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REVIEW:  Another Place in Time by Tamara Allen, Joanna Chambers, K.J. Charles, Kaje Harper, Jordan L. Hawk, Aleksander Voinov,

REVIEW: Another Place in Time by Tamara Allen, Joanna Chambers,...

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Note: All proceeds from the purchase of this anthology will be donated to AllOut.org in celebration of LGBT History Month, October 2014.

Dear Authors:

“Queer people have been left thinking that history does not belong to them — that outside this modern moment was nothing but a blank white space, or worse, nothing but unrelenting condemnation. It’s not good to be left feeling disconnected, as if you have no family and no place in the world, as if you don’t belong,” writes Alex Beecroft in the introduction to this anthology. A powerful sentiment, which left me pretty disappointed that the book contains only m/m stories, when the world of “queer” encompasses so much more. Thankfully, there were few disappointments aside from that.

What I appreciated about this anthology, aside from the high quality of the writing, was that most of the characters face conflicts that have nothing to do with sex. Despite some regrets about necessary compromises, they’re primarily coming from a place of acceptance and not fighting against their sexuality. Each story is definitely a romance, but the focus is less on being gay than on living in a particular time and place, while also being gay.

“Office Romance” by Tamara Allen takes us to the Unites States shortly after World War I, and two young men who are struggling to recover from their wartime experiences, each in their own way. When an efficiency expert pits Frederick Wetherly against his colleague Casey Gladwin in a competition to keep one job, Frederick is disheartened but determined to win. It’s not just that he needs the money to pay doctor bills, but the kindness of his fellow workers has made the office a homey place — and he certainly deserves the job more than Gladwin, who’s always flirting and socializing when he should be working. Then fear of losing causes Frederick to act unethically, and he discovers there’s far more to Gladwin than he had realized.

Narrated by Frederick, the tone of the story is quiet, even ordinary — a sympathetic glimpse at an Everyman who happens to be a gay Everyman. It’s not just a romance, but a story about waking up, rejoining the world, and once again being able to fight for what you believe in. As is typical for Allen, the one sex scene is warm rather than hot — without being at all coy or euphemistic — and seems just right for a 27 page story. The progression to a happy-for-now ending feels a little fast, but forgivably so. B

“Introducing Mr. Winterbourne” by Joanna Chambers takes us to a more familiar historical setting and characters. As the third son of an earl, Lysander is being pressured into joining the Church, when what he really wants is to manage an estate. But to his family, his love for the outdoors is simply “mucking about with horses and mud,” only fit for a child. When he’s asked to show the wealthy but lowborn brother of his soon-to-be brother-in-law around town, Lysander becomes even more aware of the snobbishness and uselessness of his family and social circle. Then a fencing match gets oddly heated, and he senses an opportunity he’s rarely encountered before.

This didn’t grab me; it was a pleasant read, but nothing about the characters or setting stood out. I can’t help comparing it to Beguiled, which has such emotionally powerful and erotic sex scenes; here, there just wasn’t enough built between the characters to make me want to read about them having explicit sex. I was also puzzled by the “gossip rag” opening of the story, which seemed to promise some plot points that never came up again — perhaps this is intended to begin a new series? C

“The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh” by K.J. Charles is also a Regency about a lord’s extra son and a wealthy commoner, but brings an awesome old skool vibe — an intense version of one of those wacky “stake your daughter at the gambling table” plots. Except this is m/m, so it plays out somewhat differently. I was on the edge of my seat as old antagonists Ash and Webster battle in a winner-take-all game of cards in which the stakes get increasingly odd and thrilling — first the coat off Ash’s back, then his shirt, then…? The end result — no pun intended — is blistering in its intensity.

