Short stories read in April

Periwinkle blue or blue periwinkle – a sure sign of spring!

Quite a good ‘crop’ of short stories in April – perhaps because I stuck to authors I know and like!

Here for you by Jackie Keswick**** A lovely short story for Rock and Art., but probably not accessible to anyone who hasn’t read the first novel in the series.

Good Breeding and Hairy, Horny and Over Here, both by JL Merrow**** Stories with the subtle humour I’ve come to expect of this author. And a jackalope! I can assure everyone I have seen a horned hare, stuffed, mounted and displayed in a German restaurant…

A Sparks Gift and Just Like in the Movies, both by Clare London **** The first was an ‘extra’ for readers of Sparks Fly so it wouldn’t make sense to anyone who hadn’t read that. The other story is a stand-alone and is lovely.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It by Louisa Masters*** A competent but not very memorable.romance set in Melbourne.

Easy Pasta

I was cooking pasta last night and thought how easy it makes meals so decided to share my musings!

If you keep pasta and a few other ingredients in your store cupboard, you always have interesting and tasty meals at hand and here are my favourites.

Vary the pasta shapes. The twisted ones actually hold sauce better than the long ones but experiment and find your favourites. Fresh or home made pasta is lovely but not necessary. It’s for special occasions. Serve any of the dishes with side salad.

As usual, the quantities will depend on what you have and how hungry your family tends to be. Never abandon a recipe because you haven’t got the exact amount of anything. You can always serve extra salad, bread, whatever, and you can substitute favourite ingredients to your heart’s content.

Pasta Putanesca

Finely chop onion and garlic. Fry gently till soft then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a jar of putanesca sauce, and a packet of ready-to-use black lentils. Incredibly easy and delicious. You can just spoon it onto the pasta (I use fusilli) or mix the pasta in the pan. You can add grated cheese at table or you can put the mixture in the oven with a grated cheese topping. And yes, the putanesca name refers to the prostitutes of Naples who apparently needed a quick dinner at times. Freezes well and is vegetarian.

Pasta Creme

Finely chop red onion, red pepper and garlic – fry gently then add halved cherry tomatoes and continue to fry on a very low heat till the tomatoes are soft. Add a good tablespoon of cream or plain yoghurt (or creme fraiche) then add to pasta as with the putanesca recipe. This also freezes well and is vegetarian.

Mock Carbonara

Fry finely chopped onion, garlic and bacon or pancetta lardons. Add a small amount of tomato puree for colour unless you are using chorizo lardons which will add colour anyway. Add cream or yoghurt (as in the pasta creme recipe) and mix well with tagliatelle though other pasta would work. Sprinkle with black pepper and grated parmesan at table. This lacks the egg component of true carbonara but you can add an egg which will cook whilst being mixed with the hot pasta and sauce. I’m not sure there’s a vegetarian version but I imagine you could use fake ham or bacon. .

Lasagne

Buy lasagne sheets that are ready to cook but be careful. Break them to fit your dish – if they overlap they tend to be tough. Layer lasagne, cooked mince (any recipe including vegetarian) and lasagne sauce (from a jar) finishing with a sauce layer and a topping of grated cheese (a mix of parmesan and cheddar is good). Put in a hot oven for half an hour.

Spaghetti Bolognese

Note that this recipe references the Italian Bologna rather than the French Boulogne… I’ve seen people spell it incorrectly and wonder aloud what it has to do with the French coast. Answer: nothing. Do anything you like to cook the mince, adding mushrooms, carrots, peppers, herbs or whatever you have handy. Use spaghetti to be traditional but this works well with e.g. fusilli because the spirals catch the sauce. Serve with black pepper and grated cheese. Traditionally, this should be parmesan but personally I prefer a mix of parmesan and a hard cheese such as cheddar. Vegetarians can use vegetarian mince which is easily available in UK but I don’t know about anywhere else.

Spaghetti a la mama mia.

The title: the original recipe was one my mother-in-law got from an Italian mother when she did an au pair plus cookery stint in Italy (pre war). The name stuck. Again, spaghetti is in the title but other pasta shapes work well.

Cook chopped bacon and cook (but don’t overcook) pasta. Mix half a pint of milk with two beaten eggs and season but go easy on the salt if you suspect your bacon is salty. Layer the bacon and pasta plus some tomato puree. Pour the milk mixture over, slowly so that it seeps into all the spaces and spreads the puree, then grate a lot of cheese on top and put it in a hot oven for about 45 minutes.

This is great the next day if you have leftovers – fry it to reheat it.

