I read a bunch of novellas and short-ish stories this week, as well as returning to a novel I’d laid aside for a while. Mostly m/m with one m/f, and a number of new-to-me authors.
The Seventh Veil (The Etsey Series, #1), by Heidi Cullinan
I began this back in the spring and had a difficult time getting into it. Then I restarted it and suddenly it clicked. This is a big, ambitious, densely plotted and written novel, and very unlike the other Cullinan novels I’ve read. It features m/m and m/f relationships, it’s Fantasy, and it demands the reader’s full concentration. I was having a difficult time reading it at the same time that I was reading Hale’s Rifter serial. But #2 in the series, Temple Boy, is releasing next week, and I really wanted to have this finished before the second book came out. I picked it up again and I’m enjoying it. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one. The setting is a fantasy land that draws on 18th or 19th-century England. The characters include a witch, a goddess, two brothers, a wicked alchemist, and an equerry from another land. There are cross-cutting relationships from past and present, regular magic, sex magic, violence, and hot sex. Review to come.
Let’s Misbehave, by Rae Summers
This short story/novella is a debut that received an enthusiastic review from one of my go-to reviewers, and it garnered a number of 4- and 5-star reviews on Goodreads. I was intrigued by the premise: it’s set in late 1920s London and features a free-spirited heroine and a buttoned-up hero. I loved the setting and thought it was well done. Unfortunately, I found the overall reading experience marred by the author’s tendency to tell me about the characters (and the characters’ tendencies to tell me about their feelings) rather than showing me through behavior and natural-sounding dialogue. Since the characters are archetypes rather than fully-fleshed-out human beings, the telling became overwhelming. The heroine felt like a legitimate free spirit, the hero really was a decent guy but hemmed in by convention, but they just didn’t come alive for me. And the revelation at the end about one of the characters restrospectively undercut the power of the conflict in a major way. But I’m in the minority on this one, so you may enjoy it more. Warning: the hero is engaged to someone else for most of the story, and she’s quite sympathetic. I’d rather read a story about her, to be honest. Grade: C
Vindaloo and the T-Bird, by Sarah Black
This is one of a slew of books I picked up in last week’s Fictionwise coupon sale. I’ve heard good things about Black for years and the title caught my eye. I was a bit apprehensive that the (South Asian-American) character would be named Vindaloo, but no worries, Black knows what she’s doing. Vin is a mechanic and Race is an eye surgeon. They broke up months before the story begins but are brought back together when Race falls in love with a vintage Thunderbird coupe and asks Vin to help him restore it. Through the course of this short story we find out that Race is much better at surgery than relationships and that Vin is a smart mechanic and no pushover. Both characters are sympathetic and deftly portrayed, and the supporting characters come to life despite their brief on-page time. Vin’s grandmother in particular is a hoot. Black manages to capture the essence of a loving, interfering Indian female relative without getting mired in stereotypes; believe me, I know this lady! The story is full of lovely, small details, from the main characters’ shared love for T-Birds, to why Vin isn’t short for Vindaloo, to Race’s earnest and overly systematic study of the roots of rock ‘n roll. And it’s set in Boise! Grade: B+
Primal Red, by Nicole Kimberling
I’ve been meaning to try one of Kimberling’s Bellingham mysteries and Fictionwise made it easy. This is the first of three in a series featuring journalist Peter Fontaine and artist Nick Olson. When artist-professor Shelley Vine is murdered in her studio, suspicion falls on the other artists in the loft building they shared. Peter and Nick are attracted to each other but their budding relationship is hindered by Peter’s investigation for The Bellinghamster weekly, aka the Hamster. Peter’s research dredges up Nick’s past and Nick’s status as prime suspect endangers his carefully rebuilt art career. Meanwhile, Peter’s other story lead on the Russian Pierogi-Tea-Café/Bordello puts his own health and well-being in jeopardy. The novella is smoothly written and light on the angst and gore, and it features witty dialogue and eccentric supporting characters. Peter is self-deprecating without being annoying, and while Nick is gorgeous and taciturn, he reveals himself to be more multi-dimensional than Peter’s besotted POV initially suggests. Grade: B
If It Ain’t Love, by Tamara Allen
I’ve saved the best for last. Allen slipped a free story onto the internet with little fanfare, but eventually even I noticed. I downloaded and opened the file to read away some of my disappointment with Let’s Misbehave, and I didn’t look up until I was done. This is a short story, but it has more depth and richness than many full-length novels. The setting is Depression-era Manhattan. Whit is a gifted journalist at the New York Times who is having trouble writing his highly-regarded feature articles. He lost his apartment and is barely hanging on, borrowing from his editor, sleeping in Bowery “hotels” and trying not to notice how hungry he is. Peter doesn’t have a job either, but he has a huge empty townhouse, a well-stocked refrigerator, and a closet full of expensive suits. Peter comes to the Bowery looking for companionship and Whit goes home with him. Their begin a tentative relationship without asking or offering much in the way of information to each other, and when they inevitably discover each other’s backgrounds, it jeopardizes the tiny bit of happiness they’ve begun to build together. There’s a hopeful HEA, or at least an HFN, but Allen doesn’t shirk from portraying the misery of that era. It’s the Depression, and she takes that seriously. But the story is full of small and not-so-small acts of generosity and grace, and it reminds us that even in the midst of degradation, human beings are able to draw on reserves of dignity and compassion. There were a couple of plot points that didn’t quite work for me, but the writing is beautiful and overall this is a terrific read. Easily one of the best stories I’ve read all year. And did I say it’s free? Go forth and download! Grade: A-