Review: Worth, by Adrienne Wilder

Worth by Adrienne Wilder (December 2011, Dreamspinner Press) combines the genres of m/m erotic romance, fantasy/paranormal, and horror. It may be the strangest book I read in 2011. I referred to it on Twitter as “the cannibalism book.” I received my copy free from Net Galley.

Worth begins with an author’s note that explains the City of Dragons, aka Atlanta. There are two kinds of natural science, physics and metaphysics (energy emitted by kin and Lesser-Breeds), and two kinds of being that have evolved from them, humans and kin. For some reason, kin are called dragons. When humans and kin breed, they produce half-breeds (male offspring of Kin and female human) and Lesser-breeds (Half-breed and human offspring; can be used as Food).  Dens are where the kin live, ruled by their Queen Dragon. The Dens are surrounded by walls built by humans to keep the two kinds of beings separated, and the Gray Zone is the lawless, decrepit, uncivilized area surrounding the Wall, inhabited by Lesser-breds and Humans. The Gray Zone books, of which Worth is one, are shorter, m/m and more erotic.

We then get a glossary which is an abbreviated version of the very long one on the author’s website. The author’s tendency to use italics and capitals in place of real worldbuilding interfered with the story. Just like J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, cosmetic language changes do not new meanings create. Here are some examples of words that did not need to be glossarized, especially for regular readers of any of the genres the author is attempting to combine in this novella:

Alchemy: Magical Science

Blood Rage: Loss of control due to not Feeding.

Feed: The act of taking Blood, Flesh, or Metaphysical energy.

food: Substance that is consumed.

Halvsie: Slang for half-breed

mark or marked: The scar left by a Kin, Male or Female.

Owned: To be under the control/protection of another.

Taste: Flavor.

Whistle: A high pitched sound, made almost exclusively by submissives within a group or white-scales.

I think a skilled writer can communicate the meanings of these words in the usual way.

Please note: The rest of this review deals with adult themes.
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Review: Pricks and Pragmatism by JL Merrow *Free right now for Kindle and Nook*

Pricks and Pragmatism is a romance novella in the m/m subgenre (Samhain, 2010), set on the south coast of England. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is free right now on Kindle and Nook. If you like this subgenre of romance, you’d be crazy not to download it right now.

How it starts tells you most of what you need to know about the plot:

I looked up from my Uni notes on Rakes and Libertines as Sebastian walked into the flat. He was a vision in Armani, as always, his sleek black hair allowed to grey artfully just at the temples and no further. He’d said once he thought it gave him gravitas; I’d told him I’d grab his arse any time he wanted.

I was lying on the rug in front of the mock fireplace wearing nothing but the Calvin Kleins he’d bought me. On the rug, because Sebastian would have thrown a hissy fit if I’d taken pens on the sofa; in my underwear, because there’s nothing wrong with giving a bloke something nice to look at after a hard day at the office.

I flashed him my best smile over my bare shoulder. “Hey, handsome.”

He didn’t smile back. There was a strange tension around his eyes that made me think that, if it hadn’t been for the Botox, he’d have been frowning. His gaze travelled down my body and stopped at my arse, and for a moment there was something almost like regret in his eyes. That was when I realised what was coming, before he even opened his mouth. “Luke, I need you to move out by the weekend.”

They always said it like that. Never “I want you to move out,” because if it was only something they wanted, maybe I’d try and talk them out of it. Safer to say they needed me to go, like it was out of their hands. Sometimes they added a bit, dressed it up with “It’s been fun”, or “Sorry”, but the bottom line was always the same. I never made a scene. After all, chances were whoever they were chucking me out for wasn’t going to last, and I might want to come back one day.

The narrator, Luke Corbin, is a university student who hopes to become a journalist. He’s already published a couple of freelance articles (one on domestic violence among gay men), but he needs to finish school and get a steady job. Luke is bleach blond, small but dense with muscle, well-dressed, and gorgeous. He loves sex, and he’s only too happy to offer it to a flatmate with means. He enjoys the good life, appreciates tailored suits and fine food, and at first seems not just resigned, but fairly content with his lifestyle.

After getting jilted by Sebastian, Luke moves in with Russell, a friend of a friend. Russell is a chemical engineer with a nice apartment near the docks overlooking Southampton Water. He’s polite and kind, but not the type Luke is used to:

Well, he was a bit of a geek. Actually, he was a lot of a geek. Round face and too-long mousy brown hair, although at least he’d washed it. An actual beard to match; and we’re not talking a neatly trimmed goatee, either. He wore a shapeless sweater over a shirt his mum must have bought him, and glasses from Nerds’R’Us.

