Review: Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg

Newly discharged from the Marines after World War II, Scotty Bowers arrived in Hollywood in 1946. Young, charismatic, and strikingly handsome, he quickly caught the eye of many of the town’s stars and starlets. He began sleeping with some himself, and connecting others with his coterie of young, attractive, and sexually free-spirited friends. His own lovers included Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor, and he arranged tricks or otherwise crossed paths with Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, William Holden, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover, to name but a few.

“Full Service” is not only a fascinating chronicle of Hollywood’s sexual underground, it also exposes the hypocrisy of the major studios, who used actors to propagate a myth of a conformist, sexually innocent America knowing full well that their stars’ personal lives differed dramatically from this family-friendly mold. As revelation-filled as “Hollywood Babylon,” “Full Service” provides a lost chapter in the history of the sexual revolution and is a testament to a man who provided sex, support, and affection to countless people.

Review by Elliott Mackle

We knew that Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were housemates and longtime lovers. We knew that Tony Perkins and Tab Hunter were more than just close friends. And that the supposedly torrid romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was born in a Hollywood dream factory and acted out in the pages of fan magazines and gossip columns. In certain circles, the Duke of Windsor’s bisexuality seems to have been an open secret. Still, some parts of Scotty Bowers’ sizzling tell-all are pretty surprising. Here in the United States, especially on amazon.com, there seems to be an organized effort to one- and two-star the book to death—on literary as well as moralistic grounds. I couldn’t put it down.

Scotty Bowers spent his early years milking cows and tending livestock on the family farm in Illinois. Like many such youths, the facts of copulation and reproduction were to him simply facts of life, with no moral value attached. Although he noticed girls at an early age, and liked what he saw, his first sexual experiences were at the hands of a neighboring farmer, the father of schoolfellows, and he liked that, too. The pattern was set: sex was natural and necessary. Love was where you found it. His libido was high—three ejaculations a day was not uncommon in his twenties and thirties—and the handsome man he was to become was attractive to, and attracted by, men and women with exquisite taste (or memorable kinks) and the means to buy their own unfettered pleasure. Given the fame, variety and kindness of his partners, longtime sweethearts and wife, who could ask for anything more?

The opening is well crafted, with alternating chapters charting Bowers’ coming of age during the Great Depression and his experiences as a fighting Marine in the Pacific followed by almost immediate success as a stud-for-hire and date-arranger in the City of Angels.

After the farm was lost and the family moved to Joliet and then Chicago, Scotty followed an undercover but believable track of shining shoes (and accommodating the men who wore them), delivering papers (same scenario) and allowing pedophile priests to use his pre-adolescent body. His turf in California was a Richfield Oil station on Hollywood Boulevard near several major studios. One day, after he’d pumped gas into a very expensive auto at another station, the customer, a man with an unforgettable voice, tipped him twenty dollars extra and asked what he was doing for the rest of the day. Although Bowers had had sex with men in and out of the military service, and at that time lived with a woman and their daughter, this was his first paid trick with a male. His arrangement with the driver, married film star Walter Pigeon, was ultimately long- term and satisfactory on both sides, though hardly unique.

Scotty arranged to work the evening shift at Richfield. The station became a hangout for his ex-Marine friends, their girlfriends and buddies. Many of these attractive young people were long on time and short on cash. Scotty kept a little black book detailing who might be available for what sort of activity. Word got around. Tricks were arranged by phone as well as in person.  Scotty might tell an inexperienced customer the going price for what he or she required but he declares again and again that his was not a prostitution ring. He never took a fee or cut. He was merely the middle man for private transactions involving sex and money.

Although Bowers had enjoyed name-brand companionship during wartime shore-leaves (playmates Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, platonic pal Marion Davies), his numbers soared postwar. “Professionally married” composer, Cole Porter, for instance, had no hesitation in phoning Bowers to ask that he bring over three or four or seven or eight Marines to be serviced orally. Bowers became a confidante of the insecure Porter as well as a regular sex partner.

And so on, including George Cukor, ex-Marine buddy Tyrone Power, Edith Piaf, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, Vivien Leigh (while husband Laurence Olivier was busy with call boys), Alfred Kinsey (as an observer) and visiting notables, including both Windsors. No need here to mention every trick, affair and arrangement. Or to assume that an old man’s memory is faultless and every word literally true.

Probably the memoir’s juiciest section concerns the Tracy-Hepburn ménage conducted in a cottage on director George Cukor’s estate. Although Bowers was a source for William J. Mann’s “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” his own report on the so-called affair is more detailed and less nuanced than Mann’s. In short, according to Bowers, Hepburn was a full-time lesbian who called on him to provide younger, smaller, darker girls for her amusement whereas the married Tracy regularly summoned Scotty to help steel himself into the sort of drunken insensibility that allows closeted or bisexual men to claim that they “don’t remember a thing” the next morning. Oddly enough, Tracy is an exception to Bowers’ routine detailing of the whats, whys and hows of most of the stars’ preferences and peccadillos. “Nibbling on my foreskin” and “a damn good lover” are about as graphic as it gets. I’m guessing that Tracy was so habitually drunk that he was usually unable to either perform or fully enjoy Bowers’ considerable skills.

What’s not mentioned is almost as interesting as what is. Bowers eventually moved on from pumping gas to full-time bartending, catering, tricking with and liaison-arranging for Hollywood royalty. As far as I can tell, his career was entirely private and his sensibilities resolutely lower middle class. There is little or no mention of dining or meeting friends at such hallowed Hollywood hot spots as the Polo Lounge or the Brown Derby. Bowers doesn’t explain but my guess is that the managers of such high profile watering holes considered him persona non grata.

No matter. For us, the eighty-nine-year-old and his spicy memories are welcome guests. Would that all of us—and our favorite literary characters—could lead such a charmed, erotically charged and romantic life.

Buy:  Amazon UK | Amazon USA | TLA Video&books

Review: The Auspicious Troubles of Chance by Charlie Cochet

Chance Irving is a young man with a gift for getting into trouble—not surprising, as trouble is all he’s ever known. After losing everything he held dear one fateful night, he decides to leave New York and his past behind, and joins the French Foreign Legion. But even in Algiers, Chance can’t seem to shake his old ways, and he ends up being transferred to a unit made up of misfits and rabble-rousers like him, a unit he finds just in time to be captured and thrown into a cell with his new commandant, Jacky Valentine.

A highly respected commandant with a soft spot for hard luck cases, Jacky is the kind of guy who would go to war for you, and the three equally troubled youths he’s more or less adopted feel the same way about him. Suddenly Chance starts to think that his life doesn’t have to be as desolate and barren as the wastelands around him.

But even after their escape, with the promise of a future with Jacky to buoy his spirits, or maybe because of it, Chance can’t stop making mistakes. He disobeys orders, lashes out at the boys in Jacky’s care, and blazes a trail of self-destruction across the desert—until someone makes him realize he’s hurting more than just himself.

Published by Dreamspinner Press, ebook only, 172 pages, 56K words

Review by Erastes

A first person narrative which hits many of my buttons. As with her other novel (The Amythest Cat Caper) Chance is a very American character, but this time he’s not particularly nice. He’s a hard-bitten guy who has seemed to have lived many lives (and didn’t really enjoy many of them) by the time he hits mid twenties. He hates himself, the person he’s grown to be, wants more than sleeping around, drinking himself stupid and killing himself slowly–but he doesn’t know how. But then he’s had an unusual upbringing; he was abandoned by his parents and shoved into an orphanage at an age where he understood what it meant, and promptly ran away, to be brought up by theatre folk. His happy existence there is spoiled, and the rest of his childhood is skipped over with a few pages.

I was disappointed here, there was a great opportunity to tell the whole story, to flesh Chance out–to give us real reasons why he turned into such a soulless adult and it was missed as the story seemed to say to itself “oh dear I’d better get to the romance.”

I think for me, this book was struggling to find its niche. It had such a promising start, full of excitement, a great narrative voice with Chance, and then even more promisingly went to the French Foreign Legion–a much ignored manly organisation within m/m writing. So I was hoping that this would be the kind of adventure story where the protagonists are gay and coping amongst a World Gorn Mad. But once we arrived at sandy climes, and Chance and Jacky are shut up in a wooden crate the whole thing collapsed under the morass of predictable romance.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just I was a bit disappointed, because the set up seemed to point more at the plot, and less about the romance.

Chance is sent across the desert to find a missing unit. He does, finding them all tied up, and it was here I got rather confused, because–even according to Chance:

“Trying to decipher Jacky’s conversation was like trying to find your way through a maze blindfolded while walking backward.”

Somehow they all got free–although it’s never really explained how. Once Jacky and Chance are out of the box, there follows a predictable period of prick teasing, meaningful looks, tightening trousers until finally they have fabulous best ever sex in a tent in the middle of the camp–with the lamps on. I’m sure the rest of the unit enjoyed the show. The prose suddenly turns from hardboiled (and we’d been told many times that Chance was hardboiled and are shown why) to descriptions of weak knees and melting souls.

After the most sweet and endearing love scenes the author does try to claw it back:

“Now at this stage, let me pause to say that by no means had Jacky and I become some kinda lovey-dovey couple.”

But when there’s phrases like this:

“..he filled me up inside, every inch of my tight space coated with his beautiful essence”,

Chance rather loses some of his street cred.

I’m afraid the sex scenes were just too purple for me–they aren’t purple in the pulsing rosebud of his anus purple, but being first person they do tend to be far too much on the “I quivered as he touched me and my soul melted” (not a quote) kind of thing and I found myself skipping the rather frequent and at times rather gratuitous sex scenes because of that.

There’s also a complete lack of time and place, we lose the fact that we are stuck in a desert with “unfriendlies” (who they are isn’t really explained) all around, and the courtship takes precedence.  They move their prisoners from the ambush site to Agadir, and this isn’t explored either. We aren’t shown camp life, or the difficulties of desert survival, desert travel,  just very frequent in-tent sex. I don’t know what the Foreign Legion’s rules re gay relationships were (Marquesate explores the modern-day thinking of it here) but I find it hard to believe that they were quite this accepting. Slapping of flesh against flesh and Chance lying around naked on Jacky’s bed, scoffing dates and reading The New York Times. Heartfelt protestations of love that anyone could hear, shouting, weeping and gasping–just try not hearing your neighbour’s conversation next time you go camping. It’s not exactly Beau Geste.

It’s a shame, because from the hints here and there, Petain’s arrival in the area, mention of the Spanish and such-like, Cochet has obviously done some research. I just wished that it had come out more in the story instead of “When we reached Agadir, we dropped off the prisoners and set up camp.” When there’s a lengthy conversation, the soldiers aren’t doing anything but simply lolling about (something I think most armies try and avoid) rather than letting us see the minutiae of army life like KP duty, or standing sentry. Similarly Chance’s next few weeks in camp are dealt with by telling us what happened between Jacky and himself as Jacky attempts to tame Chance’s bad-boy personality. we are told they argued. We are told they fought. We are told there were skirmishes. But we aren’t shown them, (other than: “then I went charging in. I got shot in the leg.” These actions are brushed aside to concentrate on the relationship. As with Chance’s upbringing it’s rather rush and that for me made it an uneven balance, and I don’t think it fully works–I would have liked a more even display both of plot and character development, rather than character development as plot. Chance’s personality is uneven too, thinking like a New York gangster for part of the book, and a Mills and Boon Heroine for another part. Not knowing what a Charley Horse is, or who Chaucer is, but being able to say things like “malfunctioning neurological reasons.”

The thing is, when it takes a step backward from the sex scenes it’s interesting. The interraction between Chance and “the Brats” is exciting and really nicely done, and it fuels more character development than all the filling of asses.

All of that being said, this is a well-written novella, and Cochet (as I’ve said before) has talent and a bright future in the genre.  Ms Cochet is a relatively new find for me, but already she’s got five good stories under her belt. Lovers of romance will warm to this exceedingly and will fall in love with the love story itself. It’s just I was expecting a broader canvas, and this didn’t quite hit the mark for me. But it should state how much I rate the writing as a whole that it gets a four.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Undefeated Love by John Simpson

Can love survive the horrors of a dictatorship and a concentration camp?

Two young men fall in love just as the Nazi Party is coming into power in Germany. One man is talked into becoming involved with the S.A., and then the SS while his lover looks on horrified. When their love is discovered, both men become the victims of the institution that one of them helped protect.

224 pages, ebook and paperback

Review by Erastes

There’s one major thing that should be key when one reads a book, and particularly a romance: one should care about the protagonists. Even if they are anti-heroes, you should care about them in some way.

Sadly this book falls short of doing that in rather a spectacular fashion by having a two-dimensional guy joining the SA (Sturmabteilung “Storm Division”) and then the SS (Schutzstaffel “Protection Squadron”) because he didn’t like to say no. Then of course he realises how fabulous he looks in his uniforms and he’s totally on board as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. In no time at all, he’s causing the deaths of 300 so-called-communists just because one of them demoted his lover from an “important” machine to one that just made drills. Overkill, much?  (He thinks to himself that he’s “not really a Nazi” but erm, sorry – yes, Kurt you are. You bought the uniform (or had them given to you as a present), you joined the party, you wore the jackboots.

I’m appreciative that he might have been afraid as to what might happen to him, but as there’s no actual context to give us that perspective i.e. we aren’t told about any of the gradual and terrible changes happening in Berlin, the things that would have made him scared to say no to Röhm, a powerful leader of the SA, (Simpson oddly spells this without the umlaut, and the editor missed this too, but more on the editing later) but other than the SA were “brawling in the streets” we aren’t told why Kurt is so petrified of saying no.

I’m afraid Kurt lost ALL respect for me the first time he used the excuse “I was only following orders.” He behaves like a schizophrenic, one minute holding his pistol to the head of men and threatening to blow their brains out (for gossiping about him in the bathroom as to whether he was Röhm’s lover, despite him knowing that’s what they’d think) and the next he’s charging about saving lives. But there’s no connect there, we are told that he’s scared, he’s happy, he’s mad about the uniform, but we aren’t shown these things happening. Add to that some very serious head-hopping–we can leap into four or five points of view in one small scene–and I found myself having to force myself to read on.

Editing was a real problem, the editor is credited in the book, or I’d wonder whether it had been edited at all. Subject confusion was one of the biggest issues such as:

“he was holding a cigarette holder with a lit cigarette” 

which is a good trick, if you can manage it.

or

he stared back into Stefan’s eyes, long and hard.

And some of it just doesn’t make any sense, as if it’s been translated

The show went on for just over two hours. When it was over and nobody was feeling any pain…

or

No one had the slightest guess as to who Kurt’s dance partner was

and so on. Too many to list. I suppose I thought Total-ebound would be better at this stuff, being British, but clearly not.

The timeline is shaky, too. First of all, the book begins in 1929 and at the time, Röhm was in Bolivia–he didn’t return to Berlin until 1930 and didn’t take up his position as head of the SA until January 1931. Simpson brushes this aside, and in January 1931, Kurt has already moved from the SA to the SS as part of Hitler’s bodyguard. The errors ramble on, Röhm was shot by Lippert, not Eicke, The concentration camp section has continuity problems too, as they are arrested in 1934, get out in 1939, but we are told they were in the camp for two years! minute they were in there for four, perhaps five years, but they tell each other they’ve only been in for two. The major hurdle being that the concentration camp mentioned didn’t even come into being until 1936 – two years after Kurt and Stefan were put there.

I’m sad to say that the historical inaccuracies pile up until the last page.

The trouble is when you find this level of inaccuracy, you start to doubt everything and you find so much more wrong than you originally suspected. Things like the names of a plane, slipped in when Kurt travels to Munich, I looked up and found that they didn’t start manufacturing that type of plane until 1932. And the name of the plane is a Junkers Ju52 NOT a Junker Ju52. Why mention the plane at all if you don’t research it? It looks sloppy that you can’t even get the name right. I would expect any editor to check this kind of detail too–in this day and age you don’t need to be a historian to use Google, and “epublishers simply don’t have the time” or “why bother when an ebook will be forgotten in six months time” doesn’t cut it. Have pride in your product, or don’t produce it.

There is a plot here, and if I could care about either of the protagonists it would be an interesting plot–it follows the demise of the SA, the rise of the SS and the implementation of paragraph 175 (anti-homosexual law) throughout Germany. The thing is that it simply didn’t emote. I think this is due to a preponderance of telling, not showing. We are told that someone is “visibly scared” or visibly shocked or visibly angry, instead of the prose showing us these emotions. When the writer wants to emphasize the love affair he simply has his guys telling each other how much they love each other and having mind blowing sex (yes, even within the concentration camp.) A better edit would have smoothed this out, made it more believable and eased the author into showing us more.

The concentration camp section won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a lot of beating, and some rape, even gang rape (even though Kurt consents, it’s still rape, despite the “dubious consent” label put on by the publisher.) But even this section is held at arms length. I know that not everyone wants to read the worst of human experience, but if you are choosing a concentration camp as a setting for a romance, you cannot go prettying it up. Kurt turns into a veritable Mary-Sue here, saving Stefan (who seems to exist merely to nag, weep, suck cock, or to be saved) and their final journey is achieved – with just the two of them getting all the gear (uniform, money, forged letter of carte blanche from Hitler which of course everyone falls for, and ID papers) they need with no problems at all – with such ease it’s almost unbelievable. All I could see in my mind was the film “Bent” and the stellar and harrowing story told there, compared with this almost Disney version of the Great Escape with a happier ending.

