We’re midway through January 2022, and I still feel like I’m playing catch-up from 2021.  Who’s with me? The “Quickie”  TBR theme was exactly what I needed because my brain just doesn’t have bandwidth for more. I used this month to try a novella from a 2019 trilogy I’ve been meaning to read while Caz went for some suspense in the novella she selected. Both ended up being solid reads.

Playing House by Ruby Lang

I wasn’t sure quite what I wanted to read this time around, but I knew that I had some short stories and novellas sitting on my Kindle. I ended up reading Playing House, a novella by Ruby Lang that is first in a trilogy I’ve been meaning to read. The best parts of this story definitely live up to the rave reviews I’ve seen on Twitter, though I found myself wishing that there was a bit more to this one.

Fay Liu has quite the meet-cute with her former classmate Oliver Huang when he rescues her from a pushy guy at an open house. Unknown to Fay, Oliver always had a bit of a crush on her so he’s happy to play knight in shining armor. While Fay is a successful partner in a planning firm, Oliver is currently unemployed and trying to figure out his life while living with his brother. Both are urban planners and even if it felt contrived, it was fun to watch Oliver and Fay set out on a series of fake dates pretending to be newlyweds touring open houses.

There’s something funny, real and earnest about the author’s voice in this novella, so I found myself drawn to her characters and their world right away. Fay is newly divorced and her insecurities felt awkwardly genuine. Oddly enough, when she and Oliver play-act their way around New York, it seemed like Fay could really be herself.

Oliver has his own issues to battle. First of all, not only is he trying to figure out his career path, but he constantly feels the pressure of trying not to be a disappointment to his family, especially his mother. That side of Oliver’s emotional story gets referenced and we do get some scenes of him with his family, but it really could have been fleshed out more. It’s clear to the reader that these issues are important to Oliver, so it would have helped to see him and Fay grapple with them a bit more on page.

Instead, there is a Big Mis buried in the story and when that comes up, much of the characters’ energy goes toward dealing with that tension. Once that plot point is resolved, matters drift off toward the ending and while I liked what I read, it felt a little thin. I enjoyed what was here, but I definitely wanted more.

Grade:       B-        Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

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Lights. Camera. Murder. by C.S. Poe

Lights. Camera. Murder. originally appeared in the Footsteps in the Dark anthology from 2019 (along with stories from Josh Lanyon, Dal Maclean, S.C. Wynne, Z.A. Maxfield and others) – and as I’ve had good experiences with C.S. Poe’s work lately, I thought I’d give this novella a go for the January “quickie” prompt.  I enjoyed the story, and was pleased to learn that the author is writing a sequel/series set in the same world with the same lead characters.

PI Rory Byrne has gained a reputation as the go-to guy for people who need their problems solved quickly and quietly.  He’s very good at what he does and is something of a workaholic – which accounts for his string of ex-boyfriends, most of whom left when they got fed up with playing second fiddle to his job.

The story opens with Rory being hired by a ‘hot shot’ (in Rory-speak, that’s “Royal Pain in the Ass”) television producer to investigate the theft of a script.  John Anderson is the producer of a new TV show being filmed in Queens called The Bowery – an historical drama set in turn-of-the-century New York centred around an Irish gang leader who is in a committed same-sex relationship.  Anderson is planning on branching out and has written a pilot for what he says is a bigger, edgier and better show than The Bowery – but it’s gone missing and he’s sure it’s been stolen.  The job is a bit out of Rory’s usual line – it’s on a live film set, likely an inside job, there are literally hundreds of suspects (basically the entire cast and crew) – and he only has a few days to solve the case.

So Rory goes undercover as a PA (production assistant) and immediately, all the tensions – both on and off set – hierarchies and petty politics that come with working in such a high-pressure, high-profile environment become apparent.  The key PA is an arsehole, the Production Manager clearly doesn’t like the on-set production crew, there’s obvious hostility between the director and lead actor Marion Roosevelt… nobody’s talking, everybody’s nervous – and then in the midst of it all, one of the crew is murdered.

Lights, Camera, Murder  is a well-crafted and engaging read, despite its small page-count.  The mystery is intriguing, with enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep it interesting without going over the top, and although the secondary characters are drawn with broad strokes they have depth and individuality.  Rory is the PoV character, so he’s the one we get to know the best, and he’s hard-bitten in a very noir-ish kind of way (I admit that when I first saw the cover, I though the story was set in the 1950s); he’s in his forties and has been there, done that several times, and the one constant in his life is his cat Gary (a total scene-stealer).  He isn’t too worried about his poor track record with relationships, although meeting Marion makes him start to wonder if maybe it’s time he made some changes and stopped getting in his own way.

Marion is almost twenty years younger than Rory, he’s gorgeous, charming, super-talented, sweet and savvy; he’s landed the role of a lifetime in The Bowery and feels passionately about the opportunity it’s given him to deliver a positive portrayal of a strong queer character in love.  Sparks fly between him and Rory from the moment they meet and their romance gets off to a promising start.  I confess though, that had this been a standalone and not the start of a series, I might have found it a bit rushed.

The writing flows smoothly and Ms. Poe does a great job when it comes to describing the day-to-day working of a bustling movie set.  I always enjoy her wry humour – and she gets extra brownie points for Gary the cat, whose utter “cat-ness” clearly signals someone Who Knows Cats.

Lights, Camera, Murder is an entertaining whodunit with a touch of romance, and although short, it reaches a satisfying conclusion and feels ‘complete’.  I’m looking forward to reading what the author has in store for Rory and Marion next.

Grade:  B                    Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.