A Seditious Affair Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

The historical m/m romance novels of KJ Charles have been one of the best literary discoveries of 2015 for me. I especially enjoyed her novel Think of England and also really enjoyed A Fashionable Indulgence, the first in her new Society of Gentlemen series. A Seditious Affair is the second in the Society of Gentlemen series and I have to say I liked it even better than the first.

Each book in the series deals with a different couple from the set of friends who make up the titular “society of gentlemen,” but while they’re technically standalone, I think you’ll enjoy the series more if read in order. The first few chapters of A Seditious Affair deal with some of the same events as A Fashionable Indulgence, but in much more concise fashion, so I think the conflict would seem somewhat easily resolved and unsatisfactory if you hadn’t read the first book.

A Seditious Affair dealt heavily with some of the same politics and social issues that I enjoyed about A Fashionable Indulgence, but I also related more strongly to the main characters – proper, dutiful Dominic Frey and gruff, principled Silas Mason – than I did to the well-meaning but somewhat feckless Harry and the sharp-witted dandy Julius of of A Fashionable Indulgence. Despite (probably because of, actually) the two men’s differences, I felt the emotional connection between them more strongly than Harry and Julius – Dominic and Silas were a true meeting of minds, as well as physical attraction and sexual compatibility, and both of them changed and influenced the other over the course of the story.

The sex scenes were also super hot, despite the use of some rather unsexy (to me) period slang. I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoy Dom/sub elements in romance, but often feel a little uncomfortable with Dom/sub relationships between men and women simply because of the existing social power imbalance between the sexes. With m/m Dom/sub, that problem ceases to exist, and any potential discomfort due to class inequality issues was also handily avoided in this book by the fact that the lower class man was the Dom and the gentleman the sub.

KJ Charles also has a gift for creating intriguing and memorable secondary characters that make you want to learn more about them. I’m delighted that we’ll finally be getting some insight into the enigmatic David Cyprian in the next book in the series, A Gentleman’s Position, and the revelation that Will Quex was born Susannah makes me hope we’ll learn more about him as well (a strong possibility, luckily, since he and his partner, Jon Shakespeare, are friends of Cyprian).

A great read!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

Game of Thrones Review

Buy at Amazon

Game of Thrones Review:

Seeing as A Song of Ice and Fire is one of my favorite fantasy series, I was super excited when I heard back in 2007 that HBO would be making a tv series out of it. I think they’re probably the only channel that could do the books justice. Unfortunately, with four full seasons already aired, I have to admit my feelings about the actual execution are more mixed than I had hoped they would be.

I love watching Westeros and Essos come to life on screen and the production quality of the show has been astounding. The amount of care and attention to every detail is reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings movies. For example, just check out these close ups of some of the costume embroidery created for the show.

The casting has also been almost universally perfect. There are a few roles that have gone to people that I don’t think are great actors, but the vast majority are not only good actors but embody their roles better than I ever dreamed. I want to give special kudos in this regard to Maisie Williams (Arya) and Sophie Turner (Sansa), who were both total unknowns before being cast in Game of Thrones and have knocked their respective roles completely out of the park, and to Jack Gleeson (Joffrey), who by all accounts is as nice a guy as they come yet who portrays a monster so convincingly he’ll probably be fending off people who want to punch him in the face for the rest of his life.

However, some of the plot changes have inordinately annoyed me. I’m not a purist – there have been plenty I liked. For example, I spend most of Ygritte’s scenes in the book wanting to punch her in the face (that is how annoying “You know nothing, Jon Snow” gets after awhile), but in the show they toned her down a bit and made her actually likable. I also loved the expansion of Bronn and Gendry’s roles, the greater insight we’re given into Margaery’s character and motivations, and the clever choice to have Arya be Tywin’s cup-bearer, which didn’t happen in the books at all. Some of the others, like swapping out the non-entity Jeyne Westerling for Talisa, I’ve been indifferent to, and still others I’m waiting to decide about – the changes to Tyrion and Jaime’s final scene together in A Storm of Swords/season 4, for example.

Unfortunately, there have also been too many that I’ve actively loathed. The worst include:

  • the changes to Danaerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding night
  • making Littlefinger, who is so close-mouthed in the books that you know almost nothing about him or his plans until the end of book three, into a talker, and not only that, but the kind of talker who would spill his deepest secrets to a pair of prostitutes(!)
  • the amount of totally gratuitous naked boobs in general
  • the changes to Jaime and Cersei’s scene in the sept

What’s bothered me even more than the changes themselves are how tone-deaf the writers (and in the case of the Jaime/Cersei scene, the director) have been in how the changes affected the ongoing plot and character development. For example, switching Dany and Drogo’s wedding night from consensual sex in the book to rape in the show means she falls in love with her rapist instead of a man who went out of his way to obtain her consent. (Given what a charming and reasonable fellow her brother is, the scene in the book may in fact have been the first time in her life that anybody gave Dany the power to declare what she wanted.) The changes made to the Jaime/Cersei scene were even worse – neither writers nor director seemed to realize that they’d just derailed Jaime’s redemption arc in the eyes of many viewers.

