Review: Spurs & Saddles: Oil Well Ben and the Hollywood Rustlers by Lucius Parhelion

When Ben gets a chance to leave his New Mexico home to visit his childhood friend in Hollywood, he jumps at it. 1930s Beverly Hills is full of bait and switch tricks that Ben just isn’t used to, especially when he meets up with Johnny, someone he knew a long time ago, better than he’s known anyone since. Between actors, studios and Tom’s suspicious wife, Ben thinks he’s walked into the lion’s den.

Luckily, Johnny is willing to help out, and becomes Ben’s guide through the tricky world of moving pictures. Ben thinks he might like to make Hollywood a more permanent part of his life, but not everyone and everything are as they seem. Can Ben find a way to reconcile all the pieces of his new life, or will he and Johnny have to part ways?

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

The ‘Spurs and Saddles’ line from Torquere Press consists of same-sex romances about cowboys in various settings and eras. Forget John Wayne and old reruns of Gunsmoke. These stories completely rewrite the ‘western’ genre.

Lucius Parhelion does a brilliant job of describing same-sex relationships in a time when “coming out” was so dangerous that double-entendres, secret signs and discreet meeting-places were absolutely necessary. And the “gay culture” of the time existed only in cities.

In this novella, a ranch owner in 1920’s New Mexico suspects that he might be a “Nancy boy.” He is only about as old as the century, so he can’t be absolutely sure. If a young man likes the fit of another fellow’s trousers, he doesn’t ask his old friends for advice on how to go courtin’. And whatever he does, you can be sure he does it in secret as long as he’s living on the family ranch.

But what if oil is discovered on Ben’s land just before the Stock Market crash of 1929? Well then, Ben is one lucky son-of-a-gun. And his opportunities sure open up.

There isn’t a lot of explicit sex in this rollicking tale, but the action is fast-paced, the dialogue sparkles, and the details are true to the period. The reader learns early that Ben is no fool in high-stakes negotiations:

‘For years, Ben McClure had battled land, cattle and climate to try to win a hard living from the high plains ranch that had been his father’s dream come true. This year, for no better reason than luck, that fight was over and Ben had won. Not that his victory had come easily. In Ben’s opinion, any negotiations in a new and booming oil patch were a lot like being sewn up in a canvas sack with five snakes, four of which were diamondbacks, and then having someone kick the bag. But Ben’s pa had known everyone who settled this part of the Llano Escatado, the stake plains, so Ben knew them all too.’

So now that Ben can afford to travel, where does he want to go? He wants to follow Tom, the handsomest man he ever met, to Hollywood, California, where Tom is burning up the screen as a ‘cowboy’ in moving pictures. Along the way, Tom married a diva, a blonde spitfire named Miss Inez Altura. Tom didn’t mention her in the two letters he sent to Ben, inviting him to come for a visit.

When Ben rolls into California in the most luxurious train carriage available, he finds some new surprises. His first view of the local sights is impressive: ‘So far, the men in Hollywood were an awfully fine looking lot.’

The movie cameraman who asks Ben if he’s an ‘extra’ looks strangely familiar. Then Ben recognizes him:

‘You’re Janos. Your pa was Mr. Kovacs, the peddler who took photographs and fell so ill. James Kovacs.’

‘Johnny Smith now.’ He could see the Adam’s apple shift as Johnny swallowed. Ben could not blame him. He felt a touch queasy himself. They had not known each other long; but, thanks to Tom, their few weeks spent together had been real memorable.

Johnny takes Ben to the Red Gulch, a ranch north of Hollywood that serves as a set for western movies. Ben’s wrangling skills come in handy, but the bright and perky Miss Blake is a little harder to handle than a horse. Is she sweet on Ben?

Johnny learns that the motion picture business is all about appearances. Just as the Grade B pictures that Johnny films don’t bear much resemblance to ranch life as Ben has lived it, the boy-meets-girl ‘romance’ in the pictures is a cover for a whole other way of doing things. Ben learns how he can get ‘paid’ for helping Johnny out, and he also learns that a bigger company is very interested in the Red Gulch. And ‘Oil Well Ben,’ as Tom calls him, is holding all the aces.

Tom the movie star doesn’t appear in the story until about halfway through, and by then his appearance has been long anticipated. How has he become so famous so fast? Is his marriage with Miss Altura a Hollywood ‘arrangement,’ a friendly understanding or a love-match? Has he bamboozled Ben, or does he intend to?

For that matter, why is booze so easy to find when it can’t be legally bought or sold?

Ben shows himself to be shrewd when he needs to be. He is no stranger to maverick cattle or slick dealers. Love, however, is a new experience for him. While figuring out how to win at the poker game of the motion picture business in hard economic times, Ben also needs to learn who is really on his side, and whose side he wants to be on.

