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Alexis Hall

AJH diligently fails to get to grips with yet more social media.

Last Argument of Kings

Last Argument of Kings - Joe Abercrombie As ever with fantasy trilogies, everything I said true of both the first and the second pretty much holds true for this. And now that the actual conclusion is hoving over the horizon, it doesn't have the problem a lot of second books do in feeling like filler. Basically I think if you've got to this point in reading a trilogy you're already submitted to the world and the characters and the general approach that ... unless something really grotesque happens ... you'll like how it ends.

I liked how this ends.

It's a bit AH D'Y SEE but I guess we were pretty blatantly heading there all along.

You Are the Reason

You Are the Reason - Renae Kaye Read this with a certain Glitterpirate on the rec of a certain Ed.

Well, this was basically a jolly nice read. I would even go so far as to say delightful.

I've heard there are some concerns about this book femme-shaming and reinforcing toxic ideas about gender and queerness. My feeling is it ain't: while it is definitely *about* those things, ultimately it's a sweet story about a man who has internalised a lot of stereotypes about masculinity, gender and being gay, slowly coming to terms with the constructness and harmfulness of those ideas, and learning to live as the man he both feels he is and wants to be.

I offer this merely as a point of information. In the same way that if you mentioned you didn't want to read Pride and Prejudice because you were worried it was about sharks, I would tell you there were no sharks in Pride and Prejudice.

Now the book:

Well, there's an awful lot I like about. It's light-hearted, engaging and I felt it had a lot of heart. I don't know Australia very well, but based on the handful of Aussie dudes I have met over the years, Kaye's blunt, well-meaning but not always perfect, working class characters struck me as well-drawn and convincing. It was nice to have a hero who was a sales consultant for the ... something to do with the steel industry? *wrings middle class hands in confusion*. And a love interest who was a dental nurse. Quite a relief from the usual run of m/m characters who only usually do blue collar jobs if they're incredibly macho.

This book's alternative title could very much Educating Davo - but while it comes close on a couple of occasions, it just about avoids preachy. I think one of the things I particularly appreciated about Davo's journey is that it's never a transition from HORRIBLE MONSTER to RIGHT ON DUDE. It's about a basically good guy with some messed up attitudes who makes a real effort to get past them ... and does. And what's intriguing about it, espeically from the perspective of an over-educated, over-political queer, is watching this happen from the POV who someone who was never given any tools or frameworks to understand himself. There's a sort of perception that the language of social justice is the only language acceptable for articulating and exploring queer identity. But Davo's internal revelations centre on the hypothetical life of a pink sheep embroided on a baby blanket:

It must be hard to be a pink sheep among all those white shep. Being different, yet still the same. Being the same, but different. [...] Why, then, did this pink sheep look so happy? Wasn't he ashamed to be pink? [...] The others would be able to tell he was different, just by looking at him."

In general, I found it a well-judged and entertaining read. There's no great traumas within. Davo's journey to acceptance and self-acceptance is as low-key as he is himself. There are some lovely depictions of a spectrum familial, friendly and professional relationships, as well as intra-queer ones (no shaming of the slightly too-pushy open couple, for example). The, err, reality of babies - all their beauty and terror and shitfulness is also unflinchingly depicted. Again, I liked this because babies, in a lot of the romances I've read, have been angels devoid of bodily function. But actually you can still love a baby and find him/her entracing *while* covered in his/her shit and salvia. I think this why babies grow up at all. Otherwise we'd just kill them. And Davo's reaction to baby Maxine: terror and protectiveness and disgust and love very much reflected my own experiences with small humans, so I found it both refreshing and convincing.

Needless to say, Lee, the love interest who occasionally cross-dresses and tends towards the sparkly spectrum of gay (in his appearance, at least, there's nothing particularly camp in his manner) is wonderful. And, actually, I liked Davo too. Although his experience have twisted him into someone with a harmful belief system, that system is shown to be primarily harmful to him (although its roots in misogyny as well as homophobia are also acknowledged)... which is a sad and lonely thing. But, at heart, he's such a good bloke: honest, reliable, kind, protective, loving, An alpha without the dickhead.

I also appreciated the fact that Davo didn't bottom as a sign of His Conversion. While I don't like Toppy Top McTop Top as an m/m stereotype, I dislike even more "you may put something up my arse because I weally weally wuv you." Also Lee's bottoming is far from passive or submissive, so it worked for me as a sexual dynamic. And may I say a brief hallelujah for the absence of finger stretching. I used to just basically read past this cliche but then someone cruelly pointed it out to me and NOW I SEE IT EVERYWHERE AND IT BUGS ME SENSELESS. Except not here. Yay!

It's not a perfect book but, let's face it, what is. The style is as direct as its protagonist, but occasionally a little rough. We're talking on the level of a decent line edit ("No way," he denied. That kind of thing) and it didn't often jar me out of the story. Davo's messed up worldview occasionally crosses the line into cartoon but it usually settles. And for book that's right on almost to a fault about gender, sexuality and disability there are a couple of choices that make me uncomfortable. The only POC in the book is a chap called Fayed who's a dick to Davo at work and then resigns/is fired on account of said dickishness. And there's a completely random scene where a woman (the girlfriend of one of Davo's friends) tries to rape Lee. She's literally only the book for long enough for this to be her sole on-page act. And while I really appreciated a challenge to the usual men can't be raped / women can't rape men bullshit ... it was honestly fucking weird. There are plenty of okay (?) female characters in the book, usually mothers and babies admittedly, so it wasn't too egregious an example of women only existing in m/m to be evil. But it struck me as pretty unnecessary. And kind of insanely dramatic for a book that generaly consists of babysitting, dinner dates, and meeting each other's families.

But it's still got a lot to recommend it and so I do. Recommend it.

Focus on Me

Focus on Me - Megan Erickson Discussed this with Santino over at the Prism Book Alliance.

Tldr: we loved it and talked lots.

Here's how we start:

AJH: Welcome Santino. How’d you find Focus On Me?

SH: I really enjoyed it. There’s something really refreshing about Megan Erickson’s writing and the way she portrays young people. Also, I love the ongoing theme of the road trip for several reasons. First, because it symbolizes this ongoing effort for them to seek something (whether it’s closure like in Trust the Focus or just an impactful experience like we see Catwalk/Riley searching for here) but also because I think two people being on the road together for days really brings them together in a way other experiences don’t.

