Wherein Blue is Not Warm, But Sweet – Review of Blue Eyed Stranger

20150905blueeyedBlue-Eyed Stranger,Trowchester Blues Two by Alex Beecroft

First off, I want to say that I am really happy to be able to read a book with a black main character where he isn’t irrational and in need of the calming guidance of his white partner. You’d be surprised how many people of color, in romance novels especially, are portrayed that way. Even in the more lovingly written stories that were clearly made in order to include characters of color in a positive and accurate light, the white savior dynamic is so often hidden in places I’m sure the author didn’t even consider when they were writing it.

Alex Beecroft, you are a dream.

This second of the Trowchester Blues novels centers around Martin Deng and Billy Wright. Martin’s Somalian father doesn’t understand him. He certainly would understand him even less if he knew his son was gay. Maybe even disown him. Martin’s stuck-up British boss doesn’t understand how a history teacher would be so obsessed with history. She wants him to teach to the book and stop messing around with his historical reenactment society. Martin’s vikings understand his love for history, and would probably understand his being gay, but it’s not like he’s ever given them the chance to.

Billy understands all of this. If only he could understand his own depression. Dancing, music and melancholy are his constant companions until Martin Deng and his viking hoard come barreling into his dance troupe. Martin is sweet, he knows about depression, and he doesn’t ask for more than Billy can give. But does Billy ask for more than Martin can give when it comes to loving him openly?

Can Martin overcome his own insecurities in order to be the kind of partner Billy needs?

I genuinely liked Martin and Billy. Unlike other coming out will he/won’t he stories, I didn’t get frustrated with Martin, even though he really does do some pretty bone-headed things. I understood the pressure he felt, and I related to how difficult it can be to deal with the demands of the monoculture, the demands of your own family culture, and the demands of your heart. History wants to erase minority contributions and families tend to bulldoze individual members to the extent that a person can start to feel guilty taking up any space at all. More than exasperation, I felt elation and empowerment when Martin finally came out, both of his shell and of the closet.

For those reasons, I really enjoyed Blue Eyed Stranger.

However, this is definitely more a romance than a work of erotica. Those who read Trowchester Blues and hoped to spice things up in book two will not be especially stimulated by the direction this went. The sex is pleasant, affirming and sweet. Also rarely mentioned in detail. It’s lovely, but it’s not going to be keeping anybody up at night.

Oh, and if you were looking for an update on the orphan and bff from book one, you will not be getting one. The book one characters are hardly mentioned at all outside one small cameo by Fin.

4.5 stars for being the rare book with a solidly relatable black main character, despite a lack of steamy sexy bits.

Reaching Out – Review of Stand By You

cover51538-mediumStand By You
by A.M. Arthur

Thanks to NetGalley and Carina Press for the review copy.

This is the third installment of The Belonging Series. Reviews for books one and two can be found here.

We met Brendan and Romy in book two, when Donner called in former football star best friend Brendan to help rescue his boyfriend Ezra’s ex-trick Romy from a seriously fucked abuse situation. It was pretty obvious right then that book three was going to be about these guys.

After literally breaking free from his dom turned kidnapper, Romy is shattered and experiencing a lot of social anxiety. Closeted, shy Brendan becomes the friend Romy needs, but he wants more than that. Can they overcome their own personal issues in order to build the kind of life together that neither of them had ever dared to hope for? With the help of their friends, the answer looks like it could be yes.

You may recall that I took some issue with the way trauma and anxiety was portrayed in the last book, Maybe This Time, and there still is a little bit of that for me. For example, in my limited experience, the first thing to do about an abuse survivor having a panic attack is to give them space. Certainly don’t touch them, and really really don’t touch their neck. My teeth itched through what was supposed to be a touching scene where Romy is having a panic attack in a bar and his future therapist, at that point a relative stranger, reaches out and casually palms the back of his neck. This is intended to show how they’re a really great therapist and can calm down panicking people, but it just freaked me out by osmosis. It’s really likely that I’m insinuating my own personal issues in here, and not being a medical professional, I’m just talking out my ass, but for future reference, if I’m having a panic-attack, don’t touch me. You might get kicked. Or puked on. Just saying.

Anyway, aside from that small incident that’s probably more about me than the book, I really enjoyed Stand By You. Romy and Brendan felt real to me. I could know guys like Romy. Given a different set of circumstances, I could have been someone like Romy. Mainly, if I was just a little bit less of an asshole.

