Queer Studies Basics for Everyday Wear: Review of Static by L.A. Witt

cover41359-mediumStatic by L.A. Witt

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

This will be the second L.A. Witt book I’ve reviewed. One of the first, if not the first NetGalley book I wrote about was Capture and Surrender, book five in her Market Garden series. Static is actually a Riptide re-release that Witt originally put out through Ambure Allure press in 2011. The pedigree of sci-fi and LGBT book awards it’s won definitely shows in the writing, although having read some of the authors more recent work, I can see her progressing in her craft. The emotional landscape that was so finely tuned in Capture and Surrender, is less easily done in Static, but you can see the hopeful beginning of what is now a clear and skillful voice.

The plot of this book is ambitious. In a universe where, in addition to cisgender and transgender, a minority of humanity can change their (physical but not mental) gender at will, average straight but not narrow dude finds out his girlfriend is a shifter, and trapped in male form. We follow our lovers as they struggle to overcome the hate crime that disabled the shifter, and examine what they mean to each other as an on-again off-again gender dysphoric gay man and a straight man in love. Trans, cis, straight, gay, and other characters add a lot of perspective, and while it can get preachy at times, it’s nothing any advocate of gender equality hasn’t heard before.

There are a lot of pieces that fall into place in ways that I associate with younger, less experienced writers. I wonder if Witt would make the same choices, even as little as three years after the fact. I understand how difficult it is to write on the edge of reality without tipping a work over into depression. Chances are, if a writer makes a character, they like them and want them to be happy. It can be too tempting to run around tying things in bows for them. I don’t mind this kind of plot device. In fact, the more I read, the more I’d rather see writers who do this for their characters, than the other extreme, which you can tell is made by grown-up versions of children who put salt on snails just to watch them bubble.

Through skill, but also through her at-the-time-of-writing relatively untrained emotional intelligence, Witt makes a piece of gender queer fiction that, at points, rivals some of the literary greats for sheer engagement. While literature tends towards the clinical when it comes to sex and sexuality, Static doesn’t have this problem. Unlike Market Garden, this book doesn’t purport towards erotica, but the natural human drive for sexual companionship isn’t overlooked like it can be among those writers who consider themselves highbrow.

I’d defer to actual trans and gender-queer readers on the finer points of the landscape in regard to portrayals of trans and gender-queer individuals, but as an outsider, I felt like a queer and minority experience was extremely well represented with dignity and realness. This is basically the ready-to-wear line from the house of queer studies, an easy-going love story for people who regard The Left Hand of Darkness as required reading.

I may not have been completely sold on L.A. Witt in my last review, but this book has definitely encouraged me to keep an eye out for her in the future.

8 out of 10 stars

Spy Games and Bedroom Games: Dirty Deeds Review

cover41566-medium Dirty Deeds by SE Jakes

Thanks to NeGalley for the review copy.

If you’ve read Jakes’ Hell or High Water series, then you’re all caught up for this first book of the spin-off series. If you haven’t, you don’t need to. She does a great job of providing all the information for new readers without making it boring for old ones. Regulars will recognize her signature style, which is very similar to the majority of popular m/m writers. Rough and tumble, big and scary men, trained killers and sociopaths all of them, falling deeply, madly, terrifyingly in love with each other. Here and there, a few phrases or situations strike me as singularly fan-fictioney, which is where I think a lot of the top 10 got their sea legs, but Jakes delivers a fun, and hot ride despite the rare, fractious moments of squee.

Dirty Deeds is no different. A quick read, it deals with submission, dominance, revenge, and revelation in short order. The story is compelling, as the characters themselves are interesting people. It also provides some very illuminating backstory for anybody familiar with the Hell or High Water universe.

Without spoilers, the plot revolves around ex-Navy SEAL turned shady freelance merc, Mal, and his mark-turned anonymous fuck buddy, Cillian, a more-than-meets-the-eye British spook. The interesting twist for me, is that Mal is essentially mute, due to a botched attempt to slit his throat several years before. There’s foreshadowing for a miracle cure in the coming books, but I kind of don’t want that. The dudes in these novels are so frequently cookie cutter copies of each other (this one likes knives, this one’s from Ireland, this one’s a marksman, etc.) that having some diversity, especially the diversity of disability (at least the physical kind) is so rare.

The cat and mouse game the men play is fraught with tension and drama. There are some big reveals, and some shocking moments, as well as an honesty that endeared the characters to me, and left me wanting to know more about them, and read more of their adventures.

