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Reviews: June 2018

Films and TV

I seem to have spent most of the month on news and documentaries, with involuntary sports viewing whilst in the lounge. The only TV drama I have watched was the rest of the final season of The Bridge. I loved the whole series but I didn’t think this final season was quite as good as the preceding ones. The writers seemed to be too determined to bring things to some kind of conclusion, and lot of the minor characters were hard to bear in mind and identify on their random appearances. However, I liked it, and am sad that there will be no more.

Books

Here are the books that I would recommend highly.

First, three excellent books by Rhys Ford.

Down and Dirty by Rhys Ford (Cole McGinnis series5) ***** follows Cole’s brother and ex-partner in a delightful ‘side’ story to the main focus of the series. It’s a necessary diversion if the reader is to enjoy the sequel which is
Dirty Heart by Rhys Ford (Cole McGinnis 6) ***** In this volume we find out why Ben shot Cole and Rick, an event that predates the series but underlies a lot of Cole’s thoughts and actions throughout the stories. Bobby and Ichiro from Down and Dirty help to solve the mystery.
Murder and Mayhem by Rhys Ford***** I’m hoping to read more about ex thief Rook and his new boyfriend, cop Dante. The story was exciting and, as usual, extremely well written.

Two more excellent reads from Charlie Cochrane.

All Lessons Learned (Cambridge Fellows) by Charlie Cochrane ***** is set post WWI and deals with the psychological problems faced by soldiers during and after the war. Jonty and Orlando are able to overcome their problems and help others in the process.
Broke Deep by Charlie Cochrane ***** is set in the Porthkennack world, the fictional Cornish town that a number of authors have now used to good effect. Dominic and Morgan are affected by stories of an old wreck off the Cornish coast and must solve a mystery to rescue their new relationship from ‘the rocks’.

House of Cards by Garrett Leigh ***** is another story from Porthkennack. Calum and Brix introduce us to the work of tattoo artists, and the problems of rescuing battery hens. I didn’t know this author in advance but trusted that the Porthkennack ‘imprint’ would deliver a good story, and it did. I will look out for more of their work.

When a Scot Ties the Knot: Castles Ever After by Tessa Dare ***** This is a Regency romance with a difference, set in a Scottish castle rather than London. Maddie is a delightful heroine, Logan is an excellent hero, and there are, besides, lobsters which may or may not have a love affair.

Now for some I enjoyed but which were not, for various reasons, quite the same standard as the five star ones.

Urgent Care by DJ Jamison **** Hearts and Health 3 I was looking forward to this third volume and liked the story of Xavier and Trent, but there was too much explicit sex that did not further the plot. I know publishers (and some readers) want this, but it isn’t totally to my taste and explains why the book got downgraded to four stars. However, I will be reading further volumes in the series!

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan ****
The inheritance, which arrives in the first chapter, is a baby elephant, and Inspector Chopra, who is retiring, solves a mystery with the elephant’s help. (The elephant is loyal, and saves his life.) A quirky and pleasing concept, but the mystery was not particularly gripping and the characters, including Chopra, didn’t hold my interest. I won’t be following the series but it was well written and if you like a ‘cosy’ mystery story that gives an excellent insight into everyday life in India, give it a try.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers ****
A star ship crewed by a mixture of various humans and aliens helps to prevent universe-wide mayhem. The characters were well developed and I liked them, but the plot was slow and I really did feel, at the end, that I’d travelled a very long way with them. If you enjoy sci-fi with a hefty dose of feminism, you will probably like this.

The King’s Justice by EM Powell ****
This is an extremely gory mediaeval whodunnit. The main characters and the plot were all well developed, the writing was good and the historical research was impeccable. However, whilst I am happy to read about things like trial by ordeal, or various murder details in non-fiction, I don’t like fiction to dwell on them so gloatingly. Not to my taste at all, but well done of its kind.

Then two books that were mildly disappointing.

Devil’s Kitchen (a prequel) and Brass in Pocket by Stephen Puleston *** are the first two stories in a competent but ultimately boring Welsh cop series. I was interested because of the locations, which I know well, but found myself irritated rather than delighted. The constant references to driving up and down the A55 were annoying, and Drake, the inspector who is the focus of the books, was also an irritating rather than intriguing character. He’s supposed to be OCD but the author tells us about his quirks too often, and he does sudoku puzzles in a seriously strange way. There are a number of books in the series but I won’t be following them.

And finally, one I hated, though I have to give it three stars for the standard of the writing.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale *** has a fascinating theme, which was why I read it. An English clergyman and two scientists set out for Tasmania, to find the original Garden of Eden and scientific specimens. Their patron unwittingly charters a vessel of Manx smugglers intent on escaping the law. The eventful voyage reaches Tasmania at the time of the genocide of the Aboriginal Tasmanian people, and the book alternates between the voyagers (crew and passengers) and the Tasmanians (English and Aboriginal). There wasn’t, however, a single character with whom I could empathise. The Tasmanians were, perhaps deliberately, distanced from the reader by the way they were written, in what I assume was an attempt to show their very different culture and mindset. I have felt more sympathy for them when reading factual accounts. The book had too many major characters and the constant to-ing and fro-ing between their points of view was wearing, especially since I didn’t care much what happened to any of them. The writer won the Whitbread award when the book was first published and I am surprised, though the technical writing standard and historical research can’t be faulted.

Fanfiction

More fics and ficlets that needed knowledge of the fandoms before they would make sense. Then I found this one:
Liminal by GloriaMundi*****
on AO3 at https://archiveofourown.org/works/45789
It’s an AU (alternate universe) story in the Stargate Atlantis fandom and starts with Elizabeth Weir founding a commune on the Essex coast just after WWII. She calls it Atlantis and welcomes all those who wish to escape the world. John, Rodney, and others turn up, and there is some m/m romance but it is not the major focus of the story. There are supposed to be ghosts on the marshes but then some kind of contact is made. Rodney does not believe in ghosts but he manages to get in touch with the spirits or aliens. The writing was beautiful and I loved the way the characters were true to canon and yet fitted so perfectly into their roles in the story. I liked, too, the way those roles, and the ending, were alternate versions of the show. If you know SGA at all, go and read this!