A variation is to add kidney beans in chili sauce which gives it a nice kick. If you have vegetarians around add the beans, with or without chili, instead of bacon anyway.

Pasta news

I have just read in this week’s New Scientist that a firm has developed pasta shapes that are flat (needing less packaging) which then swell to normal pasta shapes when cooked. I don’t suppose they’ll be in a store near you next week but look out for them!

The header pic is a somewhat photoshopped version of last night’s mock carbonara.

Books I read in April (and some I abandoned)

I have no idea why these pretty spring flowers are called dead nettles. Because they don’t sting? Anyway, they’re currently all over the garden and the bees seem to like them.

The ones I read:

Excellent fiction:

Once upon a river by Diane Setterfield***** A haunting story of disappearing children in a river community in Victorian middle England. Gripping, satisfying and beautifully written.

Restored (and the prequel short Seasons Pass)***** The Bequest all by Joanna Chambers***** A delightful end to the story of David and Murdo, and a chance to find out about a couple of people who were mere minor vharacters in the first Enlightenment series. I can thoroughly recommend the series but if you haven’t read it, these later stories might be hard to follow.

Requiem Moon by CT Rwizi***** I just hope there’s another in the series… As good as the first (Scarlet Odyssey). High fantasy set in a world that uses African history and mythology as a starting point. This South African writer is brilliant.

Back in Black by Rhys Ford***** Another case of being hard to follow if you haven’t read the earlier books. This is purportedly a new series (McGinnis Investigations 1) but the various family members need their back stories. I love all of them and the mix of different cultures and attitudes in the books is superb.

The Well by Marie Sexton***** Ghosts, murder and mm romance. Dinner was late because I couldn’t stop reading.

Excellent non-fiction:

Tribes by David Lammy***** Excellent account of growing up with a foot in the ethnic minority south London community and another in the English public school. Really interesting and well written and gives a lot of thought provoking suggestions for political change.

Jew(ish) by Matt Greene***** This was a fascinating read in the light of Tribes! Matt is a non-observant Jew growing up in London, and he makes some hard hitting observations about how Jews are treated in UK as well as some enlightening commentary on anti-semitism in the Labour party.

Also The Commission on Racial Inclusivity in the Jewish Community by Stephen Bush who is one of my favourite New Statesman journalists. I learnt from this that he is a member of the Jewish community as well as being ‘black British’.

And The State of Hate 2021 – Hope Not Hate. A really good reference work to accompany the other books just mentioned about race in UK.

I’m not sure whether you can get those last two if you don’t subscribe to the relevant organisations but they’re well worth reading.

Good Fiction.

The Seattle Stories by Con Riley**** After Ben; Saving Sean; Aiden’s Luck. The constant use of the same theme (loss, comfort, etc.) began to irritate me but the series is interesting, dealing with the stories of a group of friends, and is well written.

Code Name: Liberty by Marshall Thornton**** Who is, and who is not a spy? And why? Lighthearted romance with thriller overtones.

Smailholm by C.L.Williams**** A story written as a kind of fairy tale set on the Scottish border during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. The book is not only interesting and well written; it comes beautifully presented with a lovely cover and bookmarks though I don’t know if that was just because I took advantage of a special introductory offer. Wynn is an interesting heroine.

Tenacious by Blake Allwood.**** The main couple have to deal with a stalker from a previous relationship. Well written and quite gripping. The fact that each chapter repeats some of the events from different points of view makes the story feel ‘padded’ so that I thought of it as a novella rather than a novel but as it was free I didn’t feel cheated.

The artist and his billionaire by CJ Turner**** Lovely detail at the start, with the main character as both a florist and an artist. Then the story peters out and the ending, although satisfactory, feels rushed. Definitely a novella, not a novel.

Acceptable fiction:

Red Heir by Lisa Henry*** Amusing rescue of a prince – but which redhead is the royal heit? A great concept but a lot of the characters could have done with much more detailed exploration.

Secret Admirer by DJ Jamison*** Nicely written but very predictable mm college romance.

Adore by JD Ellis *** Cooper gets a summer job as nanny for Ellis’ grandaughter.- the story is full of tired tropes but is nicely written

The Cipher by Isabella Maldonado*** The author is ex FBI and this is a competent thriller. It just isn’t wildly exciting.

Little Boy Dead by Marshall Thornton*** Another competent PI story in the Boystown series but again, ultimately boring, because I didn’t really develop any concern about the main character. Maybe you have to read the series, though I’ve read one other which struck me the same way. The author’s Pinx Video series catapults the reader into the lives of the amateur detectives and is much more satisfying.

