Foxes

 

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When Dashiel s body is found dumped on an East London wasteland, his best friend Danny sets out to find the killer. But Danny finds interaction difficult and must keep his world small in order to survive. By day he lives in an abandoned swimming pool and fixes electrical devices to trade for supplies, but by night, alone, he hunts sharks a reckless search for dangerous men who prey on the vulnerable.

A chance meeting with an American boy selling himself on the streets throws this lonely existence into disarray. Micky is troubled, fragile, and Danny feels a desperate need to protect him from what, he doesn’t know. As Danny discovers more about Micky, he realizes that what Micky needs saving from is the one thing Danny can’t help him fight against.

To save Micky, Danny must risk expanding his world and face something that scares him more than any shark ever could: trusting he will be accepted for who he is. If a freezing winter on the streets, a sadistic doctor, and three thousand miles don’t tear them apart first, that is.

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Karen and I interview each other on the gorgeous that is Suki Fleet’s Foxes.

Karen: I’ve seen comments on Foxes that say there is a Beauty and the Beat feeling to it, do you agree with this ?

Fra:  I think in the Beauty and the Beast trope, the inner beauty of the presumed beast is a discovery made by others who have only looked at the surface. Although Danny acknowledges that his scarred face is an obstacle and he is so very conscious of it;  he also says that in the main he is over it. As readers, straight up – as the books is narrated by Danny and we have access to his thought process from the very beginning, we know that there is an amazing person behind the scars without having to be brought to this “realisation” by a plot device.

From a narrative perspective this is one flawless book: narrated entirely by Danny, the book delivers not only an interrupted view into Danny’s thought process but manages to also convey – by showing the other characters interactions with him – how Dashiel, Donna, Milo, Diana and eventually Micky see him.

Fra Q: Do you think there’s an element of that ?

Karen : I agree that, in the traditional way, there is only a superficial resemblance to Beauty and the Beast, but I’m not totally sure that at the beginning  Danny is over it. There is a lovely scene where he see’s himself in a mirror – and doesn’t recognise himself!

Fra: True and that is such a beautiful scene. Although I think there’s an element there which reinforces the dissonance between  the way  Danny perceives himself  and the actual way he looks and his perceived by others.

Fra Q: Karen, London is the mightily sketched background against which Danny and Micky move. It’s a cold, unforgiving, shadow filled London and yet Danny can still marvel at the beauty of it. How do you feel the relationship between the characters and their environment worked in Foxes? And as a Londoner did you recognise it as the same city you work in?

Karen: Actually Danny’s London is very similar to where I work and live,  almost like more of an amalgam of both. I work in east London ( not the hipster part) and there are several cafe/ drop in centres nearby that remind me very much of Diana’s place.

But, I actually live on south east London, and while the book was set in South West London the landscape was totally familiar.                       

I think the rather desolate urban landscape does actually have its own beauty,  and that’s what Danny sees. I also felt that Suki Fleet managed to create an outstanding parallel between  the habitat and lifestyle of urban foxes and the habitat and lifestyle of humans moving at the margins of their environment – especially in Danny’s case.

When I started to read Foxes for the first time I wasn’t sure about the location of the swimming baths; the second time I did some research, and in my corner of London alone there have been 4 swimming baths that have lain empty for over a year before any work was carried out on them .

FraQ : Tell me more about the foxes’ habitat and Danny’s

Karen: Actually – it is in the way that the boys’ lifestyle mimics foxes behaviour when you think of it: they are mainly nocturnal, they are foragers, they nest (the nesting is a very  overt reference). They also have a family of sorts

Fra: They do what they can to stay alive. And the foxes take over Danny’s nest

Karen: Exactly and Danny is on the lookout for predators.                      

Fra: They are, beautifully and very aptly, a skulk of foxes

Karen Q: Danny has been on the streets for some time, yet he manages to retain an innocence

Why do you think that is ?

Fra: Danny has been isolated and alone for so long I think he has developed his own moral compass. Because of the way he lives he seems to have no other parameters to be beholden to besides the one he makes for himself. He lives on the outskirts of society, looking in – pretty much like you very well said, like an urban fox. His world, the other children, the streets he roams hunting for sharks also do not seem to hold the same “moral/morally wrong” lines that keep together the “normal society” they move parallel to.

“Normal” society with its rules and constructed morality is the reason why Danny and his skulk of foxes are on the streets: I think the world Danny inhabits is for sure stark and harsh and dark but the moral compass points to the true north of community and mutual protection. Stripped of the supposedly moral obligation of society these children see, and seek, in each other  the actual core that makes a person fundamentally good.                  

Danny is comfortable (even in the absolute cancelling manner of the very beginning of the book) in his solitude and both his mental status and his scars give him a protective shell very much akin to the shell he builds for himself in the abandoned pool.                        

Karen Q: Do you think that it is in some way also tied up with being told that he can’t cope

Fra: Perhaps and yet I found a fortitude in Danny that from the very beginning of the book confirms to me that he is more than capable to “cope”. He is conscious of his situation and does not see it as something to rage against or – until Micky plants that particular seed – he needs to overcome. Very rarely you hear him complain about his own cold, his own hunger, his own vulnerability to falling prey to the sharks that cruise the streets on South West London: his focus is  always about the other kids. It’s always they must be cold, hungry, they must  find shelter and help.                   

FraQ: Danny and Micky relationship is one of the sweetest and strongest I have read in a while, what did you like most about it?

Karen: The thing I particularly like about Danny and Micky is actually something that I often hate in other books, and is testament to how much I trust Suki Fleet as a writer: and it is  that they actually do complete each other.

I despise the use of broken / damaged to refer to people- so I would say that here we have two young men who have issues, some with mental health and self care  who make each other stronger and more self sufficient as opposed to co dependent

Fra: Very true about Danny and Micky making each other self sufficient and also self reliant as individuals rather than as magically “cured” couple.

Karen: Although I was totally invested on their relationship I was also invested in them as individuals they both showed such development, and yes some can be attributed to age, but mainly it was that they both wanted the best for each other.

There was time given to them becoming friends and there was no artificial relationship drama.

No ridiculous jealousy.                     

There is a scene where Danny gets flowers for Micky, and when he’s asked if Micky will welcome the gesture, he says “ I want to make him smile”.

And when Micky gets the bath for Danny: it’s all about doing something to make someone else happy.                       

There is an overused  trend in romance to make relationships sickly sweet or else pump drama into them from misunderstandings or mistrust therefore  one of the things I really enjoyed as well in Foxes was the lack of that.

Karen Q: Angst is a word I’ve read to describe foxes would you describe it as angsty ?

Fra: I think the subject matter and the characters’ circumstance are not easy topics.

Suki addresses homelessness, mental health, eating disorders and isolation in a delicate, respectful and ultimately uplifting manner which never takes away from the fact that these are in fact really serious issues.

There is undoubtedly a level of unresolved tension throughout the novel. Micky is, after all, on the streets – as are all the other children- because of conflict and rejection from his family. Dashiel’s death propels Danny into this shark hunting mode that is as obsessive as it is necessary to bring his own narrative to a different starting point. So yeah angst or better still apprehension which came from an incredibly empathetic account of the conditions the children are in.

But in Danny and Micky’s relationship? I found that no, there was no angst; which was incredibly refreshing knowing that so many similar stories – mostly of the usian variety – rely on the relationship drama to carry the narrative rather than the characters growth and agency.                       

I mean: they help each other help themselves; and not only Danny and Micky, Donna and Viv (Vicky I must check), Dietrick, and to an extent even Dieter.

There is no unnecessary I will leave him cause it’s best for him. There’s self doubt for sure: Danny knowing he is unable to give Micky what he needs. But it lasts a minute, really, before Danny himself realises that the obstacle here is that he hasn’t even considered that he could.                       

Micky is conscious of the damage his anorexia is wreaking on his body and mind but I think that in meeting Danny he also gets to a point that he wishes to do something about it not for Danny but for himself – for Dominic.                     

