Review: A Strange Love by Georges Eekhoud

A very early gay novel, originally published in 1900, by a Belgian writer with the first English translation in 1908, set in 19th Century rural Flanders. A gay count returns after years abroad to an isolated uptight community where his love for a peasant boy brings furious attacks by fanatic and bigoted villages whipped up by the girl he spurned. The count’s gay education of his peasant boy includes the history of the boy-Emperor whose lover voluntarily joined him for beheading. This pioneer work of fiction was among the first novels to focus unapologetically on gay relationships and the author, a distinguished Belgian literary figure, faced legal prosecution for this book. Georges Eekhoud (1854-1927), a Belgian poet and novelist, became known as the editor of the Antwerp Precurseur, from which post he passed to the position of literary critic of the Etoile Belge.

Review by Erastes

I had to do a bit of research on this book, because it predates pretty much all of the gay fiction I know of, and I simply hadn’t heard of it, so I’ll talk about that before I do the review.

It was published in 1899. Eekhoud is the premier literary figure of the age in Belgium and very famous. He was well-known for his pieces describing peasant life, such as Campine. He wrote in French, and there is a free copy of the book–in French–on the Gutenburg website for those who might prefer to read it in the original. It was titled Escal-Vigor and I’m not sure how the title changed to A Strange Love. It–like many other books–was prosecuted in court but there was a literary swell of support, and Eekhoud was acquitted without a stain on his character. Shame more books didn’t get the same support!

The story concerns the young Count Henry Kehlmark who comes into his inheritance at quite a young age, and who is more than a little spoiled. This doesn’t make him a monster, but it does make him the kind of young man who wants to do what he likes. He lives quite a wild life and then suddenly he decides to retire to his country estate taking with him his housekeeper Blandine, a young woman with whom he had a brief affair in his youth, and Landrillon, his manservant. It is there, whilst being introduced to the neighbourhood, he meets and falls  passionately in love with Guidon, the son of the local burgomaster.

You can see by the illustration on the cover how this ends, which is badly, but that’s no real surprise, as far as I know Maurice was the first (and only for a long time) which dared to give gay men a happy ending. The story itself, while quite simple, has a lot of themes, such as the nature of loyalty, ambition, and what is true friendship. There’s (possibly) the first faghag in Blandine–who loves Henry to distraction, so much so that she stays with him, despite knowing that she’ll never have him, even before she finds out his true nature.  She is, however, angry at the way Guidon has usurped her as his best friend, and is alarmed at the gossip in the village–which is inflamed by the disloyal Landrillon. But when Henry explains it all to her, (with a rather disturbing confession that he lusted at one point over pre-pubescent boys but got control of this problem) she accepts him for what he is, and vows to stand by him, and will be friends with Guidon.

What I liked about this book was the way that Henry was no longer ashamed of his predilictions. He’d spent years hiding his nature–trying to “pass.” Making jokes about men like himself, pretending to leer at women with his friends and thinking he was truly alone in the world. But he came to terms with himself and his feelings and when he meets Guidon, he sees it as fate, something that was truly meant to be. Guidon was not an innocent that he had corrupted, but a man with similar desires. The ugliness is all perceived by the outside forces. The priest who wishes to destroy Henry, the dismissed servant, the woman (Guidon’s sister, Claudie) who wants Henry for herself.

This ugliness reaches a head, with the final chapter of the book, and it’s clear who the real monsters are.

The language is rather hard to take, and I wonder how faithful the translation is. It’s a curious blend of slang and thees and thous. It’s rather over flowery but not a difficult read because of that, just a little smirk inducing at times. Luckily there’s little conversation between Guidon and Henry because I couldn’t have taken much of the earnest declaiming. Even the huge argument that Blandine and Henry have is exquistely formal.

The edition I have is the plain green cover version, also found on Amazon, and the preface is most peculiar. It doesn’t give any indication as to who wrote it, and it’s almost as impassioned as the book itself, resorting to hyperbole and many many exclamation marks. It’s worth a read, but isn’t exactly instructive about the book, the time of its writing, or much about the author, prefering rather to bang on about how worthy the book is and how many other gay writers came before and since. The facts about the book I had to find elsewhere!

I can’t give it a high mark, because to the modern eye, and certainly compared to Wilde or Forster the prose doesn’t hold a candle to them (although the French itself might be beautiful, so if you do read it, let me know) but it’s an important book in the genre and if you get a chance to get hold of a copy and are interested in the development of gay literature then it’s worth seeking out.

