Review: Per Ardua by Jessie Blackwood

Addicted to the soaring skies, brash high-flier Arthur Edward “Jack” Ratigan returns to Britain to fly bombers when his birth country goes to war against Germany in World War II. It also means a return to his ancestral home of Pren Redyn House in Wales—and risking his career and freedom if it comes to light that he is homosexual. The drama and peril of combat will create profound changes in Jack both during and after the war, as will the influence of Ifan Griffith, the young butler at Pren Redyn and the one person who seems immune to the Ratigan charm. The sky has always been Jack’s true love, but when he faces a future of never flying again, he’ll discover he’s already found a surprising new home for his heart—with Ifan.

Review by Alex Beecroft

The blurb is possibly a little misleading as it certainly led me to expect there to be more flying in this book. I would summarize the story more like this:

Jack Ratigan’s bomber is shot down. He manages to safely crash land at his own airfield and saves the life of all his crew, but it’s at the cost of spinal injuries that leave him paralysed from the waist down. When he gets out of hospital (with some hope that he may get some movement back in time) he goes to convalesce and build a new life back at Pren Redyn. The story revolves around the family who live there, and the relationship between Jack and the butler of the house, who volunteers to care for him.

Beyond the crash scene at the beginning, the war doesn’t really come into the story. When I realized this, about half way through, I exclaimed to my husband “why would you set a story in WW2 if you’re only going to have it all take place in a big house like any novel set from Georgian to Edwardian times?” He’s a lot wiser than me and remarked that just because it’s set in that era doesn’t mean it has to be about the war. To which I grumbled that I would have preferred a few more explosions.

But this is a quieter book than that. More about a man coming to terms with the loss of his RAF career, learning to live with disability and to give up part of his independence. Jack is used to being the charming centre of attention and the man of action, and has scorned Ifan because he did not understand how anyone could be a servant all their life. Now he has to learn to appreciate what a vital role Ifan performs and what a capable personality it must take to undertake it. He must also learn to redefine himself and find something new to live for now that he will never be a pilot again.

I read to the end of this book with no great sense of hardship, which is more than I can say for many m/m romances. But I can’t say that I was ever particularly riveted either. Quiet psychological drama is not really my cup of tea. I felt that Ifan never really became anything more than simply a very capable person – he didn’t really come alive for me enough to care about him. Equally, I felt that Jack was described as charming, but I never actually found him charming. In fact there was a lot of that – a lot of instances where we were told things but never shown them.

The opening scene in the crashing bomber is my favourite part of the book, a gripping, suspenseful and action packed scene which showed that the author had done her research and pulled me straight into the action.

After this high point, however, there is a chapter or so where we are filled in on the backstory of every character in the book, including where they grew up and went to school, their parents’ backstories and sometimes even their grandparents’ backstories. All of this in a massive info-dump which I found entirely pointless and annoying, particularly as none of the information proved to be relevant later. If I had not had to finish the book for reviewing purposes, I would probably have stopped reading it at this point. Which would have been a shame, as it improves later.

The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks that fill us in on more of Jack and Ifan’s backstory individually and together. (They didn’t like each other initially. Jack taunted Ifan to the point where Ifan’s employer had to tell Jack to lay off. After which Ifan mysteriously fell in love with Jack.)

The nested flashback is another of those things that really isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer a story to start at the beginning and go on until the end. With this book there were a couple of occasions where I got confused about what time in Jack’s life I was reading about and had to stop and say to myself “no, hold on, he’s walking at this point, so it must be earlier than the part I was just reading about.”

Eventually the flashbacks do catch up with the present, and from that point on the story unfolds in linear fashion. This was a great relief and I enjoyed the final two or three chapters almost as much as the very first scene. My feeling, as a result, is that there’s a good book in here but it’s being undermined by the kind of structural problems which are often the downfall of first novels.

If you don’t mind backstory, info-dumps and flashbacks, and you enjoy a quiet romance where not a lot really happens, this will be very much more your sort of thing than it was mine. I still wish that there had been a few more explosions.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press (paper and ebook)

Review: Fall of a State by Kate Cotoner

The desire of an emperor… Bored with his usual palace musicians, the emperor Liu Che is tempted by a new song from lowly qin-player Li Yan Nian. Yan Nian is also beautiful, and Liu Che is in the mood to take a new lover. His lovers usually come to him, but Yan Nian’s shy reticence intrigues the emperor.

The yearning of a man… Yan Nian has been in love with the emperor since he entered the palace. Regardless of his heart, he made a promise on his father’s deathbed to use his musical skills to bring his beloved younger sister to the emperor’s attention. However, Lady Li has no intention of becoming an imperial concubine.

