Review: Farewell my Concubine by Lilian Lee

A sweeping saga, Farewell my Concubine runs the gamut of China’s modern history, from 1924 to the 1980’s, and takes the revered Peking Opera as its centre stage. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou become friends under the harsh training regime of the opera (a mix of martial arts, deprivation and singing) and continue friends through the good and the very bad times of over 50 years of the country’s turbulent history

Review by Erastes

I’m going to say right out that if you have seen the film and are thinking about reading the book, and you expect the same optimistic conclusions to the character’s stories and actions within the film, you are likely to be either disappointed or surprised by the changes made – or both. Although the book does not end tragically, the film has a softer ending and also within the book the plotline regarding the abandoned child is not how it shown on the film. So be warned.

Ok – that’s that out of the way and I can concentrate on the book. Like many books about China, this is a fascinating read, because the cultures and mores of that culture are so very alien to most of a western audience. Lee lets us see Peking from the ground up; the surface “glamour” of actors and protitutes,looking affluent but look closer to see the ragged cloth shoes and the unhealthy pallor. Lee doesn’t flinch from the poverty and the squalour, and later on, the violence and degradation that the characters are forced to endure.

A young woman is desperate for her son to live, and to have a trade, carries her son to the Opera and asks them to take him on. We learn that Xiao Douzi (literally: Little Bean) has six fingers on one hand and in order for him to join the Opera–despite his excellent voice–he has to sacrifice it.There’s a theme of sacrifice that runs through the book, but you have to squint to see it.

Douzi’s mother was–for me–one of the unresolved plot lines, as this mother is never seen again, and despite Douzi missing her terribly, he does nothing to try and seek her out. It’s perfectly reasonable that she would disappear, but for him to do nothing about it, for he surely would have remember where he had lived, seems a little off, considering his character as it is painted for us.

We are introduced to the training regimen of the Opera, and from what I have read it’s not unusual, however harsh. I remember an interview with Jackie Lee who tells of his martial arts school and the terrible rigours he went through, so this is not much different, although absolutely shocking to our eyes, that young boys could be starved, beaten and humiliated in such a way. The training master is rather a cliche, I found, redolent of a sargeant major in a British sit-com or film, although he shows he does care about his charges, and whether they care for him or not, the respect they show him in later life (China, of course having a tradition of high respect for the older generation) is also highlighted.

Douzi is a natural “dan” due to his high clear voice and delicate features. A dan is a singer who specialises in female characters on stage—and in a similar fashion to the way that man-playing-female actors were trained in Shakespearian Britain – (see Stage Beauty for reference) – a dan is encouraged to consider himself female much of the time, and Douzi has to remind himself that he’s not.

The two friends stay together when they “graduate” from the ten years of their apprenticeship and they go out into the city singing their repetoire and getting better known. They are best known for the opera “Farewell my Concubine” in which Douzi (now renamed Deiyi as an adult) and Shito (renamed Xiaolou) play the concubine Yu Ji and her lover General Xiang Yu. Like many operas in the east and west, it has a tragic ending.

In the film it appears that Douzi’s sexual identity is a much bigger deal than the book, for here I found it incredibly muted, and other than a fierce loyalty, one touching scene in make-up when Shito was injured, I never really got the sense that Douzi loved Shito in some enormous way. It was very brotherly, quite hands off, and even his intense hatred and jealousy of Juxian–the prostitute that Shito marries–comes over as more of a Yoko Ono deal, and not ‘he would have loved me if it wasn’t for you.’ Douzi, doesn’t ever act on that love, so we never get a chance to find out.

The scenes where the Red Guards, consisting mainly of teenagers,  terrorise everyone who don’t adhere to the new ideals, were the most moving for me; the inhumanity of man against man, and the demonstration of just how blood-thirsty and cold young people. Harnessed for a task of cleansing the populace this section really shook me–particularly aligned against how very polite Chinese society was. The way that–even after the revolution of 1911–the country clung to its traditions, nearly had them entirely swept away in an Orwellian frenzy-only to start regaining a sense of their past was terrifying and made for a wonderful section to read.

There is a scene towards the end which is could almost be a scene from Orwell’s 1984, which is not terribly surprising, given the regime the three characters find themselves in, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking, although the real heartbreak comes at the end of the book.