If you can never openly tell the truth about how you really feel, is there a place for flirting, courtship, flowers and valentines? Ben and the partner of his dreams have to answer that question for themselves. From beginning to end, this twentieth-century ‘western’ is a wild and witty ride.

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Review: The Low Road by James Lear

An erotic adventure story for men who love men, set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in war-torn Scotland. Charles Gordon is sold into near-slavery as the plaything of corrupt military officials, but his talents-both in and out of bed-win him powerful friends as well as dangerous foes.

Review by Jean Roberta.

“You’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland before ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”

- from “Loch Lomond,” Scottish folk song (see explanation below)*

James Lear is a sly dog who subverts the kind of novels that are widely thought of as ‘classics’ by larding their plots with man-on-man sex. The results are surprisingly faithful to the original books, if not strictly faithful to the era in which they are set.

The most obvious model for James Lear’s novel about Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobites (Catholic supporters of Prince Charles Stuart’s claim to the throne of Scotland) at Culloden in 1746 is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, a novel published in the 1880s but set in the mid-1700s and largely read (when it first appeared) as an adventure story for boys. The central character in Kidnapped is a young man whose parents are dead, and whose wicked uncle arranges for him to be taken to sea against his will. In the course of his adventures, the young man grows up and eventually gains his rightful inheritance.

The Low Road picks up the picaresque (adventure-story) and coming-of-age themes and intertwines them with the romance of ‘coming out’ into a society in which ‘sodomy’ is a hanging offense but in which most men enjoy sex with other men. Nineteen-year-old Charles Edward Gordon, the central character, lives with his grieving mother in the family mansion after his father, a brave Jacobite leader, has been murdered. Young Charlie, a physically active but isolated lad, develops a ‘friendship’ with Alexander, the servant who works in the stable.

Charles and Alexander engage in horseplay (literally), which leads to more intimate contact.

For awhile, the lovers live together in bliss, but the country is still in turmoil, spies and English soldiers are everywhere, and danger lurks.

One day, Alexander disappears and a mysterious French ‘priest’ named Benoit arrives to tutor the lad in Greek and Latin. Charles resents him, but grudgingly admires him.

By spying on the strange man in the house (after being spied on himself), Charles sees the “priest” masturbating. Charles confronts Benoit about his hypocrisy. Before Benoit can explain his real mission and his real identity, English soldiers arrive to search the house for ‘traitors’ to the English crown. The soldiers take Benoit away, leaving Charles and his mother. Charles realizes that he must take action.

Charles sets forth to outwit the ‘redcoats’ of the garrison and rescue Benoit. Along the way, he stops at an inn where he encounters a group of men:

‘a rough and ready group, but, I thought, honest-looking Scotsmen each and every one of them. When I entered the inn, they had been joining in a chorus of Loch Lomond — a crypto-Jacobite hymn, as every young Scot knew well.’

Charles is naively trusting. After excessive drinking and sex with the men, Charles loses consciousness and wakes up on board a ship, where he is destined to be the plaything of the crew.

The captain is an English gentleman who rescues Charles from the attention of uncouth sailors (not that Charles really objects), and decides that he wants to keep Charles for himself. Although he has been commissioned to bring Charles, the Jacobite ‘traitor,’ to a feared English general for ‘questioning’ (torture), Captain Moore sends word that Charles has been killed. Charles does not want to be the captain’s concubine forever, so he escapes.

Charles eventually meets up with the feared General Wade while impersonating a messenger so that he can discover the whereabouts of Benoit. In one adventure after another, Charles uses his healthy young body in the service of Scotland.

Meanwhile, Benoit uses any means at his disposal to write letters to Charles, addressed to him at Gordon Hall and smuggled out by corrupt guards. Benoit has little hope that Charles will ever receive the letters, but writing them helps keep Benoit sane in desperate circumstances.

The letters are interspersed with Charles’ adventures, so the reader can follow the parallel narratives as the suspense builds. The plot proceeds at a gallop despite the frequent sex scenes involving orgies, voyeurism/exhibitionism, spankings, cross-dressing and a memorable banquet in which Charles is the piece de resistance. Charles survives numerous close calls long enough to mature from a sheltered boy to a more sensible man, and all complications are resolved — at least for the major characters, if not for the doomed Prince for whom Charles was named.

For those who love historical fiction and m/m erotic romance, this novel is a treat. The epistolary form seems true to the period, and the episodic plot lends itself to being read in installments. James Lear has such a shamelessly homoerotic take on history and literature that a reader wonders which “classic” he will take on next.

