Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gay vampires: perverse immortality in Lost Souls

Love it or loathe it, you can't seem to ignore this vampire novel -- and it depends who you talk to, whether it's garbage or gold. Poppy Z. Brite has a writing style that's hard to compare to anyone else. The only other writer I can think of with something like this style is Taylor Caldwell (specifically, Captains and The Kings; not so much her other works), and once again, what you get out of it is down to your "ear," which is a very personal quality. I've heard PZB's writing called "lyrical," and "incredibly visual." I've also heard the same style, the same wording, called "bloated and boring." So the only recommendation I can make about this novel is --

75% of people either like or love it, and the top 10% think it's the most fantastic thing they ever read. However, at the other end of the scale are 10% of readers who think it's the most boring, immature load of twaddle that ever wasted printing paper! So, the bottom line has to be, make up your own mind about this one. I'll tell you what I think, and leave the rest to you!

From the first, I was impressed by Brite's knowledge of the region. It's all set in the south, in and around New Orleans, and the area is painted in technicolor phrases. I was blown away by the narrative detail depicting a real place. You feel like you've been there. The story starts with a prologue introducing three punk vampires. Nothing like Dracula, or Ann Rice, or Mel Keegan's Nocture, this. These vampires are out there, weird. It's all about booze and drugs and sex -- oh yes, and being immortal, and fathering a new generation of their kind.

Brite's vampires are contemporary descendants of an elder species that would have had to hide from the sun. These guys don't have to stay out of daylight; they merely cavort at night because they prefer to. They can also eat and drink like normal humans ... they just "suffer" a kind of bloodlust, a blood hunger. Are they true vampires? Possibly not, because necessity doesn't drive them to blood. They bite, and they suck, and they drink blood, because they like it and want to.

So you have a rather perverse bunch of characters to start with, and the plot thickens from there. It's a difficult plot to pin down; it does go somewhere, but it gets there by such a circuitous rout that some readers have just become bored. Others (and by far the majority) are fascinated by the skillful weaving of the place, the time, the psychotic characters, most of whom seem to have no grasp of right, wrong, mortality, rsponsibility or destiny!

I was one of the fascinated ones. The book is murky, it does seem to go in five directions before the threads start to draw together and you glimpse where it's going. You'll either be drawn into its bloodthirsty, perverse clutches, or ... you won't.

The story is about characters and relationships, rather than action. There's Nothing, who is half vampire, sired in the midst of a drunken orgy at Mardi Gras time, by Zilla ... and there's Zilla, who's drop-dead beautiful, bisexual, with confused and confusing gender identity. And Molochai and Twig, his two companions in eternity and night. And Christian, enigmatic, gentle, much more intelligent and refined than the rest. And ... so on.

The plot isn't about events, facts, places, incidents; it's about how people weave around each other, how relationships form and tear apart. It will either draw you in with fascination or it will bore you senseless by page 100 of its 359pp length. I was one of those who were caught on its hook, but I can more than understand the wails of complaint from the other side of the fence!

The book has several downsides. It is slow-paced. It is confusingly structured in places. The descriptive passages are lavish to the point of "one more syllable and this will be overdone." (But Brite always, to me, stops with that one syllable to spare.) The characters are weird and perverse. People are killing their mates; there is a foray into incest, plus domestic violence. And booze and drugs. And vampires.

But I would have to say, all of the above were Brite's intention. She never set out to write a linear, clean-cut storyline with the pellucid writing style of your Keegan, your Lanyon, you Charles Nelson. She fully intended to write a murky swamp of a narrative where sensuality is thick as mist, and "sin" is something you kind of wade in, up to the tops of your galoshes.

Did it work? Most people say "oh, yes." Some people disagree. Depends what you want from a book. The only other novel I know that has this formless ebb and flow quality ... where you can't pick the storyline to save your life, but fascination with the place, the time, the people, keeps you reading ... is Ann Rice's The Feast of All Souls.

The gay content is like a background buzz. It's just there. Brite makes nothing special of it, and there certainly isn't any specific relationship to focus on. The term I'd use is "omnisexual." (Yep, like Cap'n Jack himself.)

I have to recommend this book, because I've never forgotten it, and still relish the incredible richness of the prose, the sheer weirdness of the characters and the way Brite makes a plot come together somehow, from apparent plotlessness! But be warned: 10% of the folks reading this will more than likely hate the whole thing.

AG's rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars, depending on how I feel at the time. (Can't give it 5, because it's just so much of a challenge for so many readers).

