Author Interview: Hayden Thorne

Today’s victim in the hot seat is Hayden Thorne, writer of young adult fiction, specializing in historical, folk, and gothic themes though modern fantasy themes finds their way into some of her stories, too. Her debut with Prizm Books includes three novels, all aimed at gay teens (and everyone else, for that matter) who enjoy historical fiction as well as contemporary fantasy.

Welcome to our interview spot, Hayden. How long have you been writing? What made you begin?

I was in a writing club for a couple of years in grade school, and we did mostly stuff for the school newsletter. I didn’t write fiction till I was a graduate student at Cal State Hayward. I wish I could give you a clearer account of what, exactly, made me go for fiction. It’s one of those weird, dreamlike sequences that just happen. Something just clicks, an epiphany takes place, and you simply go with the flow.

In short, I was watching the animated movie, The Nutcracker Prince, and decided that the ending was a bit…meh. So I decided to write an “alternate” ending that was – wait for it – all tears and heartbreak and swoony romance till the deus ex machina moment when Hans and Clara were finally reunited.

icarusinflightI’d go over my first attempts at writing fanfiction for Sailor Moon involving a terrible, terrible Mary Sue character, but I think it’s best to quit while I’m ahead. My first attempt at writing GLBT fiction was after I saw the BBC presentation of Clarissa, and heaven help me, I got inspired to attempt my own sentimental epistolary novel, this time involving a young man who moves in with his richer relations, and, Clarissa-like, is seduced by the Byronic friend of his cousin. I never finished it, thank God. Then I was introduced to fandoms and fanfiction, and it all snowballed from there.

Describe something great and something not so great that has happened to you in the writing career to date.

The great thing was seeing my novels published to help launch a new GLBT YA imprint of an e-publisher. I’d had a few (read: about four) short stories published under their adult fiction imprint as well as half a dozen others picked up elsewhere. However, I found that I wasn’t very comfortable writing adult romances or sensual romances, so my submissions stopped, and I couldn’t sell another short story to other publishers if my life depended on it. Receiving an email from Prizm, though, asking me if I were interested in submitting a YA novel to help launch their new imprint, was a godsend. It came at a time when I was really down about my writing and was wondering if I should just quit altogether. As it turned out, I was writing in the wrong genre all that time.

The not-so-great moments? Oh, dear. Let me say that my expectations regarding networking were sadly newbie-ish. People don’t cross over easily, depending on the genre, or at least it seems to be easier for YA readers to cross over to adult fiction than it is for adult fiction readers to cross over to YA. To what extent common misconceptions about YA have anything to do with some people’s dismissal, I can’t say. Even within the YA community as well as the GLBT YA community, genre GLBT YA fiction is still a tiny, ghettoized niche. If I want to see this market expand, I need to work doubly hard to get attention for my books. M/M fiction, at least, enjoys the benefit of slash fans moving on to published works for reading material. There’s a ready audience, and there’s a wealth of published stories in different formats to attract more readers with. I’ve only got three mainstream books that I can claim for my corner of the fiction market: Perry Moore’s Hero (superhero fantasy), Steve Berman’s Vintage (ghost fiction), and David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy (romantic fantasy). Prizm Books, bless ‘em, encourages genre submissions, but being a small indie outfit, they get lost in the big, bad world of book sales, with larger publishers enjoying greater marketing clout.

Do you have any particular writing routine? What about superstitions?

My writing days are usually Mondays and Fridays. In between them, I kick back and read. As far as my routine goes, I’ve become a devotee of Write or Die, which I use to freewrite each new chapter. I do this the night before my main writing day. I save the gibberish I manage to spew out in an hour, then open the file the next day, and sift through the drunken jumble of words, which I transfer to my WIP and then spend the rest of the time expanding and polishing everything into a brand spankin’ new chapter. I find that approach very, very helpful in forcing me to ignore my inner editor, which I blame largely for my recent string of false starts and blocks. Freewriting also raises all sorts of new plot directions that I’ve never considered before, and so far it’s done my story a world of good, turning a pretty straightforward narrative into something more complicated.

I go crazy if I don’t write an average of two chapters a week, but that’s not superstition. It’s fact. Just ask my husband.

You’ve often blogged about being unsure about which particular genre you’d like to write – are you still undecided? Do you think it’s necessary to stick to one genre? If so, why?

I’ve wibbled over that for a while, yeah. I read articles and blog posts regarding authors’ brands, i.e., that authors need to settle into one genre in order to make it easier for the publisher to market the books as well as to help define audience expectations.

To be honest with you, I chafe at being limited to one genre (or, rather, subgenre). Creatively, alternating between contemporary fantasy and historical fiction really helps keep me on my toes. I don’t feel burned out, and I’m always fresh with new ideas whenever I switch back and forth. However, I also understand the need for an author’s brand. If I want to find a larger publisher through whom I can release my future books, I do need to play by their rules. Right now, being published by a small indie press allows me more freedom, but down the road, I certainly would like to see my books picked up by a mainstream press.

In the end, I’ve decided to pursue historical fantasy. It’s a good compromise for me, melding two genres I enjoy writing, and it also allows me wider berth when it comes to addressing issues pertinent to young readers, while also offering some crossover appeal to adult readers. I’m not done with superheroes, though, and I will write sequels to my trilogy when I get inspired. Those books will be submitted to Prizm since my superhero series is contracted with them.

What’s your publishing history?