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* From the Wikipedia entry on “Loch Lomond:”

“There are many theories about the meaning of the song. One interpretation is that it is attributed to a Jacobite Highlander who was captured after the 1745 rising. The English played games with the Jacobites, and said that one of them could live and one would die. This is sung by the one who was sentenced to die, the low road referred to being the passage to the underworld.

Another interpretation is that the song is sung by the lover of a captured rebel set to be executed in London following a show trial. The heads of the executed rebels were then set upon pikes and exhibited in all of the towns between London and Glasgow in a procession along the “high road” (the most important road), while the relatives of the rebels walked back along the “low road” (the ordinary road traveled by peasants and commoners).”

Review: Enslaved by Kate Cotoner

Injured crusader Falk du Plessis survives the Battle of Hattin only to be sold at the slave market in Acre. He’s bought by Sinan, a mysterious Saracen who takes care to hide his true identity. Falk has the feeling they’ve met before. Their attraction is instant and mutual and their destinies are inextricably entwined, but duty and loyalty to their respective masters threaten to drive them apart.

Review by Vashtan

This review has a bit of a backstory. First of all, to get the legal issues out of the way, I was planning to buy this and asked one of my writer friends who is associated with Torquere to buy me one, since Torquere doesn’t accept PayPal. Instead of charging me, he gave it to me as a gift.

Here’s the backstory. A few month ago, Torquere Press put out a call for submissions for a historical anthology titled “Chain Male”, which then, sadly, didn’t happen, with Torquere citing that they didn’t get enough quality stories to do this. Be that as it may, Kate Cotoner’s story “Enslaved” is what is left of the anthology project, and was published in Torquere’s “Sip” line of stand-alone short stories.

Looking at the generic cover and reading nothing but the blurb, I admit a little trepidation. Would this be one of those famous “slave fics” that have a large and loyal following? Would this feature BDSM, humiliation and power games and a crusader reduced to a whimpering sex slave? The crusades are probably my favourite subject in the vastness of the Middle Ages, and I admit to feeling even more protective of them than of the rest of history.

So I braced myself a lot before opening the file.

And relaxed. Relaxed some more. Slowly, a smile started to spread, and in the end, I was so pleasantly surprised that I read the story two more times. For the review, I’ve read it twice more. I’m happy to report this is not your typical slave story. I’m even more happy to report it has actual research (!) in it.

But first things first. Falk du Plessis, the squire of his brother, a Templar Knight, survives the battle of Hattin, the medieval equivalent of Gallipolli, in short, a disastrous, all-out battle that decimated the already thin-stretched military resources of the crusader kingdoms to breaking point. At the time when it happened, our historical witnesses tell us that they didn’t think the knightly orders would recover from the loss of men and materiel. It was a turning point in the rich history of the Crusades, an iconic battle with a bloody aftermath, when the prisoners were put to the sword rather than ransomed, and the rest sold on the slave market.

Falk is lucky, he gets sold as a slave. But instead of the all too typical “woe is me” scene in the slave market, we get a Falk who’s actually optimistic. He’s a strong character, calm, and just damn glad he lived. I really enjoyed that inner strength that is so far removed from all the melodrama a lesser writer would have put in there to make an impact in such a short story (16 pages, a total of 6-7thousand words). But Kate Cotoner is not a lesser writer, in fact she’s a pretty damn good writer who has clearly made an effort to make this real, human, authentic and true.

I’m quoting you the first page here:

The second day of the slave auction drew only passing interest from the crowd. Falk stretched his tall frame, thankful to be free of the cramped quarters in which he and his comrades had been imprisoned. Herded into the adjacent market, linked together like cattle, they were shoved into line on a raised wooden platform.

Falk had watched yesterday’s auction through the barred window of the cell and knew what came next. The young and good-looking men would be sold later in the day when more traders and buyers were abroad. The morning was reserved for the older, injured, or less comely slaves who’d fetch a lower price. Falk thought of himself as neither handsome nor plain, and knew his inclusion in the morning’s dregs was due to the injury he’d received on the battlefield.

A glancing blow across his ribs had produced a gash that looked worse than it felt, and the barbed arrow he’d taken in his leg had created a bleeding mess when he’d pulled it out. Though the wound hadn’t suppurated, it was slow to heal and he’d started to favor his left leg, limping

whenever he walked.

He flexed his feet to restore the circulation, pulling against the rope that tied him by the ankles to the men on either side of him. The man to his right, a surly fellow from Swabia, turned and cursed in rough Norman French. “Stop it! We don’t want to attract attention.”

Falk gazed at the scattering of onlookers who’d gathered in the market and saw a few of them staring back at him. “Attracting attention is the only way we’ll get sold.”

