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April Reviews


April

Films and TV

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell****

Two powerful magicians disagree about the way to practise magic in nineteenth century England. Their work for the government related to the Napoleonic wars is fascinating and leads to inevitable comparisons with Temeraire by Naomi Novik. The descriptions of ‘fairyland’ or the lost lands are magical in themselves. I had read and loved the book by Susanna Clark and was looking forward to the TV series. Then I was away and unable to watch it. My daughter bought me the boxed set. I thought it was very well done with some excellent acting, and was very true to the book. However, the film version didn’t manage to include quite as much detail about either the magic or the characters as the book and I prefer the written story. The magical roads and the fae ball were beautifully presented but every time they appeared we saw the same stairs and rooms. I would have liked more variety.

Secret Life of the Zoo****

The series ended with episode 7 in early April. Watching the animals at Chester Zoo as the keepers attempted to ensure mating and continuation of each species was fascinating and gave real insight into both animal behaviour and the reactions of those who work in conservation in any way. I found the entire series much more informative than the Spy in the Wild series that was supposed to be so ground-breaking. I think perhaps the animals at Chester were allowed to be simply themselves, without so much commentary and the viewer was able to make up their own mind. Beautifully filmed and presented. If they have another series next year, do try to watch!

Dr Who. The Pilot. ***

I watched the first episode of the new Dr Who season so at least I was introduced to the new companion. I have downloaded episode 2 to iPlayer but for some reason iPlayer is refusing to go completely full screen and I am finding myself reluctant to watch. There has been an episode 3 since then, too. I like Peter Capaldi and quite like Bill, the companion. She breaks some new ground for the series, being lesbian and mixed race, and the actress does a very assured job.

Books

Only eight finished this month and only three five star. I have been reading a lot of articles in various magazines (Searchlight, New Scientist and National Geographic) and avidly following some political commentators in The Guardian.

Lessons in Desire/Charlie Cochrane*****

This is the second in the Cambridge Fellows mysteries (early twentieth century m/m romance and crime) and it didn’t disappoint. Jonty and Orlando go on holiday to Jersey, a compromise because Jonty yearned after foreign travel while Orlando was worried about leaving Cambridge. Someone staying at their hotel is murdered and they get thoroughly involved in the case and with their fellow guests. The descriptions of Jersey were evocative, the banter and developing relationship between the sleuths are delicious, and the mystery is solved with a nice twist to the resolution. I have the rest of the series (so far) and will no doubt be reviewing one a month for a while. Highly recommended.

Inheritance is a series by Amelia Faulkner. I got the first book free and having read it instantly ordered the sequel.

Jack of Thorns***** introduces us to Laurence, a psychic who is also an ex drug addict, and his new boyfriend Quentin, a British aristocrat who is fleeing his family. The characters are interesting, and the tension is gripping, both between the men and between Laurence and other men and supernatural beings. Quentin has unresolved issues that he has blocked from his mind and these make the romance proceed at a snail’s pace. At first I couldn’t quite believe in Quentin because he didn’t sound like any Brit aristocrat I’ve ever met (and I’ve met a lot) but I gradually accepted his quirks, particularly the language quirks, in view of what we learnt about his childhood.

Knight of Flames*****develops Quentin’s point of view, and his own psychic abilities, further and like the first book, has a mystery and crime element that at times keep the reader on the edge of the seat.

Lord of Ravens**** sees Laurence learning to harness his magical skills in order to protect and avenge Quentin. Quentin’s father emerges as the true villain of the series. I enjoyed the book but the series is rapidly getting too far into the realms of pagan deities for me personally. The books are extremely well written with great character development and I have bought book four. I have no idea if it’s the final in the series. I want to know what happens to the main characters and their families and friends but would only recommend the series to people who enjoy a lot of pagan mythology brought to life in modern America and Britain. If you do, this is for you.

Enemies of the State (Book 1) by Tal Bauer****

I absolutely loved this at first. It’s an espionage thriller with an m/m romance central to the story, set in the White House, in the style of The West Wing (a series I adored). However, by the end, the romance had become almost too good to be true and I may not buy the sequel. The writing is excellent.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone/JKR/Jim Kay****

I have read all the Harry Potter books and admire JKR for the way she has encouraged children to read huge chunks of unillustrated text. However, I find her writing rather flat and her characters somewhat stereotyped. I love the school, which reminds me of my own Brit boarding school with added magic, and I like the way the magic in the books is carefully explained and developed. But to be honest, I prefer the films. So, having said I think one of the strengths of the series is its lack of illustration, why did I read this? Well, Jim Kay has done a fabulous job of creating art that is incredibly detailed. Reading the story again with his pictures interspersed brings the story to life. And yes, so do the films, but this volume can be carted around, and you can spend a long time looking at the detail in each picture. I would recommend this for the art, if not altogether for the text.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler***

This book took me ages. The characters meet to discuss Austen’s novels (which I like) but most of the book deals with their lives and loves. A lot of it is told in flashbacks which I often find annoying, and there is a faint mystery, never resolved, as to who the narrator is. Maybe each section has a different narrator? I didn’t like any of the characters enough to care much about their lives and got quite bored. It has had great reviews and I can’t really think why. The writing is competent enough but the plot is simply not very interesting.

Cloaked/TJ Walsh***

A pleasant enough shifter novel; I finished this one, unlike the other shifter story I tried this month. Daciana is a nice heroine, working at an animal institute in Romania except on the full moon. However, the work is clearly part of a series and whilst there was enough information to make it unnecessary to have read previous volumes, the ending is abrupt and yet didn’t lead me to want to buy the next story. It also seemed to me that the entire story was written about somewhere in North America and arbitrarily transported to Romania, perhaps to increase sales. It was not clear why Connell, the lead cop and a potential boyfriend for Daciana, had a British accent. There was a mystery (kidnapped bear cubs) but although the first chapter dealt with a bear shifter we never saw him (or her) again.

