Think of England Book Review

Review:

I’ve read quite a bit of slashy fanfiction, but not so much m/m original fiction, so since I’m in a little bit of a fandom drought right now, I thought I’d take the opportunity to try some more gay romance novels, since I enjoyed The Captive Prince so much. I settled on Think of England, by KJ Charles, as my next m/m read thanks to its great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and the blurb, which caught my interest with its promise of a Gosford Park-esque house party in Edwardian England and some mystery/thriller elements.

The mystery/thriller elements turned out to be much stronger than the Edwardian house party elements (this isn’t a bad thing – I’d have been happy with either predominating), and some of the characters make that randy old war profiteer Sir William McCordle look practically saintly by comparison. Our intrepid heroes land themselves in a mess of blackmail, treason, torture, and murder within hours of arriving for their outwardly genteel house party and the plot kept me on the edge of my seat to see how they’d unravel it.

Coincidentally enough, the intrepid heroes in question actually reminded me a lot of The Captive Prince‘s Damen and Laurent, despite the completely different setting and plot. You have Archie Curtis, the sturdy, straightforward war hero a la Damen, and Daniel da Silva, the sharp tongued, damaged schemer a la Laurent. In this case, however, our war hero is wounded, not enslaved, and our schemer is a gay Portuguese Jew rather than a prince, which is hard luck on all three accounts in 1904 England! The set-up is very “opposites attract,” which truthfully is not my favorite trope, but it ends up working well in both The Captive Prince and Think of England. (It helps in both cases, I think, that the men find out they’re not as opposite as initial appearances might suggest.) For Curtis, as an old fashioned “stiff upper lip” type British military man, Daniel da Silva (a poet, on top of everything else) was definitely a case of hate at first sight, but I thought KJ Charles did a great job of showing his gradual change in feelings from dislike and distrust to growing respect and ultimately love. Daniel remains a bit more of a cipher, but a bunch of reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads seem to think Think of England is the first in a series, and if so, I’ll look forward to learning more about him in future installments. (Edit: KJ Charles has confirmed that she is working on a sequel.)

Luckily for us readers, Daniel is less damaged (and in different ways) than Laurent, so we get a bunch of steamy sex scenes in this novel, instead of having to wait for most of another book. (Not that I mind a good slow burn, but it wasn’t what I was in the mood for. Especially when the sequel hasn’t been published yet!) Curtis’s gradual realization that he was, in fact, one of “those types” was well-paced and made for a lot of great anticipatory buildup as he realized the extent of what he really wanted to do to (and with) Daniel.

I thought the secondary characters were also well drawn, and ended up especially liking Fenella Carruth and Patricia Merton. One of my frequent complaints about slash fanfiction is that it gets so caught up in the boys that it neglects the female characters entirely, or worse, commits character assassination in order to split up a canonical m/f romance in favor of a fan-favored m/m one. Without giving too much away, neither issue happened with this book at all. In fact, I think Fen and Pat would make great characters for a spinoff story or series, whether official or fanfiction.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Book of Enchantments Review



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Review:

Book of Enchantments is a collection of short stories by Patricia Wrede, author of my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. It really shows off her versatility as a writer, as the stories are written on a variety of themes and in a variety of styles. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy and it’s been awhile since I read some of the stories, but as best as I can remember them, here are my thoughts on each:

  • Rikiki and the Wizard – This is set in the shared world of Liavek, which I am unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. It was originally published in The Players of Luck.
  • The Princess, The Cat, and the Unicorn – I was already familiar with this story due to its inclusion in The Unicorn Treasury, but I’m very fond of it, so it was nice to bump into it again. It’s set in the same Enchanted Forest as the one in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but doesn’t have any of the same characters. However, the story is very similar in style and tone to the series, with another unconventional princess trope-busting her way through an encounter with a unicorn.
  • Roses By Moonlight – A fantasy about fate and choices inspired by the story of the Prodigal Son.
  • The Sixty-two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd – A humorous story about a young woman whose family is cursed with lycanthropy. It was originally published in A Wizard’s Dozen.
  • Earthwitch – I honestly can’t remember this one.
  • The Sword-Seller – This one is set in Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I’m also unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get much out of it either.
  • The Lorelei – As you can probably guess, this is a story about the Lorelei myth of Germany. I remember enjoying it, particularly because it has a teenage girl rescuing a boy, rather than vice versa.
  • Stronger Than Time – A melancholy Sleeping Beauty AU in which the Prince didn’t come.
  • Cruel Sisters – A retelling of the same legend told in Loreena McKennit’s The Bonny Swans.
  • Utensile Strength – A funny story featuring Cimorene, Mendanbar, and Daystar (among others) from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, as well as the Frying Pan of Doom. (Comes with a recipe for Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake.)

In general, I prefer Wrede’s humorous stories to her more serious ones, so I’d say my favorites were “The Princess, The Cat, and The Unicorn,” “Utensile Strength,” and “The Sixy-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd.” However, I enjoyed most of the stories. Like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, it’s also great feminist fiction – nearly all of the stories have female protagonists, with a variety of personalities and skills. There are also several nice depictions of supportive female family relationships and friendships, as well as some that are more dysfunctional.