I wrote short stories, mostly romance (some erotic), under another pseudonym, and they were published by Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly and Atria, among others. That lasted less than two years. Unfortunately, burnout came hard and fast. I was contacted by Prizm in the late spring, I think, of 2007. They contracted three books with me, (Masks:Rise of Heroes, Banshee and Icarus in Flight) in addition to the secoAdd an Imagend and third books of my superhero trilogy. Masks: Evolution, the second book, was released on Christmas Eve, and Masks: Ordinary Champions, the third book, is set to be released in the spring of 2009.

Which of your story characters do you like best and why?

I enjoyed writing those characters that challenge me or catch me by surprise in some way or other without driving me crazy. Most of them ended up more complex than what I first planned, and it was because their stories demanded that I let loose and allow the characters to “guide” the writing. I ended up taking so many different directions with them, which all turned out well in the end.

My ultimate favorite is Eric Plath, the 16-year-old hero of my Masks trilogy. Since the entire series is told from his POV, thinking like a teenager proved to be a pretty fun experience (not to mention cathartic). Frederick Wakeman, Nathaniel’s father in Banshee is another character I enjoyed writing. His story resonated with me, and while I first wrote him out to be a bully of a father, his character resisted the mold, and he ended up being a somewhat tragic figure. I’d go on and on about other characters, but there isn’t enough time. You’re certainly free to wander off to my blog and check out my ongoing “alphabiography” on my books, in which I discuss, in quite a bit of detail, my current published works, including my favorite and least favorite characters.

Who inspires you?

Fringe artists (writers, musicians, etc.) inspire me the most. Anyone who believes in his vision so strongly and who’s passionate enough to go against the grain and continue to hold his ground despite small sales, little exposure, or outright condescension and dismissal from the mainstream or status quo. I admire their guts and their grit, and I always wish I had the balls when it comes to my own challenges in publishing and marketing. There’s quite a bit of negativity toward small publishers as well as YA fiction coming from many writers, agents, and reviewers. It’s pretty frustrating functioning in that environment for anyone who hopes to see his or her writing career move forward and up. Maybe I’m biased because I live in the Bay Area and work in Berkeley, which is a haven for fringe culture. At any rate, I tend to look to them when my confidence wavers, which tends to be fairly often.

masks2You are writing a series of books, your Masks trilogy – Are you nervous over reader reaction for the sequel to Masks Evolution?

It hasn’t come to that yet, but I’m sure it will soon, especially when the books get posted at larger online bookstores. I certainly hope that they enjoy reading the series as much as I enjoyed writing it.

How much does reader response mean to you over your books? What do you hope readers get from your books after they read them?

My books are my babies, so reader response is pretty important to me. On the whole, I find that I can weather criticism pretty well (then again, I braced for it even before my books were released, so I guess I was mentally prepared). I try to take into account any objections alongside praise, so I can work on my weaknesses next time around. I’m sort of in the unique position of having three different books published simultaneously, so it’s been a pretty interesting (not to mention surprising) experience seeing which book sells well, which receives more good reviews, which appears to be better received among a certain group of readers, etc.

On the whole, I write to escape, and I hope that readers find themselves completely transported for a while when they read any of my books. I like writing in shades of gray, in a manner of speaking. I want readers – especially young readers – to see that nothing’s ever black and white. Good intentions fail, and innocents suffer for it. Even villains turn out that way because of parents’ misguided ambitions, or they suffer from plain bad luck, like Katherine Ellsworth in Icarus in Flight.

How long does it take to write a book for you?

It really depends. Romance is a genre that I tend to have a very difficult time writing, so it took me about a year, maybe a little more, to finish Icarus in Flight. The end result was around 120,000 words that I ended up cutting down to 75,000 to meet the publisher’s length requirements. I was high on inspiration when I began Masks, so the first book in that trilogy took me about a month and a half of non-stop writing, though the editing bit tripled the time. Banshee was more of the slow-and-steady project for me, and that took at least a couple of months to write. I’m trying to remind myself not to rush through any given project now, so I’m taking my time with my WIP, though from the looks of things, I can see it done by the end of January. This one is taking me roughly four months to write, which is a good pace for me.

Do you outline, or just make it up as you go?

I always start off with a very general outline of a new story. I’ve learned early on not to depend too much on it, though, and my ongoing use of Write or Die has taught me to just let go and trust what comes out when the inner editor is temporarily shut off. On the whole, I try to stick to the outline, no matter what happens throughout the story. As long as the characters reach Point B from Point A, everything else in between is fair game.

How do you research? As you go, or doing it all before you start?

I tend to research as I go, but I got into historical fiction with a basic knowledge of 19th century English culture, etc. The day-to-day details kill me all the time, and I always end up spending way more time researching on, say, a certain rug pattern common in Victorian households, when all I need is a quick reference to it in one sentence. It’s insane. Historical fiction writers are born masochists with our own personal floggers hot glued to our clammy hands.

Are you in control of your characters or do they control you?

It’s half and half, by and large. Those characters I pretty much “know” right off the bat tend to keep within the lines I draw for them. Those who start off pretty vaguely shaped in my head usually “rebel” or evolve till I’m forced to go back and revise earlier scenes to accommodate the changes they need. I certainly know better than to ignore them or fight back, though.

Can you tell us anything surprising you’ve found in your researches?

When I first found out about it a long time ago, I got pretty depressed. It was about how clothes among Victorians were passed down and recycled from rich to poor till the clothes literally fell apart on someone’s body after so many alterations and uses. By the time the poor got their hands on them, they were in tatters. It depressed me in the sense that it said so much about people’s circumstances back then, from the desperate wish for respectability to plain, brain-numbing poverty.

What particular challenges do you find writing GLBT YA Historicals?

