Review: Damned Strong Love by Lutz Van Dijk

Set in occupied Poland during World War II, this novel is based on the true story of Stefan K., a Polish boy who, at 16, fell in love with a German soldier. When their liaison was discovered by the Gestapo, the teen was tortured and sentenced to a labour camp, eventually escaping during the chaotic days before liberation.

It’s always hard to review true stories, because you can’t fault the history, or the plot. I do feel though that perhaps some of the heart went out of the story in the dictation to Lutz Van Dijk and then the translation because I was never really gripped by the love that Stephan undoubtedly felt for Willi G. Perhaps it’s because it was re-told from such a span of years, and a 16 year old’s love is difficult to describe when one gets to old age. I know I would find it hard, even to write out my own feelings, let alone transpose someone else’s.

I would have liked a little more description of the affair itself; not so much the sexual contact, but the meetings that they had, what they talked about and more about how they felt about what was happening to the world around them. I particularly liked Stephan’s description of his family and their relationship with him, especially with his brother Mikolai who is his first crush, until he meets Willi G.

Their discovery was caused by an idiotic love letter, sent from Stephan K to Willi G at the Eastern Front- and this surprised me – the fact that he’d make such a silly mistake – in fact his very naivety surprised me throughout, but it was another time and place and it’s impossible to imagine the mind set of a Polish boy in 1942.

Don’t let the subject matter of this put you off reading a copy if you come across it, because Stephan K doesn’t dwell too heavily on the (frankly dreadful) things that happened to him after his arrest and incarceration. One can’t really imagine what those years must have been like for him, and it’s probably better that we don’t.

Above all he comes over as an optimist, and although he doesn’t say that he found love and happiness in what he admits was a life in Communist Poland, I hope he did. He has campaigned for gay rights and was around to see the lessening of the restrictions in his beloved country.

I was touched by this book, and although it’s probably not for those who dislike “real, unpleasant, history” it opens a little window into a quite dreadful time but gives hope to the future – something that Stephan K never lost.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Hyacinth Club by B A Tortuga

Devlin Montebanc knows that a Victorian man needs a place to go, some place he can be at ease, enjoying his port, his cigars, and some special male companionship. That’s why he maintains the Hyacinth Club, a traditional men’s club with a twist.

The sophisticated men of the Hyacinth Club find their pleasure in this series of bawdy tales, from a Scottish earl who falls in love with a Texas rebel, to a bored noble who finds an innocent young scholar to instruct in the ways of dominance and submission. See how repressed those Victorians weren’t. Read Hyacinth Club today.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I feel I need to start this review off by explaining where I’m coming from as a reader. If you know what I like in a book, it’ll be clearer to you whether you share the same perspective, and whether you might expect to agree with me on the review or not.

I freely admit I am a narrative junkie. What I’m primarily looking for in a book is a gripping story; characters who I can love, or at least sympathise with, overcoming obstacles and challenges in an effort to obtain their hearts’ desires.

That makes me unsuitable to review this book, however. The Hyacinth Club is not really a narrative at all. I would say it was stretching it even to call it a ‘series of bawdy tales’, unless you think that ‘A meets B, they have lots of sex’ is a tale.

Essentially, the book is a series of sexual encounters between several different pairs of men, though I believe there’s a threesome towards the end (my brain had become oversaturated by then and had switched off.) Each pair follows the formula ‘A meets B, instant attraction, sex, vows that the other is the most perfect person ever, more sex, calling each other pet names, more sex.’

There is some differentiation of characters; ‘the Texan’ has a Texan accent and he calls his Scottish lover ‘my Scot’, which helped me to remember which pair we were talking about in their case.

There is an extremely seme/uke pair. A pair I couldn’t tell apart other than they called each other ‘my Fox’ and ‘my Dragon’ (they met at a masquerade). A slightly lower class pair whose re-union at the docks I found quite touching. A big Scotsman and a little actor, who seemed to belong in a different book entirely (a book which I would probably have enjoyed more.) But all these promising beginnings lead so inevitably to the sex and the declarations of perfection that I lost interest about 30 pages in and almost despaired when I reached page 92, only to discover there were 100 pages still to go.