Russell sets off Luke’s gaydar, but he’s not interested in sex, and actually seems a bit scandalized that Luke assumes their living arrangement includes it. Luke’s not sure how to respond to Russell, so he settles for making him dinner each night and trying to serve him in more platonic ways.

Slowly (or, as slowly as possible given the page constraint of a novella), over dinners, nights at the pub, and chats about their childhoods, they become real friends. Luke has to learn to value himself for more than a bit of fun, and Russell, well, there wasn’t much character development in Russell, as there was a slow unveiling of his character to Luke, and thus, to the reader.  But there’s no question that his association with Luke opens up new vistas for him, sexual and otherwise.

When I respond so immediately, and so positively, to a romance, I get lost in it, and it’s often hard to articulate what I loved about it. I’ll just list a few things here: (1) the geographical setting, used to great effect (2) the social setting, a believable and complex web of male relationships, gay and straight (3) the economic setting — working blokes, (4) the characters who popped, especially Luke, who was a lovable rascal from the first page, but also the secondary characters like Sebastian (5) a hero who was not very attractive or suave, and never had to endure a makeover, a nice change, (6) the author’s voice, economical yet lively.

Of course, things get wrapped up too quickly. And, as I mentioned, Russell could have used more development. Finally, the novella was a bit waffly on the question of why Luke was the way he was: the introduction of daddy issues was predictable in this subgenre, but as well done as it could be.

I will definitely be reading more by this author.

DNF Reflection: Love Ahead, by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

Love Ahead is two m/m romance novellas published in 2008 by Dreamspinner Press. Here’s the blurb for the first one, Under Contract:

The last thing Nick Cooper expects is for his boss, construction site foreman Ted Lucas, to insanely declare his love right after he finds out Cooper has asked to be transferred. Intrigued, Cooper offers him one night, figuring the “love” will burn out after sex, but it goes far better than either expect. Lucas’s chance comes when an accident leaves Cooper stuck and hurting at home. Lucas does his best to take care of him while hoping Cooper will fall in love with him in return, and Cooper discovers the idea of having Lucas in his life isn’t that crazy after all.

This novella — and this writing team in general — is very popular with m/m readers, so my view is an outlier, but I found the writing style to be wooden and artificial (how’s that for a combo?), and found the dialogue and characterization at times ridiculous.

I liked the premise of a foreman feeling unrequited adoration for an employee who is a near stranger, and blurting out a declaration of love on the first night they actually talk to each other outside of work. The set up of one partner exchanging idolization and lust for real love, and another partner coming to believe in the change, is interesting and, in my (limited) m/m reading, unique.

However, the characters never popped for me, and the lovesick Lucas, in particular, came across as implausibly naive and dull. I’ll explain below a few things that jarred me out of the novella:

I have never in my life heard a man refer to his nipples, especially not to a near stranger, but Cooper says,

“If it gets much colder in this damn trailer my nipples are going to cut through my damn shirt”

to his taciturn boss, while, it must be noted, he is INSIDE. Take away the “damns”, and put this in the third person, and you might be reading about a heroine’s chest in a Harlequin Presents.

I’ve often heard m/m accused of being m/f in disguise, and I have to say that the this whole novella, and the character of Lucas in particular, was very feminized. What man thinks, “Who’d want to love him, a big boorish construction worker?” First, does anyone think of themselves as “boorish”? And why on earth would someone think he is out of romantic contention because he is a construction worker? In general, I hate it when a character believes his career puts him out of the romantic running. It is so often a cheat to create conflict. This happens a lot when he is a cop, detective, or in the military. In those cases, at least you have danger or long absences. But what is it about being a construction worker (and he’s a foreman anyway) that makes someone unlovable? The story doesn’t even take a stab at an answer.

Redundancies in the writing did not add to drama or intensity:

“the foreman’s eyes widened as Cooper looked right at him. Directly.”

The authors resorted to repetitive body movements to convey emotion. For example, someone’s eyes or mouth was always going “wide” (there are ten pages of “wides” according to my Kindle). And then there are lines like this:

“The jeans were being pulled down his admittedly long legs.”

Putting aside the “invisible hand” aspect, admittedly, I have no idea why “admittedly” is in that sentence.