Finding more information about Victorian teenagers other than school and hard work, depending on social class. Even then, whatever information I can find regarding teens in schools is pretty limited to curricula and what comes after, i.e., university. Nothing about behavior or expectations or anything that can give me a good idea of how teens lived back then. Even the non-fiction books I have barely have anything to say about Victorian children and absolutely nothing about Victorian teens. Maybe this is part of the reason why most teen historical romance fiction tends to focus on the upper-class. The idle rich are easier to keep track of, and they feed us all sorts of romantic fantasies about their lifestyles. These YA books pretty much mirror their adult historical romance counterparts, especially if you’re looking at non-GLBT Regency romances. Not that I blame them. If that were one of the reasons for the skewed preferences toward the rich, I can see why. I’ve been tearing my hair out looking for simple, basic information for teenage middle-class characters and keep coming up short.

What I know about anything relating to day-to-day life of Victorian teens comes from schoolboy fiction published during that century. Even then, I’m quite aware that much of what I read has been embellished by the authors, so I can’t even rely on them for purely factual stuff.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about YA fiction?

That it is, by and large, dumbed-down, teenybopper EMOlit. Just like all other genres, YA is represented by a wide range of books, many bad, many good. Some fit the EMOlit description I gave, but many don’t. There are a number of crossover titles (think Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Peter Cameron, Cory Doctorow, among others) that appeal to both adult and young readers. Recent articles posted at different online publications illustrate those misconceptions pretty clearly: I’m YA, and I’m OK, What Girls Want, and Book Bench Reads. I read an article written by a sci-fi fan months ago in which she talks about how she despises YA and that it should never be a part of the Sci-Fi market. I’d try to go and look it up, but I’ve already taken too many heart pills.

Tell us why you are passionate about GLBT YA fiction.

I can only lead you to a great article that Cory Doctorow wrote some months ago regarding YA and science fiction. That article accurately sums up why I love writing YA fiction: Nature’s Daredevils: Writing for Young Audiences. The gay angle comes from my very unpleasant (and much-needed) kick up the pants with regard to GLBT issues: Matthew Shepherd’s murder. The more I read up on hate crimes against members of the GLBT community, the more I also learned about teenagers and their experiences in school or with their families. I recently enjoyed a very nice chat with an editor of an online gay publication, and he’s very passionate about homeless/runaway queer teens. He showed me links to one local place he supports and even organizes charity shows to raise money for shelter. It was eye-opening and plain gut-wrenching.

Because I’m straight, I honestly don’t consider myself the best person to write coming-out stories for queer teens. Considering how vulnerable these young folks are, coming to terms with their identities during a pretty crazy period of their lives, I can’t write about something I’ve never experienced before. The issues are too delicate and too important for me to try to handle. I leave it to better-qualified writers, i.e., queer writers who’ve been there before and can share their stories with the next generation, to offer these kids the kind of wisdom that I don’t have.

I’m the outsider looking in. The best thing I can offer them is an escape, writing stories with characters who’re their age and who are also gay, fighting costumed bad guys or falling in love in victorian England or being haunted by a ghost in the Isle of Wight. They might not offer kids struggling with the fear of rejection or homophobia the comfort they need or the answers to their questions, but my stories, hopefully, give them a chance to forget about their problems for a little while.

What are you working on now? What plans do you have after that?

I’m currently working on a new novel (currently titled The Twilight Gods but may change to Penelope’s Web), which is a historical fantasy. It’s a reinterpretation of a Native American folktale called “The Girl Who Married a Ghost”, which I set in Victorian England during the Great Exhibition. It started out as a novelette, with my focus being nothing more than the main character falling in love with a shadow-person type, which was a different angle to take with regard to his coming to terms with his homosexuality. The novel version is more complicated than that, and I decided to make use of the current debate about gay marriage to help shape the plot.

Another book that I’m working on – or, rather, it’s been set aside for the time being – is called Minstrel, which is set in 19th century Germany during Christmas. It’s currently the proverbial albatross around my neck as I’ve had so many problems with it since the get-go, but I just need to go back and rethink things and then see where that takes me.

I’ve got a rough outline for a novel that’s set in the Spanish-colonized Philippines, and it takes place during the last days of Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. I’m not sure when I’ll be working on it, but it’s at least crudely laid out in my journal.

I’m no longer writing short stories, and I’m definitely hoping to submit my WIP, once it’s nice and ready, to agents for represenation.

Can you please give us a sneak peek at any of your upcoming books?

My most recent release, Masks: Evolution, is currently listed only at the publisher’s site, and it should be available elsewhere in a few weeks (hopefully!). More information can be found here. The third book of my trilogy, Masks: Ordinary Champions, is set for a spring release.

What five books would you have to have with you on a desert island?

Oscar Wilde: Complete Short Fiction, Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Shamela by Henry Fielding, and The Carnivorous Lamb by Augustin Gomez-Arcos.

If there was one thing you could tell the publishing industry and have them take notice, what would it be?

Am I cheating if I lift something straight from one of my posts?

If big, mainstream publishers of GLBT young adult fiction would recognize this – the fact that a queer kid’s experiences or identity-shaping can go well beyond modern high school borders – then we’ll see this minority group better represented in genres outside contemporary realistic fiction. Homophobia, bullying, rejection, first love, first sexual experiences, peer acceptance, etc. – these can be just as easily and effectively explored in a fantasy world or a space colony or a pirate ship or Bath in Georgian England.

Adjust the rules and the parameters accordingly as dictated by each specific genre, of course. A gay teen in Victorian England will have less freedom than, say, a gay teen in the Kingdom of Ballantyria (unless the fantasy writer decides to make Ballantyria a police state of some kind, but by and large, he’s still got much more elbow room to dictate rules compared to us historical fiction writers, who have to adhere to facts). But in the end, the reading experience can be just as amazing and rewarding as finding oneself in a lonely teenager’s high school ordeals.

