Review: Colonel’s Treasure by Dirk Hessian

Young Rob Winston is deemed too small of stature and unsoldierly to take his place in the military ranks of the American Revolution. All he is seen fit to do is to become the sexual comfort and treasure of Colonel Seth Hampton of the army of General Nicholas Herkiner in the Mohawk Valley campaign. With the help of the Indian subchieftain and scout Otetiani, however, Winston endeavors, by taking on the role of spy, to show that his talents in enticing the desires of men are more than enough to turn the tide of war. At war’s end, however, he must choose between his colonel, the Indian chief who has mastered him, or the runaway slave, Jeremiah, to whom Rob himself has become a slave.

Review by Erastes

A short review for a a short novella. At around 17,000 words this story follows Rob Winston has he tries to help America win the war of independence–on his back.

It’s an erotic novel, rather than a historical piece, even though it’s set in 1775 and onwards, there’s plenty of sex on the pages but it’s more geared towards porn than erotica. The story starts with a rape (although some, as Rob’s reactions soon turn from “no no!” to “more more!” might call it “dub-con”) and progresses to him becoming a male prostitute, then becoming a Colonel’s sex toy (with all his platoon knowing about it) to participating in a bogus Native American sex ritual of group sex of rape and bondage.

I can’t say I enjoyed the story much, because it was a real case of OK Homo, one of those cases where everyone–be it black slave, Native Americans, loyal Americans, dastardly British–instantly wants this odd little milksop of a short-arse weakling of Rob Winston. A young man who is so runty that he’s not even considered for a soldiery which I know included much younger boys than him. He’s desicribed as being skinny and pale-white in skin colour–despite the fact he often works shirtless in the anachronistically democratic slave fields of a neighbouring farm–so he didn’t come over as being appealing to me.

His motivations were rather clouded. He starts off saying how much he wants to help the cause, because as I say, he’s been turned down for proper solider work, but as he goes on, he’s thinking more about the sex he can have rather than any good he can do.  When he becomes the “Treasure” of the Colonel named in the title, he professes to be really in love with him, but later actions show that he doesn’t care a bit. He wants to be some (and I’m quoting directly) a sex slave to someone, but he walks away from someone who offers him just that. Also, when he’s having some of this sex (and some of it is quite distasteful, with BDSM that isn’t BDSM but simply someone damaging another person who’s only willing for spying purposes) the camera pulls out of his head and we have no indication of what he’s feeling other than the times he’s enjoying it.

Overall, mildly uncomfortable to read, not at all erotic, despite it being more a sex-manual than a book showing the American War of Independence.

Dirk Hessian is a pseudonym for the author “Habu” which is also a pen-name. I’m not sure why–when Habu already writes gay historicals, s/he needs a further penname for the same genre.

Author’s website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Haji’s Exile by Alan Chin

Nathan has cared for horses all his life, but Haji is the first he’ll train on his own. When the Arabian stallion arrives at Bitter Coffee Ranch, Nathan thinks he is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And then he lays eyes on Haji’s handler, Yousef. Nathan has much to learn about horses, about pride, and about love, but with the ranch’s hopes riding on Haji, he’ll also learn that all things have their price.

A Bittersweet Dreams title: It’s an unfortunate truth: love doesn’t always conquer all. Regardless of its strength, sometimes fate intervenes, tragedy strikes, or forces conspire against it. These stories of romance do not offer a traditional happy ending, but the strong and enduring love will still touch your heart and maybe move you to tears.

Review by Erastes

Haji is a beautiful 3-year old colt (called stallion here) which Nathan’s father has bought from North Africa to race. Haji’s handler, Yousef is beautiful too, and Nathan finds him so.

When Haji’s handler creeps into Nathan’s room and sex happens, it was rather a surprise. The two of them had hardly spoken (Yousef has hardly any English) and the only leering had been from Nathan’s direction towards Yousef, and he’d only been on the racing stable for a couple of days. It did seem a little bit of a risk, seeing Nathan was the boss’s son. But considering what Yousef does every morning after sex, perhaps that’s not surprising. I wasn’t very keen on this device, it was never explained and doesn’t give a good picture of Yousef at all.

The trouble I had with the book was my deep knowledge of horse husbandry. If you want to make me like your protagonist, then do not have them smashing a 3 year old Arabian colt in the muzzle twice, as hard as you possibly can with a riding crop, and have the man who dedicates his life to that horse just stand by and watch.

It was hard to take off my “horse” head and be objective after that, it really shocked me, even in the 1950’s–if one has been raised around horses, particularly sensitive, hugely expensive racing stock one doesn’t do that. You should never hit a horse in the head, anyway–granted the horse bit him, but the easiest way to deal with a biter is to bite him back–because that’s what they do to each other for punishment.

Another equine quibble before I shut up about it – Haji has damaged tendons, and this is the equivalent of a sprained ankle, it means rest, ice and compression–and he was being ridden regularly. That kind of injury is a horse owner’s nightmare as it takes weeks or months to recover fully–if the horse even does. The horse’s fitness is still much in doubt when it is run on the track, and that shows no love for the horse, merely the want of winning.

OK – that aside, this book is exquisitely written in parts, some of the description is quite breathtakingly beautiful, if a little self-conscious, because it’s just done in parts, jumping from very beautiful prose to work-a-day prose and then back again. This is definitely a good book to start with to get a feel of Chin’s style, although he does seem to be improving with every book.

The racetrack section is well done, you get a feeling of tension and race of course is exciting in the way that all horse races are, but Nathan once more didn’t win any prizes for behaving like a baby and risking his, Haji’s and Yousef’s life.

There were a couple of jarring homonyms: metal/mettle, bail/bale, a bit too much for such a small book which should have been spotted.

It’s short–only 3o pages or so, but worth the money for the sheer beauty of much of the prose. I can’t award it five stars simply because I loathed both protagonists and was given no reason to forgive Nathan particularly as he cared far more for sex and Yousef than for the horses, and I found the ending a little odd, along the lines of Outer Limits or Tales of the Unexpected– the whole thing didn’t really gel together for me.

Author’s website

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

Review: Summer Song by Louise Blaydon

Billy Bronner is, to all appearances, every inch the 1950s American dream: handsome, clever, captain of the high school football team, looks good enough in tight jeans that people can even forget he’s Jewish. Then the new guy on the block, the enigmatic Leonard Nachman, turns his head, and over the summer Billy discovers a new world of romance and love—in a man’s arms. But when Kit O’Reilly, Billy’s best friend and shadow, comes home after spending the summer with relatives, he finds Billy acting… differently. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that this change is related to Len, and Kit will have to decide if he’ll accept the relationship Billy and Len have forged, or if he’ll push Billy and their longtime friendship away.

Review by Erastes

This is a rather ambitious book which works on most levels, but falls down on others, but it’s a very brave attempt and shows the author’s disregard to write within “normal” parameters.

The book is told from four points of view, Billy Bronner himself, his best friend Kit, his love interest Leonard and Kit’s girlfriend Caitlyn. They are all told in first person present, with the exception of Leonard’s which is done in the form of a diary, so is more past. I admit that this isn’t my favourite way of delivery, but done well it can be very effective and to be  honest it is done well, with gusto and determination, even if it was a little confusing, because unless the chapter was a diary entry, it took a paragraph or two to work out who was “talking,” and as Caitlyn’s POV doesn’t come in until over half way through the book it was a bit of a jolt–I couldn’t see what her point of view added to the story, actually and the book wouldn’t have lost anything by losing her chapters. However, the voices of Billy, Kit and Leonard are well-written and pretty distinct. Billy and Kit’s are quite similar, but that makes sense because they were raised together since they were very young–Leonard’s voice–he’s a preppy from a public school from the East Coast, even though he’s described as coming from the “North Coast” more than once(!) and his voice is more formal with less slang.

So Kit goes on vacation for the summer, leaving the restless Billy behind and while he’s away, Billy–who we are told has a bad boy reputation, but sadly this really isn’t shown–meets Leonard on the beach. They get to go swimming and start spending time together, and things move along from there.

There’s no “insta-love” – the relationship has eight weeks to blossom and to reach a place where there’s no going back, and both young men (both 17 for those who are sticklers for this kind of thing) are entirely clueless as to what’s happening to them. After the kissing starts they have to assess their own feelings and how they feel about this affecting their lives.