And poor fiction, which I don’t recommend:

The Planter’s Wife by Ann Bennett** Take an unlikely plot and add an irritating structure. The narrative switches from 1st person to 3rd and swings between different times. It felt a bit like being on a see saw… I also found it hard to sympathise with the heroine whose life choices were strange.

Murderous Profession by DJ Small** Another unlikely plot pairing a female detective with a male sex worker. The villain was predictable and two dimensional.

Also, the ones I abandoned:

The Leadminer’s Daughter by Margaret Manchester. I thought this story set in the Yorkshire Dales would be interesting with its combination of historical romance and mystery in a familiar location but I got bored quite quickly.

The Complete Kate Hamblyn Detective Mysteries by David Hodges. There are 7 books in the box set. I gave up the first after just a few chapters. So much happened to the heroine from all sides (villains, family, colleagues) before we even really knew her, that I suspended all belief in the plot, plus she was clearly going to survive for another seven tales…

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. A novel about transgender experience. It sounded interesting but was very American with almost impenetrable family, school and social norms. I’d like to read the same thing set in UK. Probably good for American readers.

Without Magic by Tye Tivillus. A boring account that began with a teen sold into slavery. I gathered he would later learn he could be a magician but it was taking its time…

The Wide Night Sky by Matt Dean. A novel about a dysfunctional family. I didn’t much like any of them so stopped caring.

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls by Katie Cross. I suppose I should have expected this to be a bit HP derivative but it was also very boring. I didn’t really care what Bianca was up to.

Five things – lockdown style

I liked this meme from a friend’s blog. Travel has not been easy for any of us this past year. Anybody who wants to play is more than welcome and I look forward to hearing about some of your own areas.

The header picture is a vastly photoshopped and cropped picture of the centre of Chester. I can’t find the original (taken by me) and had to wrestle with this version which I’d turned into an online birthday card…

1) What’s the furthest place you’ve traveled to in the last 12 months?
Dorset, which is on the south coast, from Manchester in the north west. We managed a week in a self catering cottage just before Manchester locked down again.

2) What’s the most interesting small town within driving distance?

I think Chester though I’m not sure it counts as small. (Think cathedral, mediaeval buildingings, Roman stuff, river). If it doesn’t count, then Buxton: Georgian spa town in the Peak District.

3) What’s the coolest tourist attraction in your city?
Depends on you! Roman stuff, canals, Gay Village, neo-gothic town hall, museums and art galleries including The Lowry and the Northern Imperial War Museum though I think they’re on the Salford side of the river. Still, Salford and Manchester are intertwined.

4) What was your favorite road trip you took as a kid?

We used to spend days getting from Newcastle upon Tyne down to Newport, Gwent, (to visit relatives) and we’d stay in various places like York and explore on the way.

5) How often do you feel like you’ve got to get away?

I used to feel desperate to get away when I was working full time. Now I just feel desperate for decent weather so that I can spend time in the garden.

What I watched in April

First of all, before the weather turned wintry again, I watched the pear blossom coming out fully. I’m hoping the dearth of insects due to the cold spell won’t affect our crop too much. I love our pears: raw, poached, pickled or baked. A pear version of tarte tatin is wonderful.

But the weather drove me indoors so I watched TV instead.

The excellent:

Dogs behaving very badly***** We watched in awe as Graham politely and efficiently trained the owners…

Line of Duty***** I loved it, despite a lot of critical reviews of this season. I love the filming, the direction, and the main actors. It was fascinating, in the same week as the finale, to watch a programme (the name escapes me) about the very real corruption investigation in the Met. I suspect this was the last season, but some of the issues have been left open for another.

The Looming Tower ***** A very well executed (and acted) account of the events leading up to 9/11 and the lack of trust and co-operation between the CIA and the FBI which probably contributed to the general chaos.

The Truth about Franco: Spain’s forgotten dictatorship **** We saw most of episodes 1 – 4 (in the wrong order). It was interesting and it was good to see Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Holocaust, taking us beyond the end of that book to what came after.

And the abandoned.

BlacKkKlansman – This was a sad and unintended abandonment. I saw half then needed to stop (I think it was bedtime) and it wasn’t on a catch-up service. I will definitely watch the second half if it comes round again. The basic plot centres round the true story of an ethnic minority journalist who manages to infiltrate the KKK online then has to persuade his (Jewish) friend and colleague to do the in-person stuff.

Luther – I sort of abandoned this but as husband binge watched it I inevitably saw a number of episodes. I like Idris Elba but I don’t like the amount of bloodshed involved in the very convoluted crimes, and nor do I like frequent episodes where people stand on the edge of roof tops, etc.