AJH: Yes, as a random English dude, there’s something quintessentially American to me about Megan. And that probably sounds a bit weird because the bulk of popular culture is American-by-default. I mean, maybe it’s just because On The Road exists, but to me this kind of journey narrative, this quest for selfhood and self-definition against and within what’s a pretty big and frankly geographically bewildering landscape (I mean, Jesus, The Grand Canyon, what’s WITH that? You do know that’s weird, right?) is something you don’t really get and can’t really have in England. I mean, an English road trip would be like … let’s go … oh we’re there.

SH: I agree with that and maybe that’s why I love road trip books and movies. The idea of exploring this massive country. But I think there’s also something really American about the idea of scrapping your past and re-inventing yourself by starting over across the country somewhere. Clearly Riley has much deeper reasons than just wanting a new job, but we do see him transform after he makes this journey with Colin. By the end, he’s settled happily into what, for him, is this totally new and healthier existence.

AJH: Yes, and Colin’s arc is not so much a reinvention arc as returning to the place you belong. Again, this is really English of me but I tend to look at texts that ‘feel’ American through this whacked out idea you guys have about the American Dream. I mean, no offence but I just don’t get that. Like the entirety of Madmen appears to be some dude in massive crisis because it turns out The American Dream is constructed rather than inherent to the nature of humanity. And, the English response to this is … well duh. Sorry, is that really insulting?

Find the rest of the discussion here


Glitterland - Alexis Hall Yep.

Wrote this one too, long time ago now.

It was actually the third book I wrote. The first was Prosperity, which was (at the time) written even more cantishly that it is in its published form.

I'd never really written anything fictiony before which, err, is probably still kind of evident. But the publisher were super nice about turning it down, which led me to write Iron & Velvet in response to an open call for lesbian fiction.

And while that was sitting in slush, I wrote Glitterland. Which ended up being published first because publishing is strange.

So. Yeah.


I guess it kind of encapsulates what I now recognise as my things. I've learned a lot about writing since Glitterland but I'm not too excruciated when I think about it. Ash is still one of my favourite narrative voices just because he's such an arse. I try to write all my stories in the way the protagonists would want them told but there's something really damn liberating in letting your inner pretentious arse out to play.

What's the say, AJH? Inner?!

I wrote a fair bit about Glitterland back in the day. Again, none of this remotely necessary for reading of the book but in case you're interested, here are a few of my favourites:

An interview about the book with Ruthie Knox, over at Wonkomance.

A lengthy ramble about narrative voice and mental illness (aka: why the heck I decided to write in phonetic in Essex and why Ash is such a horrible person) over at GraveTells.

The notorious Nabble game over at That's What I'm Talking About

Muscling Through

Muscling Through - J.L. Merrow Sort of brought to you by Reading Project 2015.

Felt vaguely bad for being tepid on Slam (not that anyone cares, except me) - so I thought I'd write something about how much I adore this.

I think Merrow might be the Queen of short-form fiction. It's just a perfect little jewel of a book. An ideal comfort read - "like your favourite cup of tea" as Liz says in her review.

An unlikely love story between a Cambridge professor and ... well ... a tattoo-ed giant of a man who is generally considered to be a bit stupid, the twist being that the narrative is told entirely from the latter's POV. What that they have in common -- apart from desire, and then love -- is, hilariously enough, sensitivity. They are both a little lost, a little melancholic, a little inclined to to be too-hurt by the world, despite their disparities in appearance and life experience.

It's so completely lovely to see them come together and slowly, carefully learn to make each other happy. And, obviously, the book very gently explores a lot of the issues closest to my heart: class and masculinity and the mutual care-taking of love.

Because it's a Merrow book, this is funny as hell, but it's got as much as heart as it's narrator.

I reiterate: I have all the love for this book.


Slam! - J.L. Merrow I refer you to Kat for this one.

There's oodles of charm here (and I'm a huge fan of JL Merrow) but somehow it didn't quite come together for me. There are some absolutely lovely scenes and the dialogue is zingy and I appreciated in principle the flamboyance of the narrator (although, in practice, he wore on me a bit - it was like he was perpetually doing jazz hands, and I was bit like ... for the love of god, take a xanax, I'm trying to read a book). But there didn't seem all that much connection between the two leads, David's primary characteristic appears to be that he looks hot while doing karate and a lot of the tension feels quite contrived: there's a series of misunderstandings around Jude's age (he's half Japanese so he apparently he looks fifteen) and an ex called Knut and finally a performance-poetry-declaration that didn't feel entirely earned.

On the other hand, a JL Merrow which does not quite come together is still, like, a gazillion times better than almost anything else in the universe. And they never ever make me feel icky or alienated or upset. And I cannot over-emphasise just how much this means to me.

And Bubbles the dog is sublime.


For Real (A Spires Story)

For Real (A Spires Story) - Alexis Hall So, um, yes I wrote this.

And I'm so excited it's finally out.

You can get it from Riptide Publishing and from all the usual third-parties vendors.

If you're even remotely interested in hearing me ramble on about the book, most particular about the power dynamics at play here and my choices regarding them, you can find me over at Duke Duke Goose. And there's two Wonkomance posts: one about the portrayal of romdoms and one about sexual expectations and penetration politics.

All of which is entirely optional of course.

I hope you enjoy the book :)

Sutphin Boulevard

Sutphin Boulevard - Santino Hassell Disclaimer: I am all up in Santino's face. We co-run a Facebook Group.

So I am pretty fucking biased.

However, I kind of feel there's a ... natural limit to the affect of bias. I mean, if someone I had friendly type relations with had written a shitty book, I'd probably just tactfully not mention it. And also this book is kind of WHY I am up all in Santino's face and why we co-run a Facebook Group.

I, err, I really like it.

I think it's brave and unusual and heartfelt and romantic and true. I read it literally one sitting. And I usually only do that for Carolyn Crane.

There's a lot in this book that would seem, on the surface, rather inaccessible to me. I've been to New York exactly twice in my entire life and each time I was in the process of getting on plane that would take me somewhere else: I think the longest I've been there is two hours and thirty five minutes.

