Book review: Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love

Teddy Spenser Isn’t Looking for Love: An LGBTQ Romcom by Kim Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another romance novel bought on sale. I think what got me here is simply the title. I like the title.

As you might expect from that title, the story is cute and fluffy, with the tone kept light and the drama minimal–it’s more of a romantic comedy than drama, and plays to that well.

Although I haven’t exactly read a ton of romance novels, this one did stand out from the others I have in a few ways (spoilers ahead): one is how the romance comes together fairly quickly and then just keeps sailing along, with the couple firmly in lust/love and only external factors presenting a threat. All of the thorny stuff is before their (unintended) courtship begins. I think it works, but it does undercut any potential tension. Then again, it’s clear this is a “happily ever after” book, so I can’t complain that it delivered what it said on the tin.

The bulk of the story concerns two men working at a company looking to design, market and sell a smart vase. One is the titular Teddy Spenser, a snappy dresser and designer who vows to remain single after a bad romance, the other is Romeo Blue (yes, the name is mocked in the story itself), the programmer making the software work.

When the famous if eccentric designer Joyce Alexander offers to help fund the project, the two men–who at this point have negative and preconceived notions of each other–are forced to fly together to Seattle from Chicago to perform three seemingly arbitrary tasks to prove their company worthy of the funding. Hijinks ensure as Teddy and Romeo fumble through a mountain hike, making a dinner and more. At the end they are given an ultimatum and fear the worst. but vow to stay together no matter what.

The interplay of Teddy and Romeo is cute and they both seem so darn nice–you want to reach into the pages to pinch their cheeks. Watching them bask in their newfound romance is like sitting in front of a cozy fire on a cold winter’s night.

And it all works out in the end (spoilers). This is a very light read, but its so breezy and well-intentioned, with the occasional clever turn of phrase, that it’s hard to fault it for being somewhat slight.

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Book review: We Are the Ants

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is ostensibly a YA science fiction story about a teenage boy who is given the chance to save–or end–the world by the cryptic aliens that abduct him. But it is really about overcoming grief, mental breakdown and the angst of being a teenager.

There is a lot of angst. A lot. A copious amount.

The protagonist is Henry Denton, a young gay man attending high school in the fictional Florida coastal town of Calypso. The story begins just under a year after his boyfriend Jesse committed suicide, leaving no note and no clue as to why he ended his life. Henry is still grappling with the suicide, while also dealing with his loutish older brother and the harassment of others at high school who mock him as “Space Boy” after his brother revealed the alien abductions stories to all.

Henry’s estranged best friend Audrey and the suave but mysterious Diego Vega enter the scene to complicate matters, as does the thuggish Marcus, who alternates between telling Henry he really likes him, and beating him.

Henry also lives in a broken home, his father having abandoned the family years earlier.

Surprisingly, given this backdrop of Everything is Horrible, the fact that Henry is openly gay is treated as not a big deal, and the worst he faces are juvenile taunts from other guys.

There is drama and angst and the beats of the story are predictable–I could almost see the plot structure leap out at me at times–and by the end (minor spoiler) the “Will he press the button to save the world?” plot point is almost forgotten as the real thrust of the story–Henry’s inability to get over Jesse–takes over. This is not a bad thing, but I almost wish the alien part had either been left out altogether or worked in more deeply. It exists in this weird middle space where it just pops in every now and again to remind you it’s there, until it disappears altogether.

This might be author Hutchinson’s way of suggesting that the aliens may have been manufactured in Henry’s mind. I give him credit for leaving me unsure.

I give less credit for the length of the story. For what happens, it felt too long, with too many scenes feeling like repeats, heading toward an inevitable conclusion. And did I mention the angst?

The story is told from the perspective of Henry. Henry mentions Jesse 351 times, which works out to a mention on approximately three out of every four pages of the book. And each mention is accompanied by Jesse wondering if he was responsible for Jesse killing himself and other dark thoughts. Again, Hutchinson has done a good job in capturing the self-loathing, doubting mind of Henry, but there were times I put the book down, wanting to simply get away from the endless angst. It is poured on like so many layers of molasses. But bitter molasses.

In the end, it was almost more a relief to be done with the story. This is not a bad book, by any means, but Henry Denton is the most dour character I have ever come across in some time and while he has an arc, it feels like a significant part of it is squeezed into the very end of the story, making it not feel unearned, exactly, but still unsatisfying.