Shift (Wolves of Hunters Rock Book 1) by Shelley Grayson

I abandoned this. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters but then I don’t read a lot of ‘shifter’ novels even though I like the concept.

Fanfic

My recommendations this month are for two stories that fall into the fairytale/myth category.

Po Pouli ‘A’aki (A Night So Dark It Bites With the Teeth) by Zolac_no_Miko*****

This is set in Hawaii 5.0 and is a Steve/Danny romance but mostly an action adventure with magic. I always liked the old show, not least for the Hawaiian locations, and started watching the new version with great interest. I gave up when it became clear that the characters’ stories were of more importance than Hawaii or the crime element. This story is set in Season 2 and the author bemoans the fact that the writers of the show stole her Hawaiian folklore. But really, if they wanted to make a Halloween episode they didn’t have too many other options and it was a great episode! This story is great, too. The case starts as a normal chase after a criminal and ends in some kind of other world version of the ‘big’ island. There is a lot about the regional legends and beliefs, and there are some lush descriptions of the local flora and fauna. I loved the way that like the detectives, the reader is drawn so gradually into believing in the magical and supernatural. The romance is mutual but unrequited until the very end. You can find it at http://archiveofourown.org/works/394451 and it is 36,975 words long.

Born of Mortal Flesh by anactoria*****

This is a story that is set in the Supernatural fandom and loosely follows The Ballad of Tam Lin. You don’t need to know the TV show though an acquaintance with the ballad might help. Dean, helping his father clear some magical artefacts, stumbles through a magic mirror into fairyland. He is befriended by a vampire who helps him escape and later returns to rescue his rescuer. There is a hint of m/m romance but nothing explicit. The story was written for a reverse big bang in which writers are given art around which they build their tale. The art in this case was created by a friend of mine, which is why I came across it and can be seen at The Raven Path by MistressKat at http://archiveofourown.org/works/10037438. The story is at http://archiveofourown.org/works/10034756 It is 27,745 words long.

For anyone who isn’t sure, you don’t have to be a member of the Archive to read stories stored there. Some authors don’t allow comments except from other account holders but if you enjoy what you read you can always leave kudos, which are much appreciated. The works can be downloaded in various formats and are, of course, free.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2017 in reviews

 

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Growing Up Fae is published

My new book has gone ‘live’ on Amazon, Smashwords, and the Smashwords distribution service. I am really excited – and for the first time there were absolutely no formatting glitches!!

The narrator of the story, Harlequin, is a bisexual fairy in his early twenties who lives on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, UK. He tells the story of his childhood, his teens, and how he reached the Edge. He goes on to describe in detail his loves (and lusts) and the other people in his life. So to some extent the story turns into a family saga. The sex is explicit when it occurs so although this is a ‘fairy story’ it is not suitable for young readers. Also, the fae are not twee Victorian miniatures. They can, and do, pass as human and interact with the humans they meet.

There are at least two more volumes of material, all in need of organisation and editing. Now that we have this first volume as a kind of template the work should go faster. The further volumes are not exactly sequential.

One volume is Tales from Tara which tells what happens when first one and then another of the Edge fae go to Tara in Ireland, including not only their own experiences but those of the fae they meet there.

Another is Life on the Edge which follows Growing Up Fae but does not include the Irish stories.

There are numerous characters, locations, and magical elements and I have created a glossary to help the reader sort them out. Harlequin doesn’t always explain things exactly when you want him to, so in case of confusion, consult the page Living Fae which you can access at the top of my WordPress site. (jaymountney@wordpress.com). Once the other volumes are organised I will add a timeline.

This is the book I’ve been talking about for ages: the fae saga told in diary form that has been incredibly difficult to format. It has taken, literally, years.

I’ve had enormous amounts of help from friends along the way – people I met in an online writing group, who were generous with their time and advice. I’ve dedicated the book to them.

Meanwhile, I’ve had Harlequin living in my head for a long time. He feels quite real to me, and I hope he will to you, too. If fantasy plus sex is your scene, enjoy!

If anyone leaves a review and links me to it, I can make sure they get a free copy of the next volume. Or, if anyone wants a review copy, let me know, but a year or so ago I gave a freebie to someone who either never reviewed or never told me, so it would have to be someone with a genuine review site I’m familiar with. Reviews don’t have to be brilliant – all publicity is good, and what one reviewer doesn’t like might really appeal to other readers.

Buy Growing Up Fae at:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/720139

or

(Beware on Amazon. When I asked the site to find Growing Up Fae by Jay Mountney it found it but asked: Did you mean: “growing up face by day mountney” so clearly Amazon can’t read!!)

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2017 in publishing, writing

 

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New book due out soon

 

I have a new book coming out soon. Growing Up Fae is the first volume of a series, Living Fae, which follows the life and loves (and lusts) of a bisexual male fairy who can pass as human if he hides his wings. He and his extended family live on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England. It’s a fantasy, a personal journey for the narrator, an m/m romance, and a family saga, told in journal form.

I started the story over ten years ago but it always seemed too complicated to sort it out for publication. Diary style. Cross-genre. Very (very) British. I certainly didn’t want to let unknown editors mangle either the format or the language. Nor, for that matter, did I want to give them the chance to reject it. Since then, I’ve started self publishing and have yielded to persuasion (and help) from friends. The first volume is finished. It’s back from the editor and proof reader, and the cover is done but needs resizing for the different platforms. (Some of my friends here beta read parts of it to death.) All it needs now is the front matter and a sensible table of contents. I wanted to get it out for Easter but life intervened.

I seem to be insanely busy: I am in the middle of volume 4 of my Skilled Investigators series; I have committed myself to a fandom big bang story (co-authored); I am posting chapters of a fandom work in progress on AO3; I have been writing non-fiction including stuff about autism, writing, a new AO3 collection, and about politics (national, international, and social media). And then there’s real life and a part time (unpaid) job. Yes, I know all this is totally my own fault. No complaints! I’m just explaining.

