Tag Archives: Reading adventures

What’s going on with me…writing and reading and hygge

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I’ve been awful at keeping this blog updated with what I’ve been up to this year.

So far in 2016, I’ve released a grand total of 0 books and… well, that’s going to be the 2016 total. Which is not to say I haven’t been writing. I have. I wrote and completed a new novel, am in the middle of a second novel AND am co-writing a third with Carolyn Crane, but none of those will come out till 2017. So this is the lowdown:

  • In April 2017, I’ll be releasing A GATHERING STORM with Riptide, part of the Porthkennack series. The Porthkennack universe, devised by the wonderful Alex Beecroft,  will feature stories by me, Alex, JL Merrow, Garrett Leigh and Charlie Cochrane. It will be a mix of contemporary and historical titles. I’ll be publishing one of each – A Gathering Storm is my historical, a Victorian-set novel that focuses on the twin Victorian obsessions of science and spiritualism. One of my heroes is an aristocratic scientist, the other the half-Romany by-blow of the richest family in Porthkennack.
  • In August 2017 (I think), my contemporary will release. This one doesn’t have a title yet. I actually wrote a whole song for his book, words and music–because I needed to hear it in my head for a key scene. This one is about abandonment and forgiveness.
  • In October 2017, I’ll have a short vampire story out in a charity anthology.
  • And finally, I’m hoping that in addition to the above, Carolyn and I will manage to get our co-written story out too. It’s a …God, how to describe it? It’s MM spies basically. I love our two characters, American Will and British Kit. I adore adore adore Carolyn’s writing (we’ve been CPing for each other’s stuff for about 7 years, I think) and I feel like we both bring something of ourselves to this book.

So, yeah, 2016 has been a publishing famine, but 2017 will be (more of) a feast.

And after that? Well… 18th century werewolves in Scotland. I’m planning a pair of books on that. It’s been brewing a long while.

So that’s my writing news. In other news, I’m all about the hygge at the moment. God knows, we all need a bit of hygge in the face of 2016’s horrors: Brexit, Trump, terrorist atrocities, the rise of right wing nationalism and… well, I could (sadly) go on. But I won’t. Instead, I’m trying to be aware and outspoken during the day (in person) while finding a little kindness and sanity for myself and my family at night.

In the hygge spirit, I’m greatly enjoying my newly renovated front room, complete with new fireplace (which glows beautifully orange, even if it does look purple in the picture above).

And on the reading front? I’ve read some great stuff these last months that I’ve been very remiss in talking about. Most recently, Josh Lanyon’s fabulous Murder Between the Pages, a number of Keira Andrews’ books (both zombie apocalypse ones, Kick at the Darkness and Fight the Tide and the fab new baseball one, Reading the Signs), JA Rock’s latest two Subs Clubs books, 24/7 and Slave Hunt.  Oh, and Kim Fielding’s Rattlesnake. And then, of course, there’s audiobooks. Right now, I’m listening to Josh Lanyon’s The Mermaid Murders and enjoying it all over again. Murder in Pastel was another treat. My book listening has slowed down a bit recently though, as not every author I enjoy reading translates well to audio. As ever, any reccs gratefully received.  Part of my personal hygge is the time I spend walking to work each day in coat, hat, gloves, soaking in the city I love while listening to stories, or music.

I should go to bed now, but the husb just put another log on the fire…

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I Reader, werewolf edition

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I have a weakness for werewolves stories.

I’ve read lots of non-wolf shifter stories too, but while I’ve enjoyed some of them, none of them work as well for me as a good old fashioned lycan.

Unfortunately, I can count on probably two (maybe three) hands the number of werewolf books I’ve actually really liked and I’ve read loads that have been unsatisfying. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I suppose I’m hunting for that elusive ‘something’ that’s really got me in the books I’ve loved.

And what is that something? i think it’s something about wildness, otherness. It can take different forms – a compelling portrayal of animal nature, a genuine strangeness or ‘off’ feeling – but something that shifts (yeah!) my perception of the world and/or characters I’m reading about. I hate hate hate reading characters who are regular folks who happen to shift. What’s the point?

There’s something, too, for me in the world building. I’m not keen on books set in werewolf communities that read like small town romances, with werewolf couples double dating and having community parties or generally being pillars of some werewolf community. To be honest, I’m not even very keen on ones that are all full of laws and customs and stuff. Not big on sonorous explanations of rituals by ‘healers’ or shamans whatever. And too much alpha beta gamma delta exposition makes me sigh.

