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REVIEW:  Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau,Violetta Vane

REVIEW: Hawaiian Gothic by Heidi Belleau,Violetta Vane

Dear Ms. Belleau and Ms. Vane,

I really enjoyed the free short story of yours I read and have been on the lookout for your other work. Hawaiian Gothic sounded like something up my alley, even with a ghost angle: an m/m with multicultural characters set in Hawaii with a mystery twist and a gothic flavor. I can’t say that this was an unmixed pleasure, though. It’s a very ambitious work, and some of the writing is lovely, but the story is a hybrid of a number of different subgenres and it ultimately didn’t work for me.

Hawaiian Gothic

It’s a difficult plot to sum up without giving away spoilers. Ori Reyes returns to Hawaii to see his childhood friend and unrequited love, Kalani, who was savagely beaten in a hate crime and is now in a coma with little possibility of recovery. Soon after he arrives, Kalani appears as a ghost who is corporeal and visible only to Ori (yes, Kalani is still in a coma, but his soul or some equivalent is able to leave the comatose body and appear to Ori in a healthy one). After some extremely requited, hot, smexxin’, they talk over the attack and realize that it was part of a curse put on him as a child.

Ori is determined to track down the person who cursed Kalani, which requires figuring out why he was cursed in the first place, which requires unraveling a years-old murder mystery. Once the mystery has been solved, Ori has to find a way to remove the curse.

These three sequences represent three distinct aspects of the book. The first section is an m/m romance, with the added twist that we don’t know whether there can be an HEA given one member of the couple is in a coma. The next section is the murder mystery. The next and longer section is a (grim)dark fantasy (it may also fall in the horror genre, but I don’t read horror so I can’t speak to that). And then the last few chapters and the epilogue return to m/m territory, again with a twist. There is definitely an HEA, but it is preceded by a lot of not-so happy stuff.

This is a very difficult balance to pull off, and the authors don’t quite manage it. The shifts from one genre to another were somewhat jarring to me; they involved shifts of tone and content that didn’t always work, and each section was necessarily shorter than it would have been in a book that stuck to one genre, so they weren’t foreshadowed and set up effectively. I read in all three of these genres, so it wasn’t the content so much as the quick changes and the abbreviated nature of each segment.

There are also regular flashbacks between the present and the past through the entire book, which are sometimes quite effective, but they also interrupt the rhythm of the story. So the overall effect is choppy, and the book winds up feeling a lot longer than its page length (not necessarily a bad thing).

Most of the story is told from Ori’s third-person POV, which means that we are in his head a lot and we see all the other characters through his eyes. Ori is a deeply angst-ridden man. He has PTSD from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, which shapes his behavior and reactions, but even more consequential is his unrequited love for Kalani. Ori’s discharge from the army and consequent punishment are triggered by Kalani’s attack:

“I wanted leave to see Kalani after he got jumped. I got Julie to mail me a newspaper. Figured I’d show it to the lieutenant, you know, prove to him it really happened, that it was really serious. But the article headline said something about a possible hate crime. He asked if I wanted to go see my boyfriend.” He shrugged his shoulders. Shrugged off the weight of the story.

“And for that, you broke his jaw!” shouted his father, his face darkening to an almost eggplant color. “For that? You know what I’ve been through? In the seventies, my squad leader left a dead dog on my bunk with a note that said ‘chow’, and you know what I did? I filed a formal complaint.”

But this wasn’t like some peon fucking drill sergeant throwing out an impersonal “faggot” to humiliate him into obedience. Honestly, it wasn’t about his sexuality at all, when he thought about it. So what if somebody accused him of being gay and meant it? He’d worked hard not to let anything on, and if he failed, then he failed. So he’d be kicked out. So what? It was Kalani. It was the thought of anyone cheapening what he and Kalani shared—no, could have shared. What went between them…it should have been too sacred to use for humiliation, especially now—especially now that it had turned tragic.

I have to suspend some serious disbelief to accept that an Army Ranger, from a military family and with several tours of duty under his belt, attacked his superior because speculating about a boyfriend was somehow beyond the pale.

