Posts Tagged ‘homosexuality’

Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

taken_by_the_wind- Ellen Hart

Taken by the Wind by Ellen Hart (Minotaur Books, 2013) is the twenty-first book in the Jane Lawless series. From this simple opening sentence, you’ll recognise that there’s a lot of backstory for the characters and that the development of this plot is as much about continuing their story as about presenting Lawless with another mystery to solve. This doesn’t mean you can’t read and enjoy this book as a standalone. It’s just that the story is more interesting if you know something of what has gone before. There’s another feature which should be mentioned at the outset for those of you who have not read any of these books. In genre terms, I suppose this is an example of cozy mystery. Our “amateur sleuth” is a restaurateur who has given into the pressure and acquired a PI licence in her home state of Minnesota. This gives her slightly more respectability in the crime-solving stakes. Nevertheless, the methodology is essentially the gentle accumulation of information from those involved and the local gossip. The only change is that our lady can now produce a formal business card to identify herself and so command slightly more respect when approaching strangers and asking questions.That said, this series is gay fiction. So if you prefer not to read a book in which all shades of sexuality are an integral part of what happens, walk away from this. Not only is Jane herself in a gay relationship, but the parents of one of the children who go missing in this book are also a gay couple.

So where are we in terms of the plot? Jane’s food and beverage business is going through restructuring. The shift in her interests requires more time is available for work as a PI. If she were to devote full-time effort to one of the two food outlets, she could probably turn it round. . . After much thought, she’s decided to sell it at a loss. There’s an element of sadness about seeing one of the her babies going, but this is the right decision for her. As a note of surprise, I note she never sets foot in the other outlet during this book. Although you can understand why the restaurant in not high on her list of priorities at this time, there’s a serious risk that business will go the same way as the other unless she keeps riding herd on the staff.

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

The source of events in this book is the potential kidnapping of two boys. Jane has two friends, Eric and Andrew. Their long-term relationship has broken up and they now live apart. This was distressing to their twelve-year-old son, Jack, who now spends more time with his best friend Gabriel — the son of Eric’s sister Suzanne Born who’s married to Branch Born. The local police are not too worried by the disappearance, but Jane finds certain features of their departure worrying. In due course a ransom demand arrives. Jane and her best friend, Cordelia Thorn, get into the business of an exchange. Unfortunately, even though the money is collected, the boys do not reappear. This seriously increases the stress of everyone involved, particularly when homophobic telephone calls and painted slogans appear suggesting this is punishment — men in a relationship should not be acting as parents — some of the local church are very conservative and so judgmental.

Because the small town in which all this takes place is under serious financial pressure, the local population finds itself less friendly. Many properties are underwater with the mortgage, there are foreclosure signs on some properties, and people have cut back on their spending so they can pay down their debts. In some ways, the community shows its resilience so, when there’s storm damage, neighbours rally round to clear fallen trees and repair each other’s homes. But unemployment is a reality for some residents or threatened for others. This would give some locals a motive to abduct the boys and demand money. It would help them pay down the mortgage. Rightly or wrongly, Eric and Andrew are thought well off. There’s also some resentment because they renovated properties for sale which were then overvalued for mortgage purposes. This was not their fault but it adds fuel to the resentment.

Given the way it all plays out, the kidnapping proves to open the proverbial can of worms and results in a pleasingly complicated solution. As a way of praising the author, aspects of the answer were a surprise which is how it should be in mysteries. On the personal front, the relationships between Jane, her current lover and her ex are growing impressively interwoven with a nice cliffhanger to take us into the next book. All of which leaves me with a satisfied smile on my face. Taken by the Wind creates real suspense as the boys disappear, the characters are all plausible (the disappearance of children causes distress to all regardless of the sexuality of those involved), and the mystery is a good puzzle to solve. You can’t ask for more than that.

For the review of another book by Ellen Hart, see Rest for the Wicked.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law

December 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law

The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law (Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2013) sees the historically real British artist Francis Bacon in his second mystery outing. As transitory sidekicks, he has his old nanny and Albert, his lover, caught up in intrigue just after the Second World War. For those of you not familiar with the man and his work, it’s appropriate to quote Wikipedia, “Bacon in person was a bon vivant, and notably and unapologetically gay.” This book is therefore implicitly gay in its outlook, taking as read the active oppression of the times with homosexuality still a crime in England and France.

It all begins as our happy couple are leaving a gambling establishment in London when a man is shot in front of them. Bacon does all he can to stabilise the man’s condition but, a few days later, the owner of the casino comes to their door. He reports the man dead of pneumonia. It seems there’s a widow who lives near Monte Carlo. Our hero had already arranged a trip to France. Would Bacon please deliver the deceased’s last words — upon confirmation of their receipt, his not insubstantial London gambling debts will be written off. It seems a suspiciously generous offer, but Bacon agrees, thinking he has nothing to lose. Sadly, this judgement proves wide of the mark. When he arrives at the indicated house on the Riviera to deliver the package, he suspects something is wrong and leaves as quickly as possible. Later the police arrive at his hotel. A body has been found at the house and he’s the only one seen entering or leaving.

