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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 – Foxheart

Foxheart, Middle Grade Fantasy by Claire Legrand

Series: Foxheart #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I love everything Claire Legrand writes. I love her ideas—this is a story about a witch in a time-travel loop who wants to be a master thief—and I love her characters. But most of all, I love that she so clearly has fun as a writer. There is a chapter called “The Most Stupid of All the Boys, Ever.” This book is funny, sweet, exciting, and all around  delightful.

At first intentionally nameless to the point of being called Girl, a grey-haired orphan grows up in a convent where no one is very kind to her. It probably doesn’t help that she is prone to pranks and grudges. She is called Pig and Witch as well as Girl, and her only friend is a little yellow dog she named Fox.

After the convent is attacked by a magical assailant who might be the vaunted Wolf-King who hunts witches, Girl flees with a mind to becoming the best thief in the Star Lands. At first, it looks like this is the path the story will travel—she takes up the name Quicksilver and meets a hapless boy whose parents are thieves but currently in a magical coma, and the two strike a deal to be thieves together—but then an old woman appears who has a dog just like Fox (but much older) and who knows Quicksilver’s real name. Things get questy from there.

Legrand is fearless in exploring bad things that can happen and in following through with the consequences. Her characters endure, survive, and learn that apologising doesn’t magically fix everything. If someone loses a leg or dies in a Legrand book, they get a prosthetic or stay dead, respectively. Maybe I’ve just read too many authors who love their characters too much, but that feels almost novel in Fantasy. …pun not intended.

Quicksilver is an incredibly active protagonist. For all that she is precisely the sort of feisty redheaded little girl that on might think they’ve seen many times, she is also flawed—slow to forgive, mean, vain—and vulnerable. It isn’t often that I see a child orphan character who actually carries the emotional baggage of that state. Usually it’s just to cut down on the number of extraneous adult characters. Thanks to the strong agency of its main character as well as the aforementioned fearlessness of the writer, twists in the narrative aren’t relegated solely to shocking reveals. Things change, dramatic action is taken.

Reading this book reminded me why I love Middle Grade Fiction in general and Claire Legrand in particular.

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Review – A Thousand Words for Stranger

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Science Fiction by Julie E Czerneda

Series: Trade Pact Universe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

It feels funny to say this 20 years after the fact, but this was an impressive debut. The writing and some of the world building are so good that they mask some of the amateur mistakes.

This is a setup I’ve seen before: amnesiac protagonist Sira is lost and pursued by danger she doesn’t understand. She takes up with a spaceship captain, Jason Morgan, and the two work together to find out what’s going on and who she was.

Ugh, that oversimplification doesn’t cover it at all. I feel like this is one of those books that I can’t really explain unless I over-summarise or compare it to another book. Unfortunately, the closest I can think of is Nine Princes in Amber, to which A Thousand Words for Stranger can only pale in comparison. Of course, it is a different story with different themes and intentions. The amnesia lasts for most of the book, Sira resists attempts to recall her former self, and she doesn’t have anything like the agency or motivation of Corwin. This is more of a small-scale space romance. And that’s fine.

For people who like telepaths in their Science Fiction, I would put this up there with the later Acorna novels. The Clan are a race of humanoids who breed for psionic power and the rest of their society and culture revolve around it. That part of the world building is faithfully and logically portrayed. There are many alien races that come in bite-sized pieces, enough to add interesting diversity. It reminded me of reading Star Wars novels as a kid. That’s probably enough to recommend it on its own.

It is still noticeably an early book in Czerneda’s career. The pacing is muddy and character development woefully uneven. More than one subplot seems to accomplish nothing more than taking up time, while some threads are dropped soon after being brought up to introduce something else. What actually bothered me was how inconsistent the characters are. Most notably, antagonist characters are never well established, either before being introduced or revealed to be antagonistic. I’ve read way more awkward examples of this, though. If I had been reading with a less intent eye for detail and structure, I might have just liked it without any qualifiers.

I’ve been wanting to check out Czerneda’s books for a few years, so I thought I’d start at the beginning. It’s a bit rocky, but I did enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more. Not just in the Trade Pact Universe.

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Review – Anna of Byzantium

Anna of Byzantium, Historical Fiction by Tracy Barrett

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


This reminded me of Lion in Winter in so many ways. The intricacies of political intrigue coloured by the protagonist’s youth and family relationships beyond royalty are all compelling and dutifully made real.

Anna’s identity is entirely tied up in her position as the firstborn princess and heir apparent, but the slightly nonlinear nature of the books lets you know from the start that this isn’t her ultimate destiny. This made it a bit hard to get into at first, as her life in the monastery is just as energetically depicted as the rest. Anna is a character who at all times cares very deeply, and resists change.

Most of the book is about her initial life and the many losses and disappointments she suffers. Everything that led her to where we find her in chapter one. As is often the case in such a narrative, it was hard to see her struggle, knowing where her efforts would eventually lead. But it’s also an interesting emotional journey.

Tracy Barrett is an exceptional writer. The Byzantine setting is calmly realistic, even chained to the small environment of the palace. Moral lessons Anna learns are subtle and poignant. Particularly near the end, when the lesson is a challenge for the reader to learn and accept.

One of the most interesting parts of my reading experience was realising how little I actually think about the function of first person perspective. In some books, it’s merely a style choice. In this book, Anna’s perception directly affected my own, despite my power as a third party to judge events differently.

