KJ Charles

Reading Highlights from 2017 – part 1 (Three standout authors)

Here we are again at the end of another big year of reading. The total comes to exactly 200 novels and novellas, of which 30 were re-reads.

I didn’t reach the same giddying heights as last year (242 total), which I count as a win, because it means I exercised a bit more restraint. Still, 200 is an average of around four per week, so… Maybe only a tiny bit of restraint. Heh.

When it comes time to reflect on twelve months’ worth of books, I always wish I wrote more reviews of the books I loved during the year, rather than trying to do them justice at the death. But, you know what? I was too busy reading them. Maybe next year.

As I did for the 2016 highlights, I’m going to write a series of posts over the next few weeks. This time, however, they’ll be arranged by theme rather than month.

To start with, I’m going to reflect upon three standout authors I encountered this year through significant bodies of work: TJ Klune, Santino Hassell and KJ Charles.

Only one of them was new to me (TJ Klune). Indeed, I’ve previously read several brilliant books by each of Santino Hassell and KJ Charles, both of whom consistently stand out above most of the others in the m/m genre.


TJ Klune

How come it took me so long to find TJ Klune? He’s written some of the most iconic works in the m/m genre, and I suspect I’ll be working my way through his backlist for a while.

My first experience of Klune was just last month (November) through one of his newer novels, Wolfsong, which is a beautiful (and beautifully written) wolf shifter story. It’s more sophisticated than most paranormals, with a strong plot about an isolated shifter pack under threat from an evil wolf and a human who becomes part of their pack. It covers a blend of shifter politics and folklore, paranormal fantasy, and a love story — with themes of found family, vengeance, belonging and loyalty. Brilliant. (I think there’s a sequel coming — can’t wait!)

Then I dived into Bear, Otter, and the Kid, TJ Klune’s first novel, which is centred around Bear, whose mother abandoned him when he was 18, leaving his six-year-old kid brother, Tyson, in his care. The premise is heart-wrenching, but the whole series (also comprising Who We Are, The Art of Breathing, and The Long and Winding Road) is amazing and filled with so much heart.

The series takes place over about 15 years, and is about the (fierce) bond between brothers and found family and waiting and fighting for love. The first two books are centred on Bear at 21 as he falls in love with Otter (his best friend’s older brother). Bear is such a wonderful character — completely neurotic with a wild imagination, but so devoted to taking care of his genius (vegetarian, ecoterrorist-in-training) nine year old brother, Tyson. Otter, a little older and calmer, is the perfect addition to their family.

The Art of Breathing is Tyson’s story as he comes of age and finds love; then The Long and Winding Road returns to Bear’s perspective to tell Bear and Otter’s story, no longer focused on raising Tyson, as they grow their family.

I read the four ‘BOATK’ books back-to-back and ended up with a major book hangover. (Just now, reading this over before I post, I feel a little teary.) They are deeply emotional (although hysterically funny in parts) and beautifully written. I laughed (a lot), I cried, I loved. Just fabulous.

KJ Charles

Once again, KJ Charles has produced a wonderful historical series in Sins of the Cities — comprising An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice and An Unsuitable Heir. Set in Victorian London with Dickensian influences, this series features fabulous, colourful characters from different walks of life and an overarching mystery surrounding an aristocratic family.

In An Unseen Attraction, the main characters are a boarding house keeper (who is the half-Indian half-brother of an unlikable duke) and a taxidermist (or ‘stuffer’). Their romance is very sweet, as someone is murdered and the nature of the mystery comes to light. An Unnatural Vice is about a journalist who gets embroiled with a charlatan spiritualist who holds a clue to the mystery; it has a very different feel, and the whole of this novel is imbued with the London fog of 1892.

The third book, An Unsuitable Heir is my favourite of the three. One of the main characters is a gender fluid acrobat, who discovers he’s actually a lost duke. His non-binary gender identity is dealt with wonderfully well — complicated by the expectations of the time, particularly with issues of male inheritance. I also loved the love story between him and the ‘enquiry agent’ (private investigator) who tracked him down.

I deliberately waited until the whole series was released before reading — and I’m really glad I did, since the mystery spans all three books and many of the characters are present in all three as well. Loved it.

As if that wasn’t enough, I also loved KJ Charles’s book, Spectred Isle (Green Men Book 1). This is a historical paranormal spin-off of the Simon Feximal series, set in London after the Great War. This one has demons and archaeology and occult events and creepy things happening. And, of course, a love story, this time between an archaeologist and an occultist. There are more to come in this series, I believe. (Yay!)

(For the record, my other favourite works of KJ Charles are The Society of Gentlemen series, and the standalone novel, Think of England.)

Santino Hassell

Santino Hassell is an author that always delivers. He writes across a few different m/m genres and seems to be getting more prolific.

