Category: Reviews

Review – What’s Your Pronoun?

Posted April 5, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She by Dennis BarronWhat’s Your Pronoun? Dennis Baron

What’s Your Pronoun? discusses something that’s on a lot of people’s minds, for good or bad: the humble part of speech we call the pronoun. Despite what some idiots protest, everybody uses pronouns all the time: I, you, she, he, they… They’re ubiquitous in speech and have been stirring up people’s emotions for years, whether it be wanting a neutral indefinite pronoun (for when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re referring to), or perhaps (like me) wanting to be addressed using a definite neutral pronoun (when someone doesn’t want to reveal their gender, or doesn’t identify with any).

Barron mostly discusses the former, because that’s something that he feels English is lacking (and which he has a fairly marked preference about, judging from this book). He goes over the numerous attempts to invent neutral pronouns, and some of the societal drivers behind that like denying women suffrage, getting used to women taking equal part in public life, and now the greater acceptance in Western society (the examples mostly stick to the US and the UK) of people who prefer to be gender-neutral.

It gets a little stodgy at times, personally, because I don’t care exactly when every different neopronoun was coined, and I’m less interested in a neutral indefinite pronoun (which English speakers usually solve with singular “they”, even if they believe that to be ungrammatical) than in a definite one. Baron is definitely behind singular they all the way, by the sounds of his arguments in this book, whether it be definite or indefinite: in answer to the cries of grammatical issues, he points out that singular “you” is a much more recent coinage, and one nobody even murmurs about these days.

I found it fairly readable, with some chapters being very absorbing and others getting a bit bogged down. If you’re interested in grammar, I’d recommend it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – A Gentleman Never Keeps Score

Posted March 29, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat SebastianA Gentleman Never Keeps Score, Cat Sebastian

After It Takes Two To Tumble, this book follows the fortunes of one of Ben’s brothers, Hartley. As a teenager, he slept with a much older man, his godfather, to help provide for his brothers — school fees, rank, etc. On that man’s death, he inherited his house and a good deal of money, but now the whispers have gone out about why exactly he was the beneficiary… and, of course, he’s socially ruined. Into his life comes Sam Fox, publican and former boxer, who is kind and careful and handsome, and whom Hartley wants despite all the damage done by the exploitative sex he had as a teen.

On the one hand, it’s a delight how slowly and carefully the sex is explored in this book, how well Sam takes care of Hartley. At the same time, it’s harrowing; Hartley’s fears and self-disgust and inability to let himself find happiness are all over everything, making it a rather more serious book (at least to my mind). It’s not that it lacks sweetness, because it certainly doesn’t, but there’s a certain amount of bitter to it as well that — despite grief and worry — weren’t present in the previous book. There’s no on-screen rape or graphic discussion of it, but it colours everything; those who may find this triggering may want to avoid this.

It does have a lovely found family, much as the previous book does, and Hartley opens out into a lovely character as he loses some of his snootiness and challenges some of his own assumptions. Sam is lovely from start to finish — human, and not always able to be perfectly patient and perfectly understanding, but he strives to be better all the time. There are some fun side characters as well, particularly Sadie and Kate.

Overall, I enjoyed it a lot and it broke through a funk during which I wasn’t reading much at all. It’s a little darker in tone, but it does have a happy ending, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – It Takes Two To Tumble

Posted March 27, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of It Takes Two To Tumble by Cat SebastianIt Takes Two To Tumble, Cat Sebastian

Looking around for something cute and easy to read with Lisa (Wife Book Club!), this was my first pick because it was described as “like Sound of Music, but with fewer children and less singing”, and that sounded entertaining. And so it is: Ben is the vicar, and people in the village ask him to deal with the unruly kids of a sea-captain. The kids’ mother has died, and the captain is away on his ship, and the kids are running wild. Ben rather likes kids, and doing things for everyone in the village, so he ends up agreeing.

Said sea-captain, Phillip, comes home and is… less than pleased. However, once he gets out of the mindset of expecting everything to run like a ship — partly at Ben’s prompting — he loosens up and becomes rather more fun, and of course, he develops an attraction to Ben. Ben is engaged to a convalescent girl, Alice, with whom he grew up, and throughout the book he struggles with what’s right, realising that he’s falling in love Phillip and what he feels for his childhood friend is nothing like it. Don’t worry, though: the story avoids demonising Alice, and her sweetness and strength are still important for Ben even when they put an end to their engagement.

There’s also a plotline involving dyslexia: Phillip and one of his children are both dyslexic, and the ways that holds them both back are explored carefully. Jamie’s a wizard with numbers, but traditional learning just won’t work for him. There’s no magical breakthrough moment or anything trite and insulting like that: instead, they plan to play to Jamie’s strengths with the right sort of tutor, and… Well, I won’t say more; that would be a spoiler!

