Gay Historical Fiction – Awards, Competitions and Markets

So the Arch & Bruce Brown Foundation is open again for its competitions for short fiction, play-writing and novels. These are the only online awards (that I know of – would be happy to be corrected) for Gay Historical Fiction and as such deserves attention from this blog.

However, I was mildly confused by the guidelines, namely: -

All works submitted must present the gay and lesbian lifestyle in a positive manner and be based on, or inspired by, a historic person, culture, event, or work of art.

All works must be Gay-Lesbian positive and concern:

1. A historical person known, in fact, to be lesbian or gay.

2. An actual historical person for whom a lesbian or gay identity is invented (with some specific intent) by the writer.

3. A period in history which the writer populates with lesbian and/or gay characters to show the effects of that time or culture on GLBT life..

4. A historical event or events that have lesbian/gay resonance. (The characters in the story may or may not have actually existed.)

5. A historical event or events that have general significance, showing those events’ impact on lesbian and/or gay characters (either real people or fictional).

6. A historic work of art and it’s inspiration, or effect, on gay lives (real or fictional).

7. We are not interested in biographies of persons or direct retelling of events. We want your individual take on that person or event that makes your submission a creative work of art.

So Gehayi wrote and asked them what they meant, because:

“Now, I can think of lots of stories that would fit the six categories, and many ways to make the gay character or characters both believable and sympathetic. It’s the “gay-lesbian positive” requirement that perplexes me. How do you write about history accurately and find a way to make being gay or lesbian a positive thing? For much of history, it wasn’t positive, socially or legally, and I dislike the idea of ignoring or contradicting facts.

“Could you please tell me what you mean by “gay-lesbian positive”? If it’s simply a question of depicting GBLT people as believable, sympathetic human beings, then I would have no difficulty doing so. If it involves spinning history to make it look better than it truly was…I would have some problems with that.”

And she received this reply:

Positive can be shown, or at least glimmer, in negative stories.

We don’t say you have to write “history accurately”. In fact, a story detailing a time or person, as in biography, is exactly what we don’t want.

Yes, there was an Inquisition, but might one judge been conflicted? Could 2 lovers have been stoned together? We want fiction, not history.

To say I’m more confused would be putting it mildly. They seem to contradict themselves at every turn. They don’t want history? Bwhuh? Surely that’s the whole point of the competition? And to say “you don’t have to write history accurately” just makes my blood BOIL, to be honest. No wonder historians turn they noses up at historical romances.

I’m going to write to them myself because although they list a lot of winners, there is no place where one can read excerpts and I’d certainly like to see how they portrayed previous themes.

Other competitions/resources (as always if you know of others, let me know) most of these are Historical, no emphasis on the Gay – but the only way to get them to accept the genre is to submit to them, of course.

Paradox Magazine
Fish Publishing (yearly historical contest)

I’ll make a larger list and add a “Markets” page eventually.

Why here and not there?

 

by Fiona Glass

Reading through several of Erastes’ recent reviews, I’ve noticed anachronisms being mentioned: railways in a Regency setting, confusion over the rules of aristocratic titles, that sort of thing. In pretty much every case the book has been set in England but the author is American, and it just set me wondering why that is.

America has a rich history of its own, and for the European influx, it dates back to at least the 17th century, which would be fascinating to read about. In terms of homosexuality and social history, it shares many features with Britain. In both countries gay sex was illegal until the mid 20th century. In both countries homosexuality was generally disapproved of, and gay men had to hide their sexuality or risk arrest and a hefty jail sentence. So it can’t be a case of writers being limited to one particular country if they want to describe a certain set of historical events.

It must be a lot harder for an author writing about a country that’s unfamiliar to them, too. At the very least, it means a stack more research to do, a stack more little facts and figures to check before they can even set pen to paper – and a stack more chances to make those annoying mistakes that seem minor in themselves but can pull a reader right out of the book. At worst, it can mean trying to base a book on the unreal world presented in films and television, with all the pitfalls that can bring.

So, why do American authors of historical novels still choose to set their books in England? Is it a publisher-driven or a reader-driven demand? Is there a specific rule amongst publishers that a Regency must by definition be set in England (in the same way that Parma ham must come from Parma)?

I’d be fascinated to know!

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Reality Reviews – Intro – 1

See, one of the things we’ve noticed is that the romance and erotica publishing industry is amazingly unmotivated to catch little errors. Or BIG errors. Regardless of whether you prefer fluffy happily-ever-afters or more gritty realism with your male/male love stories, we do think that it would be nice if both author and editor had done some work before the reader got there.

And so we acknowledge, and link to, the Cranky Editors–the people who do the job that no one wants, and who dare to suggest that the precious, undying prose we have so arduously scrawled actually NEEDS proofing, editing, and possibly a rewrite or three. We aren’t saying these people can’t write. We are saying that the standard needs raising.

For the sake of the readers, who deserve well-crafted, well-written, well-edited tales…we salute and praise the cranky, ornery editors who are not afraid to say that something is foolish, ungrammatical, ambiguous, or flat out wrong. The ones with standards.But we have to agree with J K Richard on Wierdly Light, who says:

“What this charade (referring to an appalling story) (and others like it) have shown me is that what the publishing industry really, really needs… is Simon Cowell.

“No, no and no Lanaia. What you have written here is utter rubbish. Do you have a day job? No? I suggest you find one.”

“I’m sorry Cheryl. You said you were a what? You couldn’t find a well written novel if it was rubbed all over a skunk’s bullocks and placed under your nose.”

“Roval publishing? What is it exactly that you’re publishing? You call that a web page?”

“Utterly hopeless.”

And so, in this spirit, we bring you the first in what will, we hope, be a series of Reality TV style critique. Think of What Not To Wear. Reality Reviews. Because sometimes the baby Jesus really wants to poke–with a very sharp stick–the people who think that grammar and punctuation are optional extras.

