Waiting for Clark & Served Hot (CBR8 #62-63)

Mrs. Julien’s review of Waiting for Clark reminded me that I had picked up two Annabeth Albert books following ellepkay’s reviews, and should probably read them in between library books. While owning my romance reading habits, I have also been attempting to be more LGBTQ inclusive in my reading overall (with varying degrees of success), and felt overdue in that department.

Let’s start with the good.

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Waiting for Clark is based on a prompt and image given to Albert as part of the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s “Love is an Open Road” event last year where members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Albert got:

Dear Author,
My friends and I love cosplay, and this year we’re going all out for our city’s con. Yup, we’re going to go as members of the Justice League. I’m going as Batman, but I can’t figure out who’s going as a Superman. My friends are being a little cagey. What’s going on? How did I go from not knowing who Superman is to making out with the guy?

Photo Description:
In a cartoon drawing, Batman and Superman are locked in an embrace, kissing. Superman is taller and clutching Batman to him. Batman has more muscles and has visible tattoos on his arms. Superman has broader shoulders and dark hair. Batman is stretching up to meet him and has one foot kicked behind him. Behind them is a graffiti-covered wall, and Superman’s rainbow-lined cape swirls around them. The prompter specified that the picture is two men in cosplay costumes at a Comic Con convention.

Kept short and crisply paced, this story (under 100 pages) shows a balanced approach to its character development, giving us flashbacks to their college days and rooted in the here and now. Clark and Bryce (yep, Albert went all in on the Batman/Superman theme) had feelings for each other, but between not want to ruin their friendship and roommate relationship, dating other people, or living on different sides of the country if not ocean – things just didn’t work out. Enter our meet cute 5 years later, and Clark shows back up in his life, at a Comic Con with Bryce dressed as Batman and Clark as Superman.  Bryce doesn’t know how to trust it Clark, and Clark has to convince Bryce that they should give a relationship a try.

I appreciated the second chance tropes running through, the rounded out world of background characters, the steamy sex scenes (this does not have cuddling like The Hating Game), and the fact that both characters were out.

Three Stars

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As to the less good, the other Albert short that I picked up based on ellepkay’s review was Served Hot, first in the Portland Heat series. This one is the story of Robby ad David. Robby is a coffee cart owner and David is one of his regular customers, who walks several blocks, past several other coffee options, to see Robby. Set up with seasonal check-ins, it’s the story of Robby and David dating and falling for each other, and unpacking ALL of David’s considerable small-town closeted baggage.

This one had too much angst for me, too much trouble with communication, and ultimately suffered at only being told from Robby’s perspective. I can appreciate that Albert is trying to tell a variety of experiences, and that Robby is a POC protagonist (woo!) but this one felt like a slog, and nothing cruising it at right around 100 pages should feel that way. I don’t know that I’ll be checking back in with Albert’s writing any time soon.

2 stars.

These books were read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (CBR8 #61)

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The Read Harder Challenge this year included a task to read a play. I  never really enjoy reading plays, and I have read quite a few over the years. In high school, as an IB kid, I read no less than 10 Shakespeare plays. It was… grueling? It is this particular understanding of myself that made me immediately turn away from the idea of studying to be a dramaturg while my friend Gina was in grad school at Yale.

But, I signed up for the challenge, so I decided that reading something I had already seen and enjoyed was the ticket, enter my love of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I have seen the movie, I’ve seen it live, my friend has worked on it, and I am often guilty of making jokes at these characters’ expense. The reading experience was enjoyable (or as enjoyable as I had any hope of it being), and it was fun to read the stage directions, and remembering how different versions I have seen have either been faithful or not to them.

For those not in the know, Stoppard created a work which follows the easily mixed up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet and sees what happens to them off-page. Think, Longbourn. In addition to that layer, Stoppard creates a dialogue with the audience about art, and its limitations.

The play, through one interpretation, can be seen as the attempts of Ros and Guil to come to terms with Shakespeare, who is standing in for the forces greater than ourselves. As the ghosts haunt Hamlet, so too does the ghost of Shakespeare haunt Ros and Guil, through the course of the three acts of this work they struggle to act independently of Shakespeare’s plot, to operate outside of Shakespearean boundaries, and much of the play centers on the potential of the characters in direct opposition to the limitations imposed by their original author. Stoppard includes another group, besides the Hamlet characters themselves, to serve as foil to this idea: the Tragedians who are all too accepting of their roles.

This work won four Tonys including Best Play. If you haven’t seen or read it, I say give it a shot.

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This play was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Devil in Winter (CBR8 #60)

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My affection for Lisa Kleypas was slow in arriving. I was generally pleased with Secrets of a Summer Night, my only real drawback being the secondary storyline with the heroine’s mother. Simon and Annabelle were a delight. It Happened One Autumn was a step in the wrong direction for me, while the individual characters of Lillian and Westcliff worked I was bored during the first half and had serious reservations about the characterization of Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. Trusting other romance readers, I kept going, but I was nervous.