It’s all really sweet, and Ben’s adorable. Phillip is a bit meh for me (which is to say, his determination to be an ass at first annoys me), but Ben carries it.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Gentleman’s Position

Posted March 14, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Gentleman's Position by KJ CharlesA Gentleman’s Position, K.J. Charles

This is the final book in the Society of Gentlemen series, and it beautifully wraps things up — not just for Richard and Cyprian, but for the characters of the other two books as well. It’s all very cleverly done, with David Cyprian pulling the strings and manipulating things into place, and Richard stumbling towards happiness with large blundering feet. The plot is mostly: Richard fucks up, Richard needs Cyprian back, David Cyprian is too loyal for his own good, Richard puts his foot in it some more. I was at once longing for a happy ending and wanting David to realise Richard truly is an idiot and walk away.

Charles can always bring me round to enjoying a character or plotline I didn’t think I would; she had no problems here, as I was already eager to see what David could do and how things would work out. I actually read this all in one go.

It’s not just the characters and their relationship, though. I really liked the side characters, including the way Richard’s elder brother and his wife try to take care of Richard and are supported by him in turn. Knowing the world already from the other books, it’s interesting to see it from a new slant and discover the other sides of people one might have already disliked or dismissed.

As with the first book, I have very little I want to criticise here. It was a lot of fun. Just one point: Richard is portrayed as pretty much demisexual (and apparently word-of-God says he is), but there is a scene which puts the lie to that where he says he wanted David since he first saw him. Neither the inclusion nor that moment are a major part of the plot, but it’s a point worth being aware of if you’re hoping for demisexual representation.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Posted March 10, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 24th March 2020

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is described as an “Asian period drama”, which sounds about right to me. It opens with a cleric, Chih, whose job is to document events and stories, in order that they might be remembered and understood in the future. They travel with a hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, who is a neixin. The neixin work alongside clerics, learning stories and passing them on. Chih is eager to catalogue the stories of the place where the recently deceased Empress was originally exiled from the court, prior to her rise to power. They’re lucky enough to meet Rabbit, an old woman who served the Empress before and during her exile.

The story is parcelled out in little snatches: Rabbit curates the story, presenting what she wants Chih to understand and slowly bringing them to the understanding of it. I found myself not very surprised by the reveal by the time we got to the ending, but the slow spinning out of the story worked for me. It feels very fairytale-like, with most of the characters very opaque, but the little glimpses we see are enough to flesh it out — at least enough to keep me interested through the course of the novella.

Just to note, I’m unclear whether Chih is actually non-binary rep. As far as I remember the early part of the book, Rabbit assumes they are female until she realises they’re a cleric. So it sounds more to me like a cultural thing, rather than an identity thing per se, and it isn’t really explored. It’s just a fact. There is also a brief reference to a lesbian relationship, but it’s very brief and not really very important to the story. There’s queerness woven into the story, but I didn’t feel it was particularly intended to be the centrepiece.

It feels like there’s so much potential for more stories in this world — stories about the clerics themselves, as well as the stories they discover and record. I’d be interested to read more if there ever is more, but it does also work as a self-contained story.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Seditious Affair

Posted March 9, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Seditious Affair by KJ CharlesA Seditious Affair, K.J. Charles

This one feels rather darker than A Fashionable Indulgence, although some of the same themes of radicalism and struggle are in that book too. Here, they’re front and centre, because Harry’s radical mentor Silas is one of the main characters. And the other is his Wednesday liaison, Dominic Frey, who doesn’t even know his name as the book opens — just that his brute knows him and his needs, and challenges him in ways he’s never been challenged, while giving him the strength to face the rest of the world. The problem being that Dominic is a Tory, working for the Home Office, tracking down radicals just like Silas.

The whole book is a struggle between their ideals and their growing feelings for one another. Between them, they could work it out, if only they didn’t come from such different worlds at such a fraught point in time, just after the Peterloo massacre. The radical ideas that Harry mostly pushes away and hides in A Fashionable Indulgence are Silas’ everyday goals, and it sets him against Dominic, willing or not.

It takes a while for things to work out, but they do, and there is a happy ending — I promise! It’s a bittersweet ending, in many ways: they’ve balanced their need for each other with their ideals and found their ideals shaking, their dedication to them crumbling… but they do figure something out.

One thing I do enjoy that’s more in the background here is Richard and Dominic’s relationship. They were basically childhood sweethearts, but Richard couldn’t give Dominic what he needed — in fact, made him feel broken and wrong for wanting it, let alone needing it. So throughout the book they finally come to terms with that, and while it’s obvious they still love one another deeply and care very much about what the other does and what happens to them, they’re starting to let things go and make their peace with their long-ago rift.

As ever, this book does contain quite a few sex scenes, and if you’ve read A Fashionable Indulgence first, which I do suggest, you’ll be aware of Dominic’s tastes. I wasn’t always in love with the way this aspect of their relationship is portrayed: they do very little negotiating or checking in, and it takes a while for it to be fully clear how Dominic can give the equivalent of a safeword. There’s a lot of “no, don’t, stop” that can be quite discomforting, even with the context that the two of them have been doing this for a year and know each other well.

