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What Sunita was reading in March and April

The Starving Years by Jordan Castillo Price

This is a dystopian story set in the near past (1960) in New York. A new type of genetically engineered food, Manna, has ended starvation by providing basic nutrition to people all over the world. But something has gone wrong, leading to riots in Manhattan and implicating the company that makes the food. A handful of people who were attending the company’s job fair join forces to stay alive and to try to figure out what is going on. This is an m/m/m romance, which I don’t usually read, but Price makes it work for me. The three protagonists are all different from each other, all interesting, the polyamorous relationship makes sense in terms of their personalities and desires, and the sex scenes further the relationships nicely. As usual, the setting is excellently portrayed and the supporting characters are as well drawn as the leads. As a student of collective violence, I found the riot scenes gripping and authentic. The book began as a serialized novel whose course was determined by reader voting. I think this makes the storyline a little choppier, but it was fun to read about the way Price responded to the reader choices. I’m definitely picking up her latest (unrelated) serialized-novel-turned-book, Magic Mansion. Grade: B+. Recommended.

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Moving In Rhythm by Dev Bentham

This is a debut contemporary m/m novel that has received quite a few favorable reviews. I wish it had worked better for me. The main protagonist is a math professor with acute social anxiety; his condition is bad enough that he teaches online courses rather than being in the classroom. It also means that he is unable to sustain any long-term relationship and settles for quickie sex that makes him feel bad; his closest and most rewarding relationship is with his dog. When he goes to stay with his pregnant sister-in-law while his brother is deployed overseas, he meets a dance instructor to whom he is instantly attracted. It’s a leisurely story, as much about the narrator’s journey as about the romance. The dance instructor is unbelievably patient and sensitive and pretty much perfect, and we never really get to see what they are attracted to in each other. Given the level of social anxiety described, I found it hard to believe that falling in love and coming out of the closet was enough to make it manageable. The writing is quite competent, but the mood shifts (from melancholy to sunny to erotic, explicit sex) are sometimes quite jarring. Grade: C

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Harm Reduction by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane

This is a short story, almost a vignette. It alternates between 2012 and 1992 Manhattan. In the present day, Julio tries to keep his foster son on the straight and narrow. In the past, he negotiates a relationship with a troubled youth named Linley, trying to reach out to him, keep his own attraction in check, and convince Linley that Julio’s rejection of Linley’s advances isn’t a rejection of Linley. Linley disappears, and Julio is unable to find him or forget him. The sense of time and place in this short story is amazingly authentic, and the writing is very good. I badly wanted the story to be longer, because I didn’t want to let these characters go. No stereotypes, no trope abuse, just a moving, compelling slice of life. The ending gives me hope that just maybe, there will be more to come. Go read it and come back and tell me what you think, because it’s FREE. Grade: A-. Recommended.

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The Rebuilding Year by Kaje Harper

This m/m romance covers a year in the life of two initially straight men who meet and find they are kindred spirits, go Gay4U, start a relationship, fall in love, co-parent the children of one of them, and end up in an HEA. It’s smoothly written and the scenes with the teenage children are well done. The rest was much less effective. Both the men start out unhappy and/or frustrated in their lives, and to believe that they would quickly and unproblematically fall in lust and then love required a huge suspension of disbelief on my part. The ex-wife is mostly evil, until near the end, and there is an evil new husband who seems to exist primarily to make the ex-wife look better. There is also a suspense storyline that comes and goes until the end, when it sails completely over the believability horizon. This was an exercise in frustration for me, because the writing and the family-drama part of the plot kept me reading but I kept having “oh no you didn’t” moments about almost everything else. After two books and similar reactions to both, I’m pretty sure this author is not for me. Grade: C.