Spoilers for book two:

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You see, in that book St. Vincent is part of a kidnapping scheme and threatens marital rape in order to get Lillian’s compliance. It was… a problem for me in that book. While I do enjoy that Kleypas writes with more historical accuracy than many of the other romance writers I’ve come across, it doesn’t mean that ALL of the historically accurate things are wanted on the page, or that I felt at all comfortable with the idea that I would be asked, in the very next book, to forgive the character this enormous transgression since all romance books end with a coupled happily ever after.

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But somehow, Kleypas made it work. Or I’m a sucker, and I think I’m okay with either answer.

Devil in Winter picks up immediately following the events of It Happened One Autumn, and our third wallflower Evie has decided that the only possible solution to her familial problems is the safety of marriage to St. Vincent, knowing full well what he just attempted. Evie knows it will likely cost her the only friends she has, but her circumstances are that dire. The first two books in the series hint at Evie’s family situation, but this book elucidates the very real problems of being under someone else’s hand and their wishing you only harm and no care for you as an individual with feelings, emotions, or rights. Evie’s stand for herself and the deal she strikes with St. Vincent completely pulled me in to her world, and through her eyes we get the redemption of the epitome of rakes.

I was sold on these two during the very early parts of the novel, as they head to Gretna Green and everything after that point was just bonus points. There was a side plot I could do without and I’m sure on rereads I’ll just skip it entirely. I was however very excited to find out that Cam Rohan appears in the Hathaway series and am even more intent on finishing this series so I can move onto that one next year.

To sum up, Kleypas sets up a romance where each character gets to find the best version of themselves, both leads are sexual equals (not in experience, but in openness and appetite), and secondary characters are developed but do not overtake the plot. And its steamy. SOLD.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Live and Let Die (CBR8 #59)

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I had fallen off pace for my goal this year, and an Audible coupon delivered a few, short, James Bond books to my queue. Surely I could knock out an under 7-hour book in under a week of commuting? Well, that plan only works if the book is enjoyable and you can make yourself listen to it.

A quick note: my problems with this book were not the narration stylings of Rory Kinnear. That has been a problem with other audios I’ve listened to this year, but it was not the trouble with this book. The series I’m listening to is recorded by actors (Dan Stevens read Casino Royale), and Kinnear’s experience with the Bond movie franchise seems to have influenced his delivery. It was occasionally paced a bit slowly, but I think that had more to do with the text itself than his interpretation of it.

My biggest issue with reading this book, and what placed it all the way down at two stars, is the pacing. Casino Royale had a nice three act structure that kept it moving right along, and kept the experience easy. These are spy novels with derring-do, but they aren’t behemoth texts. As I settled in initially with Live and Let Die, I was anticipating the same basic structure, which honestly befits its 1954 publication date. Initially, things were on track. What I would coin Act 1, the info dump, opened with us picking up with Bond several months after the events of Casino Royale, and learning along with him the intricacies of the Harlem underworld, Haiti, and voodoo.

But then Acts 2 & 3 never properly materialized. Based on my expectations of the previous book, and the movies which were then based on them, there should have been a meet cute, spy shenanigans, and then escalation and romance. These things happened, but in an extremely disjointed and overly languorous manner.

There were other things which troubled as well, one being the racial language used (which I know full well is of a time and place but I can’t make my brain not be 62 years later) and the other being the instalove between Bond and Solitaire. I just… I think I’m still loyal to Vesper and annoyed that Fleming used “love” for both these. Vesper and Bond felt earned, Solitaire feels like arm candy. There, I said it.

Also, I missed some of the stuff from the movie which was invented just for it. Basically anything with Sheriff Pepper. He might be a problematic character, but he brings some sorely needed levity.

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The bayou around New Orleans in the movie stepped in for Florida in the book. Oh! Which reminds me of my favorite “pull you out of the narrative” moment… Rory Kinnear totally mispronouncing Ocala, where I used to live. OH-cala, guys. Or Slow-cala from those of us who resided there.

We’ll see if things pick up with Moonracker read by Bill Nighy later this autumn.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Underground Girls of Kabul (CBR8 #58)

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I don’t remember exactly what caught my eye about this book, if it was the cover, the blurb, the title itself, janniethestrange’s review on Cannonball Read, or any other of the many things which could have done it. But I know that I probably plopped it on to my to read list simply because I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know much about Afghanistan, even though the American war there started as I was coming into my adulthood and had definite opinions about why we were there (don’t we all when we’re young?).

But this interesting non-fiction work is not about the war. It’s not even about any of the previous wars which have landed in this country. It is instead about the ways in which the residents of that country have worked around the very patriarchal system and the cultural expectations of having sons. In a deeply researched work, which quite clearly took years, Nordberg endeavors to tell the story of several bacha posh who have all been raised as boys, and some who continue to live that reality past puberty.

While I am overwhelmed with the weight of the work that Nordberg has done, I feel the first half of the book treads the same territory again and again, and was at times a slog of a read. The second half, and where she truly starts to bring in the big picture ideas of how societies create the need for the bacha posh, and how well-meaning foreign aid is often counterproductive, is where Nordberg’s ability shows.

