A chat between Sayuri and me! Update: We decided not to split the chat, so this is part 1 & 2!
Sayuri and I both read Palace of Varieties by the great and amazing James Lear recently (a book aptly described as "The gay, raucous and raunchy adventures of a hunky, horny naïf in 1930s London") and decided to do a chat review. This is part one. You'll find part two over at Sayuri's blog, Book Pron.
Carolyn Jean: I loved this book. I just loved it. And, it's this level of sort of surprising and dirty stuff, but it didn't feel dirty. Like, it was dirty, but not DIRTY yucky. But SUPER dirty in a delightful way. I just enjoyed the hell out of it.
Sayuri: Although I have to admit there was a level of kink in this that didn't appeal to me...The Golden Showers...ewww
Carolyn Jean: Right, that is not appealing, but the way the main character Paul was so full of gusto to just be fucked and do anything.
Sayuri: I know, Paul was just really curious and just wanted to get as much sexual experience as he could. It helped for his job after all. Did you like the historical setting?
Carolyn Jean: I really did. I really appreciated sort of learning about that period. It was nice that it wasn't regency, or contemporary.
Sayuri: Yeah, it kind of keeps it in 'fantasy' mode as well. There is no mention of condoms etc but then there no easy lube option either! *G* I love how EVERY guy is into sex with him. Ultimate fantasy fulfilment.
Carolyn Jean: Oh, totally! There are really no women here. You're right about the fantasy thing. I wonder how accurate that is, with men sort of "out" trolling for men to pick them up. Also, do you think the father kicked him out and was cruel to Paul because he was gay? I wasn't sure at the beginning if Paul identified as gay. Just suddenly he's getting ravished by—was it 2 guys?—in a train station bathroom.
Sayuri: No, I don't think he was thrown out for being gay, but I am sure there is mention of the fact that he has always found guys attractive...or that might have been Hot Valley.
Carolyn Jean: I don't think there was mention here at all. But maybe that's the world here. Like, you wouldn't mention it because it's not so unusual.
Sayuri: Yeah, It's almost like he is gay by opportunity. He got paid for doing the guys in the toilet and saw that there was money to be had. I am sure at the beginning money was the main contributing factor to his choice of work
Carolyn Jean: Right, though I had the sense he would probably be doing it for free. That it was opportunity at first, and soon enough he'd do it for free.
Sayuri: Yeah, there is the passage in the book where he details the differences between the guy prostitutes and the women. That women it's always a job but the guys start seeing the sex as an end unto itself and the money is a fringe benefit. But this is what I love about James Lear, by rights, I shouldn't like or identify with a young male prostitute who is only looking out for himself, but I do.
Carolyn Jean: Yes, I remember that passage. And you really get a lot of psychological insight here, even with minor characters. It's not all one fuck to another, even though it is. It's such a rich book. I think James Lear is such a clear, simple writer, but so clever! I loved how in Paul's first encounter, with that guy, Mr. Newsome, Paul had to try to not act to eager. And what a quick learner he is.
Sayuri: Yes! But I also felt a little bit bad for him cause he might have had a completely different life had he not learned his lesson so quickly. I would still read and really enjoy this book, even if there was no dirty sex in it. But the sex is fun. He writes these characters that just love to fuck and don't apologise for it. But you are right there is a lot going on in this book, even with all the sex. What was your favourite part? Did you enjoy Paul at the beginning when he was slightly naive and eager or later when he was more jaded?
Carolyn Jean: Ooh, that is a good question. I think I enjoyed him at the point of leaving that Russian when he felt so ashamed about what they did to that fellow who worked at the tailor's. I loved those high points of self-awareness. But there are so many great parts to choose from. How about you?
Sayuri: Oh, that was one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the book and I really didn't like Paul then, but then neither did he. I think one of my favourite scenes was later in the book when he meets up with Kieran again and lures him to the hotel. You got see Paul at his best and his worst in that encounter, I think. And then later when Kieran takes him home when he hits the skids.
Carolyn Jean: Oh, totally! That scene was so intense! I mean, Paul was so conflicted, and sort of driven in a slightly diabolical way, but his self-awareness was poignant. Yeah, that hotel scene. Okay, I was sort of confused about Kieran at the beginning. Was Kieran gay or what? Why did he let Paul suck his cock? What did you make of all that at first?
Sayuri: You know, in the JL books I have read, it's kinda of explained that 'straight' guys see this as just horseplay, a way to get their rocks off cause the girls won't do it. No self-respecting good girl would suck a guys cock, right? So the blow-jobs and mutual masturbation are kind of accepted. I think Kieran was attracted to Paul but didn't know what to do about it. It was also probably a vanity thing, he knew that Paul was into him and then when Paul started drifting away, he realized he missed him. I think it's pretty much the kind of 'rules' of the worlds that James sets up.
Carolyn Jean: Oh, that totally fits with this. Can I ask you, are all Lear's books like this, or do they vary a lot? I couldn't believe the variety of experience and emotion here. I think with a lot of erotica, it’s like, you hit a point and it’s as far as the book can go. You know, like, it builds to something ultimate and then the show is over. But Lear just NEVER quits and it's always fascinating. So, is that true across his books, too?