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First You Fall by Scott Sherman

This is a gay mystery with a romantic subplot, but it is in no way a genre m/m romance. For one thing, our narrator is a gay prostitute and the reader is shown that he is quite happy in his job. For another, the romantic storyline is up and down, with no HEA in sight (this is the first of a series, so I’m assuming the romantic arc spans the novels). But the author’s voice is a lot of fun, it is impossible to dislike Kevin Conner, and his relationship with his mother is the gay version of many a white male New York writer’s story. Yes, she’s a stereotype, but she’s also a lot more than that. Sherman does an excellent job with her, and he briefly but skilfully captures the mood of a long-married couple in late middle age. The tone is light but not superficial, the mystery is interesting, although it takes a few too many turns toward the end, and the supporting characters are deftly drawn. I grew a little tired of the voice toward the end of the novel, so I’ll probably take a break before the next installment. But I’ll definitely read it. Grade: B-.

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

40 Comments

  1. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:06:27

    Loved The Starving years, loved The Magic Mansion – she is one of my top five favorite mm writers, I think very few have her imagination. Hope you will enjoy Magic Mansion. Totally agree that First you fall is a mystery first and foremost, I actually thought romantic element was stronger in the second installment, but mystery was weaker, but overall I do enjoy those a lot. I really enjoy Kaje Harper’s works, vast majority of her books work for me, but have not read Rebuilding year yet – have it but for some reason was hesitant to start.

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  2. SarahF
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:09:00

    Thank you on the Bentham. Thought I was a lone voice in the wilderness. Was very Meh to me and I wasn’t convinced either by the social anxiety in the first place, or by the way it’s cured-but-not at the end. Never clicked for me.

    I’ve got a review coming of another Belleau/Vane short. :) Loved that one too.

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  3. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:09:53

    One more question – where do I find Harm reduction? Link to Amazon does not work. Thanks.

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  4. Jane
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:12:32

    @Sirius, I think it is free at All Romance. I just fixed the link

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  5. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:16:28

    @Jane: I see it there, thank you.

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  6. Hannah E.
    May 10, 2012 @ 10:51:09

    I completely agree with your assessment of Moving in Rhythm. There were places in the novel where Mark’s anxiety issues were portrayed believably, but in general his symptoms seemed to come and go at random. I also wasn’t impressed with any of the other characters. Seth in particular had very little personality.

    I also agree with your thoughts on The Rebuilding Year, but I hope you won’t give up on Kaje Harper yet. She seems to have problems creating consistent (and believable) story lines, but her character development and her writing voice are usually good. I am in the middle of reading her free story “Into Deep Waters,” and I’m really enjoying it so far.

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  7. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 11:43:29

    @Sirius: I’m really looking forward to Magic Mansion. I think Price is one of the best writers of m/m today.

    @SarahF: I can see why readers find it emotionally gratifying, but it never clicked for me either. And it is not well plotted or paced.

    @Hannah E.: My two biggest problems with the two Harper books I’ve read are (a) evil women characters; and (b) trope dump. There are just too many balls in the air. But (a) is the real sticking point for me. Evil women in m/m are one of my big hot buttons. I’ll keep looking at what she writes, though, because if she cuts back on those two, I’d probably really like the work.

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  8. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 11:53:46

    @Sunita: If you wont be swept of your feet by Magic mansion overall, I am pretty sure you will at least like female characters there :). I love how she often takes an unexpected road. I have read most of Kaje Harper’s works and I dont remember evil women, but as I said I have not read The rebuilding year yet. Women are absent from most of her work (and yes, I would rather that was the case then the evil ones appear), absolutely, but not sure about evil ones.

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  9. Hannah E.
    May 10, 2012 @ 11:56:40

    @Sunita: Ooh, yes, evil women are a problem for me too. I noticed this is The Rebuilding Year, but not in the other stories of hers that I’ve read (I admit that I haven’t read many of her full length novels, though). Have you read Lies and Consequences? It was the first m/m romance I read, so I have a certain fondness for it in spite of the WTF-crazy plot and slightly uneven writing. It features several sympathetic female characters.

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  10. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 11:59:39

    @Sirius: @Hannah E.: Her first mystery (Life Lessons?) had a villainness who started as garden-variety nasty and then went OTT. I won’t say more for spoiler reasons, but I found it unpleasant in the extreme.

