Review: A Hidden Beauty by Jamie Craig

Poetry drew them together. Forbidden love bound their hearts.

A student of letters, Micah Yardley wants one thing: To meet Jefferson Dering, a poet he’s long admired from afar. After hearing his idol speak at Harvard, Micah travels to Jefferson’s home in Wroxham, entertaining visions of discussing poetry over dinner and drinks. What he experiences exceeds anything he ever anticipated.

Jefferson finds Micah mesmerizing, passionate, everything he has ever wanted. But ten years earlier, caught in a compromising position with another young man, he exiled himself from Boston and proper society. Now Jefferson represses his desire out of respect for Micah, but his tumultuous emotions stir the restless ghost of Wroxham church—with deadly consequences.

Amid denial, desire, and the villagers rising panic, a single kiss is enough to change the course of their lives…and ignite the flame that could fulfill a generations-old promise.

Review by Alex Beecroft

To start with the outside, this is one of the most beautiful covers I’ve yet seen on an ebook; it’s moody, tasteful and sensual and, what’s more, it completely fits the contents of the book.  It might even be an illustration for a particular scene.

The cover sets a high standard and to my pleasure the book inside lived up to it.

Again, I’m pleased to find that the blurb is not at all misleading and does actually summarize what the story is about! I wish I didn’t have to be quite so impressed at both of these things.

This is a slow-paced, tender and beautiful love story between two poets, set – if I’m reading it correctly – in early 19th Century America. Micah is a young gentleman of good family, studying at Harvard, whose admiration for Jefferson’s poetry leads him to visit the man himself in his artistic exile. Micah’s innocence is such that initially he believes his infatuation is merely with Jefferson’s mind, his words, and the shock of discovering his own nature and his real desires is beautifully portrayed and very realistic.

One of the things I liked about the book was that it gave enough time for Micah’s journey of self-realization. Neither his innocence nor his eventual acceptance felt rushed or hard to believe. I also particularly appreciated the epistolary sections, where the different voices of the two men came across sharply. There’s something very charming about reading their love letters.

The slow and careful development of the relationship also allowed time for the forces of society to be amply ranged against the two men. I enjoyed – in a sort of masochistic way – the feeling that, slowly but surely, the jaws of intolerance were closing on the burgeoning love story. By the end I was on tenterhooks as to which force would come to the point of action first. The slow but sure build up of tension almost certainly contributed to the fact that the sex scenes in the book are some of the best I’ve read. By this time we know exactly how much they mean to both men, and some of that awe and wonder comes across, making these scenes truly intimate rather than merely voyeuristic.

However, the sex is also one of the things where I felt the balance of the book was just that little bit off. For my own tastes, there was slightly too much sex in the last quarter of the story. I found that it got in the way of both of the threats the couple faced – the threat of exposure, and the increasingly violent threat of the ghost in the church.

Speaking of which, to me, the ghost and his spooky doings felt a bit shoehorned in. I found myself far more aware of how dangerous it was for Micah – with his powerful father and vigilant tutors who already suspected Jefferson of homosexuality – to move in with Jefferson, than I was of the danger of the ghost. I was waiting for the long arm of the law to reach their idyll, and for the last minute flit to the safety of the wild West, all of which were looming deliciously on the horizon. But instead we had a church burning and the laying of a ghost. I daresay that it was metaphorical or thematically important and I wasn’t paying attention, but I felt it was a bit of a sidetrack.

Oh, and one other quibble; it took me a while to realize that Micah was an innocent young man who didn’t understand his own desires, because I was lead into error by the first sentence:

Prior to his journey, Micah Yardley would never have considered anticipation as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

I have to admit that I spent the first chapter and a half thinking that he was a worldly and debauched young aristo who had come into the country to corrupt a timid poet. Whether this was accidentally misleading, or a deliberate, amusing irony, I’m still not sure. It made for a strange twist in the head a couple of chapters in, which did leave me feeling a little seasick.

Apart from those few things, however, this is a book I really enjoyed – a book I felt immersed in with delight – and one that will go up on my favourites shelf to read again often.

Buy: Samhain

Review: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

New York City, 1896. A serial killer is on the loose, gruesomely preying upon cross-dressing boy prostitutes. Police detectives are making no progress solving the ghastly crimes. In fact, someone with power or influence seems to be bent on silencing witnesses and thwarting any investigation. Reform-minded police commissioner, and future president Theodore Roosevelt is determined to catch the killer and assembles an unconventional group of investigators headed by “alienist” Dr. Lazlo Kreizler. In the 19th century, when psychology was in its infancy, the mentally ill were considered “alienated” from themselves and society, and the experts who treated them were known as “alienists.”