So difficult, harrowing situations? Yes. A lot of angst? No, not really.

Karen: I have to say I agree, for me often angst seems a manufactured thing, born of forced misunderstandings and poor communication So I think that that Micky and Danny have issues, yes, and they are intense. But they talk!                      

Fra: Yes! Right? Even when it is difficult for him to talk, Danny writes it down and shows it to Micky to make sure that what he is thinking is understood.

They have to overcome objective obstacles and they do so head on and no holds spared; but I didn’t think it was done with angst more like with a strong and unwavering determination learned the hard way.

And if I were completely honest – angst, of the unfocused variety that usually gets attached to the word “adolescent”, is very much the last thing in these characters minds and lives when their daily life is about survival – finding warmth, sustenance and a safe space to sleep.

Suki Fleet is an incredibly talented author: her work explores the hardness of contemporary life with  rare sensibility and heartbreaking delicacy without compromising on realistic portrayal and yet manages to inspire the reader as much as it succeeds in uplifting her characters lives.

Foxes is a fantastic novel, Danny and Micky and the diverse cast of characters around them are set against a vivid portrayal of a harsh London which feels incredibly real.

The characters voices are quiet and powerful and the narrative, while heartbreaking, inspires to reach out and do more to help and support the very many young people in dire need of help.

All in all Suki Fleet remains a strong favourite of ours and we not only highly recommend Foxes but hope that you will find reading all of her novels as rewarding an experience as we have.

Buy Links: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Dreamspinner
2016 Rainbow Award Winner – Best Gay Young Adult

Author Bio

Award Winning Author. Prolific Reader (though less prolific than she’d like). Lover of angst, romance and unexpected love stories.

Suki Fleet writes lyrical stories about memorable characters, and believes everyone should have a chance at a happy ending.

Her first novel This is Not a Love Story won Best Gay Debut in the 2014 Rainbow Awards, and was a finalist in the 2015 Lambda Awards.

Email: sukifleet@gmail.com
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If I Should Stumble

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Love is sure and timeless and forever. It whispers over the morning coffee and the last thought before sleep. Love is beyond hope, and cruel as life.

Kaz has been in the UK for almost a year, but the days pass by in an endless round of alcohol and nothingness. He has a story but no words good or bad enough to tell it, until one day, he is assigned a new peer mentor who asks him to help train a sponsored running team. Something that was stretched as old parchment breaks inside, and memories begin to re-surface.

Zack is overjoyed when his friend Adam asks him to be part of the sponsored run team trying to make money for the local homeless shelter. All day he makes cakes to lighten people’s load, but something is missing from his life. Then he meets the boy with eyes like the desert, and with every step he runs, Zack’s light burns away the darkness in Kaz’s heart.

As the race heats gets nearer, Tork, Adam, Zack and Jo realise that under Kaz’s careful programme, they have a chance to qualify and set right some of the wrongs of this world.

This book features the characters Tork and Adam from The Invasion of Tork and The Invasion of Adam

We both bought copies of this book, and to note that all authors’ proceeds go to homeless charity

Karen: I read the Invasion of Tork and The Invasion of Adam last year, and loved them, and I was so excited when I realised that there was a 3rd book in the series. You really do need to read all 3 to get the flavour as well.

The series as a whole tackles issues such as homelessness and mental health in a completely accepting and non judgemental way, and doesn’t glamourise them or offer some magical cure that suddenly makes everything better  nor do they swamp you with angst and misery. These books celebrate hope and love.

Fra: Likewise Karen, I read the first two books at the very end of last year and was as excited that a third book was coming out: I found them all enchanting.   

The major issues of homelessness, mental health and, now, immigration, are all addressed respectfully and sympathetically. S They are strengthened by weaving friendship and young romantic love into the narrative,  while not sparing the characters major obstacles to overcome but managing to retain the story’s hopefulness and uplifting qualities.

In a genre which, generally speaking, actively pursues  the miraculous end and sorting out of the “Problem”, these books stay, thankfully and gracefully, cliche’ free.

Karen: Kaz is a refugee from an unnamed country, where being gay can get you imprisoned. He’s in the UK and everything is just fine, thank you very much. Except it isn’t at all. Kaz tries to navigate the weirdness of the British, missing his family and friends and dealing with the horrors that happened to him on his journey to the UK by drinking the cider, and collecting things.  I got such a feeling of isolation and sorrow from Kaz , and while the support system he had was well meaning, no one really ‘got’ him.

Fra: Karen! The account of Kaz’s migrant journey, its reasons and its  psychological effects broke my heart.

I think the authors managed to maintain a very delicate balance between social commentary on the effects of human trafficking and exploring how the migration journey affects Kaz as a person and the gradual breakdown of all of his coping mechanism.

Kaz’s journey of displacement and self discovery striked me like  the ugliest version of the classic hero journey; each step more drastic and tragic than the last and where the destination represents both the end  of one journey, the physical one, and the beginning of  another: a psychological one of self discovery, self acceptance and ultimately of self affirmation.

Pushed out by his parents for being gay and basically consigned in the hands of human traffickers, Kaz arrives in Britain with absolutely nothing.  The papers, the news, are full of harrowing accounts of how human traffickers exploit the migrants of this generation; by describing Kaz’s steady descent into a complete PTSD melt down I think the authors have managed to convey how very soul destroying the experience is.

Superficially cheerful in his interactions with his environment we get to see him steadily falling apart: it starts with the numbing cider and it escalates with the hoarding of items which directly relate to the tragic journey he has undertaken.

I thought that the character development  was particularly well executed.

Kaz burden is heavy: on the one hand there is his being gay within the boundaries placed on him by his own culture. Particularly well written was, in my opinion, the oppressiveness of religion signified by the almost suffocating presence of the Church, the Mosque and  the Synagogue buildings around him.

On the other he is navigating a completely different country and culture after the most tragic of journeys; His coping mechanisms – the drinking and the hoarding coupled with the flashbacks makes for hard but necessary reading. It is an accursed attitude and state of mind to forget and ignore the human cost of forced migration be it because of war, economic reasons or – as in this case – human rights issues.

Kaz therefore deals with deeply seated personal issues: his sexuality, his loneliness, the modality of how to behave in a society and culture completely different from his own while at  the same time having to cope with the psychologically devastating effect of the how he got into the new society and culture in the first place.

Karen: I also felt that the religious aspect was very well done. There are numerous romance books where religion is the source of conflict within the characters various relationships,  but not so many where religion is seen as such a negative aspect in general.

I would also add that for a romance novel to tackle the subjects in this book was a brave thing to do, and while at no time did I feel like I was being lectured, there was also no doubt where the authors stood.

Fra: The human connections the characters make create a strong network for them to grow and rely on while they do so. The books – this one and his predecessors – convey a very strong message of ties chosen and cultivated at a very human level. Here, I think, is where the authors bring forward an incredibly uplifting message of hope which makes this series a veritable pleasure to read.

All in all If I Should Stumble is a gorgeous addition to this series and an important book for all to read. At a time in which the rise of unbridled conservatism will lead us to believe that the cause of all social evil is the current mass migration movement, it is books like If I Should Stumble which remind us that behind the word “migrant” there are people – human beings who in very many cases did not quite chose to leave their countries and their families and friends; people who have lost everything and now found themselves on death barges and  in containment camps, or direct provision accommodation; people who we should make feel welcome and safe instead of unsure and unwelcome.  A book that manages to balance serious and important subjects about the world we live in today, with a love story and the story of a man navigating a new life in a new country.

