Book Review: Boyfriend Material (Boyfriend Material #1) by Alexis Hall

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Romance
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date: July 7th, 2020
Pages: 472, trade paperback
Source: Library

One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way

Luc O’Donnell is tangentially–and reluctantly–famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.

To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.

But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go. 

This was Fine, but it went on for too long — the novel could have been cut by about 50+ pages and it would have flowed so much better. This seems to be a thing with Hall’s novels, though, in that they’re very long when they don’t necessarily need to be.

Luc and Oliver’s relationship also didn’t move me that much, to be honest. I’m not sure what was leaving me cold about it, except that Oliver felt a little shallow at times. This isn’t helped by the fact that Hall waits until the last 100 pages or so to deal with Oliver’s issues, after focusing the entire novel on Luc’s. It really felt like it was just forced in at the end.

I do love Hall’s dialogue, though, and the friendships in Boyfriend Material are a lot of fun. I liked the repeating gag where Luc tries to tell his coworker a joke, and the coworker just doesn’t get it — very reminiscent of the same gag from The Vicar of Dibley, but one I enjoyed nonetheless.

I don’t really have much more to say than this, honestly. Like I said, Boyfriend Material left me a bit cold. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. I was whelmed, you could say. I might still glance at Husband Material but I won’t be rushing out to read it.

Book Review: Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Thriller
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 432, hardcover
Source: Library

When two Niveus Private Academy students, Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo, are selected to be part of the elite school’s senior class prefects, it looks like their year is off to an amazing start. After all, not only does it look great on college applications, but it officially puts each of them in the running for valedictorian, too.

Shortly after the announcement is made, though, someone who goes by Aces begins using anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that turn their lives upside down and threaten every aspect of their carefully planned futures.

As Aces shows no sign of stopping, what seemed like a sick prank quickly turns into a dangerous game, with all the cards stacked against them. Can Devon and Chiamaka stop Aces before things become incredibly deadly?

There were aspects of this I really liked, but there were two big things that kept breaking my suspension of disbelief: 

1. Where are the parents? We have a reasoning for Devon’s mother not really being present in the story, but what about Chiamaka’s parents? Chiamaka reasons that her white Dad, who wouldn’t even protect her from his family’s racism, won’t be much help and of course she doesn’t want her parents to know about what she’s done, but her mother is almost forgotten and there’s no reason given for why. It feels like this was originally written with Chiamaka and Devon in college, that’s how little their parents are around. If Niveus really wanted to ruin their lives, why wouldn’t they pull their parents in as well? 

2. The ending was fine, but it suffers from the same flaw as in Get Out‘s ending: Once you think about where things go from there, it sort of falls apart. I couldn’t buy that Niveus and the Aces wouldn’t somehow pin the events of the ending on Chiamaka and Devon, that they were beaten by this one thing that happened. I do understand what the author was going for (an institution built on racism and white supremacy can’t be salvaged, and the only way forward is scorched Earth) but it wasn’t well thought out. 

At times I got the feeling I was reading a draft of the novel. The main plot was mostly pinned down, but everything else sort of fell by the wayside, including Chiamaka and Devon’s relationship, the setting, and the fact that the author had to very obviously make the parents disappear in order to get the plot to do what it needed to do. 

The atmosphere was appropriately claustrophobic and sinister, and I liked both Devon and Chiamaka’s characters. Their voices were distinct from each other, and their stories on their own stand up well. Their relationship just never clicked for me, especially not to the point that the author took them to in the ending. It seemed as if they mostly tolerated each other because they had to, and I couldn’t see them being in contact after the events of the book. 

Ace of Spades has a lot of good things going for it, but the execution was sloppy. I look forward to what Àbíké-Íyímídé does in the future, as I think once she has more experience writing books, the issues I had in this book will disappear.

Book Review: Pride Puppy! by Robin Stevenson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Juvenile picture book
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publication Date: May 11th, 2021
Pages: 32, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A young child and their family are having a wonderful time together celebrating Pride Day–meeting up with Grandma, making new friends and eating ice cream. But then something terrible happens: their dog gets lost in the parade! Luckily, there are lots of people around to help reunite the pup with his family.

This rhyming alphabet book tells a lively story, with rich, colorful illustrations that will have readers poring over every detail as they spot items starting with each of the letters of the alphabet. An affirming and inclusive book that offers a joyful glimpse of a Pride parade and the vibrant community that celebrates this day each year. 

P is for “Pride Puppy!” Written by Robin Stevenson and illustrated by Julie McLaughlin, this rhyming alphabet book is a rollicking run through a day at a Pride Parade. A family celebrating Pride Day at the parade loses and eventually finds their dog, encountering many different people and activities. 

