Review: The Christmas Wager by Jamie Fessenden

To discharge a debt to his friend, Andrew Nash, Lord Thomas Barrington returns to the family estate he fled six years earlier after refusing to marry the woman his father had chosen. To Thomas’s dismay, Barrington Hall is no longer the joyful home he remembers from his childhood, and his young niece has no idea what Christmas is.

Determined to bring Christmas back to the gloomy estate, Thomas must confront his tyrannical father, salvage a brother lost in his own misery, and attempt to fight off his father’s machinations. As the holidays near, Thomas and Andrew begin to realize they are more than merely close friends… and those feelings are not only a threat to their social positions but, in Victorian England, to their lives as well.

Review by Erastes

This is rather a review in two parts as I explain what did work for me and what didn’t.

I enjoyed the story–despite the things I say later about it–it’s has a nice feel to it, and just about every character has something going for it. It has a coherent plot, and the slightly “gay for you” plot is well done, gradually realised and works well in this context.

I particularly liked the way the two main characters deal with their emotions for each other; Andrew, although initially a little put off when he finds out about Thomas’s true nature and feelings, realises that he still wants him as a friend, and hopes to keep the friendship on that footing. I liked this, it seemed loyal and realistic for a loyal friend to do.

I liked the way they kept each other at arm’s distance too, it was sweet and although I knew where it was all going, I enjoyed the journey.

There are two or three nicely juggled sub-plots too, which work well, even if (this is a Christmas story, after all, so that’s forgiveable) it can be a little saccharine when it comes to the child involved. So taken aside the things that knocked this from being a really good read to an annoying one–I did like this book, and would probably recommend it to those who like big country house stories.

But.

I have to say that a sterner editor would have been a good thing–because the writing smacks a little of fandom. There’s far too much use of epiphets “the blond” “the handsome blond” and such like. There are spelling mistakes, grammar errors and mistaken apostrophes liberally spattered throughout.

The constant use of “Christmas holidays” was an odd concept too–Andrew ran his own business, and–like Scrooge, most employees only had a day or so off, Christmas Day and perhaps another–and Andrew had no employment, living off his family’s allowance, so he wouldn’t have this idea in his head. I am reminded of the Dowager Duchess in Downton Abbey – “What is a weekend?”

The main trouble is that it’s clearly an English historical written by an American. It’s obvious that they’ve done a fair amount of research, but this could easily have been written in a 19th century New York setting and worked much better because the little niggles like the fifth of scotch and gottens would have been more excusable. There are a fair amount of anchacronisms here, too – words like teenagers  and sabotage and the mentions of muffins and scones for breakfast–and using balsam as a decoration which isn’t found in America and not England.

In an American setting, the rather republican aspects of the story which make any class conscious English person blanch, would have made a lot more sense. It’s too late to invite the “proper people” to the Christmas Ball, so instead everyone from the village is invited–and this is done without even a murmur of dissent, disapproval, horror or even amusement from the local gentry. “how quaint, look at the poor stuffing the pastries in their pockets” was what I was expecting, but they invite the great unwashed in — and the great unwashed know exactly how to behave — without a ripple from anywhere.

It’s a real shame, because I am sure Dreamspinner have or have access to editors who could have ironed these annoyances out, and if it had only had a couple of glitches I could have forgiven it. It would otherwise have been nudging a four stars, or even a four and a half, because the story is very charming, the characters loveable (although the child is not my cup of tea) but because of the “should have been set in the USA” aspect of it, I can only give it a grudging three.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: Walking in Two Worlds by Terry O’Reilly

Lee Masters is fired from his cattle drive when his sexual orientation is discovered. Frustrated and angry, he rides to a mountain lake where he meets Running Buffalo, Tatanka, who is also exiled from his tribe for refusing to adhere to tribal custom for braves who prefer men to women.

They strike up a friendship, which readily turns to love. Their family is completed when a young Indian, Sleeps with Dogs, insists they take him home with them on their search for a home.

But within each there is an unanswered yearning for approval among their people. Where can they find the acceptance they seek? Will they forever find themselves Walking in Two Worlds?

Review by Sue Brown

I have a penchant for Westerns so I was pleased to be given Walking in Two Worlds, an historical Western which not only traverses attitudes to homosexuality within different cultures, but the added issue of our heroes coming to terms each other in an interracial relationship. Walking in Two Worlds tackles a difficult subject and on the whole handles it successfully, yet as a reader, occasionally there were things that threw me out of the world Terry O’Reilly was creating.

There are elements of Walking in Two Worlds which are outstanding, such as the attention to detail, which helps to place the reader firmly in the era. The author skilfully manages to blend the historical and racial detail into the storyline without ‘information dumping’, and I finished the book with a desire to know more about the Dakota and Hopi tribes. I was extremely impressed by sympathetic handling of the comparison of the three cultures, the two Indian tribes and the white homesteads. As I read I could see the good and the bad in each world as the cowboy and the Indian, and the young Indian boy, who adopted them, struggled to adapt.

Terry O’Reilly managed to draw me into the relationship of Lee Masters, a rugged cowboy, and Running Buffalo, Tatanka, a Dakota chief, both of them exiled from their worlds. I enjoyed the development of their relationship and the prejudices they encountered in trying to live together as a couple in the Indians tribes and white culture. The sex scenes were hot and managed to combine both the physical and emotional elements that I prefer.