Highly recommended

buy it here

http://www.beatentrackpublishing.com/#1

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Should-Stumble-Tork-Adam-Book-ebook/dp/B01MDQFXN9/ref=sr_1_8?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1480797655&sr=1-8&keywords=claire+davis

First and First, The Five Bouroughs Series by Santino Hassell

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Caleb Stone was raised on the Upper East Side, where wealth and lineage reigns, and “alternative lifestyles” are hidden. It took him years to come out to his family, but he’s still stuck in the stranglehold of their expectations. Caleb knows he has to build his confidence and shake things up, but he doesn’t know how… until Oliver Buckley enters the picture. Oli is everything Caleb isn’t—risk-taking, provocative, and fiercely independent. Disowned by his family, Oli has made his own way in the world and is beholden to no one. After a chance encounter on New Year’s Eve, Caleb is smitten. As Caleb sheds the insecurities that have held him back for years, he makes bold steps toward changing his career and escaping years of sexual repression. But for Caleb to take full control of his life, he has to be brave enough to confront his feelings and trust Oli with his heart.

We received an early copy of First and First from the ever generous Santino Hassell who has also provided some of the beautiful pictures we have used in today’s blog to celebrate his latest release.

Spoilers ahead – read this great book first then come and have a chat about it with us.

FRA: First and First is the third installment in Santino Hassell’s Five Boroughs series: a realistic account of the start of a relationship set against the scintillating set that is New York City.

I sound like a broken record: characterization and world building are the sharpest tools in Hassell’s writerly tool box. His characters’ arcs feel realistic and the NYC that shines through the pages of these books is in turns gritty and light filled, a comfort to his characters and at times an obstacle and manifestation of their turmoil.

Where Sutphin Boulevard explored the journey from friendship to love amidst some very serious issues and Sunset Park pitched two seemingly wildly different characters against each other in a flurry of young love, stereotyping and breaking of barriers; First and First conveys the start of a relationship between two men coming at even the concept of a relationship from two very different angles.

I particularly loved the characters’ growth and change as they get close, tear themselves apart from each other and come at each other again from a completely new angle.

I want to spend two minutes patting my back: remember in our Sunset Park review when I said “Now, I have a feeling that, as readers, we were supposed to dislike Caleb, there were hints of Caleb being manipulative: I don’t buy it.”  well, am I ever so grateful I called it, because I was so right: there’s nothing inherently wrong with Caleb. He is not manipulative but insecure – our perception of Caleb was completely coloured by David’s opinion and expectations.

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MIKI: I second that. I didn’t like David´s character at all. Not in the first book or in the second one. So his small appearance was appreciated because it allowed Caleb´s character to shine and develop without the constraints of David’s POV.

FRA: Caleb was not manipulating David, Caleb was trying with all that he got to fit in the gilded box bread of the heavy expectations built by his family and environment. Out and proud David, provided a modicum of rebellion to a man forced into a shimmering closet but also the safety of a solid “relationship” based on all the points in a pre – determined checklist.

I felt really, deeply sad for Caleb – well, not for his super privileged upbringing in the 1% of which I can make no remarks because miiiiiles away from me and my experience – but because he is so trapped, so dreadfully unable to take even one step for himself without checking against the boundaries of his upbringing. He has built his life of expectations and seems intent in checking all of the boxes on the “list of life milestones according to the Stone family”.

The loss of his relationship with David and the loss of his job set Caleb on a course for radical change – change he doesn’t seem to even consider  he is undergoing until his whole world is shaken by Oli Buckley.

Oli (he who, you might recall, I shipped something fierce with Ray) is in many ways Caleb’s opposite – from the same 1% stock as Caleb, he broke the rules by unapologetically coming out in the most spectacular fashion, got disowned and thrown out for it and has taken all the steps not only to break free from his privileged, silver spoon upbringing but also to set his own course, to be his own man. I think his fierce sense of independence is at the core of his determination not to commit to a relationship, although with the way he pursues Caleb from the beginning at times his no commitment rule seems more like posturing than anything else.

I must say I loved the way these two interacted and ended up changing each other, I also think that under the layers of life’s different experiences these two men are both lonely and barely containing an energy, an innate desire to affect changes in spectacular ways.

I also love that there’s a common thread about families and their interactions in the whole series so far – one I hope continues to be explored in the next books. All parents’ sets in the books fail these men one way or the other: abandonment, mollycoddling, indifference, judgment (gods wasn’t Caleb’s mother the most judgey of judgey mothers ever? She was so judgey I almost called her mum) and yet siblings step up to the plate, friends become the family they chose for themselves. Even if, at the first look, some of the relationships seem very shallow, I do think that there’s a pull, a thread between all of the characters and it is this thread that gives the author the possibility to develop the story not based on major plot development but certainly on the major growth and development of his protagonists. The fact that we gleam glances of the previous couples – Michael and Nunzio, and more interestingly for this particular installment, Ray and David – keeps the thread present, if not prominent, enough for readers to feel connected both to the present story and the series at large. It is subtly done and I think it works very well from a narrative perspective.

MIKI: I thought that the characters were believable even if I personally don’t necessarily identify with them because we are on opposite sides in terms of cultural roots, families, money, social status. Etc. But the vulnerability they show in that context is super enjoyable and well delivered.

FRA: I agree Miki, at a visceral level I could relate with many of the innerworks of both Caleb and Oli: from the “work” speak about API and building new technology to the loneliness and the breaking of family ties before moving on to become their very own people. I got it, I empathised. And if – by genetics alone – I am unable to comment one way or the other on the intimate relationship between Oli and Caleb (aside from oh, ugh, is it getting hot in here or is it just moi?) I can 100% stand behind the mighty ritual dance of two grown people around the ever present fear of vs need for commitment in relationships for 30 somethings all over the world.

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In this context, that is in the context of an adult relationship with all its complexity and rituals I did think that Oli’s  “I love you” was a bit sudden. I mean, I would have been happy with these two poised on the verge of a serious and committed relationship: the book narrative journey railed them in that direction, as readers we did our job and read between the lines of Oli’s stubborn unrest – there was no other course for these two men but convergence into a stable, shared reality -a happy ending without the need for utterance of the three words.

MIKI: I feel that the final declaration of love and the inevitable HEA were unnecessary. Especially taking into consideration their previous behaviors in the book and Oli’s reluctance to any commitment, so the sudden change of mind was a bit out of the blue. In all honesty I feel this book would have been perfect with a not so perfect ending.

I enjoyed First and First a lot more than Sunset Park, I feel it still didn’t carry the profound story and character development of Sutphin Boulevard and Hassell´s previous books. First and First held that essence when I started reading it, but the necessity for a HEA and for *closure* of every thread, put the book back in the pile of “those romance books which romance publishers approve of as much as the “target” audience does”.

FRA: I loved First and First, I found it romantic, realistic, well set into its contemporary background and incredibly well written. I totally see what you are saying Miki, although from a story perspective it didn’t bother me more than it felt like an unnecessary  stumble in an otherwise flawless narrative.

I think this book is way above the standard romance fare out there right now and I highly recommend it.

Santino Hassell is a talented author, one with  the potential, for sure, for changing the current Romance landscape one great book at the time.

First and First is book three in the Five Bourough Series, it is out today and you can find it at:

Amazon: https://t.co/v6e7ZLFtDO

Are: https://www.allromanceebooks.com/product-firstandfirst-2003583-149.html

BN: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/first-and-first-santino-hassell/1123617999

DSP: http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=7639

kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/first-and-first

GR: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28427134-first-and-first

 

Five Boroughs series:

Book 1: SUTPHIN BOULEVARD

Book 2: SUNSET PARK

Book 3: FIRST AND FIRST

Broken Blades – A Review

 

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They only had one night together—a stolen interlude at the 1936 Olympics. After Mark Driscoll challenged Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg to a good-natured fencing match, there was no resisting each other. Though from different worlds—an Iowa farm boy and a German aristocrat—they were immediately drawn together, and it was an encounter neither has ever forgotten.

Now it’s 1944, and a plane crash in hostile territory throws them back together, but on opposite sides of a seemingly endless war. Facing each other as opponents is one thing. As enemies, another thing entirely. And to make matters worse, Mark is a POW, held in a cold, remote castle in Germany… in a camp run by Armin.

They aren’t the young athletes they were back then. The war has taken wives, limbs, friends, leaving both men gray beyond their years, shell-shocked, and battered. The connection they had back then is still alive and well, though, and from the moment Mark arrives, they’re fencing again—advancing, retreating, testing defenses.

