Best GBLT book of 2007?

I’ve been contacted by Dear Author and Smart Bitches and they’ve asked if Speak Its Name would like to help nominate some of the books for ther upcoming awards, namely the GBLT category. Rather proud to be asked, have to say.

Now, I know my favourite books of this year, but I’ve only read a fraction, and I’ve read NO lesbian, Bi and only one Trans – so PLEASE (please please) if you have a recommendation can you comment here and I’ll knock together a short list. 

I’m assuming that they want Romance.

If it helps you, Lambda nominees are here

Many thanks to you all btw for making the comm the success it has been in such a short time.

Review: A Warrior’s Hope, by Sabrina Luna

From the Blurb:
As political unrest swirls in the palace of Tutankhamun, Commander Thabit, a Warrior of Amun-Ra, is eager for a stolen moment with his lover, the royal scribe, Akil. Leading his men to the border to face an unfamiliar tribe of renegades, Thabit isn’t sure when he’ll return home to Thebes…or his beloved again.

Review by Alex Beecroft 

This is a short read – 29 pages, of which fully10 pages are copyright information, a biography of the author and PHAZE advertising.  As a short erotic story it would be unfair to expect too much plot, and if anything this story has the opposite problem.  There is more plot than there needs to be:

Thabit is a warrior of Thebes, who is being sent out by the evil vizier to pacify some border tribes.  Thabit wants to persuade the tribes to move away by diplomacy, but the evil vizier wants them destroyed.  Little, eight year old Tutankhamun daren’t say anything against the evil vizier in public, but sneaks out at night dressed in the clothes of the common people to tell Thabit that he wants his army to just go and ask the tribes nicely to move away.  Thabit and his lover Akil then get together for some sex in a bath-house.  When Thabit leaves in the morning he looks back to find the young king holding Akil’s hand, and thinks to himself that there is hope that Tut will grow up to get rid of the evil vizier and a new age of justice for all will reign (or something like that.)

I’m not quite sure how to tackle this.  On the one hand I like plot, but on the other hand, I like a set up for something to happen to be followed by that thing actually happening.  Given the amount of time spent on Thabit’s mission to the border tribes, I’d have liked to see what happened when he got to the border and had to deal with the tribes.  Given the ‘omg, the country is in the thrall of an evil vizier‘, I’d have liked to see the protagonists working together to get rid of the evil vizier.  It seems odd to have two threads of a story set up, and then to ignore them both in favour of hot bath-house sex.

By all means, lets have the hot bath-house sex, but maybe it just doesn’t need to come wrapped in a set up for a story that never happens.

In addition, there were a couple of other things about the framing story that just didn’t sit right with me.  The evil vizier, the virtuous young king who goes among his people in disguise, they seemed too archetypal to be a true reflection of a specific court.  Even though Tutankhamun may very well have historically been murdered before he could begin to rule (a fact that makes the ending of this story heavily ironic) the handling of the issues felt fairy-tale, even cliché, rather than historical.

I also felt that the author had tweaked the characters for modern sensibilities, in a way that made it hard for me to believe in them any more.

Would any ancient king really think it was a good idea to just talk to potential invaders?  When a culture’s iconography depicts their king standing over a kneeling prisoner, about to bash his brains in, the idea of him using his armies for gentle diplomacy seems hard to swallow.  Equally, I could not buy Tutankhamun—the living incarnation of a god—holding hands with a scribe.  Even a modern eight year old boy is beginning to think it’s below his dignity to hold hands with adults; would the god-king of Egypt really be more approachable?

It’s quite possible that I’m over-thinking this.  At this rate my review will be longer than the story itself, but I feel that in some respects the author shot herself in the foot.  The bath-house scene, which seems to me to be the heart of the story, is really very nice.  The author has quite a gift with metaphor and description, and the bath house, the steam, the scent of lotuses and myrrh, for the first time really captured that evocative sense of being in another, more romantic country.

As a little sensual vignette, the bath house scene made sense.  I wouldn’t say it was the best written sex scene I’ve ever read, but it was very pleasant, and there was no feeling that something was missing or wrong.  It was just the envelope which this central sex scene came in that let it down.

I know I’m always asking for more plot, but this could either have done with less, or with being long enough to wrap up the threads of plot that were started at the beginning but never finished.

Having said all that, I did enjoy it, and I would love to see more with this sort of setting.  Ancient Egypt is a treasure house of stories just waiting to be opened, and this was like a first glimpse through the wall into a jumble of gold.

