The Stand-up Groomsman (CBR14 #50)

Cover of The Stand-up Groomsman by Jackie Lau featuring a heavyset Asian man in a suit with a microphone and a thin Asian woman in a pink one shoulder bridesmaid's dress looking up at him.

I know a Jackie Lau romance is going to make my heart happy. In some ways The Stand-up Groomsman is a departure from the types of Lau books I’ve enjoyed in the past. In this follow up to last year’s Donut Fall in Love Lau takes a more serious tone and unpacks some bigger emotional truths, in this case how we handle expectations and how it interacts with larger family dynamics. But in most ways, this is almost exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect from Lau – there’s tropes that she’s going to play around with and there’s going to be spades of representation.

When Vivian Liao’s roommate gets engaged to her favorite actor’s costar, she has no choice but to come face-to-face with Melvin Lee again following their terrible first meeting the previous year. He’s just as funny and handsome as he is on-screen…but thinks she is a snob and a sellout. Mel is used to charming audiences as an actor and stand-up comedian but can’t connect to Vivian even though he wants to make up for judging her based on his own fears and experiences. The only thing uniting them is their goal for their friends’ wedding to go off without a hitch. As they collaborate on wedding cake and karaoke parties, antagonism turns to burgeoning friendship to something more.

The Stand-up Groomsman features both opposites attract and enemies to friends to lovers. It’s also a queer m/f book as both main characters are bi. Vivian and Mel have vastly different temperaments and personalities, which made for an interesting chemistry. Lau writes well-rounded leads who understand and respect each other’s boundaries. It was not a typical relationship, and the ways in which Lau steps outside the “norm” meant a great deal to me personally and I was excited to see it. This one doesn’t shy away from making a happily ever after for its characters that makes sense for them, not for what might be expected for them.

A major emotional beat is worth and family expectations about Mel and Vivian’s relationships with their families. Vivian is made miserable by her family, specifically by their expectations of who she should be and the way they robbed her of her childhood by forcing her to act as a third parent for her younger siblings. Between her family and her terrible ex Vivian is convinced that people only want to be with her for what they can get from her. She must find that she is worth happiness and someone who sees her as she is and loves her without expectations, which paves the way for a consistent undercurrent of how consistently kind the leads are to each other. Mel also has trauma he must work through, and Vivian is steadfast in her support of his healthy boundaries as she has fought for her own.

It could be easy to get frustrated with Vivian, and I was for sections of book, but at the same time Lau uses Vivian’s past experiences well in explaining who she is today and how her personality formed. There were some things that weren’t great – the grovel was too quick for my tastes. I also got possibly irrationally angry with the break-up at the 80% mark. Lau occasionally falls back on telling the reader how the characters are feeling, instead of letting the characters’ behaviors and actions do the speaking, but overall this book and its predecessor are worth your time. 

I received this book as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, it has not affected the contents of this review. The Stand-up Groomsman publishes October 25, 2022.

All Boys Aren’t Blue (CBR14 #47)

cover of the book All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson which shows a young black queer boy with a flower grown, the background fading from blue to pink.

When we had our book club vote for September, I was secretly hoping that All Boys Aren’t Blue would be one of the ones we chose. I was flabbergasted that in November of last year the memoir had a criminal report filed with the Flagler County Sheriff’s office by a member of the Flagler County School Board arguing that the book’s inclusion in three district school libraries violated state obscenity laws because it contained sexually graphic material. It has also been removed from school libraries in at least eight states and is ALA’s third most challenged book of 2021. All because the author wanted to see stories like theirs on the shelves so that children like them would feel less alone. Because queer, Black stories from the Black perspective are largely missing from the pop culture landscape.

I loved this book. George M. Johnson writes so beautifully and openly about his life that you are brought into his understanding of the two big identities that intersect in his life, his queerness and his Blackness. I don’t live too far from where Johnson grew up so there was that added layer for me, but what Johnson sets out to achieve for the younger audience he also achieved with me.

I’m not the only one who liked this work and found value in it, Johnson’s reflections on growing up Black and queer was optioned by Gabrielle Union-Wade’s production company for a television series. I’m with Johnson, books with heavy topics are not going to harm children and young adults. They live in the world which is full of heavy topics (think back to your own growing up years), and are going to be affected by them.  Books like this one give them (and us) the tools, the language, the resources and the education to deal with some of the tough things that will come their way.

A Lady for a Duke (CBR14 #41)

After reading other Alexis Hall books earlier this year, the excellent Boyfriend Material and the quite good Something Fabulous, I became very excited for the promise of A Lady for a Duke.

And that excitement was well placed, as I very much enjoyed this outing. While it didn’t quite reach the heights of Boyfriend Material for me, I felt Hall did a much better job with the tone of historical romance than he had in romp in Something Fabulous, even if the pacing bothered me at times. I found it a bit repetitive and then interspersed with time jumps that left the reader without some of the opportunities to just be with the characters. The good news is that I wanted to be with these characters enough that I was bothered not to get to see more quiet moments.