Where can the readers find out more about you?

I’ll be gorging on chocolate over here: http://www.haydenthorne.net/

Thanks, Hayden. Your blog is unmissable, as far as I’m concerned.

Review: Hanged Man by Parhelion


Ray’s a former mob enforcer who heads west to live off his comfortable retirement, provided graciously by his ex-employers. He’s got it all. A new place, a new business, and he’s making a pretty good go of it. Better than most folks in 1935 California.

Still, things aren’t perfect. There’s some bad stuff going down with his town, his employees, and local cult leader, Mr. Alistair. Things get even more complicated when former FBI agent Charlie shows up, needing his help. Can Ray resist Charlie’s charms, or will fall for the man despite it being the worst idea in a long line of bad ideas?

Review by Erastes

In Hanged Man we are thrown immediately into the action. A dance marathon is going on, that cruel, exploitative event where desperate couples danced for the chance of money and perhaps a little celebrity, is going on but the suffering of the dancers are–suitable to the times–almost ignored, their very bodies treated like cattle along the lines of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s clear we are in the Depression.

Ray, the protagonist, is a hard-bitten character from the east coast, and his clipped mobster thoughts and speech contrast starkly with the sunshine and oyster sheds and more liberal aspects of the west. He comes across as a tight ball of energy, calm on the surface but lethal beneath, it’s a wonderful juxtaposition to the palm trees and boardwalks of the sea-side town.

I’ve been impressed with Parhelion’s writing before, and once again–although the novella didn’t grab me in the same way that Peridot did–there are sections of prose which left me breathless and wishing, with evil jealous pain, that I’d thought of just that phrase.  Your mileage may vary, but I firmly believe that Parhelion is underrated and one of the best writers of gay fiction around at the moment.

Her talent lies in creating a time and place so skilfully that you don’t need vast swathes of descriptive text to anchor you there. Just brief touches: mention of skee-ball machines, a cashier’s cage and you are firmly inside Ray’s slot machine joint, a touch of flaking paint and the feel of warm wood and you are on the boardwalk.  It’s difficult to create such a cinematic feel with a paucity of prose, but Parhelion does it beautifully.  The dialogue is some of the best I’ve read in gay fiction too. Awkward and witty in turns, sentences and silence which mean everything–or nothing. Men who talk for talking’s sake when they are trying to say something else. And the sex?  Well it made me shift in my chair, if you get my drift.

As for the cover? I can’t ignore it. I’ve commented on these peculiar covers that Torquere use before, and frankly I can’t see what they were thinking. Surely to goodness only someone who knew Parhelion’s work from previous stories would buy a book with a cover that looks like it should be stuck on a fridge.

But don’t judge a book by its cover. Go and discover Parhelion for yourself, then tell all your friends.

Author’s site

Available file types – html, lit, pdf, prc – Torquere Press

Review: In Bear Country II Barbary Coast by Kiernan Kelly

Bear and Pride are leaving their home in the mountains, at least for a little while. Pride dreams of visiting the Pacific Ocean, so they’re off to the Barbary Coast, ready to see San Francisco. While taking on provisions in Denver, they meet a man named Beckett who asks them to go on something of a quest while they’re on their trip. He wants their help to find a missing young man named Jackson Dower.

Their search will take them across the prairie and the desert, to the most infamous city in the country. Danger lurks around every corner for Pride and Bear. The past catches up to them, Jackson poses more problems than they really wanted to take on, and Pride ends up wondering if he’ll ever be able to see that ocean he’s dreamed of for so long. Their journey will test their mettle, and their love. Can Bear and Pride survive their adventure? Find out in Kiernan Kelly’s sequel to In Bear Country!

Review by Erastes

I really enjoyed “In Bear Country” and had been looking forward to reading this sequel, and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed. It takes the story and character from the first book and throws them into a wider scenario, making more of the adventure of the wild west than the first book did.

These are men, make no mistake about it–true, they are very affectionate around each other when they think no-one’s watching or listening (it does my big soppy heart good to hear Bear, a real huge bear of a man call Pride “darlin’” for example) but they come across as onery, horny, ordinary historical men.  The dialogue is impressive and sparkling, never extra unnecessary – and the segments between Pride and Bear particularly, are wonderful. Tender and practical by turns–and sometimes hilariously funny which is something often missing in books.

Any good historical – to me – is one that piques my interest, teaches me something I didn’t know, or inspires me to go and learn more about something. Barbary Coast did this in several points, most notably about the Navajo nádleeh. Not a term I’d heard before so I had a rummage around and found some reference sites. Don’t get me wrong, this book doesn’t batter you over the head with historical facts, but perfectly creates situations where the author shows she knows what she’s talking about.

It’s hard to pick one side of this book that I like more than any other – because it’s beautifully balanced.  The characters are excellently drawn, the descriptive text does exactly what it needs to do. There is conflict, adventure, well rounded cameos and a real sense of place and time. Not much else I can say without spoiling it further, so just go and buy it. Highly Recommended.

Buy the book: Torquere Press (ebook) Torquere Press (print)

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Best Gay Historical of the Year?

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Next year I am going to try and be more organised and have a proper SIN awards and will list all the releases as they come out -  but as we come to the end of the year I thought we’d have a fun poll and see if we can decide on what we think is the best release of the year.

Guidelines:

1. The books has to have been released between 1st Jan 2008 and 31 December 2008. It must not be a re-release. It must be gay historical in alignment with the community e.g. pre-Stonewall fiction with no paranormal aspects.(Ghosts allowed)

2. You can self nominate this year, and the ‘best” will be decided by populist vote.  I may change this next year, if I can get readers to help and judge…

3. Nominations will close on 1st January 2009 and voting will take place throughout January. Awards will be handed out on Valentine’s day.

