Review: The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s by Ricardo J. Brown

From Publishers Weekly

“Kirmser’s was the underground queer bar in St. Paul, a hidden sanctuary for homosexual men and women in the 1940s. It was the haven I found in 1945 after being drummed out of the navy for being a homosexual.” This extraordinary memoir of postwar, pre-Stonewall Midwestern gay life is as historically crucial as it is eloquent. Born in 1926, Brown died in 1999 before publishing it. Growing up in a poverty-stricken Catholic family outside of St. Paul, he realized he was gay early in high school. He fled to Greenwich Village at 18, but, upset by its openly gay culture, joined the navy and was dishonorably discharged after announcing his sexual orientation to his superiors. While Brown’s life is the spine of his brief narrative, its flesh is in the stories of the women and men who frequented Kirmser’s, the working-class bar run by an old German couple that was “a fort in the midst of a savage and hostile population.”

Review by Erastes

Whist a little rustic, I would consider this to be essential reading for anyone thinking about writing about small-town gay America in the 1940’s.

A personal memoire, without being overly personal, The Evening Crowd at Kirmser’s is a snapshot of something that definitely shouldn’t have existed at the time, a gay bar in Wabasha Street, St Paul, Minnesota. At the time it was a run-down area, not one one would like to be alone at night, today (looking at Google Maps) it’s a airy, clean shopping district smug in its pristine-look.

Ricardo learns his sexuality young, very young in fact. There’s no description of this, but it’s clear he’s in Junior school when he gets his first experiences. By the time he’s 18, he’s well aware of himself, and in fact gets himself “undesirably” discharged from the army by outing himself to his superiors, being unable to hide himself any longer.

What I liked was the “postcard” way of presenting the events. There is no stream of narrative, as it were–just segments dealing with this character or that. One chapter talks of his relationship with Lucky, for example–how they met, how they continued to maintain that relationship; another deals with “Flaming Youth” – an overweight queen who, whilst in a long-term relationship – “steps out” with others. (a delightful term.”

What is charming is the way that, although the “queers” as they call themselves, flock together in this peculiar place–straight by day, queer by night–they hardly mix. They know each other by sight, and by name–although they keep a coded life of discretion and nicknames–but they are hardly linking arms and can-can-ing around the bar. They slink in, hiding outside until the coast is clear, and they aren’t spotted by neighbours and friends, and they retreat to the dark black booths, made sticky and ebonised by decades of varnish. Hiding, almost from each other.

Ricardo–before discovering Kirmser’s–escaped to Greenwich Village but he didn’t stay long. He had a dream that it was going to be full of aethetes and queers, walking in the sunshine, but he soon found that the scene that he was introduced to, a dingy underground drag bar full of what seemed to him to be unpleasant stereotypes, was not his cup of tea at all, and he fled back to Minnesota, and found Kirmer’s shortly afterwards.

It’s hugely interesting to see how baffled everyone is with everyone else. The lesbians use the gay men for accompanying them in dodgy areas–although both are uneasy with each other’s “perversions”–the menage a trois threesome, nicknamed “Three Kind Mice” for their quiet appearances in the bar, baffle everyone and indeed creep the gays and lesbians out, as Ricardo says, they can’t understand the relationship, the warping of the marriage act, and what they don’t understand, they distrust.

A menage aw twah Lulu Pulanski pronounced it, then grandly explained to us what the expression meant. It boggled our minds. Most of us were in one-to-one relationships of whatever kind for whatever period of time, but here was the husband and wife and the husband’s boyfriend carrying on God-know-what-kind of perversions. We were naivey offended at this flouting of conventions, this mockery of marriage, this awful ambiguity. Most of us were defined, even confined by our sexuality, and these three seemed to move fluidly from one partner the another. It confounded us. Marriage, we’d always been led to believe, was for two people only. What these three were doing was more scandalous than divorce. At least people had heard of divorce.

It is actually sad to see that bigotry runs in all directions–and of course, such bigotry still exists on all sides today.

