I knew what I was getting into with a K.J. Charles story, of course. Men being stupid at each other, probably a bodycount, good snark and a handful of sex scenes. That makes it sound formulaic, but it really isn’t — with each new story you’re meeting new and distinct characters, with their own reasons for taking their time or falling right into bed. In this book, we meet Archie Curtis and Daniel da Silva: one an ex-military man, still healing from wounds from a terrible accident, and the other an effete poet.
Both of them have been invited to a country house, and they each have ulterior motives for being there. Despite early tension between them, Curtis finds himself learning to appreciate Daniel better — and of course, their tension morphs into something else. I found myself going from wanting to throw things at Daniel to totally appreciating the developing relationship and wanting Curtis to be better at all this! That said, it isn’t really fair: Curtis is always decent, and though he might have some stupid stereotypes in his mind, he’s also open to learning better. I do wish we got a little more of Daniel’s point of view and how he sees Curtis, though…
There are also some very fun side characters, and I’m excited to meet them in Proper English. So glad I have it on my shelf… but on the other hand, I might save it for when I need a pick-me-up! K.J. Charles’ books are always perfect for my fidgety moods when I’m not sure what I want to read: fun stories, interesting characters, and yes, sparks always fly — and the chemistry is always great.
I was feeling fidgety, so I decided to read for a book by K.J. Charles I hadn’t read yet. Unfit to Print is a standalone, following Gil Lawless and Vikram Pandey, the owner of a dirty bookshop and a high-flying lawyer, respectively. They knew one another at school, but have been separated for quite a long time, with Vik believing Gil to be dead. He’s looking for the son of a local Indian family, though, and that takes him to the street where Gil keeps his bookshop… and there they run into one another again.
Gil’s been hurt a lot and is as prickly as a hedgehog, while Vik’s not been interested in anyone since Gil’s disappearance from their boarding school. They quickly fall into their old intimacies, though Gil finds it hard to offer anything other than the physical and Vik finds it hard to take the physical aspect without the feelings getting in the way. At the same time, Gil needs to help Vik find out what happened to the boy he’s looking for, while trying not to get his reputation all smeared up for him…
It’s a lovely little second chance, and I quickly fell for both characters and their silly desperate attempts not to get hurt more when they’re already stumbling along with plenty of hurt to spare from their pasts. Their interaction smoulders as usual — holding hands was never so sexy — and it was a really fun read overall. The mystery aspect was a little bit perfunctory; it felt a bit of a letdown for the answer to be that easy, but it did make sense as well.
All in all, plenty of fun, though not for all the family!
It’s time for another Top Ten Tuesday, and this time the prompt is “reasons why I love X”. I chose to talk about the romance genre, because I think most people here originally followed me for my SF/F reviews, and my taste has been expanding a lot in the last couple of years. I still love SF/F, but I’ve tried to abandon any snobbery about any genres and just give more things a try, and now I read about the same amount of romance as I do SF/F! So… why is that?
There are happy endings. It’s not the ending, it’s the journey. I know that the couple are going to be happy at the end, but I don’t know exactly how they’ll get there. This really appeals to me, especially lately: I don’t really like not knowing the ending. I don’t really like sitting with anxiety about how things are going to turn out. I don’t need to know all the details, but I need to know everyone will be safe and happy at the end.
It’s often a quick read. I love the fact that there’s so much available that I can read in the space of one bath or in one sitting. I’ve lost my attention span for 6-book epics, I’m afraid. There are shorter mysteries and fantasies and SF novellas and so on, I know! But I’ve tapped into a pool of just-short-enough novels here and it’s perfect.
There’s a lot of diversity. I know there remain huge problems with romance fandom when it comes to diversity, but I know exactly where to turn for the sort of characters I like. I was overjoyed when I first dipped my toes into actually reading romance and the first thing I received to review was An Unsuitable Heir, by K.J. Charles. Finding Pen Starling at that moment was wonderful.
There’s so much out there! Okay, this is actually true of every genre, but it’s a relatively new genre for me, so there are so many surprises and new stuff waiting!
Romance pairs with so many other genres. A lot of the romance I read is actually also fantasy, or mystery, or historical fiction, and sometimes all three at once. You don’t have to stick with just one flavour!
It’s usually focused on characters and relationships. I love some amazing world-building, I really do. But I usually need characters I can get invested in, and by its very nature romance tends to focus on that dimension of the story.
There aren’t usually world-ending stakes, or they aren’t the forefront of the story. Okay, in e.g. Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk, there’s a kind of world-in-peril thing… but mostly you end up wanting to know if Whyborne and Griffin end up making friends again. This is a feature and not a bug for me and my current tastes!
Self-publishing is really strong in this genre. I don’t know if there are pockets of self-publishing out in SF/F where everything’s going really well, but I don’t know of them, and it feels like romance authors have got it down. Often amazing covers, great support for one another, good editing… and well-formatted ebooks at a reasonable price (honestly, I’d pay more for them).
Trope-y goodness. Sometimes it’s really fun to see an author take on a clichéd idea and play with it. I’m here for your enemies-to-lovers, your there-was-only-one-bed, your last minute realisations. Do it — and surprise me!