4. Feel free to suggest additional categories and I’ll feel free to ignore ‘em! I’m happy to include others, such as short stories, if there are enough to make a race.

5. place your nominations in a comment on this thread. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

Go for it!

Categories:

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Review: A Gentleman’s Wager by Madelynne Ellis

When Bella Rushdale finds herself fiercely attracted to handsome landowner Lucerne Marlinscar, she does not expect the rival for her affections to be another man. The handsome and decadent Marquis Pennerley, however, has desired Lucerne for years and when all three are brought together at the remote Lauwine Hall on the Yorkshire Moors, Pennerley intends to claim Lucerne. At the risk of scandal the contest leads to a passionate struggle between the highly sexed Bella and the debauched aristocrat. Ultimately it will be Lucerne who will choose the outcome, but his decision is bound to cause outrage and upset somebody’s plans.

Review by Erastes

“What’s this?” I can hear you shout. “That’s a M/F cover – what’s going on?”  Well, yes, it does have some het in it – quite a lot of het, to be honest, but this isn’t just another menage book. There is an established (if only if they did it once) homosexual relationship described and as such I think it deserves a place on the site.

This, let me say from the first, is an erotic novel. Whilst there is a plot running through it, (and it’s a much better plot than so many novels where sex scenes happen almost every other page) it’s an erotic novel – there’s sex from the first page just about, and sex almost to the last page. One could level accusations of anachronism for the “let’s stay in this big house and all have sex with each other a lot” but who’s to say that some people didn’t behave like this in private?

Yes, as expected, everyone wants Bella, and annoyingly, even the decadent, seemingly homosexual Pennerley is swept away by her “charms” (however well worn…!) but that’s to be expected in a Black Lace book – the heroine has to be irresistible.  But what I did like particularly about the book was the way Lucerne (however silly it is to be named after a bean) struggled with his feelings for Pennerley and those of Bella. At times he’s swept away by Pennerley’s seduction, and at other times he’s protective of Bella, and then jealous of her as Penerley starts to stalk (hur hur) her.

I was less impressed with Bella who – it seemed to me – would have not only slept with anyone who asked her (and she does, including the staff!) but would have gone off with any of them either. I was never really convinced that she loved Lucerne, and frankly I was cheering Pennerley on from the sidelines and hoped that he’d win Lucerne for himself.

It’s a hot and steamy one-handed read, which will appeal to people who like a lot of froth and a lot of sex – it will even appeal to die-hards who only read M/M.  Hell, I read it and enjoyed it, didn’t I? Can’t get more die-hard than that!

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Author’s Website

Review: The Taos Truth Game by Earl Ganz

When Myron Brinig arrived in Taos in 1933, he thought he was just passing through on his way to a screenwriting job in Hollywood. But, Brinig fell in love – with the landscape, the burgeoning art colony that centred around Mabel Dodge Luhan, and especially with Cady Wells, a talented young painter who had left his wealthy family in the East to settle in Taos. Brinig remained in the West off and on for the next twenty years. Earl Ganz centers this entertaining novel on Brinig’s conflicted relationships with Taos and its denizens. Myron Brinig, a completely forgotten writer, is brought back to centre stage, along with many of the people who made Taos the epicentre of the utopian avant garde in America between the world wars. Among the cast of characters are Frieda Lawrence, Robinson and Una Jeffers, and Frank Waters, with cameo appearances by Gertrude Stein and Henry Roth.

Review by Erastes

I started this book with a little trepidation, I have to admit, because I’d never heard of Myron Brinig–and worse than that, I’d never heard of most of the people mentioned in the book, with the exceptions of D H Lawrence, Nero Wolfe and a couple of others. So I was rather unsettled–was I reading biography? Or fiction? Was I poking my nose into private lives or an imagining of what those lives were like?

Well, it seems it’s a little of both. Earl Ganz discovered Myron Brinig when researching, and found that not only was he a Jewish writer writing at an exciting time–and was labelled with other luminaires as being an up and coming star–but he was a homosexual and that several of his books had that theme.  Ganz (as he explains in a lengthly and interesting afterword) became a little obsessed with finding out how this man could have dropped out of the public eye so very completely, after having written books that won awards and in one notable case wase made into Hollywood motion picture – one of them starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn (The Sisters – 1938). He tracked Brining down, now in his 80′s, to New York and went to see him.  Brinig gave him a copy of his unpublished memoire, and it is from this memoire that Ganz spun Taos Truth Game.

Once I got past this feeling of voyeurism I settled in and found a book full of lavish prose and wonderful (although none of them really loveable) drawn characters.  In essence, the book is hinged on the friendship (if one can even call it that) between Brinig and the frankly unstable Mabel Dodge Luhan, (someone again this ignorant Brit hadn’t heard of) an uneasy feud of a friendship that embraces and lashes out, soothes and damages all in its immediate circle.

Added to this there are Brinig’s relationships with others, his friendships with millionaires and literary luminairies, and his sweet love affair with his “Martian” – the artist Cady Wells which is at times so touching that it made me cry.

The book mainly concentrates from the time that Brinig moves to Taos after an unhappy break-up, to the time when he leaves the area a decade later, although it dips forward and back in time giving a well-rounded picture of the man itself, and nothing really happens of major import, it’s very much centered on personal relationships, literary discussion and the highs and lows of artistic endeavour. The Truth Game itself, although only played once in the book, becomes a central theme and when Brinig and Mabel finally unravel their own truths about themselves, you’ll find yourself calmed and complete as I did.

