’t going to be a five-star book for many readers – heck it wasn’t for me until quite near the end. But this book hit me in the feelings and had just the right kind of relatively low stakes, emotions are the plot set up for me. I was delighted; I understand if you were not.

In this outing Thorne is playing with opposites, both in her protagonists and in the thematic work she keeps coming back to. Our leads are Ruthie and Teddy. Ruthie works at a retirement village and at 25 has cocooned herself there for the past six years, eschewing the outside world to a large degree. Her boss takes off for an extended cruise leaving Ruthie in charge with a temp, the wonderful Melanie who Ruthie isn’t sure she’s going to manage to work with. As Ruthie is getting her feet under her in this new scenario the new owner of the retirement village descends with possibly the last person she wants to see, the person she embarrassed herself in front of on her last trip off-site. Teddy is in need of a job and a place to stay so he can save money to buy into his share of a tattoo parlor and his father is planning to dump him on Ruthie. But Ruthie thinks quickly and remembers that two of her most eccentric residents, the Parlonis, are in need of a new assistant to torture and Ruthie thinks Teddy is perfect for the job and as no “new boy” hired by the Parlonis lasts she’ll be rid of Teddy before long.

Of course, it doesn’t go that way at all.

Second First Impressions is in many ways a story about what can find its way into our lives if only we wait to pass judgement. Melanie the temp worms her way into Ruthie’s life as a friend she is very much in need of and elects herself Ruthie’s dating guru to get her back out into the world. Teddy’s exterior (tattoos everywhere) and family (wealthy, powerful) offer one version of who he is, but Ruthie slowly uncovers the real Teddy over the course of a few weeks as they live and work side by side. Ruthie lets the pair in slowly, revealing her own history – and beginning to reckon with it – and how she’s been bearing the consequences of choices made by others.

Throughout Thorne is playing opposing actions, focusing on adorers and adorees (Melanie’s terms) and the GIVE and TAKE tattoos on Teddy’s hands, reflecting on how it captures the interactions any relationship is built on. There’s also a certain sweetness that runs through this book, even though the characters are dealing with heavy personal histories. The characters all genuinely like each other and treat each other with such empathy. Teddy’s employers, the Parlonis, and the other residents are just such characters in the best possible way and the fun that Thorne had in writing them is evident on the page. I felt for Ruthie and Teddy and swooned at them as they swooned for each other. My favorite people in my life make me feel settled and calm, and Ruthie and Teddy provide that for each other, and it really sells these two supposed opposites falling for each other so thoroughly.

One Last Stop (CBR13 #26 – Half Cannonball!)

One Last Stop

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Early last year I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut Red, White, & Royal Blue like many a Cannonballer before me. Upon its completion I knew McQuiston was an author to add to my must reads list – they were writing the kind of queer romance I was looking for in the world. Once announced I put One Last Stop on my to read list having faith in the author, if not exactly the premise.

One Last Stop is the story of August and Jane. August, a young recent NYC transplant with a complicated history, falls head over heels for a woman she keeps running into on the Q train, Jane. August’s subway crush becomes the best part of her day, but pretty soon, she discovers there’s one big problem: Jane doesn’t just look like an old school punk rocker. She’s literally displaced in time from the 1970s, and August is going to have to use everything she tried to leave in her own past to help her.

So much of the story is about the fear of letting someone love you, of being brave enough to think you won’t let them down. August and Jane spend time circling around the growing love between them, afraid of what it means. August uses her focus on solving the mystery of Jane to hide behind and it takes her entire found family unit to help build the confidence she needs to step out from behind that. But it happens multiple places along the narrative, Wes (honestly my favorite character by a long, long measure) is also running from how he feels about Isaiah and accepting the love being freely offered to him, exactly as and who he is.

Beyond the main romance plot focusing on Jane and August this book is about found family, and the way we create our identity by the community we make around ourselves, especially in our twenties (although I did it again in my thirties). The characters are infused with hope and joy, even when battling depression and anxiety, which I appreciate from deep within my soul. McQuiston writes like a motherfucker. Even when I was bored (which happened at about the one third mark) I was enthralled by the writing. McQuiston created a world that is fully fleshed out with a variety of people and is explicitly queer. MCQuiston did their research and it shows, both in Jane’s past and August’s present.

