Books to the Sky

Archive for the ‘m/m’ Category

Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.

So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!

The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.

Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London. Read the rest of this entry »

Candy at Smart Bitches has a thought-provoking post up that gets into some interesting questions. I think a lot of romance readers probably have a love/hate relationship with some of the tropes of the genre, especially as pertains to gender roles. Candy certainly does, and she writes:

So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

I think my greatest beef with the genre is its strict adherence to traditional gender roles and to the characterization of things that fall out of these strict binaries as being bad or villainous. It’s why I hate virgin heroines; I want a woman who owns her sexuality, but many, many romances still seem to subscribe to the idea that it’s not okay for a woman to want to be sexual. Sexual women in romance novels tend to be evil ex-wives, you know?

Candy finds a silver lining:

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance lately, and had a discussion with a friend of mine about why we like it so much: it’s because there is no clearly defined gender category for the two protagonists to fall into. They start as equals. I, for one, would like to see (especially in contemporaries) a male and a female protagonist for whom there is a presupposition of equality. (Maybe this is why I like Suzanne Brockmann’s books so much. She knows how to write a strong woman, one who can triumph even playing with/against a big ol’ alpha male.)

Anyway, read the whole post. There’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments, too.

Sorta kinda tangentially related: Amanda at Pandagon has a post up entitled Why don’t men read more romance novels? The post is really about why women don’t watch porn (in reaction to an article by Violet Blue arguing that women say they don’t like porn because women aren’t supposed to like porn; see also some of what I said here about women and sexual agency). But Amanda says:

But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?

On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid.

Which… hmm. I think she has a point about porn; so much of it is so obviously made with male (gay or straight or whatever) viewers in mind, misogynist or not. Same deal with romances (gay or straight or whatever, come to think of it). So many of them cater to (stereotypical) female fantasies: men as protectors, men who are strong but also sensitive, any of the things Candy listed that I quoted above, even, you know, two hot guys making out with each other. (Which is where I kind of differ from Amanda’s POV. She goes on to critique porn because female orgasms are so obviously fake and male orgasms are so obviously real, but I’ve read that a lot of male orgasms in porn are fake, too, created with prosthetics and, no joke, Ivory dishsoap. More to the point, Amanda dismisses Violet Blue’s point about women liking gay porn; at least the commenters are all, “Fanfic, hello?” And also, Exhibit B: the vast amounts of m/m romance and erotica written by women for other women. Just saying.)

I can’t deny that the fantasy is part of the appeal. The first time I picked up a Nora Roberts novel, I thought, “Oh, I get it.” Roberts tends to write men who strike me as realistically drawn and also immensely appealing. The heroes seem to be pushed out there with a sign saying, “This is your fantasy!” She sells all those books for a reason, you know?

I’ve run into plenty of men who read romance, though, even on the DL. There’s also this guy, who argues that, “I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter.” Which is kind of interesting: are we so steeped in old patriarchal assumptions that romance novels are really female fantasies based on male fantasies? Wacky, yeah? Is that why gender roles are so confining in romances?

Still, I think there are some authors out there who do really interesting things, who turn gender roles on their heads, or who are just really good writers. For me, the appeal lies mostly in the way the genre tackles human relationships, which is on-face what any romance is about. Throw in some fantasy about falling in love in a week and happily ever after, and it’s fun and escapist but can also make you think. Or this is what a good romance does.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to do more reviewing on this here blog, but haven’t really followed through with that. So, here’s my attempt to establish some kind of book review format. Let’s do the basics up top:

Title: Cut and Run
Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press, 2008
Genre: m/m romantic suspense/cop drama
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I chose this book to review because I had a lot to say about it. This can be good and bad; I tend to get most passionate about the books that almost get it, but fall short. This is one of those books. The characters are interesting and likable and the bare bones of a good story are here, but the narrative style drove me bonkers.

So, the gist: Zane Garrett is a stuffed shirt FBI agent who’s been on the straight and narrow in “cyber crimes.” He gets paired with a loose cannon by the name of Ty Grady, and together they’re supposed to find a serial killer in New York City who committed a string of murders so bizarre and random that the only way we know they’re connected is that the people running the investigation keep telling us they are. Then, twist! As the investigation proceeds (with basically no developments, just a lot of random violence), it’s revealed that Zane is actually a recovering alcoholic, more comfortable wearing a leather jacket than a suit. Zane is really the loose cannon, and Ty, especially after he winds up in the hospital with a serious concussion, is pretty sedate. Anyway, our heroes gallivant around New York, eventually cracking the case by finding the unlikely but sort of obvious pattern (and I am frankly ashamed that I didn’t figure it out sooner).