Amazon UK      Amazon USA

Review: A Faint Wash of Lavender by Lucius Parhelion

Post World War Two finds Laguna Beach in its heyday as an artists’ colony. Tony runs his uncles’ Grocery store in the town where a man of his bent can hide among the eccentrics who call the place home, including his Aunt Cora, who’s in charge of this year’s Pageant, where denizens of Laguna Beach recreate great art.

Tony’s carefully laid out life is about to take a hit from old army buddy Ben, who comes and stay while he sorts out his life. Tony doesn’t have a problem helping out an old friend, but this particular old friend comes with pitfalls. Ben is Tony’s type, and always has been. When Tony and Ben are asked to participate in the Pageant, they’re thrown into each other’s arms, literally. Will Tony be able to keep Ben in the dark about his ‘lavender’ tendencies, or will Ben himself have a few confessions that are sure to knock Tony for a loop?

Review by Erastes

Right off I’ll say that Parhelion hasn’t yet struck a bum note with me, and this is no exception. Somehow Parhelion manages to write cleary, beautifully and believably about post-war eras and settings that not many authors are dealing with.

On the surface this is a simple enough story, Tony meets up with old ex-regimental mate Ben who he served with in the Second World War. Tony knows that he fancied Ben during the war, on top of the hugely strong bond they made fighting side by side across France and Germany but he thinks that–at the distance of a few years, and knowing that Ben is planning to become a missionary within a religious sect–he can have a good visit with his friend and send him off again, without revealing his feelings. The problem is that Tony is living in the artist/performance neighbourhood of Laguna Beach and this is the underlying subtext of the book.

Without this clever subliminal subtext it would just be a case of best friends realising they want each other, but it’s made much more because of it. It’s a social group Tony feels comfortable with when he’s alone–the faint wash of lavender relates to the slight swishiness of his aunt’s friends, some more obvious than others. But when Ben arrives, Tony is concerned that Ben will pick up on the lavender tint of his friends and put two and two together.

It’s an interesting look at a burgeoning gay community, although too brief, I felt. I got the impression that Parhelion was going for, that of men who were allowing themselves to be a little more obvious in what they deemed a slightly safer environment, but the characterisations of the lavender washed themselves were a little too thin for me and smacked of stereotyping. I don’t think this was at all Parhelion’s aim, but the time allowed, given the length of the novella, didn’t give any possibility of seeing them in anything but 2d. It’s a shame, because that’s rather the crux of this sub-plot, that Tony feels comfortable in this mildly outre atmosphere, but is also struggling with the fact that as a manly man he should be ashamed of his friends. But as we don’t see his friends that much, this fact falls a little short.

Tony and Ben are depicted beautifully. The dialogue hits notes that seem just right, not too girly and not too porn-slanted. The way they eventually confess to each other that they are pretty sure they are gay is believable. And the device (the pageant) where Tony has to admit to himself that he hasn’t lost any of his yearnings for Ben is well done. There’s an amusing line about The Last Supper which made me snort tea through my nose, too.

The rest of the story is so readable, it’s hard not to gush. I wish I was more of a literature teacher so that I could dissect Parhelion’s style and work out what they are doing that’s so right, but I can’t. If you haven’t read any Parhelion, start here and then I guarantee you, you will seek out all the others. I don’t know who you are, enigma that is Parhelion, but keep on doing what you’re doing. (although, give us a novel, one day, please?)

Author’s Website (out of date)

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: Test of Faith by Aleksandr Voinov and Raev Gray

July, 1187: Saladin has defeated the Crusader army at The Horns of Hattin. Thierry de la Tour Rouge, a Templar Knight, has survived only to be taken prisoner by the Saracens. Stripped and tied like an animal to the pole of a tent, Thierry fears torture in the attempt to break his faith. Abdul Basir is French by birth, a convert to Islam and an advisor to Saladin.

Thierry has been bought for him and while Abdul owns him, he cannot guarantee that Saladin will spare Thierry’s life. In the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, Thierry chastely kisses Abdul, hurtling them both into a clash of faiths and a contest of wills. One man motivated by the fulfillment of a long-lurking fantasy and the other by the need to keep his faith intact. They come to show each other mercy, kindness and trust—enough to reveal their desire for one another. As Saladin holds the fate of Thierry’s life in his hands, can Abdul keep this honorable crusader safe?

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS
Review by Sal Davis

Normally I would start with comments about the cover but that can wait. Instead I need to warn that this is quite a short book and I can’t really talk about the things that interest me most about it without giving away some really major spoilers. So I’m turning my review upside down. This has an excellent plot, it is set in a fascinating competently researched period of history, the characters are interesting and their situation compelling. I enjoyed reading it but it has some issues that might not suit other readers. If you want to read it and don’t want to be spoiled I’d stop reading this now if I were you.