This book is a four-star read for me; at times it was three, and times it was four, but it never reached a point where I thought it was a five-star read. I struggled to get myself into the book and read an entire other book (the very good People We Meet on Vacation) before picking this one back up. The problem was relatively simple upon reflection – the pacing was uneven and at times the plot stalled. But once it got going again, I was in, but it still sometimes felt like work, and that makes me a little sad. McQuiston has said their next book is going to be a YA ensemble piece about coming out in the religious South and I am still on board for whatever book they want to write.

“… thinking of Wes and how determined he is not to let Isaiah hand him his heart, of Myla holding Niko’s hand while he talks to things she can’t see, of her mom and a whole life searching, of herself, of Jane, of hours on the train – all the things they put themselves through for love. Okay, I get it.”

People We Meet on Vacation (CBR13 #25)

People We Meet on Vacation

One of the reading groups I am part of chose People We Meet on Vacation for our August read. I quickly poked around my library catalog and saw that it had a stunning number of holds and put in my request immediately, expecting it to take a month or so for a copy to make its way to me. Surprise, surprise, I somehow got a copy in a week (I think I managed to get lucky with my local branch). I grabbed it as I took my first flight in 18 months this past weekend and was immediately pulled into this opposites attract/ friends to lovers/ second chance romance.

People We Meet on Vacation is the story of Poppy and Alex. The pair make for seemingly unlikely best friends, he’s reserved and she’s a bit reckless; he likes their hometowns, she’s intent on never returning. But following an initial meeting where they didn’t hit it off the pair drive home together after their freshman year of college (a great homage to When Harry Met Sally) and with their need to impress each other gone, they begin the sort of friendship where each side is truly seen by the other and appreciated for exactly who they are. They strike a bargain that first summer home, that Alex will accompany Poppy on a trip each summer which becomes the core of their relationship.

They keep the tradition up for a decade of friendship, until two years ago, when they ruined everything. In the same time Poppy has achieved professional success and is living the life she always wanted but she feels like she’s stuck in a rut. When asked when she was last truly happy, she knows it was on that ill-fated, final trip with Alex. She asks him to accompany her on one more vacation together where she plans to fix everything and get her happiness back. What ends up happening though is something much deeper, poking at the unspoken part of their friendship, the part that wants to be more than friends.

This is a story built around the mortifying ordeal of being known. I felt like Poppy and Alex knew and understood each other so intimately. This book was full of mutual pining, inside jokes and amazing chemistry, both in the present timeline and the flashbacks, and it all felt earned. Often characters have entire histories we the reader don’t get to see, or don’t get to see a lot of, instead picking it up based on what we’re shown in the book’s present but People We Meet on Vacation’s flashbacks gave us more time in the development of their friendship (Italy and Sanibel in particular). The structure, flashing from present back to different years mostly in reverse chronological order reminds me of another book, but I cannot put my finger on which, but either way, it worked both in setting tension and in providing beautiful context.

There’s a bit of mystery about what happened between Poppy and Alex and why they were no longer on speaking terms, but the reveal perhaps comes too late in the narrative. I’ve rated these one four stars, and this is definitely part of why, but the other thing affecting my overall rating is that the two years ago reveal was too close to the third act break up, which in this novel felt so unnecessary. I’m really getting tired of unneeded third act break-up arcs – not all romances need it, but I can’t tell you the last time I managed to read one without. I appreciate the content of the split, these two characters needed to work on some things, but I wished that it wasn’t under the gun of a pair who had finally gotten honest about the depths of their real emotions, the unspoken of 5-15%, possibly never speaking again.

That quibble aside, Henry writes beautifully. The way this book talks about loneliness and never really feeling like you belong were so strong, so heartfelt, so honest that there was a point where I had to put the book down and take a breather. This was really gripping, I read it in three long drinks. I loved the humor, the banter, the angst, all of it – which has me looking back at Henry’s last book Beach Read whose reviews I had clocked last year, but my COVID reading slump just didn’t leave room for.