Batch o’ book reviews, now with 40% more irreverence

I probably should have posted sooner, just to say that no, my plane did not go down over the Pacific, and yes, I got out of Japan (three weeks) before the quake. But mostly I’ve been busy, what with all this READING, HOLY MOLY, there are BOOKS EVERYWHERE and they’re in ENGLISH and if I want to read a particular book I can go to a LIBRARY where they have books in ENGLISH and I can go CHECK IT OUT, RIGHT NOW, oh my GOD.

Oh yeah, and I got a job translating smartphone apps. That means I can work from home, and also I can wear eyeliner and never shave. Happy days!

Back to the books. So there’s a distressing trend I’ve noticed recently, namely that nothing thrills me anymore. When I was a teenager I had terrible and indiscriminate taste in books so I could read anything, all the time, and be perfectly content. These days, the bar is set so high that I find myself not bothering to finish half the crap I pick up, on account of it being crap, crap, mediocre, or offensive and also crap. Oh, to be young and stupid and not know the difference again. ;_;

But hey, everyone likes to hear shitty books get panned!

Let’s start with The Chimney Sweeper, because it runs the gamut between laughably bad and appallingly bad. (I should have known better, really — no book with headless male torsos on the cover is going to be a masterpiece.) It’s almost a shame that I already returned it to the library and so I can’t mine it for more quotable lines, but FEAR NOT, I saved you a treasure.

The story kicks off with a heaping helping of trans-fail when the protagonist — a cocky, egocentric, hypocritical, self-hating homophobe of a runaway teenager — murders a transsexual. Hoooo, realistic that may be (what with violence against trans people SIXTEEN TIMES HIGHER than even violence against gays), but it does very little to endear this character to me. You, sir, had better do something goddamn amazing if you hope to win me back.

Hahahahahaha — no. Rather the opposite, in fact. Unless by “amazing” you mean “get raped by a truck driver” or “overshare about the exact dimensions of his dick.” This book is like the gift that keeps on giving, for people who enjoy such hobbies as stapling their hands to the wall.

The protagonist has absolutely nothing to recommend him, tedious and narcissistic, with a sense of entitlement big enough to have its own zip code, and not a thought in his empty head except where he’s going to stick his dick next. Every other conversation he has seems to go like this:

Other person: [blah blah blah–]
Protagonist: “No, I know what you really want. Uh huh — my DICK.”
Other person: “Uh… what?”

The prose would be competent enough, except this author is apparently taking his descriptive cues from INTERNET PORN, I KID YOU NOT.

For example, where a normal person might write something like, “He leaned against the counter.” This guy would go, “He leaned his tight, luscious bubble butt against the counter.” Why have someone “sit down” when you could have him “sit down, with the hard outline of his thick, 8-inch cock showing clearly through his jeans”?

Sexiest of the sexytimes lines though? “I was obsessed with the idea of getting him to chow down on my bratwurst.”

Laughed so hard I died. Oh, and all that? Was from like the first 3 chapters.

Counter-rec: Either Boulevard or Dream Boy, by Jim Grimsley
You want tawdry 80s gay subculture? You want fucked-up Southern families? Jim Grimsley has you covered, and goddamn nobody beats Jim Grimsley for gay despair and fucked-up Southern families, especially not some punk with freaking torsos on his book covers.

***

Oh shit here comes Arslan

Written in 1976, showing its age in its unexamined prejudices. Dictator dude named Arslan (from some invented -stan country) rolls into a small town in Indiana where the point-of-view character lives and is like O HAI GUYS, GUESS WHAT, I RUN AMERICA NOW. NICE TOWN U GOT HERE, CAN I HAVE IT? YEAH THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT. ^_^ How he got there isn’t the important part; it’s about the psychological process of finding yourself without the liberties you always took for granted, dealing with fear and uncertainty and the unthinkable happening right in front of you, and the impotent rage of hating the fuck out of someone that you are absolutely powerless to fight. It’s a premise with potential. It’s clearly written by someone who knows how to sling words together. So why’d I stop reading it, right?

1) Bad Religion Bullshit

Arslan: “Do you know what’s wrong with this world?”
Protagonist: “Not enough Christianity.”
Me: “OH NO YOU DIDN’T. IT IS ON NOW, MOTHERFUCKER.”

