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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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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.

22 Comments

  1. Sirius
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:05:52

    Yep, absolutely agree. Part of the reason why the book worked so well for me was that Griff very quickly identifies as gay, not gay for Dante. But I also loved the writing so very much, I heard people criticising the book that it was too long in places, but I thought it was perfect and for me never dragged. Griff was the man obsessed imo (in a good way) and to cut that obsession down for me could have made the book less rich.

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  2. cs
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:08:48

    I actually liked The Assignment, thought it was one of those brainless reads. The sequels after that where however a tad headache inducing.

    I don’t think online porn websites pay that much. I suppose they’d pay better for someone who was a “star” but who knows. I guess the whole paying a lot is an indication of the fact maybe the author wanted to push how hot these guys were?

    I thought the writing was good more than anything. I liked Griff too – I did find their relationship dramatic like a soap opera. However, it really is one of those books that shouldn’t work but in it’s own way it did.

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  3. cs
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:11:09

    @Sirius: LOL. I just talked about the obsession in my comment there. I’m totally opposite with you, I found the obsession a little bunny boiler at times, but I also found it kind of funny. I guess it worked for them and the book; but I couldn’t help but cringe at Griff and Dante sometimes. It read a bit hysterical to me, but it was a good book though :)

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  4. Sarah Frantz
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:16:14

    @cs: Oh, don’t get me wrong, I *adored* the Assignment. :) Total guilty pleasure read for me. :)

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  5. Lucy V. Morgan
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:21:40

    Ooh, I am so tempted. [Clicky]

    I think it’s quite common to have porn/escort work pay more in novels than it does in reality, mainly to serve as justification for taking part in what would otherwise be termed a very seedy act. Then there’s kind of a dubious consent element to it which some find attractive. I have played with these aspects in novels myself and think they need a very careful approach.

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  6. LG
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:36:22

    Heh, I laughed when I read that this book made you think of Evangeline Anderson’s The Assignment, because I was reminded of another one of Anderson’s works, Str8te Boys, before I even got to that part in your review. Unfortunately, Str8te Boys had me deciding I’d probably never pick up another work by Anderson. I’m thinking Hot Head is probably not for me, even though I liked the excerpt you included.

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  7. Sirius
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:39:31

    @LG: I cannot be sure of course, because for all I know you may hate this book if you pick it up, but I did wanted to let you know that I *hated* Str8te Boys with passion and yes, run away from this writer since that book. I felt nothing similar about this book even if the original premise could have been the somewhat the same. This one felt to me as to *gay* men who thought they were straight, discovering their sexuality, one a little bit faster than another, NOT two straight men deciding that they attracted to each other, but otherwise straight, if that makes sense.

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  8. Sirius
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:40:19

    @cs: Heee, well, different things in the book worked differently for us, but we both thought it was a good book :)

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  9. Sarah Frantz
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:40:57

    @LG: I reviewed Str8te Boys here, and have to agree with Sirius–this was SO much better, I promise. But if you don’t like the GFY concept at all, then no, this probably isn’t for you.

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  10. Brie
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:50:46

    I got this book after reading Suede’s fantastic interview with It’s Raining Men. That interview alone convinced me to try his books. I also got Grown Men even though the cover makes me think that there might be some type of tentacle sex…

    I’m also curious to read Hot Head because it’s the only GLBT book that got a nomination in the Goodreads Choice Awards, which is ridiculous but I don’t think those awards have any credibility.

    We’ll see how it goes. I do have a crush on him, that interview was just too good. I would post the link here but have no idea how to use the codes to make it clickable.

    And $1300 for a threesome and/or dp? I don’t know if that’s too much or too little… I do know that I need to stop looking at that link ;-D

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  11. LG
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:52:04

    @Sarah Frantz: I don’t necessarily mind GFY (although I have yet to figure out what determines whether it works for me or not). My big problems with Str8te Boys were that 1) I thought Mav was an idiot and 2) I felt uncomfortably like a voyeur, like the characters were still playing things up for the website, even though that was over and done with and they were actually supposed to be alone.