I’m not in any way saying that this was a badly written book. On the contrary, apart from the stilted ‘olde worlde’ dialogue of the first couple, which did get on my nerves, it’s clear that BA Tortuga is a good writer. I believe it’s entirely possible that she is good at characterization, though it’s all but impossible for that to come out when the characters do nothing but have sex. The settings were nicely drawn, and though I admit I had thought they were 18th Century until I read the blurb, that might be more a product of my own obsessions than any fault of hers.

And the sex scenes are very good; well drawn, lush without being tasteless, hot, varied and prolonged. It’s an amazing achievement considering how technically difficult it is to write sex. It’s just not my cup of tea.

I wanted conflict, drama, heroism, true love winning out over almost insuperable obstacles, but there was no conflict whatsoever. Not even conflict of the internal, psychological kind. None of these Victorian men, not even the innocent ingénue, seemed at all troubled by the thought that they were doing something their society perceived to be criminally immoral. True love turned up and everyone skipped directly to – heh – the climax.

I might even have preferred ‘Victorian men fuck like bunnies’ if it had not been overlaid with the ‘A+B+great sex = automatic HEA’ message, which I found a bit, well, shmoopy. But that’s probably just me being cynical.

Basically, if you read m/m fiction for the sex, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a story of some kind – if sex only becomes meaningful for you in the context of everything else the characters have gone through together – I would advise you to give it a miss.

Available from Torquere Books

Review: The Spartan by Don Harrison


Pantarkes’ goal is to enter the Olympics and win the laurel crown. But at the age of 16, after accidentally killing the son of a high official, Pantarkes is forced to flee from his native home in Sparta. For two years his Olympic dreams are postponed as he becomes embroiled in the wars and turmoil of the time. This brisk paced novel gives a vivid picture of classical Greece and the early Olympics, and of an era when gay relationships were a common and valued part of life.

Review by Erastes

As an adventure story it falls down, a little, although beginning promisingly, and I found myself thinking that at times it felt like a YA novel, which is not at all a bad thing. There are some sexual encounters but I’m sure it’s not too explicit for gay teenagers!

The pairing off ceremonies for Erastes and eromenos were particularly interesting and at time, amusing, as were the explanations of training for the various sporting events.

The blurb calls it “fast paced” and it certainly is. We are whizzed from Sparta to Thebes (with no description of the (probably) hard journey to get there – to Delphi and back to Sparta at breathless pace. There are few moments where the book takes a breather and I would have liked a few more spots where Pantarkes describes the life of the time, rather than just the wrestling and the games.

I’m no expert on the era at all, but for a layman, it certainly seemed to be well researched. Original names are interspersed throughout, but never in the manner where you have to rush to the computer to look up what a helot, porna or hetaira is. You learn them in context, or they are explained without jolting the reader from the story.

There are in keeping illustrations throughout, at the beginning of each chapter but would have made a valuable addition was a map of the Hellenic world as it was at the time, as there is so much travel, and interaction with many peoples of that world, it would have clarified a lot.

Published in 1982 by Alyson Books, The Spartan is not easy to get hold of, as it’s only available from second hand sellers. However, with a bit of searching you can find a reasonably priced copy and if you are interested in the era, and more importantly the history of the ancient games, it’s an interesting read, if a little youthful.

Buy Amazon UK Amazon USA

World’s longest pub crawl: An Interview with Alex Beecroft

Back in midwinter, I asked Alex Beecroft for an interview. We agreed to meet over virtual pints and spent the rest of the winter happily trading rounds along with questions and answers. Now that the lilacs and azaleas are blooming (in my corner of the world, anyway) it’s time to share our adventure with all of you. So belly up to the bar, the next round’s on us!

Lee Benoit: What inspired you to undertake Captain’s Surrender?

Alex Beecroft:The honest answer would be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’. While everyone in the world was swooning over Jack Sparrow, I was transfixed right from the beginning with the lads of the Navy. That fabulous great ship (which I now know was a twin of HMS Victory) emerging out of the fog. Those gorgeous young men in wigs and stockings, looking well scrubbed and well pleased with themselves in their fancy coats and their gold braid. I forgot about pirates in an instant and went away and bought ‘Master and Commander’ on DVD. After which I had to read the book.