There’s so little emotion in this book (other than the random outpouring of love between the protagonists), that it was so hard for me to warm to it. There’s no emotional fallout from the things that they have experienced and seen, no sense of loss for their friends (if any, it’s never mentioned) No details of the changes to their way of life (they continue to live together and sleep together and go snogging in public) no mention of the Jews – and the men come through to their happy ending with nary an emotional scar. Even the author’s note – usually the place where the author acknowledges their research, confirms that certain things happened, etc – is amusing as Simpson tries to convince us that Kurt’s defection and subsequent debriefing made a big difference to the war effort. I found this very odd–it would have been better in an epilogue, perhaps.

I suppose the main reason that I’m so disappointed with this book is that Simpson clearly has a flair for story telling, but there are so many obstacles that mar the path to him doing it really well, despite him obviously selling books. When I look back at the books of his that I’ve reviewed I say the same things every time, shoddy research, telling vs showing, head-hopping.  These are are solvable issues, and I hope that he finds an editor who can really help him mould his work into something to be proud of in the future.

I like the cover a lot.

Buy at Total eboundAmazon UK | Amazon USA

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: The Amethyst Cat Caper by Charlie Cochet

Two years ago, Remington Trueblood left England and everything he held dear for the chance at a new life. Now the successful owner of The Purple Rose Tea House in Manhattan, Remi has come across the perfect addition to his business: a stunning amethyst cat. But Remi’s acquired something else with his latest purchase: the attention of the notorious Gentleman Thief!

Detective Stanley Hawk doesn’t know the first thing about tea. He’s strictly a java kind of guy. What he does know, is crime, and someone’s just committed one. As a Pinkerton’s, Hawk always gets his man, and when his investigations lead him straight to Remi, the words have never been truer.

Can Remi and Hawk resist each other long enough to figure out who the thief is and what the heck is going on? Or will the Gentleman Thief get his hands on more than just the Amethyst Cat? 

Review by Erastes

This is the second book I’ve read by Ms Cochet (When Love Walks In was the first) and like the first one, I was impressed, and also the author has a talent for creating characters and situations which we’d not only like to see more of – we can say that about many books – but which stories lead naturally to a conclusion, whilst still leaving the door open for More Adventures.

Set, like her other book, during the Great Depression in America, this deals with the top end of society. Englishman Remi (Remington) has left his wealthy family in England due to his incapacity to please his father–marry where ordered, continue the line, that kind of thing–and came to America and is living the American dream. He starts a tea house in the centre of Manhattan and it’s doing really rather well, making him a millionaire twice over in his early twenties.

So, although the struggling masses of the depression are mentioned a few times, you don’t really get to see them. This is a world of Hollywood style opulence, art deco interiors and shiny shiny things. And it’s described very well with just enough scene setting to see where we are, but not overdoing the detail by telling us who made every knick-knack and trinket.

The characters come to live quite beautifully on the page. Remi for instance, seen through the eyes of the burly detective Hawk is easily conjured to mind. Slim, wonderfully tailored and gorgeous to boot. It’s nice that he doesn’t consider the man’s wealth as part of the deal. What I particularly liked was that Remi was damaged a little, from his relationship with his family, and from the first man he ever fell in love with who “done him wrong.” Hawk, sadly, although I liked him as a character doesn’t have this particular depth and I bonded with him much less than I did with Remi. Hawk seems to get swept away with Remi so easily and the problems that their relationship might bring aren’t even considered until right at the end of the book. I think I’d have liked him to be a bit more noir, as I feel he considers himself a Sam Spade but he doesn’t come over that way, he’s more protective and lustful.

There’s a lot of eye colour detail too, which I have to say I’m over when it comes to romance novels. I don’t know anyone with violet or emerald eyes and I’d probably punch them if I did.

The story is good too, and tight, having a definite arc which begins and ends with exciting well-written action. Having struggled with action myself, I know how damned hard it can be to write when three men are struggling and there’s a gun involved, but Cochet pulls it off with cinematic style.

The third person is, of course, the Gentleman Thief and I was delighted when I entirely missed the clues as to who it might be and plumped for someone it absolutely wasn’t. That kind of red-herring-ism is a bit hit with me and I enjoyed guessing.

So, what with good period detail, movie-style flair, good characters and an ending which practically sets itself up for a whole series of “Capers” in the future, I have no problems with thoroughly recommending The Amethyst Cat Caper and look forward to more from Ms Cochet.

And it has to be said, because I’ve pointed out their errors so often, this was lacking in errors which was a refreshing change! I also liked the cover a lot, but sadly on Kindle it’s only in black and white.

Author’s Website

Ebook only.

Buy at Torquere | Kindle UK | Kindle USA

Film Review: Victor/Victoria dir. Blake Edwards

In 1934 Paris, trained coloratura soprano Victoria Grant, a native Brit, can’t get a job as a singer and is having trouble making ends meet. She doesn’t even have enough money for the basics of food and shelter. Gay cabaret singer Carole ‘Toddy’ Todd may befall the same fate as Victoria as he was just fired from his singing gig at a second rate club named Chez Lui. To solve both their problems, Toddy comes up with what he considers an inspired idea: with Toddy as her manager, Victoria, pretending to be a man, get a job singing as a female impersonator. If they pull this scheme off, Toddy vows Victoria, as her male alter ego, will be the toast of Paris and as such be extremely wealthy…

Review by Erastes

I dare say there are few people reading this blog who haven’t already seen this film, but if you haven’t, get it on Netflix, rent a copy, or simply pop on over to Youtube and seek it out because you’ve missed out on a real treat.

I first saw this film years ago, after it had just been released on video, in about 1984. I didn’t have any interest (or so I thought) in gay fiction, gay history, at the time but I loved the film to pieces for its sheer ebullience and camposity.

It’s very cleverly filmed, to my mind. Blake Edwards, having just directed “10″ and “S.O.B” could probably have filmed the entire thing on location but he chose instead to build a mini portion of Paris as a set on the odd occasions that the characters have to be outside and dealt with the rest in restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. The sets he does build, though are gorgeous, dripping with Art Deco style and fixtures and fittings which would make any Art Deco fan’s mouth drool. Particularly Victor’s hotel bathroom.

The casting is bizarre but utterly inspired. Julie Andrews was still attempting to shake off Maria Von Trapp and had done so with some success in S.O.B. but I think that it was this film that gave her the space between Maria and the real world. She’s no character actor, that’s for sure, and she’ll always have the unmistakable and unique cut-glass spoken voice but it’s quite uncanny the way she can have her hair slicked back, put on a serious face, and even with more eyeshadow than Boots she’s suddenly a very attractive and androgynous youth.

I didn’t much fancy James Garner as King Marchand (I’d like to get hold of a copy of the 1995 made-for-TV-version which stars Andrews reprising her role but with Michael Nouri as Marchand to see what he makes of it. Garner played the bumbling Maverick and Rockford for too many years for me to find him convincing as a smouldering male romantic lead, but he does pretty well, and the confusion he’s feeling is managed perfectly with those Droopy-style eyebrows.

I wish he hadn’t found out conclusively that Victor was a woman before he decided to kiss her, but I can understand that for 1982 film audiences that would have been a kiss too far. It would have had the weight of “Nobody’s Perfect” that famous last line in “Some Like It Hot” if the studio had been brave enough to have Marchand say “I don’t care if you are a man” before he kisses Victor, whilst still being unsure as to whether he was or not.

The star of the show for me is Robert Preston who hams, camps and queens it up like the proverbial good ‘un, never seeming out of place or embarrassed but gleefully milking every joke and double-entendre for what they are worth. His final performance as Victor is a gem of film history and the giggling and general guffawing that is going on during it is–I’m sure–in no way faked. It really comes over as being a really fun day on the set.

Credit is also due to Lesley-Ann Warren who plays the dizzy blonde bombshell to a tee and a wonderful understated performance by Alex Karras as Marchand’s heavy.

Historically? Well, you have to take much of it with large handfuls of salt. Of course stage types and artistic types were–and are–often gay, but how outre Paris was about this at the time is probably exaggerated. Yes, there would have been clubs where men could go and dance together, but Toddy’s song “Gay Paree” is a bit of a puff even though what he describes is very true for the time. Gay was a word around from the early 20s, although more used for prostitutes of both the gay and straight persuasion. However, it’s a great song and we can forgive it for that.

It garnered a lot of attention, critically at the time, too. It had seven Oscar nominations, Andrews, Preston and Warren all being nominated but it “only” won one, that of Best Music. It did pick up a few Golden Globes and many other awards in 1983, though.

It’s a real feel-good film, with enough gentle humour and understated farce to make you giggle. Some of the humour is very slapstick, but in a Pink Panther kind of way–unsurprising as Edwards was responsible for the show and the films, too. Add to that outstanding performances by all concerned.  Don’t miss it. And if you have seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it again.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084865/

Review: The Forgotten Man by Ryan Loveless

In 1932, after Captain Joshua Pascal’s family loses its fortune, the Great War veteran’s sense of duty compels him to help his mother convert his childhood home into a Jewish boarding house. He’s lived openly as a homosexual among his friends, but now Joshua must pretend to be a “normal,” and hiding his nature is a lonely way of life. But in the middle of Chanukah, Joshua meets Will, a street musician with a ready smile, and wonders if he might deserve a chance at love.

 During the cold December nights they find comfort in each other. But the specter of the workhouse and the possibility of family and personal ruin hang over them, making their every move dangerous. Which would they rather lose: their lives as they know them… or the promise of a future together?  168 pages

Review by Erastes

It was great to find another book set in this era, as Prohibition/Depression America is a hugely untapped market and all in all I enjoyed this story. I felt that perhaps the few problems I found with it were maybe the length of the book, which made it a little difficult to take the characterisation and conflict deeper than it was.

I liked Joshua a good deal, he’s a man who has been shoved back into the closet because he’s had to move back home. Not that he was “out” of course, but having his own apartment in New York meant he had a little more freedom over his own life. Now, because his well-to-do family has lost all of its money, he’s living back in the large house with his mother and brother his personal life has shrunk to visiting “Shorty’s” – a bar which welcomes homosexuals and where he’s been having an on-off sexual liaison with one of the staff.

I liked his sense of obligation to his family without having the resentment that many of us show. That’s not to mean that he’s a saint, he’s grumpy and snappy like all of us. It was with his interraction with his family that one of the gaps showed, for me. The whole missing father arc seems to have been introduced and there’s an attempt to solve the situation, but it seemed to me as though it was a plot that was meant to do something, but really didn’t. I kept waiting for something to happen–good or bad–but nothing much did. When Joshua’s brother Asher fails in what he sets out to do the backlash is glossed over, we are told that Joshua looked after Asher, but that’s about it.

The thing is, I think, is that the book is bursting out of its “I’m a gay romance” skin because there’s so much extra world here: the club, the family, the father interest and the romance aspect suffers from all these interesting plot developments that don’t come to fulfilment and the other plots suffer a little because of the romance.

The second protagonist is Will–or Blue as Joshua first calls him, not knowing his name. He’s a new widower trying to protect and support a new-born child on the streets by busking and not doing terribly well at it. It’s not exactly a “gay for you” plot as it turns out that Will is bisexual, but had been scared senseless away from his gay leanings by his family at a young age, but it’s along the lines of “it’s not men, it’s just him (Joshua)”

I didn’t like Will as much, possibly because we are rarely in his point of view, but I found his constant running away to be irritating–added to the speed that they went from “I’m straight” to “I’m in your bed.” He blames part of his running away on the fact that Joshua was too uptown for him, but this class difference wasn’t really stressed–unless it was the oddly inserted riding scene which I didn’t see what it was demonstrating. If Joshua had been one of the top nobs in New York I’d have liked that to have been more illustrated, as it wasn’t really clear to me until Will starts angsting about it. Apparently too, both men had been noticing each other for a long while as Joshua passed Will in the street but this again isn’t particularly strong. He only really notices Will on the day that Will isn’t on the corner as expected.

The ending was a little odd, and how the conflict is resolved struck me as arbitrary and odd–plus there were a good couple of plot holes that stood out, Joshua would have known what he finds out (sorry to be vague) a lot quicker simply by going to the bar–the fact he stopped going made no sense at all.

I had a niggling feeling that it was converted fanfic, due mainly to the appearance of a military coat, and the fact there’s a character called Harper and the protagonist has a younger brother, but I’ve had contact with the author and they assure me that it definitely isn’t converted fanfic, so no worries there.

I realise that I haven’t said it very well, becuase I’ve been trying to work out why the book didn’t blow me away as much as it should have, but I actually did enjoy this book very much. The fact that it gets four stars despite all the issues I’ve pointed out here demonstrates that, I hope. It was a little schmoopy for me,  but there’s enough of a hard edge in it too, in all those plots which deserved more time and space to be explored, that pulled it out of the average. Plus a holiday themed book is allowed to be schmoopy by most.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy it if you try it out. Ebook only.

Author’s Blog

Buy from Dreamspinner  Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: When Love Walked In by Charlie Cochet (short story)

Bruce Shannon is a Private Investigator dealing with case after case of missing persons and infidelity. None of which inspire warm, fuzzy feelings during the week of Valentine’s Day. Then again, Bruce isn’t exactly a fuzzy feelings kind of guy, which suits him just fine. He doesn’t need anyone anyhow, only his cat, Mittens.

That is, until the handsome Jace Scarret wanders off the streets and into Bruce’s life. Will Jace end up showing Bruce that maybe Valentine’s Day isn’t so lousy after all?

Review by Erastes

I love Noir. The films, the books. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler and all that. I love the morally ambigious characters, the twisted plots, the fashions, the cars, the settings.

While “When Love Walked In” is almost a vignette from what my mind fills in as a much larger story, it screams through every blue-nosed automatic pore that the author loves the era, loves Noir every bit as much as I do.

We meet our protagonist, who is a cagey, irascible, caffiene driven private dick–Bruce Shannon. He’s recently lost his secretary who was, it seems, a treasure, and he’s absolutely lost without her (so often the way!) We learn about Bruce in these opening sections: we learn he’s untidy, eats unhealthily, works too much, dislikes much of humanity and loves his cat, Mittens. Mittens is the star of this story in my opinion and you’d have to be hard-hearted not to love her too.

While it definitely has a Noir edge, don’t go expecting anything really Chandler-esque about it. For a start it’s told in third person POV whereas many Noir detective books are first person to retain the bafflement of the detective and to portray the voice (think the original Bladerunner with the commentary). While this works for this simple Valentine’s Day tale of new romance blossoming, I think that were the author to do a full-sized detective novel, I’d prefer a first person approach. There’s no real conflict either, which I’m not going to gripe about much seeing as how the story is only 30 or so pages, but I’ve seen it done in books as short as this, so it is possible.

That being said, what is there is good with a capital G. The writing is crisp and immerses you in the period, the characters are distinct and believable (even the off-stage secretary and the one-scene cafe owner burst with life) and the burgeoning romance isn’t too much insta-love to be eye-rolling. Rather the characters are turned on by each other which is much more realistic.

The editing wasn’t bad–it’s been a while since I read a Torquere book, and was surprised only to find one misused homonym. However the price seems pricey for a short story–other publishers sell novellas for that price.

However, as a piece of fiction that will take you 20 minutes or so to read, it’s highly enjoyable, well-grounded in its period, written in a cinematic way that will make you relive the gritty days of the 1930′s depression and a solid little story. As I said above, it seems (and I hope this is the case) that the author has a lot more to tell us about the back story and the continuing story of Bruce–he would do very well, as many Noir detective do–in a series and I for one will be lining up to read it. More please, Ms Cochet.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere

Review: Butterfly Dream by Dave Lara and Bud Gundy

At 6 years old, long before he discovers that he is gay, Banat Frantz learns that being Jewish in Hitler’s Germany is a bewildering crime for which he and his family must pay. Fire and loathing greet his emerging consciousness and a resourceful child begins to learn survival skills. Violently forced from their home and a successful business, his family immigrates to Holland but discover that they haven’t traveled far enough. They realize too late that Hitler’s mania would spread across a continent. The Nazis wrench the family apart, tossing them into the maw of the holocaust where only survival matters. Even in places where humanity itself chokes on the ashes of hatred, Banat realizes that he is gay and has fallen in love with another young Jew. The knowledge shapes his existence as he copes with the relentless horror of his life in a series of ever-more grim and nightmarish places until he finds himself in the hushed and gray world of Auschwitz, where silent screams fill every mind. But nothing can truly kill the spirit if it is filled with a longing for beauty. A young man of such sensibilities can forge moments of sublime bliss in whatever setting he encounters, and through a network of Jewish actors, writers, singers and intellectuals he learns that art can shelter his passions and that his very longing is his refuge. From his earliest memories of Nazi rallies that unleashed teeming hatred, to his redemption in a New York gay club, Banat Frantz lives an entire life before it ever really begins.

Review by Erastes

I find books about the concentration camps difficult to review and rate, let alone that they are often difficult–that is, painful–to read and this is no exception. One feels that one should have an automatic sympathetic response to the book, that one should praise it because of the subject matter, and by criticising it, one is somehow lessening the horror of what actually happened in Europe (and elsewhere.)