“I don’t want to be sold. It’s shameful and it’s un-Christian!”

“I would rather preserve my life than concern myself with shame or Christian duty.” Falk glanced at the Swabian and lowered his voice. “If even half of what they say is true, the Templars and Hospitallers are all dead, and perhaps the King with them. The True Cross has been stolen and Saladin is advancing on Jerusalem. If we don’t get sold, we won’t survive long enough to regain our freedom. The slave traders are killing unnecessary, unsold stock. Do you understand? Getting sold will save us.”

“Being sold to a Saracen will damn us,” the Swabian grumbled.

“At least Saladin’s army has moved on. It’s likely we’ll be bought by merchants who may be sympathetic to our cause. Acre is one of the biggest trading centers in Outremer no matter who rules here — there’ll always be a need for dockhands and laborers.”

The Swabian shot him a suspicious look. “You sound cheerful.”

Falk smiled. “No point in being pessimistic. We’re still alive.”

“I’d rather be dead than a slave to an Infidel!”

Falk abandoned his reply when the slave trader came forward and hauled the Swabian to the front of the platform, forcing Falk and the others to shuffle after him. During the subsequent bidding on the Swabian, Falk studied the gathering crowd. The women barely spared a glance in their direction and instead examined goods for sale at the stalls set up around the edge of the marketplace. Men stood back and assessed the line of slaves, comparing notes with their neighbors and occasionally calling out a question to the trader.

You see? Just a day on the slave market. No high drama, and that really stood out for me. It’s a more quiet, more real story than you usually get, with a character who’s gay, has some experience, and even that rang true—little drama about forbidden homosexuality here, mostly because Falk is usually careful (he has reason to) and because he is not of high enough status to make this political for him. When he gets bought by a Syrian, Sinan, their relationship is not typical of a “slave fic”, either.

It’s a sweet, gentle romance between two men who share more than divides them, and it’s also not soppy at all. Cotoner trusts her characters to let them tell the story, and the actual love/sex scene is delightfully free from men shouting each others’ names in the throes of climax, or confessing undying love five minutes after meeting.

I have to have one little niggle – there’s this:

Falk frowned. Saracens bathed often and scented themselves with exotic fragrance, which made the Franks consider their enemy effete. Crusaders went for months on end without immersing themselves in water, and though they stank and their clothes crawled with lice, at least they were godly men and not perfumed like whores. Besides, everyone knew bathing was unhealthy.

Bathing culture in the middle ages (the battle of Hattin places this story firmly into the late 1180ies) was actually doing alright. The “unhealthy” reputation of bathing came when the Plague and likely syphilis spread via the beloved and often-used bathing houses. We still have a few Roman baths, sometimes surviving as parts of monasteries, but in general, our European ancestors did like being clean. It’s in the 14th century and later that that goes slowly down the drain. Not bathing, however, was part of the ascetic ideal, so very holy people wouldn’t bathe to mortify the flesh (yeah, I’d be mortified, too), but those are extreme cases.

So, a short, sweet read that went completely against my expectations, well-told, with an ending that promises more between the two characters. In fact, these two should be a match made in heaven, and I’d really like to read more about their adventures during the decline of the crusader states, or wherever Cotoner takes them.

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Review: Stealing Northe by Jamie Craig

Two outlaws and one widow turn to each other for comfort, but nobody expects lust to become a love affair…

Amy Northe hasn’t known a man’s company in the six years since her husband died. That all changes the night her son comes in from chores with two strangers in tow. Kenneth and Leon are seeking shelter, and though Amy wants to turn them away, she can’t. There’s a blizzard moving through the Utah mountains, and Leon’s busted ankle has him teetering on the edge of consciousness. She does the only thing she can and takes them in, unaware of the secrets these young men hide.

Kenneth doesn’t want to take advantage of the older woman’s hospitality, even though she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. But Leon needs help and Amy is a nurse. If he has to satisfy his desire for her in the form of covert trysts with Leon, then that’s what he’ll do, especially since he’s too much of a gentleman to ever think of making advances on her.

Until Amy makes one herself. Then everything changes…for all three of them.

Review by Erastes

Jamie Craig is–as you probably all knew by now–a writing collaboration of Pepper Spinoza and Vivian Dean and I’ve been impressed with just about everything I’ve read of theirs.  I can’t imagine how a colloaboration works; I know that I could never do it, and if I did it would never be seamless–and that’s what Craig’s writing is, seamless.

