Review: Life Begins at 40 by Jessie Blackwood

After months of physiotherapy, Group Captain Jack Ratigan has regained some of the mobility lost in plane crash at the end of World War II. But six years later, he still requires the care of his cousin’s butler, Ifan—who is also Jack’s secret lover. In an era when homosexuality is an imprisonable offence, they have to maintain the utmost discretion or risk prosecution.

Insecurities, outside attacks, and misunderstandings are close to tearing Jack and Ifan apart: Jack’s impending middle age, an act of violence in their house, a letter threatening the close-knit community Jack now calls home—and the detective inspector from another jurisdiction investigating a similar unsolved case. The threat of exposure is growing, and for their love to survive, Jack and Ifan must determine who their true friends are—and if they are strongest together or apart.

ebook only 112 pages

Review by Erastes

OK. I had to work hard with this book and I took the effort because it’s pretty well written and it’s clear the author has talent. But there’s a but coming, you can tell, can’t you?

But.

It’s Torchwood fanfiction and it’s another one of those annoyingly done ones which have taken the merest cursory swipe of the cleaning rag to remove any serial numbers and frankly might as well not have bothered because anyone who has watched the programme and has any knowledge of the characters is going to spot it. Perhaps the place the author should have started was by not having her main protagonist be Captain Jack–an Englishman who was raised in America (hence the American accent) who flew in the RAF and (sigh) has a Welsh lover.

In fact this is the sequel to “Per Ardua” which Speak Its Name reviewed in 2010.

When you get this level of blatant non-conversion (despite it being set in the late 1940′s/early 50′s) it’s (for me, as least) almost impossible to enjoy the book as a book for itself as the characters from the canon keep leaping in and you are saying “oh, here’s Gwen, (Bronwen) here’s Rees  (Hugh) and so on and so on. I was constantly on edge waiting for the Japanese character to make an entrance. The author–who is possibly too close to it, and obviously extremely fond of the characters–probably thinks that this is merely an homage, and the little references (like to TW’s Captain Jack’s greatcoat) are such fun but it’s an extreme irritant when you know what’s being ripped off.

You might say that this shouldn’t be part of a review and I disagree. I don’t see how the author can think she’s fooled anyone by this veneer of changing the fandom. Just because it takes place in a different time from Torchwood doesn’t make it any less recognisable, and if I was the Torchwood creators and had spotted this, I think I would have issued letters to the publisher.  The trouble is that Dreamspinner have published near-to-the-knuckle fanfic, and outright plagiarism before and although in the latter case they nipped the book in the bud, I would have thought they would be very very careful choosing projects since then. The disclaimer clearly says: “Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously…” which in the case of character, clearly isn’t true.

THAT  BEING SAID, I can’t decry the book for entertainment value. I liked the story. I mean I already liked the characters, so that was a given. Blackwood makes Jack a little more vulnerable in that he’s had a major crash in his aeroplane before the story starts and it’s taken him months to get back on his feet and he’s only just managed that. There’s some nice tension introduced with poison pen letters, bringing their relationship into jeopardy and the relationship stretches almost to breaking point because of it and Jack’s infirmity.

I have to say I did chuckle a bit when Ifan (sigh) who is the Ianto character goes around declaiming that they hadn’t been at ALL indiscreet either inside or outside the house when two minutes later he’s calling Jack “cariad” in an open part of the house where anyone could have walked in. Not to mention having blazing arguments in their bedroom as well as loads of hot monkey sex. Not terribly discreet at all, old boy, to be honest.

I was rather confused too, when the poison pen person was revealed. The general trope for this kind of thing is to have it revealed at the end after we’ve met all the characters and for it to be someone we’ve met, whether we suspect them or not. However it was all cleared up in a short action sequence, and I was left scratching my head because I didn’t care or know who it was.

The reviewer of the previous book in the series had similar issues – that of the war taking a sideline to the relationship, and for me this shoehorning a plot, which had great promise, into the book only to tear it away and concentrate more on birthday parties and birthday presents left me feeling short-changed. But then this is basically romance fanfic for Torchwood fans, and isn’t about the plot, it’s more about how next to get Jack and Ifan into a schmoopy situation with their arms around each other.

As a continuing romance it works well and read simply as that I enjoyed the story as it was, it was just a little light when it could have had more punch. There’s a fair amount of repetition particularly at the beginning of the story where we are told about ten times that Ifan is Jack’s companion, Bronwen’s butler and goodness knows what which irritated me and some of the back story is lengthy and unnecessary as some of it was dealt with later on in dialogue and frankly could all have been dispatched thusly.

I will leave it, as usual, for the reader to decide whether to buy this book or not. Personally I wouldn’t want to make money on someone else’s characters–and I’d be scared to while they are very firmly still in copyright. It’s a good enough story, and that’s why I can’t understand why someone who writes as well as Miss Blackwood does can’t create her own world and characters and have them live it out, rather than those already belonging to Russell T Davis.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

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: Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov

Love soars.

Germany, 1945. The Third Reich is on its knees as Allied forces bomb Berlin to break the last resistance. Yet on an airfield near Berlin, the battle is far from over for a young mechanic, Felix, who’s attached to a squadron of fighter pilots. He’s especially attached to fighter ace Baldur Vogt, a man he admires and secretly loves. But there’s no room for love at the end of the world, never mind in Nazi Germany.

When Baldur narrowly cheats death, Felix pulls him from his plane, and the pilot makes his riskiest move yet. He takes a few days’ leave to recover, and he takes Felix with him. Away from the pressures of the airfield, their bond deepens, and Baldur shows Felix the kind of brotherhood he’d only ever dreamed of before.

But there’s no escaping the war, and when they return, Baldur joins the fray again in the skies over Berlin. As the Allies close in on the airfield where Felix waits for his lover, Baldur must face the truth that he is no longer the only one in mortal danger.

Available from Riptide Publishing.

Review by Sal Davis

Let’s cut to the chase. I’ll just nail my colours to the mast and say I absolutely loved Skybound, no ifs, buts or maybes!

Okay, fangirly moment over. Now I’m going to say why I think it’s such a good read.

First of all – the cover. Jordan Taylor has really delivered the goods with this deceptively simple monochromatic image of a climbing plane. No idea what type it is but I’ll lay good money that it’s both relevant to the story and a spot on accurate depiction of its kind. The strong type, echoing the ‘military armour plate’ design at the edges of the image to contain the bold outward bound diagonal of the plane, the subtle background saltires that draw the eye back into the image, the warm tone of the author’s name – a very clever and visually satisfying piece of work.

I would think that the amount of fact checking for this story was enormous but it’s expressed in tip of the iceberg fashion. The sense of time and place is established economically but without resort to cliche. The language is also economical, precise, considered, yet detailed. Care is taken in describing the little things, important things – a book, a meal – that take the characters mind off the War, though the thought of it is never far away.

Written in first person present from Felix’s POV, the book plunges straight into the action with a breathless sequence as Baldur’s squadron comes in to land. Felix impressed me very much by getting on with his business despite his anxiety to be sure Baldur wasn’t injured, but he won my heart completely with his thoughts about the Karl May books he still reads, thrilled by the close friendship between the protagonists, dreaming of similar acts of selfless devotion, but with too much humility to cast himself in the role of the sacrifice. He never doubts that his love for Baldur will be unrequited so expresses it with the care and devotion with which he repairs, maintains and fine tunes Baldur’s plane. When his peaceful reflection is disturbed by Baldur, who plonks himself down and bums a cigarette, Felix is unprepared and is made to feel foolish. That Baldur is interested in him is shown subtly by signs that the reader can pick up but that baffle the inexperienced Felix. It’s a tender moment and sets up the relationship well for the action to follow.

Since the POV is Felix’s, we never get to see what he looks like. He is a little smaller than Balder, who shortens his stride so Felix can keep up, and has very short hair. Balder’s appearance is described a little more fully but the important things to Felix are not what one normally finds in romances. I particularly enjoyed how Felix made particular mention that Balder’s very short nails are cut rather than bitten, with all that implies of self control and nerve.

Felix spends a lot of time reflecting on their situation, which could have felt contrived but actually suits his character. He is a man apart from his fellows and recognises that distance in Balder too, though he is too naive to realise what it means. Balder won my heart too by the care he takes in allowing Felix the time to realise and his kindness once the connection is made.

The last days of the war were horrifying enough without the added problems offered by starting a proscribed relationship, yet the two lonely young men are unable to resist when an opportunity is offered. As the story progresses, tensions are drawn between love and duty, and the recognition that while honour is absolute, it’s worth taking chances to grab what little comfort they can. Felix and Baldur are in an impossible position and as it comes down to the wire, the question is not will they survive but will they die together or apart, killed by the Americans or the Russians.

When one spends the last third of a book sick with worry, and occasionally hyperventilating a bit, one can assure the author that they are doing it right! It’s a “rush through to the end, then re-read immediately to savour it” kind of book. I wish it was on paper so I could cuddle it. No hesitation in giving this five stars.

Review: Gypsy Heart by A.J. Llewellyn

Tinder McCartney thought he left behind his life as a gay male prostitute but soon learns returning to his old life may be the only way to save the man he loves…Tinder McCartney and his lover, Jason Qui, are adjusting to life in war-torn Hawaii following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Settling at first in Maui with Tinder’s father, they go back to Honolulu to meet with members of the new military government regarding their plans to blow up a major access road in Lahaina that would leave the islanders in Maui stranded and without access to much-needed shipments coming into the island.

Back in Honolulu, Tinder and Jason are dismayed to see how much their beloved home has changed in just a few short weeks. Jason accepts a dangerous sea mission feeling that as a Chinese immigrant, he needs to prove his loyalty to the US. He and the crew of the ship disappear, and are presumed to have been taken by Japanese forces. Tinder must decide what to do to help his lover.

When presented with the opportunity to return to his old way of life in exchange for information that will help him rescue his lover, he must decide how far he is willing to go to heal his gypsy heart and save the man he loves…

Novel length, ebook and paperback. Print version is “Pearl Harbor Vol 1 and includes Vagabond Heart and Gypsy Heart)

Review by Erastes

This is the second in the Pearl Harbor series of books by this author (the first being Vagabond Heart reviewed here) and it is often difficult to read the second book without having read the first one. So often a sequel is marred by the author info-dumping on the reader to give them the backstory, or they assume that the reader has read the first one and tell you absolutely nothing, leaving you with a sense of catch up. However, to my delight, A.J. Llewellyn does neither of these things, and imparts exactly the right amount of information, to my eyes at least, to have this book as part of a series, or ability to read as a standalone.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s subsequent entry into the war, Tinder McCartney has given up his whoring on Hotel Road in Honolulu and documents his life as he moves from Honolulu to Maui with his lover, Jason, to move in with his father and Linda, his step-mother. Not only are relations a little strained, as Linda doesn’t like Tinder and Jason that much, and she’s visibly shocked and in a lot of stress over the war. I know very little about this era, and this place. It’s clear that Llewellyn has done a large amount of research, for he isn’t a resident of Hawaii. He portrays the islands very well, and imparts a lot of information what it was like to live under the restrictions of very tough martial law–something that few of us have–or will, hopefully–never experienced.

I’m not saying that the historical details are spot on, but if there’s anything inaccurate, I didn’t notice. I never had a jarring moment where I had to reach for the laptop to check up a point. In fact I enjoyed the details very much; I could really see the crowded, standing room only diner, could smell and hear all the atmosphere of the sweaty, sailor-filled tattoo parlour and felt the fear of a man running home after curfew.

This isn’t a story about a man caught up in huge world events, but it’s an every day account of a family beginning to struggle as those huge events constrict and change their world. I suddenly realised how fragile an island economy was, how the expanded population was so dependent on trade and imports and although in this book (there are at least two more in the series) food is becoming precious, it isn’t yet scarce, you really get the feeling, as news of the Japanese advance reaches Hawaii, that things are going to get difficult for the inhabitants in no time at all.

Tinder and Jason help with the Home Guard duties, digging trenches and bomb shelters (which are promptly washed away, due to the Americans not understanding the island climate), and going on a survival course, teaching them to live off the land. Neither of them realise how useful these skills will be one day. As with the lack of info-dumping, there is, in this book, no “guide-book” feel as the reviewer found with Vagabond Heart. As Tinder moves around the islands, everything is described naturally–not in a way that instructs and therefore pulls the reader from the experience. And also, Tinder? Best protagonist’s name ever.

I liked the characters a good deal; Tinder is a guy who does what he has to do to keep his family safe–and it’s a real dilemma for him when he’s presented with an opportunity to do just that when he knows that it’s really, really wrong. He’s probably a little too nice, especially with his wreck of a step-mother, but he’s not syrupy–he still presents a few prickles when pushed. You don’t see that much of Jason but I shall enjoy going back and reading book one and learning more about him. The secondary characters, from Tinder’s father, Linda, to the various characters of Hotel Road are well painted and memorable.

My only problem is that sometimes it seems a little rushed. There’s many kitchen-sink details here, life more ordinary and sometimes they are introduced only to disappear again (two of them involve Linda) and not to cause any further ripples in the plot. I would have liked this aspect of the book to have been expanded, to have seen more of the day-to-day life, and the struggles as the war tightened everyone’s belts, and less of the obligatory long sex scenes. Another niggle is that whatever language Jason speaks–which I’m assuming is Cantonese or Mandarin–Kindle mangled it and it came out in complete gibberish.

But I recommend this as it’s an interesting read about a culture and lifestyle that is quite alien to many of us, and a part of Hawaiian life that Hollywood isn’t going to portray any time soon. This is definitely the best score for A.J. on this site, and that makes me happy, because we all want to read good books, right? I’m looking forward to reading book 3 in the series, which is Abiding Heart

Author’s Website

Buy at: Total ebound (ebook and print) | Kindle (UK) | Kindle (USA)

Review: Unspoken by R.A. Padmos

Stefan is a working-class man – or would be, if there was any work! – when he meets Adri and they begin an affair. Married with children, Stefan resists this development in a society where homosexuality is legal but scarcely tolerated. Nor does he understand when Adri warns him about the territorial ambitions of Hitler’s Germany, which their country will be unable to oppose. In a daily battle against guilt, poverty and other, more tangible enemies, Stefan and Adri struggle to hold on to a love which should never have existed at all – but which may be the only thing helping them to survive.

58,000 words/220 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

“Unspoken” is told from the point of view of Stefan, a 30-something working class man in a small-ish Dutch town. He is married with three children as the book opens, and if you asked him, he would probably say he’s happy, except for the problem of finding work to provide for his family in the middle of the depression. Stefan has done what was expected of him; he got married to a good woman, fathered children, and does whatever work he can find to put food on the table for them. He doesn’t know any better.

Then, one day in the dole queue, Stefan meets Adri, and it changes everything, or nothing. Stefan doesn’t understand his feelings at first, and Adri for his part takes things slowly. Unlike Stefan, Adri has always known that he prefers the company of men, and only men. His stepfather threw him out on the street when Adri’s predilections became clear, and he’s managed to survive thanks to the mentoring of other men like him.

Adri bides his time in part because he’s waiting until he’s 21 and completely legal. When he tries for his first kiss, Stefan is shocked, but not reviled. He’s confused by his feelings, as he remains for the entire book, which spans ten years of their relationship. Stefan is steadfastly loyal to his family, even though it’s obvious that his wife Marije’s feelings for him are no stronger than his for her, but his desire for Adri knows no reason and he can’t help but be drawn to the younger man.

You know those Bergman-inspired films of the 1960s, or even the parodies of them? You know, the ones where people just sit around, smoking cigarettes and talking? Sometimes the talk gets quite emotional, but in the end nothing actually happens. Well, that’s the feeling I had for much of this book. There’s a lot of angst from Stefan, as he’s torn between the duty to his family that his upbringing tells him is expected from a man, and his true love for Adri.

The younger Adri is a bit more worldly than Stefan, and he’s the one that initiates many of the discussions about what’s going on around them, such as Hitler’s rise in Germany. It’s also from Adri that we get lamentations about how homosexuals are second-class citizens who can’t, for example, get married. The discussions reflect the current debate over gay marriage. Now, the idea of two depression-era men discussing the merits of gay marriage in itself seems a bit unrealistic. These men have much bigger problems facing them. But, in a way, that’s almost beside the point. What struck me was that there was nothing new here. It’s still the same argument, and sending it back in time 75 years doesn’t change anything, and in the context it even comes off as a bit wingeing. As the discussions went on I began to wonder if the author really had anything to say, and with all the talking going on I started to think that the title, “Unspoken”, was some kind of joke I didn’t get.