It goes beyond obsession to the point where we know little about Ori apart from his focus on Kalani, who winds up being something of a cipher. We see Ori with his family and with Kalani’s family in a few scenes and we see him with others when he is trying to undo the curse. But all of these scenes are about Kalani, Kalani, Kalani. It’s a testament to the authors’ writing ability that I wasn’t sick of character by the end of the book.

However, they were good together, in the chemistry sense, on the page. For readers who enjoy angst and a couple who seem to fit together, this was a great read. When they were together in the present day, I believed in them. But when I stopped and thought about it, I didn’t really know exactly why.

Another strength of the novel is that the multicultural aspects are strongly foregrounded. Most of the characters are non-white and the dialogue is peppered with Hawaiian words and phrases. The supernatural aspects of the plot are drawn from Hawaiian myths and legends. The initial introduction and exposition of these myths was a bit clunky, but the way they shaped the storyline worked quite well.

And as I said above, there are some lovely passages, especially those describing the island:

That night, after a dinner eaten alone, just a few mouthfuls of rice and a grilled ono steak, he went to the beach. Other than the once with his sister, he’d been purposely avoiding the ocean—no small feat on an island—afraid that if he looked too long, he’d be hypnotized by it, called to it, and the undertow would drag him home. Of course, when he’d first made that decision, it was under the impression that there was no Kalani to give him reason to stay here, but now it was something else. Some determined, weird resolve that he wouldn’t let himself enjoy Hawai’i’s goodness until Kalani could too. All of him.

He drove a little north of Hilo so that he’d be alone, parked on a side road, and followed a narrow trail down to where the land dropped into the ocean. Fifty feet of flat rocks and driftwood formed the beach; it was bounded on either side by steep cliffs trailing with flowering vines. The ocean rushed into the cut, frothing white, clawing back. The smallest, smoothest rocks tumbled musically back and forth with the waves. The beach seemed like a whole world in miniature, where water, air, and earth (born from fire) clashed into one another and negotiated uneasy, shifting boundaries.

Ori picked up a rock the size of his hand and threw it into the waves. The sound of its splash melted into the roar of the waves and the rainmaker clatter of the stones.

“I’m here,” The words were quiet, but they cut straight through the sound of the waves.

The writing is vivid and forceful, if a little overwritten at times. The dark scenes are very dark (especially in the fantasy portion) and the sex scenes do a good job of placing the reader within the action. The murder mystery development and solution is largely done in third-person narrative, so it is the most distancing, but I assume that was intentional.

For m/m purists, I should note that there are on-page sex scenes that include a woman, although not with the main characters. In contrast to the m/m scenes, which are explicit and detailed, the m&f scenes are brief and relatively non-explicit (I can’t say more about these scenes without spoiling a major plot point). The inclusion of MMA fighting techniques into the sex scenes made them more interesting than the average, too.

It’s hard for me to know who the target audience for this book is supposed to be. Despite the mystery subplot I don’t think it’s for mystery fans, and if you don’t like dark fantasy or horror, this may be a bit too much. But readers of angsty m/m romance who also enjoy reading dark fantasy and don’t mind a dash of mystery should enjoy Hawaiian Gothic quite a bit, despite its weaknesses.

Grade: C+

~ Sunita



REVIEW:  Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

REVIEW: Out in the Field by Kate McMurray

Dear Ms. McMurray.

I picked up your book because of a recommendation by someone whose taste I trust and because I liked the excerpt. The story was cute, but the flaws outweighed the cuteness for me.

OutintheFieldCoverThis is a book about Being a Gay Athlete. This was NOT a romance. Oh, it had a love story in it and the love story had an HEA, but that HEA was never threatened. There was no barrier, no conflict, no tension integral TO the love story. The barrier/conflict/tension was all located in the Being a Gay Athlete story.