Although several of the stories (especially the Enchanted Forest ones) are suitable for younger audiences, I’d say most of them are better for young adult and adult readers, rather than children.

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review



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Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.



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Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating: (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons



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The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons



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A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”

The Only Alien on the Planet Book Review



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Review:

This is another book that originally caught my attention due to the cover, which featured a rather beautiful but blank-eyed teenage boy dressed in white and floating in mid-air. In between the cover and the title, I thought it was going to be some sort of science fiction novel, but the description on the back introduced me instead to a boy named Smitty Tibbs who never speaks and never smiles, and the new girl in town who decides to try and befriend him.

Well, I was intrigued, all right, and ended up devouring the novel within a few hours.

It’s a very intense read that touches on some serious issues of abuse and neglect. As an adult, I have a little trouble suspending my disbelief that no professional tried to delve deeper into Smitty’s voluntary muteness and refusal to interact socially before a couple of high school seniors started nosing around and trying to break through his shell, but as a teenager I found the book riveting. And really, despite those little niggling doubts about its realism, I’ve continued to enjoy its presence in my periodic re-reading rotation as an adult. Like The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, another of my teenage favorites, it benefits from a smart and likable (though flawed) narrator with a set of loving and supportive family relationships and friendships. The central romance is slow to develop and much more complicated than Kate’s thanks to the severity of Smitty’s condition, but sweet to watch as it (and Smitty) finally unfold.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Children of the River Book Review



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Review:

Children of the River is another of my favorite YA romance novels. It tells the story of a Cambodian refugee girl named Sundara who escapes from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge with her aunt and uncle and flees to America. I’m ashamed to say that before reading it for the first time around age 14 or 15, I knew almost nothing about Cambodia, and nothing at all about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the death of up to 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, so it was a very eye-opening book for me. In addition to information about the Cambodian genocide, the novel also has many interesting details about Cambodian customs and traditions, as well as a nuanced depiction of the struggle many immigrants face between preserving their own unique cultures and blending in with mainstream American society.

It’s also a very sweet romance. Four years after her escape from Cambodia, Sundara falls in love with an American boy named Jonathan, which creates new complications in her life, as Cambodian culture practices arranged marriage and good Cambodian girls like Sundara are not supposed to go on dates. (Especially not with non-Cambodian boys.) Sundara and Jonathan are both changed by their relationship, and the book has a very satisfying conclusion.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman Book Review



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Review:

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, by Louise Plummer, is one of my favorite YA romance novels. It’s an extremely witty and tongue-in-cheek read, in large part because of the great use of first-person narration. Kate is a very intelligent and charismatic heroine and she narrates as if writing a romance novel based on her own life, complete with frequent consultation of The Romance Writer’s Phrasebook and hilarious commentary on the bodice ripping descriptions she finds there. She is also (speaking as a fellow tall, plain-ish nerd with bad eyes) extremely relatable, so I’m sure there was some wish fulfillment involved in my enjoyment of this book when I first read it as a never-been-kissed teenager. However, I’ve found it equally enjoyable as an adult.

Another thing I liked and found relatable was the portrayal of Kate’s family. As someone who really didn’t have a rebellious teenage phase and whose relationship with my parents ranged from pretty good to great even at the height of my puberty-induced hormonal moodiness, I really enjoyed the depiction of a loving and mutually respectful parent-teen relationship. (There’s also a great depiction of female-female friendship, in keeping with the book’s feminist themes.) The novel is set over Christmas break in Minnesota, and Kate’s (mostly) happy family life and Swedish Christmas traditions add to the cozy, comforting atmosphere, making it an especially good read for the holiday season or the sorts of days when you don’t feel like doing anything but curling up with a blanket, some tea, and a good book.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Book Review



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Review:

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, is one of my favorite classic adventure novels. It gets off to a rather slow start, but ratchets up the tension beautifully as the story progresses until it’s practically impossible to put down. I also like that Marguerite, while forced into the role of damsel-in-distress at several points, is nevertheless allowed to be quite clever and resourceful in her own right. For a novel originally published in 1905, she’s an unusually spunky and likable heroine!

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

It seems like a book that would make a fantastic movie, but I’ve been disappointed with the attempts so far. The 1934 version with Leslie Howard was just awful. I liked the 1982 film with Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan a lot more, but still feel like it could be done better. Here’s the trailer for that version:

The Broadway musical soundtrack is enjoyable, but I’ve never seen it on stage.

Historical Fiction By Sharon Kay Penman Review

Sharon Kay Penman has been one of my favorite authors since I was a teenager. Her novels focus on the Plantagenet family that ruled England for several centuries starting in the 12th century, and their contemporaries.

It would be admittedly be pretty tough to make the Plantagenets boring (they were some of England’s least boring rulers, and that says something!) but Penman’s novels are not only highly regarded for their historical accuracy, they’re also rip-roaring good reads, with plenty of action, romance, and intrigue to keep almost anyone enthralled. For such a male-dominated period of history, I like that she also puts a lot of focus on the female characters and their complex situations.