Still in print, and readily available from Amazon. (You can buy some amazingly cheap copies, but consider doing the industry, and the author a favor: buy a new one!)


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gay romance meets gay mystery: The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks

Josh Lanyon is in good form with this title ... and what a title! The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks. At a glance, I knew I had to have it. With a title like that, how could you go wrong?

Josh Lanyon is one of a comparative handful of writers who consistently delivers the goods -- and The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks is a great addition to my shelf. It has everything: a wonderful plot; two irresistible heroes; loads of general weirdness and eccentric characters; dead bodies; a haunted house; a quirkier than usual gay romance; and of course Josh Lanyon's style of putting words on paper (or into the computer), which is as important to the book as the characters -- at least to me.

The story begins with a familiar enough mystery: a "now you see it, now you don't" dead body. But this one is in the bath when Perry Foster all but stumbles over it! Perry's a librarian ... is it me, or does he remind you of Christian Anholt's character on the old Relic Hunter tv series? You know how I love to "cast the parts," and from the start of The Ghost... I was seeing Chris Anholt in this role. I'm probably dead wrong, but it was a load of fun anyway! All this aside ... Perry is very lovely, kinda shy, and the perfect partner for Nick Reno ... who used to be a SEAL -- as in, US Navy. Now, Nick is brusque, chilly -- the kind of iceberg you'd love to melt. And Perry is just the one to do it. Picture this! It's delicious.

One of the great charms of The Ghost is that it's 50% mystery and 50% character play. The first half of the book is about people, relationships, who's who, what's what -- backstory three feet thick. I like this. I like to know the characters and the "map" before the action gets into high gear. The characterization of the two heroes is full of very "human" detail that I appreciated so much. Nothing cardboard about these characters. For instance, Nick can be rather mean at times, and Perry gets asthma -- it's the flaws in the characters that make them real and endearing.

As the book starts, Nick is leaving and we have an understanding that the potential relationship between him and Perry is going to fizzle before it starts ... Perry (in his early-to-mid 20s) is extremely, uh, virginal. He also ain't ready to quit on Nick. The seduction scene is marvelously done -- and without spoiling the plot for anyone, it'd be a weird reader who didn't like the way the whole thing turns out.

You have to smile as the mild mannered librarian gets the bit between his teeth and seems to tow Nick along. Nick is definitely the muscles of this outfit, but Perry has the brains, and is the one who's determined to investigate the murder mystery.

Does the book have a downside? I don't think so. A few reviewers have whined about the length of time it takes Perry and Nick to get down to some serious seduction, but that's a subjective viewpoint. I enjoyed the pacing -- and from the get-go, you knew this was a romance and a mystery, not one of those novels where seduction is The Big Ticket item between these covers, and any romance and/or mystery follows on from there. As a mystery-romance, The Ghost... succeeds on every level and you won't put it down. So --

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Two versions have appeared, with different covers -- it's the Loose ID cover depicted above. The version currently at Amazon is wearing a new jacket, with an exterior shot of a creepy old mansion house...

Highly recommended!


Friday, March 13, 2009

Epic gay fantasy: The Lords of Harbendane

This novel should carry a warning: do not start reading when you get home from work at 7:00pm, even if the book is sitting on your doorstep ... because you're going to look like a zombie tomorrow, after having read till four in the a.m. to finish!

There's a certain "something" we've all come to expect from a Keegan novel. I'm still not entirely sure what it is but I should think scientific research could quantify it. Whatever it is, The Lords of Harbendane has it by the truckload. This one is Keegan pure and simple, with qualities that remind you of Fortunes of War and The Swordsman, Nocturne and Dangerous Moonlight. What qualities? Truth. Passion. Intelligence. Vision. Lyricism. And the "A-list" quality of a writer who's been on top of this game for two decades.

Picture this: it's a dark, dirty night, bucketing down, muddy, cold. The quintessential tall, dark, handsome warrior (he's a knockout -- trust me) is on a mission, and when he gets waylaid in a nasty little town, and aided by one of the most enigmatic and irresistible of Keegan's heroes, well, the story explodes from a chance event to the fantasy-scenario equivalent of world war three.

"Tall, dark and smoldering" is Rogan Dahl, who's been a prince, a hostage, a soldier, a cavalry colonel. "Drop dead gorgeous" is Tristan Carlin, who's been a peasant, a warrior, a scribe, and a wedlocked husband. Life is a rocky road for each of these guys; put them together, and you get a inferno waiting to go up --

And Keegan is going to make you wait! Everything you can imagine (and a bunch of plot twists you absolutely can't!) gets between these two guys, and when they finally get it together it's as exhausting for the reader as for the characters. And Mel Keegan manages to do this while staying on "this side of the line" that divides Legitimate Fiction from erotica. Harbendane will stand your hair on end -- at the same time as being absolutely legit.

