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Review – The Lawrence Browne Affair

The Lawrence Browne Affair, Historical MM Romance by Cat Sebastian

Series: The Turner Series #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Three stars can either feel exactly right as a symbol of “I liked it” or it can be damning with faint praise. In this case, it’s the latter. This book feels like an exercise in mediocrity. Romance boiled down to instruction and formula, as if it had come in a flatpack from Ikea. The setting is just historically accurate enough to not trigger potato rage. But since most of it takes place indoors in Cornwall, that isn’t asking for much. The writing is probably better than good enough, but it gets lost in a sea of checked boxes and familiar tropes. Both of the main characters are an example of the latter.

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We’re told that Georgie Turner is a con artist who’s growing a conscience, despite his best efforts to quell it. Consequences for failure to fight that nascent conscience are already in play before the story begins. I say, “we’re told” because his behaviour doesn’t bear it out. He’s sentimental and squishy from the word go. There isn’t a character arc, he just eventually stops denying his squishiness.

Lawrence is an earl with scientific leanings, and he also thinks he’s mad. There seems to have been some attempt to imply the autism spectrum to a modern reader. These attempts fell flat for me, largely because the author seemed to forget about it. By the last third, madness was suddenly okay to joke about (because that isn’t insensitive) and his condition was flanderised into “he only eats ham and apples.”

I’m not kidding.

The romance has high points. For all that the initial attraction deserves the term ‘instalust’ they are genuinely into each other. They also develop a friendship first, and it’s lovely to see how they get to know each other through both caring observation and questions.

Unfortunately, the sex is pretty basic. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s suitably sexy, but I had to make myself go back and read some scenes after skimming because nothing happens other than sex. Sex scenes should be an opportunity for the characters to discover things about each other, themselves, or at least to show that their relationship is something special. Maybe not every sex scene should be ~something more~ but at least one should. These felt interchangeable, like factory add-ons. They could have been between any two men so inclined. Ugh. It’s fine. The sex is fine.

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There’s too much plot, yet it doesn’t do anything but show up. A gangster has it in for Georgie, Lawrence’s voltaic piles, fear-mongering rumours about Lawrence, an eight-year-old son comes home for the holiday, smugglers because Cornwall. It feels like a laundry list. Some things are resolved, although not all of them need to be addressed in the manner they were addressed. Contrivance is rife. Other things simply fall by the wayside. Yet it all comes to a nominally satisfying conclusion. Everyone lives happily ever after, and I believe they will be happy.

Honestly, there is only one real problem with this perfectly competent novel. It has no substance. I feel like that’s why I had so many minor details to quibble over: there is nothing seriously wrong with this except that it doesn’t do anything special. Many people like or love it, and I can’t help thinking that it’s more due to the reader than the book. If you bring a slice of cake to an empty table, you get to eat cake and it doesn’t matter that the table didn’t actually give you cake. I don’t love tables for their correlation to cake.

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Review – The Starlit Wood

The Starlit Wood, an Anthology of Fairy Tale Retellings edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Trigger warnings for rape and drug use.

This is probably the first multi author anthology I have read without skipping any of the stories. I didn’t like all of them equally, and I don’t believe I liked any two of them in the same way. However, they all manage to be exactly what I hoped—new fairy tales.

While there is obviously variation in tone, all of the stories adhere to the smokey baseline of mystical wonder. Even the tragic and the horrifying. Not everything mystical is something a body might want to encounter.

Some of the fairy tales used as inspiration are obvious, either right away or near the end. Others are either subtle or vague. It was kind of fun to guess while reading. There were only one or two fairy tales I didn’t know in their original form.

The writing styles run a range of poetic to humorous, with some fever dream wackiness that I admit could get dull or annoying. The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest was charming if silly, while Even the Crumbs were Delicious just reminds me of Kissing the Buddha’s Feet minus the fun of playing a game. And with less engaging characters.

This collection is worth at least a trip to the library for the truly standout stories. In the Desert Like a Bone, Seasons of Glass and Iron, Giants in the Sky, Reflected, and Spinning Silver. There are others that were good, but these struck me as the best, each in a different way. I heard somewhere that Spinning Silver might be extended or adapted into a full-length novel, but I could be misremembering. It’d be cool, though. Giants in the Sky made me laugh aloud, which was a desperately needed rhythm. It comes in not long after Some Wait, an upsetting take on The Pied Piper.

How I even came to read this book is a story in itself. I’m enrolled in my local library’s “Library at Your Door” program. Disabled library patrons request materials using the library’s website (or have them chosen by liaison) and receive them by post. I don’t remember requesting this book, and I’ve never had my books picked out for me. Yet one day it came in a purple post bag along with The Glass Town Game.