An important leg to the 3-way relationship is Kit–and how he discovers their relationship, how he deals with it and how his loyalty overcomes his disgust and discomfort.

Rather stereotypically, Leonard is more aware of homosexuality than Billy, because he went to a public school where these things are done but not discussed. Leonard is more analytical about it all, and goes to books to find out more.  It surprised me a little that he relied entirely on Catullus’s “pornographic” poems for his research on anal sex–and didn’t seek out (once he’d discovered the over-labelled “happy button” inside himself) books on anatomy to find out what it was.

Overall, the voices of 1950’s teenagers are pretty well portrayed, if–again–all a little stereotypical. Red Chevvies and sprayed on jeans and the like but I felt it was all a little too insular. This is 1955 after all and there was a hell of a lot going on in the world and America at the time. McDonalds were expanding all over California, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Gunsmoke started, James Dean is killed. Yet none of these are mentioned, the only music that’s mentioned is “song by Elvis” not even the names of the songs. Considering that Billy is rather setting himself up to emulate Dean, I was staggered that no-one, not even Caitlyn was affected by his death.  I know that teenagers all over the world were pole-axed by that event. The book needed a lot more popular culture to ground itself in the era. It’s a bit like writing about youth culture today and not mentioning hip-hop or the hoodie.

I have to say also, Elvis didn’t have a hit until 1956, so. Oops.

That being said there are some great “real-teenager” moments like the following from Leonard: “I was going to say something else but I can’t remember what it was” (after he’d been describing Billy). There’s also a hilarious moment which made me laugh out loud when Billy describes himself as a free radical–typical teenager using the wrong term, to sound clever. However some–and quite rarely–of the prose slipped into modernisms–To name but two – Billy calls Leonard “passive aggressive” which being a phrase from the 70’s – no teenager of the era would have done. Similar “skank” is not a word used of women of these era.

It does tend to go on a bit at times, with the characters saying the same thing over and over again–and the whole pre-prom thing was tedious in the extreme. A more judicious editing needed, I think.

There were a couple of boo-boos early on which jarred me and made me wonder what kind of research I was going to encounter. The very first diary entry was 31st June… and then when the 4th of July is mentioned there’s no mention of the celebration at all. No picnics, no fireworks–considering that Leonard lived on a busy beach, that seemed rather incongruous. He and his mother went shopping–do shops open on the 4th? Leonard bewails the fact that photos can’t show the colour of Billy’s eyes and that was a bit odd, because colour photography was well advanced by this point in time, and French homework changed into Spanish.

The major problem I had with the book, and why it didn’t get a four or a four and half which it could easily have merited (with better research too), was the entire lack of conflict. Granted there’s a fair bit of angst from all four participants, which can get a little wearing over the course of ¾ of the book, but conflict? No. I was reading the story with the feeling of the sword of Damocles hanging over me, because everyone was talking about how dangerous it was for them to be doing the things they were doing, but no-one actually cares to do much to disguise it. The couple are constantly wandering into conveniently empty schoolrooms, making out on a secluded beach that only Billy can access, dancing together in a restaurant with no-one commenting, kissing in the dark where ONLY Kit ever catches them.

No one at high school notices their preferential behaviour, despite the fact that it’s obvious not only to Kit but to Caitlyn too. There’s a character introduced early on who I thought was going to be trouble, but he’s also clueless about the situation.  There’s no “normal for the time” paranoia and homophobia. Leonard even has to look up the law to find out what is illegal and what isn’t. Now, I can understand that kids in school and suburbs might not be able to get hold of literature explaining things, but I’m damned sure that everyone knew what a queer, faggot, fruit, pansy [insert your word of choice here] was.

It’s all a bit Happy Gay Days, a bit Grease without the harder hitting issues that Grease managed to deal with. I think the author liked her characters so much–and that’s understandable, they are all nice nice kids, that she simply couldn’t bear to have them beaten up, insulted, suspected, arrested, or in fact anything nasty happen to them at all. Which is a shame, because the ending didn’t have the same happy punch as it should have had because they didn’t go through the mill, or even drive anywhere near it. Even in the epilogue it’s only said that “they had a couple of close shaves.” That might actually have been the case for some gay men–I’m sure it was, but it doesn’t make for a gripping read.

All in all this is an enjoyable book, and I’m sure the lack of external conflict won’t worry most readers. I could see this book having sold to the mainstream, were the mainstream sensible enough to publish it. Recommended, but you might be mildly disappointed.

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

New Titles Added

Phew! I’m exhausted!  Found dozens and dozens of new titles recently – some short stories, some novels, some text books, but it’s so great that the genre is growing and growing. One day I may not be able to keep up.

These have been added to the list recently. Hope you can try them and enjoy them if you do!

—————-

A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster by wendy moffat

A romance in the Wilderness by Spence Keegan – Western

A Strange Love by George Eekhoud published in 1899- Flanders

A Wicked Encounter by SammJo Hunt – Regency

All beauty of the sun by marion husband—post ww1

Almost an Equal by Heather Boyd – Regency

As stars fall by Arius de Winter (says Spencer Keegan on Amazon)-1930’s Europe

As the Snow Lay All Around by S. Blaise – Victorian

As Time Goes By – by Anna Lee (WW2)

Beginning of Time by Dirk Hessian – stoneage

Cast not the Day by Paul Waters – Roman Empire

City Boy by Edmund White (1960-70 New York-

City of Gold by L.J. LaBarthe Constantinople 1131 (short story)

Colonel’s Treasure by Dirk Hessian – American Civil War

Comfort DW Marchwell – Vietnam war era in America (short story)

Convincing Leopold by Ava March – Regency

Cross bones by various (anthology) Pirates

Crusade Knights by Rexana McCormack

Deception by Lyndi Lamont – 1895 england

Dreaming Sparta by Richard Fazio – Ancient Sparta

Earth and Sun, Cedar and Sage by Mills & Ward American west

Escape to Athens – Xavier Chance – Ancient Greece

Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion before Stonewall (Series Q) by Christopher S. Nealon

From Here to Eternity (Restored) by James Jones – WW2

Furlough Bridge by Jardonn Smith  – WW2

Grit by Wiliam Maltese and Jardonn Smith – Great Depression America

Haji’s Exile by Alan Chin -1940s (short story)

Homeward Bound by Habu – early 20th century

Irish Cream by Vincent Diamond – 1950’s (short story)

Kissing Sherlock Holmes by T. D. McKinney & Terry Wylis Holmes fic-Victorian England

Knight of the Hawk by Victor J Banis – Crusades

Lily White Rose Red by Catt Ford 1948 America

Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Kate Roman – Italy 1952 (short story)

Missing Jackson’s Hole by Ryan Field – Western

My Big Brother by Ike Rose – 1968 America

My queer war by James Lord (ww2)

One More Soldier by Marie Sexton – 1963

Pioneers by Lynn Lorenz – 1940/50 America novella

Prisoner of War (Gay Soldiers) by Arius De’ Winter – ww2

Queering Holmes- a study in lavender – Anthology

Rage of Angels by Perry Brass- Savannah 1963

Regency Nights by Kitti Bernetti – Regency

Seduced and Revealed by TA Chase – Regency novellas

Stand and Deliver by scarlett blackwell

Stone by Stone by Stevie Woods – 14th century England

Summer Song by Louise Blaydon – 1950’s America

The Almost Unbelievably Curious Case of Jeremiah Hudgejaw or America’s First Gay Wedding by marten weber 1900 america

The Code by David Juhren] 1941 America

The Crane and Pelican by Victor Wisse – post WW1

The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays  Salvatore J. Licata

The gentleman and his jockey by jm Cartwright (short story)

The Jolly Lobster by Robin Anderson-Forbes – 1920 Canada

The Mark of a Man by Maggie Lee Elizabethan England?

