Review: The Low Between by Vivien Dean

It was supposed to be simple.

All struggling actor Carlo Baresi had to do was pick up a man in a taxi, drive him to the location he specified, then report where he’d taken him. The only problem is, the man isn’t who he claims to be…and they both know it.

Bookstore owner Joe Donnelly has a reputation for helping those in need, but this plan has been a bad one from the second he stepped in. Discovering someone has switched out the taxi driver is one more complication he doesn’t want, especially since Carlo is the kind of distraction that can get a man in serious trouble if he’s not careful.

But the men have something in common other than their mutual attraction. They’re both loose ends, struggling to find out what is really going on.

And murder is always complicated, even when you’re on the same side.. 

ebook  - 144 pages

Review by Erastes

Ms Dean has had me as a fan for a good while, although it’s been a while since she published a gay historical, and I’ve missed her. This was a very enjoyable read I’m glad to say!

I love Noir, I’m a big fan of Bogart and Marlowe and Spade and all that, so I was looking forward to a New York 50′s vibe and in that, I’m afraid, I was a little disappointed. There’s not enough immersion into the era. Dean lost an opportunity here–possibly by sticking to a more traditional for a romance two-POV style rather than a first person narration–in really steeping the story in a Noir feel. Part of the prop shafts for great Noir are mouth watering descriptions of clothes, guns and cars and the reader is short-changed in all these departments. There’s rain, which always adds to the genre, lots of rain and in that respect it’s atmospheric but it could have gone a lot further to really bring out the flavour of the era.

It’s a good plot, although the mystery did confuse me rather, which starts with a great scene of a switched driver and a different contact than the one Carlo was expecting which sets the scene nicely for the growing romance and the mystery. I liked Joe a lot more than I did Carlo–we learn a lot more about him, for a start. He’s beautifully flawed and having tasted tragedy in his life, professionally and personally, he keeps the world at bay. We know much about his character simply from the way he interacts with the people he knows–and doesn’t know. I felt that the “OK, now we are partners” aspect was a tad rushed–couldn’t quite see why Joe would have trusted Carlo quite so quickly, particularly after Carlo violates that trust pretty sharpish.

As for Carlo himself, I didn’t really get him at all. We know very little about him, not his past or his home life, or his past homosexual experiences. I couldn’t really warm to him the way I did Joe because of that, as by the time we are really inside his head he’s entirely smitten with Joe and that’s all he can think about.

The prose is good, as expected with this author, and there are quite a few phrases that were outstandingly beautiful and original which made me bite my lip in jealous fury that I hadn’t thought of this or that analogy or metaphor. The editing needed more work, but I’m used to that with Amber, it’s not a deal breaker, I just wish they’d pull their socks up and get editors who know the right place for a comma.

Once the relationship kicks in, it’s handled nicely and sparingly. The protagonists aren’t forever hard and aching for each other, there’s a major sex scene in the place where you’d expect it, and a glasses-fogging kiss scene which was–for me, at least–was hotter than any sex scene. It takes talent to write gorgeous kisses and not many people can do it as well as Dean.

Sadly, probably in deference to the “M/M conventions” there’s also a long sex scene after the denouement of the mystery which for me was unnecessary and didn’t interest me at all. I can understand the reason why this scene may have been put in, but my rule-of-thumb is: if you can take out the scene and it makes absolutely no difference to the plot, then it shouldn’t be there. This is appease the sex-lovers of the genre, but I found myself skipping through it to get to a rather more “pat” ending than I liked. I felt the true end of the book had actually happened naturally just before the sex scene which was probably why the sex seemed a little shoehorned in, as if the publisher said “One sex scene isn’t enough!!”

However, it is a well-written, well-paced book which I enjoyed reading. It might not be a keeper, but it gets a thumbs up from me. I have to say that the title baffled me though–what does it mean?

Author’s Website

Buy at Amazon UK | Amazon USA| Amber Allure

Review: Secret Light by Z.A. Maxfield

Rafe Colman likes his life. He has a nice home, a good job, and a wonderful dog. But he’s exhausted by living a lie. When his home is vandalized because of his perceived German ancestry, he can’t even share the irony with friends.

Officer Ben Morgan falls for Rafe’s dog first, but it isn’t long before he’s giving her owner the eye. He thinks they have more in common than the search for Rafe’s vandals, and he’s willing to take a chance and find out.

If life in 1955 is tough on a cop in the closet, it’s even tougher on a refugee who’s desperate to hide his roots and fit in. Rafe knows from tragic experience how vicious prejudice can be. Every second with Ben is stolen, every kiss fraught with danger.

When Ben’s partner threatens to ruin everything, Rafe and Ben have to fight to protect what they have but they’re tired of hiding their secret light.

ebook only  258 pages

Review by Gerry Burnie: This review was previously posted on his own book blog in July 2012

Editorial comment: The Goodreads’ posting of this book comes with a caveat, i.e. Publisher’s Note: This book contains explicit sexual situations, graphic language, and material that some readers may find objectionable: male/male sexual practices,” which I find ‘objectionable’. Were this a heterosexual story with heterosexual ‘sexual practices’ would it have the same caveat? I think not. Therefore it is demeaning at best.

This is the second of Z.A. Maxfield’s stories I have reviewed (see: St. Nacho’s, February, 2010) and I am happy to say that Secret Light [Loose ID LLC, 2011] is generally of the same well-written calibre.

Set in 1955, a period when the memory of WWII is still fresh in many people’s minds, we find Rafe Colman, an gay Austrian DP (displaced person) with his own, tragic memories of the war. These include the death of his parents and the murder of his dearest friends, a gay couple, and so he is understandably and profoundly affected by these events.

As is so often the case (it certainly was in mine) he has learned to cope by adopting a persona that ‘fits’ mainstream expectations; especially for a single man–nice guy with an eye for the ladies, friendly with everyone but seldom personal, successful with a medium-high profile. The problem with role playing of this nature is that it sublimates the real person inside, and no one can be allowed behind the scenes for a closer look.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent some busy bodies from drawing their own conclusions, rightly or wrongly, and from acting on them on account of prejudice or spite. So, when Colman’s house is vandalized because he is perceived as ‘German,’ the police become involved in the person of officer Ben Morgan; a closeted gay man, himself.

Call it “gaydar,” or whatever, the two of them come to recognize themselves in the other, and a relationship is formed based on mutual understanding, honesty and caring. It is not all cotton candy and roses, however, but at least the promise of an HEA ending is there.

While the plot circumstances aren’t particularly original, as they were in “St. Nacho’s”, the same attention to detail and atmosphere has been used to give the reader a sense of time and place. The character-development is also topnotch, which adds greatly to the credibility of their actions, and the pace allows the reader to appreciate both these aspects.

The drawback for me was the somewhat obvious story manipulation, resulting in resolutions that were just a bit on the convenient side. I hasten to add that these were not incredible in nature, but they were noticeable enough to affect my score.

Altogether, though, I have no hesitation in recommending Secret Light as an enjoyable read for all its great parts.

Author’s website

buy at Loose-ID

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: Virgin Airmen by Michael Gouda

After a short hiatus we are back and I’m kicking off with a short story set during the early 50′s in England.

It’s a bitterly cold Saturday evening when Michael Duggan, RAF aircraftsman second class, meets Jim Ross on a train station platform. Together they experience life in the forces—including a near-miss with death when their bombing range is destroyed by American “friendly fire.” After being split up by the subsequent disbanding of their unit, they are reunited just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—and decide to have a celebration of their own.

Ebook only – 40 pages

Review by Erastes

There’s one short review on the Dreamspinner site; it’s only a sentence, but I have to agree with every word. This little story has a lot of potential, but at $2.99 it’s a bit of a rip off.

This little story is set during the first wave of National Service in England which started up just after the war, and really there’s not much to say about it, being so short, as the blurb has pretty well outlined the plot, for what there is of it.

However, I did thoroughly enjoy what there is of it; I’m assuming, from the author’s bio (he was in the RAF and lost his virginity there) that it’s mostly autobiographical and that was interesting. There’s a real wealth of day-to-day detail which I liked a lot; descriptions of barracks, and the mindset of the National Service airman–amusingly taking time to fold their uniforms carefully over a chair (because they know all about uniform inspections) and the larking around (a way for mostly hetero men to get touched while hiding it under a silly game) that went on. The relationship described is pretty simple – as the blurb says, they meet up on their first day at camp and get to know each other but don’t consummate the deal until much later–but it’s nicely described. The men get on with their work and aren’t mooning around over each other or getting burgeoning hardons at any opportunity.

