Saw this described on Twitter and thought, hey, I’ll give that a go! So I signed up to Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon, and snagged a copy. It’s set in a place called the Teacup Isles, with a vaguely Regency-ish mindset and morality, except there’s magic too. All the ladies at the fashionable parties are trying to snare a duke — except Mnemosyne, who grew up with said duke, doesn’t think that much of him, and would really rather be reading a book. This endears her to the spellcracker tasked with protecting the duke from matrimony, who is run ragged trying to stop everyone using charms to make themselves irresistible.
Naturally, hijinks ensue. I’d have loved a little more time spent developing Mnemo and Mr Thornberry’s relationship; it’s obvious where it’s going, but sometimes one wants to enjoy the ride. I did enjoy that the relationships between the women are largely friendly, even when they’re rivals; Mnemo and Letty are rather fun, and I like that nobody is a stereotype and the women work together.
Overall, cute and enjoyable! It’s quite short and not particularly surprising or substantial, but that makes it feel very much like a cupcake — sweet and indulgent, and not too fattening (to the TBR).
Oof, I was always so sure I’d love Watchtower, and yet when it comes to it I don’t know what to say. It felt like there was meant to be a lot going on under the surface, but I couldn’t see through it to what I was supposed to be connecting to and understanding. It opens with the aftermath of a battle: Ryke has survived, though the lord of the Keep has not, and he’s offered a chance to live and serve… and if he does, his prince will be kept safe. He agrees in order to save Errel, and ultimately contrives his escape after Errel has been thoroughly humiliated by being forced to be essentially a court jester. So far, so heard it all before.
And then he and Errel end up in a sort of… commune, where everybody pitches in and everybody learns to fight, only there’s also dancing, which Errel learns and Ryke won’t learn. Some things turn out the way you expect — actually, none of the actual plot surprised me, per se — but the relationships are what I think are what’s really being explored. Sorren and Norres (their names aren’t alike for any particular reason I can see) help Ryke and Errel escape, and the four become entangled in a weird web of trust, jealousy and confusion.
It doesn’t help that Ryke is obtuse and stubborn all along. At the end, I was left with a pretty powerful sense of melancholy: that aspect of the regret and confusion Ryke feels comes through solidly, but what anyone else feels and why is rather beyond me. Why Ryke’s so stubborn and stupid (except learned prejudice, which he displays fairly frequently) doesn’t really come through for me.
In the end, I’m not really intending to bother with the other Tornor books, on the strength of this; it’s interesting how casually queer it is (Sorren and Norres are women and in a committed relationship; there are people of non-binary gender presentation in the world, though it seems that’s by birth rather than choice), given the age of the book. That part of it hasn’t aged it at all.
It all feels deceptively simple, in a way that I think is intended and meant to create something with that melancholy regretful feeling. But it’s like trying to hold a handful of snow in the palm of a warm hand; it doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t stand up to any pressure — it won’t last in my mind, I don’t think. I’m glad I gave it a try, though.
A Hidden Hope is such a familiar love story; I’ve been to a couple of SF/F cons; I could almost imagine the panels, the nervous debut authors, the stupid and not-so-stupid questions about the attendees. I definitely remembered the whirlwind romance-ness of sharing story critiques, loving each other’s writing, fiercely supporting one another — and then just as fiercely falling out, over stupid things that only a few years later I’d feel daft about, and now would solve by talking. This is a story about getting past that and learning: Natalie and El get a second chance when they meet at a convention in London, having expected that they’d be totally safe from running into each other there, and Natalie lets El sweep her back off her feet despite the bruised feelings.
It feels a little rushed, partly because I didn’t get much of a feel for the characters outside their relationship — even within fandom, there’s only a little glimpse of that. It means they didn’t quite feel real to me, despite how much I recognised their relationship and how they worked together. It felt like it was a little sketched in.
It’s sweet enough, and I’m glad of the HEA that they get, though Natalie’s negativity and self-sabotage is a bit of a downer and makes me wonder if I believe they’ll make it as a couple. There are several sex scenes, and I think the relationship seems rather built around sex and their sexual connection in a way I’m not interested in, so perhaps that didn’t help me connect to it. I’m not sure I particularly recommend it, but it’s not bad either. I’m pretty sure the same story wrapped in just a few more details would have worked for me.