The meaning of vengeance by Jamie Fessenden – medieval Iceland

The Painting by FK Wallace – 1930-1980

The Philospher Prince by Paul Waters – Roman empire

The Song of Achillles by Madeline Miller

The Stallion and the Dragon (Spaniards) by Desert Run by Marshall Thornton – 1973 America

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst -1913 England

To Chase the Horizon by Richard Stone – WW2

Two People by Donald Windham – 1960’s Rome (written contemporaneously)

Under the Law by JP Bowie – 1973 London

Virgin Airmen by Michael Gouda ww2 (short story)

Review: Pioneers by Lynn Lorenz

When Matt films a documentary of gay men living in New Orleans over the last fifty years, his first subject is none other than Sebastian LaGrange, his very own landlord. The elderly gentleman has lived through good times and bad, has seen and done it all, and Matt thinks he’s perfect for the project. Although Sebastian is initially reluctant, he comes to believe in the project, and opens up his life like never before, telling his story from the first time he kissed a boy, to the present.

What Matt uncovers is not only a history of being gay in their beloved city, but he unravels the mysterious past of one of New Orleans’ most desired gay men. Sebastian has been a friend and mentor to Matt and his partner Lane, and even in his old age, Sebastian has even more to teach them about love…

Available in Kindle format, 136KB

Review by Gerry Burnie. This review appeared on his website here.

There are a whole bunch of good things that can be said about “Pioneers” by Lynn Lorenz [Amber Quill Press, 2010]. To begin, it is superbly written. The syntax flows flawlessly, the characters are well developed, and the pace keeps the story moving along at a comfortable pace. All important pluses in my opinion.

I also found the era in which the story is set—i.e. the 1940s & 50s—a wonderfully nostalgic bonus. As the chief supporting character, Sebastian, says: “It was the fifties, lamb chop. One didn’t come out of the closet, one tiptoed out.” And, later, Matt observes: “That’s what I want to show with this film, baby. I want the young gay men of today to understand what the older gays lived through, how they survived. Or didn’t.” Having come out during the same era, I can readily identify with both of these sentiments.

Another appealing aspect is that the story deals with romance between older men; a somewhat unique topic for most writers of male-on-male fiction. In fact, the only other series that comes to mind is Ronald L. Donaghe’s Common Threads in the Life Series.

I do have a few minor quibbles, though. Although I understand the author’s intention to add dimensional depth to the characters, I found the switching of voices and times to be a little distracting. I also found the flashback scenes between Sebastian and his dead lover Frank, although a relevant to discuss the onset of AIDS in the 1970s, just a bit too lengthy and even saccharin at times.

I hasten to add, however, that these few, minor quibbles do not substantially detract from an insightful and altogether touching story.

Enthusiastically recommended. Four and on-half stars.

Buy at Amber Quill Press

Review: Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

Wu Jin has both brains and beauty. Though poor, his family are noble enough for Jin to sit the imperial examinations in the hope of obtaining a high-ranking government position at the court of Tang Dynasty China. When his parents are killed, Jin clings to his dreams, and travels to the provincial capital for the exams. Pursued by a sinister horseman into the forest, Jin seeks refuge at a tumbledown inn, little realizing that he’s entered the abode of a fox-spirit. Tian Zhen is a transcendental fox of immense power and considerable seductive charm. He’s startled when Jin sees through his illusions, and believes it’s Jin’s destiny not only to become his lover, but also to help him find a lost talisman, the symbol of Zhen’s heavenly role as the Guardian of Thunder. But convincing Jin won’t be easy, and the search for the talisman turns dangerous when Jin discovers it’s connected to the man who murdered his parents.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a beautiful story on so many levels. The prose is smooth, lyrical, and lush, but never overdone. The characters, though recognizable to the m/m reader, leap off the page as delightful individuals. And the plot holds its own, side by side with the romance, rather than being dominated by it.

The best kind of complaint a reviewer can make about a story is that it’s too short. I would have loved to see this story expanded into a full novel. But that doesn’t mean that it was incomplete in some way. Far from it. In 65 short pages, the protagonist solves a mystery, finds his destiny, and gets an HEA. It’s short and sweet, and definitely left me wanting more.

The setting is well researched–geography, housing, dress, food–it even gives a thumbnail sketch of the intricate governmental system of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). With an expert hand, the author provides a three-dimensional social and geographical landscape, which gives all the information a reader needs without a single dry patch.

I enjoyed how the myth of the Huli jing, or Transcendental Fox wove itself through the plot. And speaking of the plot–a well-formed mystery with a splash of coming-of-age–it was solid enough to have been a good story even without the romance. But, I think most of us would agree, a good romance makes any plot that much sweeter.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. And I can’t wait to read more from Ms. Cotoner. Five stars.

Buy at Torquere Books.

Review: Samurai’s Forbidden Love (Katana Duet) by Silupa Jarun

The Matsumoto twins, or “mirror samurai,” are bound together by a horrible crime committed during the civil war. Eager for a new beginning, the brothers travel to America where they are befriended by the Lennartsson brother and sister, Konrad and Klara. Akeno becomes attracted to the seemingly innocent young Klara, while Aki allies himself with, Konrad, who is desperately trying to find a cure for his sister’s mysterious illness.

The bond of brotherhood between the samurai grows into a forbidden relationship as they realize “Katana Duet” is not the only stage show they must perform for money but they must also play out an elaborate act to free themselves from a deadly game in a household full of secrets.

Review by Erastes

I enjoyed this story in the main, and really warmed to the brothers in particular. The story worked for me, overall, but the mark reflects the several issues I had with the telling of it. The story in essence is a decent family saga, showing actual historical events, the war in Japan, the research on tuberculosis, and it was interesting to read about times, places and events that I knew almost nothing of.

Jarun clearly knows her subject and her locations and that comes through strongly, the research is there and I didn’t get jolted by anything terrible. I don’t know this era at all, but Jarun does write with an air of authority, so it seems like that “safe pair of hands” that I’m often banging on about.

As the title and cover suggest, this story involves brotherly incest, so if that’s an anathema to you, then you need to stay away. There is also some graphically described heterosexual sex, so again be warned.

When referring to Japanese items, I didn’t like the way it was punctuated and it threw me off. When the author introduces a Japanese word to the reader, and explains what it is, it’s done like this:

The traditional, simple fundoshi, undergarment.

With the translated word after the Japanese one, and a comma. This really jarred with me, and I found myself gritting my teeth every time an italicised word came up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to word it in context e.g. The traditional, simple undergarment, the fundoshi. As it was it had the effect of pulling me out of the story.

This is not a limited POV book. I won’t call it omniscient, because that’s handled in a different way but generally we get the thoughts of everyone on the page. When the twins speak to each other in Japanese, even if we are in Klara’s POV we are shown what they are saying. I don’t mind this, but I know that some readers have an issue with it. But to be honest, of all the head hopping I’ve read in books, this is one of the most readable types.

I think i would have preferred it to be more linear, too. As it is it jumps from the 1860’s Japan, then 1875 America, then back to 1874 Japan and so on—there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. My memory isn’t what it used to be and having to go back and forth to find out whether the piece  I was reading was before or after another piece was rather confusing, and with a converted pdf on a Kindle, not an easy task either. In the end I just made notes of the timeline, but of course that pulled me out of the book, too. This jumping around stopped about mid-book for which I was grateful.

It’s not a happy read, and for those expecting a gay romance I need to point this out. There’s a lot of dark lurking, the hints of which are gradually explained the further we go through the book. The subject matter of gay rape and tuberculosis and the unpleasant aspects of research for this disease will not appeal to everyone. Jarun seems to have a liking for animal dissection as I remember a cat being dissected in one of her earlier books.

I have to add, for readers seeking a gay romance that the ending is definitely not a romance ending, I can’t really put it clearer than that without spoiling.

But it is readable, and although there were a few confusing moments, in the end a lot of things were explained, but some were not. I would imagine that the research into tuberculosis was sound, but I can’t verify that, but it reads as if written from a position of confidence and that’s appreciated.

If you want a rather unique, but a little gory in spots, story with an unusual subject and setting then this will probably appeal to you. It’s a bit uneven, there are grammar and spelling errors throughout but it’s probably worth the investment.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

Review: A Gentleman and His Jockey by JM Cartwright

Jockey Gem Hardaway has a race strategy that will not only carry him and Pilate to victory, it will also show that he’s the best jockey at Templeton Yard. Lord Templeton, the Earl of Vickers, knows exactly what he wants to have happen at the racecourse. He demands Gem’s obedience.