Ice Cold Murders – Italian noir. We watched one episode but won’t bother with more. It tried to be Montalbano without the scenic attraction and the crime was not particularly interesting.

Writing fanfic v writing original fic: some thoughts

As you know from my March reviews, I read virtually no fanfic last month but that didn’t stop me from thinking about it, and about my own tendency to write both fanfic and original work.

Over the last twelve months I’ve published two novels, a couple of short stories and three fanfics. (For details, see previous posts.) The fanfics were longer than the original short stories, and took more research. It occurred to me you might like to know some of the differences between original and fanfic writing from the point of view of the author.

First of all, when writing fanfic, it’s important to know the ‘canon’ or original book, show or film. There’s no need to stick to it. As soon as my story starts, I’m veering away from the original, whether my tale takes place during the canon, before or after, or in an alternate universe. However, it’s important to know what the characters were originally up to. If, for example, one of them died in canon but I want them alive in my story (my The Paths of the Living which is LotR fanfic)has Boromir survive the attack of the orcs) I have to explain, credibly, why my version differs. Other fans are unlikely to read or enjoy something that ignores canon and drives a coach and horses through it. My novel SGX has original characters set against the concept of the Stargate – it has failed to attract any attention from SG fans and cannot, of course, be published as anything other than fanfiction. I’m still quite proud of it but I can understand that fans of SG1 want ‘their’ heroes. In a completely alternate universe (The Morning Gift has Bodie and Doyle of The Professionals in eleventh century Oxfordshire) the core character traits need to be maintained or there is no point using the character or trying to appeal to other fans.

Obviously when writing original fiction there’s a need to know the ‘backstory’ of each character but at least I’m responsible for that backstory and readers can’t contradict me. I do, however, have to be careful not to contradict myself!

Most of us don’t recall every detail of the shows we have seen. Books are easy, because it’s always possible to re-read. Happily, TV shows are easy, too, because the episode scripts are online and can be read and referred to. In this way, if I missed an episode I can still get its full impact provided I know the context, and if I can’t remember e.g. a minor character’s name, well, there it is on iMDB. There are also trailers and so on (on YouTube) to help the writer become reacquainted with movements, voices, etc. Sometimes, as with two of the auction fics I wrote, there’s a need to binge watch a new show. For The ballad of o guerreiro I had to watch Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard and for The fault…is not in our stars I had to finish watching the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. The watching is not pure pleasure; it’s important to concentrate and notice details that can be incorporated into a story. Having said that there has to be some pleasure involved or the stories won’t arrive in the author’s brain.

When writing original fiction, once I have created the characters I feel as though I know them in much the same way as I ‘know’ characters in books or on screen.

Most fans talk about needing to get the voices right. It’s essential to listen carefully to characters in a show. Listening gets the writer closer to their patterns of speech, vocabulary they frequently use, mannerisms such as pauses, and so on. I try to use a beta reader who is also familiar with the canon so that they can spot where I’ve deviated from any particular character’s norm. I usually write Brit characters but if I ever write e.g. American ones, I look for a beta who is also familiar with the speech patterns and vocabulary of the country. I once wrote a story in The West Wing (Campaign) and my beta saved me from calling a sweater a jumper…

In much the same way it’s important to keep original characters ‘in character’. Many writers (I’m one of them) use extensive notes and glossaries, some of which they share with their readers but the primary purpose is to keep the writing consistent. Not to mention details like eye colour or favourite drinks!

Some critics and authors sneer at fanfiction, calling it derivative and lacking in imagination. This should not need to be countered, but here we go.

All art is in some sense derivative. The creator is inspired by other art or by events in real life. Many artists begin by trying to recreate well known works. An original writer who is using historical fact or current scientific research to underpin their story is no less derivative. Similarly, much original work relies on traditional tropes and we all know there are very few original plots. A book or show introduces characters to readers and viewers. If these characters are sufficiently well developed and likeable fans will inevitably weave further stories about them. Writers create new stories about Arthur and his knights, about vampires and about elves; artists and architects such as Gaudi (see header picture) are inspired by the natural world. When I wrote Lord of Shalott I had to be careful about ‘canon’, particularly Tennyson’s poem, and the only reason my work could be published was that the ‘canon’ was out of copyright.

All writing requires imagination. (Even the writer of non-fiction has to imagine how their words will come across to the reader.) Imagining a story or scene involving someone else’s characters is not much different from imagining a story or scene involving invented characters. Nobody accuses the creators of the modern BBC Sherlock of lacking imagination but this is fanfiction all through.