The secondary characters were well-rounded and added to the storyline. Reading the blurb, I was dubious about the addition of the young Indian boy, Sleeps With Dog, however his story blended in smoothly with Lee and Tatanka’s developing relationship.

After all this, there were a couple of things that really set my teeth on edge. The idea of the rough-mannered Lee telling a man he had only just met that he loved him after their first night together just screamed ‘No’. Another one was Lee’s comment about something ‘tasting just like chicken’. It seemed a very modern comment and I found it distracting.

I found the ending rushed and almost a cop-out after the time spent with the rest of the story. I can understand why it ended as it did and it was in keeping with the book. It would just have benefited from more detail.

Walking in Two Worlds gets 4 stars because it drew me into another world and made me want to know more.

Author’s Website

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Review: Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

Sal Mineo is probably most well-known for his unforgettable, Academy Award–nominated turn opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and his tragic murder at the age of thirty-seven. Finally, in this riveting new biography filled with exclusive, candid interviews with both Mineo’s closest female and male lovers and never-before-published photographs, Michael Gregg Michaud tells the full story of this remarkable young actor’s life, charting his meteoric rise to fame and turbulent career and private life.

About the author: MICHAEL GREGG MICHAUD’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and publications, including the Los Angeles Times. He is also a playwright, editor, artist, and award-winning photographer. An animal-rights defender, he is a founding director of the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles.

*Available in e-book format – 2137KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

When I first came upon the title “Sal Mineo: A Biography” by Michael Gregg Michaud [Crown Archetype, 2010], I knew it was something I had to read. You see, in 1965 I spent an intimate evening with Sal Mineo in Toronto, and although this time was brief I can attest to some of the characteristics Michaud writes about; certainly Mineo’s disarming charm, his impetuousness, and his passion for life at whatever he happened to be doing at the time.

Sal Mineo’s impoverished childhood in the Bronx is a testament to several things: i.e. if you stay true to your dreams they will come true (in some measure), and anything worthwhile is worth working for. Mineo did against formidable odds. Along the way luck also played a role when he was cast with Yul Brenner in “The King and I,” and Brenner became his inspiration as well as his mentor.

Eventually Hollywood beckoned, and on the basis of his accomplishments, youthful good looks and luck, at the tender age of fifteen he was cast in a supporting role opposite the (now) legendary James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” The female lead in this cinematic classic was Natalie Wood, and it is particularly interesting to note that all three of these individuals met an untimely and tragic end.

Mineo idolized Dean, who was known to be bi-sexual, and for the first time Sal began to realize how love between men could arise. Nothing ever transpired between these two, however, and eventually Dean’s brilliant career and unorthodox lifestyle was cut short by a tragic car accident—September 30, 1955.

In the Halcyon days of his career, Mineo was managed by his well-intentioned but domineering mother—the quintessential stage mother—who spent his considerable income faster than he could earn it. Moreover, lacking the business acumen to realize this, and being a bit of a spendthrift himself, the plot was set for a financial crises.

Also contributing to this downturn was Mineo’s inability to make the transition from a teen idol to more mature roles. Ironically, it was his baby face and stereotype casting as a juvenile delinquent—the very characteristics that had made him a famous—that worked against him in the eyes of the public. Consequently, he joined the ranks of childhood stars whose careers were short lived.

Until this stage his sexual orientation had been strictly heterosexual, particularly with a British starlet by the name of Jill Haworth. That was until he met Bobby Sherman; a virtual unknown until Mineo used his influence to launch Sherman’s singing career in the 1960s. Following his fling with Sherman, the floodgates seemed to open to a variety of attractive, young men who ended up in Mineo’s bed—some with familiar names from the era, i.e. Don Johnson, Jay North (Dennis the Menace), David Cassidy, and Jon Provost (Timmy of Lassie fame). Nevertheless, when he met a handsome actor by the name of Courtney Burr, he finally formed a love that lasted until Mineo’s death in 1976.

Not surprisingly rumours of this began to circulate, and since Hollywood’s attitude about sex was oddly (and not just a little hypocritically) guarded, Sal lived his private life under the radar for fear and professional recriminations.

“Sal knew that outing himself, declaring his sexuality, would destroy what little was left of his career. Though Sal never publicly came out in a conventional manner, there was a subliminal coming-out that began years before. He wanted his lifestyle and his choices to be accepted. He wanted a normalcy and legitimacy in his life.”

Not an unreasonable wish in a town where almost anything goes, sexually, and sensuality is a packaged product.

***

This exhaustive biography is not only a tribute to Sal Mineo, a talented and misunderstood individual who lived life to the fullest—no matter what he did—it is also a tribute to the author’s unrelenting dedication. For example, the writing of “Sal Mineo: A biography” took ten years and three-years of research to complete. Moreover, numerous interviews were conducted, most particularly with Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, to give it a personal insight beyond the written record. Bravo!

Full of details and previously undisclosed anecdotes, the biography captures a career of ups and downs and a private life of sexual impulses. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Amazon USA Kindle Edition

Review: The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

They once faced each other on a battlefield. Now soldier-turned-spy Jonathan Reese must keep watch over the man he’s never forgotten. A close encounter reveals Karl von Binder, the count’s son, also recalls the day he spared Jonathan’s life.