Overall, I enjoy the show, but I don’t love it as much as I expected and hoped to.

Season 1Season 2


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon
Season 3Season 4


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

Book 1Book 2


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon
Book 3Book 4


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon
Book 5Box set


Buy at Amazon


Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 2: Falls the Shadow

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 3: The Reckoning

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (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.

[Read more…]

Rome: The Complete Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

HBO’s Rome has been on my to-watch list for years, and I finally watched it, so I can now officially add my voice the the chorus declaring it a crying shame that the show was cancelled after just two seasons, rather than the intended five. At least they had enough warning to wrap up the storyline in a coherent and relatively satisfying way, but the second season felt rushed as a result of trying to squeeze everything in before the end. Fortunately, despite its premature cancellation, the quality of the acting and the production values remained outstanding throughout.

In particular, I thought both writers and actors did a great job making ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and their inhabitants both clearly alien to the modern Western audience, yet also sympathetic and relatable. One of the things that especially stood out to me was how brave the Roman characters were in the face of death. Rome has a considerable number of both actual suicides and people preparing for the possibility that they might have to commit suicide (for “honor” or to save themselves from a worse fate), and pretty much every single one is conducted with calm and stoic determination. As were most of the assassinations.

The historical accuracy was mixed at best, and I thought that some of the writers’ choices about when to stick to historical fact and when to switch things up were more successful than others. On the side of the good choices, I especially enjoyed Atia, Octavia, and Servilia, who were all substantially more entertaining than their reportedly pious and matronly real-life counterparts. Most of the changes made to their stories were so fun I didn’t care about the inaccuracies. In fact, Atia of the Julii is one of my new favorite female characters ever. Horrible human being, but so entertaining! Kudos to the writers and Polly Walker for bringing her to such vivid life!

One of my favorite Atia moments

One of my favorite Atia moments

On the other hand, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo had a much more mixed bag. I loved most of their interactions with the historical characters, and of course their interactions with each other (I’m always a sucker for a good bromance), but with the exception of Vorenus and Niobe’s complicated relationship in season one, most of their other non-historical relationships and storylines were kind of a mess. I didn’t like Pullo’s storylines with Eirene or Gaia at all, and the whole thing with Lucius Vorenus running the Aventine as a sort of ancient Roman mob boss also failed to hold a candle to anything he did with Caesar, Antony, or Octavian.

Another non-historical storyline I didn’t like was the incest. Though it was a minor plotline, it disproportionately annoyed me. I don’t have a problem with incest storylines per se, but they have to be justified very carefully for me to suspend disbelief. Incest is a nearly universal taboo, after all. Rome‘s incest seemed to come out of the blue for both characters. It certainly wasn’t as organic to the characters as the incest in The Borgias, which was set up from the very first scene they had together. As a result, it felt more like it was tossed in for shock value than anything else, which, in the context of a show with so much other shocking stuff going on all the time, just seemed cheap.

Overall, I thought that the first season was better than the second, partly because the second season was so rushed, and partly because too much of what little time was left in the second season was taken up by less interesting subplots like Vorenus in the Aventine and Timon the Jew’s fanatic brother. However, when season 2 was good, it was very, very good. The finale was especially spectacular, and a worthy ending to a great series.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]

A Royal Affair Movie Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” A Royal Affair is the sort of movie that reminds you how right he was.

As frustrating as democracy can sometimes be, imagine what it might be like to try and enact any sort of meaningful reform or change in a country ruled by a king who is weak-willed, unstable, and quite possibly insane. Add in entrenched conservative interests such as a powerful Church and aristocracy, and an uneducated and superstitious populace, and you have the unenviable task taken on by Johann Struensee, an ambitious but idealistic commoner who rose to become the de facto regent of Denmark after becoming the personal physician of King Christian VII. Along the way, Struensee also become the lover of Christian’s queen, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (sister of the hapless King George III, who had his own share of mental problems later in life), which proved the catalyst for his ultimate downfall.

Speaking of helpful reminders, this film is also a pretty good reminder of how much life sucked for the average princess, historically. Caroline is shipped off to a foreign country at the age of 15, her friends and family taken from her, even her beloved books sent back to England due to Denmark’s harsh censorship laws. Married to the aforementioned unstable and possibly insane king, she is all but raped on her wedding night, gives birth at the age of 16, and is left neglected and bored in the palace while he goes off for tours of Europe and wild nights with prostitutes. One can hardly blame her for seeking solace in Struensee’s arms, but the laws of her own time were not so forgiving.

