Friday, November 30, 2018

BLESSED ISLE, a Hearts-of-Oak era tale of forbidden love


Pronoun Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: 1790 British Age of Sail

For Captain Harry Thompson, the command of the prison transport ship HMS Banshee is his opportunity to prove his worth, working-class origins be damned. But his criminal attraction to his upper-crust First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, threatens to overturn all he’s ever worked for.

Lust quickly proves to be the least of his problems, however. The deadly combination of typhus, rioting convicts, and a monstrous storm destroys his prospects . . . and shipwrecks him and Garnet on their own private island. After months of solitary paradise, the journey back to civilization—surviving mutineers, exposure, and desertion—is the ultimate test of their feelings for each other.

These two very different men each record their story for an unfathomable future in which the tale of their love—a love punishable by death in their own time—can finally be told. Today, dear reader, it is at last safe for you to hear it all.

My Review: I've been reading Alex Beecroft's books since her debut, Captain's Surrender, came out in 2008. I loved it. I gave it to my then-dating partner, Frank, because as a firefighter and a closeted married man I thought he'd really identify with the plight of Peter Kenyon; he ended up coming out, though not divorcing, and pursuing his career as a professional full-time firefighter instead of a cop volunteering as one. "Life's too short," he told me, "and I can't hide anymore."

Well done, Author Beecroft. Your words inspired a positive life change.

So now I read all Author Beecroft's books because I like them and because I have a great memory associated with her work. This short tale of Paradise Lost and Purgatory Gained is in the Age of Sail, the Hearts of Oak days, and features the same reality that opened Frank's eyes and heart: Hiding your true self for fear of the consequences. Hiding love, impossible as that really is, to protect your livelihood and your loved one's safety. How horribly painful that is for all concerned. How unfair to even the worst of one's associates. No one is unscathed by this level of dishonesty, and Author Beecroft makes that clear, and illuminates the awful consequences to all concerned.

The way the story ends, since this is a romantic work, isn't really in question. There will be the requisite HEA. Maybe that's the strongest calling card for reading romantic fiction: Things work out well, unlike much of "real life." The means by which these two men get their HEA was satisfying in a "nyah-nyah" way. The heat level was, it seems to me, modest, but I am a terrible judge of these things because if it's not out-and-out porn I don't think book-sex is overdone. Usually. It's not overdone here.

And the storytelling format, the journal entry end of epistolary noveling, is a further guarantor that both the HEA and the sex levels will remain clear from the start. Not many people speak openly and honestly about their sexual experiences even in a journal. So, well, some glossing is expected, right?

Garnet loves Harry, Harry loves Garnet, society keeps them apart and the entire time they're complicit in the social order's disapproval of their feelings they hate themselves for being so dishonest. What does it cost a man to leave The System?
It shall not be the least of my regrets that I misjudged you so. I am always doing it. You make play of being charmingly reckless, a rake without responsibility, but I should have known you better than that. I am not worthy of you. Not now, and not then.
Less than it costs to stay.
Hours spent either in solitude or in the company of other men seemed grey and barren. Yet my hours with him were a torment of constant awareness and yearning. Without him in the hammock beside me, hot and restless and fidgeting in his dreams like a big dog, I could not sleep.
This, then, is the gift that Author Beecroft has: Making the pain and the passion of loving outside the edges of Society's limited vision vivid and real to those who don't or can't or won't go there themselves.
But as he continued to work out the details of our onward journey, it did finally occur to me that he was giving up his refuge, his true self, for my sake. He was facing again everything he feared, simply because I wished it.

Another happy Royal Navy Read. Thanks, Alex!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

FEAST OF STEPHEN, charming Christmas coda to the third A Charm of Magpies series

(A Charm of Magpies #3.5)
KJC Books
FREE DOWNLOAD, also included with Flight of Magpies ebooks

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Charm of Magpies Christmas coda.

Stephen and Crane have finally got away on their long-awaited Christmas break, along with Crane’s henchman Merrick and Jenny Saint. A promised gift is made, and a request unexpectedly and magically fulfilled…


My Review
: A trip away from London to celebrate the new family's first Yule together. Stephen Day and Jenny Saint, guttersnipes elevated by Lord Crane's love for one and acceptance of the other, revel in fine new clothes, fine old brandy, and good company with many tales to tell.

But here's what you should really know: The entire series is about making what many of us, and sadly many QUILTBAG folk around the world, do not come with automatically: a logical family instead of a biological family. Crane and Merrick are closer than most people ever become, bonded by their adventures and their utter aloneness in the world. Day, always different, always apart and other, comes to bask in the inclusion he feels when he's with the two men. Now young Miss Saint, whose magical talent is never going to win her friends in the staid community of witches, comes at last to feel what the men are offering her.