The danger of love… An attack at a victory celebration heralds an attempt on the emperor’s life, and desire and yearning collide when it’s revealed there may be no way to protect all the hearts threatened by a plot to overthrow the state.

Review by Erastes

The author herself calls this book a “fluffy version” of the true-life affair between Lui Che, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty of China and Li Yan Nian a court musician in the Emperor’s court. But I wouldn’t call it fluffy, as such. Perhaps it is a little rose-tinted, but there’s no way this could be labelled as “wallpaper” because of the solidity of the world painted around the characters and the obvious depth of knowledge that the author has. If you dig a little deeper into the “what happened to these characters in real life” then the happy ever after loses some of its gloss it has to be said.

It’s a shame, really, that this is almost a throwaway novella with a sharply erotic focus because Lui Che was a hugely fascinating man–and the way he shaped the Empire around him would be more than enough material for many, many books — and has been.

But what this book does–as an erotic novella–it does exquisitely well, and exquisite is a good word here, because the careful elegance of Chinese courtly life is described so beautifully that you can see every graceful movement of the courtiers, hear the swish of silk and brocaded satin as it sweeps along nightingale floors, and even smell the weight of history.

I don’t doubt the a man as powerful as Lui Che was could have had any man or woman in the kingdom, so his manner of “seduction” strikes true (that being said, it stretched my credulity a tad that he’d bother to go to Nian’s room in the musical quarter to have sex with him) and the interplay between them, particularly in the first sex scene is as taut as a guitar string and quite lovely. There’s some whipping, and even though it’s not my thing, I admit it’s gorgeously done, and you really get a sense that–as with the time period–Cotoner knows exactly what she’s doing and how to describe this play.

It’s a hard balance to do quite such an erotic novella of this length and still include enough plot and characterisation to keep you enthralled from beginning to end, but this manages it very well. Highly enjoyable. I hope that the author does a more detailed book in future of this era because I’d love to know more about it.

The cover deserves a special mention and is certainly one of my favourites this year. It really looks like it could have been done in the era concerned.

Interested in China and same sex relationships? Then read Kate’s article on The Macaronis.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Ahoy!

Greetings, ye sons and daughters of the bilge.

Today, for those less enlightened souls, is the world-famous Talk Like a Pirate Day and so we are celebrating here – on The Macaronis AND on the Speak Its Name Chat Group with a myriad of piratey based fun.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be keel-hauling sailors, painting everyone blue as we cross the equator and laughing uproariously as we push people off planks into sharks or crocodiles mouths, but we will be doing pirate based activities.

After all, there’s nothing more manly than striding about barechested with a cat-o’ nine-tails and skin tight breeches, right? ARRRR!!!! Continue reading

Review: Teleny and Camille by Jon Macy

Teleny is the haunted musical genius that everyone desires but no one has truly touched… until the fateful night that he senses Camille’s presence in the audience. The wealthy young man is instantly seduced by Teleny’s dark beauty and smoldering melancholy. This groundbreaking and powerful early gay novel, written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his anonymous circle of writers, is now re-interpreted as a graphic novel, in all its lush, pansexual excess.

Review by Hayden Thorne

When I first found out about Macy’s graphic novel adaptation, I was elated. I read Teleny a while ago and was moved – in so many different ways – by the book. Yes, there’s the breathless, passionate love story between Teleny and Camille, but along with that come scenes of ugly excesses (heterosexual and homosexual), tragedy, and grotesque surrealism, the last item oftentimes bursting at the seams with detail piled upon bizarre detail and written in pretty florid prose. The novel, believed to have been written by Oscar Wilde and a number of other writers (of varying talents) round robin-style, is groundbreaking in its open defiance of Victorian morality. Its uneven narrative style – alternating between painfully purple and elegantly subdued – weakens the story in some instances, but the rawness of emotion and the sincerity of these writers’ efforts in celebrating same-sex passion while condemning hypocrisy also add to the book’s strength, solidifying its place in the gay canon.

It’s very much a visual book, which, to me, makes it an ideal candidate for a graphic novel adaptation.

Macy’s graphic novel opens with a modern day dialogue involving the artist himself and a friend. Here Macy shows us the difficulties posed by the novel – more specifically, the challenge of making gay men from over a century ago accessible to a modern day audience. There were, after all, limitations to the way they communicated homosexual passion. They had to use metaphors and references to historical figures. There was also the problem of the visuals in the novel and how a twenty-first century artist could translate those without undermining the narrative’s social commentary, considering the pornographic nature of the book.

Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends decided to put down on paper a story so pure in its reveling in homosexuality that it was not just pornography, but a rallying cry for how they wanted to change society.

They were poets and aesthetes, carrying sunflowers and dressing flamboyantly. They shocked society and posted a threat to the status quo.