In this first section – yes – this isn’t “historical” fiction but that’s basically because there are far fewer m/m historicals than there are m/m everything elses. After the recent wank when we dared to criticise outside this genre, we hesitated to post this entry, but fuck it – no. Who else is trying to raise the standard?

We can’t be the only readers who are tired of writers who think that the only plot they need to worry about is the one against the audience. We can’t be the only ones who are sick to the teeth of characters who, if they were any more wooden, would be sequoias, or sex scenes as a substitute for plot, or sex scenes written by people who haven’t even bothered to check that their characters’ antics are even possible. Here, at last, you will get truth in advertising. Many of these Reality Reviews will be based solely on the excerpts posted online. We think this is fair. If we were standing in a bookstore, flipping through a book, it would not take us four hundred or so pages to know if the book was tripe. One chapter would suffice. Sometimes less. Thus it shall be here.Think of us as Simon Cowell. It takes a lot to impress us. A LOT. Also, we are not going to worry about whether this hurts anyone’s feelings. There are plenty of scam artists out there who will be more than happy to flatter, wheedle, cajole and lie about the quality of inferior work in order to cheat the naive new writers out of a buck. The truth may hurt–but it may also save time, money and heartache in the end. We will be tough. We will go through each excerpt sentence by sentence with a red pencil. If you’re published, we expect professional workmanship.We do not give a jot about diplomacy, your author’s darlings, or your fragile self-esteem. And yes, we would treat best-sellers the same way. (We may, in fact. Watch this space.)

Enough with the warning. On with the show. Our text is in bold.

Continue reading

Review: Wicked Game by Jade Falconer

Niels got more than he bargained for when he broke into a certain townhouse in the fashionable section of London. The arrogant and dictatorial lord who caught him red-handed was more than willing to take advantage of the situation. Temporarily forced into a unique form of servitude, Niels learns more than he ever expected to about the decadent ruling class that he wants so badly to emulate. Masquerading as a foreign nobleman is easy for the charming Fin (sic) who grew to manhood on the streets of London, abandoned by the only family he had. But will his experience at manipulating people and winning their confidence help him with Richard? Or get him into even more trouble?

Elements: M/M, BDSM, Historical Regency Excerpt

Review by Erastes

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book – but I did find it difficult to read, difficult to stay with and difficult to finish. For a start off, it’s NOT a Regency. In fact I don’t blame the publisher for thinking it is, because – like so many historicals – it’s a wallpaper historical and pretty hard to work out which era this IS in. I was more than half way through the book before I spotted a mention of trains and of Victoria Station which jolted me considerably – suddenly I had to jump forward to the Victorian era and re-set the story in 1862 onwards.

But really, that’s the only clue of the era – the historical background is almost invisible (unsurprising as most of it is set between the sheets) and you could remove the candles and carriages and you would have a modern romance with about four minutes editing.

From the first page I could tell this was going to be one of those books where the sex outweighs the plot and I wasn’t wrong, and apart from the last couple of chapters you could summarise this as “sex” and “shopping.” There’s sex near enough from the first page which continues almost non stop for about 40 or so pages as the reluctant thief is seduced and shown a good time by the randy lord. It starts in a promising fashion – the lord is suitably remote and brooding, due to a bitch of a mother – and the set up was a fun way to get Niels into Richard’s bed but I was expecting a bit more than “Niels gets jiggy with it pretty quickly.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like erotica – I do! It’s just that if I pay for a decent sized book (66,000 words) – and you can call me Ms Picky if you like – I actually like some plot with it. I feel a bit cheated if I find myself skipping entire chapters because the MC’s are “at it again.” It’s like buying a ham and lettuce sandwich and finding that there’s 10 leaves of lettuce and one wafer thin slice of ham.

I quite liked the characters despite all that. Richard was, as said before, nicely brooding and Niels, albeit pretty and virgin to men, is not your typical girlie submissive. I got the feeling that they’d be switching roles at some point. They act like men too in as much as they are totally incapable of saying what needs to be said at the right time, like “don’t go.” The two minor characters are nicely done, too, but this is one of the reasons that I can’t mark the book higher, because at 66,000 words, I’d expect more than four characters – it’s the marathon sex sessions that elbow any possibility of more plot/more characters out of the way, and that’s a pity.

No – or very little -OKHomo, which was a refreshing change – the characters are aware of the illegality of their liaison and the unlikelihood of their being able to just “set up house” together without major problems. But despite that, the anachronisms are legion, a duel in the late 19th century, when the last one was at least 10 years previous – characters saying “piss off”(1950′s) and “that’s brilliant!” and “sexy” (1925) just to mention a few. Oh and “gotten” but that almost goes without saying.

There are other technical problems, subject confusion abounds – and this is caused by switches in POV that make it very hard to understand who is thinking, who is talking. Reviews of Standish pointed this “sin” out to me, and now – as I attempt to keep faithful in POV for longer sections – I’m very glad they did. Phaze should have edited these switches out, especially when it led to me going “who’s talking? what’s he talking about?”

Falconer appears to be a collaboration of writers, as s/he speaks on her LiveJournal in the royal we. I think they aren’t bad writers, but they need to tighten up in a good few aspects, and then they’d have a book I’d really enjoy to read.

Buy from Phaze

Textbook: A Gay in the Life by Erin McHugh

$12.95

Read the stories of the writers and artists who <br>pushed the gay movement forward.


