The Life Revamp (CBR13 #58)

I received an ARC from Carina Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Life Revamp publishes November 30th, 2021.

The Life Revamp (The Love Study #3)

This was a first for me, a romance featuring a polyamorous relationship, but one I had been looking for. Kris Ritter’s The Life Revamp tells the story of Mason, who wants to fall in love, get married and live happily ever after. You know, live the fairytale a little. His luck has been less than stellar, including being left at the alter as a younger man, and the hunt is beginning to wear him down, to the point of settling for Mr. Checks All the Boxes. That is, until he meets up and coming local fashion designer Diego. Everything sparks between them—the banter, the sex, the fiery eye contact across a crowded room. There’s just one thing: Diego is already married, which includes outside courtships. In fact, Diego’s wife Claris, who is also friends with Mason, sets them up – she’s sure they are what the other is looking for. Mason thought he knew what would make him happy, but it turns out the traditional life he’d expected has some surprises in store. 

The thematic thrust of this book is expectations, what they are, how we come by them, and what they might prevent us from seeing. We are experiencing the story from Mason’s point of view, and we are therefore treated (burdened?) with his hopes, fears, and insecurities about finding the person who will choose him and allowing the possibility that Diego might be able to choose him equally to Claris. While much of this book focuses on Mason’s romantic expectations (and falling for the delightful Diego), Ripper doesn’t sideline the other areas of Mason’s life, and their incumbent expectations. We see how Mason navigates his found family, the wonderfully named Motherfuckers, his relationship with his mother – and by extension his faith. The story climaxes as Mason realizes he’s been coasting both romantically and professionally and does something about it, and the doing something about it worked for me in a big way.

There are a few things that I wished were fleshed out in order to balance the story, both from an arc structure perspective, but also from telling a balanced story about an open relationship such as Diego and Claris have. While we spend a good amount of time with the various components of the Gentleman’s Fashion week, we never hear from the POV of the pair in the existing relationship, but we also don’t see Mason and Claris have a conversation, really, about what it means to be metamours especially as that relationship would be based on their existing friendship. But by and large I felt that Ritter wrote a believable and entertaining romance with characters that I was happy to spend time with.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb (CBR13 #54)

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is Sebastian’s trade paperback debut and I’m excited for the people who get to discover her work with this outing. There were times during The Queer Principles of Kit Webb that I was reminded of the first Cat Sebastian I ever read (her debut) The Soldier’s Scoundrel. There’s a class difference, one character making their living on the wrong side of the law, and a major injury. Plus, I really, really liked it. Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances where the worlds of each character are brought to light and the protagonists find their matches in their partners. We have two characters falling in love despite themselves, humor, and found family – which is catnip for me.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb is set earlier in time than the other of Sebastian’s works that I’ve read. We’re in the mid-18th century, 50 years at least before the more common Regency era. I’m borrowing much of narfna’s plot summary since she nailed it and I’ve been struggling for a week to write a better one. We get our two heroes, the titular Kit Webb, a former infamous highwayman who is now retired due to a job gone wrong that left him disabled and with a dead partner. He now runs his coffee shop, once simply a front for his criminal activity it is now his entire life. When we meet him, he hasn’t much left its general environs in weeks. Next, we’ve got Edward Percival Talbot, Lord Holland, who goes by Percy. Percy has returned from the continent to several pieces of awful news not the least of which is that a blackmailer has surfaced with proof that his father the Duke is a bigamist, making his mother, his childhood best friend and now stepmother Marian (and there appears to be much drama there) victims, and himself and his new baby sister Eliza illegitimate. Marian and Percy have only a few months to concoct a plan to salvage their futures and punish Percy’s father. Marian is the brains of the operation and it’s her idea to hire Gladhand Jack, Kit’s alter ego, to rob the Duke, so that she and Percy can get the book they need for leverage. When Percy approaches Kit, it’s clear that his bad leg will make performing the robbery impossible, so instead, Kit offers to teach Percy to do it himself. From that point we watch as the two men are drawn to each other while Kit teaches Percy the skills he needs to commit the crime and Percy plans for his future. This outing also features Sebastian’s command of banter, her salty secondary characters and situational humor balances everything out.

Sebastian takes on the different elements of privilege that are tied up together and starts pulling them apart. In this case it’s how Kit and Percy are seen by the world around them– specifically in the ways they use artifice to hide. Class plays a significant role in the story, as Sebastian writes characters who are conscious of class – as the should be – and hinges much on characters moving up and down the social rungs and what life looks like when they do. I love Sebastian’s “eat the rich” mentality and how in this book she has Kit blatantly state it. It could be the thing that breaks these two characters of vastly different backgrounds, but it isn’t. Because Percy has come to agree that while the trappings of the wealth mean home to him, they are in fact not worth what they cost in terms of people’s suffering and use of resources. It is an example of how Sebastian uses her craft to create tension and release it without having to write a break-up at the 80% mark and I appreciate that about this book, much as I did with Lucy Parker’s Battle Royal.