Sparks fly between the former enemies and Jonathan begins to lose perspective on his mission. He knows he must maintain distance because the heat he encounters in Karl’s touch stirs him far too deeply for his own good. He can’t keep away — especially when he suspects someone is trying to kill the nobleman.

The spy becomes a protector as Jonathan guards the man he’s begun to care for. Together the men try to puzzle out who would benefit from Karl’s death — and how much they’re willing to trust each other when a torrid sexual fling threatens to become an affair of the heart.

Review by Erastes Click here for the PODCAST

Having enjoyed hugely Dee and Devon’s Gentleman and the Rogue I was eager to read this one—although a little trepidatious about the title and it seemed a bit similar, and I wondered if they weren’t just resting on their laurels and writing the same book twice.

However I shouldn’t have doubted them, because this is a very different book in time, flavour and feel.

The eponymous spy, Reese is introduced to us from the start and he sets the scene quite wonderfully, following on from an excellent first line:

“We aren’t asking you to kill the man”

we learn a lot about Reese, and nothing, because that’s the kind of shadowy spy he is. He gives nothing away, not in speech or in body language. He understands how to fake interest, how to fake non-aggression and he’s damned good at his job. We learn early on that he will no longer kill anyone—so he’s been an assassin at some point, and that he had a liaison with his former handler, and that something went terribly wrong there, and after that Reese changed. But not a lot else, and that’s how it should be. However as the story went on, I have to say that I would have liked to have seen more of how good Reese was at his job; he broke his cover pretty soon and wasn’t much of a spy during the story itself, although we had a hint of his excellence from his backstory.

His target couldn’t be more different on the surface. He’s assigned to follow Karl Johann Peter, Erb-Pfalzgraf von und zu Neuschlosswold-Binder (try saying that with a mouthful of chips) who seemingly everyone knows about. A famous aristocrat, diplomat with a huge retinue and a famous family—but with his own secrets to hide.

I loved the way the relationship started early, and the way that Binder was the experienced one, when I’d half expected it to be the other way around. Binder has good gaydar and his seduction of the man he’d already spotted as following him was quite delicious. There’s a lovely sense of paranoia from both men as they size each other up: what is he up to, who is working for, all these questions go through both men’s minds and it works well and is very believable, even for men who have just had an intimate encounter.

Both characters, Binder and Reese are excellently portrayed, each with a distinct personality and voice; they rub each other up the wrong way (and the right way in more intimate moments) and the cat and mouse and cat game that they play is great to read.

This nicely sums up the differences between them:

Maybe it was this somber aspect that drew Karl, since his own nature was more flamboyant. Jonathan seemed to have a stillness about him, an ability to sit quietly and take things in. He reminded Karl of a pool with a smooth surface and all sorts of dark, hidden depths. And every time Karl saw the pool, he was compelled to drag his hand through it and ruffle the waters. He just had to splash around, and he wanted to dive deep and see what secrets lay at the bottom.

Although I had to laugh at the last of that, but I’m twelve.

There’s many characters in this story, too, which is tightly plotted and multi-layered, and each character has a definite place and no one feels like “filler.”

Set in 1866 (and I think) just before the Austro-Prussian-Italian war I have to say that having been researching this period myself for the last six months I was impressed by the research done here in respect to the political situation in England and Germany at the time, touching lightly on unrest in Russia and other hotspots in Europe–(Europe being a veritable powder keg about to explode at any time.)

If you are looking for a sexy book, you won’t be disappointed, but the sex here is decadently sensual, full of round ripeness and a languid time-wasting hedonism that had my toes curling with delight. I’ve said it before that a sex scene needs to be part of the plot, and although (for the size of the book) the sex is a large proportion, it never once feels gratuitous and for once I was looking forward to the next one, rather than rolling my eyes with “oh God, they are at it again.” I appreciated the masculinity of the scenes, too—sometimes gay erotic can get a little too feminine for my taste. There’s little of the sighing over a pair of eyes or lips; at a party Karl imagines flipping up the tails of Reese’s evening jacket, yanking down his trousers and rogering him hard. Quite right, sir. Quite right.

When I’m writing these reviews I generally tap out quibbles as I find them, and it amused me vastly that the first major quibble I had, regarding Reese’s identity and the persona he’d booked in at the hotel were debunked thoroughly by Karl’s staff, which made me laugh that I’d thought that Dee and Devon would make such a simple error. Other than Claridge’s having unaired sheets (heavens, no!) nothing much other than the word “cum” making an appearance which I always dislike. That’s probably Loose ID’s style guide, not the authors’ choice though. And a few Americanisms which crept in here and there, like “wash-up” for washing. So well done, ladies.

If I have any complaint it’s to Loose I-D – PLEASE can you vary your covers a bit? These are all getting a bit samey.

It’s an exciting and robust tale with mouth-watering intrigue, political machinations, witty banter and some fizzlingly sensuous sex scenes and like The Gentleman and the Rogue (which if you haven’t read why the hell not?) I can’t recommend it highly enough. I want to take away these ladies’ pens until they promise they write nothing else but gay historicals. I just wish I could get a set of theirs in print.