The story of their doomed romance and efforts at reform is beautifully shot, sumptuously costumed (especially given the film’s relatively small budget), and very well acted. Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda have good chemistry together and really make you feel for both characters. I was also impressed by the performance of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the unstable but well-meaning Christian. Christian and Struensee’s relationship lacked the UST of Caroline and Struensee’s, but was more complex and ultimately more interesting. It was as sad to watch their friendship fall apart as the more dramatic and involuntary severing of Caroline and Struensee’s relationship.

One minor disappointment – if Wikipedia is to be believed, the real Caroline had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in public, which scandalized the nation as much as, if not more than, her affair with Streunsee. Although Struensee encourages the film Caroline to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle, there’s no other indication of her cross-dressing habit, which is a pity, really. The real Christian was also notable for affairs with young men, though his most long-lasting and famous extramarital liaison was with a female prostitute.

Despite these and some other emissions and changes, the film overall seems unusually historically accurate for a movie (readers with more extensive knowledge of Danish history are welcome to correct me if this impression is incorrect), yet its accuracy comes without sacrificing good storytelling. Highly recommended.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]

Captive Prince and Prince’s Gambit Book Review

Buy at Amazon

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.

Buy at Amazon

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 Stars (4 / 5)

Borgia: Season 1 Review

Review:

Buy at Amazon

After The Borgias was prematurely cancelled by Showtine, I decided to give this European show (also known as Borgia: Faith and Fear) a try to get my Borgias fix thanks to this intriguing comparison of the two shows by a historian, but found it disappointing.

It was interesting to compare the different choices the two shows made about how to tell the story, but while Borgia did make some choices that I liked a lot (as well as some that were more historically accurate than those made in The Borgias), the acting and characterization killed the show for me and I lost interest midway through the first season.

An international production, Borgia cast actors from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, and unfortunately the mix of accents made it difficult to suspend disbelief. For example, Rodrigo had an American accent, Cesare had a British accent, Juan had a Spanish accent, and Lucrezia had a German accent. And that was just the Borgia family! Compounding the problem, some of the accents were so thick it was hard to understand what was being said.

In addition to the problems with the accents, some of the actors were simply not very good, and the characterization was sometimes sloppy and inconsistent, and occasionally outright preposterous. In particular, the characterization of Cesare was baffling to me. He came across more like a lunatic than “Il Principe.”

Borgia also had a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence, to an extent that was off-putting for me, and the lower budget forced them to cover some important events by standing around and talking about them rather than actually depicting them. In a rare case where Showtime’s The Borgias was nastier and more graphic than Borgia, the French king’s invasion in The Borgias involved towns being sacked and put to the sword, huge armies on the march, and a bunch of Roman soldiers being sliced in half (literally) by chained cannonballs. In Borgia, the French invasion consisted of about 20 guys running through the streets of Rome with torches.

Though Borgia is worth watching if you’re interested in the family or the period, I think Showtime’s version of The Borgias was both better made and more enjoyable.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

[Read more…]

The Borgias Season Three Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

With Juan out of the picture, Cesare’s transformation into “The Prince” of Machiavelli’s famous political treatise is well underway and season three of The Borgias really belongs to him… and Francois Arnaud.

Cesare finally consummates his incestuous passion for his sister Lucrezia, raises his own personal army when his father refuses to give him control of the Papal Army, douses a traitor with sulfur and sets him alight, and generally becomes a force to be reckoned with for everyone from his old nemesis Caterina Sforza to the new King and Queen of France to his own father. His arc is compelling, well acted, and produces some of the best television of the show’s entire run.

On the downside, poor Lucrezia spends much of the season stuck in Naples with a wet blanket husband and his comically evil relatives (none of whom, alas, are even a tenth the fun of Augustus Prew’s cackling Alfonso back in season one), and you can almost feel Neil Jordan and his writers losing interest in some of the secondary characters. Giulia and della Rovere virtually disappear, and Micheletto gets saddled with a ludicrously improbable gay romance. Even Alexander himself gets a rather mixed bag, plot-wise, though a fairly entertaining one. (Madwomen! Scheming Jews! Murder in the consistory!)

Sadly, the fun is never to continue, as the show was cancelled by Showtime. Though uneven throughout its run, when The Borgias was good, it was very, very good, and its premature cancellation was a sad loss to its fans, and to television.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]

The Borgias Season Two Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Season two continues the saga of the Borgia family with enemies regrouping all around. Again, there are a few problems with pacing (most notably with the interminable and boring subplot about Lucrezia’s Genovese suitor and his brother in the second half of the season), but the season also contains some of the show’s best episodes. In particular, season 2 makes much better use of the awesome “Tigress of Forli,” Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee), than the first season did, and the tensions between Cesare, Juan, and Lucrezia come to a head.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)
[Read more…]