A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

Static by L.A. Witt

Set in a parallel universe where some people are genetically “Shifters” — able to shift at will between male and female bodies — this is a good yarn and an excellent metaphor.

Damon heads out to his girlfriend Alex’s house, worried that he hasn’t heard from her since she has bouts of depression and heavy drinking. He find an extremely ill Alex… who is now also a man. Unbeknownst to Damon, Alex is a shifter, and his parents have forced an implant on him to prevent him from shifting back into female form.

As Alex struggles with the (many) ghastly after effects of this betrayal, Damon tries to figure out what their relationship now is. Alex is not bisexual — both forms are attracted to men — but Damon has always been straight.

When I started reading Static, I told my husband “This is the weirdest gay-for-you story ever.” * But towards the end I realized it was actually the most sensible gay-for-you story ever. Damon eventually realizes that Alex the man is still the same person he was in love with, and can still be attractive to him.

Although the slow unfolding of Damon’s feelings works nicely, the relationship is in a holding pattern for three fourths of the story, and the middle sags.  Also, Alex is truly in a dreadful situation and for me, the prose was not up to making that compelling rather than a complete downer. But I was really happy with how the plot went — it so easily could have been a wallbanger for me — and the imaginative take on being genderqueer.

*Hub’s reply: “Unless it was written by Chuck Tingle, no it isn’t.”

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Playing for Keeps by Avery Cockburn

This is one of the most fascinating romances I’ve ever been not all that into. To clarify, the romance itself didn’t do much for me, even though I’m no more immune to kilts and brogue than the next gal. But the conflict and setting kept me glued to the pages.

It’s the first in a series about a Scottish LGBT football (soccer) team and — much coolness — there are actually characters other than gay white men on the team! Even cooler, the author plans to write about some of those characters. The captain of the team is Fergus, who’s in a bad place emotionally since his former lover/former captain cruelly dumped him and the team. Then he meets John, a politics student who’s organizing a match to raise money for gay asylum seekers.

Although I really enjoyed the dialogue, liberally sprinkled with Scottish slang — “It’s you I love, ya big numpty” — Fergus and John didn’t work all that well for me. Their feelings come off as more mushy than sincere, and I felt like a voyeur during the explicit sex scenes. And Fergus is such a jerk. He not only stalks John — admittedly with some reason, since John is lying to him — but deserts him at the worst possible time. I couldn’t give him a pass just because of his previous experiences.

What drew me in was the setting, and fresh take (for an American reader) on star-crossed lovers. Apparently Protestant/Catholic conflict can be almost as fierce in Scotland as it is in Ireland. Fergus is Catholic, and John grew up as a member of the Orange Order, which he loathes but feels a complicated loyalty towards. The author draws a parallel between the anti-Catholic Orange marches and those in the American south glorifying the Confederate flag — justified by the marchers as “tradition” rather than bigotry. I don’t have the knowledge to comment on how accurate the portrayal is, but it’s certainly heartfelt and convincing. Discussions of class and immigration issues — Fergus’s housemate is from Nigeria — are also pertinent.

So although not a complete success for me, as a fictional trip to another culture it really worked. And there’s a powerful conclusion to end things on an upbeat note.

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TBR Challenge: Forget Me Not (Mnevermind 2) by Jordan Castillo Price

The theme: Something “different.”

Why this one: I broke my “print books only” rule this month, because my print tbr is 99% historical romance, and .99% contemporary or paranormal romance. I decided to go truly out of my comfort zone with science fiction. As it turned out, most of the science fiction in this trilogy (of the two books I’ve read) was in the first book; the second is almost all romance and character study. So not really all that different; don’t tell the Theme Police.

Forget Me Not is narrated by Elijah Crowe, the autistic man who started mysteriously appearing in Daniel’s mnems in book one. (Mnems, pronounced “neems,” are a bit like programmed dreams– a simplification, but it will do for the purposes of this review.) I was not in love with how Elijah’s autism was perceived by Daniel in The Persistence of Memory, so what a relief and joy it was to discover that he’s not only a beautifully drawn character, but his own narrative is not self-hating.

“‘I see the way you treat Big Dan,’ he said, as the elevator settled and the first floor light went off. ‘Like a regular person.’

Although his use of the word “regular” was problematically inexact, I had a sense of what he meant. Big Dan [Daniel’s father] wasn’t neurotypical, but neither was I. Being neurotypical was overrated, in my opinion — plenty of people like Tod and Ryan were about as ‘regular’ as you could get, and as far as I was concerned, it didn’t make them any more appealing.”