Buy from Loose I-D

Preditors and Editors Poll

sin

Once again, some kind person has nominated our little review site over at Preditors and Editors yearly round up poll.

So, if you’ve enjoyed the site and the reviews, please pop over to the site and vote for us!

http://www.critters.org/predpoll/reviewsite.shtml

Review: Dona Nobis Pacem by Willa Okati

Mute saloonkeeper Donnell knows all about prejudice; he’s had to battle it all of his life. He also knows how self-righteous and judgemental the people of the old west town of Nazareth can be, so he isn’t surprised when he sees them spurn requests for work from a man who walks into town looking to be all but on his death bed. Donnell takes the man in and nurses him back to health, falling in love along the way.  But is Donnell destined to have his heart broken?

Review by Jess Faraday

I feel badly that my first review for Speak Its Name is going to be largely critical. However, not all books were written for all readers. Even though the story didn’t work for me on a number of levels, there’s quite a bit in Dona Nobis Pacem to like. I’m certain that there are readers who will enjoy the story for its merits. Here are a few of them.

I’ve read a few other stories by Willa Okati, and the sex is always hot. It’s graphic, but not to the point where one is counting the pores on the hero’s…er…chin. So if you like some hot, well-described man-on-man nookie, you’ll find three very tasty scenes to sink your teeth into.

I also liked Nathan’s (the hero’s love interest) inner conflict regarding his attraction to Donnell. It seemed realistic given the time, place, and Nathan’s religious background. Although I thought this could have been drawn out and explored more, considering the brevity of the piece (100 pages and change), the amount of time spent on it was appropriate.

There’s a difference between historical romance and romance with historical flavor. SIN reviews historicals, so I read from this perspective. As historical fiction, this story really didn’t work for me. The main difference between a contemporary and a historical is setting, and the setting in this story was basically undefined.

References to a gold rush suggest that the story is taking place in the 19th century. Vague descriptions of a desert-like climate suggest that it was the California gold rush of 1848 (although the gold rush did not take place in the desert part of California), or possibly the Northern Nevada gold rush. But however one slices it, there was not enough physical, social, or cultural description for me to feel any certainty of time or place.

A few character inconsistencies also distracted me from the story. The hero, Donnell, seemed far too cosmopolitan for his circumstances. For an orphaned son of a prostitute in a one-horse town, he knew an awful lot about the world, including what color the Jamaican sea was, the weather in Texas, what blizzards were like (hint: blizzards do not take place in, or anywhere near deserts) and the works of Tchaikovsky (who would have been a child during the California gold rush) and Rachmaninoff (who wouldn’t be born for another 20-odd years). He also had a magnificent vocabulary, which, despite being mute, he managed to express flawlessly through gesture.

Moreover, in the beginning, it was stated that only Donnell’s adoptive mother knew about his proclivities–entirely believable for the time and place–but by the end of a month, this tough, old-West town had become remarkably OK HOMO.

As a light romance, the story fares somewhat better. Dona Nobis Pacem is a classic hurt/comfort tale: a story in which the plot consists almost entirely of one character nursing another through a Grave Crisis. Although the crisis was drawn out a lot longer than was realistic (one does not require a month–need I say it, in bed–to recover from heatstroke), H/C lovers may enjoy the plot. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the plot than that. There is some attempt at external conflict with a wild-eyed preacher bent on taking Donnell’s land and claiming Nathan’s soul By Any Means Necessary. However, this conflict isn’t developed, and is dropped altogether without explanation in the last third of the book.

I would recommend this story for someone looking for a quick read, some hot sex, and a happy ending. But if you’re in the mood for a complex plot or a well-researched historical, this probably isn’t the book for you. 2.5 stars.

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: The House on Birdgate Alley by Anel Viz

London, 1889.

Dr. John Williams suspects somebody has been blackmailing one of his patients, Sir Hugh Cockburn. The same day, the body of a young man is found floating in the Thames. Mere coincidence, or is there a connection?

Willliams’ eccentric cousin, Cyril Fosterby, turns his mind to unraveling the mystery.

Review by Erastes

The trouble with writing victorian “maverick sleuths” in 1889 is that one can’t help but wonder that perhaps this is Holmes fanfic revisted and it does read rather like it. It’s unfortunate for the story if it isn’t, of course, but I’ve read a lot of converted Holmes fic. This is a story about a doctor called John–in late Victorian England with a cousin who’s an experimental scientist who solves cases and is a master of disguise…

For all that, though, Anel Viz proves he can turn his hand to the Victorian era with good effect – it’s a decent enough story and an enjoyable hour’s read.

There’s not much gaslight and gaiters, if you get my gist, not much description of the familiar post-Ripper London that we are used to, and it depends more on conversation and indoor scenes than dripping grey bricks and eerie fog over the Thames, but what is there is done all right.

What I found odd, though was everyone’s openness about homosexuality. Two young men at Cambridge kiss in front of Doctor Williams, and the brothel keeper talks openly to him about her employees, and admits having talked to the Health Board and the Police about them.