And NOW I’ll talk about the cover for a bit to act as a spoiler buffer.

There was no cover on the review copy and I didn’t bother to look it up before reading it. That was a pity because it’s an attractive piece of work, richly coloured and nicely layered. I’d like to see a larger version some time because I’m guessing a bit, but I think there’s a distant landscape of the Holy Land overlaid by two male profiles, an early illustration of Jerusalem from the Madaba Mosaic and a period correct sword. After that it would be no surprise to discover that the story is about the Crusades. It’s a very lovely image, complementing a story that, while a good read, is just as bleak and hopeless as those dreadful conflicts were.

Thierry, a knight of Britanny, is captured at Hattin and given to Abdul Basir, once also of Britanny but now converted to Islam, who plans to indulge his desire for revenge on the Christians who expelled him by taking it out on Thierry’s body. Naturally things don’t go as planned and Abdul discovers not only that he would sooner have a willing lover than a victim but that he wishes to keep Thierry safe in his arms. The only way he can do this is by persuading Thierry to abandon his faith and embrace Islam but Thierry refuses, preferring immediate death to what he considers to be heresy and eventual consignment to hell. The decision made, they find peace together before Abdul hands Thierry over for execution.

Issue number one – that one of the protagonists dies, and that it is known that he will die for a good part of the story – would be a deal breaker for people who like their romances with at least a HFN. I found the tragedy of it quite satisfying in a morbid way. It would have been too easy to have Thierry give in to Abdul’s urging, abandoning his faith for love. As it is, what happens is true to the characters and the period. Speaking of which, the research is meticulous.

The other issue is stylistic. The point of view is 3rd person omniscient – the reader can see into both characters’ heads. It seems as though the two authors role-played the characters as the POV flickers from one to the other. I know that this ‘head hopping’ is unusual, but it didn’t bother me too much as I’ve been used to reading role-played fiction. There were occasions when I had to re-read a sentence and adjust my expectations of who was speaking, but that didn’t detract, too much, from the story. However there was one thing that gave me pause, and I believe that this is also due to the role played nature of the piece. The emotional atmosphere of the story is heightened right from the beginning, despite a good batch of ‘telling’, but once the two characters start to interact the needle whizzes off the chart. Thierry’s fear, his agony of thirst, Abdul’s rage and anticipation of Thierry’s defeat are on a very high note, and this sense of passion is sustained through much of the story. But at the end, at what should be the emotional climax, the style becomes quite cool and detached and is ‘told’ again. I must admit that after the skin crawling emotions earlier in the story I felt a little shortchanged. It’s possible this was deliberate – an indication that Abdul was feeling so much that he was in shock. It’s also possible that it was deliberate so not to take anything away from the last three paragraphs of the story [which I thought were fantastic and which I am NOT going to spoil].

Stars – yes, I enjoyed the story, the history, the period details, the bravery of killing one of the protagonists, very much. But … the head hopping! Only 3, I’m afraid. But a very appreciative 3!

Raev Gray’s website

Aleksandr Voinov’s website

Buy from eXcessica (ebook)

Buy from Lulu (print)

Review: Game of Chance by Kate Roman

When the young Duke of Avon takes a back exit at a masquerade ball, expecting to find like-minded players to share a high-stakes game of cards or dice, nothing can prepare him for what he finds. But in the arms of mysterious Lord Donahue, Sebastian finds this new game is more pleasurable than anything he anticipated…

Review by Erastes

A short review for a short story. I hadn’t read any Kate Roman before but I’m very appreciative of the time she took to set up what is really a wham bang thank you Sam plot. The story begins nicely and doesn’t rush to immediately tell us that our protagonist is homosexual. He’s a gambler and he’s come to a masque ball (always a sexy setup) to have a game of cards or dice. He hears rumours of back rooms where the real action takes place and whoops we have a delicious misunderstanding and a great place for much shagging in the Marsh.

Roman describes things well, and I’ll definitely have a look at her back catalogue and see if there are any other historical hiding away there. Within the space of this small setup, she leaves us in no doubt as to where adn when we are in time, wigs, coloured heels, our protagonist is a proper “macaroni” even though he doesn’t actually have any idea of his predictlictoins when it comes to me. Don’t worry, there’s someonewaitingin the wings to explain mattersto him. The sex scene when it does come—no pun intended—is again, nicely drawn out and uses enough of the historical colour to prevent us thinking that this could be set in any time at all. It’s graphic without being overly so, and will get you tingling in places that you like having tingled.