They have a knack of being able to start a story in the middle, as it were–slap bang in the action, very little backstory to be outlined, because it’s not necessary.  It’s very cinematic writing, the camera pans into the remote log cabin, and we are right there in the moment.  In only a page we learn where we are, who our first protagonist is (Amy Northe, a frontier woman who’s lost her husband)–there’s already a lot of conflict in her life, and then BAM, two strangers appear on the doorstep and off we go.

I found myself entirely pulled in by the situation.  It’s clearly a claustrophobic one, three adults, a kid, animals, all snowed in in a log cabin in the hills, and you really get a sense of the difficulties that life would entail.  Water melted from snow, an elk being meat for the winter, preserved fruit and flour being lifelines to make it through the worst of the weather. It really makes you wonder why people would choose a life like that.

Be warned, you people who seek purely gay relationships in their stories, this isn’t that, as the blurb suggests.  One of the characters is clearly bisexual, and the sex is mostly het and ménage.  What I particularly liked is that this character (Kenneth) knew his tastes–he was clearly very fond of Leon, but while of them knew that Kenneth preferred women, there’s was not a “lets have sex because we don’t have a woman” type of relationship.

He couldn’t leave Leon, even if Leon would have forgiven him for it. And he didn’t want to forget Amy. One way or the other, he’d carry her with him for the rest of his life, even if she was just a very fond and distant memory.

The ménage is nicely handled too, you don’t get the feeling that suddenly there’s a woman to cure the homosexuality in the book, and the sex scenes don’t swamp the story, which is great.

Although menage stories aren’t normally my cup of tea, and frankly this was more het than even menage by the end, I found this an enjoyable book, and a well written if short (130 pages) read.  However there is more in the story to be told, as “Stealing West” is a sequel which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

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Review: Lola Dances by Victor J Banis

Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp’s macho inhabitants–until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez–and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.

Review by Vashtan

I was looking forward to reading “Lola Dances” by Victor J. Banis – Banis has made an enormous impact on the genre and I’m always curious if I can subscribe to the hype surrounding an author or not. Full disclosure: I received the ebook for free from Erastes for the purpose of this review.

To come right to the point: I completely enjoyed “Lola Dances” and will check out Banis’ other works. It’s the story of Terry Murphy, an effeminate youngster, who, in the 1850ies, dreams of being a dancer. One day, Terry is raped by a powerful man and refuses to become the man’s ‘toy boy’ on the side. Instead he confronts his assailant, running the risk of imprisonment (because homosexuality is punishable and a socialite’s word counts for more than those of a street orphan).

To save Terry’s neck, his street tough brother Brian takes him away from the Bowery and joins the masses of people hoping to get rich in the Gold Rush. However, Brian turns from saviour into suppressor. Abused and exploited, Terry finds his calling when he dresses up as Lola Valdez, replacing the former entertainer in the mining camp saloon. “Lola” is a huge success, which leads Terry on a journey of fame, fortune, and, finally, love.

I was impressed with the way the setting was effortlessly fused into the story. Homosexuality, and, in Terry’s case, cross-dressing, is not something that the ultra-macho miners would have looked kindly upon, and Lola is in danger of being unmasked and possibly killed as a ‘sissy boy’. Banis portrays well the tension between Lola, whom everybody is in love with, and Terry, whose best hope is to stay under the radar and who still, due to being very very pretty and ‘feminine’, causes especially male tempers to flare.

A special emphasis is on the relationship between Terry and Lola. His female alter ego has all the qualities that Terry is lacking (or feels he lacks). She is proud, confident, mistress of her own fate, and has the inner strength to follow her way and her calling. Lola is, in Jungian terms, Terry’s anima, and together, they are whole and strong.

There are beautiful passages in the book, such as Terry’s first transformation and dance:

Something happened that had never before happened at The Lucky Dollar. The room went silent, a thunderous silence.

No one spoke. Even the slap, slap, slap of the cards at the poker tables went still. A hundred mouths hung open, a hundred pair of eyes were suddenly riveted on the little figure standing before them.

“Like a rose, suddenly appearing in the filth of that dirty room,” one of them would put it later, a description that would be long remembered by many.

It lasted half a minute, that eerie silence—a full minute, longer yet. You could almost hear the seconds tick by until Lola took the satin skirt between her fingers and lifted it ever so slowly, ever so slightly, offering more flashes of scarlet petticoat and one slender ankle—even an inch or two, but no more than that, of net-clad calf.

She gave the fan a quick, sudden snap, revealing her face in full for the first time, and smiled, brightly—and there was not a man in the room who wouldn’t have sworn afterward that the smile was aimed directly and personally at him.

Pandemonium erupted. Male voices bawled like cattle in lightning, boots stomped, fists pounded on tables—so much noise that the very rafters shook and you half feared the roof might collapse, the building fall in on itself from all the noise and commotion.