It really annoys some people. Okay, this is petty, but after someone had a meltdown about me being too “smart” to read romance (having three degrees only makes you a certain kind of smart, as anyone who has ever watched me fumbling through adulthood can attest), I can’t help but really enjoy existing to confound people’s expectations of what a romance reader looks like.
So there you go! Excited to see what other people have been gushing about this week — and don’t worry, if you comment here, I’ll visit you back as soon as I can!
The Replacement Husband was an impulse read, because it was on Kindle Unlimited and I thought “why not?” It’s set in a Regency-analogue fantasy world where various gods exist and choose people to receive their blessing. Owen is one such, blessed by the goddess Mirreith: he is apparently inevitably gay, and will have to marry a man. Though he obviously cannot produce an heir, his partner is guaranteed to have a healthy heir and good fortune.
Unfortunately, in his little countryside estate, there’s very little chance of him meeting anyone anyway. At least until he takes a tumble, hits his head, and is gallantly carried home by a pair of brothers. He quickly falls for Tom, the more handsome and lively of the two — but Tom jilts him more or less at the altar by having a shotgun wedding with someone else. Tom’s brother Arthur steps in…
I wasn’t wholly enamoured of Arthur’s possessiveness and temper; provoked or not, several times he’s inches from violence, and clearly frightens Owen. He is in general a considerate partner, in fact, and takes pains to make Owen comfortable… at the same time as saying things like “say stop now or it’ll be too late”, which, ah, no. No thank you. Owen should get to say no whenever he likes, dude.
So there was some stuff about their relationship that was weird and uncomfortable, and led to me not quite believing in the sweetness of it as they settled in. However, I also did not root for Tom and his behaviour, and I find it difficult to believe that the next book is about Tom getting a happy-ever-after. I might read it if it’s on Kindle Unlimited, because I’m very curious as to how Grayson manages that — Tom makes himself extremely unlikeable — but I’m not in a hurry. Particularly since the other protagonist of the next book is apparently a complete arsehole.
In conclusion: fun enough, but not something I’d be in a hurry to read.
I loved Widdershins, and pretty much expected to love this one because of it. And there’s quite a bit to enjoy about it, mostly involving Chess: they’re non-binary, they drive a hot pink car with a vanity plate saying NBINARY and a they/them bumper sticker, and they seduce a crossroads demon into making them a hero (leading to said demon’s disgrace in Hell, dooming them to an eternity of processing new souls as they enter Hell). They’re unashamedly themselves, all over the place, and that’s lovely.
Buuut, the humour and the sex/attraction-focused relationship didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t believe that Ralgath and Chess were that attached to each other, and I didn’t have much skin in the game when they were in peril. Everything just happened very fast, from the relationship to the plot, and… I’m not that good with humour or this style of plot. I’m sure it’s a lot more fun when you aren’t a humourless lump like me — but I’ll stick to Whyborne and Griffin, with their angst and pining and more solid plot. Sorry!
I’ve been meaning to try out Jordan L. Hawk’s work for a while, partly at the urging of Portal Bookshop, and partly because I already loved K.J. Charles’ work — and this series crosses over with one of Charles’ series. If you’re a fan of K.J. Charles, this is definitely going to be for you; it has many of the same hallmarks.
Whyborne is a philologist working in a small museum who gets suckered into helping an ex-Pinkerton detective (Griffin) unravel the murder of a museum patron’s son. At first, he’s just meant to translate a coded book for the detective, but he quickly finds himself drawn in deeper — partly due to interest in the case itself, and a large part because he finds himself attracted (of course) to Griffin. Both of their pasts become absolutely key to the investigation, laying them bare to each other (in more ways than one, hurr hurr) and forging an incredible bond.
Their relationship progresses pretty fast, but it makes sense that it does: both are lonely, and Whyborne in particular has been hiding his desires and repressing everything for a long, long time. It’s also great fun to watch as he opens up and throws fears to the wind, figuring out how to stand tall in his own way. I liked the glimpse of his family (or mostly just his mother), and the slight complexity to his relationship with his father that creeps in at the end.
Leo Page is, in the simplest terms, a spy. He’s sent to a sleepy English village that could come right out of Agatha Christie’s novels, where he meets a young doctor with PTSD who (coincidentally, even though I half-expected this to become relevant) knows a little about who he is and what he does because he patched him up under secretive conditions during World War II. The story is both about solving the mystery, and also about unravelling who Leo wants to be.
I felt that James (the doctor) is rather less developed than Leo; we see his PTSD and his eagerness to love and be loved, yes, but we don’t really see him finding any peace with the PTSD or settling into himself as he could be. There’s plenty of room for that in sequels, though! What we do see is Leo’s development as he slowly becomes sure that, actually, he’s done with being a spy and directly or indirectly dealing death. It takes him time to realise that and time to decide that a life with James is worth a try.
In terms of the romance between the two, there’s a happy-for-now at the end of the book, but it’s something I could see being shaken by future books — they’re not secure in one another yet.