Here’s another passage the exemplifies the wooden writing and the characterization:

Lucas’s eyes got wide. That was Cooper’s tongue. Cooper’s tongue licking Cooper’s lips. He gawked for a long moment before shaking himself. … Christ, he hoped he didn’t do something to really piss Cooper off. It would totally suck if he left and quit. Christ. Don’t think about anything sucking…”

Is this a grown man, or a twelve year old? Here’s another line that stopped me in my reading tracks:

“‘I bet you want me on my knees, don’t you?’ he growled impishly.”

I had some fun trying to make an impish growl in the bathroom mirror. I confess, though, that I was unable to do it.

And another:

Without a word, he headed for the bathroom to dispose of the condom and retrieve a towel for them both. It wasn’t exactly a romantic gesture, but he figured it would be more appreciated than a rose or something.

Adding “or something”, “damns”, and whatever else does not turn such thoughts into believable ones. I have read and enjoyed some m/m romances in which one partner is very open, nurturing, and in touch with his emotions (I’m thinking of some K. A Mitchell, some JF Smith, etc.), so I don’t think my problem is that Lucas (and Cooper at times) has feminine qualities, but rather, that his characterization is so implausible.

I’m no great literary critic, to put it mildly. I read for character and story, and if those are compelling, I can forgive most anything. It takes a lot for the writing to make me put down a novella halfway through, but in this case, I just had to do it.

Review: Bad Case of Loving You, by Laney Cairo

Bad Case of Loving You is an erotic m/m romance by Laney Cairo. You can purchase it from Torquere Press or read a sample here. I read it on the recommendation of several romance readers whose opinions I trust, and I’m glad I did, but I have some reservations about the actions of one of the heroes. Here’s the blurb:

Matthew is a medical student, trying to ignore his various roommates’ wild parties and get through his classes. Andrew is his instructor, a doctor at a prestigious British hospital. They’re not supposed to be attracted to each other, but they can’t deny their undeniable chemistry.

They come together with a heat that surprises them both, and through doctor’s strikes, dealing with Andrew’s teenaged son, and hospital red tape, Andrew and Matthew learn to live, and love together. Is their relationship just what the doctor ordered?

Mature readers continue after the jump…
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Review: Love Ahead: Expect Delays, by Astrid Amara

Love Ahead: Expect Delays is a Hanukkah themed m/m erotic romance published this month by Loose-I.D.. I had read and enjoyed Amara’s similarly themed Holiday Outing last year, so I decided to pick this one up, despite it not being cheap, at $4.99 for a short novella.

Blurb*: (* a bit misleading, as I explain below)

Austin thinks driving a 1989 Geo Spectrum fourteen hundred miles in the middle of winter is a bad idea. But he would never forgive himself if the man he loved, Zach Roth, got himself killed in Idaho, so he agrees to go.

Besides, he has something to prove. He wants Zach to know that its more than just Zach’s deliciously wicked body he adores. And if it takes spending Hanukkah in Zach’s Grandma’s old hatchback to prove it, then so be it.

Ever the optimist, Zach believes everything will turn out for the best. But bad weather, robberies, blown gaskets, run-ins with the police and motel bedspreads of questionable cleanliness seem to conspire against them, and they may need eight days of miracles just to keep each other and their romance alive.

The blurb makes this book sound kind of fun and wacky, but it is actually quite somber in tone, and there are scenes of real violence and terror. Amara is a very good writer, and I am glad I read it, but I found it to be a downer overall. To her credit, Amara managed to include a good amount of backstory (especially for Zach, who is open and lovable, but gunshy after some failed relationships) and suspense (homophobic slurs, and a hostage situation) without losing the natural feel of the narrative.

Amara has a sharp eye for observation, as in this passage from the first dingy motel our heroes encounter:

A thin slip of paper guarded the toilet seat like a chastity belt, a weird symbol of sterility only found in the cheapest of motels.

Or the way Zach is described as being slim, self-effacing, with effeminate tendencies, but with a deep masculine voice, lots of thick black hair, a scruffy day’s growth, and piercing eyes. He’s the more open, emotional and loving, yet is the one who hesitates to take the relationship to the next level.

In contrast, Austin is big, brawny, a mechanic, more closed emotionally. But he wants to move in with Zach. Yesterday.

So I liked the way Amara played with some stereotypes. But I did feel a little distant from the emotions on the page. Austin, in particular, was somewhat unlikeable and inscrutable, and I wasn’t 100% convinced that the troubling behaviors he displayed were dealt with appropriately for an HEA I could believe in.