Also, every time I think about Living Fae I remember there are at least two more volumes to whip into shape (written but totally disorganised) so then I very deliberately stop thinking, which is horribly counterproductive. Posting about it might force me to get on with what will be at most a day’s work!

I really am on the very last lap and hope the book will go live later this month. Cross your fingers for me!

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in personal, publishing, writing

 

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The House (a sci fi ficlet)

They came up between the floorboards at first, a little like smoke, or perhaps mist because nobody seemed to suspect fire. Tendrils crept into the various rooms, up the stairs and down into the root cellar.

They made things strange. Not uncomfortable, exactly, or not that anyone could articulate. There was an atmosphere of oddness, of unrightness. A glass that had been polished and put away would reappear on the table, smeared, with a yellowish sediment in the bottom. A bed that had been neatly made would be tumbled and creased, the pillow tossed on the floor. A towel in the bathroom would be wringing wet when nobody had used the basin or shower since the previous day. Everything could be ascribed to poor memory, to human error. But everything added up. Nobody was harmed, but nobody was happy and eventually they left. They sold it, of course, but the next residents, and the ones after that had the same experiences. Ridding the house of humans took a few years but they could afford to wait.

Next, they turned their attention to the small things. The bugs that lived in the cracks, once there were no humans to clean the place, found their cracks filled with unpleasant textures and smells. The mice under the kitchen sink had a nest damp from drips even though the taps were no longer working. The birds that built homes in the roof space had a feeling that predators were constantly overhead. They all left, not at once, but one by one, reluctantly but in the end with relief.

Then the moss on the roof failed to thrive. The lichen that tried to establish itself on the front step found the atmosphere polluted despite the lack of anything within miles that could affect it. The creeper on the back wall rotted.

At last they had the house to themselves. It was a beautiful house, built from aged silvery grey wood with large airy window frames. It was the perfect home and it had taken a while to get it exactly the way they wanted and it had taken a lot of work but at last it was finished, and they settled down. Anyone passing, though very few ever passed, might have heard, soft on the evening air, a sigh of contentment.

(The picture is not mine. It’s a slightly photoshopped version of one I found on Pixabay by Wyosunshine. The information for the photograph said it was free for even commercial use. It’s very similar to the one used for a prompt that inspired this ficlet. Given a lack of wooden houses anywhere near either of my homes, I felt obliged to go looking and make sure there was no copyright violation. One or two of you might have seen the ficlet a while ago on my personal journal.If so, ignore!)

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in ficlets, writing

 

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Autism Awareness Month

Autism Awareness Month is of passing interest to people who are not involved with autism on a daily basis. For those of us who have a close family member with the condition, we don’t have ‘autism month’ – we have autism day after day after day, month after month, year after year.

However, autism month does at least give us the chance to share our thoughts with the hope that people might be slightly more willing to listen – not just to sympathise but really understand.

Autism is a spectrum and people diagnosed as autistic can be almost anywhere on it. They can be highly skilled, or unable to function in nerotypical surroundings. They can be apparently easy to deal with, simply seeming to be reserved or cold, or they can have all the social problems of a toddler with uncontrollable tantrums. They can be anywhere between all these, or different again. The media don’t understand and just lump them all together. People with physical conditions such as blindness, deafness or paraplegia are not lumped together in quite the same way. (Governments manage it, but only in terms of costs and benefits.) Most people, even journalists, can see the different problems and needs when it comes to physical problems.

My grandson is autistic. He also has ADHD and high anxiety levels. He is, into the bargain, gifted across all subjects other than personal and social education, and team games. He is nine years old. He has the academic skills of a teenager (and some of the knowledge) and the social skills of a four year old. He was diagnosed at the age of five, when it became obvious that his progress in mainstream school was causing difficulties for everybody, he has an EHCP (these replaced the old ‘statements of special educational need’ and cover health as well as education) and he has medication, prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist, to calm his anxiety and help him concentrate.

He is gorgeous. Really interesting to talk to, charming most of the time, imaginative and caring. He finds it hard to understand sarcasm, satire, and hidden agendas. He is truthful, and expects the same of others. He loves animals, sport, computers and books. He has friends and enjoys outings to the park or the swimming pool. He is easily upset and has occasional panic attacks and meltdowns, more often at school than at home. He is aware of his condition, approves of his medication, and finds his psychiatrists ‘interesting’.

For the last twelve months he has been receiving only part time education. When he has a meltdown he is taken out of the classroom by his teaching assistant (full time funded by the EHCP) and kept in a ‘calm room’ where he is given a choice of educational activities on an iPad. He is allowed to choose whether or not he goes back to class. (Guess what he chooses!) In any case, he does not attend school in the afternoons, he is not permitted to join the class for things like swimming, and until recently he often missed playtime (until his meds were increased). The school have tried really hard to cope but nobody on the staff has specialist training or knowledge, and the only advice they have comes from a special school for autistic children with low academic ability. (They told them to reduce pressure at all costs.) Parents and grandparents are, of course, not regarded as experts.

The local authority have been trying to find a placement. We, as a family, rejected the offer of a place at the school for low ability children. He would be just as isolated there, and with even less chance of studying to higher levels with anything resembling a peer group or adequate science facilities.

Now, at last, there is good news. A school run by a private trust, for children with challenging behaviour, has opened just a few miles away and he has been offered a place (after two interviews and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of files). It sounds ideal – its sister schools in other parts of the country are good – and it will take him right through to GCSE in the core subjects so he will be able to avoid the trauma of transfer to a secondary school that would almost certainly be even less able to cater for his needs than his primary school.

For him, for us, and for the primary teachers who tried and failed, this is excellent news but it makes me think hard about the way we provide for children like him.