It’s just over 56,000 words so short novel length, and don’t forget that AO3 lets you download in ebook versions.

 

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Posted by on July 11, 2018 in reviews

 

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May reviews

    Films and TV

The Bridge*****
This is still ongoing and I’m still enjoying it. I downloaded it to iPlayer and husband, who has been away, was watching an episode. I was doing something else but could hear it (and of course not see the subtitles). Anyway, I had this strange feeling that I could almost-but-not-quite understand the Swedish and Danish. This is apparently the last series, and it’s very ‘dark’ but beautifully done.

The Secret Life of the Zoo*****
There were only a few episodes this year, unless they are going to show more later. I love the programme.

Mr Holmes****
Brilliant acting and direction. However, I wasn’t convinced that this was how Holmes would have been in old age and I was never quite ‘hooked’ by the plot. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Mitch Cullin and I suppose it’s a kind of fanfiction.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel****
Again, beautifully made and acted. However, although I enjoyed it, I do think there was a desperate attempt to cash in on the first film and make another. I would have been quite happy if they’d left it as it was…

    Books

Starting with the five star, which means highly recommended.

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer *****
This was a re-read, chosen partly because I can always re-read Heyer’s novels but also because it filled a square on my book bingo (which I still need to post about). I love the whole premise of this novel, the initial setting in France, the move to England, the foreshadowing of the revolution and the setting up of the fictional families that will feature in later novels. I love, too, the way the heroine is initially disguised as a boy but later becomes a very fashionable young lady.

Judgement Day (Science of Discworld IV) by Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart *****
This was the final book in the Science of Discworld series and just as good as the others. I found some of the science, particularly the physics and astronomy, hard to grasp or at least hard to recall, because it was superbly well explained. Other sections, on genetics and evolution, were easier. As before, the factual chapters by Cohen and Stewart were interspersed with chapters of a delightful novella by Pratchett in which all the old favourite characters in Ankh-Morpork appear, and the day is saved for our earth by Marjorie Dawe, a brave and interesting librarian.

Lock Nut by JL Merrow *****
Number 5 in the Plumber’s Mate series. Just as full of humour, mystery and danger as the others, and perhaps particularly delightful for Brit readers with the local dialects, the locations, etc. This volume ends at the wedding of Phil and Tom and I just hope that isn’t the last we see of them. When you realise you seriously need to know all about the extended families of the most minor characters, you know the author is doing something right!

Spun by JL Merrow *****
This is a further instalment of the Shamwell series. Rory, the postman, meets David (Mark’s ex-PA from ‘Out’) when he takes him as a lodger. The settings and cast are as delightful as ever. Rory’s children probably steal the limelight. It’s a gentle romance, with Rory not quite sure whether he’s gay or bi, and David looking for stability. The difference in their ages and in their previous lifestyles threatens to separate them but as we can expect from this series, all is well.

One Under by JL Merrow *****
This is part of the Porthkennack series in which different authors get to ‘play’ in the fictional town of Porthkennack in Cornwall, initially created by Alex Beacroft. We meet some of the same characters who were in Wake Up Call, also by JL Merrow, and again, I enjoy getting to know the people. Mal, staying in Cornwall to recover from a traumatic work experience in London, meets Jory Roscarrock, from the family that upset his friend in the earlier book. Jory has to prove that he is not like his relatives before any kind of relationship can develop. An excellent story.

And yes – I seem to have had a JL Merrow month!

Then the good. Recommended but some of them are too short for my taste. I like either long novels or very short stories better than novellas, though I’ve been known to write a novella myself…

All China by various authors ed. Passport Books ****
This was slightly outdated – I think my father-in-law bought it when he went to China just after tourism opened up there. We have been talking about a possible trip so I wanted to read something that would tell me about the tourist angle rather than just the country in general. Very thorough and very interesting, but I think some of the holiday aspects will have changed quite a lot.

Bedside Manner by DJ Jamison ****
This second in the Hearts and Health series dealt with a slightly older doctor, just coming out of the closet, and a younger man who had been badly treated by his family because of being gay. It was a nice story and well told. The characters were minor ones in the first book in the series and I assume the later books will also deal with known characters. I like getting to know people and seeing them in the context of a series. The couple from book 1 figured in this novel, giving help and advice.

If it Ain’t Love by Tamara Allen ****
A short novel set in the Depression era in America. The anxiety and struggle are well described, and the main characters, a journalist and the son of a rich businessman who has committed suicide, are heavily involved in the community of job-seekers. Very well written, but as usual, I’d have liked something slightly longer on the same theme.

The Lonely Merman by Kay Berrisford ****
Ben works for the council and finds a man he thinks is a squatter in an old tower in a park. It turns out that Lyle is a merman, cursed to remain in the tower until his true love turns up. This is a beautifully twisted version of Sleeping Beauty, and my only complaint is that I wanted to know more about their later lives. There are, however, sequels, so maybe I can find out! It’s a fairly short story, but very well told.

Now for the mediocre. I read to the end but can’t honestly recommend these.

Wife Number Seven by Melissa Brown***
This was the story of a young woman married within a polygamous cult, who later chose to leave. It was reasonably interesting but I have read better accounts of cult life. Another book bingo choice!

Sultana’s Dream by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain ***
I chose this for the book bingo as a translated novel (which the wikipedia page said it was…) but found that in fact the author wrote it initially in English so had to choose again. The blurb waxed lyrical about the science fiction aspect of the book and the feminist theme. I think it was probably fairly surprising for its time, but it was very short, and not particularly exciting, except as a curious though dated piece.

Jeannot Lapin by Beatrix Potter***
This was the eventual translation choice, which I read in French… It is, of course, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and has the original illustrations. Yes, it’s a book for the very young, but reading in another language adds a further dimension to the work, and in any case, Potter’s works are delightful. However, this is not a recommended book unless you have (or teach) small children.