Except that it turned out there were twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series about Captain Jack Aubrey. I went through them at a rate of two a week, feeling utterly transported. When I’d finished I found I had to move on to even harder stuff – text books about the 18th Century Navy, biographies of Admiral Lord Rodney, Lord Cochrane, Anson, Nelson and Collingwood, non-fiction about 18th Century society, etc. I had ended up with an 18th Century fixation. After that it was inevitable to want to tell a story in that setting, and as my mind naturally comes up with m/m love stories, it ended up as a m/m love story in the Age of Sail.

I’d also stumbled across Rictor Norton’s website about homosexuality in 18th Century England and was pondering what it would be like to be a fairly sensitive young man, living amid so much hatred. That’s why my character Josh turned out so angsty and so conflicted!

LB:Can you tell us a bit about how Captain’s Surrender came to be published by Linden Bay Romance?

AB: Oh, that’s one of those amazing flukes where you feel that someone up there is looking after you. I had known for a long time that what I really wanted to write was m/m fiction, but I thought there was no market for it at all. So I’d been writing a series of short stories for my friends just for our own enjoyment, when one day one of them discovered Ransom by Lee Rowan.

She reviewed it, saying how much she’d enjoyed it and how delighted she was to find that there were actual published books of the kind of fiction we enjoyed. And then Lee dropped by to say thank you for the review. I mentioned to her how exciting it was to find this new genre, and how I hoped one day to get involved myself. Then she said, “Well, my publisher is running their annual competition to select a new writer. If you can get something together in the next month, why not try entering it?”

At that point I didn’t have a book at all, I had a linked series of short stories. But I thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and spent the next month sitting up to all hours writing the bridging material needed to turn the stories into a novel. I entered it into the competition one day before the deadline. And it won! Unbelievable! I was sure that such things didn’t happen to me. But this time they did.

LB: That’s not unbelievable at all to those of us who’ve read and relished Captain’s Surrender. It sounds like your involvement — coming to the genre first as a reader, then as a writer — reflects the experience of many, including writers, who crave rich plots and fully-realized characters with their smex. Could you tell me more of your thoughts on this?

AB: Thank you! And yes, I know that there’s an initial rush when you discover m/m fiction or slash fic or whatever, and you read whatever you can get your hands on, the smuttier the better. It doesn’t really matter at that point about good writing, because it’s all so new and you’ve been starving for so long — and for the first time in your life there is enough of the stuff. But once that initial rush wears off, I think you start to want the same things you want in mainstream fiction too — namely good storytelling. There’s no reason why we can’t have m/m fiction *and smut* and quality writing too.

LB: You clearly know your era well. You mentioned Rictor Norton’s web site as a reliable source for information; can you tell us more about how you conducted your research? What advice would you offer someone who’s considering writing historical fiction? Any special advice for those writing gay historicals?

AB: My advice would be to set your book in a time that you love. When I fell in love with the 18th Century Navy I knew nothing about it other than that the uniforms were gorgeous and the cannons sounded cool (if the films could be believed). But it was sheer enthusiasm that drove me to read every book I could lay my hands on about the time. Because I was powered by an infatuation with the historical period, I emptied libraries and read textbooks for fun, going ‘oh wow, that’s so cool!’ all the time. As a result, I learned an awful lot, while enjoying myself at the same time. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to dispassionately decide on a period and to research out of obligation. I think that would make the research feel too much like work, and you would be tempted to skip it in order to get on with the story.

Because I loved the world first, it became fun for me to drop in little details like Emily’s fashionable ‘sack’ dress, or the ostentatious meal Captain Walker gives to Reverend Jenson. But if it had been miserable labour to look up the menus of the time, the proper set of a toga or whatever, I think the detail would be sparser.