FYI, typical of this subgenre, the sex scenes in this novella are quite explicit.

Review*: False Colors, by Alex Beecroft (*kinda)

This isn’t going to be a traditional review, because the only one of those that you need to read was written in April 2009, by Sarah/Joan, Dear Author, A. I see from my own comments at Dear Author that I downloaded False Colors to my Kindle on the basis of that review. I could kick myself for having waited over a year to actually read it. It was terrific.

The blurb (click here for an excerpt):

For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers.

Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse for war with the Ottoman Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer-a secret punishable by death.

With the arrival of his former captain-and lover-on the scene, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John.

Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, piracy and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa, from the Arctic to the West Indies, in search of a safe harbor.

I’ll just discuss a few of the things that I most enjoyed about False Colors:

Both John and Alfie have significant, interesting character arcs. Alfie begins as “An old country lawyer’s son with nothing more to his name than his sea-chest” who does things by “hard work and charm”. He is “confident in his natural invulnerability”.  Another important character,  Captain Farrant describes Aflie this way:

And the man was made for smiling. Farrant wouldn’t have looked twice at him, sober-faced, but with that little grin he became a point of light and warmth in an otherwise dingy universe.

Alfie has blond hair, and Beecroft uses metaphors of sun and light to both describe Alfie and to illuminate (heh) John’s attraction to him, and attitude towards him. Here’s captain John’s first impression of his new lieutenant:

John could not wrench his gaze away from Donwell’s face. Limned with gold, it was perfectly nondescript; round, pleasant, and completely lacking in self-conscious guilt. Donwell’s mouth quirked up at one side into a slow, charming smile. And his presence! It was extraordinary. It beat on John’s skin like strong sunshine. He fought the urge to close his eyes and bathe in it. His pulse picked up, waiting, waiting for something….

As a philosopher well acquainted with Plato, it’s hard for me to not see connections between the sun, light, truth, and beauty. For Plato, the move from mere belief to real knowledge, from illusion to reality, was always at the same time a move from injustice to justice, and from ugliness to beauty. I’ve rarely read a book in which all of the aspects of this journey was so movingly or realistically portrayed. Especially in lines like this:

Yet now it was as if his eyes had been opened. Blind, he hadn’t seen the beauty that surrounded him, but Alfie had given him sight. … The naval routine around him was familiar as the rhythm of his breathing. But he began to dimly discern another world within it; jealousies too sharp for friendship, smiles too radiant.

But Alfie is not just some one dimensional savior who brings John out of the closet into the light. Alfie is not a fixed point around which John’s character arcs. He is vulnerable, he is naive, he makes bad choices, he holds grudges. This is his story as much as it is John’s.

I found it remarkable that Beecroft conveyed John’s sexuality so clearly in the pages when it was utterly repressed without making me feel like the writer had taken over the narrating duties.

John’s journey may sound very familiar to readers of gay romance: self-denying, he views his attraction to men — so repressed he doesn’t even feel it at first — as alien, aberrant, an unwelcome trespasser in the terrain of his real self. Yet the way it unfolded felt very unique and fresh. I especially appreciated the way John’s deep religious faith was not abandoned, but transformed. From using prayer as a distraction useful for repressing his sexuality, he moves to using it to ask for relief from it: “You made me what I am. Help me. Give me the strength to resist this.” He questions his religion and his understanding of God, without rejecting it. Finally, “Unexpectedly, he found himself thanking God in his daily prayers for leading him out of darkness into light.”

John’s morality is at first extremely superficial and rigid. The rules are clear, and one need only follow them. But this too gives way to a more sophisticated and subtle understanding of the moral universe and his place within it. Mature moral agents recognize that moral duties can conflict, and only a person of discernment an sensitivity will know what to do when that happens.

He had to lie. A night spent sleepless, praying, and wandering about his rooms until his healing frame would bear it no longer, had lead him inexorably to the conclusion that he should lie—that Alfie deserved this sacrifice of his personal honor. More, that honesty might require execution but justice could not possibly do so. That it was therefore somehow morally right to lie.

So many things he had taken for granted now needed thought. So many assumptions were proved unsound. Though this path had led him into needful lies, he still felt as though he more nearly approached a true understanding of himself and the world.