A Gay in the Life: A Compilation of Saints and Sinners in Gay History (Portable Queer) (Hardcover)


Erin McHugh • Alyson Publications • Release date: October 2007 • 142 pages • Hardcover • ISBN-10: 1593500335; ISBN-13: 978-1593500337


Those who have changed the face of homosexuality over the centuries are not completely heroic. Learn about the first great gay activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, read of brave men and women of the Matachine Society and of the Stonewall riot, and relive the stories of the writers and artists who pushed a movement forward. Intriguing, shocking, and ultimately hopeful!

About the author
Erin McHugh is a writer and former publishing executive. She lives in New York City and South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.


Buy it from Alyson Books

Textbook: Homo History by Erin McHugh

$12.95

From ancient Rome to gay pride, here is a time capsule of gay history, <br>presented in quick, short takes. Strange, fascinating, <br>and historically revealing!


Homo History: A Compilation of Events That Shook and Shaped the Gay World (Portable Queer) (Hardcover)


Erin McHugh • Alyson Publications • Release date: October 2007 • 126 pages • Hardcover • ISBN-10: 1593500319; ISBN-13: 978-1593500313


From the Old Testament to the New World Order, the centuries have not always championed homosexuality. But the past has also been checkered with surprising liberal periods. From ancient Rome to gay pride, here is a time capsule of gay history, presented in quick, short takes. Strange, fascinating, and historically revealing!

About the author
Erin McHugh is a writer and former publishing executive. She lives in New York City and South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Buy it from Alyson Books

Resources

I’d like to make this a permanent page, and add to the resources as we go along, using information given by others I hope! Gynocrat sent me a wonderful link to Sodomy across the world so that sparked off the idea of having a reference sheet where writers can run to to search for gay historical facts. I won’t bother about general historical facts – I’m sure most people have sites they default to, and I have a huge page HERE so this will be specific to gay historical research.

Please let me know any others to add to this!

Androphile: World history of male love
British Slang (sadly the Slash section is down)
Information regarding the Age of Consent
Introduction to Modern Gay History (1700-onwards)
Homosexuality in Early Modern Europe
Homosexuality in History: A Partially Annotated Bibliography
John Rykener – 14th Century transvestite
The Old Bailey Online: Wonderful resource, court transcripts, sentences relating to many sexual offences
The National Archives (UK)
Polari – the old English Gay Slang. Introduction, Lexicon, history
Rictor Norton’s Site: Essential reading and a huge resource of information, particularly in regard to the 18th Century, but contains links to many other places
Sodomy Laws around the world, including legal history
Timetable for Gay History: Knitting Circle & Wikipedia

Review: A Summer Place by Ariel Tachna

 

Review by Erastes 

From the publishers website:

Overseer Nicolas Wells had been coming to Mount Desert Island for ten summers to help build cottages for the rich and powerful.  Despite his secrets, he had grown comfortable in the peaceful little island town, getting to know its inhabitants and even to consider some of them friends.  The eleventh year, however, he arrived to startling news:  the island’s peace had been shattered by a murder.  At the request of the sheriff, Shawn Parnell, Nicolas agreed to hire Philip Hall, the local blacksmith and the probable next victim, in the hope that the secure construction site would be safer than his house in the village.  He never expected the decision to lead to danger. Or to love 

I slid into this book very happily because the writing is very nice.  Descriptive and sensual (as in of the senses).

There’s an excerpt here

There’s a sense of tension in the first chapter, with fog and a dangerous journey along the coast avoiding rocks, and I had great hopes.  I particularly liked the cover, too – absolutely no reason in the world why a m/m historical should have anything on it to indicate what it is.  I would, as a bit of advice to the publisher and author however, have made the m/m element a little clearer (or indeed clear!) in the blurb, it’s so veiled as to be almost invisible. 

On a personal level too, I would have liked a map – this story, set on an unfamiliar (to me) island in the Atlantic – seems to call out for a map.  (I like maps…)

Anyway – onward.  Overseer Wells arrives on  Island, and takes on the task of protecting known sodomite Philip from a man who has murdered his lover and seems likely to be targetting Philip (and maybe others) as punishment for his and their homosexuality.  (As an aside, “homosexuality” as a word, didn’t exist in 1880…) And it was here that we ran into the the almost inevitable OKHomo, I’m afraid, most notably because it is actually the town’s sherrif who asks Wells to take Philip into his work-gang because: “he’s done nothing to warrant being locked up”

I’m not an expert in American law, but I’m fairly sure that sodomy would have been illegal in Maine 1880? But the sherrif ignores the law, and the inhabitants of the island (mostly) seem fine and dandy with it, even the rough and tough tradesmen on the building site are with one small exception. Hell, I don’t think Maine is that accepting even today!

That aside, it’s obviously well researched and well written, but I found the opening third quite dull. What bored me was the constant ogling the characters did for chapters on end.  I would have actually been just as interested in reading about the building work, as well as the growing attraction between them but instead the main characters stare and ogle and lust after each other in a very angsty way “he’s beautiful, I mustn’t, he might not… I want…” for quite a long time, and it gets very repetitive.  There are also repetitive sections in the dialogue too, which should have been edited out – Philip asks Wells if he’s married and how long he’s been the boss of the crewmen and he says no, and ten years – a couple of pages later, Philip asks the same questions to someone else.

However, it does perk up, and what Tachna cleverly does is to set up a kind of Agatha Christie style murder mystery – insular and remote location with a limited cast list – but in order for this to work more effectively she needs suspects and there doesn’t appear to be anyone who isn’t OK with the homo, apart from one very obvious suspect (I’m not spoiling anyone here, it’s pointed out very clearly by the sherrif)

There are inconsistencies in the facts of the cases too, – I won’t go into details but they are little niggles which stand out, especially if one is enjoying the crime elements and trying to solve it.