But while there is a real core to this short story, it doesn’t satisfy–and frustrated me–because there’s so much potential here and the author clearly has a wonderful insight into the National Service of this era and such descriptive flair to pull the reader in, really tight, made me care about the characters but then ultimately to end it all very abruptly, too abruptly even for a short story. The author may think that he’s written simply a story which needs to culminate in the main characters having sex but there’s too much else he’s explored for this ever to be considered “just an erotic short story.” The voice is excellent, and there’s humour and danger and companionship, which is a tough job for a story this length.

And yes, as for the price, I know that the author has no say in that, but Dreamspinner, you should be ashamed of yourself. The general price for short stories is $0.99 and this really doesn’t merit the $2.99 price tag. I was kindly given the book by the publisher for review, but at that price, for this length, I wouldn’t have bought it–and that’s a shame because I would have not discovered a writer with talent.

I shall certainly seek out more of Mr Gouda’s work, and I hope he does this short story justice one day and expand it into the novel that it really longs to be. I was torn between giving this a 3½ and a 4 star rating, and I’ve gone for the 4, because the problems with pacing and pricing can’t overcome the really rather nice writing.

No author’s website that I could find.

Buy from Dreamspinner

Review: Whistle Pass by KevaD

On the battlefields of WWII Europe, Charlie Harris fell in love with Roger Black, and after the war, Roger marched home without a glance back. Ten years later, Charlie receives a cryptic summons and quickly departs for his former lover’s hometown of Whistle Pass. 

But Roger Black isn’t the lover of Charlie’s dreams anymore. He’s a married, hard-bitten political schemer who wants to secure his future by destroying evidence of his indiscreet past. Open homosexuality is practically a death sentence, and that photo would ruin Roger and all his wife’s nefarious plans.

Caught up in foggy, tangled events, Charlie turns to hotel manager Gabe Kasper for help, and Gabe is intrigued by the haunted soldier who so desperately desires peace. When helping his new lover places Gabe in danger, the old warrior in Charlie will have to take drastic action to protect him… or condemn them both

Review by Elliott Mackle

The set-up and first chapter of this caper historical are so convincing and cleverly done I thought I’d stumbled onto something wonderful. Unfortunately, eight fast-moving introductory pages do not a successful, or even a comprehensible, novel make.

The hook: Charlie Harris, a lonely bachelor lumberjack, spurned by his army lover at war’s end, receives a two word message: “Need you.” In the past, these words were the signal for sex between Charlie and his battlefield body-buddy, Roger Black. Now, ten years later, assuming the note is genuine, Charlie drops everything and takes off for Roger’s home town, Whistle Pass, Illinois.

The setting is small-town Midwestern America, 1955. The narrative tone, descriptions of landscape and criminal and political shenanigans, however, are more reminiscent of shoot-’em-up western frontier fiction and cowboy movies set a century earlier. Like most such genre confections, much of the action and dialog are overdone and forgettable.

The gist of the novel is a cascade of bloody fights and violent confrontations, faked battles, misidentifications, truck shootings (they shot horses, didn’t they?), empty threats (Roger’s wife Dora proposes to kill someone who’s already dead), a daring escape from a homophobic mob and assorted, mostly unconvincing homo- and heterosexual love scenes. Finally, the fade-out that unites the new lovers, macho lumberjack Charlie and prissy, closeted, beaten-to-a-pulp hotel manager Gabe, comes off as almost a parody of every HEA ending ever written.

Better editing might have helped. Abrupt changes in point of view are distracting. “LT” for Lieutenant (not once but several times); an incorrectly composed newspaper headline, and occasional metaphorical howlers (“Gabe’s heart thumped like the leg of a rabbit in heat.”) suggest that more care might have been taken in the preparation of the finished product. On the other hand, misspellings are few and some of the characters’ voices are lively and distinctive. The cover art, which suggests little about the novel itself, is attractively dreamy and masculine.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press   Amazon UK  Amazon USA (available as print and ebook)

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: The Shooting Gallery by Kate Roman

Mick Reese is a Korean War veteran turned private eye, making a living sifting through the seedy underbelly of 1953 Cincinnati. But the night he busts into the Shooting Gallery, a casino cum criminal hotbed, all that changes. Accidentally rescuing Julian Marion, only son of a notorious crime boss, doesn’t bode well for Mick’s life expectancy, but Mick hadn’t planned on falling for Julian like a ton of bricks. Now they’ve got to find some way to escape a city on high alert and a madman bent on revenge. Every time Mick feels his resolve failing, he just looks in Julian’s eyes and keeps on going.

Review by Jess Faraday

I love noir, and this is a fun example of it. A little fantastic, a little schmoopy, but for escapism, it’s not badly done.

The story opens with well-written action, clean prose, and an intriguing story line. The author maintains the action and tension well throughout the book. The main character’s backstory is skillfully dribbled in bit by bit.

I really enjoyed the main characters: Mick the tough-talking PI with a heart of gold, Julian the Boy In Distress who is more than meets the eye, and Gail–tough, smart, and a real show-stealer. One of these characters meets with an untimely end–I won’t say which. Unfortunately, I think the story is weaker for it.

The story was a little light on setting. The first hint that it’s an historical story comes from a mention of Walter Cronkite on page six. There were also a few anachronisms, like the police rolling out spike strips to stop a car. The use of the term “gook” bothered me. It was probably historically accurate (usage attested well before the Korean war, though use as a racial slur dates to the Vietnam, not the Korean war), especially given the MC’s background. But I think the author could have found a less charged word to fill the same purpose.

In general, I prefer a little more historical flavor than there was here, but seeing as the story was set in the mid-twentieth century, it wasn’t that dire. It was a fast-paced story, and, in general, the level of detail suited it.

The final firefight was a bit of a cop-out (no pun intended). I was also amazed that our hero could crawl to safety and bash someone with an oar while his hands were tied. But all in all, it was a nicely done story and worth a read. 3.5 stars.

Purchase at Torquere Press

Review: Haji’s Exile by Alan Chin

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s website

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

Review: Summer Song by Louise Blaydon

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

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: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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

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

Review by Erastes

Warning – spoilers ahoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Not Get.

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

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

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

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

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Review: Silver-Silver Lining by Lucius Parhelion

In 1958 meteorologist Dr. Rob Lanard is in Las Vegas to observe the effects of the first nuclear test explosions on the weather. His boss on this job is Dr. Phillip Argent. The two men share more than just their boredom on the job; they are both pitching for the same team, so to speak.

It’s not the kind of thing men of their position dare get caught at, though, and Rob and Phillip must perform a careful dance, making sure they don’t say anything that could give them away. Can a surprise day off and a storm conspire to let them get together the way they’ve been wanting to?

Review by Sal Davis

As usual I’m starting with the cover. I don’t know who designed it and, frankly, I don’t want to. It tries, but it’s a mess and does the story no favours at all. Luckily, this is a novella that can shrug off an infelicitous cover, more than holding its own just on the power of the story and quality of the writing.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, men associated in any way with the nuclear programme could not afford to come under suspicion of any activity that might render them a security risk. Dr. Rob Lanard, the POV character, is all too aware of this and it is interesting to see him identify the watchers and to see the safeguards he has put in place to protect his secret. Intelligent, accomplished and an asset to the programme, he knows none of that would cut any ice if it was discovered that he was a homosexual. It also makes courting very edgy and one of the joys of the book is the careful way the two protagonists sound each other out in such a way that if the other is straight the feather light come on can be easily dismissed.

Today it seems ludicrous that two men, friends and colleagues, would not dare to be in the same hotel room, even for the most innocent of reasons, for fear of arousing suspicion. So it is very satisfying that they not only manage to establish that their interests run along the same lines, but manage that much needed ‘alone’ time. The sex scene is of the ‘we haven’t much time so let’s not mess about’ variety and works very well for the characters involved.

The style of writing is snappy and sharp with just enough period colour thrown in to give it some flavour without being overwhleming or feeling contrived. For instance mention is made of the newly published “The King Must Die” as a must read. There are also some phrases that are placed just so perfectly that I read them aloud for the pleasure of hearing them said.

For the most part, the text was clean and easy to read and I only spotted one editorial problem, where it looked as though a couple of lines had been copy pasted out of order but I suspect it was deliberate and just didn’t work too well. However, there is one thing that really irritated me and that was down to Torquere again. At the end of each chapter – and at 50 odd pages did it really NEED chapters? – there was a box that said [Back to Table Of Contents]. I was just really getting into the story, reading fast and accidentally touched the box at the end of chapter 2 and – yes – was sent back to the table of contents. Infuriating! And not really necessary with a short story. /rant

Parhelion, yes. A definite re-read and I’ll be looking for other works.