The blurb included in the ARC describes the illustrations as “busy, bright, and dynamic,” and they certainly are. The artistic style will appeal to young children, as will the rhyming cadence. The book is decidedly queer-centric, and the blurb also states that the family is purposely non-gendered. 

This is a great introduction for young readers to the LGBTQ+ community, and I recommend it.

Book Review: The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall by Jessica Thorne

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bookouture
Publication Date: March 26th, 2021
Pages: 347, Kindle
Source: NetGalley

September, 1939. The moon shines silver on the looming yew trees. Thinking of her fiancé, fighting for his life and country in the war, breaks Eleanor’s heart, but also gives her courage. She takes a deep breath, picks up her camera, and follows the dancing lights into the maze.

Present day. With her little brother Missing in Action, gardener Megan Taylor runs from her grief to take a job at Foxfield Hall – a centuries-old place full of myths and folklore – restoring the wild maze in the overgrown gardens. Throwing herself into shaping the tangled ivy, Megan soon becomes drawn into the mystery of Lady Eleanor Fairfax, the Hall’s most famous resident… the villagers say she disappeared without trace at the Harvest Festival in 1939, leaving behind a grieving father and a heartbroken fiancé.

Leafing through delicate old newspaper cuttings and gazing at an ornately framed portrait of the missing woman, Megan is full of questions. Although no body was ever found, could Eleanor have been murdered? Did she run away, unwilling to marry the man who loved her? Or, with her father working at the War Office, did Eleanor stumble upon a secret she shouldn’t have?

Then, one night under a full moon, a mesmerising light inexplicably draws her to the entrance of the maze. Megan is filled with a strange certainty that, if she follows it into the shadows, it will lead to the truth about Eleanor… but could Megan herself be the next occupant of Foxfield Hall to be lost forever?

A spellbinding, magical and addictive tale about the mysterious and ancient legends at the heart of the English countryside, and how to find those who are lost. Perfect for fans of Outlander, Susanna Kearsley and The Binding.

In The Lost Girls of Foxfield Hall, Jessica Thorne has created a time-travel, alternate history/alternate future, Arthurian-inspired mystery and LGBTQTIA+ romance. What might have been, and what is, are unsettled, and garden restoration expert Megan Taylor must work her way through a literal maze to find the truth about the past.

Megan takes a job restoring the gardens at a luxury hotel and spa run by her friend from university. Her soldier brother has been declared MIA, and she wants a place to get away from her present. She literally finds that as she wanders through a garden maze and ends up in 1939, meeting Ellie Fairfax, the daughter of Foxfield Hall, which is the site of the present-day hotel. Megan makes it back to the present, and begins to research the estate. Ellie disappeared not long after their meeting, and Megan is determined to discover why. She discovers a curse, a witch, and how the past is not always immutable.

Megan and Ellie are strong and compelling characters, and readers will be heavily invested in their stories.

Book Review: Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Genre: Gothic Fantasy Romance Young Adult
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021
Pages: Hardcover, 400 pages
Source: NetGalley

He saw the darkness in her magic. She saw the magic in his darkness.

Wren Southerland’s reckless use of magic has cost her everything: she’s been dismissed from the Queen’s Guard and separated from her best friend—the girl she loves. So when a letter arrives from a reclusive lord, asking Wren to come to his estate, Colwick Hall, to cure his servant from a mysterious illness, she seizes her chance to redeem herself.

The mansion is crumbling, icy winds haunt the caved-in halls, and her eccentric host forbids her from leaving her room after dark. Worse, Wren’s patient isn’t a servant at all but Hal Cavendish, the infamous Reaper of Vesria and her kingdom’s sworn enemy. Hal also came to Colwick Hall for redemption, but the secrets in the estate may lead to both of their deaths.

With sinister forces at work, Wren and Hal realize they’ll have to join together if they have any hope of saving their kingdoms. But as Wren circles closer to the nefarious truth behind Hal’s illness, they realize they have no escape from the monsters within the mansion. All they have is each other, and a startling desire that could be their downfall.

Allison Saft’s Down Comes the Night is a snow-drenched romantic fantasy that keeps you racing through the pages long into the night.

Love makes monsters of us all.

There are slight spoilers for the novel in this review.

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft is an interesting mix of two genres, Gothic and fantasy romance, that Saft doesn’t quite manage to blend well.

Saft has all the pieces of a good story here, but the way they’re brought together doesn’t make sense after a while. I don’t often say this but Down Comes the Night has too much going on to just be a stand-alone novel, and that’s thanks to the fantasy elements. There are things that happen that are easily solved in order to keep the plot going in the direction Saft needs it to go. The biggest offender is near the end, when Hal has been imprisoned and Wren and her commanding officer/first love go to save him. There are only three guards in front of his cell, and they’re all “inexperienced” according to Saft. Why would you put inexperienced guards on a notorious war criminal’s cell? You put your best on that post. Predictably, Wren and her commanding officer are able to intimidate the officers away, and they literally walk out of the prison with Hal.  Everything worked too conveniently according to what Saft needed to happen, even when logic dictates that it shouldn’t have. I spent too much of this novel going, “This shouldn’t have worked, and I can literally think of several reasons why.”