Another common misconception about fanfiction is that it inevitably revolves around sex. Admittedly there is some erotica. After all, readers like it! But a great deal of fanfiction is either ‘gen’ or only brings in erotic elements as part of a complex plot whereas I have read a great deal of original fiction that is more sex than story. Obviously, mainstream commentary will highlight anything that titillates the public. I have personally included explicit sex in some of my work, such as The Paths of the Living, and The Morning Gift, but I have written other fanfiction where sex barely rates a mention. As with original work it really does depend on the story.

Some people seem to regard writing fanfiction as a kind of apprenticeship to what they call proper writing. As I began writing both at about the same time I have never subscribed to this idea. Also, the words ‘proper writing’ tend to assign a higher value to things that are made for sale rather than given out of love. Much fanfiction is written and posted freely for the pleasure of other fans and the resultant fan community is itself a reward.

I enjoy the fanfic community and I enjoy the company of other original writers. Sometimes the two sets overlap, possibly more often than people think. I don’t feel my writing is really different in either genre. I do know both give me pleasure and I hope they offer something to my readers too.

For anyone who wants to find my fanfiction, it’s all (96 works) on AO3 (Archive Of Our Own) under the pseudonym moth2fic. You don’t have to be a member to read, to download, or to comment. And most of it is, I hope, accessible to non-fans who have no idea of the canon.

The picture shows details on Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We visited before construction was finished.

Short stories read in March

The wallflowers have been in full bloom since early March. Rays of sunshine even on dull days!

I didn’t read any fanfiction worth mentioning last month though I downloaded a lot to read later. So this concludes my reviews for March.

As usual, I’m giving the best shorts four stars rather than five because I would have liked more lengthy explorations of the themes. Short stories have to hit a higher bar, for me, to get five stars.

The very good:

Bad, Dad and Dangerous by four authors. Rhys Ford (Wolf at first Sight), Jen Moffat (Kismet and Cadavers), TA Moore (Elfshot) and Bru Baker (Monster Hall Pass)**** I enjoyed all four stories and liked TA Moore and Rhys Ford best. All four have shifter fathers trying to have a life of their own despite needing to protect their children. Recommended for anyone who likes stories about shifters and appreciates some family life in their tales.

Blitz by Charlie Cochrane.**** Set in the London blitz. A delightful free short story from Charlie (on her website) embodying mm romance and world war two.

The readable:

Capital Crimes by various authors*** All the stories were about crimes that took place in capital cities. I liked Charlie Cochrane’s Game of Chance and The Drag Queen wore red by JL Merrow more than the rest but probably only because of already knowing the characters from the series. Karma by Alan McDermott was probably the best story in the collection but I couldn’t quite see how it related to the collection title. The rest were not inspiring.

Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi*** Reflections and discussions around childbirth, circumcision, marriage… Adichi is a good writer but I didn’t find much to inspire me in this story. However, I’m probably not the target audience. Also, I think her writing style demands long and involved storylines, not short glimpses of life.

The Poison Within by Kasia Bacon *** This was too short to get a real sense of the Order Universe where it takes place. It left me wondering whether I would enjoy the main series, and whether I would ever hear anything more about the protagonists. Disappointing, particularly because I approached it as an introduction to the writer’s work.

Abandoned

Wings of Change ed Lyn Worthen. YA stories about dragons. I read a couple of these and thought they’d probably appeal to teenagers. But not to me.

Rainbow Briefs ed Kira Harp. YA – I didn’t bother after the editor’s intro which made it very clear that these stories were for teens.

There is probably nothing to criticise about these two anthologies. It’s just that life’s too short to read a lot of work in a genre you don’t really enjoy!

Novels and longer books in March

I photographed the pear tree, just about to produce blossom, on the same afternoon as the flowering currant in my previous post. I hope this proves that the sky was in fact blue. Since then we’ve had snowstorms so I hope the blossom survives.

I seem to have read a lot in March. I am trying hard to get through all the backlog on my Kindle. I might manage it in April, at which point I will need to upload all the books I bought from other sites.

The excellent:

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison*****(+) I adored this. A young prince inherits the throne when all the family are killed in what seems to be an accident. He is the child of an elf father (the emperor) and a goblin mother (an arranged political marriage). When he becomes emperor of an elvish empire the effects are immediate and far reaching. As well as coping with his unexpected position he has to find out why his father and brothers died, and find a wife who will be politically and personally acceptable. A fascinating story and a wonderful character study. I wanted more but I don’t think there’s a sequel. Highly recommended.

