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Lenore Black

REVIEW: Lenore Black’s oeuvre (doesn’t that sound smart? :)

REVIEW: Lenore Black’s oeuvre (doesn’t that sound smart? :)

Dear Ms. Black.

I reviewed a short story of yours in my review of Sindusty I from Dreamspinner Press. It was one of my two favorites of the anthology. I had this to say about it: “I adored this sweet little story. Patrick is a video game designer, working the final kinks out of a game weeks before release. He's not perfectly sculpted and toned-’he's a dork and kind of soft around the edges. His friends buy him a prostitute for his birthday, just so he'll get laid. But Jack keeps coming back, "the gift that keeps on giving." The connection between the characters, the fun they have and the affection between them makes this a gem of a story. Grade: A-

Rules Were MadeBut I didn’t realize I’d already read a story of yours when I dove into the short (70 pages) “Rules Were Meant to be Broken” from Dreamspinner. I chose it because it’s labeled a BDSM romance and while I think that’s a gross mislabeling (one-time use of handcuffs does NOT make a BDSM romance), I certainly don’t hold that against you because the story was just wonderfully fresh. Aaron has lusted after his best friend for 15 years and has an elaborate set of rules he follows so that Dale doesn’t find out:

“In fact, he'd devised a "Big List of Rules For Hiding That You're In Love With Your Best Friend" just for this purpose. Rule #4 was: seeing the guy really shouldn't make your heart beat faster, so just pretend it doesn't.”

Rule #9 said: you're not supposed to be jealous of the girls who sleep with your best friend. It was always the hardest rule to follow.

It was hard for me to warm up to Dale. He’s a no-good layabout with no job, no ambition, and indiscriminate taste in women…and apparently in men, too, as Aaron finds out later. It’s that indiscriminate taste that is the cause of him calling Aaron at 3am one morning so Aaron can help him out of the handcuffs one of his bar pickups left him in attached to the bed before she stole his wallet. And Aaron’s reaction to being that close to Dale while he’s freeing him makes Dale realize how much Aaron wants him and Dale acts on that realization. However, by the end of the book I loved Dale and I adored Aaron the whole way through. I loved the quirky secondary characters and the obvious deep friendship between the men, even before the grow biblically closer. But most of all, I loved your voice. The “in love with my best friend for year and YEARS” storyline is trite and can be awful, but you pwned it so beautifully, with such a freshness, I loved the story. Grade: Another A-

Then I moved to “Ganymede,” a short story in the I Do Too anthology by MLR Press (review of the whole anthology forthcoming). This story is incredibly different from the other two of yours I’ve read. If asked, I would have said they had different authors. But again, your voice shines through, even though it’s so different in the other two stories. An American vinter goes to Italy to drop in unannounced on a legendary but retired Italian wine-maker who is experimenting with non-technological ways of making wine, in order to become the Italian’s student — acolyte, even. The story is told in present tense, which threw me, but the language is evocative and exciting, and the characters are brilliantly detailed snapshots of two deeply imagined, beautifully written men. I think the relationship happens a little too quickly, but the lushness of your language and the richly layered characterization and motivation mostly make up for that. I also loved that these men were both (?) older. Certainly the Italian was over 60 probably. The story is just…different, but in such a good way that it makes me excited about your future stories as long as you keep writing. Grade: B+

The question becomes at this point: you’re brilliant with short stories, but what are your longer stories like? Can you sustain that brilliance? All’s Fair in Love and Advertising allowed me to figure this out. Quick answer: Oh, hellz YES!

The book is about 150 pages and Max is a character I should have hated. He’s an advertising genius, a complete workaholic, but not in the grim alpha-hero way. He’s neurotic and melodramatic and completely over-the-top. One of those people who’s impossible to work with but absolutely brilliant. He’s not over his wife leaving him two years previously (and breaking their partnership) and he hides his hurt by “turning gay.” Which should be insulting and obnoxious and awful, but just isn’t, somehow, because it’s just…Max.

He’s competing for an account for Avionics, a flight technology company that needs to up its visibility and therefore its stock value in order to avoid a take-over bid by Omnion, the Evil Corporate Empire. Of course, Max meets Joe, the founder and owner of Avionics and falls for him, hard. But in a completely neurotic, manic, Max-like way.

