Review: Protection by S.A. Reid

When Gabriel MacKenna enters Wentworth Prison in 1931, he promises himself two things: never to be buggered and never to turn prison queer. Tough, smart, and ruthless in a fight, he quickly makes a name for himself inside. But Gabriel is serving two life sentences. And life is a very long time. Enter Joey Cooper. Trained at Oxford as a physician, the young doctor is innocent of prison culture and too handsome for his own good. Joey cannot hope to survive Wentworth without protection. And protection is just what Gabriel MacKenna offers. At a price…  102 pages

Available in paperback and ebook (Lyonesse Books)

Review by Erastes

This book is set in the fictional prison–says the author’s note–of Wentworth in England, a cross between Pentonville and Wandsworth. It’s an unfortunate name as I immediately thought of Wentworth prison from “Prisoner Cell Block H” the Australian show about women prisoners! However, as long as you aren’t as stupid as me, this won’t even occur to you. It’s clear the author has done their research, as the descriptions of the prison and the yard are pin sharp and detailed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a floor by floor plan pinned up somewhere.

The unfortunate first impression that this book gave me was that it hinged on one of the biggest tropes and personal squicks of mine, that of prison rape, and of Rape Turns to Love. I can work around it and suspend my disbelief usually, but the main trouble with this is that at 102 pages, there’s not enough space to have the characters turn around in their feelings. Yes, they do, but it’s too quick and in the case of Joey (the victim) rather unbelievable in light of what he’d been thinking up to that point. One minute it’s all “I’ll never forgive him, I’d rather die” and then the next minute he’s sucking dick like he was born to it. In Gabriel’s case it’s hinted as to why he pulled back from raping Joey every night, but again, this simply isn’t explored in enough depth to help the reader get over the fact that it’s an unpleasant trope. The fact that both men were aggresively heterosexual before entering prison adds weight to their love affair being far too quick.

HOWEVER, that being said, and once we get past this point the book is well-written and absorbing. I was drawn into the prison life, the claustrophobic feeling of never, ever being unobserved, even when you paid people to turn a blind eye. The petty injustices of the screws, the way that even with Gabriel protecting Joey he’s only as safe as the next five minutes (although this sense of peril did descrease as time went on) and the sadness of thinking of men incarcerated for decades, knowing no other home, growing old, remembering a world that no longer existed and dying there because there’s no way they’d be able to be released into 1936 when they’d been sentenced in 1888.

I have to say that I really warmed to their relationship, but I simply could not see any light at the end of their tunnels. Gabriel was sentenced to life, and Joey for 18 years. Even if they had stayed together for 18 years there could be no HEA for them. So be warned, there is no HEA, this is a love story, but absolutely not a romance.

Due to the almost entirely internal aspect of the prison life, there’s very little historical context other than the outbreak of WW2 (the book starts in 1936) so Reid doesn’t have to worry too much about historical detail, but what there is seems pretty good. The only thing that did amuse me was the campaign to ban “slopping out” (the routine of having a bucket in the cells, rather than a flushing toilet, and having to dispose of that bucket in the morning.) The reason I found it amusing is that even today, some prisons in Britain still do this despite the process having allegedly “been abolished” as late as 2004.

I know I say this often about novellas, but I think I’m justified with this, this book really really needed the extra space to develop. Not only would the coming together of Joey and Gabriel have been improved, but there’s so much else that had a lot of potential but didn’t get the space to fly. There are myriad other prisoners, as would be expected, and I would have loved to have seen more of the daily politics with–particularly as this isn’t a genre romance–little subplots to enjoy.

But this is–as far as I know–S.A. Reid’s first published gay historical, so I can live with it. The writing is impressive, the voices strong and the plot, while not given enough space to grow, is good enough. I think Reid has a real future in the genre and I look forward to their next book.

Buy at Amazon USA  | Amazon UK | Smashwords (ebook) Createspace (paper)

Review: Cawnpore by Tom Williams

After his time in Borneo with James Brooke, John Williamson travels to India. Working for the East India Company in Cawnpore, he struggles to fit in: a gay man in a straight society; a farm labourer’s son in a world of gentleman’s clubs and refined dinner parties; a European adrift in an alien land. But he finds he is good at his job, overseeing a colonial administration that has been running the country for a hundred years. He falls in love with the country and, in particular, with a young nobleman in the court of the local lord.

