Today’s TTT theme is Books I Enjoyed That Are Outside of My Comfort Zone – genres or subject matters that I don’t typically read, but that I enjoyed anyway. It was pretty interesting getting this list together!Birthing Orion by Dax Murray
Representation: Sapphic or F/F, Genderqueer Author
Published by The Kraken Collective on 18th October 2018
Genres: Science Fantasy
Too fondly have I loved these stars;all these galaxies we once called ours.
The cosmic love between two goddesses is tempestuous at best. One is the goddess of a galaxy - a celestial creator, the other is the personification of a black hole, a divine destroyer. They fight and the create and they destroy and then they do it all over again.
Their relationship is explored in sonnets and villanelles, the arc of their love tracked in meter and verse. The poems touch on queer love, betrayal, trust, acceptance, and forgiveness cast against a backdrop of stardust and celestial detritus.
Birthing Orion is a novel-in-verse – and although I love poetry, verse-novels have always been a disaster for me. I took a risk on this one because of the beautiful cover and gorgeous premise – that of space-goddesses in love with each other and creating the universe out of their love.
And it was a gamble that absolutely paid off, as I wrote in my review here. I really, really recommend it!The Fifth House of the Heart by Ben Tripp
Published by Gallery Books on 28th July 2015
Filled with characters as menacing as they are memorable, this chilling twist on vampire fiction packs a punch in the bestselling tradition of ’Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.
Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang, a vainglorious and well-established antiques dealer, has made a fortune over many years by globetrotting for the finest lost objects in the world. Only Sax knows the true secret to his success: at certain points of his life, he’s killed vampires for their priceless hoards of treasure.
But now Sax’s past actions are quite literally coming back to haunt him, and the lives of those he holds most dear are in mortal danger. To counter this unnatural threat, and with the blessing of the Holy Roman Church, a cowardly but cunning Sax must travel across Europe in pursuit of incalculable evil—and immeasurable wealth—with a ragtag team of mercenaries and vampire killers to hunt a terrifying, ageless monster…one who is hunting Sax in turn.
From author Ben Tripp, whose first horror novel Rise Again “raises the stakes so high that the book becomes nearly impossible to put down” (Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother), The Fifth House of the Heart is a powerful story that will haunt you long after its final pages.
I don’t typically read horror, and I especially don’t read gory horror, which Fifth House really is – I was gagging through more than a few scenes. And yet, the premise is just so cool – an aging gay antiques-seller who made his fortune by slaying vampires and selling off their hoards? I had to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I’m not sure how I made it through it – I tried to reread it a year or two ago and couldn’t get past the first few chapters – but I remember absolutely adoring it, and it has a place on my favourites shelf to this day.Trade Me (Cyclone, #1) by Courtney Milan
Published by Courtney Milan on 19th January 2015
Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Technology. But when he makes an off-hand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.
To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.
But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart...but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.
I don’t venture outside of spec-fic very often, but Courtney Milan was on my radar for a while as a very cool person on Twitter, and she’s had a reputation as a writer of feminist romances for…pretty much forever? I heard about Trade Me about the same time I was unlearning all that misogynistic crap about Romance being a ‘lesser’ genre – yes, I used to be one of those people, sigh – so it was pretty perfect timing. And despite the lack of anything even vaguely magical, I was really impressed and practically inhaled Trade Me in a single sitting – it’s a genuinely great book that I shoved onto all my friends, and I am not-so-patiently waiting for more instalments in the series. (The sequel, Hold Me, features a secondary trans character from book one in the starring role, and I recommend that as well.)
I don’t think I’ll ever be a Contemporary convert, but Trade Me definitely served to nuke any lingering doubts I might have had about Romance as a genre. (Although I’m still not a fan of sex scenes.)Liquor (Rickey and G-Man #2) by Poppy Z. Brite
Representation: M/M or MLM, secondary characters of color
Published by Broadway Books on 16th March 2004
New Orleans natives Rickey and G-man are lifetime friends and down-and-out line cooks desperate to make a quick buck. When Rickey concocts the idea of opening a restaurant in their alcohol-loving hometown where every dish packs a spirited punch, they know they're on their way to the bank. With some wheeling and dealing, a slew of great recipes, and a few lucky breaks, Rickey and G-man are soon on their way to opening Liquor, their very own restaurant. But first they need to pacify a local crank who doesn't want to see his neighborhood disturbed, sidestep Rickey's deranged ex-boss, rein in their big-mouth silent partner before he runs amok, and stay afloat in a stew of corruption in a town well known for its bottom feeders.