But although there was much to like about the book, I’m going to be critical too. Firstly, it’s another self-published book, and like nearly all self-published books (note I said ‘nearly’ before you get on your self-publishing high horse) the editing is appalling. Not merely shoddy, but absolutely unforgiveable. If the book had been through a second pair of eyes other than the two authors’ then that editor needs to have his/her red pen forcibly inserted somewhere. So if you are going to take on the book–and for some that will be a difficult decision, you’ll need to take onboard that not only is the subject matter tricky, but the editing will make you want to throw your e-reader at the wall.

Basically it’s the story of the Jewish boy, Banat, who, when the story begins is about six and he witnesses one of the rallies that Hitler was having in the 30′s. Things had already started to become difficult for Jews at this time, trading was limited and hatred was common-place and open. There’s a shocking scene where Banat was beaten up on the street by the father of a school-friend and no-one helps him at all. It’s a powerful scene, but was marred for me by there being no repercussions about it. Banat had been told to stay in, that it wasn’t safe–and although I’m sure his parents would have been less annoyed with him when he came back with a bloody bruised face, no mention was made of what happened when he did go home. There’s a lot of this kind of loose end stuff lying around which again, an editor would probably have helped with.

The problem I had with baby Banat, and again and again throughout the book is that I would have preferred it to be through the eyes of the protagonist himself. Instead of which, it’s written as a memoir, with all the hindsight and knowledge of what is going to happen and a knowledge of world events. It probably suits more people this way, but I think if Mockingbird had been written from the perspective of a older Scout it wouldn’t have had the same impact. The author as narrator can’t help but talk about things that are happening, that are going to happen, things that Banat could not possibly have known about and these intruded into his day-to-day experiences, when I would have preferred just to know about those experiences and not the world stage. We know what happened on the world stage, and on a small scale, those things only affected Banat in the way of him being Jewish.

However, as a memoir, it’s very readable–aside from the appalling editing. The concentration camp sections seem a little lighter than I was expecting. I’m not saying that I wanted in-depth descriptions of what Banat went through but really, other than a lack of food and warmth he managed to have a bit of a charmed life and drifted through the camps with what seemed very little danger to himself. Others disappeared but he not only survived–as people did–but he kept his father with him and remained in “safe” occupations for the most part. When he does mention the horror around him, like dead people littered around the camp its almost a surprise because the suffering hadn’t really been mentioned much before and I knew he had to be suffering every day.

So we can imagine Banat’s suffering, and what he’s going through, but I had to import it from information  gleaned from documentaries, books and films on the subject. Seeing as how terrible things didn’t happen to him–he’s even spared from being a bum-chum to a guard simply by saying “no thanks”–it then surprised me that he developed pretty bad PTSD after the war. He begins to suffer from “waking nightmares” and although I know his experiences in the camps could not have been good ones, because we aren’t told the horrors, his waking nightmares seem a bit over the top.

The days after the immediate liberation were a bit convenient. A group of them set off together–and the Russians don’t help them, being rather pre-occupied, and they find a camp where British soldiers had been held. There’s loads of food here, and they find a cow and a pig too. I found this a bit of a stretch, because why would the British soldiers–who they met later–leave behind so much food? Again, it’s all a little too pat, a little too charmed. He manages to get to Paris with no difficulty to retrieve his mother and getting the papers and money to return again is a piece of cake.

When he moves to America it’s much the same. He has more than enough money to live on as his father sends him loads, and when he does get a job it’s handed to him on a plate, and it’s a good job too.

It’s in New York where I noticed a large continuity hiccup and that worried me about the research for the rest of the book, as up to now I had been taking as gospel what I was reading was accurate as to dates and times. There’s mention of Caffe Cino – a cafe opened in 1958 by a retired dancer – and which became the birthplace of “off-off-Broadway” plays – but it certainly wasn’t around in 1948!

The ending is unsurprising, but sweet and all in all I enjoyed the read. I wouldn’t read it again though, even if the errors were taken out–and I highly recommend to the authors that they address this, it’s just too War-Lite for my taste.

Authors’ Websites: Bud Gundy  Dave Lara

Amazon UK   Amazon USA (available as print and ebook)

Review: If It Ain’t Love by Tamara Allen (short story)

In the darkest days of the Great Depression, New York Times reporter Whit Stoddard has lost the heart to do his job and lives a lonely hand-to-mouth existence with little hope of recovery, until he meets Peter, a man in even greater need of new hope.

Review by Erastes

Tamara Allen is a very talented writer and doesn’t get the publicity she deserves. However, if there is any justice, word of mouth will continue to work for her and more and more people will come to her books. This is a perfect example, because it’s a free download and therefore a great introduction to her beautifully sparse, no word wasted style of writing.

Set in the 1930′s Depression it paints beautifully (if that is the right word) the struggle it was to live in New York at the time. We sometimes forget that the term “living on the bread line” meant exactly that. That you were dependent on free handouts of bread and perhaps soup if you wanted to stay alive. Today, it has rather blurred to mean the line between plenty and poverty, but that’s not where it started.

Some books take a long time to get going, and it can be a struggle to actually care two hoots about the main character–not so here, within 3 pages I was gripped by Whit and the world he lived in. I felt every cold gust of wind, every rubbery noodle, every insult, felt the shabby clothes he wore, his thin shoes, felt the despair he felt in slums and flop-houses he was forced to live in as–like millions of others–he was out of work.

Her prose, as I said, is clean and exactly enough and no more–this sentence echoes both Whit’s emotion, and the time he lives in:

Before shame could show through the ill-fitting nonchalance, Whit got up and headed for the door.

The first conversation between Peter and Whit is so crisp that it took my breath away. So many books–and we’ve all read them–have strangers talking like High School BFFs but this for me was on the knife edge of perfection. Anyone who says women can’t write men needs to read Allen–many would learn much.

Here’s a section that I particularly liked:

Only when evening shadows had grown thick enough to impress him with the lateness of the hour did the world regain his attention. Peter was a dark, warm shape pressed close, still catching his breath after Whit’s last successful effort to steal it, and Whit, drifting on the serene awareness that something wonderful had begun, wondered just how long the average miracle could last.

I won’t spoil the plot because it’s not big enough to really explain any of it without spoiling, and this is a short story that needs to be savoured slowly and read again and again. Suffice it to say that it manages in a mere 30 pages, conflict, misunderstanding, resolution, character growth, wonderful eroticism, heartbreak and a heart-warming twist that would make Ebenezer Scrooge reach for the Kleenex. And if you can manage all that in 30 pages, you hardly need a five stars from me. But it’s getting five stars anyway.

I wish I could write like Allen, and that’s the truth. Can’t recommend this any higher, and as it’s free, you’ve got no excuse not to rush off and read all 30 or so pages of it and then tell me I’m wrong, I dare you.

Author’s website

Free download here

Review: Placing Out by P.A. Brown

At the age of ten, Dylan Daniels was a placed-out kid sent from New York’s Five Points to a family in Nebraska. But Dylan ran away at the age of eighteen when he realized he preferred boys and didn’t want to be a farmer. Once he made his way to Hollywood, he wound up as a popular and high-class hustler with a number of wealthy clients.

Now in 1933 near the end of the Prohibition Era in America, Dylan meets Ben Carter during a bar raid. Ben, who’s a six-year veteran of the LAPD and deeply in the closet, is instantly both attracted and repelled by this beautiful man. Between them they struggle to overcome the barriers that keep them apart, including Dylan’s career, and Ben being in a brutal squad that frequently raids pansy bars and beats the patrons, which tears Ben apart.

Will Ben let Dylan’s love heal him or destroy him altogether?

Review by Sally Davis

Sometimes just getting the text to a story is a bonus. The cover of the book is uninspiring and I think I enjoyed the beginning of the story more without having read the blurb. The story is written partly in first person from Dylan’s point of view and partly from Ben’s POV in third person. I’ve seen reviews that claim this change of POV is confusing but I found it an interesting way of emphasising the great differences between the two characters.

Dylan’s voice changes as his story progresses from that of the defiant uneducated foster child to that of the young man with ambition to rise above his current station. He is practical, and has no illusions about how long he has before he’s too old to reap the benefits. Once his looks are gone his hustling days will be over so he has a limited amount of time to make his pile. His loneliness comes across quite strongly too – he is hungry to be loved and that he pretends when he is with one particular client that their comfortable cuddling doesn’t have to end, that they can be as he puts it “a forever couple”, is very sad.

Ben is lonely too, but that is because he is living a lie. Part of Red Squad, a special task force that breaks strikes and raids gay bars, he can barely admit even to himself that he is “queer” until the stress of the lying gets too much and he finds his regular lover Kevin for some brief and intense comfort. He hates what he does for a living, hates the way he is expected to join in the laughing brutality of his fellows, but he daren’t show any reluctance to conform. Then they raid a bar and he lays eyes on Dylan – the golden boy – and Ben’s life of lies becomes even more complicated.

This is a short story – only 40 pages including the extras at beginning and end – and I don’t want to give any more of the plot away. Let’s just say that I loved it and I’ve spent some time thinking about Ben and Dylan and what may have happened after the end of the story. I’m planning on working my way through P.A. Brown’s backlist.

Author’s Website

Available from Amber Quill Press in their Amber Allure line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Review: This Rough Magic by Josh Lanyon

Wealthy San Francisco playboy Brett Sheridan thinks he knows the score when he hires tough guy private eye Neil Patrick Rafferty to find a priceless stolen folio of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brett’s convinced his partner-in-crime sister is behind the theft — a theft that’s liable to bring more scandal to their eccentric family, and cost Brett his marriage to society heiress Juliet Lennox. What Brett doesn’t count on is the instant and powerful attraction that flares between him and Rafferty.
Once before, Brett took a chance on loving a man, only to find himself betrayed and broken. This time around there’s too much at risk. But as the Bard himself would say, Journey’s end in lovers meeting.
Review by Sal Davis
Once again there was no cover with the review copy, so April Martinez’s cover came as a nice surprise once I started poking around the Loose Id site. There’s quite a lot in this picture that comes directly from the book and the faces of the two models suggest the somewhat overwrought sensitivity of Brett and the more hard-nosed approach of Neil. This depiction is much more modern than what I was imagining while reading. J.C.Leyendecker’s work doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I found it very handy to have those cocked hatted, high collared, buttoned up, hair slicked back, be-spatted images in my mind’s eye as I read Mr Lanyon’s story. There’s one particular image of 2 men talking to each other on a sofa [sadly, it is not public domain] that gets over the formality of the time in a way that pouting lips and bare shoulders don’t, even if they are beautiful. These were the days when a man wouldn’t step outside without a hat, no matter his income, and the Brett Sheridans would come equipped with gloves, watchchain, buttonhole and cane and a whole array of behaviours that seem pointless and persnickety nowadays but were just a way of life then.
The blurb is slightly misleading in that it suggests that the story is very much from Brett’s point of view. Not so – we get a look into both protagonist’s minds, and very nice too, in alternating chapters. In fact the story begins in the most traditional way possible for a tale about a private dick [am I allowed to say that on SiN?] with a first page from Neil’s point of view that could have come from Chandler or Hammett, except it has the delicious substitution of a homme fatale instead of the more usual female love interest. Not that Brett is that dangerous, poor dab. He is a young man with the weight of the world in worries on his shoulders, some of which I can’t mention due to spoilers. Suffice is to say that he is engaged, but his heart isn’t in it and he has some worries about how his body will cope as well. Tough guy Neil is as different from him as can be and one of the joys in the book is seeing how the two characters play off against each other, developing trust and reliance on one hand and the protective urge on the other.
But the story is not solely a romance. There’s a good plot on several levels, an excellent cast of supporting characters and several BIG surprises. I’m not one of those readers who pores over every little clue to try and solve the mystery before the denouement, I just let the story happen and go ‘oooh’ with each revelation. [Lazy? I prefer to say I move at the author's pace.] I enjoyed it immensely – definitely one for the “Read-Again” folder!
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Film Review: Christopher and his Kind (BBC)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1651062/

 

(from imdb) In 1931 budding author Christopher Isherwood goes to Berlin at the invitation of his friend W. H. Auden for the gay sex that abounds in the city. Whilst working as an English teacher his housemates include bewigged old queen Gerald Hamilton and would-be actress Jean Ross,who sings tunelessly in a seedy cabaret club. They and others he meets get put into his stories. After a fling with sexy rent boy Caspar he falls for street sweeper Heinz,paying medical bills for the boy’s sickly mother, to the disapproval of her other son, Nazi Gerhardt. With Fascism rapidly rising Christopher returns to London with Heinz but is unable to prevent his return to Germany when his visa expires.

Review by Erastes

A visually beautiful film, which draws you into to the Berlin of the early 30′s, Christopher and his Kind is the dramatised version of the book of the same name which was not published until 1976. Becoming a figurehead for the growing gay movement, Isherwood reflects on his earlier life, particularly his relationships in Berlin and decides to add to the existing canon by writing Christopher and his Kind.

With immensely clever set direction and some CGI which did now and then show the join, it looks and feels like an immensely lavish production. There are all the familiar scenes we expect in a film like this in this era, steam from the trains billowing onto the platform, scary and omnious scenes with the Nazi flag flying from every building, book burning and the like. It’s cleverly done and you hardly notice that it’s actually done in small scale, but it looks like it’s done with a cast of thousands.

The cast is wonderful–Matt Smith could have overshadowed the piece with his performance, but he’s nicely tempered by the dour and slightly clingy WH Auden (Pip Carter), Isherwood’s domineering mother Kathleen (Lindsay Duncan) of whom Christopher takes no notice but has an more extreme effect on Isherwood’s younger brother Richard (Perry Millward) (who was also homosexual.)

Imogen Poots has large shoes to fill as Jean Ross (the woman who Isherwood immortalised into the unforgettable Sally Bowles) and here she is much more like her actual incarnation. Many American viewers will probably be surprised not to find Bowles is American!  Poots does a grand job, from her chewed green lacquered fingernails to her brittle strength to her not-brilliant singing ability! There’s a marvellously campy performance by Toby Jones as Gerald Hamilton (the inspiration for Mr Norris in the books) who double-entendres his way through his first meeting with Isherwood and enjoys every perverted pleasure Berlin can throw at him.

Of course, only having an hour and a half to play with, there’s a lot condensed here, and some people might say that there’s not enough time  spent on the political situation and it’s top heavy with the gay scene and gay sex, but that’s rather the point of the book. Isherwood wanted to show the reasons he went to Berlin, and he gives those reasons very succinctly at the top of the film:

It’s 40 years since I first wrote about my time in Berlin, and the book I’m now writing is perhaps an attempt to set the record straight, well,as straight as it’s possible to be. I destroyed my Berlin diaries you see, so have had to rely a good deal on memory. As to why  I went in the first placy, my friend Wystan Auden was there and encouraged me to join him. I could say that I went there because of what was happening politically, but in fact I went because of the boys. To me, Berlin meant boys

Smith, in recent interviews–and very sensibly–has said that he wanted to show that he’s not just The Doctor and he does that in spades in this film. I don’t think anyone was in doubt of his talent, but here he really drives home that he’s an old soul in a very young body. He absolutely convinces as the rather remote Isherwood, who says in an interview with the Jewish Landau, that he has his sympathies but he finds it hard to work himself up to the pitch required to “do something” about what’s happening in the city.  “I rather suspect I’m best equipped to observe and record.”

This is certainly borne out by Isherwood’s prescence in the city. He seems to glide along on the surface and never really engages with the maelstrom. I don’t criticise him for this, for I’m sure, being, like him, a Brit, with the luxury of simply being able to walk away when things got too hot, I would do the same.

Fan of the era, or Isherwood or Matt Smith, or simply gay history, this is a must-see, must buy.

 

Review: Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

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

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

*Available in e-book format – 2137KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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Review: Farewell my Concubine by Lilian Lee

A sweeping saga, Farewell my Concubine runs the gamut of China’s modern history, from 1924 to the 1980′s, and takes the revered Peking Opera as its centre stage. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou become friends under the harsh training regime of the opera (a mix of martial arts, deprivation and singing) and continue friends through the good and the very bad times of over 50 years of the country’s turbulent history

Review by Erastes

I’m going to say right out that if you have seen the film and are thinking about reading the book, and you expect the same optimistic conclusions to the character’s stories and actions within the film, you are likely to be either disappointed or surprised by the changes made – or both. Although the book does not end tragically, the film has a softer ending and also within the book the plotline regarding the abandoned child is not how it shown on the film. So be warned.

Ok – that’s that out of the way and I can concentrate on the book. Like many books about China, this is a fascinating read, because the cultures and mores of that culture are so very alien to most of a western audience. Lee lets us see Peking from the ground up; the surface “glamour” of actors and protitutes,looking affluent but look closer to see the ragged cloth shoes and the unhealthy pallor. Lee doesn’t flinch from the poverty and the squalour, and later on, the violence and degradation that the characters are forced to endure.

A young woman is desperate for her son to live, and to have a trade, carries her son to the Opera and asks them to take him on. We learn that Xiao Douzi (literally: Little Bean) has six fingers on one hand and in order for him to join the Opera–despite his excellent voice–he has to sacrifice it.There’s a theme of sacrifice that runs through the book, but you have to squint to see it.

Douzi’s mother was–for me–one of the unresolved plot lines, as this mother is never seen again, and despite Douzi missing her terribly, he does nothing to try and seek her out. It’s perfectly reasonable that she would disappear, but for him to do nothing about it, for he surely would have remember where he had lived, seems a little off, considering his character as it is painted for us.