But I’m being picky, and I’m being picky because this is a nicely written book, one of the better Romances I’ve read that has been written contemporarily and the author clearly has a lot of talent, and I enjoyed reading it despite its flaws. The sex scenes aren’t overdone, and are genuinely erotic rather than porny, although the story as a whole outstayed its welcome after the mystery was solved and could have been wrapped up earlier, dealing with the conflict that happens in the last 3 chapters more within the main body of the story, rather than after the denouement.

If you liked Ruth Sims’ “The Phoenix” you’ll like this too,  and I highly recommend it.  I certainly will look forward to what Ms Tachna and Dreamspinner continue to create.

Buy from the Publisher

Search Terms

Just briefly and to restore humour…

 These are the top search terms used to find this community.

“A Hidden Passion”

historical gay

as meat loves salt

HOMOSEXUALITY IN Jane Eyre

e.f. benson david blaize

boy man love

historical spanking stories

Jamie Fraser and Lord John

Ok. So where is the homosexuality in Jane Eyre please? I thought I could find teh slash in anything, but that’s got me stumped.

and Mr Spanking searcher?  There are some reviews to suit you, I hope you found them. Naughty boy!

Review: Angel’s Evolution by T A Chase

“I’m a monster. Or so my father would have me believe. I’m imprisoned in a world I hate and fear. As heir to my father’s title, I’m expected to marry, but my secret desires may keep me from fulfilling those expectations. One night a stranger kisses me. In his touch, I see the possibility of a life beyond my prison. My name? Just call me Angel and this is my evolution.”

Review by Erastes

(Newly republished by MLR Press)

I believe that this is the first book of Chase’s that I’ve read, and the author has nothing to prove to me, it’s obvious that they can write. It’s the story of Angel who has been so badly abused by his father that he has no confidence in himself, and considers himself to be unclean – hardly surprising when subjected to such abuse.

Nice cover. The Liquid Silver one was pretty decent, but MLR have done well on this one, and I’ve often criticised their covers.

I was pleased that Angel’s Evolution seemed to be quite meaty -  less concentration on sex and more of characterisation.  But sadly, and this is (obviously) totally subjective, it was the characterisation that I couldn’t like.It’s not often that I read a book and simply cannot identify or empathise with the protagonist, but I’m sorry to say that when it comes to Angel’s Evolution I just couldn’t. Perhaps it was that the book is written in first person present tense, a very brave tense to choose, and not one I think I could ever attempt. For me, present tense has to be light and immediate, action filled – not a deep, very angsty and at times dark and violent tale. It’s hard for me to explain, but I always feel that the present tense is like constantly being on the edge of a precipice, and even the protagonist doesn’t know what will happen next.

But what happens here is that Angel is having such a bad time throughout most of the book and he (obviously) doesn’t know what is going to happen, he’s caught constantly in the present, and whines almost the entire way through the book.  I would have found it more effective if he had been looking back at his life with the benefit of hindsight, explaining his evolution and letting the reader share it, but he doesn’t. He just whines about all the crap stuff that is happening to him, whines (very much like Fanon Remus Lupin) about how he’s a monster, whines about how he’ll be infecting the man who seducing him into becoming another monster, and oh – how can you love a monster? and just… whines.  I was half way through the book when I had decided that, when his father had finished with the horsewhip, I wanted to borrow it.

I didn’t understand quite why Angel’s father treated his son so very badly. If he considered his son to be a perversion you’d think that - rather than treating him like a prisoner – he’d be eager to foist him off on the first fortune hunter that came along.   But no, the father locks him up in the country, doesn’t allow him to meet anyone outside the family, whips the boy’s back so badly he bleeds through his evening clothes and then moans when he doesn’t mingle in order to find a wife.  He was his heir, and even if you thought your son was a pansy would you really keep him locked away from society, dress him in rags and whip him daily?

There is a nice balance of plot and sex, too. Not sex heavy and when it does appear it’s gradual and nicely erotic without being graphic,  (Although Angel whines even here…)  intense, tender and passionate in turns.

There were a few other things that jarred me; Angel’s father wouldn’t be a Lord – he’s the brother of an Earl, so he’d be an “Honorable”,  improper use of the term “whipping boy” right at the start, misspelling of “whiskey” instead of whisky, the ubiquitous “gotten” which is always going to make me grind my teeth, and even the title is anachronistic, if you use the word as meaning a gradual change. There’s the inevitable OKHomo, Angel’s uncle is fine with it, Society doesn’t ostracize Duke Greyson for it despite it having hounded the fabulously wealthy William Beckford  and Viscount Courtenay into exile. But the writing and the Romance of the story is not spoiled by this. It is well written, and if I have not made that clear, then I apologise. The description is lush, detailed – she writes a real sense of place – you can see the ballrooms, smell the streets, feel skin and velvet under your hand. The point of view and tense help with this, of course and it’s very involved.

If you, unlike me, empathise with Angel and end up liking him, then you’ll appreciate the job Chase does.  It’s just not for me.

Author’s Website

Buy from MLR PRESS

Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Jeanne Laws

Review by Alex Beecroft

Kade Black Eagle is a bounty hunter in the Wild West.  When he is shot by the man he’s pursuing, his one regret is that he never told his old friend, Warren (Ren) Hayes that he loved him.  When Kade unexpectedly recovers, therefore, he decides to finally take the chance of telling Ren, hoping that he feels the same.

The blurb on the book is a great deal more informative than this short summary of mine.  It says: Best friends since childhood, Warren Hayes and Kade Black Eagle worked together as bounty hunters in lawless gold country until Ren quit a year ago. Since then the job hasn’t been the same for Kade. While he had long ago resigned himself to living without Ren’s love, he never thought he would have to do without his companionship.

Having grown up in a brothel, Ren has seen all of the ways sex can destroy. He has no intention of screwing up his relationship with Kade by bring sex into the picture – no matter how much he is in love with his friend. He thought ending their partnership would make dealing with his feelings for Kade easier; he has found entirely the opposite to be
true. The longer he is away from Kade, the more he realizes that there’s no way he can be without him.

