More I, Reader

It’s time to talk about my readerly activities again.  I enjoyed lots of good books over Christmas and new year so I’m spoiled for choice.

First up is Ricochet by Xanthe Walter. Since reading this debut novel, I’ve discovered that Ms Walter is a longstanding writer of slash fanfic and that it was while writing these stories (available on her website) that she came up with her ‘BDSM Universe’ an alternative world in which people’s primary orientation is dominant or submissive and otherwise, the norm is to be bisexual (‘monosexuals’ whether gay or straight are a minority).  Richochet is her first novel using original characters – Rick and Matt –  set in this universe.  ‘Ricochet’, Matt’s safeword, is a play on Rick’s name (Rick O’Shea).  The characters are actors who play roles in a popular TV show.  Matt craves a serious Dom and considers Rick to be too goofy for him, whilst Rick fears any kind of commitment following on from the mistakes he made in the past.

The fun of this read, for me, was in the high concept setting; the portrayal of  D/s relationships as something beyond merely acceptable but actually the norm, even down to the ordinary domestic stuff.  It was nicely detailed: instead of the typical BDSM ingenue, we get characters who’ve been brought up within a settled D/s culture.  Their fairytales have D/s characters (with gender being entirely immaterial); popular films and TV shows rehearse D/s romance cliches that characters alternately groan and sigh over.  I’ve read parallel worlds stories before – steampunk stories etc. – but I’ve never come across this conceit, namely the switching up of ‘normal’ and alternative lifestyles before and it was a lot of fun.  Great characters too – I particularly liked Rick’s secret serious side.

Dark Space by Lisa Henry was a book I really loved.  Sci-fi (of which I’ve not read much) and another high concept story.  Brady is a low ranking soldier and medic on a spaceship.  Cam is the golden-boy officer who was used by the army on their recruitment posters until he was abducted by the Faceless, the terrifying aliens Earth is at war with and with whom communication is impossible.

When Cam is returned, four years after his abduction, in a fluid filled alien pod, Brady is summoned to be present when the pod is cut open.  In the chaos that follows, Brady ends up saving Cam, only for them to discover that Cam needs to Brady survive.  Only Brady’s touch can regulate his heartbeat and keep him alive.  At least until Cam’s Faceless captor, Kai-Ren,  arrives to fix him.  And Kai-Ren’s on his way, having sent Cam as his messenger, to prepare the authorities for his intended arrival, for peace talks.  After four years with them, Cam can communicate with the Faceless.

I loved the concept in this one – so smart.  The two MCs are forced into constant contact, and a further side effect of the link they share is that they can read one another’s thoughts, and are unable to hide their attraction from one another.  I loved too how high the stakes were in this book.  The MCs suffer on their road to a HEA (and I loves me some suffering).  My one and only complaint would probably be that after heaping so much suffering on them, the resolution felt a bit sudden, a bit abrupt.  Perhaps it could have been drawn out a little more.  Otherwise, a fantastic read.

I Spy Something Christmas by Josh Lanyon was, as ever with this author, an utter pleasure to read.  Josh’s year-long sabbatical has, I gather, come to an end and I am looking forward to reading more Lanyons in 2013.  I adore his writing and have I think read everything he’s written.  This is the third novella in this series, about Mark, a former British spy, and Stephen his American doctor boyfriend.  Their relationship felt pretty resolved after book 2 and to be honest, I was expecting a mince pie of story – something sweet and festive.  Instead I got the full Christmas dinner.  Lanyon mines another facet of the MCs’ relationship that in no way felt repetitive.  You know what I love about Lanyon?  Everything is about character.  The story serves the character journey, not the other way round.  My only complaint?  Over to soon.  That’s always my complaint.  He could write a 200,000 word book and it wouldn’t be enough for me.  (Incidentally, for mince pie reads, you could take a look at the Christmas Codas on his website – checking in on various characters from his oeuvre – these were a lovely festive treat for me over Christmas).

The last one to mention in this post, very briefly, is Half Moon Chambers by Harper Fox.  Fox is another auto-read for me and this one is set in Newcastle with, Vince, a recently disabled policeman and Rowan, a junkie witness as the MCs.  This is the usual (by which I mean excellent) Fox fayre.  The writing is lovely and has a slightly magical quality.  A patience too, in the pace of the prose.  A poetic sensibility.  If I’ve made it sound a bit poncy, I assure you it’s not.  It’s gritty and painful and hot.  A great book, and I loved it.