Spooky, I thought. And that’s the perfect sort of atmosphere in which to read this. A little unsure, questioning one’s memories. It’s a good book to read in the dark with a torch.

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Review – The Tiger’s Daughter

The Tiger’s Daughter, a Historical LGBTQ Romance by K Arsenault Rivera

Series: Their Bright Ascendancy #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Using a star rating system for this book is problematic. Due to the insensitivity of treating East Asian cultures as interchangeably exotic or fantastic as purely fabricated cultures–and the specifically cringe-inducing derision of the naginata as a “coward’s” weapon–I feel compelled to go with one star and feel sad and disappointed. Indeed, if I’d come across this book after publication rather than being lucky enough to receive an ARC, I probably would have marked it as DNF when the first bizarre honorific kerfuffle appeared.

I’m sure the general response will be, “Oh, it’s a fantasy world, it doesn’t have to be historically accurate!” Maybe not, but it should have to actually understand the borrowed elements from the real world. Some of the names are real, but then some will be made up. Some world-building details are based on fallacies that could have been cleared up by a quick Google search, never mind a good non-fiction source book.

As to the story and overall execution, both are quite good! Is it well-written? I believe so. There are some first-time quirks that I can see improving over time. The writing itself is great, well-suited to historical fantasy. It can linger a little longer after making a point sometimes, though. The book could be shorter and not suffer. But that’s not uncommon. To some Fantasy readers, it might even be a point in its favour. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a very long and flowery book.

The major draw is the lesbian romance. My mind is split on whether it is particularly well done. I always love to see a romance survive family disapproval and terrible odds of every kind. Like many first-time romances I’ve seen, the initial attraction is pretty much a sort of destined love at first sight thing for both of them. They experience some turmoil, a sexual encounter of questionable timing, and then they are so in love that mountains tremble at the mention of their names. It didn’t really draw me in. I saw a lot of admiration and declarations of love, but actual feeling never really seemed to shine through. I loved how they fought to stay together in the most bitter conflict, when death was on the line. But by then, if it was earned, it was by attrition rather than having drawn an emotional investment from me.

Most of the book is supposed to be a letter from one of the lovers to the other, who is an empress. By “most of the book” I honestly mean 80-90% of it. I think it’s realistically a large bound volume, and it covers their entire lifelong relationship, very very loosely held inside a framing device of the empress’s unhappy life as it is in the Now. Personally, I would have been happier if it could have just been a memoir or something, as it’s always jarring to me when dialogue scenes are written as normal/traditional prose inside what is supposed to be a letter–this character isn’t even meant to have an exceptional memory. But that’s a pretty minor quibble. It’s an interesting format idea and it’s executed fairly, despite my preference. I would have liked more from the framing device, as that would have helped the ending to feel less rushed. But it all wraps up nicely, and I don’t think I’d ask for more than that.

Let’s say 3 stars for good writing, decent romance, and some lovely characters, tempered by problems with the setting.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows, YA Fantasy by Linsey Miller

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is the best book I’ve read this year!

If I were speaking aloud, I’d have to leave it at that. Because if I were speaking, anything further would just be gibbering happiness, the ultimate in Good Book Noises.

Luckily, I’m typing. I was sold on the premise alone, and it helps that the cover is gorgeous. A gender fluid thief competing to become an elite assassin in order to mete out revenge on behalf of their entire country? I may have literally shouted, “Sign me up!” When I was approved for a NetGalley ARC, there was a preview of the gibbering happiness. So here’s my honest review.

Sal is an amazing character. Not only a wonderful representation of a woefully underrepresented character type, but also one of the most complex vengeance-seeking characters of any I’ve seen. Growing up gender fluid myself, I wish I’d had a character like Sal to look to back then. (Mostly happy with “she” now, but I lost count of the times I whispered, “I know that feel,” to myself.) Sal is also awesomely intelligent and capable. It’s a joy to see them think through each conflict and triumph despite, at times, insane odds.

The supporting cast of characters is also quite good. I loved Maud, the servant assigned to Sal during the auditions, and Lady Elise is fun as both a teacher and a love interest. The rest of the elite assassins, the Left Hand, managed to be distinct without losing any of their mystique. Most impressively, the other auditioners didn’t just blend together. I’ve read the Hunger Games and some of Battle Royale, and neither of those books made the faceless competitors even seem like stand-ins for people. In Mask of Shadows, everyone is somebody, even if they don’t survive.

A lot of characters don’t survive. But every death has weight, and Sal isn’t indifferent to them.

The world-building in this book is tremendous and also effective. There’s internal logic and consistency. Magic was drained from the world to stop deadly shadows, and magic does not mysteriously/suspiciously return or work sporadically. It’s gone, so it’s gone. Although the world is expansive and complex, there are no eye-rolling info dumps. There is a timeline/history at the back of the book. Even that has some story weight.

