Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America

By R. Eric Thomas

Here_For_ItWhew, this book! I’m a big fan of R. Eric Thomas’ weekly e-newsletter,* and figured this would be a similar collection of essays: a combination of very funny personal anecdotes and political/social commentary. And it was, but just…even better: deeper, more complex, shockingly poignant. I was in awe of how he balanced humor and gravity, and how artistically he threaded themes through his personal life into reflections of our country as a whole.

One sentence, I’ll be laughing out loud, and the next will stop me short:

“The fact that I sometimes enjoyed dating a boy was, to say the least, discomfirming information for a Christian, black-esque straight person who spent his free time carefully curating an Audra McDonald fan page on the internet. And it didn’t feel like there were two sides of me fighting for dominance; it felt like I was coming apart at some basic level, like I was becoming diffuse, like water becomes mist.”

… “like water becomes mist.” Whew!

Thomas has had hard times, as he struggled with what it meant to be black, gay, and deeply Christian in America, but he finds such reflective truths and ultimate optimism that it was an ideal read right now. In his introduction, Thomas talks about his childhood love for Sesame Street’s The Monster At the End of This Book. It’s a funny, light-hearted critique of a children’s book through the retrospective adult lens. By the end, he ties this all into how difficult life seems now, but how important it is to forge ahead (as a very skilled professional writer, he of course does this much more meaningfully than I can). The title of his book comes from his conclusion that he is “here for it,” it being his life, with all its ups and downs, and that is how you save your soul in America.

*I have to plug his analysis of Governor Cuomo’s covid-themed poster, which had me howling!

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

Red, White, and Royal Blue

By Casey McQuiston

Royal_BlueOstensibly a romance novel (the first son of the United States falls into an affair with the second prince of England), Red, White, and Royal Blue is charming enough to lure the reader into some truly heart-wrenching looks at our current political climate.

Though the politics represented here are much improved over our current situation – the first female president is facing her reelection with a conservative but politically savvy Republican opponent – it still holds a mirror to how twisted our politics have gotten: where polls, focus groups, and image are everything, having completely superseded personal ethos.

This is a lot for a supposed romance novel, but it asks how much sacrifice can be demanded of individuals for a greater societal good? Is there a tipping point where the sacrifice becomes so big that it degrades the society around it? For me, it explored how asking people to hide who they truly are – sexuality in this book, but also ethnicity, religion, gender and countless other things – is not only poisonously corrosive to the individuals but weakens our entire society.

I had been looking forward to a fluffy romance to pass the time while I self-isolate in order to avoid being an additional contagion vector (how is our world like this right now?!), and was a bit grumpy to not actually get precisely that, but it is so moving, heartfelt, and ultimately optimistic that I couldn’t stay mad.

Fanfiction: The Untamed/GoDC edition

I have now read a lot of fanfic for The Untamed / Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. I figured it was time to make some recommendations here for some of the best of them. It was extremely hard to weed it down to just four, and I had to struggle to try to keep them solidly distinct from one another (there tends to be a lot of overlap in fanfic) and generally happy (canon gives a lot of opportunity for angst). And not too explicitly graphic, although I compromised that one a bit.

So here are my four recommended fanfics, in order chronologically through events and also in order of humor, from heart-wrenching to hilarious:

   DURING CANON, there’s always going to be a certain amount of angst:

Devoutly to Be Wished
by yunitsa
word count: 3,032

Summary: Five (and half) times Wei Wuxian fantasies about Lan Wangji, and one time he doesn’t have to.

Why I recommend it: I was going to keep this list of recommendations strictly non-graphic and then I realized that I had to include this one because it’s a gorgeous and heart-breaking look at the main character and his desire for his beloved as he grows and changes.

   IN THE MISSING YEARS, there’s a surprisingly less angst:

Scapegoat
by astrobandit
word count: 1,325

Summary: four ridiculous things the Yiling Patriarch was blamed for, and one ridiculous thing that was positively his fault.

Why I recommend it: The canonical storyline switches between the past and the present with a good decade in between the end of the past and the beginning of the present, and in that time Lan WangJi appears to have decided that he has no more fucks to give and it is glorious. This story is a few very short vignettes that show just how done with everyone’s idiocy he is. Glorious!

   IMMEDIATELY POST-CANON, specifically to the TV show

The Absolutely True Story of the Yiling Patriarch: A Manifesto in Many Parts
by aubreyli
word count: 19,692

Summary: In which the junior disciples (namely, Lan Jingyi, Ouyang Zizhen, and a reluctant Lan Sizhui) turn to RPF in an attempt to rehabilitate Wei Wuxian’s reputation so that he and Hanguang-jun can get together and get married and live happily ever after. It’s… surprisingly effective.