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  12. Sarah Frantz
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 10:54:03

    @LG: FWIW, I didn’t get the bunny boiling vibe in HOT HEAD that Sirius and cs discuss above at ALL, *and* HOT HEAD explicitly deals with whether they’re doing things for the website or not. So…it’s a very nuanced book, actually. Str8te Boys…was not. :)

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  13. CourtneyLee
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 11:36:13

    I’m so glad you liked it, Sarah! As one of the people who encouraged you to give it a shot despite your misgivings, I would have felt terrible if you’d hated it.

    I agree that the absence of an actual GFY scenario was what made the book work so well. GFY is a hit and miss for me because I find it so implausible most of the time, so it was nice to see a different treatment of the “never been attracted to a guy but now I’m in love with one” thing.

    Something else I loved about Hot Head was the angst. It was angst done right. And how the author was able to communicate Dante’s feelings in Griff’s POV without making me wonder “if Griff noticed THAT, how does he not realize how Dante feels?” That can frustrate me in books where the story is told from only one character’s POV.

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  14. Jeannie
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 13:06:58

    I loved this book, but mostly for Griff and his kilt, the way he wasn’t excessively handsome and perfect. I felt his love for Dante throughout the entire story, his anguish at struggling with his desire for him and their situation with the firehouse. My favorite scene was on the couch. Hrrmm.

    I really like Mr. Suede’s writing style. It’s gritty and dirty, but in the best ways, if that makes sense. I tried Ms. Anderson’s book and couldn’t get through it. Don’t remember why.

    As far as the pay-to-do porn, you could tell me they make a bajillion dollars an “episode” and I’d be fine with it. (Yes, I know that’s a ridiculous amount but you get the point.) I’m not going to do the fact-checking on that one.

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  15. Damon Suede
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 13:53:12

    Wow. Okay. Wow.

    Well, first off: THANK YOU, SARAH! Thank you for the thoughtful, close read and for taking the book on its own terms. Deep gratitude. I love seeing you trace the seams of its construction and Griff & Dante’s odd relationship. And I know the blurb seems purposefully bow-chicka-bow-mow high concept in an Evangline Anderson sense, but in many quarters has served the story well. Some folks do find it off-putting but it’s truly one of those all-things-to-all-people conundrums.

    And thank you, thank you so much too for analyzing the distance between Hot Head and the Assignment books (and by extension Str8te Boys mentioned by LG). I’ve always found it odd seeing Hot Head lumped in with more literal, obvious erotic fantasy that treats porn as de facto “hot” and “fun” across the board. I can understand LG’s reservations; Like Sarah, I think of Anderson as a saucy, guilty pleasure…but LG, I promise that Hot Head is a different beast entirely!

    As for the Gay for Pay pricepoint… For reasons beyond explanation, I dated a lot of porn guys in my younger days so I know people in the biz, and have been watching it evolve for a while. It is true that I have Aleks paying on the high end (especially once he starts to “fall” for the idea of Griff & Dante, but $800-1200 is not unheard of if a successful site is eager to book a guy or if they’re pushing the envelope in ways you asked them to. In truth, there are sites that only pay a couple hundred bucks, but those sites tend to be rougher around the edges and low-endish…or appealing enough that eager performers want to be associated with the brand. If anyone is intereste din my logic, I talked through my construction of Alek’s fictional business and my logic about its budget in an interview at Romancing the Book (http://www.romancing-the-book.com/2011/09/interview-contest-damon-suede.html), but I did wrestle with the porn economy in some specificity. LOL As Lucy says, the money is so UNromantic that provides rich, angsty grist! :D

