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Kate McMurray

Sunita’s m/m reads for spring and summer 2013

Sunita’s m/m reads for spring and summer 2013

I haven’t stopped reading gay fiction, but I find myself reading fewer and fewer m/m stories these days, especially compared to the amount I used to read. I’m continuing with the Brandstetter series, as well as with Michael Nava’s Henry Rios mysteries, and I’ve picked up recent and not-so-recent mainstream and literary novels with romance subplots. But the direction that so much of m/m romance has taken lately isn’t working for me. I’ll keep reading my favorite authors, though, and I’d love to have recommendations for more of the same.

 

Demolished by Astrid Amara

cover   I’m a fan of Amara’s other books (especially her contribution to the Irregulars anthology and Carol of the Bellskis) so I picked up this contemporary. The characters are as likeable and amusing as ever. The book features two characters who are in college, so it might be considered NA; it’s not about their coming of age, per se, but it is somewhat about them finding themselves and figuring out the future. Calvin and Felix are out, gay men in their early 20s, living in Bellingham, Washington. They meet on a Grindr-like sex/hookup website, but when they make a face-to-face appointment they discover they knew each other in high school, and Calvin has hated Felix since their senior year.  So much for the fantasy hookup, but fairly quickly Felix is able to show Calvin that he was operating under mistaken assumptions, and they begin a tentative relationship. At the same time, Calvin is finishing college and trying to figure out what is going on with his nephew, Robby, who is also gay and has changed from a happy-go-lucky high school student to someone with a secret that’s making him unhappy and volatile. This sets up a mystery that propels the plot and involves Calvin, Felix, and various other family and friends. I really liked the relationships and the voice, but the romance took a back seat to the mystery, the mystery wasn’t all that mysterious, and the villain was a stereotype. Most problematically for me, though, the story felt as if it was as much a cautionary tale as a contemporary romance, so the whole thing never came together for me. Grade: B-/C+

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See the Light by Cassandra Carr

coverI picked this up because I’m always looking for sports romances and I like hockey. But what a disappointment it turned out to be. Nominally, the story is about Jason, a young NHL hockey star, and Patrick, a retired player turned coach, who are brought together on the US hockey team as it prepares for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, there is almost no time in the book that is spent on the game or on hockey relationships. Jason and Patrick lust after each other like obsessed teenagers, meet clandestinely to have sex, and masturbate a lot. There is also an obsession with topping/bottoming and whether or not the newbie gay guy will be willing to bottom. I didn’t find the sex scenes particularly sexy, which is a shame because there are a lot of sex scenes, and it’s a hockey book with very little about what makes hockey and hockey players fun to follow (except for endless discussions of their fab bodies), The storyline sets up scenes at the Winter Olympics, but when we finally get there, the hockey disappears in favor of the drama. Before that, Jason and Patrick agonize over being separated, because apparently the 90 miles tht separate Newark from Philadelphia create such a difficult commute during the season that getting together is a major hassle. There is a big reveal after the Terrible Event That Shows Us What Really Matters and then boom, no follow up, the book just ends. And while the athletes are closeted for most of the book and worried about being outed, when they do finally come out, there’s very little reaction. There’s better fanfiction out there, for free, if you want to read hockey slash.  Grade: D

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By Chance by Cat Grant

coverThis is the first installment in Grant’s Courtland Chronicles series. It’s another college-set romance, this time featuring an outgoing jock and an introverted rich kid. The  The novella starts out strongly with a clever hook and immediately relatable characters. Grant presents a believable, accurate picture of Columbia University and college life; nothing feels “off,”and I’m a tough critic since I once knew the place very well.  The writing is smooth and the main characters feel like individuals rather than cookie-cutter products. Eric Courtland, the introverted rich kid, is refreshingly prickly and difficult to warm to, and he doesn’t completely lose that quality even when we get to know him better. Nick Thompson, the outgoing jock, conforms to some jock stereotypes and contradicts others, and their circle of friends are similarly individual.
The strong first half loses steam in the second half; there’s plenty of action and conflict but it feels less organic, more told than shown. Unlike a lot of NA or NA-type books right now, it doesn’t have the emotional wallop of traumas and crises that epitomize that period of one’s life.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this first book enough that I’ve put the next one on my TBR. Reader warning, though: a later installment introduces a woman character, so if you like your m/m to stay m/m, you might not want to plan to read beyond this, which is chronologically the first book and has an HFN resolution. Grade: B-

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Blood Red Butterfly by Josh Lanyon

coverToward the end of his sabbatical last year, Josh Lanyon released this manga-influenced detective novel. Detective Ryo Miller is investigating a homicide and unraveling the role of manga artist Kai Tashiro is essential to solving it. The mystery isn’t who did it but rather how the killer got away with it since no other credible suspects are put forward. Both the characters and the writing style are less coolly depicted than in other Lanyon mysteries, the overall mood is more emotional in the style that some manga is emotional, and the words evoke the drawings (I was frequently seeing manga panels in my head as I was reading). Both Ryo and Kai are alluring as characters, and the setting is vivid and engrossing. I want to stress that I can’t speak to the authenticity of the manga representation, because while I’ve read a number of stories I’m definitely an ignorant consumer of the medium. It felt like a particular type of manga, not just BL but one of the less complex versions. The ending is a bit ambiguous and very abrupt (even for a Lanyon novel). I’m still not entirely sure how the deception and murder took place, and if it happened the way I think it did I don’t entirely buy it. The novella doesn’t really work, in the end, but it made me think, and I enjoyed watching an autobuy author try an experiment out of his comfort zone. Grade: B-