The point of interest, for me, as a regular reader of her work, was her depiction fo Jack Monroe, Vince’s ex-lover who betrayed him.  Fox quite often presents us with a brash, unsympathetic ex-lover.  It’s a character-type I’ve become familiar with.  But in this story, while Jack is as brash as they come, he’s far from unsympathetic.  I’d very much like to read his story.

That’s my festive reader report, then.  What’s been occupying your readerly eyeballs?

I, Reader


I think I’m going to make this a regular feature because I miss blogging about reading and enjoyed writing this post.  Here are some impressions and observations on five recent reads:

1. Hot Head by Damon Suede

This book got a lot of attention on its release last year.  Why did it take me so long to read it?  It’s the story of two firefighters, Griff and Dante, who were in 9/11 and are longstanding best friends – only Griff has loved Dante for years.  Then Dante asks Griff to help him out with his money troubles by doing some porn with him. The plot was immediately appealing to me, just with being so big and sensational but it’s what Suede does with all this that’s so good.  He really uses the setting and the characters’ professions and he works the fire and smoke metaphors to great effect.  I particularly liked his comparison of Griff and Dante to the Twin Towers – strong and together but separate. This was a highly enjoyable read with uber-masculine characters.

I read this book after picking up Suede’s latest release Grown Men which I also greatly enjoyed.  Grown Men is the story of Runt – dropped on a planet-in-the-making by a ruthless corporation and struggling to make his way as a farmer – and mute Ox, who is dropped in to be his new partner.  I was drawn by the cover which reminded me of the sort of SF books my brother used to read when we were teenagers.  This was a terrific, imaginative read.  In both books, Suede uses lots of “sound effects”: Lub-dub for heartbeats, plip-thwip for…um…liquid dropping onto skin…  Fun and entertaining but with meat and heft too.

2. Wacky Wednesday by J A Rock

This one had been popping up in my Amazon reccs for a while before I decided to sample it.  (By the way, is it just me, or has the “Your recommendations” fallen away from Amazon? Annoying if it has- I used it a lot).  Anyhoo, although I liked the sound of the basic premise (dom and sub wake up in each other’s bodies, a la Freaky Friday) I’d never picked it up, principally due to my having given up on BDSM romances.  This was not because I don’t think they can work, but because a lot of them seemed to me to be terribly formulaic and, well, I just wasn’t thrilled by them.

This book, however, proved me wrong!  Not only did JA Rock write a great switch-up-the-bodies-and-brains book, she also depicted a BDSM relationship that felt real  to me (a first), with a core of tenderness and care I really liked.  And it’s very, very funny.  What’s more, the characters’ roles in their BDSM relationship actually come from who they are and what they need, and when they switch bodies, they learn important things about themselves and each other so, as a story, it all works beautifully.  Rock brings the whole story home at the end in a satisfying way and I closed this book (or rather, went back to Home on my Kindle) with a happy sigh.

3. Calling the Show – J A Rock

Yes, I am nothing if not a glommer!  Having loved Wacky Wednesday, I went on to Calling The Show.  This is another very funny book with characters I loved, particularly Jesse, an  uptight, obsessional student stage manager who meets, clashes with and ultimately falls for Sim.  The characters in this story have BDSM desires but no idea how to act on them or indeed, what it is they really want.  I liked the fact that these desires were a bit of a side issue (i.e. it seemed to me that it was a happy coincidence that they both liked the same things in bed, but not central to them falling in love) and I liked the fact that they intended to explore them together in their own particular and somewhat amateur fashion, rather than immediately signing on for the local ‘club’ and going out to buy a nice collar together. 

4. The King’s Jaunt – John Prebble

I’ve been reading this non-fiction account of King George IV’s trip to Scotland in 1822 as research for my next WIP, book 2 in a trilogy.  It’s an excellent book, full of rich detail about the players involved but it’s slow-going in the sense that I’m taking notes and thinking about where I can use some of the events in question in the story.  I’ve done more research for these books than previous ones.  Another useful book has been Michael Fry’s Edinburgh which deals with the full history of the city and its environs from Roman times to date. My books are set in a tiny part of this panorama of time, namely the 1820s, but Fry’s layered history has proven to be very useful in terms of understanding the political and religious history that underpins where Edinburgh stood at that time. 

5. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Another rich source of recommendations for me is Reviews by Jessewave.  Recently Wave posted a long best of list, which featured this book – now 10 years old I think.  Warning: this is not a romance and there is no HEA.  It is the story of violent, self-deceiving but oddly sympathetic Jacob Cullen and his love for Christopher Ferris, a beautiful, charismatic idealist. Set in the English Civil War, this story portrays – among a great deal else – a man discovering his desire and love for another man in a world where there is no blueprint of such a thing.  The masterful depiction of how Jacob stumbles his way blindly, terrifyingly into Ferris’s arms goes well beyond the well-tried path of a character who conceals their true nature.  This is a depiction of man who is making a new path altogether, a man who doesn’t know his own nature or even the possibility of it. The writing is beautiful, the visual scenes rich, the dialogue perfect. The last, imploring words, are this:

Speak to me. 

The core of it

I realised something pretty fundamental at the start of this year and it was this: 1+1+1+1+1 does not equal 2.  I was burning out trying to do too much and feeling constantly that I was failing.  I had to decide what I most wanted to do and why.  The answer was, write, and for the love of it.

I therefore made a conscious decision to stop doing some stuff I enjoyed so as to devote my limited spare time to the thing I loved most: writing.  That meant giving up my beloved reader blog and pretty much all my other online activity.  I slashed my Google Reader subscriptions to 14 sites (all of which I still faithfully read though rarely comment on), all but gave up Twitter and abandoned my then nascent attempts to start using Goodreads and Facebook. 

It is yielding results.  I have just completed the second draft of a book I started only 6-7 months ago (hence me taking a night off and writing this post tonight) and I’ve written a short story in that time frame also.  That is swift for me.  Bear in mind, I have a demanding job and 2 children so my ‘free’ time rarely starts before 9pm, including at weekends. By avoiding online activity, not watching TV, having a pitiful social life and not getting as much sleep as I ought, I’m able to secure regular, if limited writing time. 

I have no doubt I’m doing the right thing, but I do miss the contact with online friends.  And even after so short a time, I feel like I’m losing the ability to communicate as readily and confidently with them as I once did.  During recent, brief visits to Twitter, I’ve found myself swithering over whether it’s appropriate to reply to tweets, suddenly unsure  of the proper etiquette (though in fairness, that’s not something I’ve ever been entirely au fait with).   As I’ve run my eye down the lists of tweets, I’ve also been struck by how very little content is there.  The stuff I’m interested in is swamped by endless promo tweets and it drives me away, even though I know  it’s my own fault for deciding to follow fairly indiscriminately.

All this has got me thinking about lots of stuff.  About what I miss about being online (content, community, trusted opinions, a sense of connection) and what I don’t (promo, inability to find the content I want, inability to reach an audience, poor content, time commitment).  Unfortunately, my solution to the problems of being online has largely deprived me of the benefits.   

It’s got me thinking, too, about how I as a writer can connect with readers in the future.   In the past, as an active member of the community, I felt I had some goodwill, I suppose.  I felt my blog contributed something to the community by way of content.  It wasn’t much, but everything that was in there came from me and was genuine – an honest attempt to grapple with the genre and being a reader and what those things mean to me.  But what about now that I’ve gone to ground?

There are no easy answers, I think, but if you think you can make 1+1+1+1+1 equal 4 or even 3, do let me know.  Though chances are, I won’t believe you.


Image: Roberta F. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Grading the author

This blogpost has been bouncing around in my head for a while.

I’ve not reviewed any books in a long while – in fact, I gave up ‘reviewing’ books not long into my blogging career over at the old blog.  This was mainly because reviews were not really the right medium for what I wanted to say about books. I’ve written various blogposts in my time about that it so I won’t repeat any of that here (though, if you’re interested you could take a look at this, or this, or even this). Instead, I want to talk about how readers’ views of books change the more they read of a particular author.

I’ve noticed that, like any other fangirl, I always feel disgruntled when I see someone giving my favourite authors poor grades.  This is so even when I didn’t much like that particular book or haven’t yet read it myself. Why should that be?  I’m a rational person!  I know the value of reviews!  I don’t actually WANT reviewers to grade the author rather than the book!  But isn’t it interesting that readers do this?

