Friday, January 30, 2015

Best of 2014: Think of England by KJ Charles

Best Historical and Most Admired Book:

Another winner. Charles nails the Christie-esque "mystery/house party" set up, though this is an oddly dark story about some truly ugly people. I loved both leads--I want to say especially Daniel, who felt both recognizable and also really original, but I thought Archie was wonderful too. To an unusual degree, each man illuminates the other on a fundamental level. They are very different but neither is as fully realized, romantically or thematically, without the other.

You see this in Archie's very funny but also poignant attempts at confronting Daniel's "Fragmentalist" verse (which doesn't even rhyme properly!) Everything to do with Daniel's poetry was surprisingly multilayered and revealing.
There were vivid images, but they were extraordinary ones, not poetic at all in the way Curtis vaguely felt poetry should be, with trumpets or mountains or daffodils. These poems were full of broken glass and water-which was not clean water-and scaly things that moved in the dark.
The contrast between the Wordsworthian daffodils and scaly things in (not clean!) water was priceless. The part where Archie stops the other men from mocking Daniel's verse was one of those quiet moments of true heroism that really defines Archie's character. And in truth, his attempts to make sense of modern verse like Daniel's can serve as a stand-in for the experiences of a generation of people who could no longer exist within the comforting moral certitudes of the previous century.

And then of course, there's Daniel, whose religion, class background, and sexuality mean that he saw through those illusions and empty certitudes--probably starting when he was about four years old. (It's a brilliant, potent touch that he's the son of a locksmith). He's a great picture of the kind of mind and perspective that brought us Modernism, but the frequent references to suicide in the story remind us how lonely and wretched that alienation could sometimes be. It's refreshing and heartening to find that character occupying the main role in an old-fashioned romance, with heroic rescues, love and, of course, happy-ever-afters.

I'm teasing out a few of these themes because I used to teach this subject, but I don't want to imply that there is anything ponderous or pretentious in the literary allusions. They're built into the characters and plot in the most natural, understated way.

There's plenty more I would like to praise here, but I'll ring off. Bottom line: this is a home run. Read it. It's great.

5 Stars

Review originally posted on Goodreads.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Best of 2014: Mark Cooper Versus America



Mark Cooper is angry, homesick, and about to take his stepdad’s dubious advice and rush Prescott College’s biggest party fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi. Greek life is as foreign to Aussie transplant Mark as Pennsylvania’s snowstorms and bear sightings. So, when the fraternity extends Mark a bid, Mark vows to get himself kicked out by the end of pledge period. But then he’s drawn into Alpha Delt’s feud with a neighboring fraternity.

Studious Deacon Holt is disappointed to learn Mark’s pledging Alpha Delt, his fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa’s sworn enemy. Mark is too beautiful for Deacon to pass up an invitation for sex, but beyond sex, Deacon’s not sure. He wants a relationship, but a difficult family situation prevents him from pursuing anything beyond his studies.

Mark and Deacon’s affair heats up as the war between their fraternities escalates. They explore kinks they didn’t know they had while keeping their liaison a secret from their brothers. But what Romeo and Juliet didn’t teach these star-crossed lovers is how to move beyond sex and into a place where they share more than a bed. That’s something they’ll have to figure out on their own—if the friction between their houses, and between Mark and America, doesn’t tear them apart.


Fantastic. I’ll admit to being nervous because I am emphatically not a fan of raunchy, R-rated American Frat comedies. There were moments, especially in the early chapters, when the authors skirted perilously close to cliché in the portrayal of Alpha Delta. But as we grow to understand, 90% of the problem is that the boys themselves have seen too many of those movies and seem intent on living up to their very questionable ideas of fun. But thanks to the authors’ overall self-consciousness, especially the clever allusions to Romeo and Juliet, the book deploys and then undermines the usual frat, excuse me Fraternity, clichés, creating a tender, insightful story about growing up, finding your place, and falling in love.