Again, voice is what carried this story. It was told in deep third person perspective from Max’s perspective. I haven’t laughed out loud at a book so much in a long long time. I was giggling through most of it. Max was maddening and adorable at the same time. In trying to find a quote, I just want to cut and paste the whole thing. But try this. Joe just told Max that he liked his work, and Max, who is a typical New Yorker who can’t get beyond the fact that Joe is from Montana, challenged him to name his favorite:

"You know, I liked the gum thing. That was catchy. And the beer stuff. Everyone likes that. But I think my favorites are the commercials you did for that financial services company, the serious ones with the black-and-white footage and the literary quotes. Gotta admire someone who can work e.e. cummings into a commercial about asset protection."

Max blinked. That campaign dated from at least ten years ago. It wasn't one he was generally remembered for, but it happened to be his own personal favorite. He lifted his chin stubbornly. Just because Bennett appreciated his work didn't make him any less of a yokel; it just made him a yokel with good taste. Any moment now, Max knew, the charm would rub off, and Bennett would show his true, narrow-minded colors.

Max did his best to hurry along the process. "I read your company is headquartered in Montana."

"We have a small office here in New York. But, yeah, most of the operation is back in Wilcox," Bennett said. "A small town, but we like it. Great views of the mountains. And we're one of the biggest employers in the state. So that has its perks."

"Is that what drew you there? Tax breaks?" Max lifted an eyebrow inquiringly. "Or was it the handy proximity to the local militias?"

Bennett laughed again, but it didn't have quite the same humor as before. "Naw, no playing at war out in the woods for me. Wilcox is where I grew up. After I retired from the Air Force-’" His voice got tighter. "Medical retirement. My jet got shot down in Bosnia. It just made sense to come home. Be near family while I was laid up. I ended up staying put."

"Oh," Max said weakly. "I didn't realize-’"

Bennett shrugged. "Hey, all in the past now, right?"

Happily, the sommelier chose that moment to descend upon them. Bennett turned his attention back to the wine list, and Max fidgeted in his seat. There was an uncomfortable feeling in his chest, something he wasn't used to, something that left him off-kilter. Possibly it was a sense of shame. That would explain why he didn't recognize it right off the bat.

And that makes Max sound like an asshole — and he IS — but I loved him all the way through and I loved that Joe liked his abrasiveness. And Joe was delicious — I could totally see how he fell for Max and it was obvious what he was feeling and why, even though we never get into his head. And again, the secondary characters were wonderful. For such a short story and the large cast of characters, the characterization was pitch perfect. And I totally did NOT see the twist at the end of the story, which was refreshing. Altogether, I adored this book, devoured it, and will come back to it again and again. Grade: A

Spam! It's What's for Christmas And finally, there’s the unfortunately-covered “SPAM! It’s what’s for Christmas”. Ben is a washed-up, unemployed baseball pro with a bum knee. His boyfriend just threw him out and he’s desperate to get him back. Desperate enough to answer an ad for nude male models. Where he meets the delicious photographer, Gavin. Hijinks ensue, but Ben really wants his boyfriend back…he thinks. We don’t see much of Gavin, to be honest, even though what we do see *is* delicious. This is Ben’s book and Ben is…adorable. Trying to make it work, trying to readjust his life after his dreams are destroyed, trying to figure out what he really wants. Again, the tone of the story, Ben’s voice and his characterization, make it something I just couldn’t stop reading. Grade: B+

You’ve got free fiction on your website (bittersweet) and on your Livejournal (a fairy tale retelling with beautiful writing that stretches my disbelief a little bit too much on the plot, but still gets a B grade because the characters are so good). (Oh. Also: a short story in a Ravenous Romance anthology that I refuse to buy or even request. Not even for you. Sorry.)

And sadly, that’s it. You need to write more. And longer. And OMG, if you keep it up, I think K.A. Mitchell’s got a rival in the m/m world (although the beautiful thing is, of course, you’re not rivals. If you both just keep writing, then the world will be a better place and we can all be friends with sunshine and rainbows and iPadsunicorns!).

