Review: Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon

Grieving over the death of his lover, British flying ace Bat Bryant accidentally kills the man threatening him with exposure. Unfortunately there’s a witness: the big, rough American they call “Cowboy” – and Cowboy has his own price for silence.

“Out of the Blue” will be a standalone e-book published by Liquid Silver Books, and will also appear in Esprit de Corps, a military anthology due out in 2009 will feature stories by Victor J. Banis, Samantha Kane, George Seaton and Josh Lanyon.

review by Mark R. Probst

I’m a sucker for wartime stories so I was most eager to delve into the novella Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon. Romance set during the First World War seems to be in very high demand right now, and I for one can’t get enough of it. WWI was the first major war to be fought in the skies as well as on the ground and this story is about the British flying aces known as the Royal Flying Corps who supported the troops in the trenches by engaging in aerial dogfights with the Germans. The world Lanyon carefully re-creates is the one I knew from such films as Wings, Hell’s Angels, and most notably the 1938 Errol Flynn vehicle The Dawn Patrol. Very much like the Flynn movie, this story shows the helplessness and desperation that the RFC pilots feel as an endless supply of younger, inexperienced new recruits take the place of the fallen. Only if they manage to survive long enough to gain some experience, do they actually have a chance to prolong their survival. The war-machine with its insatiable appetite devours the expendable resource known as the fighter pilot. The hero of the story, Bat, has learned to distance himself from the new recruits in order to shield himself from the pain when they are inevitably killed.

The story opens on the day after Bat’s best buddy, with whom he had a romantic though platonic relationship, is killed. The mechanic of their squadron has somehow gotten wind of the nature of Bat’s relationship to deceased pilot, and proceeds to blackmail him. Bat responds with a fist to the man’s jaw, which accidentally kills the would-be blackmailer. An American pilot referred to as “Cowboy”, skulking in the shadows, is witness to this scene and conspires to cover up the killing, convincing Bat that notifying the MPs would only go badly for him. There are several reasons why the mechanic’s killing and its cover-up are excusable. For one, he was a blackmailer; two, he was a lousy mechanic and his ineptitude was costing lives; and lastly, it really was just an unfortunate accident.

Cowboy however has designs of his own and, from Bat’s perspective, coerces him into a sexual relationship. Now I’ll say right here that a lot of Romance fans who want their Romance to follow strict guidelines may be put off by this, because for a large part of the story, Cowboy does have an apparent streak of villainy in him. I however don’t believe in strict adherence to guidelines and welcome character flaws or even some bad behavior as I think it makes a character more human and much more interesting than say, a knight in shining armor. I would say the fact that I really felt some hate and disgust for the way Cowboy treated Bat through most of the story, demonstrates that Lanyon has expertly succeeded in getting a gut reaction from this reader.

The story proceeds with several exciting reconnaissance missions and then when the mechanic’s body is discovered, an investigation that leads the local French police chief to suspect one of the pilots.

I found the story to be compelling and well-told and I was able to closely identify with Bat’s confusion and inner turmoil. I also enjoyed little details like the fact that Bat, a fan of the Western stories of Zane Grey and Max Brand, is the one who gave the American pilot his nickname, and there is also an interesting bit about the introduction of an American candy.

Naturally there is an erotic component to the story. Personally this is an element I find unnecessary, but I know it is what many readers desire so all I can really say is that I’m grateful it was limited to just a few scenes.

My only real complaint is that there were a few instances where some of the details of what was happening were not completely clear. For instance during an engagement with the enemy when Bat noticed that one of the planes was missing from the formation, he uttered an expletive and I assumed that meant the pilot had been shot down, so I was naturally confused when the pilot was alive and well in the very next scene. Only later in the story was I able to piece together that the Bat’s expletive was annoyance because the other pilot had recently lost his nerve and had begun to hang back from the fighting and not supply cover to the other pilots.