If you can plow through the angst, there is some nice stuff in here about the value of friendship and love, of being there for someone, of finding the courage to seek help when you need it, but getting to these things at times felt like a chore. This could very much be a me thing, though, so if the general outline of the plot intrigues you, know that Hutchinson writes the characters well, and peppers the story with darkly humorous examples of how the Earth could end, among other things.

Recommended–with reservations.

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Book review: Medium, Sweet, Extra Shot of Geek

Medium, Sweet, Extra Shot of Geek by R. Cooper

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an odd romance story, and not because of the characters.

Tavio Reyes is a young ex-military man, working as a barista. He is quiet, somewhat intimidating to others, and not entirely sure how to live his civilian life. The counter behind which he makes drinks is his domain, and he works with care and precision.

Tommy O’Shaughnessy is a talkative nerd who also happens to have the sculpted body of a gym bunny for reasons that are never explained. He comes in to the coffee shop to get his favorite drinks and flirt with Tavio.

This goes on for a year and nothing much happens.

Things seem like they might be inching forward when Tommy abruptly introduces his nine-year-old daughter. Tommy invites Tavio to his daughter’s baseball game (so much for a hot date). Tavio reluctantly agrees to go. Tavio does everything reluctantly.

Well, almost everything.

After the game they go to the parking lot and smooch. It’s implied that more happens later.

And that’s it.

While Tavio feels authentic, we never see much below the surface, just a few brief exchanges with his conservative but tolerant mother. Tommy feels more like a caricature, and acts in ways that aren’t just being loud or flamboyant, but a bit baffling, and there is never any insight presented as to why he acts this way. The whole story feels like a mass of detail was left untouched, so we are left with sketches of characters taking the first steps toward romance, after which the story is over.

The writing is fine, and the repetition of certain elements or dialog creates a rhythm that helps build a bit of tension, but it never really goes anywhere with it.

The sudden introduction of the daughter ends up being superfluous–it doesn’t materially add anything to the story, since Tommy having a child is never really dealt with in any detail. She ends up feeling like she was brought in to complicate things, but the complication part was forgotten.

On the plus side, it is impossible to be offended by anything in the story. It is sweet, but like a rich coffee creation, it’s all empty calories.

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Book review: BFF

BFFBFF by K.C. Wells
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(Note: For some reason I missed reviewing this book, so here is my review, six months late.)

I bought this the way I’ve bought most books the past year–it was cheap and I found the description interesting enough to give it a chance.

BFF is a story about two guys who become best friends at an early age, then pal around and hang out together as they edge ever-closer to adulthood. Neither is especially unhappy and their friendship is so adorable it’s enough to make you think there might be more there–which is the hook of the story. David (the narrator who tells the story) comes to realize he might have romantic feelings for Matt, and grows afraid of confessing them, fearing it could destroy their friendship.

It’s a romance novel, so you can probably guess what happens.

And although it’s a fixture of romance novels, the sex scenes near the end felt weirdly out of place, given how utterly sweet and cute the story is up to that point. I ain’t no prude, but in terms of tone, I think the story would have been more consistent if the sex had not been so explicitly depicted.

The bigger issue is the framing device used. The story is told as a long series of flashbacks, with it already established in the present that David and Matt are a happy couple. I mean, not that there is any doubt that would be the outcome, but it would be nice to at least pretend there might be a different ending. As it is, the story is robbed of any tension or suspense. The flashbacks also usually end with David offering this odd, blog-style commentary on what he’s just written about. It pulled me out of the story every time. I’m not sure what the intent was.

If you are expecting a story about how two seemingly straight friends evolve their relationship into a romantic one, you will be disappointed, as there is only a small bit of this near the end, as the flashbacks get closer to the present. If you like the idea of seeing a pair of best friends go through the travails of growing up together, then having their bond eventually turn into love, this might be your thing.

Overall, I found BFF to be a light read hampered by tonally weird sex scenes and framed in a way that makes it read more like a diary than a narrative. Thumbs sideways.

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Four VQFF reviews

Last week I went to four films at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and as one might expect, it was a mixed bag (or fruit basket, if you prefer). Below are my reviews.

Ciao

Here’s the description from the VQFF website: “When Jeff’s lifelong best friend Mark dies, he is left in charge of handling Mark’s possessions and tying up loose ends. Through a trail of Mark’s email correspondence, Jeff learns of Mark’s secret online romance with Andrea, a handsome Italian who is scheduled to visit the United States and meet Mark for the first time. With the trip already booked, Andrea decides to come anyway and learn more about his recently departed friend. In the midst of grieving, these two strangers share a single night of intimate conversation, good old American country music and sexual tension that leads to perhaps what is the most tender (yet still steamy) brief encounter ever portrayed in queer cinema.”