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Review – The Caped Crusade

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Pop Culture History by Glen Weldon

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sometimes I enjoy reading books about comics more than the comics themselves. For some reason, lots of Superman-related content. When Nerdsync did a video recommending books about comic books, I picked this one up. I grew up on Adam West’s Batman as well as Batman: The Animated Series, and I still think Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman.

Aside from being a laconic yet gorgeously worded history of Batman from year one to now-ish, The Caped Crusade is also a commentary on the fan culture around the character. It is sometimes reminiscent, sometimes scathing, and always fascinating. There’s a thematic focus on nerd backlash over the years. “That’s not my Batman” are chilling arc words, as they tend to reflect an unwillingness to accept the views and even feelings of others. The gatekeeping fandom cry of “you’re doing it wrong” is far worse.

There are some truly beautiful passages in this book that made me wish I had a highlighter (and my own copy rather than the library’s) such as:

We may intellectually accept that nerdy enthusiasms incline one to absolutism and self-righteousness. But it’s impossible for the recipient of the performative online biliousness that has come to be known as trolling to gauge whether it originates from a place of petty malice or serious mental disturbance. The harm caused–the lingering atmosphere of disquiet and the lost sense of safety–is real, whether it was created by a dangerous sociopath or a bored, emotionally stunted nine-year-old availing himself of the anonymity of the Internet in the quick five minutes before leaving for soccer practice.

There’s much joy celebrated as well, particularly for the animated series, which made me personally happy. Batman was my Thing growing up. Many can say that, but… My date of birth is a little awkward. I don’t occupy any of the usual places in pop culture memory–usually some unrelatable space between two major warring factions of Too Young and Too Old. I didn’t find a lot of myself in this book because of that, but I did recognise the periphery that I grew up sort of adjacent to.

Weldon has a highly entertaining voice, if a tendency to repeat fancy words or clever turns of phrase, and a warmth for his subject that I enjoyed immensely. This is an incredibly fun book to read if you have any fondness for Batman, particularly as depicted in the media outside comics.

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Review – Collision Point

Collision Point, Romantic Suspense by Lora Leigh

Series: Brute Force #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This isn’t my usual stomping grounds even as far as Romance subgenres go, but I’ve been wanting to give Lora Leigh a try and I liked the description. A force of nature grade badass and the fiery woman he can’t get out of his head? Yes please!

As a badass, Riordan Malone is larger than life. His perspective reminded me of a music teacher who was forever enthusing about playing with feeling. If this is your catnip, buy this book now. He is a perfect match for feisty Amara, who I quite liked. She was strong even when she was vulnerable, and she didn’t hesitate to call out any of the arrogant men in her life on their bullshit.

It’s an easy book to recommend–or not to. You have to know the reader. I don’t think it would be a good gateway book for Romantic Suspense, for precisely the same reason it’s an excellent pick for someone who reads a lot of that subgenre. The tension is always taut as a bowstring about to launch an attack. Drama and tempers run at a constant high. Strong emotion directs everything from action scenes to dialogue.

The steaminess is so intense that I actually found myself wondering if I have a “steam tolerance.” There’s a sexy encounter right away, all clashing personality and high emotion. “High emotion” characterises most of the book, which is one of the reasons I find myself on the fence, ratings-wise. For readers who like to be swept along by a torrent of ardor, it’s a perfect ride. For more aloof readers, it’s rather exhausting. Sadly, I tend towards aloof.

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Review – Grayling’s Song

Grayling’s Song, Middle Grade Historical Fantasy by Karen Cushman

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

I think this is half what I wanted Frogkisser to be. The two aren’t similar beyond having a young female protagonist who goes on a road trip with a motley crew to deal with a larger than life antagonist. In this case, the antagonist is technically more larger than life. (Is that grammatically possible?) Too small a point of comparison to help much in deciding whether or not to read it. Whatever, the characters are awesome and it’s a nice simple quest with some roadblocks they have to think their way through and around.

Grayling is the daughter of wise woman Hannah Strong, ordered about and wishing for some time to herself. She gets it when their home burns down and Hannah is rooted to the ground, slowly turning into a tree. Grayling must gather other magic practitioners like her mother for their help in finding Hannah’s grimoire, which hopefully contains the solution.

The others who answer Grayling’s call are motley indeed. An old weather witch who can’t use lightning to fry people, a sullen girl named Pansy, an enchantress who is a literal narcissist, and a mouse. The mouse is my favourite. He gains the ability to speak and shift shapes, whereupon Grayling names him Pook. He reminds me of Killer the rabbit (Calling on Dragons) without being nebbish and obnoxious.

Seriously, Pook should be enough for anyone to check this out. The origin for his “powers” is funny, and his loyalty to Grayling is sweet and endearing. If Disney mascots were more like Pook, they wouldn’t be phasing them out of the formula.

For such a short book, there’s a twisty plot. Grayling is resourceful and clever, and her allies aren’t always helpful. I wasn’t completely surprised by the full antagonist reveal and the ending is a bit too open for me, but it’s still a good quest story with a great main character who matured into an even better one.

As one might expect from Cushman, the writing is excellent and the dialogue is so perfectly old English that it makes the setting with or without description. She does Historical Fiction as if it is a way of life—with passion and brilliant execution. This is a book I’d like to see get a movie adaptation.