Most of the anecdotes are veined with pathos, and one is positively sad–although the death involved isn’t homophobic–but although overall, you are left with the image of a group of people clinging to a place–(if not each other because even in the relative safety of the bar, which isn’t very safe, they absolutely do not show affection, or give themselves away)–itis heartwarming, that each and every one of them has the grit to continue on with their lives and make the best of the restricted way they are forced to live. There’s the two men who have been together for 14 years, both over 40 who live with one of the men’s parents, even sleeping in the same bed. There’s “the man with crabs” (again another nickname) who is the pariah in the bar because of rumor, who finally brings a new boyfriend into the bar with him, and there’s Ricardo himself who has an inner strength that really shines through.

This is a short book, but I highly recommend it. It’s not a perfect book–I found it a little too jumpy and disjointed, and the memoire style won’t be for everyone–but if you do try it, and you enjoyed books such as “It Takes Two” by Elliott Mackle – you’ll enjoy this.

It is a great shame that this book didn’t get published until after Brown died–although he was working towards publication–and a greater shame that he never got to write about what happened next, because I’m sure his entire life would have been as full as great characters as this book.

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Review: Precious Jade by Fyn Alexander

Jade Swift has always wanted a man to fall madly in love with him and make him his own. He wants to be mastered. When he meets Marcus Wynterbourne, a dominant man with a passion for the whip, it is love at first sight.

Marcus is an MP, gay, and trying to live as freely as he can in 1885 when his sexuality’s not tolerated and his association with the beautiful Jade leads to rampant speculation. Hurt by a past betrayal, and unable to accept Jade’s loyalty because of his flirtatious nature, he casts Jade out of his house.

But Jade loves his Master and wants only to please him. Determined, he will do what he must to win his Master’s trust and restore his reputation amongst others who would ruin him.

Review by Jess Faraday

Goodness, how I enjoyed this.

BDSM romance is a category that I think, in careless hands, could go cringingly wrong. However, the author does a superb job exploring the emotional complexities of the relationship between the two main characters. Even if a reader has no personal interest in BDSM, the author’s sensitive treatment of the emotions underlying the POV character’s desires could make most readers, I believe, at least understand why someone else might. And this is not an insignificant achievement.

The POV character, Jade Swift, is larger than life. Although I thought there was too much weeping on his part, he is absolutely irrepressible. I loved him from the start, and rooted for him until the very last word.

The plot was a standard romance plot…well, sort of. Boy meets Master, boy loses Master, boy wins Master back. But the complexities specific to the master/slave relationship kept it from being stale.

If that’s not enough, the prose is delightful: clean, strong, but with character and flavor. There were a few typos, but they appeared to be software-generated rather than author-generated.

And the sex was hot.

In general, I found the book to be very well researched in terms of historical fact and physical surroundings. However, there were a few social inconsistencies that really got on my nerves, and these were what kept me from giving Precious Jade that fifth star.

First, I found it hard to believe that MP Marcus Wynterbourne’s mother would hire such a flamboyant creature as Swift for her son’s live-in secretary, when she is working so hard to dispel rumors of her son’s taste for young men. I found it impossible to believe that someone of her status would hire any sort of person with no experience and no references.

I likewise found it unlikely that two men, one with no experience in service, could walk up to the door of the Royal Pavilion, ask for jobs, and get them. And an unannounced visit from one of their mothers–especially when the PM and MPs are there for a conference? I don’t think so.

I probably would have overlooked the anachronistic use of the word “queer,” but it was used with such unrelenting frequency that it jolted me out of the story and straight to a dictionary. The first use of the word to mean “homosexual” (adj.) was recorded in 1922. The noun usage (both are used here) not until 1935. Admittedly, most readers probably wouldn’t have bothered, but it was the frequency that drove me to it. Likewise, the term “Nancy-boy” (1958, though “nance” was coined in 1883).

But other than these things, I found the story very well researched. And what was not researched well rankled less than it might have if the story hadn’t been so enjoyable, the narrator so engaging, and the writing so clean and sparkling.

So I’m giving it four stars, because it’s extremely well executed, I adore the protagonist, and it’s a really good story. And in the end, these are the things that count most for this reader.

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Review: The Framing of Dorian Gray by Barry Lowe

Sherlock Holmes is called in on one of his most personal cases ever when his young nephew, Bramwell, disappears. Has he been kidnapped by his own father and forced to marry against his nature or is something more sinister afoot? In his search for answers Holmes and Watson will cross swords with the angelically beautiful Dorian Gray and be forced among degenerates and rapists at Soho’s notorious Pandemonium Club. But the truth is more evil than anyone could have suspected.

