Book Review: Confessions of the Fox

confessions of the foxConfessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction
329 pages
Published June 2018

Confessions of the Fox is an #ownvoices novel – written by a trans author, about a trans professor writing about a manuscript about a trans eighteenth-century thief. In that way, it’s quite unique, and valuable for its observations about being trans.

But story-wise – it drug on about a hundred pages too long, got bogged down by the footnotes that tell the professor’s story, and ultimately went off on some conspiracy tangent that added nothing to the plot. It got weird. I think the book would have been better if it had just been Jack Sheppard’s story, without the “professor-annotating-the-manuscript” framework built around it.

Jack is a very compelling character, but we keep getting distracted from his story by the professor’s career and love life problems, so it feels very fragmented. I did enjoy the colorful, metaphorical language constantly being used to talk about sex, though! Make no mistake, this is a dirty book. It’s mostly dirty in the most flowery of terms, so it’s more entertaining than titillating, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of gifting it to someone!

Ultimately, I wish I’d skipped it. I know there are people that like the book-within-a-book framework, and I do sometimes, but I feel like it distracted from the story I really wanted to read, here.

From the cover of Confessions of the Fox:

Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.

Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript – a gender-defying exposé of jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack – a transgender carpenter’s apprentice – has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary.

Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined – and only a miracle will save them all.

Confessions of the Fox is, at once, a work of speculative historical fiction, a soaring love story, a puzzling mystery, an electrifying tale of adventure and suspense, and an unabashed celebration of sex and sexuality. Writing with the narrative mastery of Sarah Waters and the playful imagination of Nabokov, Jordy Rosenberg is an audacious storyteller of extraordinary talent.

Book Review: Give The Dark My Love

give the dark my loveGive The Dark My Love
by Beth Revis
Young Adult/Fantasy
351 pages
Published September 2018

Yet another lady necromancer book! I do really love this topic. It’s also really interesting to see the different flavors various authors can give it. Sometimes it’s binding wandering spirits into physical objects, or bringing spirits back from the Shadowlands to live in our world as normal people, or being a warden against great undead beasts, or, in this case, trying to stop a cursed plague that might have necromantic origins.

There are a lot of commonalities, though, even with how different these ladies’ reasons are. There’s always some line, usually the line into “true” necromancy, that she shouldn’t cross, and which she normally does. There’s always a loved one who ultimately supports her even if they’re not sure she’s doing the right thing. There’s always a sense of desperation driving her to what she sees as the only solution.

What’s amazing is that given that framework, these books continue to surprise and delight me. Each one is still such a unique take on the “dark art” of necromancy. These ladies aren’t evil. Nedra, here, is trying to save her family and her people from a plague that evades any kind of scientific explanation. They have no idea how it spreads. It usually starts in the extremities, and if you cut off the infected limb, sometimes that stops it. But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it starts over the heart, or right in the brain. Some people simply seem to be immune. Nedra works with the sick for months and never gets it, but some people come down with it without having any contact with a sick person. Her teacher at school finally confesses that he thinks it might be necromantic in origin, and things begin to cascade from that point.

There is a romance in the book, though it’s definitely a side plot. Nedra’s studies and work on the plague is the main focus. We have a bisexual character in Nedra’s twin sister, but again, she’s really just a side note. The book ended on a bit of a cliff hanger, and the second book doesn’t have a title or a release date yet, unfortunately. “Sometime in 2019” is all we’ve got, which is quite disappointing because I need it NOW!

While Give The Dark My Love wasn’t the best of the lady necromancer books I’ve read recently, it was still pretty great. I am eager for news of the sequel!

From the cover of Give The Dark My Love:

Seventeen-year-old Nedra Brysstain leaves her home in the rural, northern territories of Lunar Island to attend the prestigious Yügen Academy with only one goal in mind: master the trade of medicinal alchemy. A scholarship student matriculating with the children of Lunar Island’s wealthiest and most powerful families, Nedra doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids at Yügen.