Now, this is 1889, four years after the dreaded “Labouchere Amendment” of the Sexual Offences Act which, in an attempt to clean up the prostitution, also targetted homosexuals whether or not they were in private or not. There is much in this book that entirely ignores this Amendment, which caused a sensation at the time, and drove homosexual men underground.  In fact the Cambridge man says:

As for a scandal, what Freddy and I do in private need not go beyond these four walls or whatever four walls happen to surround us at the moment.

Um. Very very wrong, and no-one corrects him either.  So I find it very strange that the madam of the brothel talks to anyone at all, let alone the police the health board and John Williams.

I can’t say that I was impressed by Fosterby’s reasoning regarding the original blackmail note, in the same way I was often impressed by Holmes–he doesn’t really give me enough reasons to suspect that Sir Hugh was an “invert” – rather presented it as a fait-a-complis rather than “these are my reasons and there is no other explanation.”

I loved the working class Johnny Rice, his cheeky attitude and sexual enjoyment really lit up the page (even if I couldn’t stand the dialect written out) and he was quite my favourite character. I couldn’t warm to Dr John Williams as he abhored everything about the sex trade, said how he disliked cocks and anuses in particular and then suddenly PING he’s homosexual for Johnny, seduced by the power of the cock in the same way that the also married Sir Hugo had been too.

However, if you are expecting a Holmesian tale with tortious twists and clues scattered to find and pick up, then you are going to be disappointed, because the story serves only really as a vehicle for John and Johnny to hook up and for John to realise that he’s not faithful to his wife.

There really was not enough of the so-called “eccentric” cousin, the detective figure. We don’t find out why he was considered eccentric, we don’t learn his methods and in fact we only meet him a handful of times and we learn nothing much when we do.All detecting is done off stage and is wrapped up neatly after John and Johnny spend a lot of time together and fall in love.  However Fosterby explains all the dectecting he’d been doing at the end.  This is well explained, and works, but I think I would have preferred more involvement from Williams.

It has a nicely realistic ending, and sets itself for sequels. I did enjoy the story as a whole, despite the OK Homo aspects and lack of historical fear, and I’ll be looking out for further books if there are any.

Buy at Silver Publishing

Review: The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak.

Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies.

The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.

Review by Erastes

It’s unfortunate that this book has the same title as that of one on the same subject by a very well known author, Nicholas Monsarrat–Brooke was indeed known as the first “white rajah” though, but perhaps a different title might have been prudent.

The book is fictionally written by John Williamson, who was in fact a real person but who has been fictionalised for this book. The writing is done deliberately in a way to convince us that it’s a memoire written at and of the time, which manages to do that quite well, and that’s partly to blame for failing to win me over, too.

My first impression of the first twenty or so pages though were more that it was recounting what happened, rather than allowing us to know the characters. I would have like to have known about the narrator a little more, because in order to care what happens to a character you have to care about them. He’s rather surprisingly erudite for a sailor before the mast, and he has such knowledge of places and people as to come across as an omniecent narrator. I don’t mind passages such as this:

“I tell you again, sir,” he was saying, “we can make no decent profit from such limited commissions as these. We must seek the sort of work we might find from Jardine Matheson who—”

Mr Brooke had been lounging back in his chair affecting a casual air that failed entirely to mask his irritation. At the name of Jardine Matheson, one of the largest and most respected firms amongst the Singapore merchants

But I’d prefer some connection with his knowledge, show us why he knows this about Matheson, rather than simply telling us.This telling rather than showing continues much of the way through the book, for example where we are told that Brooke is charismatic–but we’ve not actually had any personal insight into him through John’s eyes. No conversations, no action–so the fact he’s charismatic rather leaves me thinking. “Oh yeah? Says you.” He also says that seeing Brooke again after a gap of five years rekindled feelings that he thought he had forgotten. However, the author seems to have forgotten that he never mentioned any feelings in the first place, and these “feelings” aren’t mentioned again for a hundred pages.

The whole beginning section was rather pointless, I felt, particularly as it didn’t give us any depth into either character other than “Mr Brooke told me years later that…” and it could have been excised entirely without losing much of the narrative. The only thing is served was to have John meet Brooke, and that could easily have been achieved by a sentence later on when they meet again. On page 23 there is this frankly kick-ass sentence:

In June of 1839, almost five years after I first arrived at Singapore in the Findlay, James Brooke came back into my life.

This would have been a great first line – and it would have been a marvellous place to start the story, because this is where the story actually begins.

Sadly the book continues with swathes of telling not showing. Scenes that could have been interesting were cut short with a modicum of conversation and finished off by telling us what happened after the brief exchange. It’s almost like the author is scared of conversations. I know that sometimes an author will think that they want to cut forward to more plot but the readers can get more from the characters with a conversation than they can from pages of exposition.

Part of the omniescent feel is probably based on the fact that it’s told in a memoire style. I do like memoires, but I think I’d have preferred this just to be a narration of events rather than an endless jumping back and forth. The narrator actually says:

I write now with an understanding I did not have then.

And that’s rather the problem, because we aren’t quite sure what we are reading, a historical record with all the facts in place, or the observations of a rather gauche ignorant sailor who seems to know everything. He tells us things that he couldn’t possibly have known at the time, such as Brooke’s motivations, things he’s gleaned from a more intimate knowledge of Brooke in the future of this narration, and this for me was quite off-putting.