Janice Law

Janice Law

This is very definitely an historical mystery with thriller elements, the plot dynamic depending on the politics immediately following the liberation of France. During the German occupation, the situation on the ground was complicated by the creation of the Vichy government. To show loyalty to the Germans, Marshal Philippe Pétain created the Milice, an extralegal paramilitary force to fight the Maquis in the Zone Libre except, in self-defence as they were targeted by the Resistance, this militia expanded its activities into the Zone Occupée. They were more feared than the SS because they knew the lay of the land and, by definition, spoke the language. Obviously, once the war was over, there were injuries and deaths as the members of the Resistance and local citizens took their revenge. Many of the Milice went into hiding or left the country but, with memories still fresh, their influence remains real. As is always the case, there’s also money at stake. As the de facto government in the south of France, people were in a position to acquire wealth. With the war over, there’s a race to either recover the money or deny the money to the other side. The combination of the desire for revenge and greed are powerful motivators.

So here comes the catalyst Bacon, a completely unashamed homosexual who makes no secret of his orientation. The situation could not call for someone more likely to stand out no matter what the size of the crowd. Walking into the village, asking which house is occupied by the widow, broadcasts his identity. The villagers cannot fail to report this foreigner to the police. No matter whether the police are corrupt, they cannot fail to suspect him of every possible kind of criminal behaviour. Now there are two priorities for him. First he must survive. Then he must engineer his return to England with the least possible damage. Fortunately for the reader, the second priority inevitably requires him to begin working out who’s on which side. Not, you understand, so that he can join any of the sides. But simply to know whether they are friend or foe or swing both ways. When a retired member of the Sûreté comes on to the scene, things heat up. In the old days, he was driven by the need to obtain evidence. Now he’s no longer a policeman, he can be more flexible. But with great flexibility comes great danger. Thank the Gods somethings like the Tour de France are eternal.

Insofar as it’s relevant, the sexuality of the protagonist is handled sensitively, drawing on the then prevailing demimonde for lifestyle and some of the characters. Although it’s slightly formulaic, The Prisoner of the Riviera manages a successful combination of mystery and thriller elements to produce an enjoyable read.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt

Killer's Art

Killers’s Art by Mari Jungstedt (Stockholm Text, 2013) translation by Tiina Nunnally, shows the very real problems of publishing books out of sequence. This is the second book published in English for the American market after The Dead of Summer, yet they are respectively the fourth and fifth books in the series. For the record, this translation was published in the UK in 2010. So for those of you in the US, this is your first chance to read what happened to persuade Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas to promote Karin Jacobsson as his deputy, and about the tragedy that drove Johan and Emma apart despite the fact they have a child together. Frankly I find this publication schedule incomprehensible. When the story of the police and journalist teams develops from book to book, why must American readers be invited to read it backwards? Perhaps if these books were predominantly standalone police procedurals, it would not matter very much. But these books have a more even balance between the story arcs of the series characters and the individual mysteries. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no justification for starting at book five and then publishing book four, when it would have been just as easy to commission the translation of book one and publish them in order in all markets so we could watch the background story play out. Or is the publisher making some kind of value judgement that, somehow, the readers in the American market are not yet ready to read the earlier books. Perhaps we should draw a parallel with the recent appearance of The Bat by Jo Nesbø. This is the first book featuring Harry Hole, written in 1997 but only now released in English. I note the parallelism that the first Hole book published was also the fifth, but we then dropped back to the third and were able to read the rest in sequence (we’re still missing the second but it’s due this year). When a story is written to be read in a particular order, why must the publisher frustrate the author’s intention and deny the readers the opportunity to watch the characters’ development in sequence?

Mari Jungstedt

Mari Jungstedt


Ah, well, rant over. We should just be grateful we have another book by this talented author. So here we are back on the island of Gotland, Sweden’s largest island and a signifiant province. Local residents of Visby, the main town, are shocked when Egon Wallin is found hanging from one of the gates in the wall — this is the best preserved mediaeval town in Scandinavia with a two mile section of wall ringing part of the town centre. Wallin ran a successful art gallery and died on the evening of hosting an event to launch a new artist in Sweden. From the outset it’s clear this was a murder but establishing the motive is complicated as it almost immediately appears he had made arrangements to leave his wife and join a gallery in Stockholm run by a partnership. Given the physical strength required to commit the murder and hang the body from the gate, the wife and her lover are ruled out. They would just have been glad to see him go. Indeed, there are no clues as to who would have wanted him dead until a famous painting, “The Dying Dandy” by Nils Dardel, is stolen in Stockholm. Again this appears a motiveless crime. The painting is so well known, it could never be sold on the open market and it seems not to be a theft for hire because the thief leaves behind a statue stolen from Wallin’s gallery the day he was killed. Why someone would kill a gallery owner in Visby and then steal a painting is a complete mystery (which is, of course, why we read these books).


