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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.

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Review – High Season

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

Series: The Polo Season #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

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 – Emperor of the Eight Islands

Emperor of the Eight Islands, Fantasy/Folklore by Lian Hearn

Series: The Tale of Shikanoko #1

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I loved this book. It’s a low-key, don’t get too excited, kind of love, but I love it all the same. I grew up as the weird kid who liked Japan, but while I did watch anime and I was certainly familiar with western otaku, it wasn’t the end-all be-all. For me it was the language and the history. I didn’t take Japanese in college in hopes of reading original copies of Ranma 1/2 manga. I wanted to read Genji Monogatari and A Cat, A Man, and Two Women.

The story hits a lot of high notes as fabricated folklore. Everyone has either a devastating or idyllic childhood, magic and sorcery set practitioners apart from mere mortals, people lie, people die, and magical items are fascinating even when they don’t do anything. Or rather, when they haven’t done anything yet. The pacing is necessarily a bit on the slow side, as events unfold over the course of years, counting backstories.

Kazumaru has a poetically tragic beginning. His father, a bright and charming man who does as he pleases, disappears when he dares to play go with tengu in the mountains. His death is readily assumed, and Kazumaru’s mother gives in to her grief by leaving to become a nun. Kazumaru is left in the care of his uncle, who despite having promised to care for the boy like his own, proceeds to make Kazumaru’s life miserable. This culminates in a plan to kill the boy just before he comes of age while they hunt a stag whom the uncle desperately wants as a trophy.

As the plan is fable-obvious, Kazumaru knows it’s a trap. He says farewell to his only friend and goes regardless, because he knows that his uncle wants him dead. It will happen one way or another, and this way, he faces his fate like a man. However, in the moment when he knows his death is coming, the stag takes the killing blow meant for Kazumaru, and like Alice, the boy literally falls into a world of magic, danger, and political manoeuvring.

…technically that last one was not something Alice had to worry about, I suppose. Unless you count the issues between the Duchess, her fat baby, and the Red Queen. But I digress.

While Kazumaru is the central figure in the story, it has many layers beyond him. There are multiple perspective characters, and they tend to come into conflict with one another. No one is necessarily good or evil, even characters whom we are told are explicitly good or evil. I don’t know where to stand, which is rather fascinating.

Sorcerers in this world are all the esoteric sage types who live supernaturally long lives studying and hoarding scrolls and grimoires. Their powers are immense, yet portrayed in enigmatic broad strokes. Parlour tricks aren’t off the table, but they tend not to work. Magic is too vast for the uninitiated to even grasp.

Hearn’s writing style has a profound dignity, measured and even. I could easily imagine kotsuzumi and nōkan playing in the background while I was reading. A bit like reading a play, where implied sound and visuals come to mind.

There’s an unpleasant jolt just pages before the end of the book that threw me for a nasty curve, though. I won’t say what happened, as it’s seriously right at the end, but suffice to say, while it was certainly appropriate for a story faithfully written in the style of Japanese folklore and mythology, I hated the event itself and cannot see the guilty character recovering in my eyes. Maybe there will be a redemption arc over the series or even as soon as the second book. It will have to be stellar for me to get over that ending.

Even so, taken as a whole, Emperor of the Eight Islands is a beautifully written book that I highly recommend to anyone familiar with Japanese culture or looking to become so.

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The Best of Baby Updates!

Jackson is here! He was born not long after midnight on July 25th, tiny and perfect. I had to take this picture quite close in order to make him look bigger. He’s seriously a little bitty peanut.

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Anyone who follows me on Twitter already knows this. It wasn’t exactly live updating (labour was short but INTENSE) but 140 characters and a photo is easier than actually remembering my laptop so I could write a blog post. As much as I considered early baby, and I tried my best to prepare everything beforehand, it still took me totally be surprise. ^^; I forgot my toothbrush, shampoo, laptop, and shoes.

Recovery is going to take awhile. My arthritis has flared up drastically, and this is my first time not relying on formula. So any time my underweight baby wants to eat, I’m the only one who can feed him. Underweight means that he eats basically all the time. But we’re lucky that there’s nothing wrong beyond his needing to eat more. I guess I just have tiny pixie babies.

I had originally intended to put up some kind of notice when I went into the hospital, but that didn’t happen. S’pose I shall have to settle for taking the week off and then resuming. I read a couple of books that had been on my list for some time. I also have SO MANY THOUGHTS about a lukewarm romance. Reviews are coming.

Also, with the arrival of baby Jackson, we’re overhauling our living space. Since I can barely walk (yay post delivery pain) I can happily focus on all of the good of this situation. Like getting a mini fridge! Seeing all the weird use of space and moving boxes! Sorting baby clothes! But the best part is a project that I have been wanting to get to for months: sorting the BOOKS. I’ve found myself missing books that I bought and had to put in storage when we moved ages ago. I’ve also read things I do not want to keep (Oh Seduced by Mr Right, how could I have known you would go so wrong?) and books that I will totally read someday but wouldn’t mind swapping storage status with something I want to read sooner.

There may be pictures if I can find some particular gems. I will certainly stop mid-work to read. In particular, I know I won’t make it past the first A Lee Martinez book I find. And Fly By Night needs to be found so I can reread it again and then put it next to Fly Trap. I may also have a second copy of the former with the original title.

It’s nice to be back. I’ll still be running on very little sleep. But I’m back. :D

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Review – The Crimson Skew

The Crimson Skew, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove

Series: The Mapmaker’s Trilogy #3

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

After I first finished reading, I wrote several paragraphs about maybe two things: how much I enjoy SE Grove’s prose for its own sake, and that this particular book left only a faint impression on my memory if any.