As for advice on writing gay historicals — I think it’s important to check the specific shape of the prejudice at the time. For example, the later 18th Century was fairly modern in that there was already a dawning understanding that it might be an innate trait, whereas earlier it was seen as entirely a matter of choice. In Biblical times it was disliked because it was seen as a waste of seed (which was regarded as killing a potential child), whereas in Roman times it was all about status. No one cared if a Roman citizen buggered a boy or a foreigner, but it was an enormous shame for a Roman to allow himself to be buggered. So check which form the prejudice takes!

Also, try to keep away from the two extremes of ‘oh, everyone knows and they’re ok with it, despite the fact that it’s a crime that warrants the death penalty’ and ‘oh, it’s so dreadful, their lives are not worth living.’ Gay people seem to have managed to live full and defiantly happy lives under the worst conditions. As an author it’s a fine balancing act to keep both the dread and the happiness of gay love in a time when it could get you killed.

LB: Tell us about your writing process. Where and when do you work? Do you outline? Write each scene in order? Work on projects one at a time or concurrently? Have any special rituals or idiosyncrasies?

AB: I have a computer desk tucked in the corner of the dining room. (At least, the estate agent called the room a dining room. We have two computers, three bookshelves and no table in there). It’s not organized enough to be an office, though. It’s true that an office doesn’t need to be organized, but this isn’t even organized enough to contain useful books. I have to wander all over the house to find my research.

I try and write between 10am and 2.30pm (when I have to get the children from school) each day, though I’ll admit that I procrastinate a lot.

My process is to fly by the seat of my pants for the first 5 chapters or so, by which time things will have sorted themselves out in my mind enough for me to outline the whole thing. After that I do write each scene in order until I get to the end — and only start revising and editing when the first draft is finished. I prefer to work on one thing until it’s finished, not to do multiple things at once.

Heh, and I will admit that I have a special writing hat. I email and netsurf and so forth on the same computer I write on, so putting on the writing hat is a way to signal to myself that it’s time to stop all that and concentrate on the writing now.

LB: A special writing hat? What’s yours like and where do I get one?

AB: I bought myself a special beanie with scratchy glittery bits, so that I would be able to tell by feel that it was not a normal hat (I wear hats quite a lot, and didn’t want my subconscious to get confused).

LB: What’s surprised you the most about your own writing?

AB: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say so, but it still surprises me that anyone thinks it’s anything special. I look at Patrick O’Brian or Ursula Le Guin, and I still have a very long way to go!

LB:What has surprised you the most about being published?

AB:I never imagined it would be so much work! If I’m lucky I spend four hours a day writing, but now the rest of my life has gone under in trying to promote, keep up with chats, write reviews, deal with Facebook, MySpace, etc., write to Amazon, sort out tax etc., etc. If I do four hours writing a day, I then do another 10 hours trying to keep up with my various groups. It’s insane – but kind of fun.

I save up reviews or interviews or excerpts for a Monday (which is promo day on most of my lists) and then send the same thing simultaneously to five or six lists. I can’t keep up with commenting on everyone else’s promo, though I try to say something nice once in a while, whenever I have five minutes to spare. That’s about as much as I can manage. But then I don’t expect anyone to comment on mine – and very few people do, so that’s OK!

LB: If you had the opportunity to travel back in time, where would you go and why? If you could bring one item or idea from the present to the past with assurances that your action wouldn’t disrupt space-time, what would it be? And, if you could nick something from your historical destination, what would that be?

AB: It’s quite boring, I’m afraid. I probably would go to mid 18th Century London, just to see how it really was. If I had to go as a woman, I’d take sanitary towels with me (oh and pants — is that underpants in America? Because they didn’t wear underwear in those days, and I think I’d feel a bit uncomfortable with that.)

I think the best thing to bring back would just be the experiences; no matter how you try to imagine things, really living them brings it home like nothing else. However, I wouldn’t mind bringing one of these fantastic coffee-percolators home with me.

LB: Not boring at all. Underthings are an inspired choice!

I’ve just picked up The Witch’s Boy, though I haven’t read it yet. It looks to be very different in theme and structure (as well as plot and genre) from Captain’s Surrender. I’d love to know how working on the new fantasy novel was different from working on your first, historical piece. Did you have any trepidation about shifting genres?

