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J.L. Merrow

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: Muscling Through by J.L. Merrow

REVIEW: Muscling Through by J.L. Merrow

Dear Ms. Merrow.

I only read this story because your name was on it. I had a truly horrendous experience once reading a story with a not-smart protagonist (it was a BDSM story and the relationship ended up as true abuse and was awful. I was depressed for days that anyone would consider that “love”), but I figured if anyone could pull it off, it would be you. I trust your voice. I trust you as an author. And I was right: you were brilliant. As always.

MusclingThrough JL MorrowAl is huge and ugly and really not at all smart. And he really isn’t. It’s not that everyone thinks he’s stupid but he’s really secretly smart. He’s really stupid. He meets Larry in a dark alley one night. Al’s pissing away his beer, finishes up, walks toward Larry, and Larry thinks Al’s going to mug or rape him. But Al is oblivious and “helps” Larry home because he thinks Larry’s a bit drunk. Larry comes to Al’s work the next day to apologize and they hit it off. Larry is an Art History professor at Cambridge. Al works on the river, hauling in the punts rented to tourists and students.

The story is told from Al’s first person perspective, complete with lower class grammar and accent. There’s very little narrative tension: Larry and Al get together immediately, move in together pretty quickly. There’s a chapter in the middle where Larry thinks Al’s cheating on him, but it’s dealt with pretty quickly. The story then follows them through their quite uneventful life, their engagement and civil union ceremony.

If there’s tension, it’s in figuring out what keeps Larry and Al together. What does Larry, a college professor, see in Al, a manual laborer, to keep them together, and will it last? The whole book, therefore, is based on a sort of schadenfreude. Not quite the shameful pleasure in the misfortune of others, but an embarrassing understanding of our own assumptions about whether a man like Al could truly be loved by a man like Larry. There’s a lovely scene where Larry’s sister is helping them back together after Larry thinks he sees Al cheating on him. Al had overheard Alicia talking with Larry in a previous scene and thinks Alicia believes that he’s taking advantage of Larry:

We got in Alicia’s car. It was a Volkswagen Golf. I fitted in easy, once I’d put the seat back a bit. It took a while to get out of Cambridge, ’cause of the one-way system, and then we went down towards Trumpington.

“Don’t talk much, do you?” Alicia said.

“Nah. I leave that to Larry. He’s better at it than I am.”

She just smiled then and didn’t say nothing. I got thinking again. I wasn’t sure what she wanted to happen, ’cause she was being nice, but I knew she didn’t like me. “You don’t like me, do you?” I said.

“What? Excuse me, but here I am, driving you up to my parents’ to meet him. You think I’d do this for someone I didn’t like?”

That confused me. “I thought you wanted us to split up. You said I was taking advantage of Larry.” I forgot she didn’t know I’d heard her when she was talking to Larry in our kitchen.

“What? Wait a minute.” She didn’t say nothing for a bit while she went round a roundabout. “I think you’ve misunderstood me.”

I nodded, ’cause I do that all the time with people.

“I admit, I didn’t think it was a good idea at first, you and Lawrence. But… Look, I think you make him happy. And he’s certainly not happy now. And I don’t think you are either.”

I frowned, ’cause did that mean she thought we’d split up? And if we had, how come I didn’t know? Then I thought, I better wait until I see Larry. He’s good at explaining stuff. And he’d definitely know if we’d split up

Of course, Alicia had been yelling at Larry about taking advantage of Al’s stupidity, not the other way around. And we can see that as readers even if Al will never really understand it. Or even need to understand it.

This does bring up the fact that Larry is a bit of a prick at times. He really does love Al, but he also uses him for shock value:

Larry was in a good mood when we left. “God, did you see their faces? The entire evening? Especially Hardwicke. I don’t think he’s been so shocked since the college started admitting women!”

“Yeah, I’ve had other blokes who went out with me so they could shock their mates or their folks,” I said, ’cause it was true.

Larry stopped dead in the street, and I wondered if he’d had too much of that port to drink. And then I thought, nah, no way, the glasses were so tiny you’d need about a hundred to get pissed. Though he is kind of little and he gets pissed easy. “Al,” he said, “you know that’s not why I’m with you, don’t you?”

“I don’t know why you’re with me,” I said, ’cause I didn’t.

He looked hurt. “Why are you with me?”

That was easy. “Because you’re pretty and you’re clever and you know about paintings and you like Charlie Chaplin.”

Larry gave me a big smile. He grabbed my arm and we carried on walking. “Well, then. I’m with you because you’re gorgeous and kind and we have the same taste in comedy.”

“Okay.” I was pleased. Usually people can’t think of more than one reason why they’re with me. I know he didn’t mean it about me being gorgeous, ’cause I got a face like a squashed potato, and I know he likes cleverer stuff than Charlie Chaplin, but it was sweet of him to say it.

But in the end I believed in these two. I believed in the inherent goodness of Al and in Larry’s need for that in his life. I believed that they loved each other and they’d stay together, despite their differences.

The one thing that was fascinating to me was that the sex — and there was a lot of it — was not, in fact, hot. As everything was told from Al’s point of view, it was told in his very no nonsense voice. And as a result, just wasn’t sexy to me. I don’t know what DOES make a sex scene hot, but one told in Al’s voice isn’t it:

Larry always looks so little, folded up beneath me. It makes me kind of scared I’m going to hurt him. I pushed in really slow and gentle, so he could stop me if he needed to. “Yes, yes—don’t stop!” he said, and I thought it was probably okay. He was still hard, so I guess it couldn’t have hurt that much.

When I was all the way in, I stopped for a minute, just so I could feel him around me. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. But then Larry said, “Move! Now, for God’s sake!” so I started thrusting in and out of him, and when I do that, I always get carried away, going faster even if I don’t mean to, and soon I was slamming into him like my dick was a fist and Larry was a punch bag. “Yes! God, just like—yes!”

Larry’s face was all pink, and his hair was dark with sweat. He looked beautiful. I told him to wank himself off, and when his hand wrapped round his dick, it felt like it was around mine too, and I couldn’t help, I started coming ’cause it was all so fucking amazing. And then Larry went “Oh God!” and he was coming too, shooting his load up between us.

I just kept looking at his face, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

Sweet maybe, but not sexy.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book. I loved, as I always do, the utter Englishness of your voice. I loved your characters, even when Larry was being a prick. And I thought it was a really sweet love story that asked some deep questions without seeming to do so.

Grade: B

Best regards,
-Sarah

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