The Mapmakers Trilogy is ambitious. Multiple plot lines, histories voiced by both viewpoint and nonperspective characters, literal world exploration… Even the titles require some thought to get. Everything from the language to some of the structure of the overarching plot relies on readers being patient and intelligent. What a compliment from author to reader! Particularly in Middle Grade, where so many books are content to make fart jokes and tired puns. Grove’s writing is absolutely lovely, and the story is complex. Introducing Sophie’s missing parents in the first book and tying it up in the third is not unexpected, but the political intrigue took me by surprise. It holds up throughout the series and explodes into one of the most major parts of the third book’s plot.

Broadgirdle is still a scary villain, particularly when compared to real life counterparts. But he could feel a bit toned down due to everything going on with Sophia, Goldenrod, Errol, and the pirate siblings, as they follow Sophia’s Ausentinian map. Divinity, prophecy, and the like ballooned into major themes. …it could also be that Shadrack took the fore to deal with Broadgirdle, which is appropriate, but Shadrack never quite got past being a damsel in distress adult to me.

I was never a fan of the three fates as a deity idea, even after Sophia had her crisis of faith. It went somewhere I rather liked in this book, but it still has so little basis. This whole world makes no sense to me, particularly when held up against the originally promised premise. That was my complaint in each book–though sufficiently ameliorated in the second–and although I thought it would get better, just starting the third book sort of disappointed me as I realised I was still not over it.

Which is a shame, because SE Grove is such an exceptional writer! The prose is smooth, fun to read and quotable. The characters are even nicely diverse, which is something a LOT of authors fall face-down on when writing historical fiction of any kind. I listened to the audiobook for some of my reading experience, and the narrator actually gave relevant accents to all of the characters. That’s rather a big deal. I mean, Kathryne Kennedy wrote Regency Romance with sorcery in it and I don’t think she took the opportunity to insert characters of colour. (maybe I’m wrong, my memory is so cursed at present, ugh…still.)

There’s a big courtroom scene for Broadgirdle to have his day in, and I remember the drama of the moment, but I feel like it didn’t go far enough. Again, I admit to forgetting most of the book right after reading, but I swear I went back and reread this scene. It seems an important bone to the skeletal structure of the ending, and I just wasn’t… what’s the word? Impressed? Satisfied? There’s definitely a cheery tone to the rest of the ending that is more optimistic than I expected, but that fits the main character and while I didn’t expect it, I can’t say it surprised me. Whenever war is part of the narrative for a younger audience, optimism reigns. In a weird way.

But aside from that moment with the bad guy, I think everything came together to make for a great wrap-up.

I’d go into more details, but whether it’s pregnancy brain, reading over too many days, or just sort of falling out of interest, no amount of trying and typing my thoughts is helping me recall much more than: Good Ending. Would recommend to anyone who enjoys artistry of language, adventure, exploration, and intrepid heroines.

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Hurry Up, Kid

Baby update: still not born. I’m not even in the hospital yet. On Sunday, I was having these crazy contractions and I was super sure we’d have to interrupt laundry day to go to the hospital. But no. I timed them, and they were irregular. Just Braxton Hicks. Coincidentally, I’m reading The Eyre Affair right now, and there is a character named Braxton Hicks in it. I kept waiting for there to be more of a joke to his name, actually.

I am on track, at least. I don’t think I’m going to go ridiculously past my due date, and I still have this sort of early feeling. But that might just be that I’ve gotten used to expecting to be early. Who knows. There’s a thunderstorm warning out today, which of course puts me in mind of how my first baby was born. Without warning! During a storm! Because of the storm!

He still is a storm, my goodness.

I’ve slowed down a lot. Tonnes of arthritis flare-ups and one of my knees is twice the size it ought to be whether I’m flaring or not. Jackson has dropped fairly low, so my belly is lower and crazy unwieldy. I drop things all the time. Klutziness abounds. Sometimes I can’t even read because I either cannot get comfortable, or because I pass out due to fatigue. Nothing so bad as when I was pregnant with Owen and I couldn’t get through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That remains my record for times fallen asleep reading.

Hospital bag is packed, Owen still needs an overnight bag, and I should really get through all of my library books…

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To DNF or to Power Through?

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I’m used to having unpopular opinions. It can bother me when it feels like the thing I love is being misunderstood, or on the flip side when I feel the thing is VILE and it is instead much-beloved.

Movies and most particularly video games are easy to stop if I hate them. But books feel different. I’ve always liked books best, for one thing, so they deserve more consideration on the whole. I seem to go through stages, where DNFing a book is easy and I employ the surrender option often so that I can try new things with less stress or get through a tall stack more quickly and with less pain.

But when it comes to things I have to review or rec to someone, I feel like I need to get as much information as possible. In the case of NetGalley ARCs in particular, I’m new enough to feel like I should try to like everything, and still feeling my diligence when it comes to finishing. I have heard of other people who DNF as they need, as well as those who abuse the privilege and backlog 50 or 60 ARCs as if they’re just free candy.

There is one ARC I have that I thought I would like and it’s a Request Now title. But… to say I become quickly disenchanted with it would be putting it mildly. Rather like one saying that one does not wish to eat fetid entrails from the fresh corpse of a diseased sheep. But my opinion seems to fly in the face of a cheering fanbase, five-starring all over the place.

I suppose my opinion is unimportant when the dilemma is “Do I finish this so that I can feel less guilty about the one-star review I know it’s going to be” or “Do I cut my losses and write a brief review?”

DNFing is not an easy choice in any case. Some readers never DNF as a matter of principle, which is fine as long as they don’t use that to project and judge other readers. Others DNF without stress. I don’t really know where I fall on the spectrum.