The backstory is huge. It spans centuries of history and generations of the Halloran family. The Hallorans are Rogan's adoptive clan. He was sent to them as a hostage when he was a small child (in the traditional sense of the word "hostage," which meant the guarantee of someone's good behaviour). The Hallorans are the clan at the head of the great kingdom of Harbendane -- and as the story opens, Harbendane is up for grabs. They're beleaguered, surrounded by enemies on three sides, with nowhere to run and no one to turn to. They're fighting at capacity in the north, and when the ambitious, murderous chief from the next neighboring "superpower" in this land takes them on, they're hanging by a thread. The freedom of a whole people depends on tactics, strategy, and the willingness to take outrageous risks.

And that's the backstory, the scenario, not the plot! Against this monster backdrop, Mel Keegan's story is about individuals, how their lives are being twisted by duty, how their dreams and desires are being wrenched away, how they're still struggling to make something of themselves, how they all interact as they play their parts in a strategy that just might keep Harbendane out of the hands of its enemies.

I can't say much about the details of those personal stories, because I'm in plot spoilers instantly, and most readers absolutely hate to be told, "Tristan's real problem is..." and "Rogan's plan is..." I can tell you that the book is written with a great lyricism, imagery that comes to life, characters you're going to love, others you're going to hate. Obviously I adored Rogan and Tristan. (It's huge fun "casting the parts" as if Harbendane were a movie. I play this game with almost every book I read. Adds to the fun.) But I also loved Damiel and Morgan Halloran, which is a bit unusual for me. I don't usually "identify" very strongly with the female characters. These two are just amazing -- particularly Morgan ... the character blew me away.

The book is thrilling in many places, intriguing in others ... and keep the Kleekex handy, because there's a couple of places where you might need them. Fair warning: one of the major characters gets killed. (NOT Rogan or Tristan; but MK will make you care a lot about most of these characters, and one of them at least doesn't make it through to the end.)

Does the book have a downside? If it does, I didn't find it. The cover art is the best DreamCraft has ever done. Jade must have been absolutely inspired. (You get used to digital "art" ... but this is a painting, the way books used to have real artwork covers years ago. You feel kind of spoiled at the luxury.) The production values are very high throughout, and CreateSpace does a fantastic job with the paperbacks.

You can get it from Amazon.com in paperback. The Kindle version should be available by the weekend (it's been stuck in "publishing" for days now, and an email was just sent to technical support to get it "unstuck"). You can order the Mobipocket format for your Kindle, smartphone, Blackberry, Palm Pilot, and many other devices. It's available as a PDF for your iLiad, Palm, PC and Mac. And if you're reading on an iPhone, get the Kindle for iPhone applet. A hardcover version is being planned, and will be available from Lulu -- it'll make a great Chrissy pressie when the silly season comes back around.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars, and a gold sticker added on for excellence of presentation: the cover is amazing.

PC/Mac ebook:
 Add to Cart $9.95 -- and identical in every way to the paperback.298pp. (Permissions: no editing, printing, text or image copy/paste.)

Screenreader ebook:
 Add to Cart US$9.95 -- properly formatted, complete with cover art and map; over 430pp.(Permissions: no editing, printing, text or image copy/paste.)



Thursday, March 5, 2009

Author Interview:
Talking with Mel Keegan

First, let me apologise across the board … I’ve been buried in work. Blogging has had to be back burnerized and nobody is more aggravated by this than myself because for a week I’ve wanted to review The Lords of Harbendane and Legends! It’s incredibly annoying just not having the time to do this. I also want to review a couple of old favourites and some new ones, including Josh Lanyon’s The Ghost Swore Yellow Socks. Yet here I am strapped for time.

I did get the chance to talk to Mel Keegan a few days ago and since I’ve been promising a ten-minute interview, here it is. Hopefully I can get sometime over the coming long weekend (Adelaide Cup Day … big horse racing carnival) and will be able to get some reviews done then.

AG: How was the launch of Lords of Harbendane?

