My September, October, and November Reading Log

Fiction:
Golden in Death by J.D. Robb is fiftieth in the Eve Dallas series, and yes I read it, and yes it checked in with many recurring characters including a couple we hadn’t seen in a while, and yes it followed, almost exactly, the pattern these books have been following for a really long time. It was comforting in its familiarity.

Taking the Heat (Girls’ Night Out Book 3) by Victoria Dahl had been in my TBR since it came out. It’s a contemporary set in Wyoming, with some scenes in NYC. Heroine Veronica is an advice columnisteft NY to come back to her home town; hero Gabe is a librarian who’s just come to town. They are sweet and sexy together, and their problems all make sense in a realistic way. If you’re looking for a contemporary romance author, I highly recommend Dahl. She is writing thrillers now as Victoria Helen Stone, but has a good romance backlist.

I’ve been hoarding Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale since it came out, but if not during a pandemic, when? It’s a gently humorous historical romance, set post-Waterloo, involving long-separated teenage sweethearts but more importantly a prize bull named Hubert, a sneaky French mom, a herd of former boxers, a scandalous trial…it’s a Laura Kinsale. It was wacky and fun.

Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney is set in rural Pennsylvania after the Spanish-American War, around 1900. These comments contain spoilers. The heroine, Carrie, is ten years younger than the hero, the town’s new doctor, Tyler; he is also from an upperclass family in Philadelphia, while she lives in a cabin on the mountain. When the story begins, Carrie is mute, but she has been pretending for self-protection after a serious trauma at the hands of her abusive stepfather. Gaffney is a skilled writer, and I was dragged along with the story, even though several elements made me uncomfortable, or felt weirdly exploitative. There’s a secondary character, nicknamed Broom, whose severe physical tics and developmental delay have made him a target of bullies. Broom is very invested in Carrie because they are both outcasts, but Carrie sometimes feels ambiguous about him, even while feeling responsible for his well-being. Broom turns out to be the killer of Carrie’s stepfather, and ends up in an institution where he is shown to be much happier, but to me he felt less like a character than a plot lever. His motive of protecting Carrie is really all we know about him, and then he is conveniently removed from the picture. I did like that both hero and heroine have true callings. Carrie’s love of nature results in her publishing a book of her observations and drawings, and is a serious consideration when Tyler asks her to marry him. Meanwhile, Tyler’s goal of working in epidemiology leads to him leaving her behind while he travels to Cuba to research the cause of yellow fever. I would love to read more romances set in this period.

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar is the long-awaited first novel by a friend of mine, young adult contemporary fantasy with worldbuilding using Hindu mythology. Its teenage heroine, Sheetal, lives in Edison, New Jersey and is the daughter of a human and a star. The importance of making art is a major theme. Though there’s a whole plot with her star family in the heavens, the most excellent aspect, to me, is how well the story captures the complexity and beauty of Sheetal’s personal relationships on earth, particularly with her father and her protective aunt, her best friend, and her love interest. Those relationships, I felt, grounded her in the midst of extravagant beauty and political machinations in the stars’ world, and made me feel the truth and value of family life even when it’s difficult. If I made the two worlds sound dichotomous, they aren’t, really; they are closely bound together, and not just through Sheetal. There are also more typical young adult elements such as searching for her place in the world, first love, and dealing with her mother’s abandonment, all of which feel true to life. I recommend this book for the characterization even more than the gorgeously depicted fantasy elements.

Unconquerable Sun (The Sun Chronicles Book 1) by Kate Elliott moves really fast and I really needed that this week. It is space opera and, short version, female Alexander The Great In Spaaaaaaaaaace!!! Family is a big part of the story, both blood- and found-. There are ground battles and space battles, and a celebrity contest running alongside. There’s a large cast, and several plots going at once, though some of those plots end up intersecting, and some of the plots started before the book did. I have read a ton of Kate Elliott books, most but not all, and I think this is one of her best. Looking forward to the sequel.