Buy: Phaze

Review: The Prince and Him by Kendal Nite

A prince has to marry and searches for his true love

Review by Erastes

It’s an interesting and novel idea, a bedtime story for children done in traditional language and with brightly coloured illustrations but it falls short of its desire in several aspects, sadly.

It’s too simplisitc and short. Rather than being the sort of book that you could read (over and over) to a child in bed, the level of literacy/listening required is more of the level of those cloth books you used to give to children to give them a love of holding a book without ripping it to shreds.

It’s a shame because the story could have had potential, but even young children need some sort of conflict.  I didn’t want the conflict to come from the parents of the the Prince and indeed, quite correctly, it does not. They are happy their son is happy no matter who he brought home, and that’s great, but the Prince doesn’t do anything to win his young man, he simply wanders around the kingdom kissing maidens until he spots the young man in a pond.

I’d have much preferred to see something along the lines of the classic fairy stories, where there’s a quest of some kind, like the Tale of the Devil and the Three Golden Hairs. Perhaps that would give the wrong message though, that you have to earn your male marriage, but I don’t think it would – it would simply say what classic fairy tales have been saying for hundreds of years that anything worth winning is worth fighting for.

I have the impression that Kendal Nite’s first language isn’t English as the blurb on Lulu and Amazon has a grammatical error and the first page of the book has as well. Proof, if it were even needed, that everyone needs an editor, even if your book is only 13 pages long.

I bought directly from Lulu and the packaging was ludicrous. The item could have been put cardboard envelope and the box was bigger than my dvd player, consequently the total cost was $19.98, and at 13 pages it was possibly one of the most expensive books I’ve ever bought.

The illustrations are charming, in a naive way, and brightly done and will probably appeal to children, but overall I think it is pitched at too low a level. Good idea but could do better. It got 4 stars for the idea, but lost 2 for text errors, nil plot, world-killing packaging and an over inflated price.

Buy:  Lulu, Amazon UKAmazon USA

Review: Only Words by Tina Anderson & Caroline Monaco(illus.)

 

In 1941 Poland, silence is a way of life. Eighteen-year-old seminary student Koby Bruk has watched for two years as the people of his home town allowed the Germans to move in, displace homes and families, and impose their rule on the people who remain. When Koby is bullied by his classmate Irvine, he chooses to speak up against him. This doesn’t sit well with Irvine’s friend, Hitler Youth Oskar Keplar. Oskar corners Koby in an alleyway and makes a sinister promise. 
Words by Tina Anderson, Illustration by Caroline Monaco

Review by Erastes

I’ll say this right here that I don’t know the vocabularly for manga/yaoi/the graphic novel genre, so whilst reviewing them, I’m going to make errors that purists will flinch at, but as I’m hoping that they get more popular in English for the English speaking world, perhaps the vocabularly and tropes won’t matter so much if I get them wrong.

I came to graphic novels with a few pre-conceptions, that the men were impossibly beautiful, effeminate – that there was always a Seme and a Uke (although I still have to check Wikipedia to work out which is which) and there are lot of staple cliches, tie-fetishes, half-clothed sex, power-play, bdsm-all that sort of stuff.

Only Words fulfills some of those fetishes but it packs a very powerful punch by not sticking to the frilly and effeminate and at times it’s not a pretty book at all. It seemed to me to take some of those cliches and turn then against themselves, but I can’t say much more without spoiling. 

Koby Bruk is a Polish trainee priest, whose seminary was closed when the Germans invaded.  Neither he or his nemesis/love interest, Oskar from Nazi Jugen/Hitler Youth, are pretty boys. Koby is sallow, a little malnourished with large eloquent eyes and Oskar is badly scarred, giving him a sinister appearance. 

This novel covers a lot of ground; there’s a lot to take in – it’s certainly not just a tale of two young men who get together and fuck. Koby has rape fantasisies which we learn right from page one and we soon learn that although he dislikes the bullying tactics of the Jugen, and that he is brave/honest/foolish/pious enough to stand up to them, time and time again, he is harbouring a darker fantasy involving Oskar.

Actually I have to admit, I found Koby a little annoying.  He had no compunction in telling tales on his class-mates, blaming his honesty on God, but doesn’t seem to have any shame or guilt about having gay rape fantasies or actually having sex with a man at all. His constant tattle-tale-ing would probably have made me find a dark alley to sort him out at some point, but then I’m not a nice person.

