I loved Olivia Waite’s first book in her Feminine Pursuits series, The Lady’s Guide To Celestial Mechanics, so I was delighted to see that her second book, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, was out, and I bought it immediately. And it sat in my to-read pile for months.

I wish I hadn’t waited, because it really is as fun, sexy, and lovely as the first book. Agatha is a publisher in mid-19th century London. Widowed for a few years now, she does well enough, but her almost-adult son is a trial and the political moods swirling about London make her nervous– even as she publishes story and does her own woodcuts of hanging, street riots, and speeches. Penelope is a beekeeper in the small community of Melliton a few miles outside of London who has become embroiled in a bit of an estate battle between a famous (woman, that’s relevant) poet and the Lady Viscount Summerville. The poet was the friend of Lady Viscount’s nearest relative, and some say the poet and Lady Abington were lovers. Penelope was Lady Abington’s beekeeper, and in her will she’s charged with keeping the hives healthy and alive.

Agatha has a large printing press in a warehouse on the edge of Melliton, and one day her senior printer sends her word that he can’t get to the archived stories she wants “because the room with those plates is full of bees.” Agatha goes out to the warehouse, hires Penelope, and from there on the lightning crackles delightfully. There’s a gorgeous epistolary chapter after Penelope rescues the bees but leaves them in an apiary within the property’s stone fence, as Penelope writes to tell her how the bees are doing, and Agatha writes back, and the details grow more and more intimate and the letters get longer and longer.

Most of the tensions in the book are external; a royal scandal rocks London, while Melliton is equally rocked by questions of stolen jewelry, vandalized beehives, and missing (and extremely salacious!) statues, all Lady Abington’s, and non the Viscountess’s to deal. Agatha is working to keep her son out of jail, Penelope is protecting the poet and trying to honor her late lover’s will, and things just keep forcing Penelope and Agatha to work together to solve those problems.

It’s lovingly plotted and charmingly written, and the next book is already on my e-reader.

You know how you go into a used bookstore, and there’s a rack of $1 books toward the front that are the sad overflows that not even a used bookstores wants to keep anymore, and if you don’t take any of these home the bookstore people are going to send them to the woodchipper and turn them into toilet paper? Yeah, that rack.

That’s where I found Megan Hart’s The Space Between Us. It seems to be a romance; that’s what the cover says, and Goodreads says Hart writes “non-traditional romance.”

Hoo boy, does she ever.

Because this is a book about a threesome. Tesla is a bisexual girl working a coffee shop. Meredith is one of her customers. Meredith has charisma; she can charm anyone into opening up and telling her their wildest, most intimate and detailed stories. And Meredith uses that talent to get under Tesla’s skin and seduce Tesla… her Meredith, and for Meredith’s husband, Charlie.

This isn’t really a romance, though. No, it’s a character study about two different women, Meredith and Tesla, and how they do or do not reveal who they are. It’s how Tesla has had a wild life and willing heart, but she really just wants to be ordinary and romantic. It’s how Meredith has a normal and boring life, but she collects people’s stories to be wild vicariously. With Tesla, though, she has a chance to be wild for real… and that’s when things go off sideways for all three.

Hart does an absolutely amazing job of revealing, step by step, who Tesla and Meredith are. Charlie’s a bit of a cipher, because he’s generally a “good guy” who’s not gonna complain if two beautiful women both want him, but he doesn’t know what to do when those two women stop getting along. But this isn’t classic romance mask & essence writing, because the point isn’t to show how right these characters are for each other, but how wrong.

It was a great read, and I picked up two of Hart’s books off that stand.

I write smut. And so, I read smut. I wrote awhile ago about the “unreadableness” of most Tentacle Porn, complaining that the writing is juvenile, the characters hateful, the plot nonexistent, the authors’ descriptive talents paltry, and our empathy for the situation assumed. All of which adds up to “unreadable.”

A friend of mine who is more of a connoisseur of this sort of thing than I am suggested I look up “Alien Abduction Romance” instead. She averred that such stories had what I was looking for. In the AAR universe, human men are hapless and luckless, human women are absolutely uncontrollable fuckbunnies when given the freedom and power to be so, human women are desired the galaxy over because they can host and incubate just about anything inside their bodies, and alien males have penises of all shapes and sizes, exploring the topological limits of what can be shoved into a willing human orifice.

My first encounter with this genre was, to say the least, disappointing. Emma Taylor’s “Alien Heart” was just dumb. The first chapter is an “as we both know, Abby” in which the heroine and her sidekick discuss her apparent lack of romantic opportunities, followed by a sudden crisis, followed by an encounter with the alien… who’s more or less completely human. There’s nothing alien at all about him. He’s just a guy from another country with a crisis that requires a macguffin that Abby happens to have. They meet and we’re told they have passionate sex. “Boy being meets girl being beneath a silvery moon… which then explodes for no adequately explored reason.” The writing is flat, drab, and expository, when it’s not descending into Tom Swift levels of exclamation.

I can’t really complain about the plot; it’s under-baked, but then I describe my genre as “soap operas set on starships where the action doesn’t fade to black as the characters gen into bed.” It’s a fine genre, and I’m happy to share it with others. I just wish writers in this space would master a few books about plot, character, scene and sentence, and then read their works aloud asking themselves, “Does that really work?” None of the mastery and craftsship that I hope to see grow in writers is evidence here. There are better writers giving their works away for free on AO3. Sorry, Emma.

Nicola Cameron’s King of Blades (Two Thrones #4) feels like a bridge episode in the the Two Thrones series. After the first two books sailed along scrumptiously to establish an epic setting, the third (and still my favorite), Lady of Thornes segued to side characters and a charming romance. King of Blades goes back to King Matthais and Queen Danae, along with other characters fans of the series know well.

The plot of the book is a little weak. There seems to be an ongoing, slow-burn attempt to upset and embarrass Danae’s brother, Crown Prince Darius, even as Darius is attempting to do the settle-down thing and convince his boyfriend that they’re mutual husbando material. The other major plot, a comedy of errors involving an old girlfriend of Matthais, is resolved a bit too neatly in order to escalate Darius’s predicament.

The real story here is the ongoing thread of Luna, Matthais’s bastard granddaughter, and Danae’s pregnancy with royal twins. (If this were one of those old Harlequin-style romance novels, there would be a pram on the spine.) Cameron has been setting the children up for some sort of major conflict, with “a storm is coming” prophecies hinting in every book so far, but other than some interesting development’s with Luna’s waterbending Aqua Mage talents, the book doesn’t focus on them.

Still, I have no major complaints. Cameron writes the most amazing love scenes, and she gives one here to Lars and Darius that rings very true and I am very here for it. Her banter between Matthais, Danae, and Matthais’ old university-day friends, now a happily married couple of their own, is witty and true to character. Everyone has a unique voice, which is fairly hard to do, but Cameron does seem to have the skill. If you’re a fan of her work, and a fan of the Two Thrones books, this one is as excellent as the rest.

Ada Hoffman’s The Outside is a fine debut novel that throws together several different popular modern tropes into a lovely stew of a novel, but it also suffers from the big problem faced by all writers in this space, myself included.

[Warning, there be spoilers!]

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