I know next to nothing about ships and nautical matters, but I have to say that the seafaring experience of John seems rather overly idyllic. Other than one storm in the unnecessary first section he doesn’t have any problems with weather or with unruly bosses, and indeed seems to spend much of his time loafing around, hanging around the deck, or drinking and having shore leave – despite the ship being magically ship-shape, bristol fashion and gleaming. In fact, and it pains me to say it, because I haven’t encountered one of these for a long time, John is a bit of a Mary Sue, or more correctly a Gary Stu, because everything he does, he does effortlessly: learns Malay, negotiates treaties and the Rajah-ship (despite being unable to read or write) has an uncanny insight into the country and its customs, despite not having been there before, is a better sailor than anyone else, meets up with people who can give him exactly the information he needs, etc etc.

Here is a good example of many of the problems I found here:

I met with fewer Malays in the course of my business in the markets, for they generally felt themselves superior to such commercial activity. Those I did have dealings with were generally more forthcoming about the realities of the political situation. They soon became used to my presence, and the various small gifts I would take whenever I visited them helped form friendships with them.

Firstly, how does he know that they felt superior? Who was he meeting, how did they get used to his presence? Why did he go and meet them, if all he was doing was shopping in the market, how did he get invited to meet them? Who were they? All these questions and more formed in my head, because the author is simply using John as an all-too-convenient narration tool; someone who needs to be everywhere and to know everything which is unbelievable and doesn’t make us care about him as a person. In fact he was more like the kind of camera you get in a video game which is constantly standing behind your main character, than a character in his own right. Eventually he just becomes an extension of Brooke’s orbit and isn’t bothering to do any common sailoring, but just standing beside Brooke the whole time so he can tell us in excruitiang detail what’s going on. I can’t help but think this would have been a better book from Brooke’s POV, as John even goes so far as to interject Brooke’s feelings from time to time which he could not possibly have known.

Even the fighting scenes are done in this dry narration style, instead of spicing up the narrative.

When we finally do get the homosexual relationship, we are told that Brooke kisses John – and it’s described as the “most natural thing in the world” which made me laugh out loud because there had been absolutely no relationship building or even any sign of physical attraction for the 100 pages that came before it. John does realise that he loves Brooke a few pages earlier, but you get no sense that he feels it in a homosexual manner, as there was no shock of how unnatural that would be to him. He does add a bit about sin after the kiss, but it truly feels pasted on.

However, one does get used to this dry narration and as a fictional account of historical matters it’s not that bad, it’s just not terribly interesting, and I have to say that I had to force myself to read it, because it certainly didn’t grab me by the throat, which is a shame, because the experiences related had the opportunity to be exciting, rather than “we did this, then we did this” and the over descriptive passages where we are shown all the research the author did smack very much of Dan Brownism.

There were a few anachronisms here and there–hansom cabs making too earlyan  appearance being one of the in your face ones, but nothing too egregious.

If you like a dry historical account, then you’ll enjoy this, and Brooke was certainly a fascinating man, so I was pleased to know so much about a man I had not heard of before, but it was too dry and factual for me, and I would have preferred a lot more action and a little more conversation.

Author’s website

JMS Books

Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. Travelling through fifth century BC Greece, Simonides learn not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the political intrigue surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the flourish and fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer’s unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable grasp of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.

Review by Jean Cox ( apologies that there’s no podcast yet, the pronounciation is hard!)

If you come to this book thinking it’s another “Persian Boy”, then you’ll be disappointed. This is primarily Simonides’s story, he’s heterosexual and his sexual encounters are given their due. There are homosexual elements, though—integral because of the nature of Greek society at the time and also key to the plot. The cover blurb of my copy states, “Hipparchos’s folly precipitates his murder by Harmodios and Aristogeiton…” and that simple phrase hides a wealth of intrigue and unrequited sexual longings.

You won’t be disappointed by Miss Renault’s writing, however; it constantly amazes me how she can say so much by saying so little—I reread “The Charioteer” every few months and always find fresh nuances.

So too here:

Dark-haired Aristogeiton stroked the horse’s neck; they smiled; spoke a few words, as it seemed about the race; Harmodios gave the groom his orders and handed over the bridle.

I can see that scene clearly as if it were being played out on screen, despite what appears to be a paucity of description. Many writers would have taken a page to depict the same occurrence, and not as elegantly. Less is more, sometimes. Simonides himself might have concurred; one of the running threads of the book is the nature of composition and the most economical use of words in describing something, the learning of old works to recite and the composing of new ones.

There’s also what feels like a “soap opera” thread running through—passion, arguments, tittle-tattle, everyday things mingled among the feasts and festivals. Simonides and his protégé aren’t averse to gossiping like old women, although they’re too wise to do it in public

“But you don’t tell me the (Hipparchos) pays his court on the wrestling-ground?”

“Well, almost. He stands staring.”

