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Book Review: Rarer Than Rubies

Rarer Than Rubies

EM Lynley

When Trent Copeland runs into Reed Acton at a Bangkok airport, he thinks the handsome American is too good to be true. Why would someone like Reed be interested in a quiet, introverted gay-romance writer? After all, even an obvious tourist like Trent can see that there is more to Reed’s constant unexplained appearances in his path than meets the eye.

Reed Acton has one mission and one mission only—he needs to get the map that was accidentally slipped into Trent’s bag and keep the mobsters who want the priceless artifact from taking deadly revenge. Trent Copeland is a delicious and damned near irresistible diversion, but Reed can’t afford distractions right now, especially if he wants to keep Trent safe.

From Bangkok’s seediest back alleys to the sacred north, the two men will fight to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and learn that the only treasure worth finding is… each other.

I found this to be a very enjoyable read.  It was a mix of gay erotic romance and globe-trotting adventure — and as I’m a fan of adventure and thrillers that span the world, this was a nice treat.  I found the plot and writing to be nicely complex — not as overly complex as these thriller/adventure books can sometimes be, but also not flat-out straight-forward.  The mix of elements and plot style made for an entertaining read.

There were times where I felt the prose could have been tightened and cleaned a bit, but the pacing and story kept me going along.  As well, I’m not usually one for details in writing, but Rarer Than Rubies could have benefitted from some more descriptive passages about Thailand and the streets of Bangkok.

Both Trent and Reed were well-crafted viewpoint characters.  Trent starts as a naive romance writer who is in many ways the stereotypical gay guy (multiple types of body wash, fancy clothes, etc), but he grows and develops nicely through the story.  That amount of character growth he undergoes could easily have come off as forced, as it is considerable, but Lynley carries it off ably.  I have to say that I was quite hesitant when I saw that Trent is a romance writer — in the few books I’ve read where the author writes a character with a career the author personally has, I find it comes off as a bit lame.  (I disliked the author main character in Stephen King’s The Dark Half, the minister main character in Prophet by Christian fiction author Frank E Peretti, or the semi-autobiographical Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card.)  So, I did get off to a weak start with Trent as a character, but quickly warmed up to him, as Lynley crafted Trent well. Reed is an interesting character as we are never too sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy — but Lynley gets the reader to care about him before we find out his true motivations, so when we find out he’s good, it’s a nice payoff for the trust the reader invested.

Rarer Than Rubies is one of those rarer romance books that manages to deftly meld two genres — romance and, in this case, adventure — into a satisfying whole.  It was definitely worth the read and I will be picking up its sequel, Italian Ice, soon.

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Book Review: Moonlight, Tiger, and Smoke

Moonlight, Tiger, and Smoke

Connie Bailey

Taken from their families and raised to be assassins, Moonlight and Tiger are the perfect weapons and secret lovers. Even when they are sent into service with different clans, their love remains pure and strong until a more insidious threat divides them.

When Moonlight realizes his master is manipulating people for his own ends, the discovery threatens not only Tiger, but their entire society. Betrayed by a fellow assassin, the men are tortured and broken. If their love and their people are going to survive, one of them will have to defy everything he knows and stand up for the only thing he believes is real: Love.

This novel was an unexpected delight.  I wasn’t too sure about it going in as the blurb didn’t pull me in too strongly.  The boys, soon renamed as Moonlight and Tiger, are taken from their families, along with four other children, at age six to pay debt to a mysterious organization.  They are raised to be assassins, and as they grow older, they are split up into the various divisions that they are naturally suited for, training in this new division with specialized skills.  Tiger is Iron Tribe — the ones that seem to do the killing for this Shadow group.  Moonlight is Rose Tribe, trained to be the sexual weapons for Shadow.  And Smoke, the next most important of the six boys, joins Feather Tribe, a sort of diplomatic corps for Shadow.

Moonlight and Smoke form an instant connection upon meeting after being kidnapped.  That connection grows as they age, evolving into a true and deep love.  But, as they are in separate tribes, they are not to see each other.  Even if they could, there are supposed to be no romantic relationships among agents.

This book was an interesting read as it was very reminiscent of Warchild by Karin Lowachee, a favourite book of mine, that also followed children kidnapped and trained.  Given that comparison, I held Moonlight, Tiger, and Smoke to some pretty high standards.  I’m pleased to say that it did a good job of reaching for those standards.  I quickly came to know and love the characters — they were vividly created.  The book occasionally jumps forward several years at a time, and does so in an effective way — we suddenly catch up with the (often surprising) changes that the characters have undergone and how this does or does not affect the pre-existing relationship.