We are introduced to the training regimen of the Opera, and from what I have read it’s not unusual, however harsh. I remember an interview with Jackie Lee who tells of his martial arts school and the terrible rigours he went through, so this is not much different, although absolutely shocking to our eyes, that young boys could be starved, beaten and humiliated in such a way. The training master is rather a cliche, I found, redolent of a sargeant major in a British sit-com or film, although he shows he does care about his charges, and whether they care for him or not, the respect they show him in later life (China, of course having a tradition of high respect for the older generation) is also highlighted.

Douzi is a natural “dan” due to his high clear voice and delicate features. A dan is a singer who specialises in female characters on stage—and in a similar fashion to the way that man-playing-female actors were trained in Shakespearian Britain – (see Stage Beauty for reference) – a dan is encouraged to consider himself female much of the time, and Douzi has to remind himself that he’s not.

The two friends stay together when they “graduate” from the ten years of their apprenticeship and they go out into the city singing their repetoire and getting better known. They are best known for the opera “Farewell my Concubine” in which Douzi (now renamed Deiyi as an adult) and Shito (renamed Xiaolou) play the concubine Yu Ji and her lover General Xiang Yu. Like many operas in the east and west, it has a tragic ending.

In the film it appears that Douzi’s sexual identity is a much bigger deal than the book, for here I found it incredibly muted, and other than a fierce loyalty, one touching scene in make-up when Shito was injured, I never really got the sense that Douzi loved Shito in some enormous way. It was very brotherly, quite hands off, and even his intense hatred and jealousy of Juxian–the prostitute that Shito marries–comes over as more of a Yoko Ono deal, and not ‘he would have loved me if it wasn’t for you.’ Douzi, doesn’t ever act on that love, so we never get a chance to find out.

The scenes where the Red Guards, consisting mainly of teenagers,  terrorise everyone who don’t adhere to the new ideals, were the most moving for me; the inhumanity of man against man, and the demonstration of just how blood-thirsty and cold young people. Harnessed for a task of cleansing the populace this section really shook me–particularly aligned against how very polite Chinese society was. The way that–even after the revolution of 1911–the country clung to its traditions, nearly had them entirely swept away in an Orwellian frenzy-only to start regaining a sense of their past was terrifying and made for a wonderful section to read.

There is a scene towards the end which is could almost be a scene from Orwell’s 1984, which is not terribly surprising, given the regime the three characters find themselves in, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking, although the real heartbreak comes at the end of the book.

However, I don’t know whether it was the translation, or just the book itself, but it didn’t really move me in the same way that other gay love stories have. I note that the translator was an academic but she wasn’t an author–perhaps it needed an author’s hand, because there were many grammatical issues, and there was some very American slang at times at times that was a tad jarring for 1920 and onwards. It’s when I read things like this that wish that I could read it in the original, but fat chance of that!

In fact I think that also, the book fails where the film shines, because it never really gives us a taste of the gorgeousness that the film is able to portray, the life of Deiyi and Xiaolou after they left the training regime and became actors, and started climbing the greasy pole to success is rather rushed, and I for one would have liked a bit more of this section.

It’s a fascinating read, however, if only for the portrait of a culture lost, and subsequent descriptions of the Mao regime as it attempted to eradicate anything that smacked of the “old traditions” and anyone with any interest in China will enjoy it for that reason, but the promise of the book in the first chapter  that it’s a story of men in love smacked just a little of a ploy to pull in people who want a gay romance, and it never delivers on that score.

Not a masterpiece, but well worth a read.

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Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Review by Ammonite

I admit that Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and I think she has outdone herself in this, her latest. The setting is the 1930s and 1940s of Mexico and the United States, and it is obvious that she has dug deeply into research of the period. The story begins with the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, as a young boy living (practically prisoners) with his mother and her wealthy lover on an island off the coast of Mexico. She is an attractive, vivacious Hispanic woman who constantly seeks that perfect wealthy gentleman who will take care of her and her son, in spite of the fact she is still married to his father, a conservative and rather dull paper-pusher in Washington, D.C.

The boy (and the man) becomes involved with wonderfully-dawn characters, including the artists Diego Rivera, his wife, Frida Kahlo, and Leonin Trotsky, as well as many others he meets on his life-changing journey from the island to Mexico City, thence to New York, until he eventually settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he becomes a famous writer of novels about the Aztecs. It is this last, becoming famous, that is his downfall, in the twisted way so many famous (and not so famous) were ruined by J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of supposed communists in the years after WWII.

It is only gradually, with hints here and there, that the reader becomes aware that Harrison Shepherd is gay. This is another reason I love this book–it is not about a gay man. It is about a courageous, intelligent, compassionate man that happens to be gay. Kingsolver focuses on how persons may be ruined by gossip, by fear of the unknown, by the press, by how ordinary folks tend to “jump on the bandwagon” of what is made popular by others’ paranoia–in this case, their fear of communism. It is this paranoia that ruins Harrison’s life. Only he happens to be gay, as well. Someday, maybe all stories will be approached like this, wherein being gay only happens to be one more side of one’s personality.

I have been studying how to become a better writer, and it is all in this novel: the perfect metaphors, the spot-on characterizations, the beautifully-structured sentences, sensory descriptions, stimulating ideas, on and on and on. The title is a metaphor and so is the first paragraph:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

Author’s Website

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Review: The Berlin Novels (Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin) Christopher Isherwood

We apologise for the break in reviews being posted. Personal reasons, real life, yadda yadda. We will back to normal as soon as possible!

Collection of two previously published novels written by Christopher Isherwood, published in 1946. Set in pre-World War II Germany, the semiautobiographical work consists of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; U.S. title, The Last of Mr. Norris) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The Berlin Stories merge fact and fiction and contain ostensibly objective, frequently comic tales of marginal characters who live shabby and tenuous existences as expatriates in Berlin; the threat of the political horrors to come serves as subtext. In Goodbye to Berlin the character Isherwood uses the phrase “I am a camera with its shutter open” to claim that he is simply a passive recorder of events. The two novels that comprise The Berlin StoriesI Am a Camera (1951; film, 1955) and the musical Cabaret (1966; film, 1972) made Isherwood’s literary reputation; they later became the basis for the play

Review by Charlie Cochrane

Sometimes, when you look straight on at a small star, because of the way the eye’s constructed, you can’t see it. You have to look to one side and then it appears in your field of vision – elusive to the point that you begin to think you’re imagining its existence. That’s how I feel when I read novels by authors like Isherwood (or Forster), whose sexual preferences are now well known but who were writing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and when they may well have been – to the public eye – in the closet. I don’t necessarily see the sexual references direct, they’re subtle and intriguing, and at times I wonder if they’re just wishful thinking.

So it’s hard to read Mr Norris Changes Trains ‘at face value’, knowing that William Bradshaw, who relates the story, is based on Isherwood himself and that Norris was inspired by Gerald Hamilton, himself a homosexual. The reader finds themselves looking for clues to a romantic liaison between the two, or with the other male characters in the story. They won’t find the former, but there are hints of the latter.

Norris himself is a marvellous anti-hero. Wig wearing, fastidious, of dubious morality, treacherous as they come (and with a passion for punishment), Norris is the sort of man the reader should abhor but, like Bradshaw, we fall under his spell. Even when we’re incredibly suspicious of what he’s up to – especially when he seems to be using Bradshaw as sexual bait for a German politician, Kuno. Set against the background of pre-war Berlin, the political intrigues of the Communists and the Nazi parties, the story deals subtly with truth, trust and the morality of those who simply do what they can to survive such times.

Worth reading? Of course; it’s a good story, well written (I like Isherwood’s no-nonsense style) and provides intriguing insights into a place and era I knew little about.

In Goodbye to Berlin, Bradshaw has reverted to Isherwood. An author’s note points out the overlap in characters and locations between this ‘book’ and Mr Norris Changes Trains; it also describes the volume as ‘this short loosely connected sequence of diaries and sketches’, although it emphasises that it is not an entirely autobiographical work. That description is important – if you come to this book thinking you’ll get the traditional story arc, you’ll be disappointed.

What you get are a delightful series of vignettes, some of which feature characters with whom the reader might think they’re familiar – although the Sally Bowles of these stories is a very different person from the Liza Minelli/Cabaret version. Not a very good singer, for a start… On Reugen Island is probably my favourite story, depicting the breakdown of the relationship of what might be a gigolo and his employer. Again, the depiction of gay relationships is circumspect, although there are more overt descriptions of the seamier underside of Berlin society, for example the short scene set in and around the Salomé club.

What strikes the reader is the sense of a society struggling to survive economic uncertainty and political turmoil – and we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that elements of this society are doomed. That sense of imminent disaster pervades the writing and adds a frisson and depth to stories that – in another setting and another era – might have worked less well. I’d also recommend that readers find out more about the real characters inspiring these tales; the real ‘Bernard Landauer’ – a marvellously complex character who appears to be trying to seduce Isherwood – is based on a man who helped many Jews escape Portugal and who died in the same plane as leslie Howard.

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Last Gasp by Erastes, Chris Smith, Charlie Cochrane and Jordan Taylor

Last Gasp, a series of four short novellas wherein we discover: four gay couples who struggle to find happiness during historical periods on the brink of change. Take a trip back to 1840s Hong Kong, Edwardian Syria, 1898 Yukon and 1936 Italy, and experience passion that will endure through the ages.

The Stories:

Tributary by Erastes

It’s 1936 and a generation of disaffected youth waits in the space between a war that destroyed many of their friends and family, and a war they know is bound to come. Guy Mason wanders through Italy, bored and restless for reasons he can’t even name, and stops at the Hotel Vista, high in the mountains of Lombardy. There, he meets scientist James Calloway and his secretary, Louis Chambers, and it’s there that the meandering stream of Guy’s life changes course forever.

The White Empire by Chris Smith

Edgar Vaughan sincerely believes that six-thousand miles is enough to give him a fresh start. Escaping in 1838 from the drawing rooms of Belgravia and the constraints of his landed family, he takes up missionary work in the trading post of Hong Kong. On arrival, he finds the region on the cusp of war; the Chinese Emperor has outlawed the importation of opium — the key link in the trade of the East India Company. Between Edgar’s sense of isolation, the sight of the puling opium addicts, and one memorable encounter with a man in a peacock waistcoat, Edgar finds himself embroiled in the very marrow of the British Empire’s machinations. He finds himself torn between espousing the expeditious whilst protecting his new acquaintance, and doing what is right and risking the wrath of the British Empire.

Sand by Charlie Cochrane

People come to Syria for many reasons; tourism, archaeology, or because they need to leave Edwardian England to escape potential disgrace. Andrew Parks is one of those, burying past heartache and scandal among the tombs.

Charles Cusiter has travelled here as well, as chaperone to a friend whose fondness for the opposite sex gets him into too much trouble at home. Out in the desert there aren’t any women to turn Bernard’s head – just the ubiquitous sand.

The desert works its magic on Charles, softening his heart and drawing him towards Andrew. Not even a potentially fatal scorpion sting can overcome the power this strange land exerts.

The Ninth Language by Jordan Taylor

Thousands of outsiders descend on Canada’s Yukon Territory during the 1898 gold rush, wreaking havoc on the landscape and the indigenous people who live there. Amid the backdrop of this once pristine land, a man struggling against the destruction of his home and culture finds himself indebted to one of the men causing it. These two strangers discover solace and wholeness where they least expect it: each other

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

As others have noted, anthologies can be a hit or miss or affair but fortunately that is not the case with Last Gasp, which consists of four excellent short novels that will keep any historical fiction fan happy for several hours of entertaining reading.

Three of the authors are familiar to me (Erastes, Charlie Cochrane, and Jordan Taylor); The White Empire by Chris Smith is her debut publication and it is an impressive first start. Although I enjoyed all four stories in Last Gasp, this one may edge out the others (by a hair) as my favorite. It was the longest and the most complex in terms of plot, with a little mystery, some suspense, more than a bit of moral ambiguity and, of course, a romance. I think, too, I am partial to the 1840s as a time period for a story so that added to my enjoyment. I look forward to Smith’s next published offering.

Jordan Taylor’s story was the only one that did not feature British characters and coming at the end of the book (I read the stories in order), it was a nice change. Her writing brought the Yukon Territories to  life and the push/pull conflict between the two main characters, Mitsrii and Troy, was palpable. Taylor is a new, young, and very talented author and I was excited to see her story was included in this collection.

Fans of Charlie Cochrane’s “Lessons” series will feel right at home with Sand, although the setting couldn’t be much further from St. Bride’s Senior Common Room! Even so, the writing was classic Cochrane with her signature funny turns of phrase and amusing expressions. Charles and Andrew quickly fall in love—some might feel a little too quickly, to the point of declaring themselves to each other and making what sounds like a lifetime commitment within days of meeting. I do think that Cochrane’s writing works a little bit better in longer-format fiction where she has time to carefully develop the characters and setting. Even so, I enjoyed this story very much and my little quibble is only a minor problem point in an overall excellent story.

Last, but not least (although it is the first story in the book), Erastes once again seduced me with her prose. While some writers excel at dialogue—and Erastes does fine in that respect—I love her beautiful descriptions of her characters, their locales, and their activities. Tributary did not disappoint. There was enough ambiguity to keep the story interesting and the uncertain future for the main characters certainly lived up to the premise of the entire collection—a world on the brink of change.

As historicals, the details were magnificent. Each story quickly pulled me into its world and kept me there. The characterizations, too, were excellent. At the end of each short novel, I wanted to know more, wondering what happened to the characters and where they moved on in their lives together—or maybe apart.

All in all, it is easy to recommend this collection. Fans of the authors will definitely want to add this to their “to buy” list. If you are a reader who says, “I’m not so sure about historicals…” this might be a good place to start, as the stories have enough variety and detail to give a good overview of what the world of historical fiction has to offer. The stories are full and rich and complete and made for a very satisfying reading experience. A definite keeper of four stories that I am sure to re-read. Brava to the authors, for a job well done!

Purchase from the publisher

Review: Lavender Boys by S.E. Taylor

Brock Evans heads for Hollywood in 1935, hoping to be the next Clark Gable, and meets another would-be star in Randy Pearce, who works as a soda jerk while awaiting his big break. It’s love at first sight, just like in the movies. But the path to stardom in Hollywood is not quite that easy. Brock finds a job as a florist shop delivery man and gets to meet some of Hollywood’s favorites, one of which finally gets him a screen test at a major studio.

Randy finds an agent who gets him a screen test, too. It turns out Randy is a ‘natural,’ but the big studios don’t want any more homosexual male stars after some previous bad experiences. What kind of Hollywood ending is in store for Randy and Brock, who are hiding their romance, their secret trips to the Lavender Lounge homosexual bar, and their homosexual boss and landlord with whom they live?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Having just read a very good story about Hollywood in the fifties (Sticks and Stones, reviewed here) I was looking forward to Lavender Boys, hoping it would live up to the same standard. Alas, it didn’t. The story was unrealistic, predictable, silly, and not very well written. This is the author’s first book and it is always exciting to test the unknown waters of a new writer, especially in the genre of historical m/m fiction. It saddens me, then, when the book is not one I can recommend which is the case with Lavender Boys.

The synopsis, above, pretty much tells the whole story, except for the anti-climactic and unrealistic HEA ending. Basically, Brock and Randy meet, instantly fall in love, and set out together on their big Hollywood adventure. They have one lucky break after another. Even when things don’t work out quite right—such as when Brock blows the screen test arranged for him as a favor by Myrna Loy—it doesn’t really matter because it is just a sign that that was not how things were meant to be. No sadness, no introspection, just an “Oh well, golly gee, at least we have each other!” and on to the next adventure. Any time conflict or danger threatens their lives, it is dealt with in a paragraph or two, meaning the reader doesn’t have to suffer any angst, either, just like Randy and Brock.

Hollywood circa 1935 is evoked by dropping famous names throughout the book. Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and others I am forgetting (there were dozens of them) all make guest appearances. They all love Randy and Brock because they are as cute as buttons and besides, Brock looks just like Clark Gable! This is a source of endless amusement to the stars and the basis of more than one practical joke. It’s a pretty open secret that Randy and Brock are lovers—not too hard to figure out since they call each other “Baby” and “Sugar” every single time they open their mouths, no matter who they are with or what they are doing—but the stars are all willing to look the other way on this issue because “the boys” are so adorable and besides, it’s the big studios who act like Neanderthals on the homosexual issue, not the free-thinking, open-minded and very liberal movie stars.

Um, right.

As I said, the story lurches along from adventure to adventure with no discernable plot. The writing is amateurish and the dialog inane. Things that might have been interesting to read about, such as Randy having a bit part in a movie, happen off page. They talk about the movie and go to the premiere but the actual filming experience is written away in a sentence or two.

I did enjoy the character of Gracie the housekeeper, only because her ruminations on “the queers” that she worked for were so over-the-top. She was disgusted by the stains on the bedspread and fretted about scrubbing her hands after cleaning the bathroom. However, because she was a source of conflict, she was very quickly given the axe, never to be heard of again. Oh well. Once she was gone, the story settled right back into its banal predictability.

All in all, there is not much in Lavender Boys to recommend. It fails as historical fiction and it’s not a particularly entertaining story, either. I suppose for readers who like super-sweet love stories it might appeal, but for me, it was too much sugar and not enough spice.