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  11. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:05:30

    @Sunita: Okay, yes, I remember now, I guess it felt organic to the plot to me, thus did not provoke a stronger negative reaction from me. As much as I want all kind of women to be shown if there is an evil one and as much as I know it is a problem, I was okay with the secondary character like her, because she felt very realistic and recognisable. I guess I react worse if there are several women characters and they all evil or silly twits. Have you read Taylor Donovan “Six degrees of lust”. I would have loved this book so very very much but for women characters, it made me twitch so badly that I did not even leave review for the fear that it just wont be fair to the book overall. Every female character is nasty to a different degree, every single one of them.

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  12. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:18:11

    @Sirius: I love a good female villain (see: Illythia from “Spartacus”), but if she’s the only woman in a story, even if she’s well-written and crucial to the plot (vs. a gratuitous ex character) that still doesn’t cut it for me. Especially in a novel-length work, if you can’t even find one tiny little part for a sympathetic female character, I gotta wonder.

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  13. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:27:56

    @Heidi Belleau: I guess I do not feel that the writer has an obligation to put in mandatory sympathetic female character to counteract the villain’s existence if her story does not so demand. Dont get me wrong, I completely agree and realize that evil women is a problem in mm and I want more likeable female characters in mm, boy do I want to see them, but everybody feels differently and if everything else works for me, I may ( may is the key here, because it so depends on the book) still enjoy the book. As I said, for me it is more of a problem when every single one female character is nasty, although depending on how evil one single female character is, I can get mad myself. It is also a problem for me especially if it is a science fiction or fantasy books where writer creates the world where all women are subservient (lower social positions, etc). As I said, it all depends. The one that Sunita described, did not even feel as a villain to me, just as a very recognisable product of her upbringing, she did not do anything super villainy (IMO) and just did what she truly felt was best (she was not a killer, or anything like that). I disagreed with her choices, but I totally got why she made them and how she felt that it would be in other character’s best interests.

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  14. Hannah E.
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:28:30

    @Sunita: I haven’t read Life Lessons, or her werewolf books. Neither series interested me.

    I recently read Drawn Together by Z.A. Maxfield and was amused by the way-OTT villainess. I guess Maxfield decided to take the evil woman trope to its logical extreme.

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  15. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:29:41

    There were other women in that book. One was homophobic and I think the other was a bad mother. Or maybe that was the same character. Anyway it left me with a bad taste. I will check the book when I’m back at home.

    I was willing to accept it in one book but two is one too many.

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  16. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:32:28

    @Hannah E.: Now when I think about it, oy that is annoying sometimes, as much as I enjoyed her werewolf books there is a very very clear indication of lower status of the women in their werewolf society. And I still loved the books (the first one more than the second), but it was annoying. Yes, all depends I suppose.

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  17. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:42:53

    @Sirius: That’s where we differ. You talk about including women characters like it must be some kind of conscious, directed decision by the author done for plot reasons, and if there isn’t narrative justification, then it isn’t necessary. Do male characters have to pass this same test? The fact that including sisters and mothers and friends or even bloody waitresses isn’t a purely automatic thing is kind of troubling to me. The world is 50/50, so when I see M/M with 90/10 or 99/1 or 100/0 THAT feels constructed and artificial and frankly kinda creepy. I agree we shouldn’t “force” female characters into our narratives to satisfy some mystery scale, but I’d go a step farther and said including female characters shouldn’t be “forced” at all. They should naturally be a part of the world an author writes.

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  18. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 12:50:55

    @Sirius: Not that that’s a hard and fast rule, (seeing as that would make me a huge hypocrite since “Harm Reduction” has only 3 characters, all of them male, thus failing my own test) but the trend in the genre is disturbing to me and speaks to an underlying issue, as well as people being happily forgiving of it. I’ve even enjoyed books that don’t have any female characters of significance and think people can read and love whatever they love. I just think failing to examine the issue, or being dismissive of its significance, does a disservice to the genre. “At least she’s not evil” is just a stunningly low bar and I think it’s okay to ask for more as readers. I think M/M absolutely has enough talented authors writing it to meet the challenge, if they’re made aware of it.

