One of those mind-blowing books - not sure I'd re-read it again, but when I read it the first few times, it blew my mind. I have issues with it (and t...moreOne of those mind-blowing books - not sure I'd re-read it again, but when I read it the first few times, it blew my mind. I have issues with it (and the author), but for blowing my mind, it does get 5 stars.(less)
There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren't worth being read more than once. There's nothing left t...moreThere are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren't worth being read more than once. There's nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like "Eromenos" by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)
What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it's a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.
Here's one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if "Eromenos" is a gem, it's an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex aray of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.
On the surface, it's another novel (or short novel/novella, it's pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It's the second Antinous novel I've read (after Gardiner's The Hadrian Enigma and it's facinating how different the two books are.
McDonald's book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor's lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it's suicide.
But it's more than that (so I'm not really giving away the twist of the story here). It's a short memoir where we learn about Antinous's youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It's not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?
At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He's not a player, he's not a pawn, he's an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as "Hadrian's favourite".
In this is the true tragedy of the character. He's defined as Hadrian's lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he's getting too old, and while it's fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it's unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.
The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can't be Antinous. He can't discover who he really is, because he is the emperor's consort. But even without Hadrian, he'll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the emperor and prolong his life.
The memoir we read is that search for identity, which asks these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.
If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it's not. It's an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There's a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he'd refer to and how he'd express himself. References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history.
The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it's not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there's fondness and affection in the text, I don't read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.
And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is "just" the consort. He plays his role because that's his duty, he's been chosen, but he's never an equal partner and can't possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.
Here's a small piece of text from the start:
"When I was six, wandering about the cook's garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.
Studying the creature's unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.
I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men."
This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the "famous man", he's nothing but a field mouse.
It's layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it's all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.
A great little book that sets out to teach and reference some basics - I say "basics", but these are actually fairly complex devices, so definitely no...moreA great little book that sets out to teach and reference some basics - I say "basics", but these are actually fairly complex devices, so definitely not James N Frey or any of the "lowest common denominator" books out there.
I'd suggest it for advanced writers who are at the stage where they can challenge everything they have learnt in "Creative Writing 101" and that strive towards writing more literary than the same old, same old. Of course, it's also beautifully written, and delightfully empty of dogma.
I ended up underlining a good third of it - it's one of those books on writing I'll keep going back to. It also helped me through a bit of a funk (since I always read creative writing books when I feel overwhelmed by the job or need a reminder why I do this).
I've had the honour of reading the advanced manuscript, and Erekos quite easily fits among my fantasy favourites. Intelligent, insightful, even wise l...moreI've had the honour of reading the advanced manuscript, and Erekos quite easily fits among my fantasy favourites. Intelligent, insightful, even wise like the best fantasy novels - I don't hesitate to mention it in the same breath as "The Last Unicorn", so if you enjoyed that, and possible Michael Ende's "Neverending Story", "Erekos" is for you. Easily five stars. If there were six, I'd give it six.
ETA: Publisher's Weekly has good taste: Erekos was voted among the top 100 books of 2011:
This book contains a number of interviews with people that were trafficked into the UK. There's a wide range of accounts here, from a trafficked child...moreThis book contains a number of interviews with people that were trafficked into the UK. There's a wide range of accounts here, from a trafficked child, to a sex slave, to a Chinese illegal immigrant, to a case a forced marriage. All of these people (all but one are women) face horrific abuse, dangers, and massive trauma. Their inability to speak about certain things only makes the account more poignant.