She is home.

It makes the fact that we're not getting another tale with these four as its focus for...well...who knows. And that's okay.

(Actually no it's not okay at all and I'd like to take this moment to let Author Charles know that I have a voodoo dolly and a working knowledge of the operations of plantar fasciitis and I'm not afraid to deploy both in service of the need for more stories.)

FLIGHT OF MAGPIES, third book in A Charm of Magpies series

(A Charm of Magpies #3)
KJC Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Danger in the air. Lovers on the brink.

With the justiciary understaffed, a series of horrifying occult murders to be investigated, and a young student flying off the rails, magical law enforcer Stephen Day is under increasing stress. And the strain is starting to show in his relationship with his aristocratic lover, Lord Crane.

Crane chafes at the restrictions of England’s laws, and there’s a worrying development in the blood-and-sex bond he shares with Stephen. A development that makes a sensible man question if they should be together at all.

Then a devastating loss brings the people he most loves into bitter conflict. Old enemies, new enemies, and unexpected enemies are painting Stephen and Crane into a corner, and the pressure threatens to tear them apart...


My Review
: Wow. What a way to lead out of these characters' time as the focus of this universe! I am truly amazed at how deep and visceral my emotional response to this story was. Author Charles made me go there, that dark and violent place of fear, more than once in this read. Stephen and Lord Crane are stretched to their individual and collective breaking point by the stupidity and venality of the Victorian society they live in, they are each brought low by their shared but challenged love and respect for each other, and they are as far away from (and as close to) their richly deserved Happily Ever After as two can be. From here on, it's
so stop if you don't want to know!
My favorite scene of the entire series happens in this story. Lord Crane, goaded by Stephen's evident lack of care for his own safety and health, blows up and has it out with him. In that special way that only those committed to each other by bonds stronger than romantic love can afford to risk, Lord Crane lets loose the concentrated and deeply buried agonies of a law enforcement man's spouse:
“I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”
This howl of resentful fearful worry for self and spouse can't happen between romantic partners. It's the sole province of the spouse. It's real and it's raw and it's why Author Charles has legions of dedicated customer/reader/followers. This isn't fluff romance, this is full-blown and genuine relationship fiction. If one of the parties was female, this story would be in hard covers and have a Noble Profile lady with a Big Brute walking away down rainy streets. What keeps Crane there?
“I'm a very busy man," Crane said. "But I suppose I could force myself back here, lick you all over till you're begging for my cock, and then fuck you so hard they'll hear you screaming in the street. If you insist.”

There are several other wonderful scenes, of course, as Stephen battles the all-too-human idiocy of the Justiciary (the bureaucracy that polices magic in this universe); but few to top that one for utter fidelity to the reality of being an ordinary person's mate. Another fun moment later in the story is:
“Listen. Whatever the hell is going on...we will face it together. You and me. No more pissing about, Stephen, no more trying to do it all yourself, or to run the world single-handed. You will ask for help, you will take it, and you will put us first. That's not negotiable, understand?”
Lord Crane's had his fill of being the supplicant waiting for Stephen's time to free up, and not one second too soon if you ask me. Stephen's talents as a crime-fighter are being stretched too far quite deliberately. He's even set on the trail of someone quite reminiscent of the young Stephen, and of whom he says:
You're remarkably uninteresting for a flying trollop.
Savor that for a moment...the pungent tang of sarcasm, the rotting reek of jealousy, the chilly snark of condescension...leading at last to the moment when Stephen realizes:
Arrogant, beautiful, domineering Lord Crane, with the caring that made Stephen’s heart break, and the vicious streak that made his knees bend, had chosen him among all the men’s men of London, and treated him with a loyalty, generosity and almost painful honesty that made Stephen’s heart hurt. And his reward was a few doled-out crumbs of Stephen’s time in a country he hated.

Thank the good goddesses it's positioned where it is, at the ending of this strand of the story, because I dearly want these stories to remain fresh!

A CASE OF SPIRITS, the interstitial between-2-and-3 short story that brings strands together

(A Charm of Magpies #2.5)
KJC Books
*included with volume 2*

The Publisher Says: None so blind…

As torrential rains wash away the stench of a London heat wave, another kind of wave is sweeping through the city streets. A rash of ghost sightings, followed quickly by madness—and horrifying, eye-melting blindness.

The outbreak hits close to home when Lord Crane’s manservant, Merrick, becomes the newest victim. Desperate to find the cause of the malady, Crane and his magician lover, Stephen Day, are in a race against time—to put an end to the magical assault and put to rest the painful memories resurrected by ghosts of the past.