MK: Interesting! Successful, given the circumstances. The reading community isn’t as “socially secure” as it used to be a few years ago, and books have become more expensive. So has postage! When I began with DreamCraft, we could mail a book around the world for A$8 (about US$6). Now, it costs $16.04 (A$25.46) to mail the same book from Amazon to the South Pacific region. Has this killed local sales? Yes. Does this impact significantly on overall sales? Of course it does! However, if you remember that readers everywhere are struggling to cover their domestic expenses, it’s actually tremendously flattering when these same people pay what I, personally, consider an outrageous amount for a book. It’s US$22.50 for Harbendane at Amazon. That’s not a lot of money in Aussie terms, for a brand-new paperback, but in the States it’s way over the top. Also utterly unavoidable for a book of these dimensions.

AG: Prices are rising everywhere. I read on your blog that in a few years Amazon is expected to have taken control of the ebook market with Kindle and will start to hike the cost of ebooks…

MK: It’s been mooted, but on thinking it over I honestly doubt it’ll ever happen. I mean, they can charge US$30 (A$47.60) for an ebook novel which is, frankly, no more than a bunch of electrons, pixels, what have you … but no law says readers have to pay so much! Also, with POD publishing trending the way it is, the self-same book that would be wearing a $30 pricetag in the Amazon Kindle store would still be costing $10 via the author’s website. What kind of idiot would pay $30 for something you can get for $10? All they have to do is Google the author’s name and/or the title of the book, find the website and download the identical goods from Payloadz or whatever.

AG: I guess Amazon will find this out the hard way. You were angry and outspoken the other day on your blog also about the fact the Kindle Store is out of bounds to “foreign writers”

MK: I was steaming mad at the time. In fact, I still am, on behalf of “foreign” writers everywhere. We don’t call ourselves foreign! Aussies and Kiwis and South Africans and so forth think of folks from North American as being foreign! But, whatever your perspective on geography, you get to a critical threshold in the Kindle publishing process where they ask you for your American mailing address and American phone number. This automatically shuts out 90% of the world’s literary voices -- which would be fair enough, if Amazon.com was not infamous for dumping cheap goods into the world marketplace! As I said on the post where I talked in depth about this, to make it halfway decent and acceptable, the conduit has to run in both directions. I might still be able to sneak into the Kindle Store by getting access to a proxy address, via family in the US. But ... it's the principle of the thing.

AG: Any chance of Amazon Kindle changing its way of working, do you think?

MK: Maybe. Kindle is very new, and everything needs a shakedown, but so far the development process has taken years and they’re still US-centric. Also, the second incarnation of the Kindle gadget it out, and they’re already in trouble with it. It works just fine -- in fact, it works to well. Apparently, the gadget has a text-to-voice feature which effectively turns every ebook into an audiobook … and it turns out the Kindle’s human voice algorithms are pretty good. Mellifluous and accurate in intonation. This is really rubbing the billion-dollar audiobook industry the wrong way.

AG: So Amazon isn’t out of the woods with Kindle yet. And let’s face it, writers -- like yourself and others I know personally! -- are always out there looking for alternatives.

MK: And finding them. I stumbled into the Mobipocket Store yesterday and found myself made as welcome as I was unwelcome (as a "foreigner") at the Kindle Store. Mobi is a very different kettle of fish. It’s not the hardware that's proprietorial, it’s the way the ebook files are registered … yeah, sure, I know, we’re getting into the area of DRM [digital rights management] here, which is a huge, swampy zone. But improvements are being made, and Mobi is far better in this region than other formats like the protected PDFs -- those are a nightmare, from what I hear. Also, Mobi works on Kindle … and you can get a free download of the Mobi reader for most platforms, and then you can go ahead and download your purchase multiple times -- for your desktop, laptop, netbook, screen reader, whatever. I’m interested … very.

AG: You’re also going to Smashwords soon, aren’t you? I have a couple of readers who’re into the iPhone thing, and they’re waiting for the phone versions of some of your titles. Any info?

MK: We tried the upload to Smashwords yesterday, but they were having server issues. If not for this, two or three books would already have been there! We’ll be trying again later today. Cross your fingers for us.

AG: Hey, consider them crossed. Which titles are going to Smashwords first?

MK: Fortunes of War, The Lords of Harbendane and Dangerous Moonlight.

AG: How soon can we expect The Swordsman and the NARC series to be ready for the iPhones?

MK: April or May … sooner than that if sales are really good. It takes about 2-4 hours to convert a single book over from the DTP files from DreamCraft to the stripped files needed to make the conversion to multiple ebook platforms effective. Being a working stiff with three blogs and some remote semblance of a private life, I can only do one or maybe two per week. Bear with me.

AG: They say patience is a virtue! How’s critical response to Harbendane?