Review by Erastes

A real meaty read this – about 500-600 pages in paperback and all of them worth reading, it gripped me from start to finish, and for my money it deserved its 25 weeks in the Publishers Weekly bestsellers chart.

It’s not a “gay historical” per se – none of the main characters are gay, but young male prostitutes are being killed so it does offer a fascinating insight into a culture that is not much written about.

What makes it compelling reading is the “serial profiling is in its infancy” (that and just about ALL the modern policing techniques that the team use, like fingerprinting, time of death and all the things CSI take for granted.)

It’s really gruesome, as would be expected. Carr doesn’t flinch from his descriptions, and of course anyone who watches modern crime dramas won’t find this a problem in the slightest. There’s also a lot – a LOT of chat., which I loved, but someone wanting non-stop Dan Brown action won’t appreciate that. Although there’s a lot of tearing around in landaus and barouches and hansoms, it’s not fast paced as a modern thriller and neither should it be, either.

The killer leaves very little in the way of clues; no-one’s seen him, and the boys are seemingly snatched out of locked rooms. It’s how the team piece the case together that makes this a fascinating read, and for me to applaud it as a magnificent work of fiction.

The characters are all vivid and believable. From Lazlo, the Alienist himself, John Moore the journalist, Miss Howard, the bluestocking who takes a post as secretary in the hopes of being the first woman detective, the two Jewish forensic scientists and three members of Lazlo’s household. I identified with them all and wished them well (although doubting they’d all make it through the book unscathed)

As a historical author I can only sit here with my jaw dropped in envy. The research that this book must have taken must have been staggering. It’s not just a matter of learning 19th century police techniques, but there’s obvious intelligence about the whole psychology behind serial murders and the Alienists who study them. Then there’s an indepth knowledge of the powder keg of New York socio-politics and a clear picture of a city on the edge; dragging itself from incipient corruption into a more enlightened age. Add on rich descriptions of buildings and streets that are no longer there, what’s being built, who runs which district, gangs and thugs and whore-houses…. The list is endless and I am in awe.

Very cleverly too, it teases the reader with red-herrings, which,being a red-herring phile I followed to conclusion every time. Highly enjoyable.

If you enjoy crime fiction, and are one of the four people in the world who hasn’t read this, then I recommend it heartily.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
This sex-filled farce is part James Bond, part Austin Powers. Lucifer Box is a portrait painter and a rake who catches the eye of all the ladies. But there are two things these women don’t know about him. First, Lucifer is His Majesty’s top secret agent. Second, Lucifer is a mad, passionate lover…with his delectable right-hand man, Charlie. Together, the two must set out to discover why Britain’s most prominent scientists are turning up dead. They and a cast of quirky characters must work together to save the world from total destruction. And it all seems to center around an underground sex club, which goes to show that sometimes, you just have to mix business with pleasure.

REVIEW:
The first thing I need to point out in my review of Gatiss’ novel is the description above, which is taken directly from the book’s cover blurb. The description is misleading to a degree. Firstly, it’s not sex-filled – or at least as sex-filled as the blurb seems to impress upon readers. There are sex scenes, yes, but they’re few, and they’re of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety. Even the description of the underground sex club isn’t as titillating as it might sound, with the details being largely general and almost dismissive in tone, with the emphasis more on atmosphere. Secondly, there’s the matter of Box’s “delectable right-hand man” and his relationship with him. For that bit, I’ll have to leave you in a cliffhanger of sorts while I go over other points first.

On the whole, The Vesuvius Club is a fun read. Very fun. Gatiss knows his Victorian and Edwardian London – please excuse the cliche – like the back of his hand. He firmly cements us in his world, its elegance and its seediness, its host of refined and coarse residents. He pours on the details without bogging down the narrative, and we’re left with vivid mental pictures of a time and a place that’s so far removed from ours but ends up feeling very real. Gatiss peoples his novel with a variety of quirky characters, and he gives them distinct personalities and names that make you think of Dickens: Lucifer Box, Charlie Jackpot, Bella Pok, Jocelyn Poop, Christopher Miracle, Emmanuel Quibble, etc.