Until she meets Greggori “Grey” Astor. Grey is immediately taken by the brilliant and stubborn Nedra, who, he notices, is especially invested in her studies. And that’s for a good reason: a deadly plague has been sweeping through the north, and it’s making its way toward the cities. With her family’s lives – and the  lives of all of Lunar Island’s citizens – on the line, Nedra is determined to find a cure for the plague.

Grey and Nedra grow close, but as the sickness spreads and the body count rises, Nedra becomes desperate to find a cure. Soon, she finds herself diving into alchemy’s most dangerous practices. And when she turns to the most forbidden practice of all, necromancy, even Grey might not be able to pull her from the darkness.

Book Review: The Weight of Feathers

the weight of feathersThe Weight of Feathers
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Romance/Shakespeare Retelling
308 pages
Published 2015

The Weight of Feathers is a Romeo and Juliet story, with two families feuding over real and imagined slights, and a young person from each family falling in love and fighting their conditioning and the control of their families to be together. McLemore has added a touch of magic to the story, but it’s deft enough that at first it can be mistaken for metaphor.

Lace Paloma is the Palomas’ youngest mermaid, only just allowed to show herself in the shows, but not yet allowed to interact with fans. A big part of their performance is not being seen out of the water, out of costume, so when the show is over, all the mermaids swim off to deserted edges of the lake they perform in to exit, change, and make their way home. On her way home after one such performance, Lace is caught in the woods when some kind of acid rain from the nearby adhesive plant coats the town. While somewhat caustic, the rain is really only dangerous if it hits cotton clothing, which Lace is wearing. One of the Corbeau boys finds her in the woods, rips off her cotton clothing, and gets her to the hospital. Because she was in her normal clothing and not her costume, he didn’t realize she was part of the rival family. This meeting and rescue is not actually the start of their contact with each other; they’d talked briefly in town, when each thought the other was a local, but it does turn it from a passing contact to something more, and when Lace is spurned by her family, she winds up under the Corbeau boy’s protection.

The book is about family secrets, corporate conspiracies, abusive families, and control of one’s own destiny, swirled together with a touch of magic, feathers, and mermaid scales. While it is definitely a Romeo and Juliet story, McLemore has taken the story and truly made it her own. Both the Paloma family and the Corbeau family have such a mythology woven about themselves that each family really has an identity that defines them. (Feathers and “flying” for the Corbeaus, scales and swimming for the Palomas.) When Lace and Cluck try to bridge the gap between the two, things get difficult.

I really loved this book, and it has made me even more eager to read Blanca & Roja, McLemore’s next book. Her writing is gorgeous and surreal and I love it.

From the cover of The Weight of Feathers:

The Palomas and the Corbeaus have long been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for more than a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows – the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught since birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep could be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees. 

Beautifully written and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.

Book Review: Damsel

damselDamsel
by Elana K. Arnold
Fantasy/Young Adult?!
309 pages
Published October 2018

Before I even get into this review.

CONTENT WARNING. DOMESTIC ABUSE. SEXUAL ASSAULT. ANIMAL ABUSE. GASLIGHTING. 

For all that, though, I loved this book. The protagonist suffers through all of that and perseveres. But it’s important to expect those things going into this book, because the central plot of the book is our protagonist being severely gaslit, with the rest of the abuse being in support of that. I agree with other Goodreads reviewers that it’s surprising it’s being marketed as a Young Adult book because these themes are VERY adult.

So. With those caveats, this book was outstanding. The book opens on Prince Emory riding his horse towards the castle of the dragon, intending to slay it and rescue his future wife, as his tradition in his kingdom. Emory seems to be your typical prince, accomplished, at ease with his sword, his horse, and himself, yet there is the occasional part of his inner narration that comes off…oddly. He enters the dragon’s castle, defeats the dragon, and leaves with his prize, a damsel who can remember nothing about herself or her past. A blank slate. Perfect for a queen-to-be.

But as Ama, so named by Emory, learns more about her new kingdom and future husband, and what her place will be, she realizes this is not what she wants. The more Emory tries to convince her that it IS what she wants, the more we get into the abuse factor of the book.