Seth and Casey by RJ Scott ***
I like this author and the writing was up to standard but the book was a novella so too short both for my taste and for the author to explore fully the themes she chose, centred round PTSD and the problems inherent in losing the ability to do a much loved job. It deals with an injured firefighter who has been refusing to share his stress and concerns with his teacher husband. He then has to rescue the husband and some pupils in a storm. I believe the storm was based on an actual event and was interestingly portrayed.

Starting from Scratch by Jay Northcote***
Housemates series book 5. I found the story interesting because it dealt with a young trans character and very few novels explore that issue. However, I do find the entire series (or at least the volumes I’ve read so far) contain far too much explicit sex attached to very slight plots. This was no exception and I don’t think I’ll bother with any more. The books are well written, with the characters mostly students at Plymouth University.

Holes by Louis Sachar***
Famous, so I thought I’d read it. Very well written, but I didn’t enjoy it much. Stanley is sent to a correctional facility after a miscarriage of justice, and one of the things the inmates have to do is to dig holes. To say any more would be to spoil the surprises in the plot. I found it too full of coincidences, and I didn’t really empathise with any of the main characters.

And finally, one I really disliked.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman**
This came with rave reviews but I didn’t like it. I know it has been made into a blockbuster film but I imagine the main focus is on the locations. Italy is lovingly and lushly described. I got intensely irritated with the young man who fell in love (or lust) with an academic summer guest (I disliked him, too) and with their ‘affair’ which was not terribly interesting and not even redeemed by tragedy.

    Fanfiction

I read quite a lot of fanfic this month. Well, I seem to have read a lot in general! As usual, much of what I read needs love and knowledge of the particular fandom to make a lot of sense, but there is one story I want to recommend.

On the Road to Come What May by rhymer23*****
This is in the Stargate Atlantis fandom and all you really need to know is that John, Rodney, Teyla and Ronon are a team who explore other planets. Everything else is explained within the story which is told from the perspective of Jasper and Kit, natives of one of these other planets. The basic plot is a quest, trying to get the team back to a stargate so that they can return to Atlantis. The world building is incredible and the character development of the two ‘aliens’ is rich and detailed. The team are presented just as they appear in canon. There is no romance; this is what’s known in fandom as a ‘gen’ fic where the adventure is paramount. You can find it at https://archiveofourown.org/works/2262621 and it’s both long (almost 102,000 words) and very satisfying for anyone who enjoys the sci-fi genre.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2018 in reviews

 

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April Reviews

I had these ready to post at the beginning of the month then got sidetracked by other posts and forgot…

    Films and television

I thoroughly enjoyed my viewing this month.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? *****
A friend recced this and I ordered it because it was cheap on Amazon. It was really good. Depp and Di Caprio in their early days show their terrific promise in this story about a guy who seems to be stuck looking after his brother and his mother. There’s a romance, but the main focus is on the family.

Made in Dagenham. *****
This is as topical now as it was when it was made. It’s the story of how the women who worked for Ford demanded, and got equal pay for equal work, despite the unions being mostly unhelpful and Ford being horrified. It’s based on the true story and is inspiring. It also has plenty to say about the issues of gender equality in the workplace. Excellent – with a stellar cast.

Shadowlands. *****
I only watched this because I’d heard of it and it was on the same disc as Made in Dagenham… But I was hooked by the story of CS Lewis and his love for an American woman whose death from cancer left him devastated. Beautifully acted, with lovely Oxford settings.
And… Secret Life of the Zoo***** is back – by popular demand! I’m enjoying it as usual!

    Books

I have been doing a book bingo with some colleagues – I will post about it more detail at some point but for now, it explains some of my reading.

The excellent.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertali *****
I had no idea what to expect but I loved this book. The voice of the ‘hero’ is fresh and funny as he fights against society and finds out who his secret penpal is. It’s an mm romance of sorts but it keeps the reader guessing till the last minute. I will probably want to see the film.

Charmed and Dangerous edited by Astrid Amara *****

This is an anthology which unlike most anthologies is uniformly excellent. I knew most of the authors already, so I pretty well knew I’d enjoy it. The premise of each story is that one, at least, of the main characters is supernatural. There’s some mm romance but most of it is action thriller type tales and they’re all both exciting and well written.

Aprons and Silver Spoons by Mollie Moran *****
This was an excellent autobiography with a focus on the author’s early years in domestic service. It’s set in the 1930s and I was intrigued because her experiences were so very different from those of my mother and her friends who grew up during the same period. It was interesting, and well written. I did, however, hate the cover, which showed a couple of servants, but in nineteenth century garb, which made me wonder if the publishers and editors had even read the text!

Darwin’s Watch (The Science of Discworld III) by Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart *****
Another in the series that bases a great deal of scientific and philosophic discussion around a short story set in Discworld. I thought this one might be easier, since I know more about both biology and palaeontology than I do about chemistry or physics. However, I still struggled at times. I reached the end feeling better educated and I enjoyed the story too!

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey *****
I recalled reading this author’s mysteries with pleasure, and this was no exception. However, I noticed various details that were obviously from the period when the author was writing but which would today be considered politically incorrect. I didn’t guess the outcome and was both surprised and yet not surprised to find out who the ‘villain’ was. An excellent novel which gripped me throughout.

Guernica by Dave Boling *****
This was a Christmas present which I’d requested via my wish list. It’s a family saga set around the bombing of Guernica in 1930s Spain. The book is extremely well written. The author is Canadian but his wife is Basque so he draws on family memories and accounts to create a wonderful picture of life on the Basque coast in that time though his main focus is a fictional family which amalgamates various features of the people he knows. It’s an area I know quite well as a visitor and the descriptions are perfect. There is a lot of detail about daily life and social life that adds to the interest of the story. The anguish of the bombing and the aftermath are sensitively portrayed. This is the perfect novel to read as a counterpoint to histories of the period, since it deals with the effects on individuals rather than on communities in general. Highly recommended either for anyone already interested in the time and place, or for readers who know nothing of either but would like to learn more.

The good.