The answers to the mystery of the murder and then theft are very satisfying. Even the red herring that appears quite early on is neatly tied in to the overall whodunnit package (albeit that the coincidence is only just acceptable because the number of people in the art world with the contacts to achieve particular ends would be limited). So as a police procedural, it works beautifully with the understandable despondency of the investigation team captured in the central section of the book as their leads all come to nothing. If there is a fault with the book, it lies in the time given to Anders Knutas, the lead detective. Whereas we are allowed to see into the lives of Johan Berg and his partner Emma, we see very little of the relationship between Knutas and his wife Lina. With the policeman so obsessed when a big case comes in, it strains the relationship not only with his wife, but also the rest of the family. Since the intention is to suggest sexual tension between Knutas and Karin Jacobsson, it’s not fair on the reader to skimp on the detail of the marriage. In a perfect world, a happily married Knutas would not be tempted, so failing to show how the time passes with Lina at weekends is lazy writing. With this one caveat, Killers’s Art is a genuinely impressive book with a realistic investigation into a pleasingly complicated case. I should warn readers that there are homosexual themes so, if this disturbs you, this may be a book to pass over. Hopefully, in these enlightened times, everyone will put prejudices to one side and read it. It’s one of the best Scandinavian police procedurals of the year so far published in the American market.


For a review of the sequel to this book, see The Dead of Summer.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episode fifteen to end

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Mercifully, we’re now into the final lap to end the race to the bottom. In a crisis, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) fails completely to reconcile his feelings for Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) as a man with her reality as an attractive woman. He therefore does the only thing confused young men in this situation do. First he saves the “man” he loves through a nice piece of argument before the student council called by Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo). He then goes round to break off the engagement with Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim), the naive woman he thought he would marry to cure himself of his homosexual tendencies, and then runs away into the hills. At this point, I need to refer to a change of law in California. For decades, therapists have been claiming success in the treatment of homosexuality as a medical disorder and asserting a “cure” is possible. This always has been a nonsense and the new law reflects this by banning gay conversion therapy. When signing the law, Governor Brown said this should consign the therapy “to the dustbin of quackery”. Obviously this news has arrived too late in South Korea to save this series.

King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) meets Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) as a woman

In his mountain retreat, Lee Sun Jeon decides he loves Kim Toon Hee as a man. This is not an easy decision and, once made, it confirms the essential gayness of the character. When he sees Kim Toon Hee by the river, he runs up to “him” and gives him a hug — a public demonstration of affection, not caring whether it’s observed. With respect to the scriptwriters, this is not a psychological problem that can be cured by showing him the object of his affection is actually a woman. Indeed, having gone through the existential debate, Lee Sun Joon should be disgusted by Kim Toon Hee. She’s the wrong sex and not sexually attractive to Lee. Yet, of course, we now have to go through the equally embarrassing courtship as a heterosexual couple, endure Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) acting jealous, and despair of everyone else’s general lack of awareness. Even Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) is growing a little tiresome.

In the midst of all this, we discover King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) has a plan to move the capital and thereby break the power of the nobility. It turns out he’s high on opium a lot of the time which explains his slightly erratic behaviour in choosing a cross-dressing woman, a gay man, a terrorist and a dilettante fashion guru of ambiguous sexuality to save his country. To give himself political cover, the king wants to recover a letter that was lost some ten years ago — a transparent McGuffin to dig a weak king out of a losing position. All the four “heroes” have to do is find the letter, discredit the nobility and prepare to run the new utopian capital city when it’s built. Not a bad day’s work for university students.

As a plot, I think the routine noble-born boy meets girl from the wrong side of the Joseon tracks would have been a better bet. When he defends the girl’s right to learn and advance herself that would have more force because everyone can see he’s going against convention. In this version, his progressiveness is masked by the gender confusion. Similarly, the political decision to relocate to what’s now Seoul could have been the basis of an interesting plot, but it’s left superficial and simply tacked on at the end to give emotional cover for the resolution of the four’s rite of passage. More importantly, an opportunity was missed in not expanding on the situation in which Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) finds herself. She’s another of these very talented woman who’s kept in a cage.

Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) , Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) and Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) — the future of Korea in their hands

As we have it, the whole thing comes to a head as a family squabble with the virtuous can-do young showing their fathers they will be good leaders in the future. That’s except for Ha In-Soo, son of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War and lackey-in-chief. They have both been portrayed as trading on their status without actually having many brains, so suffer the usual ignominious defeat. Magically, the son does finally show a little gumption. But it’s too late to earn him a reprieve.

I suppose I must forgive the scriptwriters. They are bound by the culture of South Korea and cannot yet run an honest prime-time series about gay love. So I’m completely at a loss as to why they should put themselves in difficulties by adopting the cross-dressing theme. As the series Dae Jang Geum and Dong Yi both amply demonstrate, South Korea can run a traditionally gendered story to highlight the need to reform women’s rights. Indeed, after the archery and hockey, this woman is increasingly shown as dependent on the men around her. What little spark she had seems to dim until it flickers slightly more brightly as she solves the problem of where the missing letter has been hidden. It’s somewhat ironic. She’s a lot more positive when no-one knows she’s a woman. When she has three men in on the secret, she’s a lot more needy. Frankly, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a disaster.