Successful at work and happy with his lover, he thinks he can finally meet life on his own terms. Then Indian troops rise in mutiny and the country is plunged into war. With the British Raj teetering on the edge of destruction and Cawnpore a byword for horror across the Empire, Williamson has to choose whose side he is really on.

In this sequel to The White Rajah, the fictional Williamson is caught up in real historical events which provide a thrilling background to his own story. Williamson meets some of the key figures at a crucial point in British history and witnesses events which shocked the world and shaped the future of British India.

Paper and ebook – 288 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

Cawnpore picks up more or less where the author’s previous work, The White Rajah, left off. Like the first book, this one takes the form of a memoir of the fictional John Williamson. Williamson has parted company with his employer and lover James Brooke after the inquiry into the battles that firmly established Brooke as the “White Rajah”. While Williamson is still in love with Brooke, the ghosts of all the people killed in Brooke’s name has driven a firm wedge between them.

With a generous severance from Brooke, Williamson could easily return to England and a quiet life, but he’s not quite ready to settle down and, intrigued by Brooke’s own stories of India, he decides to stop there before going back to Britain. In Calcutta, he applies to work for the East India Company and is surprised to find he is readily accepted and assigned the post of Deputy Collector in Cawnpore. While Brooke did not have a very high opinion of “the Company”, they have certainly heard of his exploits in Sarawak, and have a high opinion of him, and by extension, Williamson.

Although taken aback by his ready acceptance and the relatively high position granted him, Williamson soon finds that the work isn’t all that different than what he did in Sarawak. It suits him well, and although he is very much a square peg in a round hole, he gets along well with most people. One day his boss notes that Williamson is working just a little too hard, and takes him out to meet the Nana Sahib in his palatial home outside of Cawnpore. There Williamson meets Mungo, a young cousin of the Nana Sahib. There’s an instant mutual attraction between the two, and they soon become lovers.

While Williamson professes that Brooke is still the true love of his life, he is clearly deeply infatuated with the much younger Mungo. Like Brooke before him, Mungo becomes Williamson’s mentor, teacher and guide through the mysteries of Indian culture. With Mungo’s help, Williamson learns the language and soon with a little disguise can pass for a local. Everything seems to be going great, until rumors of discontent and outright mutiny begin to circulate throughout the colony.

Cawnpore is, at its heart, the story of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and in particular the massacre at Cawnpore, which is an episode of history I assume most British readers are familiar with. Williamson’s ability to pass for an Indian allows him to hide in plain sight among the rebels and observe both sides of the siege. Although Williamson’s escapades themselves seem improbable, he does relate the events of the siege and massacre in vivid, even alarming, detail that appears to be historically accurate.

Williamson of course survives the massacre and even provides information that helps the British rout Nana Sahib’s forces and re-take Cawnpore. But as the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear, he starts to fear for his own safety, as well as Mungo’s, in the face of the British fury. They flee to the countryside to wait hopefully for tempers to cool, and this is where the full tragedy of the story unfolds.

Cawnpore is, on the whole, a well-written adventure tale. In some ways, I think the author has improved from the first book. One of the issues I had with The White Rajah was the extremely timid way in which the relationship between Brooke and Williamson was described. It was clear that the two men were lovers, but for all the reader was given, it could have been a rather platonic relationship. In Cawnpore it’s much more clear that Williamson and Mungo have a very physical relationship. We’re not given detailed descriptions of what they get up to, but it’s still clear the two men share a physical bond as well as a deep friendship.

However, that said, the sexual relationship between Williamson and Mungo is not really at the center of the story. It doesn’t provide any of the key dramatic elements or move the story along. The friendship between the two is certainly key to Williamson’s ability to observe both sides of the mutiny and survive the massacre, but you could easily remove the gay element from the story and still have essentially the same tale. Cawnpore is, in many ways, an adventure tale where the main character happens to be gay, rather than a ‘gay’ historical novel.

