Smoke and Shadows (Tony Foster #1)Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Trilogy about a gay production assistant on a, by all appearances quite terrible, Canadian vampire detective show.

Hey, check it out, these are books I actually finished!

So, I could just say 'too much boyfriend: not enough production assistanting,' and leave it at that. But actually I don't think that really gets at the problem.

These are quirky, well-intentioned, fun little books about a former street hustler turned PA turned wizard. I remember people talking excitedly about them ten years ago, the way we did when we had so little commercial LGBT fiction to read, let alone genre fiction. But the thing is, even if I hadn't checked the copyright dates, I could have accurately dated these books by the shape of the romance.

See, this is one of those 'gay guy falls for beautiful unattainable straight guy' stories, except oh wait maybe he's not so straight – oh wait he totally is – touch me – touch me not, where the allegedly straight dude plays mind games and is generally an all-around dick, but hey it's cool guys, finding out you like guys is really hard okay. And you just don't see that much in LGBT fiction anymore. At least not played for romance, as it is here.

I'm tempted to make some sweeping statements about cultural esthetics of queerness, and how allegedly straight dude's convulsions and reversals and spewings of internalized homophobia are actually a larger commentary on the place of queerness in the general psyche, or in genre fiction. And I think that's pointed in the right direction, though it's painting with too broad strokes. I mean, there's a reason the esthetics of queer romance shift over time – when's the last time you read an actual we're not gay we just love each other story written in 2014? But that was, like, the narrative of the 90's – the trappings of queerness without ever having to use the word. The shifts over time reflect the cultural reckoning that a lot of straight writers were doing with queerness, and it's not as if queer writers like Huff are immune to the tides.

Anyway, my point being that the particular esthetic of queer romance in these books is pretty uncomfortable to read now. It was better when I flipped gears to read as historical document, but still. Yikes.




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Taste (Horizons, #2)Taste by Mickie B. Ashling

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


DNF halfway through. Why yes, I'm cleaning out my unfinished books, how can you tell?

M/M that I started out quite liking. Contemporary romance/drama set around a huge Chicago food festival. But then we got to the kink.

Look, here's the thing. A lot of M/M subscribes to the notion that what you are is how you fuck. You know, the smaller dude always enjoys being overpowered, that sort of thing.

Which is screwed up and uninteresting in equal degrees. But the thing is, you can't separate sex from character. And you definitely can't separate something as specific and personal as kink from character. I mean, you don't have to explain it, you don't have to draw nice straight lines from someone's specific trauma to why he likes asphyxiation. Really, it's better when you don't.

But kink doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's an expression of some really intense and fundamental emotions – desire sure, but also antipathy, pain, joy, you name it. The kinky person doesn't have to know why, but there is a why, and the shape of that why – often done in the negative spaces by the writers who are really good at this – is what makes the kink vital and interesting. Also hot. This stuff gets installed in us in, like, the root directories. It's so deep in the operating system that looking at it is also looking at how we function. Or don't.

Which is what makes it interesting. And thus why this book, which wandered along doing food festival/family things for a while, and then basically out-of-the-blue was all, hey, these dudes like to wear women's panties! was so, so boring. I don't care. This is the sort of writing about sex that is all bodies and no brains. Sex acts aren't by themselves hot. Personal, contextual sex acts can be blazing.

And thus endeth Light on kink. For today.




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London FallingLondon Falling by Paul Cornell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Man, the subgenre of urban fantasies about London cops dealing with the supernatural is hitting it out of the park lately, isn't it?

I was hearing about this book before it was published, and to be honest, for the first thirty pages, I couldn't tell why. I was reading a well-executed but not-my-thing book about an undercover operation staffed by a bunch of really unpleasant people. And then it all dislocated bloodily hard to the left. And then did it again, more viscerally and frighteningly. And where we ended up was a magical London whose rules remain largely unknown, and those four cops I didn't really like were much more complicated in its weird light. The obvious comparison is to the Peter Grant books; that's fair, superficially, but the esthetics here lean way more towards horror and less towards detective. I like them both quite a lot, though with different parts of my brain.