I mean, there’s a lot to like here. Two rogue FBI agents who are hot for each other; a serial killer who, it soon becomes clear, is gunning for the FBI agents; New York City; and lots of gunfire and explosions.

And still it kind of falls flat. I was warned in advance both by a review and by another book I read by this author team that there would be some head hopping. This is a narrative peeve of mine, but one I can forgive for some books. Here, not so much. This narrative head hops all over the place, sometimes switching POV within the same paragraph, and it’s chaotic and confusing.

The novel is also a lot longer than it needs to be, with the last chapter being largely unnecessary, IMHO, prolonging the suffering of the characters without a good enough pay off.

The biggest problem, though, is that the whodunnit is really obvious, like the murderer might as well be wearing a tee-shirt that says, “I am the killer.” He drops hints for Ty and Zane all over the darn book, and they never pick up on them. It got to the point where I was kind of hoping I was wrong about who the killer was (I wasn’t) because that, at least, would have been an interesting twist. This author team needs to learn the importance of a good red herring, because the person I suspected was the only logical suspect given the parameters of the genre.

The other thing that put me off this book a little is that the romance between Ty and Zane is a little too Gay for You, a convention I strongly dislike in m/m romance. (For those unfamiliar, Gay for You is a convention wherein one or more straight characters fall for someone of their own gender because the attraction to this one person is so overwhelming. I understand the need for its existence in fanfic, but in romance with original characters, I find it bothersome and unrealistic.) It’s implied that both Ty and Zane have had affairs with men before, but that both also primarily prefer women, so it’s just… what are the odds that two bisexual FBI agents would get paired together and also be attracted to each other? I was skeptical enough that it kept me from really enjoying the romance. There’s a throwaway line at one point implying that Ty mostly sleeps with women because he’s ashamed of the part of himself that lusts after men, but that’s never explored. More to the point, for the first quarter of the book, these characters read straight to me, and I almost wondered if there was going to be any romance at all.

Finally, if I can have a moment as a New Yorker, the stuff that takes place in New York City reads very “tourist” and not at all authentic. For example, at one point, Ty and Zane rent an apartment in “Greenwich,” and I’m guessing by all the references to the hippy dippy bohemians in the neighborhood that the authors mean Greenwich Village and not Greenwich, CT, and I feel like that’s something the editors really should have caught. (Not to mention that the Village is not so much populated by hippy dippy bohemians anymore.) Ty and Zane spend most of their time at hotels in TriBeCa, but then talk about Chinatown like it’s so far away and it’s… right there, dudes. Walk a couple of blocks. So that annoyed me, too. (Note to writers: if you want to set something in New York, at least do your research!)

I read the whole book anyway. It’s not completely irredeemable, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel the authors are rumored to be working on.

Either I’m ahead of the curve, or the Baltimore City paper is getting to the party late, because they’re writing about the trend of women reading and writing m/m romance. Never mind that women have been writing romances (and, okay, porn) featuring two men since slash fiction was born in the late 60s, this is a “trend.”

In an article called “Zipper Rippers” (okay, hee), Heather Harris writes:

The romance novel, a static and predictable genre, is undergoing an evolution of sorts: storylines written by straight women for straight women . . . about gay men. Gay men are allowed to read them, of course–there’s no gender ID check. But the authors want the books shelved with romance novels, not gay literature, and they are straight women writing the stories that they would want to read. Alex Beecroft, the author of False Colors, an “m/m romance” set in the mid-18th century British navy, doesn’t see what the big deal is. “Whether your romance is m/f or m/m, love is the same,” she writes in an e-mail from her home in England, “two people, heart and soul, fighting for something beautiful, something worth fighting for.” Yes, but is it really a romance novel if there’s not a heaving bosom?

Let’s get the irritating part of this out of the way: I think the inclination to shelve gay romance with other romance is a noble one; as Beecroft explains, it’s because romance is romance, and shelving it with other romance is not so much a cry that this is a book that should be read by women (even though, okay, the majority of romance readers are women, they are not ALL women) but that it shouldn’t be isolated as GLBT fiction. I also don’t like the sneer here, like romance is for silly women. I have a literature degree and I like romance novels, okay? I know men who have read Nora Roberts. Everyone get over themselves!