But the book itself explores none of these themes.  The two main characters’ backgrounds and motivations (Ren’s in particular) are introduced in throwaway sentences that have no real impact on the way the plot plays out.  There’s never any real doubt shown on either character’s part.

Despite Kade being a bounty hunter and Ren being a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I had no real feeling that the story had to have been set in the past.  Make Kade a cop and Ren a rodeo rider, and you would have exactly the same story.  Oh, and the happy acceptance of their relationship by Kade’s mother and Ren’s masseuse (had sports massage even been invented then?) also contributed to the un-historical feeling.

As someone who likes historicals, I was a bit disappointed that the history was just window-dressing.  But if I take the book as a simple tale of how Kade, spared from death, finds Ren, they declare their love for each other and then have fairly protracted and reasonably hot sex, it’s a pleasant enough, undemanding read.  I do have to congratulate the author for the twist at the end, though!  I didn’t see that coming, and it was a really good touch.

Buy from Loose-ID

Sporkage: Guidelines

As we missed out on our bit of fun at the weekend….

I Found this article the other day: Tina’s Guide to Writing Romantica™ on the Ellora’s Cave Website. I’m assuming that it’s a guideline for what Ellora’s Cave want to see, but frankly, I’d rather gouge my eyes out than read some of these themes. It was sporked, most delightfully by Gehayi (and I tagged along, being sarky) so I said I’d post it. The Guide itself is in bold italics Gehayi’s comments are in purple, mine are in green (because i’m rude).

I love the conceit that she owns the term Romantica, too. The only Romantica I know that is trademarked is the font “Romantica”.

1. During “forced seductions”, redeeming the hero is crucial—nobody wants to read about a rapist.

Continue reading

Review: Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

From Amazon: Amid the bustling marketplaces of a rich and vibrant Damascus, where the dark alleyways teem with fear and hostility, Hilu unfolds a story charged with emotional and sexual conflict in this powerful literary tour-de-force from a unique new voice; at times wickedly funny, at others painfully sad, but beautifully told throughout.

Review by Fiona Glass

Finding this book at all was something of a happy accident, since I’d never even heard of the author, let alone the title.  This isn’t really surprising as Hilu is an Israeli writer and Death of a Monk was translated from Hebrew by an American scholar.  Browsing the shelves of an Aladdin’s cave of a second-hand book shop in London’s Soho district, I thought the title looked intriguing and pulled the book out for a closer look.  Straight away the blurb caught my eye, with various euphemisms for gay content: ‘close friendship with another boy’, ‘all is not as it seems’, ‘ill-advised relationship’.  I sometimes think we slash-lovers have to develop a special radar to spot these codes!

That said, nothing about the blurb or the cover prepared me for this book.  The artwork and the quotes, including one calling the work ‘gleefully bawdy’ from The Tablet, led me to expect a Gordon Merrick-style romp, but the book is much, much more than that.  It tells the story, in his own words, of Aslan Farhi, a young Jewish man growing up in 1840s Damascus, whose actions led to a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community who were accused of murdering a Christian monk.

Heavily based on fact, the book brings to life a period of history I knew nothing about.  Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Damascus had come under the rule of the rebel, Christian, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali.  In the century before the foundation of the Israeli state when Jews were still scattered across the Middle East, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived cheek-by-jowl in the city, each with their own ‘quarter’ but mingling on a daily basis.  Under the surface, though, the old tensions still ran deep and when the monk Tomaso and his manservant disappeared, it led to claims and counter-claims, betrayals and accusations, between and even within the various faiths.

The most noticeable thing about the book is its style.  Hilu uses florid, almost poetic language.  Here in the West writers are told not to let their voice get in the way of the story, yet Hilu does just that.  Every noun has at least one adjective, tenses switch with confusing regularity, and Aslan himself hops between first and third person point of view, sometimes in the space of a single sentence.  And oh! – those sentences!  Some of them go on for years!  Take this, for example:

And lo, in spite of his great weakness, when he takes notice of our sudden appearance at the door Alexis rises to his feet and greets us warmly, and he surprises Aslan by remembering his name, and their earlier embrace remains fresh in his memory, and after receiving us with a bright countenance he turns, suddenly outraged, his hands grasping a chair in his path, and asks Mahmoud why those men accused of Tomaso’s murder have not yet been hanged, why they are still contaminating this beautiful God-given earth with their tainted breath, for indeed their disgraceful, evil holiday is nigh upon them and their unleavened bread has been baked in preparation for the Seder night, drops of the murdered Tomaso’s blood concealed between its rows to satisfy their savage cravings, and he pounds the chair with a trembling hand, loses his balance and tumbles to the centre of the holy room, and now he pummels the chapel floor so that Jesus and Mary, sculpted into the wall above him, can witness his fury and the war he is waging.

Phew!  That may be the longest sentence in the book (or even in existence) but it’s not the only example.  Towards the end I was starting to find it tiresome and to wish that Hilu would just ‘shut up and get on with it’ as the story of the libel unfolded.  There are even frequent authorly interruptions of the ‘dear reader’ kind.  These are explained at the end, in a neat twist, but I couldn’t help thinking the explanation would have been helpful earlier on.  The style does, though, give the book a lyrical, almost biblical feel and some of the imagery is stunning:

…I thought about those persons I was leaving behind, and they are now buried in the pages of this book, alive one minute and frozen the next, trapped inside a short description, a fistful of words, their fate bound and sealed until a reader brings them to life….