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  19. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 13:55:19

    @Heidi Belleau: No, I am all for not forced inclusion of female characters, so I dont think we differ that much. Its just when I see a villain female character and no others, I still may enjoy the book, thats all. And of course I enjoyed the books with no female characters. And honestly, I am thinking about if often. However, as I mentioned in one of the past discussions on this topic, as much as I want to see more secondary and of importance female characters in mm books, I have no problems whatsoever and absolutely refuse to feel guilty for the fact (and of course I am not saying that you said I should feel guilty) when I will refuse to mark the book down which does not have well written female characters, but everything else in this book satisfies me. Thats just not the main reason I am reading mm romances. I may roll my eyes at the book which forgets to include 50% of the population, but if I am happy with the plot and main characters, I may still love it. Since the last discussion which I participated in here at Dear author, where this topic came up, I actually remembered quite a few of mm books with good secondary female characters and thats all I am asking for(I mean, not too many in grand scheme of things,but ten or fifteen and I am pretty sure more exist). I bought the book which Sarah Frantz edited, because in that discussion she mentioned the essay about het romances including LGBT characters and that essay discusses three or four books where LGBT characters are included. It still much less than what I see in mm books, so that makes me cautiously optimistic that maybe it will improve more in time. As I mentioned to Sunita, from recent ones, if you have not read it, from recent ones, try “Magic mansion” by Jordan Castillo Price – I thought female characters there were awesome.

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  20. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 13:58:28

    @Heidi Belleau: Harm Reduction has a sympathetic grandmother offpage, though, in its less than 20 pages.

    @Sirius: Yes, I definitely agree she wasn’t OTT evil like the villainness in LL. But the character could have been more sympathetically portrayed and there still would have been plenty of conflict for plot fodder. Divorced parents have trouble managing child issues even when they are trying really hard to get along and everyone is a decent person. She just wasn’t a well-rounded character to me, especially in contrast to the son, who was depicted with much more complexity.

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  21. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:04:57

    @Heidi Belleau: Would the trend of not including LGBT characters in every single het romance book be still disturbing for you? Yes, I want to see more well written women in mm stories, yes, not showing them all to be secretaries, or stop working when they have babies, or being in lower social positions to the men would be even better IMO (thats couple MM books I have read lately and thats fantasy scifi, where writer has all the chance to create the world which differs in a better way from ours instead of putting men on top in all the ways possible), but I just dont think I have an obligation of asking for more women as a reader. You just said it – there are no women in your recent story (I have not read any of your work, so I would not know about others), does that mean that I have to go into it with already a “strike” against the book in my mind? Because I really dont think so and will not do so. It is an issue which bothers me, when I read the stories, but it does not bother me any more than for example reading the story where one guy is a “chick with brick”, or there is “rape him till he loves me” story. It is important enough, but not my first hot button issue for me, maybe on top ten list.

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  22. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:14:02

    @Sirius:

    Yes, actually, it would be. I can care about homophobia and (internalized) misogyny at the same time. I also would like to see more POCs featured in romance, as well! All around I’d like to see the genre become more inclusive.

    I don’t mean to accuse you of anything, we all have different priorities wrt what we’ll stand for as a reader and what we won’t. I am always glad, though, to hear readers say “man I want more books without evil bitch exes” because authors are listening to those discussions and also promoting works that avoid those pitfalls, which is totally awesome. I want to see more authors put out an effort to be inclusive, and authors who are already inclusive get their well-deserved praise!

    Speaking of M/M with great female characters, I loooved the supporting female character in “The Usual Apocalypse” with Christine Price, and the ex-fiancee in “Shattered Glass” was really well handled and a breath of fresh air, and also I can’t not mention the wife character in “Dark Soul” who could have easily been a bland, offensive stereotype but really came into her own by the fifth book. :D

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  23. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:15:36

    @Sirius: Yeah Gods, I decided not to send the post after all and clicked the button, may somebody please delete it? Sorry.