Every gay stereotype we have today comes from these men. They politicized their aesthetic. They broke all convention. They were the original uppity fags.

It’s impossible to include all of the scenes in the book in an adaptation, so a delicate balancing act needed to be made. In the end, Macy manages to capture the energy and the dizzying emotions through some carefully chosen scenes. In fact, I’ll go further and say that this adaptation of Teleny is practically minimalist in approach without sacrificing the essentials that shaped the narrative and its emotional impact.

And this is the great part about illustration. It captures, in one or two panels, a scene or a pivotal moment in the story that would’ve taken several paragraphs of text to convey.

I’m glad – very glad – to see that Macy didn’t hold back in not only showing the celebration of Teleny and Camille’s romance (angst and all), but also those very important scenes that are antithetical to the physical, emotional, and even spiritual connection these two men have. The brothel that Camille and his school friends visit as well as Briancourt’s symposium are two remarkably vivid scenes of sexual excesses that lead to tragedy. There’s also Teleny’s affair with the Countess, which is a quieter and more personal foil to Teleny’s relationship with Camille.

The chapters that never made it to the graphic novel are mostly found in the middle of the book, and to me, skipping them doesn’t really take too much away from the story’s main point. Those chapters, after all, are mostly about Camille and his desperate and ultimately disastrous efforts at playing the heterosexual card in order to avoid acknowledging his love for Teleny. Wilde and his circle made a point about the extremes that gay men were forced to go in order to play by society’s rules and how they sometimes came at a high price. In Camille’s case, the price is paid by his doomed servant.

If leaving those scenes out proves to be detrimental, the effects are really minimal, and that’s being nitpicky. Camille, for instance, in his desire to commit suicide by jumping into the river, might appear to be overreacting to seeing Teleny with Briancourt or to seeing the depressing nighttime cruising in a park. Before that point in the story, after all, he’s been tested heavily and painfully, but we don’t get to see it in the graphic novel.

But like I said, that’s being nitpicky.

As for Macy’s artistic style, I find it sensual and bold, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and certainly appropriate to the story. And as though to mimic the shifting narrative styles of the book from florid and purple to beautifully elegant, Macy’s art changes just as easily, from lovely to grotesque but remains, on the whole, decadent and lush.

And just as Macy uses a preface to tell us about the difficulties of a modern adaptation of a classic novel, he also appends an alternate ending after giving us the original conclusion. To explain this unusual approach, we’re back to seeing Macy and his friend discuss the depressing nature of so many gay novels that end in tragedy.

It’s like we’re too damaged to even dare imagine being happy.

With that, he offers us an alternate conclusion to Teleny and Camille’s love story. Whether or not modern day readers will take to this is ultimately an issue of individual taste, but the context is certainly important. Given the ongoing desperate attempts of social conservatives to demonize the LGBT community, one can consider the more hopeful ending to be just as defiant a celebration of same-sex love as the original novel and its darker conclusion.

Read the first chapter

Author’s Website
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Review: Duke of Orleans by John Simpson

Twenty year old Richard Giles is living on the streets of London in the year 1660, scrounging for food and shelter the best he is able after the closure of his place of employment and death of his mother.

After being given shelter for the night by a kindly old man Richard is back on the streets when an unfortunate incident brings him into contact with a man who may just change the direction of his life, for the better.

Review by T J Pennington

John Simpson’s The Duke of Orleans reads, in part, like a history book…and not in a good way. The descriptions of the time and place are stilted, sounding as if they were chucks of an essay by a very earnest student rather than observations by an omniscient narrator or by the main character. For example:

Many turned to crime, becoming pickpockets and petty thieves, transforming the streets into a morass of corruption.

For those caught plying their trade, it was a stint in Newgate Prison, which far surpassed the definition of cruel in any decent person’s mind. Women and their children were housed along with common debtors in cellblocks considered to be austere at best, unless you had the coin. Then you could buy your way into the section of the prison containing upscale furnishings and comforts, while enlarging the pockets of the jailors whose tender mercies you were subjected too.(sic)

All of which is more or less accurate (“austere” is a remarkably charitable description of the Newgate cells)…but all of which is irrelevant, at that point. We know nothing about the the main character yet save his name, so we don’t care for him. And we don’t wonder if Newgate Prison will be a threat somewhat later. (It isn’t.)

We learn more about the main character on the next page. Unfortunately, the author has not mastered the art of showing rather than telling. We are told that he won’t steal unless he’s on the verge of starving; we aren’t shown him having an opportunity to steal and resisting it despite the temptation. We’re told that he sold off everything that he inherited long ago, though we aren’t told why. And finally we read a sentence that pushes us away from the time, the place and the main character: In the jargon of the day, Richard was a pauper.”