This book seriously has a little bit of everything. There’s sorrow, ambition, death, clever manoeuvring, friendships, careful joy, love, political intrigue, personal agendas, fighting for one’s right to personal expression, sultry writing of poetry ink on skin, and hope.

I honestly can’t see anything else I read this year topping this book. I rarely reread anymore–not with 50 books on my To Be Read Before August list–but this book will be the exception.

(As I said in the review, I received an ARC through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Tash Hearts Tolstoy, Contemporary YA by Kathryn Ormsbee

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Give me more main characters who love a dead Russian author to the degree of counting him as a boyfriend! That was what initially intrigued me (by design, one might safely assume) and it mostly held up. I loved the way it informed Tash’s romantic asexuality. She’s so easy to identify/empathise with, that I still don’t know if that even reflects on me or if she’s just a well-written teen who is basically cool and decent. Flawed, obviously, but that’s part of the point of the story–she grows up and improves as a person by the end.

For the sake of context, I read this book in the long hours of pre labour. Breathing through increasingly painful contractions isn’t exactly a picnic, so I was glad to have this to ameliorate the stress.

Tash is a fairly sheltered young woman who takes a lot for granted. Her friends are always there for her (including her online crush), she knows where she’s going to school after graduation and what she’ll be studying, and her family is a strong support system. She and one of her best friends produce a Youtube serial adaptation of Anna Karenina called Unhappy Families, which gains an insane boost in popularity when an established Youtuber gives them some positive press.

Her negative reactions to sudden fame are a bit predictable, but they’re also understandable and realistic. I struggled a bit as her bad behaviour clashed with her perception of herself. For someone who professed to be so close to her friends and grateful for the closeness of her relationship with both friends and family, Tash does an awful lot of lying by omission, and generally withholds information to her detriment. While this is certainly part of her character arc and addressed in the text, I couldn’t help thinking that she must have been a pretty shitty friend for a long time if she was so unaware of how to communicate.

Also, for clearly personal reasons, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with her treatment of her mother after the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. Despite repeated mentions that the pregnancy was unplanned, Tash and her sister both questioned their mother’s reasons for having a baby. How does one have reasons for something completely unplanned? Is this an implication that they think she’s making a choice by not having an abortion? She also gets maligned for “keeping it secret” which is stupid, because especially with a pregnancy at that age, one does not announce it until about the second trimester because of the chance of miscarriage in the first. I get that Tash felt displaced, but I didn’t sympathise.

Although I have to admit that I don’t think I would like Tash’s web series if it were a real thing, the portrayal of the work involved in the production, especially the rough bits like stuff that can ruin a day’s shooting, was wonderful. The young actors run the gamut from Casual and always late to Overly “Professional” and insufferable but suffered because of Talent. The latter character actually surprised me in the end, which was awesome.

There’s some great representation for marginalised teens in this book. Not only is Tash herself asexual, but one of the actors in Unhappy Families is gay, and another is bisexual. It’s all very easygoing and natural, without too much underlining.

Although she is the main character, Tash still manages to take up more narrative real estate than necessary, which has the effect of leaving all of the other characters feeling underdeveloped and some go sidelined overlong because Tash is too wrapped up in herself. It’s brilliantly meta, as it ties directly in to her character arc.

The romance is about as predictable as the Youtube Stardom main plot, but once again, it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t really count that as a mark against the book. Tash’s relationship with her online crush develops slowly, and she gets to enjoy it as one of the things going well for her, but it’s also a major point of stress thanks to her not being out and not having a clue how to come out to basically anyone.

This is a great read overall, but particularly effective if you’re looking for something satisfying and not too twisty or demanding.

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Review – The Love Interest

The Love Interest, YA Gay Romance by Cale Dietrich

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

My hopes were so high for this one, and for at least the first third, I managed to ride on those hopes without their being dashed. The writing style is punchy and funny. Even in first person present tense, the general hatred of which I am still getting over. (it’s a process.)

The opening world-building is a hopscotch court of meta jokes for YA readers. Love Interests are cultivated in a compound where they must hone their bodies to physical perfection, gaze at themselves in the mirror daily, learn pop culture so they can fit in, and fall into two factions categories: Nice and Bad. No names–they go by numbers until they are given a name and additional Pretties-esque makeover when they are assigned to make a person fall in love with them. Two Love Interests compete in a love triangle, and the one who is not chosen is doomed to die. But what happens when the Love Interests fall for each other?