Sorting the Beef from the Bull, Nicola Temple & Richard Evershed
This book is about the science of food fraud — the way food fraud is committed, hidden, and detected. It has chapters on various staple foodstuffs, from meat (Horsegate, of course, but also other meat-related frauds like the injection of extra water into meat so that the consumer pays for water in the alleged weight), spices (you don’t want to know what happens with many ground spices), wine (mostly affecting rich people, but also some of the lowest end stuff), oil (olive oil is a big target), milk… Apparently it’s endemic in the UK, at least in Lancashire, that pizza takeaways almost universally do not use mozzarella — it’s not even cheese at all, with actual cheese only being added as a flavouring. And if you’re in the US, I have bad news about the likelihood that any red snapper is actually red snapper. 80% odds say it isn’t.
Most boggling to me, the idea that you can make a synthetic egg that fools people to the extent that they’ll crack the eggs, fry them up and consume them. (You can tell they aren’t real eggs because they lack a membrane inside the eggshell. That’s about it, to hear these authors tell it.)
It’s not just horror stories, of course: the authors also discuss the science at work in detecting these frauds, and the best ways for a consumer to avoid them. Mostly, it comes down to awareness, buying things whole (fish with the heads on; whole spices; recognisable cuts of meat, etc) buying seasonally, and buying locally from sources you can trust.
It’s all a bit horrifying, but fascinating as well. Definitely worth a read.
The Santa Klaus Murder is a competent but (for me) uninspiring mystery; I don’t know whether I’m just reading too many Golden Age crime novels at the moment, and should therefore stop — but then, I don’t think I absolutely loved the other book I read by Mavis Doriel Hay, so perhaps it’s just that. In any case, it’s another case of Christmas in a dysfunctional family, with a controlling patriarch and issues of inheritance looming.
It is told in an interesting way, at least at first, with the opening chapters being different points of view on the early events of the story written by the characters, and that’s a sort of exercise in sketching out characters that’s pretty entertaining. It doesn’t sustain that through the book, though; the later chapters are all from the perspective of the investigator.
Not really sold on it, in any case; it felt a little like going-through-the-motions, and I found the misdirection onto a particular character obvious and rather silly. Not one that worked for me, in the end!
This one is a slim volume, but it’s just as satisfying as the longer stories I’ve read by K.J. Charles! Theo runs the Matrimonial Advertiser, a lonely hearts publication which allows ladies of some means to put in an ad seeking gentlemen of the right sort, gentlemen to put out an ad for a wife, and so on. One day Martin comes in because of some ads placed by a young woman of his acquaintance, and it all ends with Theo entangled in a quest to follow the young lady to Gretna Green to prevent her from making a decision about marriage that she can’t undo.
I won’t spoil the ups and downs of the plot, but “oh Theo no” and “oops” and “ohhhh no” were all things I said while reading! Theo and Martin’s relationship develops quickly, without ever being treated with sentimentality, and you can root for their HEA despite the mess-ups along the way. There are several explicit sex scenes; they build the rapport between the characters, and given the shortness of the book, I’d say they’re not really skippable — how the characters interact in every scene is important to the payoff.
It was especially interesting that Martin is a person of colour, a former slave, and indeed one who was previously owned by the family for whom he’s doing a favour. It changes the narrative and provides an interesting way of looking at the period in its discussion of gratitude and privilege.
I suppose my one critique was that the twist in the middle — or at least, the way it plays out — is pretty obvious, but then, this is a romance, and you know there’s a HEA in store somehow.
It’s probably bit weird to come to this book without reading the main series, but the cover is so lovely! Likotsi is essentially the personal assistant (“Advisor Most High”) to the prince of a fictional African country. She was in New York working for the prince a while before the story opens, where she met Fabiola through a dating app. They clicked quickly, and were well on the way to falling in love when suddenly Fabiola decided, out of nowhere, to tell Likotsi that it was over between them. Back in New York, Likotsi’s planning to forget her… and of course a chance meeting makes that impossible.
(No, there is no actual ghosting in this story. Fabiola makes the end of the relationship explicitly clear, and then enforces her boundaries in not wanting to talk to Likotsi.)
There’s something too much about the narration at times — here’s an excerpt from early in the book: “New York City didn’t have majestic mountains or roaring waterfalls or rolling plains, but it was a beautiful city in its own way. It deserved better than to be the receptacle of memories that impeded her forward motion like a badly tailored suit that was too tight at the knees and elbows.” It would be perfectly fine — and smoother to read — if it was more like this instead: “New York City didn’t have mountains or waterfalls or rolling plains, but it was a beautiful city in its own way. It deserved better than just to provoke the memories that kept constraining her at odd moments, like a badly tailored suit.” That’s not the best, but it makes the point: you know mountains are tall and waterfalls roar, you know that a badly tailored suit fits badly.
I don’t normally nitpick too much at the prose level, and thankfully it did smooth out once it stopped being self-conscious and the leads started going around the city together. It ended up pretty cute, and Fabiola’s reasons for the abrupt breakup are obviously such that she is not in fact an asshole.
