Queer Book Club: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to You coverWhat Belongs to You is (adult) gay contemporary fiction. It’s taken me a little while to review this one as I needed to let it settle. It’s a tough read, not because of the style or the length—it’s a fairly short novel and elegantly written—but because watching the main character manhandle their emotions and cycle through their self-loathing is difficult to witness. If those don’t sound like things you want to read about, this isn’t the book for you.

The story is about an American teacher living in Sofia, who starts an on-off relationship with a young sex worker, Mitko. The narrator (who I don’t think is ever named) becomes fixated with Mitko, but their relationship is always an uneasy one, complicated by the narrator’s self-loathing and their uneven economic status. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the narrator is far from easy with himself, that likely every decision he’s made in adulthood has been complicated by feelings left over from his childhood and his father’s rejection of his sexuality. I thought the emotional layering was well done. The way the narrator constantly fails to make the best choices for himself creeps up on you with slow frustration and then begins to make sense when more of his past is revealed.

The only thing I didn’t get on with, and this is more a visual discomfort thing for me, is that there are no paragraphs in the middle section of the novel. It’s a retrospective section about the narrator’s adolescence and his complicated relationship both with his own sexuality and with his father. Whilst perhaps the format reflects that mire of emotions, it made my eyes hurt and I’m not grateful for that.

Overall, this is a fairly heavy read, but it’s worth it for Greenwell’s handling of the ways our past shapes our present. I like the unreliable narrator and I’m interested in the ways we lie to ourselves about our own emotions. I also like a book that pulls the reader into the atmosphere and emotion, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s a book that leaves readers the space to do some working out for themselves and I think it’s worth the effort.

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Queer Book Club: Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Regeneration cover

An actual book review from me, for a change. I’m rather late to the party with these ones, as they were published in the 90s, and the first one has since been made into a film, but I enjoyed them so much I thought I’d dust off my reviewing hat and recommend them here. I’ll cover the whole trilogy in one review, as I read them back to back in a frenzy of enthusiasm, and would now probably fail to separate them very well. The trilogy is adult historical fiction, comprised of: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

The trilogy is set during WW1 and begins in the Craiglockheart Hospital, where Dr W.H.R. Rivers is treating soldiers experiencing battlefield trauma. The characters are a mixture of historical figures, including Rivers, and the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, as well as fictional characters, such as Billy Prior, who becomes the focus of the second and third novels in the trilogy. The trilogy doesn’t shirk from featuring the sexuality of the characters, particularly as the trilogy progresses.

What I liked most about this trilogy is the way Barker tackles the subject matter with compassion, but not sentimentality. The characters are complex, often difficult, and morally conflicted. There are no easy answers served up for any of them, and their understanding, both of themselves and the world around them is always a hard-won thing. Billy is a brilliantly drawn character—acutely aware of the class divide he awkwardly straddles, as an officer from a working class background, at peace with his bisexuality, but troubled by his sadistic desires, wryly self-aware of his own limitations in some ways, whilst self-deluding in other ways. Whilst the portrayals of the historical figures were interesting and well done, it was Billy that really made the trilogy for me.

This is human nature, in all its messy complexity. These books have gone straight onto my list of favourites. I can’t recommend them enough.

More queer fiction reviews coming up in the near future, as I have some on my reading pile.

Queer Book Club: The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

The Magpie Lord cover

The Magpie Lord is an adult M/M fantasy romance, set in an alternative regency era Britain where magic exists. Magician, Stephen Day, is employed by Lucien Vaudrey, Lord Crane, to resolve a curse. Lucien’s late father and brother ruined Stephen’s father and he’s not keen to work for Lucien, but it seems that Lucien also suffered and was exiled at their hands. Having spent most of his life in Singapore, living on his wits, Lucien turns out not to be the typical spoiled aristocrat Stephen expects. And Stephen’s father is not the only one to have suffered at their hands.

I picked this up as I read a review that suggested it was the M/M romance version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, one of my favourite books. It isn’t that. It’s much more straightforward and less detailed than Susanna Clarke’s novel, but it’s probably an unfair comparison. The world building and magic is still well done and makes up the majority of the plot. I found the curse and its origins to be interesting and complex enough to hold my attention throughout. The magical world is original and fully realised. I always enjoy a fantasy setting the breaks from the traditional medieval one.