The artist does a really good job. If you don’t agree remember this is obviously subjective, and from someone who has had very little experience of comics since “Bunty” when she was ten years old. The landscapes are stark, and unremittingly depressing. When the Jugen are up to no good there is a preponderance of black shadows and claustrophic locations and the only time when there is any kind of light and air is in the classroom. Anatomically I have nothing to complain about either, and there are few punches pulled when it came to the sex. I don’t know the rules for explicit images in graphic novels but from an entirely personal perspective I’d have liked a little more explicitness.

However, the panel work was very impressive, and I was never in any doubt what was going on and who was saying what, even though there were a lot of dynamic shifts to the set of the panels. There’s probably vocabulary for what I’m trying to explain here.

If you are expecting a Dom/sub relationship story then you’ll probably be disappointed, because the layers here are multiple and deep and no-one is really what they seem. There’s a saying “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” and for a while this runs true, as Koby seems to be getting what he’s been fantasising about – but it gets turned around in a wonderful twist. The classic joke “Hurt me,” said the masochist, “No,” said the sadist, rings true towards the end, but it’s much much more than a classic joke and heartbreakingly so.  I don’t think I need to worry that I’m spoiling you if I make clear that a story based in 1941 Poland is not going to end happily.

But for me it was full of surprises. The way an “alley-rape” turned out to be something else, a rescue of a cat is much the same,  and even Oskar surprised me towards the end, not with his bully-boy tactics but the fact that he ordered Koby to strip and then offered him a cigarette and turned his back, as if in modesty.  I think Oskar broke my heart from that moment on.

For me, this was a hard-to-take and very personal tale that touched on many global issues with a needful light touch. It could easily have been turned into a massive political statement but it didn’t attempt to do so.  It remained for me a story of two young men caught up in circumstnces they are completely unable to change.

It has had the same visceral punch for me as films such as “Se7en” and I know for a fact that Only Words will stay with me for a long long time.  I’m very pleased that this was my first foray into this genre.

Buy:    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Ghosts by Olivia Lorenz

Hua Mu Yun is a cynical ex-soldier, damaged by the chaotic battles of China’s warlords era. Unable to stand human contact, he’s become a criminal, denying his more honorable past. Leng Ruo Fei is the spoiled and beautiful darling of the Peking Opera. Trained as a dan (female impersonator), his voice brings people to their knees. Adored by many but loved by none, Ruo Fei desperately wants to believe that real heroes–not fake ones–exist. Thrown together during a Triad attack on an opium den, Mu Yun and Ruo Fei must face their own demons as they begin to fall for each other. Can opera offer Mu Yun an escape from war-torn reality, or is a relationship between a gangster and a dan doomed to fail in a tragedy worthy of the stage?

Review by Erastes

This is a little jewel, (just under 19,000 words) small but just lovely. I haven’t enjoyed an ebook this much since Peridot by Parhelion. It’s very hard to do a review of it, in fact, as the size of it makes it difficult not to spoil the reader.

I often speak of “a safe pair of hands” – because readers can’t know every era and facts about every era – and Lorenz is (for my money) certainly that safe pair of hands. I know nothing about the era, or the economy of Peking or Shanghai of the time, and frankly it matters not a jot, because the writing convinces the reader (from the description of the hutongs, to the beautifully described clothes) that the author knows what they are on about. Once or twice a Chinese word was used (for food, for example) when I thought it was unnecessary (we are in China after all, and I’d have liked to know what those words meant)

It’s a multi-toned, multi-layered story, one that you could read on the surface and enjoy, or really delve into the psychology and enjoy it even more. Both characters are so beautifully written, brittle, fragile, with more barriers around them than China itself, that it broke my heart to read about them. Ruo Fei is delicious – a little bit redolent of Billy Crudup’s portrayal of Ned Kynaston in “Stage Beauty” which isn’t surprising as both are expert at portraying women on stage – a lotus blossom with reality issues and the problem that many rich/famous people have – the inablity to know whether he’d be loved for himself if he wasn’t the celebrity he is. Mu Yun has his ghosts and for tiny fraction of time he manages to escape them. It says a lot for the power of the writing that in such a small piece I was convinced, won over and hooked by these characters and wanted the best for them.

I didn’t like the italics and the tense changes used at the beginning and end, I thought they were unnecessary, and also I would have not complained if this had been a novella at the very least. There’s so much potential, backstory, so much we don’t see that Lorenz could have made this a novel. It doesn’t stop this concentrated version from being wonderful, though, so you wouldn’t be wasting the very little money it costs if you were to try it.