This is about accessing power through trial and error and pain. Uniquely in the genre, there's no mentor here. No one explains shit to these people, which means shit just don't get explained. It's a book, a little bit around the edges, about how already being the other – black, queer, traumatized – can make it easier to slip into the cracks of a world beneath ours.

And if nothing else, this book managed that oh-so-rare trick of signaling the awful truth to me over and over again, but only letting me figure it out a page before the characters did, so I spent that whole page going "no no oh no oh no." That stuff never works on me – I always figure it out too early or not at all.

Basically: aces.




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Ball & Chain (Cut & Run, #8)Ball & Chain by Abigail Roux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Another M/M FBI caper, this time stranded on a tiny Scottish island for a wedding, at least until the bodies start dropping.

Hm. This made me think about series structure and the necessity of releasing tension in order to build it again. Because, I think for the first time in my life, I was hoping for a mystery-of-the-week, and I didn't get it. All the markers were there – last book was over-the-top intense! This book started with hints of whacky hijinks! – and I thought oh good, we can all decompress a bit. And then no. It's like Roux couldn't stop herself from injecting a whole new set of interpersonal dramas, with yet more awkwardly back-filled history.

And, I mean, I don't read M/M just for the porn, okay? For one reason, that would be really fucking sad, considering the abysmal quality of most published LGBT erotica (this series being a pleasant surprise there). I also read it for the personal drama, to wallow in it and – yeah – to mock it a lot. But I'm genuinely in this for people having complicated, difficult feelings at each other.

But seriously. Once in a while? Have a freaking caper. Remember the thing a couple books ago with the tiger and the terrible, terrible puns, and how hard I laughed on a flight home from London? Can't we do that again?



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HildHild by Nicola Griffith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Fictionalized account of the early life of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon woman who would later become a pivot point in the conversion to Christianity, and a saint.

I read this directly after Kay's Under Heaven, which was accidentally brilliant. Both are fictionalized historical accounts of great cultural transition, and yeah they're set about half a world and a century apart and their respective projects are different, but sometimes contrasts are the most illuminating.

This was a subtle, very human endeavor set against all Under Heaven's contortions and greek choruses, and I liked this much more. Hild straddles multiple spheres: she is a member of the queen's inner circle, and thus embedded in all the political, gynecological, marital machinations thereof; she is the king's seer and the only woman to attend his councils; she is an owner of slaves; she is chattel to be dealt or withheld. The historical accuracy or inaccuracy here is of no interest to me, except that my definition of good historical fiction is the kind where the people feel simultaneously real and familiar, and also dislocatingly alien because their world is not ours in fundamental ways. Griffith got at that.

All that said, this book is the very definition of a thing that is good and that is also not my thing. What I said above about not caring about the historical accuracy? I seriously don't, and will glaze over at anyone who attempts to buttonhole me about it (not a guess, I have tested this out). (Though I will pause to say that I eyeroll at all the people complaining the LGBT content is inherently anachronistic. Yeeeeeah. Because, as we all know, the twenty-first century invented queerness and absolutely no one was queer and unbothered by it before then.) Anyway, I suspect you do have to care about the historical accuracy to really enjoy this book. You also probably need to be the sort of person who likes maps, family trees, the intersection of politics and religion, and keeping track of roughly two hundred people with similar names. (Though I did enjoy a rousing game of 'guess the Anglo-Saxon spelling' in which I would look up words from the audiobook and then goggle.) So basically, not for me, but I can see why a bunch of people really, really dig this.




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Living Promises (Promises, #3)Living Promises by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M modern romance of her usual 'make lots of melodramatically bad things happen to these people and stick a wedding at the end' variety. I can't think of another M/M dealing with HIV off the top of my head, so there's that. And I did like this in a distracted, way-more-important-shit-going-on-give-me-a-book way. Even with all the emotional breakdowns and nonsense.