AB: Ah, well, curiously enough, The Witch’s Boy is the earlier written of the two books. I wrote it when I was first at home with my newborn daughter. She would sleep for an hour and a half a day, and I seized that chance to write. It took me two years to finish the book, but because it was slow and steady work I had plenty of time to think about the plot when I wasn’t actually writing it. It allowed me to make the plot quite complex — I was able to work out where all those loose ends could be sewn back in to achieve an effect that seemed inevitable.

I’ve always been a big fan of Fantasy; I grew up on Tolkien, and it seemed natural for my first book to be a fantasy. I have to admit that I love what I think of as ‘the appeal of the strange’. I like to open a book and be caught up in a different world, where everything makes sense, but it’s not the same sense as our ordinary, commonplace life. I like to take a holiday in a book, so that when I come back my own life is more welcome and homely — as it would be when you’ve just returned from somewhere exotic.

And that’s the link, I think, between Fantasy and Historical. Both are books about other worlds; strange, exotic places where people think and act differently. It’s just that in the historical that world was once a real part of our past. The only real difficulty with Captain’s Surrender was that it had a strict word-limit of 60,000 words, which I found a little too short. I wanted to pay more attention to Josh’s time with the Anishinabe, but I couldn’t manage to cram more than the bare minimum into the word count.

And thematically, they’re both about the triumph of love, whether that’s Sulien’s attempt to save Tancred from the consequences of his own evil actions, or Peter’s refusal to bow to the expectations of society and condemn Josh. So I didn’t really perceive much of a difference in any basic technique in writing them. I tend to feel that a story’s a story, no matter the genre. Though having said that I am a bit intimidated by the demands of the strict murder mystery. I haven’t tried one of them, but I’m keen to try at some point just to see if I can do it.

LB:Now I really can’t wait to read it! What’s next for you (besides a cab home)? I meant, what’s next on your writing agenda?

AB: I’m just entering the home stretch on the second draft/rewrite of another m/m Age of Sail novel, currently under the working title of ‘False Colors’. It’s 80k words at the moment, but needs a couple of extra scenes and a bit of expanding at the end, so it may end up 85-90,000. And I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with it! It’s exciting, but of course external forces are now conspiring to stop me doing that final twenty pages. Still, I should have a new novel to hawk around by August, touch wood!

LB: That certainly is exciting! What can you tell us about False Colors? Is it a sequel to Captain’s Surrender?

AB: It isn’t a sequel to Captain’s Surrender, as it has different characters, but it will be similar in tone — lots more nautical action, heroism and forbidden love.

LB: Something for us all to look forward to, then. What else is on your horizon?

AB: I have a short story called ’90% Proof’ (when I say ‘short’ I mean 10,000 words) which is due out fairly soon from Freya’s Bower in a m/m anthology called ‘Inherently Sexual’. I’m looking forward to that one coming out because, from the summaries I’ve seen of the other stories included, it should be a really good read.

I’m also busily writing another m/m short of about the same length, tentatively called ‘Away With The Faeries’, and when that’s finished I’m going to settle down and write a short, lighthearted contemporary novel, just for a bit of a break.

LB: I’m sure I have lots of company is wishing you best of luck with your new projects. It’s been a real pleasure, Alex. Thank you.

Alex Beecroft is the author of the novels Captain’s Surrender and The Witch’s Boy, along with several stories. She is currently at work on False Colours, a new Age of Sail novel. She’s also the founder of The Macaronis, a blog dedicated to writing gay historical fiction.

Lee Benoit reviews fiction at Uniquely Pleasurable and Rainbow Reviews, and Speak Its Name, and is the author of several stories published through Torquere Press.

Historical submission call – gay welcome

Lace and Blade
Closing Date August 1, 2008

Lace and Blade is accepting submissions for its second anthology of “elegant, sensual, romantic fantasy, emphasizing sharp verbal repartee as much as sharp pointed weapons, rapier rather than broadsword.”

Editor Deborah J. Ross is interested in “characters – both men and women – with vibrant personalities, complex, dashing, and very sexy. I’m particularly interested in stories that have magic and action, but in which conflict is resolved not by violence but by insight, creativity, and compassion. I’d love to see “win-win” endings, sense-of-wonder, plot twists and turnabout.