Mary Anning of Lyme Regis by Crispin Tickell ****
I have been reading about the fossil discoveries in the south of England, and this is a short biography of Mary, bought by my husband when he went to the Charmouth museum on a recent business trip. I have read other works featuring this inspiring fossil hunter but it was good to have a book that had her as the sole focus. It was too short, which is why it only merits four stars. I suppose the museum thought a longer account might not sell. I will be referring to it again in a post I intend to do about the books on dinosaurs, fossils, etc. that I’ve been reading.

Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill ****
Another bingo square, and one I really enjoyed. But it’s a children’s book and I passed it on to my grandson after making sure it would suit his tastes. Even as an adult, I developed real empathy with Jenny, the little cat in New York who is gradually accepted into local cat society.

Catching Kit by Kay Berrisford ****
This ticked all my boxes – fairies interacting with humans, police work, a London setting. But it was too short and I would like a sequel.

Flatland by Edward A Abbott ****
I’d heard of this book but only read it because of the book bingo. I enjoyed it. It’s a curious mixture. It was written in the nineteenth century and uses maths and a kind of sci-fi basis to parody Victorian society, especially attitudes to women. I found the mathematical figures that illustrated the work a bit hard to follow but really, that says more about me than the author.

The Lonely Drop by Vanessa North ****
The title is the name of the restaurant owned by Nick, who gets a second chance with Kevin, the friend he turned down at college. The story is competent but unmemorable. I read it because it filled a bingo square!

A Taste of Copper by Elin Gregory ****
Beautifully written, like everything by this author, and the historical research is impeccable as usual, but somehow I never quite empathised with the main characters. A quasi-Arthurian story of knights, squires, vows and courtly honour.

The mediocre – or maybe just not to my taste.

The Wordsworth Golden Treasury of Verse edited by Antonia Till ***
I bought this in a charity shop when I thought (wrongly as it turns out) that I had lost all my poetry books in the Portuguese fires. The title suggests it is based on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and it does try to provide a similar collection. However, whilst some of my favourites were there, there was a preponderance of the kind of poetry that tends to bore me – the really long ‘classic’ poems that are not even stories. I won’t be looking at it again; there was nothing I like that I don’t have in other collections.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel ***
This filled a bingo square and if it hadn’t, I would have abandoned it. I haven’t seen the film and now don’t want to. My daughter recced the book and doesn’t recall the parts I hated, which were the extremely (to me) gruesome accounts of the killings and the preparation of e.g. fish and turtles for food. It was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian. Actually, I’m not particularly squeamish, but I didn’t like the mixture of gruesome/fantasy. The book was well written, but it wasn’t for me.

The poor

Raining Men and Corpses by Anne R Tan *
I didn’t enjoy this at all and only finished it for one of my bingo squares. It was badly written. It was grammatical and there were no plot holes but somehow it was hard to follow or to know who was doing what. The style, full of artificial metaphors, really grated and I couldn’t bring myself to care about the main character who was stupid, and lucky. The hairs on her arms and neck did a lot of standing up. There were hints of back story, insufficiently developed. The book had, for me, a weird dissonance because it turns out the ‘heroine’ is American Chinese but is referred to as Asian and the only Raina I know is Ugandan Asian. US/UK cultural divide strikes again! There are six sequels but I will not be reading them. The idea of Raina getting involved with yet more murder mysteries fills me with dread.

And the unreadable

Cowabunga Christmas (Cosario Cove Cozy Mystery series) by Anna Celeste Burke
I abandoned this. It purported to be a mystery and the couple solving it were on their honeymoon in the hotel where the murder took place. After a while I found I had absolutely no interest in the detective couple or in the victim, and was vaguely irritated by the police. So I gave up.

    Fanfiction

Because of the book bingo, I didn’t read much fanfic this month! I embarked on a long and well written saga set around a fictional ice hockey team, which is in a sense fanfic of hockey players. I haven’t finished it yet. I also read a series of stories set in the post-book/film world of The Hobbit but they were difficult to understand unless you’d already read a lot in that genre. There have been additions to Small_Hobbit’s works related to the various Sherlock Holmes versions, but you already know how I view those, and can easily find the series in my previous reviews. So, nothing new to recommend this month.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2018 in reviews

 

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March Reviews

    Films etc.

Given that Game of Thrones is seven episodes, I watched ten things this month apart from my normal diet of politics and nature documentaries.

I, Daniel Blake*****
Excellent story that shows how people are affected by benefit cuts and the ways Social Services are obliged to deal with them. Sad, horribly true (despite being fiction) and hopefully influential in much the same way as Cathy Come Home was for earlier generations of politicians.

Game of Thrones Season 7 *****
What can I say? Apparently Season 8, which will be the last, will not be aired until 2019 and may have fewer episodes (though some might be feature length). And presumably the final book will not be available till after that. Whilst I deplore the marketing and production decisions, I love the story so much that I will just have to find a way to cope until 2019.

12 Dogs of Christmas 2****
I expected to be bored but it was a pleasant film with some good underlying messages. The dogs, of course, helped. A young woman who returns to her home town for a funeral is caught up in an effort to save the dog rescue centre owned by the person who died.

Mama Mia***
The Abba Music was nice. Other than that, I thought it was rubbish. Poor plot and dialogue. The actors did a valiant job with the material they were given.

    Books

I seem to have been reading non-stop this month (blame the weather?) and a lot of what I read was excellent. Remember five stars means highly recommended!

So let’s start with the excellent:

Jingo by Terry Pratchett *****
I thought I’d read this and it turned out I hadn’t. I really enjoyed it, but I can say that about all Pratchett’s books. This is the one that looks at war, particularly the beginnings.

Out! by JL Merrow*****
This is the third in the Shamwell series. A workaholic accountant gets custody of his rebellious teenage daughter and ‘retires’ to the country where he meets a charity worker who doesn’t approve of his work in high finance. Lovely writing, the teenagers are brilliantly drawn, and the main protagonists are well developed. I am beginning to wonder if this and one or two other series are realistic – I’m not sure how many successful gay romances one location can sustain. However, it makes good escapist fiction and it’s nice spotting characters from the previous books.

