Lately I’ve backed off reading standard M/M romances because there’s a distressing sameness to so many of them: contrived characters, derivative plots, endless repetitive whining, unrealistic dialog, and an overabundance of back stories relying solely on abuse and self-inflicted wounds.
And to make matters worse, what plot there is consists primarily of one sex scene after another with only the weakest of “bridges” to transport the reader across the tenuous links in a long chain of mindless groping. The intent of a scene of affection—to advance the plot with some bonus titillation—gets buried under the minutiae of the mechanics in a cut ‘n paste, rinse and repeat style.
I don’t criticize because I’m prudish. I criticize because it bogs down the story to the level of boring, and it doesn’t show character development beyond adding notches onto bedposts. At best, it abets the reader’s urge to skip, at worst it leaves a reader feeling cheated and wondering “is that all there is?”
The standard caveats apply: not all books, not all the time, not picking on any one title in particular, this is an opinion, your mileage may vary, if you like the above and can easily overlook the inaccuracies in male sexual activities, go you.
I lucked onto a run of three truly extraordinary works that are worth more than just a glowing huzzah from me. All three touch on universal themes and have earned the rank of read and reread until the pages shred, which means they’ve joined a very select list of books in my permanent library.
As an aside, you can’t move in my house without knocking over a stack of books, so ebooks have become my gatekeeper device of choice—I can try a book on for size, see if I like the fit and then add to the physical stacks or the digital shelves on the Kindle Fire where only the best-of-the-best reside until a book comes out in print. A distressing number don’t even make it past my 3-chapter cut-off and get deleted. That hurts my wallet, but dammit, it hurts my feelings, my expectations and my hopes even more.
Get to the point, woman…
In order of appearance, here are three books of exceptional merit. I’ve done extensive reviews elsewhere (click on the title for the link to said review) so I’ll just give a logline fangirl gush for each.
In all of these novels, the infusion of a sense of place and of history is so exquisitely drawn that it transports the reader seamlessly into that world. For all three books, the “art direction” rates an Oscar.
1) Love Me Tomorrow by Ethan Day: this is a luscious slow burn tale of love-in-waiting with immensely appealing major and minor characters. It reminds me of the romances of the 30’s and 40’s classic movies—romantic without being sappy, restrained instead of blatantly erotic, and filled with scenes focusing on emotional content that don’t overwhelm the plot.
2) The Homeport Journals by A.C. Burch: almost from the first paragraph I knew I was in for a very special ride. It’s at once a romance, a mystery and a coming-of-age tale that touches on so many facets of the human experience that I was, quite simply, blown away. Past and present are crafted with such tremendous skill you no longer perceive their separation. It has the feel of an epic, yet the execution is intimate and intense.
3) The Painting of Porcupine City by Ben Monopoli: the narrative unfolds slowly, exploring the essence of truth from the perspective of two radically different people. Each man has addictions and underneath that boils a seething morass of complex motivations, wishes, desires, disappointments and failures that become the signature hurdles each man must overcome. The writing is boldly inventive, the themes challenging and thought-provoking, the outcomes leaving you with answers to questions that will make you think.
So there you have it. Am I now a literary junkie, forsaking the M/M romance trope in favor of less formulaic and more insightful storytelling?
Yes and no.
What I am is a reader who wants more… and less. More realistic male characters, realistic situations, realistic goals and realistic responses to all the crap life throws at all of us.
Less titillation/eroticism/mechanics at the expense of story, fewer one-note characters, fewer female-centric outcomes imposed as universal expectations, fewer anatomy missteps (yeah, guys, y’all know what I’m talking about).
I’m going to spit-polish my suit of armor now. Wish me luck. Last time it took a hella lot of Windex to clean it up.