Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

I have a complicated relationship with Westerns. Raised in the wilds of Eastern Idaho, I grew up with a white-hot loathing for country music, giant belt buckles, and manhood-enhancing pickup trucks. (It wasn’t easy being a jazz musician, soccer player, and Democrat.) Westerns, while not offensive like the above, were still a little too close to the culture I was trying desperately to flee. In Japan however, a certain nostalgia for sagebrush, red rocks, and distant horizons herded me gently in the direction of movies filmed near my homeland and I found myself taking DVDs of Silverado, Unforgiven, or other such cowboy tales home from the video store. I’ve drifted from Westerns again, now that I’m back on the continent and have little time to spare for non-SFF genres, though I did enjoy Armless Maidens of the American West.

As such, I hadn’t really planned to read Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel. She’s on my list of must read authors, since until this point I had only started and abandoned Hammered. (I had it as a MS Reader lit file several laptops back; I think that was the one that still ran Japanese Win 98. Needless to say, the file is long gone.) Still, the plan was to start elsewhere, not on a steampunk Western. Then I heard Bear talk on a podcast, probably Skiffy and Fanty, and she immediately hooked me. Most of the conversation surrounded the political aspects of Karen Memory, about which more later. The clinching factors were a bit less idealistic though: Karen Memory basically takes place in Seattle, and there is a licensed mad scientist guild.

The latter doesn’t play much of a part in the story unfortunately, but its mere existence is enough for me. The former is front and center though, to my great enjoyment. Bear says in the acknowledgments that Rapid City is based on multiple NW locales, but in all the important ways it is Seattle. This makes me inordinately happy, especially as it focuses on Rapid City’s identity on the frontier (staging post for Alaska), the development of what is now the Underground in Pioneer Square, and the complicated racial mix that has always been a part of the area. Pike’s Place Market even makes an appearance or two, though I suppose Bear maintains plausible deniability with that. And even though the author lives on the East Coast, the book felt like a native had written it. I suppose it’s a shallow reason to enjoy a novel, but enjoy it I did. Sue me.

Bear has bigger fish to fry than hippie cities and mad scientists. Her stated aim with the book is to offer a correction to the whitewashed history of the era by opening a window into a more diverse, multicultural Wild West than one sees in John Ford movies. Our viewpoint character, Karen, is a, ahem, seamstress, working in one of the finer houses of, er, seamstressry in Rapid City. She even occasionally sews. The seamstress with a heart of gold is a worn Western trope, but Karen gives us a salty, confident, female perspective. Further, within the first twenty pages, we meet a few blacks, someone from China, Indians of both Native American and South Asian stock, some lesbians, a transgender character, and the johns that love them. (Or some of them – not everyone is a seamstress.) In other words, this book is a Sad Puppy nightmare. Even worse for them, this is a far more accurate picture of the day than we might be used to.

On the literary end, Bear writes an unabashed dimestore pulp. Lots of derring-do, dastardly villains, brave heroes, shocking twists, cliffhangers, and mad capers. She is both subverting and celebrating the genre, taking the best traits of what were often admittedly crappy novels, and replacing the junk with her own invention. The result might best be compared to a Japadog: gourmet hot dogs from Vancouver topped with a variety of Japanese sides. (Super delicious – everyone should try kimchi seaweed dogs at least once.) Karen Memory is hugely entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking. There are literary gags and historical references, frontier politics, power armor, airships, and the lawman Bass Reeves. (Yes, power armor. Just roll with it.)

I will say that Karen is upfront with her opinions, and a certain demographic may disagree with her politics. One might even accuse Bear of activism, which is reasonable, but in a first-person story told from Karen’s perspective, is it so unexpected to see her engaging in proro-feminist debates? Of course for me, arguments about racism and misogyny are perfectly acceptable territory. Times being what they are however, we seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against some awfully prehistoric attitudes, so I find it impossible to overestimate the stupidity of some dark genre alleys. We have yet to find the floor in this discussion. Fortunately for the Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, our books are much wittier than the alternative.

(If that last sentence makes no sense, please read here and here. I hate to tie everything back to this debate, but Bear’s book is yet another attack on Valiant Brad’s position. There’s really no way to ignore that aspect of the novel.)

