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Alexis Hall

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

Suicide Watch

Suicide Watch - Kelley York So I accidentally read this at the same time as Julio. Review comes with trigger warnings for suicide, suicidal ideation and the occasional glancing reference to sexual abuse. It also contains spoilers which are likely to comprise a significant chunk of my musings, so while I won’t be able to stick them in a tag, I will let you know when they’re about to hove into view.

Okay, are we sitting comfortably?

I think I was more positively disposed towards this than Julio. It was well-written, well-characterised, tender and thoughtful. People talk and hold hands, and behave in ways that felt emotionally authentic to me. Nobody casually rapes anyone in a way we’re secretly (or not so secretly) meant to find hawt. There’s no fuckdungeons, enemas, or anal fisting. Basically, the presence of the first things, and the absence of the second, is kind of all I look for in m/m these days. The fact that Suicide Watch is also quite good is just the cherry on the not horrendously alienating cake.

Here is one my favourite passages from the book:

I want to reach out to touch that hair. Slide my fingers through it. It's unkempt, but looks so soft. I want to curl up against him, around him, and tell him I understand. I don't have a family, and he's invisible to his. I want to tell him that I notice him, even if no one else does. His shoulders hunch up, fingers lacing behind his neck. I know what he would say to that. I'm not worth noticing. And I'm not sure I can stomach him taking something so heartfelt and sincere and tossing it aside, so I say nothing. We sit on the balcony, hip to hip, being sad together.


Which I think is lovely. So, yeah, if that tickles your fancy, go read.

However, there were also some things ... maybe quite a lot of things ... that troubled me. I tried to talk about them with H the other morning, and he kind of gave me a funny look, and was like “So you’re saying the book would have been better if it ended with three kids killing themselves?” Which, uh, is not what I meant at all. However, I think when you explore issues like depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, there are complexities and implications, which are unavoidable. And I’m not sure if they’re reconcilable with the expectations of romance. And while there isn’t any sort of miraculous wang healing in Suicide Watch, there is definitely a sense of positive change and hope which, while absolutely necessary, seems just a little bit too neat at times.

Spoilers ho, me hearties. You’ve been warned.

For the record, I’m not particularly troubled by the neatness of the ending per se (and I’d prefer to believe that a couple has a chance, than be convinced they’re going to fall apart the moment I close the book) it just didn’t feel like the natural conclusion to all the ambiguities preceding it. In short, I felt Suicide Watch engaged with a lot of quite challenging ideas, and then quietly backed away from them, whistling and looking sheepish. For example, the novel opens with the hero witnessing a girl called Jessica jumping off a bridge. She tells him nobody will miss her, and for the bulk of the book, this seems to be true. But right at the end, they randomly discover a blog Jessica’s sister is keeping, which contains a lot of references to Jessica, and how much she is missed and loved. And while that’s, y’know, nice - it kind of … transformers her, well, her suicide into a Big Misunderstanding. And maybe that’s the point, but sometimes, the fact is, life sucks and you die, and nobody cares. And I think getting into an evaluative space when you’re dealing with suicide is ... unhelpful. Jessica’s perceptions were her reality, and she killed herself.

I often felt the book was on the verge of drifting into this uncomfortably evaluative space - even if just by implication (rather than direct intent). Essentially the main character, the hero, and their friend Casper all want to die at the beginning of Suicide Watch. Vince is anxious, depressed (in the clinical sense of both) convinced of his own inadequacy and general worthlessness. Adam is basically suffering a case of Cartoonishly Bad Mother, which is cured when he moves in with Vince. (I wouldn't be bothered by CBM but everyone else in the text is drawn with grace and nuance - it is perfectly possible to be a rubbish parent without also being Maleficient). Casper has cancer. Vince doesn’t end up trying to kill himself. Adam tries, but fails. Casper succeeds - not by jumping off the bridge in the presence of Vince and Adam, as they’d planned, but by morphine overdose. Now while I absolutely didn’t want any of these people to commit suicide (and I’m not trying to say the book would be better if they did), the problem here is that Suicide Watch essentially us presents us with various cases of suicidal ideation and various examples of suicide, and it’s hard not to read judgements and messages out of those situations.

