Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Sarah Frantz

http://iaspr.org

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

Posts by Sarah Frantz:

REVIEW: Wight Mischief by J.L. Merrow

REVIEW: Wight Mischief by J.L. Merrow

Dear Ms. Merrow.

It’s no secret that I love your very British voice, your brilliant characters, all completely different from each other, and your wonderful stories. So I was excited to see you had another story out. And part of me thinks this one is different from your others, but then, I don’t think you really have a “style” or a theme you keep coming back to, or a particular way of writing.

Wight Mischief by J.L. MerrowThis book is a Gothic romance. It’s a contemporary-set m/m Gothic with some fascinating twists, but it felt to me like the characters were being pushed to act in or even to BE certain ways in order to fulfill the Gothic conventions and requirements. The characters were true to themselves, don’t get me wrong. They don’t act out of character at all — I think you’re too good an author for that. It’s just that their personalities are constructed to fill a particular role in the novel, rather than constructed organically.

Will Golding is visiting his old summer vacation place, the Isle of Wight, with his best friend Edward Barrie, or Baz. They’re there because Baz, a journalist, is supposedly researching a book about ghosts on the island. Except he’s not really. What he’s really researching is a notorious, decades-old murder/suicide, but he doesn’t tell Will that. Will is a personal trainer in London and he’s had a crush on Baz for years. They’re friends with very occasional benefits (almost entirely Will blowing Baz and Baz reciprocating with a handjob). Will knows he’ll never get more but was looking forward to the week with Baz nonetheless. So he’s pretty ticked off when Baz immediately takes up with a woman at the campsite they’re at.

The first night on the island, Will sees a “ghost” swimming in the ocean. He realizes later, when Baz interviews him, that his “ghost” was really horror writer Marcus Devereux, owner of the local “house on the hill.” Will thought Marcus was a “ghost” because Marcus has albinism, which means he doesn’t go out during the day because it’s too bright for his eyes…but also because he suffers from severe social anxiety. Marcus is also kept virtual prisoner by his guardian, Leif, who is very overbearing, even when he’s not there, keeping Marcus psychologically isolated.

The problem with the story is that Baz is an asshole, Will’s a bit thick, and Marcus is a shrinking violet who can’t stand up to his overbearing guardian. I liked Will and Marcus when they were fumbling their ways to each other. Suffering from social anxiety as he does, Marcus isn’t very good with people. So he attempts to reconstruct a scene he had with Will:

But while he was supposed to be writing about scary things happening, all he could think about was Will. He kept turning the evening’s conversation over in his mind. Had he behaved reasonably? Damn it. Pretend this was a scene in a book. A conversation between two characters. Call them…call them Martin and Bill. How would one expect the reader to react to Martin’s behavior?

Marcus started to type.

Scene: Bill has just helped Martin, in manner of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (is this foreshadowing? Might Bill turn out to be Willoughby-type rogue and/or cad?)

Martin: Thanks for helping me. Why don’t you come in for a drink?

Bill: Thanks, I will.

Martin: *Leaps upon Bill and sexually harasses him*

Bill: Why don’t we get to know each other first? *Performs highly competent First Aid* Oh, and I think you should know my friend has been asking strange questions about you.

Martin: *In manner of outraged maiden aunt* Get out of my house and never darken my door again.

Oh God. Oh God Oh God Oh God. Marcus wanted to pull a cushion over his face. Maybe he’d suffocate and die and not have to live with this excruciating embarrassment… He’d been an idiot. Will must think…Oh God, Marcus did not want to dwell on what Will must think of him.

Marcus and Will together are sweet, endearing, and funny. Will is utterly unable not to be perfectly forthright. If something’s bothering, he comes right out with it. Marcus is trying to figure out how to have a relationship. Will thinks Marcus is beautiful, Marcus loves how safe he feels with Will. They’re great together and I enjoyed those parts of the book.

But Baz is too much of an asshole and Will too much of an idiot when he deals with his friend, and Marcus too tentative with his guardian for me to enjoy the whole story. And there was too much mystery-type sleuthing of Baz and Will interviewing people all over the island about Marcus’s story. This is very well done, in fact — Marcus would never tell Will about the story, because he’s too private. He doesn’t have to break character for us to get the story, and that’s great. But it doesn’t really forward the relationship at all. Or tell us much else about Marcus’s and Will’s characters, besides the fact that Will is a bit too stupid to figure out what Baz is doing, which was just annoying.

And then the murder attempts start and it all just gets in the way of Will and Marcus together and I didn’t much care for it all. I still loved the two main characters, but I personally don’t like mysteries — go out of my way to avoid them — and this felt too much like a mystery to me. So if readers like mystery that’s more like suspense, actually, with a lot of Gothic thrown in, with their romance, they’ll probably jump all over this. I…don’t. But that’s me.

Grade: B-

Best regards,
-Sarah

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REVIEW: Hot Head by Damon Suede

REVIEW: Hot Head by Damon Suede

Dear Mr. Suede.

