Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

FastWomenFast Women
by Jennifer Crusie
2001

This was both a perfect palate cleanser after How To Be Alone and something of a direct rebuttal of it as well. Because this is definitely a romance novel, with a plot focused around two characters getting together and a guaranteed happy ending, but it’s also a remarkably nuanced look into a number of complex relationships. Fast Women is very much on the literary side of things — it deals with divorce, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, despair, and having to start over — and but is saved from that genre by maintaining a generally optimistic outlook on life. While a lot of purported ‘literature’ is unpleasant people living unpleasant lives, this book is consists of delightful people living interesting lives, but it’s no less complex or nuanced. It also has a number of ridiculous situations and conversations that had me giggling every other page.

The main character is Nell and her love interest is Gabe, but Nell has a friend group of two other women, and Gabe has a friend and business partner, and they each have a college-age kid, and each of these five characters is fully developed with their own personal issues and plot-lines.

The plot, such as it is, is an investigation that’s in large part trying to figure out what to investigate because there’s blackmail and murder and arson and theft and they’re all connected in some way, but it takes a good 400 pages for our characters to figure out how.

Anyway, it’s delightful and funny and I definitely recommend it. It’s also a reminder to me that the romance book genre is massive and contains pretty much any subgenre a person could possibly want to read.

 

Love for the Cold-Blooded by Alex Gabriel

coldbloodedLove for the Cold-Blooded: Or: The Part-Time Evil Minion’s Guide to Accidentally Dating a Superhero
by Alex Gabriel
2014

This is such an amazingly delightful and hilarious book! I highly recommend it! It had me chortling to myself. It also had so many scenes that I would have expected to hit my second-hand-embarrassment squick but instead sailed right past it with a derogatory look of: don’t expect these characters to be embarrassed by anything they do or allow anyone else to be embarrassed on their behalf. They are just fine with rolling with the situations.

And as a warning to Anna: it does have graphic sex scenes, that are not only graphic but also involve significant character development and plot progression so they can’t just be skipped.

This is the world of superheroes at it’s best: the superhero world of Saturday morning cartoons where the good guys win but the bad guys get away and no one is ever permanently harmed. The drama is high, the philosophy is pointed, and the aesthetics are amazing.

It also reminds me a bit of The Rest of Us Just Live Here since Pat, our main character who does the occasional part-time duty as a minion to whatever supervillain is currently making a bid for world domination, is mostly a college student who loves his major and has a pretty decent part-time job. He’s just so irrepressible and he loves his mom and dad and his sisters and his studies to be an urban developer and even being a minion is often annoying but sometimes fun and just part of life.

And Nicholas Andersen is the Tony Stark / Bruce Wayne of this world: the billionaire philanthropist tech-genius with awkward social skills who starts out thinking that Pat is the prostitute he requested sent up. (And Pat isn’t about to say “no” to sex with a hot guy who apparently wants to have sex with him.) And then life happens and it is all so ludicrously delightful and I love it!

stillwatersStill Waters
by Alex Gabriel
2015

As soon as I finished “Love for the Cold Blooded” I went to check out the author’s page for more. Sadly, there’s not much else and nothing in the last three years, but this novella is still really good.

It packs a fascinating amount of world-building around a very character-driven fantasy plot. Anyone who has read a lot of urban fantasy knows that it comes in a wide range of styles: from dark/gritty/game-of-thrones-esque to light/fluffy/romcom-esque. Are werewolves vicious slavering creatures going on murderous rampages or are they people who turn into puppies? In this story, they are both! Because the background premise is that there are rips that will occasionally allow people from one world to pass into a different world.

Drakjan, going by Julian, is one such individual. The world he’s from is a dark and dangerous fantasy world in which vicious creatures fight and kill and the world he’s now in is a softer fantasy world in which those same fantasy creatures share borders and have council meetings and are shocked when one of their own is murdered!

One of the great things about this book is Drakjan’s perspective because the whole world is so foreign to him even after  he’s settled in to the periphery of life in the new world, giving up the joy of killing for the pleasure of peace. But he’s still very much an outsider looking in, not quite understanding how (or even why) to fit in with the rest of the society.

The plot happens when someone else comes through another rip. (Two someones actually: a love-interest and a plot-point.) The plot is extremely straight forward but the characters and the world building are amazing and it’s just as well that the plot doesn’t get in the way of that. I would love to read more but it’s also self-contained as is.

Knife Children by Bujold

knifechildrenKnife Children
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

I love that Bujold is enjoying her retirement by writing short stories set in the various universes she created with her novels. Previously, she’d been writing in the Challion and Vorkosigan universes, but this story is set in the Sharing Knife universe.