My Favorite Penman Novels: The Welsh Princes Trilogy

The Welsh Princes trilogy were the first Penman books I read, and are still my favorites. I think they have the most appealing characters (confession time: teenage me had a huge crush on both Llewelyns), although history being what it is, they’re also something of an emotional roller coaster, especially the second and third books.

Book 1: Here Be Dragons



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The first in the series focuses on Joanna, a bastard daughter of King John. (Yes, that King John.)

Joanna is married to the Welsh prince Llewelyn ab Iorwerth (more commonly remembered as Llewelyn Fawr, or Llewelyn the Great) at the age of 14, and soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to her beloved father (who is here given a more nuanced portrayal than usual) and husband, who she also grows to love deeply.

Joanna is nearly unique in the annals of royal wives in that she was caught in an adulterous relationship and not only forgiven by her husband but restored to full favor and position at court. (A Royal Affair demonstrates a much more common aftermath for such a situation.) By all accounts, Llewelyn was grief-stricken by her death some years later, and even founded a Franciscan friary in her honor, which was completed shortly before his own death. I thought Penman navigated this tricky and unusual situation well, and came up with a plausible explanation for it, given the apparent happiness of Llewelyn and Joanna’s marriage otherwise.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Book 2: Falls the Shadow



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Book 2 continues with the deaths of most of the characters you grew to love in the first book (seriously, keep a tissue handy!) but introduces new ones in the form of Llewelyn Fawr’s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and Simon de Montfort, the reform-minded French husband of Joanna’s younger half-sister Eleanor (Nell), as they each contend with John’s weak and incompetent son Henry III, and the rise of Henry’s far stronger son, the future Edward I (Longshanks).

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Book 3: The Reckoning



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Don’t throw that tissue away yet! You’ll need it a few more times as Edward warms up for his future role as “Hammer of the Scots” by taking on the Welsh. Although I love them all, this is probably my favorite of the trilogy. Family drama, romance, and high tragedy abound.

My rating: (5 / 5)

If you enjoy the Welsh Princes trilogy, I also recommend Edith Pargeter’s Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, which focuses on the lives of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Davydd.

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Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! Book Review

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! by Pamela F ServiceReview:

Weirdoes of the Universe, Unite! was one of my favorite books as a child. Mandy and Owen are outcasts at school and start their own club to celebrate weirdness. While collaborating on a school project about mythological characters, the characters suddenly start coming to life – and before they know it, Mandy and Owen are being called upon to help save the world from an alien invasion!

Weirdoes is a funny read, with some great banter between the different mythological personalities (who include Baba Yaga, Coyote, and Siegfried), and I really loved the concept of Otherworlds, where all the different mythological characters and creatures dreamed up by mankind exist somewhere, even the ones that nobody has believed in for thousands of years.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Although I don’t remember them as well, I also enjoyed Pamela F. Service’s novels The Reluctant God, about an ancient Egyptian prince who wakes up in the modern world, and Being of Two Minds, about an American girl who has a telepathic connection with a European prince, a connection that becomes extremely useful when he is kidnapped.

Captive Prince and Prince’s Gambit Book Review



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Note: I read both Captive Prince and its sequel, Prince’s Gambit, in barely 24 hours, so I’m going to save myself the trouble of splitting them back into two parts in my head and just review them together.

Review:

Captive Prince is a male-male romance trilogy that was originally published on LiveJournal. It was later self-published by the author on Amazon but recently purchased by Penguin, which plans to re-release the first two books in trade paperback and will release the third in paperback and as an ebook. (The release date for book three has not been announced as of the time this review was published.)

A lot of people whose taste I trust have recommended this series to me but I’ve been avoiding it under the misapprehension that it involved a lot of BDSM, non-con, and other things that are not my cup of tea. I know a lot of people who love Kushiel’s Legacy, too, but I couldn’t stomach it and gave up less than halfway into the first book.

Despite some outward similarities (Vere, like Terre d’Ange, is clearly modeled after pre-Revolutionary France), Captive Prince was much more enjoyable for me, as it had all the scheming courtiers and much less of the kinky sex. (For others, of course, this will be a drawback.) The story follows Prince Damianos (aka Damen) of Akielos after he is sold into slavery following a coup by his half-brother and sent as a gift to Laurent, the prince of the nearby kingdom of Vere.



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In the first book, I particularly enjoyed the sense of being thrown, like Damen, head-first into an unfamiliar world and having to unravel the complicated relationships and history of the place clue by clue. (Unlike Damen, I have the advantage of not getting flogged for getting something wrong.) 

Things really picked up in the second book, on multiple fronts. Damen, who spends most of the first book in over his head at court, gets to come into his own. The UST, which was sporadic in the first book, takes on a life of its own, to the point that it’s practically a separate character. The plot thickens in spectacular fashion. (The wait for book #3 is going to kill me.) In a book where female characters are few and far between, I also appreciated the introduction of the rather badass Halvik.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise.

My rating: (4 / 5)