So, where does that leave us? If you’re looking for a gay romance, you almost certainly won’t like this book, especially given the ending which is anything but happily-ever-after. Cawnpore will appeal more to someone looking for action and adventure tales of war. While I wouldn’t compare the writing of the two, this book is more in the vein of Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven than most contemporary gay historical books. The writing is competent and sometimes vivid when describing scenes of battle, but it gets a little flat when it comes to the people and personal relationships. Once the mutiny begins, the scenes between Williamson and Mungo are quite short and even rushed when compared with the colorful descriptions of time spent with the Indian rebels, night raids or calvary charges.

Stories of battle and war aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I have, nonetheless, read quite a few of them. The ones I enjoy are carried along by the relationship between the main characters, which typically develops and changes over the course of the book, whether it’s the tried and true enemies-that-become-friends theme or something more unusual. This is the main failing of Cawnpore, for me. The relationship between Williamson and Mungo springs forth almost fully formed in an early chapter, and remains relatively unchanged for the rest of the book. Yes, there are arguments and disagreements, but they’re little more than lover’s spats.

Given the meticulous research and vivid descriptions of the mutiny, Cawnpore deserves three stars. I was tempted to give it more, but the flatness of the characters and lack of depth to the key relationship holds this book back.

Tom Williams has a blog, The White Rajah

Available from JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

September 1919:20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, letters that she’d sent to her brother Will. Will and Tristan trained and fought together.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

Review by Erastes

I’ve redacted a bit of the blurb because it gives away a major spoiler in the book, which is kept from the reader for almost half of the pages, so it seems a bit unnecessary to give it away so easily in the blurb. Cut for spoilers.

Continue reading

Review: The Walled Garden by F.M. Parkinson

William Ashton, retained as a gardener by Edward Hillier, discovers his new master to be a detached and driven man. Over the years, as travail and tragedy bring them closer together, he understands that they have more in common than he first realised, but the affection they feel for one another will be sorely tested by boundaries both of class and of rigid Victorian morality. Like the private garden behind the high walls their love must flourish only in the strictest secrecy – or else it will not do so at all.

102,000 words/380 pages /ebook only

Review by Erastes

I’m in two minds about this book.

While I have to say I appreciated most of the writing–which is deliberately done in an old-fashioned, if not quite Victorian style–this book annoyed me quite a lot for various reasons.

Firstly nothing much happens and while some may say that it’s simply a gentle, old-fashioned style it takes more than an old-fashioned style to create an old fashioned book.  Emma, Jane Eyre and books like that had plenty of things happening. Instead of things happening, this book contained what seemed like nothing much more than filler in many places–there’s a section where Hillier’s manager is getting old and gets replaced which is entirely pointless and dull for example and goes on for pages. The problem is that much of this filler is relatively pointless or if it seems to have a point, then it’s never followed up.

It takes the protagonists an endless age to get together, and that’s not exactly filled with angst filled nights, or rivals for affections, or anything particularly interesting. It’s simply because Hillier doesn’t find Ashton attractive until quite late in the day. To be honest, I can’t see what on earth Ashton saw in Hillier because his behaviour and attitude is pretty unpleasant–although he’s like that with more than Ashton. He’s much loved in the village which puzzled me because he wasn’t shown as doing anything for them other than at one point attending another pointless scenario–a ball on behalf of a campaign for laying drains. Other than that he does nebulous work “writing letters” and attending Parliament.

There’s an overuse of the hurt/comfort trope which raises its head not once, not twice but a colossal three times throughout the book, each time Hillier getting ill and Ashton running around getting him well and getting literally no thanks for it. This, aside from them having an argument, is the main use of conflict and together with lack of plot made for pretty dull reading.

However, although not very exciting–and we can’t always have post-chaise chases and gun fights in every book, it’s quite readable, and if it wasn’t for the final problem that had me grinding my teeth it would have got a 3.

It’s epithets. There are a record winning number of epithets in this book and I got to the stage of bursting into laughter when I found a new one. It’s like the author had had a rule sheet which said “you must never use the character’s name more than once on a page.”

