Books to the Sky

Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.

So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!

The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.

Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London. Read the rest of this entry »


I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to do more reviewing on this here blog, but haven’t really followed through with that. So, here’s my attempt to establish some kind of book review format. Let’s do the basics up top:

Title: Cut and Run
Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press, 2008
Genre: m/m romantic suspense/cop drama
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I chose this book to review because I had a lot to say about it. This can be good and bad; I tend to get most passionate about the books that almost get it, but fall short. This is one of those books. The characters are interesting and likable and the bare bones of a good story are here, but the narrative style drove me bonkers.

So, the gist: Zane Garrett is a stuffed shirt FBI agent who’s been on the straight and narrow in “cyber crimes.” He gets paired with a loose cannon by the name of Ty Grady, and together they’re supposed to find a serial killer in New York City who committed a string of murders so bizarre and random that the only way we know they’re connected is that the people running the investigation keep telling us they are. Then, twist! As the investigation proceeds (with basically no developments, just a lot of random violence), it’s revealed that Zane is actually a recovering alcoholic, more comfortable wearing a leather jacket than a suit. Zane is really the loose cannon, and Ty, especially after he winds up in the hospital with a serious concussion, is pretty sedate. Anyway, our heroes gallivant around New York, eventually cracking the case by finding the unlikely but sort of obvious pattern (and I am frankly ashamed that I didn’t figure it out sooner).

I mean, there’s a lot to like here. Two rogue FBI agents who are hot for each other; a serial killer who, it soon becomes clear, is gunning for the FBI agents; New York City; and lots of gunfire and explosions.

And still it kind of falls flat. I was warned in advance both by a review and by another book I read by this author team that there would be some head hopping. This is a narrative peeve of mine, but one I can forgive for some books. Here, not so much. This narrative head hops all over the place, sometimes switching POV within the same paragraph, and it’s chaotic and confusing.

The novel is also a lot longer than it needs to be, with the last chapter being largely unnecessary, IMHO, prolonging the suffering of the characters without a good enough pay off.

The biggest problem, though, is that the whodunnit is really obvious, like the murderer might as well be wearing a tee-shirt that says, “I am the killer.” He drops hints for Ty and Zane all over the darn book, and they never pick up on them. It got to the point where I was kind of hoping I was wrong about who the killer was (I wasn’t) because that, at least, would have been an interesting twist. This author team needs to learn the importance of a good red herring, because the person I suspected was the only logical suspect given the parameters of the genre.

The other thing that put me off this book a little is that the romance between Ty and Zane is a little too Gay for You, a convention I strongly dislike in m/m romance. (For those unfamiliar, Gay for You is a convention wherein one or more straight characters fall for someone of their own gender because the attraction to this one person is so overwhelming. I understand the need for its existence in fanfic, but in romance with original characters, I find it bothersome and unrealistic.) It’s implied that both Ty and Zane have had affairs with men before, but that both also primarily prefer women, so it’s just… what are the odds that two bisexual FBI agents would get paired together and also be attracted to each other? I was skeptical enough that it kept me from really enjoying the romance. There’s a throwaway line at one point implying that Ty mostly sleeps with women because he’s ashamed of the part of himself that lusts after men, but that’s never explored. More to the point, for the first quarter of the book, these characters read straight to me, and I almost wondered if there was going to be any romance at all.

Finally, if I can have a moment as a New Yorker, the stuff that takes place in New York City reads very “tourist” and not at all authentic. For example, at one point, Ty and Zane rent an apartment in “Greenwich,” and I’m guessing by all the references to the hippy dippy bohemians in the neighborhood that the authors mean Greenwich Village and not Greenwich, CT, and I feel like that’s something the editors really should have caught. (Not to mention that the Village is not so much populated by hippy dippy bohemians anymore.) Ty and Zane spend most of their time at hotels in TriBeCa, but then talk about Chinatown like it’s so far away and it’s… right there, dudes. Walk a couple of blocks. So that annoyed me, too. (Note to writers: if you want to set something in New York, at least do your research!)

I read the whole book anyway. It’s not completely irredeemable, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel the authors are rumored to be working on.

Piggybacking off of my previous post, here’s a trilogy of Regency romance novels. The series features three friends who fought in the army together, all three of them with somewhat unsavory pasts, and all three now resorting to illegal activity for some greater good. It’s a trope I think of as “the noble criminal.” Two of the three men are “forced” into illegal activity to achieve something good, and the third gets involved in an elaborate plot with a very dangerous man in order to help a woman in an untenable position. But we’re made to know that all three men are basically good underneath.