The sex scenes are split about evenly between live-in-person appearances, and cyber sessions filled with dirty talk and speculative plays for dominance. Not being a huge fan of sexting, I still found these scenes generally compelling. I think any issue I had lies more with my own feelings that remote sex is inherently silly, rather than any failing on the part of the author. But they’re still bookmark worthy.

I definitely recommend this book. If you’re thinking of getting into SE Jakes, it’s a fairly good starting point. For $3.99 at 80 pages, it’s cheap enough to dismiss and short enough to run through in an afternoon.

4 out of 5 stars.

Pretty Jerks with Empty Lives

image

Available May 14, 2014.
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

Close your eyes. Are they closed? Liar, how are you reading this right now if your eyes are closed? Never mind. I see the flaw in my original plan.

So don’t close your eyes, but as you’re reading these words, picture in your mind’s eye a book called Narcissus Is Dreaming, published by a company called Pink Narcissus Press, which was founded by the author of the book in question.

Is it populated by young men who the writer desperately wants to be stunningly beautiful and tragically complicated, but who end up being pretty jerks instead? Is it more than usually vague, generally meandering, and ultimately empty? Is it couched in the background of a greater intrigue that is largely irrelevant?

If you answered yes to all of these questions then you have no need of this review, because you already know everything I know about Narcissus Is Dreaming.

You will like this book if you enjoyed such existentialist romps as The Stranger, and Waiting for Gogot, but felt there should be more space travel and aliens.

When I say Narcissus is Dreaming is ultimately empty, what I mean is that Rose Mambert has written a novel that undoes itself. Every major plot point and piece of character development disappears by the end of the novel. Nothing is accomplished, and nearly nothing changes. No one learns anything.

The main character, being a genderless alien with no ability to empathize with humans, is referred to as “it” by itself and by others throughout the book, and there’s special care taken to show that the lack of humanity of the alien and it’s cohorts isn’t a misunderstanding on the part of the humans. These aliens really don’t empathize with human emotions. They’re physically unable to.

Needless to say, it’s hard to find the main character relatable. Even when it starts to feel emotion, the raw experience explodes in a cloud of bad decisions and violent outbursts. Which makes them/it even more difficult to understand as the plot moves on and characters are killed or dismissed after contributing nothing.

Words like “beautiful” and “love” are thrown around, but they seem to have no real meaning or value. Characters who love each other destroy each other. Characters who should love each other remain indifferent towards each other. There is sex, and even intimacy, but I’ve read descriptions of opening a door that we’re more fraught with tension.

As for the conclusion, Camus would be proud. Here, my friends, is further proof that life is empty. There’s no denouement. What starts out as having the potential to speak volumes about the human condition and the nature of love and community is ultimately just a wink while passing by.

1.5 out of 5 stars

The Variable is Love: Paradox Lost Review

cover40051-mediumParadox Lost by Libby Drew

I’d like to thank the fine folks at NetGalley for giving me this review copy.

Sometimes I think I write too many gay romance reviews. But I’m trying to read something that’s slightly more serious at the moment, and I kind of fall asleep whenever I start it. I mean, the larger concept is intriguing and everything, but the distinct lack of penis is giving me heartburn. Story of my life, right?

Anyway, there’s a few of these in the pipeline. I read several books while I was sick week before last, and I need to push the reviews out. I’ll avoid the situation where I have a solid block of erotica, for those that aren’t into it. I still try and make these funny and interesting, but I understand.

What does one say about Paradox Lost? That it’s your run of the mill sci-fi, time-travel, mystery, love-story thriller seems not to do it justice. But that’s basically what it is. You take the old standard hard-boiled alcoholic noir detective, add a damsel in distress, and a wide-eyed foreigner in a race against time, and you have the basic ingredients of this book.

A simple time travel tour guide, Reegan McNamara had one job: keep everybody safe until you get everybody home. But when a flashy political wife takes a runner, he’s stuck in the past trying to catch her before time itself catches up with them both. Thankfully, Hunky P.I. Saul Kildare is fresh on the wagon and ready to fuck his troubles away. Oh wait, I mean help find the missing lady before it’s too late. But seriously, there is a magnetic attraction that laughs in the face of the linear perception of time as we know it, because this is romance on a quantum level.

This whole thing is basically adorable. The science is, of course, so obviously timey-wimey that even I had some eyebrow raising moments, so if that kind of stuff bothers you, this book isn’t for you. There’s at least one point where a more than reasonable argument is made for the power of love being a driving force in the success or failure of certain scientific processes. Like time travel. It’s also, apparently, a cure for alcoholism. And there’s some dystopian future background stuff going on that doesn’t really go anywhere beyond character development. While fairly disturbing, is all sort-of swept under the rug by the end of the book. Because yeah, you live in a bureaucratic mono-culture, but now you have a boyfriend. I guess the same could be said of our current reality, but I don’t read a lot of romances where our cultural failings are laundry-listed and then back-burnered like there’s nothing wrong.

