To bring some spice and variety to my reading, I came up with the Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue challenge: read one book that I’ve had a long time, one book that I acquired recently, one book that I borrowed, either from the library or another person, and one book with a blue cover. It was a fun way to choose my next read, plus it encouraged me to shop my own shelves and read some books I already own.

This time I’ve got for you a memoir about becoming a carpenter, bartenders fighting demons with magic cocktails, game-changing nonfiction by a fat activist, and historical fantasy set in an alternate 1940s San Francisco.

Something Old – Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

This book has been on my list since 2015, and I’m so glad this challenge led me to finally pick it up. Nina MacLaughlin liked her job as a journalist at first, but after several years she found herself increasingly uninspired and looking for change. She answered an ad for a carpenter’s assistant despite having no experience or aptitude, and surprised even herself when she was hired. Mary, her new boss, was an experienced carpenter and contractor, and fortunately also a patient teacher, as MacLaughlin had a lot to learn, not just about wood and tools but work ethic and determination. This memoir worked really well for me, as MacLaughlin was an English and Classics major and spends almost as much time philosophizing about her experiences as relating them, somehow without ever becoming pedantic or condescending. I also related to her frequent impulses to give up in the face of difficult jobs—we must share a temperament—but loved how Mary always talked her down by taking one step at a time, doing each task right until the job was complete. MacLaughlin also talks about how few women are in trades like hers and how physical work changed the way she thought of herself as a woman, which I found interesting.

Something New – Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

A fantasy world where bartender superheroes fight demons with cocktails? Sign me up! I got this book as a Christmas gift, so it didn’t languish long on my shelf before I snatched it up. Recent college graduate and recovering overachiever Bailey Chen is feeling aimless—she’s moved back in with her parents and taken a crappy job as a barback at the place where her old high school friend Zane tends bar. The job gets a lot more interesting when Bailey learns Zane and the other bartenders can mix cocktails that give them supernatural abilities and use their smoke breaks to keep the streets of Chicago clear of beasties. Bailey is realistically angsty and immature—I mean, who wasn’t at age 22? —and I kind of loved her tendency to jump into things before she had all the information. A fun, easy read with a unique premise—and there are cocktail recipes included throughout!

Something Borrowed – You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar

Absolutely transformative. I borrowed this teeny-tiny book from the library and read it over the course of a couple hours, but it had a huge impact on me and I’m still mulling over everything I learned. Virgie Tovar is a super smart writer, and this book is the perfect balance of academic and accessible. She puts words to thoughts I’ve had for years but never knew how to articulate. I especially love how she explains the connection between patriarchal values and fatphobia. This book would be a good companion to Shrill by Lindy West, which I read a couple years ago and still think about. Highly, highly recommended!

Something Blue - Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

For my blue book, I chose the prettiest blue cover on my shelf. Passing Strange is a novella about a group of women who love women in 1940s San Francisco. They make art and have long conversations and support each other during a time when it wasn’t safe to be who they were in a public way. There is a fantastical element as well, as one of the women has an uncanny ability to fold time and space, which Klages works into the plot in much the same way she does other characters’ talents with painting, writing, or science. I loved that the magic was incorporated this way, as if it were just one more thing that made the group of friends special. My favorite part of the story, though, is one that isn’t even mentioned in the publisher’s blurb: the framing device. The novella begins in the future, when the last remaining member of the group is facing death. She goes on a little mission around the city, revisiting old haunts and retrieving a mysterious package from a long neglected basement, the import of which you won’t know until the end. I thought beginning in this way, with an old woman’s journey to her own past, was a lovely way to add suspense. The more I reflect on this one, the more I like it—it’s a warm hug of a book.

AuthorTaryn Pierson

I read a lot of fantasy romance--if I had to pick one subgenre of romance to read for the rest of my life, desert island style, that would probably be it. But recently I thought it would be fun to branch out into sci-fi romance--after all, what is better than love in space? (Or love in an alternate, steam-powered history, as the case may be.) Here are some recommendations if you want to mix your romance reading with some scientific shenanigans.

Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin

I already knew I loved steampunk romance, but I’d never read steampunk romance set outside the Western world until this book. And it’s awesome! Set in an alternate version of China’s Qing dynasty (mid-1840s), Gunpowder Alchemy is full of political machinations and gunpowder engines and fun widget-y machines. It’s hard to tell who is good and who is bad--I love books that explore the gray areas of loyalty and morality. And while the romance takes a back seat here to the action and adventure, I really didn’t mind because I was so invested in main character Soling.

Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet

I loved Amanda Bouchet’s fantasy romance trilogy, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her first foray into sci-fi. While I didn’t fall quite as in love with the characters in Nightchaser, there’s a lot of room for development in future books. Tess Bailey, captain of the Endeavor, is a Robin Hood of sorts in space. Her crew steals goods and medicines and gives them to the needy. Tess is motivated by a secret past and has hidden for years behind an alias, but her latest caper has put her at risk of exposure. Tess hires Shade Ganavan to help repair the ship so they can make a getaway, but underneath the good looks and swagger, Shade is a bounty hunter who could turn Tess in for a hefty reward. Unless his burgeoning feelings for her get in the way, that is! *squee*

This one is a lot heavier on the romance angle than the sci-fi, which was 100% fine with me, but if you’re expecting hard science you’ll be disappointed. The book opens with Tess and crew flying their ship straight into a black hole and not dying…so yeah, suspend ALL your disbelief and just go with it. Perfect for fans of found families and ragtag bands fighting for justice.

Night Whispers by Alisha Rai

As I was browsing for titles for this post, I did a double take when this cover popped up—I had no idea Alisha Rai had ever dipped her toe in the sci-fi romance pool. But since in my mind she, Penny Reid, and Talia Hibbert are tied for Queen of Contemporary Romance, I had to get my hands on a copy of Night Whispers. It was a little difficult because the title appears to be out of print, but you can find used copies if you poke around. And it’s safe to say this is the most romantic book I’ve ever read with a giant gun on the cover! It’s also surprisingly delightful considering there are zombies involved. Jules is a search and rescue agent in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with bloodthirsty undead called Shadows. James is her contact with the organization she works for, a comforting voice in her ear, but since he’s at a remote base and she’s out in the field, they’ve never met in person and don’t even know what the other looks like. But when Jules suddenly goes off-grid in the middle of a mission, James realizes she means more to him than he ever admitted and takes off to find her despite his intense agoraphobia. Refreshing in lots of ways, especially with the way Jules and James take turns being strong and being vulnerable.

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi

Cool worldbuilding alert! Ascension takes place in a universe where spaceship mechanics are called “sky surgeons” and the work is more personal and intuitive than cranking inanimate gears. Thus when Alana, a sky surgeon who’s never been off planet, stows away on a ship, she hopes to build a relationship not just with the crew but with the ship itself. As an uninvited guest, it takes her some time to ingratiate herself with the wildly varied cast of characters that call the ship home, but Alana craves adventure and new experiences and she won’t let her (devastatingly sexy) new captain drop her off back home without a fight. Considering the chronic illness that causes her serious pain even with medication, it would be easier for Alana to stay in her safe little bubble, but now that she’s had a taste of space flight, she’s hooked. This book is effortlessly inclusive, with all kinds of diverse characters and relationships, and while it’s not as polished, I think it would be a good pick for fans of Becky Chambers.

Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik

I don’t like to play favorites, but this just might be my top pick of the sci-fi romance bunch. A space princess escapes an arranged marriage only to end up captured and imprisoned with a notorious criminal, and that’s just the opening setup to this balls to the wall adventure. The universe is controlled by three enormously wealthy families, all rivals but currently in an uneasy truce. Ada is a daughter of one of the houses and grew up in the lap of luxury, but since running away from her family and fiancé she’s enjoyed living a lower key lifestyle—that is, until her father’s minions catch up to her. Ada will do anything to escape—seriously, there is no risk this chick won’t take—but she’s not sure if the dangerous yet alluring stranger sharing her cell is ally or foe. Politics, intrigue, action—the pace is nonstop and doesn’t let up until the very last page. This is the book I would put in the hands of people who claim romance is formulaic (and then dance around in victory when they love it).

AuthorTaryn Pierson