After the Kiss
Meet Sullivan Waring, a horse breeder who moonlights as a cat burglar. We learn very early on that he’s actually in the process of stealing back what he views as his property. Sullivan is the bastard son of an earl who won’t acknowledge him. His now-dead mother was a painter. While Sully was off fighting on the Peninsula, his father gave all of his mother’s paintings away to his friends. So, Sully wants the paintings—the only thing he really has left of his mother—back and goes about stealing them. His real trouble begins when he’s caught in the act of liberating a painting from the Chalsey estate; he’s caught by young Isabel Chalsey, whom he kisses to keep from screaming.

The setup is a little silly, but Sullivan is a likable hero. The plot is a little convoluted: Isabel blackmails him into helping her learn to ride a horse, because he arouses her curiosity (and some other things) and she wants to get to the bottom of why he’s a thief before she turns him over to the authorities. They thus end up spending a lot of time together. The conflict in the novel is mostly external, as social mores make it impossible for Sullivan and Isabel to be together when they, predictably, fall in love. Which is a little irritating, particularly since it takes Sullivan until the end of the book to put together that he’s well-respected enough that his common bastard status doesn’t actually matter, at least not to Isabel.

Sully’s BFFs are coming in the next books. Phineas Bromley is still off fighting and Bramwell Johns is Sully’s companion throughout this novel. Bram, actually, is the one who provides Sullivan with the intelligence he needs to steal back his paintings. And Bram is totally the best character, cynical and sharp-tongued.

Before the Scandal
Lieutenant Colonel Phineas Bromley’s crime is that he resorts to robbing coaches in order to find clues as to who is harassing his family. He’s helped along the way by his “ruined” childhood friend, Alyse.

The book fails as a whodunnit, because the culprit behind all the trouble at the Bromley estate is obvious from almost the first page. I also wish the scandal involving Alyse, which was important enough for the book to be titled after it, were juicier. It’s one of those peculiarities of the genre, I suppose; it doesn’t take much to ruin Alyse’s reputation, and now she’s a 25-year-old spinster playing Cinderella to her cousin and wicked-stepmother-type aunt.

Otherwise, there’s some good mayhem in this one, and Phin is a great character. (I liked Alyse, also, and I like that not much is made of the fact that she and Phin start sleeping together out of wedlock; the point is moot since she’s already “ruined” I guess.) But one of the best scenes in the book is towards the end, when Phin has to confront his brother William, and William makes Phin confront himself. It’s a little bit easy, but it’s a good redemption arc, not that Phin ever necessarily needs to be redeemed.

This is probably the best book of the three. And Sully and Bram show up to help Phin steal coaches and/or act as his cover when the villain discovers Phin is the thief. It’s fun to see the three of them work together.

Always a Scoundrel
I liked this book, but it was kind of a disappointing end to the series. Bram is the most depraved character and gets most of the best lines. But there is, unfortunately, a lot in his book that just didn’t quite work.

First, the Love at First Sight stuff was kind of unnecessary. We’re told repeatedly that Bram has been with a lot of women, but then he meets Rose, who touches his arm once, and he’s a goner. It’s hokey, and it’s also pretty unnecessary; I don’t need for it to be Twoo Wuv from the get-go because there are a lot of other things going on between Rose and Bram that are far more compelling reasons for them to fall in love. Bram thinks to himself at one point that Rose has all of the qualities he most admires in his friends, for instance, and Rose and Bram come from families that ostracize them in similar ways, so they have lot in common. Why have all the weird cosmic stuff when they first meet?

Second, Cosgrove is an annoyingly one-dimensional villain. There’s a lot of space there for him to be more interesting—he and Bram are friends at the beginning of the novel, after all—and he’s just not, he’s all evil all the time. (And he gets his at the end of the novel in an almost cartoonish way.)

Third, I feel like Rose, for being the sheltered second daughter of a prominent family, is way more worldly than is believable. When she and Bram inevitably have sex, she’s remarkably knowledgeable.

But, on the other hand, Bram is still a great character. He’s got a Robin Hood act going in the beginning of the novel and I thought it would be a repeat of the previous books, with Bram nobly committing crimes in order to serve some greater goal, but he ends up giving up the thievery when he meets Rose (though not because she inspires goodness in him, mostly just because he’s too distracted). Phin and Sullivan also come back in this novel, and I think they are around just enough.