Even in the beginning, I had a lot of minor nitpicks that I had to shelve in order to keep enjoying myself. While I liked the concept of the world-building, I never felt like it was very solid and it was certainly not without irritating holes. Why do they have to have plastic surgery when so much focus is placed on the strain of conventional beauty attained through grueling effort? Why are they stolen children? It didn’t bother me that this is what they were, but there wasn’t really any narrative reason. Why that source for the LIs? Why not test tube babies? Or sentient organic robots? Is this a dystopia or the regular world and the joke is that YA love interests in even straight-up contemporary YA are like this? The given reason for the entire Love Interest Compound is that they are matched to people who become influential/important and will presumably have privileged information with monetary value. This isn’t technically a bad reason, but it’s sort of dumped out there once and referenced after, but never actually explored. Which… describes much of the book.

One of the major indicators that someone was a Bad was that he had a bulkier musculature than a Nice, which didn’t work for me, since in my reading experience, YA Bad Boys are usually skinny angst pots. Exercise is wholesome, as is sunshine, and bad supposedly cool habits tend to be unhealthy things like smoking, so I expect the muscular guy to be Good/Nice. Mileage may vary, I guess, however like so much else that doesn’t work terribly well in this book, it’s evidence of shallow shallowy-ness.

The main character, given the name Caden, is shallow. He thinks that he doesn’t quite fit the label of Nice, but he falls into it anyway because someone else is making that distinction and probably to make some kind of Divergent reference. His perception that he’s too Bad to be Nice doesn’t really go anywhere. Shallow character arc. Dylan is barely a character–he mirrors the Am I Really Bad/Nice? thing but does it better than Caden. Any potential he has as a character is lost in not having a written perspective. The narrative, technical reason he doesn’t have one is so that there can be a big misunderstanding in the latter part of the book to keep him and Caden from getting together. It isn’t even a believable misunderstanding. In fact, given the concept, Caden, Dylan, and the girl should have had their own POVs. Caden is about as exciting as tapioca pudding and can’t carry a book on his own.

The romance is insultingly shallow. In fact, all of the queer content was.  Caden goes through a questioning phase to realisation in such a rote manner that I not only could sing along in a mocking voice, but at one point, I managed to quote something nearly verbatim before the book got to it. His “OMG am I gay?” passage comes off as dated and insincere. It honestly sounds like it was written by someone else, it looks so out of place.

But the romance just made me sad. Why is it that so many books that hinge on an unexpected homosexual attraction fail to depict that attraction as anything other than author mandate? Sure, I could see why someone would find Dylan appealing–he’s good-looking and displays a lot of charming traits. But somehow it felt like the book just skipped over the parts where Caden showed why he in particular fell for Dylan. I was more invested in the romance between Ewan and Archie in A Hero at the End of the World. And I cannot for the life of me tell what anyone might see attractive about Ewan.

When I realised that the romance was never going to feel satisfying, the rest of it sort of deflated. It just isn’t a strong enough narrative. Side characters are nauseatingly, unrealistically nice. A lot of the plot falls flat as boring string holding together set pieces of cool moments. By the end, I was just bored. The concept I had been so excited to read about felt wasted. I hope that this isn’t the last time someone tackles a premise like this. I love meta humour and unexpected couples. I don’t think I killed this for myself with high expectations, though, as I really liked it up to a point. It simply wore me down with unsteady world-building and weak romance.

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Review – An Unseen Attraction

An Unseen Attraction, Gay Historical Romance by KJ Charles (also counts as Mystery)

Series: Sins of the Cities #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t quite have auto-buys when it comes to authors because I tend to take forever to buy books that I desperately want. It drives Hubby crazy. But whatever my own weird equivalent of an auto-buy is, KJ Charles is one of them. Not only does she write gay historical romance as though it is not a gimmick or in a novelty in comparison to heterosexual historical romance, she’s also an excellent storyteller and damn classy.

Clem Talleyfer is an Indian-Englishman who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. He doesn’t speak Hindi and he was otherwise denied that half of his heritage, so he has trouble fitting in on that side, and being dark-skinned and illegitimate are enough to keep him from being considered truly English. He’s also clearly on the autism spectrum, which comes with its own social difficulties. I adored Clem. He’s sweet and self-aware, compassionate nearly to a fault, and loyal. His support network was also lovely.

Clem runs a boardinghouse. One of his tenants is Rowley Green, an intense, bespectacled taxidermist who sees his profession as artistic. The two begin with a quiet friendship of sharing tea and conversation in the evenings. They’re each crushing on the other, but neither is quite ready to risk making a move.

Then one of the other tenants, a massively unpleasant drunkard, turns up on the front steps dead and showing signs of torture.

It’s difficult to articulate what I liked so much about this particular book. There are tonnes of things that I wouldn’t have thought of beforehand that I apparently needed in my life. Polish Mark the PI, Rowley’s artistic musings on the art of stuffing animals, trips to see occasionally cross-dressing acrobats. The romance is a slow burn, which I mightn’t have expected to like, but did. The mystery is amazing, so the less said about it the better: Go Read This is all I have to say on that score.

In fact, just Go Read This.