This might come under the header of erotic romance, since there isn’t a whole lot of time for tenderer feelings to develop, but I didn’t feel anything was missing. The backstory was a bit awkward, dribbled out to us in bits, but overall this was a WOW. My first Charles read will certainly not be my last. A-

“Unfair in Love and War” by Kaje Harper is the longest of the stories, taking time to create complex characters and a developing relationship. (As well as multiple sex scenes.) Warren comes home to help his mother after his brother’s death in World War II; exempt from service because childhood polio shortened one of his legs, he’s hoping to find a job that will contribute to the war effort. His return home starts with a bang when he interrupts a laughing group painting a swastika on a neighbor’s door. The new neighbor is Stefan, a Swiss immigrant who is also unable to serve, because of seizures. Assumed to be German, he’s become a target for neighborhood rage.

While helping Stefan repair his damaged home, Warren discovers that the beautiful younger man is interested in him, yet withdrawn, shy, and somewhat traumatized from a previous bad experience. He introduces Stefan to good sex, resolutely bracing himself for when his lover gets bored and moves on. But Stefan is holding in a lot of pain and secrets, and their supposedly casual relationship becomes highly complex.

The romance is nurturing, involving, and emotional, but I also particularly enjoyed the sense of time and place in this story. Like most of the stories, it’s a portrait of a gay man who’s just living his life, yet being gay is a bigger part of Warren’s identity — he’s even out to his family. But it’s not his only identity, and being an American, a son, a brother, and a part of a community all have an impact on his feelings. B

“Carousel” by Jordan L. Hawk is an odd-man-out in the anthology, a paranormal mystery story with a touch of horror. It’s also part of the “Whyborne and Griffin” series, but isn’t hard to follow as a stand-alone. The setting is a fictional town in New England; the time unspecified, but apparently around the 1900s. Noted detective Griffin Flaherty is asked to investigate a child’s disappearance, a task which gets him and his lover Percival Whyborne into unexpected danger.

There’s some effective creepiness to the story, but the romance felt awkwardly inserted; it might read better if you’re already familiar with the couple. The most interesting aspect in terms of history is Griffin’s backstory: he was adopted from an orphan train. Having been rejected by his adoptive parents because of his lover, he’s now torn between wanting to look for the biological brothers he lost, and being worried that they might reject him as well if he finds them. The intellectual, somewhat strait-laced Percival is also intriguing, and I’m curious to read more about him. But I don’t think this story fits the overall theme of the anthology well. C+

“Deliverance” by Aleksandr Voinov is a rewrite of a story that’s no longer available, and follows the novella The Lion of Kent. (Which may or may not be a romance — it clearly doesn’t adhere to the usual rules.) You don’t see medieval m/m that often, for obvious reasons, and the resolution of the conflict here is far from tidy. (A sequel is planned.) But it is a very stirring story, and satisfying in a unique way.

William joins the order of the Templar monks seeking “solace and redemption.” Fighting infidels gives him a sanctioned outlet for his aggressive nature, and six years of complete chastity have tamped down other needs. Then his former lover Guy turns up as a pilgrim knight, and insists on not only reminding him of the pleasure they shared, but on putting up a fight for his soul.

Of all these settings, William’s world is the farthest away from ours — not only in terms of actual time, but in terms of language and mores. The prose does a good job of creating an alien atmosphere that’s still understandable and relatable. (Although William’s mindset can be an uncomfortable one to be in.) The tempestuous, competitive physicality of William and Guy’s relationship gives the story a lot of energy, and though the resolution leaves many loose ends, it fits. B

Although I didn’t love every story, I can’t give an anthology with so much terrific work in it less than an overall B. I should point out that I noticed two minor editing errors, but the production was fine otherwise.

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  Code Runner by Rosie Claverton

REVIEW: Code Runner by Rosie Claverton

 

Dear Rosie Claverton:

I read your debut Amy Lane mystery, and as soon as I was done I went to Netgalley and requested the next installment for review. Life intervened for a couple of weeks, but when I had a spare hour I started reading Code Runner. As I anticipated given my experience with Binary Witness, I had high hopes for this novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Code Runner is a very strong followup to the first book and I am firmly hooked on the Amy and Jason chronicles.