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

REVIEW: Sindustry I

REVIEW: Sindustry I

Dear Authors:

thumbnail.aspI only opened this volume when Dreamspinner sent it to us because Madeleine Urban had a co-written story in it. I adore her longer co-written stories with Abigail Roux, and the volume started off with “Reluctant,” so I thought I’d have a great little story and then skim through the rest. Instead, “Reluctant” was truly awful and the rest of the stories saved me from chucking the volume off my computer.

At 332 pages, this is a seriously hefty volume (electronic, of course). And with only 12 stories, that’s between 25-30 pages a story, much longer than the usual short stories crammed into an anthology. This gives enough time to actually flesh out the characters, plots, and themes. Or time for the story to move from blah to boring and awful.

The theme for the volume is sex industry workers: both low- and high-end prostitutes and strippers, mainly. What was fascinating to me more than anything was how each story used the sex industry angle-’as a meet-cute, as conflict, as a moral failing, as a perfectly legitimate profession, with or without comment. I’m strangely fascinated by this particular profession and by how the HEA is achieved or dealt with in light of the prostitution. I also love to see whether the prostitution itself is the conflict or just part of the story with conflict elsewhere. This volume certainly gave me enough to work with.

"Reluctant" by Rhianne Aile & Madeleine Urban
Gregory is recently divorced because he thinks he’s gay. His doctor (!) gives him the card of the high-end prostitute he employs and Gregory makes an appointment. He gets his first blowjob and a refund, then makes a "real" date with Rico, who has fallen in love with him. Considering this is the first story in a volume about sex workers, its complete lack of any exploration of the actual sex work and the effect it has on both worker and consumer is a glaring and incomprehensible error. Rico falls for Gregory. Why? No clue. Gregory falls for Rico because he’s hot and gives good head, apparently. No discussion at all of whether Rico will give up his very well-paying job, no discussion of anything besides a naughty meet-cute and some sex. Fail all around because even the sex was boring. Grade: D

"Stripped Bare" by S. Blaise
Luca is intrigued by the voice of the man calling to book him for a stripping gig for his sister’s hen party. Told in the first person, Luca chases a curiously reluctant Ethan until Ethan gives in a meets him, revealing his physical disabilities. I loved Luca’s relentlessness and his optimism as he works on bringing Ethan out of his shell. The conflict was of the "I can’t believe a gorgeous stripper like you would like someone like me" variety, but although there was nothing earth-shattering, it was a fun little read. Grade: B-

"Boomerang" by Rachelle Cochran
Chance works at the club Boomerang, moonlighting occasionally as a rent boy. He waits on a table with his old high school crush. They meet again and, after overcoming his uncertainty about Evan’s sexuality, Chance dives into a relationship with him. A nice, gentle, sexy story, in which Chance’s rent boy status is pretty much a non-issue. Grade: B-

"Fun and Games" by Lenore Black
I adored this sweet little story. Patrick is a video game designer, working the final kinks out of a game weeks before release. He’s not perfectly sculpted and toned-’he’s a dork and kind of soft around the edges. His friends buy him a prostitute for his birthday, just so he’ll get laid. But Jack keeps coming back, "the gift that keeps on giving." The connection between the characters, the fun they have and the affection between them makes this a gem of a story. Grade: A-

"How Could I Not" by Jamie Freeman
A complicated little story. Ben is set up on a job with Josh, a rich older man who wants Ben to fuck him while they watch a video montage of a guy who looks startling like Ben. Josh becomes a once-a-week client for Ben and they slowly build a real relationship. This sounds a little creepy, but the writing and the characterization is strong enough to make me believe in the romance. But then we drop a whole grade for "No condoms, just pull out." Give me a fucking break. Grade: B-

"The Frost Affair" by Sasha Skye
This one’s a little different, in that the sex worker is not a rent boy, but the kept lover of a senator. The senator is trying to spice things up a little in their love lives, to make sure Grayson isn’t bored with his older lover-’which means the sex is pretty hot and frequent. I enjoyed this story, although I spent the whole thing hoping that the Senator wasn’t one of those who was against gay rights but banging his boy on the side. But I did notice an entire lack of lube and some ATM action (Google it, but beware, NSFW), which just kinda grossed me out. Grade: B-