But – and I realize I sound like a broken record here – but. This genre does not understand homophobia. According to this genre, there are two kinds of people: there are homophobes who disown their queer children in dramatic fashion, and then there's everyone else who isn't homophobic. Riiiight. I mean, those homophobes do exist. But writing about that is writing the most cartoonishly villainous face of it, and entirely missing the grinding, subtle, every day corrosion. You know, the complicated parts. Like how a friend's mother gave the old family silver to the straight daughter and not the queer daughter because – and mom didn't articulate this or probably even know – because the straight daughter had the sort of family/table on which ancestral silver belongs, and the queer daughter and wife did not. When the M/M genre defines homophobia only by violence and blatant hate, it fails to get its hands around some fundamental truths of what it is to be queer. And also perpetuates homophobia, but it does that in a hundred other ways too, so.

I'll stop bitching about this eventually.




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Kindred HeartsKindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M historical. Flighty nineteenth-century party boy becomes involved with his wife's twin brother (without any of the infidelity kink that implies). Fine, until it ruined itself with a subplot. I appreciate 'reconciling with an estranged family member' plots as much as the next girl, but there's that and then there's 'reconciling with an abuser' plots. This book thought it was doing the first and was really, really wrong. I have kind of a raw nerve in this general vicinity right now, but when this book started in with the pressure from everyone for forgiveness because he loves you really despite the years and years of emotional abuse (apparently it's not abuse if he didn't . . . mean it really?), with a side dish of 'of course you must forgive, he is family and you have to forgive family' – yeah, no, I'm out, and also fuck right off, book.



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Widdershins (Whyborne & Griffin, #1)Widdershins by Jordan L. Hawk

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M "historical" horror mystery where the introverted museum philologist teams up with the ex-Pinkerton (why is it always an ex-Pinkerton?) to investigate a paint-by-numbers plot involving mummies and chimeras in basements and blah blah. This is a cut above the usual commercial M/M standard, which isn't saying much, because . . . well, but it's still worth noting. And yet, this roundly bored me. Many other people are way into it, though, so don't let that stop you. But do take the quotes around "historical" advisedly – I swear to God when I wasn't paying attention my brain was fooled into thinking this is set in the 1990's or so, only to be surprised when the main characters take carriages instead of cabs and occasionally call each other "old fellow." Some day when I have a little more time you guys are getting a full-fledged essay on queerness and historicity in romance fiction and how our stories which portray queerness as an entirely modern invention transplanted into the hostile soil of the past are really messed up, and then you'll be sorry, but today is not that day.

I am, however, deducting a star as a penalty for one of the stupider pet names in recent memory. Ival? For Percival? Really? That just hurts my soul.




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Caught RunningCaught Running by Abigail Roux

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


M/M. This didn't work for me, but it was apparently good for the embryos.*

*A friend and I have an agreement to read M/M romance during IVF hell rather than do any of the other internet-recommended activities (praying, using cutesy sayings like "babydust," weeping). So I read this for her, and so far, it was apparently successful. So there's that!

Aaaanyway. This is otherwise bland M/M about the high school baseball coach and the science teacher hooking up. This has many of the faults of the genre, most notably bizarre and dizzying POV shifts so we can experience things from both sides, and trust me, they weren't that interesting the first time around. Also, the only role for women in this book is to throw themselves in exaggerated and creepy fashion at the dudes. What is that? I see it all the time in M/M, but can't put my finger on what it is supposed to be doing.

Anyway, there's a nice lack of stupid external impediments (oh noes, we can't be together because your twin brother's ex fiancé's cousin kidnapped my niece and blackmailed us!) but when you strip out all that nonsense, you do actually have to replace it with internal conflict. And, well . . . nope.

Good for the embryos, though.




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Touch Me GentlyTouch Me Gently by J.R. Loveless

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


M/M. The sort of romance that starts – and I mean the very first sentence – with a rape. Because that way we can get to all the saccharine declarations of love by hot cowboy and repeated instances of trauma being healed by the application of cock. This book is abysmally awful on nearly every front, and dangerously so on matters of sexual trauma, queer identities, and disability. But I am weary, so let's talk about the ways this book is hilarious awful, as opposed to really unfunny awful.