So basically what I"m saying here is that it might as well have been set on Mars. But what is wonderful to me about this book is that it perfectly marries the specific and universal. I understood its motifs and its people and its landscapes and its journeys. And I didn't feel alienated, I felt ... spoken to.

That is a rare and beautiful and particular thing in a genre that doesn't always seem that interested in seeing me or speaking to me. And I'm grateful. I'm so very grateful.

What Sutphin Boulevard achieves - as far as I'm concerned - is that it is at one truly romantic and truly queer. It compromises on neither front and, consequently, marries both brilliantly and without compromise. There is nothing here that yields to convention, denies the essential complexity of people and communities, or takes the easy way out of anything.

Most simply: it's a love story about people I recognise living lives a little bit like mine.

If I gave stars, I would give this all the stars. And then some more stars.

For slightly more coherent reviews, I would check out Lenore, Ed and Anna.

Oh - I should also qualify that while I am personally all up in Santino's face, I had nothing to do with the book at all. My contribution, if so it may be called, is basically limited to saying 'nice V-cut' when I saw the cover.

Sweet Disorder

Sweet Disorder - Rose Lerner This book makes me feel like this:


Elisabeth Lane and I discussed it over at the AAR blog fairly recently:

AJH: I should probably warn you, I’m going to be useless for this. I have literally nothing to say about this book that isn’t ‘omg I loved that’.

Elisabeth: Well, this is going to be a short review then since I felt much the same way. So…SQUEE. See you next month?

AJH: Maybe can just replace ourselves with a set of wildly joyous reaction gifs?

Elisabeth: Honestly, I think that’s a fabulous idea. There’s only so many ways to say THIS BOOK WAS AWESOME, after all.

AJH: It was, however, so awesome that I’m kind of desperate to talk (gush/squee/exclaim) about it. I mean, I read a lot of historicals and it was such a breath of fresh air, to be away from the usual sorts of settings and situations. And, don’t get me wrong, I love me some slutty Duke and some Almack waltzing scandal, but I really appreciated the political focus, the small town environment, and the fact that the book is largely about middle class people with what felt to me like very human, recognisable problems. Problems like how to get on with your life when you’re a widow. What to do when your teenage sister gets pregnant. How to keep your sweet shop running when you don’t have much money. And so on.

Elisabeth: I’ve been reading historical romances for so long that a lot of them have started to blur together. Not that I don’t also love the ballrooms of Mayfair, but Sweet Disorder was powerfully original. And also so full of heart. Not just in the romance between the hero and the heroine, but in the community’s struggles, family issues and needing to find a way to get along in the world with all the scars of the past.

AJH: Yes, heart is exactly right. I loved the way pretty much every single character you meet is developed and nuanced and written with such understanding and compassion. Even the people who behave less than well. It’s essentially an arranged marriage plot and it could have been so easy to make Phoebe’s alternative choices unpleasant in some way, but they’re both decent men, who just happen to be wildly unsuitable for her. Moon because he’s kind of intimidated by her and the Tory guy, Mr Fairclough, who is just a little bit too patriarchal, although he’s compelling to her in other ways.

Elisabeth: It’s funny actually. I liked Mr. Moon much, much better as a hero than Nick, but that’s, well, for me. For Phoebe, he’s kind of a disaster. He doesn’t read (she’s a writer) and she doesn’t like sweets (he’s a baker), but I loved his down-to-earth wisdom and, of course, his bakery. I was very excited when Rose Lerner mentioned on Twitter recently that he’s going to get his own novella. But Nick had his good points.

AJH: Moon would make a wonderful (and unusual) hero. I can’t wait to see what she does with him. Personally speaking, Fairclough is more my type — tough but kind Tory mill owner from Th’ North. Oh my. And how completely hilarious is it that we’re debating the romantic possibilities of the guys the heroine didn’t want?

Read the rest of it over here.


Butterball - Michelle Robbins Oh God. Brought to you painfully by Reading Project 2015.

I … I feel bad about what I am about to do.

But this book is...


Okay. Look. I was just desperate to read an m/m romance where everyone didn’t look like a Rodin sculpture. I’m not saying that gym-chiselled isn’t attractive. It’s just other things are too, an unremitting diet of fictional six packs is doing my head in and—even putting aside the not insubstantial issues associated with privileging one body type over every single other body type in the entire goddamn world— I’m bored. So, so fucking bored.

On the other hand, this book has taught me a valuable a lesson. Which I shall now share with you.

No matter how desperate you are, it is never ever worth reading a book about a particular type or subgroup of human when the title of said book is already creepily fetishing that particular type or subgroup of human.

Like. Butterball? Seriously?


I honestly don’t see why we stopped at that. Why not just have called it CHUBBY CHASER or FAT FUCKER?

Anyway, anyway, oh god help me. This book is about two self-made businessmen, one of whom is the epitome of ALL THAT IS MASCULINE EVER and has naturally got through the recession unscathed. The other is a fat, balding dude who has been made redundant and is riddled with a gazillion insecurities about everything.

Here is the thing I liked about this: both characters were older than average.

Here is what I didn’t like about this book: basically everything else.

A lot of it is honestly is just plain weird.

This is how Mr Macho describes himself (yes himself) to his friend on page 2:

"Gym-twink, Euro, and a double plus for body because I work out. I have chest and leg hair, but qualify as a spiff for dark brown hair and its business cut. I'm no ditz and am the dominant partner in a relationship. No whining. I use a tanning bed. I'm a man in my early forties and desire a partner near my age. My shaft of bull meat also qualifies as a plus-plus and I have an ample ball sac. I've been told my cream is pleasant. Probably because I watch my diet and I'm no fan of asparagus. The word is 'twinkhawk,' not 'twinkmeister," and I'm looking for a relationship, not a string of uncommitted hookups. That gets old, or maybe I'm the one getting old. I don't swish, nor do I desire one who does."

Did I miss a memo? Is this how we’re talking these days?

Because while I may have entirely incidentally remarked to a friend “I like to be delicious” when discussing asparagus the other day, I can’t remember the last time I idly weighed my ball sac for its capaciousness.

And then described it to someone else.