I won’t say this is an easy read. It’s a book about hugely clever people and about a time of indolence and “private incomes” that is far beyond my ken–but it’s worth every sentence. The writing is incredible, at times as stark as the landscape, at other times witty and erudite and at others cutting, self-destructive and full of vitriol.  But to me, this is my best read of 2008 and I’ll be forever wondering how this book was overlooked. If anything deserved a pile of awards, it’s The Taos Truth Game.

I can’t think of any reason not to recommend it. Astounding.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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Review: Lessons in Love by Charlie Cochrane

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 1

St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, England, 1905.

When Jonty Stewart takes up a teaching post at the college where he studied, the handsome and outgoing young man acts as a catalyst for change within the archaic institution. He also has a catalytic effect on Orlando Coppersmith.Orlando is a brilliant, introverted mathematician with very little experience of life outside the college walls. He strikes up an alliance with the outgoing Jonty, and soon finds himself having feelings he’s never experienced before.

Before long their friendship blossoms into more than either man had hoped and they enter into a clandestine relationship.Their romance is complicated when a series of murders is discovered within St. Bride’s. All of the victims have one thing in common, a penchant for men. While acting as the eyes and ears for the police, a mixture of logic and luck leads them to a confrontation with the murderer—can they survive it?

Review by E Louise van Hine

Orlando Coppersmith, despite the Shakespearean name, is the most unremarkable of creatures – a professor of mathematics at St. Bride’s College, and a fellow of Cambridge.  Shy, quiet, and unobtrusive, he spends his evenings at high table in wordless company with his fellow dons, and for years he goes virtually unnoticed and invisible, retiring after his meals in his lonely rooms, kept company with his books, never venturing beyond the gate of the college to the pub in town or share a game of whist.  At least not until the new arrival, an English fellow, serendipitously occupies his dinner seat, and Coppersmith is forced to exercise his decidedly rusty social skills with the chatty newcomer.

What proceeds is a slowly-developing but undeniable attraction between two opposites – the outgoing and popular Jonathan “Jonty” Stewart, an alumnus who returns to his alma mater to introduce a new generation to the delights of Shakespeare, and the retiring maths scholar who gradually realizes that the precious friend he has discovered holds the key to his heart.  Their gentle and fumbling exploration of their developing love for one another, however, is complicated by a murder at the college – and the police turn to Stewart and Coppersmith when the few clues they find lead nowhere.

This is how “Lessons in Love,” a Cambridge Fellows Mystery, by Charlie Cochrane.  The story offers equal portions of romance and mystery, which, while the romance seems slow in coming, does not drag.  One of the arguments I have with so many erotic stories is how quickly the sexual relationship develops – even when the historical setting makes such a relationship forbidden by law or punishable by death.  But “Lessons in Love” does not have this flaw, thank goodness – the pace of the reluctant attraction fits the retiring personality of Orlando, particularly well.  The story takes place just past the turn of the 20th century, where homosexual affairs were not as severe a crime as in earlier centuries. In addition to the pacing, the prose narrative sometimes breathtakingly sweet, the love scenes are original and mildly humorous (one of my favorite descriptions was the description of Orlando’s erection as  “peninsular.”)

Charlie Cochrane knows her way around a first encounter, and the subsequent “lessons” are just as well written.  I particularly enjoyed some of the moments of jealous confrontation and the moody atmosphere of the college, which really brought the era clearly to my mind’s eye.

Less well drawn, however, are the other Fellows and the students, particularly those that Stewart and Coppersmith assign themselves to investigate as they help the police solve the mystery that unfolds between the episodes of romantic exploration.  Even with their colorful names – we needed more, either in dialogue or description, to be able to tell them apart before the next twist in the plot. I found myself mixing them up.

Another problematic point was the mystery itself, which, considering the circumstances of Lord Morcar’s death, would logically have had a devastating and dampening effect upon particularly Orlando’s romantic feelings toward Jonty – and yet, with a killer on the loose and most likely lurking within the walls of the college, they take chances that seem logically inconsistent with the threat they face.  This inconsistency did mar the plot for me somewhat, and I found myself wishing that this story was written in two books – the first a romance, and the second, a mystery that unfolds once the romance is established.  This did not dampen my enthusiasm for getting to the solution, or finding out how the star-crossed Fellows would fare with one another once the strangler is captured.

The book contained the first chapter of the sequel, and I am looking forward with anticipation to the next story, Lessons in Desire.

Available in ebook and print from Linden Bay Romance, Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Review: Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen

whistlingNew York City, 1919. His career as a concert pianist ended by a war injury, Sutton Albright returns to college, only to be expelled after a scandalous affair with a teacher. Unable to face his family, Sutton heads to Manhattan with no plans and little money in his pocket but with a desire to call his life his own.

Jack Bailey lost his parents to influenza and now hopes to save the family novelty shop by advertising on the radio, a medium barely more than a novelty, itself. His nights are spent in a careless and debauched romp through the gayer sections of Manhattan.

When these two men cross paths, despite a world of differences separating them, their attraction cannot be denied. Sutton finds himself drawn to the piano, playing for Jack. But can his music heal them both, or will sudden prosperity jeopardize their chance at love?

Review by Hayden Thorne

When you pick up a copy of Allen’s debut novel, don’t expect the following: wide, sweeping landscapes; breathless, passionate exchanges; an overly thorough history lesson on early 20th century New York; glamour, scandal, intrigue; anything and everything in epic proportions. If you’re a fan of high emotions and luxurious settings in gay romance, skip the book.