Like those films I was talking about, “Unspoken” is told in a coldly objective, almost documentary-like tone that puts an emotional distance between the reader and the characters. Their drama is played out in front of us with a rather dispassionate voice. Not that there’s really much drama. The relationship has its ups and downs, as there are arguments and disagreements, and Stefan tries more than once to quit Adri, but it seems like they’re never put to the test, even though there are lots of opportunities. Early on, when a policeman catches them snogging in the park, they’re ‘invited’ down to the police station. But once they confirm Adri is of-age and ‘willing’ they let Stefan off with a slap on the wrist rather than charging him with public indecency. Likewise, when Germany invades and the two men are called up to defend Holland, they’re separated briefly but within a few paragraphs they’re back together again. More opportunities for a little drama are missed as the story plods along through the occupation.

To be honest, this book was headed for a two or two-and-a-half star rating, but it rather redeemed itself in the end. Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to disclose that the two men survive the war. The issue here is at what cost. There’s a telling scene near the end where Stefan is leaving the park where he and Adri used to meet. The Germans have lost the war, but haven’t quit the city yet. Stefan has come to the park in search of fuel for the fires to keep them warm. He has taken the last scraps of wood from the bench where he and Adri once sat. The park has been stripped bare of anything that can be burned, eaten or traded in people’s desperate attempts to stay alive until the allies come. It’s a powerful metaphor for Stefan’s own emotions, which have been drained away by years of despair and worry over how to keep his family safe, put food on the table, and what will happen to his lover.

Adri is not quite the same person either. The open and optimistic young bohemian worked for the Resistance, and survived by learning how to hide things, even from his beloved Stefan. He talks of moving away once the war is over, starting a new life somewhere else, where he might even meet a man that he doesn’t have to share with a wife and children. Both men have survived, somewhat against the odds, but it’s taken everything they had, and it’s not clear if they have anything left for each other.

This is a hard book to categorize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to suggest who the audience might be. It’s hard to call it romance, given the angst-ridden nature of the main character. You certainly wouldn’t call it erotica. The descriptions of the men’s many sexual encounters are as quick and furtive as the encounters themselves. It’s decidedly un-erotic. As history, much of it rings true, aside from the rather ‘modern’ discussions about gay marriage, but here we run up against the question of what it all means. I couldn’t help thinking the author was trying to say something, but perhaps that’s what the unspoken part is.

In the end, I’ve decided to give “Unspoken” three stars.

Find our more about R. A. Padmos at her blog.

The book appears to be available only directly from Manifold Press

Review: Shadowboxing by Anne Barwell


Can physicist Kristopher and Resistance member Michel find love and safety in the middle of World War II?

Berlin, 1943. An encounter with an old friend leaves German physicist Dr. Kristopher Lehrer with doubts about his work. But when he confronts his superior, everything goes horribly wrong. Suddenly Kristopher and Michel, a member of the Resistance, are on the run, hunted for treason and a murder they did not commit. If they’re caught, Kristopher’s knowledge could be used to build a terrible weapon that could win the war.

When Michel contacts the Allies, hoping they can work together, it isn’t long before the so-called “simple” mission becomes anything but. With both men realizing they can no longer ignore their growing feelings for each other,

Kristopher and Michel must fight—not just for a chance of a future together, but for their very survival.

Ebook and Print 266 pages

Review by Sally Davies

Dr Kristopher Lehrer, young, naive and intent upon his work, has no conception of the destructive potential of his research. Since he’s a physicist I’m assuming that he is working on the German equivalent of the Manhattan Project, though I don’t believe it’s ever actually stated. When he finds out that he’s not, as he thought, contributing to the sum of human knowledge but helping to build a weapon he is outraged and distraught.

Kristopher is a bag of nerves, but his paranoia is with good reason. He is being followed! One of the guards at his place of work, Schmitz, is showing a lot of interest in him. Luckily, when Kristopher’s panic makes a terrible situation worse, Schmitz shows his true colours. His real name is Michel and he is a member of the French Resistance, who was in the right place at the right time and able to take on the identity of the real Schmitz, killed in a bombing raid. He has been at the facility for six months, learning what he can, and has been ordered to steal the plans to the project but Kristopher convinces him to steal Kristopher too. The plan is incomplete. Vital formuli exist only in Kristopher’s brain. As if this isn’t argument enough, Michel fancies the pants of Kristopher, an attraction that has been growing over his months in disguise.

They go on the run, pursued by Holm, head of security of the facility and his scary assistant Reiniger, and assisted by three very nicely drawn strong women, and members of the Berlin Resistance. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Berlin, the team that has been sent to retrieve and verify the plans have problems of their own. Put together in a hurry they comprise two Englishmen, neither of whom speak good German, a Chinese physicist not qualified for field work, an American of Japanese-American extraction fighting his attraction for another member of the team and the leader, Matt, who is a bit of a loose cannon due to pyschological baggage he can’t shake off.

This spy caper is a detailed and meticulously researched account of an extraction attempt that goes horribly wrong. The trouble that the author has gone to with her research is clear. Official ranks, street names, medical details, routes and travelling times are laid out admirably. I felt confident that what I was being shown was a good picture of the scenes and situations through which the characters move.

The author also details the thought processes of her characters. I found it particularly interesting to see Holm’s point of view, and his absolutely sincere and uncritical devotion to his country. But elsewhere this is where the book fell down a little for me. Each action is mulled over and thought out – sometimes in the middle of what could have been quite exciting action scenes – and there were times where I found my attention wandering and I had to go back and re-read sections, skipping the internal monologue, to get a clear picture of what had happened. But the people who will be reading mostly for the romantic relationships won’t be disappointed. Emotions run at a high note and Kristopher and Michel are very tender with each other. The other relationship that developed in the latter part of the book is handled quite differently, which is good because very different personalities are involved. It should be noted that sex scenes are either non-explicit or fade to black.

The story arc is very good with plenty of alarms and excursions and various point of view characters that allowed some tense cliffhangers. I didn’t find the ending satisfying, in fact it was very abrupt. But this lays the story open to a sequel where, I hope, characters and readers will get more of a sense of closure.

Author’s Livejournal

Buy at Dreamspinner | Amazon UK | Amazon USA (ebook and paperback)

Review: Quatrefoil by James Barr

Phillip Froelich and Tim Danelaw are irresistibly drawn to each other. Both are in every obvious respect what is generally considered masculine, and live and work in a completely normal man’s social and professional world. Other men respect and admire their courage and ability and even their physical prowess. Women are very much attracted to both of them. 

Tim, the older of the two, has already recognised and resolved the problem of his sexual deviation. Phillip has not. A product of rural life, with is patriarchal background, he has a fierce contempt for ‘queers’ and at the same time a deep and secret dread that the germ of homosexuality may be buried somewhere within himself. One or two incidents in his life have shaken him profoundly and have made him determined ruthlessly to crush any tendencies in himself as well as to avoid any close relations with other men. He is engaged to be married as soon as he is discharged from the Navy, and he intends to rear a big family, to take over the operations of his family’s bank and other interests, and to become a responsible and civic-minded leader in his community. 

As the story opens, he has almost reached the refuge and security he has so carefully planned. But then he meets Danelaw. From that moment the struggle begins – a tense and shattering emotional upheaval composed of aversion, self-contempt, admiration and – finally – love.

Review by Erastes

Written in 1950, and set in 1946, I didn’t really have any doubt as to how the story would end. It was rare to find a book written in this time which had a happy ending, so if that’s all you want from a book, this isn’t for you.

It’s one of those books that you really should be reading if you want to write in this genre, not because it’s a work of genius but because it shines a light on times and a mind set that no longer exists in our Western world.

It’s very much a coming-of-age story. Despite being 23, Phillip Froelich (pronounced Froylich) comes over as young for his age. At the beginning of the book he’s seen leaving his ship under a cloud and heading to Naval Headquarters to face a General Court Martial for striking a superior officer–namely his captain. If ever there was a protagonist likely to alienate the reader, it’s Phillip for at least half of this book. He’s just horrible. A terrible snog, a real prig, prickly, rude to just about everyone and thinks he’s better than just about everyone. As the blurb explains he considers himself to be a MAN, fully masculine and he has a loathing of “nancies.”  He made a close friend on board his ship, but repulsed him violently when he made a pass at him. He knows that men of that persuasion are attracted to him but he blames them, he sees nothing in himself that he can blame for this.

So when he meets Tim Danelaw, rich, urbane, seemingly easy in his own skin, and giving off more than mere signals that he’s interested in Phillip, Phillip is thrown, because some deeply buried part of him is responding. The rest of the story is the journey that Phillip takes, mentored patiently by Tim, to accept himself for what he is .

It is a dated book–I can’t see any men of today having the kind of philosophical conversations about homosexuality that these two men have, and it’s not a particularly easy read, as some of the concepts were a little beyond me. But it is interesting to see–in a world where the homosexual community had yet to become in any way cohesive–how some men viewed homosexuality, even when it surfaced in themselves. I found it disturbing that even Tim–the more rational and knowledgeable of the two–considered anything but a ‘intelligent’ meeting of minds and bodies would be depraved and base. Whether that was the opinion of Barr I don’t know. I have to wonder what he’d think of some of the community these days!

The characterisation is masterful. I’ve already said that Phillip is absolutely loathsome at the beginning–and indeed for much of–of the book. That he does mellow, and begin to look around him and to realise that there is more available for himself than he had plans for. He thinks he’s tremendously ambitious, but his house in that respect is actually based on sand and it takes Tim to point this out.

The way Tim guides and moulds Phillip is beautifully done, too. He is truly an Erastes to Phillip’s Eromenos. He somehow understands Phillip’s mind perfectly (or almost so) and knows when to push and when to let the young man find his own way. It is through Tim’s eyes that we see Phillip in his home environment–and discover many of the reasons why he is the way he is at the beginning of the book.

As well as the slow and tender growing relationship between the two which takes the entire book, there are a good handful of other subplots all fuelled by characters as three dimensional as the main protagonists. I won’t go into them because it would far too spoilery.

Although I found it a little hard to get involved with–purely because of my dislike of Phillip–by the middle of the book I was entirely hooked and couldn’t bear to get to the end because I had a pretty shrewd idea of how it was going to go and I was heartbroken to find I was right. That being said, there’s a fair pinch of hope at the end too, so it’s not all gloom and doom.

If you can get hold of a copy at a reasonable price–try Abe Books or the Book Depository–then do grab it, because it’s a really lovely long, plotty and literary read and if that’s your bag, you’ll hoover it up.

Don’t be put off by the frankly revolting cover, having read it, I think Phillip would be horrified at it!

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Review: The German by Lee Thomas

From the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Lee Thomas come a new thrilling novel. 1944 – Barnard, Texas. At the height of World War II, a killer preys on the young men of a quiet Texas town. The murders are calculated, vicious, and they are just beginning. Sheriff Tom Rabbit and his men are baffled and the community he serves is terrified of the monster lurking their streets. The only clues the killer leaves behind are painted snuffboxes containing notes written in German. As the panic builds all eyes turn toward a quiet man with secrets of his own. Ernst Lang fled Germany in 1934. Once a brute, a soldier, a leader of the Nazi party, he has renounced aggression and embraces a peaceful obscurity. But Lang is haunted by an impossible past. He remembers his own execution and the extremes of sex and violence that led to it. He remembers the men he led into battle, the men he seduced, and the men who betrayed him. But are these the memories of a man given a second life, or the delusions of a lunatic?

Review by Erastes

It took me a good while to read this book, since I started it in July 2011 and finished it in December! In my defence I wasn’t reading it all the time, I don’t read that slowly, honest. It was that I was expecting it to all go a lot darker than it did (although it does go to some dark places) and I’m happy that my anticipation didn’t match what actually happened. Although, as I say, it’s not full of fluffy rabbits.

Ok, so basically it’s set in 1944 in a smallish Texan town and is told in three different POVs:

Tom Rabbit: the sherrif. 3rd person past tense.

The German: first person diary entry

Tim Randall: first person past tense.

Now, don’t let this put you off, as it’s absolutely the best way to tell this convoluted and highly interesting story. Like many places in America, the small town has a German community and suddenly young men are dying in horribly mutilated ways and evidence found on the bodies points to the fact that it’s a German murderer. Thus begins an exquisite tale of paranoia, prejudice and a study of how a community can tear itself apart under all sorts of justification.

The German of the title is Ernst, who is clearly a troubled, and yet a good man at heart. He writes in his journal of his past–memories of serving in an army, commanding man, many many men, and a betrayal, a court martial and–and here’s where it’s delightfully opaque–an execution which he seems to have survived, despite the terrible bullet scars on his body. He lives across the street from Tim Randall, an ordinary young man growing up in a small town and with his father overseas serving in the war, at daily threat from “the Krauts”.

Tim’s interaction with Ernst is light. Tim is curious about his neighbour but he doesn’t bother him, although when they do meet up Ernst tries to educate the boy about prejudice and hate. Sadly, although at first Tim appears to see the sense in this, his father is declared “missing in action” and Tim’s grief and fear is channelled in the only way it could be at this time and place–directly towards Ernst.

I loved the feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia here. The way Ernst is pretty much trammelled and keeps to himself for very clear reasons. He frequents a bar from time to time but mostly stays indoors or sits on the porch or swims in the lake. He does have male company occasionally although for most of the book this is with men who are disgusted with their own urges–which puts Ernst off from wanting to see them again.

The interaction between the sheriff and Ernst was masterful. Ernst so clearly in control and almost a little bored with the interrogation–he’s been interrogated before and by masters of the art after all. His frankness to the sheriff about his sexuality was a brilliant stroke–and the effect it had on the countrified and rather naive sheriff was an interesting study.

It’s not a pretty story in any aspect, nor is it meant to be, nor should it be, so be warned that the violence is graphic and literal and shocking. This is entirely right because it is shocking, what happens and who it happens to and why. It’s a terrible but sadly true indictment of human behaviour, beautifully observed and told with true skill.

If I have one quibble, it was the epilogue–the character it portrays didn’t strike me as having learned the lessons that he said he learned and it didn’t really ring true from what we’d seen on the pages previously. However that’s just a small quibble and won’t affect the score because the remainder of the epilogue was note perfect.

Just a note on the cover and the design. I’ve noticed with Lethe Press before that they take real pains over the design of their books. Not merely the covers–this one is perfect–but the font, and the design of the headers inside. It probably won’t show on e-readers, but the headings in this book are just amazingly good, and add another dimension to the book, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. So well done, Lethe Press.

Yes, there is — perhaps — an element of the paranormal here, but as it is completely subjective, I’m not hesitating to review it on the site and to recommend it to anyone.

Author’s website

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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

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Review: Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

Two stories, two couples, two eras, timeless emotions. 

“This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense”

It is 1914 and The Great War is underway. When the call to arms comes, Nicholas Southwell won’t be found hanging back. It’s a pity he can’t be so decisive when it comes to letting his estate manager Paul Haskell know what he feels before he has to leave for the front line. In the trenches Nicholas meets a fellow officer, Phillip Taylor, who takes him into the unclaimed territory of physical love. Which one will he choose, if he’s allowed the choice?

“The Case of the Overprotective Ass”

Stars of the silver screen Alasdair Hamilton and Toby Bowe are wowing the post WWII audiences with their depictions of Holmes and Watson. When they are asked by a friend to investigate a mysterious disappearance, they jump at the chance—surely detection can’t be that hard? But a series of threatening letters—and an unwanted suitor—make real life very different from the movies. 

Review by Erastes

Let me say up front that I thoroughly enjoyed both books, as I expected I would. I just didn’t enjoy the overall experience as much as I thought I would.

The trouble for me came with the stark differences in tone. I can see possibly why this was done, to offer some light relief in the second story to compensate for the pain of reading the first one, but I found the disconnect a little too much. The light frothy feel of the second book seemed to lessen the really true impact of the first, and that was a shame. I wish I had read them the other way around.

This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense

You can usually assume that any book dealing with the Great War is going to be a harrowing story, unless the writer doesn’t do their job properly and this one is no exception. Don’t be put off–this deals as lightly as it can with the actual job of soldiering in the trenches, and while there is description of the environments and atmosphere of that time, it won’t make you go cold in sheer horror as some books have done.

One thing that struck me as I was reading was the way that Cochrane’s writing has evolved over the years that I’ve been reading her. She could always write a good yarn and she’s always been on my list of Must Reads but this book shines for me as the best thing she’s ever done.

She doesn’t take the easy option with this book–e.g. that of one man meeting another, having conflict in the war, and despite all odds coming through to find his true love. That, married to the wonderful writing, would have been sufficient–but (and forgive me if I’m wrong here) Cochrane for the first time decides to explore some flawed characters. In fact, this darkness had begun to creep into the Cambridge Fellows series towards the end, and that’s what made it fascinating for me, but Cochrane shows true strength of prose as she explores the love square, one must call it I suppose, between Nicholas, Paul, Phillip and Fergal.

