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Review – The Love Interest

The Love Interest, YA Gay Romance by Cale Dietrich

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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

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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.

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Review – High Season

Nacho Figuras Presents: High Season, Contemporary Romance by Jessica Whitman

Series: The Polo Season #1

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My rating: ⭐️

Oh boy, where do I even begin.

Full disclosure: while I love Romance and all of its subgenres, Contemporary typically has to work hard to impress me. Problematic elements like sexism (be it from the hero using or belittling women, or from the heroine invoking Not Like the Other Girls) or casual racism are harder to look past, the conflict is far less likely to appeal to me, and when I smell formula, my boots start to feel made for walking. So my review is probably most intended for other readers who are finicky about their Contemporary Romances, like me.

The Polo Season books are written by committee, and it shows in the worst way. Alejandro Del Campo is a typical rich hero with dead spouse angst. He is of the “reacts to suffering with asceticism” variety, which results in every single support character taking every single opportunity to declare him No Fun. Like many a hero of category romance, he comes with the hot and rich pedigree, but when his personality weighs in, he waffles like a madman so as not to offend anyone and to hopefully attract everyone. One of the first things he does is ride a horse at night the night before a game, explain that he is aware this is dangerous to both horse and rider, and then try to justify it. Charming first impression.

But I can take a waffly, not terribly inspiring hero. What really made my nose wrinkle was the heroine. Georgia seems more like a YA heroine than an actual adult who’s had relationships before and actually graduated from university. At times, I may have gone so far as to mutter aloud that she was being infantilised, by either the text or other characters. She’s a vet, and she gets a job with Alejandro’s polo team as the direct result of catching a life-threatening condition in one of their best horses. (yes, the one he rode the night before the game) But her knowledge about horses and equine medicine seems to fluctuate according to what the committee thought most appropriate at the time. Here, we must read her as capable and admirably expert, but in the next chapter, we must read her as cute and naive.

Her naivety made me want to smack her. Every single display of Alejandro’s wealth or the money involved in the sport made her drop her jaw and cry aloud. I’m sure I was supposed to be charmed by her humble ranch girl reactions to large expenditures, but I wasn’t. I was disgusted that she could have horses at home and be completely unaware of the obscene monetary value of a polo horse.

The story unfolds pretty much the way one would expect just from reading the summary on the back of the book. After Georgia saves his beloved mare, Alejandro up and kisses her without any buildup and they go to pants feelings pretty much all the time. She does stupid, childish things that either keep them apart for a modicum of pages–like mistaking his daughter for his girlfriend and being too idiotic to just ask if he’s single–or that make him like her even though they are childish and stupid–like forcing him to buy a subpar horse because she can’t bear that its fated to become glue. …I can sympathise, but her reasoning and behaviour in this situation didn’t make her look very good. Alejandro is also prone to dumb assumptions that could be cleared up with a brief conversation, but he’s generally just a cardboard man who exists to give Georgia sex and make her feel good about herself. There are a couple of false romantic leads, some predictable drama near the end, and then they live happily ever after. So at least there’s that.

It isn’t a complete wash. If you like categories, this delivers on all of the important points. If you don’t mind or actually like Big (and little) misunderstandings, then you’ll wonder what’s wrong with me. The parts of the book that are about polo are pretty good–certainly enough to satisfy readers who love sports romances. And while Alejandro rather bored me, I would not say the same about his family or even the majority of the supporting characters. His mother and daughter are entertaining archetypes written well, and with the exception of an antagonistic character who was wasted as a badly executed villain, I loved the people around Alejandro and Georgia much more than I cared for them.

I thought this would be the kind of Contemporary I would like despite my persnicketiness. With a better heroine and less predictable (and TAME) drama/conflict, it might have rated two or three stars. But I simply did not enjoy this.

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Review – The French Affair

The French Affair, Historical Romance by Marion Chesney (aka MC Beaton)

Series: Endearing Young Charms #1

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I have read a significant number and variety of Marion Chesney historical romances over the last couple of years. They are like comfort food, the small snackable types that have a low calorie count and therefore engender little to no guilt, but also come in limited flavours. Oft-repeated names and character archetypes abound, and villains and subplots can often be guessed before they come in. Everything is so cosy and easily established.

The downside is that the thinking is quite old. Obviously, the books themselves are old, so this is to be expected, and if I go in expecting anything progressive, than on my own head be it. But I’m always put off when I come across a sticky issue. This one isn’t horrible–it’s not like a self-punishing peek at the Censored Eleven–but it always gets worse when I see that I’m the rare reader who didn’t believe the judgmental bullshit view of the heroine.