Review by Erastes

This is a shift in my thinking, because I’m not a great fan of published fanfiction, be it out of copyright or not–so I want to be upfront about that. However, I’m going to review this for other merits than accordance with canon etc. Although having read all of Holmes, I’m not that familiar with the canon to do that. Also, I’m aware that it’s a literary tradition for some authors to change or embellish the canon, in this case giving Holmes a sister, so this makes it Alternative Universe fanfiction, I suppose. And although it has a paranormal aspect–the inclusion of Dorian Gray’s portrait–I’m including this on the list, as we have Wilde’s original book listed.

That’s that out of the way, let’s get on with it.

It actually starts quite well, and even if you had never read a Holmes story, you would be able to pick this up and not mind. It cleverly sets the scene and the modicum of back-story (with the additional relatives) without resorting to pages of tub-thumbing Basil Exposition and it’s deftly done.

I liked the language that Watson writes in, it’s archaic enough to be easily understandable, and gives a nice flavour. It may be a little too flowery for some, but then that “some” is unlikely to pick up a Holmesian piece and expect it to be in contemporary prose.

The editing, I’m afraid, left a lot to be desired–with wanton apostrophes, missing and also unnecessary commas, spelling mistakes, a weighty surfeit of epithets and some tenses getting tangled up around each other’s legs. I’m a little grammar-blind at the best of times, so if I noticed errors, I’m sure there were a lot more. I have not reviewed anything from this publisher before, so I hope that it’s not a feature.

I think it is the fanfic aspect that makes these books a difficult read for me, because I have to  rely on the author to get Holmes and others right. In an original book, if the main characters behave with derring- do or are amused or outraged at certain things, then I think little of it, because it’s their characters and they can do with them what they wish, but with Holmes (and the other myriad of spin-offs now proliferating the market) I find myself thinking “Would Lizzie/Darcy/Holmes/[insert name here] really behave like that? And I find myself doing this for inconsequential things like [character] chuckling, instead of being able to just relax and enjoy the story unfolding.

However, that being said – it did draw me in, and it felt like a real Holmesian caper, complete with grotesques and dodgy venues, many cab journeys and Watson fumbling around in the dark both physically and mentally.

This is not a “gay Holmes” by the way, for which I was actually grateful, but a Holmes story involving gay matters which struck me as much more realistic, despite the book’s other problems.

I didn’t see anything of Holmes’ skills, though, none of the “I can tell you are a Polish sailor who spent some time in Africa and you have two wives, one in Madagascar and the other died a year ago.” This was a shame, because that’s what draws people to Holmes, I would think. Overall he was a little bit jolly, laughing, chortling and throwing his arms around people.

The final action scene concerns a brutal rape, so be warned—and I didn’t like that it was played a little for titillation. This probably explains why this otherwise pretty good read hadn’t been picked up by one of the larger epubs, as they probably wouldn’t have allowed the rape scene to stay as written.

One or two misuses of words I spotted “erstwhile brothers” (referring to Mycroft and Sherlock) when they were hardy “former” brothers. “Queer” wasn’t used for another fifty years or so, but in the main, the research is pretty good—streets are where they should be, and buildings existed at the time. But nothing too jarring, and as I say, the research is decent.

Seeing as how Holmes isn’t very “Holmesy” this could easily have been converted to original fiction without much of a join, but it’s a pretty good read if you can skim over the dreadful editing. If you are fan of the Victorian detective genre,then you’ll probably enjoy this. I would give the story a 4 stars but the presentation a 2, so overall, it gets a solid 3.

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Review: Out at the Movies: The History of Gay Cinema

Over the decades, gay cinema has reflected the community’s journey from persecution to emancipation to acceptance. Politicised dramas like Victim in the 60s, The Naked Civil Servant in the 70s, and the AIDS cinema of the 80s have given way in recent years to films which celebrate a vast array of gay life-styles. Gay films have undergone a major shift, from the fringe to the mainstream and 2005’s Academy Awards were dubbed ”the Gay Oscars” with gongs going to Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Transamerica. Producers began clamouring to back gay-themed movies and the most high profile of these is Gus Van Sant s forthcoming MILK, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first prominent American political figure to be elected to office on an openly gay ticket back in the 70s. So loved was he that his brutal and homophobic assassination by ex-policeman Daniel White sparked the biggest riots in gay history.