Romancing the Ugly Duckling by Clare London ***** A delightful romance between a stylist totally out of his depth on a Scottish island, and a man who has fled not just London but the mainland to nurse his hurt over his treatment by his family. The story has humour, excitement, and some excellent minor characters.

It takes two to tumble by Cat Sebastian***** Lovely romance set in nineteenth century lake district. Ben is a young vicar who falls in love with Phillip, a widowed naval captain with children. The children almost steal the show, and the locals are a fascinating bunch.

Say Goodbye for Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde***** This was a gorgeous novel with a very slow burn romance between Calvin and Lucy. The story deals with issues of race in the southern states, and much of the focus iis on Calvin’s son, Justin and his friendship with Pete, a boy from an abusive home who has been befriended by Lucy, a doctor. Friendship is a strong part of the theme, as are the miscegenation laws of the state. The romance has to be put on hold until the laws are overturned, and the ending is hopeful but I would have liked a little more about what the future held.

The very good:

Bay City Paranormal Investigations Box Set by Ally Blue**** This set of stories, based round the characters who run the BCPI team, is absorbing and well written. There are various love interests, both mf and mm, though perhaps too much explicit sex for my taste. I was slightly disappointed by the fact that the major threat the team was investigating was not in fact something paranormal but some kind of sci fi alien invasion. This was never fully explained. They contained the threat – for now – but I would have liked more closure and more acknowledgement of the source of the danger. The conflation of paranormal and alien was slightly off-putting.

A Midwife’s Tale. The life of Martha Ballard based on her diary 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (New England)**** This was an interesting read. It combines a detailed exploration of Martha’s diary with facts and figures about medicine, midwifery and the role of women in New England rural society during her lifetime. As well as being a portrait of a fascinating woman (and her family), it deals with issues such as feminism, social bonds, local justice and the gradual removal of medical matters from the hands of experienced members of the community to male ‘experts’. I was slightly annoyed by the tendency of the author to repeat what had just been said in the diary extracts. Presumably she did not trust her readers to concentrate on the content.

Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries (vol 1) by Ashley Gardner**** The boxed set contains three novels and two short stories. Captain Lacey is back in London after the Napoleonic wars, and is involved in a number of criminal investigations. His old sergeant is a Bow Street Runner and is able to offer some help. Early nineteenth century London is portrayed in great detail. Whilst I found the books interesting I did not altogether empathise with the main characters and will probably not buy volume 2. However, if you like historical crime stories, I can recommend the series.

Sea Kissed by Spencer Spears**** A young man is washed up on the shore with no idea of his identity or how he came to be half drowned. He is found by a recluse who is initially just glad not to be recognised. Their stories are gradually revealed, to them as well as the reader. The blurb suggested this was an mm retelling of The Little Mermaid, but it was a very long way from the original, particularly because the recluse did not really fit the role of the prince . However, it did have a fairy tale quality, albeit with a thoroughly modern happy ending.

Lessons in Solving the Wrong Problem by Charlie Cochrane**** A nice new problem for the Cambridge Fellows, though as usual, I prefer the longer novels to the novellas so this didn’t make five stars. I did enjoy revisiting Jonty’s family from the earlier books in the series. Recommended to all who are following Jonty and Orlando, but for anyone who isn’t, the story might not make a great deal of sense since it references other cases and events without going into detail.

Close to the Bone by Kendra Elliot**** (Widow’s Island 1) I prefer the longer Mercy Kilpatrick books by this author so, like Charlie Cochrane’s book, this doesn’t achieve five stars. Elliot is a good writer and her mysteries are well crafted. I liked the setting, with the islands just off the coastal resort being the venue for death as well as romance.

Cowboys don’t ride unicorns by Tara Lain**** A cowboy/bull rider meets an interior designer when the latter comes to the stud farm for a short holiday. The attraction of opposites is immediate and intriguing. There is plenty of angst, not least over the dangers of bull riding and the homophobia of the cowboy’s father.

The Custodian of Marvels (Fall of the Gaslight Empire 3) by Rod Duncan**** This final volume in the series was just as exciting as books 1 and 2 but I felt the end was rushed and then there was the kind of glossary as an epilogue. That gave a potted history of events, and distanced me from the actual ending. Altogether I enjoyed this steampunk adventure but I preferred the first two volumes.