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Save the Date by Kate McMurray

coverEven when McMurray’s books don’t entirely work for me, I like the voice and the characters, so I picked this novella up. It’s a very simple story: Tristan needs date for ex-boyfriend Stuart’s Formal Gay Wedding and serendipitously discovers that his supposedly straight good friend Darren is not only gay but has had a crush on him for a while. They get together but of course the path of friends-to-lovers doesn’t run smoothly, friends and family react in supportive and not-so-supportive ways, but eventually they work through it, with time out for angst over past loves, weddings, permanent relationships, and football. So yes, it’s predictable in its plot and characterizations, but the writing is relaxed and smooth, the narrator is appealing, and the supporting cast is slightly clichéd but generally well depicted. And yet I ended the story frustrated, because I am convinced that McMurray has a really good, maybe even great, novel in her, and this isn’t it. It’s a slice of life, an episode in a larger, potentially more interesting story. I want the whole package. So I’ll undoubtedly keep reading this author, waiting for the book that hits it out of the park. Grade: B-/C+

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REVIEW:  Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

REVIEW: Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

Dear Ms. McMurray.

I picked up your book because of a recommendation by someone whose taste I trust and because I liked the excerpt. The story was cute, but the flaws outweighed the cuteness for me.

OutintheFieldCoverThis is a book about Being a Gay Athlete. This was NOT a romance. Oh, it had a love story in it and the love story had an HEA, but that HEA was never threatened. There was no barrier, no conflict, no tension integral TO the love story. The barrier/conflict/tension was all located in the Being a Gay Athlete story.

First up: I know nothing about baseball. Nothing. I actively dislike baseball, in fact. So I mostly skimmed details about the games. I’ve invited Sunita to comment on those aspects of the story in particular (but also on whatever else she wants to say).

The story is thus: Matt Blanco is a Hall-of-Fame worthy first baseman with the Brooklyn Eagles in his fourteenth season. His knee hurts, a lot. And he’s very very closeted. Ignacio Rodriguez is the Hot New Thing who has just been traded to the Eagles as their new third baseman. Matt might be fifteen years older than Iggy, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t appreciate precisely how hot Iggy actually is. There’s a little bit of lust for a chapter, then they both figure out the other’s gay in chapter 2. Which seemed a bit quick to me. Then they quickly get together.

The book takes place over four years and includes Matt’s coming out post-retirement and Iggy’s while still playing. Like Sunita (see below), I thought both of those were well done (except in that Matt wrote a book and the day before the book released in stores was when he came out for the first time. I just don’t believe that the secret would have been kept to that point). I like that the book doesn’t try to schmoosh everything into one season. I like that a lot.

However, I was frustrated by many things in this book. The “gee, shucks, little ole me?” stuff from both men got old pretty quickly. Both of them have obscene amounts of money and obscene endorsement contracts, and they just “want to play ball”:

Iggy rubbed his head. “This was easier when the hardest decision I had to make was whether or not I’d pose holding a bat in my baseball card photo.”

“I know, but these are all excellent opportunities. You’ll gain more visibility with fans, which puts more of those fans in the stadium, which gets you more favorable treatment from the Eagles front office. Everything is linked.”

“With money.”

Chris scoffed. “Don’t be like that. It’s part of the game, Ig. You signed your name on that contract knowing that.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m really grateful for all this. It’s just completely overwhelming.” Although, now that he’d said it, he wasn’t sure “grateful” was really the right word. He supposed he was happy enough that people wanted to give him money. And really, if having too much money was his only problem, he was happy to take it.

“You’re kind of a sex symbol, you know,” Chris said. “You could be cultivating your female fans.”

Iggy sighed. “Is it a cliché to say I just want to play baseball?”

Yes, in fact, it really really is. And just seemed utterly disingenuous to me, on the writer’s part, not on Iggy’s. The character has to be sympathetic, so god forbid he actually be money-aware. Just easier to make his aw-shucks-y instead.

The telling, not showing was most frustrating for me, though. At one point, Matt’s knee gives out on him during sex. The next day, he’s thinking about it:

 Matt still regretted having to put the brakes on their session the night before, but it couldn’t have been helped. He was embarrassed, too, that Iggy now knew about the knee. He hadn’t wanted Iggy to know, hadn’t wanted to lose face in front of him. He’d wanted to be a whole man for Iggy, a strong man. He wanted to live up to the image Iggy had worshipped for years. But now Iggy had seen his weakness. [ . . . ] Matt dug his sneakers out of his locker and eavesdropped on the conversations around him. A few more players trickled in and roamed around, some idly talking about plans for the evening. Matt mostly wanted to go home and ice his knee. And, he found, he wanted Iggy to come with him. Not even for sex—Matt didn’t think he could make his knee work well enough for that anyway—but just to hang out and talk with. The cat was really out of the bag now. It was kind of a relief not to have to pretend with Iggy that everything was hunky-dory.