I don’t normally recommend such short stories, as i do think they are over-priced for what they are, and would prefer to have them as an extra in a novella, or ina collection of that author’s others tories, but I liked this one a lot, and it kept me amused for fifteen minutes or so and has introduced a writer to me who does her research. Four stars.

Author’s website

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: The Station by Keira Andrews

Ever since Cambridge-bound Colin Lancaster secretly watched stable master Patrick Callahan mastering the groundskeeper, he’s longed for Patrick to do the same to him. When Patrick is caught with his pants down and threatened with death, Colin speaks up in his defense, announcing that he, too, is guilty of “the love that dare not speak its name.” Soon they’re both condemned as convicts and shipped off to the faraway prison colony of Australia.

Patrick learned long ago that love is a fairy tale and is determined that no one will scale the wall he’s built around his heart. Yet he’s inexorably drawn to the charismatic Colin despite his best efforts to keep him at bay. As their journey extends from the cramped and miserable depths of a prison ship to the vast, untamed Australian outback, Colin and Patrick must build new lives for themselves. They’ll have to tame each other to find happiness in this wild new land.

Review by Sal Davis

April Martinez has produced an enticing cover to draw readers into this Australian set story. The dry washed out colours and the stockman and cattle set off the faces that depict the two protagonists. The models have been chosen with care too, showing the belligerence of one and the soft bemusement of the other.

The Station is a coming of age story, told from the point of view of Colin Lancaster, a privileged, somewhat fragile lad who is cossetted by well off and over anxious parents. Home schooled, lonely Colin develops a childish crush on hunky head groom Patrick which causes him to follow the man around and help out in the stable. The relationship that develops is innocent enough but is ruined when Colin catches Patrick rogering one of the gardeners. Colin is transfixed by the sight, realising that he wishes it was him and that this is a very Bad Thing.Afterwards he avoids Patrick completely, hurting his feelings and setting up the situation for oodles of angst later. Yet Colin still adores Patrick and when Patrick is caught in flagrante, he tries to save his life by claiming to have committed the same crime. Off to Australia they are sent and so the adventure begins.

I’m a bit torn about this story. On the one hand there are historical inaccuracies that shook me right out of the narrative. [Graduation from school, really?] But on the other I enjoyed the plot and some of the secondary characters rock. Sadly, I was less engaged by the two protagonists. Colin struck me as very bland and accepting of all the horrible things that happened to him. Patrick, still cherishing a broken heart from a previous relationship, came over as an opportunist and an ass.

There’s a lot of telling in the story, maybe the author wanted to avoid over-dramatising it? However it all hangs together pretty well and ends in a suitably romantic way. If you can ignore the little bits that make history wallahs go ‘eh?’ and just enjoy the emoting you’ll be fine. I’d be inclined to give it three stars plus another half for the unusual Aussie setting.

Author’s website

Buy from Loose-ID

Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino

TWO QUESTIONS HAVE ALWAYS PLAGUED HISTORIANS:

HOW COULD Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?

HOW COULD William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor?  Historians have noted that the Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution.

Review by Erastes

This is a very well researched and meticulously thought out book. I was in awe at just how much work Bacino has put into this, with foreword, and massive appendices.

It’s obviously massively researched and he’s clearly looked up every single point that he’s writing about, from plague to theatres to politics. I have to give Bacino a standing ovation simply for the work he’s done here with a foreword and a huge appendix But..

The trouble is — it’s not really a novel. This book is really going only to appeal to historians, because those wanting an immersive novel are going to find the style jarring–as I did.

It’s more like a docu-drama. I haven’t read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote but I would imagine that this is the style he used–an omniscient narrator taking the place of any of the characters’ points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure omniscient narration–it’s a style I much admire but while it works for Thackeray and for Dickens and the like, it really doesn’t work here. In the same way as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, Bacino takes the place of a rather confiding narrator who behaves rather like a history teacher interrupting a video his class is watching. You are never allowed to relax into the storyline because every paragraph or so “history teacher” butts in and starts telling us a load of back information such as religious or political aspects—from the birth of Protestantism to the destruction of the Armada, to spy rings and exact wordings of many laws.

So, you’d think that those with a love of history would lap this kind of thing up, but I tend to feel that the facts we are presented with are already so well known from myriad incarnations of the Tudors on stage, screen, and book, historians are already going to know most of this. I certainly did.