Mark Gatiss is known as an author of Dr. Who novels, and he also writes for the new Dr. Who series and in fact wrote “The Unquiet Dead,” the episode involving Charles Dickens and zombies for the new series’ first season. One can certainly see his love of Victorian England (in the novel’s case, Edwardian England) in the way he establishes both the setting and the characters’ personalities. In the first half of the book, with the events taking place in London, the story is at its most interesting. Though a comedy and definitely a satire of spy/assassin/detective fiction, the novel still impresses us with a fairly complex plot and a quick pace, with the story being told from Lucifer Box’s point of view.

It’s when the novel’s action moves to Italy that things go down. It’s an odd switch – not in terms of location, no, but in terms of focus. In the first half of the novel, we’re treated to a funny and engaging Sherlock Holmes-style plot; in the second half of the novel, however, things unaccountably turn sci-fi, and what could have been a more solid climax and denoument becomes a study in absurd plot twists involving Mt. Vesuvius, a cult (which made me scratch my head a few times), and the mastermind (and master plot) behind the scientists’ deaths. In brief, there’s such an incongruence in the story elements between the first and the second half of the novel, and what starts out as a very promising Holmes-meets-Austin-Powers plot unravels into a rather weak and silly end.

As for Charlie Jackpot? He’s not introduced till the second half of the novel, which I feel is far too late for him to be as significant a character as the book’s description implies. Yes, he does become Box’s right-hand man, but at that point in the story, his participation brings with it a certain forced feeling into the mix. Lucifer Box, as the protagonist, is witty, self-centered, narcissistic, and an insufferable cad. He’s given so many great lines of the laugh-out-loud variety, but I don’t feel as attached to him as I’d like to be. For all his attractive roguish qualities, the man’s a bastard, and he even takes pleasure in hurting Charlie in one scene or telling some poor, unattractive rent boy that he’s butt-ugly, point blank.

There are a few subplots that also don’t feel satisfactorily tied up. Mrs. Knight’s disappearance and the murder of Abigail, for instance, though largely explained, still leaves holes insofar as justice being brought to the true criminal is concerned. There are also a few involving Bella Pok, which makes me wonder if Gatiss simply bit off more than he could chew in putting his mystery together.

The Vesuvius Club is the first of a trilogy involving Lucifer Box. This book has also been turned into a graphic novel, which I’m really interested in reading though I understand that it’s a distilled version of the original.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Mr Clive and Mr Page by Neil Bartlett

It is Christmas Eve, 1956, and the reclusive Mr Page is remembering a dream from thirty years ago. The dream is about the rich and wild Mr Clive, a man who could have been Page’s twin, and what really happened to the beautiful white-haired boy who served in his house. And the dream is about Clive’s house itself–ostensibly modern and spacious but in truth deeply secretive, with its invisible network of staircases, corridors and hidden rooms. Neil Bartlett bears angry witness to the oppression of gays in the past and evokes their concealed world with dark, erotic tenderness.

Review by Erastes

I’ve just closed the book and am completely blown away.

It’s probably not for everyone, because it’s written in first person; is interspersed with (relevant) articles and news clippings; is written in a realistic diary-style; has a very campy-fussy-gay-man-tone and rambles quite extensively. But for my money it’s one of the best books I’ve read.

For a start it emphasises the very real fear that gay men were feeling in late 50’s England. Compare and contrast this with Isherwood’s bohemian gay life of A Single Man and you will appreciate the difference of Californian sun to the cold austere post-war severity and class-conciousness.

You’d think that – as the Labouchère amendment had been in place for 70 years – that the gay community (such as it was) would be a little more confident but for those who didn’t already know that was not the case, this book shines a light on the constant fear of discovery.

Mr Page is a wonderful character; from his first words “I’ve got the gas on, Lovely,” you immediately picture him: fussy, beautifully turned out, and alone. The entire diary is written with a core of the fear of detection running all the way through it, and he explains, just by the way he describes his life, why he’s so repressed because of the case of that household guard, those two navy boys, that man in the university – a catalogue of less fortunate men who have been “found out.” He even says that he can’t name names because if they found any of those names in this – they’d know. It’s a terrible thing to be so very afraid, afraid to love.

In a very real way, it reminds me of Rebecca; there’s a gothic feel to Mr Clive and his huge empty expensive house, and Mr Page even mentions the book at one point, which probably helps the comparison. Mr Page meets Mr Clive (a Gatsby type figure, apparent wealth and eccentric behaviour) outside the Turkish bath where Mr Pages goes every week. Although it’s very veiled (as Mr Page doesn’t want anyone getting hold of his memoir and naming names) it’s clear that the bathhouse is a meeting place, as such places have been in history.