    @Brie… Very glad you took a chance on me. I hope to deserve it! I can promise: NO tentacle sex in Grown Men, I promise. No eels in the bedroom, either, or other squikiness. There is some intense sounding, but that’s as kinky as it gets. At core, it’s a very gentle story, just told in a harsh, paranoid framework. :)

    @Courtney I’m a fan of earned angst myself. And when I was planning the book, one of the reasons the FDNY appealed to me so much is that the past decade has been such a minefield of pain and compromise that ALL the angst would be earned. I couldn’t imagine anyone saying to Griff, “Oh just get OVER it,” given his experiences during and after the WTC. And as you say the limited POV made some fun things possible there as well because Dante had that shared experience.

    Wow. This was such a wonderful surprise. I hope it’s okay to comment, but I wanted to express my joy and gratitude. Many many thanks to everyone for the kind words and mindful discussion.

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  16. jayhjay
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 14:05:28

    Brie, I was just going to reassure you that there is no tentacle sex in grown men but Damon beat me to it! No worries there!

    Jeannie – yes kilt! and yes couch!

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  17. cs
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 16:06:22

    @Sarah Frantz: Ah! That’s cool. I thought maybe you didn’t like it. I quite like some of her stories, she’s like Willa Okati for me a hit or miss but they write some good fluff pieces.

    If you ever get a chance I have another author Elle Parker she has two books out (same series) and it’s a G4Y premise. The characters are best friends, but thought I’d share that with you. I really enjoyed her books and the relationship is quite interesting (but mostly fun reads).

    @Sirius: I would totally recommend this book, and you’re right we both enjoyed despite having differing opinions on some of the core elements. I think that’s…rare, lol.

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  18. Mary G
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:26:48

    OMG Sarah. For once I read a book before your review appeared so I won’t be spending more money lol. I loved this book sooo much – one of my faves this year (of any genre). I remember trying to savor it at the same time I couldn’t stop reading. Jeannie’s words – gritty and dirty, but in the best ways – are perfect.

    I bookmarked so many spots as Damon has a talent for the unique turn of phrase. One of my many faves:

    For the first time in his life he understood why the Bible called sex “knowing”. Everything was different. Now he knew Dante.

    And I just found it so incongruous to have the Bible mentioned here. I had so many ‘shake my head’ moments in a good “like I couldn’t believe what I was reading, where does he get this stuff” kind of way.

    I was so looking forward to your take on this book. Thanks to Heidi for making you read it.

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  19. Ellie
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 05:04:11

    Not only did I adore this book, I consider it more romantic than most m/f romances I read. You feel Griff’s longing for Dante in every scene, so when they do finally touch, yow! Plus Griff’s internal monologue is hilarious. I adore this character. And Dante is pretty awesome too.

    So many favorite lines, like when Dante is describing the things they might have to do for the shoot, nothing too extreme, they won’t have to “totally gay out”. “God fordid.” Griff thinks. Which is so funny considering how much time he thinks about Dante.

    Love this book. I reread books, but this one I reread right after I finished it. I hardly ever do that.

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  20. Lasha
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 21:18:00

    While The Assignment was much more utterly ridiculous (and WHY was it set in the early 1980s, I ask you?)

    I know this! *raises hand*

    “The Assignment” was set in the 1980′s because before it was published it was Starsky & Hutch fanfic. I remember reading it as a zine. I really didn’t like care for it in any format — as the police procedure was so unrealistic (ex-cop here) — but I did enjoy the GFY trope aspect of the book.

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  21. Sarah Frantz
    Nov 13, 2011 @ 10:03:39

    @Lasha: Holy SHIT, *really”?! The Assignment is fanfic?! That just…grr. I should be used to this, I really should, but I’m still not.

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  22. December Reads |
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 07:42:21

    [...] Head by Damon Suede – B- I liked but did not love this one.  Sarah Franz at Dear Author gave it an B+  and her thoughts so often match mine when it comes to m/m romance that I was a bit surprised [...]

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