Fictionwise

Review: The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale

A composer who finds success in his later years surveys his grandchildren as they come to terms with the harsher facts of modern life. A young composer, Edward Pepper, is exiled from his native Germany by the war, struck down with TB, and left to languish in an isolation hospital. But then he falls in love with his doctor, Sally Banks, and his world is transformed. They set up home in a bizarre dodecahedral folly, The Roundel — a potent place, which grows in significance as it bears witness to their family’s tragedies and joys. The years pass, and Edward watches from this sanctuary as both his grandchildren, Jamie and Alison, fall prey to the charms of Sam, an enigmatic builder, and have to come to terms with some of the tougher facts of life.  

Review by Fiona Glass 

I’m not entirely sure this book qualifies as ‘gay historical’ since any gay content in the historical section is decidedly off-centre-stage, and by the time we get to the main gay character the book’s no longer historical!  But I thought it was worth doing a review, on the basis of a historical setting for the early section, and a couple of gay characters. 

I’m normally a big fan of Gale’s work.  His ‘Rough Music’ has made it onto my all-time favourite book list, so when I saw this book on the shelves of my local Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it.  It’s a big thick volume, and tells the story of one family, through three generations of trials and tribulations, rather like a man’s take on Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. 

The book opens in the years just after World War Two.  The first characters we meet are Edward, an exiled German Jew, and Sally, a working class girl who’s made it to the rank of doctor by intelligence, hard work and sheer determination, at a time when such positions were usually held by men, or by women of a higher social class.  Both characters have a ‘surrogate parent’ in the form of someone who sponsored them through university, who they turn to in times of need, and both of whom are generous to a fault.  Sally’s sponsor retires to a nunnery and leaves them a strange little house in the wilds of the Norfolk Broads, which they fall in love with almost as much as they fall in love with each other.  They marry, move to the house and produce a family, who become the focus of later chapters of the book: their daughter Miriam, and their grandchildren Alison and Jamie, both of whom fall in love with the same man. 

Unfortunately the book has some major flaws.  The most obvious of these is that it’s told in third person omnipresent, which seriously detracts from getting to know the characters.  The focus shifts from Edward to Sally and back again seemingly at random, and we’re no sooner told that Sally is annoyed about something, than the focus flips to Edward, and doesn’t return to Sally until half way through the next chapter by which time the action has moved on by several months.  It’s very distancing and very frustrating, and it means that when the characters are presented with serious problems, you don’t feel you know them well enough to care. 

The second flaw is that unlike Harrod-Eagles, Gale has crammed all three generations into a single volume.  It’s already over 500 pages long but even so, telling the story of five different main characters in a book that ‘short’ means that inevitably a lot of the fine detail gets left out.  When Edward is faced with a terrible choice regarding the last surviving member of his family, his actions don’t ring true because we haven’t read enough about his inner battles, or his reasons for making the choice he does.  It’s almost as though Gale says “Oops, Edward decided to do this,” without any further explanation, or any fallout, and it’s too disconnected to make any real sense. 

I would have liked the book to be split into at least two, perhaps three volumes.  I think Edward’s story alone would have been interesting enough to carry the first volume – there aren’t many books written about the Jews who fled to England just before the War, leaving so many family members and friends behind, and his relationship with his ‘father-figure’ Thomas, who is clearly a homosexual and clearly in love with him, could have been developed hugely.  Why wasn’t Thomas jealous when Edward decided to marry Sally?  Why didn’t he try to persuade Sally not to marry Edward, or at the very least make a few not-very-well-hidden passes at the younger man?  Too often Gale doesn’t include nearly enough tension, and the tension he does introduce is often not very well used. 

Sally’s character too could have been so much better developed.  I’m assuming Gale did his research; it must have been very unusual for a working class girl to become a doctor in those days and the story of her struggle to be accepted for what she was would have been fascinating.  As it is, we get a few snippets where male colleagues patronise her, and a few scenes where the rest of her family disapprove, and that’s about it. 

In the end I lost interest in the younger generations and the book is still sitting, half-read, on my bedside table.  My overall impression is one of huge frustration at a valuable story wasted.  Such a shame for an author who’s produced some wonderful books. 

Buy Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Ardennian Boy by William Maltese and Wayne Gunn

Ardennian Boy from coauthors William Maltese and Drewey Wayne Gunn, is historical romance and literary erotica blended into one masterful novel. Maltese’s sensuous prose retells the tumultuous love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, while Gunn’s lyrical translations of their bawdy gay poems, woven naturally into the fabric of the story, enlighten even as they arouse. Together, the two authors bring this singular love story brilliantly to life.