The rest of the book is taken up by a discussion on immigration. The main aim is to show that immigration is actually good for the economy, and to show that these aren't immigration-related crimes but huge human rights abuses. It's definitely a book that makes you re-think what you think you know about immigrants to the UK, and, in many senses of the word, a call to arms to change legislation and give those modern slaves a life in dignity and respect. (less)
Young fantasy author who is really good at worldbuilding, with occasional flashes of genius. This short novella punches way above its weight and I com...moreYoung fantasy author who is really good at worldbuilding, with occasional flashes of genius. This short novella punches way above its weight and I completely enjoyed it. If anything I'd like a long proper novel from this author, since he very clearly enjoys building whole worlds. The twist at the end made me go "woah, hell", and then he did it again! Excellent read. (less)
Read Kate Cotoner's story today and loved it. Even though one of the ladies is a vampire, this is historical fiction as it should be; reflecting the a...moreRead Kate Cotoner's story today and loved it. Even though one of the ladies is a vampire, this is historical fiction as it should be; reflecting the attitudes and issues of its time, with believable characters from the time (in this, it's so much better than "How the West was Done" on the gay porn shelf). In addition, Kate Cotoner writes really well, too. I haven't read the other stories yet (read one, then my ereader ran out of charge) and might update the review when I've had a chance to read the others. (less)
I was wary when I started this - I bought this a few weeks ago based on the strength of a recommendation from somebody I normally trust, unaware that...moreI was wary when I started this - I bought this a few weeks ago based on the strength of a recommendation from somebody I normally trust, unaware that it was a series of four lectures. And normally that means I'll be bored to tears. (Bad flashbacks ensued from two semesters of studying German literature, an altogether stultifying experience thanks to the toothless and ossified lecturers at my university).
The first lecture, on collective memory regarding the air raids and aftermath, takes about 50% of the book and is a five-star read (all the quotes I typed up are from there). The clarity and restraint of the prose is awe-inspiring. Writing like *that* about something like *that* is a Herculean achievement.
The next two lectures deal with individual German authors that I'd heard about, Alfred Andersch being drawn as a self-important ass who re-edited his past in a manner that makes you cringe: first divorcing his Jewish wife to gain access to the Nazi-run Writer's Association - a prerequisite to getting published - then claiming her as his wife when it was expedient (in American captivity, though calling her a "half Jewish mongrel"). The next lecture deals with Amery, a survivor of the Nazi terror, adding a very impressive study to my previous knowledge of Primo Levi's account.
I did not care for the last lecture, on Peter Weiss. It just didn't quite hang together for me - and I thought the analysis was the weakest, so a bit of a downer to end the book on. I understand why he was included, as Weiss laboured under being both Jewish and German, so he fits into the larger context, but I enjoyed the other parts of the book a great deal more.
Above all, the sources he cited triggered my historian/packrat reflex and drove me back to buy further books.(less)
Excellent stuff in there. Copy-editing atrocious in places (mixing up "horde" and "hoard"? Honestly?), but enjoyed it and read it in less than a week....moreExcellent stuff in there. Copy-editing atrocious in places (mixing up "horde" and "hoard"? Honestly?), but enjoyed it and read it in less than a week. (less)
(Yes, it's not what I usually read, but as I live in London, I cast an eye over this before it was published)
There's much to redeem; selfishness and g...more(Yes, it's not what I usually read, but as I live in London, I cast an eye over this before it was published)
There's much to redeem; selfishness and guilt, and there are secrets and two people finding themselves and each other. That most tender of issues in Romance: "Can I trust? Dare I?" is handled very well and I dare any reader to not root for our mismatched lovers that complement each other so well. I really enjoyed this historical, which captures the atmosphere of London and the period - above all, I'm curious what Peter's secret is, but I did enjoy the many clever asides and above all the smooth prose and the minor characters which jump off the page.
Like a Moonrise - Erotic Tales of Shapeshifters, anthology, Circlet Press, editors: Artemis Savory and Cecilia Tan
Full disclosure: I was given this er...moreLike a Moonrise - Erotic Tales of Shapeshifters, anthology, Circlet Press, editors: Artemis Savory and Cecilia Tan
Full disclosure: I was given this erotica anthology for free for the purpose of review.
Here’s the blurb (taken from the file I was given):
“Like a Moonrise is an anthology of six stories featuring original shapeshifters with a coming of age theme. The stories in this anthology explain what the werefox, werepony, and others face face as they discover thei own changes and the urges and instincts that come with it. (…)
Contributors include Kyell Gold, winner of the Best Gay Fantasy Novel of 2009, Lambda Literary Award winner Rakelle Valencia, MeiLin Miranda, who brings us the backstory of one of her shapeshifter characters in her Scryer’s Gulch web serial, along with Marie Carlson, Catt Kingsgrave, and Aoife Bright.”
First, the cover. No naked torso anywhere, rather a dark night shot, clouds, and a moon more guessed than seen. Layout: clean on my e-reader, no issues. For all intents and purposes a well-put-together slim book of 107 pages with 6 stories.