For the first episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes nine to fourteen

October 28, 2012 1 comment

Well as we tread heavily into episode nine of Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010), we’re into revenge as Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo), our Student President, has been humiliated. So he frames Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) for theft. King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha) involves himself and gives the identification of the true criminal(s) as the next exam question. This pits the Gang of Four against the rest of the students. So we now get a tedious investigation that’s enlivened by one absurdity and another touching moment. As a team, they realise the record of who passed on the stolen goods to the merchants to fence would be held by the head merchant. They plan to break in. The way it works out, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun) is the one who enters the storeroom. He’s spotted and the local law enforcement is summoned. Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In) intercepts them in the street and while he’s fighting, Kim Toon Hee disguises herself as a courtesan and enters the storeroom to rescue him. When the guards finally arrive, they find Kim on top of Lee. Embarrassed by what they think is a routine tryst, the guards leave. Seizing the moment, our dynamic duo get over their own embarrassment in their new sex roles and find a stack of highly embarrassing records. When the guards are about to return, Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) persuades Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo) to parade by with her team of courtesans as a distraction. Our duo escape with keys records. This is absurd because, in the space of the fight with the guards and with no prior warning, Kim has to find a dress and make-up, and then find a place to transform herself into a courtesan, classy hair style and all. She then has to get from her changing room, past the guards and to the storeroom. Only in a Korean drama would such a thing be thought possible. The second more affecting moment comes when Moon Jae-Sin talks with the young man who physically removed the goods from the University. He says some pleasing things about the relationship between brothers. So now Lee Sun Joon has seen Kim in the “wrong” dress, he’s even more confused. Poor boy. Anyway, while he’s agonising what to do about his feelings, he must also decide what to do with the evidence they have collected which may incidentally implicate his father.

Micky Yoochun and Park Min Young as the inadvertently straight couple

We’re back into the tedious moralising rut again. The fantasy reformist version of this King has given our foursome a crash course on just how awful life is for the poor, presumably so they’ll become righteous civil servants and protect the people in the future. As Kim puts it to Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang), the country has been in the hands of men and look what a mess they have made of it. All the bribes have been flowing upwards into the hands of the corrupt nobility and, starved of funds, neither the King nor the people can do anything about it. So now all eyes focus on Lee Sun Joon. What will be do with the sliver of evidence against the nobility? They are the true criminals but how does that help Kim. Indeed, if she cannot save herself, does she deserve to be an “official”?

Song Jong-Ki and Yoo Ah-In as the other couple

Ah well, all this is academic because, when it comes to the hearing in front of the King, Lee Sun Joon hands over the book showing the nobles are the real criminals and the young thief comes forward to confess. Isn’t life wonderful when everything comes out right! I now propose to pass over the island episode as terminally embarrassing. It seems Lee Sun Joon is brain dead because despite seeing Kim as a woman, he still seems fixated by the restoration of male attire. Cho Sun is quicker off the mark and takes the heartbreak like a woman of experience should. Similarly the hockey match is painful in all its aspects. The best approach is to see all this as cultural ambivalence in modern Korea about the struggle of a young man to come out as gay. By his own admission, this man has had no friends to date and certainly no sexual experience of any kind. If he now finds himself attracted to a person he has labelled as male, this fills him with guilt and, with nods and winks from Ku Yong-Ha, he has a big decision to make. Should he reject the increasingly tragic Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who’s throwing herself at him, or live as a friend with Kim?

The only feature which is even vaguely of interest is the plan of Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, to capture our Iljimae figure. He’s been paying a skilled swordsman to go round town in the same black outfit, killing merchants and lots of the royal guards. The hope is this will lure out Moon Jae-Sin to defend his reputation of an all-round nice Robin Hood figure. We then get the predictable confusion as the stupid Moon Jae-Sin goes out to confront the imposter only to pick up a wound. When he gets back to the University, our tender flower helps bind the wound. The self-righteous Lee Sun Joon sees what he thinks is an embrace and is naturally jealous. So now we finally get to the scandal in the series title. Based on Lee Sun Joon’s shocked reaction, Kim Toon Hee and Moon Jae-Sin are accused of having a homosexual relationship. Ha In-Soo convenes a special council to try them based on what he believes will be conclusive evidence from Lee Sun Joon. The only way they will beat this charge is by admitting Moon Jae-Sin is the masked Robin Hood — not a bad trap. Incidentally, the identity of the imposter going around doing the killing is fascinating. Otherwise, Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues in a downward spiral of embarrassing awfulness as the screenwriters fail to decide how to deal with the issue of homosexuality.

For the remaining episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on the first eight episodes

October 26, 2012 3 comments

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) is difficult to review without my words sounding contemptuously patronising. So let’s bite the bullet and explain the problem. This is set in Sungkyunkwan University in the late Joseon era during the reign of King Jeongjo (Jo Sung-ha). As you might expect, despite the past role models like Dae Jang Geum, women continue to be considered nothing more than baby producers. This series plays the now well-established game of the cross-dressing woman of surpassing ability who outshines the men at their own game. This time, we have Kim Toon Hee (Park Min Young) who’s been trying to pay for her brother’s medical treatment by writing crib sheets for students seeking to enter the University. Unfortunately, her family has also borrowed money from Ha Woo-kyu (Lee Jae-Yong), the Minister of War, and a lascivious and unpleasant man who decides he would rather take our heroine as his mistress than have her pay off the debt. As a result of the usual complications involving a young man, Lee Sun Joon (Park Yoo Chun), she finds herself tricked into taking the entrance exam to the university. In an unexpected burst of honesty, she admits to the King, who’s invigilating the exam, that she’s doing so as a result of an agreement to take another’s place. Needless to say, Lee Sun Joon stands up to declare he’s proud of doing so because, wait for it, he wants to test whether the King will uphold the rules. In this case, the King’s punishment for the pair is to commit them to University and arrange for them to share the same room. As The Great Queen Seon Deok quickly learned in a barracks environment, this is not an insurmountable difficulty when all around her expect to see a man.