Lola took a single step, rolled her shoulders. The silence fell again, as completely as before, as quickly as the noise had exploded.

I found myself eating up the pages, even though Terry isn’t really the type of character I enjoy reading about. But the blushing boy did worm his way into my heart eventually. While many of the details were well-observed, there was a definite feel that this is a pulp novel – painted in often stark colours with a wide brush and energetic strokes. I liked the passages best when Banis showed that he masters the finer lines and takes the time developing his characters.

Overall, I enjoyed this sometimes pulp-ish coming-of-age story of a crossdressing character who bounces back from adversity and finds a hidden strength that nobody thought he/she possessed. I’m catching myself thinking this could actually make a pretty good film, too.

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Review: Finding Jason by Lyndi Lamont

When Jason Huxley, Regency dandy and man-about-town, acquires a new valet, he finds himself fighting the unnatural inclinations he thought he’d outgrown.

Alfred Threadgill lost his first lover at Waterloo, but now wrestles with his desire for his new employer. He suspects that finding Jason could be the best thing that ever happened to him. But first Jason must find himself.

Review by T J Pennington

The character of Jason Huxley did not, initially, make a good impression on me. This has little to do with the writing and far more to do with me. You see, the first paragraph states:

Jason Huxley was a lucky man. He had health, good looks, an adequate income and a beautiful and enthusiastic mistress. There was no earthly reason why he was filled with ennui.

Speaking as someone who has ill health, average looks and a highly inadequate income, I saw no earthly reason for Jason to be filled with ennui, either. I would relish being bored to tedium by such good fortune. Since I have a hard time pitying someone who has everything that I lack, my immediate reaction was, “Hey, if you don’t want good health and an adequate income for someone in high society, I’ll take ‘em!”

By the next page, Jason has spotted his old friend and “partner in a youthful indiscretion”, as the book calls it, Michael Penrose. Michael, it develops, is terrified of women and would rather face Napoleon’s hordes than attend a dance. And, after Michael gets snoggered on brandy back at Jason’s house, Jason invites him to sleep it off in his (Jason’s) bed. Michael does, falling asleep almost immediately.

What follows is a scene between Jason and Michael, who are talking as they lie naked beside a river. This threw me a bit at first, as I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream, a flashback, or a scene taking place some months in the future. But as the conversation continued, I realized that it was either a memory or a memory-dream of the last time that Michael and Jason were together before Michael went off to war.

In what I thought was a nice touch, dream-Michael asks dream-Jason to come with him; even if Jason’s father won’t buy him a commission, he can still join as a volunteer. It pointed out quite nicely that the two didn’t have to be separated, that Jason could follow his lover into the army and onto the battlefields of Europe if he so desired.

Jason refuses on the grounds that his parents would be furious (he’s the only son and needs to produce an heir), but at least one of his motives is selfish–“[h]e liked his comforts too much.” I knew at that moment that Jason would not have a happily ever after ending with Michael or anyone else until he learned to love someone more than himself.

After a seduction scene when he is half-asleep and a voluntary scene of mutual masturbation when he is wide-awake, Jason is forced to confront the fact that yes, he’s still as attracted to men as he was in his schoolboy days, and immediately proposes to his mistress, Rosalind, thinking that surely this will be the solution. Rosalind, fortunately, is a sensible and realistic sort who doesn’t confuse sex with love. When Jason protests that he adores her, she responds thus:

She turned to face him, expression serious. “No, Jason, you do not. If you did, you would not have gone off with your military friend last night. You are fond of me, as I am of you, but that is all.”

Outraged by what he sees as the loss of Rosalind’s affection, Jason storms off. Hurt and puzzled by this and by Michael’s actions, he retreats to the family estate in Cheshire, hoping that once he gets away from London, his attraction to men will simply fade into the background once more.

Several months later, after a short scene between Michael Penrose and his valet in Belgium–the two are physically lovers, but Alfred Threadgill’s deep love for his employer is not reciprocated–Michael returns from war and has a reunion with Jason, despite the fact that Jason said quite firmly that he never wanted to see Michael again. And he asks Jason to look after Alfred for him. Jason, unwilling to deny Michael anything, promises to give Alfred a try.

Someone who likes a great deal of sex with his or her fiction would find this tale ideal; virtually every conversation is followed by a much longer and fairly intense sex scene, which usually reveals the depths of emotions that at least one of the parties cannot admit possessing.

Personally, I would have preferred that the story be longer and show much of what was only mentioned in passing: the friendship and love affair of Jason and Michael at school; the affection and trust between Michael and Alfred that never quite turned to love on Michael’s part; Jason fighting his growing attraction to Alfred. We’re told that all this has happened, but, for a reader, telling doesn’t pack nearly the punch of witnessing key events or of seeing emotional intimacy bloom between characters.