The other is how she navigates the differing sexual identities of her two leads. Percy is pretty open about his only being attracted to men and finds himself a bit of a challenge in understanding Kit, who appears to be sexually interested in him, but does not act on it for a decent amount of the story. We the reader bounce between Kit and Percy’s viewpoints so we know that Kit is likely what we would now term a demisexual in that he feels sexually attracted to someone when he has an emotional bond with them as well as being bisexual having had a fulfilling sex life with his deceased wife. Kit’s need for emotional connection, and Percy’s relative inexperience in the emotional arena is the other tension point Sebastian works her characters through. I would have liked to see it get a little more conversational space in the story, but that even isn’t much of a complaint. I do wish I knew going in that there are significant portions of the narrative that are left on a cliffhanger, even though Kit and Percy find a way to be together even though they live in a society that has deemed it illegal.

In an interview Sebastian commented about writing to reflect identity and I find it instructive to understanding why Sebastian’s books work so well for me. “History is filled with disabled and neurodivergent people and people of color. Historical fiction that doesn’t reflect that reality is a tool of oppression. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you repeatedly see a version of reality that’s overwhelmingly white, abled, rich, cis, and straight, you start to accept that as the default identity of human beings, even if logically you know better!”

Content notes (from the author): non-graphic violence (including gun violence), reference to past infant death, reference to character being imprisoned in the past, period-typical homophobia, explicit sex, alcohol use

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (CBR13 #52 – Cannonball!)

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Books have answers, and that is one of the reasons I love them. The past few years I’ve spent some time digging into me, and how I work, and how much of what I have presented to the outside world was authentic, and how much was what I had been expected to do.

I had some knowledge of aces and asexuality before reading this particularly as one of my friends is ace and has been out for at least the decade I’ve known her, probably longer. But while I had functioning experience with at least part of the ace spectrum I had on some of the blinders lots of people have about it, since my friend is on the sex aversed end of the spectrum. My brain simply hadn’t made room for there being more to the spectrum, and so much more nuance to the whole thing.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading Queer: A Graphic History earlier this year is how much of how we all behave in society is based in compulsive sexuality, specifically compulsive heterosexuality. Chen digs into this concept in a big way in Ace. Chen, as Barker did, lays things out it in a way where it becomes apparent how foundational the assumption that there is a baseline desire for sex that is the same for everyone.  Further, how ubiquitous the idea that if you don’t share the same levels of desire either you haven’t found the “right’ scenario or are repressed (and what a death nell to self-value that term can be). The result is that if one doesn’t have the same drive for sex, there must be something wrong or defective with the person. This thinking is incredibly harmful on so many levels, and at least for me has led to letting others assume that my desires and needs are what they expect, and not necessarily what they are, let other aspects of my personality do the speaking. 

Do I have fewer questions now than I did before? I’m not sure, but I have new ones, different things I need to ponder, more time to spend deciding which descriptors fit me best – a path I’ve already been on the past few years. The more I learn about myself and the human experience the more I learn that it is not, really, as universal as we were led to believe, not even close. Everyone, literally everyone, experiences it differently. And that’s a good thing.

When I was prepping to write this review, I went back to the reviews its already gotten at Cannonball, certain that I had commented on at least one of them: I had not. I think that probably speaks to how many questions I had even though so much of what I was reading in others’ reviews and experiences was ringing true. Do I think you need to be wondering about your own identity to find value in this one? Nope. I agree with Chen that by acknowledging asexuality and striving to understand it further, we will de facto have a better and more complete understanding of the spectrum of sexual identity and desire – and that’s just good for everyone.

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.

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.”

I Hope You Get This Message (CBR12 #34)

I Hope You Get This Message

My Cannonball Bingo tradition is to sit down with the square descriptions and plan out options for what books to read for each category. I Hope You Get This Message by Farah Naz Rishi could qualify for several squares (this is her debut published October 2019, we read it for CBR The Future is Queer Book Club) but I’m using it for UnCannon. The ‘Canon’ is often made up of books written by old, white men and the goal of this square is to read as far from the stereotypical version as possible and this book does just that. Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani-American Muslim writer who is writing specifically for the YA audience – one that is often overlooked by the arbiters of taste. I Hope You Get This Message is also focused on queer relationships, mental health struggles, and income inequalities told from the all too real voices of its young cast, UnCannon indeed.