Warning: Magical horror, strong language, and strange brews disguised as strong drink.


My Review
: I belted this down like a Bombay martini! Got rid of my Lucien-and-Stephen hangover. I love these men. Their quiet moments aaalways go messily awry. This one, with its memories and regrets theme, was a pint of ale on a hot day.

The sorcery was creepy; the house was creepy; the payoff was so sweet. I was most interested to learn about gin.

I love the people K.J. Charles invents. Merrick and Stephen, Lord Crane's two most beloved mens, learn to get on at last. Crane learns what to do to keep himself from losing his lover to the insanity of magic.

Happy happy, joy joy

A CASE OF POSSESSION, second book in A Charm of Magpies series

(A Charm of Magpies #2)
KJC Books
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Magic in the blood. Danger in the streets.

Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. He knows Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician is doing his disappearing act more than seems reasonable—especially since Crane will soon return to his home in China. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, there's only one thing stopping Crane from leaving the country he loathes: Stephen.

Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes on him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.

The rats are closing in, and something has to give…


My Review
: Not quite five...although it was set to be...because when the enemy was vanquished, there were still things to be done that weren't. The dead men, the story that inspired the hideous plague of rats were not tied together anywhere near well enough.

But the men are, as always, a delight, and the magpies in their various forms are outstandingly well used. There is nothing not to like in the character development department. That's the main delight for me. These men love each other, are infatuated by each other, think constantly about how they feel connected and understood and treasured:
“You look like the cat that swallowed the cream," Stephen said softly.

"That comes later.”
Dirty talk! Not explicit, but plain, and used within these two men's private space. I approve.
“My life changed four months ago, and I utterly failed to understand that until just recently, and therefore… I may have omitted to tell you that I love you.”
He took a breath.
“That’s all.”
Sweet talk! Clear, precise, unambiguous love-making. It's a refreshing characteristic of written MM romances that is all too frequently missing from MM real-life loves. (That was not a dig, Rob, I promise. I love you!)

There could be a lot more of this majgickq system used and explained, but that's the fun of a series, making discoveries as we go along! And Author Charles already knows the answers to the questions I'm thinking up. I am confident of that. These reads make that completely clear: I am in confident, powerful hands as I read, following a competent guide through a well made maze.
“I don't believe in demons and pitchforks. But I think, if you had to define hell, you could take a good man and deny him the rites he believed in, and condemn his soul to a slow process of corruption until it was nothing but a mass of rage and hate and seething evil that his true self would have loathed. I think that would be hell.”
And that's exactly the place that this entry in the series happens, the space where free will is a commodity that any character can be deprived on in an instant. The backstory from Lord Crane's misspent youth in China is at the forefront of this story. For Stephen Day, it's as if the beguiling whiff of Difference that Crane gives off is suddenly transformed into the reek of the charnel house as the men do their dead-level best to head off a plague of grudge-holding magical meanies with their roots in China.
“Nobody ain't going to lay a finger on you, missus," said {Lord Crane's muscle/valet}. "Not while me and my lord are standing. You tell Mr. Day about it and don't worry no more."
"Since when did you talk to law?" demanded {a witness they need to hear from} in Shanghainese.
"Since his nobility's fucking it. You want the shortarse on your side.”
What fun. What a delicious escape from the dystopian epic I'm sure I fell into by accident. I want to go home now, please. But in the meantime I have Lucien and Stephen to keep me distracted.
“Everyone can do evil. Some people can be forced to it, and some fight against it, and some don't even need an invitation.”
I'd like to return to the parallel universe where fewer people fall into the last category now.

THE MAGPIE LORD is first in KJ Charles's A Charm of Magpies MM fantasy series

(A Charm of Magpies #1)
KJC Books
FREE!! Kindle original, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn't expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude... and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn't the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.


My Review
: I've invested a lot of energy in denigrating phauntaisee and majgickq in books. I really don't like some of the stuff, the more closely it resembles Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire the less I like it, but the reality is that this stuff can be used very well. In the hands of Author Charles, who can write this:
The tide was coming in up the Thames, not far away, and Stephen sensed salt water rippling, the surge of boats, wet wood and sailcloth, the quiet throb of the garden around him, but mostly he could feel Crane, sharp and silver, standing out from the surrounding world like a knife in a drawer full of wooden spoons.
it is hard to imagine any trope could be misused. There's always a risk, of course. But I feel confident that I am not going to be let down in my gladly extended faith.