However, I don’t know whether it was the translation, or just the book itself, but it didn’t really move me in the same way that other gay love stories have. I note that the translator was an academic but she wasn’t an author–perhaps it needed an author’s hand, because there were many grammatical issues, and there was some very American slang at times at times that was a tad jarring for 1920 and onwards. It’s when I read things like this that wish that I could read it in the original, but fat chance of that!

In fact I think that also, the book fails where the film shines, because it never really gives us a taste of the gorgeousness that the film is able to portray, the life of Deiyi and Xiaolou after they left the training regime and became actors, and started climbing the greasy pole to success is rather rushed, and I for one would have liked a bit more of this section.

It’s a fascinating read, however, if only for the portrait of a culture lost, and subsequent descriptions of the Mao regime as it attempted to eradicate anything that smacked of the “old traditions” and anyone with any interest in China will enjoy it for that reason, but the promise of the book in the first chapter  that it’s a story of men in love smacked just a little of a ploy to pull in people who want a gay romance, and it never delivers on that score.

Not a masterpiece, but well worth a read.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Fortunes of War by Mel Keegan

In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I enjoyed this book. The tale of Irish-Spanish mercenary Dermot Channon who, during a diplomatic mission, seduced Robin Armagh, son of an English earl. Love blooms, politics and war get in the way. This is a plotty, meaty histoprical novel that sees Dermot softened and committed and Robin grown up into Dermot’s equal.

I’m a sucker for gay novels where both men are equals. And also masculine. While Robin starts out as a young man, innocent and quite willingly seduced and taught about love, much of the novel is about negotiating the relationship, until both settle on the fact they are equals.

The historical detail rings true (the time is not my speciality, and I enjoyed it too much to go out hunting for inconsistencies). The novel has plenty of historical meat to sink your teeth into, from map making to types of ships. There’s plenty of conflict. English versus Spanish, Catholic versus Protestant, add privateering adventures and grim tales of rape and slavery, and you have a novel that will keep you turning pages.

In terms of gay history, the author shows us two different worlds. The continent, where gay sex is forbidden (the English court is a little more permissive) and is punished, and the Caribbean, where a captured man might end up gang-raped, and then the couples that form quite naturally while at sea.

This is also my first book by Mel Keegan, who’s been around a lot longer than most of the writers in the genre I’ve read, and I’m not disappointed. The style is quite different to what I’ve read recently for Speak Its Name. Keegan does a fair job making the prose sound archaic and infuses it with plenty of flavour. For the most part, that’s successful – there are some bits that clash a bit, but the energy and drive of the writing sweeps you easily past the rockier bits.

What does need work, however, is the editing. Punctuation is very hit-and-miss, and there are more typos than necessary. In addition, the book (I have the PDF) is strangely formatted, with blanks separating the paragraphs, and the lines ending sometimes after two thirds of the page rather than fill the whole breadth.

Some scenes feel quite repetitive, and there’s a scene when Dermot Channon, our hyper-virile proud Spanish mercenary, sulks and throws a passive-aggressive hissy fit that felt completely out of character and seemed to mainly serve to ramp up the conflict at a point in the book when both characters were without a care in the world.

In the end, this is a book that is interesting in a different way from those I’ve rated similarly. Keegan has a distinctive voice and a distinctive style and in terms of history and plotting, this is way more ambitious than most other books I’ve read in the genre. For that, I would have liked to give 4.5 stars, but the poor editing, formatting and the pretty weak cover shave off half a star. I will, however, seek out more books by Keegan and recommend this to anybody who is looking for a different voice, pirates and 16th century gay adventure and love.

Author’s website

Buy from Author’s site

In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

Review: City of Lovely Brothers by Anel Viz

“The City of Lovely Brothers” is a family saga, the history of Caladelphia Ranch, jointly owned by four brothers, Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban Caldwell – how it grew and prospered, and how rivalry between the brothers led to its breaking up and decline. As the story evolves, it focuses on the love affair between the youngest brother, Caliban, who is lame, and Nick, one of their ranch hands, and how their relationship set the stage for the already open feud to explode and ultimately caused the demise of the ranch.

Review contains spoilers

Review by Gerry Burnie

I enjoy this type of family saga; especially if it involves interesting, colourful characters. In this regard, The City of Lovely Brothers by Anel Viz [Silver Publishing, November 2010] has a full cast of them.