Arthur Rimbaud is an untamed teenage savage from the French provinces, randy and ready to try any and everything, convinced that a life of unbridled excess is the true pathway to great poetry. Rimbaud’s creative outburst is consumed in the decadence of his lifestyle by the time he is barely out of his teens, but not before he has established himself as one of history’s greatest poets, hailed today as one of the fathers of the French “symbolist” movement – and not before he has nurtured Paul Verlaine from a passable poet into a great one.

Paul Verlaine is a henpecked, closeted and probably bisexual husband who is trapped in an undesirable marriage, and totally unprepared for the whirlwind that engulfs him when Rimbaud appears in his life. In the end, Verlaine too defies the conventions of his day, and though he finds himself ultimately reviled by polite society for his incendiary relationship with the younger poet, Verlaine emerges from it not only a great poet in his own right, but a major figure in French literature. In tracing their gay heritage through some of the most influential men of letters and of politics from his day back to ancient Greece, he becomes one of the proponents of gay historical studies.

Often condemned for the frankness of their relationship, these two men stand today alongside Whitman and Wilde as literary pioneers in the struggle for gay rights in the 19th century. Maltese and Gunn have captured that frankness with unprecedented exuberance.

Review by Lee Benoit

Though the bloody, blazing Paris Commune had been ground to dust under the boots of agents of social order a season before Arthur Rimbaud acted upon his literary infatuation with Paul Verlaine, the excesses of the ‘Bloody Week’ tinge their bloody, blazing affair.  Lines were drawn in the cafés and ateliers of Paris and beyond, and bourgeois sensibilities were ever after suspect in artistic circles.  The Commune and its cultural aftermath are not directly addressed in Maltese and Gunn’s perplexing, redolent, radiant lad of a novel, but the iconoclastic energy of the Communards suffuses Ardennian Boy with a gleeful moral anarchy in whose face (dare I say, fèsse?) most readers – myself included – might find themselves by turns appalled and inexplicably charmed.

Without Gunn’s daring, earthy translations of the principals’ poems, Maltese’s text might devolve into scatological porn; without Maltese’s ultimately clearheaded linear narrative, the poems themselves might rest, as they have done with a few exceptions, as much-vaunted but little-read artifacts of gay history.  In this bold and more-than-occasionally successful partnership, the story revives the poems as germs of gay liberation, and the poems exalt the fundamentally ordinary (albeit explosive and tragic) story of Rimbaud’s and Verlaine’s liaison.

Reading this unusual novel inspired me to revisit the photographs of Eugène Atget (most made within a generation of the events in Ardennian Boy), wherein I found a striking visual parallel for the central conflict in the book.  The interiors – close, clean, and orderly – look like everything Verlaine sought, until his Rimbe dragged him out into disheveled courtyards and gritty alleyways where one might take a shit or buy a fuck, sometimes both at once.  Maltese’s Paul is mired in a bourgeois fantasy even he hates (violently so – another element of the book that may discomfit readers), and for which both he and Arthur see the provincial prodigy as a corrective.  Drink, drug, fuck, and fight your way to poetic genius – that’s Arthur’s mantra, and Paul is content to be dragged along until, with disappointing regularity, he rebels and seeks the false security of good family and good furniture.

Chapters alternate between the first-person voices of Paul and Arthur, and the voices are blessedly distinct.  The manic skirl of Arthur’s thoughts and furies is rendered paradoxically charming, and Maltese does a masterful job of slinging the shitty and sublime elements of Arthur’s life and vision with equal verve.  So what if I can’t imagine licking a lover’s poopy bum as an exercise in artistic liberation?  Arthur can, and Maltese made me understand why.  Arthur’s conviction that Paul is a poetic genius is endearing, and if he transgresses certain sexual and interpersonal boundaries to unlock that genius, well, history will surely forgive him.  Maltese doesn’t gild the lily in the least: Arthur is no romanticized enfant terrible.  As challenging (and, I will admit, sometimes downright unpleasant) as it is to read of his methods and madnesses, it’s never dull.  One episode, in which Arthur seduces a coal stoker on a Channel crossing, makes delightfully clever use of Arthur’s limited English, class differences, and cultural variety.  By the end of the episode, we have understood that Arthur is as bourgeois as Paul in his way, that the working classes of the Industrial Revolution are not as alienated from their fellow man as they might seem, and that quite polished quatrains can be generated in the midst of the raunchiest fuck.