    [Edited by Sunita: I've deleted the comment.]

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  24. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:21:30

    @Heidi Belleau: I know that some readers aren’t crazy about the women partners in the PsyCop series, but I love them both. I think Price writes some of the best women characters in m/m. They’re not sympathetic, or evil, or any other one-word description. They’re people. They have good points and bad points, quirks and tics. The woman character in The Starving Years changes and deepens (for the reader) over the course of the book in interesting ways.

    And yet, I’m pretty sure the Petit Morts series has a number of installments in which women play a very small role if they’re there at all. I had to stop and think, though, because I didn’t notice at the time. But I think the short story format is different. In a novel, especially a novel involving families and children and parenting, I want a woman to be more than a one-note character or a plot device. That’s really my complaint, as much as the Evil Ex shortcut.

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  25. April
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:24:30

    Magic Mansion was awesome. I recently bought Mnevermind, but I really need to get a copy of Starving Years. And I’ll definitely go snag a copy of Harm Reduction too.

    Thanks for the great reviews/recs!

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  26. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:25:21

    @Heidi Belleau: Yes, I want more POC, I want more characters with disabilities, I want many things for this genre to become, I guess as a reader and reviewer I just dont feel right demanding anything from the author except well written book, thats probably the real difference between our approach. I will note things that bothered me in my review, but I am not an author and I think it is up to them to write the stories as they see fit and then I will share my criticisms with other readers, thats all. I guess it is mechanics in criticisms not as much as substance which differs.

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  27. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:28:27

    @Sunita: Absolutely, loved woman character in Starving years. It makes for much more fascinating reading when you know, guys live in real world. And now, see that makes more sense to me – if the character is one note, Evil Ex or anybody else, that would for sure annoy me.

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  28. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:29:20

    @Sunita:

    Yes, I loveeee the female assistant in TUA. She was funny and competent and honestly had some of the best lines in the book. I found myself wishing there was a spin-off about her, which just goes to show how much I loved her character!

    The short story has limitations since it’s meant to be very small and insular, and I’d also make a concession for certain settings in longer works (although a sci-fi based on a “women don’t exist” premise I probably just wouldn’t touch in the first place), but when we’re talking about a novel that requires an ensemble cast and a host of supporting characters, especially a real-world contemporary, it really isn’t that hard to fit a couple of women in there and have your portrayal of them be nuanced. Hell, if you have a hard time with it, you can even gender-bend a dude or two during edits like Aleks Voinov mentioned doing after he finished a book and realized it didn’t have enough ladies for his liking.

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  29. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 14:59:53

    @April: You’re welcome! And thanks for the additional rec for Magic Mansion. I’m really looking forward to it.

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  30. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 15:41:44

    Just wanted to acknowledge that Sunita was right and I was wrong – we were talking about different female character and there is another who is a completely evil villainness no matter how you look at her in Life Lessons. Thanks for checking Sunita.

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  31. Ros
    May 10, 2012 @ 17:55:49

    @Heidi Belleau: I think there is a difference, in that the secondary characters’ gender is usually specified, whereas their sexuality is often not, so it’s much harder to know whether the book includes them or not. I definitely don’t want every m/f romance to have a ‘gay best friend’ character. But if there’s a gay work colleague or waitress or shop assistant or whatever, well, I probably don’t need the point to be laboured on the page unless it comes up for a specific reason.

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  32. Ros
    May 10, 2012 @ 17:59:40

    @Ros: And, actually (sorry, thinking out loud) since I read more category romance than anything, where the focus is so strongly on the central relationship, it’s less surprising that there are few to none gay secondary characters, because there are so few secondary characters at all. And obviously, by definition, the main characters in a hetero romance are not gay.