Mr Page wonders why Mr Clive picks him up the way he does, first thinking that it is because they look so alike, but then realises it’s probably for other reasons. It’s not a friendship, never a friendship, but it’s compelling both to Mr Page and to the reader – and whether or not Mr Page’s reasoning at the end of the book- the reasons why Mr Clive did the things he did – are accurate, then that’s up to the reader.

The core of the book is one image: of one day in history 14 March – when Mr Page saw a blond man, naked, bathed in sunshine. This image is both a dream and a reality and what starts out as one certain image – what we think we know is happening – gradually unravels as Mr Page get more maudlin (fuelled by Christmas brandy) and we finally, tragically, understand what the image of the naked, blond man is really all about. You get a real feel that it’s the true meaning of the image that Mr Page has been trying to hide, but in the end, he had to get out.

I wish I could say more, but it’s difficult to do so without spoiling, despite the length of the book, it’s a very simple premise, fabulously written and I was jealous of every line. The ending had me sobbing, but not in a bad way, believe me.

This is definitely a keeper, a re-reader, an inspiration, and one of my essential reads.

I don’t often link to other sources, but I think that this essay on the book is well worth reading (after you’ve read the book, of course)

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel by J S Cook

In London, with Jack the Ripper’s crimes still raw in the great city’s memory, a well-known male prostitute is brutally murdered, the head neatly severed, and the body set on fire. Detective Inspector Phillip Devlin of Scotland Yard, mid-thirties and secretly gay, is called to the murder scene by plainclothes constable Freddie Collins, and soon both Collins and Devlin are caught in a web of intrigue as more savage murders occur. A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel resonates with the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of 1880s London. Witty and engaging, it unfolds the story of a man who must brave not only the killer but also his own inner demons in order to end the violence that is harrowing the city.

Review by Erastes

Oh… I started this book with such brio. It started (and continued for some time) so well. A bloody murder in Victorian London, lots of gore, a bloody thumbprint and a mad-man on the loose. I was certain I was in for a great ride. Sadly I ended up rather disappointed, but the ride was – in the main – enjoyable.

Inpector Phillip Devlin appeals. He’s taciturn to the point of silence and keeps a lot bottled up. He’s got secrets, and that doesn’t only include being homosexual in an era where the Labouchere Amendment has homosexuals running scared. He’s a pioneer in his field, without being a Mary-Sue or a carbon copy Holmes clone, even though he knows a little more about forensics and handwriting and the like than your average plod.

The other main character, and what one hopes will turn out to be Devlin’s love-interest, is Collins, the earnest and not-so-bright devoted assistant. Again, he’s well drawn, and he convinces in his dedication and loyalty to Devlin but I got rather annoyed with the fact that we were constantly told how not-bright he was, he didn’t seem any less dim than the inspector.  Collins holds a large…torch for his inspector but in the days of the Blackmailer’s Charter – when no proof was needed to destroy a career – he has been quiet for a long time, until matters start to turn which drag secrets out into the daylight and both men are suddenly aware of the other in new ways.

As I said, from the promising start it boded well. Good characters, excellent murder, a thinking gay detective, burgeoning evolution of forensics, a couple of resurrection men…

That’s good, and it seemed promising when he spotted strange substances under fingernails and gunpowder up noses … but – well, it just doesn’t GO anywhere.

It just didn’t mesh. I was inspectin’ some detectin’ I suppose, seeing as how it started as such a classic detective novel but about half way through Devlin admits that all the clues he’s got lead nowhere and he’s baffled. And I was too – completely baffled!  I spent the next half of the book waiting impatiently for him to suddenly do a Poirot and say “Incroyable, I have been the imbecile! It’s all so simple!” but the eureka moment just didn’t happen and what started as Holmesian foresenic detection ended up in a sort of John Buchan style chase with everyone knowing what was going on apart from Devlin (and me). Very little is explained, very few loose ends were tied up and I was going “but.. but… what about the ambergris” after I’d shut the book in disappointment.

That being said, there’s some quite delicious writing in this, and all the characters are likeable and believable and very male in parts.  I think that I might just pick up some of Ms Cook’s other books to see what they are like, but having been raised on a diet of Poirot,Marple and Holmes – this didn’t really work for me.  I would be happier too, if the only 2 reviews on Amazon.com were not by the author herself!

Buy Amazon UK    Buy Amazon USA

 

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