We learn that Richard Giles is the world’s most passive prostitute. His method of attracting business? Standing in front of restaurants and looking attractive and pathetic so that rich men will pity him, feed him and take him home for sex. This doesn’t strike me as a viable way of attracting multitudes of customers, especially if one is homeless, penniless and starving—when was the last time that you went out to dinner and invited a street person to dine with you?–but apparently it works for Richard.

Well, a lord strolls by as lords are wont to do (he’s called “my lord” three or four times, so I presumed that he was intended to be nobility), sees Richard looking hungry and sad, and immediately invites him to partake of “some hot food and cool drink.” We get no sense that Lord X is looking for a bit of fun or that Richard is offering any. The man who owns the pub that they enter behaves believably, shouting at Richard to leave, as he doesn’t want paupers and potential thieves hanging about his pub. Of course, he is immediately smacked down by the lord for daring to suggest that he doesn’t have the money to pay and for criticizing the lord’s guest.

The lord, as it turns out, is not a lord. He is Henry Walker, merchant. He asks Richard why he’s on the streets and Richard recites his true biography. If the narrative had not told us that this was his real background, I would have thought that he had memorized a false story and was reeling it out for a customer. When questioned further about the job he lost, he slips from the formal recitation into 21st-century slang:“I kinda kept the records of what was made and who bought what we sold.”

Sadly, Simpson alternates between stiffly formal and anachronistic language and behavior throughout the book. The barmaid sing-songs, “May I take your order?” much as a waitress in today’s family restaurant would. Richard’s problem with finding employment is one that today’s homeless face; employers require an address for their records. I think that would have been less of a problem in the days when people could be hired on for X amount of hours and paid at the end of the day.

There’s also the problem of how much money was worth back then. Richard states that he came to London after he lost his job with only six shillings in his pocket. That doesn’t sound like much to us. But in 1660, £0 6s 0d would have the same worth of 2008′s £33.70 (using the retail price index) or £459.00 (using the average earnings of the time). Economist Jan Luiten van Zanden says that the income of an unskilled laborer on a construction site in Oxford, Cambridge, Dover or Canterbury was 12 pence (or one shilling) a week (worth £5.61 using the 2008 retail price index and £76.50 using average earnings); in London, the wage for an unskilled laborer was 20 pence (or one shilling eightpence) per week (£9.35 using the 2008 retail price index and £128.00 using average earnings).

So when Richard got to London, he was ridiculously well off. He had a small fortune in his pocket. And we haven’t seen any reason yet why he couldn’t live on that.

Walker takes Richard home. Not because he’s interested in men or boys—he states that openly—but because he “had a rough childhood and young adulthood.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, as Richard is neither a child nor an adolescent but a grown man. The housekeeper is only too happy to scrub and mend Richard’s clothes after a long day of work, just as Walker himself is only too happy to do a footman’s job and build the fire in the guest room that Richard is occupying.

The next day, though, Richard has to leave; Walker has relatives coming from York, and well, you know how it is. Richard, effusively grateful for the one night’s sleep, the bath and the newly mended, clean clothes, goes out onto London’s streets again. And that’s it. That’s the last we see of Walker until the end of the story, when Richard pops up again to tell him how well he’s doing.

Now that Richard is cleaner and more rested than he’s been in weeks, does he try to go get a day job somewhere, as would have been possible in his time? Does he tell a proprietor of a store or an inn that he’ll work for food? Does he go to a carriage house or livery stable and offer to help muck it out so that he’ll have somewhere to sleep for the night? Oh, no. He heads to Parliament to beg. And “[h]e hoped his clothes didn’t look too good for people to believe he was a pauper.”

When he gets to Parliament, he is “run off continuously by the local constabulary and finally threatened with arrest.” I’m not sure how that managed to happen, since Henry Fielding didn’t found the Bow Street Runners, an unofficial police force that worked for the Bow Street Magistrate’s office, until 1749 and Sir Robert Peel didn’t establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London—the first modern police force–until 1829.

Anyway, Richard gets rousted from one of the front doors of Parliament, so he starts wandering about in front of the more fashionable shops and gets splashed by a carriage drawing up to the curb. Richard charges up to the coachman and starts berating him. This is the point at which a “youngish” French noble (the eponymous Duc d’Orléans, who would have been twenty at the time of this story, and not, as the character later says, twenty-six) gets out of the carriage himself and goes over to talk to Richard. And he apologizes for the driver splashing Richard.

Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans

Let me repeat that. An aristocrat who is the younger son of King Louis XIII and his consort, Anne of Austria, the grandson of Philip III of Spain, the younger brother of King Louis XIV, and the Duke of Anjou and Duke of Orléans in his own right gets out of his carriage and apologizes to the poorly dressed commoner who is now soaking wet, covered in mud and shit, and screaming at his coachman.

