The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, Joseph Hansen
This is one of those mysteries where you can’t root for the mystery to be solved for the sake of the victim, a man who was a bully, a racist, and thoroughly unpleasant in almost all his interactions. Instead, the characters surrounding them need to get their hooks into you, and in this case that didn’t really work for me. Much more central was Dave’s sadness over his father’s illness, his disconnection with Doug, and the connection he does form with Cecil — one that rather surprises a reader familiar with Dave, who doesn’t seem like the type to be very appreciative of cheating, and yet does so himself.
It gets a little bit too convoluted in solving the mystery, in order to bring in a bunch of red herrings and implicate several different characters. That made it frustrating, and not quite as smooth a read for me as the earlier books. It’s still enjoyable, but not a favourite.
Troublemaker, Joseph Hansen
Reading this a second time, I’m definitely sure it’s not my favourite Brandstetter novel. Some of the characters are just… such gay stereotypes, and I prefer it by far when Hansen steers away from that — which, luckily, he does with Dave and Doug. The mystery itself was interesting enough, with plenty of red herrings, but I felt like the background stuff was lacking — the best bit was when Doug calls Dave for help with his mom, and that’s kind of ruined by the fact that Dave can’t even go to help because he’s too busy somehow trying to save someone’s life.
(And how, how does Dave always end up involved in these cases?)
Still, Hansen’s writing and plotting is always solid, and though it isn’t one of the standouts of the series, it’s a worthy installment.
Death Claims, Joseph Hansen
The first time I read this, I commented on the descriptions — saying that at times they were laid on too thick — and style, and also that Hansen somehow manages to make you care about the characters, even minor ones. I disagree with the first one now, perhaps because I knew going in what Hansen’s style was like: it still reminds me very much of Chandler, even if he doesn’t have quite the same knack for the well-placed word or reference (no “shop-worn Galahad” here). And I still agree with the second one: a particular character doesn’t show up for most of the story, and yet I very much cared about how things worked out for him, and about what he tried to do.
I also commented on the subplot between Doug and Dave, which I loved: I loved the fact that they’re both damaged and imperfect, that their past lovers (both dead, and therefore idealised) get in the way, and their responses to that. I love that Dave decides it’s time he did some work to keep the relationship going, and then he does — but also that he’s a self-righteous ass about some things, not some paragon of virtue. Their relationship feels real, both in the way they disappoint each other and in how they match.
I can’t remember the individual books well enough to decide where it sits on my mental ranking of the series; I look forward to discovering that in the rereads to come, I think. But it’s solid and I enjoy it, and especially for Dave’s life outside the cases, even where it’s relatively background. He has a life outside the cases — much more so even than another favourite detective of mine, Peter Wimsey, whose life outside cases is mostly spent discussing the case anyway, or touches on it. Perhaps that’s part of why I love Dave Brandstetter so much.
The Door into Sunset, Diane Duane
I really like that this series is out there, full of characters outside the traditional fantasy mold, full of female characters, in a world created by a goddess. And it helps that there’s dragons and that the most important relationship through the books published is that of Freelorn and Herewiss. And again, that they have a realistic struggle to adjust to new things, to find their feet in their relationship and keep it ticking over without letting it stagnate, to find room for each other. There are some really great scenes, like the section in Lionhall or some of the battle scenes.
One thing I really, really liked was the characterisation of Cillmod, and even Rian. They’ve been boogeymen for so long, and this book finally expands them a little. Cillmod turned out to be especially interesting. It was great to see some ambiguity, some signs of another side of the story.
But. I don’t know. For me, it just doesn’t quite click. Sometimes I feel like the issue of the Goddess is hammered home too hard, too frequently; sometimes I want the characters to stop thinking so much about getting into bed with each other, because hey, there’s actually a war going on; sometimes the tone just feels pompous or… or something I can’t quite put my finger on, but in any case find offputting. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it — I wouldn’t have finished the three books which have been written if I didn’t — but I’m not sure it needs the fourth unwritten book, and I’m glad enough to leave it here.
Fair Play, Josh Lanyon
Confession time: a long time ago I received this to review, and did not get round to it (partly because I hadn’t read Fair Game yet). So in the end I bought it. But in the interests of full disclosure, I did originally receive a review copy.
I really don’t know what took me so long, apart from the sheer length of my damn to read list. Fair Play is kinda great: I’m not so much talking about the plot of the mystery, though I did also enjoy that. No, what I enjoyed most was Tucker and Elliot’s negotiations about their relationship, the way they had to work around each other, the way they hurt each other sometimes but still cared. And I especially enjoyed that they’re both masculine and open about their sexuality, and open about their wants and needs (at least with each other). Even better, the more emotionally intelligent of the two is Tucker, who would otherwise be a stereotype of a buttoned up cop with issues. Instead, he’s open with his emotions and not afraid of them, and he doesn’t let Elliot run away. It’s great.
Less great is their persistent miscommunications and head-butting sessions, but it does make sense for the characters and where they are in their relationship.
I did enjoy the mystery/thriller plot too; not so much the plot itself, I guess, as the way it made Elliot reflect on his father’s life, on the relationship it revealed between Roland and Elliot. That was already interesting in the first book, and it’s great here too. Again, emotional openness between masculine manly men. And, okay, it was kind of interesting reading about the sort of anti-Vietnam protests that Elliot’s father was involved in. It’s not a world I know much about, given that I’m British, and I liked the way it set the stage. The two books work together really well, and it’s not just about the romance between Tucker and Elliot — the other characters are important too.
Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan
I do like Two Boys Kissing. But there’s one thing, right up front, that bothers me: the total privileging of gay men in the LGBT community. It happens a lot, and it happens in this book, talking about the generation of gay men who died of AIDs, centering the book around their narration as a kind of Greek chorus, and I just — where the hell are the women? Women have always been part of the gay community too, and though some appear in this book as allies, there’s a dearth of lesbians. And that sticks out a mile given that a range of different male queerness is explored, from trans people to gay people living in bigoted families to gay people living in families that just sort of look the other way, to gay kids thrown out and ending up on the street…
It’s a book about the gay community, where the central recurring theme is two boys kissing to draw attention to gayness being out there and okay. And that draws an audience of people, including support, and it’s… all gay men? I get that the AIDs epidemic, which is another theme, disproportionately took the lives of gay men. But other issues, like homophobic bullying and families not accepting you, aren’t limited to gay men and those stories aren’t just about gay men.
I mean, representation at all is a good thing, and the differing experiences of queerness here are great as far as they go. Some of the couples are cute; some of the stories are sad. The Greek chorus works really well, even though I feel that it’s not talking to me — the story looks at some of the issues gay people have faced, some of which are applicable to queer women as well, and it just feels like it’s all about the boys.
As a story, it’s readable and touching. And yet thinking about it after the fact, I found it problematic.
Fair Game, Josh Lanyon
Fair Game is reasonably typical of Josh Lanyon’s books, which is to say it delivers a mystery plotline twinned with the life of a non-stereotyped homosexual protagonist, without dealing solely with his love life (for example, in this book, Elliot’s relationship with his father is another key point — it isn’t just about him and Tucker, although it is about that too). Elliot is an ex-FBI agent who is rebuilding his life after a suspect shot out his knee, and I enjoy the fact that his physiotherapy is mentioned, that he can’t just get up and go go go as if he were still an FBI agent, even though emotionally that is something he hasn’t come to terms with yet.
The mystery itself, well, I guessed where it was going solely because I found a particular character irritating, after one or two red herrings. But that isn’t rare for me, and I was still interested in how Tucker and Elliot worked it out.
I really enjoy Tucker’s character, too. To begin with, he seems like a macho guy who maybe doesn’t want to accept that he’s gay or deal with his feelings, but in fact he’s readier to do so than Elliot is. He’s willing to put himself out there, to apologise for what he’s done wrong, to make the effort to meet Elliot more than halfway. It makes a nice contrast to the couple in Lanyon’s Adrien English stories, for sure. (And the sex scene did not contain any metaphors which made me spit my drink, which is also an improvement, entertaining as those could be.)
I need to get round to reading the sequel, Fair Play; I do like the couple, both individually and apart, though I’d like to see more of Tucker and his life where it doesn’t revolve around Elliot or his job.
The Heart of Aces, various
The Heart of Aces is a collection that’s almost more interesting/important to me because of the theme than because of anything about the actual stories within. Asexual representation is a big thing to me, because for a long time I was all kinds of confused about why I wasn’t interested in other people the way my peers were, why I didn’t want the same things in a relationship, etc. The only times I did come across it were in stories about trauma, and then it was something to be got over; not something that you can just accept. And that’s the nice things about the stories here. Each one of them accepts asexuality as a valid way of living a life that can still be whole and fulfilling, and even shared with a romantic partner. Sometimes you have to compromise or go out on a limb, sometimes things don’t match up quite as well as you’d hope, but all the same, these stories say it’s possible.
(And oh, my relief that I don’t think a single character in these stories calls not wanting sex “unnatural”, or anything like that. Look, I don’t feel naturally feel physical attraction — if anything, if I did, that would be unnatural for me, even if it might maybe be achievable with drugs or something. It’s just not the way I’m built, and that’s okay.)
The stories in the collection are a little shaky; one of them I just found plain unreadable, while others were very basic. There are a couple of sweet ones in there, though. I do wish that there was a bit more representation across the board — a cisgendered, straight, asexual couple would be great to see, or stretching the definition of ace a bit, an aromantic character — but there is one story with a trans character (albeit the POV character takes a while to switch pronouns correctly), and a realistic range of what the characters in the stories are interested in. I wouldn’t really recommend the stories, except that there’s so little out there that’s tailored for asexual people. If you feel like you really need to see something that does touch on that, you might enjoy picking up The Heart of Aces.
The Drowning Eyes, Emily Foster
There’s a lot about this novella that’s fascinating — the image of the Windspeakers having to sacrifice their eyes and receiving stones instead is just, wow; I’m pretty sure that’s going to stick with me. The crew are cool, too; crabby and sympathetic and brave and practical. A mixture, like real people, and able to really get on each other’s nerves like real people, too. There are some awesome descriptions of weather magic, too: of the way the protagonist feels it in her body.
The flipside of that is that that there feels like there’s too much going on. There’s the whole magic system, then there’s the pirate crew, and it doesn’t fit that well together, because all of a sudden the pirates are really invested in something that is, well, above their pay grade. From transporting a runaway to saving a group of people that they don’t even necessarily sympathise with… And the Dragon Ships; that whole plot thread isn’t really resolved, because it’s implied there’s a lot more going on with them and yet the story more or less ends with a minor confrontation.
It doesn’t feel complete, like there’s just too much still up in the air. It’s not bad as a story, but it feels rushed and inconclusive.
One Ostara Sunrise, Elora Bishop
This book features another holiday with Isabella and Emily, and another instance of the two of them being caught up in big events — in this case, mythical events involving nothing less important than the changing of seasons. The relationship between the two of them is sweet, as usual, but it doesn’t really expand on the world or even the backstories of the two girls.
The main attraction is the warmth of the two characters and their relationship, and their deepening harmony with the world around them. It feels less substantial than the second book, and it doesn’t further any of the plotlines, though, so it does fall a little flat for me. In the collected version, there is also a short story about Alice’s first meeting with Isabella and how they pair up, which at least answers some of my curiosity about Alice!