February reviews (2018)

The weather in UK (and, I think, most of northern and central Europe) is dreadful, so I suggest everybody curls up with a good book.

Films, Theatre and TV

Hamilton*****
I booked for this ages ago and went to London to see it with friends. Fabulous! The style – a kind of rap against a background of melody – echoes Sondheim’s Into the Woods but where that twists fairytale Hamilton twists history. Except that it doesn’t, really. It tells the actual story of the US Founding Fathers but shows the men and women in a different and more personal light, and the diversity casting (plus the songs of King George III) make us focus on both issues of immigration and of independence (and Brexit). All the cast were magnificent and I can’t really pick out anyone as special. The dancing was amazing, and the staging was intriguing and impressive. Five stars plus, and if you’re going to see it, enjoy! If you haven’t already booked, you’re too late, in UK, anyway. It’s deservedly sold out.

Spiral*****
The double bill season finale was wonderful, as always. I adore this French cop show which is not just a police procedural (although there is always an involved case that takes all season to solve) but a look at policing, lawyers, politicics, personal relationships, etc. It’s an ensemble cast but I have to admit I was on pins in case they decided to write out either Laure (Caroline Proust) or Gilou (Thierry Godard). After all, it’s the kind of show (like Spooks which I also adored) in which nobody is safe – in the previous season we lost Pierre (Gregory Fitoussi) – admittedly to the demands of Hollywood but the French chose to kill the character off. The underlying theme of this season was parenthood, and it ended with Laure literally running, finally unable to cope with her baby’s much desired survival. Superb.

The Book Thief****
Absolutely beautifully directed and acted. However, the book didn’t completely grab me and neither did the film. I think that for wartime dramas I prefer those based on fact (e.g. Schindler’s List) rather than fiction, however artfully presented.

Books

The excellent (all mm romance this month):

Two Feet Under by Charlie Cochrane. *****
The teacher and his policeman lover get involved in a murder uncovered at an archaeology dig in this third volume in The Lindenshaw Mysteries. Excellent as usual. I love the way this series is absolutely right about modern schools in UK so that I then trust the author about details for other things like policing and archaeology. I may have mentioned previously that I also love the dog. The writing is very assured with a flowing style and plenty of world building. I like the way the mm romance element is presented as normal, and is the background rather than the focus of the story. I feel as if I know the characters and am looking forward to the next volume in the series. Highly recommended but start with Book 1.

Lessons for Idle Tongues by Charlie Cochrane *****

This is in the Cambridge Fellows series. It’s hard to talk about this episode in the lives of the Cambridge dons turned amateur detective. The entire story hinges on whether or not there was a crime (or crimes) in the first place so anything further about the plot would be a spoiler. There is, however, a definite sub-plot involving the kidnap and eventual rescue of a wooden cat. You’ve probably gathered I’m very impressed by Charlie’s books. The same applies to this as to the Lindenshaw Mysteries: gentle mm romance underpinning interesting crime investigation and a cast of fascinating supporting characters. The writer transports the reader to pre-WWI Cambridge and London, and it is a wrench to return to the 21st century when the book is over. I have already bought a number of books in the series and am trying to make them last. Highly recommended, but again, start with Book 1

When First I Met My King by Harper Fox *****
This is Book 1 in the Arthur Trilogy and since I love Harper’s style lyrical, mystical and yet down to earth at the same time) and love Arthurian legend (well, yes, and have written some myself) I had to read it. It didn’t disappoint! The author twists the legend so that Lancelot’s story is set against a background of Northumberland, where the author lives and where I grew up. This makes it all even better, for me! Of course the details of the setting are exactly right, and the whole premise of the story so far, making young Arthur and young Lancelot tumble head over heels in love with each other, makes sense of some of the other legends. I have bought Book 2 and am already worrying about how Guinevere will interrupt the idyll. But I haven’t started it yet.

Agent Bayne by Jordan Castillo Price *****
This says it’s Book 9 in the Psycops series and I am fairly confused because I think I’ve read them all and there are more than 9. But maybe novellas don’t count? Vic (who sees and talks to ghosts which can be useful in a crime investigation) is now a federal agent like his lover, Jacob. The stories, which are all told from Vic’s point of view, are engaging – he is a very real character – and the crimes are interesting. This volume concentrates on Vic’s early days as a Fed, and promises to take the series in new directions. As for the Charlie Cochrane books, highly recommended but start at the beginning of the series.

Caught by JL Merrow *****
Played by JL Merrow *****

These are the first two books in the Shamwell series and probably need to be read in order. They are standalone mm romances, but the same characters do appear in a supporting role, so it helps to be aware of their story.
In Caught, Robert, a teacher trying to escape his past falls for Sean, a pest control agent. The story is sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, and always exciting as we hope they will sort out their misunderstandings and get together in the end. Well written and highly recommended.
In Played, Tristan, an actor spending the summer sorting out an inherited cottage in Shamwell, ends up involved with the local amateur dramatic society and with Con, the local handyman. Con is dyslexic and Tristan coaches him for a part in a play. The play within a story makes a delightful theme, especially because it is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which also contains a play within a play as well as giving plenty of opportunity for puns and other humour. Very well done and I enjoyed the story immensely, but I have to say I think the author is at her best when writing in first person (in Caught, and in the Plumber’s Mate series). Still, highly recommended.

