Thursday, May 30, 2013

Canadian Gay Noir...does this sound high concept enough?

LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN (A Dan Sharp Mystery #1)
Dundurn Press
$11.99 mass market, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Dan Sharp, a gay father and missing persons investigator, accepts an invitation to a wedding on a yacht in Ontario's Prince Edward County. It seems just the thing to bring Dan closer to his noncommittal partner, Bill, a respected medical professional with a penchant for sleazy after-hours clubs, cheap drugs, and rough sex. But the event doesn't go exactly as planned.

When a member of the wedding party is swept overboard, a case of mistaken identity leads to confusion as the wrong person is reported missing. The hunt for a possible killer leads Dan deeper into the troubled waters and private lives of a family of rich WASPs and their secret world of privilege.

No sooner is that case resolved when a second one ends up on Dan's desk. Dan is hired by an anonymous source to investigate the disappearance 20 years earlier of the grooms father. The only clues are a missing bicycle and six horses mysteriously poisoned.

My Review: Well, that's fine so far as it goes. The "mistaken identity" is more like a con game's perp being discovered in a lie; the secret world of privilege part is heavily focused on the heteronormative christian right wing's assertion that it alone defines right and wrong.

So it's about perfectly cut out to suit my prejudices!

Round writes a deeply damaged and badly wounded noir hero in Dan Sharp, and gives him a drinking problem, a miserable proletarian past, and a penchant for dating screwed-up straight rich boys. Dan's not pretty. His appeal to the pretty men he lusts after is in his anger, his endowment, and his complete willingness to cut and run when he damned well feels like it. Means it will all be over and no lingering emotional ties need be fretted over.

Take out "proletarian" and it's me. So again, score one for Round in the designed to appeal to me sweepstakes.

The actual murder mystery bit comes with two adjunct plots, one missing person case that Dan is going to solve or die in the trying, and one complex self-realization plot:

Dan put the receiver down and stared at the wall. The room had shrunk over the last few minutes. He tried to ignore the nameless sorrow under his skin, the gnawing doubts that mocked his hope that life could be a fine thing or that happiness was possible. An acid loneliness came pouring in -- the same loneliness that enticed him to drink and told him he had no friends except the one on the table in front of him.
Well, yeah.

The resolution of the missing person case, when it happens, makes Dan go on a hard journey into his bitterness about the past. His family life was, um, rough and turbulent. His missing person was under the same sort of spell that Dan was himself, and then *click* a light goes on that illuminates for Dan the murder's shape which had eluded him (and the police) until now:

Grief. It was a powerful word beginning with a soft utterance and ending in a feather's caress. There's no way to say it without beginning and ending in a sibilant whisper. Intake of breath or out, it's still the same -- like a verbal palindrome. {The victim} had felt its pull, soft and seductive enough to make him sacrifice himself. He'd given in to its drowning embrace, giving up what he wanted most -- his freedom -- for what he couldn't live without: his boys. In doing so, he'd lost both. There wasn't a prayer or lamentation or elegy in the world that could convey, in words or music, the tragedy that this had brought about. There was nothing that could revoke or undo the senseless horror of what had happened to him....
Losing his sons was a threat the victim couldn't endure. Dan, being a deeply loving dad despite his screwed up self, figures out the identity of the culprit, the reason for the crime, and the whole point of his own involvement in the missing person case from the blinding flash of insight that grief is at the heart of all the troubles in all these cases.

This is the way I like my noir. Dark, bitter, and with a chaser of sadder-but-wiser. I'll read the next book, and that's sayin' something for an overbooked and underlifed biblioholic.

So why not a full four stars? Because the novel, while first in a series, is far from Round's first book. There are pacing and bloat issues. About fifty pages of the book could go and no one would suffer, while the story would gain. Some scenes...notably the resolution of the first death...were rushed and not fully interwoven into the narrative, while others, notably the set-up of Dan's crappy relationship with a man destined to shuffle out of his life in short order, were longer than dramatically necessary to introduce the character flaws in Dan that we need to know about. So a small bit knocked off there, and a bot more for the curiously unnecessary and stunted relationship between Dan's son and the son's best friend, which felt completely grafted on and was unnecessary given how it ended.

But I go back to this fact: I will read the next one. I'm looking forward to it, as a matter of fact.

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Kickin' Ass and Takin' Names

Badass:  The Birth of a Legend

by Ben Thompson

Published by Harper Perennial

Reviewed by Amanda
3 Out of 5 Stars

Behold!  Herein is contained a collection of history and pop culture's most notorious badasses.  These guys and gals kick ass, take names, never give a crap, and spend their days punching humanity in the nutsack just because they can.  They believe that, if you're looking for sympathy, it's in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.  There's no challenge they won't accept, no life they will spare, no vengeance they won't seek, no maiden they won't fondle!  Why?  They all suffer from the totally sweet fever known as badassitude.  And, as we all know, there's no cure for badassitude and, even if there were, who would want it?

Yeah, was all that a little too much for you?  Well, it was for me, too.  I will readily admit that I am indeed juvenile enough to have found the cover amusing, as well as sentences like this one describing the Egyptian gods: "As an added triple-shot of one hundred-proof badassitude, almost all of these bitchin' all-powerful smite-masters were represented by human bodies with insane animal heads grafted on top, making them so King Kong mega-weird-looking that it's like riding a surfboard of insanity down the Uncanny Valley."  However, 300+ pages of this became tedious--so much so that I had to reduce my reading to a chapter or two between other books. 

It wasn't long before every chapter began to sound as though a potty-mouthed version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Michelangelo was "Cowabunga"-ing his way through the narrative.
However, there were some bright spots:

1)  The variety of cultures and time periods represented is impressive.  We have everything from Viking, Aztec, Greek, Egyptian, Vodoun, Anglo-Saxon, to various African mythologies represented, as well as more modern cultural icons.  (Any book where Skeletor and Darth Vader are rubbing shoulders is automatically worth 3 stars.)

2)  Hell, yes for the women represented in the book!  Kali, Oya, Atalanta, Bradamant of Clairmont, Skuld, The White Tights (it's worth reading this chapter alone), The Furies, Baba Yaga, and, my personal favorite, Medea, are all here, proving you don't have to have *ahem* a sword *ahem* to be a badass.

3)  This is the type of book that I could definitely see turning around a boy who is a struggling reader.  It's fun, opens up a variety of mythologies for further research, and uses a language all teenage boys understand.  Sure, you could get your panties in a twist because words like balls, douche, badass, scrotum, and several juvenile sexual references are made, but if you think teenage boys aren't already using that language then you are not a badass.  You're a dumbass.  And I'm of the opinion that if it takes pandering to the lowest common denominator to hook a kid on reading, it's well worth it.

Despite the fact that the "badass" conceit wears pretty thin, this is a moderately entertaining and very well-researched read.  I can honestly say that I learned a few things from it, added a few books for further reading to my "to read" list, and now have the line "He gets more ass than a public toilet seat" in my arsenal.  It was well worth the read.