And my take: The premise is interesting but the execution is thwarted by stiff acting and a script filled with wooden dialogue and lots of not much happening. There are three main characters: Jeff, his adopted Asian sister and Andrea, the man from Italy. Jeff is an earnest but bland character and Adam Neal Smith’s portrayal isn’t bad per se, he just shows no real emotion until the very end and I suppose it’s meant to be seen as a cathartic release but it falls flat instead. Alessandro Calza fares better, perhaps because he can hide behind the facade of a character handling a non-native language. The sister has some amusing lines but again the acting feels rather wooden. As the tone is consistent across all actors, I wonder if it may have been an issue with the director’s handling of them.

Another negative was not that the film was low budget but that it didn’t acknowledge that and work within its limitations. There is a scene with Jeff and Andrea driving to the cemetery and apparently the production could not afford to have the car towed on a trailer. Instead the camera is placed in the backseat. While Calza is seen in profile while chatting, Smith never looks anywhere except at the road — which is understandable because he is actually driving — but as a result you never see his face for the entire scene. Why not shoot the scene with them walking in the cemetery instead or somehow frame it so you could properly see the actors? There were also a series of long framed shots or tracking shots of the city skyline at night that didn’t serve any purpose but to pad out the film’s length.

Perhaps the highlight of the film came during that “brief encounter”. When Jeff and Andrea started kissing some guy in the audience began applauding loudly, as if this heralded a great moment in gay cinema or something. Definitely the best laugh in the movie. :)

The Coast is Queer

“This year’s local shorts program could have been renamed The Coast is Brave and Outrageous due to the bold and shameless stories, like lisa g’s look at women in Riverview Mental Hospital in the 1940s and Clark Nikolai’s exploration of foreskin ‘docking’.”

My take: This is a collection of 13 shorts. I’ll highlight the ones I found most memorable (for better or for worse). Asylum is a surprisingly sympathetic look at the long-closed Riverview mental facility narrated by a former staff member, ending with a “twist” as a lesbian inmate checks out with one of the female staff, a rather surprising event during the 1940s. Another tale set in the 1940s (1948) is Caught, a silent look at two high school students — one a member of the drama club, the other a Bible group — whose innocent sleepover ends up being not so innocent. This is a wistful and well-shot drama, combining moments of comedy with the crushing pain of a love — and life — denied. Withchrave struck me as a pointless visual exercise, showing “witches” in various states of dress and undress cavorting, smoking and doing “witchy” stuff. Did I need to see a full frontal shot of a nude woman peeing? No, I didn’t. But hey, one more thing to scratch off the list of “things I never planned on seeing but saw anyway”. I guess this film was meant to evoke a feeling of sensuality or something so it’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t click with me.

Galactic Docking Company was a rather randy but very funny short that combined stock NASA footage (mainly from Mission Control) with dockings involving rockets and love rockets, if you know what I mean. The combination of music and perfectly timed editing showing the reactions of the various NASA engineers made this a bawdy ol’ good time. Swans was essentially penis worship set to music that I found uninteresting despite being a personal fan of the subject. The lowlight of the collection was Cindy Doll. Before the shorts began, a number of directors spoke about their films and the director of Cindy Doll warned that her piece tackled a taboo subject and it might offend or make people uncomfortable. She invited people to discuss the film with her afterward. I correctly pegged it as a take on child abuse before it started. The film consisted of the director naked in a bathtub with the titular Cindy Doll. As the horrors of child abuse were depicted with the doll being stripped and spanked among other things, loud, discordant noises would occasionally blare out for some kind of effect (maybe this was the uncomfortable part the director referenced, as my ears were not experiencing what I would call pleasure). The director would regularly begin pleasuring herself with the doll, looking up at the camera with (guilty?) eyes. Um, symbolism! Maybe. The whole thing came off as self-indulgent twaddle. The only part that offended me was knowing I’d not get back the time I’d spent watching it. Here’s my advice: If you were abused as a child, see a therapist, don’t make a short film about it.

I’ll end with the highlight of the show, Coffee. This was one of the few professionally-shot pieces (several were done specifically for a Super 8 competition or by high school students as part of an anti-homophobia campaign — and those were well-done for what they were). The premise is simple — a lesbian and gay friend are having coffee at a cafe and it quickly becomes apparent that the woman’s recent failed relationship has pushed her off the deep end, as she has become obsessed with Kate Walsh from “Grey’s Anatomy”. The writing is sharp and funny and the two actors deliver their lines with expert timing. It was inspiring enough to make me want to finish “The Famous Polka”. It’s one of 10 different vignettes culled from a longer piece and can be viewed here. Highly recommended.