It’s just … this is page 2, y’know? And I’m already doing the head tilt. Like who would think about himself like this? Who would think other people think about themselves like this? Is it meant to be funny? Are we meant to think the hero is deranged? Or a robot? I’m pretty sure that only time I’ve seen anyone use the term double plus is in 1984.

Which doesn’t exactly scream romance or dating or emotional health to me.

And, look, I agree that there is a degree of a self-categorisation that comes with navigating hooking up but that doesn’t reflect or even translate to identity. It’s not like straight people stand around the watercooler going “I prefer clitoral to vaginal stimulation and my labia are plushy and sizeable.”

(At least, I don't think they do? Do you? Not in earshot of me, anyway).

I’d say it was all downhill from there but his exchange pretty much sets the tone of incoherent peculiarity. The whole book is this slightly awkward coming together of someone who is ludicrously conventionally attractive (dominant, powerful, wealthy, body-normative) and the guy he fancies because he has a particular preference for that type of guy rather than because Jeremy is appealing or attractive on his own terms.

For example, here’s our hero musing on why he wants to bang the fat dude:

Structurally, Jeremy could take his muscle and dominance. He didn't need to worry about bruising or breaking his partner. He also didn't need to feel like he was constantly wrestling for dominance.

I just cannot with how awful this is in every conceivable direction. I mean, it makes the hero look like an almighty bell end, it’s rude about thin people (just because you’re skinny doesn’t mean you’re fragile and can’t take a fucking) and it’s even ruder about fat people: this implication that just because someone is fat, they aren’t also strong or powerful or capable of dominance. This terrible and uninterrogated association of a particular body type with a particular personality type: soft and weak willed.

(Also I feel the word ‘structurally’ is best reserved for buildings, not humans).

This sentiment comes up a couple of times. In no way diminishing its grimitude. Almost as if the narrative feels it has to present a very clear rationale as to why someone like Travis could possibly be into an ugly, balding fatty like Jeremy.

Because, apparently, it is beyond the realm of imagination or possibility that he could just straightforwardly fancy the man. Since body shape in no fundamental way determines worth, attractiveness or personality. If you want people to be attracted to a character, you make them attractive. And, honestly, Jeremy just isn’t. Which has nothing to do with his weight. The best emotion I could stir for him was pity (although it was definitely step up from the mild horror which characterised my response to Travis). Not because he’s fat, but because the narrative assumes that—because he is fat—he must be pitiable. There’s even a scene where he eats all the cookies, for fuck’s sake.

Anyway, the basic arc of the book involves Mr Double Plus Ball Sac arbitrarily deciding that on account of being fat, Jeremy (regardless of whatever personality he actually displays) is actually a sweet, submissive, cuddly butterball of a man, and then fucking self-esteem back into him.

Oh, and Jeremy is closeted. And was formerly a straight dom. A straight dom who used to command his sub to make him suck other men’s dicks. Or something?

Aaaand both of them were abused as children because that is what happens to gay characters in the name of social realism.

There’s also a faint air of kinkiness here, since Mr Double Plus Ball Sac defines as a dom and defines Jeremy as being his sub (something Jeremy just blithely accepts), but the kink itself is entirely nebulous and seems to be largely centred on who is fucking and who is being fucked.

That’s not kinky. That’s just sex.

Yes, being fucked can be submissive act but my Hate-O-Metre dings the winner bell every time I read a book that assumes who-fucks-whom inherently involves a dom/sub power dynamic.


Here are some other examples of this book being weird or offensive or weird and offensive:

Number One

Jeremy had never been a fan of an evening spent at the movies ... This time, though, it had been different. He'd had a good time. The tub of hot, buttered popcorn was not only heavenly, but he hadn't had to share.

Fat people. Greedy, right? It is not enough that they eat all the cookies, they won’t share popcorn with you at the cinema.

Number Two

"So, faggots, which one of you pitches and which one catches?"


While [Jeremy] stood there frozen, Travis stepped between him and the bully. An ugly red flush painted his cheeks and his hands curled into ham-like fists at his sides. "I do the fucking," said Travis. The menacing growl in his voice stilled the flock of giggling toadies. "And unless you step back, I'll show you how I do it."

Gosh, I’d love to be with man who would not only tell a teenager about my sexual behaviour but then threaten to rape him for my honour. What a prince.

I also love men who distance themselves publicly from any implication they take it. It’s so classy.

Number Three

He hissed, a mixture of pleasure and protest, as his energy grabbed his playmate and dug in.
He felt boundaries, the energy levels that everyone had and those that identified Jeremy from anyone else, shift, shudder, and give way. He surged, penetrating his partner the way only a dominant does, shattering the sub's world and reforming him into a vessel molded for his tastes and pleasure.

Wait, what? His ENERGY grabbed his playmate?

I don't even know any more.

I just don't know.


Life After Joe

Life After Joe - Harper Fox Another of my favourites, which I also wrote about for Queer Romance Month.

Stories matter.

It really is that simple.

They teach us who we are, and how not to feel alone. They give us hope. And, sometimes they give us a framework to confront the things that terrify us. Perhaps it seems a strange thing to say about romance, this most dismissed and devalued genre that it supposed to pander solely to goodfeelz and fantasies. But, for me, it is precisely the safety of romance, the metatextual certainty that a happy ending is coming that makes it bearable – possible even – to think about the things that quietly flay me. To feel them just a little through some stranger’s words.

So here it is, on the internet, my greatest fear, the murkiest, most sordid, late-night monster that isn’t really based on anything rational but gluts itself nonetheless and grows fat like a toad on every flicker of insecurity, every set back, every moment that isn’t as easy as it should be: I’m terrified my partner will leave me for a life that requires fewer compromises. And, honestly, it makes no sense. I could be the one to make that choice if I wanted. But our life experiences are so different. Mine have taught me to take certain things for granted that his just … haven’t. I still remember the first time we were out together not as friends, but lovers, and the charge between us was different enough, that someone called us faggots from the other side of a line of traffic. And his eyes, wide, staring into mine for an answer I didn’t have: what do we do?

Even then, I think he knew: you live with it.