When an unruly horse intervenes, the Earl insists on a meeting of the minds. Gem is shocked to learn exactly what that entails.

Review by Erastes

A very basic little short story about a jockey who likes men and the description of a race and the consequences of him not obeying the instructions of the horse’s owner regarding that race. Basically build-up, race, sex but it fills ten minutes of your time. I wouldn’t say it’s worth actually paying for,and I’d baulk at paying $2.29/£1.40 for it (even though I did!) 99c would be a much more reasonable price, and even so it’s not much for that price.

There’s no real grounding as to when and where the story takes place, just some generic racecourse during “the earlier days” of racing—I’m guessing early Victorian perhaps or Georgian. Nothing wrong with it but nothing to write home about either.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Mergers and Acquisitions by Lucius Parhelion

Bob and Trip are best friends and business partners who are negotiating the sale of their company when Bob decides to come out of mourning for his dead wife, Melinda. Since Melinda was his cousin, Trip understands what Bob is going through, and while he figures Bob is as straight as they come, he has broken down and offered comfort at the risk of ruining their friendship.

When Bob finally does decide to turn his attention to love again, though, it’s Trip he finds himself caring about. Trip isn’t sure he can believe it, and he doesn’t want to lose what they do have together by rushing into things. Can Bob convince Trip that it’s not just a whim, and that they can find more together than a company merger?


Review by Sal Davis

Torquere has had a bit of a hiccup on their website. The cover displayed for Acquisitions and Mergers: The Four of Wands is actually that designed for Sanctuary: The Four of Swords. However the proper cover, I’m sorry to say, is no improvement. I turned the page quickly and got onto the good stuff.

The story is set in 1960. Dr Trip Doyle is an MIT man and a genius. His business partner, widowed Bob Eck, is negotiating the sale of D&E Optical Engineering to BTC, a company with access to defence contracts, desperate to get their hands on Trip’s patents. Trip is discreetly gay. Bob knows about it but they are keen that BTC shouldn’t know – the defence people wouldn’t like it.

That is one plot strand. Another is the affectionate relationship between brainy Trip and charming Bob, both of whom adored and mourn Melinda, Bob’s wife. Bob went through a very bad patch after her death and Trip moved in with him to keep him going. One night with Bob frantic and very drunk their relationship developed, Trip delivering, as they put it in the story, an ‘owblay objay’. Strung out by the tension of the sale, moving offices etc, Bob shocks Trip by declaring his love for him. The rest of the story concerns Trip’s somewhat drastic efforts to help Bob establish whether he’s straight and deluded or honestly has had a change of orientation, and Bob’s efforts to prove his sincerity in the face of everything Trip throws at him.

It has the trademark flashes of humour, the banter between the main characters, little period details slotted into the narrative and unfussy sex scenes. I enjoyed it very much but it was, perhaps a little lightweight. There were suggestions of plot at the beginning of the story that were disposed of very easily and I felt disappointed that more wasn’t made of them.

But it’s still a very good story with plenty going on in the 50 pages, well worth both the price and 3.5 stars.

Available from Torquere Press Inc

Review: The Painting by FK Wallace

Stefan, a naive young Pole, meets Gunter, an artist in 1930s Berlin. Their passionate love affair is overshadowed by the rise of the Third Reich. Denounced to the Nazis, they are sent to Auschwitz as pink triangle prisoners.

Some things even love cannot withstand.

Forty years later Stefan returns to Poland with one question: when you have nothing left, how can you prove that love ever existed?

Berlin in 1936; optimism fading, the freedoms of the Weimar Republic little more than a memory, yet the inhabitants of the city blind themselves to the approaching disaster. The Painting is a story of love, of survival, of a life lived at the mercy of the most terrible events of the twentieth century.

http://www.thepaintingnovella.com

Review by Erastes

Hidden away on Lulu and Smashwords there are quite a lot of gay historicals. I often search through those sites in case I find anything that seems promising, and often I do, so it is a worthwhile endeavour. This title, however, came to my notice through an industry friend Leslie Nichol who said it was a heartbreaking read, but well worth it.

The subject matter of the first half of the book certainly will put many people off from attempting this book, but I urge you to put that aside, be brave and to try this book out.  The issue of Paragraph 175, the Pink Triangle and the camps has been dealt with in many memoires and textbooks, but few fictional representations as far as I am aware. The play and film “Bent” deals with it fantastically, too—and this book has something of the feel of Bent to it—only it’s not quite as devastating to read. This should be obvious as I did say that the first half of the book deals with the camps, and so the book moves on from that point.

It’s the story of Stefan Brukalski, Polish born and raised—he comes to Berlin in the early 1930’s because he’s heard that it is a city bursting with inspiration and creative life. The book opens with him at a pavement cafe, at the end of his tether and deciding to return to his home town in Poland, because Berlin has changed drastically since he heard tales of how liberal and fun she was. The Night of the Long Knives put paid to much of the liberalism, and the city is beginning to learn how to live in fear. It is at this cafe where he meets Gunter, a man 14 years Stefan’s senior, a painter, who picks him up, takes him home and they begin a passionate and heartfelt affair. Stefan becomes a German citizen to be able to stay in the country with Gunter, and both men (as they had little choice in the matter) join the National Socialist Party, Stefan as a clerk, and Gunter as an architect/planner.

By the time the war begins, it is clear that Gunter is tortured by some secret he can’t and won’t divulge, and their relationship takes a nosedive, but Stefan holds on, trying to be strong for them both. Then one day storm troopers close off the street and arrest everyone they can. Stefan hides in a hidden place in the house and waits but the scare is enough for them to decide to split up for safety. Homosexuals are being rounded up, being put into camps, and they think the safest thing to do is to separate.

It’s after this that everything goes to hell, for our two main characters (and everyone else) and the section regarding Stefan’s arrest and consequent experiences in Auschwitz are bravely done. The author seems to have reined back a little on what she could have written, but what she puts down is probably worse, because the imagination takes over, filling in the details from every newsreel and documentary our generations have seen, the generations who were not there. I think, though, that the author hints at the worst of it, and although the chimneys are described and the smoke, I didn’t really get the sense that Stefan knew what was going on. I think Wallace was relying too heavily on what the reader would actually know, and felt that she didn’t need to spell it out. Perhaps that’s the right approach. I don’t know.

But it’s this reining in that troubles me for the entire book in general. The description of Berlin as it turned itself inside out from a free-thinking, artistic haunt where anything goes and wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, to a police state, and then a city under threat of attack was not sketched out for me in enough detail. Most of the pre-war/pre-arrest sections are spent closeted away in Gunter’s apartments and I for one would have liked to have been shown more of the city. It is said that they rarely went out socially, for fear of giving themselves away, but I’d have liked to have seen even the shopping trips, and the like. We are told what’s going on, but we aren’t really shown it.

Aside from the camp sections—which, as I said—probably benefit from veiling the reader from day after day of the horror, the book runs like this with telling rather than showing, and we race along from the end of the war, careering into the fifties and sixties and seventies in a breathless rush, not really showing the passing of time, the changing of the fashions, the ideals in the country where the book takes place. I would have expected some social commentary on England, to be honest. There was a nice touch where the police call on Stefan after his story hit the headlines, and he panics that he’s going to be arrested, no charge, and dragged away, but of course—it’s England and nothing much happens at all. But England would have been such a haven (in comparison to Communist Poland or post-war Germany) and it’s not explored at all.

The book deals with a lot, family issues, people doing things because they had no choice, survivor guilt, and much much more—and with the weighty issues it has to cover it can’t help but skimp on some of the human detail.  I for one would have liked the pace to slow after the 1950’s, to show us him bringing up his niece in more chapters than we were given, but we leapt forward seven years in each chapter and it didn’t help to get me connected to Hannah at all, or to get a sense of that, for 14 years or so, he lived a happier life. It didn’t explain his rise as an author, and that’s something I’d have liked to have seen.

Perhaps it should have been two books. It reads as a family saga, and I’m a great lover of family sagas, and would happily read a book three times the size, watching the years go by. I felt a little cheated because I seemed to be there for all the terrible things that happened, but there must have been so much kitchen-sink sweetness and pleasure in Stefan’s life as Hannah grew up. He deserved that, and the reader deserved to share them with him.