At which point you are probably thinking: THIS is someone who claims to like werewolf romance? Seriously?

Yes. I am perfectly serious.

I like fucked up wolves. I like characters who are falling apart at the seams because they can’t cope with their recent transformation or because werewolf life is so hard or because they’re forced into a situation that is somehow untenable for them. I want to believe that this is a person character whose actual body has broken apart and re-formed in a new shape. I want to see their two sides, two forms, two natures. I want it to be hard and messy and painful and glorious and joyful and compelling.

So, in this regard, I like:

– the animal savagery and unswervingness of Clay in Bitten by Kelley Armstrong;

– the brutality and short life expectancy of werewolf society in Mathilde Madden’s Silver Werewolves trilogy; and most recently…

– the anxiety and danger and fear that surrounds the transformation of Axton in Winter Wolf and City Werewolf by S P Wayne

These last – the Wayne books – these I have greatly enjoyed, despite a fair bit of POV weirdness and quite a few typos in book 1 (happily largely cleared up by book 2). Plus I liked these books for lots of other reasons than the werewolf aspects – the richly drawn characters, the dialogue, the … the patience of the relationship development.

But this most of all: Axton, an anxious canine, circling, too stressed to change, barking at nothing.

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It’s all about me, babe (or, Revelation of Self)

I’ve been pondering a lot lately what it is I write about. This is intimately related to what I like to read about, given that part of my reason for writing is to create something that Reader-Me craves.

I’ve realised that my major abiding obsession is about the revelation of self.

When I first started thinking about this question, I initially decided that my books were all about discovery of self – essentially, “Who am I?”. But whilst that is certainly true of the characters in my latest three books, the Enlightenment trilogy, it is not true of my first two books, in which I wrote about women whose true selves were concealed. These were not characters who didn’t know themselves, but rather characters who struggled with revealing themselves.

I’m not suggesting at all that all romance is about revelation of self, but for me, this is something I crave and greatly love. This theme speaks to me so very deeply – it is, for me, a golden thing and when I think of many of my favourite romances I see it there: from Pride & Prejudice to this year’s Dabwaha winner, Captive Prince.

Which brings me to the purpose of this post, namely, the beautiful film I watched last night, Romeos. This gorgeous German movie, directed by Sabine Bernardi, is the story of Lukas, a young pre-op female-to-male transexual and his struggle to find a place for himself in the world. Within the wider story is a romance between Lukas (who is not only transsexual, but gay, two things that he angrily tells his best friend are “completely separate”) and a physically beautiful man called Fabio.

The movie is very sparse on dialogue but the acting is powerful. Rick Okon is wonderful as Lukas. His depiction of Lukas’ feelings through facial expression and body language is beautifully observed and heart wrenching.

There were many many rich and wonderful things about this movie but I’m going to restrict my comments to this stuff about revelation of self and how that was explored.

Lukas is a man in a transitioning body. He has female sexual organs but thanks to the drugs he’s been taking, he looks male. His sense of his own masculinity is both robust and fragile and this is shown beautifully in his angry insistence on being treated like a male, his heartbreaking loathing of his female body and in a number of scenes in which other characters’ actions and reactions make him feel bad or humiliated or less than in some way. That none of these scenes feature violence or anything egregiously traumatic is a testament to the power of the acting and storytelling because these scenes just wrenched at me. And this was merely the ordinary, everyday stuff of life: people teasing each other, showing prurient curiosity, showing disapproval and barely concealed disgust.

I’ve been thinking about trans people a fair bit recently – for various reasons – and this film came along at an apt time for me. I can’t tell you how much it moved me – beyond anything. It took me somewhere I’d tried to imagine and made it vividly real to me.

Art is the greatest teacher because it can make us understand things beyond our experience. Because it shows rather than tells. If you’re willing to open yourself up to it, you can live another life in a small way, for a little time.

It can change you, and I love that.

