In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.




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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.




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The Dickens With LoveThe Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


M/M Christmas novella about the antiquarian book dealer with a tragical past and the British professor selling a lost Dickens book. Cute, with all the expected grace notes – deception, misunderstanding, self-hatred, the sort of resolution where everything works out because people just spontaneously decide to trust each other. So, you know, fine.

But man oh man, don't read Josh Lanyon for the porn. Don't get me wrong, at his best (which this is not) he's totally worth the investment for the depth of character and emotional range. But there's something so very dated about his style of sex scene -- the writing gives me intense nostalgia for late 90's fanfic, back when everyone was still scared of using the word 'penis.' And by dated, I mean hilarious.

That pump and pull was like a hammer striking the golden frame of angel wings, pounding them into shining, glinting pennants. Perspiration sheened our bodies, and our breath grew harsher as we bent our backs and worked this forge. And then the wings began to beat, trying to take flight, moving faster and faster, and we seemed to lift right off the ground, right off the pillows and bedding and hang there, transfixed as warm white halle freakin lujah surged through.


…Loooool.




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The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister, #1)The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


He's a duke with a rather obnoxious case of the privilege guilts. She's an apparently timid young lady whose tragic past, for once, has nothing to do with illegitimate children. They do exactly what you think they are going to do.

A lot of my friends rave about Courtney Milan. I thought this book was okay, if not spectacular (the duke's aforesaid angst about the terribleness of being so wealthy and powerful grated on my nerves, but ymmv). And I really think a book with a reference to war in the title and a setup promising a competition should have . . . you know . . . more competition. But that's just me being disgruntled because I love romances where the leads spend the whole time attempting to best each other, and this said it was that but really was not.

But what I meant to say is, the entire book was saved by the wedding night sex. Which, first time through, was terrible. Ahahaha, I love it. And our heroine is flat out like, "no, you totally did that wrong, that can't be it." The whole book was worth that.

Not sure where to jump to next in her catalog – thoughts?




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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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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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Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses, #1)Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The story of a glorified road trip through a fantasy kingdom during which our heroes talk endlessly about the looming evil and yet have an incredibly hard time grasping it's obvious plans, at least until they finally meet up with looming evil, who proceeds to narrate the evil plan but never actually do a single thing, and then the book ends.

I liked this, but *points up* I'm not really sure why. The strength of this book is in the romance, which is pretty rare for these fantasy/romance hybrids, in my experience. But this one – there was something about this older, weary pair, their wariness and mistrust, and how that changed with time and work.

Still, there is a fundamental clumsiness to Shinn's writing, not to mention her worldbuilding, and while I'm curious about the next book, I have a feeling she's going to be one of those hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss authors.




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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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Dogs and GoddessesDogs and Goddesses by Jennifer Crusie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Picked entirely at random out of the selection of available Crusie audio because I needed some soothing book white noise. I was like, "I bet this is a nice modern romance," innocently oblivious of the jacket summary. And it turns out? Actually this is three modern romances, punctuated with a cheerfully batshit plot featuring talking dogs and a lot of unintentionally hilarious sex in which, e.g., a woman yells "I am a goddess!" while coming. To be fair, she was an actual goddess. Didn't make it less funny.

Got the job done though.




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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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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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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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Getting Rid of BradleyGetting Rid of Bradley by Jennifer Crusie

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


School teacher divorces her husband, and promptly gets shot at and dragged into his embezzlement case, except she also lands herself a cop for protection.

Not feeling it. The whole thing felt rushed and phoned in, but more to the point, this is one of those romances where all two people have to do is meet. Everything else just happens. I realize this is, like 80% of the romance genre, but I was just not in the mood for a story about how all you need to do to achieve lifelong romantic happiness is show up. As opposed to, I dunno, work hard at it and compromise and be thoughtful and your best self. Everyone who knows the story of how my girlfriend and I got together is now pointing and laughing, and okay, fair. But I still have a point!




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Agnes and the HitmanAgnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Cranky food columnist collides with hitman while trying to plan a wedding; sparks and flamingos fly.

Fun, zaney. There's no serious internal relationship conflict here, just a shrieking heap of mob enforcers and difficult relatives and frying pans to the head. And flamingos. This book is one half domestic hilarity and one half cartoonishly violent splatterfest, which was a bit odd, I will admit. But having read only two Crusie books, I already know that she is a no-brakes funny lady who has the skill and restraint to spin a ridiculous, so far over the top it's in orbit story like this, and then bring it when it comes to personal insight so subtly that I almost miss it. This time it was Agnes with her anger management and her court-appointed psychiatrist to prove it. And Agnes and her best friend talking to each other like only best friends can, in the middle of all this nonsense and splatterfest, and calmly saying to each other that it's not that they need to kill a man. They just need to know that if they had to, they could. Because they both know that this is the sort of world where it can absolutely happen that they'd have to.

The Bob Mayer sections are not nearly so good, but whatever. Flamingos, cupcakes, making room for angry women, cool.




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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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