Although there’s some steamy chemistry between the two male leads, it’s one of those romances that teases much more than it delivers. There was also more of a hint of power exchange in the relationship than materialised, although I still enjoyed it. This is part of a series (A Charm of Magpies) and I’m told there’s much more smut in follow-ups. I’ll admit to being a little impatient where this sort of thing is concerned, so it might not bother other readers. There’s plenty of plot to keep you entertained, anyway.

Overall, it’s worth a look for the fantasy side of things and if you like romance that teases and makes you wait. I enjoyed the dynamic between the two leads, though I felt some of the chemistry was created by a promise that wasn’t entirely delivered upon.

Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dreamquest of Vellitt Boe cover

Weird fiction novella inspired by Lovecraft’s dreamlands story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. When her student, Clarie Jurat, goes missing from college, Professor Vellitt Boe of Ulthar Women’s Collage goes on a quest to find her, through the dreamlands and out into the unfamiliar waking world.

I love the premise of this story—a weird fiction odyssey with an older woman protagonist, redressing the complete absence of women in Lovecraft’s original, and a switch around of what is strange and other, with Vellitt coming from the dreamlands and braving the waking world for the first time.

The story didn’t hook me at first. The beginning set-up section feels a little clunky to me, but once Vellitt’s journey begins, I love the descriptions of the dreamlands from her perspective and the stories of her adventures as a younger woman. The story retraces some of the journey taken by Randolph Carter in the original, and he features a little, but there’s a lot that’s new, and it’s all from a very different perspective. The later section, when Vellitt reaches the waking world and discovers it for the first time, is excellent. For me, that’s the high point of the story. There’s a sense of strangeness about details that are usual to us, but also a sense of relief that the fickle gods are not breathing down her neck.

Vellitt is a well-realised character and a nice change for a speculative fiction protagonist. Kij Johnson focuses more on the fantasy aspects of the setting, rather than the horror. If that’s your thing, it’s definitely worth a look. Features obligatory cat appreciation, though not to quite the degree Lovecraft takes it.

(There is a minor queer character in this book, but not enough to stick it under my Queer Book Club heading. I occasionally do other reviews, particularly horror/weird fiction. Just a heads up.)

Queer Book Club: Nina is not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi

nina is not okay cover

Nina is not Okay is a contemporary fiction novel with a YA protagonist, though it doesn’t hold back on content, so I reckon it’s aimed at older YA and adults.

Seventeen year old Nina is struggling to cope with her boyfriend leaving the country and then leaving her for another girl. She’s hitting drink hard and losing control. When she’s thrown out of a nightclub for inappropriate behaviour, she loses the rest of the night. All she knows is that some guy put her in a taxi home with her knickers in her hand. Nina continues to spiral out of control as she tries to lose herself in alcohol and casual sex, still unable to resolve that lost night.

In many ways, this is a heavy read. It’s hard to watch someone lose control of their life and hurt themselves over and over again. It’s a book about rape and alcoholism, which is obviously not going to be a walk in the park. However, Nina is a very sympathetic, smart, funny character, and even when she’s behaving like a complete idiot, I still found myself rooting for her. I loved the unflinching honesty of it all and the flawed characters (including the adults) who are all muddling through, making a mess of things. I love that Nina is bisexual and just figuring out how that works for her amongst all the other chaos of her life. It’s an emotional read, but hugely rewarding, especially if you had (or are having) a shambolic teens.

This is the second book I’ve read by this author. Her autobiography, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, about leaving Iran as a child and moving to Britain, is also brilliant. I’m beginning to think she’s a bit of a genius.

(NB to US readers: The book is set in the UK. For context, the age of consent in the UK is 16, the age you can legally drink is 18, and we have different rape laws.)

Queer Book Club: Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape by Jack Swift

niks mixtape coverA transgressive adult novel. When a voice from his past intrudes on his fragile recovery, Nik hits the road in his Dodge Dart and begins his revenge road trip, accompanied by the perfect mixtape and the ghost of his dead friend.