Philippe (for that was the name of the Duke of Orléans) offers to make it up to Richard by buying him an entire set (read: suit) of new clothes. He also introduces himself as “Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Duke of Valois, Duke of Chartres and Lord of Montargis,” which is jumping the gun a bit; he was styling himself as Duke of Orléans as of February 2, 1660, but Louis didn’t grant his brother that title or any of the others until May 10, 1661.

Richard protests that he lacks “employ, money, or a place to rest each night” and that he’s “a non-person”—a word that didn’t exist in the seventeenth century—and, with that, tries to leave. The duke shouts at him not to do so…and Richard is instantly attacked by servants and shopkeepers who think that he’s trying to rob the duke. The duke explains that no, he wasn’t being robbed, he just wants to talk to Richard. Oh, and make him three sets of clothes. One in full evening dress.

While Richard is taking a bath in a washtub in one of the back rooms of this fancy tailor shop, the Duke of Orléans asks Richard what kind of work he’s looking for. When Richard says he can write and figure, Philippe hires him as a valet and personal secretary, despite the fact that Richard can neither read nor write French and says so. His appraising gaze as he looks at Richard’s naked soapy body says exactly why he’s hiring the man. He also notes that despite deprivation—and Philippe thinks to himself that he’s seen such deprivation before on the battlefield, though the first war that Philippe seems to have been in was the War of Devolution in 1667—despite it, Richard is “fairly well muscled.” He also talks to Richard about “the stunning beauty of your ass.”

Once the clothes are taken care of, Philippe explains to Richard why he’s in England—his brother and his advisors sent him to England to keep him from starting a civil war to grab the throne. This would be an interesting Dumaseque plot. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. The story contains no further information about a conspiracy to overthrow Louis or an upcoming civil war. Which is a pity. It would have made a compelling alternate universe story.

After a long section in which Philippe takes Richard to his ambassadorial residence, gives Richard all sorts of instructions about his duties and proper etiquette, and has a couple of meals with Richard (because servants always sat down and ate with their employers), Philippe finally asks Richard if he prefers men. Upon Richard admitting that he does, the Duke says that he prefers men as well…and would Richard “care to join [him] in bed tonight where we both can remain warmer?”

Of course Richard says yes, and of course Philippe assures him that nothing will happen that night…while at the same time asking Richard if he will be his “student in love.” You would expect that night to feature a passionate sex scene. But instead, Philippe curls up next to Richard and falls asleep. They don’t have sex until a week later—over the protests of Richard, who tells the duke, “I am not very experienced in the ways of physical love and I might disappoint you.” Um…Richard? Weren’t you working as a streetwalker earlier, sexually obliging men who would feed you?

After a couple of fairly standard sex scenes, Philippe tells Richard that he loves him and wants him to come back to France with him…as his lover. And, after a conversation with Charles II, in which Charles wants an Anglo-French alliance against Spain—never mind that an Anglo-French alliance already defeated Spain in the Franco-Spanish War in 1658 and England profited from that alliance in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659—Philippe suggests sending Richard to Louis XIV as a messenger.

Of course, Philippe says, a mere commoner can’t meet with his brother. So Charles agrees to make Richard the Earl of Dunleavy. The title doesn’t bring Richard any land, but it does give him what Charles calls “a token”–one hundred pounds a year. According to Measuring Worth, that’s about £11,200.00 in 2008 pounds, using the retail price index, or £153,000.00 in 2008 pounds, using average earnings. (I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of “small token” each year myself.)

And, naturally, as the story concludes, it is implied that Richard and Philippe are going to live together happily for the rest of their days. Unfortunately, the only way that works is if you ignore not only Philippe’s marriage in November 1660 to Henrietta of England (called Minette, and mother of four of his children) and his later marriage to Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate (called Liselotte, and mother of three more), but also the existence of the man who was allegedly the love of Philippe’s life, Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, called the Chevalier de Lorraine, whom Philippe met in 1668. The Chevalier was described as “fait comme on peint les anges”–”made as the angels are painted”–and remained with the Duc d’Orléans until the Duke’s death.

The story itself has problems. First, I must mention both the cover and the editing—which are not the author’s responsibility, but which do count, nevertheless. The cover is attractive, and looks as if it were modeled on the Running Press covers, but it is not even vaguely accurate; of the two men on the cover, the one on the left is dressed in what appears to be late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century garb, while the one on the right is clad in what looks like a black jacket and a white mock-turtleneck. Neither is wearing anything approaching seventeenth-century attire…or the long and elaborate curly wigs that were the hallmark of fashionable men’s hairstyles in the seventeenth century, either. And the editing is ill-done; there are many, many missing quotation marks, missing commas and commas inserted scattershot into the text. The errors were distracting and annoying; they kept pulling me out of the story.