The most touching moments for me were those between Nicholas and Phillip, and the way the story has them coming together (as it were) due to many reasons: war, anger with another, loneliness and just damned human need.

As you can see, there are too many people in the equation to have a realistic gay historical romance ending, so you’ll already realise that choices have to be made and something’s gotta give. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wrapped up very deftly, without cloying into saccharine sentiment and my eyes were moist, which is always a good ending for me.

Absolutely marvellous read–please do not miss this one. I can only hold my breath to see where Cochrane goes next.

The Case of the Over-Protective Ass

We are back on familiar ground here, as Ms Cochrane demonstates her skill at sleuthing. Our heroes, both stars of the silver screen, and protected as much as possible by their studio are in love and having a rather lovely affair, although as discreet as possible.  They are asked by a theatre impresario, to find his missing secretary and the game is afoot.

I quite liked Toby and Alasdair, but I didn’t warm to them the way I warmed to Orlando and Jonty from The Cambridge Fellows series, they seemed a bit too similar to the Fellows – not altogether surprising, I suppose, being two sets of homosexual sleuths deeply in love with a penchant for innuendo and double entendre. But I would have liked them to be more distinct from their Cambridge counterparts–to have voices more their own.

However, the story is engaging, with one mystery spilling into another and the progression of it is nicely handled with no sudden incomprehensible jumps as the reader is kept nicely informed of progress all the way. There was one glaring error I spotted, and that was Alasdair speaking of the Aunt’s will a couple of pages before said aunt and said will had even been discovered by Toby, but that was all. The editing slipped a little here and there, with a few missing punctuation marks, and the wrong homonym used at one point.

But as a piece of entertaining crime-solving fiction, I recommend it highly, the protagonists are amusing and sweet in turns, although the sex was a little over-stylised for me (compared with the more subtle and almost glossed over scenes in the first story) but the mystery rumbles along at a good pace never making the reader bored.  I could quite easily see these characters having their own series of books, but I hope that doesn’t happen and that Ms Cochrane investigates and develops the growing power of her writing as shown in “This Ground.”

It’s just that overall, I couldn’t gel the two stories together, I think I would have liked (as in Ginn Hale’s Wicked Gentlemen) two novellas relating to the same characters, or–if about two sets of people–two novellas more similar in tone. Not necessarily both about the Great War, but The Case of the Over Protective Ass didn’t have the impact it should have if it had been a readalone, because of the power and strength of the first story.

I liked both stories, but have to give “This Ground” a resounding five stars, as I couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards but “The Case of The Over Protective Ass” only gets a four. Overall, the duet of stories gets a 4½ and a highly recommended.

Buy at AllRomance ebooks    Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: Vagabond Heart by A J Llewellyn

Book one in the Pearl Harbor Series

Gay prostitute Tinder McCartney thought he had it made in WWII Honolulu…until true love and an attack on Pearl Harbor turned his life upside down.

Tinder McCartney is the only gay male prostitute working in Honolulu, Hawaii during World War II. Like the 200 female prostitutes who live and work on Hotel Street, he services the armed forces drifting in and out of the islands. His life and work are controlled by the local police, yet because the cops don’t think that there can be that many ‘depraved’ men wanting the comfort of another man, Tinder is not only busy, but often in danger.

Living by very strict rules enforced by the police, Tinder cannot own or drive a car or bicycle, can’t ride street cars or be seen in the company of other men. He can’t visit bars or restaurants or swim at Waikiki Beach. Savagely attacked by two men one night, he is rescued by a local businessman, Jason Qui, the son of a Chinese immigrant and a former New England missionary.

Jason is not Tinder’s usual type. But Jason offers to protect and house him. It seems like the ideal business arrangement until Tinder’s Vagabond Heart can no longer handle the arrangement… and then on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbour is attacked, turning the entire world upside down.
Review: by Sally Davis
Cool blue cover that does the job pretty well in that the models conform to the characters in the book and there’s a battle ship and aircraft to boot. Neither of the boys look particularly happy but then neither are in particularly happy situations.
Tinder is the one most likely to invite sympathy. He has returned to Hawaii from San Francsico, abandoning his career as an architect, to attend the funeral of his beloved mother. His father is involved with a woman Tinder detests, who is intent upon destroying all Tinder’s childhood memories. Jobs are hard to come by and his father has no money to spare so Tinder has taken the only available job – a prostitute working for a highly-regulated, government sponsored establishment.
Tinder has a lot in common with Cinderella – the wicked stepmother, the soul-crushing job – and only lacks the handsome Prince. Enter Jason Qui who has spotted Tinder, made enquiries and books him for private sessions much longer than the house regulated three minutes including washing ‘equipment’.
Jason is rich, the head of a successful business, has the love of his family and it seems as though he should be happy enough. But it is time for him to marry and Jason has no taste at all for women. Tinder, however, he does favour and soon they are deeply in love with each other.
There’s more to the story than just a love affair. There is the day by day count down to the Pearl Harbour attack and it’s aftermath. There is also a subplot to do with Jason’s business, but the story focusses on the two protagonists. As one would expect with a story about prostitution there is a lot of sex but the short mechanical acts in the ‘house’ on Hotel Street are contrasted nicely with Tinder and Jason’s more elaborate love play.
I know very little about Hawaii or Pearl Harbour, and even less about the businesses on Hotel Street during World War Two. I know a lot more now, which is good in one way – I love to come away from a story about an unfamiliar period of history feeling that I’ll carry some information with me – but in others leads to me a fairly minor criticism. The author has clearly done huge amounts of research to get the background, locations, history, settings of the island as accurate as possible. I really appreciate seeing that an author has put this amount of effort into it, but from time to time the way it is presented is clunky – almost guidebookish – and it distracted me from the narrative. The big quibble – that one of the military endorsed brothels would have allowed a male prostitute to ply his trade – is dealt with in the prologue with a neat disclaimer.
This is the first story of a series, apparently, but can be read as a standalone.

Review: As Time Goes By by Anna Lee

In 1944, Matt Jackson, a wounded RAF pilot, ends up in the Royal Infirmary after his squadron is attacked. When he meets Doctor Trynt Andrews, both men’s lives are changed with the instant connection they feel for one another. Alone and injured, Matt is invited into Trynt’s home and they become inseparable, finding a love they thought they never would. As the year goes by, their commitment deepens despite having to keep their love a secret. When Matt is deployed and his plane goes down during battle will all be lost? Or will he make it home to Trynt?

Review by Erastes

Ok. Here’s the thing. When you know a fandom, it’s very difficult to read a book that’s obviously converted fanfic when it hasn’t been converted well enough to expunge all traces of the original canon.  I know how difficult this is–I used to write fanfic, and I have two novellas at least that I’m very proud of, but the work involved in making them entirely unrecognisable as to where they came from would be as hard work as writing something entirely new–so I haven’t done it.

And in this case–which is obviously Torchwood fanfic, it’s a shame, because the writing is decent enough to carry a story throughout.

But when you have an RAF Captain Matt (with an RAF greatcoat that becomes a sexual object in itself) who falls in love with a dark-haired, blue-eyed Welshman–now called Trynt–and then you have an assorted cast who are obviously name-changed versions of Torchwood’s cast: Gwen becomes Wynne, the gap-toothed Welsh nurse; Toshiko is now Kimioko,  Trynt’s room-mate etc etc–then I for one have difficulty reading it as an original story at all because I’m translating it back to fanfic in my head.

OK. Putting that aside, I couldn’t like this book at all. The writing is perfectly serviceable, no complaints there, but it’s just far too saccharine for my, and I’m guessing many people’s tastes.

Captain Matt wakes in a hospital after a terrible accident with his squadron where everyone has died, including his own lover and he almost immediately falls in love with his doctor, who of course, falls almost immediately back in love with him. The two men are femininely  sensitive to the point of hysteria, fall in love instantly and are touching, kissing, hugging and weeping on each other’s shoulders within a day of meeting. All this in a hospital in 1944…

There then follows half a book of their relationship building. This consists of Matt recovering–having moved in with Trynt and them having long girly talks, sleeping together but not actually doing anything. But there is a lot of talk and weeping. For the first 25% of the book one or other of them is just about crying on every page. It was ludicrously inconsistent with a doctor and a flight captain, and also was out of character for the fanfic counterparts.

Here’s just one sample of this overblown schmoopiness: (this conversation is happening during penetration while Matt rides Trynt’s cock)

“I know our love is strong enough to outlast whatever this war throws at us. And despite it, I promise I will do everything I can to make you happy and give you the life you want.”

“You already have, Matt.” Trynt began to thrust slowly as he held on to Matt. “All I want is a life with you. I want all the plans we just made.  And I won’t let anything stop us from having them; we’re going to build that life together. I know our love can overome whatever happens.”  He cupped Matt’s face in his hands, gazing into his stormy blue eyes. “And you’ll never be alone again. I’ll always be here for you, loving you with all my heart and making you happy. I didn’t know what true happiness or love was until you came along, now it all makes sense. You’re my whole word Matt and I couldn’t love you more. And I certainly couldn’t ask for anything more than to be here with you just this,” he admitted, then kissed Matt passionately, pouring all his feelings into the kiss.

“I love you too.” Matt slowly lifed himself up and then back down on Trynt’s cock. “Always, Trynt.”

“Always,” Trynt vowed.

This type of conversation goes on for pages, as does the sex which is very coy, to be honest. The author clearly has a problem with using more graphic terms, so there’s lots of “warm passages” and the like. The one that make me want to throw my Kindle against the wall was “essence” for sperm, and essence is used a lot. There’s much fanfic cliche too, the characters are always saying “Come for me” in fact they pretty much say it at every orgasm, and in fact the sex is quite repetitive although some might find it arousing.

As for an historical grounding, there is hardly any. We are told a war is going on, and Matt pops off in between injuries then comes back and “recovers” a bit more which involves sex, massages, wine(!), coffee(!), but you never get the atmosphere of London at war. Rationing is mentioned, but there’s no real impact of it in their day-to-day life.  They drink wine, and in one scene–in December–they eat lasagne and have strawberries for dessert. Words fail me. Where would they have got the strawberries from? Spain? I think the author lost control of her own timeline at this point, as she had them planning a picnic shortly afterwards.

1944 was a hugely important time in London’s war as the V2 rockets were fired at the city–look at this map here–but there’s no mention at all of any bombs, or indeed of anything much. I found this amazing, because the devstation was immense. Selfridges, Speakers Corner and Holborn was all bombed, but Trynt doesn’t seem to notice.

Matt’s involvement in the war is very confusing too. We are told he’s the captain of a squadron, and that he flies Spitfires, but we are also told that he leads bombing raids, and is also fighting on the ground with the infantry. In fact there’s so much wrong with the military details I’m not even going to discuss it.

Then there’s the OKHomo. Unsurprisingly really, seeing as this is converted Torchwood fic, but in 1944 London it’s absolutely mad. Everyone knows and just about everyone lurves the idea of it, understands it completely and the one person who doesn’t has something over him–blackmarket activity–which prevents him doing anything about it and he’s won over by the homo-love by the end anyway. The author makes a sop to having Matt and Trynt be careful in public but it’s purely pasted on, as their behaviour would be obvious to anyone.

And that’s about it, really. Conflict happens about 60% of the way through, which calls for a major crying jag from Trynt as the melodrama is plastered on with a trowel. The conflict lasts for about one chapter, though and the remaining 25% of the book is taken up with the inevitable HEA which loses a lot of its impact because how could they be any more soppy and romantic than they already have been almost on every page?

So, no. I didn’t like this book at all. It had just about every aspect of m/m that I dislike and layered it all up so thickly I felt like giving up.

IF you can handle the constant weeping, pages of declarations of love, long talky sex, constantly crying men on a wallpaper war background with decidedly shaky historical accuracy–and IF you don’t already know the Torchwood fanon, then you might like this. But I’m sorry, I didn’t.

Manloveromance books

Review: Lily White, Rose Red by Catt Ford


Grey Randall: Private Dick Casefile #1

Meet Grey Randall, a hard-boiled detective whose sense of humor makes it hard for him to stay strictly noir. It’s 1948 in Las Vegas—the newborn Sin City—and he’s just landed his first murder case. He’s more at ease among the lowlifes, but his new client, a beautiful, wealthy woman, a real femme fatale, moves in the upper crust of society.

Grey’s hot on the trail of a killer, despite obstructive cops who don’t want a private dick sniffing around and digging up secrets. And he starts getting close to the truth, but one of his suspects, Phillip Martin, AKA Mr. Big—AKA Mr. Beautiful—proves to be a man who could force Grey to reveal a dark secret of his own.

Review by Sally Davis

I dearly love a good PI story so was excited to get Catt Ford’s “Lily White, Rose Red” for review. The cover was designed by the author and is a classic noir image of the man in the snap brimmed hat preparing to walk the mean streets! I was a bit thrown by the plastic Dymo tape labelling – to me that just screams 1960s, rather than 1948 – but apparently similar machines existed just after the war, stamping into aluminium strips instead of plastic, so more fool me for jumping to conclusions.

Just so we know what we’re getting into there’s a silhouette in the background and, instead of the usual curvaceous broad poised to make trouble for our hero, it’s another fedoraed, trenchcoated fellow.

Not that there aren’t an unusual number of women in the story, which begins in the most traditional way possible.

Femmes fatales had been noticeably absent since I hung out my shingle, but the day she opened the door without knocking, I knew I’d hit the jackpot.

The delicious Lily MacIntyre, ex-burlesque queen and friend of men in high places, enters Randall’s office to hire him to investigate his very first murder – that of a young dancer in whose career Lily had taken an interest. At first it appears that her selection of Randall is pure chance but later it is revealed that there is evidence associated with the case that no police officer could plausibly investigate – it’s something no straight man would know about. But Randall is eminently qualified and the adventure takes him to secret gay bars and to the offices of the rich and powerful. On his way he is both helped and hindered by local police officers, by female librarian Charlie, by Lily and her household, by a gay pugilist and by Mr Big, who may or may not be straight.

Trouble is my business – and I’m open twenty-four hours

As one would expect Randall is tough, driven and wise-cracking. This caused me a little bit of a problem because, while those attributes contribute to his success, I found that some of his bull-headedness in dealing even with his friends made him  unsympathetic. There were other secondary characters who engaged me far more emotionally and I hope they get more ‘screen time’ in subsequent books in the series.

But on the whole it was a fun romp, clues were dropped gradually and there were enough suspects to cloud the issue. If Grey Randall, Private Dick has a Case#2 I think I will read it.

Available from Dreamspinner Press

Review: The Last Tallyho by Richard Newhafer

Fighting air battles over Wake Island, Tarawa and Truk Lagoon, the U.S. Navy pilots of Air Group Two blazed a trail of flaming Japanese planes and hard-won glory across the Pacific skies. Yet among the heroes lived a man with a terrible secret shame, a vice that kept him from enjoying the conventional pleasures offered by the bevy of beautiful women waiting to welcome their men back to Pearl Harbor.

Set aboard the fictional carrier Concord during the latter part of World War Two, “The Last Tallyho” was called “The epic novel of World War II naval fighter pilots” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and “Excellent” by The New York Times.

Review by Elliott Mackle

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Richard Newhafer’s thoroughly conventional World War II novel, “The Last Tallyho” (1964), is that it inspired the much more deeply felt “Wingmen,” by Ensan Case (1979). (See my five-star review-appreciation here on Speak Its Name.) The primary evidence appears on Case’s dedication page: “Thanks to silly Dick Newhafer and his first Tallyho.” In a recent email, Case explained: [Big time spoiler alert]:

“Sometime in the late ’70′s I reread Tallyho. Good writing, excellent technical info, but much too contrived for my adult taste. And the portrayals of CAG Crowley and the ass-kissing effeminate swabbie named Rathburn just sort of pissed me off, and I wrote Wingmen in retaliation. My officer protagonists would be too smart to diddle enlisted men, aboard ship no less, and would not be required to slit their wrists in shame. It was my first attempt at a full-length novel. Avon published it with only typo editing, and I waited in vain to become rich and famous. Hell, I would have settled for rich.”

“Wingmen,” in significant ways, is as groundbreaking a mainstream masterpiece as it was possible to publish at the time. Both novels are melodramas set aboard fictional American aircraft carriers during the Pacific campaigns of the war, with operational and recreational interludes in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Both are event and character driven. Both writers are extraordinarily familiar with the workings of carrier-based aircraft, in particular the Grumman Hellcat, and both describe the vibrant lives and violent deaths of naval aviators in the kind of seat-of-pants detail that suggests first-hand knowledge. Newhafer, a Navy pilot who served in World War II and Korea, was awarded the Navy Cross in 1945. Case was commissioned as a Navy ensign.