The local authorities in UK have had to close many special schools. This has been basically a cost cutting exercise although there is an attempt to pass it off as ‘inclusivity’, good for both children with special needs who will feel included, and ‘normal’ children who will mix with children with different needs. Frankly, I don’t think my grandson was ‘included’ at any stage and I’m fairly sure this is the case for a lot of children with his problems. The cost cutting has not resulted in extra money going into classroom provision for children like him or into extra staffing and staff training. It has merely allowed local authorities to keep up with rising costs. It has done nothing to educate either the teaching force or the media.

It all strikes me as very similar to the much vaunted ‘care in the community’ for adults with mental health problems. People with widely differing needs are abandoned to social services that are already stretched to capacity.

It is possible to extrapolate wildly from the arguments for inclusivity or community care. We could suggest that intensive care patients could be nursed at home or that patients from e.g. Broadmoor could live in locally managed sheltered housing. These are extreme examples, of course, but nobody would dream of suggesting they should be tried. But there are many people who fall between these extremes and the commonly held image of ‘special need’. The problem is that until someone is in really dire physical or mental straits it is considered reasonable to try to accommodate them in facilities that are designed for the average person, child or adult. When this doesn’t work, there is panic as officialdom tries to find placements that do not exist within public provision.

So what happens? Private companies move into the gap in the market. Some of them, including the trust that runs the schools I have already mentioned, do an extremely good job and we can only be grateful to them. The same applies to private medical facilities that help the NHS to cope. But the fact remains that they are private, that they make a profit, and that that profit comes from the taxpayer. The local authority are funding my grandson’s place at the special school and are paying fees similar to those paid to private schools, from our tax.

I am grateful to them. I am grateful to the school, simply for existing, for providing something that is not available in ‘mainstream’ provision.

I still think the philosophy and policies that have brought about this state of affairs are morally wrong.

My grandson looks ‘normal’. Until you watch his behaviour or listen to him, you have no idea there is anything unusual about him. He is extremely intelligent, articulate, nice looking and physically graceful so he doesn’t quite fit the usual ‘special needs’ definition. He is also in extreme need – need of somewhere that can deal with his challenging behaviour at the same time as stretching his mental skills, and somewhere that does not simply put him in an isolation room with an iPad, reducing his wish to learn and his will to succeed.

Research is still ongoing and expert opinions and knowledge about autism are in flux. There are some brilliant psychiatrists doing their best to find out more, and to explain their findings, but the knowledge trickles down very slowly to the grass roots of teachers or even educational psychologists. It takes even longer to reach the media, the general public and the politicians. Fifty years ago, my grandson would either have been punished into some kind of submission for his expressions of his anxiety, or would have ended up alienated from the school system and possibly from society. We can only be glad that this is no longer the case.

He, and others like him, have a great deal to contribute. I can foresee him in some kind of IT work, helping to shape and maintain the future for all of us. I know of similar children who excel at the arts – music, in one case, drama in another. These are by no means the ‘idiot savants’ so beloved of media stories. They are highly intelligent young people who simply cannot function in a class of thirty mixed ability pupils with just one teacher but who can be helped to interact with society, given patient tutors and calm surroundings.

As I said, autistic people are as different from each other as they are from neurotypicals, but there are a lot of them, all with very special needs, and it seems only the private-for-profit sector is prepared to meet these.

If a month devoted to autism helps to educate people about these needs, then it will be welcome. But at the end of the month, children like my grandson will still be with us, needing to learn, needing to socialise, and most of all needing to be understood and loved.

Autism is a spectrum. Yes, I’m repeating myself but it bears repetition. People with the condition can be almost anywhere on the spectrum. We need to get this across to the public at large. Now.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2017 in personal, protest

 

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March Reviews

Since I’ll assume you’ve now all read my post about how I rate things I can include the abandoned!

March Films and TV

Spy in the Wild (BBC)*****

A highly enjoyable series which filmed animals using spy-cams – things like tree stumps, dung, etc. were all utilised, and some of the cams were sophisticated robot animals. The final programme showed how it was all done and I assume the cost goes towards future filming for other series. However, I’m watching Secret Life of the Zoo (BBC) *****, which is an ongoing series following animals and keepers at Chester Zoo. I got interested because it’s my nearest zoo, and it’s a lovely programme. Also, I think it has in fact taught me more about animal reactions to each other than Spy in the Wild did, despite the fact that that was the stated purpose of the spy idea, and the secret life is more of a ‘diary’.

Yuri on Ice Season 1***

So many people are so excited by this. The story is sweet and the animation is good, but I would be more likely to watch the same thing filmed with live actors. The skating sequences are very pretty but also very long and leave little room for plot progression. I won’t be watching season 2. The basic story is the growing relationship between a Japanese skater and his Russian coach who is an ex-skater. Nice, but not world shattering. I’ve read better storylines in the Ice Hockey Real Person Fiction fandom.

Lewis season 9 *****

The final season. I was away so much I had to rely on boxed sets and my family and friends gradually got them all for me. I have loved the entire series. I have two complaints about this last season. Firstly, the directors changed the introductory scenes and music, which had always been, for me, part of the charm. Then the storyline that paired Lewis with Laura Hobson never seemed to me to be believable; there was no on-screen chemistry between them. It isn’t just that I wanted a slash pairing. I was always happy (in Morse) with Lewis’ marriage, and in Lewis I was happy with the various pairings attributed to Hathaway. Lewis and Hobson? No. I think the writers wanted to round the series off with a romantic ending (why? viewers don’t demand that) and couldn’t find an alternative. However, I’ll still give it five stars, for the episodes, for the acting, for the locations, for the entire concept. Morse had spin-offs – Endeavour, as well as Lewis. I think Lewis could well generate another spin-off. Hathaway and Lizzie make a good team, with the extra dynamic of the new Chief Superintendent. Crossing my fingers for a series called Hathaway, though I believe Laurence Fox is less than keen!