This year, I particularly enjoyed his paranormal series, The CommunityInsight, Oversight and Sightlines. Set mostly in contemporary New York City, the series is about conspiracy, unrest and mystery within a community of psychics (telepaths, empaths, etc).¬†Once again, I waited until all the books were released and then read them back-to-back. It’s an exciting series (also a little disturbing), with three separate love stories and an overall series arc.

In Insight, a young empath discovers the existence of the Community as he’s searching for answers around his twin’s apparent suicide. Oversight is centred on the privileged son of one of the Community’s founders as he starts to uncover disturbing truths about the organisation. His half-brother, the most powerful psychic in the Community and also the most exploited, brings everything to a head in Sightlines.

The three books in the Community series were the pick of the Santino Hassell novels I read this year (with one exception), but I also enjoyed the third (Hard Wired) and fourth (Mature Content) books in the Cyberlove series, co-written with Megan Erickson (although I think the first two, Strong Signal and Fast Connection, are better books).

I haven’t got around to reading the latest releases in the Five Boroughs series, but I did read the sports romance Illegal Contact (The Barons – book 1) which I liked but didn’t love. The final Hassell book I read this year was Stygian — which I did love. It’s fabulous! But I’m going to talk more about that in the next post…

… which will be about spooky paranormal stories among other things.

 

October reading: lots and lots

I’ve been reading a lot lately. I think it’s been in reaction to an increase in workload, which has left me clambering for the best kind of immersive entertainment I know. Novels. Lots and lots of novels.

And now, not for the first time in my life, I’m addicted. (Possibly obsessed.)

In October I read ten novels — most of them weren’t very big novels… which meant I tried to read some of them in a single sitting and forgot to go to sleep until the birds came up. Ahem.

And I enjoyed every single one of them…


Shards of Time – Lynn Flewelling (Nightrunner series book 7)

shardsoftimeThis series and me go way back. I’ve read the first three several times — they’re a light-hearted fantasy romp about what happens when Alec (innocent youth, master bowman, heart of gold) meets the worldly Seregil (outcast ‘fae, master of disguise, bard and royal spy) and the two get embroiled in saving the world (or the land at least). Subsequent books in the series follow Alec and Seregil’s various adventures in the service of the queen as ‘Nightrunners’, which are the fantasy equivalent of James Bond (minus the women and guns).

Shards of Time is evidently the last in the series, and follows these two indomitable fellows and other companions to investigate the mysterious deaths of the queen’s governor of some nearby island, along with reports of ghosts and other weird things. It’s quite fun, although I don’t think I’m as entranced by the series as I once was. But the big bad is sufficiently nasty and most of the cast of the previous books get to play, so it’s a fitting conclusion.

The book also really reminded me of certain D&D scenarios… for one thing, in our group of companions we have archetypes that pretty much map to certain D&D classes: rogue (Seregil), ranger (Alec), fighter (their friend Micum), wizard (their other friend Thero). And each seems to perform their defined role. And some of the situations (should we explore the cave? question the witness?) seemed D&D familiar as well. Huh.


Liesmith – Alis Franklin

liesmithThis recently released debut novel from Australian author Alis Franklin is an urban fantasy steeped in Norse mythology, geek culture and queer romance, set in a made-up Australian city a bit reminiscent of Canberra (but not really — it could have been set anywhere in the world). But it’s a bit hard to talk about Liesmith too much without giving anything away… There are some great plot twists and turns, with two interesting and likeable main characters, fantasy gaming, Norse gods and corporate culture.

On the relationship side of things, the main message is that love happens due to a connection between individuals that transcends external factors such as gender, sexuality or even physical appearance. It’s actions and courage and loyalty that are important. This I like. The narrative voice is also very unique and engaging.

I enjoyed this novel a lot. Like several books I read this month, it kept me up into the early hours of the morning. There will apparently be more in the series.


Whyborne & Griffin series – Jordan L. Hawk

widdershinsThere are five books in the historical-supernatural-mystery-queer romance Whyborne & Griffin series and I read them all, one after the other. Set predominantly in the (presumably) fabricated US town of Widdershins in the early 20thC, the series is narrated by Percival Endicott Whyborne, estranged second son of a rail magnate and scholar of ancient languages working at the local museum. He’s engaged by charismatic private investigator Griffin Flaherty to translate a book that’s a clue in a murder he’s trying to solve. And so it begins.

In the first book, Widdershins, Whyborne and Griffin deal with a secret occultist group, resurrection, ancient Egyptian artifacts and hideous monsters while thwarting plans that might destroy the world… Whyborne is introverted and repressed, highly intelligent, and fascinated from the start by Griffin, who keeps on inviting him to lunch and to help with his investigation. The URST between them sparks until they finally crack and then it’s incredibly passionate and sweet.