When you get right down it all relationships come down to learning to live with things. But I’m angry there are things he has to learn to live with beyond the fact I squash right up against at the wall at night, or that I freak out when he puts the teaspoons in the vertical partition of the cutlery drawer, instead of the horizontal one. And I’m sorrowful, faintly guilty, that there are things he has to give up to be with me. Some of them are large (biological children, being the most obvious), some of them are small (the irritation of me not being able to pay the water bill because it’s in his name) and some of them are shockingly unexpected. I think he didn’t get a job, last year, because they asked him – and his wife – to a post-interview dinner. And, after a week or so of angst, half-resolving to call in an Undercover Lesbian Wife Substitute, he took me anyway. But perhaps we were just poor dinner guests.

I would understand if he got sick of it. It certainly wearies the heck out of me.

I think it’s natural enough to fear your partner leaving you. I wouldn’t like it he fell in love with someone else (regardless of gender). I wouldn’t like it if he fell out of love with me. I wouldn’t like it if he decided my snuggle-squashing and teaspoon-anality became too much for one sane human to endure on a daily basis. These things would break my heart, but I’d grieve, and heal, and keep on living. The thing that I can’t fit into my brain, can’t find a way to deal with … is not being able to give the person I love, the life he wants.

Life After Joe is a book all about this. It was the first m/m romance I read that really spoke to me. And I think until the day I die I will always secretly think of it as the book Harper Fox wrote for me. Partially it’s a stylistic thing: I am drawn to pretty words, and it’s stunningly well written. But deeper than that, it’s full of things I recognise. Emotionally and psychologically and … honestly … literally. I grew up very close to where the book is set, and I’m a real sucker for sense of place. My personal articulations of selfhood and queerness are, to a degree, rather landscaped: I remember where I was somewhat better than the people I was with, stealing snatches of myself from a stranger’s skin, under the pier, or down some alleyway, or in the sticky corners of the club the protagonist visits as the book opens. There are so many northeast-specific references in Life After Joe that, to the part of me that will always be a working class northern boy from a council estate, it read as homecoming. A gentler, kinder homecoming that I will ever know. Impossible not to experience such a thing without a deep and slightly painful sense of gratitude.

The rest of this post is over here.

Think Of England

Think Of England - K.J. Charles In short: I love this.

In long: I wrote about how much I loved it over The Bookpushers for Queer Romance Month.

Queer or straight or what-you-will, if your romantic feelings are sexualised, I think a lot of people go through a stage of life best articulated as “omg, now I can have sex”. For me, it hit around lateish adolescence and continued throughout university. It took longer, a lot longer, for me to reach “omg, now I can have love.” And, obviously, the way we engage with intersections of identity and sexuality and behaviour are complex and individualised. For a lot of people in my social circle OMGNICHS was clearly a very liberating and joyous experience. For me, while I certainly had some good times and I don’t regret them in the slightest, it was always tinged by defiance. And the truth is, it was the only way I knew how to express myself. It was the only thing I knew how to want.

Sexuality. Sexual identity. Homosexual. Bisexual. These words are all about sex. Ironically, it’s something they have in common with a lot of the most popular insults for the queer-identified ( cocksucker, fudge packer, marmite miner, rug muncher, muff diver, clamlicker) which means that –regardless of whether you’re coming at it positively or negatively – ultimately you have a preliminary understanding of sexual identity that is largely defined by sex acts. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of sex acts of all kinds. But it’s also where gender and history and queerness all come together in a really sticky way.

First of all, the history of homosexuality is complicated and subtle, and has lots of peculiar little pockets: Welsh lesbians, Georgian polyamorists and male-male couples who openly described themselves as being married. But at the same time there’s also no getting away from the fact that, in England at least, because of the various legal frameworks surrounding and defining homosexual relations, the history of homosexuality is basically the history of buggery. I find it kind of telling – and also rather depressing – that we legalised sexual activities between men in 1957, but we didn’t get around to the marriage thing until 2014. The upshot of which is that our most enduring conception of what homosexuality means is that it’s about the right of men to put their dicks in other men.

This brings me back to romance, and the book I want to talk about today. For me, the important thing about queer romance is not the Q-word but the R-word. This is because it takes as read (as the default, even) a broader, more generous and – in all honesty – a more subversive understanding of what same-sex attraction means: which is that, just like opposite-sex attraction, while certain sexual behaviours may form part of it, it’s fundamentally about love.

But, at the same time, romance is a powerfully gendered, ah, genre, and while it can engage in fascinating and profound ways with social constructions of gender, it can also affirm and perpetuate them. This is made even more complicated by the fact that one function of romance is definitely connected to its function as fantasy or pleasure reading: our fantasies are fantasies and, as such, inviolable, but they’re as much informed by our cultural context as anything else. Men are “supposed” to be for sex and about sex, to have active and promiscuous sexualities, an expectation that romance novels often fulfil. And, of course, there are also virgin heroes, and nerdy heroes, and man-next-door heroes, and even the occasional submissive hero, but they’re very much the exception.

In queer romance with male protagonists, this becomes even more difficult because on the one hand you have the fact this is a romance, so it’s about love, but on the other hand you have a lot of historical, social and genre-driven sexpectations about queerness and masculinity. I should probably say at this juncture that I have no issues at all with erotica for its own sake, or sexual content in general: expression is important, especially when you’re dealing with marginalised people and devalued sexualities. But while OMGNICHS is important, so is OMGNICHL and, for me, the power of m/m lies in its capacity to explore and depict intimacy between men.

KJ Charles’ Think of England might not seem, on the surface, an obvious choice to illustrate this– Charles is best known for her plotty, sexy, paranormal Victorian swear-fests (which I also heartily recommend, by the way)–but this book is quietly and stylishly one the bravest, boldest, most important queer romances I’ve read for a while.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Take My Picture

Take My Picture - Giselle Ellis image

The evens, I cannot.

This is a story about two grown men who are – apparently literally – unable to find each other’s cocks.

Aaron took his hand away from his cock. “Touch it then."

Jake tentatively reached out and pressed his palm flat against Aaron's stomach, his fingers fanning out then staying still, letting the heat soak into them. He was deathly afraid to move them any further. Aaron stayed still as well, unnaturally still for him, letting Jake simply touch him. The only thing moving either of them was Aaron's steady breathing as his stomach rose and fell slightly under Jake's hand.