The book also includes information on gay filmmakers and actors and their influence within the industry. Interspersed throughout the book are some of the most iconic scenes from gay cinema and the most memorable dialogue from key films.

With a foreword by Simon Callow.

Review by Erastes

I wouldn’t consider this as a research tool, it’s more like a box of chocolates. Rather than a weighty tome dealing with the subject on a serious level, it’s more a coffee-table decoration and one that lets you pick it up, delve inside and read their view.

Sadly, I didn’t find it a “history” rather than a rainbow coloured meander down a yellow brick road. And that is probably its aim–for a book to truly do justice to subject it would need to be about four times the length.

Despite a very lengthy foreword by Simon Callow I felt disappointed by this book for several reasons.  Many of the films I wouldn’t consider gay at all–but simply “films that have become favourites of gay men.” Films like Mildred Pierce are included, I assume, because Joan Crawford has become such a huge gay icon. But the film itself? Not gay in the absolute slightest. And “The Women” is listed–again, because of the performances and gay icons within and gay men love the film, but neither film is one I would consider to be “gay cinema.”

As well as films that were included–and many of which were awarded their “gay oscar ” accolade at theend–there were notable omissions–the main one being “The Celluloid Closet” which baffled me, unless it was consdered to be a rival. I feel it was an important enough film to at least be mentioned.

It’s an attractive book, with a beautiful layout, lush with photographs and I can’t fault it in that respect. Each era is nicely handled, and not one era is top heavy. It is certainly informative, I just don’t think that it’s as informative as it should be, given the title.

It strikes me like someone’s favourite list, and not a tome for serious study. But it depends what you are coming to this book for, I suppose. If you want a book you can flip through and read snippets about star gossip and what the author thinks gay men take from the “not gay” films–interspersed with actual gay movies, but missing several important films out entirely–then you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s probably suitable for leaving on your coffee table for your friends to leaf through, but if you want a concise book for research on the subject, don’t waste your money.

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Review: Sam’s Hill by Jack Ricardo

A young man coming to grips with his homosexuality during the latter half of the 19th century, through four years of The Civil War, the Indian Wars with General Custer’s 7th Cavalry, into the rough and tumble town of Cheyenne and up into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

*Available in Kindle format, 382KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

A revisiting of the American Civil War is not a new theme, nor is gay, Union and Confederate soldiers, but “Sam’s Hill” by Jack Ricardo [Amazon Digital Services, 2010] contains some of the best, graphic descriptions of battlefield action I have ever read; the carnage, the confusion, the fear and the impersonal killing are all there in almost tangible detail.

The plot—at least for the first half of the story—is equally well conceived with some quite unexpected twists.

Sam Cordis is a young Union volunteer from New Jersey; green, innocent, seeking to become his “own man” and heading west when the war is over, “…a mere two or three months, he was sure.”

After a taste of war, and the reality of it, i.e.

“The order came. “Tear Cartridges.”

“Sam did exactly that. He poured powder into the barrel of his musket, dropped a metal ball inside, stuffed the ramrod down to push the ball into position, and carefully placed a cap under the hammer.

“When he heard the first shot, the taut skin of his neck strangled his throat, his heart stopped. The woods began bleeding with an indistinct jumble of men in gray yelling ferociously, shooting indiscriminately. Sam wanted to run for cover. There was none. And there was no interference when he lifted his musket.

“He stayed his mind, focussed his eyes, spied his target. He couldn’t see the Rebel clearly. He didn’t know if he was young or old, an officer or a volunteer. He was merely a target. Sam aimed the weapon with ease, as if marking a jackrabbit on the banks of New Jersey’s Rampo River. He pressed the trigger and squeezed as his older brother taught, gently, caressing the tender skin of a newborn calf. The report of the musket was lost in the din.

“Sam didn’t wait to see if the ball hit its mark. He followed the example of the others, crossing the former path, running wide, stumbling, turning, reloading, firing again, this time with haste. As hastily as the enemy fired at him.”

Under such perilous circumstances men frequently bond out of necessity, and the mores of a conventional society are either relaxed or shirked in favour of a new reality. So it was with Sam and his young companion, Davie, when a tender friendship gradually blossomed into love, like a flower amidst the ruin. Just as quickly, however, it was snuffed by a sniper’s bullet, but not before Sam had discovered a love that would not be denied.