Now my knowledge of WWI and the Royal Flying Corps comes mainly from the movies, rather than from any diligent research, so I didn’t notice any blaring inaccuracies in the details of Lanyon’s story. WWI aficionados might possibly have a different opinion. I heartily recommend Out of the Blue.

Buy from Liquid Silver Books

Review: His Master’s Lover by Nick Heddle

In 1919 His Lordship declares that the Western Front may now be secure but the home front is still being undermined by Prime Minister Lloyd George and all his damned meddling . Only the humble gardener, Freddy has the intelligence to make money out of the new garden city full of homes fit for heroes , which is being built next to the ancestral estate. Heroic Freddy restores the family fortunes by opening the first profitable garden centre. However, His Lordship unwisely invests the family treasure in New York, just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Freddy’s fate becomes further entwined with that of this noble English family when he becomes, in succession, the passionate gay lover of two generations of its heirs and only the profits from Freddy’s garden centre save the day.

Review by Erastes

I wanted to like this novel, I really really did.  I’m always excited when I find a new (to me) author of gay historical fiction, and I bought both books by Mr Heddle without hesitation.  However, I found it entirely impossible to like anything about it, I’m sorry to say, and now regret the purchase of both books, because I’m sure the sequel is likely to be similar to this.

Firstly, the characters.  The main protagonist, Freddy, has just returned from the Western Front and has come back to his place at a stately home as under-gardener.  He catches the attention of Charles, the Lord & Ladyship’s son, a disgraced officer, who is suffering from severe shell-shock and mental problems who stages a clumsy seduction which succeeds.

Freddy, unfortunately, is a Gary-Stu of the highest type.

Gary Stu: (n.) A fanfiction term for the male version of Mary Sue. A Gary Stu refers to an original character, sometimes a Self Insert, who is more powerful than any canon character, can beat them at anything, and usually supersedes them as the story’s main character. (Dictionary of Anime Fandom)

Here’s just some of the things he can do/knows about.

Bear in mind, please, that this is 1919, he’s an under-gardener educated (probably until the age of 14) at a village school by his grandmother who still lives in his tied cottage.

He knows about the Classics

He can play chess

He can read – in fact he’s read the war poets, Oscar Wilde and, from his knowledge of the daily world, obviously the newspaper (a good one, not a rag) daily.

He can fix cars better than anyone around

He’s a dab hand at geometry

He’s conversant with world politics, and the nitty gritty of English politics.

He’s built a gym in his cellar.

He saved a relation of the King from his downed plane, crawling out into no-mans land to get him.

Because of the above, he earned the Victoria Cross.

And more and more and more.  In fact, he’s entirely sickening. There is nothing he can’t do. He fixes sewers. He finds treasure. When the Lord and Ladyship go to America he offers to go with them because he has dealt with American customs officers before in the war (God knows where). He build a garden centre with no effort, and when a small obstacle lands in his path,he charms the local Mayoress and gets the entire council on his side.

Not only that but everyone who meets him falls in MADLY love with him. And it’s the universal lurve for Freddie that makes me want to smash him in the face with something painful. Everyone loves him (with one exception) and not only that, everyone knows he’s gay.  Yes, this is the land of OKHomo, and boy is this the land of the tolerant.  The first people told are Charles’ parents.  Yes. The Lord and Lady of the manor, who not only understand but embrace the entire concept with what only can be described as glee, and there are one or two thoroughly sickening scenes where the young men are caught in flagrante delicto by her ladyship, who loves the experience, (as she fancies Freddy herself.) Then a Harley Street doctor is told who thinks it’s a Jolly Good Thing, the local doctor knows, and so on and so on.

The only person who doesn’t think it’s a good idea is the sadly neglected (by the otherwise saintly Freddy) Grandmother of Freddy himself.  A old woman with no visible means of support living in Freddy’s old tied cottage who Freddy hardly bothers about other to come and tell her he’s fucking the son of the nobility. She eventually turns into a mad religious ranter.