Homosexuality forms an ongoing theme, as Aslan struggles to come to terms with his ‘different’ nature, his forced marriage, his distaste for his wife and his attraction to other men.  His confusion – even fear – is strongly portrayed, at times bordering on melodrama, but I think that’s necessary to explain some of his more extreme actions.  He’s a man in torment from the first pages of the book.  There are sex scenes and some of these are surprisingly explicit for a mainstream book – the author isn’t afraid of calling a testicle a testicle.  They are, however, always couched in the same very poetic language.

Overall, Death of a Monk is a strange book, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.  It throws light on a fascinating episode in history, and not just on the ‘Damascus Blood Libel’ itself but also on a Middle Eastern way of life which has probably vanished for ever.  It’s entertaining, it’s earthy, it contains flashes of gallows humour, and above all it’s a compelling read.  The style may be peculiar at times, at least to our eyes, but I believe it adds to the atmosphere.  The translator has done an excellent job maintaining Hilu’s authorial voice; lose that and it would be like rewriting the Song of Solomon as a particularly tedious newspaper report!

Buy: Amazon US ~ Amazon UK

Review: Virginia Bedfellows by Gavin Morris

VA Bedfellows cover

From the publisher’s description:

Banished from England and forced to work as indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, Lance Morley and Adam Bradley share a secret that could cost them their lives. As Virginia Bedfellows, they find love, passion, and pleasure on the Ashley Landing plantation, building a life together that’s immoral in the eyes of society and criminal in the eyes of the law. Their unbreakable bond—and the friendships they form with kindred spirits in nearby Williamsburg and far away Philadelphia—help them face down fear, prejudice, and the constant threat that their secret will be exposed. Virginia Bedfellows is based on the author’s research on indentured servants, plantation life, and homosexuality in Colonial Williamsburg.

Review by Lee Benoit:

This is one of those books that, in failing to live up to it jacket hype, surpasses it. The gushy pull-quotes on the front and back covers and flyleaf give us to expect a lighthearted, pulpy romp through colonial landscapes. I was far from disappointed when the promise turned out to have feet of clay, for what we get in Virginia Bedfellows is a strongly plotted, astutely researched story of those folks whose position near the bottom of colonial America’s social hierarchy has rendered them all but invisible in fiction set in the period. Oh, we get our fair share of earthiness, and speaking as an erotica aficionado I must say there’s enough here to satisfy. The only things that get in the way of pure enjoyment of this unusual juxtaposition of careful research and relatively abandoned sensuality are certain stiltedness of exposition and dialogue and an uncomfortably politically correct feel to the character motivations.

The book begins like iconic Victorian literature, but lacks the grittiness of Stevenson or the satire of Dickens. Both protagonists are strangers in a strange land, faced with exotic settings and uphill battles, charged with becoming the men English society would never have allowed them to be. Lance (no comment on the name) is an journeyman cordwainer convicted of the manslaughter of a constable who insulted his master’s daughter and transported to the American colony of Virginia. Aboard ship he catches the eye of the captain (conveniently widowed) who resolves simultaneously to fuck the boy silly and indenture him to a Williamsburg acquaintance.

Unlike Lance, whose habitual anger landed him in his predicament, Adam is a milder sort, reared gently by an aunt in service in a manor house. His education gives him ideas above his station and when he demands turnabout in their lopsided affair from the lord of the manor he’s punished with a choice between transportation and execution. Naturally both youths end up on the same Tidewater plantation, their indentures bought by a compassionate and enlightened slaveholder. Their tentative approaches to each other yield some of the most affecting passages in the book, and make up for the psychological anachronisms that abound. Furthermore, the sex life Adam and Lance forge with each other is charmingly earnest (in an early-pulps sort of way) and suffused with earthiness and humor (the description of the origins of “cornholing” is worth the price of the book, and there’s a running riff on “navel gazing” that had me in stitches). The addition of a sympathetic friend or two brings variety and depth to what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary love story.

The psychological anachronisms are harder to stomach because the research is so solid and the settings, material culture, and behaviors so convincing. The animosities Adam and Lance suffer come across as the thinnest veneer, rendering the richness of the historical setting almost superfluous at times. For example, the main antagonist is another indentured man, a closet case named Matt whose threats to out Adam and Lance are toothless in the face of the plantation owner’s general tolerance (forget for a moment that he owns slaves). We know he won’t turn the lads out, nor turn them in to the law. When the situation reaches its inevitable conclusion, the dénouement lacks the excitement that would have existed if the dangers had been more real. Matt is an unpalatable figure, to be sure, but as with other aspects of the novel, there’s a lot of author-driven exposition and not enough character-driven story. We’re told of the lack of tolerance and need for discretion, and Lance especially spends a lot of time fretting about discovery and its consequences, but the author never shows us enough (the passages with the jealous Matt notwithstanding) for us to feel the danger in our guts.

Without spoiling the plot (and I’m not even tempted to do so, because this is a novel well worth reading despite the flaws I’ve mentioned, especially if you like colonial settings), I will say there is real tragedy here, and the historical setting (and Morris’s treatment of it) makes the outcome more poignant. By the time the novel itself draws to a close, the reader is much more fully invested in the characters and the plot, because for all the homo-tolerance and plantation-labor solidarity, the protagonists have been through the wringer and come out quite different men.

One of the more successful plot points involves a two-spirit man with whom Adam and Lance form a liaison. This character, Martin, is well drawn and the way his brief story resolves is deeply satisfying on an historical level, eschewing sentiment for plausibility. I appreciated that, because Martin was also the engine of some of the more modern-tinged psychological gentrification we encounter (can’t say more without giving too much away, but Martin sounds too much like Adam’s therapist).