Although the weird part was how he followed up on that assertion with… absolutely nothing. Like, I wouldn’t have agreed but I would have understood if he’d proceeded to explain that the world would be a better place if Christian values of mercy and charity and generosity prevailed. (Values which, let it be said, Christians do not have the monopoly on, and Christian prejudices have always swung a far weightier political stick than Christian virtues.) He doesn’t even do that though, just moves right along. The author seriously, totally took it for granted that everyone in the audience would agree with him, that what he said was just self-evidently true.

Oh, and Arslan? Is Muslim, by the by. A Muslim fascist conqueror who publicly rapes underage girls and boys (with their parents in the audience), tortures pretty women for kicks, conscripts American sons for his armies and American daughters for his whorehouses, and this wasn’t even a quarter of the way into the book, do I really need to keep going?

Now, I’m not a fan of banning books. But seriously, I wish I could put this on lockdown or something because it is exactly the sort of bullshit that we DO NOT NEED right now. In the current political climate, you know that some asscrazy would read that and be like YES, ZOMG THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT MUSLINS WANT TO DO TO AMERICA. MUST BUY FIFTY MOAR GUNS. The only silver lining to this fail parade is that those people don’t read anything except Dan Brown and maybe Ayn Rand.

2) I was reading it for the gay booklist, and I’d really like to know on whose advice it snuck into the queue, so I can go flick them in the eye. Indiscriminate sadism != bisexuality, gtfo.

3) Because despite that bullshit, it is well-written. It gets into your headspace and makes you feel what it is to be that angry, that scared, that helpless. Which could be awesome, if not for all crap that throws me out of the story and sets my teeth on edge, re: smug religious superiority, Muslim as code for evil, and homosexuality also as code for evil, just another notch in his evil, evil bedpost.

PS – Orson Scott Card loves this book. In case you weren’t put off it yet.

Counter-rec: A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
So the world needs more Christianity, does it? ARE YOU SURE?

***

So why read Arslan when you could read Blindsight ~~ aka VAMPIRES IN DEEP SPACE

I was griping to a friend of mine that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to vampires and her response was, “Have you read Blindsight?” And Peter Watts does indeed bring some friggin’ cool ideas to the table. A marine biologist by trade (and the guy who recently went head to head with flesh-eating bacteria, don’t click that if you’re squeamish, no really I mean it), he juxtaposes vampires and the dilemma of defining humanity and sentience with a creepy-as-fuck first contact story, bringing in some really clever ideas from several different disciplines, from linguistics to psychology to evolutionary biology, the works. (I confess, my linguistic little soul had a nerdgasm at the part where they’re first trying to communicate with the aliens.)

Rec: Blindsight, by Peter Watts
It’s more hard sci-fi than vampire fiction per se, but I think it should be required reading if you’re going to write about vampires — Watts puts a unique spin on them, and you’d do yourself a favor to have his ideas kicking around in your head.

***

Meanwhile, on the bisexual regency side of town: PHYLLIDA AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF PHILANDER

Oh, man. So I like me some Georgette Heyer as much as the next person who likes non-sucky regency, but she is quite predictably heterosexual. One day I was reading some Heyer book and I thought, Man, you know what’d be totally sweet? If that dude started banging his groom. They could have a rocking clandestine romance, compounded of course by the perennial problem of people expecting this dude to get with the married and get with the baby-making. So I googled “gay regency” and found this gem.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be less of a gem and more of a sparkly thing you see on the sidewalk and try to pick up but is actually a half-melted jolly rancher that was probably in some kid’s mouth earlier and is now covered in syphilis or whatever and your hand is all sticky and you have tissues but no wet wipes, so you’re pretty much boned.

It kicks off with the main dude, Andrew, waking up in bed with a barely-legal twink (which… Havemercy, though I love you dearly and absolve you of the same sin, is not a classy way to start a book), establishing right off the bat that he hot and hot-for-men. Then, like many an ex-gay (who usually become ex-ex-gays) he conflates sexual preference with bad lifestyle choices and decides that he wants to marry a lady. I was fine with all this, despite some faltering prose, because hey, some men did that.

But then he meets Phyllida and is suddenly like OMG, I AM HOT FOR YOUR LADYBITS LIKE I HAVE NEVER BEEN HOT FOR LADYBITS BEFORE, like, enough to demi-rape her after they’re married, which… huh?

You know what, I’m not even going to touch that shit, because frankly, this author is NOT GOOD ENOUGH to handle as fraught and loaded an issue as domestic rape with the intelligence and psychological insight it deserves. Her treatment of it is superficial, brings nothing new to the table, and is not worth talking about. (How do I keep winding up with all these rape books, wtf.)