When Hot Head first came out, I heard good buzz about it, read the blurb, and refused to read anymore. I didn’t even read the excerpt because the blurb sounded so ridiculous:

Since 9/11, Brooklyn firefighter Griff Muir has wrestled with impossible feelings for his best friend and partner at Ladder 181, Dante Anastagio. Unfortunately, Dante is strictly a ladies’ man, and the FDNY isn’t exactly gay-friendly. For ten years, Griff has hidden his heart in a half-life of public heroics and private anguish.

Hot Head Damon SuedeGriff’s caution and Dante’s cockiness make them an unbeatable team. To protect his buddy, there’s nothing Griff wouldn’t do…until a nearly bankrupt Dante proposes the worst possible solution: HotHead.com, a gay porn website where uniformed hunks get down and dirty. And Dante wants them to appear there — together. Griff may have to guard his heart and live out his darkest fantasies on camera. Can he rescue the man he loves without wrecking their careers, their families, or their friendship?

Yes, let’s keep our secret…by doing online porn. Because we’ll never get found out that way, right? And FDNY Gay For You? Just…no. Too ridiculous for me.

But I kept hearing about how good it was from people I trusted, whose tastes match up with mine. And then Heidi Cullinan told me to get off my ass and read it. So I did. And OMG, it was so SO good.

While reading it, I kept flashing back to Evangeline Anderson’s The Assignment, in which two ostensibly straight, but really really close, police partners take an assignment to go undercover to a gay vacation resort owned by, I think, a mob boss (drug runner?). There, in order to maintain their cover, they’re forced into doing more and more sexual acts, almost all of them in front of others. Their sexual encounters, of course, just fuel the perspective character’s unrequited love for his partner. While The Assignment was much more utterly ridiculous (and WHY was it set in the early 1980s, I ask you?), Hot Head had a similar feel to it. Griff loves Dante but has no way or hope of ever telling Dante, so he suffers in unrequited silence with a mighty case of blueballs. Dante secretly loves Griff too and figures out a way to feel out whether Griff is interested by working for the HotHead.com website. He pushes them further and further in their sexual encounters in front of other people, finally breaking down the barriers of heteronormativity keeping them apart so that they can admit their love for each other.

The thing that really worked for me about Hot Head, though, is that Griff, from whose perspective the whole story is told, embraces not only his attraction for Dante, but quickly identifies as gay. He’s not gay for Dante. He’s gay and it’s his attraction to and love for Dante that allows him finally to realize it. He even thinks at one point:

Well, maybe that was the real solution. Maybe if Griff didn’t confess his feelings for his friend to his friend. Maybe he could just float the idea that he might like dudes, yes, like-like. But what if that changed things between them? What if Dante laughed and winked and offered to get him a discount on a HotHead membership? What if Dante felt weird around him after that?

He felt trapped.

Right. The thing to do was to try and get over Dante. He needed to find another guy and get used to the gay thing and move on. Fairytales were bullshit. Happy endings were for suckers. People didn’t love each other forever.

The boys find their way to each other through sex — they use it as an excuse to be able to touch each other, feel each other out both literally and metaphorically. But the absolutely hottest scene in the whole book was the first time Griff watched Dante’s jack-off scene at HotHead.com. It was unbelievably sexy to watch one guy watching the object of his unrequited lust and love masturbate.

One niggle I had: do jack-off websites REALLY pay that much for their models, no matter what their models do? Kink.com, for example, doesn’t pay nearly what HotHead.com apparently paid (NSFW link), and that’s much more hardcore than the mutual masturbation and blowjobs Griff and Dante did for HotHead.com. (Why, yes, I know way too much about this, NOT because I’m interested in modeling — like they’d take me, ha! — but because I tend to click on every link at a website from OCD researcher compulsion.) Anyway…

I loved these characters. They’re so different from each other and fit together so well. I loved the writing. It’s very visual and very understated. I know from your bio that you’ve written for TV and film for years and whether knowing that affected my reading of the book, or whether I would have thought that anyway, I don’t know, but it did feel very cinemagraphic in places, very visually focused, allowing facial expressions to set a scene or answer a question, rather than having the characters actually come out and SAY what they needed to say. This cinemagraphic focus, however, was also occasionally a problem in that you used weird sounds a lot. When the characters are having sex, lines like “Ungh. Unghh. Mmmph. Fuck.” and “Ungh. Ungghh. Aww!” are just ridiculous, not sexy. Either have the characters babble in real language or describe the sounds, but this seemed silly to me.

Overall, though, I can’t WAIT for the sequel. I can’t wait to see the fallout of Griff and Dante coming out to the firehouse and to Griff’s father. I can’t wait for the story of secondary character Tommy. I loved the community Griff and Dante gathered around themselves at the end: family and friends, gay and straight. This is a deeply character-driven book with a silly premise that gets worked out brilliantly.

Grade: B+ and a Recommended Read

Best regards,
-Sarah

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