As for the writing itself…well, as mentioned throughout this review, the story is very, very poorly researched; even the age of the bisexual Duc d’Orléans is wrong. The language is alternates between being stilted and being slangy and anachronistically modern. And the characters are not developed; we never get a sense of them as people with thoughts, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. I’ve finished the book, but I don’t feel that I know Richard any better now than I did on the first page.

Finally—and this is linked to the lack of characterization–there is no overarching plot. The novella is, fundamentally, a series of anecdotes about a impoverished young man who is given everything that he could ever want because he is a wonderful, noble, humble and saintly person. We never see Richard being poor or unhappy or struggling or starving; we hear about it, but we don’t see him suffering. Richard, like many fairy tale heroes and heroines, is kind and courteous to the right mysterious old man and old woman (Henry Walker and the housekeeper Martha, respectively) and gets his heart’s desire. It is the Cinderella story with the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters left out.

And because there is no opponent, no antagonist, no threat to Richard, no conflict at all, and because Richard, who is the quintessential Passive Protagonist, never needs to accomplish any goals through his own efforts (and, indeed, never tries to do so), the story is not interesting. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy—and while everyone on earth has daydreamed about getting wealth, power, the perfect job and the perfect lover, a daydream is not a fully developed story.

Because there are so many basic problems with the book, the most I can give it is one star.

Author’s website

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Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Review by Ammonite

I admit that Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and I think she has outdone herself in this, her latest. The setting is the 1930s and 1940s of Mexico and the United States, and it is obvious that she has dug deeply into research of the period. The story begins with the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, as a young boy living (practically prisoners) with his mother and her wealthy lover on an island off the coast of Mexico. She is an attractive, vivacious Hispanic woman who constantly seeks that perfect wealthy gentleman who will take care of her and her son, in spite of the fact she is still married to his father, a conservative and rather dull paper-pusher in Washington, D.C.

The boy (and the man) becomes involved with wonderfully-dawn characters, including the artists Diego Rivera, his wife, Frida Kahlo, and Leonin Trotsky, as well as many others he meets on his life-changing journey from the island to Mexico City, thence to New York, until he eventually settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he becomes a famous writer of novels about the Aztecs. It is this last, becoming famous, that is his downfall, in the twisted way so many famous (and not so famous) were ruined by J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of supposed communists in the years after WWII.

It is only gradually, with hints here and there, that the reader becomes aware that Harrison Shepherd is gay. This is another reason I love this book–it is not about a gay man. It is about a courageous, intelligent, compassionate man that happens to be gay. Kingsolver focuses on how persons may be ruined by gossip, by fear of the unknown, by the press, by how ordinary folks tend to “jump on the bandwagon” of what is made popular by others’ paranoia–in this case, their fear of communism. It is this paranoia that ruins Harrison’s life. Only he happens to be gay, as well. Someday, maybe all stories will be approached like this, wherein being gay only happens to be one more side of one’s personality.

I have been studying how to become a better writer, and it is all in this novel: the perfect metaphors, the spot-on characterizations, the beautifully-structured sentences, sensory descriptions, stimulating ideas, on and on and on. The title is a metaphor and so is the first paragraph:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

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Review: Star Attraction by Jamie Craig

In 1955, Sam Coles is Hollywood’s newest rising star, and his latest role in Gordon Palmer’s movie, The Devil Inside, promises to send his popularity into the stratosphere. But Sam is less interested in the potential boost to his career, and more interested in his gorgeous co-star, Hollywood’s latest bad boy, Elijah McKinley.

Their careers rely on discretion, but Sam and Elijah cannot deny the desire between them. Stealing glances and casual touches between takes soon gives way to heated kisses and clandestine meetings after shooting.

But neither of them knows what will happen when filming wraps and their lives move in separate directions…

Review by Erastes

Oh dear – I’m not going to spend too much time discussing this. it’s a short novella which is short on everything except sex.   Calling it a historical was rather cheeky, because other than being told that it’s 1955, and Billy Wilder being mentioned, there’s absolutely nothing to anchor the reader in that glamorous time.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement, because I’ve read and reviewed many of Jamie Craig’s books and they’ve never dipped below “very good” They’ve always had a knack of being able to set the scene with the briefest of brush strokes, no matter how short the story. But with this, I couldn’t help but feel it was hastily converted from a contemporary movie story, because it had none of the flavour of the time its set in.  And that’s criminal, because this time in Hollywood was a time of such upheaval as it moved from the unrealistic glitz and glamour of the huge sets and dance numbers to the more realistic and gritty life stories. There’s no description of Hollywood, no cars, no clothes, no parties–nothing. Even when our heroes go to a movie premiere, we aren’t even told which one it was!