There is one sex scene which is very explicit; it’s totally fine to skip, it’s just a culmination of their relationship, without significant character development or plot relevance. It’s pretty clearly signalled and at the end of the book.
It felt only right to pick this up around Christmas, given the title. Obviously crime books aren’t usually too full of the warmth and joys of Christmas, and so it proved again. Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale gets called out to the home of a Russian emigré, an old woman who seems to have been killed in her sleep and any valuables taken. The valuables turn out to have been very valuable indeed, so a meandering case starts to unfold involving a collector, a perky and pretty girl who works as an assistant in the shop, the old woman’s son, and various red herrings strewn about liberally. The main character is Nightingale, with some glimpses of his subordinate, Beddoes.
(There is a moment which made me laugh where Beddoes realises that Nightingale’s first name is actually David, and his name is Jonathan. I think that’s the allusion which is being made, anyway. Slightly raised eyebrows, given the often homoerotic interpretations of David and Jonathan these days. Not sure that’s what Kelly was going for.)
Overall, “meandering” is really the word that comes to mind. There’s a rather confused action-y bit at the climax, but that part also features a pages-long explanation from Nightingale, for the benefit of the collector, on what might be driving the Russian emigré’s son. It all seems really disorganised and hard to follow, although whodunnit is painfully obvious all along.
It’s engaging enough for a quiet afternoon, but I was hardly in love with it, and I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best of this series.
The Pursuit of… is the story of two men from opposite sides of the American Civil War. John Hunter spares Henry Latham at a key engagement, and Henry goes to find him to repay the debt afterwards. John expects him to duck out at every turn, but he doesn’t, and they head across country to John’s home — with Henry talking nineteen-to-the-dozen the whole way. It took me a while to warm up to John — though I liked Henry right away — but as he warmed up to Henry, so I warmed up to him. The cheese thing is silly and cute.
In fact, the whole thing is oftentimes silly and cute, though there are also serious parts: the discussion of what truly constitutes equality, Henry’s learning process, Henry figuring out that he has to go home and figure things out with his family… There’s also a scene with non-sexual intimacy that is just lovely.
There is a sex scene, of course; it’s pretty explicit, but skippable if that’s not your thing. It isn’t all about sex, by far, and it has a lovely happy ending — though it doesn’t go with the easiest happy ending. I enjoyed it a lot.
I picked up a bunch of Courtney Milan’s books because of the furore over the RWA judgement on whether her criticism of a particular book and publishing house constituted violations of the RWA codes of conduct. Since it was Christmas Eve, I grabbed this one in particular because it’s set at Christmas, though to be honest it isn’t really about Christmas and there’s not much about it that makes it particularly seasonal.
It opens with the main character, Lavinia, finding that there is a significant discrepancy in the books at her lending library business, and what’s worse, her personal savings are also missing. Just as she fully realises the loss, her brother arrives and unfolds a tale of woe — and in the room to overhear it is Mr William White, a patron of the library and admirer of Lavinia. He decides to help her out with her little problem… for a price.
The cover is misleading, I should add; Lavinia couldn’t afford such a dress, at least until the very end of the story.
I find the character of William White rather unpleasant, and despite the fact that he later somewhat redeems himself, the storyline sits quite badly with me. He basically coerces Lavinia: he will deal with her brother’s issues if she’ll have sex with him. (And yes, this is a period novel where that would also render her a fallen woman, to some extent, and where contraception is not available.) She’s smarter than him and easily figures out what he’s doing, and decides to go along with it anyway; she sees that he is deeply hurt and wants to reach out to him and offer him love and affection. I enjoyed Lavinia’s attitude to sex — the fact that she is practical, but also eager about the sensual experience — and her way of thinking about William… to some degree. It still makes me squirmingly uncomfortable that William’s behaviour is essentially rewarded.
Nonetheless, the book doesn’t end there, and slowly he gains in understanding and figures things out. There is a happy ever after for them, and it isn’t on horribly compromised terms: both freely come to the relationship, out of genuine love and care for one another. William’s character may not be to my taste, but things still come together satisfyingly — helped by the fact that the romance isn’t the only plot, but also Lavinia’s relationship with her brother.
There are sex scenes in the book, and one of them is a rather uncomfortable one; though Lavinia is eager and William in theory wants it, it’s rather awkward because of the intended coercion and self-disgust. I would say reading it is necessary to the story, though, because dialogue and introspection carry on through the scene.
Overall, I’d still say it ends up being quite sweet and not a bad reading experience; your mileage will vary on how much William White’s character in the early part of the book colours your experience of the rest. He does redeem himself, and as I said, the happy ending is not on compromised terms.