Have they been given a second chance? Or have time and a brutal war broken both men beyond repair?

Fra: Broken Blades was a quietly elegant book set in a very difficult period of European History which managed to deliver a highly romantic love story. And I loved this book –  I’d be surprised if it didn’t make it into my top ten read of 2016.

My absolute favourite part of this book is the historical period in which it is set and the angle from which it is told.

This book tilts the usual victor’s rhetoric point of view by focusing on  the human weight of war on people with the added complexity of, in my opinion, a very romantic love story.

Karen: While I agree with this now, I have to say that I was very reluctant to start reading this book, not because of the quality of the writing, which I knew would be excellent. But because of the basis of the book. For a lot of people their understanding of the personal cost of WWII is formed from familial memories. My grandfather and great uncle were in German and Japanese POW camps respectively, and both of them were irrevocably changed by the experience. My Great uncle in particular was badly affected. And I suppose that I worried that any book which wasn’t incredibly serious or, in fact non fiction, could possibly do justice, if in some way setting a romance in a POW camp, especially a queer romance was trivialising the subject matter. However when authors you trust write about potentially controversial subjects , you need to have an open mind.

Fra: While I didn’t agree with your reservations in reading the book, the period of history it’s set in made me think – I am Italian, one generation over from  WWII. Half of my family is comprised of staunch communists and very active members of the Resistance and the other half is made by people who joined the Fascist war, believed in it and paid the consequences for losing it. I heard stories about the War all my life; at the sunday dinner table between my paternal, communist and part of the Resistance, grandmother and my maternal, decorated navy soldier and joiner of the RSI, I was fed stories of terror, defiance, epic naval battles, crumbling of some ideals and the insurgence of others: both simple people, both rather passionate about their beliefs but also very, acutely aware that War is more than the propaganda which causes it and that in the end the people who fight it on behalf of the powers that be are just that: people.

Over the internet I heard rumblings of very short memoried people or people who have not been touched by this war who take issue with stories written during World War II and especially written in or about Germany in that period. And I am flabbergasted: the war happened, avoiding to set fiction in this context is not going to make it go away  (i’d highly recommend Curzio Malaparte’s books set in the aftermath of the North American landing in Italy). I do demand though that the subject must be treated respectfully and faithfully and never lightly- anything else would be an insult to both the people who lost their lives and the ones who survived (like my mother who spent the first 4 years of her life in and out of bomb shelters and is still mad afraid of thunder and small places but would shove books about it down your throat so that we don’t forget). But equally damaging is to either completely avoid the subject or only tell stories manufactured by those who won it.

Fra: The romance does add another challenging dimension to the story and the implications of any relationship developing between captured and jailer is problematic in terms of power balance and consent.

I did have concerns: my concerns were appeased by two authors who obviously know exactly what they are doing and made it absolutely clear where they both stand on the matter of consent and the power balance in their story and on the War itself.

Broken Blades alternates narrative point of views between  Armin Truchsess von Kardenberg  – fencer, Wehrmacht officer, mutilated veteran of the Eastern Front and now commander of a POW camp for enemy Officers and Mark Driscoll, also a fencer, a captured American pilot now a POW in the same camp.

The first encounter between Armin and Mark happens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

I loved the way the two authors were able to capture the two cultures in detail without overpowering each other and more importantly without resorting to stereotyping.

It was refreshing to see the American team’s wonder at the Olympic village, the positive energy, the innocence of the enthusiasm and at the same time to see how it was all set up to look exactly that way. Through Armin’s disillusioned point of view we know that all is not what it looks like.

Armin’s role as host – which he performs perfectly – is the result of a rather dangerous refusal to join the SS and remain in the Wehrmacht as per his family tradition; a choice that has lost him a place on the Olympic team but still leaves him with the knowledge not only that what the guest athletes are experiencing is heavily choreographed but also of the warmongering intentions of the Reich.

Mark and Armin’s first encounter is beautifully described: both young men, full of potential and possibilities – I loved the innocence in Mark and the mischievous side of Armin’s character.

Fast forward to 1944 and the worst war in human history has been raging for almost 5 years. Both men have married – one, Armin out of love, the other Mark out of wanting to repress the feelings stirred by the encounter with Armin. Both men have lost their wives, one killed in an Ally bombardment the other to divorce. Both men have been rather changed by the war; especially Armin who has lost an arm – his fencing arm – on the Eastern front.

When Mark crash lands his plane in enemy’s territory he and his crew are captured and transferred to the POW camps. The officers to Armin’s post.

Mark’s despair at the situation while being transported is heartbreaking – surrounded by his shell shocked men his thoughts turn dark. I appreciated that this was done in a very genuine way. There isn’t in the writing the typical language of the “North American We Are The Just and Will Win Everything” present in so much post War narrative: the author manages to convey elegantly and succinctly the desperation of a man caught in an objectively dreadful situation.

Karen: I agree Fra, the love story here is beautiful. The risks of being queer at that time, and very specifically in Germany , were huge , concentration camps weren’t just for Jews and the liberal hedonism of the 1920’s was long gone. There is a sense that as both their lives were so damaged by the war, they almost have nothing left to be afraid for. And that makes this sound like such a depressing book, whereas it’s not, while there is sadness and loss on both sides and for both men, the burgeoning relationship brings them both back to life.

And the good/ bad balance is marvelous – how easy would it have been to make all the Germans apart from Armin bad, and all the Allies wonderful, but it’s blurry. In fact the relationship between Armin and Schafer is so affirming and ‘normal’ .

Karen: Balancing historical accuracy against the need to have impetus in a story is a very delicate thing, and overall for me Broken Blades achieved this. I don’t think that setting this at any time other than the end of WWII would have worked. If I have one criticism it would be that the book develops slowly and beautifully and the end seems somewhat tagged on, in that it was sudden.

Fra: I totally agree with regards to the actual timing of the story.

War in general is soul destroying – WWII was the worst armed conflict in human history. Both protagonist arrive at Oflag Ahlenstieg as broken men and there is a sense of fatality surrounding their relationship that it is difficult to ignore.

To be completely honest I did not think that Armin was going to make it out alive. It isn’t unknown   for the Gestapo to have eliminated some of their own – especially if in the Wehrmacht –  during the retreat and it wasn’t improbable for the Russians to have swept in after the SS’s retreat. Neither options would have gone well for Armin and his men, which  had a lot to do with his decisions in the book, including distancing himself from Mark as to avoid any attention to him.

I also agree that they both behave as they have very little left to lose. No families to go home to, a crumbling world order and disgust at the act of war in itself seem to be the catalyst to a lot of the characters decisions and agency in the book.

I am actually very happy with the ending: consider that I thought Armin was either going to get killed by the Gestapo or put a bullet through his head – so I  was so relieved when the US Army came in instead of  the Russians. But I also think that the end gives credit to what I was saying before. Armin’s main focus at the end is to protect all of the people in his charge. Both his men and the POW.  I also like the fact that the Epilogue was set sometimes after the war thus giving Mark and Armin the possibility at a real start of a relationship unburdened by the horrors of war and unequal power.

All in all this was a quietly elegant novel. Uncompromising in its account of the effects of War on people but ultimately delivering a compelling message of hope through a well thought out and unexpectedly romantic relationship.

Highly recommended

Sunset Park, Romance at its Best

sunset park cover Raymond Rodriguez’s days of shoving responsibility to the wayside are over. His older brother wants to live with his boyfriend so Raymond has to get his act together and find a place of his own. But when out-and-proud David Butler offers to be his roommate, Raymond agrees for reasons other than needing a place to crash.

David is Raymond’s opposite in almost every way—he’s Connecticut prim and proper while Raymond is a sarcastic longshoreman from Queens—but their friendship is solid. Their closeness surprises everyone as does their not-so-playful flirtation since Raymond has always kept his bicurious side a secret.

Once they’re under the same roof, flirting turns physical, and soon their easy camaraderie is in danger of being lost to frustrating sexual tension and the stark cultural differences that set them apart. Now Raymond not only has to commit to his new independence—he has to commit to his feelings for David or risk losing him for good.