Buy at Torquere

Review: Josef Jaeger by Jere’ M. Fishback

Josef Jaeger turns thirteen when Adolf Hitler is appointed Germany’s new Chancellor. When his mother dies, Josef is sent to Munich to live with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, the openly-homosexual chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Josef thinks he’s found a father-figure in his uncle and a mentor in his uncle’s lover, streetwise Rudy, and when Roehm’s political connections land Josef a role in a propaganda movie, Josef’s sure he’s found the life he’s always wanted. But while living in Berlin during the film’s production, Josef falls in love with a Jewish boy, David, and Josef begins questioning his uncle’s beliefs.

Complications arise when an old friend of his mother’s tells Josef that his mother was secretly murdered by the SS due to her political beliefs, possibly on Roehm’s order. Josef confides in his Hitler Youth leader, Max Klieg. Klieg admits he knows a few things, but he won’t share them with Josef till the boy proves himself worthy of a confidence.
Conflicting beliefs war within Josef until he must decide where his true loyalties lie, and what he really believes in.

Review by Hayden Thorne

I always get all giddy and delirious whenever I come across genre LGBT YA fiction. :) It remains a tiny and overlooked niche, and I hope that it enjoys growing exposure and respect through an expanding list of good quality titles like Josef Jaeger.

Now I must admit that I was hesitant at first to read Jere’ Fishback’s novel, as I really don’t have the stomach for Nazi-themed fiction or film. I’ve watched several movies before, and I always fall apart before the end, a wretched, sobbing mess. Since reading is more involved compared to watching, a novel focusing on Nazi Germany (or just Nazis in general) makes me dread what might be waiting for me in between the pages. Have you seen A Love to Hide? It took me over a week to recover from that movie. Had that been a novel…

But these stories should never be ignored, and with the book also being young adult and a coming-of-age one, I got over myself and plunged in. And I’m glad I did.

The first thing you’ll notice when you read Josef Jaeger is how incredibly detailed Fishback is in his description of Nazi Germany. Bayreuth, Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg – people, places, food, everything. I’m not sure if he’s traveled to Germany before or if he’s done extensive studies on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, but his knowledge of the place and era is exceptional.

That said, it does take a while for Josef’s story to unfold. Yes, I love it when authors take their time in telling a story, and the novel has a certain sweeping, epic scope to it. Josef travels from place to place, meets several characters along the way, and in the course of his adventures, learns about the darker yet incredibly complex side of human nature.

The downside, however, is that there are a number of scenes that were info dumps. Fishback is very particular in his descriptions, but they do go overboard at times, stretching Josef’s credibility as the narrator quite a bit. First of all, he’s only thirteen, and the novel follows his adventures in the course of a year or a little over a year. He’s shy, self-conscious, and very, very naïve. Yet, every so often, he’ll describe certain places and objects with a knowledge that you can only expect from someone who’s older and an actual expert on certain subjects, i.e., such as the exact sizes of cobblestones. Another effect of this is a dragging down of an already slow-paced story, so much so that I found myself lightly skimming over a few places that were chock-full of descriptive details that didn’t really add to the plot.

There’s so much attention paid to the environment and to the side characters that the novel reminds me of David Copperfield in the way Josef’s character progresses from wide-eyed innocent to a more jaded (but wiser) young man in the end, though the novel ends with him being only a year older.

Like Dickens’ novel, Josef Jaeger gives us an incredibly diverse cast of characters, each of whom is wonderfully developed to the extent that you feel as though you’ve been reading about them since the beginning even if they’re only there for a really short time. From Josef’s opera singer mother to his storm trooper uncle and Ernst’s heterosexual kept boy and the actors in Berlin, etc., there’s no dull moment in Josef’s young life at all, and more often than not, he’s a captive audience, watching in awe as people strut around before him – chain smoking, having sex, beating each other up, protesting the growing persecution of the Jews, and so on.

Now because of that, just like David Copperfield, Josef Jaeger seems to be more of a peripheral participant in his story. He reports what happens around him, and more often than not, he’s less an actor in everything and more of a boy who’s being acted upon. His story takes place at a time when Hitler’s just beginning his campaign against Communists and the Jews. Through Josef’s eyes, we see the growing tension in Germany and the vile propaganda finding increasing traction among disaffected Germans.

While Josef reacts to these events, I still found him curiously detached, emotionally, except for those scenes involving his developing romance with David, a Jewish boy whose family’s slowly being deprived of their rights. It’s because of the heavy focus on the unfolding political events in Germany and how they affect the people around him that I think Josef’s development as the main character becomes secondary. He cries, he gets excited, etc., but we’re told of those, and he neither evokes nor explores deeper feelings.

To some extent, it helps us keep a certain level of objectivity toward a very harrowing development in world history. On the other hand, I found it a little difficult empathizing with Josef.

This heavy focus on environment and secondary characters also undercuts the conflict that Max Klieg, a Hitler Youth leader, brings into Josef’s life. If anything, this particular detail in the book is the most problematic to me. Max appears about a quarter of the way in, when Josef joins a Hitler Youth group. Then he vanishes, not to reappear till near the end of the novel, where he plays a significant role in Ernst Roehm’s undoing.

Because Max’s reapparance is so far into the book, I didn’t feel as though Josef’s sudden hatred of his uncle is convincing enough. This specific conflict happens too late, too suddenly, and too quickly, and Josef never really goes through a long process of confusion or re-evaluation that would’ve otherwise shown a clearer shift of attitude toward his uncle. Had Max deepened the doubt and suspicion in Josef early on (already planted into his mind by another character who vanishes), we’d have a more developed exploration of the conflicting nuances of human nature. I feel that the Berlin scenes involving the production of a Nazi propaganda movie, while interesting, could’ve been scaled back considerably in favor of a better developed dilemma involving Josef and the only family member he has left.

As a minor aside, I’m also a little baffled over Josef’s mother’s death. I’m not sure if I missed something, but Josef was told at the beginning that cocaine was responsible, and then later on, he says that it’s a heart aneurysm. *If you’ve read this novel and can clarify this, please do so in the comments. I could be mistaken and would appreciate an explanation.*

Even though I didn’t feel as much of an emotional connection with Josef, I did enjoy the other characters. David and his family, the actors at UFA, and especially Rudy, were the ones who stayed with me long after I finished reading the book. Poor Rudy’s the biggest tragedy in this novel. He’s the one who never gets a fair chance from the get-go, and while he does some pretty stupid things, I really didn’t want to see him end up where he is at the conclusion of the novel. I almost feel like writing AU fanfic just to give him a second chance.

That said, Josef Jaeger is a real treat, one of the more intelligently-written YA books I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s thought-provoking, wonderfully dense, and well-researched, touching on one of the darkest moments in world history. Kudos to Jere’ Fishback for giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the rise of Hitler without sentimentalizing things or toppling into melodrama through his use of clean, concise language and Josef’s matter-of-fact voice.

Warning: Underage sex.

Buy the book:  Amazon UK Amazon USA E-book

Review: American Hunks by David L. Chapman and Brett Josef Grubisic


The “American hunk” is a cultural icon: the image of the chiseled, well-built male body has been promoted and exploited for commercial use for over 125 years, whether in movies, magazines, advertisements, or on consumer products, not only in America but throughout the world.

American Hunks is a fascinating collection of images (many in full color) depicting the muscular American male as documented in popular culture from 1860 to 1970. The book, divided into specific historic eras, includes such personalities as bodybuilder Charles Atlas; pioneer weightlifter Eugene Sandow; movie stars like Steve “Hercules” Reeves and Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller; and publications such as the 1920s-era magazine Physical Culture and the 1950s-era comic book Mr. Muscles. It also touches on the use of masculine, homoerotic imagery to sell political and military might (including American recruitment posters and Nazi propaganda from the 1936 Olympics), and how companies have used buff, near-naked men to sell products from laundry detergent to sacks of flour since the 1920s. The introduction by David L. Chapman offers insightful information on individual images, while the essay by Brett Josef Grubisic places the work in its proper historical context.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

American Hunks is a wonderful collection of photographs, spanning a bit more than a century from 1860 to the early 1970s. It shows muscular men in all their glory, starting with the early gymnasts and strongmen and moving on to bodybuilders and Hollywood stars with handsome physiques.

The pictures are drawn from the collection of author David L. Chapman, who opens the book with a wonderful memoir when he was eleven, in 1959, and wandered into a tobacconist and magazine store in his hometown of Chula Vista, CA. There, he stumbled upon the magazine, Physique Pictorial, with John Tristam on the cover, photographed by Robert Mizer. Chapman bought the magazine (which, given his age and the fact that the proprietor of the shop was blind, was amusing in and of itself) and in that moment, a collecting obsession was born.

The book has minimal text: a Foreword by Chapman and an essay, Flexed for Success: Consumer Goods, Pop Culture, and the Setting of Heroic Masculinity by co-author Brett Josef Grubisic. It is broken into seven chapters: The Pioneers (1860-1914); Hunks Make the World Safe (1914-1919); Jazz-Age Athletes (1920-1929); Depression Physiques (1930-1940); Supermen at War (1941-1949); The Age of the Chest (1950-1959); and Muscles à Go-Go! (1960-1969). The concluding pictures in the book are of an Austrian with an unpronounceable name who marked the end of normal

bodybuilding and the rise of steroid enhanced bodies. To those of us who appreciate the male form in its natural glory, the current crop of ‘roid puffed-up specimens are about as realistic as breast implants bolted onto a woman’s chest, and Chapman wisely left them out, letting the book end at its natural conclusion.

American Hunks is a large format book (8” x 10”) printed in full color on glossy paper. Many of the images are full-page and all have extensive comments in the picture captions, identifying the subject and photographer (when known) and additional contextual information. In addition to physique photographs, the book includes ads, magazine covers, movie posters and stills, postcards and a variety of other ephemera to illustrate the rise of muscular masculinity in popular American culture.

This 351 page book retails for $29.95 (US) which in my mind is a bargain; right now it is discounted at Amazon to $19.77 which is an absolute steal. For UK readers, it is available for pre-order at a price of £19.54 which isn’t quite as much of a good buy but still a pretty good deal. And let’s be honest, to have such an exquisite collection of handsome looking men to drool over—is money really the issue?

At Out.com, I found a slide show of pictures from the book so if you need any more temptation to add this book to your collection, go there and look at them. In the meantime, I’ve included a few of my favorites here, along with the captions (just hold your cursor over the picture too see the caption), to

give you first-hand impression of what the book is all about. Enjoy!

Visit Arsenal Pulp Press for more information.

Buy from Amazon USA and pre-order from Amazon UK

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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Review: Fellow Travellers by T.C. Worsley

When Harry Watson, an attractive and personable ex-Guardsman, becomes involved with the young novelist Martin Murray, he is quick to assimilate Martin’s left-wing views.  He fits readily into Martin’s circle, along with the earl’s daughter and communist Lady Nellie Griffiths, her playboy nephew Pugh, and the unconfident Oxford undergraduate Gavin Summers.  But then Harry’s enthusiasm leads him to join the International Brigade, and all five are suddenly faced with the stark realities of the Spanish Civil War.

Review by Erastes

This is an English “Gone With the Wind” in a way, in the same way that Mitford’s 1930′s novels are; detailing a way of life that has gone forever–and a book which becomes a piece of social history, because although fictional on the surface, Fellow Travellers was written in the time, and is largely based on real-time events and real people.

The story is told in a fascinating manner; the unnamed narrator is a man who has been meaning to write a novel about these events, but has never really got around to it. (Many of us know that feeling!) So instead of wasting the time and research that he’s put into the project he presents us with his historical records of the events: letters, interviews with the five people involved and his own sporadic author’s notes.  He starts off with each of the five people giving their opinions of all of the other five, then deals with their political beliefs, and then the catalysts that led them all charging off to protect the doomed Spanish republic.

It took me a little while to get my head around the way the books was structured, but once I did I found it a much easier read than I had anticipated.  The unnamed narrator has an appealing style, and a dry sense of humour at times, and all five of the characters come to life little by little in varying degrees.

We are introduced to Harry first of all

The homosexuality (and indeed bisexuality) in this book is a simple fact, no-one is expecting anyone to judge, and there’s no sense at all of censure (until they go to Spain and Martin is faced with arrogant bigots) as they all frequent a literary pack of like-minded individuals where the right and wrong of gay life doesn’t impinge.  Harry and Martin are living in “uneasy domesticity” at the beginning; before Martin took up with him, Harry is “undeniably attractive” but a male “tart” (as he’s described several times in the book), going with anyone who will support him, and – as Martin says he’s sure of – would have come to a bad end had Martin not taken up with him.  Although from working-class mining stock, he’s a bit of a chameleon.

His capacity to fit himself into any situation or social circumstances was remarkable in one who had after all come from a miner’s terrace.  It was this capacity which had served him so well when he first burst upon London and discovered that there were plenty of willing gentlemen ready to play host to such an engaging personality.

It’s this chameleon quality, his magpie-like capacity to take on the respectability of others, and the political views of others which drives the book along.  Harry–the odd-man out in this little group of upper-middle and upper class intelligentsia–becomes the catalyst to events.  He finds Martin’s left-wing views and embraces them, joins the Communist Party but soon becoming bored when–in peacetime–there’s nothing much for him to do other than flag waving, speech making and marching.

Second of the characters is Lady Nellie, daughter of an Earl, and sister to an Earl.  As many of this class did in this time, she’s the black sheep of her family, the English rebel without a cause, finding a cause within the Communist Party and joining the Party without truly understanding the true meaning of the practicalities of it, despite reading Marx and others.

Gavin is a bit of a wet hen. He is trying to write an autobiographical novel, but moans that nothing has ever happened to him, so why would anyone read it. He scoffs at all of the others’ political and religious beliefs while having none of his own.  He had been in love with Harry at one point, and had a brief passionate affair with Pugh, but like everything he does, he can’t commit to anything.  His involvement in the war was actually quite intriguing.

Martin is probably the most complex of all the characters – based very strongly on the novelist Stephen Spender – he tries to balance his life around the varying pressures that affect him.  After six months with Harry he realises that it’s not going to work, and manages to persuade him to leave, but because he feels responsible for “adopting” Harry and getting him accustomed to a life beyond his means, he continues to support him, with a flat and an allowance.  He goes to Spain purely to help Harry out of the scrape he gets him into, again based on fact, as Stephen Spender did for his own ex-Guardsman lover, Tony Hyndham.  Incidentally, these elements of the book are echoed in another book that concentrates on this era “While England Sleeps” by David Leavitt which is reviewed here.

Pugh is probably the least clear of the characters, even though his story winds clearly through everyone else’s.  I can’t put my finger on why he’s quite so vague as a character–perhaps it’s because there are no actual interview directly with Pugh himself, like there are with the others. We know he’s wanton, bisexual rather than homosexual, and gets into trouble over just about anything.  If anyone was going to get into trouble in the war, it was bound to be him.

The characters’ opinions of everyone else are the lightest part of the book, and amusing in parts as everyone thinks they know everyone else and it’s very clear that they know nothing of the sort.  Nellie is convinced that Harry is determined to get a job and believes every excuse as to why he won’t take one, Gavin decries everyone, and Martin feels he is acting for the best.  As for the political section, I admit that I was a little lost in that, not really understanding the differences between socialism, communism, crypto-fascism and goodness knows what else.

The war itself cover slightly less than half the book, in all, and is only really dealt with in letters from the characters (not Pugh) to the narrator, and from diary entries from Nellie and Martin.  But what is written is vivid and unforgettable.  It’s hard not to be swept up in Nellie’s and Martin’s exhilaration of the Anarchist spirit  of Barcelona and then to mourn with them as they realise that there really can not be any such thing as a purely communist army where everyone is equal, and if it attempts to be so, it cannot help but fail.  I for one, with the sang-froid brought on by 40 or so years watching warfare on the TV, felt Nellie’s sheer horror as a new kind of warfare was born–one where cities were destroyed, thousands of evacuees fled from nowhere to nowhere, and where women and children are raked by plane machine guns while already fleeing for their lives.

What is clear, and for me, hard to read, is the way that European events were largely ignored by England. The juggernaut of Hitler and Mussolini lumbers towards the Second World War but it seems that England has its head stuck firmly in the sand.  Nellie’s brother David is the face of this denial here.  When Pugh decides to join the Carlists, the Catholic Nationalist supporters (and quite the wrong side as far as Nellie and the others were concerned), this is what Nellie reports of her conversation between David and herself:

‘And you’ll just let him throw his life away?’ I said.

‘What’s he doing now but throwing his life away?  If he’s going to do that, he might as well do it for something he believes in.’

‘Something you believe in!’ I said furiously. ‘Don’t imagine the he believes in it!  He doesn’t believe in anything.  Why, Gavin told me the only reason he’d picked on the Carlists was because they wore scarlet cloaks and berets!’

‘Well, he may come to believe in it,’ David said. ‘As I see it, it’s his big chance.  He’ll be mixed with decent people and that will be a change for the better you must admit.’

(It should be added here, that Pugh was a step-son of David, the Earl…)

The way that the scales fall from most of the characters’ eyes is sad to watch, after the buoyed up enthusiasm of all the flag-waving and the bonhomie of the International Brigade.  The realism that a just cause isn’t necessarily the winning side, and the sheer frustration that no-one is listening to the stories of the prison camps and the persecution.