I hope I’ve given enough reasons to read Virginia Bedfellows even with my criticisms. Perhaps the most valuable contribution the book makes is to show us a relationship of equals at the bottom of a social hierarchy. So many historicals with European 18th and 19th century settings give us relationships between well-aspected equals, or impossible relationships between deeply unequal protagonists (of course, any heterosexual romance set in these places and times does the same as a matter of course). But if one of the satisfactions of reading homoerotic historical fiction is to read about men loving men in distant times and circumstances, then Gavin Morris has given us the gift of something new.

Buy this book (USA) (UK)

Review: David Blaize by E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson’s delightfully nostalgic classic of public school life is in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Tales of St. Austin’s. Memorably evoking the joys and torments of boyhood, from midnight feasts and glorious days on the cricket field to waxy masters and hilariously embarrassing parental visits, Benson follows young David Blaize from prep school to Marchester Collete – a thinly disguised portrait of the author’s own beloved Marlborough.

Affectionate, richly comic, and laced with E.F. Benson’s inimitable wit, David Blaize is a marvellous entertainment from one of the century’s greatest humorous writers.

Review by Renee Manley

David Blaize is a nostalgic and whimsical coming-of-age novel that follows the academic adventures of one of the most charming protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The novel was written during WWI, hence the idyllic and loving – perhaps elegiac – portrait drawn of schoolboy life in the late 19th century. E.F. Benson, almost in his fifties when he wrote the novel, certainly had good reason to fix his mind to happier, far more innocent days.

David, as the protagonist, is virtually a paragon of youth. Good-looking, bright, innocent, he might at first be mistaken for a soft, effeminate sort, but he cannot be stereotyped. He demonstrates a sharp wit that allows him to outfox his superiors as well as athletic prowess that makes him a star on the cricket field. In many ways, David embodies all that’s fresh and good about youth.

The novel offers not much by way of conflict. Rather than subject the reader to classic coming-of-age angst, Benson instead laughs himself silly from the first page to the last. There are hindrances, there are problems – but none of it comes close to the high drama so common in most coming-of-age novels. Even David’s freak accident in the final chapter, though dangerous, seems to be an afterthought – something thrown in as a last-minute plot device in order to bring Maddox back to David’s side. Its suddenness and sharp divergence in tone from the rest of the novel lends the scene an unfortunate grating quality, so much so that the contrivance becomes glaring.

The same-sex romance in this novel is beautifully subtle. While it remains platonic, it comes off strongly whenever David and Frank Maddox are together. Just as David Copperfield has his James Steerforth (albeit only to a certain point), and Laurie Odell has his Ralph Lanyon, David Blaize has his Frank Maddox. As with most schoolboy romances, David and Frank’s begins as adoration, which turns passionate without being physical. David is the younger of the two – wide-eyed and eager to please. Frank is older – handsome, smart, protective, and much more attuned to the nature of their relationship. He therefore becomes David’s protector (a classic scenario), and the scenes in which the two of them are together fairly drips with young romance. Even when Maddox angrily punishes David for infractions, the reader’s left without any doubt as to the nature of their relationship.

Bags, David’s best friend from prep school, finishes the triangle. Goofy, kind, selfless, and utterly in love with a rather clueless David, Bags parallels his friend in David’s adoration of Maddox. Benson, bless the man, doesn’t denigrate Bags in any way. There’s quite a bit of kind-hearted and sympathetic humor in his treatment of the boy, and there’s also a good deal of nobility in the way Bags’ quiet suffering is portrayed.

Everything is carefully and precisely captured. Every scene, every nuance, lovingly committed to text. Even cricket matches take up entire chapters, which might test a contemporary reader’s patience after a while. The humor is wonderful – satirical in many ways, but certainly softened with the fondness of nostalgia. Even the scenes involving David’s father, who tortures his son by embarrassing him in front of the entire school, are richly detailed and conveyed with so much wit.

Scholars believe that E.F. Benson mined his own history for material for his novels, and that David Blaize is semi-autobiographical. If so, the poignancy of an older man’s attempts at recapturing an idyllic chunk of time far removed from the war-torn present doesn’t soften the humor of the novel. No – rather, it enriches the reading experience.

Amazon USA Amazon UK Online version (free)

Update on “A Hidden Passion” by Lucia Logan

I’ve just had an email from Dreamspinner Press regarding the above book.

Dear Erastes

As you may have by now seen, this title is no longer in our catalog.  It will take somewhat longer for it to be removed from the distribution system.  We did not undertake the publishing of this title casually.  The editorial staff here felt we were unqualified to judge a title based on another work, so we had it reviewed by a copyright lawyer and a professor of literature, who both believed it was suitable for publication.  Be that as it may, with the author’s full support, we have withdrawn the title.

Sincerely,
Dreamspinner Press

————————————-

As you  can imagine I’m pleased about this, and that will be the end of the matter as far as this community is concerned.

Review: Indiscretions by Elayne S Venton

Indiscretions

Review by Erastes

From the blurb: In the Regency underworld, two covert Bow Street Runners discover mutual passion. Viscount Trent, renowned ladies’ man, has admired William Hall as furtively as Mr. Hall has lusted after the viscount. Only the affection for his mistress, Miss Anna Shaw, held Trent back from acting on his attraction, but William’s allure proves too strong. A determined woman, Anna is unwilling to give up her lover to—gasp—another man.

What’s a man to do when forced to choose? Keep them both of course, if he can make it work within the harsh strictures of London society. Jealousy and mistrust run rampant as his lovers vie for Trent’s interest in and out of the bedroom, the billiard room, the stable, the parlor…

When the current investigation threatens Trent’s life, will his lovers’ animosity work against them, or will they join in more ways than one?

I am on the fence with this book, I have to say. There were times I enjoyed it and times that I wanted to throw it on the fire.

That being said, let me say that it was quite an enjoyable read, eclipsing a few of the other “gay regencies” I’ve read quite adequately and could have been really good except for said annoyancies.