One of the things I really like about Arthur’s books is that no one is saving anyone else. Her protagonists are flawed, amazing, uniquely human characters that come together on their own terms, not for a perfect love, but for a real love. The kind of love that can offer a little redemption, if we just reach for it.

As usual, the sub-five dollar price point looks damn good.

4.5 stars out of 5

But a Brief Glimpse: Review of In From the Cold

cover53345-mediumIn From the Cold by Cat Grant

Thanks to NetGalley and Cat Grant for the review copy.

In from the Cold is the long awaited next-installment of the Courtland Chronicles, a massive series that I admit I only read the first book of many years ago. At the time, I knew it was the first in a series, and I realized that book one was foreshadowing a lot of dramatic breaking up and getting back together, so I felt it was good to jump ship before things got too serious between us.

This book concerns the next generation in the chronicles, as the main character Seth is the son of the first thruple from the original books. One of Seth’s dads makes an appearance, but mostly the book deals with Seth and the object of his affection, Bilal.

This is an extremely quick read at approximately 91 pages, Grant takes just enough time to introduce the characters and start them on the path of future bliss. Seth is rich, cute, sexually experienced, and completely ignorant to his own privilege. Bilal is a Muslim from Iran, where being gay is a crime punishable by death. Some promising conflicts start to surface, but there’s really no opportunity for anything more than a glimpse of future books.

Having read and reviewed one other Cat Grant book in the past (Black Dog), I feel like the (bad) character driven drama that chased me away from the first Courtland book may be a thing of the past. There’s maybe even a little bit of an author-insert speech about not being cruel to your first love by making bad decisions that hurt them. I certainly look forward to seeing more from these characters.

Minus one star for being more of a teaser than an actual story. But it is only $2.99, which is nice.

4 stars out of 5

Old Time Religion: Review of The Bells of Times Square by Amy Lane

cover52089-mediumThe Bells of Times Square by Amy Lane

Thanks to NetGalley and Riptide Publishing for the review copy. The Bells of Time Square will be available for purchase on December 15, 2014.

Reading this book, I was reminded a lot of Rupert Smith’s A Man’s World, mentioned briefly in a long-ago post on decent gay erotica that this review series is doing it’s damnedest to both capitalize and expand on. Like Smith’s book, Lane’s narrative switches back and forth between World War II and a modern setting, and both books deal with a gay couple in each setting, connected by history and proximity. Aside from them each being poetic love letters to our gay grandfathers (both literal and figurative), the similarities stop there, but I couldn’t help comparing them, as they are both very moving.

I’ve been listening to several of Amy Lane’s audiobooks lately, which I haven’t reviewed because if I reviewed non-NetGalley books, this fucker would be two posts a day of nothing but book reviews, mostly erotica, and I don’t think even you guys are up for that. I’m not, that’s for sure. But I digress. All I wanted to say is that I’ve been enjoying Amy’s other works, so was pleasantly surprised to see her name attached to this book.

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of love and loyalty though the ages. Nate Meyer goes to Times Square every New Year’s Eve to listen for the church bells he had promised his war-time lover they would one day hear together. The Bells of Times Square takes place in present-day, with Nate struck mute from a stroke being pushed to Times Square in his wheelchair by his grandson Blaine and Blaine’s boyfriend, but the majority of the narrative is set in occupied France where Nate and his lover Walter found peace and understanding in the midst of the violent terror of war.

Walter was a poor, uneducated man, experienced both in love and fighting when camera operator Nate literally fell from the sky. Tending to his wounds in an abandoned house deep in enemy territory, the two quickly form a bond that each man knows to be true and abiding love. And yet, Nate travels to Times Square alone year after year. Long after he’s married and has children and then grandchildren of his own, he spends one night a year with the man he once promised his life to.

This is the story Nate would tell his grandson if only he could. It’s about devotion, and being true to yourself and your heart, in whatever way that’s possible. It’s about the ways that duty to country and to family can be at odds with duty to self, and the things we do to honor all masters in a world where nothing is as simple as it seems.

In this present our grandfathers and grandmothers built for us, where you can be a lover and a fighter, where a man is judged more by the content of his character than he ever has been before, what would those grandparents have us do with the gifts they cut for us from the live, bleeding heart of the past they came from? It’s a beautiful question for a beautiful book. I cried like a bitch, I can tell you that honestly.

4.5 stars out of 5 because sometimes the transition from past to present and back again can make a person a little bit cross eyed, which I can say is a habit the author has based on other of her books that I’ve read.