Both novels culminate in battles over Truk lagoon, Japan’s principal naval base in the west-central Pacific, ending in routs by American pilots and the almost total defeat of Japanese fliers. It is safe to say that when the Emperor of Japan lost Truk he lost the war.

“The Last Tallyho” follows the adventures of Air Group Two aboard the carrier Concord during 1943-44. The cast of pilots and commanders is wide and varied, though universally white, athletic and educated. Among pilots there is a professional football player (Steve Stepik), a son of wealthy Park Avenue bluebloods (Maxwell Winston III), an amateur golfer (Dick Marriner), a career flyer-administrator (Harry Hill), even a coward who loses his nerve at the expense of his mates (Bob Crowley). Most of them become aces, among the highest scoring killers in the fleet. Symbolically, but unfortunately for the reader, these guys are hard to tell apart because they all talk alike. The same is essentially true of their gorgeous and good-hearted women.

The brilliantly characterized heroes of “Wingmen,” Commander J.J. “Jack” Hardigan, his junior wing, Ensign Frederick “Trusty” Trusteau, and half a dozen other pilots and crewmen, on the other hand, are living, breathing individuals, and totally unforgettable.

Captain Sam Balta, skipper of Concord, and his superior, Vice Admiral “Frog” Delacroix, the commander of the fleet, date their friendship from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and call each other by nicknames from that period. They are much better drawn, more complex figures than the men they send out to fight, and their voices and movements, though naturally similar, are always distinct. Through them we learn much about the cruelties of high command. Before the last battle, for instance, they must calculate the odds of success in a rapidly changing situation and count up the possible losses of their own men against the necessity of defeating the enemy and ending the war. Their counterpart in “Wingmen,” an admiral, is as sympathetically drawn but not nearly as well characterized.

Commander Bob Crowley, the cowardly pilot, is not only a homosexual, he beds at least one enlisted sailor between flights (or “hops” as they are termed) and, when caught naked with the sailor in his bunk, begs for mercy and a medical discharge. When that is refused by a bull-headed executive officer, Crowley kills himself. The hapless sailor suffers essentially the same fate, dying “in screaming agony, his face contorted out of shape,” after being gutted by a piece of flying metal that, a moment earlier, was part of a Japanese Zero. Although Crowley’s shipboard seduction was certainly unwise under the circumstances, Allan Bérubé’s “Coming Out Under Fire” and other histories demonstrate that such liaisons were not all that uncommon. Superior officers and NCOs, especially toward the end of the war, tended to look the other way.

Newhafer’s war is the John Wayne version, in other words, the official version, the real men version. It is no surprise that after leaving the Navy Newhafer became a successful writer of Hollywood and television film scripts.

The underlying nature of Mr. Case’s novel explains his use of a semi-pseudonym, “Ensan” being the phonetic pronunciation of “Ensign.”

Taking off from the carrier Constitution, Commander Jack Hardigan, leader of Air Group Twenty (that’s two plus zero), and his wingman Fred Trusteau also become aces. They risk their lives for each other, for the members of the group and for their shipmates. After considerable trust building and combat, they discard their conformist heterosexual role-playing, accept their mutual attraction and share a bed in Waikiki’s Moana Hotel during Christmas shore leave. The physical details are not described and the affair remains discreet and low key. What happens ashore stays ashore. Although suspicions arise in another pilot’s mind, he has the good sense to keep his mouth shut. Blood is shed but the three men survive the war and prosper thereafter.

Case’s writing is vibrant and lively throughout the book, a pleasure to read and to reread. Newhafer is all over the map. His battle scenes soar – especially the final battle, which brings together all the remaining main characters – but small talk in officers’ clubs and the wardroom drones on and on. Sometimes his descriptions are simply flat, as in the following:

“The dusk had deepened to a murky darkness when the combatants drew apart. For this is the way fights end. One moment the sky is a wild place and the next as silent as a cathedral.”

Finally, Newhafer’s novel features a stream almost totally lacking in Case’s: the war from a Japanese pilot’s point of view. Commander Isoku Yamota, an ace every bit as brave and successful as his counterparts Winston and Marriner, appears early and fights to the end. He is a stock character but a good one, a warrior who, facing death, dreams of returning to his wife and child not as a hero but as a loving husband and father.

For fans of military and maritime fiction, both novels are worth reading. “Wingmen,” a Speak Its Name Five Star Read that includes the pleasures of first-rate gay historical fiction, is simply the better book. “Tallyho” is out of print but used copies are widely available in hard and soft cover. Four stars.

Amazon UK      Amazon USA

Review: Pioneers by Lynn Lorenz

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

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

Available in Kindle format, 136KB

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enthusiastically recommended. Four and on-half stars.

Buy at Amber Quill Press

Review: 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: A Faint Wash of Lavender by Lucius Parhelion

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s Website (out of date)

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: Wingmen by Ensan Case

HEROES IN HELLCATS

Jack Hardigan’s Hellcat fighter squadron blew the Japanese Zekes out of the blazing Pacific skies. But a more subtle kind of hell was brewing in his feelings for rookie pilot Fred Trusteau. As another wingman watches–and waits for the beautiful woman who loves Jack–Hardigan and Trusteau cut a fiery swath through the skies from Wake to Tarawa to Truk, there to keep a fateful rendezvous with love and death in the blood-clouded waters of the Pacific.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The appearance this month of a new, digital edition of James Jones’s World War II classic, From Here to Eternity (1951), is good news not only for general readers but for fans of m/m historical fiction. The edition reportedly includes two scenes edited out by Scribner sixty years ago. One involves oral sex between a wealthy Honolulu civilian and Private Angelo Maggio (the soldier played by Frank Sinatra in the movie), for money. The other concerns a military investigation into homosexual activity. Accounts of the restored edition prompted my rereading of another classic of the Pacific war, the equally well told m/m adventure-romance, Wingmen, by the pseudonymous Ensan Case. Published by Avon as a paperback original in 1979, the book has long been out of print. I recently snapped up a used first edition on amazon.com for under $10. Copies usually start at around $40.

Like From Here to Eternity, Wingmen is character- and event-driven. Set mostly aboard the fictional aircraft carrier Constitution during the latter half of the war, much of the tension in the novel derives from the physical and emotional pushing and shoving of fighting men packed too close together under extremely dangerous circumstances. Most of them are brave, dedicated and noble; some are hard drinkers who shield their feelings from even their closest friends. All but a few polish their manly-man reputations to a very high gloss.

The book opens with Ensign Frederick Trusteau, the junior of the two wingmen, in bed with a Honolulu prostitute. Though he brings her to climax, his own satisfaction is limited to the knowledge that some of his fellow pilots are aware of the encounter. Later, in a similar exchange, Trusteau again performs the act primarily to establish his heterosexual creds–because it’s expected and he knows no better–rather than for any real pleasure or release.

Trusteau is handsome, skilled, determined, loyal and–a product and symbol of his time–just a bit dense in matters sexual. Although he becomes painfully aroused at the sight of another officer lounging naked in his berth aboard ship, he isn’t able to put one and one together by himself.

Lieutenant Commander J.J. “Jack” Hardigan, his new skipper, as befits a senior officer, dates a rich and willing widow who owns a house in the hills above Honolulu. Kisses aside, there is no evidence in the book that they ever go to bed together. Hardigan’s prior sexual history goes unmentioned. When the widow breaks off the relationship in favor of one of Hardigan’s subordinates, he is more relieved than disappointed. Like his wingman Trusteau, he dates women out of habit and social convention, not desire.

The relationship between Hardigan and Trusteau is initially built on the expertise both men develop in flying Grumman Hellcats off the deck of a carrier. The bond of trust necessary for successful cooperation in combat is quickly and firmly established. The help that each gives the other for the good of the squadron, the navy and the prosecution of the war leads to triumph in battle and mutual respect. There are no shower scenes, no groping in the dark. Leaning shoulder to shoulder during a movie on deck is as physical as the m/m action gets. When Hardigan eventually elects to act on his feelings–during Christmas leave in a Waikiki hotel, not aboard ship–their physical union is presented as the natural next step in the bonding of brother warriors, true to each other unto death. Whether author Case’s love scenes were never written or cut out of this essentially mainstream novel I have no idea. As published, the curtain comes down before the shirts come off.

Just as masters of age-of-sail historical fiction must be intimately familiar with foremasts, rigging, celestial navigation and hardtack, Ensan Case is equally at home with the details of aerial and naval warfare. Presumably a veteran of the conflict, he is entirely convincing in his scene-setting, expertly mixing technical details and the emotions of men in love and at war. Here, about midway through the book, is his first description of a pilot taking off from the deck of a carrier–in almost total darkness. The point of view, though written third person, is Trusteau’s:

Shadowy shapes moved around Fred, and a single red wand popped into existence in the hands of some invisible deck officer. Taxi her forward, said the wand. Fred released his brakes and increased his throttle, rolled the Hellcat forward. Hold it there, said the wand. Fred stood on the upper portion of the rudder pedals and felt the plane hunker to a stop. Run her up, said the wand.

Fred stood on the brakes with all the strength he possessed and increased the throttle smoothly all the way to the stop, feeling the cyclonic power of the engine lift the tail into the air. Then he leaned all the way to the left and found the hooded deck lights that told him where the deck was, and where it wasn’t. In that brief interval, before the wand snapped downward and he released his brakes, he had time to think that despite the chaos of the launch, he was ready for whatever would come, ready because the only man among them who had kept his temper and remained calm through it all would be flying there in front of him.

Go, said the wand, and Fred flew away into the night.

This is solid, no-nonsense American writing: hunker, cyclonic, hooded, “where the deck was, and where it wasn’t.”

Case also has fun with names. Jack Hardigan explains itself. Trusteau acquires the nickname “Trusty” partly because of his supposed prowess with women but also because of his reliability as a warrior. One pilot is named Brogan, another Duggin.

There are battles: Wake Island, Tarawa and Truk Lagoon. In the latter attack, Jack’s fighter squadron and other U.S. planes sink a large portion of the Japanese fleet. Men on both sides are wounded, shot down, burned to death and blown to pieces. Suspicions about the lovers arise in at least one pilot’s mind but are too terrible, too dangerous, to voice. Fred becomes an ace, one of the top navy guns, thereby acquiring a new nickname: Killer. In a final, and ultimately secret act, Jack risks his life for his wingman.

The last couple of chapters, a postwar montage, wraps up loose ends without adding much to what’s come before. For my money, Wingmen would be a finer novel if it ended in 1945. Still, I know of no better m/m adventure-romance set during World War II. This is a five-star must read, a treasure for all fans of historical military fiction.

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

From Publishers Weekly

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: 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: Per Ardua by Jessie Blackwood

Addicted to the soaring skies, brash high-flier Arthur Edward “Jack” Ratigan returns to Britain to fly bombers when his birth country goes to war against Germany in World War II. It also means a return to his ancestral home of Pren Redyn House in Wales—and risking his career and freedom if it comes to light that he is homosexual. The drama and peril of combat will create profound changes in Jack both during and after the war, as will the influence of Ifan Griffith, the young butler at Pren Redyn and the one person who seems immune to the Ratigan charm. The sky has always been Jack’s true love, but when he faces a future of never flying again, he’ll discover he’s already found a surprising new home for his heart—with Ifan.

Review by Alex Beecroft

The blurb is possibly a little misleading as it certainly led me to expect there to be more flying in this book. I would summarize the story more like this:

Jack Ratigan’s bomber is shot down. He manages to safely crash land at his own airfield and saves the life of all his crew, but it’s at the cost of spinal injuries that leave him paralysed from the waist down. When he gets out of hospital (with some hope that he may get some movement back in time) he goes to convalesce and build a new life back at Pren Redyn. The story revolves around the family who live there, and the relationship between Jack and the butler of the house, who volunteers to care for him.

Beyond the crash scene at the beginning, the war doesn’t really come into the story. When I realized this, about half way through, I exclaimed to my husband “why would you set a story in WW2 if you’re only going to have it all take place in a big house like any novel set from Georgian to Edwardian times?” He’s a lot wiser than me and remarked that just because it’s set in that era doesn’t mean it has to be about the war. To which I grumbled that I would have preferred a few more explosions.

But this is a quieter book than that. More about a man coming to terms with the loss of his RAF career, learning to live with disability and to give up part of his independence. Jack is used to being the charming centre of attention and the man of action, and has scorned Ifan because he did not understand how anyone could be a servant all their life. Now he has to learn to appreciate what a vital role Ifan performs and what a capable personality it must take to undertake it. He must also learn to redefine himself and find something new to live for now that he will never be a pilot again.

I read to the end of this book with no great sense of hardship, which is more than I can say for many m/m romances. But I can’t say that I was ever particularly riveted either. Quiet psychological drama is not really my cup of tea. I felt that Ifan never really became anything more than simply a very capable person – he didn’t really come alive for me enough to care about him. Equally, I felt that Jack was described as charming, but I never actually found him charming. In fact there was a lot of that – a lot of instances where we were told things but never shown them.

The opening scene in the crashing bomber is my favourite part of the book, a gripping, suspenseful and action packed scene which showed that the author had done her research and pulled me straight into the action.

After this high point, however, there is a chapter or so where we are filled in on the backstory of every character in the book, including where they grew up and went to school, their parents’ backstories and sometimes even their grandparents’ backstories. All of this in a massive info-dump which I found entirely pointless and annoying, particularly as none of the information proved to be relevant later. If I had not had to finish the book for reviewing purposes, I would probably have stopped reading it at this point. Which would have been a shame, as it improves later.

The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks that fill us in on more of Jack and Ifan’s backstory individually and together. (They didn’t like each other initially. Jack taunted Ifan to the point where Ifan’s employer had to tell Jack to lay off. After which Ifan mysteriously fell in love with Jack.)

The nested flashback is another of those things that really isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer a story to start at the beginning and go on until the end. With this book there were a couple of occasions where I got confused about what time in Jack’s life I was reading about and had to stop and say to myself “no, hold on, he’s walking at this point, so it must be earlier than the part I was just reading about.”

Eventually the flashbacks do catch up with the present, and from that point on the story unfolds in linear fashion. This was a great relief and I enjoyed the final two or three chapters almost as much as the very first scene. My feeling, as a result, is that there’s a good book in here but it’s being undermined by the kind of structural problems which are often the downfall of first novels.

If you don’t mind backstory, info-dumps and flashbacks, and you enjoy a quiet romance where not a lot really happens, this will be very much more your sort of thing than it was mine. I still wish that there had been a few more explosions.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press (paper and ebook)

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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A Room in Chelsea Square by Michael Nelson

Patrick, fabulously wealthy and with a good eye for pictures and young men, brings the impressionable Nicholas Milestone to London, intent on reducing him to utter dependence by playing on his naivety and greed.  But Nicholas proves to be not quite as pliable as hoped, and a witty social comedy develops as he struggles with the web that Patrick has so richly woven for him.

Review by Erastes

As promised, here is the second book written in the 1950′s – following on the from my review of what I found to be the rambly and uber-literary The Bitterweed Path.

Imagine Wodehouse set in the 1940′s with a gay main character as rich as Bertie and used to getting his own way in all things.  It’s not a comedy, as such, although it has some amusing moments, it’s more a witty satire and an exploration of a particular set of men–gay and otherwise–in 1940′s London.

Patrick is, as the first line describes: “very, very rich.” He’s currently single, and, as the book opens, he’s shopping for presents for a handsome young man he’s recently met in the country. With ease, using a wide net of ex-boyfriends, he arranges Nicholas a job at a tabloid newspaper to tempt him to London, and when he arrives, meets him at the station and inveigles excuse after excuse to prevent the young man starting work, moving him into his suite at a hotel, and lavishing an expensive lifestyle on him.

The book takes place over the space of a week, following Nicholas’ introduction into Patrick’s lifestyle, meeting his friends and resisting Patrick’s advances.  He’s not entirely the ingénue that Patrick imagines him to be however:

Nicholas had a thoroughly miserable bath.  He knew that he couldn’t evade Patrick’s advances much longer.  It was no good pretending that Patrick was going to support him from purely altruistic motives.  Patrick wanted his pound of flesh, he was was going to make sure he got it.  What did sex matter anyway?  It was a small price to pay for all the things that Patrick could offer him in exchange.