Jason’s issues with sexuality rather jumped out at me. He thinks a great deal about what it means for him personally to want to bed men AND women. This is not a thought process or attitude of that era. Modern people define themselves in terms of who they sleep with or who they want to sleep with. Someone of the Regency era would have seen it in terms of society–what is society’s attitude legally, socially and religiously? How will I be treated or punished for these desires? I can understand Jason struggling over the fact that he wants to sleep with men even after his schoolboy days, especially in view of the penalties–but the fact that he likes sleeping with women as well would not have caused any questions in his mind, because, by his time’s definition, that was part of being a man. The struggle would not have been “oh no, I’m attracted to men and women, what does this mean for me and my identity?” because the concepts of homosexuality, bisexuality and sexual identity didn’t exist then. Jason is, essentially, a twentieth to twenty-first century man who has been transported to the Regency era.

And I was, I confess, a bit irked about Jason’s eventual renunciation of his mistress. It had already been established that Jason liked women as well as men, and was an only son and was going to have to marry and produce offspring. Jason knew the first and accepted the second, so it was rather jarring when Jason gave up Rosalind for the sake of Alfred. I’m sure that some people were strictly faithful their same-sex lovers; it just doesn’t seem to fit here, given what we’ve been told of Jason, his background, and his family’s dynastic expectations.

However, the writing overall is good, and the author has done her research on historical detail, if not historical attitude. I particularly liked the details of the molly house to which Alfred flees–it’s not the elite sex club for gentleman that so often appears in gay romances and erotica, but a low-class brothel on the poor side of town, complete with “wedding chapel” for temporary unions.

I give it two stars–it’s not a bad short story. And I’d like to see what the author could do if she had time and space to fully show her characters’ emotional pasts.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure, Fictionwise or Kindle

Review: Fellow Travellers by T.C. Worsley

When Harry Watson, an attractive and personable ex-Guardsman, becomes involved with the young novelist Martin Murray, he is quick to assimilate Martin’s left-wing views.  He fits readily into Martin’s circle, along with the earl’s daughter and communist Lady Nellie Griffiths, her playboy nephew Pugh, and the unconfident Oxford undergraduate Gavin Summers.  But then Harry’s enthusiasm leads him to join the International Brigade, and all five are suddenly faced with the stark realities of the Spanish Civil War.

Review by Erastes

This is an English “Gone With the Wind” in a way, in the same way that Mitford’s 1930’s novels are; detailing a way of life that has gone forever–and a book which becomes a piece of social history, because although fictional on the surface, Fellow Travellers was written in the time, and is largely based on real-time events and real people.

The story is told in a fascinating manner; the unnamed narrator is a man who has been meaning to write a novel about these events, but has never really got around to it. (Many of us know that feeling!) So instead of wasting the time and research that he’s put into the project he presents us with his historical records of the events: letters, interviews with the five people involved and his own sporadic author’s notes.  He starts off with each of the five people giving their opinions of all of the other five, then deals with their political beliefs, and then the catalysts that led them all charging off to protect the doomed Spanish republic.

It took me a little while to get my head around the way the books was structured, but once I did I found it a much easier read than I had anticipated.  The unnamed narrator has an appealing style, and a dry sense of humour at times, and all five of the characters come to life little by little in varying degrees.

We are introduced to Harry first of all

The homosexuality (and indeed bisexuality) in this book is a simple fact, no-one is expecting anyone to judge, and there’s no sense at all of censure (until they go to Spain and Martin is faced with arrogant bigots) as they all frequent a literary pack of like-minded individuals where the right and wrong of gay life doesn’t impinge.  Harry and Martin are living in “uneasy domesticity” at the beginning; before Martin took up with him, Harry is “undeniably attractive” but a male “tart” (as he’s described several times in the book), going with anyone who will support him, and – as Martin says he’s sure of – would have come to a bad end had Martin not taken up with him.  Although from working-class mining stock, he’s a bit of a chameleon.

His capacity to fit himself into any situation or social circumstances was remarkable in one who had after all come from a miner’s terrace.  It was this capacity which had served him so well when he first burst upon London and discovered that there were plenty of willing gentlemen ready to play host to such an engaging personality.

It’s this chameleon quality, his magpie-like capacity to take on the respectability of others, and the political views of others which drives the book along.  Harry–the odd-man out in this little group of upper-middle and upper class intelligentsia–becomes the catalyst to events.  He finds Martin’s left-wing views and embraces them, joins the Communist Party but soon becoming bored when–in peacetime–there’s nothing much for him to do other than flag waving, speech making and marching.