Sense and Sensibility****

I’ve been wanting to watch this for ages and a friend kept saying they would lend it to me and then saying they couldn’t find it. So I finally bought it. It was good – good acting and true to the book. But there were aspects of the direction I found flawed. For instance, sound was lowered when the characters were further away. Now this might be realistic, but it doesn’t make for ease of following the dialogue for the viewer. Probably, in the cinema, it wouldn’t matter because cinema sound is always so loud. But my laptop was not able to compensate.

Dark Horse ***

A lovely true story about a winning racehorse bred by a village syndicate in Wales. However, the film was presented as a long documentary which didn’t quite work because the supposed ‘live’ clips inevitably didn’t always use the right people or animals, or used them but not at the right age. Also, the DVD was faulty towards the end.

2Cellos on YouTube*****

I keep telling myself I ought to actually buy the music these guys make. The trouble is, I like watching the videos too much and for most of the music, whilst they’re good, without the visuals they’re not playing pieces I would listen to frequently enough. So I go to the YouTube versions and follow them on Facebook. I assuage my conscience by thinking that YouTube hits add to their profits. My favourite – which I fell in love with even before I knew who they were – is their version of the Game of Thrones theme, played in Dubrovnik. The vids are stunning and the guys are such eye candy…

Not a lot this month – I’ve been concentrating on the news and related stuff online!

March Books

20 altogether and then 4 abandoned.

The excellent: 11 highly recommended (five star) this month (which might be a record).

Don’t Kiss The Vicar/Charlie Cochrane*****

Absolutely delightful m/m romance between a young vicar and a member of his congregation. There was a mystery involved, which was interesting and eventually satisfying. Although it was only a poison pen mystery, not a murder, the characters were engaging enough to make it quite gripping and I didn’t guess who the writer was till quite near the end. I would hope there might be more parish problems for this pair to solve. As a vicar’s child I was all too familiar with some of the problems faced by the vicar and his parish council. Highly recommended.

Down Under/Bill Bryson*****

I love Bryson’s wry humour and have read a lot of his work. This book takes us on a trip round Australia and as I had visited some of the locations he explores I felt really ‘at home’. He always so obviously loves the people and places he pokes gentle fun at. And of course there’s a wealth of factual information in there too. I was glad I had the paperback and not an e-book version because I kept referring to the maps. I know you can do that with e-books but it’s less satisfactory and you, or I, at any rate, risk losing the place… Highly recommended.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone/Laini Taylor*****

Wow!! One reviewer suggests an amalgam of Northern Lights and Pan’s Labyrinth. I would add Good Omens and Neverwhere to the mix. A fabulous fantasy that starts in Prague, deals with otherworld explanations for angels and devils, has heartbreaking romance and characters who twine themselves into the reader’s soul. Karou is both a modern girl, an art student, and not quite human. Akiva is both an angel and a soldier, a reluctant killer who thinks he has lost the great love of his life. The writer, in her notes, says she writes because she finds it unsatisfactory that life does not, for instance, contain dragons. Nor, so far, does Elsewhere, in this story. But there are two more volumes to come. I might have to wait till my birthday. So highly recommended it’s off the normal charts.

When Christmas Lights Are Blue/Harper Fox*****

It’s only a short novel but it manages to include homophobia, racism, honour killings, Lockerbie, the paranormal, the state of the NHS and even Brexit. A gripping m/m story set in rural Northumberland, with winter storms, ambulances and love. I like Harper Fox’s style and her characters are always so three dimensional – even the paranormal manifestations. Highly recommended – especially as a Christmas ghost story with a happy ending.

No Place To Hide/Glenn Greenwald *****

I watched the film at the time Snowden’s whistle blowing hit the headlines. Then recently, with all the focus on surveillance, I felt the need to remind myself of just what had happened. This is a fascinating account, much better than the film in many respects because it explores the motives of the press etc., as well as the protagonists, in more depth and recounts the experiences of Greenwald’s partner and other related stories. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the politics of surveillance.

Nowhere Ranch/Heidi Cullinan*****

Roe leaves a homophobic family and ends up with Travis on Nowhere Ranch. On the way we get a good look at BDSM (the good consensual kind that 50Shades hasn’t heard of), ranching, homophobia in various shades, education, unplanned pregnancies, and other assorted delights. I didn’t want the story to end! Heidi’s minor characters are always so well rounded that I feel as if she’s writing about my neighbours and when the book ends I’m sad they’ve moved away! I’m not always a BDSM fan but this was really well done, and not particularly explicit for readers who are not into that. Highly recommended.

The Last Runaway/Tracy Chevalier*****

I love Chevalier’s books because she takes a well known period of history and looks at it from a fresh and unexpected angle. (Mediaeval tapestries in The Lady and the Unicorn, Dutch art in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Dorset fossil hunting in Remarkable Creatures). In this story a Dorset Quaker goes to America in the mid nineteenth century with her sister who is going to marry another Dorset Quaker who emigrated in advance. The book chronicles Honor’s experiences both as an immigrant in Ohio and in relation to the Underground Railroad helping runaway slaves reach Canada. Chevalier explores the range of northern attitudes to southern slavery and the amount of help that even Quakers were prepared or not prepared to give. Honor’s life in Ohio was fascinating and cast a new light on already known facts about the escaped slaves. Beautiful writing, well developed characters and a great story. Highly recommended.

Eleventh Hour/Elin Gregory*****

Miles and Briers are spies in London in 1925, working to defeat an anarchist plot. Guns and cars and grenades. Undercover spying and observation. Homophobia. Sewers. Cross dressing. This is a brilliant and exciting m/m ‘thriller’ which should appeal to anyone who loves either the later Bond films or the Professionals series. I adored it and hope to see them at work again. Highly recommended.