Other than the dystopia, Paradox Lost is a great book. It’s got humor, danger, intrigue, and sex without seeming too scattered or messy. I think this is because it’s unpretentious at heart. I get the impression that the author had a fun time writing this, and it makes me happy. It’s a quick read, there’s decent sex scenes, although all are extremely vanilla, and the ending will warm the cockles of your cock as long as you don’t know that much about the sciences, both soft and hard.

4 stars out of 5 Would recommend.

Most Pleasant Gay Romance in a Zombie Outbreak Ever

indescretioncover40589-mediumIn Discretion by Reesa Herberth

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy of this book, which you can purchase on the Kindle store for $3.99

To say that the quality of books on NetGalley is diverse makes it seem like you’re just as likely to get a winner as you are to get a stinker. There’s a reason they give these out like candy to any sad sucker with a blog. But I’ve never been one to look a gift book in the mouth, and sometimes I want to review something higher than I normally would just because I didn’t pay for it. But you’d have to.

On the other hand, if $3.99 has your checkbook hurting, then you have much larger problems than mediocre space romance. Which is what In Discretion is. The writing itself isn’t what makes it mediocre. In general, the language is what kept my interest when everything else was getting annoying.

The first issue I had was with the premise, part of which is that Romantic Lead 1, Thanson Nez is in an elite guild of space hookers/spies that people hire as space hookers, even though they know that they are also officially organized spies.

So, if you were planning to overthrow the galactic government, like some evil baddies in this book are doing, why in the sweet hell would you hire a hooker who you know is also officially a spy for the aforementioned government, and why would you further make the information about your evil plot readily available to him? Because the first scene pretty much establishes that it’s common knowledge exactly what kind of arrangement the space hooker guild aka The Discretionary Service has with all their clients. This is part of a series, so maybe this weirdness is addressed in a different book, but it made no sense to me.

The second issue I had is that I could not, for the life of me, keep track of the difference between Romantic Lead 1, Thanson, and Romantic Lead 2, Kazra Ferdow. As far as I could tell, they basically look the same, talk the same, and are from the same home planet. One of them had a criminal dad, one of them had a law maker dad, and at some point one boy threatened to murder one dad while one other dad, or maybe the same dad, forced the other boy off planet under threat of death. Whose death also is unclear. Thus establishing their star-crossed and confusing history. A general lack of descriptors paired with vague blocking (where people are in rooms, on pathways, etc.) makes all the characters sort of blend together almost like it was a stylistic choice. To be honest, it didn’t bother me as much as it might from a more complex story.

The simplicity of In Discretion really takes the edge off its other issues. The story moves forward with Frogger-like doggedness (froggedness?). The main plot is almost literally a straight line, following the ex-lovers on foot through a damaged space-station, from a cargo bay to a control room. But as they dodge zombies (yeah, zombies) on their journey to the center of the station, they also journey to the center of their own hearts, and what they find there turns out to be each other. Can love be requited? Can the trauma of that thing one of their dads did to one of them, which one I’m still not sure, be overcome after all these years? Yes. The answer to all those questions is yes, and easily.

This is sort of a Hansel and Gretel story if Hansel and Gretel where dudes very much in love with each other, the wicked witch was kind of crappy at witchcraft, and the gingerbread house was soggy so the walls could be punched through with minimal effort. Ironically, the reason this book is like this is, in part, because the main characters are level-headed pragmatists who generally do the most appropriate thing. Even the sex is pragmatic. There’s one scene, it takes place at the end when everybody is safe, and it’s full of really honest, beautiful things you’d say to your long-lost lover if you found them again on a zombie infested space station and realized you still loved them, and moreover, forgave them leaving.

I read this at the height of a head cold, and it was kind of nice to have something that was well written enough (not technically, but artistically, if that makes sense) that it carried itself without being too stressful or dramatic at any point. It avoided every major faux pas m/m kindle romance usually falls into, and it’s only $3.99, for the cheap ass bastard in all of us.

2.5 stars out of 5 – Real score.

Adjusted for price, and in comparison to the other shit that clutters this category: 3.5

Note: Although this book is technically in the Ylendrian Empire series, the series itself can be read in any order, and this is a spin-off novella, written over two years after the other two books, and without usual co-author Michelle Moore.