If You Can’t Take the Heat – Review of “In the Raw”

cover51532-mediumIn the Raw by Nikka Michaels and Eileen Griffin

Thanks to NetGalley and Carina press for the review copy.

Fellow culinary students James Lassiter and Ethan Martin lust after each other in secret, but each man assumes it’s a one-sided thing. Lassiter, the pretty-boy rich kid feels the pressure from his soul-less conservative parents to go into the family business: corporate chain restaurants with cheap ingredients, uninspired menu items, and down-trodden employees. On the other side of the spectrum, white-trash Martin and his sister are orphans who look out for each other, and work hard to make it in the big bad world of professional chef-ery.

When a class competition throws them together, sparks fly and tempers flair. The initial action is all ego grinding, which is what I’m calling it when the massively over-inflated balloon of their delicate male opinions of themselves just fruitlessly squish against each other to no particular end. But what starts out as anger turns quickly to passion when the two figure out how to “work out” their differences.

In the Raw does end up being quite an adorable little love story, although I personally think it’s pretty schmaltzy, and totally unhealthy. Martin is a fucking headcase. What the author may have intended to be sexy bad-boy attitude came of as emotionally abusive nutcase to me. Any one of the terrible things he says to Lassiter both before and after they consummate their relationship are grounds for a break-up, number deletion, and the end of all contact. And his sad sack excuse that he’s poor, works too hard, and therefore has no manners is totally shit.

For the extremely affordable price of $3.99, its a good get for anybody who’s into cooking, and doesn’t mind one character hitting several red flags in the emotional abuse warning list.

4 stars out of 5

The Love that Were Not Speak Its Name – Review of Starstruck by L.A. Witt

cover52088-mediumStarstruck by L.A. Witt

Thanks to NetGalley and Riptide Publishing for the review copy.

I’ve reviewed several other L.A. Witt titles, and you guys know I love her. While I wasn’t as enamored of the recent Noble Metals as I have been of her other work, Starstruck brings her back up to level. L.A. is definitely one of the top performers in the gay romance genre, and I really appreciate the diversity of her work.

In Starstruck, retired actor Levi is offered the part of a lifetime on the hit supernatural drama Wolf’s Landing, if only he’ll stay in the closet. This seems like business as usual until he meets his smart, attractive, interesting, and very out co-star Carter. Then things go downhill fast.

Their friendship quickly has both men questioning their principals and their priorities. Carter refuses to hide, but could he make an exception for Levi? Levi can’t throw away his last chance at a meaningful career for a love affair, but he knows Carter isn’t just an affair.

The tension is at eleven. Each man has valid reasons to stay away, but the heart wants what it wants. In well-turned phrase and practiced drama, Witt makes what very well could have come across as schmaltzy Teen Wolf fan fiction into a beautiful story of attraction, personal growth, and honesty. I mean, Levi plays a werewolf named Max Furman, for Christ’s sake. FURman.

The Bluewater Bay series itself is also an interesting experiment. Riptide plans on publishing at least ten Bluewater Bay titles, each one a standalone novel, each one written by a different popular Riptide author. I’m really looking forward to everyone’s interpretation of the small coastal logging town in Washington, and how the natives interact with the cast and crew of the show that’s both reviving and over-running their tiny, isolated town. I look forward to reviewing them all.

4.5 out of 5

Review of Black Dog by Cat Grant

cover51417-mediumBlack Dog by Cat Grant

Thanks to Netgalley and Samhain Publishing for the review copy.

This book is totally sweet. Homeless runaway Tom stumbles in the path of serial mentor and lost-boy collector Eddie, who introduces him to local gym owner and boxing trainer Danny. Old friends Eddie and Danny work together to help Tom overcome the damage his abusive dad did, but can they overcome their own mutual trauma?

Tom wants to be a boxer, but first he needs to get over his range in order to develop the emotional discipline necessary to be a good fighter. Danny wants Eddie, and visa versa, but first they have to get out of their own way.

Black Dog moves fast, and the drama comes from the plot, not the characters or their inter-personal angst. Well, mostly. Danny and Eddie’s issues with each other are a little hysterical, but you can chalk that up to the fact that they were young men when things first went south between them.

There were some moments when I hated Tom, but I tend to dislike young people on principal. I wouldn’t give it much consideration. This being the first in a series, I look forward to seeing the characters develop in the next books. I especially look forward to more of Eddie and Danny’s story, and to Tom growing up and not being so whiney and entitled.