It’s very well done. It’s a dark fairy tale, it’s a consistent metaphor for – well, humanity’s treatment of women, really. Sit down, shut up, look pretty, and birth the next generation. You are important because only you can do that, but don’t let it give you uppity ideas. All that kind of patronizing misogyny.

I really loved this book, but it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the triggers might be too much for some of the people who WOULD otherwise like it. So know that going in.

From the cover of Damsel:

THE RITE HAS EXISTED FOR AS LONG AS ANYONE CAN REMEMBER

When the king dies, his son the prince must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon or what horrors she faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome young man, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny of sitting on a throne beside him. It’s all like a dream, like something from a fairy tale.

As Ama follows Emory to the kingdom of Harding, however, she discovers that not all is as it seems. There is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows, and the greatest threats may not be behind her but around her, now, and closing in.

Elana K. Arnold, author of the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, has written a twisted and unforgettable fairy tale, one that is set at the incendiary point where power, oppression, and choice meet.

Book Review: The Good Demon

the good demonThe Good Demon
by Jimmy Cajoleas
Contemporary Fiction/YA?
306 pages
Published September 2018

The Good Demon is marked Young Adult, and the protagonist is fifteen or sixteen (I don’t remember if the book actually says which) but the subject manner is…surprisingly adult. It’s a very Southern Gothic book.

Clare, our protagonist, had a demon inside her just prior to the opening of the book. She’d had it since she was very young – in one of the many flashbacks we see their meeting. But just prior to the start of the book, the demon was cast out by a local reverend and his son. Clare is lost without Her (the only name she’s had for the demon – Her) and reacts much as an addict would when going cold turkey. And then she discovers clues left by the demon, and resolves to solve the mystery and get her demon back.

Sprinkled throughout Clare’s investigation are flashbacks to when she was possessed, and we learn what the demon really means to Clare. The demon has saved her life multiple times, and seems to truly care about her. But in poking around her town, Clare uncovers some disturbing relics and characters. She learns there might be a way to get her demon back, but the cost might be higher than she wants to pay. (It’s also a bit predictable, but the slow-creeping horror of knowing what’s about to happen is part of what makes this book amazing.) In the meantime, she’s falling in love with the reverend’s son, and their relationship only complicates matters.

The atmosphere of the book is perfect Southern Gothic – from Clare playing in the swampy woods as a little girl, to the one mysteriously wealthy family that controls far too much of the sleepy town, to the small-town feel and the enigmatic hermit off the highway. The broken families and alcoholics and domestic violence all hidden beneath a veneer of sociability – it’s one of the best Southern Gothics I’ve read in a very long time.

The writing is just amazing – evocative and entrancing and – I just loved this book, okay? I’d heard it had mixed reviews, so I was a bit wary of the book, but the premise was so interesting – and then I fell in love with it. I think this is one of my favorite books this year.

From the cover of The Good Demon:

“She was my Only.”

It wasn’t technically an exorcism, what they did to Clare. When the reverend and his son ripped her demon from her, they called it a “deliverance.” But they didn’t understand that Clare and her demon – known simply as Her – were like sisters. She comforted Clare, made her feel brave, helped to ease her loneliness. They were each other’s Only.

Now, Clare’s only comforts are the three clues that She left behind:

Be nice to him

June 20

Remember the stories

Clare will do anything to get Her back, even if it means teaming up with the reverend’s son and scouring every inch of her small, Southern town for answers. But if she sacrifices everything to bring back her demon, what will be left of Clare?

Book Review: Odd One Out

odd one outOdd One Out
by Nic Stone
Young Adult/Romance/LGBT
306 pages
Published October 2018

DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME WITH THIS BOOK. I mean it. This is one of those books that is so bad that I don’t plan to read anything else by the author, which is a little annoying as her debut book, Dear Martin, is the new One Book Baltimore pick. But this book, her second, is SO BAD that I can’t imagine her first is any better. I will get into details, but first.