The novel was published entirely anonymously when it first came out and from the frank portrayal of gay characters you would think you could understand why, but it goes a little deeper than that.  In fact, it’s semi-autobiographical.  The introduction in the 1986 reissued GMP version  by Philip Core explains that “Patrick” is a thinly veiled portrait of Peter Watson: associated for a long while with Cecil Beaton, co-founder of the ICA and wealthy homosexual sponsor of Bacon, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Vaughan, Minton and other homosexual painters. Michael Nelson (the “Nicholas” of the book) was in reality pursued by Watson, who bought him Picassos and Sutherlands as part of his seduction technique.

Nicholas–like the real life Nelson–is prevented from starting at his Tabloid newspaper by the dangling of a greater carrot, a job on a new arts magazine “Eleven” (which was “Horizon” in real life) together with his friend Michael, Christopher Pyre (Stephen Spender in reality) and a former protégé of Patrick’s: the bon-viveur Ronnie Gras (Cyril Connolly).  It is Nicholas’ constant prevarication as to whether to succumb to Patrick’s gentle but lavish onslaught that eventually causes his downfall.

But aside for the historical interest, it’s a highly enjoyable and entertaining read, particularly because it’s written in the rather affected slang of the upper middle and upper class of the time.

And some dialogue must have been positively shocking at the time, although it probably went over the head of many, just as the outrageous double-entendres of Julian and Sandy slid past the censors in Round the Horne.  There’s one scene where Nicholas says he’s tired and Patrick advises he should rest, saying:

An hour on your back with your legs up will do you the world of good.

Much of the dialogue is hugely bitchy too, and I loved it, because that’s no exclusivity of being gay – that’s how people really talk.

I highly recommend this: It might be rather too English for many, but if you enjoy any films of Noel Coward or in fact any film that deals with this era of the aesthete then you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s also very interesting to compare and contrast with Mr Page and Mr Clive, which concentrates more on unhappiness and closeted misery, but then this book was written in the era, not about the era, so one wonders which one is nearer to the truth.

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Review: It Takes Two by Elliott Mackle


A “who and why-done-it” mystery set in 1940s Florida, Dan Ewing is the manager of the Caloosa Hotel, which privately caters to the very special needs of its guests, and Bud Wright is a police detective whose passionate desire for Dan is in conflict with his desire to shut Dan’s business down. When one black man and one white man are suddenly killed in an apparent murder suicide, Dan and Bud find themselves up against local business, political and religious leaders as they are entrenched in one small southern town’s deeply hidden secrets.

Now reissued in print and ebook by Lethe Press – 2012

Review by Erastes

One of the reviews I’ve seen for this book calls it a “gay romance for grown ups” and that’s not a bad assessment. It starts with an existing ‘affair’ between Bud and Dan. However, whereas Dan is happy in his skin and knows his sexuality and is comfortable with it, Bud is most certainly not.  Not only is Bud a cop, and understandably cautious to be around Dan, but he’s bisexual with a preference for men, and he’s fighting it.

This is 1949 Florida, and both men were in the services in World War 2.  Bud was a “jarhead” – a grunt, a marine; going where he was sent, doing what he was told to do. He’s highly decorated and not particularly unsettled by the war. Dan however, having been on the Indianapolis when it was torpedoed by the Japanese, and having spent four days drifting in a lifeboat with dead bodies and sharks all around, and no food or water–has re-occuring nightmares and no wonder!  The fact that he lost the first man that he loved on that ship too, compounds his mental damage.  Both men use devices to justify why they like the other–Bud calls Dan “Coach” because he reminds him of a schoolboy crush he once had, and Dan feels that, as he doesn’t have the nightmares when Bud’s around, it must mean something special.

But Bud is skittish, he’s obviously hugely attracted, and very fond of Dan, but he uses every excuse not to admit to himself that this is anything more than mutual relief.  Even the language the men use distances themselves from the fact that they are in a relationship.  “Mixing it up” and “fooling around” and never “making love,” or even “having sex.” Dan is a lot more pragmatic; he likes Bud, he wants Bud and he knows Bud is keen on him, and sexually attracted to him and he gets frustrated that Bud is often so dismissive and often insulting–saying he’s not a fruit and neither is Dan.

There’s a lot of Non-PC language (and attitudes)  in this book, but it’s all perfectly in place. You expect people of this era to use language that would be entirely unacceptable today. But be warned if you aren’t able to read about realism in this time and place.

Another major reason why Bud is nervous of getting involved with Dan is that Dan is the manager of the Caloosa Hotel. On the outside, a prosperous and ordinary hotel, dealing with the higher end of the market, but on the inside it has a private club where anything goes, depending on what the customer wants.  It’s owned by Dan’s old Admiral who picked Dan up from the whore-pits of Asia after the war and brought him home.  In this position, Dan is buffered from the local law enforcement–they know what goes on, and what Dan is (and many other employees are) but the organised crime of the area keeps Dan more at arm’s length from this.  Obviously Bud has a problem with this–but he also sees the corruption in his own police department and can’t decide which is worse.

Bud’s reticence and continuing resistence to Dan eventually pushes the relationship to breaking point and it’s there that decisions have to be made.

Add to all this a good sexually motivated double-interracial murder with questions on all sides: Who killed whom? Who was shagging whom? And a cast of characters both “straight laced and then some” and otherwise, camp bartenders, sexy priests and the Ku Klux Klan threatening the hotel, it all adds up to a great fast paced read with a romance so masculine you just want to smack their heads together and tell them to fucking TALK to each other. (Which of course they never do.)

Mr Mackle really writes what he knows. As a homosexual member of the armed forces, his inside knowledge rings very true, particularly dealing with the memories of Dan’s time in the navy.  Highly recommended and certainly one book that needs a boost and a lot more attention. As far as I can see it’s now out of print which is criminal.  Go buy!

Author’s Website (one of the best I’ve seen)

Buy at Lethe Press

Review: Heartache Cafe by J.S. Cook

J.S. Cook debuts haunted American expatriate Jack Stoyles, whose numb exile in an unexpected Atlantic outpost is suddenly brightened by a stranger who kisses him — and then dies. Betrayal, graft, a lost girl, and too many deaths. With good reason Jack called his place Heartache Cafe.

This short story in ebook format part of the Partners in Crime #5 Committed to Memory print series.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The version of the e-book I received features two stories, “Don’t Look Back” by Josh Lanyon and “Heartache Café” by J.S. Cook. Only “Heartache Café” is historical fiction, which I realized halfway into “Don’t Look Back”—I just had too much fun with Josh Lanyon’s story to really care about that I only want to read historicals and my recreational reading was supposed to wait. Best-laid plans. So, I’d definitely recommend reading the two-author anthology; also because Lanyon and Cook have two very distinct voices which fit together very well for the purposes of this book that explores memory and memory loss.

Heartache Café is set in St John’s, Newfoundland, in the early 1940′s. The American Jack has just set up a new life for himself in the town and opened the eponymous café, when his peace is shattered by shady dealings. His bartender, Chris, gets involved with a lady and tied into a larger intrigue, which leads to people getting murdered and Jack investigating the mysteries of the harbor town. I don’t want to give too much away, and it isn’t really necessary to talk all that much about the plot, because I found the writing and the voice of our first person narrator Jack most compelling. This is one of those texts that aren’t easy, but it’s intense and engrossing; J S Cook shows her literary roots again clearly here. Just like in “Because you Despise Me”, it’s the language that compels about the story:

It was dark when I woke up, and the face looking back at me from the rearview mirror had a five o’clock shadow and then some. A little warning voice in the back of my brain was telling me that this was bad, this was really bad, this was worse than anything, and maybe I shouldn’t get out of the car, maybe I should just call the cops.

I didn’t listen. I never do. I went up that filthy, stinking little alley, and I opened his office door, but I was much too late, and he was gone. There was blood everywhere.

I stopped my car just before the bridge and walked on. The sun was rising, the first rays creeping over the city a little at a time. I looked up at the great steel span of the bridge, and I began to climb. The cables cut into my bare hands, and I was almost weeping with the cold, but I kept climbing. I’d climb so far that it would never touch me. I’d climb until I could forget that awful little room and the stink of blood and all the rest of this sordid mess. I’d climb till I was free. I stood there looking down into the icy water and wondering if the drop would be enough to kill me, or if I’d drown first…or die of cold. I saw the weirdest thing — a small sailboat coming down the river, tacking into the wind — a ridiculous little thing, no bigger than a minute, sailing down the Delaware like it had every right to be there. I thought about pictures I’d seen of graceful feluccas on the Nile River in Egypt, and as I watched the little boat tacking into the wind, something occurred to me. I climbed down from the bridge, walked to where my car was parked, got in and drove away.

Jack is a deep guy, seemingly private, but also readily makes friends. Much remains under the surface, not because Jack attempts to hide anything, but because he mostly keeps his own counsel and rarely shows his hand, unless he has to. What lies underneath is poignant loneliness which isn’t really resolved with sex (and he finds a couple casual ‘lovers’) or friendship. At the bottom of it, Jack is, I think, a romantic looking for the one true love, a man who can fascinate and enrapture him and sweep him off his feet to break through all his protective layers. One such man presents himself in a mysterious Egyptian who appears almost more like a fairy-tale creature than a man of flesh and blood at first. While Jack solves the crime and survives danger and distress, his heart gets stolen in the course of the story, but this love story isn’t resolved (yet).

“Heartache Café” is the first part of a series, or connected to an upcoming novel called “Valley of the Dead”, which will take us to Egypt on the quest for the vanished lover.

In terms of history, I saw no flaw, but I didn’t expect any—the writing is smooth and engrossing, I read this in two sittings and completely forgot everything else around me. Closing the book (or the file) I felt I knew that world and its inhabitants and Jack. And that’s really the point of reading, isn’t it?

Review: Because You Despise Me by J S Cook

When Feldwebel Horst Stussel is murdered in Jake’s Plenty’s brothel, local police chief Captain Nicholas Renard suspects Jake’s involvement in the crime – but with an Allied invasion of North Africa mere days away, Jake and Renard must combine their wits, their cunning and their courage to defeat the Nazis for once and for all.

Review by Vashtan

It’s hard to review a friend’s book. Any quick Google search would reveal that J S Cook and me chat a lot, are “friends” on Goodreads and Livejournal, so I tell it as it is. I know the writer, and I like what she does.

I’ve been struggling with whether to review her books at all, and a case could be built either way. The more I interact with other writers, the more people I get to know and like. In several cases, I’ve sent them the review first, we started chatting…and there’s
another writing friendship/contact made. I can’t help it, it happens.

Now, I don’t want to cut myself off from my peers and other writers to stay “impartial”. But I also want to keep my integrity as a reviewer. I am the critique partner of several writers, and those can all attest that I will tell them “this sucks, do it again” if I honestly believe it does suck. I expect no less from them when they critique me. Yet, under no circumstances, would I review a book I’ve critiqued – that kind of involvement is totally different to that of a reader and my objective eye would be totally blind. But if I wouldn’t review any books by people I know in one capacity or other, I will pretty soon be in the position where I can’t review at all.

However, these relationships happen after the fact in most cases. It’s the prose that catches my eye first, not the writer. And since I’m terribly picky in my private reading, I tend to hang out with people whose work I enjoy and like.

That’s the background. Feel free to read anything I write about this book with a few pinches of salt. I’ve been thinking about how to do this for two weeks, and I still might not be totally impartial, but here goes.

The reason why I wanted to read this book is the setting. “Because You Despise Me” is set the fictional town of Maarif in WWII-era Morocco, and since my non-fiction reading at the moment is all about WWII and research for the same time period, I was very curious how Cook handles the era.

She handles it exceedingly well – I found the period detail and people overall historically believable, and Cook seems to have researched details meticulously well. It’s the kind of setting I can relax into, knowing that the author won’t let me down with a reference that catapults me into the ‘modern’ age. There are a few things that don’t
match up, however. The evil guy’s name, Aleksander Danzig, has a very uncommon spelling of the first name for a German – it looks rather like a strange hybrid between the German and Russian spelling of the name, and as a German, I found the German sentences used in the book to be mostly nonsensical. A non-native speaker of German would probably not have noticed, but it did throw me in one scene (proof that I haven’t critiqued this book). There’s an editing issue as well – the murdered whore, Yvette, becomes Yvonne once or twice in the book.

Those niggles aside, what we are reading with this book is probably best described as “the gay ‘Casablanca’”. The set-up of the plot, the setting, the time, and the overall feel reminded me strongly of ‘Casablanca’, and what I remember of that film after about fifteen or twenty years seems to match up. A little research on http://www.imdb.com
unearthed the full range of parallels; we have the police officer, the Nazi plot, the resistance fighters desperate to leave, and a love story, but the love story in “Because You Despise Me” naturally happens between two of the men rather than the heterosexual couple in the 1942 classic.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have turned into a gay rip-off of a classic tale, but Cook plays with the reader and gives us a whole level to explore and hints to discover. The title of the book is from a famous line in the film, and rather than rip the tale off wholesale, she mirrors the story, distorts it, re-imagines key scenes and the two men driving her tale. There are many clever allusions, such as very similar names and quotes from the film, so that this becomes less ‘fan fiction’ or ‘rip-off’ and more a homage, skirting the edge of a meta story. However, the woman who parallels the film’s love interest Ilsa felt like she didn’t really serve a purpose in the book, and I wonder if it hadn’t been better if she had been removed from the cast altogether.

For all the inspiration drawn from the film, “Because You Despise Me” stands on its own, and can be enjoyed both by those who know the film and always wondered about the chemistry between the two male actors, and those who are unaware of the classic. There is also the murder investigation that draws the two men together and which is seamlessly
worked into the plot.

What we then have is a tale about living on the edge of civilisation, in a place where the scoundrels, riff-raff and assorted adventurers congregate, and, if they are lucky, find themselves and each other.

It’s romantic, but the love story is not the be-all and end-all of the book; while the love story is central to the story about espionage, deceit and mistrust, Cook balances it well with the rest of the tale. So few gay romances have a world and plot built around the characters; too often, they serve as window dressing in the couple’s bedroom.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this (and the writer in general) is that Cook is an accomplished craftswoman, and I really enjoy her clear, evocative and subtly nuanced style. Here’s a great writer who has previously published literary fiction and transfers those skills into adventure and romance fictio, which makes her clearly stand out. Exactly what I want to see more of. I would love to be entertained more often by a writer that knows their craft and uses it and that strives and works hard on their prose so that it looks effortless.

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Review: The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

A colorful novel of the circus world of the 1940s and 1950s, rich in detail, bursting with power and emotion.  Mario Santelli, a member of the famous flying Santelli family, is a great trapeze artist. Tommy Zane is his protege.

As naturally and gracefully as they soar through the air, the two flyers find themselves falling in love. Mario and Tommy share sweet stolen moments of passion, but the real intensity of their relationship comes from their total devotion to one another and to their art.

As public figures in a conservative era, they cannot reveal their love. But they will never renounce it.

Review by Erastes

As a fan of circus stories, and someone who has been so since a little kid, this was something I was really looking forward to.  I had very few preconceptions, as I didn’t know what era it was set in or whether it had a romance ending, or anything.  I love films such as Trapeze (I saw the homoerotic subtext in there, even before I discovered gay romance) and The Greatest Show on Earth so as I say I was happy to jump in to The Catch Trap.

And overall I wasn’t disappointed.  Tommy Zane  is the young son of lion tamers who realises early on that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and train the big cats, he’s always wanted to fly–and before the Santellis arrive at the second-rate circus his family is working in–he hasn’t been given the chance.  He has, however, had a lot of experience in many related disciplines; he helps out with the aerial ballet, does tumbling and generally helps out wherever needed.  When watching one of the flyers working, he’s invited up onto the practice rig, and his life changes forever.

The story is–at its core–the tale of the romance between Tommy and Mario, and this takes many years to spin out, and has inevitable ups and downs, but it’s a lot more than that too.  Mario is working on a triple somersault, something that had, at this time (1940s/1950s) only been done by a very few people.  In fact, it was, before someone did it, considered an impossible feat.

A note should be added here about the history.  In a lengthy foreword, the author explains that she decided for various reasons to make the history of the trapeze and in particular, the triple somersault, an alternate history. I can see her concerns, considering the homosexual plotline, but I wish she hadn’t done it, as I always like to be informed when reading, saying to myself “I did not know that!” and as she’s invented the first proponent of the triple, and the men who are performing it, I didn’t get that kick of real history.

After a while, Tommy is invited to train properly and moves in with the Santelli family, a vast, bickering exuberant bunch. The family Santelli is a wonderful invention, from the matriarch down to the children.  The family are all flying mad, and are held together by discipline and tradition going back fifty years.  At times I found the endless bickering and arguing repeitive in the extreme, and there’s sometimes too much dialogue which goes nowhere, and could easily have been cut, but this doesn’t spoil the story overall.  Like all families, there’s good and bad, and acceptance, when it does come, comes from an unexpected source, and rejection and bigotry also comes from a source you don’t see coming.