Author’s website

Buy from Torquere Press

4.5 *

Film Review: Infamous

On November 16, 1959, Truman Capote reads about the murder of a Kansas family. There are no suspects. With Harper Lee, he visits the town: he wants to write about their response. First he must get locals to talk, then, after arrests, he must gain access to the prisoners. One talks constantly; the other, Perry Smith, says little. Capote is implacable, wanting the story, believing this book will establish a new form of reportage: he must figure out what Perry wants. Their relationship becomes something more than writer and character: Perry killed in cold blood, the state will execute him in cold blood; does Capote get his story through cold calculation, or is there a price for him to pay?

Director:

Douglas McGrath

Writers:

Douglas McGrath (screenplay), George Plimpton (book)

Stars:

Review by Erastes

A bit of an odd one, this–almost the exact same story had been released a year earlier with “Capote” – with a much higher profile and glittering prizes – Philip Seymour Hoffman received an Oscar for his performance in that particular film, and yet–having watched Toby Jones in this I think that this film does it better in just about every respect. and yes – that does include a great performance by Sandra Bullock.

I KNOW!!!!!!!!!!!

 

The story for those who missed Capote,and who haven’t read “In Cold Blood” starts in 1959 when Capote–a multi-published author, screenplay writer and considered to be the enfant terrible of the literati world of the time–catches a pretty small article in a paper talking of a mass slaying in Holcomb, a small town in Kansas. He persuades his newspaper editor to let him do an article on the case and sets off for Holcomb to interview the locals. However, as he is pretty outre, even for 1950′s New York, he’s jaw droppingly shocking to the good people of Holcomb and the story follows how he–and Nelle Harper Lee (beautifully underplayed by Bullock–I know!!!!) win over the townspeople and start getting them talking. The killers are apprehended and the story changes to Capote as he starts to interview the two young men and the relationship he forms with them.

Firstly, I adore Toby Jones. I loved him as Hogarth and more recently he did a lovely job of the man who Isherwood changed into Mr Norris in “Christopher and his Kind.” He picks projects that play to his strengths, and seeing how he’s short, a little pudgy and not blessed with chiselled features he’s found his niche and plays strongly to it.

He seems born to play Capote, and he did a wonderful job, even more swishy and unrepentant than Seymour Hoffman, and infinitable more likeable. As he flounces down the small-town street in bright canary yellow or wearing a red scarf bigger than him I can appreciate what a stir he must have caused.

I wonder why they made this film; considering the other being made at the same time–perhaps they were being made at exactly the same time, despite the fact they came out a year apart–perhaps this version with a much higher count of Big Names was expected to the one to make it big, but sadly that didn’t happen, and me thinking it deserves it more isn’t going to make any difference.

Aside from the fact that Capote was gay, and in a full-time relationship with Jack Dunphy, who he was with from 1948 until his death in 1984, the story line touches on the way that Capote interracted with the more reticent of the two killers: Perry Smith. Smith was not willing to speak to Capote–and unlike his partner in crime Dick Hickok, Capote paints him as educated, sensitive–once he’d decided to talk.

I liked the way that we are left in some doubt as to the veracity of the accounts given in the book–Capote’s behaviour with his New York socialite friends echoes the way he behaves in Holcomb. He says of the way he gets the NY set to open up and tell him everything, that he finds out what they want and then he gives it to them. Perry Smith seems to want a friend, and then, later, someone to love, and Capote gives him that. But did he mean any of it? or was it just a ruse to get his story?  I suppose we’ll never really know.

I should add here, that Perry is played amazingly by Daniel Craig–made up to lessen his attractiveness but he loses none of his power–the scenes between Capote and Perry are mesmerising.

Add to that that little matter of Bullock’s quiet and beautifully judged (I KNOW!!!) performance, and with guest spots from Weaver, Paltrow, Bridges and others–I think I can recommend this with knobs on.  It may not be a subject matter that will appeal, and there are one or two scenes pertaining to the murder that will disturb you (but then, In Cold Blood is a disturbing book, and the murders were appalling) but overrall, you should seek it out.

Film Review: Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me

In the 1950s Frankie Howerd, the famous radio and film comedian, meets a young waiter Dennis Heymer, who,like himself,is a closet homosexual. Their relationship blossoms into a partnership, rather than a purely sexual one, and Dennis becomes Frankie’s manager. By the early 1960s however things are looking bleak for Frankie. He has lost popularity with mainstream audiences and suffered a nervous breakdown.He is full of self hatred about his appearance – he wears a wig – and his homosexuality, putting huge stress on his relationship with Dennis. Matters are not helped by the death of Frankie’s mother Edith. However, Frankie is able to reinvent himself as a satirical comedian, with a gig at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club and his fortunes soar,with successful television comedies and a well-publicised appearance at the Oxford Union.


Imdb page

Director:John Alexander

Writer:Peter Harness

Stars:David Walliams, Rafe Spall

Review by Erastes

I went into this with a little trepidation because I am a huge fan of Frankie Howerd and wasn’t sure if someone so entirely unique could be done with the respect I feel he demands. While I never really thought Walliams captured Howed as perfectly as Michael Sheen did in Fantabulosa! it was clearly a studied and well-prepared performance, and going on the reaction of Dennis Heymer, Howard’s lover and manager (see further reading at the end of the review) it was certainly convincing for those who knew him well.

There’s two aspects to this film that I liked a great deal. Firstly that Williams didn’t do an out and out impression of Howerd, and other than prosthetics to imitate Howerd’s baldness (strange how I never really acknowledge his wig, when it was so very obvious) he relied on performance to play him, rather than make up. Secondly, that although the film touched on much stress–such as Howerd’s denial that he was homosexual, (despite being notorious for trying it on with every pretty boy who passed his way) his treatment to be “cured” and clashes between Heymer and himself–despite this, I felt the overall tone was quite upbeat and the ending in particular had me smiling like a loon.

The affection between the two men comes over well–even if there may have been more love from Dennis’s side than Frankie’s–it’s hard to tell over time and distance. The whole thing does seem a little rushed, which is hardly surprising seeing as how they cram 20 odd years into the film, and would have worked better as a three-parter perhaps. You would almost believe from this that Howerd had no friends other than a fag-hag and Dennis and never socialised, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s a little bleak, and certainly does not hold the glamour of something like “Mad Men” – because it’s set in austere 1950′s Britian, still reeling from the war and rationing. Howerd was one of the best paid entertainers and he lives in a brown-coloured flat such as Mad Men’s Don Draper wouldn’t rent for his maid. There was glamour there, in fact Dennis says “I’m not in this for the glamour” – but it’s not really shown on screen, and a touch of that, mixing with the Carry On crowd and the Krays, might have enlivened this up a smidge.

But on the whole it was a solid and interesting watch, especially, if like me, you grew up not having a clue that Howerd, who portrayed himself as a lech in films, was homosexual.  I wasn’t convinced by Walliams’s performance, but there’s no doubt of the man’s depth of talent.

Further reading: There’s an indepth article here as Dennis helps Mark Walliams and Rafe Spall prepare for the film. Frankie Howerd’s lover breaks his silence.

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: Star Attraction by Jamie Craig

In 1955, Sam Coles is Hollywood’s newest rising star, and his latest role in Gordon Palmer’s movie, The Devil Inside, promises to send his popularity into the stratosphere. But Sam is less interested in the potential boost to his career, and more interested in his gorgeous co-star, Hollywood’s latest bad boy, Elijah McKinley.

Their careers rely on discretion, but Sam and Elijah cannot deny the desire between them. Stealing glances and casual touches between takes soon gives way to heated kisses and clandestine meetings after shooting.

But neither of them knows what will happen when filming wraps and their lives move in separate directions…

Review by Erastes

Oh dear – I’m not going to spend too much time discussing this. it’s a short novella which is short on everything except sex.   Calling it a historical was rather cheeky, because other than being told that it’s 1955, and Billy Wilder being mentioned, there’s absolutely nothing to anchor the reader in that glamorous time.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement, because I’ve read and reviewed many of Jamie Craig’s books and they’ve never dipped below “very good” They’ve always had a knack of being able to set the scene with the briefest of brush strokes, no matter how short the story. But with this, I couldn’t help but feel it was hastily converted from a contemporary movie story, because it had none of the flavour of the time its set in.  And that’s criminal, because this time in Hollywood was a time of such upheaval as it moved from the unrealistic glitz and glamour of the huge sets and dance numbers to the more realistic and gritty life stories. There’s no description of Hollywood, no cars, no clothes, no parties–nothing. Even when our heroes go to a movie premiere, we aren’t even told which one it was!

