Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: Gasp!

Gasp! by Z.A. Maxfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I must admit I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story at first, which was mostly due to the way the characters were portrayed in the beginning. The superficial spoiled-brat persona Nigel presented to the world–and to me, the reader–wasn’t very likable. No more than Deirdre, his manager, whose primary purpose in life seemed to cater to Nigel’s every whim, and to sweep the fallout of his shenanigans under the carpet. As she did after Nigel was caught doing something outrageously scandalous–even for him– when she sent him to a remote luxury resort in the mountains for “regrouping”. And since she was just about to have a baby, she more or less shanghaied her brother into watching over Nigel– Jeff, who was supposedly a battle-tested Afghanistan veteran but appeared quite the pushover, unable to assert himself with Nigel and constantly whining about him to Deirdre.

First impressions can be misleading though, which I learned pretty quickly here. Driven to distraction by Nigel’s self-detructive carelessness, Jeff eventually breaks, and quite impressively at that. From then on, the story gripped me and didn’t leave me out of it’s grasp. As the two men were forced together in the involuntary solitude of an (admittedly luxurious) mountain cabin, as they came to know each other, they both revealed layer upon layer about themselves. Like they slowly, gradually fell for each other, I fell for both of them.

Many times when it comes to rockstars in m/m romance, it’s all about the show, the fame, the performance; the characters often strike me as stage props rather than real persons. But not Nigel Gasp. He may have played so many roles that he has a hard time remembering who he really is, he may be just as convincing and comfortable in drag as he is in full rockstar regalia, but he is an actual, real human being under all the glitz and glamour, a man with vulnerabilities and weaknesses, loyal, generous and, when it comes to his music, incredibly focused and professional. In the mountain cabin, we see him working and practicing, and there’s a great scene with Nigel on stage later on.

It’s really Nigel’s musicality that defines him most. He reminded me of the great ones in his genre, the very heroes of my own youth–Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Freddy Mercury and Brian May, Mick Box, Bernie Shaw, David Gilmore, Roger Waters, Mark Knopfler… Some of them died before their time, others flared high, hot and short like a straw fire almost to the point of exstinguishment. But those of them who survived the blaze came back like phoenixes from the ashes, changed and matured and still brilliant, though now with more of a deep, warming, steady glow. It was where I came to picture Nigel going, this mature yet in no way subdued deeply simmering passion, and I loved his character for both his boundless energy and fierce endurance.

I can only admire how all his endearing character traits subtly and seemingly without effort came into the picture, thoroughly changing my view of Nigel Gasp until by the end, he was one of the most fascinating and winsome characters I’ve ever met.

Jeff, on the other hand, is something of a walking contradiction. A soldier who has a problem with authority. A free spirit who needs structure in his life. He is down-to earth realistic but won’t acknowledge that he suffers from PTSD, drowning his nightmares in alcohol instead. He keeps complaining to Deirdre about Nigel, but he won’t admit to any weaknesses, physical or emotional.
It’s being with Nigel, coming to care for Nigel and being cared for by Nigel that makes the first dents in Jeff’s armor of stubbornness. Coming home from Afghanistan, Jeff was looking for a home, a place to put down roots. He always thought he’d find this place on a map. But falling in love with an unpredictable, restless man teaches him that home doesn’t have to be somewhere, it can be someone.

Parts of this story I enjoyed tremendously, like Nigel’s and Jeff’s slowly opening up to each other. I loved to see them both grow up and mature, and I equally loved that this didn’t just happen because they fell for each other. Jeff’s family, especially his newborn nephew, helped changing their view at the world and each other, and so did the reality of their respective lives once they left the solitude of their mountain cabin. I loved that it wasn’t some stupid misunderstanding, but Jeff’s understandable need for independence that separated them, I loved that they really talked to each other, and I really, really loved Nigel’s diverse personas and the way Jeff reacted to them.
Other parts of the story gave me pause, for example the bear affair (yes, there’s a honest-to-God bear in this story!), or the whole hospital policy thing inclusive of Deirdre’s strange burst of mistrust towards Nigel.

As a whole, this story was a delight to read, romantic, funny and heartwarming without sentimentality, without overwhelming angst and with two very endearing, realistic main characters. I heartily recommend it.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review: The Hand-me-down

The Hand-me-down
The Hand-me-down by Zahra Owens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Workaholic businessman and occasional Leatherman Jez gets stuck in Spain due to his plane being grounded thanks to the eruption of an Icelandic vulcano. For lack of anything better to do, he pays a call on his old friend and occasional lover, former porn star Nick who has gone into retirement in a villa near Barcelona. This is where Jez learns Nick is married, to incredibly shy and reclusive Jamie. Jez also learns that Nick is fatally ill--and that Nick plans to entrust him with caring for Jamie once he'll be gone.

Jamie is so shy he can't even speak to strangers. Events of his past have left him quite unable to cope with life on his own; he needs guidance in many regards, and he desperately needs something or someone to give him structure (this might sound like a classic D/s setup but it's not, not at all--Jamie isn't some submissive boy, but a grown man, deeply damaged by life, and neither Jez nor Nick are actual Doms)

Jez goes from incredulous to refusing to resigned to accepting over the course of Nick's last weeks on earth, not least because he learns quite a surprising lot about himself by watching Nick and Jamie together. But taking responsibility for another person, let alone someone so dependent as Jamie, was never something that fit into Jez's busy lifestyle. Once he finds himself actually in charge of Jamie, he's out of his depth. Only when Jamie suffers through a deeply self-destructive episode, Jez realizes what caring for someone else really entails. But he does care for Jamie, a lot more than he thought he would. And it's not only Jamie who gets something out of the equation; suddenly Jez has someone he wants to come home to, someone who brings constancy into his unsettled life. Jamie and Jez may have fallen into each other's laps, but neither of them will let the other go ever again.

Jamie was a fascinating character. He was a modern day Kaspar Hauser all grown up, with all the implications of the "wild child" premise executed to perfection. As for me, his character was totally consistent, everything he did well founded in Jamie's own strange logic, and I loved so much watching him find his feet in life. I also loved very much that this story refrained from turning into a D/s setting, even though outwardly Jez was the dominant part and Jamie the dependent one. But in reality, Jez turned out to need Jamie just as much as Jamie needed him. In fact, they raised each other, grew mutually and grew together. In the end, they were fully equal partners, no small feat to achieve with a story that started out on such an imbalance of powers as theirs did. Beautifully, masterfully done.

I'd only read one story of this author a few years ago, Diplomacy, which I found nice but quite unexciting. I was baffled with how much both the writing and the storytelling had matured since then. Pulling off this story, making it believable, making the characters come alive on the pages despite their almost incredible backstories was, I'm repeating myself, no small feat and deeply impressive.

My only little niggle here was with Kee, Jez's best female friend, who acted a bit too much like a benevolent genie in a bottle (completely with vanishing into thin air once the crisis was overcome) and with the fact how easily everything fell into place for Jamie and Jez by the end. Then again, they've both won my heart and I was far from begrudging them their hard-won happiness.

Warmly recommended.

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