"Beautiful,” Jake whispered. “The pictures could never hold you. This is mine; this is what I was trying to find."

"Now that it's found,” Aaron replied as his fingers combed through Jake's hair, “don't lose it again.”

Suggest alternative title for this book: How to Lose a Guy’s Cock in Five Years.

Thankfully they have a sassy straight woman (for this is what straight women are for) to help them find their knobs again.

I suppose I should see it as ... turnabout being fair play that after many years in which the only possible role for a gay person in the media was the desexualised, wrist-flopping best friend of a heroine ... that women are now the m/m equivalent of Grindr.

Helping gay men get laid since 2009.

But, look, this is not okay.

Firstly we can honestly get ourselves laid. We’ve been doing it for a long time now, and I think we’ve got it sussed.

And, secondly – women are not sexual intercourse mediation devices. If I need a friend to negotiate my shagging for me, I should not be having sex.

Now, I realise the role of women in m/m is difficult, and a Sassy Straight Woman is infinitely better than an One Dimensional Bitch Queen From Hell, but I genuinely believe it’s messed up that the default role of Valued Woman Person in m/m is ... love pimp to incompetent homosexuals.

Obviously I’m not a monolith but I’m sure I’m not alone in being able to genuinely value, admire and form friendships with women who have better things to do with their lives than facilitate my orgasms.

Anyway. God. This book. I don’t know what to say.

There’s nothing more alienating than humour you don’t find funny. I think this is supposed to amusing, but ...

... we were not amused.

And that’s not a criticism of the book, as such, it’s merely an incompatibility of temperament. Stuff like this:

"She's not going to get you fish, you know. She'll more than likely get you the chicken salad sandwich I always get on Tuesdays from the deli down on the corner."

"You eat the same thing every Tuesday?"

"And Wednesday and Thursday and Friday... do you see a pattern?"

"I think you and your Ho-Hos need to branch out more."

"And eat trout?"

"Maybe even bear."

"Yeah, uh-uh, I'm thinking ‘no’ on the bear."

"You gotta live dangerously, Mozart; there are only so few days each year bear is in season, you know."

"When exactly is bear season?"

"How the hell should I know? You're the one who reads Field and Stream, for chrissake."

"This conversation is going nowhere fast."

"It's not my fault you're a conversation killer."

"Is that in any way, shape, or form like a serial killer?"

Aaron grinned. “A little, only with slightly less body parts in your freezer."

"That's good, because then there would be no room for the bear."


I get what it’s trying to do... and I get that it’s meant to hint at the fundamental compatibility of these two nauseating manic pixie dream boys ... but to me ... it’s just trying so hard to be quirky that it comes across as excruciatingly lol!random, and leaves me wanting to punch myself in the face.

It’s like ... y’know that bit in Garden State where Natalie Portman all like makes Zack Wossname make a funny noise because nobody will ever have done that in that spot and it’ll be like totally unique and special, like a fucking goddamn snowflake? And with exactly zero conviction Nat does this weird wiggly dance thing that makes you feel actively embarrassed and uncomfortable, because it’s just so self-conscious, awkward, and trying-too-hardy, and you’re left shaking your head, being all like “oh girl, no.”

You know that bit?

This entire book is like that for me.


But here are some less personal things that I felt didn’t quite work. I guess for UST to be interesting to me it has to be Unresolved for what seems to be a plausible reason. Not just plot necessity, ineptitude and lack of basic communication skills.

I know there are plenty of readers who don’t enjoy their menz with even the faintest flicker of emotional intelligence or verbal competence because it’s the wrong sort of gay (and that's fine - taste is taste, is what it is) ... but I think even the most muscular and wang-focused human male can just about manage to grunt out “shall we bang?” Possibly while cupping himself if he’s concerned the message might not be, ahem, received.

And I’m totally fine, in principle, with “oh, it might damage our friendship” or “but I’m not sure he likes me back that way” or “I’m worried he’s not the right sort of person for me (BUT REALLY HE IS!)” which are the usual obstacles causing UST in friends-to-lovers type stories. But I need them to be embedded in something that feels like a genuine concern, or an understandable perception, otherwise you have a book in which the characters are just marking time until a certain number of pages have gone by, and they can bonk.

But the only thing keeping MPDB 1 and MPDB 2 apart is the fact the hobnob I just dipped in my tea probably has a more mature understanding of human relationships. So when MPDB 2 decides to move in with his boyfriend, this is an actual conversation that happens in the book.

As in a conversation between grownups, who presumably have voices and brains, and agency over their lives and actions:

"Jake. He didn't say a thing. He didn't argue. He didn't tell me ‘no, you can't'. He didn't say anything at all."

"What did you tell him, Aaron?” Alyson asked in a low voice."

I told him I said yes."

"Yes to what?"

"He didn't fight for me, Aly. I thought maybe he would."

"Goddammit, Aaron, tell me what the hell you're talking about. What did you say yes to and why isn't Jake talking to you?"

"Matt asked me to move in with him. Three nights ago. He told me he loved me and wanted me with him all the time because he missed me when I wasn't. No one has ever told me that; no one has ever wanted to be with me all the time."

"No one? You honestly believe that? What then do you call Jake calling you in the middle of the night because he needs to know you're there? What do you call him coming to your place when he barely goes anywhere at all because he knows you'll be there? What the hell is that if not missing you and wanting to be with you all the time?"

"I know, but he's never told me. He's never said the words like Matt did. I never know with him.”

So he’s not moving in with Matt because he wants to, or he thinks it won’t work with Jake, or even because he thinks Jake isn’t into him ... it’s because JAKE NEVER SAID THE WORDS.

And because passive aggressive emotional backmail is a wonderful reason to co-habit.

Also what the hairy balls is this “He didn't tell me ‘no, you can't'” nonsense? Since when did passing arbitrary judgement on what you can and cannot do with your life become a sought-after trait in a partner? And, yes, of course negotiating your mutual happiness is important and involves compromise, but ... specifically agreeing to do something in the hope that your partner will forbid it ... that is so completely deranged it’s honestly no wonder these men need a woman to guide their cocks together.

She probably has to tie their shoelaces as well.

Force of Law

Force of Law - Jez Morrow Oh the difficult.

I read this because two friends were arguing about it.