The readable:

All Systems Red (Murderbot 1) by Matha Wells*** I read rave reviews of this but was disappointed. It was well written and the author seems to get into the ‘brain’ of the robot lead character. But I felt the plot was too slight and predictable (murder and mayhem on a planet during exploration) and I don’t feel inclined to follow the series. I think the use of a robot as narrator is an excellent idea, but I prefer my sci fi with more depth to the story and the world as well as the characters.

Stranger in the Room (Keye Street 2) by Amanda Kyle Williams *** This was a well written but improbable crime story centred round the cousin of the lead detective. Because of her previous addiction and other problems, the police have not believed the cousin’s reports of a stalker. I would (like the detective) have liked more clues. There are deaths and horrors that culminate in a threat to both cousin and detective.

City of Perfect Moments by Annabeth Chatwin*** This is a YA mm romance – teens meet (and bond) and then face hostility for being weird rather than being gay – it’s well written but not my kind of book. If any reader has a teen who has problems with their sexuality it might be a good choice.

Winter Solstice in St Nacho’s by ZA Maxfield*** Another well written mm romance in the St Nacho series. This one spent most of the time following recovery from addiction which I’m sure is a worthy issue but not one I particularly wanted to read about. I was looking for an escapist romance and got a rather heavy and angst-ridden one. I enjoy the overall concept of the series, that the town draws those who will benefit from being there.

Haunted by Irene Preston and Liv Rancourt *** This turned out to be a short prequel and I was quite disappointed. A sceptical TV ghost hunter meets an insurance guy who has left the police force because of his reaction to what could be ghosts. A great concept, but this was too short to explore the characters properly, and the investigation was also too brief. I probably won’t buy the sequels in case they’re equally brief and unsatisfying.

Spellbreaker by Charlie M Holmberg*** Like Paper Magic by the same author, this story had a really fascinating and detailed magic system but this was combined with flat characters and plot. Elsie could be a good heroine but was never properly developed. Bacchus was an interesting character and I assume the pair will combine their skills in future volumes. However, I won’t be reading about them.

Next to Disappear by Malcolm Richards *** (Emily Swanson series) The crime in this novel is based on a true story about psychiatric treatment but amateur detectives Emily and Jerome are not very believable. Nor is the way Emily is first drawn into the investigation. I will not be following the series.

The Same Breath by Gregory Ashe*** A fairly good mm romantic thriller set in Utah against a background of Mormon upbringing. It was not as good as Pretty Pretty Boys, and I read it because I was waiting for the sequel to that. Tean is a wildlife vet and has to help Jem find out what has happened to his brother who has been investigating ecological damage.

The poor:

The Snowdonia Killings by Simon McCleave** I was looking forward to a thriller set in North Wales but the story was boring, about unlikeable characters, and was padded with unnecessary info dumps about Welsh history and legends.

A Light Amongst Shadows by Kelly York and Rowan Allwood ** This couldn’t make its mind up. Was it a ghost story? A school story? An mm romance? It was mostly unpleasant and was told in a style that didn’t quite match the intended Victorian England setting.

And the abandoned:

The Soul Killer by Ross Greenwood. When the tale switched from the killer’s life story (not a trope I enjoy) to a very boring detective I gave up.

Cathedral of Lies by John Pye. The blurb suggests the reader might solve the puzzle for themselves after the end of the book. So, as I don’t really play armchair detective games, I didn’t really start reading.

Confessions of a Curious Bookseller by Elizabeth Green. There were letters and possibly diary entries. There were a lot of italics which I find hard to read when they last for pages and pages. There was no ‘hook’ to interest me in whatever the story might have been about.

March viewing

It was a glorious spring day when I took this photograph and the sky was in fact a wonderful shade of blue. My camera disagreed. All attempts to restore the colour using e.g. Photoshop merely resulted in poorer colour for the flowering currant and the forsythia behind it. So you’ll have to imagine the blue.

Only one five star programme this month.

The Great Pottery Throwdown***** My comfort zone on Sunday evenings. I really enjoyed watching the competitors and second guessing who would win (I was usually right). I also learnt a lot about pottery, both the technical aspects and decorative techniques. A lovely series with an underlying educational focus. I think it was really pleasing that the winner was coincidentally an NHS nurse.

Then there are the ones I enjoyed.

Chris Packham: Aspergers and me**** I enjoyed hearing about Packham’s voyage of self discovery. It was not, of course, like that of my grandson. All people on the autistic spectrum are different, as are the rest of us! I would like people to stop referring to Aspergers – partly for that reason. Autism covers a wide range of things, and I don’t think separating one section of people with autism is very helpful. But if it keeps Packham happy, that’s his decision, not mine.