Alternate sexuality is welcome; eroticism a definite plus; exotic, non-Western European settings also encouraged. Please read the first volume to see what I’m looking for.” The deadline for submissions is August 1, 2008. There are no minimum or maximum lengths, though Ross says longer stories must be “extraordinary.” Ross will pay a 2 cents a word advance against royalties. The book will be released Valentine’s Day, 2009.

Complete guidelines are available at http://www.norilana.com/norilana-lb-guidelines.htm

Review: The Vesuvius Club (Graphic Novel) by Gatiss and Bass

Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Mark Gatiss presents the first adventure of Lucifer Box rendered in every detail. Lucifer Box, the greatest portraitist of the Edwardian Age and England’s most dashing secret agent, investigates a series of bizarre disappearances and plunges headlong into low life and high society. Who is killing Britain’s most prominent vulcanologists? What secrets lie beyond the grave? And which tie goes best with a white carnation? See him confront the purple undead, instruct the mysterious and beguiling Bella Pok, disguise himself with a false moustache, face an ominous evil in the depths of a volcano, and come to grips with his new manservant, Charlie Jackpot.

REVIEW:
When I purchased Mark Gatiss’s book, I learned that it was also transformed into a graphic novel, and the long-slumbering manga/comic book fan in me stirred, bleary-eyed and pawing instinctively at the computer screen. I’d already seen previews of Ian Bass’s art style since Bass did the illustrations for Gatiss’s novel, and on that basis (in addition to curiosity as to how the novel could be interpreted in a visual medium), I eagerly snapped up a copy.

As I’ve already noted in my review of Gatiss’s novel, I was very much disappointed in the story, particularly in the way the second half seemed to fall apart, plot-wise. In the graphic novel, the story is distilled to the main mystery, and all other subplots have been removed. I’m not an illustrator, let alone a graphic novel artist. However, I’m very well aware of the difficulties that may come with turning something purely textual into something visual. Bass’s decision to rewrite the plot in some places is quite understandable, and to some extent, it does work.

On the whole, I like the art style despite its inconsistencies. Ian Bass’s illustrations work pretty well with the hybrid of mystery, sci-fi, comedy, and history that defines Gatiss’s novel. The characters are distinctive – as in their personalities are nicely captured and given more definition with an exaggerated detail or two. There are occasional decorative flourishes in the background or on the characters that make me think of Aubrey Beardsley – quite appropriate, given the historical period. It’s not a very “pretty” style, and manga fans who’re used to seeing beautifully stylized illustrations when it comes to gay-themed stories will be sorely disappointed in this book. Mark Gatiss’s novel is a romp, and it’s written in a very visual way (considering Gatiss’s writing background involving film, it’s not at all surprising). It translates well into graphic novel form, where the more fantastic elements that might not work in the book are quite at home.

In terms of plot, the graphic novel is rather lean. As mentioned before, subplots have been pruned, and the character list has dwindled to about half, the focus placed mostly on the main characters. If not completely rewritten, several scenes were dropped, many of which involved Bella Pok and her role in the book. Considering that she’s a significant player in one of the subplots (and it’s a subplot that’s really more of the throwaway kind that adds nothing to the overall story), her drastically reduced scenes make me wonder why she’s kept in the graphic novel at all. To show how much of a cad Lucifer Box is, maybe? If so, it doesn’t quite work, given the heavy emphasis on the main mystery, what with all those side stories being dropped. There’s just no room left for Lucifer Box’s amorous bisexual adventures.

What works in this case, though, is that Ian Bass gives us a much better treatment of Bella’s presence in Naples. In the novel, she’s there, and then she’s gone – a plot device that doesn’t work at all. In the graphic novel, she remains in Naples, and everything that takes place in the novel’s climax is squished into one setting, not two.

A final word of warning to readers: this graphic novel is for adults. There’s an orgy scene in a brothel (not very detailed), both het and gay, and one of the characters exposes his genitals. It’s an important detail in the story, trust me.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

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