As the war dragged on Sam found himself in Savannah, Georgia, with Sherman’s army, and during a lull in the hostilities he is drawn to the docks in search of male companionship. It is a mixture of intrigue and inert desire until he encounters an older man who almost succeeds in fanning his smouldering desire into a flame. However, in an unexpected twist, he is mugged and then rescued aboard a gunboat where the stranger is first mate. Romance nearly blossoms there as well, but when the gunboat is attacked Sam is thrown overboard during the mêlée. Miraculously he is washed ashore on the coast of Florida, and making his way inland he encounters a regiment of Black, Union soldiers, who are themselves captured by Confederate forces.

A forced march then proceeds to a POW camp somewhere in South Georgia—a non-regulation compound where corruption and cruelty prevail. A “King Rat” type-of-character also rules, and he sets his sights on seducing Sam. On the other hand, Sam befriends a badly wounded youth who would otherwise die. These are the characters that will play a significant role later in the story, but for now they are certainly interesting enough.

When peace if declared Sam and the now rehabilitated youth start for their respective homes in the north, where Sam’s several family members await, but first there is another character to be met; an Indian brave named Kehoe.

To this point I would have no hesitation in giving this story a five-star rating. The journalism is first rate, the characters are interesting and credible, the action is breathtaking, and the pace compelling.

Regretfully, the second half of the story begins to bog down under the burden of characters that, in their numbers and complexities, nearly overwhelm the reader. Likewise, to accommodate each of their parts, the story loses its linearity to twist and coil around the various subplots.

There is no question that Mr. Ricardo has a flair for historical fiction, but sometimes less is more. 

Review: Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

When Victorian private investigator Nick Romney’s step-father, an Anglican bishop, is murdered, Nick refuses to get involved. At the urging of his family, though, Nick and his lover Davy step in to investigate. Together they uncover the truth of the bishop’s involvement in the dark and horrifying world of child prostitution, the reason why he was killed, and the shocking identity of the murderer.

Review by Erastes

The set up sounds familiar, a detective in fin-de-siecle Europe, but this isn’t really a Holmes homage. The author freely admits that she was inspired by Holmes:

“The initial inspiration was Sherlock Holmes and I jumped right to the idea of a gay Victorian detective and let the characters define the story, which they were quite happy to do.”

but the characters are nicely different from Holmes and Watson, or at least the Holmes and Watson I like to imagine, as I’ve never been part of that fandom. Nick, when Davy meets him, is a lab assistant–not some kind of genius and Davy is a bit of a wastrel, so it’s a far enough remove from “doctor and private detective”. I suppose I just wish that someone would do more than just Victorian detectives. It’s not like they didn’t exist.

The first kiss between the two was rather baffling, I didn’t see why it happened the way it did, and I felt it was a little abrupt – and frankly idiotic of Davy as he could have been in serious trouble. Nick hadn’t given him any encouragement and they’d hardly met more than thirty seconds. Similarly their proper first meeting and conversation was relayed in a tell-not-show manner -we are told they “sat and talked” until interrupted by Davy’s father.  And then Davy says this:

I was sent from the room for the duration of the interview, but I loitered in the waiting room because I didn’t want Romney to disappear from my life without at least trying to find out where he lived. Though I was no innocent, I had never felt such an attraction to another man before. It made all my previous dalliances seem inconsequential. However Nicholas Romney had stirred something in me that no one else had ever before touched, and I was anxious to explore all these new feelings.

The thing is–other than an impetuous kiss–we haven’t had any reason to suspect that Davy was madly attracted to Nick–nor are we given the reasons why, so I felt a little short changed. First meetings, first conversations, first attractions–like first sex–should always be described, even briefly. It was like leaving the cinema for a couple of minutes to get an icecream, only to find upon your return that the bunny has already been boiled.

I did like Davy’s family’s reaction to the fact that he was sharing rooms with Nick–his father seems to suspect their relationship, and it’s probable that his mother at least wouldn’t have been able to put words to what their relationship was, so maybe didn’t suspect. His brother deals with it by not dealing with it, and his sister is madly curious. It made his family decent (although probably quite unrealistic) without really breaching the OKHOMO barrier.  Similarly, the jump from his father being dismissive and disappointed with Davy, to this statement:

I knew he was a loving man,

was never truly explored. It’s often the way with books I like, though–I want all of the book, including all the things that can’t be fitted into 170 or so pages.