There’s no mention of change in the political atmosphere regarding homosexuality in England either, even though Stefan doesn’t further that side of himself for many years, he would have—surely—noted the changes in the law as homosexuality finally became legal in 1967, even if it was only to himself. I’d expected this because Stefan was a Pole, and Poland (under Polish government) had no anti-homosexual laws.

Don’t get me wrong: even though I felt a lack of detail, this is still a beautifully written, thoughtful book. The ending sections, particularly, are touching and utterly believable. The theme that arises—although, once more, I would have liked a little more emphasis on the theme earlier in the book—of finding that  Stefan had begun to wonder if he had invented Gunther, to give his own life some focus, is warming and heartbreaking. I was happy for Stefan when I closed the book, but I wasn’t sobbing like a baby, and really—I think I should have been.

Considering it’s self-published it’s a bit of a jewel. The editing is top notch and the author has worked her socks off to get it in a state that—were it picked up by a mainstream publisher and i hope it might be—it would hardly need a comma moving.

It’s a challenging read, due to the subject matter, but don’t let that put you off. This book deserves as many readers as it can get and I look forward to a lot of eagerness to see what Ms Wallace comes up with next.

The author says she is negotiating to get the book into print format, but until then, there’s

Kindle  Smashwords

 

Maria McAnn’s Course: Writing Historical Fiction

http://www.chateauventenac.com/writingcourses/maria-mccann.html

Ten Percent Discount for anyone who books through Speak Its Name – just quote the code ERA11

Historical fiction is one of the most widely enjoyed kinds of writing.  In this course you’ll focus on how to create a fictional past that feels real and convincing, touching on such topics as voice, historical consciousness, use of real-life characters and the use of research.

There will be time for discussion and you’ll have an opportunity for one-to-one feedback with Maria.

Maria McCann was born in 1956 and came late to writing.  Her first novel, As Meat Loves Salt, was published to considerable acclaim in 2001 and was an Economist Book of the Year.  Described as a ‘fat juicy masterpiece’, it has never gone out of print. The Wilding (2010) was longlisted for the Orange Prize and was one of eight novels selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club out of a hundred and sixty titles submitted by publishers.   She has also published shorter pieces in anthologies and magazines.

Maria has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan.  For nearly a decade (until December 2010) she ran the Creative Writing courses at Strode College in Somerset, helping writers of all levels of ability to nurture their creative processes and to craft their work.   Alongside historical novelists Emma Darwin, Rose Melikan and R N Morris, Maria appears at literary festivals as part of a panel discussing aspects of writing and researching historical fiction; from January 2011 she will be one of three writers (along with poet Daljit Nagra and playwright Nell Leyshon) selected to mentor developing writers as part of the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme.

Maria McCann writing courses

Places are limited Click here to book your place now

Review: Long Journey into Darkness by J.W.

Long Journey Into Darkness is the dark tale of love and romance between cousins that turns fatal. Very Gay, Set in England turn of the century, coming to New York to start again only to be followed by the past, finding love and ………..there is however a little stage drama, murder and more.

Review by Erastes

First, the cover. Normally I wouldn’t have the cover reflect the mark because more often than not the author has no input or little—into it. However, as this is self-published I have to say that that it’s not really at all reflective of the book. In fact, the picture I received with the Kindle version is not this picture at all–it’s of a naked man sitting on a chair with his hand over his cock. That made me think that it was gay porn not “early 20th century homosexual drama.”

I’m not sure when it was set either, I thought it was Victorian, but the cinema is up and running, and the martini had been invented so it has to be after 1912.  That being said – there’s no mention of the war, so I think there’s something very wrong with the timeline.

If only that was the only problem!

Although the cover is not at all apt, the title certainly is. Because for me this wasn’t just a (very) long (or so it seemed) journey into darkness, it was a bumbling about in absolute darkness with no clue about what the heck was going on. The beginning is so jumbled, and so riddled with errors it’s pretty incomprehensible and I had to force myself to read on.

Basically a guy called Ethan Morris is on a train going to visit his lover. He calls into a house which we assume, as he’s expecting to see this Robert there, is Robert’s house, despite the fact that we told that Robert is rolling in money and this is a poor miner’s cottage. However there’s a woman called Edna there who tells him that all the posh furniture came as gifts from Robert and she and Robert are an item. This was odd to begin with because why would he be sending gifts to her in his house? Then Ethan gets on a train goes to a posh hotel in Liverpool, signs in under the name of Robert Morris (the guy and cousin he was in love with) but sends his luggage to the boat under the name of Ethan Morris. When he’s on the boat, he’s known as Ethan Morris to everyone and tells everyone that Robert is his cousin. Then a newspaper is read (the next day) that Ethan Morris had disappeared (which is daft to begin with, who’d care that quickly about a poor teacher?) and it’s a great discussion around the boat, but the discussion is about Robert Morris who’s missing, and not Ethan, despite what the newspaper said, and despite everyone on the boat knowing him as Ethan, and him actually being on the passenger list as Ethan, when he gets to New York, people call him Robert, and he’s known as having travelled out on the ship, despite being Ethan on the ship and everyone knowing that Robert was his cousin. *draws breath *

Confused? Yeah. Me too.

Even the ship changes its name!  If you read this, prepare to be more confused because by the end, if I hadn’t been holding my Kindle, I would have hurled the book out of the window.

The thing is that the prose itself–in spots–isn’t all that bad. There are some really nice passages and the normal narrative is quite readable, but I spent so long scratching my head and wondering if it all was meant to be confusing or whether the author just didn’t bother to get anyone to check it over (guess which one is probably true) that I couldn’t enjoy the bits that were half decent. And those that were decent were marred by typos littered about like confetti, incorrect homonyms and all sorts of grammatical horrors, such as using verbs as nouns for one.

We get passages like this:

“Edna was nothing to me but an interpreters of her sex.”

Whatever that means. There are many instances of words being used in the oddest ways. And I can’t tell whether it was a typo and the author meant “interpretation” or “an interpreter “or whether they were using the word in good faith, but didn’t actually know what it meant.

Another example of this – there are many – is

“He feed the linen-coated porters and dismissed them as rapidly as possible.

Which I cannot glean the meaning of at all. No, it’s not freed. Or fed.

The sad thing is that there’s a germ of a good plot idea behind all this camouflage, but I doubt most readers would get past the first section, and the plot hole, by the time he gets to New York, is enough to throw a horse through. All the confusion would have been cleared up by “And I’ll see your passport, please.” It’s a shame, because a damned good editor would have whipped this into a more comprehensible shape.

I wish I could say it improved as it went along, but it didn’t. People start conversing to him as men and turn into women, people enter his room who promptly disappear never to be mentioned again—nothing happens for chapters except chat and going out for dinner, anything interesting happens off page—continuity errors every time Ethan opens his mouth. There’s even one very amusing typo where the author has obviously done a search and replace a character name from Price to Brice – but didn’t check each one, as the word price is also changed to Brice, which took me ages to work out what the devil sentences like “They lacked the Brice to do so” and “the Brice of creation”. I admit to a titter or two when I worked it out.

Ethan as a main character doesn’t exactly shine—and I couldn’t like him, which meant I wasn’t invested enough in him to care whether he found love and happiness or not. Not only does he kill Robert off, but he then steals his money, uncaring or not as to the plight of the factory workers who were no doubt thrown out of work when the factory foundered due to his criminal action. I was rather surprised when he proves himself to be aggressively bisexual, to be honest, because it’s tagged as “Gay Romance.”

As such it’s blatantly mis-represented because he chats up two women, actively courts one of them to the extent that she says they should get married. He never even checks men out, other than one of the porters on the boat. Gay romance my left foot.

It was at this point when something absolutely incomprehensible happened. The woman, Luella, that he had been courting since meeting her on the boat entirely disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again. Instead of which, suddenly we get some guy Simon, who had never been mentioned before (and we are about 80% of the way through at this point) who apparently Ethan had been keeping in a cabin up north of New York somewhere. All the plot points that had belonged to Luella suddenly were transferred to Simon–the most notable of which was that a multi-millionaire promised to ruin Ethan if he didn’t stop seeing Luella, and a promise to burn the theatre down.  Suddenly, when Ethan declares he wants to be with Simon forever, they acknowledge that they’ll have trouble with the multi-millionare.