So we have Jessica, who basically made a mistake because she thought people didn’t love her and wouldn’t her miss her, but they did and they do. We have Adam who is deeply, profoundly unhappy and attempts to kill himself as a way to give to voice to that (he is painfully shy, and rarely speaks towards the beginning the book, initially communicating with Vince only by song lyrics). Vince thinks about suicide a lot, and comes close, but essentially finds ways to manage his mental health and finds reasons to live. Casper is already dying. I know it probably sounds like I am creepily pro-suicide here, but I am essentially against making judgements about the whys and wherefores of other people’s decisions to end their lives. I mean, yes, it’s bloody tragic whichever you way you (no pun intended) cut it ... but dying of cancer is not a ‘more’ legit reason to kill yourself than being lost, miserable, or mentally ill. For some people, depression is as incurable as cancer.

On a similar theme, Vince’s decision to accept help, accept love and struggle on with life is basically centred on the rhetoric of trying. And that’s a really problematic word for me in the context of depression. Asking a depressive to ‘try’ is just about the cruellest thing you can say to them. And I was uncomfortable with the implication that wanting to kill yourself goes away if you just try hard enough. I know that for some people suicidal ideation is more about wanting pain and fear to go away, then actively wanting to die, so if you can find ways to lessen the pain (physical or emotional) living gets easier. But this is what I mean about the difficulties of evaluative spaces. While being loved, getting a job, having friends can absolutely make a difference, you can’t really get quantitative about someone else’s pain, and what is a reasonable quotient for a human to bear before it’s deemed acceptable for them to jump off bridges.

This is further complicated by the portrayal of the Suicide Watch forum itself - this is where Casper, Adam and Vince originally ‘meet’, but it has an exceptionally creepy admin who goes around being creepy in all the ways, before it turns out he’s actively criminal. While I’m sure this is a danger of pro-suicide forums, I felt the melodrama of it fitted awkwardly with the tone of the rest of the book, and ... honestly ... I have high regard for pro-suicide forums. While I think there are always inherent dangers associated with places where anonymous, vulnerable people congregate (online or off) there is so much stigma associated with suicide and suicidal ideation that I think contributing to it is just bad manners. Those places honestly save lives, by creating a safe space where people can tal
k about suicidal ideation without judgement or bringing distress to friends or loved ones. Feeling suicidal is inherently and overwhelmingly alienating - alleviating that is already one step towards making being alive bearable.

I should re-iterate that these are not problems with Suicide Watch per se. A lot of them are the inevitable consequences of engaging with a complicated, emotional subject. Props, in fact, just for doing that, and for doing it in a way I found genuinely thoughtful and sensitive a lot of the time.

I should also mention Casper, because I really liked her. I briefly thought she offered an answer to the vexed question of how to give women a meaningful role in m/m. The first half of Suicide Watch is basically all about the friendship of three lost people, and Casper is just as narratively important as Adam. By the second half she’s become awkwardly facilitate-y, pushing Vince and Adam together, and becoming part of the multi-directional friendship-love-support bonds that connect them.

And then she dies of cancer.

And then they get a dog.


Editorial Board

Editorial Board - Anastasia Vitsky The romp, I think, is a difficult genre as it has to be plausible enough for its implausibilities to slip unchallenged through the reader’s brain. Obviously this is entirely subjective, and based primarily on your personal level of engagement with the text. Editorial Board – a lighthearted lesbian spankfic involving a flighty author and her editor – only partially succeeded for me. Although I very much suspect mileage may vary.