Second of the characters is Lady Nellie, daughter of an Earl, and sister to an Earl.  As many of this class did in this time, she’s the black sheep of her family, the English rebel without a cause, finding a cause within the Communist Party and joining the Party without truly understanding the true meaning of the practicalities of it, despite reading Marx and others.

Gavin is a bit of a wet hen. He is trying to write an autobiographical novel, but moans that nothing has ever happened to him, so why would anyone read it. He scoffs at all of the others’ political and religious beliefs while having none of his own.  He had been in love with Harry at one point, and had a brief passionate affair with Pugh, but like everything he does, he can’t commit to anything.  His involvement in the war was actually quite intriguing.

Martin is probably the most complex of all the characters – based very strongly on the novelist Stephen Spender – he tries to balance his life around the varying pressures that affect him.  After six months with Harry he realises that it’s not going to work, and manages to persuade him to leave, but because he feels responsible for “adopting” Harry and getting him accustomed to a life beyond his means, he continues to support him, with a flat and an allowance.  He goes to Spain purely to help Harry out of the scrape he gets him into, again based on fact, as Stephen Spender did for his own ex-Guardsman lover, Tony Hyndham.  Incidentally, these elements of the book are echoed in another book that concentrates on this era “While England Sleeps” by David Leavitt which is reviewed here.

Pugh is probably the least clear of the characters, even though his story winds clearly through everyone else’s.  I can’t put my finger on why he’s quite so vague as a character–perhaps it’s because there are no actual interview directly with Pugh himself, like there are with the others. We know he’s wanton, bisexual rather than homosexual, and gets into trouble over just about anything.  If anyone was going to get into trouble in the war, it was bound to be him.

The characters’ opinions of everyone else are the lightest part of the book, and amusing in parts as everyone thinks they know everyone else and it’s very clear that they know nothing of the sort.  Nellie is convinced that Harry is determined to get a job and believes every excuse as to why he won’t take one, Gavin decries everyone, and Martin feels he is acting for the best.  As for the political section, I admit that I was a little lost in that, not really understanding the differences between socialism, communism, crypto-fascism and goodness knows what else.

The war itself cover slightly less than half the book, in all, and is only really dealt with in letters from the characters (not Pugh) to the narrator, and from diary entries from Nellie and Martin.  But what is written is vivid and unforgettable.  It’s hard not to be swept up in Nellie’s and Martin’s exhilaration of the Anarchist spirit  of Barcelona and then to mourn with them as they realise that there really can not be any such thing as a purely communist army where everyone is equal, and if it attempts to be so, it cannot help but fail.  I for one, with the sang-froid brought on by 40 or so years watching warfare on the TV, felt Nellie’s sheer horror as a new kind of warfare was born–one where cities were destroyed, thousands of evacuees fled from nowhere to nowhere, and where women and children are raked by plane machine guns while already fleeing for their lives.

What is clear, and for me, hard to read, is the way that European events were largely ignored by England. The juggernaut of Hitler and Mussolini lumbers towards the Second World War but it seems that England has its head stuck firmly in the sand.  Nellie’s brother David is the face of this denial here.  When Pugh decides to join the Carlists, the Catholic Nationalist supporters (and quite the wrong side as far as Nellie and the others were concerned), this is what Nellie reports of her conversation between David and herself:

‘And you’ll just let him throw his life away?’ I said.

‘What’s he doing now but throwing his life away?  If he’s going to do that, he might as well do it for something he believes in.’

‘Something you believe in!’ I said furiously. ‘Don’t imagine the he believes in it!  He doesn’t believe in anything.  Why, Gavin told me the only reason he’d picked on the Carlists was because they wore scarlet cloaks and berets!’

‘Well, he may come to believe in it,’ David said. ‘As I see it, it’s his big chance.  He’ll be mixed with decent people and that will be a change for the better you must admit.’

(It should be added here, that Pugh was a step-son of David, the Earl…)

The way that the scales fall from most of the characters’ eyes is sad to watch, after the buoyed up enthusiasm of all the flag-waving and the bonhomie of the International Brigade.  The realism that a just cause isn’t necessarily the winning side, and the sheer frustration that no-one is listening to the stories of the prison camps and the persecution.

As is probably obvious by the length of the review I was hugely impressed with this book–for all that parts of it made me feel like an ignorant nihilist–and the characters will stay with me forever, more so, I think because they portray real events and real people, albeit in a fictional manner. If you enjoyed While England Sleeps or Nancy Mitford’s work, you’ll definitely like this.

Highly recommended, and essential reading.  You may need to track a copy down, but well worth doing.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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