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  33. Sirius
    May 10, 2012 @ 18:22:49

    Ros, I am assuming that category romance means novella length? If so, at least half of mm romances is novella length as well with just as strong focus on the central relationship with very few secondary characters as well. And while I have lots of other issues with novellas in mm, no I would not require any mandatory female characters in them and don’t see a difference. I have read novellas with three or four characters in it which had lines . I would not necessarily think that if all characters in shorter work are male, it would look superficial. After all the main point is gay relationship. I do agree though that the longer story is the more artificial it looks when female characters are not there. But yes just as you would not want the gay character’s sexuality to be stressed unless story so requires, neither would I want a female character to be there just to be there. If you can and want to do so, I will be a happier reader, if not, especially in shorter works I may be fine. Especially since I don’t remember who suggested it but I think such speculation could be right – if you already have your story in mind and decided to fill up a quota of female characters – that may be the reason why the only evil one appears.

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  34. Sunita
    May 10, 2012 @ 18:24:21

    @Hannah E.: I meant to answer this earlier, sorry! I haven’t read Lies & Consequences but you make it sound as if it might work for me. I have the Maxfield in my TBR but haven’t read it. If it is so OTT as to seem like she’s playing with the trope, I think I might enjoy that, so thanks!

    @Ros: I know I’ve read more than one category with a gay supporting character, but the only one that immediately comes to mind is Ellen Hartman’s His Secret Past. Either Jane or Jayne reviewed it here at DA when it came out a few years ago. The heroine is temporarily living with her brother and his partner. The characters are done very well, no gay-sidekick or any of that kind of stereotyping.

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  35. Susan
    May 10, 2012 @ 18:25:52

    Thanks for the write-up on The Starving Years. I own it, as well as Magic Mansion, but just haven’t managed to get around to it yet. The PsyCop series is one of my favorites (not just m/m)–wish she’d hurry up and write more!

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  36. Heidi Belleau
    May 10, 2012 @ 18:39:40

    @Ros:

    That’s true, Ross. I think if you can work in LGBT content, it’s nice, but knowing the sexuality of the waiter whose sole line is “any more red wine for you, ma’am” really isn’t necessary. And as with anything else, if you’re going to integrate it, it shouldn’t be stereotypical or blatant tokenism. I’d still like to see more, though, but no I don’t think it should be a requirement, either.

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  37. Angela
    May 11, 2012 @ 05:47:32

    I’ve been meaning to read JCP for a while now, anyone have a recommendation on what I should start with?

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  38. jmc
    May 11, 2012 @ 08:35:17

    @Angela: I would *highly* recommend starting with the first book of her PsyCop series, Among the Living.

    I’ve been hoarding The Starving Years for when I truly desperate for a good read, and bought a copy of Magic Mansion for the same reason :)

    Thank you for sharing your reading list, Sunita! My take on The Rebuilding Year was pretty similar to yours, as was my opinion of Moving in Rhythm. Harper is an author I *want* to like, because I like the settings and characters, but somehow the three books I’ve tried have all not quite worked for me. Bentham, I might try again. I read First You Fall back when it was first published, and liked it enough to take note when the sequel was released…but not enough to buy the sequent in trade paper or pay an inflated ebook price.

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  39. Sunita
    May 11, 2012 @ 12:16:06

    @Angela: I second jmc’s recommendation to starting with Among the Living. I think Price has a big chunk of it available to read for free on her website, so you can see if her writing style works for you.

    @jmc: I am hoarding various of JCP’s books as well. I only read GhosTV last year because I was pretty sure it would be a Best Of 2011 and it seemed wrong to keep it off the list just because I always want a Vic & Jacob book in reserve.

    I have such mixed feelings about Harper. I like her voice a lot, but there are just too many tropes in the two books I’ve read (quite apart from the depiction of women). I may try one more, but not right away. I’m curious about Bentham’s second book; it has an off-putting plot (student-teacher AND the student is a rent boy or something similar), but again, I like the voice.

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  40. cs
    May 12, 2012 @ 08:38:11

    I love Kaje Harper’s books (the ones I have read). I do however didn’t appreciate the “evil woman” but I see that a lot in M/M fiction. Odd considering most are women writing these books. Shame.

    I’m going to give Harm Reduction by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane a shot, since you gave it such a high grade. Thanks for the list :)

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