The F4 (Boys Over Flowers) in Josean times: Song Jong-Ki, Park Min Young, Park Yoo Chun and Yoo Ah-In

So now you see my problem. It’s the same old unrealistic plot of a woman who looks feminine at all times, passing herself off as a man to get ahead. To add the usual spice to proceedings, women found inside the University compound will be killed, tortured or generally made to feel ashamed of themselves for breaking the rules. The series therefore claims to walk a tightrope with our heroine always on the verge of being revealed, but somehow scraping by. So let’s cut to the crux of the problem with this as a plot in a romantic comedy. Since this is supposedly light and fluffy entertainment, the King is not going to attach one strong horse to each of our heroine’s four limbs and encourage them to move away. The resulting parting the ways would destroy the mood and make sex difficult for her afterwards. So there’s absolutely no suspense. There will be a marriage at the end of it and everyone will live happily every after. Such is the way of Korean drama and drama elsewhere, for that matter. Period reality is watered down and no-one will be “made an example”.

At some point, men around her will either fall in love with the appearance i.e. the men will be homosexual and so not interested in her as a woman, or the men will realise she’s actually a woman and therefore have to decide what to do about it. Obviously, openly showing affection to her when cross-dressed is going to get funny looks from a relatively intolerant society. But persuading her to admit her sex is going to be a challenge if this admission is going to get her killed. In The Great Queen Seon Deok, this didn’t matter too much because she was either training or fighting alongside the lads, and killing as many of the enemy as possible. Indeed, she died a virgin queen. But this new series is overtly sexualising the woman by having Lee Sun Joon spend time looking at her lips and, presumably, fantasising about kissing “him”. We also get the soft porn version of her undressing in candlelight and having a well-earned bath after becoming top archer, the glow of the flickering flame reflecting off the sheen of moisture on her shoulders. . . Sorry, I have to stop at this point because episodes such as this are gratuitously insulting titillation for the men watching. Correspondingly, the casting of a large number of young hunks is to keep the female viewers happy as we’re allowed to catch sight of bare chests every now and then. Just to reinforce the point, this is a prime-time show and just as there’s not going to be any torture or death, there’s also not going to be any sexual activity shown. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Except this script is actually not completely unrealistic and, in the early episodes, reasonably endearing as stories go. Despite its romantic comedy leanings, it has a slightly hard edge as events inside the University are matched by the political machinations in the Court. As always, there are conspiracies afoot. So there’s real poverty in the capital and the nobility have no real conception of the lives the common people. Into this mix comes one of these dashing masked men (like Iljimae except this time he’s called Moon Jae-Sin (Yoo Ah-In)) who bounds across rooftops like he’s attached to wires and shoots arrows with remarkable inaccuracy — he misses the Minister of War in one of his early attacks. This adds an element of mystery to proceedings because we’re not supposed to recognise which of the students is playing the role of this agent provocateur — appropriately, he’s the son of the Minister of Justice.

Jeon Tae-Soo following in his father’s footsteps as a villain

The two features of the first episodes are the discovery of the deception by Jung Yak-Yong (Ahn Nae-Sang). He’s one of the King’s men who’s been sent to work in the University for an unspecified reason. Fortunately, he has no interest in her as a woman — he’s a brains man — and, as soon as she wins the archery competition, he’s a fan. He’s also caught because everyone knows he’s been giving “him” medical treatment and therefore cannot have failed to detect her true sex. This catches him as a conspirator and he will suffer a worse fate than her for allowing the deception to continue. And, as you will have gathered, the boys have to train our girl to be an ace archer. As minor plots, we have Cho Sun (Kim Min Seo), a high-class courtesan who’s interested in our girl as a man. The Secretary of War has two children. The naive Ha Hyo-Eun (Seo Hyo-Lim) who decides she’s in love with Lee Sun Joon at first sight, and Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo) who plays the villain as the University’s Student President. Not surprisingly he’s out to do down anyone who does not show him due respect. All in all, it’s a battle for hearts and minds as the dynamic duo preach honesty and a meritocracy rather than entrenched clan and/or class advantages. Ah ha! So this is one of these sageuks with a modern political agenda to argue for social change in contemporary society.

The archery contest itself is endlessly drawn out but, as anyone with a few brain cells would predict, the team of losers beats the odds-on favourites with our plucky girl coming through a sabotage-induced injury to beat Ha In-Soo in the final. That’s the ultimate indignity for the Minister of War’s son to bear. So now we get the romantic complexities building up. The ultimately beautiful courtesan wants our cross-dressed heroine in bed. The Minister of War’s daughter wants our hero in bed. And the circle of people who’ve had the sense to identify our heroine as a woman is growing. The Iljimae figure is now smitten — as evidenced by the continuous hiccups when in her presence. As an aside, he’s also got fantastic healing powers. He digs the arrow out of his waist, plasters on a few herbs Dae Jang Geum style, shoots a few arrows himself in friendly competition, and is completely healed the next day — Wolverine should take lessons. And Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jong-Ki) the manipulative fourth member of our little group, hasn’t made up his mind on what to do about the situation. I’m seriously considering giving up but, having come this far, I suppose I’d better see what dirty secrets the nobles are trying to hide. More to follow as Sungkyunkwan Scandal continues.

