Texture Like Sun – Ils Greyhart

Texture Like Sun CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 21st March, 2016
Genre: Fantasy Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords | LT3

Liang is a painter who can pull colours from the world around him. Xerxes is an incubus, who visits people’s dreams to feed off their sexual energy. When Xerxes visits Liang’s dreams, he’s confused. All Liang wants to do is give him a comfy sweater.

Liang has been kept a prisoner for several years while he finishes a large commission. The early part introduces that situation, along with his gift of making paints from nature. But the painting plotline fades into the background most of the time. It’s mainly about his discussions with Xerxes, until it’s time for him to escape. I can’t say much about the setting as a result. The person hiring Liang is described as a Sheik. The guards wear veils. Liang comes from a country to the Northeast. There’s not a whole lot more depth to the setting, as it’s mostly glossed over and not described.

The potential unfortunate implications of the setup are mainly avoided. Incubi don’t aim to kill people. They visit dreams, have consensual dream sex for the energy, and the person wakes up tired the next day. So Xerxes isn’t running around mass murdering when he’s not visiting Liang. Xerxes also doesn’t try to force his interest after the initial advances are rejected. Once he decides he’s going to keep visiting, he accepts that it’s not going to be sexual as part of the deal.

Using exact labels won’t always come up in a story, but it would have been a lot less convoluted in this case. They have a discussion where Xerxes says he’s an incubus and explains it. Liang vaguely refers to people like him and explains it. Labelling the incubus and not the asexual person came across oddly.

It was a premise with potential, but I don’t think it hit it. I’d have liked the painting plot to have more development, including a little more action in the escape scene. The relationship was generally as cute as dressing an incubus in a sweater so he doesn’t get cold suggests it will be. But the initial humour of that imagery isn’t enough to carry a whole story.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Cybernetic Tea Shop – Meredith Katz

Cybernetic Tea Shop CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords | LT3

Clara moves from place to place, with only Joanie (her Raise hummingbird) for company. Sal is a robot who runs a tea shop in memory of her owner. Then Clara pops into Sal’s place during her lunch break.

There’s some interesting worldbuilding in the story. Humanoid robots were banned from production, due to worries about them being able to learn and become full people. Instead, people have Raises – robotic animal companions who are intelligent and have personalities, but can’t learn and adapt the way a robot could. Robots like Sal are in a difficult place, where society doesn’t know quite what to do in terms of rights. Sal has outlived the company who made her, so spare parts are increasingly an issue, and her memory is failing.

The novella focuses on Clara, Sal and Joanie, giving space for their relationships to develop. I liked that Joanie really doesn’t change, because she’s not able to without being re-programmed, as a contrast to both Clara and Sal. In the case of the latter two, their first meeting isn’t perfect. Clara knows she shouldn’t treat Sal as a novelty, with all the being-an-object that implies, but does it anyway out of surprise. She also realises how hurtful that reaction would be to Sal.

They get over that initial awkwardness, and continue to get closer as Clara regularly visits the tea shop. Sometimes Clara brings Raises she’s repairing for work, and eventually Sal trusts her enough to do the needed repair work. Both have things they’re not ready to face. For Sal, it’s the obvious one of her owner’s death and continuing to run the tea shop because she always has. For Clara, her wandering is something she picked up due to growing up in a migrant worker family. They moved where the jobs were. Even though she doesn’t need to do that anymore, she moves from habit, rather than considering what she really wants.

It touches on issues of power imbalances in relationships. As much as Sal loved her owner, it doesn’t change that she was owned. Her owner’s name is coded into her, and that registration of an owner prevents her from being able to move on. Clara realises this isn’t something she should change without permission, but also that ownership is a problem. No one’s name should be in that field. As much as people may talk about belonging to each other in romances, it’s meant metaphorically, not as a literal thing that someone has no choice over.

This is an asexual romance. There’s some intimacy though cuddling, generally being close and Sal trusting Clara to work on her systems. There isn’t any sex, and the couple discuss that they’re not interested in that. It’s nice to see a focus on finding out what a partner is comfortable doing, rather than a focus on pressuring a partner to do things anyway.

What I didn’t find so believable was the social worldbuilding. Sal was several centuries old. Things might have advanced in robotics, but there weren’t really other signs that this society had gone through a few centuries. Things like gender roles and fashion were stuck much as they are today. I’d also have expected more impact from people having Raises, as social spaces would need a redesign to accommodate many people having a robotic pet.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Pumpkin – Ines Johnson

Pumpkin CoverSeries: Cindermama, #1
First Published: 10th March, 2015
Genre: Romance
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Pumpkin is a single mother, who has given up on fairytale happy endings. Manny is from a rich family and running for mayor. When they meet, Manny knows Pumpkin isn’t the one, because all his family have a gift where they see a golden aura around their true love. But whatever the magic may be saying about it, both of them have other ideas.