Storywise, we are just as short changed. It’s boy fancies boy, gets erections, hooks up after one conversation and spends a lot of time in bed with him before true love is declared about a week later. There’s absolutely no conflict, and I’m sorry, but even a one page short story needs conflict–and the 1950′s Hollywood is such a hotbed of hypocrisy and coverups that it would have been easy to miss one page of sex to create some.

All we are left with then, is the erotica, for it is simply an erotic tales where the large proportion of the book is involved in burgeoning erections and then pages and pages of sex.  Very nicely written sex; I’ll be the first to stand up and say that, but when it comes down to it these days, I think readers are looking for more than that.

Editing wise, it leaves a lot to be desired. Unwanted homonyms pop up such as principle/principal (which I could have glossed over easier had it not been about the acting profession), typos are rife and there are many grammar problems. It needed a much better editor. There are words such as “gay” and “straight” which weren’t in use at the time. It was probably these two words alone that made me think this was converted from a contemporary.  As for the editing – I’ve mentioned Amber Allure’s not great reputation at editing more than once, but clearly no-one’s listening. I wish they’d take off the tagline “the gold standard in publishing” and then I’d stop moaning.

If you want a sexy, racy read then you’ll enjoy this. If you are looking for a gay romance set in the period of such classics as East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, then you are going to be bitterly disappointed.  This writing duo can do a lot better than this, and I urge you to read their other books and not be put off by this one.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure

Buy from Amber Allure

Review: The Bad and the Beautiful by Jamie Craig

It’s 1955, Las Vegas is swinging, and David Lonergan has the chance of a lifetime when he accompanies his cousin to be the headlining act at the Thunderbird Casino. A pianist who cut his teeth in the jazz clubs of Chicago, David is dazzled by the lights, the music, and the anything goes attitude of Las Vegas. But he’s not knocked off his feet until he meets Vincent “Shorty” Accardo.

Vincent is a full-time bodyguard and sometimes hitman for the mob controlled casino. He doesn’t indulge his interest in men very often, but there’s something different about David from the moment they meet. He’s attracted to David’s talent, his surprising innocence, and his easy smile. There are a million reasons to stay away from the young piano player, but Vincent can’t help himself. Even when there are lives at risk.

Review by Erastes

There seems to be a little flurry of show-biz books recently, and I for one am happy as hell about that, as there’s such a lot of potential in it.

Although the set-up is pretty standard–guy meets guy straight away and starts to fantasize about him–Jamie Craig doesn’t disappoint with setting the scene.  Whether it’s Hollywood or the Wild West, Craig (for those who don’t know, Craig is a writing partnership) always paints her backdrop in with meticulous detail, deep enough to make you feel you are there, but light enough to avoid the laundry list approach.  The historical detail is sparse enough not to swamp and correct enough for the purist.

However, I can’t say that I was entirely convinced by the initial banter — in public — between David and Vince.  For a mobster bodyguard to be talking so openly in 1955 – even in the more ‘anything goes’ area of Vegas didn’t strike me as very true.   Both men are from deepest Chicago, too, and while I didn’t want an entire dialogue written in dialect, (no thanks!)  a mere flavour of the speech patterns that these men would converse in with each other would have helped to season the story a little more, and make me believe they were from the mob-life in Chicago, their speech was just too ordinary to flavour the story enough.

The risk factor–the whole “black hand” thing–(threatening notes from the Mafia) came out of the blue, for me.  There was no foreshadowing, and as David has come to Vegas to be under Moretti’s protection (as the accompanist and cousin of Moretti’s girlfriend) and Moretti was such a hard man, I didn’t understand

1. why they were targeting him and

2. why on EARTH he didn’t take the notes to Moretti.    He uses the excuse that Kate would worry – but as she’s DATING Moretti, and she’s a singer from Chicago, she’d be unlikely not to know who Moretti was and what he could do…  It works, in the scheme of things, but I’d have liked a little more intro–perhaps a scene with Moretti and Vincent discussing the rivalries in existence before the extortion notes were received, not after.

The two major characters are nicely disparate; Vincent always has his eye on the main chance and he finds David surprisingly untouched.  I had to agree with Vince, here – specially as David’s cousin was dating a mob boss, he did come over as a little unrealistically innocent. He comes over as the “woman” needing to be protected. This is shored up by some of the prose which puts David into a feminine role:

David whimpered. That was the only word for it. One of his hands fluttered at Vincent’s waist before finally settling along the hip. The touch was fragile, like David wasn’t sure he wouldn’t get his wrist snapped for trying, and Vincent pushed harder, erasing once and for all any doubts David might have had about his interest.

There’s some nice touches of history–which is always expected with Craig, I know they do their research–like the mention of The Moulin Rouge being the first desegregated casino in Vegas.  The sex scenes are very hot too, the build up to the first one, and the first one particularly, which doesn’t shy away from the discomfort losing your anal virginity can cause. The second half of the book I felt was stronger than the first, although I could never get my head around the contradiction of David: Chicago raised innocent who is more disturbed by the guilt of sodomy rather than Vince murdering people.

On a purely personal note, I don’t understand Amber Allure’s decision to copy famous titles of films/books.  Perhaps they think that people are going to come to the line because they haven’t heard of the more famous counterparts but this seems pretty impossible.  In the long run, it seems to invite unwarranted criticism.  This book was good enough to stand on its own merits, as Jamie Craig’s invariably have been.

To sum up, it’s an enjoyable read with a lot of punch.  It wasn’t my favourite of Jamie Craig’s works, and it didn’t have the same fluidity of plot or solid characterisation in it that other books by Craig does -  but I liked it a lot, nevertheless – it just won’t be a keeper.

Author’s Website

Buy at Amber Allure

Review: Sticks and Stones by Jamie Craig

Complementing each other on the dance floor isn’t enough to form a relationship. Is it? It’s 1953, and Hollywood is booming with extravagant musicals. Coming off a string of hits with MGM, Paul Dunham couldn’t be hotter. Hoping to capitalize on Paul’s popularity, the studio announces its attention to pair him with the latest actor to make a splash, Jack Wells. It seems like a match made in heaven, except for the fact that Paul can’t stand Jack. He hates the way Jack acts, and he hates Jack’s blue eyes, and he especially hates the fact that Jack is one of the most talented dancers he has ever met. Jack, however, doesn’t hate Paul. In fact, everything Paul does fascinates him. After their first meeting, Jack is determined to win Paul over, and he won’t back down until Paul admits that the two of them are perfect partners…in every way…

Review by T J Pennington

Those of you who know me know that I adore improbable pairings–people who shouldn’t even be friends, let alone lovers, because their personalities, attitudes and so on are so opposite each other. That’s the situation in Sticks and Stones.

Paul Dunham is an established actor in Hollywood–a leading man and excellent dancer with a reputation as a ladies’ man that he has carefully constructed over the years. Jack Wells is a Broadway actor/dancer who’s somewhat younger than Paul. Now Jack is trying to break into movies, and, since Paul’s last movie didn’t do as well as expected, the President of MGM, Dore Schary, has put the two men in the movie Sticks and Stones, hoping they can boost each other up.

It’s a match made in Hell.

Jack gets off on the wrong foot with Paul automatically by being an obsessive fanboy. When refused entrance to Paul’s house by the housekeeper, Jack, who is dazzled by the notion that he is going to be playing opposite the actor he’s had a crush on for years, simply climbs the fence and enters Paul’s studio by the back. He’s honestly puzzled by the fact that Paul, a deeply private man, doesn’t welcome his intrusion into his studio or into his career. And when Jack doesn’t know how to cope, he defaults to making passes at people.

This, from Paul’s point of view, is even worse than the home invasion. For Paul is bisexual-leaning-gay, and since he knows that his preference is a) illegal and b) could destroy his career if word got out that one of MGM’s male stars likes men as lovers, he has avoided sex with men for the past four years and is working very hard at projecting the image of a very masculine, very heterosexual man. There are a few chinks in his armor; Paul’s best friend Martin knows that Paul is more attracted to him than to Martin’s wife Lilah, for all that Lilah is the one that Paul’s having sex with, and more than a few hints are dropped that Paul’s former girlfriend, actress Betty Thayer, also knows of his proclivities.