The protagonist of this book: has "violet eyes," is named Kaden, writes his feelings in song lyrics in a series of notebooks, is "delicate" and "tiny" and "feminine," can tame abused horses because he understaaaaaands their pain, is a cutter, can cook for twenty with no preparation or recipes, weeps at the drop of a dime, and did I mention the violet eyes?

Any one of those things, if written well, could be interesting or funny. Taken together, and written by this author? Utter hilarity.




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The Wild Ways (Gale Women, #2)The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


More cheerfully queer poly incestuous Canadian capers, this time with bonus seal people.

So this book helped me identify a squick I didn't know I had. See, the prequel freaked me out. Which was weird, because I also quite enjoyed it. It wasn't the mind control that got me, and it wasn't the deer semi-beastiality (though, for the record, ….??????), and it wasn't the incest. Actually, it was all the family. Which is weird, because I love stories about intense, close-knit groups of people, and that's exactly what this series is about.

Except this book follows one of the family's oddball misfits who enjoys life on her own, so there was way less family by volume. And I realized that if I just pretended all the background family stuff was an extensive network of interlocking polyamorous and friend arrangements, I was cool. But the minute I started processing the way this book defines family, how they all knew everything about each other, and would always know everything about each other, and everybody was everybody else's business by definition, and all the important things about you were determined by the fact you belong to the family, and no one would ever leave, and no one would ever want to – I'm kinda freaking myself out just talking about it.

Basically, I'm okay with intense claustrophobic relationships as long as there's no family involved. My issues. They are not subtle.

Um. It's a fun lightweight adventure about seals and music and going your own way?




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Touch & Geaux (Cut & Run #7)Touch & Geaux by Abigail Roux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M romance in that series I like. This is a 'through the fire' book. You know, where the relationship gets tested to extremity. I'm that apparently unusual romance reader who by far prefers established relationship stories to getting together stories. Done well, staying together stories are deeper, richer, and simply more interesting to me. And the thing that really works for me about this series is that it does staying together well. So it was inevitable we'd get to a book like this, where that is tested to breaking.

Anyway, long way of saying I should have liked what this book was doing more than I did. But these stories are hard to write; you've got to come up with some cataclysm to fracture your OTP, and what most people come up with is trumped up or silly. Which is funny, because it's not like the world doesn't surround us with a thousand relationship tests every day – money and time and careers and illness and infertility and fertility and impatience and not listening enough and etc. There are a lot of incredible stories to tell there, but they're not easy. So you can see how, in comparison, this story of overbaked espionage and convoluted backstory betrayals was ridiculous and kind of shallow.

Yeah yeah yeah, I'm complaining that this series is being itself, I know. It's like complaining that cheese is cheesy. But still.




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Fire Logic (Elemental Logic, #1)Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I read this weeks ago, and for complicated reasons promised myself I would figure out how to review it before reviewing anything else, so at this point there is a ridiculous pile of books jostling behind this one, and none of them are even half as good, and I still don't know what to say.

It's a fantasy about a land overrun by foreign warlords, and elemental magic systems, and guerilla warfare, and it's not any of the things you are imagining right now because it is so much more. It is politically radical and personally harrowing. It is ornately but precisely written, and it is put together so well, it's one of those books where story and theme are actually the same thing. The best way to describe it is that I had the strong impression that Marks grew this book on a vine instead of writing it. Which is what critics say when they mean "organic," but I'm using more words because I really mean it.

Basically, it's a beautiful, complicated piece of art, and I loved it.




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The GuardianThe Guardian by Mary Calmes

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Abandoned at 60%. I am far too exhausted to work up the outrage this book deserves, so let's do this the quick and clean way.

Blah blah blah gay romance where the ad executive saves a giant dog from a fight, except the giant dog is actually a hot dude from a fantasy dimension.