Allen’s novel is the kind that moves you quietly. It’s got romance, it’s got history, and it’s got some pretty memorable characters, but what makes this book so appealing is the skillfully light touch it uses on conflict and emotion. It’s so light, in fact, that the reader’s often left with what’s unspoken, allowing him to savor that vague hint or two with a kind of languid ease. There are a number of sex scenes, yes, but they’re never graphic and are always conveyed along more emotional and psychological lines, not physical. Because of that, we get a better sense of the love Sutton and Jack feel for each other without being hit over the head with page after page of Insert-Tab-A-Into-Slot-B sex scenes or page after page of hand-wringing, hair-tearing angst over their future happiness against society’s displeasure. Allen knows when to rein things in, and she does so exquisitely.

The same can be said about the non-romantic elements and conflicts in the book. Through alternating POVs, we see, first-hand, New York’s less glamorous side, as well as the terrible toll of WWI on its survivors, poverty on the whole, the “gay underground,” and even simple day-to-day things like selling wares, eating at a nearby cafe, etc.. Nothing gets blown out of proportion in Allen’s world. People come and go, bringing with them their private demons and their dreams, and they move in their world as real people do.

In a sense, the novel is like a slice-of-life, sans the pretensions of that narrative structure. The historical angle gives it a unique and refreshing edge, which keeps our interest high. The fact that Jack’s shop deals in odds and ends – novelty items from all over – only adds to the reality of the setting along more poignant lines, given how the shop reflects not only Jack’s devotion to his late parents, but also his father’s lost dreams of seeing the world.

The side characters are a mixed, Dickensian bag of good guys, villains, and just plain quirky types, and a lot of them are well-developed, which is an amazing accomplishment if we were to consider how many they are and how long they tend to stay in any given scene. And that leads me to what I consider to be the highlight of the novel: pacing.

Allen’s book is richly-plotted, yes. We have the main conflicts (Sutton and Jack’s terrible pasts, their dreams, and their future together) as well as the smaller ones (threat of eviction, Ox and Esther’s romance, Theo’s tragi-comic adventures in his search for love, among others), and what I love the most is the fact that Allen gives these subplots almost equal time. Slow and steady seem to be her mantra, and I absolutely appreciate seeing an easy, almost idle unfolding of events because it allows the reader time to see – really see, understand, and absorb – Jack and Sutton’s world, their blooming relationship, and their complex connections with other characters, both good and bad. This is definitely not a book for the impatient.

That said, the understated, quiet quality of the book works against the story in a few (very few) instances. There are some moments in which the emotions are so subtle that the results are a sense of odd detachment and an ephemeral quality in the scene that pulls the reader away, when the moment really needs to draw on his sympathy or outrage instead. These moments are rare, though, and on the whole, they don’t at all detract from the novel’s better points.

Even though the setting is contained (nicely reflective of the “contained” emotions that define the plot), we still get to experience New York. Engaging all our senses with details that help fix us firmly in the characters’ world, Allen manages to capture a very real city at a specific point in its history. Dingy alleys, grimy walls, rundown apartments, cluttered shops, Ida’s restaurant and her home-cooked meals – we get to see, smell, feel, taste, and hear everything. It’s a great complement to a host of very real, very human characters.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon UK (not yet listed)

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Review: Frost Fair by Erastes

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Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Before the climate changed, Londoners were occasionally treated to a sporadic festival triggered by the freezing of the Thames River. This was known as the Frost Fair, where merchants hauled their wares onto the surface of the river, and citizens flocked to impromptu markets, drawn by the novelty and beauty of snow and the hastily-assembled stalls offering goods and food to the curious city dwellers.  The final Frost Fair lasted four days in February, 1814; it provides the backdrop and opening scenes for the book of the same name, authored by Erastes and published by Linden Bay Romance.

It is during the month of this unusual fair that readers are introduced to Gideon Frost, a young man struggling to maintain his printing business after his father’s untimely death. With blond hair and blue eyes, he has a fair complexion; he is also fair and honest in his heart and his dealings, although he struggles with some secrets that he harbors in his soul, namely, his amorous desire for one of his clients and his need to occasionally prostitute himself to wealthy men he meets on Lad Lane, in order to make ends meet.

Frost Fair unfolds over the course of a month and in that short time span, Gideon struggles with blackmail, betrayal, and deceit. He also falls in love, finds that love requited, then denied, then found again. All this, in a short novella! It is a satisfying read, in large part because of Erastes’ vivid characterizations and evocative descriptions of the time and place. I could feel the cold snow, hear the “clunk” of Gideon’s printing press, and see in my mind’s eye the locales in which he found himself, from grand homes to dark taverns. Mostly, I could smell the tang of the men who desired Gideon, with their advances both wanted and not.

I read the ebook version of the story and it was nicely formatted, although I wish the publisher would add a few conveniences for the reader such as a Table of Contents and links to navigate back and forth from the contents to the various chapters. Since a reader cannot flip through an ebook, such links make reading more akin to the paper experience. While I am on the subject of the publisher, I do have to voice my displeasure at the cover. It does nothing to convey the subject of the story and is a disservice to the wonderful tale inside. I bought the book because I enjoy Erastes’ writing; as a marketing tool the cover is not effective. It was only the author’s name that drew me in.

I have one tiny quibble and it comes near the end: there is a little loose end that is left hanging and it is disconcerting. I imagine the author desired some ambiguity (that seems to be an Erastes’ trademark) and I drew my own conclusions as to what happened. Still, it left a nagging feeling in the back of my mind which is why I comment on it. A wise editor might have pointed this out and it could have been fixed with a sentence or two—and the ambiguity preserved—but it was not. Erastes is a wonderful author and storyteller; this is a matter of craft that is easily repaired. I recently read Standish (by the same author) which I also enjoyed tremendously, but I have to say, I believe that Erastes is maturing as an writer and overall, Frost Fair is more well written. This is exciting because it gives me something to look forward to from this talented author and I hope that small errors such as this disappear completely in her future works.