Disclaimer: We have had the honour and pleasure of reading an early copy of Sunset Park for which we are very grateful to the very generous Santino Hassell. We have, of course, all also pre ordered the book from  Dreamspinner and Amazon.

More Disclaimers: there are spoilers below, however minor, if you haven’t read the book or Sutphin Boulevard.

Fra: Before I even start this review; can we hear it for the very talented Santino Hassell who, in a very short space of time, has published three new books: Sutphin Boulevard – an incredible novel at the top of my favourite this year, Stygian the rocking Southern Gothic and today, book 2 of the Five Boroughs series Sunset Park! I mean, fantastic achievement there!

Karen : Yes, I would agree, I think that his ability to create an emotional and realistic narrative is well developed, and with each book he builds upon this. So far, these books have all been wonderful, and different.

Fra: Sutphin Boulevard introduced us to the main characters of Sunset Park, Raymond Rodriguez and David Butler. With Michael and Nunzio (sigh, hi Nunzio *makes googly eyes at Nunzio*) making progress in their relationship and wanting to get a space of their own, Ray is left with no choice but to get his act in gear and look for alternative accommodation out in the big bad world and away from Queens. This sets Sunset Park’s narrative in motion.

In Sutphin Boulevard, Ray’s character fascinated me (also reminded me greatly of my dopehead brother and the damage done by mollycoddling mothers all over the world): it is a credit to Hassell’s master characterisation that he showed us first an “overgrown baby” through Michael’s eyes and as Michael discovers that there’s so much more to Ray so did we as  readers.

Miki: I need to say that Sutphin Boulevard was a strong book, a force of nature. It was what I’m used to reading in  Santino Hassell’s books: risky, brave, a bit cynical, laced with social criticism, irreverent. Sustained with a lot of research that gave the story a substance that´s very hard to find in the romance genre. I feel that changed radically in Sunset Park.

Karen: my first impression of Sunset Park was twofold, that this was more of a classic romance than Sutphin Boulevard, and bloody hell, he’s made David a sympathetic character.

That it’s more of a classic romance is perhaps because it’s lighter than Sutphin Boulevard, possibly. But also because it’s much more apparent here that these guys affect change in each other. And David, I thought that in Sutphin Boulevard he was an arse, and it is the ability of a gifted writer to take your preconceptions and turn them. Although David  never became for me someone that I connected with in the same way as I did, for example with Michael.

Fra: The narrative journey of Ray and David in Sunset Park is firmly ensconced in the m/m romance genre while still delivering what I have come to cherish as  two of the main strengths of Hassell’s writing: flawless world building and superb characterisation in believably realistic settings.

In Sunset Park, Hassell delivers the perfect friends to lovers trope beloved of romance writing – he does it in, possibly, the most lighthearted that we have seen of this writer yet. And still, both characters are firmly rooted in the world they inhabit and in their narrative growth.

It felt to me that their journey to lovers was in fact very realistically described – there was obviously attraction but the journey was mostly mental as both Ray and David analise their feelings, bounce them against their beliefs and preconceived ideas of one another.

Miki : regarding precisely that, Fra, personally I felt a bit disappointed. The romance between the two protagonists is the only/ main narrative thread, and that no longer attracts me in the least. I feel that, eventually, romance is a genre which cannibalises both talent and rule breaking in favour of sales and commercial success.

Santino Hassell´s books always have something else to sustain the main relationship. In his books, *things* happen, and as a part of that, he places some kind of “love story”. Never traditional.

The first book had that, the story had  strong social content and an attempt to break structures. I did not find it here, holding the big frame.

Fra: I feel that the genre is becoming too much of a small box for writing as good as Hassell’s and that there is way too much pressure for writers to deliver “what’s expected”.

But even in this context I do think that, albeit Sunset Park is certainly a more immediately recognisable romance, rules are still being broken and very well indeed.

I particularly appreciated the fact that Ray’s attraction and eventual need and love for David does not stem from that most ridiculous of  m/m romance narrative devices: GFY. Ray Rodriguez accepts his sexuality as a matter of course, as part of whom he is and most of his journey of self discovery here is not an endless rumination on “OMG I like guys, should I or shouldn’t I” but pretty much the self discovery of any 25 year old who has to go from sheltered mamma’s boy to being his own man in a very short period of time and under rather dramatic circumstances.

Karen : Fra, you’ve kind of hit upon something here for me, when I first read Sunset Park I got caught up in the WAY it was written. It’s realistic while still retaining a romantic overtone (which sounds dumb because it IS a romance). The second time I read it I focused less on the romance, and more on the personal development. I agree that Ray’s ability to accept his sexuality was atypical in m/m. I have read so many books where all the conflict was internal because one of the characters couldn’t deal with the fact that they had either had or acted upon feeling for someone of the same sex.

Ray’s inner debate has nothing to do with “struggling” with his bisexuality or curiosity, it is woven around the need to get a  move on and start depending on himself.

Miki: I didn’t feel that exactly, but I agree that Ray´s character was the only one developed with a certain originality, avoiding the typical m/m development. In the end, though, I felt that the relationship, as a whole,  fell into one of the boxes that the genre allows for the romance. Maybe because of David´s character.

Fra: Ray’s personal growth is one my favourite parts of Sunset Park. It is neither extremely difficult nor is it simplistic: I admit to having been very worried about a sequel relating to a beloved secondary character since I was so very disappointed early on in the year in very similar reading circumstances. I should haven’t worried – Santino Hassell is a very talented writer and his portrayal of Ray’s growth is rather realistic and expertly done.

However  as much as I love Ray and his journey I must admit that I really, really dislike David. This is not new, to be honest, I really, really disliked David in Sutphin Boulevard also. Interfering, dramatic for drama’s sake he started grating on my nerves the moment he walked out the door of Nunzio’s apartment in  Sutphin Boulevard! Eh, what can I do? Nunzio disliked him from the start and who am I to doubt Nunzio Medici?

Miki: I totally agree with you. I’m not sure if it was done on purpose, but David’s unsubstantial drama was what annoyed me the most and what killed the story for me, in the end. With all due respect, because I think Santino Hassell is one of the most talented authors out there, I felt it became a bit like a soap opera. Unnecessarily.

Karen : I actually thought that Nunzio’s preconceptions were part of the problem. He was so convinced that David was reacting to Ray because of his ethnicity. And because Nunzio is such a sympathetic character we tend to side with him. Again, I thought this was really clever writing.

However I would say that what made David both unsympathetic and conversely more believable was his attitude to Ray’s bisexuality. It didn’t stop him from having sex with Ray, but it did make him question having a relationship. I know I may be perverse, but that made me warm to David. Because as he started to grow he dealt with this.

Fra: In all seriousness though: David Butler is not a likeable character; he is melodramatic and calculating, he wants the “perfect” looking relationship and the status of being with Caleb in spite of the fact that he knows he doesn’t love him. He cheats and then gets back to Caleb every time.

Now, I have a feeling that, as readers, we were supposed to dislike Caleb, there were hints of Caleb being manipulative: I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible that Caleb wants the “facade” relationship as much as David, and yet – if I am not completely mistaken – he is the one that keeps coming back for David.

Wow, that felt good!

That said, though, I always think that it is a sign of great writing that a character mightn’t be the most likeable of the lot and yet the tension between the MCs sustains a story which is ultimately really well told. Still spent a good part of my reading hoping Ray would get with Oli just for the craic* though.

(*Irish for fun, not the drug)

Still their journey towards each other and a relationship felt very real to me including,  and perhaps specifically, because of David having no qualms having sex with Ray but doubting he could have a relationship with him because he is bisexual. I thought it was most ironic that Ray – the character we are supposed to believe is immature and needs to “grow up” – is very much sure of his feelings and attraction straight away even while being cautious, whereas David – out and proud, who seems to having to be taken as a cornerstone of “mature” creates all this drama out of nothing more than his own preconceived ideas of bisexual men.