Item the first: The first time they hook up, hot dude from fantasy land is startled to discover, mid sex act, that the protagonist is willing. This apparently never having happened to him before.

Item the second: Shortly thereafter, the protagonist meets up with the group of women who were hot fantasy dude's previous sexual partners (for financial remuneration). And these ladies elucidate that, indeed, hot fantasy dude is sexually brutal and violent, that it was rape at least some of the time, and that one of them frequently believed that he would kill her during sex.

. . .

You know how I often say that I don't care what a book's kinks are as long as the author knows it? Like, go ahead and have a watersports kink, whatever, it's not my thing but I won't stop you. But for the love of God, own it. Don't pretend it was an accident. 'Oops, my word processor slipped!' 'I just wrote a story about a dude sexing up someone who is drugged unconscious, but it's not rape and how dare you say I would write a story about rape, because I'm the author and I know the unconscious dude secretly wanted it, so there!'

There is very little more secondhand embarrassing than watching someone shame themselves over the kink they are writing stories about, often within the stories themselves.

So yeah, you know how I often say that?

Well, this book is the counter argument. This book explicitly makes sure we know hot fantasy dude is a violent rapist because that makes him sexier to the protagonist, and that is supposed to make him sexier to the reader. There's nothing coy about this, no inference games. Calmes thought being a violent rapist -- being an uncontrollable brutal animal, nearly a direct quote -- makes this guy hotter, and she owned that.

And it was so fucking gross, I have a bad taste in my mouth over a week later.




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Finding ZachFinding Zach by Rowan Speedwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M. Hurt/comfort of the 'kidnapped for five years of rape and torture in the South American jungle, followed by lots of sexy cuddling' variety. Like you do.

I'm tempted to think the flickers of beauty and interpersonal complexity were accidents. I mean, look, if someone wants to write a book for the sole purpose of hitting emotional buttons connected to the healing powers of love after ludicrous amounts of suffering . . . go for it. These types of stories are often intensely wrong-headed about trauma in ways that make me angry for reasons I won't get into. But I keep reading them because they also do push my buttons. And once in a while you find one like this, with a little richness to it, some thought.

But the wrong amount of thought. You get these quick, casual moments of delicate character work, and then an entire subplot that was so poorly thought out, I honestly have no idea what she even meant to accomplish with it. So frustrating, because I strongly suspect what I'm seeing here is a talent under-exercised, and that just makes me sad. I'd almost rather have read this by a lesser author . . . almost.




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Talker (Talker, #1)Talker by Amy Lane

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


M/M romance. Our "hero" "tries" to tell his best friend that he wants him, but he never actually, uh, uses his words. So he figures hey, the problem here is that the bestie is just refusing to notice him, and the bestie was recently raped and is really "fragile," okay, so the thing to do – he has a plan, you guys – the thing to do is to manipulate events so he and the bestie are in a sexual situation but the bestie doesn't know who he is until after there are orgasms.

This being a romance, this is fed to us as romantic instead of, you know, creepy and awful.



DO. NOT. WANT.




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Santa Olivia (Santa Olivia, #1)Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Totally the best dystopic queer orphan superpowered Latina boxing novel I've ever read.

Some of you guys are going to seriously dig this. (Or, you know, already did. In 2008.) It's about the daughter of a super soldier trapped in a militarized border town, and social injustice, and vengeance. And it's throwing down some interesting stuff. Our heroine tries on and discards assorted narratives – vigilante folk hero, redemptive underdog boxing hero. It's sorta about how when you change the gender of the protagonist, the shape of the story changes too, and it's sorta about what would have to be "wrong" with a woman for her to bend these stories around her (Loup is physiologically incapable of fear, even when it would be really useful).

But only sorta, because a lot of stuff gets thrown down, and most of it never gets picked back up again. I kept waiting for this book to be more than it was. And it was entertaining, don't get me wrong, but there was a promise of greatness here, and I don't think it was fulfilled.




