No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, July 06, 2017

2017/68: The Lawrence Browne Affair -- Cat Sebastian

Sodomites had been a favorite subject of his father’s rage-fueled tirades... lumped in with other crimes against nature, such as Catholicism and being French. [p. 154]
Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is mad. (He's not technically the Mad Earl: that sobriquet was given to his elder brother, who's now dead.) Lawrence, who has sensory perception problems (loud noises make him anxious: he likes his environment to be predictable), is perfectly happy living hermit-like in Penkellis, his crumbling ancestral home, doing Science. Most of the servants have left (a small matter of an explosion or two) but the vicar visits several times a week. One day he suggests that Lawrence might benefit from a secretary.

Enter Georgie Turner, younger brother of the more ruffianly Jack (one of the protagonists of The Soldier's Scoundrel. Georgie has got on the wrong side of a London crime lord and, for his own safety and that of his friends and family, decides that Cornwall is an excellent career move. He arrives at Penkellis with the intention of doing a little work, determining whether the Earl is really mad, and absconding with any portable souvenirs that catch his eye.

It is, however, not that simple.

Lawrence has a conscience, and believes that he is inherently bad and broken. Georgie is also, irritatingly, developing a conscience: not a success factor for a professional conman. Lawrence is gratified by Georgie's interest in, and growing understanding of, his scientific labours (they are inventing something rather like a telegraph); Georgie discovers a new-found passion for learning and intellectual challenge. Also a, possibly not as new-found, passion for strong men chopping wood in their shirtsleeves.

Add a Cornish smuggling ring, a doomed marriage, an orphaned child, and a notorious rake (see The Ruin of a Rake) ... a very entertaining read, and an emotionally satisfying romance that's founded on mutual respect and consideration.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

2017/67: The Ruin of a Rake -- Cat Sebastian

... to combine scientific pursuits with actual orgies struck Julian as excessive in all directions.[loc. 63]
Julian Medlock is a shipping heir, the epitome of a Regency gentleman, whose carefully-polished exterior that armours him against the world and hides a number of secrets. Lord Courtenay is a notorious rake, penniless despite his aristocratic name, who has become bored of being bad. Courtenay is widely acknowledged to be the inspiration behind lurid bestseller The Brigand Prince of Salerno -- a novel which Julian knows rather well.

Eleanor, Julian's sister, is unhappy despite her unladylike scientific pursuits: she has surrounded herself with what appears to be a circle of reprobates, Courtenay chief among them. Julian feels responsible for his sister, whose unsuccessful marriage he helped arrange. Summoned by his sister's butler to 'rescue' her from the perceived depravities ensuing from her friendship with Courtenay, he finds himself involved in a scheme to improve Courtenay's reputation -- ideally without wrecking his own. He is uncomfortably aware of Courtenay's good looks: now he begins to realise that he's misjudged the man.

Charming, funny, and notable for having a protagonist who is good at accounts. Julian is, perhaps, his own worst enemy: but he and Courtenay mellow one another's less admirable traits, and even manage to communicate effectively. I think this is my favourite so far of Cat Sebastian's novels: and it's the third in the linked trilogy which began with The Soldier's Scoundrel. I realised I'd missed out the middle volume, The Lawrence Browne Affair, so set out to remedy that omission.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

2017/66: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen -- Lois McMaster Bujold

"So, how long has my mother had this questionable fetish for bisexual Barrayaran admirals? I don’t think even the Betans have earrings for that one." [loc. 4825]

Three years have passed since the death of Aral Vorkosigan. His wife Cordelia, being Cordelia, has not resigned herself to a faded life of mourning: she is Vicereine of Sergyar (the planet where the two first met, back in Shards of Honour) and is pursuing a number of projects. One of these involves Admiral Oliver Jole, who has appeared -- fleetingly -- as Aral Vorkosigan's aide in several previous novels, and is now revealed to have been Aral's lover for many years, in a polyamorous relationship which shivered to pieces after Aral's death. Cordelia and Jole have remained close friends, though, and at the beginning of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Cordelia returns from Barrayar with a freezer-case full of genetic material and a very interesting offer for Jole.

This novel focusses on Cordelia and Jole's renegotiation of their relationship, and of their lives. Jole is about to celebrate his fiftieth birthday: Cordelia is in her seventies (though Betan lifespans are typically well over a century): they have both lived full and worthy lives, and they have both grieved the same man. Now, perhaps, it's time for a change of direction.

Which is obviously when Miles and Ekaterin and their six children show up.