This is a contemporary romance retelling of Cinderella, with light magical elements. Basically the ability to see auras taken to a more magical level. I liked the idea of subverting destined magical soulmates, and that is the general direction of the book. Love is something that takes work and there are no guarantees because the golden aura said (or didn’t say) so.

The writing was generally conversational and easy to breeze through. There are some things that worked well, like Pumpkin having to realise she couldn’t force people to be like a movie script. Some of her people predictions are very wrong, because she’s more caught up in stories than reality. The mayoral campaign worked well enough as a plot to tie things together.

My main issue is it wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. As it starred a single mother, I wasn’t expecting so much hate to be piled on single mothers. Pumpkin is only okay because she’s the idealised single mother, who has a day job, and hasn’t dated since her husband walked out. Her cousins (the ugly step-sisters of the tale) are horrible welfare queens who take food stamps when they don’t need them, and purposefully try to have children by lots of men to get child support. It’s frequently laid on how terrible they are. Empathy is for Pumpkin, not single mothers as a whole.

In Pumpkin’s own words about welfare: “I think the flaw with social programs is that the poor start to believe they can’t do for themselves without it and the rich believe the poor can’t act without their help.” This doesn’t match my experiences at all, where it’s more that poor people wish they didn’t have to rely on it, and rich people wish they could stop paying out because they’d have more money if they let people starve. But the narrative proves Pumpkin right. After all, people collecting food stamps are like her horrible cousins.

It turns out the golden aura is because Manny and his family are gypsies. There are certainly times when Roma people might reclaim that word, but a book where it’s the source of fairytale magic, because Roma are like magical fairytale people, is not one of those times. There wasn’t any other cultural connection, outside of golden auras and fortune telling.

I can see this romance might appeal to some readers, given its fairytale themes. For me, I couldn’t really get past the policing of what makes someone a respectable poor person.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Dust on the Wing – Parker Foye

Dust on the Wing CoverCollection: Solitary Travelers
First Published: 14th March, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction Romance / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Smashwords | LT3

This book is part of a collection of novellas called “Solitary Travelers”. I was interested because they’re asexual romances and/or aromantic relationships. This particular title does have some sexual content.

I found this book difficult to read. Tam is asexual and is being pressured by his partner to do more than he’s comfortable doing. It paints an unhealthy relationship, as Tam feels pressured, and his partner feels like he’s being denied something. It also doesn’t feel like there’s much emotional connection between the characters. It’s about power, with Tam having to constantly be on his guard to avoid being forced into situations he doesn’t want. This wasn’t just my feeling about it, as the book later confirms that the partner is basically interested in Tam being physically attractive, and Tam has to move quickly to “escape the promises his body made”.

It was a relief that the opening is the last time they see each other. Most of it is about transporting a young woman to another planet. There wasn’t a whole lot of character interaction, as Tam doesn’t want to speak to anyone. I’d hoped for a bit more of a friendship between them, but they never really break through Tam’s dislike of being around people.

My expectation for the book was a feel-good story with a happy ending. If the book had only been the transportation part, it would have succeeded at that. Not in a perfect way, as it was a little prone to infodumps at the start, and could do with more development of the character relationships. But it would have passed the time. Unfortunately, the romance was not a happily-ever-after situation. It reinforced some of the negative things asexuals face in relationships with sexual people (you’re tempting people if you’re pretty and you’re denying things to people that are rightfully theirs). I wanted them to break up, and it left me feeling uncomfortable with the book as a whole.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Killer Cupcakes – Leighann Dobbs

Killer Caupcakes Cover - Pink with cartoon woman holding cupcakes

Series: A Lexy Baker Bakery Mystery, #1
First Published: 7th May, 2013
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Lexy’s ex-boyfriend is killed with poisoned cupcakes from her bakery. With the bakery closed for testing by the police, she sets off to investigate. The book also includes recipes for cupcake tops and frosting.

On the positives, I liked that Lexy is mainly surrounded by women. Her best friend is also a woman and she gets help from a group of elderly women. That does tend to be a strength of cozies, but it’s not something to take for granted. There wasn’t a love triangle (it’s obvious who the love interest is and that they’ll end up together), which is a good thing for me as I find love triangles endlessly angsty.

On the negatives, the mystery was barely there. The character motivations were stretching it even for a cozy (like the police took all the ingredients from the bakery to test, rather than samples, which makes no sense even with handwaving police procedure). There isn’t really anything new here in terms of the plot, characters and setting.

I also dislike books where the main character can eat anything and not put on weight, and it’s portrayed as a wonderful thing. I tend to lose weight quickly and put it on slowly. It’s not wonderful. It means sugar crashes where I stop functioning if I forget a meal. It means even mild sickness can mean dropping underweight. This isn’t a trope I can find fun.

Overall, the writing flows well enough and it succeeds at its aim – it’s a light-hearted book that can be read quickly, without a whole lot of attention required. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a strong mystery, but for a bit of light romance and mystery (plus recipes), it might fit the bill.