Review – An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles

An Unseen Attraction coverTitle: An Unseen Attraction
Author: K.J. Charles
Publisher: Loveswept from Random House
Rating: 4 stars

Publication date: February 21, 2017
Genre: M/M romance/Historical/Mystery
Length: 209 pages

Review Summary: A strong historical gay romance/mystery, with a convincing Dickensian feel.

Plot Summary/Description

Clem Talleyfer is the keeper of a lodging house in Victorian London. He doesn’t own the house but works as a kind of glorified janitor for his wealthy half-brother He runs it well, and it’s much appreciated by the lodgers including the attractive taxidermist Rowley Green, who gradually becomes a closer and closer friend.

But the house has its oddities, too, including an abusive alcoholic tenant whom Clem isn’t allowed to kick out. Then the alcoholic is murdered. Could Clem and Rowley’s lives be in danger, as well as their livelihoods and their budding relationship?

An Unseen Attraction Review

This has a lovely Dickensian London feel to it. I loved the descriptions of rainy streets, bizarre characters, and smoggy nights. The characters are well-rounded and feel real.

Clem needs everything spelled out, and it takes him forever to figure out that Rowley is interested in him. Add that to the prevailing Victorian morality and you get a slow-burning romance rather than high heat levels. I liked that, I found it realistic and I don’t mind waiting for characters to be sure of each other.

So why not 5 stars? I don’t like the cover, but I wouldn’t mark it down for that. (When you read, you do find out that his suit isn’t meant to fit well, but that doesn’t explain why his head is so small, or why he looks to me more like the “neat, precise” Rowley Green than my idea of Clem Talleyfer.)

It’s more that somehow the story didn’t stick with me. I loved Clem and liked Rowley, and I was rooting for them as a couple. But the reader is always several steps ahead of the characters in figuring out that something odd is going on, and wondering why Clem is allowing himself to be exploited to the extent he is. Plus I think stuffed animals are gross…

There’s a local gay pub from which I imagine future couples will be drawn, since this is a first in series. I’m pleased about that and I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the series.

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Review – The Trouble With Goats And Sheep by Joanna Cannon

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep book cover imageTitle: The Trouble With Goats And Sheep
Author: Joanna Cannon
Publisher: Scribner
Rating: 3 stars

Publication date: October 2015 (July 12, 2016 USA)
Genre: Mystery (?)
Length: 368 pages

Review Summary: A nostalgic novel of hidden secrets among neighbours in an English street in the 1970s.

Plot Summary/Description

Ten-year-old Grace is determined to solve the mystery of her missing neighbor, Mrs Creasy. Where has Mrs Creasy gone, and why? Is she alive or dead? Does it have to do with the middle-aged man living alone, that Grace and her friend Tilly must never go near? And what happened in the street ten years ago?

The answer will involve sorting the sheep from the goats – so Grace and Tilly go in search of God, who they’re sure will do this for them, if they could only find him. Meanwhile, they are sticking their noses into other people’s business, stirring things up – which could be dangerous.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep Review

This is billed as “part mystery, part coming of age novel” and anyone expecting a traditional or cozy mystery may be disappointed because it’s told very much from the point of view of a child who doesn’t understand the significance of what she sees and hears. Maybe it’s assumed the reader will, but I found some aspects of the mystery confusing (even at the end) and looking at reviews online, I don’t think I’m the only one. The truth unravels slowly, more like a dissolution than a resolution.

Having said that, there’s a lot here to enjoy, especially in the descriptions of life in a small and frankly uninteresting town in the middle of England in the 1970s. American readers may need some help with some of the cultural references (younger British readers too). Or just ignore them and go with what works. It’s very evocative of a certain place and time, and it’s natural that the childish character who welcomes us in, doesn’t explain everything right away.

Although told from the perspective of a 10-year-old child, it’s not a children’s book. The attraction is in reading between the lines with grownup eyes, looking back on a hot summer of childhood, when things ignored or misunderstood slowly become clear.

The characters are different types, perhaps a little stereotypical, or maybe just typical of their time and place. I didn’t get the whole Jesus image and why people were impressed by that. I didn’t like Grace, who is often cruel – probably realistically so, little girls can be horrible, but this made it a tough read at some points. But I enjoyed reading about the street and the interactions of the neighbours, who had almost all lived in that street for ten years or more.

It reminded me of the street I lived in as a child where most of the families moved in when the houses were first built and many of them are still there, ageing parents alone now, decades later. I even remember a house fire. But I don’t think it held any secrets – or if it did, I didn’t uncover them!

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Review – Tournament of Losers by Megan Derr

Tournament of Losers coverTitle: Tournament of Losers
Author: Megan Derr
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Rating: 4 stars

Publication date: November 2015
Genre: M/M romance/Fantasy
Length: 312 pages

Review Summary: A male/male fairy tale in the ‘prince and the pauper’ tradition, where our poverty-stricken hero gets to compete for marriage with a nobleman. Cute and fun.