Fiddleback/J.M.Morris*****

This calls itself a novel of mystery. At the start, Ruth is searching for her brother Alex, who is missing, and looking back on her relationship with an abusive ex-lover, Matt. The search for Alex leads to unexpected places and events. The mystery deepens until we, like Ruth, are not sure what is real and what is not. The ending is almost satisfying and yet there is a twist right on the last page which leaves the reader shivering. I don’t usually like horror stories but this is not really explicit, just very, very dark in places. I was totally hooked and didn’t realise what was going on until Ruth did. So the writing was obviously structurally very assured as well as being technically good. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers.

Labyrinth/Alex Beecroft*****

This is an almost luminous book set in Minoan Crete. Kikeru has not quite decided whether to be male (and forced to marry) or female (forced to be castrated and then to be a priestess) then events intervene in the shape of Greeks who want to invade. The story deals with the way Kikeru defeats the invasion with friends and family to help, but even more so it deals with various shades of sexuality and desire. The legend of the Minotaur is nicely twisted to further the plot. The research is impeccable (as I have come to expect with this author) and the only ‘inventions’ for the sake of the story are those which researchers disagree about anyway. A gorgeous tale that will bear re-reading. Highly recommended, especially for those who love history and archaeology.

The Silent Scream/Karen Rose*****

I know I said I wasn’t going to buy any more of Rose’s books but I already had this and I’m glad. There was more than one villain, all coming from different perspectives and the mystery of motives and links was kept going right to the end. The use of deaf victims and witnesses and the problems of interviewing them was well handled and interesting. The romance was a bit OTT but was a nice tie-in to an earlier book. It follows another book which I had read, but apart from knowing a little more about one or two minor characters, the first book wasn’t essential pre-reading. Highly recommended for those who like romantic thrillers. And now I really am abandoning this author, partly because of the cost of even her e-books. No more, unless I see them in a charity shop.

And the rest, good: 10 books which were fairly good but which don’t come quite so highly recommended.

In the Spotlight/Charlie Cochrane****

This is two books, packaged together. All That Jazz is a longish novella that explores attitudes to cross dressing. If Music Be is a short story that has the protagonists taking part in a production of Twelfth Night and visiting their own prejudices in light of the play. The stories work well together because of their connection with the theatre. I just wanted more, in both. And the proof reading could have been better. Good, but not five star.

The State of Hate: Hope Not Hate report for 2016****

Political information presented in an easily digested form. Useful if you are interested in current Brit politics.

From Venice to Istanbul/Rick Stein****

Eastern Mediterranean cookery presented with perhaps too much emphasis on the author’s wanderings in the region rather than the people he got the recipes from. Some nice recipes to try and it made me go out and replace my empty bottle of pomegranate molasses.

Sheep’s Clothing/Elin Gregory****

A reluctant gay werewolf plumber moves to Wales. Amusing and romantic but far too short. It’s part of a series but there’s no indication of whether we are likely to meet this particular hero again so I’m reluctant to indulge.

The Complete Book of Spices/Jill Norman (1992)****

This was a re-read but last time I think I skimmed, looking for spices I already knew. This time I read about all of them and it was quite informative but didn’t, sadly, spend much time (or photography) on the really unusual ones. Also, over 20 years later, remarks about availability in shops can be rather quaint. Worth having for reference.

lab romance/Brad Tanner***

Well written romance between researchers. I didn’t end up caring about either of the ‘heroes’ but it should be a popular read.

Chat-Line/Clare London***

Nicely done brief (too brief?) tale of a mistaken phone call that leads to possible m/m romance.

Twelfth Night/Clare London***

Another pleasant m/m/short story with one partner watching the other playing online games and waiting for them to return to reality.

Clare’s writing is good but I prefer longer stories in this genre. If you like short stories, these could be for you.

Murder Any Witch Way/N.M.Howell***

First in a series of urban fantasy crime stories. I found the heroines tiresome and the heroes were shaping up similarly so I won’t be following their adventures. Quite an amusing mystery plot and well written.

Formatting e-Books for Writers/Susan K. Stewart***

This didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know and personally, I think the free guides from Smashwords and Amazon are a better bet, but –  if you are going to self publish and you aren’t sure which platforms to use, and you want to know things in advance of hiring ‘experts’ to help, this might be the book you need.

and bad: nothing, this month, between reasonably good and totally unappealing (to me). 4 books I abandoned:

Incoming/AE Wasp.

Abandoned. I mentioned this last month and I tried again. But I’m not American and I just couldn’t grasp the basic premises of this to an extent that would let me enjoy the story.

Willow/Amy Richie.

Abandoned. Bad formatting made it impossible to read in comfort.

Red Mountain/Boo Walker.

Abandoned. The story of four very boring people in the wine growing region of California and how their lives intertwined. Nothing was happening and I didn’t much care whether it did or not.

Piercing the Veil/Nicole Taylor.

Abandoned. It started in some kind of fantasy world then moved to modern US. A woman here was possibly being followed by a man from there. No interesting characters appeared and whilst it was obvious our world and the fantasy one were going to intersect I found I didn’t care.

March fanfiction.

I’ve read quite a few short fics and drabbles but none worth separate mention. I’ve been concentrating on the articles in:

Transformative Works and Cultures Issue 23

This is an online zine which is a project of OTW (Organisation for Transformative Works). As you should know by now, I’m a staffer though my work is mostly connected with Archive Of Our Own, the fanwork archive which is another OTW project. The zine is a prestigious one full of peer reviewed articles on aspects of fandom and highly regarded by university departments specialising in e.g. media studies. This issue is completely given over to Sherlock and the various guises of Sherlock fandom. The articles were totally fascinating. Highly recommended for anyone even remotely interested in Sherlock, original, later or modern. You can read it at

http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/issue/view/27/showToc

and I’m uploading the gorgeous cover here.