I’m glad to have read this book, and have this look into a culture I am unfamiliar with otherwise.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Hating Game (CBR8 #57)

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Earlier in the year the Cannonball Read Romance readers loved Act Like It by Lucy Parker. Parker is new on the Romance scene, and delivered a high wire act of a Contemporary. I rated it at 4.5 stars, and I might end up rounding it up to a 5 eventually, since I probably like it just as much as When a Scot Ties the Knot. When Malin, baxlala, and Beth Ellen sang the praises of The Hating Game by Sally Thorne and compared it favorably to Act Like It, it shot to the top of the ever growing to read list.

Much like Parker, Thorne delivers a Contemporary romance which features characters hovering around 30, with real weight and backstory to their characterization. It is also a similarly limited cast of characters, with the grand majority of the narrative taking place with just two characters: Lucy and Josh.

The book opens with Lucy telling us about her nemesis, Joshua Templeman, and the various ways they hate each other throughout their working lives.  Factor in the competition for a new position which would be Lucy’s dream job, a rough year of company mergers, lost friends, missing her parents, and zero social life, and Lucy is ready to rip Josh limb from limb to get this promotion. If only he hadn’t kissed her in the elevator and thrown her entire life into turmoil.

I’m really, really in like with this book. And once the cards were on the table, so to speak, I was very much team Josh. Thorne chooses to keep the narration from Lucy’s point of view, and every so often I’d want to yell at the book exasperated with how she didn’t see what we saw of Josh’s true nature. I had him pieced together pretty early on in the book, and was relieved that the big thing I saw coming wasn’t the real big thing that had to be dealt with (and boy, did Lucy deal with it).

Enemies to Lovers isn’t usually the trope that I like, but Thorne makes believable the backstory that she has in place for them, and I adored how she, through Josh, allowed the pair time to get settled into the idea of not playing all the verbal sparring and one-upmanship games which had previously populated all of their interactions. I am also an enormous fan of snuggling, and there is quite a bit of it in this book.

I recommend this book for nearly anyone reading this genre and happily endorse its comparison to Act Like It.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

To Say Nothing of the Dog (CBR8 #56)

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I really wanted to title this review “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego”. Not for any correlations to the bible story in To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis. Because the characters reminded me of former high school classmates of mine who received those nicknames our freshman year of high school from a very cranky history teacher. Much of the struggles of Ned, Terrence, and Cyril through the early portions of the book reminded me of them. But we should begin and the beginning, and I should stop confusing you with the way my mind works.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the second Connie Willis novel to exist in a world where time travel is used for historical study. With the inability to bring valuable items forward in time, everyone else seems to have lost interest in this technology. Enter Lady Schrapnell (who does send buckshot through the lives of the characters in this work), and her single-minded desire to rebuild Coventry Cathedral due to her family’s history there.

In order to rebuild the cathedral to its exact likeness before its destruction in World War II, Lady Schrapnell has been bullying the history department (strapped for funds) to send historians back to 1940 to research the state of the building, and has specifically assigned our main protagonist, historian Ned Henry, to find the Bishop’s Birdstump (an ornate, Victorian, vase). Several too many jumps have left Ned with the worst case of time lag anyone has ever seen, and historian Verity Kindle has accidentally brought an object forward through time while researching Lady Schrapnell’s great-great-great grandmother, and we have a situation where Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right–not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.

Once back, traveling separately, Ned meets Terrence (an undergrad at Oxford) and proceeds on a boat trip down the Thames. Terrence, along with my favorite character in the entire book Cyril the dog, are really on the hunt for Tossie, whom he met while she was looking for her lost cat. What follows is a comedy of errors as Ned and Verity attempt to keep the young would-be lovers separated, make sure that Tossie falls in love with an unknown man with the initial ‘C’, and that all incongruities are put right.

I listened to this book, and the audio was 21 hours long. There is a lot of plot to be had in this book. Connie Willis is seemingly incapable of letting a thought go unpursued. Which, as the novel continues allows Willis to build in repeated phrases, which are then in turn used to build the humor. This book was not as funny as I was initially led to believe, being more of a wry observance than anything else. But I did often smile reading this book, the humor is built up over repeating passages rather than the standard quip. Willis also spends plenty of time unpacking tropes, and the list accumulated on at TV Tropes is quite illuminating.

This is gentle, suspenseful, silly, romantic and sophisticated reading, I unfortunately just never really suck into it. I blame the audio narration.

But, even though I’m only rating this a three stars, it does appear that the best parts of Willis’ writing from The Doomsday Book make their way here. And much like that book, this one lives and dies by its characterization, which thankfully is wonderfully done. The historians are well-developed and multi-dimensional and we’re able to pop in and get some more information about Professor Dunworthy (he does in fact have a first name!) I confess I especially love Cyril, who is completely dog-like but provides a silent foil for Ned’s thoughts, and in a particularly canine manner serves as reader’s best friend.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.