However, the secret is mostly intact…until Jack appears, operating on autoflirt. This terrifies Paul, who is afraid that someone will see Jack’s flirting and, based on his physical response to Jack, will deduce that Paul is less than straight, causing his carefully constructed life to come crashing down around his ears.

For much of the book, Jack, who is determined to put Paul in a position where he’ll have to react physically or admit that he’s attracted, desperately wants the star that he’s spent years idolizing to see him as a professional, as an equal and as a handsome man. And to this end, he’ll try anything that will allow him to spend a little extra time with Paul, from working long hours on the set to appearing with Paul and a couple of actresses publicly to promote the movie they’re currently filming. He doesn’t admit, even to himself, how much Paul’s good opinion is starting to mean to him, or how bothered he is by the other man’s lack of interest.

After a disastrous public “double date” in which Jack gets loudly and aggressively drunk, nearly exposing Paul’s secret, Paul takes Jack home and then, when Jack realizes his house keys are on the key ring to the Buick he’s loaned to their mutual dates and can’t unlock his door, over to Martin’s house. On the way to both places, they talk. Jack lets Paul know just how much he resents the walls that Paul’s built around himself–and the fact that he can’t get past them. Paul insists that his private life should stay private, and then says something very telling…and very sad, because it’s true, not only for Paul in 1953 but a great many LGBTQ people today:

“You’re right, you know. I don’t want anyone getting in. don’t know what world you’re living in, Jack, but where I live, there’s too much to lose by trusting the wrong person.”

Honesty helps the men talk out their differences, though it doesn’t fix what’s wrong. Jack is starting to grasp the strength of Paul’s willingness to do whatever it takes to pass as straight and thereby maintain his career; the problem is, he loathes the unwritten rules of Hollywood that make such games necessary. Moreover, he feels he’s never going to get Paul’s approval for anything he does or is. Paul, on the other hand, who knows he’s attracted to the man, discovers he’s changed his mind about Jack’s skill; he is a good dancer. And, despite Jack’s flaws, he’s learned to his surprise that he doesn’t mind Jack as a person, either. And once Paul deposits Jack at Martin’s house, the two share an intense kiss.

Of course, once they kiss, they both have to admit to themselves how attracted they are…as well as the fact that most of the animosity in their relationship has turned into something considerably more volatile. A few chapters later, an after-hours dance rehearsal at Paul’s home leads to wild passionate sex…which is followed by one of the best sex-in-the-shower scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s clear by now that the two of them are good together, and that they truly make each other happy. The authors are clever; they set up a potentially idyllic situation and then proceed to show that neither love nor sex solve all of Paul and Jack’s problems. Paul is still petrified about the prospect of exposure and the probability that a photographer will snap a picture of Jack leaving his house in the early morning or that Jack will do something publicly that can’t be passed off as Jack being…well, Jack. Jack’s quick temper leads him to say cruel, wounding things even when he knows better. And just as both men have started to work past their issues and are settling into the start of a new relationship, they’re haunted by a one-night stand with a young man who’s willing to do anything to succeed, including committing blackmail.

Though the authors were evenhanded in their treatment of the two protagonists, I found the Montgomery Clift-like Paul more sympathetic, partly because I initially found Jack’s expectations of instant friendship with his idol and his subsequent anger when he didn’t get it somewhat stalker-ish rather than romantic, and partly because Paul was living in the real world. He knew who he was and what he wanted…but he also knew that it was 1953, that MGM was focusing mostly on wholesome family pictures and that being exposed as a homosexual would compromise his reputation, his career, his future and possibly his life. Paul’s fear of exposure and its very real consequences lent the novel gravity, believability and power.

The sexual details, too, are powerful…intense, detailed, wholly credible. And they’re not only hot, but also say a great deal about the characters and their world. The scene that stands out most in my mind is that of Lilah sucking off Paul while her husband, Paul’s best friend Martin, watches. Now, I can hear some people in the back saying, “Ewww, het!” But to me, it was an incredible scene. Paul wanted to be touched by a man he cared about so badly that he was willing to let his best friend’s wife suck him off while Martin watched so that he could fantasize that Martin was the one making love to him. That says so much about the man’s isolation–that there is no one in Hollywood who can be trusted to give him the love he so desperately needs. This is the best he can do. And he’s so accustomed to this accommodation he doesn’t let himself think about what he really wants for even a second, lest he realize that he’s unhappy and very much alone.

One thing that I especially liked was the level of detail that the the authors included in the book. For example, at one point early on, Paul thinks that he doesn’t want to look like “a hulking bruiser of a bulldog” next to “a little yippy terrier,” like two characters that appeared in a “Warner Brothers cartoon last year.” Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier were only in two shorts for Warner Brothers: Tree for Two (1952) and Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide (1954), so right away the year had to be 1953 or 1955. And it’s emphasized throughout that what Dore Schary–who headed MGM from 1951 to 1956–wants, he gets, which would be far more probable two years after he was hired than the year before he was fired. So even if you didn’t know the date the story is set, you could still figure out from in-story references that it’s 1953.

I also liked that the authors took the time to show Paul and Jack’s relationship shifting from adversarial dislike and hurt pride to appreciation for each other’s talents and finally to honesty and the realization that, despite the risks, this relationship was worth keeping.

I was sorry, therefore, that neither the ending nor the epilogue quite rang true. I could accept one man sacrificing his reputation to a blackmailer to keep the other safe; what I couldn’t accept was the blackmailer going along with it. It seemed to me that such sacrifice would only tell the blackmailer that someone was willing to put everything on the line to save someone he loved…and then both men would be targets. So while I was deeply relieved to see the blackmailing snake foiled by a brave and generous lover, I couldn’t quite believe it would be that easy.

And while I was willing to accept that perhaps MGM had finagled matters to avoid having one of their actors arrested or imprisoned after he’d admitted his preferences publicly–it would have been in their interest to avoid scandal after all–I didn’t feel that one man giving up his studio name and going back to his real one would ensure that Paul and Jack could associate with each other with impunity. It’s not hard to discover for a reporter to discover an actor’s real name, after all. And I felt certain that the studio would be interested in damage control–including keeping one man as far away from the other as possible. It was a happy ending (it left Paul and Jack very much in love and very much together), but it was not a believable happy ending.

Nevertheless, it’s a very good book. And I would definitely recommend it.

Buy from Amber Allure

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.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: For the Boys by J M Snyder (from “Some Gave All”)

Some Gave All – Four stories in honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Review by Vashtan

Calling this anthology a “mixed bag” is the best I can say for the whole anthology. It brings together stories of four authors: “Memorial Meeting” by Aline de Chevigny, “Flyover” by Jefferson Dane, Thanet Blake’s Memorial” by Wayne Greenough and “For the Boys” by J.M. Snyder. The anthology is published “to honor those who’ve served for their countries”. As far as I can tell, “those that served their countries” were exclusively American (I may be missing something).

Out of these four stories, the first three are heterosexual-focused, and three have paranormal elements (ghosts in the afterlife, spirits of vengeance and spirits hiring “hard-boiled detectives”), therefore, I’m only reviewing the one story that falls within the remit of this blog, namely Snyder’s “For the Boys”, which is set during the Korean war.

And that’s for the better, because of the other three, two would have got scathing reviews. “Memorial Meeting” was sappy and had unbelievable characters, writing and structure were fairly weak, and the concept of two spirits lingering until their descendants would give marriage vows – including conveniently placing the rings – was just too much for me. “Thanet Blake’s Memorial” is almost incomprehensible and made me groan in frustration as I tried to understand what was going on around characters I didn’t care about. The third, “Flyover” was a decent enough story, but I’m not reviewing this here as it’s straight.

Mixed bag; so if you’re only interested in m/m or gay historical fiction, you might want to pass on this anthology and only get J.M. Snyder’s “For the Boys”, which is a sweet historical romance told against the backdrop of the Korean war (or intervention, as it’s called whenever a nation doesn’t like to issue a formal declaration of war). You can get the short story at the author’s website, linked below.

Told in first person point-of-view by helicopter pilot Carl Prosser, “For the Boys” is the story of Carl falling in love with Tommy, a performer of an entertainment troupe of USO, that tours the military camps. Carl meets Tommy while accompanying his comrade Bert to a girl, and while he waits outside, he gets chatted up by Tommy. They do the deed, and meet as often as they can while Tommy is still in camp. At the end of the three days, they are completely in love. As Tommy’s troupe leaves, both write letters to each other, deepening their feelings for each other. Carl eventually cooks up a madcap plan to see Tommy again, but doesn’t actually have to follow through with it, as the troupe is returning their way.