MK: So far, so good. I’ve only had reader response so far, but it’s all in the five-star bracket. I’ve sent it to Rainbow Reviews, and am optimistic that it’ll be well received there too. I’ll be sending out several more review copies in March and April. So ... any idea when you’re going to get around to a review on this blog of yours? Hint, hint. Not to apply any pressure, you understand…

AG: aarrrgghh! As soon as I can get some free time from work.

MK: Tell me about it. Finding time to blog is difficult… finding additional time to promote the blogs is even more so, which is a principal problem with Legends. I’m having a hard time catching people’s attention! I’d hoped the “viral marketing” concept would have worked: word of mouth. People tell people who tell people that there’s a FREE MEL KEEGAN NOVEL out there. Free for the download, and so on. This didn’t happen, and since I can’t access search engine traffic, promotion for Legends is a question of applying to directories … and being rejected by more of them than will give Legends a listing.

Artwork by Jade, from LEGENDS: A digital novel by Mel Keegan ... are you missing the fun?!

Art by Jade, from LEGENDS: A digital novel by Mel Keegan ... are you missing the fun?!

AG: That’s bizarre. Why can’t you use the search engines?

MK: Think about it! Google or Yahoo, whatever, picks up on keywords. Say my characters are drinking wine during the m/m seduction scene. Google would very likely send visitors to the page, who’d been searching on wine, or goblets. Or silk bedsheets. Or scented candles. They land on a page where two guys are getting it on; someone gets a shock and complains -- big trouble.

AG: Oh … yeah. Right. Duh. That could get confusing for the engines and a bit nasty if the wrong people (maybe kids???) got into pages where they absolutely shouldn’t be.

MK: Exactly. So right now, here’s Keegan’s Master Plan regarding the Legends Project. The story breaks down into five major “books,” and I’ll complete the first. The site can sit up there at Blogger, looking gorgeous (and it does!), while I figure out how to promote it without paying megabucks for adverting. Meanwhile, I’ll be finishing Hellgate. By the end of the year, Legends will either be attracting readers … or not. If it’s not, the site will come down and I’ll go on and finish the whole project for issue via Mobi, Smashwords, Payloads, Amazon, whatever. The whole thing was an experiment, after all -- you have to remember that “negative data” is useful too. What I’ve learned so far is that not too many people are interested in following a serial! And/or they have no real use for ebooks, so reading fiction on-screen is anathema. Or, they don’t like the action broken up into daily doses. Or, they don’t care for fantasy. You add those things together, and you get a fairly small nucleus, or core, of readers who are enjoying it … just too few people to make the project a success.

AG: And are readers being supporting via the advertising?

MK: Not really -- and this is where I’m very surprised indeed. We had a flush of people supporting Legends in the first week, but right now we can go 1,000 page loads without getting a click on a Google ad, for instance … and the click, when you do get one, is worth about 15c. I understand about people not wanting to donate $1 (we’ve had the mighty sum of 7 of those clicks in a month -- I’m very grateful to those people who did indeed click!), and I also understand about people not shopping at Amazon, because folks are counting pennies -- myself included! But there are ways to be supporting that don’t cost the reader anything at all, and it seems that very few people are sensitive to this issue.

AG: In other words, they’re happy to swing by every day and get the fiction, but they don’t want to trade anything at all for it…

MK: Most people swing by once at week (at the weekend) and collect 10 segments at once, and vamoose till next week. I don’t at all mind people doing this -- it makes sense! But with one visit per week there doesn’t appear to be any impetus to offer some support, even be it just a click on some item that everyone in the world knows will vector a microscopic gratuity back to the host. It’s curious to watch what’s going on, and this is also a valuable part of the experiment. It’s just important to be patient, leave no stones unturned, give the project the full energy and creativity it was supposed to have, and allow enough time for it to “cook” properly.

AG: You’ve got a lot more patience and perseverance than I would have! Last question … what are you writing now?

MK: Obviously Legends, but unless there’s a miracle, I’ll be putting that onto hiatus at the End of Book One. I’m spending the rest of the year to finish Hellgate. Completely. Totally. Right to the end. Then we’ll relaunch the series in new venues, with a new campaign … and see what happens next.

AG: Thanks for your time, Mel -- I know you don’t have a lot to spare and I see you fidgeting in the direction of the door! Best of good luck with all your projects.

MK: Thanks -- and it’s been a pleasure.


Many thanks to Mel Keegan for this interview, which will “hold” this blog while I dig my way out from the pit of work that I’ve been buried in. Next review: Lords of Harbendane. Then, The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks. I’m hoping to get back with those next week.