All the sins Season 2**** Finnish noir. I liked season 1 and wondered whether the fact that season 2 was a kind of prequel would spoil it. It didn’t. The focus on the religious minority cult was fascinating all over again. I would, however, have liked a little more about society in Finland in general, to make comparisons that I’m sure were clear to the original target audience.

Bloodlands**** Another thriller set in Belfast. Irish noir? I quite like James Nesbitt so I enjoyed the series. I’m not sure it will sell well outside UK unless accompanied by a manual about the N.Irish ‘troubles’.

The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama**** An excellent set of programmes exploring the art of the Romantic movement. I particularly liked the way Schama linked the art, music and poetry to the politics of the time. I certainly ended up viewing some of the work from a new perspective. I did want another programme, to at least mention all the other creators who weren’t mentioned.

And the ones I at least watched to the end.

Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam*** An interesting look at the beauty queen world and the various attacks on the entire concept as well as the later lives of some of the participants. It didn’t entirely hold my interest and I found myself multi-tasking, but it highlighted a lot of things that were not at all clear in 1970 when I watched the news coverage in real time.

Man in Room 301*** Another Finnish noir. This time, I got fed up quite quickly with the flashbacks and the obvious red herrings, but stuck with it to find out what would happen in the end. Not really a thriller in the normal sense of the word, just a very sad look at some horrible family dynamics.

Unforgotten Seasons 3 and 4 *** I hadn’t seen Seasons 1 and 2 and by the time the series was recommended I think I only just caught Season 3. I liked the lead detectives and the format of one case per season. However, Season 4 was depressing, particularly the ending, and I was also slightly irritated at the way the two seasons followed the same pattern: four main suspects with a gradual untangling of their various stories and viewpoinst. If there’s a Season 5 I probably won’t bother.

As usual, there were a couple I abandoned

Grace (John Simm). Highly improbable – both cast and story. I watch a lot of cop shows and this one really didn’t make the grade for me.

Between the lines. I remember enjoying this first time around and we thought we’d try again but everything seemed very dated plus the film aspect ratio has changed. I’ve noticed this in other older films/series but they have to be better than this for me to ignore it.

I apologise for not having managed to make a note of the various channels and catch-up availability this month. I can, however, say that none of the above were on Sky (which we don’t have) or Sky Arts (which doesn’t have a catch up service for non-Sky customers).

Finally, February Fanfiction

I read a lot of fanfiction in February.

First, one of my favourite authors, Brumeier. All these stories get four stars (and kudos) – not five because they aren’t quite long enough to satisfy my cravings. There is a background mm focus but no explicit sex.

Call back (SGA AU) https://archiveofourown.org/works/28968840

Far Better Things (SGA/Brokenwood Mysteries crime crossover) http://archiveofourown.org/works/23419876

Fullwood Mysteries: The Janus Treasure (SGA/Brokenwood) https://archiveofourown.org/works/29093673?

I will try to fix you (H5O) https://archiveofourown.org/works/29011548

Hawaii’s Night Marchers (H5O/SGA crossover)  http://archiveofourown.org/works/5008171  

Second, another favourite, Small Hobbit (and her friend/collaborator Okapi). Again, four stars for the same reasons. Incidentally, these are all gen fics i.e. there is no sexual content of any kind.

Tigger Holmes and the Case of the Shrunken Prince (Sherlock Holmes/Winnie the Pooh) https://archiveofourown.org/works/29615169

An absence of eggs (Castlevania – cartoon) https://archiveofourown.org/works/28695294

This makes 1000 works on AO3 by this author – though admittedly a lot of the works are drabbles. So as a gift in honour of the occasion, Okapi wrote the following:

The Singing Scheherazade https://holmes-minor.dreamwidth.org/184195.html

I was directed to this next m/f fic by a friend – not a fandom I’d ever have thought about though I love the series.

The great farce of love by saturni_stellis**** (Fawlty Towers) https://archiveofourown.org/collections/chocolatebox2021/works/28878861

and to this brief but delightful fic (no sexual content)

The Return of Pestilence by LilithReisender ****(Good Omens) https://archiveofourown.org/works/23172622

Last, but by no means least, another friend wrote this for yet another friend in the Lewis fandom. For anyone who doesn’t know (and it might not be obvious to non-Brits), the actor who plays Hathaway in Lewis has recently upset a lot of his fans by being extremely politically active on the far right. The author of this short story has the character in the show interview the real life persona… The result should bring comfort to those who (like me) dislike Fox’s politics and love Hathaway.

Foxhole by Fiorenza_a**** https://archiveofourown.org/works/29500569