Sutphin Boulevard is one of my top reads of 2015, it is raw, realistic and rule breaking; political even, in a way that resonated with me rather deeply. Sunset Park is decisively less dark and less angsty if not less real than its big brother. Pretty much a novel embodiment of the two Rodriguez brothers now that I think about it!

Where the political undercurrent worked incredibly well for me in Sutphin Boulevard, it sort of grated my nerves in Sunset Park and was a little too close to this idea of the “ liberal usian who must utter several Political Correct Statements for the benefit of the PC brigade and seize every opportunity to take a dig at hipsters  or office workers or people who – god forbid live/drink in Williamsburg”  especially when it came from David!

Miki: This. Exactly this. Maybe the problem for me was that I was expecting this novel to be  on the same level as Sutphin Boulevard regarding the delivery of political and social aspects. But it was more a classic romantic story, that follows the standards if not the rules of the genre. Which is perfectly fine, of course, but it’s not my thing anymore.

Fra: I think that all in all Sunset Park is the perfect romance novel, it firmly places Hassell way ahead of the majority of writers in the genre, it showcases the range of his writing skills even as it seems to pay more than its fair dues to a genre that I have also started to consider slightly stale and repetitive.

In conclusion, Sunset Park is a highly recommended romance novel: it explores relationship themes that are dear to the genre in a realistic and perfectly delivered manner. There is no doubt that Santino Hassell’s talent and writing reach is a force to be reckoned with: it has the strength, the scope and the potential to change the face of a genre in dire need of a good shake up.

We are very much looking forward the next books in the Five Boroughs series as well as all of the groundbreaking, diverse novels that this talented author is going to publish in the near future.

Get the book. Sunset Park is published today and is available at the links below

http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=7159

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B018ZLJWKE

http://amzn.com/B018ZLJWKE

 

Stygian by Santino Hassell – A Rocking Gothic Paranormal Romance

 

 

Stygian_official

 

Jeremy has been isolated and adrift since the death of his brother. Most people just see him as the skinny emo kid who wears eyeliner and plays drums. No one gets him. Nobody tries. He thought the indie rock band Stygian would become his anchor, but—lost in their own problems—they’re far from the family he sought.

Still, hoping to get close to Kennedy, the band’s enigmatic guitarist, he follows Stygian to northern Louisiana for a summer retreat. They had planned to spend six weeks focusing on new music but things go awry as soon as they arrive at the long-deserted Caroway mansion. Tempers flare, sexual tension boils over into frustration, and Jeremy turns away from the band to find a friend in his eerily beautiful landlord Hunter Caroway.

Kennedy suspects there’s something off about the creepy mansion and its mysterious owners, but Jeremy thinks he’s finally found somewhere he fits. It isn’t until Kennedy forces the Caroway’s secrets into the light that Jeremy realizes belonging sometimes comes with a price.

What ho, there are mild spoilers ahead !

 

Miki: the first thing that i think it needs to be said is that Santino Hassell is way above the *standard* of  writers not only inside the genre m / m but also in literature in general. So you know that the book will be at least very good, and that makes the reading of each of his books a challenge in some way, at least for me. Will it blow my mind again? Will it surprise me again?

Fra: 100% agreed there Miki. There is no doubt in my mind that Hassell is one of the most talented writers I have come across in the past few years. It seems to me that there’s very little that he cannot do and exceedingly well at that.

For me is the exceptional world building and flawless characterisation that have done it  with every single one of Hassell’s books to date.

Miki: Yeah. He sets the bar high (for his books, and for any other author). That´s why, in this case and after the way Sutphin Boulevard affected me, the impact of Stygian was less….overwhelming, maybe. As you said, the world building is amazing, and i liked that he tried with another subgenre like the paranormal/gothic (which I love and I read a lot), but at the end it was not as intense as his previous books.

Karen: I read Stygian at Halloween, which was the perfect time to start it, and what I noticed first about it was despite the band members of Stygian being established and with history the book lacked that linear approach that appears in so many others. The characters flow and we get snippets of band and individual history woven in as well.. Combined with the eery house in the woods it made for a very seductive read.

While I can see what you meant about the impact Miki, there was still huge amounts of emotion in Stygian, and while it didn’t kick me right on the heart like SB, I was glad that it didn’t.

Fra: I think this was the perfect Halloween read: creepy and evocative, full of tension and memorable characters  – I did find it intense, although it was perhaps too short to properly explore and dig into all the potential. Of course this might just be because I like my books long.

Miki: No, i agree, but despite all that, those feelings, that intensity, was maybe more superficial than with his other books, at least for me. Maybe it was due to the fact that i read a lot of “creepy” books and comics, so i´m used to hard core readings.

Fra: possibly, I read a lot of paranormal and gothic myself – heck one of my first books boyfriends and one true love was Lestat – so yes I get what you are saying that if the book had been slightly longer a lot more deep diving could have happened. But I have to say that I found the book very intense.

All in all this is an excellent book, it is descriptive, evocative and suspenseful – Hassell manages  to convey not only the Southern Gothic atmosphere with a couple of masterful sentences, he also accomplishes the delivery  of a powerful literary analysis of paranoia and manipulation while exploring and giving merit to the ideal of friendship as family that we choose for ourselves. All in the context of both figurative and literal hauntings.

Karen: I really enjoyed the gothic brooding atmosphere of the book, and how it affected the band members and their relationships with each other, and I could have read so much more of that.

However, and this is difficult without spoilers, the psychological aspect was much more gripping, why some people are controllable and others not.

Miki: That’s probably the best aspect of the book. The mix between the terrorific atmosphere and the impact on the psychological aspects of each character. Much more than the romance, which for me it wasn’t that….credible?

Karen: I don’t think that it wasn’t credible, I felt that it added another layer of tension, and was necessary, but it wasn’t as successful as the psychological part for me. What I found fascinating was how some people can almost embrace manipulation, and others resist.

Miki: Maybe the word I’m looking for is solid. The romance wasn’t as solid as other aspects of the book. (My english is a bit limited, sorry ^_^)

Fra: I agree, Karen, for me the most impressive achievement of the characterisation in Stygian is the painstaking description of both manipulation and paranoia. Jeremy is insecure and plagued by self doubt – he wants to belong so hard that it hurts to see. His need to belong is not only confined to the being accepted as a fully fledged member of Stygian, his sense of alienation comes also from his past and throughout the book I found the re occurrence of sentences like “it is never about me” or “I need my own glue” very telling of the mental state he is in. By no means weak he is none the less very vulnerable and thus wide open to being manipulated. On the other hand Stygian  is a close knit band, they are each other’s “glue”, they have “no boundaries” and are constantly “handsy with each other” in other words they are the family they choose for themselves, but they are fractured and in tatters, and yet they are still together, still willing to make music as a cathartic exorcism of all their ghosts.

Jeremy’s paranoia is the direct result of his sensitivity being laid raw by his surroundings, which, in turn, trigger a very specific set of dark memories, and the attraction for Kennedy whose perceived rejection brings forth all of Jeremy’s self doubt.

Likewise it seems Quince’s need to appease Watts and remold Stygian at all costs leave him vulnerable to being manipulated as well and ultimately changed in unimaginable ways.

In fact the similarities between Jeremy and Quince’s fate, one who eventually finds the strength to resist  the attempts and one that utterly succumbs to the “mindfuck” are, in my opinion, quite stark.

Both  characters are not weak per se – but they are vulnerable and that is where manipulators latch on – in this case figuratively and literally – to exploit them.

Conversely rock solid Kennedy and abrasive Watts seem to be completely immune to Hunter’s mind games.

Hunter says exactly what Jeremy wants to hear by using ill gotten information to his advantage: he recreates himself into the surrogate family Jeremy is  craving for.

Hunter plays on Jeremy’s  need to belong, his grief at the loss he has endured and his attraction for Kennedy. That alone – even without the creepy setting, the fatiscent mansion and the outright scary forest – is one of the most horrifying thoughts conveyed in this book for me.