Some of the short works I have been reading were also in the Sherlock fandom and I have to recommend the writings of Small_Hobbit. You can find her work on AO3 listed on her dashboard at http://archiveofourown.org/users/Small_Hobbit/pseuds/Small_Hobbit and dip in almost anywhere. Some of her offerings are newspaper items or diary entries couched in the style of the original Holmes stories and the newspapers they appeared in. Some are pure fantasy, with Mouselet, a mouse who lives in the wainscot at Baker Street and is in love with Inspector Hopkins. Or avatars of Holmes and Watson in the animal world. Quirky, well researched, and absorbing. Enjoy!

I thought that while I was talking about AO3 with no specific recommendations from March, I would recommend two of my favourite stories. Both are ‘gen’ in the sense that they contain no romance of any kind or any hints of romantic or sexual relationships. Contrary to ‘popular’ or perhaps media belief, fanfiction is not all sex driven.

The first is Sharpe’s Dragon by DisaLanglois. This is a crossover between the world of Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell) and the world of Temeraire (Naomi Novik). It’s an exciting story of an alternate Napoleonic war, with dragons, of course. Long and satisfying. I’m sure Naomi, who was one of the founders of OTW, would approve. Here’s the link to Part 1 (45,451 words) http://archiveofourown.org/works/129908/chapters/184803

and then Part 2 (34,794 words) is at http://archiveofourown.org/works/136503/chapters/195615

Bear in mind it’s novel length.

The second (touching on the mouse theme again) is The Honour and Glory of a Mouse by Transposable_Element at http://archiveofourown.org/works/4599858

This is very short (only 731 words) but quite lovely. The focus is on aspects of feminism, something that is sometimes covered in Narnia, where the story is set, but this tale takes the idea a step further. When I first read it the author was hidden behind anonymity because the story was for a challenge. Challenges, where the authorship is not revealed till the challenge is finished, can be one of the excitements of following fanfiction.

I hope there’s something for everyone there! I’ve now caught up with myself across all my social media platforms so from now on, there will be one review post per month.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2017 in reviews

 

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Five stars or none: my review ratings explained.

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I thought I’d better post this before it’s time for my March reviews (coming soon, of course).

Whilst sharing my monthly reviews with you I’ve been wondering what makes me really love some books. I often read books, even those written by friends, which are fine – no criticism – but which don’t attract my five star rating. Not because they’re badly written. Not because there’s anything wrong with them. Because they aren’t exactly right for me. So what is?

To begin with, my five star book has to have impeccable grammar. If the writer uses things like fragmented sentences they have to know what they’re doing and break the rules carefully, showing quite clearly that they know the rules in the first place and are breaking them for special effects. I can easily be ‘thrown’ by dangling participles for example, though I usually have no objection to prepositions at the ends of sentences.

Then there’s the structure of the writing. (I’ll come to plot later.) Repetition annoys me, whether it’s repeated adjectives or repeated information. It’s acceptable in dialogue where it might relate to a character’s speech patterns, but not elsewhere. Too much use of flashbacks annoys me. Flashbacks can be interesting but for me, they need to be used very sparingly and I need very clear signals that the section is not in the same ‘timeline’ as the main story. The same applies to recounts, where you find out what is going on through a letter, a phone call or a character spending time bringing everybody up to date. Changes of point of view have to be shown quite clearly, preferably by an extra line break or a new chapter. I recently mentioned Joanna Trollope, who switches point of view in the middle of paragraphs. Ugh! Information dumps are occasionally necessary but should be punctuated with action. Even in a long serious lecture real people move, cough, look out of the window etc. Characters should do this too. It’s almost unbearable when characters ‘tell’ other characters what they should know already, presumably so that the reader will be better informed. There are other ways to educate the reader. I like plenty of dialogue but find it hard to cope with the way some authors try to use a different way of saying ‘he/she said’ with every line. The word ‘said’ doesn’t shout at the reader and provided it’s occasionally changed to ‘asked’ or similar, the dialogue flows smoothly. There are better ways to tell us the character was shouting or laughing than to use these verbs instead of ‘said’.

I can accept typos as long as they aren’t frequent. There are some mainstream publishers who seem to expect their authors to do all their own proof reading and even writers like Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb are not immune. But provided the typos are few and far between, I’m just sympathetic. Sympathy takes a nose dive when it comes to an inability to recognise homonyms and an obvious reliance on a spell checker to catch them, which it can’t. Similarly, I object when writers use long words and choose the wrong ones. Again, spell checkers are not the best judges of this. You need to know what you’re doing before you use a spell checker in much the same way that it’s better to have some kind of grounding in arithmetic before using a calculator.

I personally dislike books that can’t make their minds up about style. Some highly respected writers (e.g. Hilary Mantel) move from first to third person, from plain narrative to a kind of screenplay, etc. in an effort to retain the attention of the reader. It doesn’t do anything for me other than irritate me although I know some critics regard the practice with awe. I am less concerned about the type of admonitions given in books such as the Chicago Manual. To begin with, novels are not journalism, which is what the Manual was always intended for. Also, if you look at almost any page in any of the classics or modern classics (e.g. Lord of the Rings)the Chicago Manual and its advice (or the equivalent when the book was written) has been, thankfully, ignored. The past tense, formed using ‘was’, is sometimes essential. Adverbs have an important part to play in description. Etc. I do not want my fiction (or serious non-fiction) written in journalese.

I also find it almost impossible to read long stories in present tense. There is a growing tendency to use it. I think it’s some kind of effort to make text resemble the way films give us an immediate look at what is happening. I can read it when the writing is a very short story but anything longer and I get quite stressed at the immediacy and would truly rather keep it for films! Short passages in e.g. a crime story can be effective, provided they really are short and the writer reverts to past or narrative tense as soon as possible. When people are talking about something that happened to them, even recently, they usually use the past narrative tense. Present tense tends to be used only by people who have a poorer command of language and this is another reason I think the practice annoys me when used for characters who are clearly reasonably well educated within their ‘world’.