In subsequent books, Whyborne and Griffin have other supernatural cases to solve while their relationship progresses through dealing with Griffin’s former lovers, his haunted past, Whyborne’s extremely dysfunctional family, secret Egyptian cults, Whyborne’s growing fascination with sorcery, and the challenge of being in a relationship (and living together) in a time when being gay was illegal for men…

Threshold (book 2) takes place in a small mining town where they go to investigate some company issues at the behest of Whyborne’s father. Stormhaven (book 3) sees them back in Widdershins infiltrating a dodgy mental asylum and pretending not to be lovers to satisfy Griffin’s visiting family. Necropolis (book 4) sees them head to an Egyptian archaeological dig with their friend Christine (who works with Griffin and is present in all the adventures) and contend with plans to resurrect an ancient Egyptian deity. Bloodline (book 5) is also set in Widdershins, and makes some startling revelations about the ancestry of Whyborne’s family.

The series is a lot of fun, with each of the books featuring an excellent combination of mystery and adventure — usually with monsters and archeology and magic. The two main characters of Whyborne and Griffin are wonderfully complementary to each other and their relationship develops beautifully. I guess the fact I read all five in swift succession tells its own story.


Think of England – KJ Charles

ThinkOfEnglandI read Think of England because I was told to (heh) and I loved it. Probably the best book I read all month. In fact, I read it twice. (That’s just how I seem to be rolling this year.)

It’s another historical-mystery-m/m romance but without any fantasy elements, set in an ultra modern (for the time) Victorian mansion in the north of England. Ex-soldier Archie Curtis has been invited to a posh house party with the usual cast of disparate characters, but he has an ulterior motive. Yet, as he blunders around the house ‘investigating’, the dangerously camp and witty Daniel de Silva (who wears very tight pants) seems to be dogging his every step. (These scenes are hysterical.)

Soon Archie cracks Daniel’s facade and the pair realise they have a common goal and team up to uncover some nasty goings on in the house. There’s lots of tension and menace and an expedition to local limestone caves. In fact the book is so well plotted I simply couldn’t find a place to put it down until it was finished. I didn’t need sleep that night…

What moved me about this book is the amazing courage and strength of Archie, who has a wonderful moral code and stands up and strives for what he believes in. He’s willing to change his mind about things too, when new facts present themselves — like his opinion about Daniel (which starts off very negative) and his own sexuality. And he shows such a depth of caring for Daniel when the latter is in serious trouble that tells you everything you need to know about his feelings, even if he hasn’t quite admitted it to himself.

I’ll definitely be reading this one again, probably a few times…


The Magpie Lord and A Case of Possession – KJ Charles (A Charm of Magpies, books 1 and 2)

magpie lordBecause I loved Think of England so much, I checked out the first two in KJ Charles’ popular ‘A Charm of Magpies’ series. These are historical-fantasy-mystery-m/m, set in London in the early 20thC (this period seems rather popular with this genre). In The Magpie Lord, Lucian, Lord Crane, has returned to take up his unexpected inheritance in England after spending two decades as an exile in China. But the curse which killed his despised father and brother now seems to be attacking him, so he engages a ‘shaman’ or ‘practitioner’ to deal with it. Enter Stephen Day.

The Magpie Lord is a really interesting story, infused with the flavour of Shanghai along with a fascinating English subculture of these practitioners, who channel etheric energy. Stephen uncovers a deep and dastardly plot against Crane, which unfolds nicely as the book progresses.

I wasn’t quite as taken with the relationship between Crane and Stephen, though. For one thing, it comes across as very unequal in this first book. Stephen is a hot shot practitioner, very powerful, but in almost every other way he’s dominated by Crane and this is not what I’ve come to expect in m/m relationships. Nor was I as emotionally engaged with either character, but particularly Crane, which I’m going to put down to this being the author’s first novel.

However, she redeemed herself in the second book, A Case of Possession. This one is entirely in Crane’s point of view (rather than swapping erratically) and I feel we get deeper into his psyche and he becomes a lot more sympathetic as we learn of his vulnerabilities, particularly when it comes to Stephen. The story has more mystery and magic and monsters in the form of giant deadly rats!


Thus ends a mammoth summary of my October reading. Must say I feel like I’m on a train and I can’t jump off. Give me more more more!

I find it fascinating I’m still reading so much m/m fiction. There’s something about it that has captivated me. On the whole it’s fairly well written — with gripping adventures and a lots of fantasy as evidenced by this selection. Clearly the romance genre in general has come a long long way since those one-dimensional Mills & Boon novels I once read as a teenager. Queer romance certainly has multi-dimensional characters and adventurous plots.

It’s been a perfect foil for a heavy workload.

P.S. In the car, I abandoned Jane Austen’s Emma. Really did not like it at all. Moved onto Persuasion, which is much better. Currently about halfway through.