Tommy is fifteen when he’s first approached sexually by Mario, so people who find anyone having sex under 18 as distasteful are going to want to avoid this.  I admit I found it mildly disturbing–not because of Tommy’s youth even in the times that this was set–but because Mario’s first approach came over as little more than “interfering” with Tommy when he was in no position to object (they were sitting in the back of a moving car).  Previous to this they had been sharing a bed, and arms had been put around each other “in sleep” and “unconscious” kisses exchanged, but this was passed off by Tommy as that Mario was asleep and didn’t know what he was doing.  It didn’t matter to me that Tommy was accepting of this back seat advance, Mario knew that Tommy could hardly scream “get off me!” and so in this case I did, as I said, find it a little creepy, even though Tommy didn’t mind.

This is actually echoed by Mario, as the first part of their relationship is peppered with a lot of guilt and disgust on his part as he castigates himself for having “corrupted” Tommy and is justifiably scared of what would happen if it was found out, as he’s about 8 years older, he knows that Tommy would not–in all likelihood–have anything really bad happen to him, but it would be jail for Mario, and that’s somewhere he’s been before.

At times I found Mario pretty hard going, and I think that if I was Tommy I would have given up on him pretty early on, but Tommy is in love and there’s little stronger than a teenager’s first love.  Their relationship is pretty stormy; inevitable really, considering the pressure cooker it’s kept in–not being able to be openly affectionate in any way, keeping it secret despite sharing a room.  Both of them have hot tempers, Mario in particular, and this is another reason why I lost respect for him, because his own self-loathing breaks into violence with Tommy on more than one occasion.

Tommy is a little difficult to get to know–he goes through a lot, but because the author rarely lets us into anyone’s head, it’s hard to fathom.  He leaves home for the Santellis and hardly looks back, or thinks about his parents, and even when a tragedy hits him–one that I know would have poleaxed me for weeks, it’s hardly mentioned after the occurrence.  I’m sure the author didn’t mean to make him shallow, she’s probably concentrating on other aspects of the plot, but at times he comes across as such.

It’s very much Tommy’s story–and we follow it from his underage crush, to the state where he’s grown up and out from Mario’s aggressive and over-moody wing and begins to doubt whether he can live with this man, this secret and this family any more, and what place he’ll ever have in Mario’s life, and how to achieve it.

What I was a little disappointed with, is that there’s not enough of the life of the circus in the description.  There’s a good deal of the trapeze of course, and I learned a lot–the Catch Trap for example is the Catcher’s Trapeze–but there wasn’t enough of the daily routine, little description of the tearing down and the rebuilding of the circus, few interractions with all the varied people who must frequent such a place, and I would have liked to have seen more of that.

Anyone expecting an easy, loving romance should be aware, it’s simply not that.  There are very few scenes where the couple are comfortable and sweet with each other, and that’s just how it should be.  It’s often an uncomfortable read–a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not only with the fear of the discovery of their relationship, or for queerbashing purposes, but because of the very real danger that the flyers face, every time they climb the ladders onto the rig.  I doubt Ms Bradley ever flew, but she’s certainly done her research.

I’m slicing a star off from the review for the beginning love scene, and for the uneven and often repetitive writing. It’s a large book, and would have benefited from a bit of a chop here and there.  But as a stimulating and thoughtful romance, forged in danger and cemented in the air,  it’s certainly a book that will keep you thinking about the protagonists, long after you’ve finished.

What’s unbelievable, in these days of a gay romance boom, that this book is out of print, and copies aren’t that easy to come by, and often are hugely expensive, but if you fancy a good read, then keep trying, you’ll pick one up eventually. Despite the missing star, I do consider this to be an Essential Read for anyone serious about writing gay historical fiction.

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Review: The Lonely War by Alan Chin

The key issue keeping the U.S. armed forces from going beyond Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to give gay servicemen equal rights is a blind fear of love relationships forming, not between enlisted soldiers but between officers and soldiers, which would undermine the chain of command. The Lonely War tackles this topic head on. It tells the story of an enlisted sailor who falls in love with his executive officer. When the crew of the USS Pilgrim become POWs in Changi, a notoriously brutal prison camp, this sailor is elevated though hardship and love to discover his inner resources and extraordinary courage, allowing him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved. Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story written about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.

A collaborative review by Leslie H. Nicoll and Natasha Villion

Let’s start the year with a five star review, shall we? If you are hankering for a well written, historically accurate World War II story that will tug at your heartstrings, The Lonely War by Alan Chin should go straight to the top of your TBR pile.

I read and reviewed this book for jessewave’s site a few weeks ago and promised Erastes I would revise my review for Speak Its Name. Reviews here at the site were put on hold due to the Advent Calendar festivities and that turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events. One of the regular commenters at Wave’s site, “Tish” (Natasha), got in touch with me about The Lonely War. She had recently read and enjoyed another book of military stories, Hidden Conflict (which was reviewed here just a few days ago) and was interested in The Lonely War. But, she also had a personal history with Changi prison and wondered how explicit The Lonely War was. “Chin doesn’t pull any punches,” I said. “He’s pretty clear about what went on in the notorious POW camp.” Even though she had a few trepidations, Tish decided to read The Lonely War—and was glad she did. “This is definitely one of my top reads for the year,” she wrote me. “Maybe even forever—it’s that good.”

I asked Tish if she would write a review for Speak Its Name because I thought her personal experience with the prison (through her family) was an interesting context for reading the book. At first she demurred but then, with some urging from her husband, decided to accept my invitation. The following is her review.

~~~

This story both terrified and enthralled me. Maybe I should explain a little bit about who I am. I was born in Singapore to a Malay/Indian mother and a white Royal Navy father in the 1960s. So WW2 was still quite fresh in people’s minds. Singapore had expelled the communists and had moved away from British rule. It was a glorious upbringing but the underlying sadness of those that lived through WW2 was ever present.

Changi had become a full prison but the beaches around it were a popular swimming place for locals and us temporary locals. There were still small Malay villages with houses sitting on stilts with their palm frond roofs. The old men sat in the shade and watched the mad Europeans dash around the beach playing cricket and other English staple sports.

I was raised by a Malay woman who was both our amah (maid) and nanny.  She told my sister and me stories of the Japanese invasion of her island and how her father had helped smuggle British and Australian soldiers out of the prison and into Malaysia.

My mother told me stories of her father and grandfather and the torture they suffered at Changi prison during the war. They were accused of aiding and spying for the British, which they most proudly did. My great grandfather died during one of these torture sessions watched by his son, my grandfather.

I have yet to come across any Asian who is bitter about the war. Maybe they know more about forgiveness than I do.

This story, The Lonely War by Alan Chin, is about Andrew Waters, an Asian American seaman with the US Navy.  The book is written in three distinct parts. The first is set aboard the US Navy ship, The Pilgrim; the second, at Changi prison; and the third, in Japan, after the war has ended.

Raised in Thailand and forced to leave when it is invaded, Andrew tries to make a life for himself as a Buddhist and pacifist in the US Navy.  It was his American father’s wish that Andrew join the Navy and Andrew, being a good Asian son, complies. He is very well educated but not of officer rank. He struggles to maintain a polite distance from all the other men on the ship except one.

The first part of the story, while aboard the USS Pilgrim, has Andrew battling wits with an officer, who is both enthralled and confused by him. This part of the book sets the tone and pace of a love story that lasts a lifetime. It also shows what life was like for non-whites during WW2 and the way they were treated and what was expected of them. It is a good depiction of life aboard a ship of war. Part One ends when the ship is attacked and the men are taken prisoner by the enemy.

Part Two is set during the prisoners’ internment at Changi prison, run by the Japanese. For me, this section of the book was terrifying, as I knew from family accounts how ruthless the Japanese were. Even telling such a horrific tale, the writing was very tastefully done. Some of what is described is completely believable, such as the making protein from insects to trade among prisoners. In this part of the story, Andrew shines, although you might not realize it at first. His love for his officer makes him do something that changed him forever. I liked the way this part of the book unfolded and Andrew’s dilemma was handled. It wasn’t gratuitous or unbelievable. He kept the soul of himself intact and that alone made this section more believable for this reader.

Part Three is Andrew’s journey after the war; it is about promises kept and finding your humanity. His soul is shattered and bleeding. Andrew’s journey in body and spirit is harrowing. His loss and failings are heartbreaking and the writing is so true to his experience that it hurts to read. This kind, gentle, man has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to and it leaves such a bitter taste in your heart you don’t know if you can recover or if he can.

This part sold the story for me. It was so well written that you feel every blade in Andrew’s soul.

I know this story sounds more about war then love, but is it? The author Alan Chin, has written a very good story about WW2 from an Asian American perspective. It is a story of a life-altering experience during internment at one of the most barbaric prisons in Asia and redemption after the war. I found it a truthful telling of one man’s life and a faithful account of the war in Asia. I also found a love story that will stay with me long after the last page has been read. I fell in love with all these brave men and I wish them well wherever they might land.

~~~

At my jessewave review, I gave The Lonely War 4.75 stars because I had a few minor quibbles with some of the writing. While I still stand by what I said, I find I can honestly give the book 5 stars here at Speak Its Name. I was influenced by Tish’s strong reaction to the book and she told me in no uncertain terms it was a 5 star read for her. Also, the historical accuracy was outstanding and that, here at SiN, is the gold standard by which I judge a book and in that respect, it definitely earned its stars.

To conclude, let me repeat my closing paragraph from my earlier review:

I sometimes wonder why I like war stories so much, since I certainly don’t like war! Maybe it is because the well-written ones do so much to point out the futility and ultimate uselessness of killing each other; that being brutal and hateful is not the way to solve problems even when we are put up against evil people. But we persist. In The Lonely War, Chin makes us ask those hard questions again, framing them against the background of very real men caught up in extraordinary and terrible circumstances. He puts World War II on a human plane, which is, for the soldiers and sailors—men like Andrew—how it was fought. As I closed the last page, my heart ached for all of them.

I would suggest that a fitting resolution for 2010 is to put this book on your “must read” list—sooner, rather than later. It’s that good and Tish and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Amazon USA Amazon UK Fictionwise link (ebook)

Review: Islands by Samatha Kane

Lieutenant Commander Gabriel Conlan, United States Navy Seabees, knows he’s not in Kansas anymore when he steps off the launch at the small island of Ile Dorée and sees gorgeous Frenchman René Dubois waiting for him on the dock. The year is 1943, the place is the Pacific and the world is at war. Free from the censure of the military, Gabe has an explosive affair with René. But when the world intrudes, Gabe denies René and tries to forget the best sex of his life.

The only westerner on his small Pacific island, René is desperately lonely. When the tall, lanky American steps onto his dock, René knows his life will never be the same. He teaches Gabe how to make love to a man and, unexpectedly, falls in love. René will brave prejudice, Japanese Zeros and Gabe’s reluctance to find love at last.

Review by Vashtan

I don’t actually read much “romance” outside reviewing here –personally, I much prefer what I call “love stories”, which may or may not end well. I prefer those love stories to have a plot (and, no, “boy meets boy” is rarely enough plot for me). In any case, I like stories to offer more than: “they meet, they have hot sex, and then the author makes up some implausible reason why they can have a happily forever after.”

Or maybe I have just read too much bad romance. I’ve recently educated myself about this much-maligned genre, that, to be frank, I haven’t taken very seriously in the past, and that according to some, makes up 60% of total book sales. Wow.

According to every book I’ve read on the genre (and I want to point you back at Josh Lanyon’s excellent “Man Oh Man” ) you *need* a plot. And a plot is more that the hawt sex.

I was vaguely amused when I got both “Pacific Nights” by Lynn Lorenz and “Islands” by Samantha Kane in the same email from Erastes (you know the drill… for the purpose of this review). Both are set in the Pacific during WWII.

To make this pretty short, Samantha Kane’s “Islands” runs circles around “Pacific Nights”. Not only does she run circles around the other book, she supplied me with a genuinely enjoyable read. Now, I’mthe nasty grouch on this blog, and I’m more likely to shred something than praise it. Behold, I’m going to praise this.

I don’t actually like “romance” much, if we define “romance” as a genre of improbably beautiful men destined for each other from the moment they lay eyes upon each other and have fantastic sex and then, after some little obstacle on the way, fall into each others’ arms to swear love forevermore. It takes a lot for me to “buy” that. Kane’s characters are larger-than-life, there is a sense of “high drama” about this – but I still buy this, because this book is carefully orchestrated and reminds me a lot of the movies of those times. Glamorous, stylised, somewhat unlikely, with dialogue that is dramatic more than realistic. And the author uses that to full effect, have a taste here:

He walked toward the small launch. There were only four men aboard, so this was to be a brief visit. His chest constricted. He would make the most of their stay, invite them to dinner at the villa, open a few bottles of his best wine and ply them for information of the outside world. He was so hungry for news, for company, for conversation. He loved Île Dorée and the people who lived here. He had no desire to leave, but sometimes he felt like Robinson Crusoe with a hundred Fridays. He wanted the companionship of westerners. He longed for the sharp twang of an American. He’d even settle for the crisp tones of an Englishman or the nasal diction of his native France. Anything from someone who didn’t remind him he was a stranger in this strange and beautiful world.

When a lanky American hopped up onto the dock from the deck of the boat René went still, waiting. The American was tall and fresh-looking, young, handsome. For a moment, René felt as if he were in a Hollywood film watching the hero walk out of the sunset. Or did they do that at the end of the film? Yes, they saved the girl and defeated the villain, then they walked into the sunset. This American resembled a Hollywood actor.

Yes, and it’s a Hollywood movie.

The book begins with the Frenchman, Rene Dubois, who was a former French Foreign Legionnaire, speaking a lot of French, something that can easily be grating, because the author is laying it on pretty thickly. And there’s Lieutenant Commander Gabriel Conlan, who is sent to negotiate with Dubois about the use of his island for military purposes. Both men clearly fall in love very hard; Rene is the suave, unashamed, romantic Frenchman (and he plays it to the hilt, and playing it for Gabriel’s sake). Gabriel is the man worried about his career in the United States Navy Seabees, the engineer corps, and who has never loved romantically, only sexually.

The setting is the tropical island if Ile Doree (“golden island”) in 1943, which is located near the Ellice Islands, today’s Tuvalu. The island comes across much like a paradise endangered by war – and prejudice, because the local Samoans not only don’t care about homosexuality in their midst, they have so-called fa’afafine, a third gender of boys brought up as and dressing and behaving as girls, and Rene is very protective of his people and their culture.

The US Navy wants to build an airfield and hospital on the island that Rene owns, and that provides the conflict between these two men, which, like in any good romance, is resolved and everything turns out well for everybody. Of course. Happy sigh.

Kane succeeds in making me believe in this setting; her details are, as far as I can tell, accurate and well-researched. People talk about types of planes, locations, ranks, politics – in short, they actually do inhabit this world, which makes this a real historical romance for me. The story and description is a little sappy – but in the good way.

Think Hollywood movie, think weeping violins in the background, dramatic lightning, and beautiful people. It’s a forties movie rather than a gritty war story, and that works surprisingly well for me.

There is a plot – the plot is the danger that the war poses to Ile Doree, and how Rene fights to protect it. There is an air raid, and the military detail fit the story. Kane has clearly gone to lengths to make this as real as possible. There is also Gabriel’s development from a man who had anonymous fucks to a man who truly, romantically, loves another man.

The book has a few small issues, one of them is the formatting that gives us squished chapter headings and paragraph breaks in unlikely places, but if you want a sweet, historical romance with a happy ending (and lots of sexual tension and steamy sex) here’s a book I’d recommend. At just over 30thousand words and about 120 pages, I would have liked this to be longer (Rene just screams for more stories about him), but overall, I found this to be a satisfying read.

Author’s Website

Buy at Ellora’s Cave

Review: Pacific Nights by Lynn Lorenz

On a deserted island in the Pacific, surrounded by the enemy, two very different men learn to rely on each other for survival. Mike is an uneducated rascal, one step ahead of prison and a court-martial. He’s given one chance to redeem himself: if he wants to stay out of jail, he has to keep Professor James Hamilton alive. No matter what.

James is everything Mike isn’t–suave, educated, intellectual, and rich. He’s also a conscientious objector and he’s made a deal with the army–three months on the island breaking codes as long as he doesn’t have to kill anyone.

Mike is Catholic, the son of immigrants, and has never acted on his desires. James is Jewish, the son of Boston society, and experienced in love between men. During their hazardous stay on the island, they teach each other about life, friendship, and survival. With only them to say what’s right and wrong, the men make a deal: Mike must give himself to James for one day, submit to him completely, and James will allow Mike to take him whenever Mike wants to slake his sexual needs.