I did find the Shadow (their organisation) a bit hazy and undefined.  I wasn’t quite sure who they were or even what their purpose was.  We see them and the work they do, but we don’t know why they do it.  Are they removing agents from enemy organisations? Are they sort of scouring society of its ills?  Is it something else going on?  We don’t really find out until close to the end that they believe they are an agency of good that is attempting to remove the bad from the world — and that the organization has lost its way.  But because this is unclear for most of the book, the “enemy” is also unclear, which creates a bit of a structural weakness to the book.

The setting, especially in terms of time, is a bit unclear, too.  They are trained in a setting that seems far back, but then they interact with the wider world in what seems to be the present, and then the final few pages (which is sort of “this is what happened after the book ended”) seems to indicate it happened in the past.  I’m still uncertain.  The use of cellphones would indicate its present day, but the use of a wood stove to heat an elementary school would indicate its the past.

And the only other weak point was the use of magic.  The head of Shadow is often referred to as a wizard, but we never really get any sense of magic until close to the end.  Even then, it seems to be more of a power transfer from one person to the other and not much beyond that.  So, in the end, the use of magic seemed to be a bit out of place — this story could have stood just as strong, perhaps even stronger, if the magic weren’t included.

But this story is about more than plot.  This story is about characters and the love they have for one another.  And that, Connie Bailey has done extremely well.  (Side note: She writes the gay sex scenes very well, too.  They are quite hot.)  The reader really gets to know the characters and care for them.  And even though the details of the plot are a bit hazy, it is still exciting and carries the reader along for the ride.

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Book Review: Best Gay Erotica 2013

Best Gay Erotica 2013

Edited by Richard Labonte

Best Gay Erotica 2013 adds another jewel in the crown to what novelist Paul Russell calls an “invaluable series.”  A straight-acting Italian Stallion has a badly-kept secret in Davem Verne’s “The Pasta Closet.”  Douglas A. Martin’s “Other Residences, Other Neighbourhoods” follows a young newcomer from Brooklyn to Chelsea as he chases boys and something like love.  A physics major gets the hazing of a lifetime (and comes back for more) at the frat house in Geoffrey Knight’s “Fight Club.”  From gay superheroes to not-so-innocent farm hands, burly bears and fuzzy cubs, Best Gay Erotica 2013 makes a nice and slow one-handed read.

I’ve been a fan of Richard Labonte’s erotica anthologies since I first picked one up about a year ago.  There’s always an intriguing mix of stories set in varying locales and with an assortment of character types.  Labonte pieces together anthologies that have something for every reader.

This was no exception.  While there are stories that I did not care for, the overall quality was consistently high.  Among my favourites are “Fight Cub,” mentioned in the back cover blurb above — it reads like a pornographic fantasy — a shy twink has hot jocks fighting over him, with the hottest of the hot fighting the hardest.  “Fight Cub” is a smooth and fun read — highly sexual and erotic, but also humorous, especially since the twink helps the jock in the fight by spouting off physics laws.

Another excellent entry was “Night Visit” by Barry Alexander.  This is a thinly veiled Batman and Robin slashfic.  It wasn’t until the end that I began to wonder if it was the dark knight and his boy wonder — and the reference to superheroes on the back cover seems to confirm my suspicion (as no other stories involved superheroes).  Retrospectively, this adds a new level of heat to “Night Visit.”  Picturing Batman and Robin having a wild night creates some very erotic imagery and Alexander pulls it off well.

The stories that were personal low points for me in this anthology were by no means weak stories — they featured body types I do not particularly find attractive or sexual practices that do not tend to excite me.  Despite this, I still enjoyed the “weaker” stories, so it doesn’t feel appropriate to even label them as “weak” since they weren’t weak, they just didn’t turn my crank.

I read this anthology with a bit more of a critical eye than I have with anthologies in the past, as I am preparing for a workshop in August in which I will be discussing how to write a sex scene.  As part of my research, I have read a heterosexual anthology, as well as a lesbian one.  I’ve found the differences between the three types to be quite interesting — and while having read only one anthology each of heterosexual and lesbian erotica is hardly a representative sample, I think it still does give a general idea of what that branch of the erotica tree is like.