The problems I still have with books featuring majgickq are lessened when, like Author Charles, one goes to the trouble of thinking the actions and reactions necessary to make the manipulation of the world work consistently. The Magpie Lord, ancestor of Lord Crane, our main character, is never explicitly described nor is his codification of majgickq's workings explored.
"Isn’t there some other way for you to get power?” (Lord Crane is petulantly complaining to Stephen here.)
“Like what?”
“Magic wands. Magic rings. The Holy Grail.”
“You have that here?”
“If I do, someone probably carved a magpie on it. Does it exist?”
“You wildly overestimate the extent of my knowledge,” Stephen said.
I nevertheless was convinced by the fussiness and sticklerishness of Day, the judiciary of magical crimes hired to deal with the Magpie Lord's various magical issues, that the system of this world was well thought out and believable enough for me to move on.

And move on I did. I enjoyed the sexual heat between the men. I approved of the sheer unbothered indifference of Lord Crane to the heaping plate of social disapprobation he's served for being different, foreign almost. Day, no aristocrat (and seemingly almost a Republican in the UK sense), allows his family's bitter history with Crane's family to color their every interchange. It lends this story a lovely enemies-to-frenemies-to-lovers dynamic that more often than not works well for me. It affords me the opportunity to size up characters in their rounded, 3-D being, which is an index of how well I will respond to a given author's thought processes.

Author Charles, in this outing, comes through my maze of mishegas and misanthropy with nary a hair out of place. Another series to follow with eager gratitude for the pleasures I am confident I will receive.

PS it's a laugh riot on top (!) of everything else.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

PYRE AT THE EYREHOLM TRUST, an Urban Fantasy set in Prohibition-like times


Less Than Three Press
PAY WHAT YOU WANT!, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In Temperance City, the streets are ruled by spelled-up gangsters, whose magic turf wars serve as a constant backdrop to civilian life. With magic strictly regulated, Eli Coello—whip-smart jewelry salesman by day, sultry torch singer by night—has always found it advantageous to hide his magical affinity for ink.

All that goes up in smoke the day Eli is forced to use his magic to foil a jewelry heist, and in doing so unwittingly catches the eye of Duke Haven, leader of the fire-flinging Pyre gang. Seeing a useful asset, Duke promptly blackmails Eli into providing unregistered spellwork.

Duke needs Eli's ink-magic to help him pull a dangerous con against a rival gang. As the heist comes together, Eli finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the Temperance underworld—and, perhaps most dangerously, to Duke himself.


My Review: I won't say this lovely urban fantasy was rushed, but the pace was quick and the world-building was dense. The 1920s-era Prohibition-y setting of Temperance (haw) and its shabby speakeasy culture was different and very welcome. Duke, a small-time grifter with ambitions and self-discipline issues meets Eli, a jewelry salesman with secrets galore, in the course of business: He robs Eli's employer. Hijinks ensue.

The magic system of this world is material-centered, like Charlie Holmberg's in The Paper Magician et alii; Eli's an inkman, a manipulator of all inks whatever they rest on. You can imagine that the authorities of this world view Eli as a threat, since forgery can have no better friend than a magician who can make ink do their bidding. Duke, on the other hand, is a fireman, whose entire body is a conductor and creator of fire that can be molded and shaped and directed. Needless to say, the authorities are as scared of what Duke can do as of what Eli can do, only more so. Both characters are viewed as Other because of their powers, though not because they're gay or bi or trans. They're those things as well. They just aren't considered important. We're given this certainty in the very first scene of the book, and that was when Author Darrow grabbed me. You're gay? Mm, that's nice, pass the salt. You're an unregistered inkman?! WORKING IN A JEWELRY STORE?! ZOMG THE SKY IS FALLING!!

That's how I like it. Gay = uh huh, but magic = fraught. In other words, unlike the world I inhabit (for all I know you're reading this in a parallel universe), who you love isn't as interesting as with whom you're gettin' it on...gossip still rules and riles. And my long-standing animus towards the sheer silliness of Magjickq and its attendant random capitalizations of words to Indicate their new Uses is shown to be soothed by placing it in the hands of gay men.

I fear I am as bad as those I've criticized for refusing even to expose themselves to a gay male perspective on the world: I no longer want to hear from straight people. Shut the fuck up, you've monopolized the conversation long enough.

This is especially distressing to me in light of the fact that I called a former friend out on her use of the offensive and sexist term "mansplain" recently. My point to her, which she roundly rejected, was that fighting sexism in language wasn't a one-way street. Her response was the perfect, textbook mirroring of condescending maleness when our sexist assumptions are called out.