I haven’t even touched here on the naval aspect of the story. Suffice it to say that this is a completely successful adventure at sea novel, and not a second or a separate novel for that. The thrilling battles, the fascinating journeys, the lushly rendered ports, the machinations of the admiralty, all fit seamlessly with not just the romance plot and main protagonists, but — remarkably — parallel in important ways the major themes of the book — duty, conflict of duty, self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, friendship.

I also haven’t mentioned one of the main pleasures I took in reading False Colors: the writing. I can’t count the number of times I stopped to reread a beautiful passage. My Kindle notes number in the dozens of pages. Here are just a couple of examples:

“No.” John’s conscience, never very quiescent, raised its head like a gazelle scenting a lion on the wind. “Permission denied.”

The ship, which had begun to feel like home, took on a strange unreality, and when the lookout shouted “land ho!” from the masthead there was a moment in which Alfie did not understand the words and could not make himself move. Then the needs of the sea returned to him and he checked helm and wind, and called out, “Port your helm, four points south south east.” The ship responded, the crew moving out of their shocked stillness with relief, and a smattering of voices began to stitch the silence back into a more human garment.

We share a deviancy we must pay for with lives of exemplary duty. That’s all. You will get yourself hanged if you try to think otherwise.”

Somewhere in his inner world, he was screaming. He could feel it; all his emotions held away like a fire behind a sheet of glass. It was better to concentrate on the cold, the crystals of frost in his blood with their sharp little edges, the desolate moony white of winter; deep under snow.

He felt as though Alfie’s confession in Gibraltar had set him on a long, complex calculation. All his process of self-examination this last year had been working out the sums in the margins. But Alfie…Alfie was the answer.

And finally, as a romance reader, I took pleasure in the ways this book pushed the boundaries of genre. True to the adventure at sea subgenre, John and Alfie are separated for long periods as they end up on different ships. During the separation, Alfie has another relationship. In this, Beecroft was being true to that character: Alfie can’t live without loving someone, caring for someone. It’s who he is, a trait which poses some of his greatest challenges, even greater challenges than his sexuality.  But it is not true to romance genre restrictions to write a believable triangle (Alfie has sex with his other lover after falling in love with John). As a reader, I am glad Beecroft made the choices she did, and I would hardly call this book less romantic for them.

It is sometimes said that genre fiction is about plot and character, while literary fiction is about language and Big Ideas. I have the perfect book to recommend to anyone who persists in that false belief.

Word on the Web:

Thrifty Reader, A

Historical Naval Fiction calls it a pleasant surprise

Author Courtney Milan, the best book I’ve read in 2009

Review: A Certain Pressure in the Pipes, by Clancy Nacht

Most of my reviews this week are based on reader recommendations, but I wanted to strike out on my own a bit, so I surfed over to new-to-me Noble Press.

I’ve read two steampunk romances that I really enjoyed, Ginn Hale’s Wicked Gentlemen, and Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, so the blurb caught my eye:

Conrad Lloyd’s father, Governor of an old west town, wishes his son wasn’t so interested in inventing, or men, for that matter. It isn’t until Conrad meets Ezhno, a Native American inventor, that Conrad thinks he can find sexual and intellectual fulfillment all in one man. Will they find their way together despite the societal and familial divide that threatens to keep them apart? Or will Conrad have to satisfy himself with his steam-powered Pleasuring Machine?

In the interest of full disclosure, it was the title, A Certain Pressure in the Pipes, that sold me.

I went into this book thinking “campy” and fun. My expectations were low. Alas, they were not low enough.

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Help! Read Any Good M/M Romance Lately? Know of any Hanukkah romance? Seeking Recs!

Hey folks,

Last year, I had the ambitious idea to read and post 8 reviews of m/m romance during Hanukkah. Alas, it hit me on about day 3 that I read at a snail’s pace and could not finish all 8 books. Still, two of the books I had chosen for that week were two of my favorite reads in the past year.

Hanukkah begins on December 1 (at sundown, of course), and both my sons’ birthdays fall during that week, so it promises to be incredibly busy. In a rare and likely doomed attempt to plan ahead (I am an inveterate procrastinator), I am seeking your recommendations., so I can begin reading them now.

I already have a few books on my Kindle: False Colors by Alex Beecroft, Phyllidia and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen, and Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville. Any other ideas?

Also, I am seeking Hanukkah reads, m/m or otherwise. I found a few last year, which I have to say I considered my personal Hanukkah miracle. Romance is not known as a genre that features Jews. Any ideas?

Thanks for your help!

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