It’s pretty clear that the story started either as a purely gay romance and then author half-heartedly changed it to a hetero one to get published, and then only did a half-arsed job of converting  it back. Or the other way around.  Whichever it was, it put the nail in the  coffin for the book for me, and despite the rather interesting ending I ripped off half of the solitary star that the book had already earned.

I wish I could say more good about it, because I don’t like having to be so brutally honest, but I believe that with a good edit this could have been a much much better book. But as it is, I’d have to recommend that you avoid it altogether.

Review: Journey to Angkor by Michael Joseph

Piero leaves his home in Taormina to go to work for a renowned naturalist in England. Unfortunately, he hadn’t reckoned on falling for the Professor’s handsome young nephew, but it seems they have only just begun to explore their mutual attraction when the Professor discovers their relationship. To avoid scandal, he sends Piero away on a mission to Indochina, to explore the region and document the things he finds there. It’s truly a chance of a lifetime for Piero, even though he doesn’t want to leave his new friend.

On the voyage to Singapore, Piero meets a mysterious Siamese gentleman who, when they meet again in Bangkok, arranges for the Italian to meet Plai, a young Siamese man who will become Piero’s guide, interpreter, and more. As the two young men explore Siam and Cambodia, they encounter stinky fruits, stingy kings, lascivious princes, and the wonders of Angkor, an ancient city unknown to Europeans of the time.

Review by Erastes

Having just read one man on erotic foreign travels, I was hoping that Journey to Angkor would be out of the same stable, but I was a little disappointed.

The copy I had originally had a real problem with punctuation and homonyms, discrete, complement, that kind of thing – but when I mentioned this to the author (always awkward when you are in communication with authors, but in this genre, it’s difficult not to be) he edited the file again and put up a fresh copy which has ironed out many of these issues. 

Putting that aside, for those who don’t care and won’t notice the grammatical problems, the fact of the matter is that nothing much actually happens. Granted, Piero travels all over the place, “taking samples”—but there’s no conflict, other than at the beginning when he’s forced away from Henry, a young man he slept with once (and is in love with—he’s one of these guys who mistakes sex for love, all the time.). There’s a small wobble towards the end when the ship ALMOST hits a rock and some bloke we never met falls overboard, but other than that, everything is just lovely. The natives are lovely, the governors are lovely, the sailors are lovely, and Piero and his fuckbuddy Plai swan around having rampant noisy sex everywhere and no one bats an eyelid. Even in a boarding house where the clientele is both male and female – no one hears or sees anything and no one suspects.

I admit I was hoping that they would run out of food, or be abandoned by their guides, or get malaria, or have an elephant tread on them, but no!

I couldn’t really work out WHY Piero had been chosen to go to Siam. The author says in his afternote that the journey closely follows a French explorer, Henry Mouhot—but Piero seems an odd choice. If it had been a case of Henry’s father wanting him out of the way, then I could understand it, but for some reason, The Royal Society thought he was the best man for the job. He’s not an explorer. He’s not a botantist, or a biologist—he’s an artist—and his brief is to collect samples of flora and fauna he’s never seen before. And seeing he came from Sicily, that would be just about anything.

This aspect of the book is very much sketched over, too. I would have been rather interested in what he found and the descriptions he uses to catalogue them, but other than some butterflies that he gets the children to catch in one village, we are just told they are “samples”, and nothing more. It could have been a plant collection book along the lines of Philipa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, but it isn’t, and this gives us no insight into the work of plant collectors. How the samples were to be preserved and packed would have been interesting to know. Instead of which we just get a travelogue where nothig much happens.

I’m afraid to say that a period in a much unexplored area of the planet – which should have enthralled me – didn’t do that for me, and that was the major disappointment.

The writing isn’t bad, and with professional editing, it could be much improved, along with the bland-nothing much happen-ness. But, for all that, it’s little more than a travelogue with many sex scenes, and–as in The White Rajah reviewed a little while back–I got similarly annoyed with the fact that Piero, who had not been anywhere other than Europe took everything in his stride. Whether it was talking to local people, experiencing the different foods and geography of the areas, or being taken in as guest by dignitaries, he didn’t seem very impressed. I’m a mid 20th century baby, and I travelled in these areas in the 80’s and I went around with my jaw on the floor most of the time.

The author has plans to continue the story of Piero and Plai, but will be following the story of the lost lover, Henry, first.

If you are really interested in this area of the world, it is probably worth a read.

Buy at Smashwords

Review: Convincing Leopold by Ava March

Mr. Leopold Thornton finally has the man he’s loved for a decade, yet he can’t believe his good fortune. A reformed rake and a conservative solicitor? Can it possibly last? To add to Leopold’s worries, Arthur’s spending more time at the office…with a handsome new secretary. Desperate not to lose Arthur, Leopold does the only thing he can think of – use pleasure to keep him.

Mr. Arthur Barrington truly wants their relationship to work. Sinfully beautiful and devoted to him, Leopold’s the opposite of Arthur’s staid ex-lover. And Leopold’s given up his old vices, putting those concerns to rest. Yet lately, all Leopold wants is sex – in the study, in the carriage, and at Arthur’s office, no less. The sex is amazing, but juggling demanding clients and a demanding lover leaves Arthur exhausted and worried perhaps he and Leopold aren’t suited after all.

It takes one disastrous night for Arthur to realize how much Leopold means to him. But convincing Leopold he loves him, all of him and not just his body, proves difficult. For Leopold’s disappeared and Arthur hasn’t a clue where to find him.

Review by Erastes

As I’ve said often on this blog, I’ve enjoyed Ava March’s stories, particularly her “Bound” series quite a lot.  She does her research, and her characters are memorable and vivid. When it comes to erotic+Regency there’s  no-one as consistent.

But whereas the  characters in “Convincing Leopold” are just as memorable and vivid, I didn’t enjoy this novella quite as much as I have the others. It’s not for a lack of research. Her prose hasn’t suddenly gone out of the window, I think it was simply that I wanted to knock these characters’ heads together and say “oh for God’s sake, you had no problem communicating in “Convincing Arthur“, so why are you both behaving like a couple of wet blouses?” Here there is angst and moping and sulking and not much else.

Arthur has a problem with work/life balance, which is a bit of a modern concept, and Leopold is needy, clingy and is behaving like Russell Brand on Viagra. Arthur is finding it hard to do all the work and hours necessary to bring him legal practice up a notch, and all Leo wants to do is fuck all night. Eventually Arthur snaps and pushes Leopold out of bed. Feelings are hurt and tantrums ensue.

 

And that’s it, really. I admit I was disappointed that the conflict didn’t amount to more than this—because Arthur’s ex, Randolph, is sniffing around—the man who really broke his heart during “Convincing Arthur” and he could have caused real problems this time around. But this is solved altogether too neatly and the ending, and the solving of all the internal conflict was solved in a rather baffling way, for me. It probably showed Leopold having grown up, but it was all a bit lame.

That being said, if you liked any of March’s other books, you’ll probably like this one, because there is a lot to like, from ballroom to bedroom, and we all know she can write many smoking hot sex scenes in a smallish novel without repeating herself or boring the reader, but it just didn’t work for me. It was far too much angsting and not enough plot and external conflict.

Author’s website

Buy at Loose-ID

Gay Historical Panel at GLBT UK MEET

On 23rd July, the 2nd annual GLBT UK MEETUP was held and it was a resounding success. In a year we went from 12 attendees to over 40 and we are planning even better next year.  Here’s the panel hosted by Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane and Erastes. Hope you find it useful.

Alex Beecroft: Characters in your Historical Novel

1. What makes a historical feel like a historical? Characters.

If you were to ask me “what is the most important part of establishing your book as a historical?” I would have to say “it’s the characters.” I really don’t think that any amount of scene setting, even if it’s done in the most exquisite detail and with scrupulous historical accuracy, can convince the reader that they are in another era the way you can by having a character whose attitudes are historical and firmly embedded in their time.