I find I don't have a great deal to say about this novel, though I enjoyed it immensely. My first great crush on the Vorkosigan Saga is two decades in the past: I was only vaguely aware that Aral had died, since I haven't read the last couple of novels in the sequence. But I returned to Cordelia like an old friend; I'm saddened by the death of Aral; and I am quietly pleased that he had Jole, as well as Cordelia. (In the early books it was clear that, while bisexual, he preferred men: Cordelia was the exception, because she was nothing like a typical Barrayaran wife.)

I'm happy, too, that characters past the first flush of youth are written as romantic and sexual beings; that they communicate well with one another, rather than having the kind of difficulty that comes from mutual incomprehension and is so common in flimsier romantic fiction; and that Betan technology gives Jole a chance at parenthood with the person he loved.

I strongly recommend Foz Meadows' post on this novel, which I found fascinating -- not least because it references a work of fan fiction which could be seen as predictive -- and which also has a comment from Bujold.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

2017/65: Untamed -- Anna Cowan

The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening. [loc 812]
Regency romance in which the Duke of Darlington flees London disguised as a woman: this is a factual but useless description.

Untamed is set in something like the Regency period (see below for qualifiers); it is a romance; the Duke does dress up, gloriously and in the outmoded style of the previous generation, as 'Lady Rose'. He does leave London to stay with Katharine ('Kit') Sutherland -- sister of one of his many, many conquests -- and is horrified to discover that she works hard, morning to night, to keep the household fed and the money coming in.

None of that is especially useful either.

I think I must have heard about Untamed when it first came out: apparently I bought it four years ago, though have only just got around to reading it. And rereading. It is a glorious novel, suffocatingly intense and sensuous in the broadest usage of the term. Kit and the Duke are utterly fascinating, as is the changing detente between them. At times I was reminded of Dunnett's heroes, vulnerable and vicious and too clever for their own good: at times of Heyer's tougher and more practical heroines (and heroes, for that matter). And while on first reading I was rudely flung out of the novel by a scene that I simply could not believe in (the ball, with Kit's grand entry: I stopped reading at that point and set the book aside for a couple of days) I couldn't stay away.

So my approach to some of the more anachronistic, less credible moments -- there are a few, though nothing on the level of that particular scene -- is to treat the novel as an alternate history, possibly even a fantasy (sans magic). There are certainly aspects that jar horribly with the conventional Regency setting, and turns of phrase, or thought, that sound disconcertingly modern: but those potential flaws make perfect sense for the characters. (And yes, there are Corn Laws, and a potential rival for the Duke's title, and glancing mentions of a more familiar nineteenth century: but these are background.)

The secondary characters in Untamed are well-drawn -- especially brother Tom with his secret hobby -- but nobody feels quite as real as Kit. I find her pragmatic approach to life thoroughly satisfactory, and the perfect foil to the beguiling Duke.

I like Anna Cowan's prose: simple, evocative phrasing -- 'his heart alight with hopeful anticipation' -- blended with rawly specific descriptions of emotion and its outward effects. I'd like to see what she does next.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

2017/64: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal -- KJ Charles

“I believe that each haunting is an unfinished tale, of some kind,” Simon said. “If the story can be concluded, so is the ghost’s presence. The untold story is agony, whether it is the fact of a murder or the location of a will, or simply…unfinished business." [p. 58]

Simon Feximal is a ghost hunter and occult detective: Robert Caldwell, the ostensible author of the 'case notes', encounters him when the mansion he's inherited turns out to be haunted by a lustful, frustrated ghost. Feximal, whose skin is patterned with literal ghost-writing, is bad-tempered and taciturn. Caldwell believes he can see past Feximal's dour exterior to the man within. But his association with Feximal exposes him to dangers both supernatural and chillingly mundane.

There are many familiar names here: the Diogenes club, Carnacki the Ghost Hunter, the occultist Karswell (who gave Simon Feximal the runes on his skin), Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, Caldwell describes himself as 'your chronicler, your humble assistant, your John Watson'; and Feximal is the same species of brilliant eccentric as Holmes. This partnership, though, is explicitly a sexual and romantic one as well as a professional relationship, and Caldwell in his role as chronicler has written that 'secret' aspect out of their history.