So yes, if the gentle reader has not yet picked up Karen Memory, I strongly urge him or her to remedy that as quickly as possible. It’s massive fun. Even those turned off by Westerns or steampunk will have a good time with this, since Karen and her crew shine so brightly. There are a few who will be turned off my Karen’s unrepentant progressive views, but, realistically, nobody who thinks like that is going to hang around this blog for very long. The rest of you are almost certain to have a riot.

In Conquest Born

In Conquest Born
C.S. Friedman

Perusing the archives here in The Attic, I discovered a shortage in my book diet: a potentially serious deficiency of the 80s. Fortunately for me, C.S. Friedman came through with a book that satisfies several urgent needs: it’s from 1986, it’s by a woman (yay equality), and it comes from the Two Dudes personal library. I have to dig into that once in awhile, or Mrs. Pep casts increasingly baleful glares at the shelves and asks just what on earth I propose to do with all of the books.

In Conquest Born has the feel of a world long in the making, and a story worked out at great length. This being Friedman’s first novel, I imagine she mulled it over for years; this is somewhat backed up by comments I have seen in interviews. While the book is character-centered, it is space opera at heart. This is the rise and fall of galactic empires, war spread over centuries, men and women larger than life, and a battle not just between governments, but between two diametrically opposed philosophies. It’s not bug-eyed alien invader space opera, or sweaty palms while gazing at the armada space opera; it feels like the New Space Opera coming out of the UK recently, though I doubt Friedman had any connection to that at the time. Very much ahead of its time and holds up well thirty years on.

The book is a series of vignettes, almost a short story collection. The structure might be a turn off for those look for chronologically focused arcs, but allows Friedman to catch the grand sweep of history. Because we are looking mostly at the two most influential actors in their respective societies, the only other option would be to write an interminable series; compressing the changes that wash over the empires into a comfortable, bite-sized narrative would rob the book of its grandeur. On the other hand, it does make the book easier to put down. The individual chapters can be compelling, but the long breaks between can dull the momentum at times.

No apologies from the author though. Conquest is a demanding book in many ways, not just the dedication required to plow through the long decades it covers. It is also a dark, almost brooding novel. No clear cut heroes, no shining knights, or cities on the hill. The Azean empire is nominally the good side, but it is uncompromising and weird in all sorts of ways that make contemporary readers uncomfortable. The Braxin empire is much worse however, as though Friedman tried to cook up the most vile culture imaginable for a feminist. Misogyny and cruelty are the very foundation of the empire, about which the reader sees a disturbing amount. (Never gratuitous or gleeful, I should add. Just present.) Anzha and Zatar are the respective representatives of their homelands, though their places within are fraught and convoluted. This is a morally twisted universe and is, at best, a very prickly place to spend five hundred pages.

Of course the best parts for me are the political systems and their interactions. The Braxin empire in particular is train derailment level compelling; so hard to look away from the awful carnage. Beneath the goth horror exterior is a complete societal edifice that has convincingly survived for a few centuries, but is equally convincingly on the brink. Zatar’s quest to preserve the empire through reformation is easily the best part of the book for me. Anzha is a racial outsider in Azean, but forces her way to prominence by sheer, bloody-minded, stubborn brilliance. She is no more likable than Zatar, and while the Azeans are at least not godawful, I wouldn’t want to live there either. They are the only group unified enough to oppose the Braxins though, so we must grudgingly cheer for them and their whacked out eugenics. Miles Vorkosigan fans might see the seeds of his universe, if Lois Bujold were to repaint all of her novels in gray, black, gray, and the colors of torment.

That said, Anzha and Zatar, who despise each other utterly, churn more electricity into their relationship than seventeen romance novel couples combined. “Planet destroying obsession” sounds overly dramatic, but it’s pretty much dead on. “Dear, I hate you so much that I crisped this Earthlike world for your birthday.” “Thank you for the gesture. Here’s a plague.”

It all makes me wonder who the target audience was. Or, for that matter, what the editor thought when he/she picked this up for publication. (I suppose the target audience is me, but how many of me are there?) If forced to sum it up in two words, I have settled on “grimly magnetic.” After about three hundred pages, I couldn’t stop reading. The buildup is very slow, with an extensive foundation that must be laid, but Conquest provides a steady buzz once Anzha and Zatar key in on each other. Yes, it is ethically compromised from start to finish. Yes, the Braxins are disgusting in every way, and yes, there are few if any white hats. On the other hand, the evolution on parallel personal and societal levels is several steps beyond most SF out there. I probably can’t recommend this to everyone, but I thought it was great, so potential readers can make of that what they will.