Sayuri: Yeah, pretty much. I found the 'Mitch ' Mitchell books (Back Passage, Secret Tunnel) just as intense in characterization and nuanced as Palace of Varieties but with a much more light-hearted approach. Much more comedy in those books but then they are farces as well as homage’s to Agatha Christie and the such. Hot Valley, was much more like Palace of Varieties in tone and substance but for me, it lacked the kind of emotional insights we gained into Paul's character. I really didn't connect with the two main characters in Hot Valley at all. I liked Palace of Varieties much better even though it feels like there is twice the amount of sex in this than in his other books.
Carolyn Jean: So this is your fave?
Sayuri: No, overall, Back Passage is still my fav. But Palace of Varieties comes a close second. After reading Palace of Varieties, are you going to read anymore?
Carolyn Jean: Oh, yes! Back Passage...now that you said that. I remember somebody on my blog was saying, maybe this isn’t the right book for a first m/m book, after she read stuff on Amazon. But I would say, even though this book is vastly dirty, I have to say, the spirit of it is really kind of pure and uplifting. Like, it's dirty, but it has such a good heart. I have read erotica that feels dark, you know? But this was the opposite.
Sayuri: I think the frank descriptions of the sex and some of the more kinks in this would probably put off a first-time reader of m/m. Plus the difference is this is m/m erotica written by a man, for gay men. So there is none of the 'normal' conventions of m/m romance. I would agree with you, even though there are copious amounts of dirty sex, it's not about domination or degradation at all. It's not twisted like that. In fact, apart from the golden showers (shudder) and some exhibitionism there isn't really that much kink in this at all. Cause gay sex isn't a kink, it's just sex....G. It's hot sex, but just sex.
Carolyn Jean: Okay, but back to that golden showers thing, did you not so love how shocked Paul is at the idea of it, that this guy is suggesting this (and I was shocked too. And I couldn't stop thinking about his clothes! Like, at first, oh, no! His shoes must be full of piss! Then, Oh, no, his pants!) But then by the end, they are both laying in puddles of other people’s urine, and Paul is happily peeing right into the guy’s mouth. I would never have thought I could be so entertained by a piss scene. (Ahem, and I don't mean with 2 orgasms.)
Sayuri: yeah, you're right, it was fun...not sexy but fun.
Carolyn Jean: I want to talk about [NAME EDITED]. What did you make of that romance arc?
Sayuri: Ok, to be honest, I was probably as shocked as Paul at the end, when [NAME EDITED] told Paul he loved him. I never really saw it and it felt out of the blue to me.
Carolyn Jean I agree. I mean, the narration sort of hinted at it, but I never saw hints in the actions of [NAME EDITED]. When I look back, I think, okay, that was some tough love, and Paul did come out a better person for his hardship, I suppose. But yes, it felt out of the blue.
Sayuri: I suppose it was right because the story was told from Paul’s POV and he had no inkling so I suppose it's only right we have no inkling either. However, I did feel the ending was rushed...and maybe also set up for a sequel?
Carolyn Jean: I was totally wondering about that! We have to ask Lear. I would love to see Paul in the army. Though, I have to think it would be a much grimmer book. Paul is sobered, you know? This book was like a coming of age. And WWII was such a horrible war. I mean, they all are, but you know. Yeah, the ending did feel rushed. But I would've read on with this character!!!
Sayuri: Paul was definitely a great character and I loved his 'voice' in the book. I'm not sure it would be possible to have a erotic book about a soldiers sexcapades on the front lines though. If anyone could do it, James Lear could.
Carolyn Jean: Anyway, the two different artists. Wasn't that fun?
Sayuri: Yeah, I liked how the book was set in 'the arts'. Theatre and art world. I also enjoyed seeing another side of that. The guys weren't all screaming queens etc. but normal. I have to admit to hating the Russian artist though. He was a dick. He definitely made Paul earn his money.
Carolyn Jean: Yes, the Russian was quite a character! I hated the Russian mostly once the tailor thing happened, but before that I was okay with him. I sort of wondered if the character was based on somebody real. And that first scene with the paint. Paul was so inventive. Paul is such a survivor. I look back at your comment on if that war book could be pulled off, and maybe it could by Lear. Would you ever read this book again? I almost would. I think, on the level of pure writing, it's incredible!
Sayuri: You know, I never really thought of Paul that way, but you're right, he is a complete survivor. And really smart. He was a really complex character that I loved. As for reading this and other James Lear books again, I have read them all multiple times. (And not for just the sex…) Even Hot Valley, which was not my favourite. I think all his books are incredible on some level. I find his writing incredibly smart and intense. He knows his craft. I don’t know the first thing about writing but even I can tell that. His books are so easy and such a pleasure to read. I have never had to struggle through a chapter. You know how some books, you know you are reading? You have to force your eyes along the page and sometimes you have an internal dialogue going on in the back of your mind separate to the book. Not with Lear. It's almost like the story pulls my eyes forward without my volition. Or the words jump right into my brain and form pictures without even trying. Ok, that sounds really kooky.
Carolyn Jean: Not at all! I totally know what you mean. The book grabbed me by the throat. I often stayed up really late with this one. It was so hard to put down.
Tomorrow: An interview with James Lear, PLUS contests to win James Lear books!
You can buy Palace of Varieties from most major booksellers, as well as Cleis Press (US buyers get free shipping, too!)
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