I read Frost Fair first a few weeks ago and then, in preparation for writing this review, I re-read it yesterday, during an ice storm, which certainly put me in the proper frame of mind to enjoy a story set during one of the coldest winters in London’s history! The story, while cold and bleak in some parts, is warm and hot in others and left me, as a reader, feeling completely fulfilled.


ISBN: 978-1-60202-157-0

Available in print ($14.99) and ebook ($5.99) directly from the publisher: http://www.lindenbayromance.com/product-frostfair-7265-145.html

Leslie H. Nicoll is the owner of Maine Desk LLC, an editorial writing and consulting business located in Portland, Maine. She is also the Publisher for Bristlecone Pine Press, an ebook publishing imprint and subsidiary of her business. While she desires to write fiction, she seems to have more success in the non-fiction world. Her latest books (both 2008) are The Editor’s Handbook, co-authored with Margaret Freda and published by Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins and The Amazon Kindle FAQ, co-authored with Joshua Tallent and DeLancey Nicoll and published by Bristlecone. For more, please visit www.mainedesk.com and www.bcpinepress.com.

Review: Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by Connie Bailey and J.M. McLaughlin

advent-story

When Sir Daltrey Powell summons his niece’s old, stuffy piano teacher for a dressing-down, he’s more than surprised when the young, handsome Professor Northlund Merrit presents himself. Despite their dispute, Daltrey is convinced: He will do what he must to fan the spark he saw in Northlund’s eyes to flame.

Review by Hayden Thorne

This story is actually one of several from Dreamspinner Press’s 2008 Advent Stories series, hence the non-historical, all-purpose cover. Because of its length (it’s a novelette, I think), readers shouldn’t expect much by way of a thorough exploration of a romance developing between an earl and his niece’s music instructor.

What I enjoy the most is the story’s classic romantic plot. Two gentlemen from wildly diverging backgrounds cross paths, feel instant attraction, and the game, as they say, is afoot. Given their pasts and their temperaments, it’s natural to see both react to their attraction differently: Daltry Powell with arrogant ease and a sense of entitlement that’s expected from a peer, Northlund Merrit with dismay and horror, no thanks to his nomadic existence, which is forced on him by society and that damned annoying specter called convention.

The characters, both main and side, are interesting and fun to read. Though by and large, Bailey and McLaughlin leaned a little too heavily on archetypes, readers can still enjoy the interactions between the characters.

The difficulties I have with this story, though, outweigh the highlights, the characters’ lack of complexity being one of them. Then again, one might say, it is a novelette, and there’s only so much a writer can do with such a limited word count. In this case, the story feels as though it should be given a much, much wider berth or greater room to expand. There’s so much going on in the story that’s implicit and otherwise, and it’s disappointing not seeing it being brought to its full potential. Given the conflict between Powell and Merrit, the subplot involving Arabella (the niece) and the suffocating state of women’s roles back then, as well as the relationship between Lionel (Powell’s valet) and both Daltrey Powell and his father, I think there’s quite a bit of material that’s unfortunately sacrificed to the publisher’s length requirements. As things stand, the characters remain archetypal, and the plot unfolds quickly and almost haphazardly, with hardly anything solid on which it can ground itself.

The biggest problem I have involves setting. Yes, there’s mention of London. There are the references to a landau, balls, lavish dinner-parties, and manor houses. But we’re not given a specific period in English history in which we can firmly set the story, so we can have some point of reference when it comes to historical details.

The story is set in a small shire, with Greenholm as the main village where Merrit lives and works. Unfortunately, the actual location is never mentioned, and there are several shires in England, leaving us with no clear reference point. The manor house is very lightly described, and when it is, the details are generalized, so that you can think of any great house somewhere in England’s vast countryside, and you’ll have the place pegged. In fact, everything about the setting (landscape, buildings, etc.) is very generic and almost treated dismissively. I don’t find myself in England at all unless London’s mentioned. I just feel like the characters live in a strange historical vacuum that could be Georgian, Regency, or Victorian (I’m guessing Victorian, but I’m biased).

The scenes also change too abruptly. In one instance, we’re left with Merrit being escorted out of the house by Arabella. The next scene, we’re suddenly in his office, and he’s in the middle of being startled (or in the process of panicking) because his privacy is suddenly being invaded by a horny Powell. The beginning of the scene feels like it’s missing a little more material that could’ve allowed the reader a chance to shift gears (i.e., transitions). Again, the office isn’t described in detail, so for a moment, we’re forced to rearrange things mentally after we realize that the scene’s taking place in Merrit’s office in the school where he teaches. There’s another scene following this in which they’re suddenly outside, taking a walk in the snow, again with no easing into the scene that would’ve helped the reader keep track of the narrative’s movements. And where is this quiet footpath located? There’s mention of a river, but again, we’re left with nothing else.

The smaller problems involve errors in the use of titles (“Sir Daltrey” would be used in addressing a baronet or knight, not a peer), uneven dialogue that switches back and forth between modern/anachronistic and historical/stilted, and strong elements of OK Homo from start to finish, including a rather unrealistic detail near the end involving the sleeping arrangements of a mere tutor in reference to his employer’s.

It’s really too bad that the story was forced into such a short length. I do feel that it’s got quite a bit going for it, but it needs way more room than what a novelette can offer for it to be given the justice it deserves.

Buy the book: Dreamspinner Press

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