With Mark himself, the authors manage the almost miraculous balancing act of creating a character who struck me as being at once the epitome of the modern, disaffected teen and also wholly fresh and original. Crucial to this was the avoidance of the usual YA-friendly explanations for Mark’s behavior--a horrible step father, a neglectful mother, some early trauma--in favor something far more subtle and unexpected. Their restraint made Mark feel unusually real. In a lot of ways, Mark rebels because he doesn't have much to rebel against. He aggressively redefines his world to fit his need to lash out. This is a quality that we and Deacon discover gradually over time through dozens of small touches, instead of having it shoved down our throats in some tearful monologue.

All of this is good, but what made the book truly a pleasure to read was the writing. Though all of their books have been great, I think the Rock/Henry collaboration really comes into its own in Mark Cooper versus America. The narration is tight and energetic and perfectly infused with the highly distinctive idiom and mentality of its two MCs. I marked dozens of memorable, witty passages and phrases that just made me happy in the way that only terrific writing can:

The fraternity thing was just the latest idea out of Jim’s Top One Hundred Ways to Get Mark a Friend or Die Trying. Copyright Jim, 2013.

Angry bunny.

The guy, drunk, stumbled and went face-first into a bale of hay.
Everyone cheered. It was that sort of party.

At what point in your life did you decide you were the sort of guy who wanted to be fisted?
And never forgetting Mark's war with the local coffee shop over his inalienable right to order a "flat white" instead of a latte.

(Which he apparently won, if we're to believe this poster currently up in my local Starbucks:
Certain Australian authors are loudly cheering.)

But even more than the comedy, there were the moments of insight that made me know and care about these characters:

It was fine to be mocked or disliked on his own terms. But his sexual orientation was such a naked target, unfortified by nonchalance and lacking the benefit of being a persona he’d constructed. Gay Mark wasn’t sheddable like Smart-Ass Mark or Bitter-About-the-Move Mark.

Deacon smiled. He was pretty sure he was just the latest in a long line of people who had no idea what Mark Cooper was thinking.

Given that in many ways this book is the “Mark Circus,” I was gratified that I found Deacon as rich and compelling a character in his quieter way. Part of the strength of the book is that neither Deacon nor Mark could be fully realized without the other. Only Deacon recognizes the vulnerable young man beneath Mark’s smart-ass demeanor. On the flip side, Mark enables Deacon to cut loose and actually have fun. On a deeper level, Deacon is someone who needs to take care of others, and with Mark he’s finally able to do so in a way that is mutual and fulfilling instead of draining and self-sacrificing.

Perhaps the most unexpected thought I had reading the book was that this was the best YA novel I’ve read in ages. That reaction created a mini-existential crisis because a rebellious part of me, the part who remembers what it was like to be a teenager, really wants to make the argument for why this book is healthier, truer, and just plain better than most of the crap directed at teens. Depressingly, the more conventional, timid, mother-of-a-teen part of me is not quite ready to recommend a book which heavily features fisting and other kink for the under twenty crowd. My hesitations feel all the more craven and pathetic given that I know for a fact (yes, I do know how to check the google search history) that my son and his friends already watch really explicit, rasty stuff online.

I won’t solve this today, but if anyone reading this decides to nominate this book for YA Book of the Year, you have my vote. In the meantime enjoy Mark et al. You’re in for a real treat.

Rating: Five Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Favorite Reads of 2014

A little late this year, but once again the time has come to write up my list of top reads of the year. As always, it is a list of books I read in 2014, not those published this year.

Even more than previous years, the list leans on the personal, as in books that are personally important to me, not those I am arguing should be important to anyone else. The more I do this, the more I have to acknowledge that some books get inside me—I remember them and reread them in large part because they complement and build on the stories that I tell in my own head. Some are beautifully-written books that I’d recommend to anyone. But some of them are very rough, minimally edited or with glaring issues, that for whatever reason just hit a vital chord, emotional or psychological or erotic, and for that reason became permanent fixtures in my brain’s landscape.