The relationship between Charles and Freddy never strikes true. Freddy gets into it for reasons that are never really explained, as he never seems to be physically or mentally attracted to Charles and there’s some very boring sex and suddenly they both profess to be madly in love. Plus, Charles is mentally unstable, and threatens to kill himself if Freddy leaves him, at every available opportunity, forcing Freddy to stay. Charles’ parents both urge Freddy to stay–or Charles will do himself harm–and this aspect of it made me cringe.

However, even if I hadn’t cared about any of the above–it’s the writing itself that made this book a nightmare to read.  More than once I thought “I can’t finish this.”  The prose is clunky in the extreme, for example, almost every section of dialogue has the name of the person being spoken to within it, a device that simply dosn’t happen in real life, and in order to present (I assume) a historical provenance, the author info dumps on every single page. Nothing is mentioned that doesn’t have an Act of Parliament and a corresponding date with it, and it was so hard to read without screaming.

Then, the way Freddy acts towards the end of the book is utterly un-endearing (if anyone was endeared in the first place) – he starts an affair with a boy of 16 while he’s still “married” (yes, they got married in a faux ceremony with a ring and with a horse for a witness) to Charles and when Charles dies he shows not one iota of grief – not one after ten years – and buggers off to France with his self-proclaimed and obviously unstable fratricidal toyboy, leaving his Granny to fend for herself. Nice.

Good, I thought. In 9 years time they’ll probably both be blown up.

So, no I am sorry. I do try to find the good in any book I read, because there usually is something, even if I give it one or two stars – but this has to be the first book I can’t even mark at all. The only thing I liked was the photo on the cover, and would like to know who did it, and commission him/her to do others.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Film Review: Bent by Martin Sherman

The powerful and moving film adaptation of Martin Sherman’s award-winning stage play. For almost 20 years, Bent has stunned theatre audiences around the world. Now adapted for the big screen by the author himself, this inspiring tale of love over oppression has even greater power and poignancy. Set amidst the decadence of pre-war fascist Germany, Bent is an emotional tale of love, as three homosexual men fight for survival in the face of persecution.

Directed by Sean Mathias
Produced by Michael Solinger, Dixie Linder
Written by Martin Sherman (play & screenplay)
Starring Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Brian Webber, Rupert Graves, Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger, Jude Law

As you can imagine, this isn’t the easiest of watches, so don’t get it expecting a comfy watch with the popcorn. It starts with decadent scenes of the gay/bi scene in 1934 Berlin, where Max (Owen) – who is obviously a bit of a player, a deal-arranger, well known in the set, has a debauched night at Greta’s (Jagger) club where he meets a beautiful young Nazi soldier, Wolf (Nikolaj Waldau) and has sex with him, both in the club and back at his house, to the disgust of his live-in lover Rudy (Webber).  Things go downhill from here and spiral into the worst possible solution.

I understand, from my researches on the piece, that the plot of the beginning of the film has been changed from the play.  In the play, it’s more of a political emphasis–Max is a politician and brings members of the Sturmabteilung back to his flat, whereas in the film, he just brings the beautiful Rudy back for a good shagging, who turns out to the boyfriend of the co-founder of the Sturmabteilung, the homosexual Ernst Rohm, who was murdered by Hitler (who had up to then, been a close friend), triggering The Night of the Long Knives.

However after that, the film and play seem to coalesce, (without having seen both, this is assumption, but it seems so.)

Owen isn’t my favourite of actors, as he isn’t–in my opinion–a character actor, but he manages well in the part. He’s convincing as the decadent, self-assured Max in the pre-arrest days and in good method fashion, he loses a lot of weight for the role, as he ends up in Dachau, and chooses to pretend to be a Jew, to wear the yellow star, considering that a lesser wrong than being a queer, and to wear the pink triangle.

There’s not a badly cast role in the film, actually.  Even Jagger, who I seriously didn’t recognise, and who I have never rated as an actor at all, does marvellously, and Sir Ian McKellern steals the show in his one short scene as “Uncle Freddie.”  Sir Ian, incidentally, played the Max role in the original stage production in 1979, so this was a nice touch.