The author’s approach is to conjure up a fictional city, “Caladelphia,” Montana, as though it actually existed. Moreover, by referring to its street maps, city limits and equally fictional landmarks—i.e. “Hokey Hill Mall,” he does a very convincing job of it, as well. It is also a clever way of introducing the Caldwell family, their history, and the four disparate brothers—Calvin, Caleb, Calhoun and Caliban. There is also a sister, Callie, who plays a supporting role to the others. Continue reading

Winners Post!

Here you go – here are the winners thank you all for participating and for reading and commenting and congratulations!

As you can see, some people won more than once – or twice! But then they commented every day – so let that be a lesson to you!

Congratulations again! The reviews will start again after Christmas.

If you are a winner, be patient  I will be passing on your email addresses to the giftees and your presents should be forthcoming soon. If you haven’t heard from your donor by the middle of January, Please contact me on erastes at erastes dot com and I’ll chase people up for you.

Day 1 – Erastes choice of book – Shanna
Day 2 Charlie Cochrane’s – framed Coke advert – : Kitty
Day 3 Syd McGinley’s choice of ebook – TEDY
Day 4 Tedy – choice of ebook– Ruth Sims
Day 5 George – Hadrian’s Enigma – Nan Hawthorne
Day 6 Ruth Goody Bag- Tizi
Day 7 Nan – An Involuntary King – George Gardiner
Day 8 Anteros – $10 gift certificate George Gardiner
Day 9 Vashtan – copy of Lion of Kent – Karin T
Day 10 Hayden – Copies of Hayden’s books Melanie Marshall & George Gardiner
Day 11 Sophia – (Scrapple) – recipes and advice – Sal Davis
Day 12 Josh lanyon – 3 dvds – Vicki
Day 13 Lee Benoit – Maple Syrup & choice of ebook – Joan
Day 14 Alex Beecroft – $15 gift token Silwia T
Day 15 Leslie – choice of ebook Melanie Marshall
Day 16 J L Merrow –choice of book Melanie Marshall
Day 17 Stevie Wood – choice of book – Alex (creative whimsy)
Day 18 Ken – original manuscript – (chosen at Random – Twila)
Day 19 Alex Broughton – $10 gift certificate – Josh Lanyon
Day 20 Charlie Cochrane – Alex (creative whimsy)
Day 21 Lee Rowan – Canadian Coin – plus book Angie
Day 22 Anteros and Alex Broughton Joint – £20 charity donation – Stephanie Haviland.
Day 23 Jestana Silvercoat – $10 gift cert or a short story written for you – Steve Carroll
Day 24 JS Cook – copy of book – Emily Gained

The Winner of the BUMPER PRIZE is Melanie Marshall, who was the first person to get all the answers correct – however the others that entered will also get a little something. I’ll be in touch with you all within the next week or so.

Here are the answers:

1. Six
2. Four
3. Socks
4. Bailey
5. Beauty and the Beast
6. Dancer, Prancer, Cupid
7. Seventeenth
8. (arguably) Sir Henry Cole (would also accept Thomas Smith)
9. Narnia
10. Capricorn
11 5th/6th December
12. Little Women
13. Tchaikovsky
14. Boxing Day
15. Festival of Lights
16. Raymond Briggs
17. Frost Fair
18. Peter Auty
19. Australia
20. Was originally tenth month in Roman Calendar
21. His heart
22. Father Christmas/Santa
23. I Saw Moma Kissing Santa Claus
24. All born on December 24th

Congrats all – and we’ll see you again soon!

How to Win the Bumper Prize

Well, we are nearly there with our Advent Calendar!

Over the past 24 days there have been 24 bonus questions – answer them all and you will win a prize package of at least three gay themed books (not necessarily historical!) and some sweeties and whatever else I have to hand.

EMAIL your 24 answers to

ERASTES AT ERASTES DOT COM

by Midday Christmas Day (EST) or Five PM GMT and the first correct entry received will win the prize.

Good luck!!!! they may seem fiendish, but ALL are googleable.

The winners of this – and all the other prizes will be announced tomorrow afternoon GMT so keep an eye on the community.

 

 

Physician, Heal Thyself


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Advent Story


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