So, moving on — apparently he’s bi, which is fine, but how the hell did it take him so long to notice? If women turn his crank this hard, why isn’t he already married? What is this, late-onset bisexuality?

From there it pretty much turns into stupid shenanigans and people running the idiot ball into the fucking endzone, dialogue and prose that reads like bad fanfic, and DEJA VU because I already read this book and it was called Sylvester, only with less gay sex and also characters who didn’t suck. Seriously. She lifted the character templates (must-get-married nobleman + aspiring authoress) and even the subplot (“Shit, I wrote him into my book as a villain, and he’ll be so pissed if ever reads it!”) wholesale from Heyer (who is too dead to object) and gayed it up and it STILL wasn’t good enough to finish, which really says something. (I didn’t actually get to the gay romance part, but rumor has it that another dude turns up to be the trois in their menage.)

My other complaint was how the author didn’t seem to have a credible grasp on Regency attitudes toward homosexuality (seriously, at that point in history, “sodomy” was a criminal act and “sodomite” was a goddamn job description, not an identity flag that people rallied around). Andrew thought and behaved more like a modern gay man would than a man of that time period. I also found his late-onset bisexuality kind of unbelievable, because he does treat sodomite as an identity, even though he shouldn’t have, and yet he doesn’t feel threatened or confused by his feelings for Phyllida, even though they fly in the face of everything he defines himself as. He’s not even like “Yay, I’m cured!”, as I’m sure many gay men of the time desperately wanted to be, he’s like “NNNGH, PUSSY!”

News flash — “gay” dudes do fall for ladies sometimes, and they’re as uncertain and weirded out by it as “straight” people who inexplicably find themselves in love with someone of the same sex. And while the latter story has been done to death (Hallo, yaoi! fanfic!) the former has not. This premise had so much potential to do things that are actualfax new and fresh, and then the execution had to go and be so much fail.

Counter-rec: Sylvester, by Georgette Heyer
Just imagine that he’s also banging his footman or whatever, and BAM, instant Phyllida & etc.

18 thoughts on “Batch o’ book reviews, now with 40% more irreverence

  1. Peter Watts is actually really cool in person, too. He’s friends with one of my former clients, and that led me to have a delightful four hour conversation in a bar with him and David Edelman a few years ago. I think you’d like him a lot in person.

  2. Welcome back! You have made my morning. I spent half of yesterday making book recs for my library at our online fest of fun known as Facebook day. I can’t say any of the above books would have made the cut … except for Sylvester, which I dearly love.

    Little rec from a librarian. If you’re looking for historical novels with gay protagonists try Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey books. Excellent mysteries, great progtag, interesting perspective as well on 18th c. society and the military.

    Back to Heyer for a moment. Have you read These Old Shades? Tell me Alastair and his housemate, Hugh, whom he calls “my dear,” aren’t involved. ;-)

  3. there are BOOKS EVERYWHERE and they’re in ENGLISH and if I want to read a particular book I can go to a LIBRARY where they have books in ENGLISH and I can go CHECK IT OUT, RIGHT NOW, oh my GOD.

    I had this exact same reaction. I promptly went to the library, borrowed 20+ books, and have been trying to catch up ever since.

  4. Really? None of my recs except Sylvester? ;)

    Ahhh, Diana Gabaldon. I read Outlander a few years back, when it was not exactly *recommended* by a friend, but highlighted as a book that seriously defied some of the basic conventions of the romance novel genre. (“So he’s a virgin when they get married, and she’s not, and then he literally sacrifices his ass to save hers.”) I remember thinking that it was competently written and going “Huh, that was… different” when I finished, but I never felt the need to read the next one.

    And then Ms. Gabaldon made headlines with her ill-advised rant against fanfiction, which is really like kicking your fans in the face and then expecting sympathy because your foot hurts, and it’s been lolz ever since. Are these John Grey books actually any good? Because the husband-raping gay villain from Outlander did not imbue me with confidence in her ability to handle gay characters.

    I have not, in fact, read These Old Shades. I’ll get on that. At the LIBRARY. :D

    When I was living in Japan, without a credit card, I was constrained by what I could find non-shitty pirated ebooks of, which was… four of them? The Grand Sophie, Frederica, Sylvester, and Venetia, I believe.

  5. No, the husband-raping villain wasn’t a villain because he was gay, he was a villain because he was a totally sick human being! Lord John is an entirely sympathetic (well, most of the time, though he has his snarky and less than virtuous moments), gay character with human flaws. I find him quite likable. Gabaldon had done her research into the era. Plus, the mysteries are pretty good, too.