And here I am doing the same thing to the vast cishet community. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to know what y'all long for in a mate because it involves me not at all. I don't care.

Just like the vast majority of y'all don't.

So while I'm reveling in hearing my worldview represented and my concerns addressed, I'm staunchly ignoring a huge swath of the world. Oh the hypocrisy. Oh the humanity, too.

So while Eli hid secrets from his employers, hid himself from Duke as best he could, and set in motion a trainwreck of a plot climax, I was purring contentedly. When the moment came for the Big Reveal, I was deeply enmeshed in the emotional undercurrents and sussing out the relationship complexities that each man had. The ending was lovely in that it included each character's full self, known and accepted as is, and set the stage for further explorations of how those complex traits could intertwine and grow.

Good fiction, in other words. And good storytelling, too. Look at my notes and you'll see if Author Darrow is singing in your key if not precisely your song. For me, there can't be more of Eli and Duke's world soon enough.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

DAY OF WRATH, fifth and final Taking Shield story to feature Shield Captain Bennet

(Taking Shield #5)
Glass Hat Publishing
$3.99 Kindle, $14.50 trade paper, available now

DECEMBER 2019 UPDATE THIS BOOK WON *TWO* RAINBOW BOOK AWARDS! LGBTA Sci Fi/Futuristic and LGBTA Book! The Rainbow Book Awards have been given since 2009. Congratulations, Author Butler!

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In less than a week, Bennet will finally return to the Shield Regiment, leaving behind the Gyrfalcon, his father, his friends… and Flynn. Promotion to Shield Major and being given command of a battle group despite the political fallout from Makepeace the year before is everything he thought he wanted. Everything he’s worked towards for the last three years. Except for leaving Flynn. He really doesn’t want to leave Flynn.

There’s time for one last flight together. A routine mission. Nothing too taxing, just savouring every moment with the best wingman, the best friend, he’s ever had. That’s the plan.

Bennet should know better than to trust to routine because what waits for them out there will change their lives forever.


My Review: This is it. The last time we'll see Bennet and Flynn in a Taking Shield story.

I pause here for sad and lonely reflection. ETA This bonus scene will ease the pain somewhat.

The journey of the series has been a good, satisfying one, and I am deeply glad that I followed it. Bennet's growth as a man and an officer has been steady. He's gained enormous insight into his past and uses it, as one should, to guide his steps into the future. He's been separated from his true love by circumstances beyond his control...any military family will recognize this reality...and has fought his hardest to return to his heart's home.

It is to Author Butler's great credit that she doesn't make the fight trivial by making it easy. She doesn't allow for any la-di-da fantasy of victorious sweetness, either. The Bennet who comes out of this book is a man who has lost and struggled and lost some more, so he's got his feet in the one place we all need to place them in the end: on rock bottom. Bennet has finally found his ground and he plants himself on the first really firm footing he's ever had.

He is not alone. All the characters we've come to love end up with their feet firmly planted. Some of them plant a lot more than their feet...Author Butler isn't afraid to swing the Grim Reaper's scythe. I was most vocally disgruntled about this, and was told by the lady herself that stories make demands that must be met so belt up and quit bellyaching. (I paraphrase. Barely.)

Bennet's life aboard the Gyrfalcon wasn't ever easy, and the return to the ship he's required to make by political events he can barely bring himself to tolerate is really a precisely calculated torture. Flynn is still there...his rigid, judgmental younger sister and his freewheeling younger brother are there...his starchy, duty-loving father is Captain. Not one of these things is calculated to make the uneasy political reality of Bennet's return comfy. Add in Flynn's whopper of a fuck-up of not-Bennet relationship partners and, well, this short reunion the two lovebirds are due to enjoy might just be more trouble than it's worth.

No. Never that for either man. They are each other's lobster, as Phoebe Buffay called Ross and Rachel on Friends all those decades ago. They're the true loves whose path seems never to be smooth, but Flynn really plants his size-13s in his mouth this time. When you get there, you'll know. So the problems ratchet up, the resolutions aren't obvious, and the politics that Flynn doesn't understand while Bennet plays them become orders of magnitude more difficult to navigate.

And then the real fun begins.

Trouble doesn't get bigger than this. Battlestar Galactica-sized big. It's in this moment of pure hell that Bennet crystallizes his priorities and acts on them for the first time in his life. It's a perfect moment, a small and intimate moment, and it's got huge implications for the future.

I don't know how else to say this except "this series deserves your attention and eyeblinks." Wait...yes I do:


Wonderfully Inclusive Space Opera Series completed in time for #Booksgiving!