But let’s get organised.

The Cover. Ick. The cover was “corporate” Ellora’s Cave but in no way represented the subject matter whether it was male love OR a Regency Romance. The man with the towel (I’m fairly sure modern-type towelling-type towels weren’t around till after the Great Exhibition but I could be wrong – I do enough bleeding research without typing “history of towels” into Google!) seems to be looking in horror at where his bits used to be and the woman in the Victoria Secret black lace teddy seems to be as horrified. The one concession to an historical novel is the carved dowel on the bed. As a m/m reader it would not encourage me to buy it. As a historical reader: ditto. The blurb was pretty decent, but I found the “gasp” irritating and amateurish, it’s also not accurate as Anna was all for it, sensible girl.

Historical Feel

Good. Regular readers will know how I hate to flounder around in some vague time-miasma with an historical, so I was pleased to see “London, 1802″ as a starting date for this book. Good. An interesting period, rather too interesting for gay men – but with a lot of stuff going on at home and abroad.

The writer had obviously done their research. Several times I thought I’d seen an anachronism but on checking the facts (Thames River Police, founded in 1798 – Smugglers Proliferating because of the war, the word ogle which came into use a good century before this book) I was happy to be proved wrong and to find that the author had done the work. The period detail is there, deft little mentions of ladder-back chairs, uncomfortable coaches, and the like – enough to keep a feel of the period without info dumping or preaching.

The characters though, let this period feel down, big-time. They – like so many other characters in historical novels – are more akin to modern men in speech patterns particularly. In an age where it was almost a scandal to say “Damne” in public, I simply can’t see upper-class men saying “Jesus” “shit” and “fuck” – even to each other. Hell, I could be completely wrong – but we don’t know, and I consider it to be unlikely. I wish writers would attempt to keep to the language of the day – I for one would find it a lot sexier. I think female writers do this to show how “manly” their men are, but it doesn’t work for me.

There were also modern phrases: “Lord , save him from jumping Trent right now!” and “….wanted the complete package” and “ He didn’t want to share. Period.” (anachronistic AND American!) were but a few that leaped off of the page and made me squirm.

Also, centimetres weren’t used in England (we are still fighting them off even today), and “cum” wasn’t used at all until the 20th century, although “come” was. Silly errors which jar a reader and can easily be avoided.

But again, we come back at last to the almost total refusal to acknowledge that the 19th century was the most dangerous time statistically – to be a homosexual man. These men kiss in the street and the Bow Street Runners send them into a den of homosexuals to find smugglers, which seems odd that they would ignore one crime over another. The mistress doesn’t care, the servants are all deaf and blind, apparently. This does improve later in the book – and they start to acknowledge the danger, but it feels pasted on.

As for the plot, it’s decent enough – meaning there actually is some in between the long (and admittedly hot at times) sexual scenes.

But gah – did I get bored with all the cock throbbing… These men seem to have erections the entire time, and seem unable even to talk to each other or think of each other without thoughts of poking the other one up the “ass”. Even playing billiards by himself causes William to have “cock twitching” I am minded of Xander in Buffy “Hey, I’m 17. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.”

I didn’t like Trent, the Viscount, too much. He was a bit of a selfish git (leaving Anna, his mistress, unsatisfied at one point) although he behaved better with William, his male lover, but I never really warmed to him. He really did want it all his own way. I liked William a lot better, as he was wonderfully jealous and even attempted to let Anna hoist herself with her own petard when she started behaving irrationally. But I liked Anna the best (people faint as Erastes cheers for the woman) as she made the best of a bad situation, without being written as the bitch or the woman in the way.

I couldn’t warm to the names much either, Faith, Brandon, Trent – it was all a bit Buffy-ville, but then that’s just me and my antithesis to “romance” names. I know that some people like them.

But all in all, it gets a moderate thumbs up. The research is sound, but the period feel slips here and there. Ellora’s Cave published this one, and I am guessing that they don’t yet have a specialist editor for historicals with a good Brit-picking head. I’d read another by Ms Venton, as she writes well.

If you liked M J Pearson’s stories, you’ll like this book as much, if not more.

Buy: Ellora’s Cave

Malibu Historical Barbie

by Tracey Pennington

It’s an odd fact, but many fans of historical romance—and many writers of it as well—dislike history.

If you ask them, they will tell you, at first, that they love historical romance and all that implies. However, if you probe a bit deeper, they will tell you that they don’t like too much history in their historicals. They will tell you that history is “depressing,” “tedious,” “disgusting,” “lecturing” and “dull.” They will tell you that they get enough facts in real life and that they want, even deserve, escapism in their romances. I’ve seen blogs and message boards of historical romance writers and fans become outraged to the point of flaming dissenters at the notion that a little historical accuracy might be good for the story.

  

This is a kind of behavior I’ve never seen in any other genre. I’ve read mysteries since I was young, and yes, there are subgenres within the genre. But I never heard anyone who liked historical mysteries bitching that the mystery’s historical setting was too accurate to be readable. Indeed, your average historical mystery reader likes history well-blended with story, to make the time and the place and the characters come more fully to life.And I’ve certainly never heard a mystery fan say that realistic mysteries—such as Andrew Vachss’s Burke series (which deals with child abuse and child advocacy), Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series (which deals with alcoholism and gruesome crimes in Hell’s Kitchen) or Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series (which, since it’s about a forensic pathologist, goes into a lot of detail about autopsies)–no mystery fan that I’ve heard about has ever protested that such books are simply too gritty and realistic to be considered proper escapism…or, in fact, mysteries at all. There are people who don’t care for such stories, certainly; mystery subgenres vary. You get police procedurals, private investigators, amateur sleuths, political paranoids, cozy mysteries…the list goes on and on. Continue reading

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