The article credits Brokeback Mountain with ushering in some kind of new awakening in women and increasing the demand for m/m romance. I wonder how much this is actually true. See above about slash, but also, Queer as Folk had a pretty substantial straight-woman following, too. Maybe that reached fewer audiences, but my point is that it’s not like Brokeback Mountain was the first instance of two hot men kissing ever put on film and enjoyed by straight women.

Harris goes on to argue, using False Colors as an example, that perhaps this trend is just the latest iteration of the classic forbidden love trope. I will admit, this is one of the things that attracts me to the genre personally. I mean, don’t get me wrong, two dudes making out = awesome, but I think there’s a lot of room to tell interesting stories in this forbidden realm. Romance is one thing, having both characters involved in the romance be the same gender adds an extra layer of complication.

Beecroft adds

Beecroft also sees her stories as opportunities for her to play with and transcend traditional gender roles. “M/M romance can be used to examine relationships which don’t suffer from the same sort of built in power imbalances and gender role constraints that make m/f romance such a minefield,” she writes. “And of course, unlike f/f which has the same advantage of equality, m/m allows the writer to use characters who are not mired in feminine gender roles either. So it has a big element of escapism to it, plus the advantage of two gorgeous heroes for the price of one.”

I don’t know if I agree with her in terms of women pairings (go read a Sarah Waters novel), but I get what she’s saying here. You take the problematic role of women out of the story, especially if you’re writing historicals as Beecroft is, and you’re playing a different ballgame. You can have two dynamic characters, not one of greater social standing than the other.

I’m fairly new to the genre, but I’ve read a lot of m/m romance in the last year or so, including just recently False Colors, and there are a lot of great and a lot of really awful books out there. I’ve even read a few that fall into the realm of what I’ve seen bloggers call “OK Homo” where every character the heroes encounter is totally okay with the fact that they’re gay, which for me takes the meat out of the story. Because what are two character whose love is wholly accepted within the universe of the book but, well, two dudes making out? It’s gay porn, is what I’m saying, which is nice and all if that’s your thing, but doesn’t make for a terribly interesting romance. But that’s just my $0.02.

I had some mixed feelings about False Colors, which, if nothing else, is kind of a bildungsroman featuring John, a British naval captain, who befriends Alfie, another officer. John is deeply religious and also kind of a prude at the beginning of the novel. (Well, not kind of. He is a prude and his fellow officers mock him for it. He views even lust for women as a vice.) He experiences lust in Alfie’s company quite a bit but doesn’t really think much of it until Alfie confesses that he prefers the company of men, if you know what I mean. It’s not something John ever contemplated, and he has a long journey before he’s okay with his own inclinations, but that’s what’s interesting about gay historical romance: the novel takes place in a time before there even was the term “gay,” when sodomy was still a hanging offense. John at one point tells Alfie that it’s okay if they never have sex because he doesn’t think it’s worth the risk. (Of course, then they totally do it, and John is all, “Oh, so THAT’S what all the fuss is about.”)

See also Jezebel.

If you haven’t already heard this, Amazon has stopped listing sales rankings for books with LGBT themes. The excuse they offer is that LGBT books have adult themes, and they are thus inappropriate for some search engines, but a bunch of bloggers have done some digging, and apparently Playboy and a whole lot of hetero erotic lit are still getting ranked, but YA novels with gay characters but no sex are not.

There’s a Google bomb afoot: Amazon rank. I’m just doing my part. I’ve also seen a Twitter hashtag “#amazonfail”. And a few people are even boycotting Amazon until this is sorted out. I’m personally tempted to download a whole lot of gay romance just to spite Amazon, although maybe it’s better to buy ebooks from their publishers instead of through Amazon for a while, Kindle or no. Hmm.

Feel free to say vitriolic things in the comments.

I’ve been too busy to get a recap up, but I figured we could throw some other stuff at the blog. I read a fair amount of romance anyway, and as that seems to be my area of expertise for this blog, I’ll review as many of them as possible. Might as well put my English lit degree to good use, eh?