The story is mainly about Elijah’s navigating his newfound interest in another man, something which is difficult for him because the dating rules he’s learned so carefully may not apply. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way, including Daniel’s prejudices, a therapist who believes Elijah may be the victim of a predatory Daniel, a scarily homophobic bully at Elijah’s work, and Elijah’s sensory issues. Not all of these are fully resolved, though I suppose they may be in the third book. (From the reviews, it doesn’t look like they are. I would love to see him find a new therapist who really supports him, doesn’t infantilize him, and for God’s sake, helps him find a non obtrusive stim instead of having him fight it all the time.)

I appreciated that Elijah has neither cute quirky romance novel autism nor cliched lit fic aloof autism. He’s genuinely disabled, but not helpless, and he’s a fully realized, sympathetic, and lovable person. His anxieties strongly resonated with me, and I was saddened by how much he feels the need to change himself for others, even answering the classic “top or bottom” question by deciding,

“I would force myself to be whatever would go best with him. After all, he’d had several years in which to develop his preferences. I was new at being gay. I would adapt.”

Thankfully, Daniel is patient and not at all pushy.

As with the first book, the ending kind of fades away, so it’s really not a complete story. But it’s completely worth reading anyway.

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Nurture Boy

I’m reading an ARC of Focus on Me by Megan Erickson and one of the heroes reminds me of my hub — a big guy who loves to take care of people. He falls naturally into looking after the guy he gives a lift to.

I rarely see this kind of character portrayed well. In het romance, there are guys who are protective, sure, and even nurturing, but it tends to come off as being a way to show how devoted to the heroine they are — or at its worst, feels bossy and dominating — rather than an as actual facet of their character that brings them pleasure. This may be another way in which m/m romance is more open to variety in male characters.

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Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan

(Reviewed from an e-arc from NetGalley)

I ‘m always on the lookout for romances with autistic characters, and this New Adult romance is one of the most thematically interesting I’ve found. The two main characters are both disabled — Emmet is autistic, Jeremey has severe depression and anxiety — but the big difference between them is that only Emmet’s disability has been acknowledged and accommodated. So this is really not a story about an autistic person being rescued by love; if anything, it’s the other way around.

After ten months of crushing on his neighbor Jeremey from across the yard, Emmet finally manages to introduce himself. Jeremey hasn’t had a friend in awhile; if his mother didn’t drag him out of the house, he’d never leave his room. But after a lifetime of learning how to request and make modifications for himself, Emmet has no trouble understanding Jeremey’s similar difficulties with noise, overstimulation, and groups of people. Jeremey goes from thinking Emmet is “off” and “special needs,” to realizing he’s smart, cute, and very easy to be with. But even a good friendship, with the possibility of more, may not be enough to help him live with the ocean of depression he has to carry every day.

From the start, I was impressed with the fact that Emmet is genuinely disabled. (Although making him also a genius seemed like both a cliche and perhaps a form of compensating.). Autistic people in romance are rarely allowed to be more than reserved and quirky. Emmet is identifiably weird — he can’t pass. He rocks and flaps his arms and hums to himself. He can’t drive. Although he’s thinks of himself as having some “superpowers,” his autism is mostly not glamorous. Jeremey has what I guess you’d call neurotypical privilege, but his disability is also severe, particularly since it’s gone untreated for so long.

These aren’t your typical romance characters, and their romance isn’t exactly typical either. I found it sympathetic and believable, because they really care about each other and work hard to be good to each other. Trying to be “good boyfriends” brings out the best in them — but there are mistakes, and upsets, and sometimes they each need to put self-care ahead of the relationship. I liked the realistic imperfections; even Emmet’s mom, who initially seems like the perfect, understanding parent for a gay autistic boy, screws up by not seeing her son as someone who can have a boyfriend.

When you’re autistic, everyone acts as if you’re not a real human. I’m angry at my family because they said I was a real human. But when I say I’m your boyfriend, they say I can’t be. So they lied. I’m not a real human.

The story is told in alternating first person narratives, both of which are kind of info-dumpy. Jeremey’s worked better for me than Emmet’s, which I had number of problems with. One is that it sounds so much like other fictional autistic narratives I’ve read, and in my experience, it’s not that believable a voice to begin with. Autistic people don’t necessarily sound all that different from neurotypical people when they write. It also makes him sound like a young kid, which is uncomfortable when you’re reading a romance that includes sex. (He’s 19 and Jeremey is 18.)                                 

I did like the slow, thoughtful way their sexual relationship grew. It’s not a super sexy book, but their physical relationship is important to them. They both like Emmet to be in charge, which works with their characters.