A manic, spicy romp through the kitchens, back alleys, dive bars, and drug deals of the country's most sublimely ridiculous city, author Poppy Z. Brite masterfully shakes equal parts ambition, scandal, filé powder, cocaine, and murder, and serves Liquor straight up, with a twist.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Billy Martin – who used to write under the name Poppy Z. Brite, before he came out as trans – is one of my favourite writers, and pretty much my only exception when it comes to horror. But when I’d read all his supernatural horror stuff, that just left his contemporary series about Rickey and G-Man, boyfriends in New Orleans who long to open up their own restaurant. Martin’s writing is so lush and gorgeous that I cracked open Liquor even though Rickey and G-Man’s New Orleans has no vampires. And I do not regret it one bit! Martin’s beautiful, hedonistic style translates perfectly to a book about luscious foods. I ended up devouring the entire series, and kiss my fingers to the chef.The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Published by Balzer + Bray on 28th February 2017
A three-time winner of Goodreads Choice Awards
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
More contemporary fiction – this time, contemporary YA! This book hardly needs an introduction, and regardless of your preferred genre, I think it’s definitely necessary reading. It’s an incredibly well-written book that keeps you glued to the pages, and would even if it wasn’t about such high-stake topics. I’m really glad I read it.The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
Published by Bloomsbury UK on 9th February 2017
Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she's ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.
But she's still the fiercest creature in the mountains -- and now she's found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she'll be conquering new territory in no time...won't she?
If I remember correctly, I came across this one by complete accident while browsing on Amazon; the title snagged my attention, and the blurb won me over. This was the first Middle-Grade book I read since ageing out of that section of the bookshop, and I regret nothing. This was a pure joy to read, and instantly became one of those books I reach for when I’m feeling low. I passed it on to a friend of mine when she asked for books that felt ‘nice’ – books that were fun to read and make you feel happy – and she was an instant addict too. This is possibly the only book on this list that convinced me to actually spend more time out of my comfort zone – I’ve read multiple Middle-Grade fantasies since this one, and I’m really happy with how many clever, wonderful books I’ve found.
Interestingly, Stephanie Burgis’ adult books don’t work for me at all. Weird, huh?The Red Knight (The Traitor Son Cycle, #1) by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz on 25th October 2012
Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild.
Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.
It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it.
The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abby is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with.
Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war...
The Red Knight began life as a self-published novel, and unfortunately that’s a little too obvious – there are a lot of typos in both the UK and US published versions. (I bought both, hoping to find one that had gone past a proper copy-editor. No luck.) That said, it’s a freaking fantastic book, and the start of one of my favourite fantasy series of all time.
What makes it outside of my comfort zone? Miles Cameron is a reenactor, and that carries over into his writing; his fantasy is heavy on practical details, especially his battle scenes. Usually that level of mundanity bores the hell out of me, but for some reason I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on, it really doesn’t here. Somehow Cameron uses his first-hand knowledge to anchor his writing in reality, without letting that realism distract from the magic, monsters, and inter-dimensional wars that makes your heart pound. Instead of distracting from the fantasy, it instead has the effect of making the magical seem real enough to touch. Still not sure how he does it, but it’s awesome.The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Published by Harper on 3rd November 2009
In her most accomplished novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.
Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.
Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach—the lacuna—between truth and public presumption.
With deeply compelling characters, a vivid sense of place, and a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, Barbara Kingsolver has created an unforgettable portrait of the artist—and of art itself. The Lacuna is a rich and daring work of literature, establishing its author as one of the most provocative and important of her time.
I read and loved Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, and went through all her books thereafter. She writes Contemporary or Contemporary Historical Fiction (if that’s a thing?) which – not my thing at all, as a rule, and although I enjoyed most of her books, only one or two really stuck with me when I was done with them. Lacuna is without doubt my favourite, despite the fact that it’s about a whole bunch of things I never read about – Communism and McCarthyism, in particular. It’s a beautiful, quiet, pointed book, that drove home to me a lot about the Cold War that my school history classes didn’t quite manage. It might have helped that the main character grows up to be a writer, and as a baby writer myself that gave me a way to connect to him, when I have no personal experience with anything else he goes through.