So that’s what a contemporary Regency series looks like.

I’ve been too busy to get a recap up, but I figured we could throw some other stuff at the blog. I read a fair amount of romance anyway, and as that seems to be my area of expertise for this blog, I’ll review as many of them as possible. Might as well put my English lit degree to good use, eh?

I read 3 m/m romance novellas over the weekend, and all three of them involve at least one cop. This is, in general, a genre I’m fairly new to, but there seem to be a lot of mystery/crime/romantic suspense novels out there starring gay protagonists. Two of the ones I read over the weekend were good and interesting and genre-bending. The third was… less so.

1. Dark Horse by Josh Lanyon. I’ll tell you up front that I’m an unabashed Josh Lanyon fan. The Adrien English series is, I think, an excellent example of the gay mystery/crime genre. Dark Horse is a novella that, interestingly, seems to pick up after the typical romance would. Sean is an actor who was, until a week ago, being stalked by a crazy man who became increasingly threatening. Dan is an LAPD lieutenant who was assigned to keep Sean safe. Romance ensued. The action starts after the case is solved, when Sean gets another letter from his allegedly dead stalker.

It’s an interesting story in that it picks up after Sean and Dan have already become a couple, and they now have to navigate a relationship while dealing with stressors like the person who is still stalking and threatening Sean and Sean’s history of mental illness. The twist ending is a little predictable, but it still plays out in a satisfying way.

2. White Knight by Josh Lanyon. This is a sequel to Dark Horse. It picks up 6 months after the events of the previous book. Sean and Dan broke up when Sean left for Wales to make a movie without talking to Dan about it first. Only Sean fell down some stairs and hurt his head, and now he can’t remember much of what’s happened over the last few weeks. He slowly reconstructs it, starting with the circumstances that brought Sean and Dan together to begin with, on through the problems they were having before he left for Wales, and things that have happened since. There’s a threat to Sean in this novel, too, but it seems almost inconsequential, just a device to move the plot forward, because it’s really more about Sean and Dan working out their problems in order to move forward with a stronger relationship. Again, I like this novella because it’s more about what happens after the Happily Ever After, and it’s about two characters that clearly love each other but who have serious problems to work through. So it’s realistic, in other words. The same can’t be said for…

3. A Matter of Necessity by T.D. McKinney. This one was recommended by Amazon based on my recent buying patterns, I guess. It has an interesting premise: 2 FBI agents go undercover as a gay couple and then kind of wind up falling for each other. Once the mission ends, they have to decide if they want to carry on with the relationship.

But here’s where our problems begin. The bad guy in this novel is a terrorist who happens to be gay in a sort of militant way, in that he doesn’t trust straight people at all. Hence the necessity of going undercover as a gay couple. Only our heroes (Shawn who is bi and Alex who is straight until this mission) have to prove they’re gay, which includes performing sex acts in public. That wind up caught on tape. Which is unbelievable enough. Then there’s the fact that Alex was ostensibly straight before Shawn confessed that he’d had a thing for Alex for years. Alex kind of falls into what I understand is a particularly odious fanfic convention: the straight guy who is only gay for one man. Still, I give McKinney some credit, because Alex is probably the best drawn character in the novel, and he has some genuine doubts about going forward with a relationship with Shawn.

But the other thing that got me began with the trial. The terrorist’s lawyer sets up the FBI sting to be a hate crime, that the terrorist was targeted because he was gay (not because he was a gun runner and a terrorist). So the lawyer asks Alex and Shawn about their sexual orientation on the stand, and in order for it not to appear as a hate crime or a particular vendetta, they each testify that they had a private affair in addition to the public one they had during the sting. This seems unlikely enough. (I mean, is that even relevant at trial? No way the prosecution would let that fly.) But then, more to the point, everyone on their FBI team is COMPLETELY SUPPORTIVE.

Which is nice, I guess, but bothersome, too, because one of the things I like about m/m romance is that it has that extra layer of conflict and complication, but there seems to be a tendency for m/m writers to write these romances where everything is happy sunshine all the time. They have no internal conflict, their friends are all totally supportive, they live happily ever after. And there’s a bit of that going on here, too. Even Shawn’s homophobic BFF comes around and ultimately defends them when they start getting negative press.