I have read books where the setting certainly appeared to be 100% authentic and full of detail, and yet the characters who moved through that setting were so modern in their thoughts and actions that the overall experience of reading the book was similar to going to a mediaeval theme party. Where the character doesn’t match the setting you get a sort of cognitive dissonance that just screams fake fake fake, and it’s almost worse – imo – when the author has clearly got all the other stuff right. If they’ve gone to all that trouble and researched their physical world so well, it makes it even more jarring and unpleasant to see it populated by characters who would fit right at home in a contemporary if they only changed their clothes.

Some historicals I’ve read go as far as having aggressively modern main characters – characters whose role appears to me to walk through their world criticizing the way everyone else behaves and holding them up to 21st Century standards. These are the characters who are horrified at the barbaric practices of the doctors of their era (forgetting that these practices are the pinnacle of modern knowledge to the rest of their society,) who are unaccountably squeamish about standard forms of discipline (such as giving a child a thrashing, clipping a disobedient wife about the ear, or flogging a criminal) and who, for some reason, know better than everyone else in their society about matters of hygiene and diet, and are not ashamed to look down on their ignorant compatriots with all the smugness of a different century.

I mean, yes, if you really hate a particular era so much that you’d enjoy writing a book about how rubbish it was, by all means do so. But don’t create a character who could not have existed in that time to do it with. It would be far better to use a modern main character, who came by his attitudes honestly, being sent back into the past by freak wormhole incident or TARDIS.

2. So how do you write characters who don’t think like modern people?

This is tricky of course because you as an author think as a modern person does, and – as a modern person – you abhor many of the attitudes of the past (such as gay people are rubbish, women are rubbish, slavery is necessary, leeches are good for you etc.)

The first thing you have to do is to parcel all that up and leave it aside for a while, while you read as many of the original sources as you can get hold of. If the original sources exist, then listen to the voices of people from that century. You usually find that in some things they are indistinguishable from the voices of modern people – they still worry about their appearance and their income and what their families are up to. They have the same needs for love and wealth and respect that we have. But if you listen harder you can start to pick out the framework of assumptions that governs the way they go about fulfilling those needs.

For example, I read a journal of an 18th Century woman bewailing the sexual double standard between men and women – so far so modern – but she concluded that men ought to behave with more chastity rather than women with less. So far so unusual, so strange – so much an attitude that if you read it in a book you would be instantly convinced that you were in a different time. Just a little throwaway thought, and it’s different enough from what we take as written nowadays to make you feel like you’re in a different time.

Or, for a different example, it’s become quite fashionable to claim that Ancient Greece or Rome was a sin-free happy time for gay people. But that’s because we’re modern and we’re not paying attention to the nuances. Suppose you’re an Ancient Roman senator, and you fall in love with a barbarian gladiator – you’re fine if you want to be a top, but shame, shame upon your name and your ancestors if you don’t. There’s another attitude that makes no sense today, but if you based your characters internal or external conflict on it then the book could only be a historical, because it’s a conflict specific to that time.

3. Modern attitudes in historical characters.

This doesn’t mean that your characters have to have some kind of standard set of era-specific beliefs. In no age has everyone all believed exactly the same thing. For example, in the same century, there were people who loathed slavery enough to dedicate their lives to fighting it, people who dedicated their lives to fighting for it tooth and nail, people who might not have campaigned but who bought slavery-free sugar when they could, and a large set of people who were too busy with their own lives to have a position either way.

You can give your characters almost any attitude you wish, so long as you can show how they came by it given the conceptual framework within which they have to work. For example, gay people in the past had to come to some kind of reconciliation or rejection of their society’s views that allowed them to accept themselves, but how they achieved that will be specific to their time and society. They can’t – eg – say “God is love, therefore my love is holy,” before Christianity. They can’t say “this persecution is against my human rights,” before the invention of the concept of human rights.

On a less serious note, your characters probably shouldn’t say “ew, this cheese is full of mites, take it away!” in the 18th Century. In fact they should probably say “ooh, lovely, I do like to see a cheese with a bit of life to it. Bring me a spoon!” If they did, you’d certainly know you weren’t in 21st Century Kansas any more. And that is my whole point.

Erastes on Striking a Balance

I’m going to talk about balance, because sometimes I think writers have difficulty striking a balance when writing. not just historical either. It’s a Fine Line between THIS IS MY RESEARCH LET ME SHOW YOU IT  – and just getting the details right.

Don’t get e wrong—you got to do the research. You’ve got to try your very best to get those details right. Readers are forgiving if they can see you’ve worked like stink, but have made one or two silly errors. In Muffled Drum I made a big thing of the Red Light District in Berlin – and too late too late two people pointed out that the street I mentioned was actually in Hamburg and not Berlin.

But readers will be less forgiving if it’s patently obvious that you haven’t even bothered to use Google to check the most basic of facts.

But you shouldn’t over do relating that research to the reader and it’s this that is a little unfair to the writer, because you are going to learn a LOT more than you’ll ever put in the book.

I have to reference Dan Brown here, who does—and i have to grit my teeth to say this—write a damned good page turner. I actually own all of his books, because they are like crack. But whereas he writes a racketing good read and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and find out what’s happening next, he lets himself down with his signature move of telling us everything about everything.  I remember reading one of them, don’t know which…and it told you about the engine of the car he was driving and the type of plane he was on, down to –it seemed, every grommet and washer. I found myself flipping over pages of STUFF HE HAD TO TELL YOU BECAUSE BY GOD HE’D DONE THE RESEARCH AND YOU SHALL SHARE IT rather than simply absorbing some of the facts as the flavour of the book.

I got the impression that he was saying to the reader “Look, i slaved over this book. i did research about Russia and China and every conspiracy theory known to man. Look, I seriously worked hard. I spent hours in libraries. you need to see my research or you’ll think i just made it up!!!! It will all be wasted if I don’t write it all down!” and that’s not good, that’s not the message you want to give. I don’t want the author to intrude at all.

I can relate to this, and I felt much the same when I first started to write, but luckily my mother was around when I first started and she pointed out that we didn’t need to know every single detail and she went through and deleted many descriptive words and passages. After that I found it much easier. The trick to it for me was to walk across my own room and described how I did it. I left the sofa, walked past the tv and the dining table to the kitchen. What I didn’t do was to leave the Gillows sofa, walk across the Wilton carpet designed by XXXX in 1792 and the flat screen 32” plasma screen Sony TV (I wish) and into the bespoke B&Q kitchen stencilled with green and yellow flowers.

Modern books don’t do this (or at least they shouldn’t!) and so neither should historicals. Whether the chair is made my Chippendale or whoever doesn’t really matter. Unless it does, of course. If the story revolves around Chippendale and perhaps the theft of a chair made by him, or whether the provenance of the chair is IMPORTANT then that’s fine. But if the detail doesn’t add anything to the story — and in fact, as often happens (Dan, I’m looking at you) intrudes and distracts from the story — then leave it out.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t make the description lush and tangible. Alex, for example, particularly in her 18th century paranormal “Wages of Sin” WORKS magic with her details. How cloth feels, how candle light looks and smells (never forget the smells) what happens to wig powder when it rains. But none of it is infordumping. She is simply creating a real and entirely believeable and visual world that the 21st century reader isn’t familiar with. The details immerse the reader, so they are actually there, and they are participating in historical events rather than distancing the reader, and makingit more clear that they are simply reading a book.

A good beta is worth their weight in gold. A good beta (and not just one who will tell you how great you are!) will tell you if you’ve turned into Dan Brown and you are oversharing that research.

The depressing fact of life is, that 99 percent of the research you will do for your book will (should!!) never appear on the pages of your book, but you can’t skip that research because it will make your book and more 3-dimensional, and in response to that, more enjoyable to read.

 

Charlie Cochrane on Setting the Scene.

Erastes and Alex Beecroft had proper, typed up notes. I had scribbles, which I’ve just rescued from the recycling bin, and lots of busking, Gist of what I said was:

My heart sank at the start of Downton Abbey, when almost the first scene involved discussion of the Titanic sinking. Wouldn’t have been so bad if that had happened later, when we’d got to know the characters, and why it mattered to them, but as it was it just felt clichéd and lazy. Please, writers, if you can’t create a sense of era/place subtly, just put London, 1912 or what/wherever it is and get on with the story.