Spring Meadows is a bestselling author working for what appears to be an extraordinarily small press. In response to her prima donna ways, and inability to hit a deadline, her publisher has hired a new editor for her, the cool and collected Rachel Templeton. Spring behaves incredibly unprofessionally, essentially involving them both in a power game, which Rachel finally concludes by repeated applications of the “Editorial Board” (i.e. a paddle) to Spring’s frankly entirely deserving arse. Spring’s developing disciplinarian relationship with Rachel helps her with various professional and personal issues, and while there’s no sex or a HEA type ending here, Spring definitely finishes the story in a more positive place than she began it.

Editorial Board is quite self-consciously ramped up to eleven. Nothing about it makes any real world sense at all: not how Spring managed to become a bestselling author working for a press that seems to employ only one human, not how she appears to be paid both a salary and royalties, not how she has a contract with her publisher despite the fact she hasn’t even produced a synopsis for the book she’s supposed to be writing, not her profoundly unprofessional behaviour regarding every single aspect of the publishing process, why she’s using Word on her Mac for heck’s sake, or the … y’know … spanking. But there’s an extent to which I don’t think it’s meant to make sense. It’s meant to be the context that allows for some spanky f/f fun, and it’s probably part of the reason I’m not the best reviewer for this kind of book because, while I’m sure most writers have felt spanked by the editor at some point, I spent too long going “hang on a second” instead of “oh, hee hee.”

Full review at the Prism Book Alliance.

Slow Surrender

Slow Surrender - Cecilia Tan I’m always really wary about reviews that begin with “I don’t like genre/subgenre [x]” like it’s a badge of honor. It inevitably leads to the reviewer making trite observations about what are probably quite sophisticated tropes, and winding up with a comment along the lines of “I’d have enjoyed this romance a lot if the central couple hadn’t got together at the end” or “This space opera would have been so much better if it hadn’t been set in space.”

Nevertheless, I feel I can’t really talk about Cecilia Tan’s Slow Surrender without first offering this bit of context: of all the subgenres of romance I’ve encountered, the one that appeals to me least is the one I think of as Billionaire & Human Female, books where the hero is some kind of tormented, maverick genius billionaire, and the heroine is, well, a human female, and often seems to have no distinctive features beyond this. Fifty Shades of Grey kind of typifies the subgenre for me. That said, this is entirely personal taste. There’s nothing wrong with B&HF, and, if it’s your kind of thing, then I suspect you’ve probably already read Slow Surrender. If not, you should. You’ll like it. See you later.

However, if B&HF is not your preferred subgenre then this review is for you, because you should read this book, too.

Full review o'er here.

Breaking Free

Breaking Free - Winter Page Originally reviewed for The Prism Book Alliance - full review o'er here.

This review contains spoilers.

Okay. Cards on the table. This will not be a positive review. As a reader, I know I am quite impatient with YA because it deals with issues and concepts which, as I wither into my thirties, become increasingly less relevant to me.

The thing is, though, I believe that good YA is written with conviction and respect for the people it concerns – people who are real, and whose choices and values and experiences (while they may not be mine) are genuinely valid. Weirdly, it’s one of the effective things about Twilight. As an adult, I might Bella’s find relationship with Edward cringeworthy and borderline abusive, but I don’t think this has anything to do with the fact she’s under twenty. While we may question Bella’s taste, and occasionally her mental health, she’s still just a person. She’s not a special type of person who is a teenager, and her love for Edward (while it may display hallmarks of immaturity to the rest of us) is always taken seriously by the text, and the author.

In Breaking Free, however, the main character, Raimi, constantly talks about her world as if she’s an alien in it. This might be a deliberate device to emphasise the way Raimi’s experiences have set her apart from her peers (she was home-schooled for two years, and has recently transitioned) but with my ungenerous hat on, it often reads like an adult who doesn’t have a lot of respect for teenagers stuffing that into the mouth of her – cough – teenage protagonist.

Sorry, I know this annoying but read the rest here.