Whilst Lukas is the main focus of the film, he is not its only subject. Fabio also has a hidden self that is slowly revealed. I adored the way the film both contrasted and aligned Lukas and Fabio. They are both men, attracted to one another, wanting the same thing. But whilst Lukas is gauche and lacking in confidence, Fabio is all unselfconscious beauty, male arrogance, sexual confidence. Early on, he is dismissed (by a seemingly more sensitive character) as a man slut who is only good for one thing. But it is Fabio – brash and thoughtless as he is at times – who comes to ultimately see, and love, Lukas’s true self in one of the most beautiful love scenes I think I’ve ever seen on film. One of the reasons this love scene is so good is that it follows a prior sex scene between Lukas and another gay man. Whilst that character is willing to have sex with Lukas despite his female body, his ‘acceptance’ takes the form of mingled shock, amusement and a sort of prurient arousal over Lukas’s exoticism. In other words, this not acceptance at all.

I didn’t think about this character’s reaction in anything like that detail when I was actually watching that scene. It only occurred to me later, after the subsequent love scene in which Fabio and Lukas come together. They do so, not as a man and a man, or as a man and a woman – how they should be classified, scientifically or otherwise, just doesn’t come into it. They come together as themselves, as Fabio and Lukas. What you see, in that final scene, is very lovely. Revelation and discovery. Deeply personal and individual.

It’s difficult to find a scene on You Tube that gives a good sense of the film. The scene I’ve embedded here is an odd dreamlike sequence from the middle of the film – but it is thematically representative. The blue lighting, and choice of song, are very deliberate. There is a running metaphor of a watery voyage of discovery – dangerous and elemental – to a new land, a rebirth, that runs through the film. The drag queen in this scene is a sort of kindly siren. Beckoning Lukas, acknowledging how hard the journey is. Telling him it’s worth the fight.

 

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May 1, 2014 · 8:49 pm

Re-runs

This post originally appeared seven years ago on my old, much loved (by me) reader blog, Isn’t it Romance? It reminded me that sometimes happy endings aren’t luxuries but necessities.

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I love the novels of E M Forster but my favourite is Maurice, a novel he finished in 1914 but which was not published until after his death in 1971.

The central character of the novel is Maurice Hall, an upper-middle class man described by E M Forster in his Notes to the novel as “handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid… and rather a snob.” Maurice is saved from a life of small-minded conventionality by his homosexuality (“an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him, and finally saves him” as E M Forster put it) and is ennobled by the love he eventually comes to share with the working class Alec Scudder.

Maurice’s transformation begins when he meets Clive Durham at Cambridge and falls in love. Clive loves Maurice too but he insists their love must remain platonic. Clive is intellectual and ambitious and eventually he breaks off the relationship – such as it is – marries a suitable woman and settles down to life as a Member of Parliament, insisting that he and Maurice can only be friends. It is on a visit to Clive’s estate, Penge, that Maurice meets Alec, who is Clive’s gamekeeper. Alec visits him in the night, and is as physical as Clive is cerebral; as touchable as Clive is untouchable.

E M Forster wrote Maurice, according to P N Furbank, because the time had come for him to “commit himself, in imagination if it could not be in life, to the belief that homosexual love could was good. He needed to affirm…. that love of this kind could be an ennobling and not a degrading thing.” And so, at the end of the novel, Maurice and Alec come together. It is not an easy coming together. Every obstacle is in their way: society, their class differences and personal pride. Yet against the odds, they overcome all hurdles.

E M Forster wrote of the novel that “a happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write it otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.” We don’t ever find out how Maurice and Alec live, although we are given to understand that their life together will certainly be on the fringes of society. Forster at one stage considered an epilogue in which some years later Maurice’s sister comes upon two woodcutters – Maurice and Alec – but he eventually rejected it because that would have taken the reader to a time when the world had been transformed by the First World War. Maurice, Forster said “…belongs to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood.”

My very favourite passage of the novel comes at the end, in Maurice’s final encounter with his first love, Clive, before he disappears forever with Alec.

“Next Wednesday, say at 7.45. Dinner jacket’s enough, as you know.”

They were [Clive’s] last words, because Maurice had disappeared thereabouts, leaving no trace of his presence except a little pile of the petals of the evening primrose, which mourned from the ground like an expiring fire. To the end of his life, Clive was not sure of the exact moment of departure, and with the approach of old age he grew uncertain whether the moment had yet occurred. The Blue Room would glimmer, ferns undulate. Out of some eternal Cambridge, his friend began beckoning to him, clothed in the sun, and shaking out the scents and sounds of the May term.