For the next episodes, see Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — thoughts on episodes nine to fourteen and Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010) — episodes fifteen to end.

Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart

September 3, 2012 1 comment

In a perfect world, everyone would be equal but this is never going to be possible in the real world. A combination of genetics and the choices we make condemn some to a less equal status. Some will be more intelligent, more persuasive, more physically powerful, more accommodating. . . There are as many different ways to distinguish between people as there are people with opinions. It’s not fair but that’s the way most societies work even though there are legal structures intended to provide a safety net for those who, through no fault of their own, deserve help. Laws can offer redress if people with ability are denied work, or financial support if an accident leaves them unable to work. But laws can be paper tigers if those with an enforcement role or the judges themselves are prejudiced. In cases of sexual orientation, protection can be hard to find. There’s a pervasive puritanism that reacts with hostility to the increasing social acceptance of homosexuality. The inherent anger that drives the opposition of the Christian community to the liberalisation of marriage to include same-sex couples is a public demonstration of this.

Rest for the Wicked by Ellen Hart (Minotaur Books, 2012) is the twentieth Jane Lawless novel written by a five-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery. This is a fascinating award. In a perfect society, you would expect mystery books to be judged on their quality as prose describing and then solving a puzzle. So the fact there’s a need to establish a separate prize for those writing a gay version of this fiction is an implicit admission that not all mystery books will be referred for judging or actually judged equally. In 2012, I note the eleventh failure of the board to award a Pulitzer for fiction. If there are fixed criteria for determining the quality of books, it’s perfectly proper for judges to say none of the books submitted are good enough. The fact readers may think books are outstanding is not relevant in the eyes of some judges. So perhaps the writers of gay fiction do need separate Awards to recognise their success in writing books for their market. Who’s to say whether any of the judges for all Awards are prejudiced? Perhaps the failure of explicitly gay books to secure national awards does require a counterbalance, assuming we think awards have any real importance, of course.

Ellen Hart keeping a close eye on things

The series character, Jane Lawless, is the owner of two restaurants and has just secured her PI licence. She has also just broken up her relationship and, with ice and snow on the ground, finds her senior partner in the PI business in hospital. A fall has encouraged a bullet fragment in his spine to move position and he needs surgery to remove it. With one of her two restaurants also underperforming, this is not the best time to find herself with a murder mystery to solve. As the book develops, a good surgeon works on her partner’s back, a new girlfriend hoves into view, but the one restaurant remains in a distinctly dodgy state. As to the murder? Well, it turns out there are several bodies littering the landscape and our Jane is just the right person to begin putting it all together in a gift-wrapped package for the police.

It’s a refreshing change to read a contemporary book that presents gay characters as part of life’s rich tapestry. In straight books, when they are mentioned, they tend to be portrayed as creatures keeping a low profile and inhabiting a world of their own. Rest for the Wicked is a happy mix of gay and straight characters in a distinctly amicable relationship. There’s nothing particularly surprising that the local police are not interested in dealing with a PI. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s the natural antipathy fictional police officers have for PIs. Her restaurants serve excellent value-for-money food. She has made a good life for herself. Not being resident in the US, I can’t say to what extent, if at all, this is an idealised version of reality. This small but socially active gay group seems to operate openly and without any fear in their lives. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the setting in Minneapolis. The implicit assumption seems to be that it’s entirely safe to be out. Yet there’s news of anti-gay hate crimes. In Britain there are circumstances in which gays might be circumspect. I’m also slightly disconcerted she’s not more proactive in dealing with the underperforming restaurant. Word-of-mouth can kill an eating place’s good name in double-quick time. Perhaps that will be addressed in the next book.

Finally, there’s one central element that I find faintly surprising. I’m aware of this happening in well-documented historical cases and I can understand why it appears in this book. Indeed, it produces one of the most tragic reasons for a murder that I can recall for many years. But as a general state of affairs persisting over a reasonably significant amount of time, I doubt it’s possible to carry off. That said, there’s a pleasing thematic consistency about the book and the motives people have for what they do. I was impressed by the quality of the puzzle and the manner of its solution, making this a mystery well worth reading no matter what your own sexual preferences.

For a review of another book by Ellen Hart, see Taken by the Wind.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

June 30, 2009 1 comment

So let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Conventional wisdom always seems to think that two (or more) people cannot co-operate to produce a single coherent piece of writing. Supposedly, the professionalism that writers routinely bring to bear when they write on their own deserts them when they write in a team. This is an intensely annoying assumption. It completely ignores the reality that many writers do actively collaborate. Further, many more may actually assist a writer to produce a work. There are these teams of “helpers” who are thanked on acknowledgement pages of novels for reading and commenting on early drafts. Then there are the agents and those mysterious people called editors who also seem to get involved. Adding more people on to the byline (where journalists insist on their multiple acknowledgements) is neither here nor there.


So here is yet another example of a seamless piece of writing by two (youngish) writers. If you gave this text to anyone, they would never know that two (more more) people had been involved.


And the book itself? Well, we are back in the symbiotic relationship between “man” and “his” animals. One of the more detailed examples of this theme is the accumulated work of Anne McCaffrey in the Pern novels, but Monette and Bear avoid the somewhat saccharine approach and deal with pack animals rather than lone dragons. Both rely an early imprinting system where relatively newly born dragons/wolves are paired with young apprentices. After that, they diverge somewhat dramatically.