But once the war is over, can they keep the promises made on those hot Pacific nights and find one place both of them can call home?

Review by Vashtan

“Pacific Nights” tells the story of Mike Dabrowski and James Hamilton, who get the job to break codes on an island in the Pacific during WWII. The guys are very much the ‘odd couple’. Mike is a rough sergeant, Polish, Catholic, lower class, whereas James is a Jewish mathematician and code-breaker, refined, upper class.

This short novel of around 32-33k words starts at night as our heroes jump out of the plane and land on the island. They set up their camp, and discover the wreck of a Japanese plane. From now on, they know there might be a Japanese survivor on the island.

After not too long, Mike becomes aware of an attraction towards the professor who is so very unlike himself. He resents the man but can’t help thinking about him. The tension rises until Mike accuses (for whatever reason, I assume psychological projection) Hamilton of being gay. When Hamilton doesn’t deny or confirm it, Mike is convinced that Hamilton is, indeed, gay, and reverts to sullen hostility.

One month into their three-month mission, Mike suffers from a major case of blue balls and begins to masturbate vocally, aware that the professor can hear him in the other tent and unwilling and seemingly unable to keep it down. Here’s a taste of that:

He lay on his side, as every touch seemed to wrench some sound from his throat. No matter how hard he tried not to make a sound, they bubbled up.

It just felt so good, and he needed to relieve his raging hard-on. He woke with one in the morning and went to bed with one every night, and during the day he struggled to keep one from popping up. It was like he was a kid again, reacting to any glimpse of flesh he could see.

And Hamilton acted as if he didn’t have a dick.

Fuck Hamilton. Mike tasted blood as he bit down on his lip to keep from moaning.

Fucking Hamilton.

Mike’s hand pistoned and his hips jerked in rhythm as he sought that place where he could finally let loose. No more silence.

He moaned, loud and clear, and couldn’t believe how good it felt. It intensified his enjoyment, prolonged the pleasure as if the sound and the feeling were in some way joined.

Let Hamilton hear, damn it. Mike didn’t care anymore. All he needed was to express his pain and his pleasure.

Shit, he didn’t even care if the Jap heard him.

“Keep it down, Sergeant.” Hamilton’s cool voice floated out of the night.

Mike’s dick throbbed harder just knowing James had heard.

“No can do, Professor,” he gritted out. “It’s up, and it’s going to stay that way for a little while longer.”

This is about the moment when the plot, which so far seemed to have been about codebreaking and two very different men learning to cooperate, careens off into all-out porn/erotica. Suffice to say that the two reach an agreement, and from then on, the main focus is on the joys of light bondage. That is where the book stays for a long time, then returns to a semblance on plot, which I found somewhat unconvincing.

Technically, the sexual tension and sex is competently handled and fairly hot. It’s also pretty anachronistic. In their sexual mores, and especially in the porn-style dialogue, I don’t believe for a moment that these are men from the forties. The author strictly uses the Second World War as a pure backdrop – there is very little impact of this massive conflict on these two men (apart from the Japanese survivor, who provides what little plot there is and is responsible for the “dark moment”). I found the characters a bit too cliché to really feel for them, the colours are very stark indeed, up to the point of near-caricature. I would have liked much more exploration of these men, and a bit more subtlety and banter to really see them men fall in love for other reasons than that their sex is good.

The times and setting. Since they are on a nice Pacific island, the war doesn’t really touch them, they don’t have to deal with society or its views on gays, all they have to do is get to grips with each other. Apart from brushed-over codebreaking, they don’t really do much else.

Mike, who’s supposedly a sergeant and a bit of a rogue, doesn’t strike me as a very military man. Both characters are dumped out of a plane at night with seemingly no training, and no survival skills that, as far as I know, every soldier would get that was actually deployed in the wilderness without any other means to feed or care for himself.

While I would believe that from Hamilton who is a civilian, Mike’s relative military incompetence was less convincing. There was none of the grit and realism that I would expect from a novella set in those times and that theatre of war, which was every little bit as horrifying and bloody as the European theatre.

But this novella works quite well if you’re only looking for hot sex and don’t care much about the history, the setting, the morals of the time, and are okay with an ending that evades all potential conflict.

It’s a nice little read that is competently written, but I would have enjoyed a lot more meat – and less “oh my god, James/Mike!”-style sex dialogue.

I received this ebook for the purpose of this review from Erastes.

Author’s website

Buy from:  Loose-ID, Kindle

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.

chauncey-gay-new-york3

Review: Say To Me Where The Flowers Are

Say To Me Where the Flowers Are
Augusta Li and Eon de Beaumont
World War II draws to a close. Hope and happiness are scarce on the streets of Berlin, but step inside one of the city’s celebrated cabaret nightclubs and one can escape the ugliness of war, if only for a few hours. Heinrich, a young German officer visits “Die Comedie des Lebens,” one of the most popular, each night for a chance to see Marika, whose music and heart he immediately falls for. Heinrich is a dream come true for the vocalist, but Marika keeps a dangerous secret and as the love between the two blossom, Marika worries that the secret may tear them apart. Torn between two lives, Marika must make a decision before it’s too late.
Review
We seem to be on a roll here at Speak Its Name, with lots of books that purport to be historical and are anything but.  I had the unfortunate experience of reading Say To Me Where the Flowers Are, the latest casualty in this trend of non-historical historicals. Lucky me.
The blurb states that WWII is drawing to a close so I would date this as 1944 or 1945. The location is Berlin. Now, I have only read about Berlin at that time, but by all accounts, it was a city at the tail-end of a war that the Nazis were losing, bombed and ravaged, its citizens barely able to eke out their lives.  At least that is what history tells us Berlin was like. In the world envisioned by authors Li and de Beaumont, we get this in the second paragraph:
He pushed the small round glasses he wore up his thin nose with one finger and read the gaudy sign that sparkled like a jeweled brooch compared to the gray city surrounding it. Die Komödie des Lebens, one of the many Cabarets that had popped up in the city, afforded the citizenry an escape from the fear and frustration so prevalent in the world. Inside a person could sit down, have a meal and a few drinks, and be entertained by an array of performers. Although the only performer occupying Heinrich’s thoughts as he descended the familiar steps into the Club was Marika.
Cabarets were popping up in 1944? I don’t think so. I almost stopped reading then and there, but I’m a good trooper and Erastes is a friend, so I plowed on.
Believe me, it doesn’t get better. People drink scotch and soda and gin and tonics (in Germany?) and eat steak and lobster and drink fine wine. Marika wears nylons and a garter belt. Everyone lives in nice, big, warm apartments with lots heat and running hot water. “Jewish sympathizers” conveniently appear on the sidewalk to shoot high ranking Nazi officers, allowing the cross-dressing hero/heroine to escape from his evil clutches. When said hero/heroine decides that it is too dangerous to stay in Berlin with his/her new boyfriend, s/he announces, “Let’s go to Amsterdam! There are plenty of people there like me, we’ll be safe!”, they are immediately able to procure tickets for the next evening’s train. And so on.
I’m sorry, but in my eyes, war is a tragedy and when writing story that take place in times of war, the historical context should be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying an author can’t write about the futility of war or its pointlessness, but to write a story that totally ignores the reality of what was going on is wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s offensive.
The story was only 12K words and so much plot was crammed in there that of course, it was superficial and silly. When Heinrich finds out that the love of his life, Marika, is really Mark, he responds with a blithe, “No problem, I’ve known that all along,” and he’s instantly gay. That might work as the punchline in Some Like It Hot, a romantic comedy, but not in an alleged war-time drama.
I could go on but it’s pointless to do so. Believe me when I say that there is nothing that makes this book worthwhile. The dialog is silly (they all sound like present-day Americans), the history is nonexistent and the story is preposterous. Even the sex is dull. All in all, one star and a reminder to myself to pass on future books from this writing team.

World War II draws to a close. Hope and happiness are scarce on the streets of Berlin, but step inside one of the city’s celebrated cabaret nightclubs and one can escape the ugliness of war, if only for a few hours. Heinrich, a young German officer visits “Die Comedie des Lebens,” one of the most popular, each night for a chance to see Marika, whose music and heart he immediately falls for. Heinrich is a dream come true for the vocalist, but Marika keeps a dangerous secret and as the love between the two blossom, Marika worries that the secret may tear them apart. Torn between two lives, Marika must make a decision before it’s too late.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

We seem to be on a roll here at Speak Its Name, with lots of books that purport to be historical and are anything but.  I had the unfortunate experience of reading Say To Me Where the Flowers Are, the latest casualty in this trend of non-historical historicals. Lucky me.

The blurb states that WWII is drawing to a close so I would date this as 1944 or 1945. The location is Berlin. Now, I have only read about Berlin at that time, but by all accounts, it was a city at the tail-end of a war that the Nazis were losing, bombed and ravaged, its citizens barely able to eke out their lives.  At least that is what history tells us Berlin was like. In the world envisioned by authors Li and de Beaumont, we get this in the second paragraph:

He pushed the small round glasses he wore up his thin nose with one finger and read the gaudy sign that sparkled like a jeweled brooch compared to the gray city surrounding it. Die Komödie des Lebens, one of the many Cabarets that had popped up in the city, afforded the citizenry an escape from the fear and frustration so prevalent in the world. Inside a person could sit down, have a meal and a few drinks, and be entertained by an array of performers. Although the only performer occupying Heinrich’s thoughts as he descended the familiar steps into the Club was Marika.

Cabarets were popping up in 1944? I don’t think so. I almost stopped reading then and there, but I’m a good trooper and Erastes is a friend, so I plowed on.

Believe me, it doesn’t get better. People drink scotch and soda and gin and tonics (in Germany?) and eat steak and lobster and drink fine wine. Marika wears nylons and a garter belt. Everyone lives in nice, big, warm apartments with lots of heat and running hot water. “Jewish sympathizers” conveniently appear on the sidewalk to shoot high ranking Nazi officers, allowing the cross-dressing hero/heroine to escape from his evil clutches. When said hero/heroine decides that it is too dangerous to stay in Berlin with his/her new boyfriend, s/he announces, “Let’s go to Amsterdam! There are plenty of people there like me, we’ll be safe!”, they are immediately able to procure tickets for the next evening’s train. And so on.

I’m sorry, but in my eyes, war is a tragedy and when writing story that take place in times of war, the historical context should be treated with dignity and respect. I’m not saying an author can’t write about the futility of war or its pointlessness, but to write a story that totally ignores the reality of what was going on is wrong. In fact, it’s more than wrong, it’s offensive.

The story was only 12K words and so much plot was crammed in there that of course, it was superficial and silly. When Heinrich finds out that the love of his life, Marika, is really Mark, he responds with a blithe, “No problem, I’ve known that all along,” and he’s instantly gay. That might work as the punchline in Some Like It Hot, a romantic comedy movie, but not in an alleged war-time drama.

I could go on but it’s pointless to do so. Believe me when I say that there is nothing that makes this book worthwhile. The dialog is silly (they all sound like present-day Americans), the history is nonexistent and the story is preposterous. Even the sex is dull. All in all, one star and a reminder to myself to pass on future books from this writing team.

Available for purchase (but really, you don’t want to do that) here.

Disclaimer: A free copy of this ebook was provided to me by Erastes, owner of this site, for this review.

Review: The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

The City and the PillarA literary cause célèbre when first published more than fifty years ago, Gore Vidal’s now-classic The City and the Pillar stands as a landmark novel of the gay experience.

Jim, a handsome, all-American athlete, has always been shy around girls. But when he and his best friend, Bob, partake in “awful kid stuff,” the experience forms Jim’s ideal of spiritual completion. Defying his parents’ expectations, Jim strikes out on his own, hoping to find Bob and rekindle their amorous friendship. Along the way he struggles with what he feels is his unique bond with Bob and with his persistent attraction to other men. Upon finally encountering Bob years later, the force of his hopes for a life together leads to a devastating climax. The first novel of its kind to appear on the American literary landscape, The City and the Pillar remains a forthright and uncompromising portrayal of sexual relationships between men.

Review by Hayden Thorne

The process of Jim’s journey of self-discovery was what drew me to this novel, the time period offering a very promising backdrop to an interesting exploration of homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Because Jim, after graduating from high school, takes on odd jobs and wanders almost aimlessly, there was also the anticipation stirred by the image of a colorful parade of different characters who’d shape Jim’s immediate world for better or for worse.

Whether in peace time or during war, in the luxurious glamour of Hollywood or the seedier corners of New York, among the superficial, the bitter, the poseurs, or even among family – Jim’s meandering education is an adventure of the tragi-comic kind. We see much of the multi-layered nature of the homosexual underground, the divisions among gay men, and, tragically, the ambivalence toward their own nature as shaped by their world and the heterosexual status quo. In terms of concept, The City and the Pillar succeeds in carrying out its purpose, and we’re given a complex tapestry of human relationships, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Unfortunately for this reader, that’s all that I can say about the novel’s high points. Vidal’s narrative style is detached and dry. Too dry, in my opinion, so that from start to finish, I wasn’t able to feel any kind of sympathy for Jim or all the other characters, regardless. Whatever tragic or comic elements are there can only be picked up on a more superficial level. We know that Jim’s sad because we’re told that he is. He’s pleased because we’re told that he is. Vidal’s spare prose is too abrupt for it to evoke any kind of significant emotion, and every scene, regardless of its nature, reads like the one before it. It’s almost like listening to a monotonous drone in a lecture hall.

Maybe in the end it’s for the good that the narrative is overly detached and lacking; otherwise, we’d be drowning in an endless parade of lamenting and drama from some of the most miserable characters we’ve ever read. In addition to not feeling any sympathy for Vidal’s cast, I also found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the utter wretchedness of their existence, with each – Sullivan being the worst – not only incapable of feeling joy but also doing everything in his power to ensure a lifetime of disasters and heartbreak. What can we learn from all this? Except for Jim’s final resolution (and, really, the scene offers little comfort), I found nothing to cheer for, and whatever happens to each character at the conclusion of his or her appearance in the novel did little to rouse anything in me. This novel doesn’t only touch on homosexual relationships, but also on heterosexual ones, and across the board, no one’s happy. Those who appear to be, i.e., Carrie and Sally, seem to be that way only because they can’t see beyond the tiny little cubicle that they’ve been forced into, being young rural women.

The novel does attempt to convey the same idea put forth by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which is the fruitless desire for an ideal. Every character, male or female, gay or straight, plays out that desire and its depressing consequences. It’s just too bad that the emotional gap kept me from fully appreciating all of that.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon UK

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: Blitz by Charlie Cochrane

Free Read

Adam Jackson feels frustrated that he isn’t doing more for the war effort; a liaison job with the War cabinet is hardly as glamorous as being in the forces. Nor is London, in the grip of the Blitz, the sort of place where a young man expects to find love, especially when your ideal partner isn’t a young lady.

Hugh Scarborough-a handsome decoder from the same department-is exactly what Adam’s looking for, but will the interest be returned? And what chance can any budding romance have against a background of air raids and huddling in shelters?

Review by Erastes

First of all – good cover. Not mad on the font of the title, and how difficult would it have been to stick a few anti-aircraft beams and barrrage balloons in the sky? But all in all FAR better than naked men having sex in front of the Houses of Parliament. Thumbs up.

The book has an excellent start – a great first line, first paragraph, which pulls you into the story immediately – tells you where you are, when you are, who’s thinking/talking with a bare minimum of fuss. This is a rare talent in my experience, you only need to read the Dear Author first page posts to see that.

A couple of things jarred me – mention of “Jonny-in-the-air” – which should have been “Johnny-head-in-air” from the poem “For Johnny” by John Pudney, written in 1941. I’m pathetic enough to have noticed this because the film “Way to the Stars” quotes it and it’s one of my favourite poems of all time, but no-one else will note this or indeed care – and it certainly doesn’t detract from the feel and atmosphere of this very touching and real-feeling story. The POV does waver from time to time, dropping out of 3rd person to omniescent and flicking back and forth between characters. There were a few -very few- editing issues I noticed but it was probably because I’m suffering from editing PTSD right now.

It’s a short piece – not quite 12 pages, but it manages everything a short story should do – beginning, (with backstory of both characters) middle, conflict (as to what every good gay historical should encompass – that of how two men will manage an affair at all) and a satisfying conclusion. That Cochrane manages this in 3000 words is a testament to her quiet and efficient style, making each word count, each phrase tell its own story. This is demonstrated most in the sex scene, where – Renault-like- she gives a feeling of real eroticism whilst saying almost nothing at all.

As a short story, it’s a nice read – as a free short story, it’s just about perfect. Don’t miss this one.