But at the time, he was merely offended at a discourtesy, and compared it with similar lapses in the past. He did not realise that this was the end, without twilight or compromise, that he should never come across Maurice’s track again, nor speak to those who had seen him.”

The spirit of this final passage is beautifully realised in the 1987 Merchant-Ivory film of the book, starring a then-unknown Hugh Grant as Clive, James Wilby as Maurice and Rupert Graves as Alec.

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Postscript: I read this novel first when I was at school doing the equivalent of A level English. EM Forster was on the syllabus and I ate up his small oeuvre with wide-eyed fervour. I loved this book so well that I chose to write about it in the exam instead of the three set texts set by my teacher.

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Sex and Intimacy part 2 – reflections on particular books

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As promised, I’m coming back to the topic of sex and intimacy in romance books, but this time I’m looking at a few recent reads and the stuff in them that I thought was interesting about how the sex scenes worked with the overall story. Time has moved on since my last post, and I am ever fickle, so I’m going to talk about a slightly different list of books than I mentioned in the last post.

First up is Unbound by Cara McKenna. Cara McKenna is a completely new to me author. I heard about Unbound when I noticed a couple of tweets about it. Jill Sorenson said (I think) that it had been a favourite of hers last year and that made me swipe my tablet screen to Amazon and get a sample before flipping back to Twitter. In such ways are sales made and gloms begun! I never sample or buy a book based on a promo tweet that tries to hook me in re what it’s about (When a were-pig meets a flame demon, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire!). It’s the word-of-mouth I go to Twitter for.

But I digress.

Unbound. This was story of American Merry, who has recently lost a lot of weight and is hiking in Scotland. She falls ill and has to seek help from Englishman Rob, who lives alone in the remote Highlands. At length, they get together and Merry discovers that Rob has a rope fetish and is submissive. At greater length, she discovers he is also an alcoholic who has isolated himself to get away from the temptation to drink.

This is a story in which one character’s very specific fetish is explored and analysed alongside the other character’s much more ‘normal’ sexuality. I thought McKenna did some very interesting stuff around how sex and intimacy relate to both characters’ personal development and the way they fall in love. It features, unusually in romance, a hero who in one scene is unable to perform (in an early vanilla encounter with the heroine). It also features a heroine who is frank about what she wants but not in an aggressive way – MacKenna portrayed Merry’s sexual straightforwardness in a way that read very truthfully to me.

Merry was a satisfying character all round. At the start of the book, she is partway through a journey towards gaining power over her life and her body – her confidence has grown already, following substantial weight loss – and she doesn’t need Rob to repair her or make her whole. But it turns out that giving Rob what he needs further builds her confidence and power and satisfies her too.

I loved that Merry didn’t discover some burning desire to be a domme. Rather, she falls in love with someone, gains satisfaction from giving that person what he wants, and finds her own power from asking him for what she wants too. For me, this book did something a lot more interesting than putting a whip in the heroine’s hand. It showed a heroine becoming truly active – both sexually and emotionally – leaving all conventional female passivity behind. Really, it’s about female independence and it’s beautifully written too.

Next up is A Case for Possession, book 2 in K J Charles Magpie Lord series. I loved this, more than book 1 even. I adore the characters in this series, but most especially Lord Crane who is everything I love in a hero – a mixed up ambiguous fellow if ever I met one.  So, what was it, sexually, about this book that bears mention?

K J Charles did something very interesting in this book – she shuns the typical approach to sex scenes in romance (see last post) with paced “set pieces”. Instead, she makes lots of delicious little sideways references to the two MCs’ very hot sexual relationship without doing sustained sex scenes.

As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about the conventions I am so used to, the deliberate escalation and variation of sexual content that is so much about reader expectation and romance convention and so little about character and story development. I was intrigued to find that KJC’s frequent but more passing references were more than ample to reassure me that the MCs are sexually compatible (important to me) and to give the book a sexy feel. Loved it.

Finally, I have to mention the book I am reading right now, Transcendence, by Shay Savage. This book may get a blog post all of its own because I am  loving it in many ways. However, I’m talking about sex scenes today, so I’ll limit myself to that aspect of the book.