As in real life, Paul is the more pedestrian of these lovers.  His pendulous swaying between his middle-class aspirations and his artistic ones are, relative to Arthur’s more cutting edge tale, tedious.  Verlaine was not the first artist to struggle with the respectability-creativity conundrum, and he wasn’t the last; in fact, it is only his partner that lends interest to the personal side of his tale. Therefore, Maltese has a harder row to hoe with this character.  Once established, in the first third of the book, Verlaine’s character makes little progress.  Maltese must tell us why Arthur stays interested; Gunn’s translations of the poems show us.  The denouement of Arthur and Paul’s affair is simply a somewhat more extreme version of the cycle it followed from the beginning.  In the afterword, Maltese and Gunn give us to believe that if living with Arthur unlocked Paul’s creative potential, the enforced solitude of prison gave it time to crystallize.  Be that as it may, the novel would have been stronger without Paul’s voice – Rimbaud’s ruminations and Verlaine’s poetry are more compelling and get the point across with concision and interest, rendering Paul’s passages somewhat redundant.

It should be clear by now that this novel isn’t for everyone, certainly not for the prudish, the faint of heart, or those who demand happy endings.  Though I’d describe myself as none of the above, I still had to lay the book down and pick it up several times over the course of a couple of months.  In this I fancied myself rather (uncomfortably) like Paul Verlaine himself: Ardennian Boy stormed in at my invitation, took control of my creative efforts, wrested from me excesses I hadn’t imagined, and stormed out again.

Lovers of historical fiction may find some linguistic anachronisms to object to (a description of Arthur’s soldier-rapists as “macho,” for example), especially in the first third of the book.  As the story continued I found myself convinced of the setting and period, despite these (though students of French history may disagree with me).  There were also occasions on which I found myself wishing the authors or editors had been a little sharper-toothed (as when a French boy’s nipples are described as “dime-sized” or simplified French and English are described as “pigeon”).  However, the novel rewards forgiveness as richly as it does persistence.

Much has been made (in other reviews, in promotional materials) of the redemptive power of Ardennian Boy. Though Verlaine and Rimbaud’s places in the gay pantheon (in the literary one, for that matter) have been assured for decades, this book does do something other biographies and translations appear not to have done.  Another poet, Audre Lorde, argued at a more recent moment in gay liberation that the erotic suffuses all of life, whereas the pornographic separates us from everything but the soullessly, mechanically sexual.  Among the many barriers – legal and political, social and cultural – arrayed against us in the modern era, that one, that we are naught but pornographic creatures, has been one of the most durable.  Gunn and Maltese set out to declare and celebrate the position of Rimbaud and Verlaine in gay letters and liberation.  Not least among their successes on this front is the melding of the erotic and pornographic in their storytelling and poetic translations.  When the twain have met, as in John Preston’s work, the writer has tended to be transparent about his motives and method, as if to confirm that if one writes something sexy that is also literary one must defend that choice, be intentional and articulate about it.  Though the short afterword can be read as this sort of apologia, Maltese and Gunn, like Rimbaud, pre-empt such a defense with the foregoing two hundred pages.  Smeared with the piss, shit, and blood of violent coupling and violent creation, Ardennian Boy ends up, at bottom, a love story, “tender and fierce,” as Paul Verlaine dared name it.

Buy it from Amazon USA

Buy it from Amazon UK

Review: The Pet Rabbit by Silapa Jarun

Ono Suzue: A Man of Talent in the Meiji Era
Part One: The Pet Rabbit
by Silapa Jarun

Review by Alex Beecroft

Ono Suzue is the son of a samurai.  His father took the boy to war with him, exposing him to horrors which have permanently scarred his psyche.  Now he is a westernised doctor, whose hobby is the development of morphine.  With the aid of morphine and hypnosis he takes over the life of one of his students, Kawano Tomoji, who he trains to be his docile pet rabbit.  He also has a more sinister task in mind for the young man, intending him to kill the Emperor, in an act that Ono believes will finally bring peace to Japan.

This book, therefore, has an interesting concept.  The protagonist, Ono, is vile, inhuman, unsympathetic, and yet he has understandable reasons for being as psychopathic as he is.  There’s even the possibility that underneath his murderous exterior there may lurk the heart of someone who honestly is trying to do good.  This too is an interesting concept for a protagonist, and in other hands this could have been a good book.

Unfortunately that is the best I can say of it.  It’s a bad sign when a book begins with a piece of poetry which contains a prominent spelling mistake: “Now a piller of the state he stands”?