However, to be convincing, a culture must be reasonably coherent. Here we have an essentially human-based society living in small settlements that is threatened by trolls and (their familiars) the wyverns. The defence is to build fighting teams of men and wolves that, acting with intuitive or telepathic mutual understanding, produce co-ordinated attacks of fang, claw and axe usually accounting for their enemies. For this to work, there has to be a steady feed-through of young apprentices who fill out the ranks of these teams, bonding with newly born wolves as and when they are born.


The leader of one settlement, Lord Gunnar, is deeply prejudiced against the way in which the packs live their lives. This is a man who is dependent on the packs for the survival of his small community, yet is fundamentally opposed to their lifestyle. This does not ring true. This is a vertical pre-feudal society in which the military literally and metaphorically are the top dogs (sorry, couldn’t resist working that in). When the wolfless are always under the protection of the packs, their status would be high and nothing would be allowed to disturb the smooth flow of new recruits. Their “street cred” would be high and their reputations impeccable. For a leader with the power to shape opinion and potentially undermine public support for the packs to be so deeply prejudiced is not sustainable.


Every generation of every human community would be reared to venerate the packs and to long for the chance to be picked as an apprentice. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with this. The youngsters would play the local equivalent of “cowboys and indians” with all of them longing to feel some of the telepathic ability so critical to the success of the pack. It seems that every human has the potential for this telepathic linkage, but some are better at it than others. All leaders would always have to be seen to support the system. This whole element feels like a random plot device to allow the authors the chance to explore the theme of homophobia. It is too artificial and, in my view, actively detracts from the flow of the novel.


Now we come to the “controversial” part of the book. Socially, the packs are matriarchal, the svartalfar have gender equality, and the wolfless human communities are those scenarios much beloved of authors where the men are the figureheads and women have influence behind closed doors. The effect of the bonding between man and cub is to produce a form of telepathic link between the two. Thus, when the wolves get interested in sex, the linkage so convenient to co-ordinate battles, becomes inconvenient for the men paired with the rutting wolves. They find it difficult if not impossible to avoid sexual activity of their own. This is actually quite interesting but, again, all the punches are pulled. This is all written as a novel of discovery. The young Njall comes over as completely naive (in part explained by the homophobia of his father Lord Gunnar) and no-one really prepares him for what is to come. Then, it is so repetitive. None of it reads true as the men find themselves thrown into and out of relationships depending on the preferences of their wolves.


Then we have all this unexplained telepathy and other magical abilities in the novel. Njall turns out to be an ace telepathist and can transmit over major distances to warn the pack of danger. He also seems to have interspecies powers of communication as well. But here we come to yet another serious problem. The trolls are obviously intelligent and live in well-organised communities of their own. This is not a clash between humans and an unthinking enemy. It is the equivalent of prehistory’s supposed war for dominance between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals. Yet no-one seems to try talking to them. Their immediate reaction upon meeting is to kill each other. Assuming that Njall’s ability is not uncommon, why is there no curiosity about the enemy? Why is there no attempt to negotiate some kind of truce? Why must everyone fight aiming for the extinction of the other all the time? It is all the more strange because there is the usual oral history tradition passed down through the songs/sagas. There are all kinds of interesting snippets of information about some things, but very convenient gaps about others.


I could go on but you’ve already realised my poor reaction. I grew really bored as this went on. Instead of developing the characters and exploring the cultures in a credible way, I was left with the feeling that these two ladies had decided to write a book to provoke and offend Americans (who generally seem less tolerant of sexual diversity than the rest of the world) and threw in lots of perverse sex and a few random battles as the sticks and carrots to get their readers to the end. It’s a real shame because, with more intelligence, this could have been a good book.


The real story is about gender not sexual roles. These are culturally defined. So young boys growing up in the settlements would want the glory of defending the community and be prepared to pay the price required. This would all be documented within the pack culture. There are too many men and wolves wounded or killed in these sessions as it is. Unless there was some form of training, management and accommodation between the species, this could never work over the longer term. It is only written this way because the writers want a shock quality to the narrative. They have subordinated the exploration of gender roles for the purposes of what — titillation, provocation?


Then we come to conventional human sexual politics. Njall finds an accommodating local girl in his own settlement and produces a daughter. The status of his partner within the community is never mentioned. One view would be that she gains in status because she beds a wolfman. If they produced a son, he could join the pack and both partners would gain status as adding to the defensive wall. That they produced a daughter is inconvenient because girls don’t do any of the fighting. What would the status of such female offspring be in the community? Would they be more desirable as adults because they carried the genes of a wolfman?


Presumably the telepathic linkage that is so strong wolf to human is less strong human to wolf because the wolves are only in heat (and so interested in sex) at certain times of the year. Whereas humans are fertile all year round. Interestingly, the village girl is not unhappy to give up her daughter to be raised as Njall directs (so much for the maternal bond). This is thematically mirrored by the reproductive cycle of the trolls which appears to be hivelike, and the lack of specific gender roles in the svartalfar. Motherhood is treated rather dispassionately in this book which is slightly odd because it is written by two women. The extent to which the wolves are jealous of the human partners is also not really explored. Or perhaps that explains why there are no women around the pack camps.