This is a book in which the reader is invited to conclude – via the prehistoric hero’s internal (and very endearing) POV – that the heroine has arrived in his world through time travel. The hero, Ehd, lost his entire tribe years before Beh (Elizabeth) falls into a hunting trap he dug and he cannot believe his good fortune that a mate has dropped into his lap like this. Ehd has no speech and a very different view of the world than Beh (or us). He is something of a blank slate with virtually no cultural baggage regarding sexual behaviour. He is delighted by any sign of interest from Beh and makes no judgments about her behaviour beyond that.

Whilst the plausibility of this is probably up for debate, I’m not awfully interested in that – I think there are more interesting things going on. The fact is, this set up neatly disrupts the reader’s normal assumptions around what is sexually acceptable – there are no rules for Ehd and Beh. They discover sex together, openly and honestly, and that is the great joy of this book.

Transcendence also provides much food for thought on the universality of human love and desire as well as many entertaining nuggets on the eternal differences between men and women, but I’ll leave those observations for another day.

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Sex and intimacy

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I’ve been musing a lot about sex scenes in romance novels lately. What function they serve. When they’re good and important, and when they’re not important at all, though possibly good – or not. When they just feel superfluous. And in musing about this I’ve noticed stuff in many of my recent reads that relate to this. Initially I planned to talk both about my general thoughts and the particular books I’d been pondering in this regard, but the general part ended up being a bit longer than I originally envisaged, so I’ll come back to the particular books in a subsequent post.

Some romance readers are very specific about what they like and/or tolerate sex-wise in their reads. Not so for me – I like books across the whole spectrum, provided they’re well-written and the sex scenes serve some kind of purpose. That’s not to say the purpose has to be serious – the purpose can be nothing deeper than a cheerful romp – so long as it works with the overall direction and theme of the book, I can get with it.

What I’m not awfully keen on is entirely sex-free romance novels – I like sex to be present, even if at a low level.  For me, a romance novel with absolutely no sex in it at all lacks something. When I re-read old and much-loved Georgette Heyer novels, I occasionally worry that the whole relationship’s going to go south as soon as the MCs try to consummate it. I loved Friday’s Child when I was 15, but now I can’t imagine Hero and Sherry having sex. (Actually, that is a lie, but I do have a vivid imagination).

That’s not to say that I need the sexual content of a novel to be a huge and graphic element of the narrative – I absolutely don’t. One of my favourite writers, Josh Lanyon, often writes fairly low-key sex scenes, but I find them amongst the most effective and satisfying ones I’ve read – I actually remember them, which is saying something, isn’t it? When you really think about it? All those thousands and thousands of identikit, paint-by-number sex scenes that have been written? You read them and some are good and some are awful but most fade away very quickly. There are Lanyon ones I remember years after reading them, because he did something that was genuinely meaningful in terms of plot or character development and it stayed with me.

It’s not just about the volume and detail of the sexual content either – it’s about approach. The extent to which romance authors use genre conventions and the ways in which they sometimes disrupt or play with those conventions. Take the clichés around ascension of intimacy. You see this both at individual scene level (*clears throat* I think you’ll find you have to the suckle the nipples before you go down there…) and as part of the overall story structure (*clicks pen and smiles brightly* So, we’ll be starting with a handjob, then a blowjob before we finally move onto the penetrative sex!).

These cliches are used because they work – both conventionally and unconventionally. That is to say, used conventionally, they can be a useful and satisfying way of showing (or mirroring) the slow breaking down of the barriers between the MCs and the growth of trust. Used unconventionally – say, the highly sexed MC who is incapable of emotional intimacy e.g. in Dirty by Megan Hart – they can challenge our ideas of what intimacy really is, what it means to share yourself with others.

Beyond all this though, you know what I’m looking for in a sex scene? And beyond that, in romance itself? You know what I actually crave? 

Sincerity.

Really good romance – and really good sex scenes – don’t wear a sneer, not in my book. Fundamentally, for me, romance is about ripping away all the protective layers and exposing the pulsing, vulnerable, bloody heart beneath. It’s about making a tough old beast (or beasts) willingly roll over to expose the soft little underbelly we all have. It kicks wise-cracking and eye-rolling in the teeth and asks – no demands – that the reader believe something – love something – that the World is generally inclined to mock.

My favourite sex scenes are usually a mix of the expected and the unexpected – something that honours the genre with a little bit of realism to dirty the edges. Or something fresh that chimes with me, at a sensory level. A new simile or sound effect can truly delight me when I’m traversing this most well-trodden of literary ground.