The troupe gets attacked on the road, and Carl comes within an inch of losing Tommy, or “my boy”, as he calls him, but all ends well. This story is heavy on the romance and light on the plot – the love is very much center stage, but it’s very well written and the feeling seems genuine. After reading the other three stories, I was in a somewhat uncharitable mood, but “For the Boys” turned that around, and I did enjoy the story, even though very little happens apart from their relationship taking form. The history is light, but seems believable for the most part. What did nag me a little bit was that, while Carl clearly has to be careful and keep his head down, his comrade Bert knows about him and doesn’t seem to mind at all, even jokes about it with Carl. Apart from having to hide and play things subtle, Carl doesn’t seem too worried about falling in love and makes plans for the future with Tommy, basically ignoring society at large. However, it’s still a far cry from OKHOMO.

I found the writing well-done and engrossing; have a taste:

Lonely didn’t begin to describe Korea. Some nights, when the wind whistled around the flaps of my tent, I would lay awake on my narrow cot and listen to Bert snore, and wonder if maybe I wasn’t wasting my time out here, wasting my life for a war that the government refused to declare. Nights like that I wanted to be home, in the heat of the South, and I clutched the blankets tight around my body and ached for a lover’s touch. Then there were days when I was trying to get thewounded off the battlefield and could hear the steady ping of enemy bullets off my chopper blades, and wondered if I would ever even make it home again.

Tommy watched me closely—I could feel his gaze on my face, my neck, and I was all too aware of his naked arms and his thin clothing, sequins and silk, when I stood next to him in heavy fatigues and a thick field jacket. “I’m sure you have someone back home who misses you,” he was saying, his breath warm against my cheek. When had he moved so close? “Someone who writes you long letters, cheers you up a bit. A girlfriend maybe? Someone like that?”

“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. “No girlfriend.” I didn’t want to tell him that the only letters from home I got came from my mother or my sister. No lover, and definitely no girls.

“Not your type?” he breathed.

Staring into his deep eyes, I whispered, “You could say that.”

So, this is heavy on the romance, and, compared to other things I’ve read recently, light on the smut. There are no pages and pages of explicit sex. This story is quieter, subtler, and focuses on blossoming love and longing.

If anything, I was somewhat confused about Tommy. During their first meeting, he seems to be and act like a much older man, but in the course of the story seems to go through a reverse ageing process, and he seems five or more years younger at the end than he was at the beginning. It might be a lover’s exuberance, but it did throw me out of the story a bit.

“For the Boys” accounts for 17 thousand of the anthology’s total 53 thousand words, and I strongly recommend getting just this story rather than the complete anthology.

Author’s Website

The story can be bought as standalone here

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: Simon A Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry by Nick Heddle

1957. Gorgeous, 23-year-old Simon heir to a peerage, meets and falls in love with a Cumbrian sheep farmer, disappointing his parents and flying in the face of the social mores of a period when gay relationships risked a life prison sentence. Told from the perspective of his lover who acts as narrator throughout, the story encompasses their relationship over a fifty year period spanning their first meeting, when post-war optimism is fast being replaced by decay, to 2007 when the couple can finally validate their relationship publicly in a Civil Partnership ceremony. In between we are treated to a cast of delightful characters Simon s myopic and hidebound parents determined to see their son married to a rich, eligible debutante; Harry, his younger brother, the spare , who also turns out to be gay and the riotous drunken fortune-teller Madame Claire Voyante, who takes great delight in informing Simon of the skeletons in the family closet. Simon: a Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry is an imaginative, enjoyable, but also poignant and touching novel. Set against the last gasp of a decaying old world and the first caterwauls of the new, it paints a portrait of an England which is in some ways in decline, and which in others is an improvement but remains, above all, the deeply erotic saga of an enduring love which lasts for over fifty years.

I reviewed Mr Heddle’s other novel, His Master’s Lover, and was singularly unimpressed so I approached this book (which I had bought from Amazon, in case the FBI is watching) with some trepidation.

However, although it shares many of the problems of that novel, it’s actually a  better read I was pleased to find.

The story is told in two alternating sections, flashbacks to the past, when the narrator first meets Simon, set in 1957 and onwards, and one in the narrators present day, starting from 2001.  Simon arrives at the narrator’s house (he’s never named) one day when the narrator’s wife is away on a visit, and the narrator is instantly attracted to him. He’s deeply closeted, almost the point of fooling himself, and thought that a marriage would take away all those feelings he’d been having. However his marriage is not working out at all.

Naturally enough–for Heddle’s writing–you know that the main protagonists are going to get busy with the sexxing almost instantly and there’s no disappointment here.  Personally I would have preferred a gentle courtship–or even one lasting a day or two, especially considering that the narrator isn’t fully happy or even fully aware that he’s homosexual/bisexual at this point, but that’s not to be.  Simon bizarrely takes all of his clothes off (even before he’s told anyone his name) and the two of them are at it like rabbits in no time at all.  This is part of my dissatisfaction of the book–at no point was I convinced that either man really loved each other.  Oh yes, they said it, they said it all the time ad nauseam, but it seemed all to based on sex.  It’s because the narrator is so good at sex that Simon loves him, and what keeps him loving him.  It’s very “tell” not “show” – and there were very few instances where anyone did anything that convinced me that this was love and not just a 50 year lust-affair.

The story is, in some way, a potted gay history of a sort.  The Wolfenden Report had just been held in committee and recommendations that homosexuality should be decriminalised had been put in place. The story covers this, as well as the Windscale disaster, which leads Simon to build a water powered turbine on the farm.  As with Heddle’s previous work, Simon is beleaguered with many of the same problems that His Master’s Lover suffered from, one of the most annoying is the Dan Brown-esque obsession with telling us every single detail of national news in  conversation and the narrator’s thought.   Yes, you’ve done the research, Mr Heddle, I applaud that, but you need to learn that sometimes less is more.

There’s also a huge amount of OKHomo to contend with, as with his first book.  This is set in the Lake District, in the 1950′s.  A hard enough place to farm, even today, and filled with farmer more rugged and taciturn than anything even seen in Herriot’s vet books.  To have everyone in the village accepting of the gay couple living openly together, fondling and kissing each other in the pub, (even once to the point of ejaculation) is errant bilge.  No-one causes any problems for the husband, not even the wife, who left him.  Somehow he had an amazingly quick divorce, too, which is entirely impossible.  He’d had have to have waited five years and use desertion as his proof.  There’s no way (as is actually suggested that he do) that Simon could put himself forward as “the other man,” and it’s this level of idiocy that marks Heddle’s work down, when he’s clearly done a lot of research on other matters.  Simon’s brother loves the idea of their relationship and even wants to watch them at it, and finally his mother gives it the seal of approval.  It’s all very jolly.

I have to say that “the wife is a bitch” trope didn’t work for me either. Simon met the wife once, and he’s constantly bitching about her throughout the book, when I have to say, I think she behaved a lot better than she need have done, in 1957.

I’ll mention the sex, not because I think that all gay books should necessarily have sex in them, but this marks itself as a “deeply erotic novel”, which I’m sad to say, it really isn’t.  The sex scenes are vague, very short and consist basically of a lot of shouting of dialogue like “Oh yes, fuck me harder, oh yes, I’m coming,” which is not erotic at all.  There’s no description, no depth of sensation and if you wanted a one-handed read, which you’d be right in thinking this is, you’d be disappointed.

There are some really odd things in the book: a peculiar old fortune teller called Madam Clair Voyante, who, for the life of me I cannot see the point of; a repeated plot line used in His Master’s Lover of a treasure trove that fizzled out and went nowhere and many plot based editing errors such as a car pulling up in one chapter, but in the next, it hasn’t arrived yet.

It’s a shame, because I have to be honest, this is a much better book than His Master’s Lover.  I put the blame on the fact that it’s published by a Vanity Press and despite their assurances that editing is important to them, it’s clear to me that it’s not.  Granted there are few typos that I noted, but in the hands of a real editor, this book could have been quite good.  It needed the bloated dialogue reduced, the Dan Browning taken out and the OKHomo squashed at source.

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Review: The Handsomest Man in the World by David Leddick

In the shadow of the 1954 nuclear bomb tests on the Bikini atoll, two sailors begin a tender, passionate affair that will carry them all around the USA: to San Francisco, Manhattan, Fire Island and Washington DC. The lovers learn, with fumbling hands and lips, how to satisfy one another, but the erotic heat of their sexual explorations is matched by the tension of their dangerous situation. Can their forbidden love withstand the relentless hostility of the Eisenhower years?