This is an overview of the fate of Planet Albion, the setting of all five novels in Author Anna Butler's space opera series, Taking Shield. It set in a 10,000-year-future Earth colony, mother planet to other colonies and in a war for survival with the alien race they've named the Maess. Yep, "Albion" like the old-fashioned personification of England (not Britain, Americans, ENGLAND and yes, there's a big difference). The series tells the tale of Shield Captain Bennet's growth while his world changes out of all recognition around him. His relationships change, his lovers change, his sense of himself changes...but most of all, his destiny is challenged and changed in the most profound possible ways.

It is all too rare to discover bisexual male representation in fiction. It's damned close to unheard-of in speculative fiction. Author Anna Butler has written the series as the space opera it is, and hasn't done the most common thing I see in today's marketplace: Romanced the story. Made it about the kissy-face and sexytimes. While that's great and I won't front about not enjoying those stories, this series isn't about the zeal of the organs for each other (to quote Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth). It is a space opera first and last, its heroes just happen to be bisexual men, and the entire direction of the story would be different if they were not. The destiny of Albion and thus of our protagonists wouldn't change, but the emotional arc would be very different.

There are some world-building details to discuss. I found them all to my liking, and your personal response to them is likely to be a reliable index to your eventual enjoyment of the stories:

The Albionese have only one name, used in conjunction with a title where appropriate (eg, titled aristocrats, military personnel). I was a little bumfuzzled by this at first. There are bound to be billions of humans on Albion and its colonies, after all. But then it occurred to me that, in a society as advanced as this one, there are multiple biometric forms of identification available, so identifying yourself officially isn't necessarily name-dependent and, socially, how many of us are known by our full names now? There would be significant social pressure not to use names too freely. I can dig it.

The Albionese worship a Pantheon of Gods derived from Egyptian models, settled in Albion's landmasses with Hellenistic province names, and have a Parlialimentary (not a typo) democracy that very closely resembles the debased and disgusting kakistocracy (get it now?) of today. Author Butler starts us out with the following teaser on her website:
Taking Shield started out as a simple ‘what if’ set of questions. What if in some AU universe Earth’s been a burnt out dustball for the last ten thousand years? What if we do a riff on the Exodus and have remnants of humanity escape, but led by Pharaohs? What if the new world they found, Albion, is at war with an enemy no one has ever seen? What if the hero is a member of Albion’s special forces *and* the Military Strategy Unit? What if he finds something that seriously threatens Albion? What if he falls in love with a Fleet pilot and has his life turned upside down?

And somehow that grew into a serial of four books so far with more to come.
My issues with the Albionverse are few, really, the biggest having to do with the improbability of feet, miles, a.m./p.m. and other specific-to-earth measurements surviving more than 10,000 years when meters, kilometers, light-years, and military time-keeping are so much better suited for the Universe as we know it. Author Butler saw my bleat of dissatisfaction, recognized it for what it is...a fan's grumble not a detractor's brickbat...and gave me the following explanation, which I present to you with her consent:
Albion's days, months and years are not the same as Earth's but the words used for those measurements of time on Earth have translated across with different values*. Similarly other earth measurements have translated. Some - like parsec or lightyear remain constants because immutable physical law demands they do. Others have new, Albion-specific values. My reasoning was that having lost Earth to catastrophe (see Passing Shadows, the prequel, for what happened), the survivors clung very hard to whatever of Earth they could take with them. I'm English. We have the most mixed system here of decimalised coinage and weights and measures, but still measure our distances and things like car speeds in terms of miles. Nostalgia has the people of Albion clinging to the terms their ancestors knew best. From which you may gather that despite the Egyptian overtones, Albion (and Bennet) is most definitely British!
* Albion has a normal year of 412 days:
ten months of forty days each divided into four equal ten-day weeks plus an extra week at the end of each year, Yule week, to absorb the outstanding 12 days.
each day has 25 hours, each hour has 100 minutes.
Those minutes, hours, days are not the same as Earth's. I worked out to my own satisfaction that each Albion day of 25 hours is equivalent to around 29 Earth hours, 35 minutes . So each Albion minute = 42.6 Earth seconds.

Albion's actual rotation is 412 and some 8 hours so in every third year, Yule week is 13 days long, with an extra day to compensate and to align the calendar with the sun's apparent position—pretty much like our leap years. Albion's leap day is actually a few extra minutes longer than normal, for real accuracy, but I don't trouble my head about that level of detail!

There are truly arbitrary figures that doesn't at all *matter* in terms of the story, but were created for my own amusement and which I now share, for yours.
These are the sorts of details that vastly increase my personal pleasure in a series of books set on a made-up planet. I figure that, since you're reading my blog, you're at least slightly more likely than the Normals to want some sort of satisfaction regarding seeming inconsistencies that are actually designed-in landscape features. Just think of Author Butler as a literary Capability Brown.