The story is more slow-moving and everyday than I normally go for, but overall I really enjoyed it. But then, in a way, it’s exactly my fantasy. Not a sexual fantasy, but a mom fantasy, one about an autistic person gaining independence, and finding love just by being himself. You go, Emmet.

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E is for Ethan in Gold and End of The Line?

We’re up to E! Miss Bates’s E is an intriguingly different old SuperRomance, Mr. Family by Margot Early

Ethan in Gold by Amy Lane

This is a very apt choice for the alphabet challenge, because the main character was named alphabetically, after his four sisters Allegra, Belladonna and so on. His birth name is actually Evan, but when he starts working for the porn site “Johnnies,” he immediately assimilates his stage name, enjoying the chance to distance himself from his parents.

Ethan is a very interesting character, and I was absorbed in the first section of the book, which is about his fucked up childhood. I don’t think he’s autistic, but Sensory Processing Disorder comes to mind: he’s clearly a sensory-seeker, desperate for touch, and he stims a lot on textures. His need for human touch was complicated by the fact that he was molested at a young age, and his mother blames everything about him — including his sexuality — on that one incident. She also cut him off from her affection, because he’d been “defiled.”

Geeky virgin Jonah — who Ethan calls kid even though he’s two years older than Ethan’s twenty– is mostly interesting for his family situation. His teenage sister Amelia is an unusually long-lived survivor of Cystic Fibrosis, and her portrayal is as far from “inspiration porn” as you can get: she’s resistant to treatment, disobeys doctor’s orders, and generally drives her family crazy. Her dad is so upset by it all that he actually moves out, though continues to be supportive. I really appreciated this sympathetic portrayal of a caregiver who loves his family but has just reached his limits, and who acknowledges this in a sane way. Amelia is also very human and sympathetic, and Jonah recognizes that her contrary behavior is partially her way of insisting that her family accept her as who she is, rather than as a poster child for disability or survival. And despite her frailty and highly unglamorous illness, she gets to have a boyfriend and have sex.

The conflict between Ethan and Jonah is firstly Ethan’s feeling not good enough for him, and secondly his attachment to his porn career. Since all his coworkers are friends, it means lots and lots of good touch for him.

I loved the first book in this series, Chase in Shadow, and in my memory it was a tight, compelling read. But the second book and this one are so… chatty and gossipy. All three are set in roughly the same time period, and so we see a lot about the events of the previous books — this can be very interesting if done well, but here it just felt flabby to me.  As did pointless paragraphs like this one:

Donnie came up on Ethan’s left, his bright-blond hair so distracting that the girl actually looked up to see him. He was drinking a coffee, and Ethan looked over to the attached Starbucks and thought that was maybe where Donnie had been hanging, waiting for them.

Why is that even there?

The constant emphasis on the other characters made me feel as if the author wants readers to be madly in love with all of her characters, all the time.

So while there was a lot I liked, I’m not sure this author’s style is really for me. Maybe I’ll read the next book from the library.

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D is for Driftwood and Disappointed

(Miss Bates’s D read: Checkmate, My Lord by Tracey Devlyn.)

Driftwood by Harper Fox

I feel like a very reactive reader lately. A couple of times recently, one aspect of a book has put me off so much that it colored my entire response to it. In this case, it was the most blatantly reckless episode of unsafe sex I’ve ever encountered. It’s supposed to be important in terms of character development, but I couldn’t get past it.

In general, this had many excellent elements which somehow did not coalesce. The main characters, both of whom are suffering psychologically from wartime experiences, are sympathetic. The Cornwall setting is beautifully depicted. The romance happens very fast, but that’s not usually something that bothers me.

I think the problem is that this is a book very much about character — who these men are, what life has done to them — and then the plot throws all kinds of external conflicts at them. The end of the book feels like I was watching… oh say, “A Room with a View,” and then suddenly the Terminator shows up. It’s not quite that out of the blue, but it feels equally misplaced.

I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Fox, so hopefully this was just the wrong book at the wrong time and I’ll enjoy her again.

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C is for the Coda Series, D is for Damn it, Why Didn’t Someone Tell Me It’s a Series

Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton.

This was recently warmly recommended by someone, and I started it without noticing that it’s book 4 of a series. That proved to be a slightly irritating mistake, because previous characters are frequently mentioned, and I found the past relationships confusing. It wasn’t irritating enough to stop me from reading such an interesting book, though.

The story is narrated by Jonathan, an accountant with a high-pressure job that requires a lot of travel. There’s some matchmaking by his ex or a friend — this is the part I found confusing — but in any event, he’s set up with Cole, who’s independently wealthy and also travels a lot. Although Cole is too flamboyant and affected to be Jonathan’s type, and Jonathan too much of a stuffy workaholic for Cole, they’re both lonely and horny enough to give it a try — no strings, sex only. Cole rarely talks about himself and doesn’t even like to kiss.