The Silvers

The Silvers - Jill     Smith Originally reviewed for The Prism Book Alliance - full review o'er here.

Extra note: I GAVE IT ALL THE STARS. YOU SHOULD READ THIS.

A Silver’s heart drifts through its body, bumping softly against walls and other organs. Sometimes it’s illuminated, and you can see it beneath the bruised skin, floating along like a lantern underwater.


I’m going to start this review by saying simply: you should read this book. As in the right the heck now. Go.

While technically queer SF rather than m/m romance, The Silvers is sci-fi in the speculative, rather than sciency sense. It’s a story about otherworlds that is actually about inner worlds, and an exploration of some very human ideas: love and freedom, and the compromises we make for them. While the “introduction of an alien to teach us about ourselves, ah d’you see” is a common enough sfnal premise, The Silvers does it exceptionally well.

It’s partially the writing, which possesses a stark and devastating poetry, partially the fundamental nature of the themes themselves and the book's commitment to them, but also the unusual intimacy of its focus. For a story about the meeting of two alien cultures, it’s really only about one alien and one human, and they ways they change, ruin and save each other. It’s not in the conventional sense a romance, but it is a story about love (among other things). It’s also unflinchingly harsh and unflinchingly hopeful at the same time – my heart didn’t quite know what to do with itself while I was reading, though by the end I was simply celebrating that this book exists.

Magic Bites

Magic Bites - Ilona Andrews Full review o'er here.

Yay for H&H!

A Lady Awakened

A Lady Awakened - Cecilia Grant I read Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened not so much over Christmas as on Christmas, ignoring my partner’s family, the Queen’s speech, and even Toy Story 3 to finish reading it. Because it’s honestly that good. I think it’s unavoidable to make more of the things you read at the end of the year compared to the beginning, but A Lady Awakened simply has to stand has one of the most original, intriguing and tiny-mind-blowing books I read in 2013.

The book opens with the heroine, Martha Russell, childless, newly widowed and about to return to her brother’s home to live out the rest of her days as a quiet burden upon his family, a fate she has no choice but to resign herself to enduring. Her solicitor, however, encourages her to remain at her late husband’s estate until it is absolutely certain that no heir has been conceived. Martha knows that she isn’t pregnant, but she has her own commitments to Seaton Hall: specifically the servants and tenants, who rely on the family for their livelihood, and the building of a local school, to which she has given her support. She also learns that the man who stands to inherit is a dissolute character, who previously forced himself upon some of the women of the household. Realising that all these problems would be solved if she was pregnant, Martha strikes a deal with her new neighbour Theo Mirkwood, temporarily exiled from London for extravagance and general debauchery. They’ll have sex every day for a month, and Martha will pay him, “regardless of issue” to quote the lady directly.

What follows, I suppose, is a lovers-to-friends story, except they’re not really lovers because while their daily sexual engagements are...something. What they’re really aren’t is lover-like, much to Theo’s dismay. Martha is determined that the arrangement remain strictly business, and while the first half of the novel is this excrutiating awkward-off of unsexy sex it’s also completely fascinating to watch two people with completely irreconcilable worldviews, motivations and value systems clash, fail to understand each other, and then gradually, and subtly, begin to move through acceptance, and understanding to friendship and love. And to situate the most visible expression of all this emotional and intellectual development in the bedroom is unbelievably bold, clever and impressive. Ms. Grant, I totally take off all my hats.

Full review is over here at Heroes and Heartbreakers. Yay!
Petite Mort - Beatrice Hitchman

I feel like I should have liked this more than I did… I mean, I did enjoy it, I romped through it on a bus journey to London, but it hasn’t particularly stayed with me.

Also apparently we’re not meant to give spoilers, so I won’t – except it’s kind of blatantly obvious what’s going on, because it’s the only possible thing that could be going on. And while I wasn’t disappointed to learn that the only thing that could be going on was, in fact, going on – I think expecting the reader to have their tiny mind blown is pushing it.