READ HERE

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses, even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages lurid with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman–self-described little man, city boy and Jew–first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam’s talent for pulp plotting meets Joe’s faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equaliser clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains”. Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicentre of comics’ golden age

Review by Erastes

Well, perhaps I’m not as intelligent as the Pulitzer Prize-winner panel (no argument there) and perhaps being English had an affect on me reading this book, but it left me completely blank I’m afraid. Tom Paine says on the cover that “no book had made me cry more,” and I say… what? where??

So yes – the book didn’t move me, and that makes me an exception, but WHY didn’t it move me?

I suppose I was expecting “Amazing Adventures,” for a start. Perhaps the title is supposed to be ironic, and I can see that it’s obviously an affectionate reference to the comic book genre that the book represents but I didn’t find anything particularly “Amazing” in anything that these men got up to. Granted, Joe escapes from Prague in a quite unlikely fashion and he has about a week of adventure during his war-service in Antartica – but otherwise? Not so much. It’s simply a tale of them dreaming about comic books, drawing comic books, selling comic books and that’s about it. Perhaps I was already cynical with the Amazing title. Give me hyperbole such as “The League of Amazing Writers” and I’m already in Esme Weatherwax mode with my arms folded, thinking “Oh YEAH? Show me what you got.”

It starts very promisingly, with Joe’s escape from Prague and some rather lovely flashbacks involving Joe’s brother, experiments in Escapism and talks with his tutor – but once it gets to America and we deal with two person’s POV – that’s when it all fell flat for me. I never got sufficiently into the head of either character to understand anything about them, and that was frustrating in a novel which apparently had moved people to floods of tears.

There’s so much telling and very little showing. We are told how Joe is mourning for his family but we are never shown much manifestation of this other than wanting to beat up Germans; we are told how Sammy has struggled against “being a fairy” but we aren’t shown this either. He has an affair with a radio star and various other affairs are subtly alluded to (once) from his wife’s point of view but we are shown nothing of his struggle and apparent feelings of entrapment. The device of skipping forward 12 years after the war helps to create a barrier between the reader and the action, because as far as we can see Sammy has been doing a good job being a husband and father. If he’s been unhappy then this simply isn’t hinted at. His son is pretty well adjusted and his wife isn’t weeping into her coffee every night. This seems more unbelievable when you realise that the marriage is really only two people living together – good friends only. Where’s the angst?

There’s no doubt that the man can write, and I’d be a fool to say he can’t. It’s very readable and I read on simply because of this – not because I had the slightest interest what was going to happen next. In fact it seemed pretty obvious how the book was going to end, even from quite early on due to the clunky manner the way things were set up.

I admit that a lot of the mysticism and Jewish metaphor probably passed me by, the whole Golem thing was a bit of a mystery to me, the significance of the box that is delivered to the Clay’s at the end was baffling too – so perhaps I just missed the entire point.

I have to say that I liked the insight into the “Golden Age of Comics” and that was the most absorbing part for me; but even that didn’t entirely convince me, it all seemed a little sanitised, despite the author attempting to convince me of the long days of work, the smoky atmospheres and crowded conditions. There’s no camaraderie that I would imagine these young authors and artists would have had as they blazed their genre across America, and little sense of the growing fanaticism that comics engendered. There’s one nutty fan who objects to The Escapist bashing Nazis, but even that fizzles out and comes to nothing much.

I also liked the “Escapism” theme that runs throughout – everyone seems to be running from something, but frankly, the author didn’t paint in enough character detail for me to care deeply enough as to whether they did or not and as a consequence I closed the book with a feeling of “so what?” rather than any kind of emotion at all. Deeply disappointing, but I’d be interested to hear other people’s views.

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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: Damned Strong Love by Lutz Van Dijk

Set in occupied Poland during World War II, this novel is based on the true story of Stefan K., a Polish boy who, at 16, fell in love with a German soldier. When their liaison was discovered by the Gestapo, the teen was tortured and sentenced to a labour camp, eventually escaping during the chaotic days before liberation.

It’s always hard to review true stories, because you can’t fault the history, or the plot. I do feel though that perhaps some of the heart went out of the story in the dictation to Lutz Van Dijk and then the translation because I was never really gripped by the love that Stephan undoubtedly felt for Willi G. Perhaps it’s because it was re-told from such a span of years, and a 16 year old’s love is difficult to describe when one gets to old age. I know I would find it hard, even to write out my own feelings, let alone transpose someone else’s.

I would have liked a little more description of the affair itself; not so much the sexual contact, but the meetings that they had, what they talked about and more about how they felt about what was happening to the world around them. I particularly liked Stephan’s description of his family and their relationship with him, especially with his brother Mikolai who is his first crush, until he meets Willi G.

Their discovery was caused by an idiotic love letter, sent from Stephan K to Willi G at the Eastern Front- and this surprised me – the fact that he’d make such a silly mistake – in fact his very naivety surprised me throughout, but it was another time and place and it’s impossible to imagine the mind set of a Polish boy in 1942.

Don’t let the subject matter of this put you off reading a copy if you come across it, because Stephan K doesn’t dwell too heavily on the (frankly dreadful) things that happened to him after his arrest and incarceration. One can’t really imagine what those years must have been like for him, and it’s probably better that we don’t.

Above all he comes over as an optimist, and although he doesn’t say that he found love and happiness in what he admits was a life in Communist Poland, I hope he did. He has campaigned for gay rights and was around to see the lessening of the restrictions in his beloved country.

I was touched by this book, and although it’s probably not for those who dislike “real, unpleasant, history” it opens a little window into a quite dreadful time but gives hope to the future – something that Stephan K never lost.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Carnivorous Lamb by Agustin Gomez-Arcos

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
A brilliant, lunatic tale filled with black humor and decadence, The Carnivorous Lamb is a compelling family saga of power, love, and politics. Into a shuttered house, haunted by ghosts of past rebellion and Franco’s regime, Ignacio is born. His mother despises him; his failed father ignores him; his older brother becomes his savior, his confidant…his lover. Shocking, irresistibly erotic, their forbidden relationship becomes the center of exiled Spanish author Agustin Gomez-Arcos’ savagely funny, stunningly controversial novel – and a damning indictment that neatly spears Franco, family, Church, and the modern world.

REVIEW:
Ignacio and Antonio are brothers. They’re also lovers. Priests are hebephilic perverts, and they stink of incense and shit. Franco’s regime drips from every corner of a decaying house that’s literally, emotionally, and psychologically cut off from the rest of Spain. Within this household, religion and politics play themselves out day after day, shaping Ignacio’s birth, childhood, and adolescence, offering us a bizarre tableau of family dysfunction and oppression.

The novel might sound like an erotic melodrama, but it isn’t. What Gomez-Arcos does – and does magnificently – is take Spain, the Catholic Church, Franco, and notions of family by the hair, and skewer them through with a knife. Again. And again. And again. His tone is brazen, defiant, and angry, with Ignacio telling his story with a dark, biting humor that kept me enthralled from start to finish. I have, I must admit, a special fondness for angry, subversive fiction that takes no prisoners, and The Carnivorous Lamb does so with wit and a vicious satire that would make Juvenal weep with pride (sort of). Like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, the novel, in a nutshell, is one big “Fuck you!” from start to finish.

To say that the characters are fascinating would be an understatement. Because Gomez-Arcos limits his scope to Ignacio’s family, bringing in an occasional outsider in order to place the family within a certain social context or, in the case of Don Gonzalo (the priest) and Don Pepe (the tutor), to just plain tear apart, the characters are explored to near minute detail in a kind of vacuum. Their complicated relationships, their ambivalence toward each other (in the case of Ignacio and his mother, a mutual hatred), and their ties to the past (notably the Spanish Civil War) play out like a surreal stage production.

Of all the characters, Matilde (Ignacio’s mother) is the most interesting and the most complex. She’s born into wealth, and her family’s aligned with Franco’s Nationalists, but she loves and marries a Republican, whom her family saves from imprisonment. Her conflicting allegiances show themselves again and again, and at times, we’re left wondering which side she truly belongs. She starts out as a satirical figure, representing the Catholic church in many ways, but as the novel progresses and Ignacio begins to touch on the more “hidden” corners of her character, she grows into a much more fascinating and exasperating figure.

Carlos (the father) and Antonio are the least developed of the major players. Carlos, a former Republican soldier and failed lawyer, spends his days hiding in his study, listening to old propaganda records that talk about peace and victory while locals consult with him over legal matters. He wastes away slowly, practically dead well before he dies. Antonio’s given more room for development, but though he remains a constant in Ignacio’s life – a strong, erotic, protective figure who exerts a remarkably strong influence on Ignacio – he still remains largely in the periphery.

Ignacio’s anger – simmering and sustained throughout the novel – colors our views of Spain, but we’re also made to laugh (maybe in shock, maybe in sympathy) at the occasional wry observation and simply out-and-out hysterical commentaries and exchanges he makes with the other characters. The scenes involving his baptism, confirmation, and first communion, for instance, are classic. Even America, represented by Evelyn (the graduate with a degree in Home Economics), isn’t spared a vicious tongue-lashing. Some readers might find Ignacio’s loathing of his mother and of Evelyn a blatant show of misogyny, but I think that’s limiting one’s reading of the text to a surface level. The nature of the story itself is so bizarre and outlandish that to read on a literal level would be doing the book a bit of injustice.

As the novel progresses, and Ignacio’s rage escalates, the scenes turn more and more surreal. Even Evelyn, who plays a small but effective part near the end of the book, becomes less of a character and more of a metaphor, and it’s clear that it isn’t because she’s a woman that Ignacio learns to despise her. It’s what she represents in addition to her role in the family, what with all his contemptuous observations of her diploma and her American bacon-and-eggs efficiency in the kitchen.

Gomez-Arcos’s novel can be taken apart in so many ways, given its subject and its narrative approach. It’s the kind of novel that’s memorable in its in-your-face subversion and celebration of anarchy. Darkly funny, incredibly erotic, I give this book four stars for the writing and one extra star for the damned fine cojones.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Only Words by Tina Anderson & Caroline Monaco(illus.)

 

In 1941 Poland, silence is a way of life. Eighteen-year-old seminary student Koby Bruk has watched for two years as the people of his home town allowed the Germans to move in, displace homes and families, and impose their rule on the people who remain. When Koby is bullied by his classmate Irvine, he chooses to speak up against him. This doesn’t sit well with Irvine’s friend, Hitler Youth Oskar Keplar. Oskar corners Koby in an alleyway and makes a sinister promise. 
Words by Tina Anderson, Illustration by Caroline Monaco

Review by Erastes

I’ll say this right here that I don’t know the vocabularly for manga/yaoi/the graphic novel genre, so whilst reviewing them, I’m going to make errors that purists will flinch at, but as I’m hoping that they get more popular in English for the English speaking world, perhaps the vocabularly and tropes won’t matter so much if I get them wrong.

I came to graphic novels with a few pre-conceptions, that the men were impossibly beautiful, effeminate – that there was always a Seme and a Uke (although I still have to check Wikipedia to work out which is which) and there are lot of staple cliches, tie-fetishes, half-clothed sex, power-play, bdsm-all that sort of stuff.

Only Words fulfills some of those fetishes but it packs a very powerful punch by not sticking to the frilly and effeminate and at times it’s not a pretty book at all. It seemed to me to take some of those cliches and turn then against themselves, but I can’t say much more without spoiling. 

Koby Bruk is a Polish trainee priest, whose seminary was closed when the Germans invaded.  Neither he or his nemesis/love interest, Oskar from Nazi Jugen/Hitler Youth, are pretty boys. Koby is sallow, a little malnourished with large eloquent eyes and Oskar is badly scarred, giving him a sinister appearance. 

This novel covers a lot of ground; there’s a lot to take in – it’s certainly not just a tale of two young men who get together and fuck. Koby has rape fantasisies which we learn right from page one and we soon learn that although he dislikes the bullying tactics of the Jugen, and that he is brave/honest/foolish/pious enough to stand up to them, time and time again, he is harbouring a darker fantasy involving Oskar.

Actually I have to admit, I found Koby a little annoying.  He had no compunction in telling tales on his class-mates, blaming his honesty on God, but doesn’t seem to have any shame or guilt about having gay rape fantasies or actually having sex with a man at all. His constant tattle-tale-ing would probably have made me find a dark alley to sort him out at some point, but then I’m not a nice person.

The artist does a really good job. If you don’t agree remember this is obviously subjective, and from someone who has had very little experience of comics since “Bunty” when she was ten years old. The landscapes are stark, and unremittingly depressing. When the Jugen are up to no good there is a preponderance of black shadows and claustrophic locations and the only time when there is any kind of light and air is in the classroom. Anatomically I have nothing to complain about either, and there are few punches pulled when it came to the sex. I don’t know the rules for explicit images in graphic novels but from an entirely personal perspective I’d have liked a little more explicitness.

However, the panel work was very impressive, and I was never in any doubt what was going on and who was saying what, even though there were a lot of dynamic shifts to the set of the panels. There’s probably vocabulary for what I’m trying to explain here.

If you are expecting a Dom/sub relationship story then you’ll probably be disappointed, because the layers here are multiple and deep and no-one is really what they seem. There’s a saying “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” and for a while this runs true, as Koby seems to be getting what he’s been fantasising about – but it gets turned around in a wonderful twist. The classic joke “Hurt me,” said the masochist, “No,” said the sadist, rings true towards the end, but it’s much much more than a classic joke and heartbreakingly so.  I don’t think I need to worry that I’m spoiling you if I make clear that a story based in 1941 Poland is not going to end happily.

But for me it was full of surprises. The way an “alley-rape” turned out to be something else, a rescue of a cat is much the same,  and even Oskar surprised me towards the end, not with his bully-boy tactics but the fact that he ordered Koby to strip and then offered him a cigarette and turned his back, as if in modesty.  I think Oskar broke my heart from that moment on.

For me, this was a hard-to-take and very personal tale that touched on many global issues with a needful light touch. It could easily have been turned into a massive political statement but it didn’t attempt to do so.  It remained for me a story of two young men caught up in circumstnces they are completely unable to change.

It has had the same visceral punch for me as films such as “Se7en” and I know for a fact that Only Words will stay with me for a long long time.  I’m very pleased that this was my first foray into this genre.

Buy:    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon

It’s 1943 and the world is at war. Reporter Nathan Doyle is just back from the European Theater when he’s asked to cover the murder of a society blackmailer–a man who, Homicide Detective Matthew Spain believes, Nathan had every reason to want dead.

Review by Alex Beecroft

It is 1943. When the body of a feckless younger son of a high society family is dredged out of the La Brea tar pits, Detective Matthew Spain knows it’s a case that could change his life. He doesn’t initially suspect how much, even though from the start he is fascinated by the reporter on the case; war veteran Nathan Doyle. As the investigation progresses, it becomes obvious that the victim was a blackmailer. Nathan has a dangerous secret, which could lose him his job and his reputation – he’s gay. As Matthew finds himself falling in love with Nathan – much to his own confusion and distress – he also has to face the fact that Nathan is fast becoming his prime suspect in the murder investigation.

Appropriately for the historic setting of the book, Josh Lanyon writes in a different style from his usual urbane voice. The beginning of the story is told in a hard-boiled style reminiscent of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlow. There’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’ feeling about it which brings to mind black and white movies, gangsters, women in little hats, femmes fatale and rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of machine guns. It gives an excellent feeling of the period, but I also found it choppy and rushed. I sometimes had difficulties in following who was who and what was going on.

However, a couple of chapters in, either the choppy style began to smooth out, or I began to get used to it and to be sucked into the story. The murder mystery continued to be something you might expect to have seen at the movies, complete with intrepid female reporters, dames in distress, a night-club crooner and one of our heroes being held captive by the baddy’s goons. Far from being overdone, however, this convinced me as charming historical detail.

What really impressed me, however, was the love story. Here the historical detail is more gripping and less charming. You share Nathan’s very real fear of exposure and the loneliness that causes him to court that exposure in meaningless encounters in bars and parks. Seeing his yearning and desperation, both from his own point of view and from Matthew’s fascinated observation, makes the tenderness of the love scenes all the more beautiful.

This is not the world of OK Homo, and although Matthew’s journey of self discovery proceeds with remarkably little angst, the pain that Nathan carries makes this one of the most believable studies of a gay relationship in the past I have read. And because it was believable and painful, also one of the most touching and heartwarming at the end.

This book is available as a one-short at or in an anthology with co-author Sarah Black in “Partners in Crime 2″

Partners in Crime 2 Amazon UK   Partners in Crime 2 Amazon USA

Snowball in Hell from Aspen Mountain Press

Author Website

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