Storywise, we are just as short changed. It’s boy fancies boy, gets erections, hooks up after one conversation and spends a lot of time in bed with him before true love is declared about a week later. There’s absolutely no conflict, and I’m sorry, but even a one page short story needs conflict–and the 1950′s Hollywood is such a hotbed of hypocrisy and coverups that it would have been easy to miss one page of sex to create some.

All we are left with then, is the erotica, for it is simply an erotic tales where the large proportion of the book is involved in burgeoning erections and then pages and pages of sex.  Very nicely written sex; I’ll be the first to stand up and say that, but when it comes down to it these days, I think readers are looking for more than that.

Editing wise, it leaves a lot to be desired. Unwanted homonyms pop up such as principle/principal (which I could have glossed over easier had it not been about the acting profession), typos are rife and there are many grammar problems. It needed a much better editor. There are words such as “gay” and “straight” which weren’t in use at the time. It was probably these two words alone that made me think this was converted from a contemporary.  As for the editing – I’ve mentioned Amber Allure’s not great reputation at editing more than once, but clearly no-one’s listening. I wish they’d take off the tagline “the gold standard in publishing” and then I’d stop moaning.

If you want a sexy, racy read then you’ll enjoy this. If you are looking for a gay romance set in the period of such classics as East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, then you are going to be bitterly disappointed.  This writing duo can do a lot better than this, and I urge you to read their other books and not be put off by this one.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure

Buy from Amber Allure

Review: Counterpoint by Ruth Sims

At eighteen Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.

But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?

Review by Erastes

I’ve always been of the opinion that books should be pretty. To (probably) misquote the Arts & Crafts Movement, “one should have nothing in one’s house, that is not useful and decorative.”

Counterpoint is beautifully laid out. From the gorgeous cover by Alex Beecroft (which clearly tells the story) to the wonderful art nouveau font on the headings, this book looks good.

But is it useful? I.e. It might look good, but is it well written?

In a word, yes. This won’t come as any surprise to those readers who have already read Ms Sims’ first book “The Phoenix.” They–as have I–have been waiting a long time for this book, and the polite thing would be to say that the wait was worth it, but I’m greedy and wouldn’t complain if Ms Sims wrote a book a year. This shows progression from the Phoenix; there is a richer depth of emotion and characterisation, and the love affairs described are touching in a way that I never felt with the characters from the first novel.

This is, as the title suggests, Dylan’s story, and he stands firmly at the core of it all:  young, passionate, arrogant with a very firm belief in his talent and entirely obsessed with music, and with little care for anything else, whether it be rules, or family. It’s only the attempts of his family and friends that save him from ruining himself entirely, because if he had been allowed he would have run off and studied music right from the beginning of the book.

It’s a real coming-of-age story, not in a clichéd way of “I’m homosexual and have to come to terms with it” but the way that life forces Dylan to get to grips with his pride, overcome it at times, and compromise with other people, other artists. At first he’s all “it’s my way or nothing” but gradually he learns to work with others, even if that sense of “no, I’m right, and they’ll realise it one day” never leaves him. He sees something, and in his brash young, privileged manner he thinks everything, including love, will fall into his lap, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes to see how he finds that life isn’t like that.

I think the blurb hints that there’s real tragedy in this book, and so readers who can’t bear anyone dying might need to check out whether they want to get invested in the story before starting. But I liked it because life’s like that, you don’t always get to live with the person you love–not forever, and this handles that very well.  I have to say that the “forbidden love” tag in the blurb confused me – in that day and age, I couldn’t see why one homosexual relationship was any more forbidden than another.

There are themes here that are echoed from The Phoenix, and I think I would have preferred something altogether different rather than another artisan who works hard to get to the top of his profession. There’s a top-heavy amount of tragedy, too, which didn’t put me off, as I’m a lover of unremitting angst, but it would have been nice if we’d been shown some of the lighter, sweeter moments in Dylan’s life, especially with his relationship with Laurence Northcliff.

It might sound like I’m being super critical, but when a book is actually as good as this, there’s little point me telling who how damned good. But it is. Sims’ prose is never too layered or dense that you get lost in run-on sentences and too many adjectives; she seems to have an instinct of exactly how much description to add to create an atmosphere, and when to let well enough alone and let the imagination take flight.She never becomes over-technical, particularly when dealing with concepts such as the Gypsies or music, but neither does she dumb down–relying instead on context to make her meaning crystal clear.