  6. No, the husband-raping villain wasn’t a villain because he was gay, he was a villain because he was a totally sick human being

    Oh, I know, and I have no objection to gay villains. The problem is when gay characters are otherwise unrepresented, and all the ones who do show up just happen to be evil — that’s when you start getting into Unfortunate Implications territory. If she’s balanced her evil gay villain with a likable gay protagonist, then that’s cool. I just hadn’t seen anything in Outlander to make me give her the benefit of the doubt.

    Long story short, I’m sold. Which book should I start on?

  7. Heeeeeh, I’m still glad Blindsight spoke to you btw. ;) It’s just so much of a different take, and we get vampires without the other supernatural stuff kicking around, too. Or maybe it once did and they were extinct, too. Doesn’t make the grafts and whatnot any less creepy though.

  8. Okay, just finished the second one. I agree: I like Lord John a lot, he’s smart and snarky and believable, and the mysteries are very interesting.

    I hate Jamie goddamn Fraser. His presence (and Grey’s embarrassing, unrequited, unwarranted, authorial-strings-showing obsession with him) is poisoning my enjoyment of the series.

    And I’m angry with the way Gabaldon wrote Percy out of it — yeah, it’s nice that Grey finally decided to man up and save his boyfriend’s life, but the fact that it happens offstage, that someone else does the actual rescuing, and Grey never even goes to visit him — what the fuck? Gabaldon is a romance writer, however much she denies it, and you KNOW that if this had been between her lady-protagonist and Jamie goddamn Fraser there would have been drama and grand gestures in spades, but apparently Lord John’s love affairs aren’t worth the same consideration.

    Christ, I am seeing red. I really really want to read the third one — please tell me that Jamie Fraser fucks off and Grey gets to have a legitimate romance? >_<

  9. Lord John is also obsessed with Jamie. I think it is in Voyager that Jamie and Lord John kiss. Jamie to say thank you, but no thank you. I don’t think he realized how devastating that was to John.

    I’m pretty sure John hasn’t found his true love yet. I suspect he will. I don’t think it happens in the third book. Perhaps Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner (due out in August) will shed some light on the future.

    I just love Lord John and I wish Gabaldon would realize that her readers do, too, and they aren’t just reading the books for Jamie Fraser. She should take a hint from Suzanne Brockmann whose son is gay, and therefore writes very sympathetically about her characters.

    Brockmann’s primary readers are in it for the usual het, but when I warned one sweet old lady that there were elements of gay romance in her books, she gave me a wicked smile and said, “I know, dear. Jules is HOT.”

    Knock me over with a feather! LOL.

  10. Sigh. Yeah, the overwhelming impression I got was that she expected everyone to like Fraser, but I couldn’t stand him, and so I had no patience whatsoever with Grey’s crush on him. I wanted to shake Gabaldon and be like, “NOT EVERYONE’S IN LOVE WITH YOUR HUSBAND.”

    Just — GAH. — the part where he’s torn about what to do with Percy, and his solution is to go talk to Jamie goddamn Fraser….! What the fuck does Fraser have to do with any of that?! I would have traded gold to see him go to Newgate for a gut-wrenching scene with Percy.

    I ran into a similar problem with the Wraeththu books, which I adored, except for one character — the fly in the ointment — named Pellaz, who (like Fraser) sends me into incoherent fits of rage. Unfortunately, he’s a central figure in the entire Wraeththu world and the one that my favorite character is obsessed/in love with.

    I am glad to hear there’s going to be more of it, because that means that Grey might yet get an OTP. I’m just going to have to get you to vet them for me first. ;) (Although “…& the Scottish Prisoner” doesn’t sound like it’s going to help with the rage-making any.)

  11. This is awesome! I’m a librarian and I LOVE booklists. I’ve ordered the Karin Lowachee and the Tanya Huff. Some of the others, I’ve read.

    You know how I feel about Swordspoint. I have to keep ordering a copy in at my branch so I can recommend it. Thank you!

  12. The titles you’ve mentioned are all the ones that got my TOP PICK stamp of approval. Methinks you have good taste in books. ;)

    You will LOVE Lowachee. I have yet to meet anyone who wasn’t blown away by her.

  13. I should have it in my hands by Wednesday or Thursday. I try to read a bit of everything except traditional “women’s fiction,” which depresses the heck out of me. Reading about Liquor made me hungry! I loved some of the menu items, and The protagonists were just perfect.

    I love libraries! I was happy to find Lowachee was available, and not hard to get at all.

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