ACode Runner Clavertonmy Lane, computer hacker and agoraphobe, and Jason Carr, ex-con and cleaner/assistant, have settled into a comfortable relationship. Amy’s house and person are well cared for and Jason is enjoying having a proper job. But their new case puts Amy, Jason, and any number of other people close to them in danger, with several characters’ past and present lives colliding.

Unlike the mystery in the first book, this one finds Jason at the heart of the crimes, and even though he is a more or less innocent bystander, his ex-con background makes him an obvious suspect and he winds up back where he hoped never again to be: in prison, meeting old friends and enemies. As a result, the reader spends a lot of time with Jason, and Amy and Jason spend quite a bit of time apart. Jason engages in some behavior that verges on TSTL, although we can understand his motives. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that the actions that got him into trouble are *exactly* the kind of thing for which a heroine gets a ton of grief from readers. So I was glad to see that he had to pay the price, however painful it was to watch those consequences unfold.

I don’t want to say too much about the mystery plot because it’s hard to describe without giving away spoilers. I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn’t guess the full story until almost the end, and I thought the pacing and overall development of the mystery arc was more successful than in the previous novel. The criminals and victims include present and former friends and associates of Jason as well as members of the police force, and we get to know more about Cardiff detectives Bryn and Owain, Jason’s sister Cerys, and Amy’s sister Lizzie.

The relationship between Amy and Jason continues to develop, and in this installment we get hints that each might be feeling more than friendship for the other. Nothing explicit happens, but in spite of that (or perhaps because of it), the few, fleeting moments when they share a sense of something that might happen between them are quite powerful. I hope Claverton doesn’t rush the relationship, because I love the way each is learning more about the other, and the dry, understated humor that often accompanies their observations provides a bit of relief from the ugly stuff. And I get a kick out of the role reversals:

Jason was cleaning the oven. Amy had learned swiftly that if Jason was cleaning the oven, elbow-deep in grease and melted cheese, he was incredibly pissed off. The first time had been the trashy tabloid article where some so-called journalist had scraped together every flimsy piece of “evidence” he could find and concluded that Jason was a dangerous criminal who police had pardoned to bring vigilante justice back to the streets. They’d quoted liberally from a number of anonymous sources—who refused to be named for their safety.

When Owain had apologetically drawn their attention to it, Jason hadn’t said a word. He had just retreated to the kitchen and scoured the oven from top to bottom for two hours. Meanwhile, Amy had launched a DDoS attack, exploiting an old botnet from her blackhat days to flood the tabloid’s antiquated servers with corrupt code. The site had been down for over twenty-four hours, and the creaking old system had never fully recovered. It had been exceedingly satisfying.

At the same time, though, I’m enjoying the possibility of seeing more romance develop over the course of the series.

As in the previous installment, the sense of place is effectively developed; this isn’t a story that could take place anywhere, but rather it is firmly rooted in its context. We travel outside Cardiff to the countryside and to the coast, and the different locations play critical roles in the story. The book is atmospheric without drawing attention to itself. The writing is still a bit rough in patches, but it suits Jason and several other characters’ relatively rough backgrounds and even Amy’s lack of social acumen.

There are no easy fixes for the difficulties the characters face. Amy is still agoraphobic, and although she takes a big step forward, there’s no guarantee she won’t retreat again. Jason’s past continues to shape his present and future despite his efforts to overcome the hurdles it creates. Code Runner provides the next step in the classic path that a good mystery series takes, and my biggest regret when I finished was that I don’t know when the next installment is due. At this point Amy, Jason, Cerys, Bryn, and Owen feel pretty real to me and I want to spend more time with them. Grade: B+

P.S. I don’t usually pay attention to covers, but wow, did you ever win the lottery on yours. I’d buy print copies just to be able to display them.

 

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