And ... gosh ... my feelings, they are quite mixed.

On the one hand, I kind of enjoyed it. It’s almost irritatingly engaging.

On the other hand, it hurt my face. And I’m quite resentful of the ways it hurt my face because it kept lulling my face into relaxed amusement, and then punching it hard.

So, basically, I feel I slightly abused, like Charlie Brown and the football:

Force of Law: Come here baby, it’ll be fine I promise...
Me: Oh, okay, I suppose this is quite entertaining
Force of Law: THWACK
Me: Ow
Force of Law: Sorry baby, I won’t do it again, look he’s guiding his sex into his hunger
Me: Oh ...oh ... all right, I do sort of like this stuff, just don’t hit me again, okay?
Force of Law: THWACK
Me: Dammit.

I think it’s fairly clear that this is ... a ... I hesitate to use the word satire, I guess an m/m twist on an Harlequin Presents type romance. And, for the record, I’ve only read about twenty or so HQ Presents so I by no means know what I’m talking about. But we’ve got a protective, badass billionaire with a penis-mobile and a never-flagging erection for a hero. And a less experienced, less socially and physically powerful protagonist.

They hate each other. Then they fuck. Then people try to kill them. Then they’re in love. And there are a lot of other HQ Presents type tropes in here too: evil families, good families, potential financial ruin, an evil ex, blackmail, & etc, all of it basically ... hang on a second, this GR, lemme get a gif:


Even the, err, bonking is self-consciously and gleefully, well, Harlequiny.

That sexual thickness pushed inside him for an extended moment that stretched to eternity. His body ignited with a spear of sexual heat. The unexpected sensation left him thunderstruck, dazed and soaring. It was a revelation, as if a veil had been stripped away and suddenly he could see color. His body melted into fiery sweetness.

That sounds more like irritable bowel syndrome than any sex I’ve ever had, but honestly, I love this stuff. I love it in het, and turns out I love it in queer too. I mean, it’s silly, but it’s gloriously silly. And it’s not like the sole purpose of fiction to accurately represent your impression of reality.

However. There’s no denying that fiction does intersect with reality. And this is where things get sticky for me with FoL.

Basically, I think it comes down to an intersectionality issue. Because obviously het romance – and this style of het romance in particular – is heavily (and, even to a degree, necessarily) gendered. Most of the HQ Presents I’ve read have been engaged with juxtapositions of power and vulnerability, masculinity and femininity – sometimes in quite aware ways, sometimes not so much. Ultimately alpha heroes and HQ Presents-style power dynamics are not My Thing. That’s not the sort of man I aspire to be, and it’s not the sort of man I find attractive. But I do appreciate the sheer whacked-outness, sometimes, when I’m in the right mood. And, obviously, different books inspire different responses in different readers. I’ve read reviews that found pleasure in those sort of gendered dynamics in spite of the inherent problems associated with them, I’ve read reviews that actively objected to those sort of gendered dynamics in the first place, and I’ve read reviews that didn’t give a damn. All legit and entirely sustainable positions.

But because FoL is queer, it gets honestly pretty weird, and not in a manner I was able to easily dismiss or laugh off. Tom is a mechanic, rides a Harley, and has a muscular, bad-boy look, but basically – since we’re operating with the gendered framework of HQ Presents (het) romances – he’s ... uh ... he’s the woman. Quite explicitly the woman:

Law nuzzled his ear. “Still think you’re the man?

Um. Yes, sweetie. You’re both men. That doesn’t change when one of you has had a cock up your arse.

Just, as post-coital taunts go ... this is fucking weird. It presupposes a bunch of really pretty vile things about gender, sex and power – and none of them are things I want reinforced by books that are ostensibly supposed to be about me. Even if they’re not for me.

And, look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be overwhelmed, forced, dominated, taken. Whatever your gender. Masculinity is hot. Either subversively or directly.

And I get that the scene in which Law de-virginates Tom and then compares him to a woman is meant to reflect similar type scenes in het romance, of which, let’s face it, there’s loads. But it’s Made of Problems whichever way you cut it. A double whammie of homophobia AND misogyny that just makes me want to cry. While sex can be about power (sex can be about lots of things, and lots of things can be about power), a lot of forced seduction scenes in het romance are built on the idea that it is fundamentally and inherently and automatically disempowering for a woman to have sex with a man. Which, uh, I don’t know. Not my call. But I would like to hope maybe not. Don’t get me wrong, I think it can be, but I think that’s a symptom of gender constructions and centuries of unequal social power. I don’t think having one part of someone else’s body inside your body is by its very nature passive, disempowering, feminising or emasculating.

The entire scene between Tom and Law simply builds on these messed up ideas: that sex – at its core – involves a loss of power, that loss of power is feminising, and that this is demonstrated by who penetrates whom.

Also I don’t think the worst thing you can say about a man is that he’s like a woman. I don’t think power is a natural feature of masculinity, and I don’t think vulnerability is a natural feature of femininity. But these ideas are not only accepted without question by the text, they’re constantly reinforced:

I am not going to crumble like a virgin girl. I’m a guy. This is just sex.

God, yeah. Heaven forefend a man felt a thing. That would be terrible. And, okay, if you’re feeling super generous, maybe you can squint sideways and say maybe the text is exploring or challenge these ideas.

But it ain’t.

Or if it is, it might come across more effectively as A Theme if the book didn’t constantly refer to women as “bitches.”

And I don’t mean as an insult. I mean as a general term for the female of the species.

I think the sex thing would have troubled me less – it is, after all, a trope of m/m in general that liking to be penetrated is inherently submissive and just a little bit humiliating (le sigh) – if the same dynamic had not unfurled like a rectal prolapse across the entire book. It is Tom who takes it up the arse, it is Tom who sits around waiting for Law to call, it is Tom who is rescued by Law from Dangerous Drivers, it is Law who “submits emotionally” (usually the act of emotional rebalancing in a lot of het romances) to Tom when he proposes at the end. Basically Tom is a mechanic for like five minutes at the start of the novel and – while I am very hesitant to enter into the same constructed ideas of gender I have spent this entire review protesting – a woman from the second Law sticks his dick in him while he cries.