When she was five years old, Delphine was rescued from France by Lord Charteris. He coddled and sheltered her through childhood and then into an infantilising marriage, never allowing her to meet other French refugees, nor to speak her own language–she only learned French because he considered it something a proper English lady learned–and he refused to tell her the circumstances of her rescue or her parents’ death. Always claiming that he would tell her someday. Until he died.

Three years later, she lives with his disapproving gossip of a widowed sister, Maria Bencastle, who decries her as too French to the neighbours behind her back, makes life less fun, and is basically the reason no one pays calls. At the start of the story, they are taking a rare, nigh unheard of trip to a fair to raise funds for French refugees, and Delphine encounters a juggler who gives her a flower. She later learns he is the Comte Jules Saint-Pierre, and the two of them are parties to a marriage agreement between their parents that dates back to childhood.

The rest of the story is about Jules being “perfect” and right all the time, even when he makes a mistake or acts like an ass, and every last tiny thing Delphine does wrong is worthy of burning her at the stake. Some faux pas are legitimately head-shaking and tie into her character arc. But Jules has no arc and is never considered by the narrative to have done anything wrong, even if he has done.

As a Chesney HR, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It felt kind of like it was emulating my struggle with still reading them after a saturation point. The antagonist is a pointedly unpleasant poor relation by marriage to the heroine. But she repents of her behaviour immediately and threatens to leave the story early on. Delphine stands up to her right away, so she never needs to learn anything from her interactions with Mrs Bencastle. Theirs is not the timid heroine and overbearing authority figure conflict, nor is it the heroine blinded by loyalty to an awful person conflict.

Delphine’s characterisation fluctuates wildly while the book tries to find its place. At first, she is the capable businesswoman who has made her late husband’s estates flourish. Then she’s bored with it and thinks of how the juggler represents fun. But then she disapproves because the juggler lacks dignity. The fair awoke her need to be with other French people, but she takes a long time to question Lord Charteris’s treatment of her and forced rejection of her nationality. When the marriage comes up, she’s firmly stuffed into the slot of being stodgy and a shrill fishwife who nags Jules in public. Never mind that he puts both of them in danger and never shows any care for her safety. He does care about her safety–he simply chooses to punish her by not making any outward show of it.

I never liked Jules. I only got that he was supposed to be a foil teaching Delphine to have fun and lighten up because I am genre savvy. It was executed extremely poorly. Jules was a lightly sketched character who phoned in everything and sailed through all of his conflict without so much as a speed bump. Delphine was a likeable character who got morphed and badmouthed in order to sell me on things I didn’t buy. Somehow she was always the bad guy when they argued, even when it was clear that Jules should have taken some responsibility or at least effing apologised.

Of course an inattentive reader would believe the “bad press” about Delphine and not disapprove of Jules. She’s an actual character with an arc. He’s just… there without any consequences. This made the majority of the book feel either frustrating or just empty. I know sometimes Chesney HRs have the cards stacked in the hero’s favour, but this was ridiculous.

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Review – Blame It on the Duke

Blame It on the Duke, Historical Romance by Lenora Bell

Series: The Disgraceful Dukes #3

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Even though it might seem like not a lot happens in this book, it’s got a decent amount of the crazy sauce that I expect when reading this series. I definitely felt like it had toned down, but that’s a good thing.

Nick Hatherly is similar to other heroes I’ve seen who fear the onset of hereditary madness, but he brings a sort of mellow nature to the table that I have not see much in any aristocratic heroes. He takes refuge in hedonism, but he also takes good care of his father and accommodates him as he needs. Even when his father gambles him away to Sir Alfred Tombs.

Alice continues her marriage-avoiding antics. They’re more impressive than funny, which I appreciated. Too much more of that joke would have been labouring it and not as effective. Her reason is elaborated upon in this book, where she explains that she doesn’t just want adventure, she wants specifically to go to India and share with the scholars there her translation of a missing fragment of the Kama Sutra. She intended to go with her brother Fred and submit the work under his name, all too aware of her place as an unmarried woman.

The two quickly realise that they both have plenty to gain from a marriage of convenience (and unfortunate betting) and agree to a rather odd arrangement. Alice’s interest in sex is kindled by her translation work, and she wants Nick to school her. After they talk quite a bit (and wonderfully frankly) he develops a crush on her and also likes the idea of a wife who will bugger off to India and adventure after the honeymoon period.

Everything that happens is a leisurely slow burn, there to be appreciated rather than feverishly recounted. One of the most interesting subplots is that Nick rescues people imprisoned in asylums. His servants were rescued, but because there is not a stable female presence in his home, he can’t generally save women. With a new wife, he does save a woman named Jane, who is set up rather promisingly for a fourth book. (fingers crossed)

The romance benefits from the easy pace, and is both sweet and gratifying. There’s plenty of drama to be had in the subplots, but the romance only needs the expected internal conflict. As usual, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their differing opinions, but I feel like this is a nice, uncomplicated read that acts as a great palate cleanser for someone who’s been reading harsh, problematic, or otherwise fatiguing books.