Really? This could have been…so much better done. This was rarely hinted at in the lead-up to the scene, and it could have been a site for serious tension between Iggy and Matt until Iggy assured Matt that of course he cared that Matt was injured, but only in so far as he wanted to be able to help and support him…or something similar. Instead, it’s a throwaway couple of paragraphs and then ignored.

And then there’s the fact that the whole thing was about Being a Gay Athlete. EVERYTHING had to do with this. Every scene, every tension, every decision, every discussion, every plot point, almost every sex scene, it seemed. It got tiring and a bit boring. But if readers like that sort of this, then this is the book for them.

If I were to compare this book to anything, it’d be Amy Lane’s The Locker Room (basketball, not baseball), but I think that book did a much better job of making the tension of being closeted into something that almost tears the heroes apart. This book tries to, but doesn’t quite get there.

One thing I will say, boy, you can write great sex scenes. The writing soared during the sex:

Iggy dug his fingers into Matt’s back. Matt thrust his hips forward, and their cocks rubbed together. God. God. Goose bumps broke out everywhere, and Matt groaned, his heart rate and anticipation mounting. He knew sweet release would come disastrously fast, but he didn’t care much. This was so damn good, and Iggy seemed to be right there with him, grunting and biting now.

Except for the unnecessary “sweet” here, I loved this scene. Most of the sex was very well done.

Overall, this book could have been so much better. The characters themselves were great. I really enjoyed watching them have dates together, to be honest, when they were just talking. But the book as a whole never really gelled for me, mainly because I could see the potential there and was frustrated with what was should have been there, rather than with what existed.

Grade: C

 

Sunita: This book is a great example of how two readers can see entirely different things in a story. My grade is not that different from Sarah’s, but for very different reasons, and I would recommend this book for certain readers.

First, the baseball. I know the author is a big baseball fan (she talks about it in the front matter of this book, among other places), and so I was looking forward to a romance that got the sports right. In some parts she succeeds, but in others, not so much. The camaraderie of professional athletes is really well done. I enjoyed the locker room scenes with the other members of the team, and a later scene in the hospital was just terrific, in part because the author took it in a totally different direction than I expected. But I had two gripes about other aspects, as well as a third I share with Sarah. The shared gripe is that their salaries are barely mentioned. These dudes are really rich. We all know what star athletes get paid, and even the MLB minimum is nothing to sneeze at. So can we please not pretend that they’re anything other than totally loaded? Make it something Iggy is getting used to, but don’t treat it as unimportant.

My big complaint is that the protagonists don’t seem to concentrate very much when they’re in a game, or in the late season and playoffs. They wind up in the ALCS, but they’re thinking about their romance. When they walk up to the plate, they’re thinking about each other or something related. When they’re in the field, they’re making eyes at each other. Really? Once in a while, okay. But it happens over and over again. It really detracted from the verisimilitude of some of the scenes. Pro athletes spend their entire lives preparing to get to the top. That takes a very high level of focus and compartmentalization (for most of them).

My small complaint is that the strategy within the games, which is sometimes important for the plot, sometimes doesn’t make sense. When Matt hurts his knee, it’s when he breaks from third to home. On an infield popup with one out. That kind of boneheaded running play would get you chewed out in Little League, let alone MLB. And there are other descriptions of play that had me shaking my head. It’s tough to satisfy both baseball aficionados and those who don’t care, and mostly the author does a good job. Perhaps because of that, the little things stood out.

OK, the romance. Unlike Sarah, I definitely thought this was a genre romance. Maybe it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been, but I saw both internal and external conflicts. The problems of being a gay athlete are analogous to external conflicts in historical romances, e.g., class, race, religion, and another similarity is the way in which external issues create internal conflicts to be resolved.

One of the reasons sports settings work so well in m/m is that the closet is a requirement, not an option, in most (male) professional team sports. The fear of being discovered, the fear of your teammates turning on you, all that is very real and ever-present. And I thought the age difference and the fact that they were at opposite ends of their careers made for an interesting internal conflict, giving it a Star Is Born quality. The internal conflict wasn’t as well developed as it could have been, and I would have liked to see more of Matt’s post-baseball issues and how they affected the couple. I did think the two big coming-out scenes were really well done. I’ve read two earlier books by this author, I felt these scenes were far better integrated here.

Matt and Iggy were thoroughly appealing characters, which again is a feature of this author’s books (I have liked every one of her main characters). They could have been a little less loveable, to be honest. And a couple of the supporting characters verged on stereotypes (please, authors, middle-aged mothers do not have to be From Hell or From Heaven).

I can see why so many readers loved this book. Once I got over my baseball-related niggles and there were more interactions with the other baseball team members, I quite enjoyed the story.

Grade: B-

~SarahF

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