Gay erotica seems to revel in the pornographic fantasy — but more toward the dark and gritty, the anonymous and nameless.  While heterosexual erotica also seems to revel in pornographic fantasies, they tend to be cleaner and less often of the 100% anonymous type.  Lesbian erotica, from the book I read, tended to more often feature realistic characters (as in, they’re like people you know) and generally in safer locations, such as the house or apartment.  Gay erotica is often set in bathhouses, back alleys, and outdoors in relatively public places.  One story in this anthology, in particular, seemed to imply unprotected sex with someone that has an STD of some sort — and this was eroticized, something which I’ve not seen paralleled in the hetero or lesbian stories.  (Though, to be fair, I can’t recall ever reading of unsafe STD sex in gay erotica either.)  In the next couple weeks, I’ll put together a longer post that explores the differences and similarities between these three types of erotica… I’ve still got some thoughts forming…

Back to the review: Best Gay Erotica 2013 was a fun read, full of steamy and throbbing tales.  The collection has a nice variety of not only body types and fantasies, but also of writing styles and approaches.  Some are a bit more experimental, such as “Other Residences, Other Neighbourhoods,” as described in the blurb above.  Some take themselves seriously, whereas others, like “Fight Cub,” take themselves with a wink and a nod.  This series is definitely worth the annual read.

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GLBT Characters in Mainstream Fiction

If I want to read a book with an accurate portrayal of GLBT characters, I’m best going with something that is specifically marketed as GLBT fiction.  But why should I have to do that?  We all know that GLBT persons are a component of society and are in every aspect of our lives, yet we for some reason largely exclude them from mainstream fiction.  (And I’m using “mainstream fiction” to mean anything other than that which is specifically labelled as GBLT fiction.)

GLBT characters have been very few and far-between in the mainstream fiction I’ve read in the past couple years.  Perhaps that’s why GLBT fiction thrives?  Because if someone wants to read about GLBT characters, they know they have to turn to GLBT fiction?

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason for the scarcity is because heterosexual writers are intimidated by the prospect of a GLBT character.  If s/he has no experience with homosexuality, how can s/he write a homosexual character?  I don’t buy this as an entirely valid excuse.  A great number of gay romance novels are written by heterosexual authors.  While a GLBT character can have a certain authenticity when written by a GLBT author, it is not an exclusive ability.

I also sometimes wonder if it’s because heterosexual authors generally do not think to include GLBT characters.  Again, I don’t buy this.  White authors write about characters of other races.  Local authors write about characters in other places.  (Sorry for the rhyming sentences, this isn’t turning into a Dr. Seuss poem, don’t worry.)  So if an author’s imagination can conceive of all sorts of characters and locations outside of their general experience, then why don’t they include GLBT characters, when, presumably, they personally know GLBT people in their workplaces, families, and friends?

And, again, I have another wondering.  Perhaps authors don’t include GLBT characters because they worry that highlighting such might make that character a “token gay.”  While that can be a real concern (and I can actually accept this reason, though disapprove of fear holding people back), it can easily be overcome by following one simple rule: treat GLBT characters the same way you treat straight characters.

We all fall in love.  We all go on dates.  We all have successes and failures with our relationships.  We all have families.  And we are not defined by our sexuality or relationships.  We all have jobs, we all have commitments, we all volunteer, and we all have friends.

Straight characters make references to their husbands and wives, they mention dates they’ve been on, and they refer to their family — authors can do the exact same thing with GLBT characters, just by switching the gender of the pronoun.

While I find GLBT characters rare, they have not been entirely absent.

In George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (the Game of Thrones series), it is implied that Renly and Loras are gay.  However, this is so subtle in the book that I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it weren’t for the gay scene in show.

And the Star Trek books have included GLBT characters in the last several years.  Well, G&L characters.  While I applaud the regular and appropriate inclusion of sexuality in Star Trek fiction, I am somewhat exasperated by the quality of gay relationships.  Each and every single gay person in Star Trek fiction, at least from my recollection, is happily married.  The straight characters date, get married, break up, and have relationship troubles, but the gay characters present an ideal relationship where everything is perfect.  It’s not quite reality.  I’d like to see a gay character go on a date and not like the guy by the end of the day.  I’d like to see a one-night stand (because we’ve seen so many of the heterosexual characters love em and leave em *cough*Kirk*cough*Riker*cough*).

Just once (though preferably more than once), I would love to read of a transgendered character, where being transgender is just an aspect of the person’s identity and the story is not actually about being transgender.  Like… a murder mystery where the detective is M-to-F.

Movies have gotten ahead of fiction in this regard.  There have been some wonderful characters in all sorts of shows and films who are gay, lesbian, and bisexual and their sexuality does not define who they are as a character.  I haven’t seen any transgender characters that I’m aware of, but I have no doubt that at least some of those characters were handled with care and respect and were stronger for the struggles they’ve been through.

Including GLBT characters in fiction is not difficult and, really, writing does not reflect reality if all of the characters are straight.  I think we’ve managed to reach a certain level of diversity in our fiction, particularly in racial diversity (though a lot of sci-fi is still a mainly-white cast, which I don’t think reflects where society is going), but we need to push the envelope a little more and bring in other diversities.

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