Used Bookstores

Used Bookstores

One reason (among several) that missives have been scarce lately concerns the business side of Two Dudes. Not to say that the blog is much of a business, but both Dudes are coincidentally involved in a book related, money making venture. My mostly silent partner is the President, CEO, and Unopposed Dictator of a used book store; I am the non-salaried part owner. We have something like 15,000 books sold mostly on Amazon and one employee, about whom more will be said later.

The store is stocked primarily by raiding thrift stores and garage sales across Southern Idaho. We seeded things with one massive purchase of art books from a local collector and a smaller purchase of aviation books, but since then most has come from strategic scrounging. Surprisingly, the area overflows with profitable books. Unfortunately for me, SFF is a fairly small part of the collection; we deal mostly in non-fiction. (For various reasons, very little fiction holds its value over time. SFF is better than some genres though.) We specialize in Mormon books (popular and scholarly) and Western history/social sciences. This is mostly a reflection of the stock available to us, but if anyone out there is in the market for, say, a first edition of some early Mormon leader’s writings, there is a very good chance that person would buy from us. We’ll acquire anything that sells though – popular books include Metals and How to Weld Them and Underwater Explosions. We’ve seen the former come in and out three times now.

The store has a few rare books in stock, but aside from a deal I brokered for $3000 from a Japanese bookseller, we don’t get too involved in the rare book world. It’s a whole different game.

In the beginning, my dad and brother ran the show together, with me as part owner and investor. They were based in my home town of Idaho Falls, ID. I flew in periodically from the Northwest for business meetings, but have my own unrelated career. In the good old days, everything was run from the basement of my parents’ house. I imagine that my mom was much relieved when my brother closed the deal on a lease for an actual “store,” thus removing a couple thousand books and maybe sixty boxes from the downstairs. The “store” is in an old government building, saved from disrepair by a random real estate investor and conveniently located next to the main post office.

And by “government building,” I mean “Cold War era, hardened fallout shelter with some offices.” It’s amazing. We recently added storage space, which gained us a room in a basement that looks straight out of Saw or some other ghastly horror movie. The store itself is not for public consumption, though an occasional customer pokes a head in. We are working towards a presentable store space elsewhere, mostly to boost incoming stock, but for now, the bomb shelter is perfect. In fact, my brother calls it the secret weapon at our disposal; the amount we pay for the lease is the true silver bullet that makes everything profitable. And if it is intimidating and dirty, well, we sell online. Nobody knows the difference.

A few years ago, my dad decided to move to the wilds of Utah. He initially ran a branch of the store there through the same Amazon account, but that quickly became too unwieldy. We spun off my dad’s store, leaving my brother and I in charge of the original. He handled things by himself in Utah. Fast forward to a couple months ago, and my dad found himself moving back to Idaho. As a result, my brother and I bought out my dad’s store, added him as an employee, and moved 4-6000 books from a forgotten corner of Utah back to Idaho Falls. This is great for the business, but means that I had to make two trips in a large U-Haul, with the attendant loading and unloading on each side. Spoiler alert: multiple thousands of books are collectively very heavy.

Anyway, two grueling trips later, I am back in the Northwest for the time being. Hopefully I can get back in the saddle so to speak, since the posts are backing up and the blog withering a bit from neglect. Stay tuned as we get things back on course.

Peak Puppy?

Peak Puppy At Last?

I’m working on a meatier post, but in the interests of clickbait staying engaged with my readers through busy times, I have to ask if we have reached Peak Sad Puppy. I suspect the answer is no, but while I was driving a book-laden U-Haul through the wilds of Eastern Utah, crap seems to have gotten real. Or, if not “real” per se, deeply and comprehensively bizarre. More than usual, I mean.

I’m not kidding about the U-Haul thing, by the way. It was a 26′ long truck packed to the weight limit with used books, and I’m pretty sure those brakes I smelled while barreling down Emigration Canyon weren’t mine. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Anyway, back on point. I may be the last person to hear that an earnest and enraged band of Sad Puppies has threatened Tor Books with a crippling boycott unless a list of demands is met by noon tomorrow. High noon. Among these demands are the censure and reprimand of people who are either 1) not beholden to Tor in any way, 2) completely unrelated to whatever mess is currently in process, or 3) all of the above. There’s also the usual and predictable stuff, easily caught up on for those that avidly follow the ongoing poopshow that is the 2015 Hugos, but I particularly enjoyed the bits about desiring Tor to slap John Scalzi’s wrist for being whatever it is Scalzi is. (A decent and witty guy, I thought, but not everyone appears to agree with me.)