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk is a fabulous fantasy in thoughtful conversation with the Regency Romance. Before I go into why it is so great, yes it has a happy ending! The diverse world has magic, but for the most part only men are allowed to use it because evil spirits can take over humans in the womb if the mother is a practitioner, leading to terrible consequences. There are social class barriers in place as well. In the setting of Chasland, women give up their magic at marriage through wearing a magical collar they don’t take off until menopause, when some take up magic again. By then, it seems it’s too late for them to achieve high levels of mastery, and of course in Chasland they are not admitted to magical training or teaching and thus shut out of networks. The magic system at higher levels relies on joining with a powerful spirit, a dangerous rite of passage that sometimes leads to the aspirant being killed by his mentor (I use “his” on purpose.) The excellent part is there is an underground network of women who study magic; however, even that is not accessible to everyone for a whole host of reasons that are just as true and frustrating as real-life barriers that keep women downtrodden. The allure of scholarship and mastery is portrayed like a lover, and I felt that. Of course our heroine is talented in magic, and does not want to marry, but her family’s survival (in society, at least) relies upon it. She has a plan to avoid marriage and still save her family. Her plan has to change multiple times, and that is why this book is great. Nothing is simple, nothing has only two sides, nothing can be done independently of the relationships she has and those she develops in the course of the story. There are so many complex female characters! So many! The male characters are also complex, even those in minor roles! So, I recommend it. Very very much.

I adore the Lady Sherlock series. Originally recommended to me by my friend Natalie, I was excited to learn the writer was someone whose historical romances I really admire. I read the first one and since then have pre-ordered each one. It is a series I am actually caught up on in real time! Be amazed! Unlike many Sherlockian takeoffs, this series is a total reimagining, an AU from day one, if you like. Names are there from canon, and the era and setting and essentials of detection, but that’s all. It doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to awkwardly force resemblances to Doyle’s Canon. Instead, The Canon is interrogated and, in my opinion, improved. Murder on Cold Street by Sherry Thomas is the latest, and wow does it have plot twist upon plot twist in the mystery! Some might say it is too convoluted. I say, no way. Real life is complicated, and have you read Arthur Conan Doyle? Also, this book was a lot of fun. As with all my favorite mystery series, I am in this for the characters, and these deliver a thousand percent. Two men are murdered and another is accused, but it’s women who are the center of this book, even more than previously in this series. I wanted all the new female characters to join up into a adult female version of the Baker Street Irregulars and do heists solve crimes together. The men who are regulars (Inspector Treadles and Lord Ingram) are in the process of getting more woke to womens’ issues in the Victorian era, and there is bonus commentary on racism and intersectionality via a mixed race woman character.

Slippery Creatures (The Will Darling Adventures Book 1) by K. J. Charles was delightful, and appropriately for my Armistice Day reporting, set in England after World War One. Will Darling was a soldier who’d become expert at trench raiding, and then inherited his uncle’s used bookstore. However, his uncle had received some dangerous information before he died, and Will also inherits the danger. Mysterious aristocrat Kim Secretan might be on his side, but it’s difficult to know whom to trust. There are also a few intriguing female characters, which means I care about more than the leads, which mean this book was my catnip.

The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan is fourth in The Brothers Sinister series, featuring the daughter of one of the earlier protagonists. Frederica “Free” Marshall runs a newspaper by and for women; an aristocrat who bears a grudge is trying to bring her down, both her paper and her reputation. Enter the aristocrat’s brother Edward Clark, long thought dead, who has skills as a forger and wants to help her because the brother of his best friend would also be brought down. They fall for each other swiftly but circumstances are cruel and Edward has a lot of Angst and Free doesn’t want to give up her life’s work. When the romance is resolved, it’s in a way that made me very satisfied and happy. The ending did not feel impossible or trite in the least. I was impressed. A good way to write historical romance is to present and then challenge the genre’s assumptions through, if necessary, changing history as it happens in the book, or exploring aspects of history that are usually neglected.