And somehow I never actually reviewed any of the Sharing Knife quartet here?

sharingknife-series

The Sharing Knife: Beguilement (2006)
The Sharing Knife: Legacy (2007)
The Sharing Knife: Passage (2008)
The Sharing Knife: Horizon (2009)

They are each their own independent book, with plot arcs and character arcs that come to excellent conclusions, but they also form a quartet that has it’s own overarching plot arc, more so than just a series of four books. And the world they have is amazing!

It’s a fantasy world with a frontier era with towns and farms and blacksmiths homesteaders, etc, but also with a significant bit of cultural conflict between the Farmers (settlers and city people) and the Lakewalkers (nomadic tribes with a type extra ability that they consider normal but that Farmers consider magic). And then there’s the malices. (“Malices” to the Lakewalkers who hunt them, “blight-boggles” to the Farmers who don’t always believe they exist.)

The first book starts the romance between a young Farmer woman, Fawn, and a significantly older Lakewalker man, Dag, but it’s also about starting: starting, or starting again, and trying, and doing ones best, even if you don’t quite know where you’re going or how it’s going to work out. Sometimes you just have to do something and see where it gets you. I don’t want to spoil events by even starting to summarize the others books, but continue to follow Fawn and Dag as they find their place and places in the world. And a strong theme having to work to communicate across cultures but that it’s possible and it’s worth it, and it works if both sides are trying and not so much when either side isn’t.

And deal with malices along the way, because there’s a lot of adventure too, mostly to do with hunting (and being hunted by) malices.

The world building is amazing, especially when it comes to the malices, which are these magical beings that suck the life out of everything around them, and are immortal. Rather than the traditional definition of immortal (can’t be killed), Bujold has created these creatures that don’t know how to die. And thus the “sharing knives”, which are special bone knives capable of holding a death that can then be shared with a malice. And just the thought that goes into the magic and the culture and the misunderstandings and just, oh so good!

I recommend them all.

But coming back to Knife Children: it’s set a dozen or so years after the end of the book series. It follows Barr, a character introduced in Passage, as a young ass of a Lakewalker who slowly becomes a better person over the course of two books, and his teenage half-Farmer daughter Lily, who was not previously aware of her half-Lakewalker heritage. Unlike the books, there’s only peripheral malice conflict, and the plot is driven almost entirely by the character arcs, and those characters are wonderful.

I’m not sure how well the short story stands on its own, but it was certainly intended to. And I’d be interested in hearing if anyone tries it, what their thoughts are.

But mostly I want to reiterate that Bujold is amazing and I highly recommend her and all of her writing.

Between Two Thorns

By Emma Newman

Between_Two_ThornsThis book was described as Jane Austen meets magic, which sounded pretty good. And it is pretty good! It just isn’t…that. Lately any book set in a regency-type society is compared to Jane Austen, completely disregarding that it is the characters, not the setting, that makes her so popular. Austen imbues her characters with such wit and charm that it is a delight to read about them even in the most mundane setting or plot. Between Two Thorns doesn’t have any of that charm, really, but instead it has some very good world building.

Three worlds, actually. The mundane, which is our normal reality and set in modern times. The Ether is the faery world, which is very pastoral and hyper-saturated, and no apparent link to time or other laws of physics. The Nether is the land between the two, where the fae-touched live. They are human families that serve the fae in return for longevity and some various magical boons. What I thought was particularly clever is that the Nether, time-wise, is sort of caught between the timelessness of the Ether and the progression of the Mundane, and so progresses, but at a much slower rate. At the time of the novel, it is in a Victoria-like age, with extremely strict rules for society and hierarchy.

The main protagonist, Cathy, is the oldest daughter of a fae-touched family, and desperate to escape the confines of the Nether society. At the book’s beginning, she has escaped to the Mundane where she has been living for a year, going to university in Manchester. It’s a long book, but one of the things that makes it pass so quickly is that there are actually three storylines with three different protagonists.

In addition to Cathy, there is a completely mundane man who accidentally witnesses a crime committed by one fae-touched against another, and is now pursued by both those that were behind the crime and those that are investigating it. He starts sort of shlubby but grows on you.

One of the investigators is my favorite character, or rather ‘characters’. Those that investigate the fae must be sundered from their souls, so that they cannot be magically influenced. It is a whole process; however, our investigator’s soul accidentally gets absorbed into a gargoyle, who is then animated by that soul. So, you’ve got a very hard-boiled detective, because he lacks the ability to truly feel anything, and a very emotional gargoyle, because it now feels everything the detective does not. I love both of them, but perhaps the gargoyle a little better.