I'd love to see more of the Egyptian roots of the world, for an example of an area of dissatisfaction; the series is clearly populated by people of England-English descent, based on the culture's stratification and its Parliamentary democracy in place. How'd we get to Egypt? I'm not against it, or bitching about it, just curious. What would lead a bunch Brits to mummify their dead, for example? I get the whole art style revival since they've done it twice before (the 1790s and the 1970s), but this is a deep cleavage from British norms and bears some 'splainin'. And Bennet *is* an historian....

The website has a handy-dandy obsessive fanboy's guide to the rich background of Albion and its institutions as they are at the time of the stories herein told. It's a really interesting way to get your obsessive series-reader's feet wet. Try the first book risk-free, for free, freeing you up to decide whether Bennet and Flynn and Albion and the Maess are your cuppa joe. (I hate tea.)

Friday, November 23, 2018

WHISKEY KILLS, second Top Shelf mystery, delivers cozy smiles and puzzle-solving thrills

(Top Shelf Mysteries #2)
Kindle original
$3.99 Kindle, $13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Big cities are known to be dangerous, but former New Yorker and bar owner Ricki Fontaine is finding the small town of Waterton, Ohio, is proving to be the murder capital of the world—well, at least her world.

The new Top Shelf is open for business, but business as usual for Ricki and the Shelf translates to another dead guy. Ricki’s friend, Ruby Fogarty, is charged with murdering her boyfriend by clubbing him to death with a bottle of whiskey. The police consider the case closed, but Ricki is convinced Ruby is innocent and sets out to find the real murderer. Although Waterton police detective Gabriel Russell is crazy about Ricki, he isn’t too crazy about her trying to do his job.

The killer’s not too happy about it either.


My Review: Here's another dose of Ricki-love. I read this earlier this year, right after The Body on the Barstool, and can't quite believe I didn't warble my fool head off about it then. But here it is, time to think about Yule gifting, and what better gift (or self-gift) than a charming, satisfying trip down the fantastical amateur sleuth trail. It's a welcome respite from reality's challenges and stresses to read a mystery.

We all know that real amateur sleuths would be firmly and unkindly squashed by the real police. We also know that a real-world case of murder wouldn't be a safe, or even sane, place to insert your amateur self. That makes these fantasy outings safe ways to get our ma'at needs met. We all love to think Right is always served, that justice being done doesn't go unrealized by the law's wiggle room for miscreants. That is a need commonly unmet by real life. I suspect that isn't a surprise to anyone what can read this blog, eh? So stories, as ever and always they do, fulfill this deep and abiding need for us. We are Ricki the accidental bar-owner-sleuth for the time it takes to read the story. We are alluring to the handsome, long-ago crush object/enemy Gabriel...working out another normally unmet need to get the one that got away.

Frank, the murder victim, is just nasty enough to trigger another ma'at need: Clear out the drain of selfish, self-centered people that sink to the lower level of our lives. Ruby, a good-hearted good-time gal, is the archetypal sympathetic screw-up friend we want to rescue. The stakes, being accused of Frank's murder, are the highest most of us can imagine facing. Ricki faces the troubles despite thinking Ruby's better off without Frank and if that means he's dead...well...eggs, omelettes....

Adam, Ricki' relationships are complicated and words for the relationships that begin within the modern iteration of family haven't been invented yet, so the explanatory labels are unwieldy: Ricki's ex-husband's used in the series as the invaluable practical ally/trusted support character. He's also a wonderful way to show that Ricki is a certain kind of person, a real menschy kind of gal, who looks past what in a lesser person would be a great excuse for a grudge against someone in order to see and care about them. Her mother and stepfather play a big enough role in this book for me to feel the gravity of parental love that Ricki really thinks she wants to escape. Events show her otherwise, as expected; but she also makes a key discovery about the way the past creates the problems of the present via this evergreen conflict of mothers versus daughters.

There are plenty of threads woven through this plot that attach to past events. That's really what I enjoy most about series mysteries. The present, the crime-solving bit, develops over time and relationships come and go, like real life; but the past, in a series, is a character of its own and comes to the fore as the sleuth moves farther from it. Well, in the series mysteries that I read, this is the case or I bail on them. In this book, Ricki (already shown to be someone whose past is part of her present, see: Adam) learns a lot about her love interest Gabe, and about the uncle whose death landed her in Ohio to begin with. It isn't all good, and in Ricki fashion she sees that it isn't all bad either. Events she had no part in are left for her to resolve. Like we all wish we could, she resolves them as best she can and in a positive way. That's a strong through-line in this series of books: Positive change. Managing what you start with to be better when you're done.

