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REVIEW: Jaime Samms (mostly free short stories)

Dear Ms. Samms:

Please write more quickly. Or just, more.

runawayorangesmYou’ve got five free short stories (up to 14K words) plus three interconnected mini-shorts on your website, and one recently published short at Freya’s Bower (and one other so far unrecoverable short on a defunct online magazine–if anyone can recover, I’ll love you forever). (Oh, and one more online magazine story that I wasn’t willing to read because it looked like it had an unhappy ending (from my obligatory quick skim) and considering the emotional punch of your other stories, I just wasn’t willing to read anything by you that didn’t have a happy ending.) So, six and a few bits stories. But that’s it. And that’s Just. Not. Enough. So please write more, more quickly, more expansively. Just more.

Thanks to Paul Bens’ recommendation of your published story “The Runaway,” I clicked through to your website and read the free short stories there. All in one sitting, unfortunately, because now there’s nothing left to read.

Reading all your available stories one right after another highlighted the recurring themes of love lost and recovered, lives changed and remade, and a dark, hot undercurrent of past violence and its effect on the present and the future. While all the stories are gay male romance, they are not explicit. Few of the couples even kiss and all sex is behind closed doors. In fact, I think the emotional power of stories would actually be diluted by sex–not something I often say, believe me. But this just speaks to the power of your writing.

“Dreamers” is one of your two longer shorts, if that isn’t too confusing. Ryan is a deeply closeted, lying-even-to-himself gay man who was a bouncer at a gay club at which Pete was beaten rather viciously. He moves in with Pete to take care of him and is still living with him–platonically, much to Pete’s dismay–five years later when the story starts with Ryan’s violent nightmares about Pete’s beating. It’s told from Pete’s first person perspective. While the narrative takes us through five years of their life and on a road trip to see Pete’s dying, homophobic father, the emotional heart of the story lies in Pete trying to figure out what he and Ryan might be feeling.

The writing in this story is brilliant. When I’m reading quickly, I usually skim anything that isn’t dialogue, because the meat of most romances is in the dialogue, the interaction between characters. The dialogue here is very…well, the only word I can think of is “male”: very telegraphic and truncated, with characters rarely saying what they mean or not even knowing themselves what they mean:

“So if you weren’t fine four months ago, what was wrong?” I asked. It was better to know. I kept telling myself that. It was better to know.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fuck, Ryan.”

He clamped his jaw shut and the conversation ended.

The violence in this story takes a physical toll on Pete’s body, but it’s easy to see that the mental and emotional violence that Ryan is forcing himself through is much more destructive, much more painful than anything Pete has experienced. The ending is abrupt but heartfelt. I could wish for more examination of their relationship as it grows romantically and how Ryan handles it, but I also understand the need to stop where it does. (It reminds me a lot of Kinsale’s Seize the Fire, especially in the ending.) Grade:A-

“Better” made my hackles raise to begin with. Jesse has been burned badly with an exceptionally violent end to his previous relationship–an end that resulted in criminal charges against his lover and some serious emotional issues for Jesse, who is now completely skittish in his burgeoning relationship with Aadon, running mostly cold whenever Aadon expresses interest because he’s convinced both that he’s unlovable andthat Aadon will be abusive as well. The issue for me is that Jesse is a sexual submissive and his psychopathic ex-boyfriend was an abusive dominant and sadist. I’m sick of BDSM being either the reason that a relationship is bad or the symptom of a bad relationship (cf: J.R. Ward’s Vishous and her use of the name “Zsadist” and Emma Holly’s Black Lace erotica). I’m sick of it being something that needs to be fixed or moved beyond, and at first, it looked as if “Better” was going to cop out this way, but in the end, it doesn’t–in fact it uses the BDSM the so damaged Jesse to help heal him (in completely non-explicit ways). The previous relationship gets intricately involved in the new relationship in fascinating ways that just serve, again, to highlight the violence at the heart of the story, but also serve to demonstrate the power, pleasure, and appeal of BDSM. Grade: A

“The Way Men Say I Love You” is introduced thusly: “Some things just don’t translate well from testosterone to English. In those cases, you just have to rely on body language and hope you get it right.” I think this is what intrigues me so much about your writing, because that’s exactly what you do. You write “conversations” between men who love each other that manages to convey not only the love, but also the emotional illiteracy that men sometimes suffer from. This is a great little story of a life-changing hour between two men that involves running away, a punch, and men acting like dumbasses. Grade: A-

“A Long Road Home” provides the long view of a successful relationship that the other stories refuse to show. But it’s a relationship that’s a long time coming, starting in high school but only consummated after middle-age. The two nameless characters struggle to find each other through the years and the death of their respective parents. So while there’s no violence in this story, death is inextricably entwined in the layers of this relationship in melancholy, but life-affirming ways. Grade: B+