As is probably obvious by the length of the review I was hugely impressed with this book–for all that parts of it made me feel like an ignorant nihilist–and the characters will stay with me forever, more so, I think because they portray real events and real people, albeit in a fictional manner. If you enjoyed While England Sleeps or Nancy Mitford’s work, you’ll definitely like this.

Highly recommended, and essential reading.  You may need to track a copy down, but well worth doing.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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Review: Dash & Dingo: In Search of the Tasmanian Tiger by Catt Ford & Sean Kennedy

Stodgy British archivist Henry Percival-Smythe slaves away in the dusty basement of Ealing College in 1934, the only bright spot in his life his obsession with a strange Australian mammal, the thylacine. It has been hunted to the edge of extinction, and Henry would love nothing more than to help the rare creature survive.

Then a human whirlwind spins through his door. Jack “Dingo” Chambers is also on the hunt for the so-called “Tasmanian Tiger,” although his reasons are far more altruistic. Banding together, Dingo and the newly nicknamed Dash travel halfway around the globe in their quest to save the thylacine from becoming a footnote in the pages of biological history.

While they search high and low, traverse the wilds, and fight the deadliest of all creatures—man—Dash and Dingo will face danger and discover another fierce passion within themselves: a desire for each other.

Review by Erastes

I don’t like reading at my PC much, and I often start an ebook for SIN with a feeling of dread- especially when one is – like Dash and Dingo – over 300 pages.  But I was immediately pleasantly surprised by being drawn in, and it was not until my eyes started to get tired that I realised I was 100 pages in and enjoying myself immensely.

Let me just comment on the cover. It’s great. There’s no two ways about it.  So what that it doesn’t yell “gay romance”?  A woman holding an apple doesn’t scream Vampire Romance either. It’s a good cover and for my money, one I’m more than happy to put on my shelf, read it on the bus.

I’ve been discussing recently with other gay fiction authors and we often say that what seems to be missing is “adventures with gay protagonists” rather than books just concentrating on the romance.  This certainly fits the adventure bill – it’s a real boy’s own adventure, a Saturday morning film-club book, a delicious blend of gay romance, Rider Haggard and Indiana Jones with a fair smattering of humour thrown in.

In an netshell Henry (Dash) Percival-Smythe is a stuffy professor who’s never been on a field trip, who is whisked off to the Antipodes by brash typical ocker Aussie. Romance and adventure ensues.

Sean Kennedy is a true-blue Aussie, I believe, and that shows.  Dingo may be a little bit of a stereotype, but he’s a stereotype that does exist, as real-life characters such as Steve Irwin ably prove.  I love the way Dingo takes the piss out of everything and everyone, from the head of Henry’s department–calling him Lardarse–to moaning about the warm English beer.

Dash, too, is priceless.  Stuffy stiff upper lip professor one minute, over-excited public schoolboy the next.

The authors don’t skimp on detail just to skip ahead–the men need to get from England to Australia, and research has gone into doing this feat in the 1930′s. It was still primarily a sea voyage, and flying wasn’t the direct connect it is today.  Too many books don’t take this kind of thing into consideration, having horses travel 100 miles a day or a train travel a thousand.  Remember Kevin Costner’s famous boast that he could walk from Dover to Nottingham in a day?  Well this book doesn’t do that.

Similarly there’s no rush with the plot.  Because this is “proper novel size” (300 or so pages) the plot is not rushed at all, nor is the romantic entanglement.  Time is spent getting to know Dingo’s family, all well written, and reminding me of a mixture of Kath and Kin bred with The Sullivans, and all of it “proper” Aussie.  So many gay romances have the characters thinking only with their cocks from the moment they spy their soon-to-be partner, and we are spared this, and we are given time as the plot unwinds.

One thing I really appreciated was the imperfect sex–God alone knows there’s enough mutually switching studs with simultaneous ejeculations, and they never ever come too soon. Bravo to this book for having sexually deprived men behave like they probably would.

Once or twice I had the impression of being thumped over the head with too many facts a la Dan Brown style, and a few facts proved to be wrong – but they won’t spoil the experience, not unless you are nitpicky like me (and I only looked this stuff up because the facts were presented.)

A couple of general things niggled at me, being English: Scotch whisky spelled with an e,  the ubiquitous ‘gotten’,  mentions of sidewalks,  and Henry’s father being called James Percival-Smythe III which is a rather American way of naming people, but nothing I couldn’t gloss over in the sheer fun of reading about these people. But perhaps to make a note that next time a Britpicking is clearly needed.  There was also a propensity for beginning paragraphs with a name, which I hope the writers can root out in future collaborations, as it’s an easy vice to fall into.  There are one of two places where the POV wobbles too, we seem to start a new scene in one POV and it turns out not to be so.

But there are some really nice touches, a strainer for the tea for example. A tiny thing, but a detail that proves the writer is thinking about that they put on the page.  And with any good collaboration–Jamie Craig being another excellent example–it’s impossible to tell who wrote which part.

Anyone who loves Rider Haggard, Crocodile Dundee or Indiana Jones will have a blast with this book. Anyone who doesn’t know the sad history of the thylacine will find this a fascinating and instructive read; (personally, I don’t think the Tasmanian Tiger is extinct–there have been sightings, and even films of this amazing creature, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.)     And I also hope very much that we see Dash and Dingo again, because for my money they’ve leapt right to the forefront of gay adventure/romance fame.  No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a bloody great try and I didn’t want it to end, and that bumps it up from a 4½ star to a five.

I couldn’t find much of a web presence for either Sean Kennedy or Catt Ford, but I did find an interview over at Jessewave’s Blog where they discuss the business of collaborative writing.

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Review: Past Shadows by Charlie Cochrane, Jardonn Smith, Stevie Woods

Through the centuries, lives and loves have been lost to the shadows. Stevie Woods brings redemption and a new love in DEATH’S DESIRE; Jardonn Smith has a frisky ghost showing two men the pleasures of love in GREEN RIVER; and Charlie Cochrane’s tale of future love is predicted by a ghost in THE SHADE ON A FINE DAY. In these three stories spanning from 18th century England to the Depression-Era Ozarks, love shines through the shadows.

Past Shadows is a trilogy of historical m/m ghost stories—1785, 1808, and 1938. The one thing I can say about all three is that these are probably the least frightening ghost stories I’ve ever read, which is not a criticism—I’ve never really seen the point of a spirit hanging around just to scare people. These revenants all have more serious business to pursue, naturally relating to the sexy gentlemen who are able to perceive them.

I was given a galley proof as ARC, so some of the minor errors that I noticed may have been repaired in the edition that went to press.

Death’s Desire by Stevie Woods (1785)

I liked the idea of this novella—two young cousins exploring their own attraction to one another while helping to lay to rest a murdered relative’s ghost. The young men were engaging and the dialog between Hugh and the ghost of Adam Simmercy was delightful, but there were so many problems interfering with my suspension of disbelief that I was never able to get into the story. Some were simply language errors (a ‘peel’ of laughter, misplaced commas and apostrophes), but the improbability of the circumstances leading to the murder convinced me that Adam Simmercy died of sheer carelessness. What gentleman, enjoying the embraces of another man in his own bedroom, would not take the basic precaution of locking the door? This carelessness is matched by his murderers—they bury the Lord of the Manor in the kitchen garden and his lover in the woods, instead of taking both corpses well away from the house to avoid discovery. Why one ghost is stuck haunting the place he was buried, not the scene of his death, while the other was stuck at the scene of the crime was never explained, either.

For me, much of the charm of historical fiction lies in small details. Unfortunately, this story disregarded important details, especially one: where were the many servants that one would expect to see in a grand country manor? A kitchen garden means a gardener, and gardeners are alert for such things as rabbits in the veg—yet there was no evidence of a gardener and no explanation of his absence. Hugh and his cousin Charles use a coverlet (an expensive item of household linen) as a carryall and shroud for the exhumed body, with no expectation that it will be missed, and they park a decomposing corpse beside the garden wall for some hours without anyone noticing. (That missing gardener would probably have had a dog…) They somehow manage to clean themselves up before dinner without the assistance of the servants who would bring in bathwater and collect their grimy clothing, and after further excavations (and another wash-up), they engage in a long, noisy session of sex in Hugh’s bedroom, with no apparent concern about being overheard by a passing maid or footman.

Any one of these problems would be a minor thing, but there were so very many that I just could not stay focused on the story. The sad thing is that I think the problems could have been worked out with a critical beta’s feedback or a tough edit. I have to say it’s my least favorite in the collection because it just didn’t feel finished, and I know that Stevie can do, and has done, much more convincing work.

A reader who isn’t as picky about details and likes enthusiastic first-time love scenes will probably enjoy this story a lot more than I did; I think Death’s Desire does have the most romantic sex scenes in the collection, but they weren’t enough to keep the story moving.

The Shade on a Fine Day by Charlie Cochrane (1808)

This story is a first, I think. It’s a gay inspirational—a Christian inspirational, no less. As a reader totally unfamiliar with the conventions of the Church of England, I found myself wishing that the author had included a short glossary—what exactly are a curate’s duties? What is a verger? If a curate preaches sermons, what does the Rector do, and why is he called a ‘Canon?’

But once that hurdle was passed, the story settles into a delightful combination of Austenesque convention—the young ladies of the parish twittering over the handsome young curate and the local squire—and unexpected surprises. The Rector is a married man whose wife must have been quite a shock to the locals, as she is a dark-skinned lady from an unspecified tropical isle. Her tribal traditions include a ghost named Toomhai Gamali, who drops in on dinner parties when there’s something those present need to hear.

Naturally, TG makes his appearance, and one of his cautiously-worded messages prods the handsome young curate, William Church, into a great deal of soul-searching that ends in him expressing his feelings to the gentleman he’s had his eye on… a gentleman who has been anxiously watching to see which village maiden will win the young clergyman he would rather have for himself.

This is a gentle romance, less explicit than the other two. Its main conflict is one of conscience, and its great charm is the cast of well-rounded characters who, I am convinced, went on with their lives long after I closed the book. This story was also refreshingly free of the typos that I found so distracting in the other two novellas (the only thing that struck me was the use of ‘may’ instead of ‘might,’) and I think it’s unique in having a scene where a ghostly yenta refutes Leviticus to a gay clergyman. Shade is interesting departure from Charlie’s usual whodunits, and I enjoyed it very much.

Green River by Jardonn Smith (1938)

This story is the only one I’ve seen set in this place or era. Since my own father grew up in the South during this time (he’d have been a few years younger than these characters), I was very interested to see what the author would do with it.

The setting—a WPA work camp repairing highways—came through vividly, as did the grinding poverty of the era and the human desperation of a depression, a striking contrast to the lush scenery of the country landscape. Smith really caught the sense of how a river becomes the center of human activity in the summertime. The love story is convincingly masculine—far more screwing around than verbalized emotion, though when the emotions do surface, they ring true. The comeuppance of the camp bullies was very welcome, and the randy river ghost has a satisfactory explanation that makes this the anthology’s second whodunnit. I almost wonder if Smith found an actual event while researching, as it sounds very real and regrettably believable.

I would have been more able to lose myself in this story if not for a number of minor errors in grammar and punctuation, and anachronisms—for instance, steaks wrapped in plastic should’ve been in butcher-paper, since plastic wrap for food wasn’t even around until the late 40′s. I also thought there was a slightly pedantic tone that crept into the expository sections of the story, language that didn’t quite match the narrator’s down-home folksiness when he was recounting interactions between other characters, and a few modern-day terms such as “graphic items,” and “peripherals” struck my ear as expressions that no down-home boy would’ve picked up in a pre-WWII schoolhouse.

But apart from these—and it’s possible that some of the typos will have been caught in the final galley proofing—this was an interesting story and an inventive choice of setting. The plotting is tight and well-organized, and all the threads neatly woven to a satisfying conclusion.

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Review: The Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick

Looking at The Lord Won’t Mind from a historical perspective

Title: The Lord Won’t Mind
Author: Gordon Merrick
Published: 1970; republished in 1995
Length: 255 pages

Charlie Mills and Peter Martin are both young, handsome and well-endowed. They meet and fall madly in love. The book follows Charlie’s path from a closeted gay man to a person who accepts himself. Charlie is terrified of rejection, especially that of his rigid, moralistic grandmother whom he loves but who expects him to marry and have children. Charlie at first attempts to live a double-life, expressing his homosexuality through acting and painting. But his life is incomplete without Peter.

Charlie eventually throws Peter out and marries a woman to protect his reputation. Charlie’s wife later suspects his homosexuality, and perpetrates a horrific act of violence on her husband. As Charlie works through the aftermath of the attack, he slowly comes to realize that honesty and self-acceptance are the only way out. Charlie finally confesses his love for Peter, and they move in together.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

I have a review posted for The Lord Won’t Mind over at reviewsbyjessewave. There I critique the book from the perspective of being an important piece of gay literary history; for this critique here at Speak Its Name I’ll consider it as historical fiction, because, bottom line, that’s what it is—or at least supposed to be.

The story allegedly takes place in the late 1930s. It opens at Charlie’s grandmother’s summer estate in Rumson, New Jersey. Unfortunately, there seems to be a great deal of confusion on this point. Googling the book and reading various synposes and descriptions posted here and there, many people (wrongly) state that the book is the story of two Ivy League college students in the 1960s. Looking at the original cover of the book, it is easy to see how someone could make this error. Their hair, oxford cloth shirts with rolled up sleeves, no ties…the casually tied sweaters tied over their shoulders—yup, definitely preppies from the 60s. I might even have dated one or both of them.

But what about within the pages of the book? Doesn’t that give any clues? Not really. There are vague mentions of “the war” but no one actually ever goes away nor does anyone get killed. Keeping with the sixties theme, it could have been the Viet Nam War, so that’s not really a hint.

Dress, technology, locales? All vague. Park Avenue is Park Avenue; Charlie and Peter dress to look sharp but nothing that particularly ties them to the era; they talk on the phone and drive cars. In fact, near the end of the book, they drive back and forth to Stamford, Connecticut (from New York City) twice. I vaguely wondered when gas rationing began—after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I later discovered, so even that wasn’t a giveaway clue.

Manners of speech—Peter says “Golly” a lot and sounds like Mickey Rooney in the old Andy Hardy movies. They call each other “darling” (endlessly) which reminds me of the Nick and Nora Charles movies. So maybe that would be accurate to time. But then “baby” creeps in and worse, “darling baby.” Maybe that’s just sappy speech but it doesn’t sound historical to me.

Sexual behavior—Charlie and Peter have lots of sex and use a lubricant. Was that term common in the 1930s? I don’t know. K-Y jelly (water-based) was invented in 1917; Vaseline (petroleum-based) was invented in 1872. I know that in my experience, I used “Vaseline” as a generic term for years; it wasn’t until the spread of AIDS and the need to use water-based products with latex condoms that the word “lubricant” became more common in the vernacular. However, the author, Merrick, was gay and he might very well have been traveling in different lubricant-circles than the ones I inhabit so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

On the other hand, Charlie’s wife takes him to task that he doesn’t pleasure her enough and give her enough orgasms. She even suggests that he might read a book on female sexuality. In 1939? I don’t think so. Remember that the Kinsey reports didn’t come out until 1948 (men) and 1952 (women). Thus I don’t think Hattie’s admonishment to Charlie rings true for the time. In fact, her comment sounded like it came straight from the pages of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, published in 1969. For me, this was definitely an anachronism.

So how can Merrick write a historical fiction book and not have it be…historical? A couple of points might provide insight. First, Merrick went to Princeton in 1938 and dropped out during his junior year. In the book, Charlie has just finished college. So Charlie is clearly drawn from Merrick’s life experience. Since he was there, and lived it, it is not surprising that details get omitted in the telling of the tale—they are not in the forefront of his mind. Second, for people reading in the 1970s, the forties were only three decades prior. They probably remembered those days quite clearly—I know my mother would have (and I am sure she read this book—but I am wondering how she kept it hidden from me!). Thus readers in that era did not need the historical grounding that we in 2009 might require. Last—even though the story is set in the thirties, it could be any time. Time and place is really irrelevant. I think Merrick just set it when he did based on his own life experience, as noted above.

So tallying up: historical evidence: a few words, such as “Golly” and “Darling.” Anachronisms: female orgasmic behavior and the cover of the book. Neutral: places, clothing, transportation, communication (telephone), mentions of “the war.”

Recommendation: if you are in the mood for a gay soap opera with lots of melodrama, sex, and a happy ending, read the book. If you are interested in a slice of gay literary history, give it a go. If you want accurate historical fiction full of interesting details, you probably should pass. For me, one and two outweigh three and thus I think it’s worth reading. Four stars.

Note: The book was originally published in 1970 and re-published by Alyson in 1995. Although it is out of print, it is easy to find used copies. I bought mine for this review off Amazon for less than $5. And–I bought the book so that serves as my disclaimer.

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Review: His Master’s Lover by Nick Heddle

In 1919 His Lordship declares that the Western Front may now be secure but the home front is still being undermined by Prime Minister Lloyd George and all his damned meddling . Only the humble gardener, Freddy has the intelligence to make money out of the new garden city full of homes fit for heroes , which is being built next to the ancestral estate. Heroic Freddy restores the family fortunes by opening the first profitable garden centre. However, His Lordship unwisely invests the family treasure in New York, just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Freddy’s fate becomes further entwined with that of this noble English family when he becomes, in succession, the passionate gay lover of two generations of its heirs and only the profits from Freddy’s garden centre save the day.