If you want explicit sexual scenes, this is not the book for you. Nor is it right if you’re looking for flowery praise or overblown explanations about life “back then”. It does work if you want an intelligent and elegant story in an entirely believable world, the political intrigue, domestic dramas and petty jealousies as fresh and relevant now as they would have been in ancient Greece. This ceases to feel like ‘history’; it’s just life, in all it’s abundance. If you know people who don’t “do” historicals, they could start reading at a much worse place than with Renault.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Comstock by Aaron Michaels

Reggie Grayson has a secret admirer. A traveling Shakespearean actor in 1883 Virginia City, Reggie’s already been robbed at gunpoint by a masked bandit, and now he’s receiving drawings and roses from a mystery man who won’t leave his name. Is this any way to make his debut as a leading man?

Desperate to discover if his secret admirer is the ruggedly handsome man who watches the stage from the shadows of a private box, Reggie’s quest to meet the man of his dreams plunges him headlong into danger and intrigue in the lawless days of the silver rush on the Comstock Lode.

Review by Erastes

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I rather liked the set up of this, a travelling understudy of the San Francisco Shakespeare Company out to gain his spurs in provincial theatres in the West, and at first I liked Reggie and his sense of doubt about his abilities and the way that a drawing from an admirer gives him impetus to do as well as he can. I cooled to him somewhat throughout the book as he struck me as rather self-centered, concerned with issues only pertaining to himself, his watch, his admirer, his performance blah blah — and when there’s a cave-in at the mine, Reggie paws over the drawings of himself left by his admirer and ponders about this rather than rushing out to see if there was anything he could do to help!

However the pairing was a little obvious, and if there’s a “mystery admirer” I’d like a wide choice of possible suitors or to drag out the mystery for a bit longer – but perhaps that wasn’t possible in a book of about 60 pages. And when they do get together, of course they are instantly in love, and I get a bit tired of that, as it’s a bit Romeo and Juliet instead of Deadwood, but that’s deliberately done, I think.

That being said, it’s a solid little story with good characters and a fine balance of plot versus romance, which again is tricky for a short book like this. Somehow the author manages to introduce a wrong that has to be righted, several interesting people, and the research seems well done. I did like the clever way that Cole’s motivations for what he did were actually exactly the same as something that Reggie had experienced himself, this gave a good reason for the empathy he feels in a tricky situation. There’s even an exciting finish and anyone who can balance all that in one book gets a tip of the hat from me!

The fact that I didn’t particularly like Reggie shouldn’t put anyone off buying and enjoying this book, because I’m sure you will.

There are a couple of editing and tense issues, which was a shame, but overral, I’d say it’s worth adding to your collection, particularly if you are a fan of Frontier fiction.

Buy from Torquere Press

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Review: A Promise of Tomorrow by Rowan McAllister

Lord James Warren, Viscount Sudbury, lives a quiet, safe, and predictable life alone on his estate in Suffolk, only traveling to London once a year to visit family and satisfy his more forbidden needs. But this year, his routine is shattered when his niece and nephew ask him to help a beautiful young man they’ve only just met.

Kyle Allen, alone and running from his abusive lover, stirs feelings in James he has long denied for fear of tarnishing his reputation and losing his family’s love. Though undeniably drawn to Kyle, James’s honor demands he keep that part of himself completely secret, even if Kyle is feeling the attraction as well, despite the pain and betrayal he’s recently suffered.

Assistance and a future for Kyle might be secured, but then they would face a choice: stay apart and continue leading half-lives… or risk everything for love.

Review by Erastes CHECK OUT THE PODCAST!

I really like this cover–it’s not a fabulous piece of art, but it really gives a flavour of what gay historical fiction is all about. You really get a sense that these men have taken pains to hide what’s going on between them, and that’s pretty rare on gay historical covers.

The book itself was a pleasant surprise; it’s a “proper” Regency in many ways–enobled head of the family doesn’t want to do what his family expect of him. For family, read “his sister”, who threatens that if he doesn’t come to London at least once a year and gets his head out of the country, she will invade his estate with a house party.  So he bows to the inevitable, dances and puts up with the danger of marriagable women trying to snag him for a month just to keep the peace.  It also means that he can visit the ubiquitous male brothel while he’s there, so he at least gets one shag a year–and it’s a way of life he’s learned to live with, and thinks that it’s the way he can manage to do. This–to the reader–is obviously wrong as the poor man is beset by male figures on the street as soon as he gets out of the carriage, so you know he’s very deeply in denial.

The interplay between the main character James and the rather sensitive Kyle is nicely done, James fancies Kyle, Kyle fancies James but neither wants to act on it. James because he knows Kyle has had a bad experience and it would look as if he was taking advantage, and Kyle because James is a Viscount, and Kyle is a lowly disowned son of a curate, and he doesn’t know if the man shares his proclivities–and so they dance around each other in a rather pretty way.

Kyle is a bit wet. Yes–I have a cheek to say that, having written a weepy hero myself.  But Kyle is not the worst I’ve seen, he’s not a total chick with a dick, and he’s not a real whiner like some other characters in other books I could mention.  I didn’t mind the hugging impulses and tears springing to eyes at regular intervals, but I need to point this out in case that’s not your bag. I wouldn’t call Kyle girly, but he’s not really in control of his emotions, so let’s leave it at that. Sadly, it’s at these wet moments that the prose slips into cringeworthy purplish such as:

Kyle‟s tear-filled eyes met his, and for an eternity, he got lost in liquid emerald and gold.

But these aren’t terribly frequent, thank goodness.