Why I recommend it: This is both beautiful and hilarious and does an amazing job of capturing that dichotomy that’s also present in the original story of balancing humor and drama.

   FURTHER POST-CANON, our main couple are an established couple and dealing with other things:

A Civil Combpaign, and it’s companion, Besieged
by Ariaste
word count: 31,015

Summary: “And,” said one of the pompous ministers, “there’s the matter of a marriage to consider as well!”
Jin Ling, who at the beginning of that sentence had expected to slam into the very last wall of his patience and lose his temper entirely, paused. “A what?”
Thing was… it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Why I recommend it: This is side-splittingly funny. I had to struggle through some second-hand embarrassment but it’s worth it because this is the most awkward courtship attempt ever between two of the younger generation with our main couple established and looking on. And Wei Wuxian’s perspective on it all is an utter delight. Also, in some ways, this version of Wei Wuxian reminds me of Eugenidies from The Thief.

 

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

mdzs coverThe Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation 
Written by: Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
Translated by: K.san
2018-2019

This is a phenomenon.

I first discovered this because someone I follow on tumblr was posting a steady stream of amazingly beautiful screencaptures of beautiful people and scenes from the show, The Untamed, showing on Netflix.

theuntamed

I convinced Anna to try it out with me, and we were quickly enthralled and had to watch all 50 episodes even though the plot was confusing enough that we had to read the episode summaries before watching each episode and then discuss the events to make sure we understood what was going on.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that we were dealing with names that we weren’t used to, so mostly gave everyone a nickname: Protagonist, Beloved, Beloved’s brother, Protag’s brother, Protag’s sister, Red girl, Red guy, Fan guy, Douche, Psycho, Douche’s Cousin who makes Douche look better in comparison… etc.

It says something about how charismatic the acting is that we were drawn in despite the initial confusion.

So, we watched all 50 episodes and it was done. There was an amazing and beautiful conclusion. But also: what was I going to do with my evenings now????

I mean, the answer is clearly: fanfic. But before that, I discovered was that the tv show was based off a book, Mo Dao Zu Shi, that has a freely available online fan translation, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by K.san, of all 113 chapters plus 13 “extras”.

There is action and adventure and mystery and intrigue and magic and it is so freaking funny. What was funny in the tv show is ten times funnier in the book because we get the internal monologue of our main character. What was subtext in the tv show is very much text in the text. On the other hand, what was known-but-unspoken by the characters in the tv show is dumb-ass boys being absolutely terrible at communication in the book.

Anyway, this is an east asian fantasy world with swords and magic and ghosts and a variety of supernatural spirits that are probably more culturally known in China but easy enough to just go with as an American reader.

The basic premise, is that a much reviled and yet also much respected character was killed some sixteen years before the start, but has been brought back to life as part of a revenge (on someone else) plot. Wei Wuxian finds himself alive again, somewhat insulted that his reputation after death had gotten so bad that someone brought him back to life to kill their family. And things quickly spiral from there, because sixteen years is just long enough for the next generation to start dealing with the world but not enough for the earlier generations to have forgotten Wei Wuxian or moved on.

There’s a lot of flashbacks in the book as we alternate between seeing what’s going on now, with the newly alive Wei Wuxian, and what happened prior to his original death, and how it got the point where he was killed in a coordinated attack. Meanwhile Wei Wuxian and Lan WangJi have the most slow-burn, mutual-pining, idiot-boys-cannot-communicate, romance going on in both time periods.

It also starts off quite funny, and gets progressively darker as it goes along, even as it maintains some of the humor, and finally breaks through into lightness again at the end.

All this goes to say, I loved this and I want to recommend it to everyone who thinks they might like this kind of fantasy action shenanigans, but if the genre is not your thing, then I’m not sure if the book is good enough to break through. But maybe give the tv show a try just to see.

However, a couple of warnings:

Warning #1: the translation is very, very good for an amateur, but is rough for a professional. I did find the translator notes quite interesting as she discussed some of the word choices she made. And since she was posting the translated chapters as she went, it’s also interesting to see how the translations changed and improved over the course of the full book.

Warning #2: there is explicit sex near the end of the book and even more in the “extra” chapters after the story arc is complete. The scenes say more to me about the author’s kinks rather than staying true to the characters. Since the kink in question, playing with consent issues, is kind of my anti-kink, even when it’s clearly desired by both, I didn’t care for it and look forward to fanfic fixing that particular aspect.