Review by Erastes

I couldn’t find a decent blurb for this book, and the one above, garnered from Amazon doesn’t do this book justice at all. It makes it sound like an erotic novel, and although there’s a lot of sex, it’s not described more than “he entered me and came quickly” — on that sort of level.

What the book is is an entirely entertaining and delightful read, in a raconteur style–that is, as if the narrator was sitting in a bar and telling you the story of the first love of his life, rather than writing it down.

The blurb also hints that there’s a lot of external conflict, but really there isn’t, so anyone expecting the lovers to be cowering under the bed from the police will be disappointed. The conflict comes mainly from Fred (Bill–the narrator’s–handsome man) being “not homosexual” and about 50% of the time that he makes love with Bill, he regrets it so much afterwards that he starts saying how much he hates him, hates him “making him do it.” (which is, of course, entirely unfair as it’s pretty damn obvious that he wanted to do it at the time!)

The love affair lasts a lot longer than you’d expect, and for the most part, when Fred isn’t beating himself up mentally for being queer, it’s a touching and convincing love, and succeeds even through separation and long distance while Fred is still in the Navy after Bill leaves. What’s really touching is the affection between the two of them, and had they met in the 90′s perhaps they’d have had more of a chance together.

I loved the descriptions of the ’50′s most particularly, you get a real feel for ’50′s America–and most particularly New York–as the couple settle down in their tiny twin-bedded apartment in Greenwich Village. It’s beautifully described, the clothes they wear (mainly from Brooks Brothers) the places they go to socialise (they don’t mix with any other gays, although there must have been some kind of gay scene, hidden away) and their outings to areas around New York not yet spoiled by holiday homes and over tourism. Leddick does the raconteur style cleverly, and it’s the little touches like “Oh we probably stayed somewhere in some little town” or “I can’t remember what we were wearing, no tee-shirts, as they were still considered underwear.”  Details of misremembered facts really emphasize that this is someone telling you the story, straight from his flawed memory.

It does, as you can imagine, have a bittersweet feel to it throughout, because this is a tale of a man’s first homosexual relationship–and first love is one we all remember probably through more rose-tinted spectacles than it deserves.

I did feel a little sorry for Bill at the end, because he felt the lack of love in his life, despite having a few serious relationships after Fred, and it left me with a little lump in my throat.

Author’s Website

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Review: Black Butterfly by Mark Gatiss

With Queen Elizabeth newly established on her throne, the now elderly secret agent is reaching the end of his scandalous career. Despite his fast-approaching retirement, queer events leave Box unable to resist investigating one last case…Why have pillars of the Establishment started dying in bizarrely reckless accidents? Who are the deadly pay-masters of enigmatic assassin Kingdom Kum? And who or what is the mysterious Black Butterfly? From the seedy streets of Soho to the souks of Istanbul and the sun-drenched shores of Jamaica, Box must use his artistic licence to kill and eventually confront an enemy with its roots in his own notorious past. Can Lucifer Box save the day before the dying of the light?

I’m leaving Lucifer Box’s second installment (The Devil in Amber) on The List, but I’m not going to review it, because it’s rather too paranormal. However this is more spy-like with no paranormal aspects, so it fits the bill.

Like The Devil In Amber, this book jumps forward in time, and we meet Lucifer at the end of his career. He’s feeling a bit sorry for himself and mourning his lost youth (and he’s worked his way through quite a few of those in his life, let’s be honest)  and feeling a bit of an old crock. It doesn’t help when the equivalent of Miss Moneypenny, tells him that she prefers firm cock, when he tries to chat her up.

However, you don’t keep Lucifer Box down for long. Following a trip to his favourite sleazy watering hole he’s off on the trail of the beautiful and exotic Kingdom Kum (yes, really, the names are part of the enormous fun of this series of books). The trail leads him all the way around the world and back again, and pretty soon, despite his aging limbs and failing eyesight, Box is back on form, and I’m very happy to say that he ends the series on an “up” as it were and a jaw dropping moment.

I thoroughly enjoyed this installment, in fact I thoroughly enjoyed all three books. Box is a thorough reprobate and you can’t help but love him to pieces, because an unrepentant anti-hero is such a delicious rarity.

If you love puns and silly humour, if you love James Bond but think that Bond definitely misses out on a lot of action by ignoring bell-hops, rent boys and the like, then you will love Lucifer Box.  Give him a go.  I’m only sorry that Gatiss has only done three. It’s a clever plot to do them in three different eras (Edwardian, 1920s and 1950s) but I hope that he’s tempted to go back and fill us in on some of the cases that Lucifer teases us with – because I for one want MORE please!

Lucifer’s website

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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.

chauncey-gay-new-york3

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Review: Over Here by Jamie Craig

Harvey Kramer shipped home from the European front with a damaged leg and memories of a man he couldn’t have. Ten years later, on the first official Veterans Day holiday, that man knocks on Harvey’s door and turns his world upside down.

Zach Jones never forgot Sergeant Harvey Kramer. Though he made it through the Second World War uninjured, he bears the scars of a love he thought he lost forever. Using the new holiday as an excuse, he tracks down his old friend in hope of a sweet reunion.

ebook-22,000 words

Review by Erastes

And that’s it really, it’s a reunion story and a very nicely written one, Jamie Craig’s writing speaks for itself, it’s mature, confident and going on the books I’ve read by the writing team of Pepper Espinoza and Vivien Dan enjoyable.  I can’t say that I was set on fire with this story though, it rambled on a bit at the beginning and I would have appreciated a lot more of the men’s backstory–perhaps a few flashbacks because their conversation of their spent in WW2 fighting and loving was intriguing to say the least. It struck me as slightly discordant that they’d been apart for ten whole years without tracking each other down, went into the bedroom with some alcohol, then lay on the bed together half undressed and just lay there and chatted.  It’s not that I wanted heavy sex at that point – the chatting was good, but it would have seemed more believable in the sitting room – or at least from any man I’ve ever been in a bedroom with, half undressed after a long absence!

When the sex does kick in, it’s very hot, and again, nicely written and won’t disappoint the reader who is looking for a hot read.

But sadly, apart from the sex, I found it all a bit dull, which was disappointing–nothing much happens, it’s like a cozy gay erotic episode of Touched by an Angel and didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid, in 100 pages, there seemed to be to be able to add a little bit of conflict.

However – if you want a heartwarming, undemanding and very romantic read, then this will be right up your street.

Author’s website

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Review: The Leather Boys by Gillian Freeman

They’re Britain’s ‘Wild Ones’ – the motorcycle cowboys who live for gas machines and faster girls – who ton-up along the Motorways, terrorising drivers and defying the law. Who experience sex too young, marry unthinkingly and live only for the next kick – whatever or whoever it is.

The Leather Boys is a savage, brilliantly told novel of these aimless young men and women. It is also the story of Dick and Reggie and the strange, twisted love that developed between them.

Review by Erastes

First off let me say that the first cover (with the girl) couldn’t be more erroneous of the title and the content of the book. I couldn’t scan my cover in, and couldn’t find a picture online. The blurb is pretty ghastly too making it sound like a British version of the Hell’s Angel’s books so popular in my girl’s school in the 1970′s. I object hugely to the term “strange, twisted love” because as you’ll see it’s nothing of the sort. The second cover is the original one, when the book was posted in 1961 it was published under a (jokey) masculine pseudonym. Nothing changes, eh?

The book is an essential read for anyone who might be interested in the late 50′s and the youth of that time, it may come over as rather quaint to Americans, because I’m sure that American bikers were never quite that shy and gauche as some of the characters here.  Although – sorry to disappoint you once again – this isn’t exactly about biker boys either.  Hell, could a book and a blurb and a cover BE more misleading?

Anyway, there’s not much to the story, really. Reggie is married but dissatisfied. His wife has told him that she’s pregant with another man’s child so he leaves her.  He meets up with Dick, another biker, who lives with his ailing grandmother in a typical two up  two down terraced house with no loo but the one outside.