And, apologies, if that sounds uncharitable but while the book pacey, intriguing and tightly plotted, I tend to find plot twists a bit less impactful when you get the sense that somebody is standing behind you going “omg, did you see mah plot twist.”

Anyway: the book kicks off in 1967 with a young reporter, Juliette Blanc, investigating the rediscovery of a silent movie from 1913 which was assumed lost in a studio fire. Enter Adele Roux, the lead actress of the piece, who slowly reveals to Juliette the history (and the shocking truth!) of the film, and the events that took place in 1913. Sex! Scandal! Cinema! Lesbianism! Betrayal! Yay!

It’s a very cinematic book, and employs a lot of narrative tricks, to deceive and dazzle the reader, splicing together timelines and viewpoints, and occasionally doubling back on itself to reveal, and conceal, different perspectives and pieces of information. It’s clever stuff, although it’s more intellectually than emotionally engaging. Adele’s journey from self-serving ambition to all-consuming love, particularly, I initially found a bit unconvincing, but then she is seventeen at the time so that probably goes some way to explain the slightly unfinished edge to her character. Well, that and The Thing. But, then, Andre’s journey from powerless to power to convenient balls-to-the-wall villainy was equally ragged. However, the fact that I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic to anyone wasn’t necessarily a problem, as I was sufficiently drawn in to keep reading regardless. 

In short, I think I admired the style of this, more than the substance, but I did admire the hell out of the style. Also I deeply loved the portrayal of pre-WWI Paris in all its cruelty and decadence.

The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London - Hannah Greig

So this is … um, scholarly, which is not remotely a complaint but I might have been slightly dazzled by the waistcoat on the front. I think I'm used to slightly more personalised accounts of history, but Greig (for perfectly sensible reasons) has chosen to eschew this in favour of something closer to ethnography. Essentially, this an exploration of the quite self-conscious creation, and maintenance, of a privileged elite, and its intersections with fashion, politics and economics.

 

While Greig judiciously avoids relevancy-hunting, and views with suspicion easy correspondences between Georgian high society and modern day celebrity culture, she nevertheless paints a picture of what is essentially a quite deliberate re-branding exercise on the part of the aristocracy.

 

It's, honestly, pretty fascinating stuff, and Grieg writes engagingly, drawing from an interesting selection of letters, diaries, memorandum books and accounting records. The chapters I found most interesting where the ones that focused on politics, the role of women, and social exiles (which includes some pretty exciting tales of Georgian conmen).

 

What The Beau Monde it isn't, however, is sex, and scandal, and Georgians behaving badly. Which tends to be what I'm looking for in a history book.

 

Also Grieg's relationship with the term 'beau monde' seems peculiarly troubled - there's a little essay on the origin and development of term at the back of the book, which struck me a slightly artificial and unhelpful attempt to isolate language from culture. Particularly strange in a book that is all about the development, and the power, of culture.

Heart of Steel (A Novel of the Iron Seas)

Heart of Steel -  Meljean Brook Full review over at Heroes & Heartbreakers heeeeeere.

SKY PIRATES!

The Mistress Deception (Presents)

The Mistress Deception - Susan Napier Yep, still talking about Susan Napier over at H&H.

Mistress Of The Groom (Scandals!) (Harlequin Presents)

Mistress Of The Groom (Scandals!) (Harlequin Presents) - Susan Napier Full review here.

*jumps through the air, firing two guns*

Something About You (Berkley Sensation)

Something About You - Julie James Here is the full review, over at Heroes & Heartbreakers (yay).

Slave to Sensation (Psy-Changelings, Book 1)

Slave to Sensation - Nalini Singh Review here, now with added disclaimer.

Suddenly You (Harlequin Super Romance)

Suddenly You - Sarah Mayberry Review and, err discussion, here.

Naked in Death

Naked in Death - J.D. Robb Review in the usual place o'er here