Adult Fantasy Books Not By Straight White Men

Witchmark

By CL Polk

WitchmarkWitchmark is the first of the many library holds I put on books recommended by the Tumblr’s Adult fantasy books not by straight white men! and I’m so glad that it was the first one I read!

It is a little hard to review because it is just satisfying across the board. It has a lot of the elements of a comfort read: a common-man protagonist who must rely on his hidden magic in the face of adversity, a light romance with a charming but mysterious stranger, and a truly shocking conspiracy by a shadowy society that must be revealed to the world.

Set in fictional world, it is heavily based on post-WWI London. The metropolitan has recently been wired with new fangled electricity, and a treaty has finally brought the end to a brutal war between nations. Soldiers are returning home in mass, where our protagonist Miles does his best to hide his healing magic and personal history while working at an understaffed and underfunded veterans hospital.

The book starts off as a murder mystery, with a fatally ill man being brought to Miles by his own request, and insisting to him that he has been murdered just before he dies. This probably would have been enough to hook me, but the fantasy and romance elements are woven in so deftly that it became this wonderful amalgam of genres that made me want to read the sequel immediately (unfortunately not due out for a couple of months).

Amberlough

By Lara Elena Donnelly

AmberloughAmberlough cut a bit close to our current state of affairs, honestly. Set in a fictional world inspired by 1930s Germany, Cyril DePaul is a secret agent assigned to uncover why an extremely conservative party is winning elections despite low popularity in polls. Collusion and extortion is suspected (sound familiar?), but before he can discover anything Cyril is quickly uncovered by the wealthy industrialists that make up the party leadership, and strong-armed into betraying his employer and government.

Though I was sympathetic to his plight, Cyril is cowardly and too easily compromised. His lover, Aristide, the emcee of a popular cabaret, is vicious and self-serving, using Cyril for access to state secrets that could inform his side business smuggling. The central dancer at the cabaret, Cordelia, is drawn into their schemes, and is vapid…until she isn’t.

Which is when the book shifted for me, finally becoming more about schemes and espionage than characterizations of unpleasant people. Unfortunately, this happens almost 200 pages into the book, so it was a slow start, to say the least. And then, 100 pages later, everything goes to shit, perhaps accurate of 1930s Berlin and dare I say our current news cycle, and it becomes especially unpleasant reading.

It reminded me a fair bit of Jo Walton’s Small Change series, but even grimmer and joyless. Amberlough is well thought out and extremely well written, but I hated reading just about all of it, and felt entirely depleted after finishing it.

My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen

By David Clawson

My-Fairy-GodmotherThis showed up on my daily Bookbub email, and I was curious enough to read the excerpted section on Amazon, and that first chapter impressed me. For a modern, queer retelling of Cinderella, the author does a good job of characterizing a stepmother and stepsiblings who are self-centered and incompetent but not wicked, and a protagonist who is enough of an introverted neatnik to fall into a Cinderella role when the family runs into hard times.

Unfortunately, chapter 2 opens with meeting the fairy godmother drag queen, and while the actual sequence of events is clever, I’m not sure David Clawson actually knows any drag queens, and I’m almost positive he doesn’t have any black friends. I’m saying it gets real awkward real fast.

I really wanted to find excuses, so I spent far too much time thinking, oh, the protagonist is just so young and naïve, and perhaps this is just showing his own ignorance before he grows as a person, until I just couldn’t fool myself anymore. The titular drag queen and her friends are the broadest caricatures, vaudevillian even. Which could almost (but not quite) be waved away with the self-aware camp-ness that is built into drag, but meeting the man outside drag was too much. We’re talking 90s-sitcom-level portrayal of a “slightly thuggish-looking black guy in oversized hip-hop clothes” (direct quote from the book, and it gets worse from there).

Finally, just to add insult to injury, in Chapter 3 we meet Prince Charming, who is “the ridiculously handsome, brown-haired, brown-eyed, square-jawed, cleft chinned J. J. Kennerly, the only child of the closest thing America has to royalty,” and I wanted to vomit. While I appreciate the almost-ligature of the r and l, the Kennedy’s are so overblown in my opinion that any attempt to make them (or a facsimile of them) into a romantic lead loses me completely.

