Tag Archives: reviews

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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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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At long last, I discuss a book by someone else

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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

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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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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?

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I, Reader

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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. 

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