So it strains credibility, but the writing is competent, so I still got some warm fuzzies when things played out happily ever after. Although then Shawn and Alex decide to run off to Boston to get married like it’s the gay Vegas (is that possible?) even though even I know it doesn’t work that way. (Isn’t there a law on the books in Massachusetts that says that gay marriages performed there aren’t legal if the people getting married live in states where gay marriage isn’t recognized, or something like that?) So I had a lot of moments, while reading this book, where I just sat there and thought, “Yeah, that would never happen,” which was distracting.

Dear Author has a new “If you like ____, you’ll like ____” series, and they’re featuring Suzanne Brockmann. The timing is interesting for two reasons: 1) Brockmann has a new book out, 13 in her Troubleshooters series about Navy SEAL Team 16/the FBI counterterrorism unit/the Troubleshooters security firm, and 2) I’ve been devouring the Troubleshooters series.

Here’s the funny thing about the Dear Author post: It describes quite well all the things I love about the series, which I started reading out of order. (I picked up Book 5 on a whim, not realizing it was part of a series, and have been working my way through the rest. Publishers should really mark the books.) Anyway, the series is good. Brockmann may be responsible for the Navy SEAL cliche in romantic suspense, but I love the recurring characters, and Brockmann is good with both characters and intricate suspense.

So, yeah, every book has a romance plot that gets neatly resolved by the end of the book, and the characters are occasionally prone to speechifying about their great loves (which was particularly weird in Book #8, which I just finished, in which the normally taciturn Cosmo Richter goes on for half a page towards the end of the novel about how much he loves the heroine, Jane… unlikely and pretty cheesy). The funny thing is that I didn’t get into the series immediately. I thought Book 5 (Into the Night featuring hunky Navy SEAL Mike Muldoon, who I love despite not loving his book) was not actually that suspenseful, but I’ve really loved the other books in the series, particularly Over the Edge (Book 6). I’m currently glomming my way through Breaking Point, which is really good, the resolution of the story arc between FBI agent in chief Max Bhagat and hostage/rape victim Gina. There’s so much to love in this book, and now that I’ve gotten to know the characters, I can appreciate it that much more.

I was a little disappointed to learn that all of gay FBI agent Jules Cassidy’s love scenes happen behind closed doors (I haven’t gotten that far in the series yet, it’s mentioned in the Dear Author post). Jules gets all the best one-liners and is a great character, it’s a shame he doesn’t get to have sex on screen, but putting a gay romance in a series full of macho alpha males is a daring and pretty awesome choice, so I look forward to getting through the rest of the Jules/Robin plot arc.

So, yeah, I’m squeeing a bit. Nice to see Brockmann get some attention, since I’m enjoying her books so much. I’ve got a couple of her category romance reissues, too, I’ll get to those soon enough. Glom glom.

What series fiction have you devoured quickly?

Some of the behind-the-scenes folks and I have been talking about doing something with the Stephanie Plum series on this blog, so I figured I’d review the new book.

I will state up front that on the whole Ranger vs. Morelli question, I come down very strongly in favor of Morelli, and this may bias my review somewhat.

I was disappointed by Lean Mean Thirteen because it doesn’t seem to advance the series plot much at all. No one learns anything new, no relationships advance, the whole book is kind of expendable and inessential. Fearless Fourteen at least has a lot of Morelli and in particular a lot of Morelli and Stephanie playing at domesticity. Not sure how that will play out with the rest of the series; I’m optimistic, because Evanovich is only contracted through book 16 (although who knows) and I’m sure Stephanie won’t make a choice between the two men in her life until the end.

But this is typical Plum. New Jersey antics, this time involving a distant cousin of Morelli’s and some missing money that may or may not be buried in Morelli’s basement. One thing I did like: it comes to light early in the novel that the son of one of Stephanie’s skips might be Morelli’s kid, and Stephanie doesn’t sit on and fret about this information. She confronts Morelli right away. So there’s no stupid Big Misunderstanding, the characters actually talk to each other when stuff like this comes up. Another thing I like is the World of Warcraft parody, where the game players are completely obsessed with the game.

I love the series despite its flaws, and this one feels a little less meaty than some of the earlier books in the series. I don’t know why. Maybe because Morelli and Stephanie are settled into coupledom and, yeah, Ranger’s around, but his presence seems kind of inconsequential. Maybe there weren’t enough exploding cars.

Bonus: I got free audiobooks of the two “between the numbers” novels, Plum Lovin’ and Plum Lucky. I kind of wish Evanovich would stick to the main series, as these books exist outside of the series arc. They’re cute little stories with most of the main Plum characters, but again, kind of expendable.

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

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