Where information obtained either in confidence or by sheer acts of eavesdropping become the basis for manipulating others – that is the truly scary element of this – and in fairness of some of the best written gothic and horror stories.

*shudders*.

In fact I think this is one of the best characteristics of the book – we expect it to be paranormal because of the Southern Gothic setting and yet even when we are confronted with the actual paranormal element – from the Black family “insanity” to the actual showing of fangs and supernatural activities – we are never ever – not even once, told what the Caroways are. It easily places the story on the border between psychological thriller and  actual vampire story.

Truly terrifying, more than the blood and the preternatural characteristics of the villain is his actual unbridled power to manipulate, to use Jeremy’s insecurities to create a binding sense of intimacy and belonging.

Miki: True. Hassell follows a known pattern of authors that use those elements wisely, true masters in the genre, without being obvious and literal. We can´t take as valid examples those awful recent books portraying “vamps”.

Fra: Stygian’s tagline describes the characters as disaffected – to me not only are these characters seriously disaffected, they are – like I said above, haunted both figuratively and literally.

From Watts’ constant taunting to Jeremy’s paranoia via Quince’s need to ensure the band makes new music to Kennedy’s possessiveness, Hassell gives us the full gambit of negative emotions to bring into a haunted house, we are also faced with ghosts – the ghost of what they used to be as a band, the ghosts of all of the people lost along the way. With Jeremy is very firmly the ghost of his dead brother but also his past and the essential necessity to compete with what Caroline used to be.

I think it is a credit to Santino that he brings these four together in a haunted house already equipped with the solution to all of their problems. Throughout the book, as readers, we can see that the very fact they are all in the same place is what can put Stygian back together – not the sophomore album, not – in my opinion – the resolution of the UST between Jeremy and Kennedy or the devolution of Watts and Quince’s relationship; but the ability of all members to communicate and work together to create another reality. After all didn’t the river Styx have the power to heal and make people invulnerable?

I could be here forever beating on the possible mythological connections of a band called Stygian that teeters between the living and the (un)dead!

I mean, Stygian is a paranormal novel: the paranormal manifests itself with two properly fleshed out “monstrous” characters – however I thought that the ghosts of the past – from Caroline and Luke to the baggage each band member carries, worked as paranormal markers just as well as Hunter and Laurel Caroway.

Jeremy’s newbie status is the catalyst for all of the characters agency: he longs to belong, to the band, to Kennedy and this longing forms the basis for Hunter’s Caroway’s manipulations.

Karen: While the four band members have distinct personalities, it is as a dysfunctional group where they actually shined for me. I know that sounds odd but they seemed to bring out both the best and the worst in each other, and underneath it you feel that this weird symbiotic relationship defines them all. However Brian I found the most interesting especially his response to the Caroways. I actually found him the most vulnerable in many ways of the bunch.

Fra: *barges in completely inappropriately* OMG I LOVE WATTS – I want to read all of the Watts stories!!!

Karen : So, having read Stygian, Sutphin Boulevard and ICoS I think that Santino Hassell is a terrifically versatile writer. Often people say ‘I would recognise his/ her writing style anywhere’ I don’t get that with SH, which is something that I really appreciate and value.

Miki: I believe that is the most hard thing to achieve as a writer, and Hassell can do it instinctively. There are very few authors with that talent, innate, in the literature world in general. I think the m/m genre is a little too constrictive for him. He´s so much more than that (with all due respect for the genre) but let’s be honest, some people can only write one thing, and one thing only.

Fra: I agree, Santino is an incredibly versatile writer although I do think that there are recognisable traits to his talent: namely his powerful world building and his capacity to draw characters in the most economical and effective manner. Just as an example I am going to take a secondary character, who we only meet once and that just delivers a small yet critical part to the novel’s development. The old man who speaks to Jeremy in the parking lot is described “The man had a Benson & Hedges voice” – I mean that’s seven words and Hassell has  created a complete character with them and that, in my book is absolute talent.

Miki: Yeah, but one thing is to observe some traits that the author likes to explore, or need to convey to his readers, and another completely different thing is when you can only write those things, and nothing else. Hassell does what he wants because his writing is limitless.

Fra: From the beginning – and this is another of Hassell’ strengths – there is no doubt that the book is going to be full of tension.

Told in the point of view of Jeremy, the novel opens with a statement on the place the band rents to supposedly get their act in gear and produce a new album. “The Mansion was a monstrosity” and “The summer was going to be awful”.  In the space of two paragraphs Hassell has set the tone to both the world building and the disaffected state of his characters.

The characters interactions with each other and with the mysterious landlords creates all the tension in the book. A tension masterly underlined by the environment they find themselves in.

The relentless heat punctuates arguments and band practices. The torrential rain and thunderstorm underlines the denouement of both the sexual tension between Jeremy and Kennedy and Jeremy’s realisations about Hunter and Laurel.

This tension – sexual and otherwise – is the red thread on which the characters move; from very early on in the novel, through gestures and taut dialogue, Hassell conveys an impending sense of strings strung too taut and ready to snap at any moment.

There’s the tension between all band members, the constant push and pull of a friendship on the brink of breaking masterly counterpointed by the intense need of Jeremy to belong and fit in.

But this is a broken dynamic – Caroline’s death has left Stygian a ghost of its former self – to survive they need to change and remold, Jeremy doesn’t see this, in fact I think that none of the Stygian members do – the tension here is due to the fact that they are trying to recreate the exact dynamics of before the accident without understanding that they should instead use the intense loyalty to one another to create something new.  

There is sexual tension – the relationship between Jeremy and Kennedy is a constant hot and cold cycle – I particularly liked that all the UST is described in details in the stagnant heat and that the resolution to it comes at the same time as the thunderstorm.

It is hot and sweet and romantic the way these two push each other away only to get back together again.

But I find myself thinking – like I have been for a while in the presence of some great queer books I read recently – are the  sex “intermissions” really necessary? I mean many of the sex scenes in Stygian would have worked for me if they had been fade outs. It almost feels as lip service to a genre that is getting to be way too small of a box for Santino Hassell’s talent.

Miki: Eeeeexactly. It would be fantastic to see him break those boundaries.

Fra: Be it the dystopian world in shades of grey of ICoS to the NYC of Sutphin Boulevard to the Caroway’s mansion and surroundings of this latest offering, Hassell has a wondrous way of tying his characters to a place like no other writer at the moment.

The overgrown vegetation surrounding the mansion, the dust and antiquated feeling inside, a house that is dark and creaking with gloomy corners even with all the lights on – the shack is surrounded by “cobweb covered grass”, the heat is a formidable presence, oppressive, unrelenting it affects the surroundings and the band, it gives a languid feeling to everything that happens in the novel.

Fra: I love vampires, I love vampire stories; Lestat is my spirit animal and my one true love. Stygian marks yet another  glorious return to vampires as they are supposed to be: stunning preternatural predators. Not sparkling, well meaning, creatures, if anything a return to the idea of vampirism as the forbidden sensual exchange of fluids. In fact more than vampires the Caroways remind me of the demonic succubus who take people’s life force to sustain their own supernatural existence.

Miki: Me too. I love it, and Hassell respects all of the fantastic masters that this genre has. And that´s a difficult task. We need more vampires like Spike in this world.

All and all another great read from one of the best writers in the genre. Highly recommended.

Go, do the thing and buy the book:

Amazon / Dreamspinner / BN / ARe

 

A Ranty Post of Rant

Disclaimer: more knowledgeable people than I have written about this subject; this is just me musing rantily about a subject which is really close to my heart.

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In my younger years much of my political activism was directed towards the unfortunate colonisation of both culture and history of my home country by the North American way.

From protests to demand the closure of Usian Military Bases on our national soil to throwing eggs at the opening of the first of a large fast food chain joints – I was there, in the first row. Eh, I got the scars (courtesy of a not so friendly police force) and the rap sheet to prove it.