 

Also, can we have some less clichéd images/descriptions for setting place? Big Ben + Routemaster bus + cockney newspaper seller shouting “King Edward abdicates” = London, 1936 has been done to death. Anyway, using such obvious symbols risks making huge mistakes; I’ve read stuff set in the time of Queen Anne where the hero hears Big Ben striking (he must be psychic as it wasn’t even built then). Check everything, even the “obvious”.

The past can surprise us, though. I’d love to write a book full of seeming anachronisms (like watching a floodlit rugby match in 1880) so people could shout me down and I could prove them wrong.

It’s the people and how they think/act which best depicts an era. Go to contemporary sources for the best way of getting your head around this. For example, if you want to write about a late Victorian bank clerk, you could do worse than use Three Men in a Boat as your source.

There was more. There were jokes. Can’t remember a word of them.

Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

Review by Erastes

Warning – spoilers ahoy.

I’m always a little trepidatious about doing a review of such a well-known and hugely reviewed book. I doubt there isn’t anything that hasn’t been said about it, and as such, my amateur ramblings aren’t scholarly, and aren’t deep and insightful. I avoided even reading the foreword, or any other reviews so I can try and put my views out there that aren’t influenced by anything else.

I’m reviewing it purely as a work of fiction—its historical significance is towering, of that there is no doubt, but the foreword (which I read after the book, as you should unless you want to be very spoiled) deals with that in enough detail and I don’t need to rehash it here.

The book begins clearly following a literary bent, written in the first person present tense and then slips into flashbacks of David’s life since he met Giovanni, written in the third person. However this does tend to slip from time to time and there are a few instances where Baldwin slips back in the present tense even within the past flashback which was a bit off-putting.

There are many places in so-called literary novels where sometimes I’m left feeling like I’m the simian left out in the cold, and not knowing whether this was a slip up or dazzling genius made me feel like that. If I’d been an editor, I’d have evened it out, that’s all.

There’s an over-use of French, too. I can speak a bare modicum of the language, enough to buy me train tickets, order a meal etc, but I don’t really need to have whole chunks, or even interspersed phrases of French bunged into a book. Editors have told me that it adds flavour—and I blow a raspberry at this.

They are in France. The people involved are American, French and Italian. They are all speaking French as a common language. This has been explained. I don’t then need words like quais (quays) hostelries (hotels) and many many phrases and words included. I had no idea what people were saying sometime, and I didn’t wish to break off reading to go and look. And as I read most of this out of range of a PC or a dictionary, I am still in the dark.

There is a point where Hella—David’s girlfriend—writes him a letter and that’s littered with French phrases. It works there, because she’s frankly as pretentious as David himself and it’s the way she should have written. But for David to think of words in French in his own thoughts, or for Giovanni to lapse into French when he’s already speaking it? Nom de nom! Imbecile! as Poirot would say.

There’s nothing wrong with the Americans being pretentious, by the way. This is the 50’s and the American abroad would have gone with mind-expanding experiences as much as possible—before returning to their suburban lives. Amply illustrated in Hollywood style in such films as Funny Face where Hepburn joins a group of free thinkerswho hang around in dark nightclubs and express themselves by wearing black and dancing to impossible jazz—and An American in Paris, where artists and performers live in garrets and not-quite-starve due to their allowances from back home.
I coudn’t like David. I wanted to—but (and this is another instance where I don’t know whether I’m barking up the right tree or not) I simply couldn’t. His self-loathing for his bisexuality, and his consequent deep seated loathing of everyone else around him tainted with homosexuality or bisexuality pissed me off. He was perfectly fine doing what he was doing in a foreign country as long as he could pretend it wasn’t happening. Even the pick up, when basically what happened was their eyes met across a crowded bar and they fell for each other like a ton of bricks was marred by David pretending la la la that nothing extraordinary was happening, while being secretly thrilled and disgusted that it was going to.

I can understand that revulsion, I really can. He had fears of becoming “unmanly” (probably because he father set such store on manliness—yes, that’s right, blame the parents!) and I can entirely understand that fear, that he knows he’ll have to return to the USA and will he have to forever be lusting after men, when he doesn’t want to?

In fact, along that line, I found it very interesting that there was such a parallel to how Hella sees her future life unless she finds a companion—the pensioned widows guzzling dry martinis and making eyes at anything in pants, to how David sees his life in the future: following any young boy into the darkness and forever lusting over younger and young men like Jacques does.

But I couldn’t forgive David for being quite as self-hating as he was. He knows he loves Giovanni, and he knows that he could be happy, but then again he knows he can’t be with him forever and he hates Giovanni for having “awoken” that side of his nature, a side he had squashed down for so long since his first and only other homosexual experience. He knows he can never send that part of himself to sleep again.

What really did annoy me about Baldwin’s David was his omiescient know-it-all-ness. He knew what Hella was feeling (although he wasn’t exactly an expert with women)—he knew exactly how his father must be feeling about his long absence in France despite the fact that they couldn’t talk to each other, had never had a proper conversation in their lives and he knew all about Giovanni’s light and darkness.
In fact this was alluded to so many times “a new sense of Giovanni, his private life and pain, and all that moved like a flood in him when we lay together at night” – but this isn’t ever explained. On the surface, we are shown Giovanni as being a modern bi-sexual, moving along from man to man to woman, not really caring a fig about the world’s opinion of him, and the David throws in sentences like the one above and I’m all “what? Where are you getting this? Or at least, if that’s true, how about sharing it with the reader?”

In David’s last scene with Giovanni we are shown some of this, so it’s a little confusing that David attributes his life of pain before he actually knew about it, but as I say, David seems to know everything about everyone.

I don’t know whether it is ironic that his father’s nickname for David is Butch. That could be a coincidence, or simply something that means more now than it did then. There’s also a discussion between David and a girl he picks up – to show his manliness—about stonewalls, which I assume is where the bar took its name.

One of the most telling sentences of the book for me was in the final argument between Giovanni and David, where David says “what kind of life can two men have together anyway?” and this sums the book up quite well. David thinks he’s after a certain kind of life, the American dream, the one with his “manhood intact” and he’s lying to himself over and over and over about everything. When he tells Hella that (by saying he loved her and wanted to marry her) he was not lying to her, but lying to himself, she says (sarcastically) “that makes everything different, of course.”  Goodfor you,Hella.

The only really jarring part that I simply Did Not Get was the sudden intrusion of GOD into the last section. David had shown no religious tendencies. I assumed that he was probably one of the milder American faiths—he’d not said anything else, although he certainly had the inbred guilt of the Catholic that Graham Green weeps in every line. Despite Giovanni obviously being Catholic, there was no mention of God and Church until right at the end—and we get this section:

“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.”

Do Not Get.

I will comment briefly on one aspect of the historical import—I am pleased that this was written by a black man. David is white, blond and isn’t poor. There was probably a shit storm by white and black alike that (shock!) a black man dared to write from the pov of a white man (as I say, I haven’t looked up any literary sources or learned reviews of this book, so I am only guessing going on what I would deem to be normal human prejudice and behaviour) but it resonates with me, as a white bisexual woman who has the temerity to write about gay men.

I’m giving this four and a half stars. It’s clearly an important book, both for gay fiction, and for gay history. It is beautifully written, even if David annoyed me beyond belief, it’s written from his own fucked up and muddled point of view and while I don’t agree with it, it is his mind that rebelling against itself. It’s an “essential read” – obviously – for anyone who wants to write gay historical, particularly in the post-war era of Europe or America. The historical significance actually pushes it up to four and a half stars, because I’d probably give it four had it been written by a contemporary writer.

In a way, this is a very contemporary book. Due to the very limited geographical scope the book explores: Paris cafe society, Giovanni’s Room, there are actually few markers which ground us to a particular time and place. Even the women who talk of sons lost during the war do not immediately tie us to the 50’s – if the cafe owner had said she had lost sons in the first Gulf war, it would not have seemed out of place. Technology is missing—no mobiles and they have no phones where they live, so that gives it away as not being of now than anything else, but read from a certain angle, it could be about modern times, and it’s sad really that David’s repression and self-loathing and longing for a normal life still abound.

No one said to him that “it gets better” because obviously it wasn’t going to get better for him. I don’t think he was ever going to be happy in his skin, and I feel desperately sorry for him. I wish he could have enjoyed what he had without destroying it for fear of a future that may not have happened.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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