I also find it quite difficult to read sustained passages in italics. Sometimes authors use italics for e.g. letters but I always hope they won’t be long. I find italics visually disturbing (perhaps the very reason we use them for emphasis) and always wish I could easily change the font of the text as well as the size.

The formatting has to be reasonable. I abandoned a book in March because it had line breaks after every two lines and I simply couldn’t concentrate.

So – impeccable grammar and excellent style, with my own personal quirks attended to. I need these, and quite often I can tell within a page or so whether I’m going to get them. If one is missing, the book can still hold my attention because of the content or something else I appreciate. (With Trollope it’s her descriptions and her witty ways of expressing characters’ opinions.) Having got those or most of those, there’s the question of content.

I like well developed characters who appeal to me from the start. I’m never attracted to characters I would not like to meet in real life and don’t much enjoy reading a story told from the point of view of a villain or even someone I just disapprove of. I accept that such writing might be clever and interesting – admirable, even. All I’m saying is that it isn’t to my taste. So if, for example, a crime story starts with a look at the crime from the point of view of the criminal, I’m quite likely to abandon it without caring whether they are caught or not. I want to know the feelings of the victim or of the investigator from the beginning. This is not quite as much of a problem in fantasy or romance, of course, though there may well be e.g. romantic detective stories I have not read because of this type of introduction.

Sometimes, characters just bore me, and if after a few pages I couldn’t care less what happens to them, that’s also a signal to give up. I’m sure there are other readers who would follow their adventures with eagerness and it isn’t a criticism, just an observation that is more about me than about the writer. I find it very hard (though not impossible) to get interested in vampires, ancient Egypt, medical and technical research, or high school and college students so books about any of those have to try harder to ‘hook’ me.

My favourite characters live on in my head long after their ‘story’ has finished and I admire the writers who can create these new fictional friends for me. Sometimes I will turn to fanfiction, my own or that of other writers, to explore the further adventures of characters I love.

Once we have characters who have ‘hooked’ me we reach plot. I hate plot holes with a really fierce hatred. I have read crime stories published by the big mainstream publishers where questions are raised and never answered or where I can see the flaws in the information given. I have read fantasy or sci-fi where the basic premise of the story or world is never properly explained. I have read romances where the ‘chemistry’ between the main characters is not obvious, or not obvious enough to explain their apparent passion. In all genres there are stories where events clearly couldn’t happen the way they’re described. I know I once wrote a story where a minor character could not possibly have been where I said they were at the time stated. I caught the error and if I hadn’t my editor would have done, I hope. It’s easily enough done, but it certainly throws me out of the story and I find it hard to get back in. The same applies to other types of incorrect information. I remember reading a historical romance set in the time of the Borgias and based on some real characters. As soon as the writer had chocolates served at a party I lost all trust in her and never regained it. (Whilst chocolate arrived from South America at the end of the Middle Ages, chocolates, in the form of sweets as opposed to the drink, were not created till much later). This need for correct information is just as strong in fantasy and sci-fi. Good writers build a fictional world and must stick to the ‘rules’ they themselves lay down, whether those refer to our reality or another. And of course their editors must be aware of the pitfalls. I personally gave up on writing about a world with two moons because I couldn’t get my head round the difference this would make to things like tides and seasons.

So my favourite writers have a grasp of language and style that appeals to me. They introduce characters I can’t bear to leave. Their plots are handled deftly and I can trust their information.

Finally, they need an underlying message I can relate to though I don’t want to be preached at and I don’t enjoy fiction that is just a vehicle for pushing an agenda – I’d rather read non-fiction for that, and I probably read as much non-fiction as fiction, if not more. Non-fiction also needs good language and style as well as trustworthy information. Info dumps are slightly more acceptable but there are still ways of splitting text into manageable portions.

I want to read things that agree with my world view. I am aggressively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. I accept that other people will have different religious and political views but don’t want their beliefs pushed at me. I believe in human rights for everyone. I don’t expect all the characters to agree with me but the overall tenor of the book should be acceptable. I know that horrific acts take place in our world and am interested (though not happy) to read about them in non-fiction but would prefer my fiction to have less of a focus on the gory, the depressing, etc. unless I can be assured of a happy ending. Escapist? Up to a point – the point where my fiction and non-fiction reading diverge.

For example, a pair of books I read about a year ago one after the other were The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston and Too Many Fairy Princes by Alex Beecroft. The Preston book dealt in horrendous detail with the Spanish Civil War and I was mesmerised, distressed and interested enough to seek out more books on the subject. Alex Beecroft’s fantasy, whilst it did deal with a kind of civil war in a fae kingdom, gave me romance, beauty and hope, a sort of counterpoint to the realities of Franco’s regime.

I rarely read books in the same genre without a hiatus to read something else. When I give something five stars I really really mean it! Any flaws at all lead to a four star rating. Books that are good enough in their way, possible even excellent for other readers, and quite often technically good get three. Then there are those with two (lots and lots of flaws but I carried on reading) and one (dire). An abandoned book might not mean any flaws at all, just that the book wasn’t to my taste. I abandon books that don’t interest me after a very short trial. I give five start rating to books I would absolutely recommend and those vary enormously.

To sum up:

Five stars: I adored it and would recommend it highly
Four stars: I liked it and would recommend it but there are criticisms
Three stars: fine but not really my ‘thing’ – neutral about recommendations and suggest readers look at the blurb.
Two stars: fascinating enough to finish but exasperating because of all its flaws; not really recommended
One star: dire. (I rarely finish a one star book but some short stories fall into this category)
Abandoned: abandoned (!) and that could be either content or style. As with three stars, read the blurb.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2017 in personal, reviews

 

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