In our own culture, men only really talk about what it means to be a man when something goes wrong. There is a considerable volume of fiction and non-fiction dealing with erectile dysfunction and its consequences. Men, its seems, are poor fragile beings that collapse emotionally when their sexual abilities fail. They stop being proper men. This is the “macho” culture. In the wolfworld, men are required to swing in a number of different ways, so exploring their sexuality would be interesting. I found Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” particularly illuminating. It’s a shame women with more modern sensibilities are not prepared to confront the same kind of issues today.


For the sequel, see The Tempering of Men. My other reviews of work by Sarah Monette: CorambisThe Bone Key, a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.


For three novelettes in the New Amsterdam series by Elizabeth Bear, see Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternam. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom.


The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Instead of starting with an autobiographical note, I thought I’d kick this review off with a number of definitions. Let’s start with “original”. This is a word we routinely see applied to the latest offerings in all media. Whether you’re talking about the latest blockbuster down at the multiplex, the next bestseller in bookshops or the newest release from the top group, the prime virtue is that the work is something fresh. Rather than recycle or derive ideas from another source, the creator has produced something sufficiently unique that it will be copied by others. Yet when you look at the millions of words and images that are hyped for our attention, and then multiply that across several centuries of effort, you realise how difficult it is to produce something that is not to some degree derivative of, or copied from, the works of others.

So this brings us to “derivative” which, in principle, is the adaptation of someone else’s work. It applies most frequently in the shared universes where, with the permission or consent of the original copyright holders, new creators are allowed to continue the development of the storyline. These major franchises cover a multitude of sins from the Lovecraftian to the Star WarsStar Trek industries that churn out new works for the delight of their fans (most recently seeing the latest and most brilliant contribution to the Batman canon to hit the big screen as The Dark Knight). But there are more authors who quietly borrow concepts and ideas from their peers, modifying them sufficiently to avoid plagiarism. After all, the dynamics of plot are basically rooted in human relationships and, unless you come up with new ways for people to interact, you can only cover the same ground as everyone else — simply changing the factual context to avoid copyright infringement actions.

And then there are the “parodies” — the works that satirise or mock the work of others. In such works, the author clearly identifies the sources and then makes fun of them. At least that is the usual intention. Yet as cultures diversify, so it becomes more difficult for humour to cross boundaries. Thus, works that are intended to amuse often anger or annoy different groups. Such works avoid liability as copyright infringements because the creators invest enough of their own imagination and labour to justify separate copyright protection.

Which all neatly brings us to The Bone Key by Sarah Monette. This collection of linked short stories pays homage to the work of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft (although the latter’s contribution is more tangential than direct). Well, that proves me an unreliable narrator qua critic because I have immediately stepped outside the three definitions. But that is the word used by Monette in her introduction. In essence, a homage is a work that shows respect for the individual(s) named. It reflects the spirit of the original in very recognisable ways, but adds a contemporary commentary or gloss. To that extent, it is close to being a derivative work, but it does not need the express consent of the copyright holders because the author avoids any direct quotations or other borrowings. The work is original but deliberately reflects the spirit of the originals.

So does this collection (close to being a fix-up novel but avoiding it) genuinely show respect for her two nominated sources of inspiration? The style is very definitely Jamesean. It has the same dry, slightly deadpan tone. But it avoids the rather more hyperbolic excesses of Lovecraft. You will not find any of the Elder Gods wandering around the museum where her protagonist works, although we do have a parade of revenants and other supernatural beings which borrow something from the Lovecraftian canon. To that extent, she succeeds in creating a genuine sense of period writing. Is this a good thing? Well, being of an age to have read these works more than fifty years ago, I immediately recognise the understated quality of James whom I continue to think is a master of the genre. However, I am not sure how well this style travels in time. Modern readers are used to a more explicit approach to the horror and supernatural content. Retaining some of the sensibilities of writers working so long ago is a dangerous ploy.

To leaven the mix, Monette takes the slightly radical decision to make her male hero gay. As an aside, I note that the magic employed in the Doctrine of Labyrinths has a homoerotic side with Felix overtly gay. Thematically, Monette seems to find it easier to write about gay rather than straight male characters. In this instance, the homosexuality is a reasonably good fit because the hero, Kyle Murchison Booth, comes from a wealthy background, goes through private schooling and therefore fits the stereotype of the slightly effete, intellectually obsessed individuals who closeted themselves away in museums in the early part of the last century.

In this context, it certainly does bring the characterisation into the modern era. Too often, the writers of the last century focused on the plot and said little about the interior lives of their characters. It also poses all kinds of interesting questions as: does an incubus also sleep with men or is it the succubus that swings both ways? Nomenclature is always important to us critics.

The stories are of a reasonably even standard with The Wall of Clouds the most interesting and the new Listening to Bone the weakest. The stories are divided into two camps. The first, to a greater or lesser extent, illuminates our understanding of Booth by reviewing his early life and schooling. This helps to explain how and why he has become the man he is in the second group of stories representing the mid-period of his life.

Overall, I think Monette has avoided the dangers of pastiche (in the more pejorative sense of the word) and has created an interesting blend of older and modern sensibilities. Thus, accepting the derivative nature of the work, there is a sufficient overlay of original contemporary feelings and emotions to make the fusion work.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men (jointly with Elizabeth Bear), a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

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