First up: I know nothing about baseball. Nothing. I actively dislike baseball, in fact. So I mostly skimmed details about the games. I’ve invited Sunita to comment on those aspects of the story in particular (but also on whatever else she wants to say).

The story is thus: Matt Blanco is a Hall-of-Fame worthy first baseman with the Brooklyn Eagles in his fourteenth season. His knee hurts, a lot. And he’s very very closeted. Ignacio Rodriguez is the Hot New Thing who has just been traded to the Eagles as their new third baseman. Matt might be fifteen years older than Iggy, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t appreciate precisely how hot Iggy actually is. There’s a little bit of lust for a chapter, then they both figure out the other’s gay in chapter 2. Which seemed a bit quick to me. Then they quickly get together.

The book takes place over four years and includes Matt’s coming out post-retirement and Iggy’s while still playing. Like Sunita (see below), I thought both of those were well done (except in that Matt wrote a book and the day before the book released in stores was when he came out for the first time. I just don’t believe that the secret would have been kept to that point). I like that the book doesn’t try to schmoosh everything into one season. I like that a lot.

However, I was frustrated by many things in this book. The “gee, shucks, little ole me?” stuff from both men got old pretty quickly. Both of them have obscene amounts of money and obscene endorsement contracts, and they just “want to play ball”:

Iggy rubbed his head. “This was easier when the hardest decision I had to make was whether or not I’d pose holding a bat in my baseball card photo.”

“I know, but these are all excellent opportunities. You’ll gain more visibility with fans, which puts more of those fans in the stadium, which gets you more favorable treatment from the Eagles front office. Everything is linked.”

“With money.”

Chris scoffed. “Don’t be like that. It’s part of the game, Ig. You signed your name on that contract knowing that.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m really grateful for all this. It’s just completely overwhelming.” Although, now that he’d said it, he wasn’t sure “grateful” was really the right word. He supposed he was happy enough that people wanted to give him money. And really, if having too much money was his only problem, he was happy to take it.

“You’re kind of a sex symbol, you know,” Chris said. “You could be cultivating your female fans.”

Iggy sighed. “Is it a cliché to say I just want to play baseball?”

Yes, in fact, it really really is. And just seemed utterly disingenuous to me, on the writer’s part, not on Iggy’s. The character has to be sympathetic, so god forbid he actually be money-aware. Just easier to make his aw-shucks-y instead.

The telling, not showing was most frustrating for me, though. At one point, Matt’s knee gives out on him during sex. The next day, he’s thinking about it:

 Matt still regretted having to put the brakes on their session the night before, but it couldn’t have been helped. He was embarrassed, too, that Iggy now knew about the knee. He hadn’t wanted Iggy to know, hadn’t wanted to lose face in front of him. He’d wanted to be a whole man for Iggy, a strong man. He wanted to live up to the image Iggy had worshipped for years. But now Iggy had seen his weakness. [ . . . ] Matt dug his sneakers out of his locker and eavesdropped on the conversations around him. A few more players trickled in and roamed around, some idly talking about plans for the evening. Matt mostly wanted to go home and ice his knee. And, he found, he wanted Iggy to come with him. Not even for sex—Matt didn’t think he could make his knee work well enough for that anyway—but just to hang out and talk with. The cat was really out of the bag now. It was kind of a relief not to have to pretend with Iggy that everything was hunky-dory.

Really? This could have been…so much better done. This was rarely hinted at in the lead-up to the scene, and it could have been a site for serious tension between Iggy and Matt until Iggy assured Matt that of course he cared that Matt was injured, but only in so far as he wanted to be able to help and support him…or something similar. Instead, it’s a throwaway couple of paragraphs and then ignored.

And then there’s the fact that the whole thing was about Being a Gay Athlete. EVERYTHING had to do with this. Every scene, every tension, every decision, every discussion, every plot point, almost every sex scene, it seemed. It got tiring and a bit boring. But if readers like that sort of this, then this is the book for them.

If I were to compare this book to anything, it’d be Amy Lane’s The Locker Room (basketball, not baseball), but I think that book did a much better job of making the tension of being closeted into something that almost tears the heroes apart. This book tries to, but doesn’t quite get there.