The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer is a standalone book set in a world that is a bit like Gilded Age New York City, but with differences that ones sees in passing, and longs to know more about. In this world, baseline humans, who have no magic, are Solitaires. Traders are animal shape-changers, and their families tend to hold most of the wealth, though they also tend to lose their memories at younger ages, and will often live out their later years in their animal form. Traders are threatened by manticores, who eat magic and are not human but can disguise themselves in human form. Solitaires called Skinners hunt the manticores. Sylvestri have a connection to the natural world and tend to live apart, from Traders especially and Solitaires to some extent. I wanted to know more about the Sylvestri; it’s noted in passing that a larger proportion of Native American populations are Sylvestri, and the result in this time period is that they still control most of the Western United States, and have embassies elsewhere to control travel in those regions. It’s not shown whether particular magical creatures hunt Silvestri or Solitaires. I don’t think any of this was intended to be commentary on ethnic groups, as we see black people as both Solitaires and Traders; the Sylvestri we see are white and Dakota. However, I would have liked to see more of how the magic affected American history. Presumably it was a lot harder to enslave people with magical powers, and it’s unclear if that happened in this world at all. The plot involves a stage magician named Thalia Cutler, and her coming of age and into her individuality. Her parents are dead, but she works with her father’s best friend, Nutall. She’s happy with her life until they lose a booking at an entire chain of theaters due to a rival’s actions, and in the meantime she discovered much of what she knew about her parents and Nutall, and herself, is not actually true. The pace picks up quite a bit when there’s an unexpected death, and from there to the end the story moves quickly. To me, it had a YA feel and was a fun read when that was what I needed.

Nonfiction:
At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire is the book I finally started reading on Juneteenth; it had been in my TBR since 2017, so that’s not too bad, right? In the interim, I read the excellent Rosa Parks biography by the same author. The title gives you the idea of this book, which traces how black womens’ activism surrounding sexual assault was a major part of the civil rights movement as a whole. The overview starts in the 1940s and ends in the 1970s. Highly recommended.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah describes the comedian/news personality’s life as an (illegal) mixed-race child just before and after apartheid fell in South Africa, often using absurdity to highlight racism and white supremacy in South Africa. I think the audiobook of this must be a lot of fun, if he narrated it himself. A few of the childhood events he retells are familiar from his standup routines, but here told in a more nuanced manner. As with his tv show, I feel his perspective on American racism is deeper because of his experience with racism in a different form in his home country. Also, the book lent itself well to being read in small pieces, or a chapter at a time. Recommended.

Fanfiction:
Never Look Before You Jump by oh_simone was delightful and I could have read a lot more of it. When Steve Rogers goes back in time at the end of Avengers: Endgame, he ends up in the timeline of the Agent Carter tv show. So we have Peggy, Daniel Sousa, and Jack Thompson as well as Howard Stark and the Jarvises, and a Steve who’s seen the future and has some plans to make the universe he’s landed in better, starting with saving a couple of lives.

Agent Afloat Atlantis by Mhalachai crosses over Ziva David, a character from NCIS, with Stargate: Atlantis, eventually becoming a mystery plot featuring mysterious and rather dramatic deaths. Despite having seen maybe three episodes of NCIS, and one of those was an extended Man from U.N.C.L.E. joke, I easily followed this story, and was really invested in Ziva’s success.

My love is a life taker by JoCarthage is an AU of the 2019 Roswell series, which I have not seen. (I haven’t seen the older tv version, either.) This is a massive time travel story (over 267K) that slowly turns into a romance and, more broadly, a story of someone emerging from a difficult past of being abused by his family. I most enjoyed the time travel sections, in which the author used real-life experiences in the Middle East, and working with people from that locale, to paint small vivid portraits of times and places. There’s violence and sadness and grief, but also comfort. No knowledge of the tv show or of the original novels is required.

Of Ice and Men by SinceWhenDoYouCallMe_John is a truly epic Sherlock Olympic skiing AU featuring a Lestrade/Holmes/Watson threesome with lots of meaty Relationshipping and dealing with things like disability and being a champion and coming out as both gay and polyamorous. Yes, there is a happy ending, in fact a series of them, but it takes a while to get there.

Comics:
Captain America/Black Panther: Flags of our Fathers by Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan is a four-issue limited series set during World War II and featuring Sergeant Fury and the Howling Commandos. Baron Strucker and Red Skull, along with three Nazi supersoldiers, have been sent to steal vibranium for a new missile; Wakanda remains isolationist, but ends up working with the Americans for this fight…because they were there anyway? Anyway, parts are from Gabe Jones’ pov, which is nice. Reginald Hudlin also wrote the Black Panther series that ended up as the animated movie, which has the Best Theme Song Ever: Black Panther! Black Panther!

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. Her blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and occasional author interviews.
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