Forest Dancer by Susan Roebuck*****
Probably my favourite book of the month. Reviewed separately at https://jaymountney.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/forest-dancer-a-review/

Heart Trouble by DJ Jamison*****
Vol 1 of Hearts and Health series
A nurse who is still recovering from a broken relationship meets a patient who he mistakenly thinks is a biker, an adrenaline junkie. The guy is in fact a teacher, trying out some extreme sports for a work assignment. The story has Ben and Gage at cross purposes for most of the time but eventually all is explained.

The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury*****
An account of the work of nineteenth century geologists to establish the concept of dinosaurs. I intend to review this (and other books on the same topic) in a separate post so won’t go into too much detail, but can say that this one comes highly recommended.

Crossfire by Jackie Keswick*****
A new boyfriend (this is an mm romance) turns out to be threatened by his (female) ex from a mafia family. The plot is gripping and the action is all the more interesting because of the central theme of the relationship between the boyfriend and his sister who helps save the day.

2018 State of Hate by Hope not Hate*****
I hesitated to class this as a book as it has a semi-magazine format but it’s long, with in-depth articles about the rise of, and current state of, right wing groups in UK and Europe. I knew most of the general information but there were details that were fascinating (especially about Eastern Europe) and it will make a good reference work on the subject.

A Gathering Storm by Joanna Chambers ***** Porthkennack series
This is an interesting historical story in the series where various authors set their stories in the same fictional Cornish town. A physicist has become fascinated by the occult and is researching the idea of contacting spirits using electricity. He is laughed out of Oxford and London and retreats to Porthkennack where he meets a land agent who has Romany ancestry but is nevertheless not a believer in any kind of spiritualism. The pair get off to a bad start and the slow growth of trust and an appreciation of each other’s beliefs and work form a fascinating tale.

English Place Names by AD Mills*****
(an Oxford dictionary spin-off)
Well, obviously I haven’t read it cover to cover. The introduction is fascinating and shows just how much of what we think we know about place names can often be wrong. Once I’d read that, I turned to various places known to me, and found I could get lost for hours, just as I can in an atlas or a dictionary. If you’ve ever wondered how various strange names turned up on UK signposts, you will enjoy this book!

The Dragon’s Tale by Harper Fox *****
Book 2 of the Arthur trilogy.
This follows When First I Met My King. Lance is summoned to a northern castle where Arthur lies injured. The book deals with the royal negotiations with the local tribes, old (British) and new (Anglo-Saxon) and in the course of this various legends are tweaked and brilliantly retold to bring about the arrival of Guinevere. Exquisite writing (as always) and wonderful world-building. The story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot is given a totally new twist in this series and I am really looking forward to the last in the trilogy.

Then the good:

10X10 Digital rights in the next decade by openrightsgroup.org ****
I think they sent me this because I signed up and subscribed to them. It was a really interesting read with articles by a variety of people covering disparate aspects of online rights, privacy, etc. As with most multi-author works, there were some sections better than others. Overall, recommended.

Pretty in Pink and Helping Hand by Jay Northcote ****
The Housemates series.
These are pleasant and well written mm romances set among students and recent graduates in Plymouth. They’re predictable and not really memorable but the quality of the writing plus the UK location means they are a cut above the usual offerings in the college romance genre.

The mediocre.

Discern by Andrea Pearson***
Vol 1 of Mosaic Chronicles.
This story was simply not to my taste. It’s reasonably well written but there is too much horror (and stupidity on the part of the students who experience it), too little magic for what purports to be a magic university, and a lack of real archaeology on a field trip. If you like that kind of thing, it’s the start of a series. I wouldn’t personally recommend it.

I was lucky this month – there was nothing poor or dire!

    Fanfiction

I read a lot of excellent fanfic this month but most of it required a knowledge of the ‘canon’ (the original book or show) for true enjoyment. However, I’m going to recommend one story with not just one but two canons.

Who Wakes As The World Sleeps by nagi_schwarz*****
The story is what is known as a crossover. The protagonists of Stargate Atlantis meet the concept of Westworld. So, two sci-fi stories collide. It’s an interesting story on various levels. It’s a perfect example of a crossover which is about as transformative as fanfic can be. It addresses questions about reality, what it means to be human, and how people express their feelings. It’s an mm romance but is not explicit. I think most of it is accessible to the reader who is not in either fandom though I suspect you might need to know the basic idea of Westworld before reading. Altogether highly recommended. It’s just over 31k words long so think in terms of a long novella.
https://archiveofourown.org/works/13037208

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2018 in reviews

 

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Forest Dancer: a review

I’ve just read an amazing book and wanted to share it with everybody.
Forest Dancer by Susan Roebuck is very special.

The story is set in Portugal where Flora, a ballerina with career problems, has inherited a cottage. This turns out to be inhabited by a woman who may or may not have been Flora’s father’s mistress and a child, Raquel, who may or may not be Flora’s half-sister. Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Flora is drawn into helping stage a cultural event in the village, which is at risk from fracking. Marco, a forest warden, helps to stage the show. Gil, a Portuguese TV star, comes to open the festa. Both men are interested in Flora. Gil is also interested in the standing stones by the forest lake and the legends and mysticism that surround them.

Raquel has leukaemia and Flora is tested to see if her stem cells will be a good match for a transfusion.

Lots and lots of interesting themes, including a very small mm sub-plot, and I couldn’t stop reading. I had to know what happened to the major characters (including the escaped budgerigar), and I even put my own writing on hold while I finished the book.

It’s extremely well written and brings the Portuguese countryside vividly to life. The author clearly knows and loves it. As well as the brilliant world building and fascinating sub plots, the basic romance is beautifully handled, always very realistically and with the lightest of touches. There is anxiety, not only about relationships but about the fate of the village, and Raquel’s health. There are amusing moments, too, sometimes poignant as when most of the villagers have their heads shaved to support Raquel, and when the children are rehearsing their dance under Flora’s direction.