What is the book about? Oh, nothing too important, just what happens when you’re trying to survive your teenage years and the Earth might end in seven days. Earth has been contacted by a planet named Alma, the world is abuzz with rumors that the alien entity is giving mankind only few days to live before they hit the kill switch on civilization. For Jesse Hewitt nothing has ever felt permanent: not the guys he hooks up with, not the jobs his mom works so hard to hold down, so what does it matter if it all ends now? But what can he do if it doesn’t all end? Cate Collins is desperate to use this time to do one more thing for her schizophrenic mother, to find the father she’s never met. Adeem Khan has always found coding and computer programming easy, but not forgiveness. He can’t seem to forgive his sister for leaving, even though it’s his last chance, but he wants more than anything for her to forgive him for his silence when she dared to speak her truth. With only seven days to face their truths and right their wrongs, Jesse, Cate, and Adeem’s paths collide even as their worlds are pulled apart.

In all honesty the world of I Hope You Get This Message is not a very hopeful future, before Alma accidentally sends its death message, and in fact it is in most ways the future that we are living in now. The book however is about carving out a little piece of hope when everything feels hopeless. Rishi is playing around with survival and redemption, with love and feeling like you can accept it when you don’t feel like you deserve it.  As the POV shifts between the three leads: Jesse, Cate, and Adeem we are deeply entrench in the character-driven as opposed to the plot-driven (although it has some forward movement too), we are here for the interior journeys of these characters as they work towards their own goals in the lead up to the possible end of the world. And as the reader, we want them to discover more beyond their initial goals, because that’s what we want for ourselves.

The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

Image result for mrs. martin's incomparable adventure

Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

A Closed and Common Orbit (CBR11 #18)

In early April I made the choice to put my limited free time (so, so limited in late March and early April) into a complete rewatch of Game of Thrones before the series came back for its final series. I also picked up and put down two different books earlier this month, just not feeling any of them. When it was time to travel for Easter, with a total of four flights, I reached for a sure-fire winner: A Closed and Common Orbit.

I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet last summer and was excited to see what else Becky Chambers had waiting in her universe. I wasn’t disappointed, but I did have a bit of a struggle settling in to this new story. The first book was set within one ship with one small but diverse crew. A Closed and Common Orbit is an even smaller story, structurally. We are primarily with just two characters, and they hand the narrative back and forth. I had a tough time sinking into one character’s half of the story for the first third or so.

From Goodreads:

“Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.”

As Lovelace learns to navigate the body she is in following the events of the previous book (which you do not have to have read to read this one, but I suggest it anyway) she forms a new identity to go with it, and renames herself Sidra with Pepper’s blessing. I struggled with early story Sidra because she is struggling so much with the limitations of her body. As the story continues and we get more of Pepper’s background and personal history, and the story of Jane 23 unravels I found my footing in the overall story – Chambers is using hard sci-fi to have a discussion about identity, sure, but also personhood writ large.

Emmalita sold this series to me (and everyone else) as “cozy sci-fi” and that is such an accurate description. There is plot happening, and the world of Port Coriol is explored, but we are really digging into Sidra, Pepper, Blue, Owl, and Tak. Once it got going it did the thing that all really great books can do, it made me cry on public transport (I startled my seatmate on the plane).

I’m so looking forward to the next book in the series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

We Are Okay (CBR11 #15)

Image result for we are okay

I struggled with this book for quite a while. For reasons I now don’t remember I believed this book to be a graphic novel and had filed it as such as a different task for Read Harder challenge than I eventually recorded it under. Then, once I began reading it for what it truly was, I found myself struggling through the chapters. Marin the protagonist is in such a low place, and Nina LaCour writes it so well that I felt myself being pulled under as I was already feeling a bit out of sorts. There were a few times I thought I might DNF the book, but the writing itself kept pulling me back in.

The story in We Are Okay is one of immense grief. We join events in progress, Marin is waiting for Mabel to come visit her at college over winter break. Marin hasn’t spoken to Mabel in nearly five months and is living a sort of half-life. There was something terrible that happened, or perhaps several terrible somethings and we are reading to find out what they were. The novel works back and forth between the previous summer and this Christmas and we slowly piece together Marin’s truth as she becomes more and more ready to say the words, even to herself.

This novel unpacks what it means to discover someone has kept an enormous secret from you, and how life’s transitions can both change us drastically while also reaffirming exactly who we are.  Nina LaCour created astonishing characters and a deep story that absolutely earned its Printz Award. As long as you are in the headspace for it, I suggest this one mightily for those of us who read YA.