The timeline of the novel is literally two weeks, maybe three, and in that time I’m meant to believe that Wren and Hal are able to not only put aside their differences to be civil with each other, but fall in love? I couldn’t buy it, unfortunately. I can see what Saft was trying to do with Wren’s character, making her a compassionate, emotional girl who can connect with people, and I do appreciate that. There just wasn’t enough time for me to believe that her relationship with Hal progressed the way that it did.

Added to that, the villain’s plot doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. The villain is an interesting character on their own, but ultimately their storyline had too many holes in it I couldn’t ignore, and too many instances of characters acting a certain way so that Saft could get the villain to do what she needed him to do. The worldbuilding, which influences the villain’s plot, also doesn’t hold up once you think about it for too long.

Maybe if Saft hadn’t tried to do so much in one novel, it would be better. But the constant convenience of everything going whatever way Saft needs it to in that moment in order to get to the next checkpoint on the plot became too much to ignore, and ultimately, does the story a severe disservice.

Book Review: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace Books
Publication Date: June 18th, 2019
Pages: 352, trade paperback
Source: Library

In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham finds himself drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. 

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

I thoroughly enjoyed this strange little mashup of Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes that shouldn’t work but absolutely does. The mystery is well layered, the culprit believable, and the conclusion satisfying. Putting queer and PoC into the world of Lovecraft is one of my favorite tropes, simply because I know it would horrify the racist were he alive now to see it. 

Shaharazad is an immensely fun character to read about, though I will say she’s more of a composite of the pop culture idea of Sherlock Holmes than a direct translation of the character. She veers closer to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, only more queer and terrifyingly powerful. Whereas the Watson of this story, John Wyndham, a gay trans man, hews closer to the original Watson. It works better than it has any right to, but if you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the Holmes character, I would lower my expectations on that front. 

The important part is that Shaharazad’s friendship with Wyndham reads as genuine and touching, which should always be the biggest accomplishment of any Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

The only thing I truly found tiresome is that Wyndham has to leave his home country because of the trans hatred he faces there, from society and his own family. In a world where you can visit a Mad God and be back in time for tea, the fact that bigotry against trans people is a thing that still exists is unoriginal and annoying, especially in a book that teems with originality. 

Still, I’ll be back for the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see how Moriarty is adapted to this universe (if he is).

Book Review: Persephone Station by Stina Leicht

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication Date: January 5th, 2021
Pages: 512, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Hugo award-nominated author Stina Leicht has created a take on space opera for fans of The Mandalorian and Cowboy Bebop in this high-stakes adventure.

Persephone Station, a seemingly backwater planet that has largely been ignored by the United Republic of Worlds becomes the focus for the Serrao-Orlov Corporation as the planet has a few secrets the corporation tenaciously wants to exploit.

Rosie—owner of Monk’s Bar, in the corporate town of West Brynner—caters to wannabe criminals and rich Earther tourists, of a sort, at the front bar. However, exactly two types of people drank at Monk’s back bar: members of a rather exclusive criminal class and those who sought to employ them.

Angel—ex-marine and head of a semi-organized band of beneficent criminals, wayward assassins, and washed up mercenaries with a penchant for doing the honorable thing—is asked to perform a job for Rosie. What this job reveals will affect Persephone and put Angel and her squad up against an army. Despite the odds, they are rearing for a fight with the Serrao-Orlov Corporation. For Angel, she knows that once honor is lost, there is no regaining it. That doesn’t mean she can’t damned well try.

Persephone Station by Stina Leicht is a female-powered SF adventure. A misfit band of mercenaries goes on a suicide mission to defend a colony of the indigenous population from the evil head of a the corporation controlling the planet.

This is a fairly strong debut, and Leicht has obviously benefitted from her support team. Although there are a few info dumps early on, they’re handled well enough that they didn’t detract from the story for me. Angel, Sukyi, Enid, and Lou do bad things for good reasons and are engaging antiheroines who will have you rooting for them as they take on relationships, terminal illness, evil overlords, and giant bears.

There are multiple queer characters, and given that this seems to be normal in their society, I was a bit confused about the emphasis the author put on describing the gender of everyone encountered, even minor throwaway characters like the corporate mercenaries. Still, it was great to see a wide representation of people, human and non-human.

The artificial intelligences in the book are maybe not quite as engaging as Angel and her team, but they are complex, and have formed relationships and bonds of their own. If there’s a sequel to this, I hope Leicht explores not only the “Sisters,” but Zhang, as well.