This is an incredibly intense, almost feverish tale of Nik’s attempt to get even with his past, from his abusive relationship with ex-boyfriend, Harley, to the depths he sank through his heroin addiction, and the horrific act he can never forgive his ex-band members for. It’s an amazing read from start to finish, sometimes disturbing, sometimes extremely moving. I cried a couple of times and wanted to puke a few others. It’s definitely full on, but I like a book that makes me feel something. Jack Swift experiments with non-standard narrative techniques to express the experience of trauma; the portrayal  works so well because it’s delivered within the tight structure of the road trip revenge spree.

A story with a trans guy as a main character, written by a trans writer. If you’re bored by the current fad for queer fiction full of sunshine, lollipops and mainstream wish fulfilment, this is a good antidote. A story where people are allowed to be just as messed up as reality. Full disclosure—I first came across this novel as an earlier draft, through a writing group. I fell for the writing first, before I became friends with the author,  so I feel I can recommend it in good conscience.

I wish there were more books like this—honest and raw, with an uncompromising punk rock sensibility. Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape tackles trauma, addiction, recovery and the possibility of redemption without sentimentality, but with humanity and dark humour. Definitely worth a read.

(TW/SPOILER: This story is part rape revenge fantasy.)

Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape is released in ebook format on 24th May 2017. You can order it here. Or you can buy the paperback here.

Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom coverI’m reading a bunch of horror and weird fiction and not so much queer fiction at the moment. (If only I could combine the two more often.) As I’m editing some at the moment and want to get in the right head space, I’ve been hunting down modern Lovecraft inspired stuff, particularly written from the point of view of marginalised groups. I may post more about that in general, at a later date. For now, here’s a review of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, which was recently voted a Hugo finalist.

The novella is a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. The original is considered to be one of Lovecraft’s most racist and xenophobic stories, so LaValle has taken it and switched it, with Tommy Tester, a black hustler from Harlem as the main character. The story is split between Tommy Tester’s point of view and that of the original Red Hook character, the white Irish police detective, Malone.

I love the premise for this and I love the first half, where Tester hustles on the edge of the occult world, passing dubious items across New York’s different neighbourhoods, using his guitar case as transportation. Tester wants a different life from his parents, who broke themselves working hard manual jobs for white men. When Tester meets Robert Sudyam, a wealthy occultist, he’s invited into the heart of Red Hook’s occult scene.

The story plays with ideas of otherness and monsters. The original Lovecraft story is invested with a powerful sense of alienation and Lovecraft’s trademark fear of the unknown. LaValle challenges the whole concept of the unknown in his story—showing the neighbourhoods he frequents as homes and communities, rather than seething pits if horror, as Lovecraft saw them, and celebrating the diversity within.

When police brutality and corruption pushes him to the edge, Tester embraces his monstrous identity and uses his power for revenge. The story poses and doesn’t resolve the question of what is the right way to live under the sort of systemic abuse Tester and his parents experience and I think that lack of resolution works well for the tone of the story.

I think the retelling is successful, both as weird fiction and a way to explore these themes, but the second half for me was a bit weaker. It focuses on Malone, but is often omniscient. It felt a little distant and not quite as intense as I’d hoped in the horror sections. Saying that, it’s still a good story, but the first half is much stronger. It’s also satisfying to see writers being uncompromising about the broken aspects of early spec fic writing, whilst also paying them homage; it’s a tricky balance and I think LaValle gets it right.

Queer Book Club: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers cover

The Gracekeepers is a fantasy novel set in a flooded future world, though the fantasy elements are quite low key, reminiscent of fairy tales. Callanish works as a Gracekeeper, performing death rites for those who live at sea (known as Damplings). North is a performer in a floating circus, who dances with a bear. Although they live very different lives, they’re joined by secrets and the dangerous superstitions of those who live on land (known as Landlockers).

I picked this up on the strength of a short story collection of Kirsty Logan’s (The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales), and wasn’t disappointed. Logan writes beautifully and I found myself once again clicking with her style and subject matter. The floating circus is a mess of simmering rivalries and conflicting ambitions, as they float from island to island, shocking and titillating the conservative Landlockers with their mix of gender bending and satire.

Beyond the style, the world building really grabbed me. There are lots of little details and observations which brought the flooded world alive, particularly around beliefs and superstitions.