Considering that the appendix (which takes up a good 20% of the size of the book) goes through every single historical point in every chapter with “FACT:[...]” or “FICTION:[...]” We could easily have had a novel-style book rather than a semi-text book and if one was interested one could look in the appendix for the facts, but because we are told once in the book that this was so and then once again in the appendix it really felt like we are being preached at. The way the facts or fictions are presented are rather patronising, to be honest. If anyone has watched “Horrible Histories” will know that after every sketch, the narrator, a rat, comes on and says “It’s TRUE- the Romans really did wash their clothes in pee.” Or some such validation, and this book has the same tone. Trouble is Horrible Histories is actually for kids. So I did feel a little talked down to at times while reading this. As regards to the FACT or FICTION issue, he could easily have just kept it down to the things he invented, and taken it as read that we’d assume everything else was fact related.

Here’s an example:

From the book itself:

Sir Francis Walsingham was known for his booming, threatening voice that seemed even more frightening when he lowered it to a softer tone. He had headed the Royal Intelligence Service (a euphemism for the spy network in England) for almost twenty years. He was quickly becoming the architect of modern espionage. As a fitting reward for his “unswerving” service”, Queen Elizabeth had named him England’s first Secretary of State in 1573—a position not quite structured yet – giving Francis the opportunity to do pretty much as he wanted with the position. He had the reputation of being the archetype of Machiavellian political cunning with tentacles to fathom out the smallest detail in the country. He knew he was courted and needed by everyone.

He was also hated by everyone.

(He was the inspiration for the line that would someday be written into the play Measure for Measure: “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.”)

Now – from the appendix:

FACT: Queen Elizabeth did name Sir Francis Walsingham to be England’s first Secretary of State in 1573. Sir Francis was the head of the English spy network. Historians frequently name him as the architect of modern espionage.

FACT: Shakespearean quote: ““it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice” “Measure for Measure” Act III, scene 2

As I said, the appendix takes up 20% of the total of the book (according to my Kindle) and all it does is mostly repeat what’s already been said. There are no citations, either, which I sort of expected with this level of “this is actually true.” We are just expected to take the author’s word for it.

The reason an omnisceint narrator worked so well for Thackeray and Dickens and the like was that they were presenting the narration from a closer perspective than this. From their time, or a few years after the events they were writing about. And anyone doing an omniscient narrator today would also use this device, narrating the book as a person who knew the characters or was involved in the events portrayed. But Bacino’s narrator – who is more than likely Bacino himself – is narrating this from a perspective of 21st century man, so the terminology is jarring: Marlow has “mesmerizing ways” Marlowe is “cute.” Comparisons to money—such as Wriothley’s payment of £5,000 to sever his engagement are compared to million pounds it would be in “today’s” money, which again, instantly reminds us we are reading a history book, rather than living a story with the characters. Lord Wriothley is referred to as “the poster boy for the homosexual movement” which is from the narrator’s pov so it’s not quite so bad—but then that same lord actually says later: “Her [Queen Elizabeth I’s] new Commission makes it really just a police state, doesn’t it?” which is gah-wrongness on so many levels.

But I can’t discommend this book, because of the sheer volume of work that has gone into it. I complain daily about authors who can’t be arsed even to open Wikipedia for the most basic of facts that can be found in seconds, so I’d be a hypocrite indeed to moan about someone who has done this level of research.

It’s just that—just because you do the research you don’t have to tell the reader about every single aspect of it. (Are you listening Dan Brown?) I prefer to be shown, not told.

Without all the infodumping, the story is amusing and enjoyable, Shakespeare’s portrayal being particularly funny as a real thicko. I can’t say that the conspiracy theory convinced me, though.

There are a few historical oopsies too–one being people drinking tea(!) a good hundred years before this was possible. This surprised me seeing as how much research had gone into the rest of the book.

If you can take the history professor on every page, and you like this approach then you’ll enjoy this. It’s well-written, fantastically well researched (even though I don’t agree with some of the “FACTS”) and I hope that Bacino goes on to write more. The story hangs together well, the conspiracy is well done and probably adds to the canon of Who Wrote Shakespeare. It’s just that I prefer a novel, with history blended in rather than a documentary with the presenter stopping the action every few minutes to tell you stuff.

Author’s website

Buy from Author’s House

Lee Benoit’s Book Swap

I have a paperback copy of His Master’s Lover by Nick Heddle that I’d be willing to ship to an interested party.

Also, I would be happy to share a PDF of the anthology I edited, SOMEPLACE IN THIS WORLD, which includes my 1930s historical short “Pack Horse,” if you think it’s appropriate (most of the stories in the antho are not historical).

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What to if you want any of these books

REPLY to this post with suggestions of what you have–it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had a post on the community, you can also offer your books on the replies. The owner of the post will then choose what they want (probably will take a day or so) and then I’ll connect the two of you and you can arrange your swap or gift.

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