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Review – Aftercare

Aftercare, BDSM Erotica and LGBT Contemporary Romance by Tanya Chris

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I feel like making some kind of grand pronouncement that I shall never again let “not my kink” stop me from reading a book. That may not hold up for long or beyond this author, but the feeling is so there. I’ve read some of Tanya Chris’s other work, and she can always be relied on to craft round characters with sympathetic histories and motivations. They have grown up conversations, rather than descending into chapter after chapter of stupid misunderstandings that could be cleared up in a few sentences. Any possible conflict that might arise from a lawyer dating a client’s family member is thoroughly discussed and made acceptable through that discussion and understanding on the part of everyone involved.

The legal drama is also good. Rather than being a mystery wherein anyone in the cast must find the real murderer, the story focuses on defending Syed so that he isn’t blamed for a crime he didn’t commit. It certainly matters who did it, but things aren’t unrealistically wrapped up in a pretty bow that assumes the murderer must be caught to ensure a happy ending. At their best, the courtroom and prep scenes reminded me of watching Boston Legal, which can only be a good thing.

Of course, my favourite part is the romance and particularly Aayan’s internal struggles. He’s got a lot of baggage, from the need to reconcile his sexuality with his religion and family, to accepting his own desires regarding things like pain play. He isn’t immediately ‘fixed’ by sex or love, and he doesn’t deal with it all by himself, either. He has a wonderful support network in his family, which includes his ex-wife. Everyone talks to everyone, and it’s glorious. There’s a lot of trust and love here.

While I found Aayan’s character arc to be the most engaging, Garrett wasn’t left to flap in the wind as a character. He’s a bit more self-confident and self-accepting, which I loved, but he’s still mourning the death of his husband, three years gone, and is understandably reluctant to start dating again, let alone in a relationship that bears similarity to the one he had with his husband.

For all that this is a pretty short book, it feels just as satisfying as a longer one. It’s tightly written, the pacing is fantastic, and there is no wasted time. It’s a sexy love story with a lot more to offer than just steam, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even to people who don’t count BDSM among their kinks.

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Review – Seven Minutes in Heaven

Seven Minutes in Heaven, Historical Romance by Eloisa James

Series: Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers #3; Desperate Duchesses #9

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My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I’m starting to think I hate the typical Eloisa James hero. I love her heroines. But her heroes just descended into selfish, disgustingly sexist assholes. It defies logic that any woman would find men like this attractive.

Eugenia Snowe is a widow who loved her husband, although as usual, she realised he was a bad person so her new romance with the hero can be unique and mock virginal. As if no one ever falls in real love more than once. She runs a registry office which finds places for governesses at the most elite level. Unlike the heroine in Lady X, her ability to operate a business without interference actually makes any sense. It isn’t anything like as anachronistic and stupid. She’s genuinely still mourning her husband seven years later and one of her major reasons for not remarrying is that her business would stop being hers.

Ward Reeve, another twee poppet child character from the Desperate Duchesses series who grew up and chose a stupid nickname, has more redeeming qualities than Thorn, but Thorn didn’t have any. So the count pretty much sits at ONE. Ward is another illegitimate son of a peer who acts like he doesn’t care what anyone thinks because he knows society condemns him for existing, but really he’s even more arrogant and superior than a real peer. The plot hinges on him being an ignorant snob, for heaven’s sake. Why are they all like this? He looks down on Eugenia since he’s too socially stupid to know she’s the daughter of a marquess and widow of a viscount’s son. He thinks she’s “just a governess” and I think he’s a gobshite excuse for a character, let alone a hero. He says a lot of revolting things about the governess she sent, which are extremely sexist. When Eugenia calls him on his bullshit, he defends his awful behaviour and she lets it slide. Which seems to be a microcosm of their relationship. He does something horrible, she calls him on it, and he gets away with it anyway because of reasons.

While I sympathise with his situation (his half-siblings might be taken away from him because their grandmother is contesting custody) and I agree that a governess with a different temperament was in order, I wish he had been blown away by Eugenia putting him in his effing place. A better author would have done so. I’ve read scenes like the one I wanted and expected.

I guess that’s what I hate about Eloisa James’s heroes. No matter how repulsive their behaviour, they are never corrected. They never have to apologise or even realise that the way they act and think are equally sickening. The attraction between them and the much more worthy women feels like awkward author mandate because I cannot imagine anyone looking past these men’s loathsome personalities enough to react to their physical beauty.

Eloisa James heroes are like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. Men who do despicable things so that they can possess a woman. Men who get away with that shit because they’re good-looking.