I personally know Portugal well and was transported to the village where Flora was staying. However, I think anyone could enjoy this glimpse of the Portuguese countryside which includes an introduction to the language which Flora is practising. There is plenty to interest anyone who loves dance, nature, and stories that explore both culture and relationships.

Altogether a delightful novel and one that I hope will do really well for the author.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2018 in reviews

 

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February reviews (2018)

The weather in UK (and, I think, most of northern and central Europe) is dreadful, so I suggest everybody curls up with a good book.

Films, Theatre and TV

Hamilton*****
I booked for this ages ago and went to London to see it with friends. Fabulous! The style – a kind of rap against a background of melody – echoes Sondheim’s Into the Woods but where that twists fairytale Hamilton twists history. Except that it doesn’t, really. It tells the actual story of the US Founding Fathers but shows the men and women in a different and more personal light, and the diversity casting (plus the songs of King George III) make us focus on both issues of immigration and of independence (and Brexit). All the cast were magnificent and I can’t really pick out anyone as special. The dancing was amazing, and the staging was intriguing and impressive. Five stars plus, and if you’re going to see it, enjoy! If you haven’t already booked, you’re too late, in UK, anyway. It’s deservedly sold out.

Spiral*****
The double bill season finale was wonderful, as always. I adore this French cop show which is not just a police procedural (although there is always an involved case that takes all season to solve) but a look at policing, lawyers, politicics, personal relationships, etc. It’s an ensemble cast but I have to admit I was on pins in case they decided to write out either Laure (Caroline Proust) or Gilou (Thierry Godard). After all, it’s the kind of show (like Spooks which I also adored) in which nobody is safe – in the previous season we lost Pierre (Gregory Fitoussi) – admittedly to the demands of Hollywood but the French chose to kill the character off. The underlying theme of this season was parenthood, and it ended with Laure literally running, finally unable to cope with her baby’s much desired survival. Superb.

The Book Thief****
Absolutely beautifully directed and acted. However, the book didn’t completely grab me and neither did the film. I think that for wartime dramas I prefer those based on fact (e.g. Schindler’s List) rather than fiction, however artfully presented.

Books

The excellent (all mm romance this month):

Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane. *****
The teacher and his policeman lover get involved in a murder uncovered at an archaeology dig in this third volume in The Lindenshaw Mysteries. Excellent as usual. I love the way this series is absolutely right about modern schools in UK so that I then trust the author about details for other things like policing and archaeology. I may have mentioned previously that I also love the dog. The writing is very assured with a flowing style and plenty of world building. I like the way the mm romance element is presented as normal, and is the background rather than the focus of the story. I feel as if I know the characters and am looking forward to the next volume in the series. Highly recommended but start with Book 1.

Lessons for Idle Tongues by Charlie Cochrane *****

This is in the Cambridge Fellows series. It’s hard to talk about this episode in the lives of the Cambridge dons turned amateur detective. The entire story hinges on whether or not there was a crime (or crimes) in the first place so anything further about the plot would be a spoiler. There is, however, a definite sub-plot involving the kidnap and eventual rescue of a wooden cat. You’ve probably gathered I’m very impressed by Charlie’s books. The same applies to this as to the Lindenshaw Mysteries: gentle mm romance underpinning interesting crime investigation and a cast of fascinating supporting characters. The writer transports the reader to pre-WWI Cambridge and London, and it is a wrench to return to the 21st century when the book is over. I have already bought a number of books in the series and am trying to make them last. Highly recommended, but again, start with Book 1

When First I Met My King by Harper Fox *****
This is Book 1 in the Arthur Trilogy and since I love Harper’s style lyrical, mystical and yet down to earth at the same time) and love Arthurian legend (well, yes, and have written some myself) I had to read it. It didn’t disappoint! The author twists the legend so that Lancelot’s story is set against a background of Northumberland, where the author lives and where I grew up. This makes it all even better, for me! Of course the details of the setting are exactly right, and the whole premise of the story so far, making young Arthur and young Lancelot tumble head over heels in love with each other, makes sense of some of the other legends. I have bought Book 2 and am already worrying about how Guinevere will interrupt the idyll. But I haven’t started it yet.

Agent Bayne by Jordan Castillo Price *****
This says it’s Book 9 in the Psycops series and I am fairly confused because I think I’ve read them all and there are more than 9. But maybe novellas don’t count? Vic (who sees and talks to ghosts which can be useful in a crime investigation) is now a federal agent like his lover, Jacob. The stories, which are all told from Vic’s point of view, are engaging – he is a very real character – and the crimes are interesting. This volume concentrates on Vic’s early days as a Fed, and promises to take the series in new directions. As for the Charlie Cochrane books, highly recommended but start at the beginning of the series.

Caught by JL Merrow *****
Played by JL Merrow *****

These are the first two books in the Shamwell series and probably need to be read in order. They are standalone mm romances, but the same characters do appear in a supporting role, so it helps to be aware of their story.
In Caught, Robert, a teacher trying to escape his past falls for Sean, a pest control agent. The story is sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and always exciting as we hope they will sort out their misunderstandings and get together in the end. Well written and highly recommended.
In Played, Tristan, an actor spending the summer sorting out an inherited cottage in Shamwell, ends up involved with the local amateur dramatic society and with Con, the local handyman. Con is dyslexic and Tristan coaches him for a part in a play. The play within a story makes a delightful theme, especially because it is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also contains a play within a play as well as giving plenty of opportunity for puns and other humour. Very well done and I enjoyed the story immensely, but I have to say I think the author is at her best when writing in first person (in Caught, and in the Plumber’s Mate series). Still, highly recommended.

The very good (two, only one of which is mm):

Dragon and Phoenix by Joanne Bertin ****

This is the sequel to The Last Dragonlord and I enjoyed the story. The dragons are lovely and the weredragons are well developed characters. The book deals with how the weredragon who thought he was the last dragonlord, along with his newly discovered soulmate and their other weredragon friends need to rescue a dragon and a phoenix who are being held captive to power the magic that supports a tyrannical regime in a foreign land. However, this book took me ages to read. It was a print book and was set in a type so small I had problems, even with my reading glasses. As I don’t, at the moment, need new glasses, this annoyed me intensely, especially since the blurbs for other books (from the same publisher) at the end were in perfectly readable type. I see the book is now available as an e-book and wish I had waited, but because it was first published in 1997 I suspected it wouldn’t be brought out in Kindle format. Also, the sequel, which I presume is the last in the series, is not in Kindle so I won’t risk buying it. I don’t think I could plough through another volume in that excruciatingly small type.