The most affecting scenes are those, naturally enough, between Max and Horst (played brilliantly by Lothaire Bluteau) on the way to, and within the walls of, the notorious death camp of Dachau.  Even though this is set before the Second World War itself you never get any sense of hope, and that makes the restricted interractions between the two men poignant and very hard to watch.  But they are well worth watching, as the scene where they do their first sex scene is heart-warming and beautiful.

The play itself, which caused outrage and acclaim when first put on, helped the exposure of the homosexual treatment by the Nazis enormously, and since then, much research has been done into their fate, leading to a greater knowledge for all, and I think, a wider acceptance and understanding.

For me, the seminal line in the play, is where Owen says “I love you. And what’s wrong with that?”  It’s very obviously a challenge to the world, calling out through history, and it works as well now as it ever did.

So no, not an easy film to watch at all. But I urge you, if you haven’t seen it, to do so.  In these days, twenty years on, when gays are STILL fighting for rights, for their lives, it is as relevant today as it was when it was first staged.

Bent on IMDB

Review: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

John Hilliard, a young subaltern returning to the Western Front after a brief period of sick leave back in England, finds his battalion tragically altered. His commanding officer finds escape in alcohol, there is a new adjutant and even Hilliard’s batman has been killed. But there is David Barton. As yet untouched and unsullied by war, radiating charm and common sense, forever writing long letters to his family. Theirs is a strange meeting and a strange relationship: the coming together of opposites in the summer lull before the inevitable storm.

Review by Erastes

I steeled myself for a non-happy ending–having recently read Pat Barker’s wonderful trilogy–and I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m saying this upfront, because there’s no point beating about the bush.  If you enjoyed Barker’s work, then you’ll certainly enjoy this little book.  It’s hardly more than a novella, really, but packs a beautiful punch.

I admit I was put off a little when I first cracked the book open and started to read, because it is clearly aiming at the literary market–nothing wrong with that, but sometimes I just want a story, not flashbacking back and forth and endless descriptions of the smell of roses and the look of the mist.  However, once I settled into her style it wasn’t difficult to keep up with and I found myself quite enjoying it, even if I had to re-read the first section about three times because I kept forgetting where I was.

Hilliard is the main protagonist here, raised in a middle-class family with pretentions higher than they have.  He has a chip on his shoulder, its clear, although about quite what I never managed to work out.  His family are almost entirely distant, thinking that things and money and education can take the place of affection, and it’s only Beth, Hilliard’s sister, that has ever–from Hilliard’s POV (because I didn’t exactly warm to him) shown him anything like the love and protection he thinks he needs.  He says, for example that he only felt safe under his sister’s bed.  Perhaps there was a reason for that, perhaps I need to re-read. Perhaps I missed something coded.

However this was written in 1989, so if there was code there, it really shouldn’t have been.

He’s invalided out of the war temporarily, after six or so months at the front, and finds his life at home unbearable, and actually longs to get back to the front, perhaps because there is life there in the death, he seems to find England more dead than France.  When he encounters Barton, I was actually forcibly reminded of the fanfic relationship between Hornblower and Archie, and if this had been written a little more recently, I would have actually suspected it of being a converted fanfic, because the dynamic is very similar.  Barton has a huge family and extended family, who, through Barton’s letters, soon accept Hilliard as an extension of their son and include him in their letters and gifts.  Hilliard’s own family write sparingly, and send hampers from Fortnums and Masons, with ridiculous treats like candied figs and caviar.

The author says in her author’s note at the end of the book that she is constantly asked if Hilliard and Barton’s relationship was homosexual and was it consummated, and really, I don’t think it matters in this novel.  In the situations that she has the two men in, it’s pretty unlikely it was, although I don’t doubt that there was a true homosexual love between the two men, which makes the ending hard to bear, even if it’s not quite the punch in the stomach that Pat Barker delivers.

If you liked The Charioteer and The Barker trilogy then I highly recommend this, but don’t go expecting anything at all romantic, in any sense of the word.

Author’s website

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA

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