Between the three characters and plotlines that eventually converge, there’s a lot of action, which initially distracted me from the book’s pretty significant plot flaw. (spoiler alert)  Continue reading

Meet Cute

By various authors

Meet_CuteI’ve been having a bit of a reading crisis lately. I’ve started three different books and can’t seem to get past around the midway point. It’s not the books’ fault – I mean they aren’t stellar or anything, but there wasn’t any clear reason for my lack of interest. My best explanation is just that the news has been so inundating and depressing lately, and I can’t seem to stay off twitter, and I’m just all worn out.

So, I figured I’d recharge with a fluffy collection of short stories! Just a bunch of cute first romantic meetings sounds comforting, right? Well, I didn’t exactly get what I was looking for. They for-sure cover the meet part, but most of the authors seem to have forgotten the cute part. About half (okay, only a quarter of them, but it felt like half) the stories feature someone in mourning for a dead loved one, like only through grief are they vulnerable enough to accept love, and it is a real bummer.

On the plus side, they mixed it up with good diversity, in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, so that’s something at least. Here’s some cold, hard data:

  • Short stories included in anthology: 14
  • Stories involving grief over the death of a loved one: 4
  • Stories featuring high-school bullying: 3
  • Stories with a main character older than 25: 0
  • Stories that my cranky old self actually thought were cute: 3.5*
    (none of the death or bullying ones)

*3 stories were straight-up super cute, and one had a very interesting premise, but the characters themselves weren’t super engaging.

Christmas stories

Hot Toy
by Jennifer Crusie
2015

This made me giggle wildly to myself while reading it on a plane. It’s ludicrous and hilarious and I just love the way Crusie writes her characters. The story is about Trudy’s search for the hot new toy that her nephew asked for from Santa (a soldier toy named Major MacGuffin. Hahahaha!) but that is, of course, impossible to find on Christmas Eve. Then there are the spies and the smuggling and the insane banter.

I’ve enjoyed books by this author before and the main character here, Trudy, reminds me a lot of the main character in her book Bet Me, Min, in the way she’s determined, quick witted, and has a massive chip on her shoulder that she is absolutely going to take out on the guy who can either take it or go away. It makes me happy.

I described it to Anna as similar to a Connie Willis story in the general ludicrous insanity of the plot and the banter, and she pointed out that there’s a fabulous Connie Willis Christmas story that I still hadn’t read yet:

Just Like The Ones We Used To Know
by Connie Willis
2003

This felt very much like the movie Love Actually, except good. It’s funny and sweet and skips around through a vast cast of characters who are each dealing with their own issues, but also dealing with the main premise of this story which is that it’s snowing on Christmas Eve. It’s snowing on Christmas Eve *everywhere*: Minnesota and New York is normal, Florida and Hawaii is not normal at all. But in this story, *everyone* is having a white Christmas Eve and it is wrecking havoc. And mostly that havoc is excellent and results in improved situations for everyone we like.

I’ve never read anything by this author that I disliked but I’m also careful with what I read from her because she ranges from side-splittingly hilarious to heart-breakingly depressing. This story is definitely on the funny side, but I don’t guarantee any of the other stories in an anthology.

J.J. McAvoy

BlackRainbowMcAvoyBlack Rainbow
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

ThatThingMcAvoyThat Thing Between Eli and Gwen
by J.J. McAvoy
2016

SugarBabyMcAvoySugar Baby Beautiful
by J.J. McAvoy
2015

 

So I wavered on writing these books up because they’re in a genre I don’t generally admit to reading: the short, extremely self-indulgent, quite graphic, romance novel. It’s a genre that pretty much defines the guilty pleasure book for a lot of women (it’s a money-maker genre in the publishing industry.) They’re not, generally speaking, good books, but they can be intensely satisfying and relaxing brain candy.

J.J. McAvoy might have managed to break the mold for this genre, though, because I think her books might be genuinely good. They are certainly significantly better than any other books in this genre that I’ve ever read. The issues the characters deal with are relatively believable and sympathetic, but more importantly her characters are all smart and witty and just a bit mean without ever being cruel.

Reading these books really highlighted for me how my favorite characters are all at least a tiny bit mean. I don’t like cruelty, but neither do I like a milksop. These characters, they talk and they bicker and they’re in their partner’s weight-class as far as those fights go, and they genuinely apologize on the rare occasions they go too far or hit an exposed nerve. The books transcend the self-indulgent fantasy by being about characters who are enjoyable in their own right.

And then McAvoy modified the standard plot arc in a way that I’m really impressed with. I’m going to put that beneath a spoiler cut, although there won’t be any specific spoilers.

I won’t recommend the books to everyone, because you do have to enjoy the genre first, but if you do, then you should absolutely try these.

Plot arch spoilers:

Continue reading