One thing I will say, boy, you can write great sex scenes. The writing soared during the sex:

Iggy dug his fingers into Matt’s back. Matt thrust his hips forward, and their cocks rubbed together. God. God. Goose bumps broke out everywhere, and Matt groaned, his heart rate and anticipation mounting. He knew sweet release would come disastrously fast, but he didn’t care much. This was so damn good, and Iggy seemed to be right there with him, grunting and biting now.

Except for the unnecessary “sweet” here, I loved this scene. Most of the sex was very well done.

Overall, this book could have been so much better. The characters themselves were great. I really enjoyed watching them have dates together, to be honest, when they were just talking. But the book as a whole never really gelled for me, mainly because I could see the potential there and was frustrated with what was should have been there, rather than with what existed.

Grade: C


Sunita: This book is a great example of how two readers can see entirely different things in a story. My grade is not that different from Sarah’s, but for very different reasons, and I would recommend this book for certain readers.

First, the baseball. I know the author is a big baseball fan (she talks about it in the front matter of this book, among other places), and so I was looking forward to a romance that got the sports right. In some parts she succeeds, but in others, not so much. The camaraderie of professional athletes is really well done. I enjoyed the locker room scenes with the other members of the team, and a later scene in the hospital was just terrific, in part because the author took it in a totally different direction than I expected. But I had two gripes about other aspects, as well as a third I share with Sarah. The shared gripe is that their salaries are barely mentioned. These dudes are really rich. We all know what star athletes get paid, and even the MLB minimum is nothing to sneeze at. So can we please not pretend that they’re anything other than totally loaded? Make it something Iggy is getting used to, but don’t treat it as unimportant.

My big complaint is that the protagonists don’t seem to concentrate very much when they’re in a game, or in the late season and playoffs. They wind up in the ALCS, but they’re thinking about their romance. When they walk up to the plate, they’re thinking about each other or something related. When they’re in the field, they’re making eyes at each other. Really? Once in a while, okay. But it happens over and over again. It really detracted from the verisimilitude of some of the scenes. Pro athletes spend their entire lives preparing to get to the top. That takes a very high level of focus and compartmentalization (for most of them).

My small complaint is that the strategy within the games, which is sometimes important for the plot, sometimes doesn’t make sense. When Matt hurts his knee, it’s when he breaks from third to home. On an infield popup with one out. That kind of boneheaded running play would get you chewed out in Little League, let alone MLB. And there are other descriptions of play that had me shaking my head. It’s tough to satisfy both baseball aficionados and those who don’t care, and mostly the author does a good job. Perhaps because of that, the little things stood out.

OK, the romance. Unlike Sarah, I definitely thought this was a genre romance. Maybe it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been, but I saw both internal and external conflicts. The problems of being a gay athlete are analogous to external conflicts in historical romances, e.g., class, race, religion, and another similarity is the way in which external issues create internal conflicts to be resolved.

One of the reasons sports settings work so well in m/m is that the closet is a requirement, not an option, in most (male) professional team sports. The fear of being discovered, the fear of your teammates turning on you, all that is very real and ever-present. And I thought the age difference and the fact that they were at opposite ends of their careers made for an interesting internal conflict, giving it a Star Is Born quality. The internal conflict wasn’t as well developed as it could have been, and I would have liked to see more of Matt’s post-baseball issues and how they affected the couple. I did think the two big coming-out scenes were really well done. I’ve read two earlier books by this author, I felt these scenes were far better integrated here.

Matt and Iggy were thoroughly appealing characters, which again is a feature of this author’s books (I have liked every one of her main characters). They could have been a little less loveable, to be honest. And a couple of the supporting characters verged on stereotypes (please, authors, middle-aged mothers do not have to be From Hell or From Heaven).

I can see why so many readers loved this book. Once I got over my baseball-related niggles and there were more interactions with the other baseball team members, I quite enjoyed the story.

Grade: B-