But Jonathan discovers that the private Cole is quite different from the persona he puts on, and he is more and more drawn to him. And his affection, and willingness to work past Cole’s boundaries, start to erode Cole’s resistance to any form of intimacy.

Cole is a wonderfully challenging character. I didn’t always like him, and was sometimes annoyed that Jonathan doesn’t notice when he’s being hypocritical — he’s adamant about not changing himself, but wants Jon to loosen up — or manipulative. (Actually, Jon does notice the manipulation some of the times, but it more amused by it than bothered.) I would think I have a special in for understanding Cole, because I was once close to someone very like him, but since the book is extremely popular, I guess he works for most people.

I loved the way sex is treated in this story. The first few encounters are barely described — a bit unusual for m/m, but I liked it. To my surprise, the steam level rises seriously later. This is perfect — not only is the sex integral to their relationship development at this point, but it doesn’t happen until I’m already invested in the relationship. What does it say about the state of the romance genre, that I’m surprised to see an author use such a sensitive, appropriate technique?

I also liked that we’re never given a specific reason for Cole’s closed-off personality. He’s obviously vulnerable and defensive, and has never really felt loved for himself, but it isn’t tidily chalked up to anything in particular. We learn a little about his past through his emails to the friend who set them up, but he remains complex and somewhat mysterious, but very lovable in his way.

The feeling between them builds powerfully, leading to some serious heartbreak. The way the conflict is resolved seemed a little labored, but I was still left with that great romance happy glow.

Final thoughts: I liked dessert so much, I’m definitely going to go back and have the full meal.

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This Post was Supposed to Be…

… C is for K.J. Charles aka H is for Heyer

BUT — I found that no one had reviewed Think of England at Dear Author, and it needs to be reviewed if it’s going to go on my Top Ten of the Year list. Though I’m only 22% in, so it still might go South.

Now I need to find a new C.

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B is for Beguiled, G is for Gimme the Next Book!

Trigger warning for mentions of violence against women. (Not graphic.)

Book reviewed from an ARC supplied by the author. This review contains spoilers for Provoked.

****

Yeah, yeah, I know I said I was going to read a Bujold for B. I’ve come to the conclusion that, at least for now, I really just don’t want to. And the idea is to read books I want to read; I have enough reading homework. Also, October is Queer Romance Month, which is an excellent excuse.

Set in Edinburgh in 1822, Beguiled is the second in a literal trilogy — that is, you need to read all three installments to get the full book. It’s a historical love story between two men who couldn’t be less alike. A farmer’s son who’s risen in the world as a lawyer, David Lauriston is very uncomfortable with his homosexuality and tries to suppress it, yet is far too ethical to hide behind the sweet woman who loves him; the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour sees nothing wrong either with having male lovers or with marrying and continuing to have male lovers. (Although he has yet to take his own advice to David and get married himself.) They parted in anger at the end of the first book.

Beguiled opens with them reunited after two years and quickly discovering the main thing they have in common: neither could forget their first experience of sex that was more than merely slacking a need.

“I just–never knew it could be like that, between two men.”

“Neither did I.”

While David and Murdo are getting reacquainted, several threads from the previous book are progressing. David is very concerned about Elizabeth, his mentor’s daughter, who married in haste when David rejected her and is clearly being abused by her new husband. Hotheaded Euan MacLennan, now a radical journalist, is also very concerned, and determined to help Elizabeth escape — a challenging proposition in a time when wives were literally property, and Elizabeth is guarded like a prisoner. Of course the caring and noble David has to help, no matter how dangerous a task it might be.

But the story is more romance focused than the first book, less about David’s coming of age and more about him falling in love. Two years of separation have made a huge difference in his heart, where he’s been both tormented and comforted by his memories of Murdo and what he offered:

The possibility of tenderness and affection. The possibility of being known by another. Things he’d ruled out for himself. Things that were too painful to hope for.

David’s essential character doesn’t change, but he no longer feels damned for his desires. And Murdo too is becoming aware of David as more important than a pleasurable fling. Although David is more obviously the character being “enlightened,” there should be interesting growth coming for both of them in the third book.

The background of the story is King George’s visit to Scotland, the first visit of a British king in over two centuries. It was an opulent, ridiculous pageant organized by Sir Walter Scott, and the excitement of the Scottish people, often bordering on riotous, is palpable. The unfolding of the character driven love story against the rich, authentic-feeling historical setting — not to mention some very hot, emotional sexytimes — is just about everything I could ask for in historical romance.

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