Have you ever read a book by a new-to-you author and you were kind of *meh* about it, but it was good enough that you tried the author again, and then, when you read more, it changed your view both of the author and that original book? 

Let me give you an example: my first ever Mary Balogh was a book that is generally much-loved by Balogh fans: More Than A Mistress. I was intrigued to read this novel, which I’d spent ages picking from Amazon,trying to the find the one I thought was most likely to appeal to me.

I thought it was ok.

Despite this lukewarm response, I went on to pick up Simply Love (which I adored) and then another and another.  Eventually, I re-read More Than A Mistress, and this time, I loved it. I’d tuned into Balogh’s world by then. I’d come to like her deceptively straightforward (actually very graceful) prose and the strangely sacred quality to the relationships that MTAM is a perfect example of.

It’s a bit like when you buy an album and you start off loving the flashy songs that made it into the charts but you’re not awfully keen on tracks 4 or 9. And then, gradually, you get to like all the other stuff, though still not 4 or 9. And then, eventually, 4 becomes your favourite track, and whilst you’re still not that keen on 9, it doesn’t make you switch off anymore.

Another thing I notice is that while some of the individual books by my favourite authors are pretty much routine ‘B’s, as a whole, I think of the author as an ‘A’ grade author because either they very consistently give me what I’m looking for or because there’s just something I particularly like that they do. 

That’s exactly the kind of thing that always made reviewing so hard for me.  And why I gave it up.

Joanna Chambers, readerly detective

I’ve been missing blogging about readerly matters, following the closure of my reader blog.  But it’s cool because I can blog here!  I don’t want to recreate my old blog* but it’s nice to have an outlet.

*(Since I significantly reduced my online activities, my writing productivity has increased.  Of course, that’ll be cold comfort when the nine people who actually know who I am forget me, but what can you do? Something’s got to give.)

So what’s this about my readerly detective-ness? Well, since I started reading a lot (and I do mean a lot) of M/M romance about a year and half ago, I’ve found that a very big proportion of what I read is American contemporary, a setting I really didn’t read much of at all before.

I consider myself relatively well-informed (for a Brit) about the States. (Seriously, to your average Brit/European, ‘America’ is just one big land mass/population.  I had at least a passing knowledge of the basic geography and some of the bigger cultural groups/regions within the States).

My reading over the couple of years has changed that quite a bit.  I’ve read all sorts of American settings now: real and fictional, city and country, north, south, east and west.  I’m not even going to attempt to set down here the things I’ve learned I didn’t know before – it would take too long and would be doomed to incompleteness. 

Anyway, what I’m really interested in, and what the detective notion relates to, is something else.  It’s that sense of place, and of culture that emerges only from fiction.  It’s lots of little increments, all building up into something bigger.  It’s my brain, sorting wheat from chaff. It’s me thinking that no, that doesn’t sound plausible or oh yes! That has the ring of truth!  It’s absorbing and categorising and occasionally having moments where stuff adds up and I go, Oh, riiiight!

It’s like detection in that respect: lots of evidence, some credible, some not. 

The book that kind of prompted this post was False Start by Janey Chapel (which I loved).  As is often the case, there’s a straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back aspect to this particular book being the catalyst i.e. it’s occurred to me loads of other times before but when I read this book I got to a point where my half formed ideas became a bit more definite. 

I’ve read lots of books sent on campuses but Chapel set hers on a local college campus – and it was the local rather than the campus that I noticed here.  I can’t say how accurate her depiction of her particular setting is but it rang true with me and was interesting to me in its sense of individual placedom. 

This is something that’s come up for me before.  The sense, in American set novels, of how the institutions of a place (government, education, law enforcement) are so intimately connected with the place and the people they serve, and with each other.   It’s not a ‘big government’ sort of interconnectedness.  It’s more like each place is a self-determinative little principality, only connected to other places by loose bonds. 

I’m not commenting on here on whether this is a good thing or bad thing or an anything thing.  Just that it’s something I’ve come across in many of the novels I’ve read and it’s begun to feel quite distinctly American to me, even though it wasn’t something I’d noticed before.

I’m just asking to be knocked back and told I don’t know what I’m talking about, aren’t I?  Have at it – I’m happy – nay, eager – to be educated.