As a rich and winding story of love, obsession, disappointment and talent it works beautifully, and anyone with an interest of the fin de siècle period of London and Paris will find it satisfying and intense. Don’t miss this one.

Author’s website

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Review: The Dark Farewell by Josh Lanyon

It’s the Roaring Twenties. Skirts are short, crime is rampant, and booze is in short supply. Prohibition has hit Little Egypt where newspaper man David Flynn has come to do a follow-up story on the Herren Massacre. But the massacre isn’t the only news in town. Spiritualist Medium Julian Devereux claims to speak to the dead–and he charges a pretty penny for it.

Flynn knows a phoney when he sees one, and he’s convinced Devereux is as fake as a cigar store Indian. And he’s absolutely right. But when Julian begins to see bloodstained visions of a serial killer, the only person he can turn to for help is the cynical Mr. Flynn.

Reviewed by Erastes

We are always, as authors, being advised by Those That Know that to get a book sold and to capture the reader, you need a killer first line. And this book certainly has one:

The body of the third girl was found Tuesday morning in the woods a few miles outside Murphysboro.

It sets the scene and intrigues, without being trying too hard. And yet – although this hints at much, this isn’t really even the main plot of this clever, convoluted novella.

This is (embarrassingly) the first book I’ve read of Lanyon’s. My reasons–or excuses–are simple: People generally clamour to review his books for the site before I even know they are out, and with the amount of books I have to read I’m happy to let others cover it. But I found that no-one had picked this one up and I did it myself.

I have to say, I’m impressed, although–having heard my friends’ praise that shouldn’t have surprised me. Lanyon writes very well in a direct, but descriptive manner. The tone reminded me a little of Chandler, with the touches of description and personal opinion, shuttered away behind a tough guy veneer.

It would be entirely wrong to try and tag a label on this book. It is a standalone, but it is to published in The Mysterious anthology (along with Laura Baumbach and Alex Beecroft) and that’s a good way to label it, if labelling is necessary: mysterious. That being said, with it not exactly being a romance and it not being exactly a paranormal – it IS a great whodunnit, with a great cast of characters all of whom could be the guilty party.

What I particularly liked, though, was the way that this didn’t go at all the way I expected. We meet a couple of guys that the  protagonists tags with his gaydar, and without spoiling too much I thought things would go otherwise than they did.  While I didn’t feel feel ever very close to Flynn–and I think this was deliberate because he’d shut himself off from just about everyone due to the war, and his job, and losses he’d suffered–I fell almost instantly in love with Julian, the spiritualist. “A sissy, if ever he’d seen one” thinks Flynn, and he’s right.

I loved how Flynn disliked Julian – and the reasons why he disliked him. He’s coloured by prejudice against spiritualism, and he hates that Julian is effeminate–because it reflects something in himself that he isn’t able to show openly, something that he’s learned to be disgusted in himself. I loved their first private encounter, and when more was learned about Julian, it made me sad to see Flynn treat him like that.

I think my main complaint about the book would be a purely personal one, and that’s one I’ve often stated with novellas, that this has more than enough material in it to be a full-sized novel, and it short changes itself by being the size it is. It might be this aspect, the pure distillation of so many facets and ideas that made me a little confused at times, and I would rather have meandered along those Illinois byways for a happy 80,000 words without a complaint. Because of the size (42,000 words)

I felt the characterisation was sometimes a bit rushed, we are whizzed around the introductions for everyone in the boarding house for example, the other gay relationship Flynn forms is picked up and dropped rather too abruptly too. There’s so many themes here, the debunking–or not–of spiritualism, antiquated methods of medicine, mine safety, unions, prohibition, and much more. With a novel to play in, Lanyon could have wallowed in the intimate talks with all the other inmates of the hostel, layered the tension, laid more red herrings.  But I can’t mark the book down because of what I’d like it to have been!

On the negative side: the cover is pretty misleading, as it looks like naked men in the trenches, which is so not what the book is about–and the blurb within the book itself could have done with an editor. There are two(!) typos in it–and I really hate these jokey warnings Samhain do.  Warning: This novella contains phony spiritualists, cynical newspapermen, labor disputes, illicit love affairs, high-calorie southern cooking, and more than fifty-percent humidity! But that’s probably just me being curmudgeonly, I’m sure loads of readers love this touch. To me it smacks of fanfiction (from where these warnings seem to have come) and lessens the worth of the book. It makes it sound like a comedy, and it’s anything but that, and it doesn’t do the book the justice it deserves.

But if you haven’t read this novella, then I strongly recommend it, it was exactly “my kind of book” with enough difference from many other books to keep me reading and reading. I’ll certainly be trying other books of Lanyon’s now on the strength of this.

Author’s website

Buy from Samhain Press

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