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Timing (Timing, #1)Timing by Mary Calmes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So to put this book in context, on the morning of Valentine's Day I was huddled in bed when my girlfriend brought me a box. Inside it was a black and gold pendant necklace, a statement piece that will go really well with my charcoals and cranberries and other usual work colors. And it was interestingly textured, which is important for us compulsive fiddlers, and all around sweet and beautiful and romantic without being overbearing, and and and.

And I said, "Thank you. Excuse me, I have to go throw up now."*

All of which is to say, this book could have been terrible, and it probably wouldn't have mattered much. I read it on the train into work, tucking my head down to try and minimize the spinning dizziness. And I read it when I gave up the fight and came back home in the middle of the afternoon and curled up under a fuzzy blanket with the dog and intermittent cats. And I finished it there, with the world still revolving gently around my head.

It could have been terrible. It wasn't, though it also wasn't what I would call "good" either. Enjoyable as fuck though.

Calmes usual protagonist – long-haired, extroverted, nearly universally beloved for his beauty and general awesomeness – goes to Texas for his best friend's wedding, and discovers that what he thought was an ongoing feud with the best friend's brother is something else entirely. It's a "have loved you always" story with bonus cowboy and calmes usual run of "only you can manhandle me right, I'm saying no but I don't mean it" thing. And basically it was the one good thing about an entire day. So that's pretty cool.

*Not pregnant.




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Bear, Otter, and the KidBear, Otter, and the Kid by T.J. Klune

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


M/M romance. Boy raises his kid brother, hooks up with best friend's older brother, that's about it. Oh, except for one little thing.

You know how some authors can write about closeted people and all their internalized homophobia, and it's interesting and complicated? And then you know how some authors write about closeted people and all their internalized homophobia, and it's just poisonous and awful and incredibly unpleasant to read?

. . . Yeah.

Spending a couple hundred pages in this guy's head while he insisted he wasn't "…like that" made me want to scrub my entire life out, and then go have a lot of self-affirming queer sex as loudly as possible.

Of course the problem isn't really the narrator, or even the writing. The problem is that the book is carrying so much internalized homophobia of its own, it's falling down under it. Like, okay. On two separate occasions in this book different people who have been busily explaining to each other that it's okay for someone to be gay have a serious, not even kidding conversation about what you say to a nine-year-old who asks if a guy is gay. Because, like, do you tell him the truth? But – wait for it – the eventual consensus is that it was okay to tell him the truth because he's pretty mature and he can handle things that send most adults running away screaming.

No. Seriously.

I assume I don't have to unpack the multiple levels of fucked up there, because if I do, I'm gonna need another couple thousand words. Suffice it to say, this whole book thought it was telling a heartwarming story of family and growing self-acceptance, but what it was really doing was perpetuating a lot of notions of queerness as othering and abnormal and, you know, like that.




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Clear WaterClear Water by Amy Lane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Basically I climbed into a psychological hole towards the end of this week and pulled this book in on top of me. For those purposes, it was great. Twenty three year old party boy with ADHD is trying to get his life together when everything goes to hell in one night, and he basically falls into the lap of a biologist studying toxic effects on frogs. There's this half-hearted afterplot about the pollution and an ex and blah blah blah, but honestly 75% of this book is just taking two guys and sticking them in a small space and watching them be ridiculously happy to have found each other, and then watching all their problems get solved. So, you know, aces for my purposes this week.

The thing about Amy Lane, though, is she's so damn committed to her kinks. She takes that whole 'older put together guy' and 'younger flighty struggling guy' thing, and then she brings all the kitten and bunny descriptions for the younger guy, with extra 'fragile' and 'slender' in case you missed the memo on the dynamic here. Which is all well and good for her, and probably for a lot of readers, but personally I like this trope in subversion, not straight-faced. So to speak.

Oh, but I do have to talk about the audiobook. And by "audiobook," let's be clear. I mean podfic. In a good way! This is the sort of production with a fair amount of unfiltered sound in the background, and a narrator who clearly has a lot of feels about this story, and who persistently says "kway" for quay. Basically it made me grin and want to pat them all and call them darlings. And I'm not talking about the characters.




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