And what do I like least? (This is a personal list, feel free to disagree).

  • Paint by numbers sex scenes that read like a collection of worn out sentences that were thrown at the page
  • Mechanical choreography
  • Plodding observation of the proper use of sex toys and other hardware (if I want a manual…)
  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Soap used as lubricant
  • Ditto hand lotion
  • Smirking
  • Coy euphimisms
  • Bodily fluids that taste like nectar

The books that I’ve been reading – and loving – that I want to talk about in another post are:

My Heartache Cowboy by Z A Maxfield

Unbound by Cara McKenna

A Case of Possession by K J Charles

Static by L A Witt

More to come. Meantime, I invite your wisdom.

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Profoundly good reading

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I know. I only just blogged about a Josh Lanyon book a couple of weeks ago. What can I say? It takes something to move me to blog these days. It takes this.

The Parting Glass is a sequel to In A Dark Wood, a suspense story Lanyon wrote a few years ago which SPOILER ALERT ended on a fairly blue (if hopeful) note, with the MCs agreeing to part while one of them sought to tackle his alcoholism. END OF SPOILER.

The Parting Glass takes place two years later. Tim, now sober, lives in California and Luke is still in New York. In short, things haven’t worked out as the reader might have hoped at the end of In A Dark Wood, and over the course of the next 70 pages, we discover why.

It’s the way Lanyon tells that story: what happened, and why, that is so very satisfying.

I couldn’t believe what Lanyon managed to pack into just 70 pages. This story was so poignant, so incredibly emotional, right from page one, when Tim and Luke run into one another unexpectedly. The immediate, instinctive joy they both exhibit during this reunion lulled me into a false sense of security. I saw that these two had drifted apart, somehow, but the instinctive happiness they felt on seeing one another reassured me that everything would come right very soon.

And that was when their history slowly began to emerge – patiently, painfully – the profoundly sad story of what went before, how two people who loved each other came apart. The facts of that story aren’t particularly startling – it’s a pretty everyday one really – but Lanyon paints it with such rich humanity, such profound understanding and sympathy, that it wrenches at you.

And here’s something kind of interesting: close to the end, I realised I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought – well, never mind what I thought. The point is that Lanyon really made me feel – no, he made me believe – in Tim’s vision of the impossibility of happiness with Luke.

Oh yes, I believed. And that’s the biggest compliment I can give to any book.

I believed, and I hoped, and I cried. I really, really did cry! And when it was over, I sat there (in bed, for that is where I was) and I turned to my husband and I said,

“That was a really fucking good book.”

And then I sighed, heartfelt like, because I was sad that it was over, and I was happy, and I was satisfied and so – enriched.

This is what reading does, at its very best. It enriches you, in ways that I find – still, after years and years of trying to pin this down – impossible to put into words.

After all, why should it matter to me that these fictional characters went through the mill and came out, older, wiser, better? Why should I care about lessons learned? About redemption and change, the fumbling reach to understanding? What does any of it matter?

It matters because this stuff – this is the stuff of life.

How can close can you take me to it?

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7 things that are awesome about Psycop 7

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I’m currently reading Spook Squad, aka Psycop 7 by Jordan Castillo Price. I’m loving it so much that I’m making myself read the odd short story in between chapters, to make it last longer. They are so many good things about it – here are some of things I am loving:

1. I adore Victor Bayne, from whose POV the stories are written, so very much. there are many reasons for this, but a big and overarching one is that while he thinks little of himself, there are lots of clues that other characters think he is beyond awesome.  Yet he never really catches on/ believes that.

2. The relationship between Vic and Jacob is wonderful to read. They are together and happy, but the relationship is still a living, breathing – and vulnerable thing. I don’t think I’ve read a relationship like this in romance before (note: I classify Psycop as romance, other readers may not). Generally relationships within serial novels are on/off or at least face imminent off-ness. That’s not the case with Vic and Jacob. They are solid – but there’s a lingering worry in my mind that other things may get in the way…

3. There’s a whole pile of other richly drawn characters: Lisa, Con, Crash, Carolyn etc.  Right now, I am loving the enigma of Con, who may be evil, or not, or something else altogether,

4. The ongoing development of understanding of just how strong Vic’s powers are has been a joy throughout the series and that continues here. I love that Vic has, even now, not yet reached a full understanding of what he can do or how he can best do it. This also works beautifully with his fear of giving away how strong a medium he is. I love the scenes where he knows people think he’s only detecting impressions or cold spots while we, as readers get to know that he’s seeing spirits in full technicolor and talking to them. So delicious. I particularly love the scenes where we get to see Vic witnessing dullard Richie’s low level powers at work, watching their weak effect, invisible to everyone else.