3.5 stars out of 5

Big Country Lovin’ – Review of “Stripped Away” by Ellis Carrington

cover51012-mediumStripped Away (The Escapade #2) by Ellis Carrington

Thanks to Netgalley and Ellis Carrington for the review copy.

This is the second in a series, but you really don’t need to read the first one to get the lay of the land. David is the son of a now disgraced preacher man, Ricky is a bisexual strip club owner looking for anything, as long as it’s not serious.

After a contentious start, the boys go from battling it out to sticking it in, but can their relationship really last? Crazy exes, family emergencies, and the rigors of everyday life in the heartland conspire against them. Will their love shine through?

This is kind of standard, enemies to lovers track. Nothing’s really ventured between the dudes involved, and nothing’s really gained. The good thing about Stripped Away is that the emotional “I can’t… but I want to… but I’m not sure… but does he even want to… but but but etc.” that so many erotica writers tend to fall back on for drama is mostly internal. So there’s no dramatic storming out followed by dramatic declarations followed by even more storming out. Thank God. But there is a lot of uncertainty that seems to simmer but not quite boil in this weird way.

The tension didn’t strike me as being that high, despite the plot having a lot of things to be really tense about. I can’t put my finger on it. But even the very dramatic scenes where the characters were in danger, or enthralled with each other were sort of hazy. I think the issue is with the narrator. For example, David’s heart is described as pounding in his ears, or something like that, but I’m not seeing a lot of David himself feeling his heart pounding in his ears. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it’s what’s bothering me.

When a narrator describes the actions or the effects of the story on the characters without getting inside them, they all end up with this lacquered feeling, like a diorama of a story. The dialog in Stripped Away is great. The characters talk like real people, and they actually speak to each other, which I love. But they don’t relate to each other because of this lack of internal narration. That small edition to the next book should be the missing piece that ties this whole thing together.

3.5 stars out of 5

Out in the Cold – Review of SnowCoft Lost

cover49246-mediumSnowcroft Lost (Snowcroft Men – Volume 1) by Christi Snow

Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

Christi Snow is no stranger to world building. From the context clues, regular readers will be familiar with at least some of the characters. I haven’t read any of her other books, but it seemed pretty clear they are somehow tied to at least one of her established series.

Small town construction company owner Jamie Vaughn is tired of being the only gay in the village. He’s ready to open a branch in the big city and turn his back on his 14 year obsession with straight BFF Trevor, but plans get put on hold when Trevor ends up in the hospital, in a coma; prognosis unclear.

When Forestry officer Trevor Mayne wakes up with no memory of his life, his hard-on for Jamie is the least of his worries. A sex trafficking ring may be operating out of their very own wholesome, small town backyards. He was on the verge of a breakthrough when a mysterious fall on the mountain he knew like the back of his hand sent him back to square one. In every way.

Now it’s up to Trevor, FBI consultant Andrew, Jamie, and their friends from the city to figure it out… before the traffickers shut them up once and for all.

As far as memory loss/straight best friend wish fulfillment stories go, this one isn’t bad. And I’d know. for some reason, I’ve been reading a rash of memory loss books lately.

I liked the main characters, although I did find myself wondering about their friendship, which seems to be based on unrequited love and snark. I feel pretty bad for Jamie, who, for all intents and purposes spends his youth pining after a bro who fucks married women and has absolutely no depth. It’s only by sheer luck and literally gravity that anything changes there.

The mystery is also pretty cut and dry, the bad guy is named within the first three chapters, but there are still surprises, and suspense.

The sex scenes are hot and endearing at the same time. This is where the relationship between the two started to make sense to me as a reader. It’s easier to forgive those 14 miserable years once the writer establishes how perfect they are together physically.

My one issue is that things that ought not to be glossed over tend to show up as an afterthought, and things that I don’t think were that important get lots of attention. More-so on the side of being glossed over. Really significant events happen outside the main character’s awareness and are basically listed after the fact. It threw me off one time in particular that I won’t summarize because because of spoilers, but I definitely felt like the writer had an obligation to the characters and the story that wasn’t fulfilled. However, there is more than hinting in the author’s note that this may come up in future books, so maybe it was intentional.

The $2.99 price point gives the rating a full extra star. There are certainly worse books to buy. Where else can you keep yourself occupied (and occupied) for an entire day for three lousy bucks?

4 out of 5 stars

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