I will note that one subplot bothered me: The evangelist megachurch founders are way too caricature for me, and I'm as anti-christian as it's possible to be.
Everett Forman burst into one of the phoniest laughs I'd ever heard, while his wife tittered in a very ladylike fashion. I'm not much of a prayer, but I wondered if I should ask the Lord to keep me from barfing during dinner. If the reverend didn't improve his act, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to hold it in.
All's well that ends well, I suppose, but their twirling-mustachio "I'll get you, my pretty" OTT evillenesse detracted from my otherwise spotless love for the story.

Final Note: One entire star off for four uses of the hideous, cheesy, trashy w-bomb. AUTHORS OF THE WORLD: NONE OF THIS

Time again for #Booksgiving! The lovely Icelandic idea of a Book Flood

As 2018 wanes, taking with it a boatload of misery, trouble, strife, and negativity, let's focus on something much more fun: #Booksgiving! Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, I'm here to suggest some literary delights whose (not always) joyful tidings will make the Night Before Christmas a bit less frenetic: Give everyone in your gift-giving circle a special book to read right then and there, in the midst of life, all together.

Wikipedia gives us a wee bit of background on the Icelandic custom of giving a book as a gift to your family and friends at Yuletide. Like here, at least my friends and family...the difference is the Icelandic friends and family like the custom. Decidedly not like many, many people I know.

Iceland isn't like the US in any way that I can think of: no mass shootings, low poverty, socialized medicine, but most importantly the fact that, in a lifetime, one in ten Icelanders will write and have published at least one book. Appearances and Kindle sales to the contrary, that can't happen in the US or there would 35 million writers getting their stuff published. Think of the deforestation implicit in that thankfully unrealized statistic. Agents and publishers will sigh exasperatedly and moan "there already ARE 35 million Americans writing books and they all have MY address!"

I promise that it only feels that way.

Iceland also has an Icelandic Literature Center, according to a 2013 BBC News report, which quotes Agla Magnusdottir (head of the Center as of the article's writing in 2013):
"Writers are respected here," Agla Magnusdottir tells me. "They live well. Some even get a salary." Magnusdottir is head of the new Icelandic Literature Center, which offers state support for literature and its translation.

"They write everything - modern sagas, poetry, children's books, literary and erotic fiction - but the biggest boom is in crime writing," she says.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson ring any bells, mystery series lovers? All Icelandic. A book I adored, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, is Icelandic historical gay fiction. There's a niche for you.

Now think about it. Those writers have achieved popularity in the US market, easily ten times the absolute size of the Icelandic home market, and largely thanks to their government. Pause a moment. Think about that. Writers getting a state-supported salary so they can write. Translators of foreign-language books getting the same. Yea verily, it sounds like heaven.

But is the US actually so different? Most books in our market are published around gift-giving holidays, too. Look up any statistical source you can think of and you'll see the jaw-dropping surge in sales in each and every segment around Yuletide. Black Friday got its name from more than the salesdroids' moody misery on the horrible, horrible day; it's the day that almost all retailers stem their losses and go into black balance-sheet ink.

And it's not like there are no initiatives to encourage the bookish to share their addiction in the Holiday season. Take #GiveBooks, which is described in this Publishing Perspectives piece. It's admirable, and I suggest that you all put some money into the outreach for underserved children to get books. After all, the Jesuits' founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, famously said, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man." Knew his onions, did that old guy. He stole from the best, seeing as Aristotle said it first. You can tell because there's neither hide nor hair of "woman" in there, nor any sign that either of those old white men even sensed their absence. I'd recast it as "...I will give you the adult," but purists would be as vocal as feminists in their scorn. One cannot win.

But let's dream big. The tradition of giving a book as a much-desired present...the encouragement to read it that very night...there are some of us who want that family life and now we have a model for how it should look.
Why shouldn't we, book lovers, embrace this vaguely distasteful-in-the-aggregate behavior of being good little consumers? Let's repurpose it. Let's take one tiny facet of Iceland's excellent book culture and bring it here. The Christmas Book Flood isn't directly translatable, and anyway focuses on the end of the process, the gifting that's always so fun.

Let's celebrate the process, shall we? Let's have Booksgiving! Starting on *shudder* Black Friday, let's think about what books we'll flood the tree skirt with on Book Flood Eve. I'll give you some ideas from my 2017 and 2018 reading to include in your purchases.

Happy Booksgiving!