So, I was already predisposed to dislike Kennerly when he “ironically” said something incredibly homophobic to the drag queen to shock her for mistaking (?) him for a bigot. So, I’m left side-eying the protagonist, embarrassed by the fairy godmother, and contemptuous of the prince, which is not what I was hoping to get out of a fluffy bit of summer reading.

Love for the Cold-Blooded by Alex Gabriel

coldbloodedLove for the Cold-Blooded: Or: The Part-Time Evil Minion’s Guide to Accidentally Dating a Superhero
by Alex Gabriel
2014

This is such an amazingly delightful and hilarious book! I highly recommend it! It had me chortling to myself. It also had so many scenes that I would have expected to hit my second-hand-embarrassment squick but instead sailed right past it with a derogatory look of: don’t expect these characters to be embarrassed by anything they do or allow anyone else to be embarrassed on their behalf. They are just fine with rolling with the situations.

And as a warning to Anna: it does have graphic sex scenes, that are not only graphic but also involve significant character development and plot progression so they can’t just be skipped.

This is the world of superheroes at it’s best: the superhero world of Saturday morning cartoons where the good guys win but the bad guys get away and no one is ever permanently harmed. The drama is high, the philosophy is pointed, and the aesthetics are amazing.

It also reminds me a bit of The Rest of Us Just Live Here since Pat, our main character who does the occasional part-time duty as a minion to whatever supervillain is currently making a bid for world domination, is mostly a college student who loves his major and has a pretty decent part-time job. He’s just so irrepressible and he loves his mom and dad and his sisters and his studies to be an urban developer and even being a minion is often annoying but sometimes fun and just part of life.

And Nicholas Andersen is the Tony Stark / Bruce Wayne of this world: the billionaire philanthropist tech-genius with awkward social skills who starts out thinking that Pat is the prostitute he requested sent up. (And Pat isn’t about to say “no” to sex with a hot guy who apparently wants to have sex with him.) And then life happens and it is all so ludicrously delightful and I love it!

stillwatersStill Waters
by Alex Gabriel
2015

As soon as I finished “Love for the Cold Blooded” I went to check out the author’s page for more. Sadly, there’s not much else and nothing in the last three years, but this novella is still really good.

It packs a fascinating amount of world-building around a very character-driven fantasy plot. Anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy knows that it comes in a wide range of styles: from dark/gritty/game-of-thrones-esque to light/fluffy/romcom-esque. Are werewolves vicious slavering creatures going on murderous rampages or are they people who turn into puppies? In this story, they are both! Because the background premise is that there are rips that will occasionally allow people from one world to pass into a different world.

Drakjan, going by Julian, is one such individual. The world he’s from is a dark and dangerous fantasy world in which vicious creatures fight and kill and the world he’s now in is a softer fantasy world in which those same fantasy creatures share borders and have council meetings and are shocked when one of their own is murdered!

One of the great things about this book is Drakjan’s perspective because the whole world is so foreign to him even after  he’s settled in to the periphery of life in the new world, giving up the joy of killing for the pleasure of peace. But he’s still very much an outsider looking in, not quite understanding how (or even why) to fit in with the rest of the society.

The plot happens when someone else comes through another rip. (Two someones actually: a love-interest and a plot-point.) The plot is extremely straight forward but the characters and the world building are amazing and it’s just as well that the plot doesn’t get in the way of that. I would love to read more but it’s also self-contained as is.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In

By Angelo Surmelis

Blending_InI missed posting this in Pride Month, but this can just as easily be read for Gay Wrath Month instead! This is a semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old boy in the months after the summer he realized without a doubt he is gay. Coming from a very strict and orthodox Greek family, his domineering and abusive mother is very much not okay with it. Like, performing-an-exorcism not-okay.

Surmelis does a particularly good job of capturing how overwhelming large groups of people, particularly teenagers, can be, all talking over each other and shifting topics constantly, which is both an impressive literary feat and difficult to read. I was having minor anxiety while at the same time appreciating his skill.

Also, authentically, the protagonist describes himself as a geek and a loner, who doesn’t fit in, though he has several close friends, and an even wider circle of pleasant acquaintance from school. As someone who truly isolated herself in high school, this used to make me sort of resentful, but I think it actually just goes to show that most of us feel isolated and out of place in high school, regardless of our relative popularity.

The scenes of abuse are difficult to read, and thing that got to me in particular was how many adults saw and looked the other way. I remember that from My Friend Dahmer, too; that author wrote that there were so many adults that saw Dahmer’s decline and did nothing. Luckily, this book ends much more happily. I kept flipping to the author’s photo in the back to reassure myself that he looked so handsome, happy, and cared for.