Review: Because You Despise Me by J S Cook

When Feldwebel Horst Stussel is murdered in Jake’s Plenty’s brothel, local police chief Captain Nicholas Renard suspects Jake’s involvement in the crime – but with an Allied invasion of North Africa mere days away, Jake and Renard must combine their wits, their cunning and their courage to defeat the Nazis for once and for all.

Review by Vashtan

It’s hard to review a friend’s book. Any quick Google search would reveal that J S Cook and me chat a lot, are “friends” on Goodreads and Livejournal, so I tell it as it is. I know the writer, and I like what she does.

I’ve been struggling with whether to review her books at all, and a case could be built either way. The more I interact with other writers, the more people I get to know and like. In several cases, I’ve sent them the review first, we started chatting…and there’s
another writing friendship/contact made. I can’t help it, it happens.

Now, I don’t want to cut myself off from my peers and other writers to stay “impartial”. But I also want to keep my integrity as a reviewer. I am the critique partner of several writers, and those can all attest that I will tell them “this sucks, do it again” if I honestly believe it does suck. I expect no less from them when they critique me. Yet, under no circumstances, would I review a book I’ve critiqued – that kind of involvement is totally different to that of a reader and my objective eye would be totally blind. But if I wouldn’t review any books by people I know in one capacity or other, I will pretty soon be in the position where I can’t review at all.

However, these relationships happen after the fact in most cases. It’s the prose that catches my eye first, not the writer. And since I’m terribly picky in my private reading, I tend to hang out with people whose work I enjoy and like.

That’s the background. Feel free to read anything I write about this book with a few pinches of salt. I’ve been thinking about how to do this for two weeks, and I still might not be totally impartial, but here goes.

The reason why I wanted to read this book is the setting. “Because You Despise Me” is set the fictional town of Maarif in WWII-era Morocco, and since my non-fiction reading at the moment is all about WWII and research for the same time period, I was very curious how Cook handles the era.

She handles it exceedingly well – I found the period detail and people overall historically believable, and Cook seems to have researched details meticulously well. It’s the kind of setting I can relax into, knowing that the author won’t let me down with a reference that catapults me into the ‘modern’ age. There are a few things that don’t
match up, however. The evil guy’s name, Aleksander Danzig, has a very uncommon spelling of the first name for a German – it looks rather like a strange hybrid between the German and Russian spelling of the name, and as a German, I found the German sentences used in the book to be mostly nonsensical. A non-native speaker of German would probably not have noticed, but it did throw me in one scene (proof that I haven’t critiqued this book). There’s an editing issue as well – the murdered whore, Yvette, becomes Yvonne once or twice in the book.

Those niggles aside, what we are reading with this book is probably best described as “the gay ‘Casablanca’”. The set-up of the plot, the setting, the time, and the overall feel reminded me strongly of ‘Casablanca’, and what I remember of that film after about fifteen or twenty years seems to match up. A little research on
unearthed the full range of parallels; we have the police officer, the Nazi plot, the resistance fighters desperate to leave, and a love story, but the love story in “Because You Despise Me” naturally happens between two of the men rather than the heterosexual couple in the 1942 classic.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have turned into a gay rip-off of a classic tale, but Cook plays with the reader and gives us a whole level to explore and hints to discover. The title of the book is from a famous line in the film, and rather than rip the tale off wholesale, she mirrors the story, distorts it, re-imagines key scenes and the two men driving her tale. There are many clever allusions, such as very similar names and quotes from the film, so that this becomes less ‘fan fiction’ or ‘rip-off’ and more a homage, skirting the edge of a meta story. However, the woman who parallels the film’s love interest Ilsa felt like she didn’t really serve a purpose in the book, and I wonder if it hadn’t been better if she had been removed from the cast altogether.

For all the inspiration drawn from the film, “Because You Despise Me” stands on its own, and can be enjoyed both by those who know the film and always wondered about the chemistry between the two male actors, and those who are unaware of the classic. There is also the murder investigation that draws the two men together and which is seamlessly
worked into the plot.

What we then have is a tale about living on the edge of civilisation, in a place where the scoundrels, riff-raff and assorted adventurers congregate, and, if they are lucky, find themselves and each other.

It’s romantic, but the love story is not the be-all and end-all of the book; while the love story is central to the story about espionage, deceit and mistrust, Cook balances it well with the rest of the tale. So few gay romances have a world and plot built around the characters; too often, they serve as window dressing in the couple’s bedroom.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this (and the writer in general) is that Cook is an accomplished craftswoman, and I really enjoy her clear, evocative and subtly nuanced style. Here’s a great writer who has previously published literary fiction and transfers those skills into adventure and romance fictio, which makes her clearly stand out. Exactly what I want to see more of. I would love to be entertained more often by a writer that knows their craft and uses it and that strives and works hard on their prose so that it looks effortless.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

2 Responses

  1. Wow…my blushes! That’s the best review of anything I’ve written that I’ve ever had in ages!

    Thank you so much. Your integrity as a professional as well as your commitment to bias-free reviewing means that this review is worth so much more than merely a ‘feel-good’ plot summary, as one might expect on other review sites. It is enormously satisfying to me to read a review like this and to know that every word of it is honest and truly meant.

    JoAnne Soper-Cook/J.S. Cook

  2. @JoAnne: You’re welcome. I’m really curious about your other books, but first I have to do a couple others. (I’m trying hard for a “first come, first serve”, but it’s NOT easy).

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