“Statute of Limitations” looks at a long-term relationship as it yanks itself away from an ending of recriminations and miscommunication. It starts with Joe and Liam in college, beginning their relationship a few weeks after their first sexual encounter, in which Joe, ostensibly straight, forced his gay roommate Liam while both of them were high. It then jumps ten years later, to see Joe still beating himself up over their first time, Liam’s questionable consent. The ending is brilliant, managing to show the core of Liam’s vulnerability as well as Joe’s, even though it’s told entirely from Joe’s perspective, and managing to use the violence of the beginning of the relationship to the advantage of their reconciliation. A perfectly plotted story, full of hope wrapped around the underlying violence. Grade: A

The “A picture is worth 1000 words” Challenge are three mildly interconnected snapshots of love lost, found, and fought for. Smart, interesting, but very artsy, with a very canonical “creative writing” style.

“The Runaway” is your one published story and is actually less compelling than your free ones. Although well-written and thought-provoking, the characters aren’t still living in my head, as all your others are. There’s more explicit past violence, more family issues with homophobia, and it’s almost more heavy-handed, trying too hard to make a point, compared to the free stories. But it’s still totally worth the price of entry, but again, I wish it had gone a little further. Grade: B+

Your LiveJournal indicated that you won NaNoWriMo. Good. I can’t wait to read a novel by you. So, seriously, write more. And submit to Samhain–I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t snap you up in a heartbeat (although I’m obviously not an editor and I don’t speak for them).

Altogether, your writing gets an A- from me. The only problem is that the stories are never long enough. In fact, sometimes the problems they discuss are so deep and abiding that while one believes in the start of the beginning of the relationships you depict, the lack of exploration of the relationship as it grows and develops makes the ending seem even more truncated and threatens a belief in the success of the relationship. Your writing is so strong that there’s still satisfaction in the ending, but seeing, rather than believing, would be even more satisfying.

Sincerely,

-Joan/Sarah F.

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.

17 Comments

  1. Paul Bens
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 10:13:28

    @Joan: Yay! I love Jaime Samms’s work (and she’s one heck of a person as well) and am so thrilled to see this review. She is one of my favorite writers and I keep telling her as well…write more, damn it. =-)

  2. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 11:47:12

    You write “conversations” between men who love each other that manages to convey not only the love, but also the emotional illiteracy that men sometimes suffer from

    Love this concept. Interesting reviews.

  3. Susan/DC
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 12:28:01

    “Some things just don't translate well from testosterone to English. In those cases, you just have to rely on body language and hope you get it right.”

    This quote is wonderful, both in terms of the language and in terms of its understanding of the male psyche. I hope Ms. Samms has a long and profitable writing career ahead of her.

  4. Estara
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 12:46:48

    I’m vaguely sorry for going off-tangent a bit, but whatever Emma Holly does in some of her other Black Lace novels, her Black Lace Velvet Glove is a romance based on BDSM done right (after being done wrong), with a bit of a m/f/m thrown in. And her first regency romance Beyond Innocence has a hero introducing the heroine to a softer version of BDSM (taking turns).

    Maybe I haven’t read all her Black Laces, as I don’t really remember any BDSM = bad relationship… or maybe it was too long ago.

  5. Jessica
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 12:56:29

    Free?? Thank you for reminding us that while the publishing machine has its positives, it doesn’t necessarily gobble up all the great fiction.

    I guess I know where to start with m/m!

  6. Jaime Samms
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 13:07:04

    Dear Joan,

    Difficult to compose a polite, calm response heaped under all this praise, so I’ll keep it short. I am very pleased you enjoyed my work. That’s why I do it. Thank you for letting others know where they can find it, and recommending that they do. I know you work hard to get the word out for us authors, and all that work is very much appreciated.

    There is some good news, if you’re interested. Freya’s Bower picked up the story Samhain didn’t want (lucky me!) and it will be available December 23. Here’s the link” Poor Boy:

    In the mean time, another free offering has been posted at Freya’s Bower, to say thanks from us to the readers who make it possible for us to keep doing this. It can be found here: Same Difference?

    Thanks again for the wonderful words of encouragement. I am writing more, and with any luck, it will get published somewhere. Maybe even Samhain, at some point. I do intend to give it another shot. Wish me luck.

    Jaime

    (And thanks Paul, for the rec, and for being a great guy. You rock.)