Christmas Wishes by RJ Scott ****
A writer, deliberately isolating himself in a remote cabin, finds a young father and baby on his doorstep after a car accident in a snowstorm. The common tropes are delightfully expanded into a story that is in some ways fluff but is quite engrossing. I was disappointed by the end and would have liked to follow the new family a little further into their planned life together. Recommended as a nice Christmas story (and yes, I do know it’s now March and I read this in February).

The reasonable:

Christmas Scavenger Hunt by Aly Hayden ***
Another Christmas story that got missed in December. This one was quite sweet and nicely written but too short to interest me deeply. It also struck me as being to some extent an excuse for the final explicit sex scene. Not particularly recommended but read it if you trip over it…

And the dire(Avoid):

Bakeries and Bones by Nic Roberts*
This longish short story presented itself as a free sequel to the Westford Bay B&B series of ‘cosy mysteries’. As a mystery, it lacked much in the way of mystery or investigation. The characters were uniformly silly about everything from relationships to murder. The author warned the reader that the characters lived in London so Brit English would be used. Well, they probably altered the spellings to Brit English but the speech patterns were ignored and the vocabulary was suspiciously American. Guess who won’t be buying any of the series!

The Tinner’s Corpse by Bernard Knight
I abandoned this after a few chapters. I usually enjoy mediaeval mysteries and was looking forward to it but I hated the style. Every time a new character was introduced the author stopped the story to tell us what they were wearing and what their hair and eyes were like. The whole thing could be used for a creative writing class session on Show Don’t Tell. I see the author has a number of these mysteries (centred on a coroner in Exeter) published and well reviewed. I won’t be reading any more.

Fanfiction.

Most of what I read this month required an in-depth knowledge of the original books or shows the fanfic was based on, so I won’t even review it. However, there are some exceptions.

As usual, Small_Hobbit provided entertainment, this time in the form of a gift fic for me. Mouselet and the Rather Fat Dragon *****, which you can find at http://archiveofourown.org/works/13682490 , has the animals in this Sherlock Holmes alternate universe putting on a play or tableau.
Mouselet is one of my favourite characters in this ‘universe’. She has her own series in The Ocelot Collection at http://archiveofourown.org/series/57591 and also contributes to the Marylebone Monthly Illustrated which is at http://archiveofourown.org/series/256591 This tongue-in-cheek publication also includes excellent short articles and stories by okapi who writes as Inky Quill, a porcupine. All the entries are short so go and enjoy them bit by bit!

I finally finished the stories so far available in the Seasons series by asparagusmama (another fandom friend). The series can be found at http://archiveofourown.org/series/16074 and although it is entirely based on the characters in Lewis (TV) I think it will stand alone as a series you can read without any real knowledge of the show. All you need is to know that Lewis and Hathaway are Oxford police officers. The rest is clarified in the stories which are gripping, and at times rather grim but with a lot of hope in the ending. If you like cop-buddies-turned-lovers with some genuine case stories thrown in, then go and enjoy!

I thought I would also warn you that not all fanfiction is worth spending time on. In the course of a plagiarism investigation for the archive I volunteer for I came across a story on a rival site: Name to forget, face to remember by kamikaze fox. I read to the end (or what purported to be the end because it left the reader up in the air) because it was in many ways a train wreck (or kamikaze mission?!) and I was fascinated. The story has a soldier in the WWI trenches killed and transported to Zootopia (an animated series with animal characters who walk and talk). I thought it sounded interesting and the concept was, but the execution was dire. The author claimed people had helped them edit but I’m not sure who missed the sentence about how ‘he grabbed his shit and wrapped it around the wound’… I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. There were a lot of other typos but that was the one that stood out. The protagonist found himself reincarnated as a wolf and couldn’t get used to having paws instead of hands, resented having to steal clothes to be respectable, and found socialising with rabbits nerve-racking. There was no attempt to explore the psychology behind these conflicting thoughts. I was left assuming there was to be a sequel but will not be reading it. The plagiarised version, which we had, of course, to delete, was actually better written, though I didn’t get as far as the fight scene with the wound. It claimed to be a parody, but used far too much of the text of the original.

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2018 in reviews

 

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January Reviews 2018

I’m not sure what happened but it seems to be February already so here are my reviews for last month.

    TV and films

New Year Concert from Vienna ****
This is something to watch every New Year morning – always worthwhile though the programme varies quite a lot. There is an orchestra, obviously, plus ‘tours’ of various interesting buildings in Vienna, and ballet in other locations. The ballet, this year, wasn’t quite as exciting as it sometimes is but the entire concert was worth watching and listening to.

Secret Life of the Zoo*****
This has ended now. Baby tapirs are glorious – just saying!!

Spiral*****
The French cop show I adore. Only two more episodes to go then I’ll have to try to be patient till next year.

Game of Thrones season 6*****
I have season 7 so I won’t suffer from withdrawal symptoms. I’m up to date on the books but there are beginning to be events that have not been in the text version yet.

    Books

First, the very very good.

Jury of One by Charlie Cochrane *****
Second in the Lindenshaw Mysteries series. Adam is a teacher and his partner Robin is a cop. The crime that was the focus of this story involved Adam because of a stint of jury service he’d done quite a long time ago. I love the way this author builds a perfect world in a fictitious group of villages and small towns, and I love the deepening relationship between the main characters. Most of all, I love the dog. The mystery is nicely complex, and the writing seems effortless, usually a sign that a very great deal of effort has in fact gone into it! Highly recommended.