5. Jacob. *whimper*.  He is Vic’s anchor to earth, solid and dependable and rooted to everything that is tangible and real and non-spectral. And he has supermodel cheekbones.

6. The whole series is just teeming with cool and exciting ideas that are rich and satisfying to read about: Lisa’s Si-no, the terrifying Ghost TV, the sinister ongoing mentions of psyactive drugs and other forms of ‘augmentation’ to make Psys’ powers work better. And all of this hints at more satisfying stories still to come. Hurrah!

7. I am a sucker for a vulnerable hero and, despite Jacob’s love and care, Vic remains troubled and somewhat fragile (though with a core of strength that emerges at the most psychically dangerous moments). Partly this comes from Vic having to live with his disturbing powers, partly from his unhappy history.  He’s come a long way since book 1- and I’m looking forward to seeing him go even further. To become stronger and more confident. With Jacob beside him, I hope.

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At long last, I discuss a book by someone else

jl1

I’ve fallen out of the habit of blogging. In the online world, I’ve been perennially behind the curve. Late to Twitter, later to Facebook, very, very late to Goodreads.  But even I have to admit it is no longer 2008 (oh the heady days of the blogoverse back then!)  I stopped writing my old regular blog over a year ago now, and at the same time I reduced the number of blogs I followed.  The recent demise of Google Reader has reduced this further – now I have to remember to check my blogroll.  And it’s so much easier to visit collective places, to skim and mingle.  But so much less satisfying.

So, given that this is my new normal why would I go to the bother of writing a review-y post?

Because, I must.

I am a passionate reader, my friends. I am an evangelist. When I am moved, I must speak.  The last time this happened was when I read Captive Prince. And again now, with Josh Lanyon’s new novel, The Haunted Heart (Winter).

Where to start?

Let’s start with the general, and move to the particular.

The general is this: I adore the way Josh Lanyon writes. It’s just beautiful. I hate to find myself using words like ‘restrained’ and ‘understated’ when I talk about why he is such a good writer.  It worries me that it sounds tepid, because I feel anything but tepid when I read his spare prose.  I’m blown away by it. The power of clear, concise prose. The patient, masterly parsing out of story and character.  All of these skills are on show here.

The particular, then.

I’m not going to summarise the plot  – suffice to say that this is both a ghost story and the beginning of a romance between two wonderful characters, Flynn and Kirk.  Flynn is young, wry and funny, and grieving over his lover’s death a year before. Kirk is older, somewhat grim and has a trauma in his past. Both characters are appealing in very different ways, both mysterious and intriguing.

Lanyon uses Flynn single POV to great effect, delivering not only a tantalising picture of the surly Kirk through Flynn’s eyes (I came to the end of the novel eager to learn more of him) but also through a patient and masterly revelation of Flynn’s own character. Oh, and this is so beautifully done. I refuse to be spoilery, but I can say this: Flynn’s light, somewhat humorous voice is clever distraction from a significant underlying truth that emerges close to the end.  I was genuinely shocked by that reveal – my heart beat faster and my gut turned over.  It was a visceral moment.

As well as Flynn and Kirk’s interaction, there’s a highly satisfying ghost story, one that had the hair standing up on the back of my neck (oh, the part where Flynn climbs in the window!).  But it’s not merely a well written ghost story.  It’s a fully integrated part of the bigger character arc, fully part of discovering the truth of Flynn, fully part of the growing relationship (from strangers, to friends, to more) between Flynn and Kirk.

And as if that was not enough, there’s the seasonal thing.  We have a winter setting here – in every sense. A wintry landscape, and a winter of the soul. Bareness and death. Lanyon introduces, close to the end of the book, a sort of deadline, broadly a year ahead.  So now I have that milestone in my mind.  And since this is The Haunted Heart (Winter), I’m guessing we have Spring, Summer and Autumn (or rather Fall) to come.  I certainly hope so, because I’m looking forward to a lot more of Flynn and Kirk.