I read 3 m/m romance novellas over the weekend, and all three of them involve at least one cop. This is, in general, a genre I’m fairly new to, but there seem to be a lot of mystery/crime/romantic suspense novels out there starring gay protagonists. Two of the ones I read over the weekend were good and interesting and genre-bending. The third was… less so.

1. Dark Horse by Josh Lanyon. I’ll tell you up front that I’m an unabashed Josh Lanyon fan. The Adrien English series is, I think, an excellent example of the gay mystery/crime genre. Dark Horse is a novella that, interestingly, seems to pick up after the typical romance would. Sean is an actor who was, until a week ago, being stalked by a crazy man who became increasingly threatening. Dan is an LAPD lieutenant who was assigned to keep Sean safe. Romance ensued. The action starts after the case is solved, when Sean gets another letter from his allegedly dead stalker.

It’s an interesting story in that it picks up after Sean and Dan have already become a couple, and they now have to navigate a relationship while dealing with stressors like the person who is still stalking and threatening Sean and Sean’s history of mental illness. The twist ending is a little predictable, but it still plays out in a satisfying way.

2. White Knight by Josh Lanyon. This is a sequel to Dark Horse. It picks up 6 months after the events of the previous book. Sean and Dan broke up when Sean left for Wales to make a movie without talking to Dan about it first. Only Sean fell down some stairs and hurt his head, and now he can’t remember much of what’s happened over the last few weeks. He slowly reconstructs it, starting with the circumstances that brought Sean and Dan together to begin with, on through the problems they were having before he left for Wales, and things that have happened since. There’s a threat to Sean in this novel, too, but it seems almost inconsequential, just a device to move the plot forward, because it’s really more about Sean and Dan working out their problems in order to move forward with a stronger relationship. Again, I like this novella because it’s more about what happens after the Happily Ever After, and it’s about two characters that clearly love each other but who have serious problems to work through. So it’s realistic, in other words. The same can’t be said for…

3. A Matter of Necessity by T.D. McKinney. This one was recommended by Amazon based on my recent buying patterns, I guess. It has an interesting premise: 2 FBI agents go undercover as a gay couple and then kind of wind up falling for each other. Once the mission ends, they have to decide if they want to carry on with the relationship.

But here’s where our problems begin. The bad guy in this novel is a terrorist who happens to be gay in a sort of militant way, in that he doesn’t trust straight people at all. Hence the necessity of going undercover as a gay couple. Only our heroes (Shawn who is bi and Alex who is straight until this mission) have to prove they’re gay, which includes performing sex acts in public. That wind up caught on tape. Which is unbelievable enough. Then there’s the fact that Alex was ostensibly straight before Shawn confessed that he’d had a thing for Alex for years. Alex kind of falls into what I understand is a particularly odious fanfic convention: the straight guy who is only gay for one man. Still, I give McKinney some credit, because Alex is probably the best drawn character in the novel, and he has some genuine doubts about going forward with a relationship with Shawn.

But the other thing that got me began with the trial. The terrorist’s lawyer sets up the FBI sting to be a hate crime, that the terrorist was targeted because he was gay (not because he was a gun runner and a terrorist). So the lawyer asks Alex and Shawn about their sexual orientation on the stand, and in order for it not to appear as a hate crime or a particular vendetta, they each testify that they had a private affair in addition to the public one they had during the sting. This seems unlikely enough. (I mean, is that even relevant at trial? No way the prosecution would let that fly.) But then, more to the point, everyone on their FBI team is COMPLETELY SUPPORTIVE.

Which is nice, I guess, but bothersome, too, because one of the things I like about m/m romance is that it has that extra layer of conflict and complication, but there seems to be a tendency for m/m writers to write these romances where everything is happy sunshine all the time. They have no internal conflict, their friends are all totally supportive, they live happily ever after. And there’s a bit of that going on here, too. Even Shawn’s homophobic BFF comes around and ultimately defends them when they start getting negative press.

So it strains credibility, but the writing is competent, so I still got some warm fuzzies when things played out happily ever after. Although then Shawn and Alex decide to run off to Boston to get married like it’s the gay Vegas (is that possible?) even though even I know it doesn’t work that way. (Isn’t there a law on the books in Massachusetts that says that gay marriages performed there aren’t legal if the people getting married live in states where gay marriage isn’t recognized, or something like that?) So I had a lot of moments, while reading this book, where I just sat there and thought, “Yeah, that would never happen,” which was distracting.


Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

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