Hillier is known as the lawyer, alternately, but Ashton wins the prize as “the broader man” “the gardener”, “the secretary” “the former gardener”, “the former secretary” and many many others. When there’s a scene with just the two of them it’s like there’s six people in the room. I hope, should Parkinson do another book, they will–or their editor will–ruthlessly red-pen this habit as it’s annoying as hell.

So while I appreciated the writing–mostly–the story didn’t so much grab me as much as mire me in treacle and I found it a heavy going read. But you might enjoy it more than I.

No website that I could find.

Buy at Manifold Press

Hop Against Homophobia – Winner!

There was a great response to this – best ever on the blog I think! so thank you all. The Hop was a tremendous success all around. I’m glad you liked the poem and “gay historical poetry day” will become a regular feature on the blog.

The winner of the $20 voucher is Enyce122 – who I’ve contacted and I’m waiting to hear which retailer they’d prefer.

Thanks again!

Erastes

Award for Non-Published Historical Fiction

£5000 ($8000) prize plus e-publication (to include professional copy-editing and cover design)
For an unpublished novel that is neither under contract nor option
International and open to all (previously published or unpublished authors)
HF of any kind admissible
Electronic submission only
Initial submission of synopsis and first chapter(s) up to 5000 words by 30 September 2012
Entry fee: $25 for non-members, $15 for HNS members
Long list of 15 selected by experienced HNS reader panel, moderated by Richard Lee (see guidelines)
Long list announced by 30 November 2012 and authors asked to enter full manuscripts
Shortlist of 3 selected by reader panel for announcement by 31 January 2013

Winner chosen by three international top judges: Matt Bates (fiction buyer for WH Smith Travel), Carole Blake (head of the book division at Blake Friedmann), and Heather Lazare (senior US editor with Touchstone, Simon & Schuster)

Winner announced by 11 March 2013

Details and rules here: http://historicalnovelsociety.org/hns-award/

Call For Papers LGBTQ history conference

What is LGBT(Q) History and where do we stand? History Postgraduates and LGBT History
Wednesday 7th  November 2012
Queen Mary, University of London

http://whatislgbtqhistory.blogspot.co.uk/

Decades have passed since the first published histories examining aspects of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex or queer life, or analysing social movements made up by LGBTIQ people. Historical work on LGBT or queer “issues” is now more accepted in the academy than ever before, and has enriched our knowledge enormously. However, postgraduate historians working on LGBT research topics – at least in the UK – have no recognisable network to call upon, lack any clear idea of what this “generation” of researchers’ agenda, approach and methodology might be, and many academics and researchers appear curiously aloof from community projects such as LGBT History Month.

This conference aims to bring together postgraduate historians and early-career researchers working on any aspect of LGBT or Q history, in any country or era. We want to highlight and discuss the range of topics and methodological approaches being pursued by this generation of researchers; to consider the intersections and differences between historical work on L, G, B, T and Q topics, and  to explore how LGBTQ history relates to wider narratives, and the modern historical profession.

This will be followed by an evening panel event chaired by Sue Sanders, co-chair of LGBT history month. She will be joined by Professor Julian Jackson, whose latest book concerns homosexual politics in France in the post-war period, and Lindsay River, an activist in the 1970s with – among others – Gay Liberation Front, and more recently the founder of Age of Diversity, which aims to provide a national voice for older LGBT people in the UK (other speakers tbc). This evening event will give us the chance to explore some of the definitional, historical, political and activist implications of “LGBT history” and to explore how researchers might better engage with LGBT history month and community history.

Postgraduates at any level, and early career researchers are invited to send abstracts of not more than 400 words to Charles and Craig by Friday 13th July 2012. We would especially welcome papers discussing adapting research work for a non- academic audience. We are also interested in interdisciplinary approaches to LGBT(Q) history and welcome papers from those whose research is not necessarily based in history departments. The conference is kindly supported by LGBT History Month and Queen Mary, University of London. Travel grants may be available for postgraduates.

Charles Smith c.smith4@lboro.ac.uk

Craig Griffiths c.griffiths@qmul.ac.uk

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