No doubt this is all the more obvious because 2014 became the year of fanfiction, specifically Teen Wolf. I’ve read almost nothing else since September. I’ll not bother here to defend it to non-believers, but hopefully over the coming months I’ll post a few reviews that lay out why I think fanfiction itself is important and worthy of respect and attention.

Finally, I have reviewed most of these already on Goodreads. Check my shelf for "Favorite Reads 2014" for the individual titles. 

So, drumroll, please. Lilia's Top Reads of 2014.

Top Historical and Most Admired Book: 

Think of England by K. J. Charles


Top Contemporary and Just Makes Me Glad I’m Alive:

Mark Cooper versus America by Lisa Henry and J. A. Rock


Top Read for the Feelz:

Ethan Who Loved Carter by Ryan Loveless


Favorite Fantasy Series:

 Invisible Chains and  Invisible Hands (Dark Tales of Randamor the Recluse) by Andrew Ashling


Seriously the Best Sci-Fi Series Ever and Among my Top Lifetime Reads of Any Genre:

Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold with special mention for the opening book, Shards of Honor

Top Reads for Sheer Porntastic Enjoyment:

Timber Pack Chronicles by Rob Colton


Clan Beginnings Series by Tracy St-John


Favorites from the M/M Groups' Love’s Landscapes Event:

Stranded by Lies by Finn Marlowe (Based on my prompt!!!)


The Archers of Kynthos by K. M. Harty


Top Fan-fictions:

Clever Boy by TriggerTinks

Eat, Knot, Love by Pandabomb


Special mention for the works of KhouriArashi and Goldenpetal13’s Dreams and Nightmares series.

Top Read of the Year:

Clever Boy by Triggertinks

No real competition on this one. Of everything I read in the past year, this story left the deepest mark. To quote my lengthy Goodreads review: "I think it's the best Stockholm story I've ever read, disturbing, insightful, at times sexually charged, at times unbearably sad, pulling no punches about the psychic "erosion" taking place, but also never indulging in gratuitous vilification."  I wish I could issue a blanket recommendation to read it, but as I note in my review, “the tale of how a sixteen year old comes to bond with his psychopathic kidnapper is not for everyone.”

This was also the story that finally laid to rest my ridiculous prejudices against fanfiction. Far from being stupid or lacking, fanfiction is vital, experimental, crazy, and infinitely variable. Thinking about it, reading it, and finally writing it has deepened my understanding of the changes fiction is undergoing right now. Most of all it's incredibly enjoyable, not least because I have been able to share it with my fellow “Sterek Fanfic Freaks” on Goodreads.

A few final notes: 

I did not include any of the fanfictions by authors who had their work pulled from Goodreads, though several of them would probably have made it otherwise. While I am trying to not to be too judgmental about why they felt impelled to take such a step, the bottom line is that their actions hit my particular online community very hard. I personally had more than a dozen reviews deleted, along with my reading logs, favorite quotes and comments on my own and other reader’s reviews. Altogether my friends lost hundreds of reviews and discussions. It sounds trivial to outsiders when I try to explain it, but anyone involved knows that this ended being up an incredibly painful situation for the Goodreads fanfiction community.

The end-of-year wrap up appears to be my time to say a few inadequate thank yous, and once again, I want to express at least a small part of my gratitude to the friends I have made on Goodreads and to the site itself. It has its flaws, but the site does its main job amazingly well: making it possible for people all over the world to come together to celebrate and discuss their reading—any reading that strikes them as worth discussing, whether formally published or not. But the site has always only been as good as its members, dependent on their willingness to spend their time reading, reviewing, recommending and trading opinions about books. Like many of my friends on the site, I have no one in my “real life” who shares my literary obsessions, whether with dark erotica, M/M, or Sterek fanfiction. Without Goodreads, my reading life would be a lonely and impoverished thing, instead of the endlessly fascinating, informative, creative, lunatic, and just plain fun universe it has become. For that I am endlessly grateful.