Review by Erastes

I wanted to like this novel, I really really did.  I’m always excited when I find a new (to me) author of gay historical fiction, and I bought both books by Mr Heddle without hesitation.  However, I found it entirely impossible to like anything about it, I’m sorry to say, and now regret the purchase of both books, because I’m sure the sequel is likely to be similar to this.

Firstly, the characters.  The main protagonist, Freddy, has just returned from the Western Front and has come back to his place at a stately home as under-gardener.  He catches the attention of Charles, the Lord & Ladyship’s son, a disgraced officer, who is suffering from severe shell-shock and mental problems who stages a clumsy seduction which succeeds.

Freddy, unfortunately, is a Gary-Stu of the highest type.

Gary Stu: (n.) A fanfiction term for the male version of Mary Sue. A Gary Stu refers to an original character, sometimes a Self Insert, who is more powerful than any canon character, can beat them at anything, and usually supersedes them as the story’s main character. (Dictionary of Anime Fandom)

Here’s just some of the things he can do/knows about.

Bear in mind, please, that this is 1919, he’s an under-gardener educated (probably until the age of 14) at a village school by his grandmother who still lives in his tied cottage.

He knows about the Classics

He can play chess

He can read – in fact he’s read the war poets, Oscar Wilde and, from his knowledge of the daily world, obviously the newspaper (a good one, not a rag) daily.

He can fix cars better than anyone around

He’s a dab hand at geometry

He’s conversant with world politics, and the nitty gritty of English politics.

He’s built a gym in his cellar.

He saved a relation of the King from his downed plane, crawling out into no-mans land to get him.

Because of the above, he earned the Victoria Cross.

And more and more and more.  In fact, he’s entirely sickening. There is nothing he can’t do. He fixes sewers. He finds treasure. When the Lord and Ladyship go to America he offers to go with them because he has dealt with American customs officers before in the war (God knows where). He build a garden centre with no effort, and when a small obstacle lands in his path,he charms the local Mayoress and gets the entire council on his side.

Not only that but everyone who meets him falls in MADLY love with him. And it’s the universal lurve for Freddie that makes me want to smash him in the face with something painful. Everyone loves him (with one exception) and not only that, everyone knows he’s gay.  Yes, this is the land of OKHomo, and boy is this the land of the tolerant.  The first people told are Charles’ parents.  Yes. The Lord and Lady of the manor, who not only understand but embrace the entire concept with what only can be described as glee, and there are one or two thoroughly sickening scenes where the young men are caught in flagrante delicto by her ladyship, who loves the experience, (as she fancies Freddy herself.) Then a Harley Street doctor is told who thinks it’s a Jolly Good Thing, the local doctor knows, and so on and so on.

The only person who doesn’t think it’s a good idea is the sadly neglected (by the otherwise saintly Freddy) Grandmother of Freddy himself.  A old woman with no visible means of support living in Freddy’s old tied cottage who Freddy hardly bothers about other to come and tell her he’s fucking the son of the nobility. She eventually turns into a mad religious ranter.

The relationship between Charles and Freddy never strikes true. Freddy gets into it for reasons that are never really explained, as he never seems to be physically or mentally attracted to Charles and there’s some very boring sex and suddenly they both profess to be madly in love. Plus, Charles is mentally unstable, and threatens to kill himself if Freddy leaves him, at every available opportunity, forcing Freddy to stay. Charles’ parents both urge Freddy to stay–or Charles will do himself harm–and this aspect of it made me cringe.

However, even if I hadn’t cared about any of the above–it’s the writing itself that made this book a nightmare to read.  More than once I thought “I can’t finish this.”  The prose is clunky in the extreme, for example, almost every section of dialogue has the name of the person being spoken to within it, a device that simply dosn’t happen in real life, and in order to present (I assume) a historical provenance, the author info dumps on every single page. Nothing is mentioned that doesn’t have an Act of Parliament and a corresponding date with it, and it was so hard to read without screaming.

Then, the way Freddy acts towards the end of the book is utterly un-endearing (if anyone was endeared in the first place) – he starts an affair with a boy of 16 while he’s still “married” (yes, they got married in a faux ceremony with a ring and with a horse for a witness) to Charles and when Charles dies he shows not one iota of grief – not one after ten years – and buggers off to France with his self-proclaimed and obviously unstable fratricidal toyboy, leaving his Granny to fend for herself. Nice.

Good, I thought. In 9 years time they’ll probably both be blown up.

So, no I am sorry. I do try to find the good in any book I read, because there usually is something, even if I give it one or two stars – but this has to be the first book I can’t even mark at all. The only thing I liked was the photo on the cover, and would like to know who did it, and commission him/her to do others.

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Film Review: Bent by Martin Sherman

The powerful and moving film adaptation of Martin Sherman’s award-winning stage play. For almost 20 years, Bent has stunned theatre audiences around the world. Now adapted for the big screen by the author himself, this inspiring tale of love over oppression has even greater power and poignancy. Set amidst the decadence of pre-war fascist Germany, Bent is an emotional tale of love, as three homosexual men fight for survival in the face of persecution.

Directed by Sean Mathias
Produced by Michael Solinger, Dixie Linder
Written by Martin Sherman (play & screenplay)
Starring Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Brian Webber, Rupert Graves, Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger, Jude Law

As you can imagine, this isn’t the easiest of watches, so don’t get it expecting a comfy watch with the popcorn. It starts with decadent scenes of the gay/bi scene in 1934 Berlin, where Max (Owen) – who is obviously a bit of a player, a deal-arranger, well known in the set, has a debauched night at Greta’s (Jagger) club where he meets a beautiful young Nazi soldier, Wolf (Nikolaj Waldau) and has sex with him, both in the club and back at his house, to the disgust of his live-in lover Rudy (Webber).  Things go downhill from here and spiral into the worst possible solution.

I understand, from my researches on the piece, that the plot of the beginning of the film has been changed from the play.  In the play, it’s more of a political emphasis–Max is a politician and brings members of the Sturmabteilung back to his flat, whereas in the film, he just brings the beautiful Rudy back for a good shagging, who turns out to the boyfriend of the co-founder of the Sturmabteilung, the homosexual Ernst Rohm, who was murdered by Hitler (who had up to then, been a close friend), triggering The Night of the Long Knives.

However after that, the film and play seem to coalesce, (without having seen both, this is assumption, but it seems so.)

Owen isn’t my favourite of actors, as he isn’t–in my opinion–a character actor, but he manages well in the part. He’s convincing as the decadent, self-assured Max in the pre-arrest days and in good method fashion, he loses a lot of weight for the role, as he ends up in Dachau, and chooses to pretend to be a Jew, to wear the yellow star, considering that a lesser wrong than being a queer, and to wear the pink triangle.

There’s not a badly cast role in the film, actually.  Even Jagger, who I seriously didn’t recognise, and who I have never rated as an actor at all, does marvellously, and Sir Ian McKellern steals the show in his one short scene as “Uncle Freddie.”  Sir Ian, incidentally, played the Max role in the original stage production in 1979, so this was a nice touch.

The most affecting scenes are those, naturally enough, between Max and Horst (played brilliantly by Lothaire Bluteau) on the way to, and within the walls of, the notorious death camp of Dachau.  Even though this is set before the Second World War itself you never get any sense of hope, and that makes the restricted interractions between the two men poignant and very hard to watch.  But they are well worth watching, as the scene where they do their first sex scene is heart-warming and beautiful.

The play itself, which caused outrage and acclaim when first put on, helped the exposure of the homosexual treatment by the Nazis enormously, and since then, much research has been done into their fate, leading to a greater knowledge for all, and I think, a wider acceptance and understanding.

For me, the seminal line in the play, is where Owen says “I love you. And what’s wrong with that?”  It’s very obviously a challenge to the world, calling out through history, and it works as well now as it ever did.

So no, not an easy film to watch at all. But I urge you, if you haven’t seen it, to do so.  In these days, twenty years on, when gays are STILL fighting for rights, for their lives, it is as relevant today as it was when it was first staged.

Bent on IMDB

Review: A Class Apart by James Gardiner

The Private Pictures of Montague Glover.

A Class Apart is a selection of photographs and letters culled from the archive of Montague Glover (1898-1983) documenting the intimate, rarely recorded lives of gay men in Britain from the First World War to the 1950s.  The book features Glover’s three obsessions: the Armed Forces, working-class men, and his lifelong lover Ralph Hall.

Review by Erastes

Who was Montague Glover?  No-one, really. But therein lies the reason why his legacy (boxes and boxes of letters and photos) is so very important in gay history. Just an ordinary man, a son of middle-class parents who was sent to a minor public school.

But by cataloging his life, collecting images of men, writing ordinary and heart-warming love letters, and most importantly by taking endless photos of men he found attractive, he paints a picture of a gay man’s life, well-adjusted and ‘ordinary,’

The book is photo-heavy, as you would expect and is split into eight sections and I’ll cover a few only.

The Story

Basic intro to the man’s life. An English middle-class life. The army straight from school and off to the trenches where he was awarded the Military Cross. Then university and 30 years as an architect. As well as his photos, he collected images of men he found attractive from newspaper clippings and magazines, seeing as homoerotic art wasn’t exactly freely available!

Rough Trade

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“In common with many other middle and upper class men of his class and generation, Monty Glover was principally attracted to working class men. Gardiner purports that perhaps this is because working-class men were “manly” and completely non-effeminate. Like all the photos of unnamed men in the book, it is unlikely that most of these young men were in fact homosexual, but rather approached by Glover and simply asked to pose. As a Brit it was fascinating to see the clothes, hats and shoes from the 20′s onwards, the detailing of the clothes (belts, scarves, boots) essential to any writer of historical men in these eras. Monty shows us delivery boys, postmen, barrowboys, farmhands – and soon you get a fair idea of Mr Glover’s taste in men! As well as candid shots of real people, there’s a lovely section of posed studio style shots, most likely done in Monty’s house, where young lovelies pose in various states of dress and undress. Prostitutes or just young men eager for a thrill, we’ll never know.

Soldier Boys

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Monty started taking photos of soldiers after he signed up in 1916, and in 1918, the year he was awarded the MC, he kept a diary, snippets of this are quoted in the book and show that although dealing with lice, rats, dead Bosche and horror on a daily basis, he still found time for love. It is at this time he meets Ernest (Ernie) with whom he has at least one “night of his life.”

Ralph

image00021Quite simply, the love of Monty’s life, and to look at him, it’s not hard to understand why. Coming from a working-class background, but with the looks of an Aryan angel, photogenic and very obviously hung like a donkey, Ralph is to die for. However, when it could very easily have happened that this younger man could have been nothing more than a kept man, staying with Glover for sex and money, it didn’t happen that way. This is very clearly a love affair with a capital L, which you cannot help but see in their extensive and lavishly adoring mutual love-letters. A large portion of these were sent during the second world war, when Ralph was drafted into the RAF in 1940. Indeed, it’s hard – reading a selection of these letters which are quoted in the book – to understand how these letters got past the censor! It’s wonderful that they did though, or we would miss out on lines like this written by Ralph to Monty in November 1940:

“Do you remember the old days when we first started darling.  I went back all over it again last night.  What a time we had in them days and I am sorry to say I am crying I canot hold it back no more my Darling. I love you my old Darling. I do miss you ever such a lot my dear as you know my dear.”

Monty and Ralph lived together (after meeting around 1930) for fifty years. The photographs of their lives together (other than the beautiful, posed, and artistic shots of Ralph) are ordinary and heartwarming for their ordinariness. Sitting in their sitting room, pictures of their bath, Ralph making toast, having breakfast, Monty shaving. Love in every image.

When Monty died in 1983, he left everything to Ralph, but Ralph went into a decline and died four years later.

Anyone with any interest in gay history will find this a resource they can’t be without, particularly if writing of gay men from 1910 onwards, anyone with an interest in photography will find it fascinating. But really, anyone with a heart cannot be moved by this book and the social record it has saved for posterity.

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Review: Hanged Man by Parhelion


Ray’s a former mob enforcer who heads west to live off his comfortable retirement, provided graciously by his ex-employers. He’s got it all. A new place, a new business, and he’s making a pretty good go of it. Better than most folks in 1935 California.

Still, things aren’t perfect. There’s some bad stuff going down with his town, his employees, and local cult leader, Mr. Alistair. Things get even more complicated when former FBI agent Charlie shows up, needing his help. Can Ray resist Charlie’s charms, or will fall for the man despite it being the worst idea in a long line of bad ideas?

Review by Erastes

In Hanged Man we are thrown immediately into the action. A dance marathon is going on, that cruel, exploitative event where desperate couples danced for the chance of money and perhaps a little celebrity, is going on but the suffering of the dancers are–suitable to the times–almost ignored, their very bodies treated like cattle along the lines of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s clear we are in the Depression.

Ray, the protagonist, is a hard-bitten character from the east coast, and his clipped mobster thoughts and speech contrast starkly with the sunshine and oyster sheds and more liberal aspects of the west. He comes across as a tight ball of energy, calm on the surface but lethal beneath, it’s a wonderful juxtaposition to the palm trees and boardwalks of the sea-side town.

I’ve been impressed with Parhelion’s writing before, and once again–although the novella didn’t grab me in the same way that Peridot did–there are sections of prose which left me breathless and wishing, with evil jealous pain, that I’d thought of just that phrase.  Your mileage may vary, but I firmly believe that Parhelion is underrated and one of the best writers of gay fiction around at the moment.

Her talent lies in creating a time and place so skilfully that you don’t need vast swathes of descriptive text to anchor you there. Just brief touches: mention of skee-ball machines, a cashier’s cage and you are firmly inside Ray’s slot machine joint, a touch of flaking paint and the feel of warm wood and you are on the boardwalk.  It’s difficult to create such a cinematic feel with a paucity of prose, but Parhelion does it beautifully.  The dialogue is some of the best I’ve read in gay fiction too. Awkward and witty in turns, sentences and silence which mean everything–or nothing. Men who talk for talking’s sake when they are trying to say something else. And the sex?  Well it made me shift in my chair, if you get my drift.

As for the cover? I can’t ignore it. I’ve commented on these peculiar covers that Torquere use before, and frankly I can’t see what they were thinking. Surely to goodness only someone who knew Parhelion’s work from previous stories would buy a book with a cover that looks like it should be stuck on a fridge.

But don’t judge a book by its cover. Go and discover Parhelion for yourself, then tell all your friends.

Author’s site

Available file types – html, lit, pdf, prc – Torquere Press

Review: The Taos Truth Game by Earl Ganz

When Myron Brinig arrived in Taos in 1933, he thought he was just passing through on his way to a screenwriting job in Hollywood. But, Brinig fell in love – with the landscape, the burgeoning art colony that centred around Mabel Dodge Luhan, and especially with Cady Wells, a talented young painter who had left his wealthy family in the East to settle in Taos. Brinig remained in the West off and on for the next twenty years. Earl Ganz centers this entertaining novel on Brinig’s conflicted relationships with Taos and its denizens. Myron Brinig, a completely forgotten writer, is brought back to centre stage, along with many of the people who made Taos the epicentre of the utopian avant garde in America between the world wars. Among the cast of characters are Frieda Lawrence, Robinson and Una Jeffers, and Frank Waters, with cameo appearances by Gertrude Stein and Henry Roth.

Review by Erastes

I started this book with a little trepidation, I have to admit, because I’d never heard of Myron Brinig–and worse than that, I’d never heard of most of the people mentioned in the book, with the exceptions of D H Lawrence, Nero Wolfe and a couple of others. So I was rather unsettled–was I reading biography? Or fiction? Was I poking my nose into private lives or an imagining of what those lives were like?

Well, it seems it’s a little of both. Earl Ganz discovered Myron Brinig when researching, and found that not only was he a Jewish writer writing at an exciting time–and was labelled with other luminaires as being an up and coming star–but he was a homosexual and that several of his books had that theme.  Ganz (as he explains in a lengthly and interesting afterword) became a little obsessed with finding out how this man could have dropped out of the public eye so very completely, after having written books that won awards and in one notable case wase made into Hollywood motion picture – one of them starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn (The Sisters – 1938). He tracked Brining down, now in his 80′s, to New York and went to see him.  Brinig gave him a copy of his unpublished memoire, and it is from this memoire that Ganz spun Taos Truth Game.

Once I got past this feeling of voyeurism I settled in and found a book full of lavish prose and wonderful (although none of them really loveable) drawn characters.  In essence, the book is hinged on the friendship (if one can even call it that) between Brinig and the frankly unstable Mabel Dodge Luhan, (someone again this ignorant Brit hadn’t heard of) an uneasy feud of a friendship that embraces and lashes out, soothes and damages all in its immediate circle.

Added to this there are Brinig’s relationships with others, his friendships with millionaires and literary luminairies, and his sweet love affair with his “Martian” – the artist Cady Wells which is at times so touching that it made me cry.

The book mainly concentrates from the time that Brinig moves to Taos after an unhappy break-up, to the time when he leaves the area a decade later, although it dips forward and back in time giving a well-rounded picture of the man itself, and nothing really happens of major import, it’s very much centered on personal relationships, literary discussion and the highs and lows of artistic endeavour. The Truth Game itself, although only played once in the book, becomes a central theme and when Brinig and Mabel finally unravel their own truths about themselves, you’ll find yourself calmed and complete as I did.