The story is told in third person, from various different points of view. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that every character has a yearning and every character is keeping secrets. Despite the various points of view, North and Callanish are the best developed and deepest characters, and it’s really their story. There is a striking sense of loneliness and isolation, of people misunderstanding one another and failing to communicate.

It’s quite a difficult book to talk about without running into spoilers, so I’ll make this a short one. The Gracekeepers is a mournful book about finding your place in the world, even if that place is only one small island and one small family you choose yourself.

Queer Book Club: Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

Infect Your Friends coverSpeculative fiction novella. In the future, everyone will be trans—that’s Lexi’s plan. With the help of her scientist friend, Raleen, she finds a way to shut down human hormone production, so that everyone has to make the choice trans people make. It’s both a revenge fantasy and a satirical ‘what if?’

The story is told in fragments by Lexi’s Patient Zero (who I don’t think is ever named). The narrative hops about in time, before and after ground zero of Lexi’s disease. It’s a quick read, but packs one hell of a lot into a small space.

I really love this. It’s funny, subversive, full of complexity and anger and frustration and satire and biting social observation about trans women, they way they treat each other and the way other people treat them. The style is fluid, dynamic and accessible—it was a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much more, because the story is compact, and I don’t want to spoiler.

I read in an interview with Torrey Peters that she’s made a point of not getting to hung up on traditional publishing conventions. There are a couple of tense shifts that threw me, but really, not a big deal.

Just, yeah, wow. I wish there were more books like this. One of my reading resolutions for 2017 is to read more spec fic with trans characters, and another is to read more subversive trans fiction. The world does not abound with books like this. This ticks all my boxes.

You can download an ebook copy from the author’s website, for a donation (or for free) here: http://www.torreypeters.com/ It’s also available in paperback.

Queer Book Club: For Real by Alexis Hall

For real cover

Adult BDSM M/M romance. A rare erotic romance review for me. I worry my responses to this genre are pretty personal, so I’m not sure how much use my opinion is to another reader, but I did really enjoy this and think it’s well written, so I thought I’d try a review.

Laurence is 37, and still hurt over a relationship that finished six years ago. The BDSM scene is feeling pretty stale to him, but he struggles to trust anyone enough to get close. Toby is 19, and completely new to the scene. The one thing he knows is he’s dominant. Can Laurence overcome his trust issues, and his misgivings about Toby’s age, enough to be submissive in a relationship again?

The point of view switches between Laurence and Toby, with Toby’s bits written in present tense and Laurence’s in past, to convey their different ages and personalities. I think the style switch works well. The voices of Laurence and Toby are also very distinct.

The main premise, and what makes For Real pretty unique, is the dom is much younger and less experienced than the sub, so there’s a learning curve for both of them, both in terms of each other, and what they want from kink. Laurence’s life is well established—he’s a successful emergency doctor with a nice big house—whereas Toby has lost his way and is stuck working in a greasy cafe for minimum wage. I really like the emotional exploration of what BDSM means to the two characters and how that interacts with the other parts of their lives. I think this is the most successful aspect of the story (aside from the kink scenes, which are very good). Alexis Hall avoids clichés in order to deliver something which feels fresh and unique. If your tastes run to traditional hard-ass alpha doms, this isn’t for you. Toby is pretty fragile, at times, and finding his feet.  But there are also a lot of inventive smut scenes, as Toby finds his way into what he likes and what Laurence likes. There’s even a foody scene which I enjoyed, and I usually get squicked out by that sort of thing.

My only criticism of this book is that, particularly in the second half, I found the emotional rollercoaster a little bumpy and extreme at times (oh my God, everything is perfect, oh no we’ve crashed, it is the very worst…), but it is a huge page turner, with a lot that’s good about it, so the bump didn’t detract too much. The smut is extremely hot (or at least, I found it so). There’s a lovely sweet little bath scene near the start, which I adore. I wish this had been followed up, but only because I like bath scenes. Oh, yes, and 37 isn’t all that ancient! As if my mid-life crisis needed any help.

One of the interesting things about this story, from the point of view of other queer fiction I read, is that the ‘coming out/coming of age’ bit is about kink and not about being queer. I like that Alexis Hall takes this aspect seriously. Read, if you want a responsibly written, hot BDSM novel with a convincing, realistic emotional aspect to the kink.