I hope this goes down tomorrow and thousands, er… hundreds, wait… tens? of Puppies stand up to The Man and no longer buy Tor books. Especially those by John C. Wright or Kevin Anderson. Or books by Baen, which I believe is part of the same conglomerate as Tor. (Rotten to the top, right? No way MacMillan is innocent of Social Justice perpetration here.) They definitely shouldn’t get anything by that pinko reactionary Heinlein, since his back catalog is held by Tor. I fully expect this to be a fearsome and irresistible message that no powerful and wealthy company can ignore. And if Tor blows them off? It must be Big Gay.

I wonder if The Great Tor Boycott and Optional Buffet at Golden Corral of 2015 might become the Puppies’ Jade Helm moment. (For those not up on craaaaaazy American politics, this is a bunch of Concerned Texas Citizens publicly fretting that a military exercise named Jade Helm is actually a move by Pres. Obama to, er, take over Texas. I am very definitely not kidding here, because the U.S. doesn’t have any sort of dominion over the great state of Texas right now. None at all. Anyway.) To all you Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang members out there, grab yourselves some popcorn and settle in for the show. Might want to grab a poncho though, since the spittle may be flying out of some very rabid mouths. If this is Peak Puppy, we should all be grateful. And if it’s not, I really can’t imagine how it could get any stupider.

Self-Reference Engine

Self-Reference Engine
Enjo To (EnJoe Toh)

By the author’s own admission, this one isn’t for everyone. Enjo To (I refuse to endorse improper romanization) is a theoretical physicist turned award-winning, but controversial, author. Self-Reference Engine is his debut novel, critically acclaimed and utterly impenetrable. It is also his first novel in English, though it was preceded by a short story in Haikasoru’s The Future is Japanese. (Also impenetrable.) Enjo fills it with brain melting science and convoluted storytelling, not so much daring readers to follow him as casually inviting them into his post-Einsteinian home. Some will go for this, others will just be confused. Enjo offers no apologies for the craziness. After all, he has said in interviews, if a story is about a fractured space-time, shouldn’t the story itself be fractured?

I’m guessing that most readers will have decided by now if they want to give Self-Reference a try, so rather than write a proper review, I’m going to try to create a framework to help someone who just picked it up the book to make sense of it. (With the caveat that plenty went over my head, and this probably requires two or three attempts before any sort of real clarity can be found.) I will eschew spoilers, but it’s kind of hard to spoil a non-linear narrative where characters share names but not identities, and things are happening in different parts of the multiverse.

First, Self-Reference is a post-Singularity novel. AI’s evocatively called “giant corpora of knowledge” have taken over the show and left humans, with their puny reasoning limits, far behind. (Apparently the Japanese term is an Enjo original, so translator Terry Gallagher was forced to come up with the phrase. I think he did well.) The book goes further though, post-post-Singularity if you will, because the corpora have inadvertently gone so far as to shatter the space-time continuum. This is known as “The Event,” and frames the novel. A more orthodox story would follow the post-Apocalyptic struggle of humanity, or perhaps chart the corpora battle to reunite the fragments of the multiverse. Enjo is anything but orthodox however, so we get flashes and vignettes, but nothing so mundane as a plot.

The twenty-two chapters sketch out The Event, life immediately after, corpora campaigns to fix things, and other seemingly random scenes. They are, indeed, self-referential, though not always obviously so. Names repeat, though the characters may or may not be iterations of themselves. Objects and ideas reappear, but one can’t say for certain that they are the same objects and ideas. The efforts of the greatest minds in existence chase their own tails through space-time, moving in, if I recall correctly, 87 dimensions. More surprises await in the second half as, I think, Enjo actually goes so far as to affirm humanity’s importance. Unless I totally misunderstood that part.

The reader should be prepared for brain damage at every turn. My favorite chapter involved the discovery of 22 unconscious Freuds in grandma’s house, one under each tatami mat in the living room. There is a cameo by Military SF. There is unrequited love. There is possibly requited love between a man (I think) and a transgendered sock. There is first contact, slapstick comedy (of a sort), and furniture invading from another universe. Does it all come together in the end? Um, maybe. Then again, I don’t think it’s really supposed to. Enjo wants to explore a fractured space-time, so that’s what we get. Clearly, this isn’t going to work for some people.