If the keynote poem in the very beginning is misspelled, what can we expect of the general level of proof-reading and literary merit?  Not much, alas.  And not much is exactly what we get.  I hate to be completely negative but I have never encountered such clunky, badly written language in a published book.  Listen to this:

“… Look into its eyes,” said the handsome teacher, “watch its pupils dilate”. The Kawano gently caressed the animal’s head and looked up into his teacher’s face and smiled, “they’re beautiful.”

“Mine or the feline’s?” Ono mused.

The student looked down at the animal and breathed, “yours sensei.”

Ono’s mask was enhanced with a warm expression, “Kawano-san please bring the cat to me.”

‘The’ Kawano is used instead of ‘Kawano’ – which is the man’s name.  This interchange is going on in front of a lecture hall full of students – so what’s with the sudden, inappropriate descent into flirting?  (Only a moment ago these two had never spoken to each other.)  As for ‘Ono’s mask’ – I believe the author means ‘face’.  Unless he’s actually wearing a mask, on which he’s drawn a warm expression, of course.

And this is only on the first page.  It carries on.  Point of view shifts in the middle of sentences; people being referred to by four or five different signifiers in a single paragraph…

“Do you have plans for this evening? If not, come by my estate,” he handed a card with his address printed in English, “Frock coat is adequate my servant will prepare a Western meal of course.”

How could Kawano decline? “I’m honored to attend.” He looked at the print, “Sensei, why is your first name Suzue?” It is usually a woman’s name.

“I’ll tell the story behind my name another day,” You have become fascinated with me and I with you.

Info-dumps, strange, jerky attempts by the author to convey what they want the reader to know in ways that the characters – if they were real people – would never behave or think.  Irrelevances – I don’t believe we ever do find out the significance behind ‘Suzue’, though after this build-up I was waiting to see what it was.

The structure of the novel suffers from the same heavy-handedness and lack of coherency.  For the first three quarters of the book Ono’s back story is interleaved between the ‘modern’ scenes with Kawano, so that you’ve only just settled into one period before you’re whipped back to the other.  And the back story – which should be dramatic and traumatic – is hampered by the inability of the language to rise to the occasion.

Ryuichi looked as well and saw that some legs and fingers were black and curling in the bonfire. Many heads were thrown back or hung forward. The smell became unbearable and he buried his face in his father’s waist. Smoke began to assault the eyes of the perpetrators and spectators. They walked away from the burning heap of their own evil act.
 
Perhaps as a reader I’m not willing to put in enough work to turn this into a horrifying scene, but I generally expect that the language will not need my help.  It should be up to the writer to hold me in their spell, not up to me to weave it for them.

Having said that, any possibility the author might have had of sucking the reader into their world and allowing the story to build up steam is thwarted by the massive footnotes which poke randomly into the ebook.  As a lover of history I am glad to see the author did their research, but I would rather that – if that information was relevant – it was worked into the story.  And if it wasn’t relevant, or couldn’t be worked in, I would rather it was left out altogether, or at least gathered in one lump at the back, where it wouldn’t keep interrupting the flow of the story.

As to the story itself – as I say, it could have been interesting, but in my opinion it failed in its promise.  Not just because of the poor writing, but also because so much effort was put into telling how Kawano was made into a docile pet that the idea that he was suddenly also meant to be an assassin came across as a bit hard to believe.  The training or pacification of the boy was, I believe, meant to be erotic.  To me, however, it was so very reminiscent of Anne Cain and Barbara Sheridan’s Dragon’s Disciple books that I kept thinking with regret about how much more I had enjoyed those.

It does grieve me to say this, but other than the concept of the book, I cannot find anything to praise.  There is the germ of a good book in there, but it’s unfortunate that the writer’s abilities are not yet at a level where they’re able to justice to it.

There’s an extraordinary website on this and the books yet to come, here

Buy the book

Review: Lord Dismiss Us by Michael Campbell

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK BLURB:
Weatherhill is a minor English public school, and it is the last term of a school year. A new headmaster, Mr. Crabtree, has arrived, determined to restore the school’s slipping reputation for producing leaders of men and, above all, to crack down on the “moral laxity” he fears is rife. He embarks upon a program of reform, trampling heedlessly on sensitivities, and, in his earnestness, produces often farcical results. There is a particularly hilarious episode when, in an attempt to woo the boys from “unnatural ways,” he invites a girls’ school for tea and tennis.