Plot Summary/Description

Rath has three days to pay his father’s huge debt to the crime lord of the Low City, or he’ll be floating down the river without a boat. With no money, he goes back to whoring, hoping a down payment might keep the heavies off his back. But the madam of the brothel points out a way he can make the full amount – just survive to the second round of the Tournament of Losers, where commoners compete for marriage into the nobility.

Tress is a member of the nobility who’s taken a fancy to Rath. But what are the chances of Rath winning the right to be his husband, when Rath seems to be doing too well, and qualifying for the highest hand in the land?

Tournament of Losers Review

No prizes for guessing the ending, it’s totally predictable from the book description, but this is a fairy tale so fair enough. We know the bad guys won’t win and the good guys will end up together. If you like the idea of a male/male fairy tale, this is highly recommended. It’s a lot of fun to read.

Rath is gorgeous – engaging, generous, and highly talented in bed judging by the high prices people are prepared to pay for his occasional services. We don’t get to see any of this because it’s a sweet one with no sex, as usual from the pen of Megan Derr.

I’d rather have no sex than too much in a book but in this case, I think the relationship could have been strengthened in the beginning with a little more physicality, even if it was lingering longer on feelings during the kisses. Everything is from Rath’s point of view, and his attention in the first part of the book is (naturally) on the pressing issue of the debt he has to pay. Tress has to make all of the running.

The contest has a few surprises, at least for Rath, who doesn’t catch on fast to the fact that he’s being judged on other qualities than first past the finish line. Don’t judge by the cover – it’s not set in ancient Rome, and the combat is not gladiatorial (except briefly in the early stages).

I loved the second half. I found the first half a little slow, hence 4 stars rather than 5. It’s still enjoyable, and I loved the detail of life in the city and the society with its complete gender equality and ethnic equality. There’s no discussion of ‘gay’ or other questions of orientation, and I had the impression that most people were bisexual. (For example the contestants to marry a noble man are both men and women).

Both the contest and the relationship get way more interesting after the half way point, and from there I couldn’t put it down. Even if the ending is obvious, the fun of reading is in the journey, not the arrival, right? or why wouldn’t we all skip straight to the last chapter, every time?

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Review – Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

Three Bags Full by Leonie SwannTitle: Three Bags Full
Series: Sheep Detective Story #1
Author: Leonie Swann
Publisher: Doubleday
Rating: 3.5 stars

Publication date: June 2005
Genre: Cozy mystery
Length: 352 pages

Review Summary: A fun and endearing slow-paced cozy mystery featuring a small flock of sheep as detectives.

Plot Summary/Blurb

When George Glenn of Glennkill on the coast of Ireland is found dead in a field, apparently murdered with a spade, his faithful flock of sheep don’t know what to think. Spurred on by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they try to recall what they learned in the detective story that George once read them, so they can gather clues and track down suspects.

Three Bags Full Review

This is such a cute idea! The sheep are wonderful characters and the story, if a little confused and slow in places, follows their meandering path as detectives.

The sheep are from different traditional breeds so it’s easy to believe they might have different characteristics. There’s Mopple the Whale, a plump Merino who never stops eating but has the best memory; Zora, a sure-footed blackfaced ewe who likes to perch on a cliff ledge looking over the abyss to the sea far below; Sir Ritchfield, the lead ram, who’s getting old and deaf these days but still has the sharpest eyesight; Othello, a black sheep whose had a past life in a circus; and many more. They all stand out as unique and memorable personalities.

Then of course there are the human characters. We get to hear their conversations whenever the sheep can listen in, which is often enough, since many of them visit the field and George’s caravan where he seems to have hidden certain things (whose significance is clearer to us than to the sheep). He was also more popular with the ladies than with the men of the village.

George’s character is slowly revealed too. The sheep, naturally enough, rate him on the basis of the grazing he provided and the stories that he read to them every day. It’s only when another shepherd comes along who is more interested in sheep as meat than as individuals, that they truly come to see how lucky they were. And we have to piece together George’s human history from indications that mean nothing to them – that he owned a gun, for example.

The author is German so I was reading an English translation, and unfortunately the translator clearly wasn’t Irish. I kept forgetting we were in Ireland at all because there was no Irish dialect or rhythm in the dialogue. There are none of the ‘typical’ Irish names – no Brendan, Patrick or Michael; no Bridget, Mary or Siobhan – and George, the patron saint of England, seems to me a decidedly unlikely name for a man born in the Republic of Ireland in (presumably) the 1960s. Of course we don’t want all the stereotypes rolled out, but a few minor characters with more common Irish names would have helped give a sense of place.

It’s very funny in places because of the sheep’s childlike (or sheeplike) interpretations of various signs and clues. They are simple-minded but logical and often adorable.

The solution to the mystery was a little anticlimactic for me. The motives didn’t quite ring true. But I did like the way the author built up the final scene and I loved Fosco who enjoyed his Guinness in true Irish style!

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