TRIGGER WARNING. BIPHOBIA. ILLEGAL SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS. (big age gaps). 

Alright. With that said, let’s dive in. SPOILERS AHEAD.

We have three main characters in this book, of various races and ethnicities – the racial rep is actually one of the few good things about this book. First we have “Coop,” black straight male. Then we have his best friend, “Jupe” or Jupiter, lesbian female. Then the new girl, Rae, who appears to be bi, but never outright labels herself. She is assumed to be straight by Jupiter, one of many instances of casual biphobia in this book.

All three characters fall in love with each other. From this setup, and the jacket description, I was expecting a rare representation of polyamory in a young adult book. But not only do they not wind up in a triangle, the possibility isn’t even spoken of. This is supposedly a book about questioning labels and exploring your identity but alternate relationship structures don’t even seem to EXIST, which is SUPER frustrating. Even if they’d at least discussed it as an OPTION, I would have been happier. But no. Monogamy is not only the norm, but apparently the only option in this book.

And OH LORD THE BIPHOBIA. Jupe has a lesbian friend who is much older than her – in college – and said friend goes off about how she won’t date bi girls because they’ll always leave you for men. She’s not challenged on this statement. Not out loud, not in the text, nothing. And that’s not the only instance. Jupe also gets drunk and pleads with this friend to have sex with her. Resulting in a 20-year-old having sex with a tipsy sixteen-year-old.

I normally don’t have an issue with age gaps – and I don’t, actually, have an issue with Rae, who’s 15, and Cooper, who is 18 in the book. Other reviewers have mentioned that’s not legal in Georgia, where the book takes place, but please. It’s only a three-year age difference, and they’re all in high school. But the college student giving in to the tipsy high-schooler was a little more than just “an age gap.” That’s…very questionable.

BACK TO THE BIPHOBIA. There’s an inner monologue about if saying you’re bisexual also means you can be attracted to non-binary people or not. (Hint: bi means “attracted to your own sex AND OTHERS.” So yes.) And when Jupiter, the lesbian, decides she is attracted to Cooper, she flatly denies that that makes her bisexual.

To be fair, I’ve known at least two lesbians who identify as “lesbian except HIM” – one specific person. But that’s not what Jupiter does. She drops her label entirely – in a GSA meeting at her school that she leads – because she still likes girls but also likes a boy. When a bisexual member speaks up with “So you’re bi then? You can say it, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m bi.” she IMMEDIATELY shoots him down, saying it’s not that cut and dried. Then she announces they’ll talk about negative stereotypes of different sexualities, including bisexuality, in their next meeting and ends the meeting. The only reason she doesn’t like the bisexual label, as stated a little earlier in the book, is because she’s attracted to nonbinary people so she “doesn’t know if bi fits.” That’s biphobia.

Oh, and let’s not forget when Rae kisses Jupiter and she goes off on her about keeping her straight-questioning cooties away from her. (Paraphrasing.) Rae had never explicitly talked about her sexuality, but obviously because she’s attracted to boys, she’s straight, right?

The book is advertised as having great representation, and it’s just bad. It’s bad and hurtful and frustrating and shouldn’t be on all these LGBT lists because this is NOT the kind of representation we should be pushing.

Ugh. And I haven’t even touched the quality of writing. Which is…not great. I don’t understand the people that liked this book or think it’s good rep. Did we read the same book?

From the cover of Odd One Out:

COURTNEY “COOP” COOPER
Dumped. Again. And normally I wouldn’t mind. But right now, my best friend and source of solace, Jupiter Sanchez, is ignoring me to text some girl.

RAE EVELYN CHIN
I assumed “new girl” would be synonymous with “pariah,” but Jupiter and Courtney make me feel like I’m right where I belong. I also want to kiss him. And her. Which is . . . perplexing.

JUPITER CHARITY-SANCHEZ
The only thing worse than losing the girl you love to a boy is losing her to your boy. That means losing him, too. I have to make a move . . . . 

One story.

Three sides.

No easy answers.