The public tragicomedies that Crabtree sets in motion are paralleled by the private ones that overtake both Carleton, a student about to go up to Oxford, and Ashley, a brilliant young teacher who was, not so long ago, a pupil at Weatherhill.

Among the memorable supporting characters are the headmaster’s neurotic wife; his abominable adolescent daughter; the school chaplain, the Reverend Cyril Starr, with his attendant coterie of young favorites, the Starlings; and the dispassionate housemaster, Dr. Rowles, who “met the new creatures with a puzzled amusement and said goodbye to the old without much regret…”

REVIEW:
Campbell’s novel is one of those brilliantly-written books that I relished from cover to cover but can’t get myself to reread. Despite its occasional flashes of wit, humor, and romanticized vision of same-sex love, it’s a downright soul-draining reading experience. It’s a painfully haunting book, more tragic than comic, with hardly enough room for a reader to surface and recover from its exploration of human nature, morality, and an ignorant establishment that seeks to set things right.

The characters are varied and colorful, with some more detestable than others, some nobler than others, some more humane than others. For all those, however, every one of them – except perhaps for Jimmy Rich, Carleton, and Nancy – is haunted by the past and as such struggles to be a natural part of a severely controlled (and therefore abnormal) environment. These ghosts from the past rear their heads whenever masters and students cross paths, either on the cricket field or the classrooms, the dormitories or the more secluded corners of Weatherhill. Despite their close physical proximity, therefore, many characters fail to connect with each other again and again, exacerbating misinformation, misjudgments, biases, etc. They are, in short, a miserable group, doomed to make the same mistakes again and again – with tragic results in some cases.

Campbell tells their stories with the utmost care, taking his time in not only exploring the inner world of the major players, but also the developing and extremely complex relationships between them and/or their pasts. The physical environment as well enjoys a nice, drawn-out examination, with wooded areas, hills, dormitories, and chapel nicely detailed without being overbearing. It’s a terrific contrast he creates, painting a pastoral in Weatherhill the school, while peopling it with a pretty fascinating albeit wretched bunch of masters and students alike.

That devotion to detail, however, also contributes to some of the book’s flaws, the most problematic being the third person omniscient POV that Campbell takes. Yes, it’s a very effective strategy in establishing all of the characters, their histories and present situations, their thoughts and feelings, almost all of which the others don’t know. However, it proves to be a bit of an encumbrance when it comes to reeling me in and getting me fully interested in the story, since I was trying to follow too many characters at the same time. It took me several chapters of puzzled reading before Ashley and Carleton’s stories began to rise above the rest more concretely.

Ashley, to me, is the most problematic character – not because of his issues (and the man’s got some pretty hefty baggage), but because of the heavy-handedness with which Campbell chooses to explore them. At times Ashley’s wallowing in self-pity and anger becomes a bit wearing, and I found myself tempted to skip over his introspective scenes whenever I began to feel depressed, which was quite often whenever he stepped into the picture.

The romance between Carleton and Allen – and, I suppose, between any given pair of boys in the book – is presented as the supreme expression of platonic love, which is one of the ongoing themes in the novel. There’s a line that ought not to be crossed, and once physical pleasure works its way into the picture, everything falls apart – to Carleton, at least. The romance is both beautiful and exasperating as hell. It appears much nobler because of its horribly idealized (and therefore more delicate) nature, given the atmosphere of intense paranoia that Mr. Crabtree creates in Weatherhill the moment he steps in as the new headmaster.

While we’re shown the results of such a romance between Carleton and Allen, much of it’s already foreshadowed through the older characters – Dr. Rowles, Ashley, the chaplain, among others. It’s a set of sad results we’re given, made so by the passage of time within the confines of Weatherhill. Escape is the only answer, and Carleton’s literary dreams offer him his only chance of not being another casualty of his school.

This is a wonderfully multilayered novel – rich in insight, comedy, romance, and utter misery. I’d kill to read a sequel, if only to see things set right between certain characters, but I suppose life rarely ever works that way. I love this book, but my heart’s too shattered for me to read it again.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Dear Author’s Query Saturday

Dear Author have started to showcase Query Letters on a Saturday and this week they have a query regarding a m/m story based in 1919 New York. The Query Letter itself needs a little work, but I think the story could be as good as any of the m/m historicals I’ve read, given the chance.

The comments to the post are positive for the most part, which is greatly encouraging, but one or two of them made me bite my pencil in frustration. Also a few people don’t seem to know the difference between a back of the book blurb and a query letter.

I hope some of you go and comment.

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