The mystery… eh, I was less interested in that, I’ll admit. It’s weird reading a book with such modern sensibilities and then also reading an Agatha Christie mystery, really. On that level, this fell down a bit for me, not helped by the fact that (as was traditional for Golden Age crime fiction) the victims were both unlikeable. The character of Wendy causes a certain amount of mystification, and I found her a little too much; a little too clever, a little too omnipresent, a little too obvious.
That’s really a small quibble, though it doesn’t sound it: I was here for James and Leo. Their sexual connection doesn’t boil off the page, but there are several lovely moments of intimacy which I rather prefer.
This got recced at some point when someone on Twitter was asking for romances set in bookstores, and it was on Kindle Unlimited, so I figured I might as well. I don’t think I had a good look at the plot, because if I had I might’ve run away screaming… Alfie Carter is a mechanic, and he spends his off time listening to audiobooks and talking about how awesome Jane Austen was with ‘LLB’, his online boyfriend. Leo runs a second-hand bookshop and spends half his time talking to his online boyfriend, ‘Camaro89’. Alfie and Leo hate each other after Leo’s less than graceful putdown of Alfie not long after arriving in town… and obviously LLB is Leo, and Camaro89 is Alfie, and realities are gonna collide at some point.
To my infinite pain, the whole thing is a series of miscommunications and lack of communication; Relationship Advice Dalek (“COMM-UNI-CATE! COMM-UNI-CATE!”) was out in a big way for reading this entire thing. But… it feels kind of nice to read about totally normal stuff right now, and this stupid situation has normal idiot humans all over it.
For my money, Leo’s putdowns of Alfie feel like too much, though. If you put those aside, it’s cute, but the putdowns are hurtful and mean-spirited, and they make Leo not a person I want to hang out with. Obviously as LLB he comes to see the better parts of Alfie, and when they start dating offline it makes sense… but geez, Alfie, Leo wasn’t just being a bit of an asshole, he was being a lot of an asshole! And that never really gets explained enough for me to feel quite right about liking Leo.
Laying that aside, it’s cute, and the epilogue is extra cute. I don’t buy Leo’s character, though, and it makes me a little bit wary to try Malcolm’s other romances, based on the synopses of those. Sounds like a lot of potential for stupid miscommunications and asshole characters. I guess I’ll try one sometime, and see how it goes!
I liked Miranda in Milan more than I expected from the reviews I saw around before I read it — I was curious, but not wildly interested, and mostly just picked it up now because I’m reading a lot of short fiction because that’s what’s working for my brain. And it turns out… I really liked it. I started reading it and figured I’d have to stop halfway through for work; halfway through, I damned work and carried on until I was finished.
It’s a semi-retelling, semi-sequel to The Tempest; a retelling because it plays with some of the facts and embellishes them, a sequel because it’s set after the play. It follows Miranda after she and Prospero return to Milan. The servants whisper about her, and she’s forced to wear a black veil to hide her face, but luckily a young Moroccan servant is happy to talk to her and explain things to her. They quickly become close, and this develops (fairly quickly) into a romantic relationship. I’m a little nonplussed by reviews feeling it came out of nowhere; I didn’t actually remember this was f/f, and was hoping for the romance to happen from the first hints of it.
It’s probably a good thing I read Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban quite a while now, because the prose would suffer in comparison! As it is, I found it worked well for me: I wouldn’t say it’s going to stick in my head for beauty, but it succeeded in conjuring an atmosphere for me.
It all resolves a little simply and in the way I kind of expected, and I do appreciate the criticism that Prospero has no complexity and is basically a big evil bogeyman — though I also appreciated the way Miranda had to go over her memories and figure out where the lies and gaps were. It’s a little realistic hint of an abusive relationship that rang very true. Agata could have been just completely horrible, too, so I enjoyed that we got to see another side of her and understand a little of her bitterness and fear.
All in all, it worked really well for me; I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Knit One, Girl Two is a short, low-stakes f/f romance. Clara’s into dyeing yarn, but she’s looking for inspiration for a new set of colours. She finds that inspiration in paintings by Danielle, a fellow Jewish woman, and Danielle is just as excited as she is by the chance to collaborate. They bond through the shared endeavour, which goes big time thanks to Danielle’s famous uncle, and a shared fandom. The only conflict in the novella is something that’s going on for Danielle, leaving her unable to paint and unhappy.
One thing I enjoyed a lot was how Clara dealt with hearing that something was going on for Danielle, via a rumour. She knows she can look it up… but she doesn’t, and instead sends a message to Danielle explaining that she knows something is happening, but she doesn’t want to pry. It’s a really cool and respectful way to go about it, which helped smooth over something I’d have found rather awkward.
The writing is fairly simple and matter-of-fact; the dialogue and descriptions didn’t really take off for me. It’s a cute story, and I’m so glad it’s out there providing f/f representation, Jewish romance, and low-stakes happiness… but I’m afraid it probably won’t stick with me. It’s a good companion for half an hour of reading, especially because it is low-stakes: things happen which you can care about, in the way you care about your friend’s latest drama or your sister’s work issues… but it tugs lightly on the heartstrings, rather than playing one of Paganini’s Caprices.