And don’t even get me started on Wells – this is Tom’s previous lover, the sylph-like and effete blonde we later learn was only “confused.” Because tonnes of men have taken all their clothes off and repeatedly rubbed themselves against me in a state of confusion spanning many months. FoL opens with this traitor to homosexuality getting fat and getting married. Again, not in itself problematic, but it troubled me that Wells was so thoroughly condemned as a “pretender” when ... I don’t know ... I think if you ejaculate while wrapped naked around your same-sex lover there’s likely to be some degree of sexual fluidity going on there attributable to more than “confusion”. There are, after all, plenty of behavioural waystations on the journey between straight as a die and flaming woofter. But because Wells is insufficiently masculine and insufficiently gay to “properly” penetrate Tom, you’re once again reinforcing extremely dodgy ideas about sex and sexual identity i.e. that sex only “counts” if there’s a penis entering an orifice, and that homosexuality is located somewhere inside the anus.

But, goddamn it, how can I be so pissed off and entertained at the same fucking time? I feel like the protagonist.

Force of Law thrust itself savagely onto AJH's e-reader.
"No, no," he protested weakly. "Please... don't... with your deranged attitude to anal sex and your messed up gender politics."
"You want me really," snarled FoL. "You took me in half an hour. You couldn't get enough of me."
AJH trembled like a peony in a rainstorm, and tried to pretend he was reading KJ Charles...

The Second Footman...

The Second Footman... - Jasper Barry I haven’t read a book like this for what feels like a very long time – set in Belle Époque France, it reads like the 19th century French novels I devoured and adored when I was a confused young man. My literary needs have changed somewhat since then and I might have hesitated if I’d known exactly what I was getting into (specifically that what I was getting into was about eighty gazillion pages long and the first book of a goddam trilogy) but I found The Second Footman nostalgia-inducing and pleasurable and intriguing and hard going all at once.

It evokes time, place and cultural context superbly – although I should confess that my sense of historical authenticity basically stops at noticing if characters check their iPhones or turn on light before electricity was invented. On the other hand, I also suspect that historical authenticity is as much to do with how something feels as anything.

Anyway, Max is an ambitious young man with a mysterious past. He manages to first find a position with the duchesse de Claireville, who is known to employ – and sleep with - comely footmen, but when that doesn’t work out for him embarks on an affair with the Marquis de Miremont.

That’s, uh, kind of it. Obviously there’s Themes And Stuff as well, but it’s a slow book, almost a series of intensely detailed character studies, which is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. Although possibly I’m just shallow. I mean, when I was gripped, I was very gripped, and the intricacy of the character work, the slow reveal of history and motivation, was necessary to show all the subtle ways they affected and influenced each other … but, yeah, sometimes I bogged down. On the other hand, something I found consistently compelling was the generosity afforded to most of the important characters in the text – even the vilest, like Achille de Tarascon are allowed moments that, while they may not redeem them, at least illuminate them.

I also really enjoyed the intersections of the hidden world of servants with the hidden world of same-sex desire, and burgeoning homosexual identity. And, equally, there was something pleasantly normalising in the ‘reality’ of both those worlds – while Armand, the Marquis de Miremont, struggles initially with the morality of his inclinations, Max is an unquestioning, equal opportunities seducer. And the relationship between Max and Armand develops very naturally, both sexually and emotionally. One of the Major Themes TM explores the spaces between truth and falsehood, and constructions of reality, and this - again – filters really effectively through ideas of class, sexuality, and selfhood.

Both Max and Armand are deeply flawed, but recognisable and appealing characters. I liked the way Max’s pride and ambition often pushed him to the point of genuinely immoral behaviour, and the way Armand’s privilege – and instinctive nobility – was both strength and weakness. They spend a lot of time misunderstanding and misreading each other, for quite understandable reason but – honestly - I’ve probably been reading too many romances because I kind of basically spent most of the book wanting those two crazy kids to work it out. So the return of the actual plot, and a reminder of The Themes TM, at literally 99% to completion came as a nasty shock.

The end of the book was, to me, it’s biggest disappointment. After all that slow and careful build, it didn’t actually seem to go anywhere. It wasn’t even a cliff-hanger, just a bald reminder that I’d read eighty gazillion pages, there were Themes and a Plot, thank you, and good night. I pouted. I mean I didn’t necessarily need Max and Armand to run into the sunset, holding hands and giggling, but it was kind of the emotional equivalent of when you think you really need to sneeze, but then you don’t. Also the bit where the book explicitly tells you what the book is about is a bit of a low:

Of course, the old fellow was a throwback, not even to the ancien régime, but to some chivalrous and quite possibly mythical period long before. Whereas he, Max, was the coming man, cool, ruthless, unburdened by God or morality: the future.

Um, yeah, I know. I’ve just read eighty gazillion pages exploring those very ideas so I kind of noticed them.

This said, I did really enjoy The Second Footman. I appreciated the depth and artfulness of it, and the queering, naturally, which just exists as part of the historical, political and personal tapestry. There isn't enough of that in fiction.

Small Town Trouble

Small Town Trouble - Jean Erhardt Small Town Trouble is the first book of the Kim Claypoole Mystery series (book two to be released June 2014). It follows the heroine (unsurprisingly named Kim Claypoole) as she returns to her hometown of Fogarty in order to help her emotionally immature mother navigate the ever-deepening mire of her financial difficulties.

This review will contain spoilers.

Anyway, on arrival in Fogarty, Kim discovers that a local topless bar owner has shown up dead in his own carpark with his throat slit and his genitals severed. Because Kim isn’t so much a detective as the part-owner of a restaurant, she mostly ignores this fact an gets on with … well … the job she’s actually in town to do. Which I sort of appreciated on one level, because it added an air of psychological plausibility to proceedings, but I did spend about the first dozen chapters thinking “well this is all very interesting, but are we going to get any more information on that murder any time soon?”

To give Kim her due, she’s distracted by the rather more pressing mystery of the clearly pseudonymous “Larry White”, who is offering her mother far more money than is sensible for a tiny parcel of land and a failing local radio station. She’s also rather distracted by her tempestuous but currently off-again affair with minor TV personality, and by the reappearance in her life of an old schoolfriend, Amy Delozier, with whom she has – shall we say – unresolved tensions.

Full review o'er here