We are soon into familiar territory,a murder, a possible miscarriage of justice and things to investigate. One might say that Nick has similar methods to a certain detective living in Baker Street, but we can’t really blame him for that, methods are methods, after all.

Character-wise, there’s some solid building here, and we quickly learn about Davy (who Nick calls Fitz) and Nick (who Davy sometimes refers to as Rom.) Nick has interesting idosyncracies which make him rather alluring (to me, anyway!) and that’s all as it should be. Who wants a normal detective, gay or otherwise?

What is a nice touch is that in this book, Holmes is fictional–and he even gets a mention when a corpse is proclaimed by Nick to be a brewer and it made me laugh:

I had only recently read a story entitled “A Study in Scarlet” about a fictional detective, and much as I had enjoyed it, I harbored the suspicion that Romney was twice the detective this other chap was and not nearly as annoying. “Is that all?” I asked.

“Do you want me to tell you the location of the brewery by sniffing the hops?”

I grew excited. “Can you do that?”

Rom rolled his eyes. “Good heavens Fitz, you read too much nonsense.”

“Well, I don’t know!” I snapped.

As Nick’s “storyteller”in the same way Watson was for Holmes, Davy has a good eye. He’s the narrator of the story–which is first person–and he gives you great details of the locations they encounter in their travels, rooms and furniture, streets and buildings all come to life as he describes them.

The story unfolds in a parallel fashion, with the most recent case with frequent flashbacks to the time they met, and Nick’s first case. I – being a bear of little brain and less concentration (specially with reading on the PC) found this distracting, and if I’m going to be picky I would have liked both stories as individual books rather than this method–but I know that it won’t bother most people so it’s not getting marked down for that. Nor for the cover which is very ugly.

It’s well-written and pacy–just how a mystery of this genre should be. Never a dull moment, in either plot-lines. The American spelling pissed me off a little bit, but it is probably a Torquere requirement, many publishers insist on it. I wish they wouldn’t for English set books. But spelling aside there were no other Americanisms that pulled me out of the immersive detail.

I should warn for themes which might offend–that of child abuse–but of course it is not described in any way, and the only references to it are those that disgust the characters involved, but I need to point this out, in case you won’t read anything with that theme.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and feel that I should knock a mark off for the double plot-line, (or due to the fact that we’ve reviewed three books this month with a five star rating) but both reasons would be unfair.This is a solid addition to the genre, well researched (very well researched, I should add) well written with a detective that I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of–and I hope we see more of Ms Rowan’s work in the gay historical field.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.

In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.

This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren’t worth being read more than once. There’s nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like “Eromenos” by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)

What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it’s a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.

Here’s one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if “Eromenos” is a gem, it’s an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex array of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.

On the surface, it’s another novel (or short novel/novella, it’s pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It’s the second Antinous novel I’ve read (after Gardiner’s “Hadrian Enigma” and it’s fascinating how different the two books are.

McDonald’s book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor’s lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it’s suicide.
But it’s more than that (so I’m not really giving away the twist of the story here). It’s a short memoir where we learn about Antinous’s youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It’s not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?

At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He’s not a player, he’s not a pawn, he’s an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as “Hadrian’s favourite.”

In this is the true tragedy of the character. He’s defined as Hadrian’s lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he’s getting too old, and while it’s fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it’s unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.

The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can’t be Antinous. He can’t discover who he really is, because he is the emperor’s consort. But even without Hadrian, he’ll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the Emperor and prolong his life.

The memoir we read is that search for identity, which ask these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.

If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it’s not. It’s an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There’s a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he’d refer to and how he’d express himself.

References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it’s not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there’s fondness and affection in the text, I don’t read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.

And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is “just” the consort. He plays his role because that’s his duty, he’s been chosen, but he’s never an equal partner and can’t possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.

Here’s a small piece of text from the start:

“When I was six, wandering about the cook’s garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.

Studying the creature’s unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.

I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men.”

This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the “famous man”, he’s nothing but a field mouse.

It’s layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it’s all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.

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