The very good (two, only one of which is mm):

Dragon and Phoenix by Joanne Bertin ****

This is the sequel to The Last Dragonlord and I enjoyed the story. The dragons are lovely and the weredragons are well developed characters. The book deals with how the weredragon who thought he was the last dragonlord, along with his newly discovered soulmate and their other weredragon friends need to rescue a dragon and a phoenix who are being held captive to power the magic that supports a tyrannical regime in a foreign land. However, this book took me ages to read. It was a print book and was set in a type so small I had problems, even with my reading glasses. As I don’t, at the moment, need new glasses, this annoyed me intensely, especially since the blurbs for other books (from the same publisher) at the end were in perfectly readable type. I see the book is now available as an e-book and wish I had waited, but because it was first published in 1997 I suspected it wouldn’t be brought out in Kindle format. Also, the sequel, which I presume is the last in the series, is not in Kindle so I won’t risk buying it. I don’t think I could plough through another volume in that excruciatingly small type.

Christmas Wishes by RJ Scott ****
A writer, deliberately isolating himself in a remote cabin, finds a young father and baby on his doorstep after a car accident in a snowstorm. The common tropes are delightfully expanded into a story that is in some ways fluff but is quite engrossing. I was disappointed by the end and would have liked to follow the new family a little further into their planned life together. Recommended as a nice Christmas story (and yes, I do know it’s now March and I read this in February).

The reasonable:

Christmas Scavenger Hunt by Aly Hayden ***
Another Christmas story that got missed in December. This one was quite sweet and nicely written but too short to interest me deeply. It also struck me as being to some extent an excuse for the final explicit sex scene. Not particularly recommended but read it if you trip over it…

And the dire(Avoid):

Bakeries and Bones by Nic Roberts*
This longish short story presented itself as a free sequel to the Westford Bay B&B series of ‘cosy mysteries’. As a mystery, it lacked much in the way of mystery or investigation. The characters were uniformly silly about everything from relationships to murder. The author warned the reader that the characters lived in London so Brit English would be used. Well, they probably altered the spellings to Brit English but the speech patterns were ignored and the vocabulary was suspiciously American. Guess who won’t be buying any of the series!

The Tinner’s Corpse by Bernard Knight
I abandoned this after a few chapters. I usually enjoy mediaeval mysteries and was looking forward to it but I hated the style. Every time a new character was introduced the author stopped the story to tell us what they were wearing and what their hair and eyes were like. The whole thing could be used for a creative writing class session on Show Don’t Tell. I see the author has a number of these mysteries (centred on a coroner in Exeter) published and well reviewed. I won’t be reading any more.

Fanfiction.

Most of what I read this month required an in-depth knowledge of the original books or shows the fanfic was based on, so I won’t even review it. However, there are some exceptions.

As usual, Small_Hobbit provided entertainment, this time in the form of a gift fic for me. Mouselet and the Rather Fat Dragon *****, which you can find at http://archiveofourown.org/works/13682490 , has the animals in this Sherlock Holmes alternate universe putting on a play or tableau.
Mouselet is one of my favourite characters in this ‘universe’. She has her own series in The Ocelot Collection at http://archiveofourown.org/series/57591 and also contributes to the Marylebone Monthly Illustrated which is at http://archiveofourown.org/series/256591 This tongue-in-cheek publication also includes excellent short articles and stories by okapi who writes as Inky Quill, a porcupine. All the entries are short so go and enjoy them bit by bit!

I finally finished the stories so far available in the Seasons series by asparagusmama (another fandom friend). The series can be found at http://archiveofourown.org/series/16074 and although it is entirely based on the characters in Lewis (TV) I think it will stand alone as a series you can read without any real knowledge of the show. All you need is to know that Lewis and Hathaway are Oxford police officers. The rest is clarified in the stories which are gripping, and at times rather grim but with a lot of hope in the ending. If you like cop-buddies-turned-lovers with some genuine case stories thrown in, then go and enjoy!

I thought I would also warn you that not all fanfiction is worth spending time on. In the course of a plagiarism investigation for the archive I volunteer for I came across a story on a rival site: Name to forget, face to remember by kamikaze fox. I read to the end (or what purported to be the end because it left the reader up in the air) because it was in many ways a train wreck (or kamikaze mission?!) and I was fascinated. The story has a soldier in the WWI trenches killed and transported to Zootopia (an animated series with animal characters who walk and talk). I thought it sounded interesting and the concept was, but the execution was dire. The author claimed people had helped them edit but I’m not sure who missed the sentence about how ‘he grabbed his shit and wrapped it around the wound’… I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. There were a lot of other typos but that was the one that stood out. The protagonist found himself reincarnated as a wolf and couldn’t get used to having paws instead of hands, resented having to steal clothes to be respectable, and found socialising with rabbits nerve-racking. There was no attempt to explore the psychology behind these conflicting thoughts. I was left assuming there was to be a sequel but will not be reading it. The plagiarised version, which we had, of course, to delete, was actually better written, though I didn’t get as far as the fight scene with the wound. It claimed to be a parody, but used far too much of the text of the original.

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