  7. Joan/SarahF
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 13:22:21

    @Erasta: While Velvet Glove does do some interesting stuff with BDSM, my final view of the book is that the first BDSM relationship is completely abusive and psychotic, and the final relationship has BDSM as a side-line entertainment, but not as a main part of the relationship. It’s something that needs to be grown through and out of in order for the relationship to solidify. That’s even more true of her “femdom” book Top of Her Game, the first line of which is something about how the heroine was looking for a man to control her. Um, no. That’s not actually what being a female dominant is all about. I was extremely disappointed with both books in that the final, solid, romantic relationship actually distinctly put aside BDSM as the way to mature. YMMV, though! :)

    @Jaime: Thank you for writing! :) And thanks for the links to the new stories. Am savoring as I type. Nom nom nom.

  8. Ann Somerville
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 13:41:33

    I keep telling her she’s a clever kid, but will she listen?

    So pleased to see Jaime get this attention. Now she just needs to *write* some more!

    @Jessica:

    There’s a *lot* of good free m/m out there. While Manna Francis’ Administration series is now going to print, she has kept it all up on the web for free – and that is seriously good writing. As is The God Eaters by Jesse Hacijek – staggeringly wonderful novel.

    The excellent ezine Bang*Bang comes out with 20 or so very well edited boyslove and yuri (m/m and f/f) stories in every issue – they are publishable grade, and often have the cutest illustrations with it.

    A long slave fic universe series of stories, The SlaveBreakers, by maculategiraffe might eat your brain, and has recently been finished. The writing is very good.

    Another LJ story – f/f, transgender – is All these things I’ve done by makesmewannadie. A lot of free fic – unfortunately usually of lower quality – can be found on Livejournal, and this provides a roundup, although it’s not comprehensive and no indicator of quality.

    And I, er, have a few minor offerings here.

    I haven’t finished tagging *all* the entries at UP, but we have a ‘free writing’ tag – a lot of the free stuff has been reviewed too.

  9. Jaime Samms
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 14:39:41

    Jill, Susan, I have four brothers, husband, son, father, I lived with my grandfather through college. I have a bit of experience with how men ‘converse’ ;p The subject fascinates me.

    Happy reading, Jessica. There’s oodles of great fiction out there free for the reading. It’s how I found some of my favirite authors. Don’t be afraid to explore.

    Joan: It is entirely my pleasure. While I’d love to say I write to keep the readers happy, in reality, I do it because I love it, because it makes me happy. I’m just glad it gives others pleasure too. That’s a bonus.

    Jaime

  10. Joan/SarahF
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 15:13:00

    If we’re going to pimp free m/m stories, y’all gotta read Matthew Haldeman-Time’s short stories. Incredible stuff.

  11. Nix
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 17:37:36

    Jamie is awesome. I hope she writes many, many more books.

    Nix

  12. Paul Bens
    Dec 18, 2008 @ 21:28:51

    And thanks Paul, for the rec, and for being a great guy. You rock.

    It’s easy to rec excellent work. =-)

  13. Angie
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 05:13:25

    I definitely second the Slave Breakers rec. [points up to Ann's comment] Mac rocks truckloads of socks, her characters are incredible, and best of all, now that it’s done (at least the three main novels) you won’t have to wait for it to be posted one bit at a time the way the rest of us did. [wry smile]

    Angie

  14. Tess MacKall
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 06:29:14

    Jamie is a treasure and those of us published with her at Freya’s have always known. It’s so wonderful that word is getting out about her remarkable creations.
    Good Luck, Jamie. And thanks to this blog for giving her a push!

  15. M. King
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 08:36:05

    Wheee! Well-deserved praise for the wonderful Ms. Samms. I’ve had the pleasure of doing a few author events with Jaime now and she’s not only a great writer, but a great person. Anyone who loved The Runaway – or pretty much any of her work – might like to remember that her next Freya’s Bower publication, Poor Boy, comes out next week! *grin*

  16. Estara
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 15:21:13

    @Joan: ah, I didn’t get that you were lookinge for female domination only, I just thought general BDSM. fair enough.

    I love your version – Erasta sounds like a Greek tragedy heroine ^^.

  17. Joan/SarahF
    Dec 19, 2008 @ 15:36:53

    @estara: Oops, sorry about your name. I guess I’m too used to seeing Erastes online, and assumed it was a feminine version. Should have looked closer.

    I’m not looking solely for femdom. I just have a hard time reading maledom without my eyes rolling so much they fall out of my head. I’ve read a few, but…oof, so many bad ones. I’ll read maledom if it’s gay, though, in a heartbeat. I was very willing to like both of Holly’s stories (and definitely like some of her others), but ended up disappointed. I like Vishous as a character in JR Ward’s BDB world, precisely because he was a maledom, but he wussed out too, so I’m pretty ticked with him as well. In fact, AFAICT, he and his heroine are in a much more femdom sexual relationship now, but it still ticked me off.

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