I returned to this novel -- or, rather, anthology of connected stories -- after reading Spectred Isle, which is set in the same timestream and features some of the same characters. Secret Casebook is perhaps my least favourite of Charles' works and I think it's because it's told in the first person. Not that Caldwell is an unlikeable narrator: but Feximal is, despite Caldwell's insights, an almost impenetrable wall of silence, and that unevenness gave the book quite a different flavour to KJ Charles' other works.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

2017/63: Spectred Isle -- KJ Charles

"...when dawn comes, am I going to find myself bare-arsed on Burwell Castle’s remains, and a lady antiquarian belabouring me with her parasol?”
“I can only pray you will. First it would mean we were home, and second, I’d pay to see that.” [loc. 1815]

Disclaimer: I had an advance copy because I'm interviewing KJ at Nine Worlds, and it will be Fun.

First in a new trilogy, The Green Men, which is set in the same 'world' as The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. (I bounced off that book on first attempt, so didn't get around to reading it until after Spectred Isle.) Unlike many of KJ Charles' other novels, it's set in the twentieth century -- in the 1920s, in fact, in an England which is still recovering from the horrors of a World War -- and where the Green Men have been defending England against occult forces since well before the Archduke's assassination. Though the War made things rather worse ...

Saul Lazenby is a former archaeologist and military man, disgraced and discharged: he used to work with Leonard Woolley, but is now employed by Major Peabody, an enthusiastic amateur (or nut job, depending on point of view) who's keen on 'magical powers, haunted temples and secret societies'. Saul is grateful for the employment, and keeps his reservations to himself.

Then one day he's walking along, minding his own -- well, Major Peabody's -- business, and an oak tree bursts into flames.

This event sparks his first encounter with Randolph Glyde, an irascible aristocrat with a glinting smile. (Lazenby does not take to him). Glyde, it turns out, is a Green Man, a magician charged with the investigation of a recent upsurge of unpleasant occult activity in London. After their encounter against a backdrop of spontaneously-combusting oak, Glyde doesn't expect to see Lazenby again: but Lazenby keeps turning up at occult flashpoints. Can it be coincidence? Or could there be something to Major Peabody's theories?

Both men are profoundly affected by the War: Glyde lost almost all his arcane colleagues, Lazenby his profession and his reputation. Glyde is staggering under the burden of his family's twenty-three generations of service: Lazenby's family has disowned him. ("Disowning, indeed. How bourgeois," remarks Glyde.) More than anything, perhaps, what they need from one another is empathy: they want to be understood, they need kindness.

The secondary characters are well-rounded, in particular Glyde's fellow Green Men, Sam Caldwell, Barney and Isaacs: I am furiously intrigued by the latter two, soldiers who are the sole survivors of a military experiment. And the War Beneath continues, with fen-grendels, a medieval turncoat, and an outclassed British Government who'd really like the Green Men to work for them.

Absolutely gripping, and also very funny, largely because Lazenby and Glyde share a dark and caustic sense of humour: one of my top five KJ Charles novels.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

2017/62: Touch not the Cat -- Mary Stewart

'Only you were reading my thoughts. Do you often do that?'
A pause, as long as four quickened heartbeats. Then he said, easily: 'Twin and I do it as a matter of course. Shades of Bess Ashley, the gipsy, didn’t you know?'
'It must save a lot of telephone calls,' I said lightly. [loc. 2067]
Bryony Ashley has grown up with an invisible friend: a member of her own family (though she's not sure which one) who communicates directly with her, mind to mind. The two start as friends, and come to love one another, though it is -- for the time being -- a necessarily unconsummated love.

Then Bryony's father dies in a hit-and-run, and her mysterious lover calls her home from Madeira to the crumbling splendour of Ashley Court, and the company of her twin cousins James and Emory. Still puzzling over her father's puzzling final words -- a cat on a pavement, a letter in the brook -- Bryony becomes aware of two things: firstly, that her father was murdered; and secondly, that the murderer might be her secret lover.

This is a charming and well-paced novel, with an element of the Gothic and the ability to laugh at itself. It's hard to tell when it's set (possibly the mid-Seventies, when it was written?) at least partly because of the sense that little ever changes at Ashley Court. There are flashbacks, too, to an earlier time in the family's history: 1835, when two lovers are trying to keep their relationship secret.

Though the romance is threaded through the novel (the chapter headings are quotations from Romeo and Juliet) it's not the sole plot: there is the mystery of Bryony's father's dying words, the identity of the person or persons who arranged his murder, the family's failing finances, the American tenants of Ashley Court, the overgrown maze in the middle of the garden, and the risk of further flood damage. A satisfying mystery and a comfortable romance, though I confess I didn't warm to the characters.