Lessons for Suspicious Minds by Charlie Cochrane *****
This is the eighth in the Cambridge Fellows series. The sense of the period is exquisitely developed, always with a light hand but amazing attention to detail. In this story Orlando and Jonty are asked to investigate a suspicious death that occurred at a house party in a stately home. And yes, you might have guessed I would thoroughly recommend Ms Cochrane’s books to anyone who likes very gentle mm romance with a heavy helping of crime and mystery. Highly recommended.

Christmas Collection by RJ Scott *****
The three stories in this collection are pure fluff for Christmas. but extremely well written, delicious fluff. We have a novella, a long short story and a very brief short story, all with very different characters whose mm romances come to fruition at the Christmas season. I thoroughly enjoyed these and will almost certainly re-read them at the same time next year. Highly recommended.

Divorce can be Deadly by Emma Jameson *****
Another crime story in a period setting (early WW2) and in this particular case another murder in a stately home. Quite a contrast to Charlie Cochrane’s books because the romance, while equally gentle, is male/female. However, the research is less accurate and the occasional American speech patterns or lack of understanding of British society are slightly irritating. This is the second in the series (Dr Benjamin Bones) and yes, I will buying the next despite my criticisms. The main characters are delightful and the mysteries, so far, are absorbing. Recommended.

The merely good.

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff ****
I read an e-book version. It was fascinating, not so much because of any new information about Trump but because it clarified, for me, the roles of some of the White House team, and helped me attach names to the correct roles, too. Very often, American politics makes very little sense to a Brit reader because the job titles are so unfamiliar and of course we don’t usually know much about the people, either. The book was an ‘easy’ read and was not worth spending a great deal of time or money on, but overall I’m glad I read it. Some of the specific analysis of Trump was already well known, and some had to be taken with a pinch of salt. I think the parts that dealt with Bannon and his ongoing role in the campaign and the first year were perhaps the most interesting, and certainly helped to make sense of his recent split with Trump. If you’re interested in US politics, read it!

The Globe (Science of Discworld 2)/Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart****
I expected this to be as good as the first of the Science of Discworld series and was slightly disappointed. The main focus was on the development of language and culture. The interwoven Discworld story was as amusing as ever, but I think I prefer Cohen and Stewart when they are dealing with the ‘hard’ sciences.

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block (Fairy Tales Retold) ****
Someone recommended this author knowing I also write fairy tales retold so I thought I’d see what their work entailed. The tales are the standard well known ones such as Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Some of them are given a modern setting, others are given some kind of twist. I thought the ideas were good and the writing style was good too, but somehow I never engaged with the characters. Others might, and I have no real criticisms to offer. It’s probably just a matter of my personal taste.

Call To Arms by various authors (series ed Julia Bozza)****
This is an anthology of mm stories set during WW2. A few were excellent, by some of my favourite mm writers such as Charlie Cochrane and Elin Gregory. Others were mediocre. None were poor.

The mediocre.

Salvage Trouble: Mission 1 by JS Morin ***
The blurb suggests that anyone who misses Firefly would enjoy this book. The plot, with the spaceship full of misfits who are carrying out a variety of semi-illegal missions, certainly echoes the show, and so does the use of some quirky humour. However, I didn’t completely fall for any of the characters and although this is book 1 of a series, I don’t think I’ll bother with the rest.

John Betjeman: The Illustrated Poems (illustrated by David Gentleman)***
Disappointing. I got this at a charity shop and was excited about my ‘find’. My last memory of my father, just before he died, was of a train journey during which we shared a copy of Betjeman’s Poems in a Church Porch. The train was taking me to boarding school and when I came home for my father’s funeral I found another clergyman had thrown away the slim book, telling my mother she wouldn’t want ‘that kind of rubbish’. At the time I was devastated but later forgot all about it until I saw this book. My tastes must have changed a lot, because I found most of the poems were a kind of high class doggerel. The forced rhyme schemes reminded me of some of Abba’s songs and whilst this is marginally acceptable for pop music it is somehow cringe-worthy in poetry by a writer who has a good reputation. The ideas were good; it was the execution that was lacking. I also recall arguing with my father about the works of Dylan Thomas and I still love those, so perhaps my tastes haven’t changed altogether; I probably remembered Betjeman with rose tinted spectacles because of the context in which I read the poems.

The bad.

Death at the Café by Alison Golden **
This was the first in a series and I won’t be reading any more. The heroine who solves the mystery is a young CoE clergyman. There is a gushing review by a real clergyman but I strongly suspect the review is fake. I was irritated by typos and Americanisms ( the story is set in London) and by the lack of research into the way in which the Church of England functions. As someone brought up in a vicarage and a CoE boarding school I know enough to find the errors in this writer’s work seriously annoying.

Killer Climate by Alannah Foley **
Another ‘first in series’. I will definitely be avoiding this one, too! An Australian surfer comes to UK to be in a TV show, all shot on location, and finds crimes at the sites. Very repetitive style, clumsy plotting and a lack of research about UK.

Sink by Perrin Briar **
I got to the end but I had to grit my teeth. Two guys in the Australian outback fall down a sinkhole and find an underground civilisation. The unlikeliness of almost all the plot was stunning. The characters were completely unattractive. The writing was flat and dull. I will not be following the sequels.

And the ugly/dire.

Book of Earth (Bradamante Saga #1) by Robin Brande. Abandoned.
A young woman is taught warrior skills in visions of herself as an adult. Nothing happens in real time and the ‘heroine’ didn’t interest me. This was another book from the Women in Fantasy ‘Bundle’ that I bought and am regretting. I suspect the editor who chose the books for the bundle does not share my tastes but has also not heard of things like info-dump as signs of poor writing.

Raining Men and Corpses by Anne R Tan. Abandoned.
This is classed as a ‘cosy mystery’. The heroine is a Chinese American graduate student and is neither appealing nor interesting. After a couple of chapters I just gave up. I didn’t even get as far as the mystery though I knew from the blurb who was going to die.

    Fanfiction

No recommendations this month. I have been reading odds and ends – ficlets and drabbles – nice but not very accessible unless you are already familiar with the fandoms.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2018 in reviews

 

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