Otto; Or, Up With Dead People

“Film theorists claim that the zombie genre is a form of social commentary, relevant to our consumerist and apathetic present times. If so, then what comment does Bruce LaBruce make with his gay zombie flick? Attack the heteronormative establishment? Fuck your brains out (then eat them)? Whatever social messages might be gleaned from LaBruce’s work, the Canadian director brings us a perverse and satirical cinematic original.

Otto is a young neo-Goth loner and pretty hot for a dead guy. Wandering the streets of Berlin, Otto stumbles upon a casting call for a zombie film. After seeing his half-hearted audition, radical lesbian filmmaker Medea Yarn not only becomes convinced that Otto will be the next big underground movie star, but forces the lead actor, Fritz, to take Otto home with him. While Medea and Fritz struggle to finish their film, Otto searches for the human beneath the zombie.”

This was both a send-up and an affectionate (?) homage to zombie movies, gay porn and pretentious art films. Shot in Germany with a local cast, Otto features plenty of gore (mostly disembowelment and entrails, as one would expect in a zombie film), fleeting but explicit sex scenes and at times a hilarious take on the self-styled film auteur personified by Medea as she works to finish her underfunded “masterpiece”, “Up With Dead People”, a film chronicling the rise of gay zombies. Into this comes Otto, who fails to convince the director that he is in fact an actual zombie but gets cast in the lead role, anyway.

The film starts rather slowly and for the first 20 minutes or so felt more like a clumsy homage to art films than anything else but when the various characters intersect it pulls together and the rest of the ride is pretty enjoyable. There’s a graphic scene of zombie penetration that will likely put you off your lunch for a week or so and a sex orgy that is the film-within-a-film’s conclusion also has some very naughty bits that, while enticing, seemed gratuitous in the given context. I found the ending a bit confusing as it strongly suggests Otto is no longer a zombie, then seems to revert him back to a more undead state. As expected, the film’s ending is not exactly happy but appropriate. The actress that played Medea was probably my favorite, if only because she was so appropriately over-the-top with her views on the terrible capitalist society she is part of. She also gives a small girl eating chocolate the what-for in what may have been the film’s funniest moment.

Boycrazy

“Everywhere I go there’s a guy to catch my eye. It makes me kinda crazy, like I’m back in junior high.” Is Corey—the dreamy lead in Boycrazy—singing your song? If so, there are plenty of guys to catch your eye in this lineup of men’s short films.

Serving up the first piece of eye candy is Zak, an underappreciated topless waiter in Dinx. Filmmaker Michael Mew treats us to some homegrown guys, co-starring local drag diva Symone, in his new science fiction romance Q-Case. A chorus line of “show bears” dances in King County. And the quirky musical Boycrazy explores the pros and cons of single life.”

As noted above, this was four short films. Dinx features a cute and short protagonist who seems to suffer a dimensional rift that takes him back to his childhood while still dressed as a topless waiter. Much like that character, this film was cute and short, amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Q-Case is a parody of the X-Files with a definite queer twist. Perhaps not surprisingly, the central premise centers around anal probes. This was a solid effort, although the acting of several of the characters was leaning more toward the amateur side. The love interest of the alien/clone handled his part well and reacted perfectly to his precious shoe collection getting vaporized. I admit I also enjoyed the idea of the Mulder character getting a giant black drag queen as his temporary partner and voice of reason. King County is a series of scenes centering around a theater group auditioning actors for movies turned into stage musicals. Among some of the entries: Mommie Dearest, Fame (with bears) and most hilariously, a musical version of Top Gun featuring “butch lesbians” that has Maverick and Goose (or was it Ice?) singing and dancing on the flight deck. The actress playing Maverick looked similar enough to Tom Cruise to be somewhat disturbing. The final and longest piece was Boycrazy, featuring James May, an actor who could be Neil Patrick Harris’s younger brother. This is a musical about dating and relationships (online and otherwise) and is done in a style very similar to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. The singing is uniformly excellent and the dance numbers, though not flashy, are energetic, as is the film as a whole. I really enjoyed this funny and sometimes insightful look at the trials and tribulations of men dating men — and not just because I have gone through some of my own recently (none set to music, alas).