Some of my friends should definitely read this. Others should probably avoid it. I’m guessing everyone will know immediately which side of the fence they are on; I wouldn’t think to change any minds. I won’t have time in the near future to give Self-Reference the reread it deserves, but I’m glad I made it through once. The weirdness sits just fine for me.

The Burning Dark

The Burning Dark
Adam Christopher

Well, I fell off the blogging truck there for awhile, for a wide variety of reasons including, but not limited to, emergency doorknob repair, elementary school choir concerts, and playing soul music for confused contra dancers. I’m back though, hopefully with a bang and a promise of consistency. This week’s topic is the prequel to Adam Christopher’s newest novel, generously provided to me by the marketing team there. Thanks, Tor!

I must admit to going into The Burning Dark willfully misled. I got through the first sentences of the dust jacket blurb, the ones wherein a guy named after my home state engages in space battles with mechanical arachnids, and dove right in. I totally missed the bits about haunted space stations and the like. Whoops! I was in for a big surprise, starting from Chapter Two, since Burning Dark is more like The Haunting of Hill House crossed with Solaris, if David Drake were writing. It was probably another fifty pages before I recovered from that shock and really dug into things; that is nothing I will hold against the author.

Many years ago, one or another teacher pushed us all through the aforementioned Hill House. I remember ending up frustrated with the book, since SFF-inclined me wanted the author to take us through what was obviously a very cool haunted house. Instead, we get a character study of an unreliable, and fairly annoying, protagonist. Fewer ghosts and secret passages, more emo whining. (At least, this is my memory of the book. Apparently it’s famously well thought of.) I was reminded of this for the first 200 pages or so of Burning Dark, as Christopher introduces the protagonists, their angst, and their numerous travails, rather than mapping out the creepy space station and weirdo star it orbits. He does start to deliver more at the end, though it was a bit of a slog at times for me. (Mileage may vary – I am not a ghost story aficionado.)

The action begins with a retelling of a Japanese creation myth that made absolutely no sense at the time. It is a clear sign of my daily post-work exhaustion that I totally failed to connect this to a massively obvious clue that overshadows the rest of the book, until the very last chapter. That or impending senility, but I’m hoping for the former. Anyway, those not up on Japanese mythology may miss it anyway. As the book proper starts, one Idaho Cleveland is blowing the crap out of bad guy spiders from his perch on a space battleship. Good times. Three cheers for anything named Idaho, but worse things are definitely ahead. We know this because everyone knows that God hates Cleveland. (Sports joke, for those not up on athletic woe.) Captain Idaho quickly finds himself reassigned for a final tour, since the most recent battle left him with both medals of honor and a reconstructed knee, and we are introduced to the crazy space station Coast City.

Coast City orbits a star that messes up nearby communications and electronics, is being decommissioned, and is inhabited by the last remnants of crew and military. People have disappeared, lights flicker, the heaters don’t work, giant swaths of the station are either uninhabited, being disassembled, or both, and strange things are afoot. We see these from a few different perspectives as the book moves through standard haunted house dance steps. Most of the characters are marines or starship captains, giving things a veneer of military SF, and there are just enough big words and futuristic tech to tease at Hard SF, but mostly this is a horror story.

As such, most opinions of the book will depend entirely on how people feel about horror. It’s not really my thing, so I didn’t find Burning Dark gripping for long stretches. The end is rousing enough to win me over and the world building is deep enough to warrant further reading; the follow up novel looks to be more in line with conventional SF. I will be checking it out later this year and expect to enjoy it. Burning Dark gets a rec from me for anyone looking for a change of pace, or who is curious about mixing SF and ghost stories. The Analog crowd probably won’t enjoy it, nor anyone wanting space battles and aliens. Beyond that, the reader will have to decide.