Even without that, though, I don’t think anyone can read this and walk away from it without having had their mind opened. Definitely a case where stepping outside my comfort zone paid off immensely.The Sun Wolf and Starhawk Series: The Ladies of Mandrigyn, The Witches of Wenshar, and The Dark Hand of Magic by Barbara Hambly
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy on 21st May 2013
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
A special three-in-one edition of Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk Series
In The Ladies of Mandrigyn, a brilliant mercenary must lead his army against the forces of the most powerful wizard alive. Gifted with courage, strength, and the intelligence to know when to fight, Sun Wolf is the greatest mercenary in a land overrun by war. With his first lieutenant, Starhawk, at his side, he has laid waste to countless cities, taking the best of their treasures for himself, and distributing the rest among his bloodthirsty crew.
Then a woman comes to him, an emissary from the town of Mandrigyn, a lush port city recently sacked by a powerful, mad wizard of unmatched abilities. She offers Sun Wolf untold riches for the use of his army, but the captain is not fool enough to wage war against a magician. He refuses her offer, but that is not the end of it. The women of Mandrigyn can be very persuasive.
In The Witches of Wenshar, to harness his newfound magical powers, Sun Wolf must cross the desert in search of a witch who can teach him the ways of sorcery. Accompanied by his lieutenant, Starhawk, he travels across the forbidding desert to the land of Wenshar, where witchcraft is said to flourish. There he seeks out a witch with powers far beyond her years, who is rumored to have mastered the ancient art of white magic. But when he and Starhawk finally reach her, there is evil in the air—an evil against which all their might is useless. Sun Wolf must learn to harness his newfound powers—or be taken by this sinister trap.
In The Dark Hand of Magic, Sun Wolf must use his immature magical powers to rescue his old army from an evil wizard’s curse. A string of rotten luck has befallen his old crew’s latest campaign, and they have begun to suspect a curse. Their arrows break; their food rots; their tunnels cave in. They have heard rumors of Sun Wolf’s magical abilities, and beg for his help. But when he goes after whatever is targeting his men, he finds himself up against the deadliest force he has ever encountered.
Barbara Hambly is one of my favourite authors, but her Sun Wolf and Starhawk series is proper sword-and-sorcery, with the main characters being the head of a group of mercenaries. NOT MY THING AT ALL. But it’s Hambly, and trusting her paid off the way it always does; in many ways, this ended up being a subversion of a bunch of traditional fantasy tropes, especially with regards the role and value of violence, and the many variations of masculinity and femininity.
The violence thing was a pretty big deal; this isn’t grimdark or anything, but there are several pretty horrific scenes, and as a series it really does demand fantasy-lovers confront the reality of violence. Fantasy is big on violence – we’ve always got warriors and chosen ones everywhere – and it’s glorified way more often than it’s not. Which it probably shouldn’t be. So these books left me much more thoughtful about the kind of stories I enjoy.Under the Poppy (Under the Poppy, #1) by Kathe Koja
Representation: MLM or M/M
Published by Small Beer Press on 9th November 2010
From a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels, Under the Poppy is a breakout novel of childhood friends, a love triangle, puppetmasters, and reluctant spies.
Under the Poppy is a brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. Decca is in love with Rupert, but he in turn is in love with her brother, Istvan. When Istvan comes to town, louche puppet troupe in tow, the lines of their age-old desires intersect against a backdrop of approaching war. Hearts are broken when old betrayals and new alliances - not just their own - take shape, as the townsmen seek refuge from the onslaught of history by watching the girls of the Poppy cavort onstage with Istvan's naughty puppets . . .
Under the Poppy is a vivid, sexy, historical novel that zips along like the best guilty pleasure.
Nominated for the IMPAC Award. Winner of the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.
Historical fiction, written in a very…non-traditional way? I want to call it non-linear, except that it is linear, it’s just…not…normal? I don’t have the technical knowledge to describe what it is Koja does here, except to say that I really loved it, once I got the hang of it. There’s a lot of twisty run-on sentences, changing of perspectives and tenses… It’s experimental. Maybe that’s the word? The way it’s written is just as important as the story and characters – the book is practically a character all on its own, and I really wish more people had read it so I could geek out about it with someone!
And I think that wraps it up for today!