The stories are a pansexual mix of gay, lesbian, and straight. I’m not sure if that mix is welcome – I’ve been told that mixing stories like that is a problem. Hetero readers don’t necessarily read gay/lesbian, and many m/m readers are especially vocal about not wanting to shell out money for “girl cooties” (I’m quoting that, BTW). In my case, I don’t care – well-written sex is well-written sex, and writing sex well is pretty difficult and completely its own skill (but that’s a blog post for another day).
Most of the stories also contain some brand of magic, so most of this works for readers that like urban fantasy or alternative universe settings.
The collection opens with “Fear-Moon-Woman” by MeiLin Miranda, and is the backstory of one of her long-established characters. It’s told in third person from the perspective of Rabbit Runnels, who unwittingly killed a shapeshifter and gets into all kinds of troubles because of that. He encounters a mysterious woman, who has more than one reason to hate him, but their animal sides take over. I thought this was a very well-written, poignant story, which, ironically almost, ends on a note of loneliness. Humans are social animals, and that urge might be the strongest of them all. While many stories in this anthology could be classed as “romance” (that is, they have happy endings), this one ends realistically and focuses on basic human nature. For all the stuff about shapeshifting in the book, some authors tackled bigger human issues, and this was very well done and engrossing.
Catt Kingsgrave’s “The Moon Reversed” is an intriguing alternative take on the Romans and the Celts and Druids. I say alternative, because in this world, we have magi and werewolves, but also power and cultural and sexual politics. What makes this story my favourite in the collection (apart from “Fear-Moon-Woman”, which is very authentic and real despite the magic) is the poetic language. Kingsgrave has a large palette of colours and uses them all to very good effect. Intriguingly, the world seems vast and rich and we only get a short glimpse of it. I do want to know – even desperately – more about the Witch King of Albion, and Battle Queen Cadeyra’s ‘mad rebellion’. If Ms Kingsgrave is going to tell the full story, sign me up for the ride. Back to this short story – it’s one of my favourites because it’s intense. Kinky. Very sensual. It’s about power, and there’s more than a splash of BDSM in there. Intriguing power-play and power exchange, which I personally love to write and love even more to read. This was richly-layered, complex, poetic, and hot as hell.
“Cycles” by Marie Carlson is about a lesbian werewolf who deals with the changes in her body and psyche as her first transformation happens. It’s a process that takes several months and is full of bi-polar ups and downs. When the energy surges, Anamaria, the werewolf from a long line of female werewolves, has sex with her girlfriend. While well-written and capturing the teenage angst of not quite fitting your skin and the hormonal shifts very well, very else is going on and the story peters off somewhat.
“On The Run” by Kyell Gold was a charming story of a gay teenager who is scared to sleep with his boyfriend because he knows he’s going to shift and that means he has to move – again – something his family has done so often. Torn between his second nature and the disapproval of his father, and then the great mystery that is sex (out of a webcam context), I found this a charming little coming of age tale with a werefox, despite the sometimes stilted dialogue.
“Wherewhat?” by Rakelle Valencia is an odd story in the collection. It’s about a guy who turns out to be a werehorse, rescued another (female) werehorse from being sexually molested by a real horse, they have sex. This is told in a humourous tone that simply didn’t work for me. My disbelief was never suspended. The story felt like a joke, but told by somebody who laughs at her own joke so much that she’s ruining the telling. The writing felt forced and over-explained, I didn’t warm to the characters, didn’t buy into the plot or conflict and was left with a feeling of “okay, that was a bit weird”. Your mileage may wary, but it didn’t work for me.
Aoife Bright’s “The Winter Prince” feels like epic fantasy and holds a lot of promise. I liked the idea, but the way it was delivered didn’t quite work for me, either. There’s some gay Instant Love in the mix, I’m not sure what the conflict was, voice and tone seemed a bit blurred to me at time. What the story has is a few lines that were really excellent, and this is an author I’d watch to see where she goes and how she develops. I don’t think this was the end of her development.
Overall, this is a very strong collection with two truly excellent stories and no story that sucked, which makes it a rare anthology indeed. It’s an intriguing mix of old hands and new talents, and that’s why I read anthologies. I like to discover new voices and new authors without having to commit to a novel to get an idea what they are like. I’d definitely recommend this if you’re not too hung up about reading only hetero or m/m stuff and enjoy there were-creature theme, especially if they come along in a wider range of shapes than just your usual wolf.