"The Stripper and the Hairdresser" by Bethany Brown
Can we have some conflict, please? Something to overcome? Something to make the characters grow? Something to draw the characters together. I mean, I know that most real-life romances are just "two people meet, are attracted, fall in love, and have a HEA/HFN." But romance stories need a plot with a dark moment, to have any impact whatsoever. This story is indeed "The Stripper and the Hairdresser" and that’s pretty much is. OMG boring. Grade: D+

"A Muse" by Zahra Owens
Ack! Second person narration: "You are very direct and the guy who recommended you to me had told me that." I don’t know why people do this. It might work for the author to write hir masturbatory fantasy in 2nd person, but it rarely works for the reader. First person can edge into bombastic and egotistical, but when you add second person too, it all gets a little too much for me. And seriously, "androgynous, but manly"?! You can’t have it both ways-’you really can’t. And please, do some research: "suddenly grateful for high-end digital cameras with state-of-the-art screens that don’t require me to peer through tiny viewfinders and miss ninety percent of the action": uh, no-’high end digital cameras require you to look through the tiny viewfinder. Trust me. It’s the cheap ones that use the screen. All that aside-this is an interesting story about a fine art photographer luring a rent boy into being his muse which I would have liked very much if it weren’t in second person. Grade: C

"Fin de Siècle" by S. Reesa Herberth
The only historical story in the anthology, this is an amazingly well-written glimpse into the turn-of-the-century encounters between an artist and a prostitute in Paris. Gabriel becomes Jean’s muse and they tentatively establish a relationship. The atmosphere and feeling of the story are brilliantly done, melancholy yet optimistic. And I actually like that although Jean and Gabriel find their way to each other by the end of the story, there is no talk yet of Gabriel giving up prostitution. Very well done. Grade: A-

"Chat Line" by Clare London
The conceit in this story was unoriginal, carried on too long, and almost embarrassing. Jerry calls a sex line, thinking it’s a line for a company that provides domestic help. The miscommunication goes on for pages longer than its funny, moving far into boring. The phone sex is pretty hot, but the "I want to meet you after one paid-for conversation" was a little unbelievable. Grade: C

"As Beauty Does" by JL Merrow
A professor-student story that doesn’t squick me! Very English set, Nathan, a rent boy, has a regular blow-job customer every Thursday night. He discovers the guy is his English professor in one of his new classes, which makes things a little uncomfortable on Stephen’s regular nights. After Nathan is bashed and ends up in hospital with a broken jaw, he and Stephen begin to establish a relationship. Great story, fabulous characterization. I especially love the use of the characters’ own language choices and words to indicate who they are and how they feel: you can tell that Stephen is very definitely a staid English professor, Nathan a working class student, just from the way they talk. Grade: B+

"The Four Seasons" by Diana Copland
This story is so unrealistically suspend-all-disbelief, it’s just yummy, because wouldn’t it be great if the world were perfect like that? Law student Michael endearingly hits on a beautiful man in a hotel bar, but is gently turned down because Christian is a very high-end prostitute who tells him to call when he’s made partner. 5 years later, Michael sees Christian on a corner, selling blowjobs for $50 a pop. He takes Christian in, finds out how and why he sunk so low, tells him he’s worth something, a la Pretty Woman ("The bad stuff’s easier to believe" moment), and they make beautiful love. Michael, of course, wakes up alone. 3 years after that-.well, you’ll have to read the story, but everyone ends up rich and happy and fighting for gay civil rights. It’s deliciously over-the-top but the affection and relationship between Michael and Christian is very well done. Grade: B

Overall, I enjoyed the anthology. Some stories definitely stuck with me ("Fun and Games," "Fin de Siecle," and "As Beauty Does" especially and none were truly horrific-’they were just boring, more than anything else. But I have a strange fascination with rent boy/male prostitute stories, so my fetish is well-fed and happy.

Overall Grade: B-

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Fictionwise and other etailers.