At the time the ideological issue was that not only the winners of the Second World War were rewriting history but that globalisation was in fact suspiciously the North Americanisation of the whole world,and the inexorable growth and expansion of capitalism as a way of life.

Admittedly the very strong stand of my militant days has somewhat mellowed – I mean I still won’t eat, or let my kid eat,in the afore hinted at fast food chain but I might not end up incarcerated for trying to get every single joint closed by throwing eggs at it.

I have also grown very fond of some great North American literature, spent some time living in Usian cities and come to appreciate the ideal of liberty at all costs.

And yet, and yet – lately I have started to grow antsy again about the overwhelming influence of mainstream North American culture above the rest of the world. It started with books – of which I read many and in a variety of styles, genres and subgenres. I started noticing what I call the sanitisation of life in the majority of Usian books I was reading:

People don’t swear, they don’t have sex but they fall in love at first sight, they join/start/upend revolutionary movements only to retire at the last minute because ohmygod revolutions are bloody affairs, the villains are always of certain type. POC is always almost a token presence in both literature and film -as are members of the LGBTQ community. The heroine,who is part of the same corporate world who created the problem to start with,runs through the dinosaur infested jungle in a white suit and high heels; not urged by a desire to actually defeat a system she has created, but because she has a personal investment in the rescue. I mean high f*cking heels! I just…

Fortunately there is much going on outside mainstream to include and promote diversity in all aspects of the creative endeavour and life in general – this post is not about that, though I really want to acknowledge how fantastic this is and how much love and respect I have for all involved.

The post is about the opposite of the above.

As my child grows into a young man, and he reads more books and watches more movies, I find myself bristling again against the idea that it is ok for culture and history to become the playground of capitalism where everything is standardised and sanitised. Why do I have to sit here and acquiesce with the rewriting of history, heck the rewriting of mythology,to suit the globalisation of the world. I mean I don’t know how much time have I spent unravelling the narrative “references” he got from the Disney movies his grandmother showed him as a toddler – like no, child, that’s not really what happened with the English invaders and the Native Tribes of North America, or no – Jesus no- Colombo and the Conquistadores were NOT happy go lucky hidalgos who went to South America for kicks – they massacred a Nation, pillaged its natural resources; and no absolutely not Robin Hood was not an actual fox. I mean I know it is my job as a parent and all that but it still drives me insane.

Recently I took said kid to see the film Pan. I am telling you now: save your money, take your kids to see Hotel Transylvania 2 or something, go for pizza, ice cream and a ride in the park. Basically go and do anything that has absolutely nothing to do with watching this latest goddam awful hollywood invention of Peter Pan’s origin.

Before I go any further: I am – mostly – a very reasonable person, I thrive with change, I love re imaginings of classic tales; the sheer potential of stories I have known all my life told differently and in different media just gives me all the thrills.

I also I have absolutely no problem in saying that I read and love YA and Fantasy – from epic to urban -and Science Fiction and Romance – which is sort of besides the point, but I really would like to give you an idea of how happy I am to suspend disbelief and go with the (story) flow. I mean from vampires to werewolves to fairies to kitsune to re-invented fairy tales to contemporary twists on Greek, Roman and Norse gods – i pretty much read it and, to an extent – watch it all.

I am also aware that I should have known that a Hollywood produced “origin story” of a tale that has already been plagiarised in a million bad ways, was going to annoy me – and yet, and yet I was so not prepared for the defcon 10 annoyance level I reached with this movie!

We are all grown ups here so we all know that Peter Pan was at worst a tale about abandoned/dead children and a worst a Victorian reinvention of the myth of Pan – the good old Greek god of the wild – he who was also connected with sex, fertility, general debauchery and rather loose morals, also, strangely enough, the only god in the Greek Pantheon that dies. We also know that Barry wrote the “boy who doesn’t grow up” as heartless and selfish but also subversive of the Victorian idea of what “growing up” meant.

I read somewhere that “when it comes to your average adaptation, changes are inevitable – particularly when you are working in different formats – books to film or tv or the theatre”. And I was ready for the changes – really I was; I was also mentally prepared for the hollywood varnish coat – but by gods this was just an incredibly well made piece of rubbish.

Where do I even start ? I am overwhelmed by the sheer bad that this whole thing was.

Do I start from the enslaved thousands of children and men singing Smells Like Teen Spirit for the entertainment of Black Beard – yep you read that right, that’s Nirvana anti adult anti system anthem; I mean the fuckin irony almost killed me. Also is that song out of copyright or has Courtney Love completely lost the plot? (sorry different rant).

Also why Black Beard? A caricature of a pirate who enslaves men and children – yep not even a dicky bird of a woman in this enslaved crew to mine pixium (or some other ridiculous name for pixie dust). I mean what was wrong with Pixie Dust being of the faeries that hollywood had to make it into an extractable mineral? I mean, seriously WTF?

Or, or – and at this point I am spluttering with rage – what about Peter? J.M.Barry hints – not even that subtly – that Peter is an abandoned kid, a forgotten kid – heck the whole of Barry’s tale centers on Peter getting a “mother” with Wendy Darling because neither him or the Lost Boys remember what having a mum is like. In the film, this Peter’s mother who has done the dirty with the Prince of the fairies- is forced to leave him in the worst fucking orphanage in the history of victorian orphanages run by sadistic Irish nuns (which I mean mostly they are but stereotyping much?) in London.

Stolen from his bed by slave driving pirates (whose costumes were amazing) he is brought by flying ship into Neverland (second star to the right and all that) which is like a giant dystopian looking mining pit but also the verdant, dreamy place of Barry’s imagination.

Maybe I am just too old, maybe my elementary school teacher was too literal in her teachings but fucking hell what?

Also, Tiger Lily! Native Princess; even Barry describes her as Native (possibly using every single possible stereotype of the “noble savage” at his disposal but still native) but, hollywood? No, nope. White with funky tribal type makeup to sort of signify she is wild and warrior like, at the helm of a non white tribe. A tribe that when shot dead by pirates explodes into puffs of colours.

I mean read that sentence again – I didn’t make it up. So you have benevolent warrior white princess whose subjects are not white and a sanitised pirate led massacre where the people who get killed explode into puffs of colour.

Or maybe Hook.. Ah Captain Hook, the quintessential villain, metaphor of adulthood escaping time which inevitably follows him in the shape of a very tenacious crocodile. Not at all. In this movie Hook is Peter’s reluctant adult “friend” (which already is wrong on just about three hundred levels) who uses Peter to get out of Black Beard’s mines, betrays him in time of need, comes back when all the natives have already turned to innocuous clouds of happy colours….

Well you see my point – I think. White washing, the complete reversal of every subversive point in Peter Pan the story – never mind the myth; the denial in a way of Neverland as a place of imagination and creativity – blimey but every single accent was also wrong? I mean Barry’s Peter Pan is just about as British as they come – what’s with the overall Usian accents?

What is going to happen next? I do fervently hope that this never ever ever get’s a sequel. I mean it was almost as bad as The Last Airbender film (gasp!)Where would they even take it from here? Peter Pan grows up, conforms and embraces the whole white (north) american dream? Gets a job in the Central Bank? Hook and Tiger Lily marry and settle down in some little village, the natives all conform to the mighty power of the capitalist necessity of selling the land and the mining rights?

What was the point of this blockbuster? What is the point of these multimillion dollar productions and scores of mainstream narratives? It seems to me that the only reason for such drivel – aside from of course making money- is to continue to perpetuate a specific way of life where leaders are white  and the lead are non white and their work, lives, deaths really don’t matter because hey they become puffs of bright colours. How much more are we going to accept ? How much longer are we going to settle and swallow the opportunistic rewriting of both history and entire cultures?

I wish I had a mighty conclusion to my own rant, one full of hope and positive fighting words – I don’t. What I really wish is for every parent, every one really, to tell their children that mainstream hollywood is not history, heck it is not even culture – well maybe it is, but not the only culture by miles. Instead I am ranty and rage-y.

Right so, I am off to “untell” this origin story and explain Pan – the actual original one to the kid.