 

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Some thoughts on Captive Prince by SU Pacat

pacat

This book – or rather these two volumes of a planned trilogy – have garnered a lot of attention recently.  Janine Ballard wrote an excellent review over at Dear Author, Sunita has posted some thoughts on the first part of volume 1, and a number of people, including yours truly got into long chats on Twitter about it at the weekend.

I knew I’d end up blogging about it.

This isn’t a review, so you’ll get no plot summary here, no considered view of the volumes of whole (I’ll give you the result in short form – it’s an A+ from me).  Instead, I want to talk about something that I found tremendously satisying and enjoyable and, yes, from a writerly perspective, instructive.

I’ll need to put some context around this now.  Volume 1 begins with the enslavement of Damen (properly Damianos) the prince and heir of Akelios and his delivery to Laurent, the crown prince and heir to the throne of the neighbouring enemy state of Vere.

Pretty obvious who the eponymous Captive Prince is, you’d think?

It took me a little while to get my head around the fictional Akelios and the fictional Vere. (And I’ll pause here to say that you really ought to go and read Sunita’s comments about this, with particular reference to orientalism – I’m not going to talk about that in this post, but I do see her point).

There’s a wonderful balance in this story. It starts with the characters of Damon and Laurent, and it’s worked right through every aspect of who they are and where they come from.

Damon and Laurent are opposites in many ways, as their homelands are, as their cultures are.

Damon is straightforward, direct, utilitarian. When he needs to escape a room in a building, he tears a hole in the wall. He’s simple. Determined. Unstoppable.  He thinks in straight lines. He sees what needs to be done and does it. He’s implacable.

Laurent is devious, Machiavellian. He plots and strategises like a chess Grand Master. His moves are worked out far in advance, the purpose of his actions at any point in time only becoming clear later.  His motives and overall purpose are shrouded in mystery.

The characters’ homelands and cultures reflect them.  Significantly, Pacat has chosen to set this story in a fictional world, one which she can shape to her purpose.  Thus, Akelios, Damon’s homeland, is a martial sounding place in which clothing is loose and functional and architecture is plain and utilitarian. There is slavery, a cultural fetish for accomplished submission and a system of formal manners between masters and their bed slaves. Damon’s attitude to this form of slavery suggests the slave culture goes largely unquestioned in Akelios.

Vere, by contrast, boasts ornate architecture and intricate clothing that takes time to get in and out of. Whilst pleasure “pets” are kept at the court for Vere, the pets choose to sell themselves and Damon (who is from an enemy country) seems to be the only slave at the Vere court.  Furthermore, there is none of the passive mannerliness of Akelion slaves. The pets are outspoken attention-seekers for the most part.

The whole story is told through Damon’s POV and we are very clear, as readers, at the start of the story that Damon is good while Laurent is bad; Akelios is noble while Vere is decadent.

Gradually, however, the reader’s perspective changes.

There’s a beautiful to balance to all of this. We have all the pleasurable tension between these forces of opposition: Damon and Laurent; Akelios and Vere.  We get the pleasure of the contrast and texture this brings to the story, and the conflict, of course.  But then we have, too, a moving towards one another of these seemingly polar opposites. A slow growth to understanding, and trust.  Common ground is found and qualities are discovered by both Damon and Laurent, in each other, and in their peoples and cultures.

We start volume 1, in Damon’s POV, in a clear and unambiguous place, and we end volume 2 somewhere else entirely, still in Damon’s POV. A more mature place, a place he has gained from his hard experiences. It is a more complex world he finds himself in, one in which waging a bloody war against his lifelong enemies begins to look less glorious.

Oh, this is very accomplished and patient writing.

Damon doesn’t even have to earn our sympathy at the beginning of volume 1 – he is the captive prince, A noble warrior brought low and made to suffer horrors, yet displaying courage and resourcefulness throughout. He’s a hero to the tips of toes.

It would have been so easy to let him always be that.

Instead, we get something so much better.  We learn, slowly, that despite these virtues, Damon is far from perfect. The negative side of his directness and straightforwardness is naivete and complacency. His trials force him to face up to reality.

He is redeemed by his slavery. And we end volume 2 with a very different Damon – free in more than one sense. The shackles are off, both those of the body, and those of the mind.

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