I won’t say this is an easy read. It’s a book about hugely clever people and about a time of indolence and “private incomes” that is far beyond my ken–but it’s worth every sentence. The writing is incredible, at times as stark as the landscape, at other times witty and erudite and at others cutting, self-destructive and full of vitriol.  But to me, this is my best read of 2008 and I’ll be forever wondering how this book was overlooked. If anything deserved a pile of awards, it’s The Taos Truth Game.

I can’t think of any reason not to recommend it. Astounding.

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Review: A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

Translated from the original German by John Brownjohn.

Erneste is master of the Blue Room in a Swiss Restaurant. He is the ‘perfect waiter’, a model of order in every way, and his private life seems to embody the qualities he brings to his job. But inwardly this polite, dignified, withdrawn man has been caught in the grip of an overwhelming passion that began many years before, in the summer of 1935.

One morning three decades later, Erneste receives a letter from that lover, Jakob – now in America – asking for his help. It means that Erneste must engage with the world again and risk delving into his memories of those years gone by – and uncovering what they might really mean.

Review by Erastes

The main action starts on the first page – a letter arrives from America and we are told that it’s from a man that Erneste knew 30 years before – and that person is someone who Erneste has thought of daily for every day of those 30 years. It’s clear fairly soon that Erneste is repressed in every facet of his life. He works diligently and perfectly; he has no friends and no acquaintance aside from one cousin who he sees once a year. Soon we slide into flashback and we are in a pre-war summer in “The Grand Hotel” on a Swiss lake. Erneste is sent down to the lakeside to meet a new member of staff – Jakob, trainee waiter – and from the very moment they shake hands, Erneste knows his life will never be the same again.

It wasn’t until all four of them were standing on the shore that Jakob shook Erneste’s hand and introduced himself. “Jakob Meier,” he said simply, and the handshake that accompanied this formal introduction seemed to say: “Here I am, having come here purely for your sake.” The little world in which Erneste had so blithely installed himself collapsed under the aegis of Jakob Meier’s shadow. He quit that world for evermore- for evermore, he knew it- and gladly, unresistingly left it behind.

We are left in no doubt of Erneste’s love – at first, helpless, hopeless passion. He is content, happy to take the handsome 19 year old German under his wing and to teach him to be – as he is himself – the perfect waiter. We are convinced of his devotion, a high church kind of devotion that makes him proud just to be called Jakob’s friend and he is convinced that everyone who sees Jakob must be jealous that he, Erneste is his friend, and not they. One of the most touching and erotic scenes is when Jakob goes to be fitted for his uniform. The seamstress measures Jakob, her hands travelling over every part of Jabob’s body and Erneste sits and watches, his hands are her hands imagining every muscle, every hair. When Jakob strips down to his underwear – the seamstresses all turn away and Erneste is almost gleeful that as a man there is nothing out of the oridinary for a man to watch another in this act.

Two months into their friendship Jakob instigates a kiss and their friendship turns to the physical. Erneste and Jakob live, love and work in the hotel and Erneste – having no discernible personality of his own, is subsumed by Jakob.

However, it’s fairly obvious by the information at the beginning of the book that this love-affair didn’t last and as the book slides from past to present and back again we are shown why and how and if Erneste’s heart doesn’t break on his own account, the reader’s does for him as he tucks his emotions back into a safe place.

Back in the present Erneste isn’t entirely celibate. Even in clean, calm serene Switzerland in the 60′s there were still places where gay men would meet and Erneste indulges his longings by cottaging. It is only after an attack by queer-bashers one night which seem to bring his emotions close enough tot he surface for him to decide to do something about the letters and do what Jakob asks of him, which leads to more truth than he can handle.

The themes of first love-and of anyone hoarding that love so close to them for their entire life, not allowing themselves to live because of it- touched me closely because I understand how one can put barriers up in one’s life to prevent hurt happening to one again. But I think it was the fact that Erneste (and the others that Jakob came in contact with too) almost deified Jakob. Erneste wanted to mould him into his own image, others simply wanted to worship at the pedestal of his youth and beauty. It comes as no surprise when Jakob proves to have feet of clay, what is surprising is the depth of deceit that these men maintain – they all blame themselves, when they should be blaming Jakob.

Beautifully written, if the translation is anything to go by at least, this little book is well worth a read. It was rather too frustrating for me – I’m more active than the characters here. I’d fight, I’d make scenes – I find it hard to understand such perfect repression, but for all that – Erneste is never unbelievable and in this way I felt nothing for him but bitter pity.

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Review: Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk

Vienna Dolorosa by Mykola Dementiuk is a full-length historical novel set in Vienna, Austria, in an inner city hotel managed by a transvestite and doubling as a brothel for men who like boys dressed up as girls. The entire book takes place during a one-day time period — March 12, 1938, the day Hitler “invades” Austria. Told from the perspectives of twelve different characters including various hotel personnel, hotel guests, brothel employees and brothel clientele, we also have a talkative Viennese official, German police, Nazi SS, and a darling street boy.

This is a terrible book. Yes, that got your attention, didn’t it? I don’t mean terrible as in bad, though, obviously. Rather than it’s a gripping and terrifying read.

Terrible

1. distressing; severe: a terrible winter.
2. extremely bad; horrible: terrible coffee; a terrible movie.
3. exciting terror, awe, or great fear; dreadful; awful.
4. formidably great:

So I’m taking this as definition 4. Resoundingly.

The story takes places in about 24 hours of the Hotel Redl in Austria (Redl being the name of a homosexual who committed suicide in 1913) where Frau Friska Bielinska is the manager. It’s the day of the Anschluss – the day of the “reunification” (read invasion) of Austria by Germany. The city had been demonstrating against it, but gradually support and pro-Hitler force has grown to the stage where no-one dare speak out against it. Brownshirts prowl the streets beating up anyone they suspect to be Jewish (there’s a terrifying scene where Jews are put onto a merry go round which “can’t be stopped”) and are probably dead.

The Hotel Redl is a metaphor for the treatment of homosexuals/transvestites and many other types in German occupied territory. Every guest has something to hide, and every aberration from what the Germans consider the norm has been committed here. It’s difficult to describe the activities within the hotel without using language that might offend the gay readers as I don’t want to blanket them with the term “perversions” as clearly some of them – in our more enlightened world – such as enjoying men dressed as women, and homosexual behaviour – are not. However I must warn readers that there are also descriptive sections of necrophilia, rape, incest, suicide and murder.

It’s clear from the first page, being what it is and when it’s set, that this is not going to be a happy book. Yet Dementiuk does manage some incredible characterisation in very sparse prose. He paints his characters deftly, bringing them to life before our eyes with hard bold strokes rather than any flowery watercolour.

You feel for them all: from the pathetic Kaufmann who loved his boy-whore so much that he couldn’t bear to hear the boy call him old, to Kurt who struts around in his brownshirt thinking – all so wrongly – that it will save him from the SS when they discover him with his mouth on a man’s cock. (The SS was ironically founded by homosexuals, which was something I didn’t know). There’s Helmut with his breast fixation and Wanda with huge breasts but no interest in men. I could go on but I think you should discover them for yourselves.

There’s some wonderful narration too, and discussion of why some men dress as women, why some men want to pursue men dressed as women – which rather threw me out of the story when I first encountered it, but once accostumed to it it’s hard to look away and hard to be unconvinced by the arguments set down. If I disagreed with any aspect of the book it was the section with dealt with gang rape. I found it inconceivable that the raped woman would have climaxed with every man who raped her. Once – perhaps- one’s body is capable of betrayal, but women don’t work like that. More so that we are shown that this woman doesn’t climax “normally.”

My favourite character was the male-identifying-as-female Frau Bielinska who had such empathy and understanding even for the most troubled of her guests, but – although the characterisation isn’t deep (hard to do with 12 POVS) it’s convincing and you’ll find yourself empathising with them all and their doomed lives.

The most resounding feel of the book, however, is one of hopelessness; that the Juggernaut is coming and there’s no escaping its clutches. This is a book of people who have no hope – some who are running – some who have run as far as they can. A book about people completely unable to prevent something terrible they know is ahead, but how terrible it will be they can’t see, can’t possibly believe – or they’d be running harder and as fast and as far as they could.

Be brave and read this book. Yes, it’s hard to take, visceral and bloody and frankly disgusting in some of its clarity and honesty. But it needed to be this way. To not accept the fate of the Redl and consequently the true fate of many queers in Germany occupied territories would be to deny that any of this happened. Bravo.

There’s an excerpt here

Mykola Dementiuk was born in 1949 of Ukrainian parents in a West German DP camp, immigrating to America when he was two. After Catholic grade school & public high school in New York City, he graduated from Columbia University in 1984. A writer with varied employment, from gyro seller at
Lollapalooza to roustabout at the Big Apple Circus, Mykola helped create the magic of the Cirque du Soleil performances of “Alegria” in Santa Monica, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and New York with his electrical work. After suffering a massive debilitating stroke in 1997, Mykola eventually returned to writing, using one finger to execute the fantasies and psycho-sexual stories of his min
d.

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Review: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

NAPOLEON’S PRIVATES
2,500 Years of History Unzipped

by Tony Perrottet
Harper Entertainment, ISBN 978-0-06-125728-5

From the blurb on the author’s website:

What were Casanova’s best pick-up lines?
(They got better as he got older).
Which Italian Renaissance genius “discovered” the clitoris?
(He could have just asked the Venetian nuns).
What was the party etiquette at Caligula’s orgies?
(Holding one’s own could be a stressful business in ancient Rome).
How were impotence sufferers put on trial in medieval France?
(And why this should be a new reality TV show).
What were the kinkiest private clubs of Hogarthian London?
(Austin Powers would have blanched).

And what was the truth about Napoleon’s privates?
(Was it a big baguette or petit éclair? And did size matter to Josephine?)

There are some books you just have to order, even if you fear the worst when it comes to content. I hang my head in shame – when I stumbled over “Napoleon’s Privates” (now please don’t take that literally!) I couldn’t resist. Yes, yes, I know, my mind’s in the gutter at times. But if everything else fails, there’s still eBay, right?

I’m happy to report that I won’t have to deal with eBay. “Napoleon’s Privates” is an amusing collection of the high and mighty’s “raunchy little secrets” all through history. Reading it transported me back to the days when I was a really young teenage girl and read with a friend “Dr. Sommer’s Sex And Relationship Tips” in a teenage magazine. Means: lots of giggling and the occasional “d’oh?”-experience!

Author Tony Perrottet knows how to keep his readers captivated. In the slick tone of a gossip journalist (an almost extinct species capable of forming complete sentences), he shares the tale of the whereabouts of Napoleon’s little emperor with as much wit and glee as the rather mind-boggling “Holy Guide to Coital Positions”. Perrottet completely won me over with his “Impressionist Misery Index”, listing the social backgrounds, personal dramas, career lows and wretched dotages of artists like Monet, Cézanne, Renoir et al just like Marvel Comics would have described the special powers of their super heroes.

Some chapters are almost exclusively of a speculative nature, though – was Abe Lincoln gay or not? – but to his credit, the author points this fact out and notes that it really wasn’t uncommon for men to share a bed back in those days. So “Napoleon’s Privates” is also a journey through the urban legends of the past.

However, all gossip and giggles aside, the misogynistic roots of some anecdotes are pointed out several times. The “Boys Club” could not deal with strong women, the church tried its best to keep them down, and many of the rumours still clinging to great women’s names – Katharina the Great and her “horse lover”, for example (complete rubbish, of course) – have been born out of this attitude. It’s also interesting to see how disparaging rumours about sexual prowess, sexual orientation or even shape of genitals have been used – and are still used! – to impair an enemy’s reputation.

For those interested in the history of sexuality in general, beauty ideals, gay history, gossip and saucy details, this book offers a lot of material to shake your head over. Kinky clubs in 18th century Scotland, proof of (im)potence in front of witnesses and the court, brothels, ancient sex toys, horny popes and knitted condoms, syphilis and why castrati made better lovers – “Napoleon’s Privates” offers all this, and more.

The book consists of stand-alone chapters, so you can easily put it away for a while. I read the whole thing in one go, though, so I can now impress my friends at the next party with my amazing knowledge about Napoleon’s dick and dickery between the sheets. I might even throw in the amazing tale of “The Invention of Smut”, should anybody ask.

Especially you navy folk will be pleased to hear that the Duke of Wellington, if actress “Mademoiselle Georges” (a former mistress of Napoleon) can be believed, “was by far the more vigorous.”

In conclusion:
a) “Napoleon’s Privates” is a book wellworth buying, and
b) people are funnier than anybody.

In case you’re interested: the author’s website.

“Napoleon’s Privates” is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and as e-book from Harper Collins.

* * *

(c) Emma Collingwood

Review: Better Angel by Forman Brown, writing as Richard Meeker

Written in 1933, this classic, touching story focuses on a young man’s gay awakening in the years between the World Wars and became an instant underground classic. Kurt Gray is a shy, bookish boy growing up in small-town Michigan. Even at the age of 13, he knows that somehow he is different. Gradually he recognizes his desire for a man’s companionship and love. As a talented composer, breaking into New York’s musical world, he finds the love he’s sought.

Review by Fiona Glass

The use of a pen name is important in this book. It was published in the early 1930s when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, but the subject matter is a (clearly autobiographical) account of a young man ‘coming out’ and coming to terms with his own sexuality. The author was unable to use his real name and it’s only in the last ten years that the book has been updated with Brown’s name on the cover and a new section of author’s notes and photographs at the end. The fact that the characters are at best thinly disguised, at worst wholly undisguised, real people was no doubt another reason why an alias was used and it’s only now when most of those named are dead that the true story can be told.

And an intriguing story it was too. From Brown’s early days as a penitent member of a strict Christian sect to his happy-ever-after love affair was a long and complicated journey encompassing two or three affairs with men, a misguided and ultimately ill-fated affair with his first lover’s sister, and a growing love for his first lover’s best friend.

As an autobiography it works well. As what ought to have been an important piece of social history it’s less successful, at least in my opinion. There’s little feel for the unbelievable danger of finding other gay men in such an intolerant society, and Brown packs in far too many internalized monologues on his state of mind and the condition of his love for ‘David’ which leaves too little room for anything else. Whether the hero Kurt is attending church as a child, holidaying in Italy as a young man, or having sex, he spends pages at a time micro-analyzing his life instead of telling us about it!

I found it rather too dry and tedious, and was more interested by the all-too-brief biographical notes after the story proper had finished. According to these, Kurt and his friends set up a travelling puppet theatre in the US later on in life. Oh for some (any!) description of this fascinating way of life!

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Review: While England Sleeps by David Leavitt

Review by Erastes

From the blurb:

At a meeting of republican sympathisers in London, Brian Botsford, a young middle-class writer and Cambridge graduate, meets Edward Phelan, an idealistic, self-educated London Underground worker. They share a mutual attraction. Across the divisions of class they begin an affair in secrecy.

But Edward posesses “an unproblematic capacity to accept” Brian and the love that dare not speak its name, whereas Brian is more cautious and under family pressure agrees to be set up with a suitable young woman. Pushed to the point of crisis Edward threatens to volunteer to fight Franco in Spain.

There are (to my perception, at least) a few inaccuracies in the blurb, but I won’t quibble over them. This is an excellent book which I devoured in two sittings.

It has a readability that draws the eye, and the narrator’s voice is completely convincing. It’s written in first person, there is a faux prologue “written” in 1978 where Brian explains that he’s now living in America and considers himself to be an American and an epilogue which looks back at 1938 from that fifty year gap. Both of these devices go far to convince that the book was written by Brian and not by David Leavitt.

Like “As Meat Loves Salt” (although not to the same extent) Brian is not a likeable or attractive character. A product of his class, he coasts through life, unlike Edward who takes what he wants with more enthusiasm, facing what he is face on. Brian still thinks that being homosexual is just something one did at school and that he would get over it, although it’s obvious he’s deluding himself. He’s a playwright, and he plays at it, having no drive to support himself; he sponges off his Aunt Constance (or “Inconstance” as he cruelly calls her, as she doesn’t pay him regularly enough for him to depend on her support. He mumps off his friends and generally won’t commit to one thing or another, which leads to the crisis event in the book – one which he will regret, and will haunt him for the rest of his life.

I found it to be tremendously absorbing, like the best of historicals, it immersed me in the era without info dumping. As I’ve said before, if a book reads like it was written in the time, rather than about the time, it earns big kudos from me. The class divide might be hard for non-Brits to grasp – but pre-war it was still more relevant than people would suppose. I felt ashamed of Brian’s inability to admit his affair to his own friends, but then found it perfectly acceptable to talk to Edward’s sister about it. I wanted to smack him with the clue-by-four several times in the book – but that’s ok – that meant that the author was doing his job.

It also brings the situation in Europe at that time into sharp relief, there’s a lovely sub-plot with a friend of Brian’s who is attempting to get a friend out of Europe which breaks your heart, and you, as the reader, knowing what is going to happen in a few short years, hold your breath and weep at the hopeless cause and loss of life that is the Spanish Civil War.

If you prefer to like your protagonists, then this book might not be for you, but if you want a meaty and rich story that takes you so viscerally into the period that you can smell the steam engines and feel the bubble of the champagne of the Fast Set, then you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. A definite keeper.

Buy at Amazon US: Amazon UK

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