Overall, I don’t love the characters of Dominic or Silas as much as Harry and Julius, so that shaped my enjoyment of this book. I’m much more curious about Richard and David Cyprian, in the next book, and also hoping it gives us more glimpses of Harry and Ash, who are both adorable.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Fashionable Indulgence

Posted March 4, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of A Fashionable Indulgence by KJ CharlesA Fashionable Indulgence, K.J. Charles

Harry Vane is the son of a rabble-rousing nobleman who married a commoner and ended up disowned by his family. He had to flee England with his family when he was 12 because they involved him in their revolutionary activities, and now he’s scraping by helping a secret printer turn out radical tracts and pamphlets… and then his noble family turn up to claim him, and suddenly it’s all a bit My Fair Lady: Julius Norreys is tasked with turning Harry into a gentleman. In the meantime, Harry’s thawing Julius’ heart after past tragedies, quite without Julius’ permission.

I have no doubts anymore when it comes to K.J. Charles: whatever the scenario, I’m going to enjoy it. A Fashionable Indulgence turned out to be one I enjoyed a lot. Harry’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre is palpable, and it’s no wonder it brings Julius to life. Julius’ slowly awakening need to have Harry around is a joy, and I’m on fire with curiosity for what the books about Richard (and Cyprian) and Dominic (and Silas) are going to be like, and for the chance to get a better look at their characters. It felt like I was being set up to dislike Verona, and then boom! I’d love to know a little more of her story, too. So once again, Charles got me involved with a whole new cast of characters. I was shockingly fond of Francis and Ash, even though The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh is so short, too — I was glad to see them play their parts.

I read this almost all in one go, which was lovely too; I’ve seen reviews complaining about the slow start, but I honestly wonder if that isn’t mostly because Julius and Harry don’t meet at first. I think the set-up makes the payoff better, and it’s not as though it takes long for Harry and Julius to figure things out.

My only complaint really is that it made me come over all Relationship Advice Dalek (COMM-UN-I-CATE!) for a bit… but it does make sense for the story too. It wraps up very neatly, at least for Harry and Julius, but it’s enjoyable that it all comes together like this.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Hearts of Oak

Posted March 3, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hearts of Oak by Eddie RobsonHearts of Oak, Eddie Robson

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 17th March 2020

Hearts of Oak is a bit difficult to describe without giving things away. Iona is the main character, an architect in a mysterious city enclosed in a dome. She’s never really questioned the way things are, even though she has odd dreams and memories of things that no longer exist in the city. Materials that don’t exist, like concrete and felt. And yet odd things are happening: a colleague has died and a man appears at his funeral and leaps into the furnace with him; a woman she’s never met before asks her to tutor her in how the building work is done, and she seems to have had the dreams too, to know words she shouldn’t know.

There were moments that should have been really emotive — for instance, discovering you’re surrounded by automatons which don’t even look that human, but somehow you never noticed. That should surely have been freaky and weird and you should have felt for the character, but it was just kind of flat. Or the ending: the reader should have felt sorry, glad, horrified… something. But it totally didn’t work for me.

It’s an interesting concept, but it left some questions in my mind and just… didn’t engage me much on an emotional level.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Honjin Murders

Posted March 2, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Honjin Murders by Seishi YokomizoThe Honjin Murders, Seishi Yokomizo, trans. Louise Heal Kawai

The Honjin Murders is a classic Japanese murder mystery in translation, drawing very much from the sort of locked room mysteries favoured by John Dickson Carr, whose books are even referenced in the story. A couple are slain on their wedding night, and a mysterious three-fingered man is implicated, though the room the two were in was locked from the inside and no one should have been able to gain access.

It’s a bit of an odd set-up, because the story is told by a writer of detective fiction who only finds out about the murder later — it’s written as if it’s a true crime story being reconstructed after the fact, which does at times give it a blandness. There’s no real urgency to it, though partly that’s probably due to the translation. Other than the fact that it’s in translation, it’s not particularly uniquely Japanese; there are kotos and katanas and tatami mats, but exchange a few details and it’s a book by John Dickson Carr. That might be an upside, for you… however, I’m afraid I don’t really get along with John Dickson Carr, though I persist in trying.

It was so deliberately referential and so distant from the action, it just didn’t really work for me.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh

Posted March 2, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh by KJ CharlesThe Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh, K.J. Charles

This is a short story set in the world of a trilogy I haven’t read, so it feels like just a bit of a teaser. Gabriel Ashley has just made a big mistake: he gambled against a man who was an enemy of his brother’s back when they were at university, who he further insulted when he met him in person by being a drunk idiot, and he’s lost everything. The man in question, Francis Webster, has invited him round to pay up, and proposes another game. Ash ends up with absolutely nothing to bet… except his coat, his shirt, himself…

Ash is a cutie — he’s messed things up with Francis, but he knows it and tries to apologise, and he’s ready to face the consequences of his actions. Francis comes off badly at first, and I’m not 100% in love with the whole scenario, but it’s saved by Ash’s explicit and enthusiastic consent, and the fact that Ash is the one to push the situation into sex.

The story is really minimal and just set-up for the sex, so if you’re not interested, it may not be for you. I’m not sure if Ash or Francis play a particularly big part in the Society of Gentlemen trilogy, but all you’d really need to know is what I’ve described in this review. If you are interested in a short sex-filled story, it turns out rather sweet and seems worth it to me!

Rating: 4/5

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