The characters were all a bit black or white – the baddies terribly dastardly, the goodies were all a bit too goody goody for my personal taste; the niece sweet, the nephew loyal and open-minded, and James is dependable and reliable; a good dutiful head of the family, the uncle to whom the twins can turn to–no matter how scandalous the subject–the man who will never let you down in a crisis. Other than his worry about his sexual preferences, I would have liked to have seen a little more three dimensionalism in the man. Perhaps a crack or two in his NICENESS. I’m not saying I wanted a rake, there are enough of them to go around and to spare, but no-one’s that nice. Even the prostitute that James frequents is a tart with a heart.

Some of the nomenclature of the nobility was a little off but that only niggles other writers, probably!

The main sex scene between the protagonists has a section which made my eyebrows raise, and caught me entirely off-guard. After all the sweetness and light, I wasn’t expecting the BDSM element, and wonder if it had been pasted on because of all the other BDSM Regencies. I found it mildly eye-rolling that James kept a vial of oil in his cabinet, when it had been explicity explained that he only had sex once a year, when he went to London. Perhaps he was a boy scout as a child.

But despite my niggles, I’m sure that if you liked authors such as Ava March, you’ll love this story. It didn’t set my world on fire, but it was a very enjoyable, decently written read. I know nothing about the author, but if she’s not English, then my hat is off to her, because it’s solidly researched and has a good English feel to it. If it is not amazingly inventive, then there’s nothing at all wrong with that–The Regency is a well worn path in romance fiction and it’s about time that gay Regencies started making a few traditions and tropes of their very own. Recommended.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

A podcast of this review

Review: Jungle Heat by Bonnie Dee

Congo Free State, 1888

On a mission deep in the jungle, Oxford anthropologist James Litchfield comes face-to-face with a local legend: a wild man who wanders with mountain gorillas and lives as one of their own.

The chance encounter with the savage, whom James calls Michael, leads to a game of observation and exploration. Their mutual curiosity turns to an attraction—one that Michael has never experienced and James is desperate to deny.

When members of the expedition unearth James’s secret discovery—a living specimen of man at his most primitive—Michael becomes a pawn in their quest for fame.

As their relationship deepens, James is compelled to protect Michael from the academics who would treat him as nothing more than a scientific acquisition and London society, which threatens to destroy their passionate bond…

Review by Erastes

“A re-imagining of the Tarzan legend” pretty much leaves you in no doubt as to what to expect with this book, and if you keep that in mind throughout, then you won’t be disappointed, because that’s exactly what it is for most of the book.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining, because it is, it’s just that if you already know the Tarzan story–and few don’t I’d imagine–then there won’t be much here to surprise you.

However! I’d certainly advise you to give it a go because I found it immensely entertaining.

The first section particularly impressed me because of the method Dee uses to communicate through the Ape-man’s point of view. She could have cheated and done it all from James’ point of view, glimpses of the ape-man (Michael, as he later is dubbed) through the trees and such-like but she takes the brave step of attempting to explain things that the ape-man can think in his head but can’t translate universally, as he struggles with these new sights of intruders in his land.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me very much of The Inheritors by William Golding, which is written from the point of view of the soon-to-be-extinct Neanderthals, and Jordan Taylor uses the same device in The Ninth Language.

Here’s a taste of Michael (obviously not named at this point) – the ape-man’s thoughts.

His heart pounded and he breathed faster as he glimpsed one of the creatures between the leaves. It walked upright on two legs just as he did and like the Others did some of the time. He wanted to leap forward, to see all of it at once instead of flashes through the undergrowth.

There were two of them, one walking behind the other. The pair communicated back and forth with their strange calls. He caught his breath. These were like the sounds he sometimes made when he was all alone in the forest, the noises his throat and tongue made that none of the Others could duplicate.

The pair moved into the clearing in front of him where they stopped and stood looking around. His heart raced even faster. The two creatures looked like him, or what he’d seen of himself reflected in still water. Their faces and hands were naked like his with the same prominent noses and fully formed lips. Hair grew on the lower part of their faces. Their bodies were covered with something that was neither fur, skin nor scales but something completely foreign.

One of them took a thing off the top of his head and ran a hand through sweat-flattened hair—hair like his, not fur as most animals had—and white like the streaks in Old Grunt’s ruff. These animals were his kind. There were more in the world like him. He wasn’t alone.

Obviously there are concepts there that the ape-man couldn’t know, like numbers and proper nouns, but overall, I like the feel of the prose, it sets a nice balance between bafflement and comprehension, and it’s nice to see an author doing something like this.

The friendship between the two is sweet, and the teaching and learning scenes were some of my favourites. I loved the protective nature that each had toward the other. Of course, with stories like this one has to have a certain suspension of disbelief, as if I’m going to be really picky then I’ll have to say that feral children have huge learning difficulties after a certain age…But – if like most rational adults and readers you don’t give a stuff about that, you’ll find yourself rooting for the pair of them and wanting them to be happy.

I’ve tried to make this review longer, but it’s a bit difficult–with the Burroughs parallel. I think I would have liked to have seen something a bit more different than gay Tarzan–a wild child in South America, or Russia, or India even…

But I did enjoy it, for all the familiarity, and I recommend it if you are a fan of the original!

Author’s website

Buy at Carina Press

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