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REVIEW: Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt

REVIEW: Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt

Dear Ms. Witt.

I really enjoyed the main characters in this book. I’m…ambivalent enough about the other characters and some of the plot that it affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Where There's Smoke by L.A. WittJesse is running for Governor of California. He has no experience whatsoever in pretty much anything. He comes from acting royalty but is a semi-reality-show also-ran himself. He has very little life history before his decision to run except for the fact that he’s married to an Oscar-winning actress. So his decision to run was never fully explained to my satisfaction. Yes, the Republican candidate is horrible. Yes, Jesse has name recognition. But he claims throughout the book that he can handle the actual job of governor but doesn’t know how to campaign. But really, he’s never done either. What in his background allows anyone to believe, himself included, that he’d be a good governor?

Anyway, he’s also gay. His wife, Simone, knows about his sexuality and they’ve decided to divorce…right after the election. But until then, part of the campaign strategy, devised by Jesse’s senator uncle, is to play the happy-married, deeply-in-love couple. But Simone has Issues. She’s got a huge history with eating disorders that arises from her inability to access or process emotion. She tends to get vicious when she gets angry and she sublimates all stress into her eating disorder. So, it’s totally a good idea to put their sham marriage front-and-center of Jesse’s campaign, right? Right.

Jesse’s senator uncle’s former campaign manager becomes Jesse’s campaign manager. Anthony is driven, exceedingly competent, as principled as he can be, a smoker, gay, and totally hot for Jesse. Jesse in turn is totally hot for Anthony. Anthony is convinced that Jesse is straight. Jesse can’t tell if Anthony is gay or not. Commence sexual tension. One thing you do well, Ms. Witt, is build sexual tension. The slow bloom of a relationship, the realistic movement from lust to affection to love is something you do brilliantly, and this book is no different. The scene in which Jesse finally FINALLY comes out to Anthony is just perfectly done (I’d quote here, but Loose Id is securing their ARCs and I’m not typing out the whole damn excerpt — trust me, it’s an amazing scene).

The relationship between Jesse and Anthony builds so very slowly. For a long time, they can’t find time together to have sex because of the demands of the campaign, so they really have time to fall in love rather than just fuck like bunnies. I like that. I totally believed that these two guys love each other.

And really, only you would be able to make a smoker sexy because it’s so much a part of his personality. That was fascinating.

The book is long, more than 350 pages. So it’s almost inevitable, perhaps, that it sags badly in the middle. Once Jesse and Anthony have established their relationship as best they can, it’s pages and pages and PAGES of angst over the Catch-22 everyone is in. Simone is losing weight! But we can’t talk to her about it because she’ll just get mad and flounce away! But we’re hurting her! But we can’t help ourselves! And anyway, she pushed us together! But the voters! Over and over and around and around, with no solution until after the inevitable crisis point.

The character of Simone really bugged me. Women in m/m romance is a fraught issue. Usually there aren’t any. Some dedicated m/m readers will actively avoid books with women in them. So any woman who is a main character in m/m is bound to carry a lot on her shoulders. So on the one hand, Simone is an interesting character with her inability to access emotions and her need to exert control through her eating disorder. But on the other, she’s incredibly annoying because she’s so irrational no one can talk to her and it seems that she’s just the figurehead for the Conflict rather than a real character. And the saggy middle harping on that conflict without a solution made it all a bit much for me. It’d be nice to have a female character in m/m who doesn’t have Issues. (Admittedly, Jesse’s personal assistant is female and a wonderful sidekick character.)

So, as much as I loved Jesse and Anthony (and boy, did I!), the pacing issues and Simone’s whole character (and especially her final admission) really pulled this book down for me. The ending, though was a nice twist. I liked the reason for the Conflict and loved Jesse’s solution — even though it seemed a bit too cavalier, it did maintain his integrity. Overall, I couldn’t put this book down, but I did read some of it while squinting a bit.

Grade: B-

Best regards,
-Sarah F.


Friday Film Review: The Draughtsman’s Contract

Friday Film Review: The Draughtsman’s Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Genre: Drama/Period Piece
Grade: B

“There’s sex, snotty people and flamboyant costumes. What more could you want.” – Spanky and John Go to the Movies.

I’m almost hesitant to recommend this film just because I know a lot of people probably won’t like it. Note I’m not saying you won’t get it, just that you might not like it. I had read many of the reviews in which people who’ve seen the film praise it to the heavens – and also say that many viewers won’t get it – or conversely damn it as totally unwatchable. But with the film also getting heaps of praise for its costuming and music I decided to give it a go.

The plot is very complex so I’m just going to steal what they say at Netflix: “In 17th-century England, aristocratic Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions handsome draughtsman Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce a dozen sketches of the family estate to surprise her absent husband. Neville accepts the project – in exchange for 12 sexual favors. The exceedingly smug Neville is in control till Mrs. Herbert’s daughter (Anne Louise Lambert) — who has her own agenda — outfoxes the arrogant artist.”

The film is gorgeous to watch. The costumes, which are exaggerations of the current fashions of that day, are fabulous. As one reviewer said as many ribbons and lace as money could buy and then some. Plus wigs which are fantastic in length as well as amazing in the slight horned shape that some of the men wear – and which is very apropos for one of the men in particular if you know what the phrase “made to wear horns” means.

The Jacobean house and gardens used in the production are beautiful and good use is made of all views and angles. Greenaway mentions that the antique tea set seen in one scene belongs to the owners of the house who kindly allowed them to be used and which were insured for more money than the entire budget of the film. The lighting, which is often just candles or lanterns, deserves praise as well as it helps set the mood for many shots.

Greenaway set many of the scenes up as tableaux with few cuts and changes of viewpoint in order to make them look more like staged plays of the age. And the wide angle often used means that the actors’ faces aren’t close up enough for us to gain a lot of insight into what their characters are thinking – thus requiring the watcher to pay close attention to the many meanings of what is being said. I also love the music which riffs on Purcell.

But it’s the layers within layers of the plot that makes you pay attention. I knew to be looking for the little items which appear in the views that Neville is drawing of the house and gardens. Items which on their own mean nothing but which put all together can make a case for murder. Because, yes you guessed it, this is actually a Glorious Revolution country house murder. Someone is dead, someone is going to get blamed for it and lots of people stand to gain from the death. Greenaway presents all the clues, shows who is responsible without coming right out and saying whodunnit and then has the culprits eliminate all those clues in order to wrap things up. And what had started out as a film showing Neville in control suddenly switches to reveal who has truly been in control all along and exactly what was needed from Neville.

But wait, there’s more. Maybe. Even though Greenaway doesn’t mention this in his commentary on the film, a few reviewers have mentioned that the characters can also stand in for the great political figures and tumultuous situations of the day: William of Orange, James II, Queen Mary, Princess Anne, Prince George of Denmark, George of Hanover and England herself. I must admit I had fun listening for these allusions. There are allegories and symbolism in regard to fruit and paintings. The film tackles issues about Protestants and Catholics, servants and masters, sex and power.

The pace is stately, the camera is fairly static, the dialogue – which the actors deliver with careful pronunciation – is period without being too archly stuffy, there is a moving statue – who is mainly naked and pees in one scene, there is no romantic love involved and one can’t mentally drift off or fast forward at the risk of missing something. In short, there are many reasons this film won’t appeal to a broad audience. But if you’re looking for something lovely to look at, beautiful to listen to and a puzzle which will keep you wondering and thinking – and rethinking – on what you’ve seen, this one is superb.