Hall’s stated goal in writing A Lady for a Duke is that Viola being transgender was not the main source of conflict of the book, and I think he managed that well. So well in fact that I don’t want to dwell on the chapter in which Gracewood reacts poorly to discovering whom he knew Viola as because the immediate chapter after it launches into one of the best long form grovels I’ve read in a Romance in a long time. The real conflicts for the characters (nearly all) are really about gender roles and gendered expectations. Viola refuses Gracewood’s advances several times over because she is focused on the ways she feels she cannot live up to society’s (and her own) expectations about what a lady needs to do or be to be for a Duke. Gracewood has his own hang-ups about what kind of man he is after the war, dealing with physical and mental impairments.  Gracewood’s sister Miranda is a young woman unconvinced that they fully know who or what they want, just knowing they want the love of their family, and Viola’s sister-in-law Louise who fulfills what the expectations are of a woman of her class, all while also being exactly whom she wants to be, screw what anyone else has to say about it.

I find there to be great value in exploring ideas through characters who don’t have the language we would use to characterize what is going on with them. I find it can help readers work through ideas on their own, to find themselves on the page, to find their own interpretation. I’m a history person, I should want my historical fiction historically accurate (and I often do, please see my enjoyment of the things Loretta Chase writes) and listen, I know Hall is going to get pushback at this being inaccurate due to the undercurrent of acceptance that is the backbone of the emotional beats of this book, but fuck that noise. Why are we in the habit of ignoring the possibilities and realities of independent, individual reactions? Why do we assume the laws at a national level reflect the entirety of a populace when it so clearly doesn’t in our own times? If you have problems with Hall’s accuracy, I invite you to look closer at the scholarship, because he’s not creating a baseless fantasy world in this story, certainly not more than any romance featuring a Duke of which there were less than 30 at the time.

Final thoughts: Hall teases the possibility of other stories in this universe including the other ladies whom he borrowed names from Shakespeare heroines for (yes please Miranda!) but also Amberglass and I have no desire at all to read that character have a redemption.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. It has not affected the contents of the review.

banned book thoughts

Banning books works.


On a number of levels.

It keeps books out of the hands of the people immediately effected by the ban.

It emboldens the challengers to go after more. To look beyond the books themselves to take further action against the represented groups.

I would like to say that the benefits of exposure to the challenged titles outweighs the damage, but I can’t. Because media attention is short-lived and successful challenges can lead to bans that left unchecked can keep those books off publicly accessible shelves for years or decades.

It is a tool of power. Power and control. In both the short and long term.

Worse yet, the ban doesn’t even have to hold, or exist for long. Merely being challenged will often pull a book out of circulation due to fear of dealing with the fallout of shelving these ‘bad’ books. Libraries in the United States are, by and large, publicly funded institutions which means that the money that puts books on shelves at all can come under fire if public opinion isn’t good. Quietly across the country boards and directors are making the choice to pre-emptively pull books off shelves, effectively silencing the authors and leaving the readers who need these books out in the cold.

A lot of the rhetoric flying around right now (February 2022) is full of people with good intentions doing feel good actions that provide no real redress to the actual problem. And that’s shitty, because they are acting in selfish ways instead of in selfless action. And as usual, its people who look like me doing the shitty thing on both sides.

I read banned books as a student, not because I knew to look for them, or that they were available to me, but because I had adults putting those options in front of me, occasionally at their own peril, and parents who were supportive of my reading and education broadly.

I read banned and challenged books as an adult because the idea that someone feels they have the right to decide what is acceptable to read, makes my skin crawl.

Some of the most beautiful reading experiences I have had are with banned books… because often banned and challenged books are telling deeply personal stories of the vagaries of this life that we are given. The idea that anyone ‘needs to be protected’ from truth is so rage inducing that I often cannot put it into words, even while actively seeking to read and review banned and challenged books all the time, even while planning to lead a book club about banned books this September.

Because why are books being banned or challenged right now?

Ostensibly the major complaints come down to whether a book is appropriate for its audience. Your mileage may vary on that on its face value. What it is really being used for is to keep books that don’t fit into someone’s view of what “children” or better yet “their children” should be exposed to. Because we don’t talk about those things.

Things like racism or racial conflict.

Or war.

Or genocide.

Or violence.

Or gender identity.

Or queer love.

Or what constitutes blasphemy.

But the world has all these things. Some in greater proportion to others, but they are all true.

And objective truth is more important than comfort, is more important than the propagandist forces that would tell you to be afraid of it. That are after accumulating power based on what they can make you afraid of, of whom they can paint as the villain making your life worse.

Because the thing to fear is living in the dark. Of not knowing truth and believing lies. Of creating boogeymen where none exist.

Because lies are the tools of the oppressors.

And people are just people, beautiful and complex, and fascinating.

Fight back. Don’t be afraid.

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.