Building Harlequin’s Moon

Building Harlequin’s Moon
Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

I would not normally have read this book. Much as I love Larry Niven, I am skeptical of his later books, especially those co-written with authors I have never heard of. Knowing nothing of Building Harlequin’s Moon, I heard Brenda Cooper on a recent Skiffy and Fanty podcast saying very interesting and intelligent things. Part way through she mentioned collaborating with Larry Niven, and, since I have been seeking out female authors anyway, decided that I should look into this further. Cooper’s comments on a number of issues were enough to overcome any suspicions.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that Cooper did most of the grunt work and Niven was the idea man. I’m pretty sure that Niven wrote the prologue, wherein the planetary engineer Gabriel builds and hibernates his way through 60,000 years of comet and moon smashing to create a semi-livable habitat orbiting a super-massive gas giant called Harlequin. Big time Hard SF ideas here, and very fun. The rest of the book is more of a character-based societal study, as Gabriel and his fellow starship crew members try to figure out how to handle the indentured colony they put on Harlequin’s moon Selene, while the Moonborn stumble towards some sort of independence under the reluctance of a biologist named Rachel. The initial combination of teen protagonists and political narrative struck me as Cooper’s contribution, since it didn’t feel like most Niven I have read. The big picture and the science did, but not the people.

Oddly, the very first lesson I learned from Harlequin is that I should probably never read a YA novel again. No doubt there are many good ones out there and I am doing myself a disservice, but teens irritate me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with my tween daughter, my forced re-introduction to pop music and/or teen culture through her, or the face melting crap she watches on TV. Nothing at all.) The initial chapters of Harlequin pack in enough angst, awkward romance, and adolescent scheming that I almost gave up there. Fortunately for all involved, I didn’t, but I think this colored my view of the rest of the novel, which does move into more grownup territory after the first big twist. Again, nothing wrong with YA stuff, just not something I can tolerate at this point in my life.

The rest of the book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, Selene is a fascinating place that I would gladly read more about. Niven is no stranger to mind blowing feats of engineering and Selene will stand proudly next to anything in Known Space or the Co-Dominion. On the other hand, the whole political situation felt simplistic to me, with the Earthborn attitudes towards the Moonborn only partially grounded in fictional reality. Cooper (I assume) gives just enough of a backstory to make things plausible, but enough to be entirely convincing. While I am well aware that people acting like dirtbags requires little or no motivation, there are a few missing stations on the railroad from fleeing Earth to enslaving ones progeny. But on the gripping hand, when everything reached a lengthy and satisfying climax, I felt attached to the protagonists and empathized with them far more than I expected to. I don’t think this was purely emotional manipulation.

I have purposely avoided reading other reviews at time of writing, since I want to puzzle this one out on my own. I’m curious what people have to say about Harelquin though. It’s an uneasy mix of Niven’s brand of Hard SF, YA emotions, and the colonialism and equality topics bubbling so freely through the genre right now. Chapters swing from Ringworld-esque engineering escapades to scenes of struggle that one might find in Stephanie Saulter’s searing Gemsigns. The characters argue about planetary biology or AI consciousness, then wing off into … whatever kids these days are reading. Longing somethingerother, angst mumble mumble, feelings. Pep the stone hearted, recovering political scientist didn’t always know how to handle this. (Spoiler alert: the big ideas were the best part.) I’m almost certain that I can find reviews that say exactly the opposite: “Loved the characters and romance, didn’t get the science-y bits,” or “Such an inspiring tale of freedom, but could do without the weepy stuff.” I suppose the Sad Puppies would get sick of all the prominent women and the equality hand wringing, but salute Niven’s good old fashioned setting. This even as they grumble about the lack of competent white men saving the day.

Actually, I think the biggest hints that Cooper did a lot of the character work are the frequent scenes of Gabriel mansplaining things and getting tied in knots by the women.

To the book’s credit, it took enough twisty, scenic paths on its way to the inevitable conclusion that I was never sure where things would end up. Cooper and Niven wrap up the story in pretty much the only way they could have, but they still kept me off balance. As with almost everything else, the positives outweigh the negatives in the end, even if I needed some extra convincing. While admitting that my criteria can be obscure, I’m not going to give Harlequin my highest praise. It was a little too naïve for my taste, though the characters and authors managed to dodge the worst pitfalls – this could have been much worse. As I said earlier though, I was locked in for the last hundred pages and feel a surprising connection to Rachel, Gabriel, and a few others. That will push things over the last hurdle to “recommended” status.

Bonus points to everyone out there who catches the obscure Niven reference in this review.

Rating: Southampton. Flawed but charming, this mid-table club wins over neutrals with infectious enthusiasm, even if they won’t ever bring home the championship. And you thought I’d given up on footie nods.