When the two young men do get together it’s not accompanied by pages of pre-kiss angst. They are friends, and neither of them see much further than that. Reggie has moved in with Dick, and as was more common in those more innocent times they sleep in the same bed.  One night it just seems right and they kiss. Any sexual conduct is off screen, but is clearly alluded to afterwards. Dick is the one who asks “is this love? And do you think of me as a girl?” and Reggie, who is far more pragmatic simply says “of course not – you aren’t the right shape.”  Dick voices his confusion by saying that he thinks it’s strange that neither of them want to start playing the girl, by putting on lipstick and stuff like that. There’s none of the questioning of self and identity that we see more often in more recent coming out books. Dick loves Reggie and that’s it, really. For better or worse.

They decide-not just for the sake of their relationship, which they are aware they can’t share with anyone-but also to get away from Reggie’s wife, and Dick’s grandmother, and the book winds to a terrible conclusion, sadly in keeping with most gay novels of the time.  It is interesting to note that the film – which is well worth seeking out if you can get hold of a copy – has a completely different ending and one that disgusted me more than the end of the book.  In the film (as in the book) Dick goes to the naval yard to inquire about signing up with the Merchant Navy, and while he is there he meets up with a few of the other homosexuals who band together and all know who’s who.  In the book Dick simply wonders at these men – almost like a different species.  He realises then that although he is homosexual – that he’s not like these camp men, neither is Reggie and hopes they’ll be left in peace onboard ship.  However – in the film, the director makes that the end – Dick decides that he can’t accept that camp lifestyle and walks away from Reggie forever.

This doesn’t ring true with the depth of feeling in the book, and I don’t know why they changed it. Perhaps it was the only way to get the film made – in 1964(!) Dick was far too much in love with Reggie to have done this, and the last few pages of the book convince any reader that he never would have done that.

It’s a lost world – Britain’s Gone with the Wind. There are no more leather clad gangs who frequent coffee bars.  The day of the outside toilet are gone forever and Britain has lost that tang of innocence.  I remember the early sixties (just) but it takes the film to put it clearly in the mind of anyone who wasn’t around then. The empty roads, the way people lived, I don’t often advise reading the book and watching the film, but for anyone interested in the social history of this time, I highly recommend doing both.

The book is – in its way – comparable with Renault’s Charioteer, and certainly deserves to be as popular and as lauded as that book. Perhaps the prose isn’t quite as beautiful, perhaps the heroes are dirty, criminally minded and working class – far far below the lofty heights of Ralph and Laurie, but for my money it’s every bit as good and deserves to be back in print, not labelled as pulp – but a modern classic.

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Review: Oblivion by Harry J Maihafer

On Saturday, January 14, 1950, at 6:18PM, Cadet Richard Cox left his room at theU.S. Military Academy at West Point to goto dinner with an unidentified visitor. The man was supposedly someone Cox knew when he served in Germany. Cox never returned from that meeting.

Thirty five years later, a retired history teacher named Marshall Jacobs decided to pursue the mystery that had been a national story. Jacobs plunged into a labyrinthine search of Army and FBI records – and what began as a hobby became an obsession. After piecing together the puzzle for seven years, he found the one witness who enabled him to bring the case to closure.

Review by Erastes

An interesting find, this. The story was pointed out to me by a friend with a penchant for random surfing and it sparked my interest. I looked into it a little more and found this book which I promptly bought. I believe it’s out of print, but I picked up a copy for pennies.

Richard Cox is the only West Point Cadet ever to have disappeared without trace for for many years the American police, the Criminal Investigation Department and the FBI were involved in trying to track him down. It brings to mind just how easy it might have been (or might still be) to disappear in a country as large as the States.

But – did he disappear or was he murdered? The theories are thick and fast and the amount of threads that lead away from Cox’s last sighting are legion. The trail leads to New York gay bars, Washington spy masters, German secret missions and even behind the Iron Curtain.

There were a few questions I would have asked, however – why on Earth did West Point allow people on site that they didn’t know? Why didn’t this mysterious visitor give his full name and why didn’t anyone ask it? Why wasn’t a certain woman’s second marriage investigated? I suppose it was all a more innocent age – I bet that West Point is a little more rigorous in their security now.

The book was, for me, a real page turner – I had an idea from the reviews on Amazon that many people were not convinced or impressed by the Marshall’s conclusions – but that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories one can form one’s own and you are unlikely to be proven wrong.

I would like to think that – in these days of computers, networks, DNA testing and the like, that someone will – once again – pick up the enormous body of research compiled by Marshall since 1985 and seek out a more definitive answer, and proof that Marshall’s conclusion was the true one. Because I’d like to be sure what happened to Cox – it’s impossible not to want to know for sure by the end of the book.

Despite the labyrinthine tangle of facts, Maihafer catalogues the case well without too much irrelevancies and it kept me absorbed right until the very end. If you are a fan of cold cases, conspiracy theories and other subjects of that ilk – then you’ll probably enjoy this.

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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: Mr Clive and Mr Page by Neil Bartlett

It is Christmas Eve, 1956, and the reclusive Mr Page is remembering a dream from thirty years ago. The dream is about the rich and wild Mr Clive, a man who could have been Page’s twin, and what really happened to the beautiful white-haired boy who served in his house. And the dream is about Clive’s house itself–ostensibly modern and spacious but in truth deeply secretive, with its invisible network of staircases, corridors and hidden rooms. Neil Bartlett bears angry witness to the oppression of gays in the past and evokes their concealed world with dark, erotic tenderness.

Review by Erastes

I’ve just closed the book and am completely blown away.

It’s probably not for everyone, because it’s written in first person; is interspersed with (relevant) articles and news clippings; is written in a realistic diary-style; has a very campy-fussy-gay-man-tone and rambles quite extensively. But for my money it’s one of the best books I’ve read.

For a start it emphasises the very real fear that gay men were feeling in late 50′s England. Compare and contrast this with Isherwood’s bohemian gay life of A Single Man and you will appreciate the difference of Californian sun to the cold austere post-war severity and class-conciousness.

You’d think that – as the Labouchère amendment had been in place for 70 years – that the gay community (such as it was) would be a little more confident but for those who didn’t already know that was not the case, this book shines a light on the constant fear of discovery.

Mr Page is a wonderful character; from his first words “I’ve got the gas on, Lovely,” you immediately picture him: fussy, beautifully turned out, and alone. The entire diary is written with a core of the fear of detection running all the way through it, and he explains, just by the way he describes his life, why he’s so repressed because of the case of that household guard, those two navy boys, that man in the university – a catalogue of less fortunate men who have been “found out.” He even says that he can’t name names because if they found any of those names in this – they’d know. It’s a terrible thing to be so very afraid, afraid to love.

In a very real way, it reminds me of Rebecca; there’s a gothic feel to Mr Clive and his huge empty expensive house, and Mr Page even mentions the book at one point, which probably helps the comparison. Mr Page meets Mr Clive (a Gatsby type figure, apparent wealth and eccentric behaviour) outside the Turkish bath where Mr Pages goes every week. Although it’s very veiled (as Mr Page doesn’t want anyone getting hold of his memoir and naming names) it’s clear that the bathhouse is a meeting place, as such places have been in history.

Mr Page wonders why Mr Clive picks him up the way he does, first thinking that it is because they look so alike, but then realises it’s probably for other reasons. It’s not a friendship, never a friendship, but it’s compelling both to Mr Page and to the reader – and whether or not Mr Page’s reasoning at the end of the book- the reasons why Mr Clive did the things he did – are accurate, then that’s up to the reader.

The core of the book is one image: of one day in history 14 March – when Mr Page saw a blond man, naked, bathed in sunshine. This image is both a dream and a reality and what starts out as one certain image – what we think we know is happening – gradually unravels as Mr Page get more maudlin (fuelled by Christmas brandy) and we finally, tragically, understand what the image of the naked, blond man is really all about. You get a real feel that it’s the true meaning of the image that Mr Page has been trying to hide, but in the end, he had to get out.

I wish I could say more, but it’s difficult to do so without spoiling, despite the length of the book, it’s a very simple premise, fabulously written and I was jealous of every line. The ending had me sobbing, but not in a bad way, believe me.

This is definitely a keeper, a re-reader, an inspiration, and one of my essential reads.

I don’t often link to other sources, but I think that this essay on the book is well worth reading (after you’ve read the book, of course)

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: Aubade by Kenneth Martin

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
It is the beginning of the summer, and Paul has just left school. Estranged from the people around him and unable to communicate with his parents, he feels lonely and unloved. But his life suddenly changes when he meets a young medical student whom he renames Gary. Their relationship develops through the long hot summer, to reach its climax with the approach of autumn.

REVIEW:
Kenneth Martin was only sixteen when he wrote Aubade, using his poverty-stricken adolescence as well as people he knew for the book’s central conflict and characters. Given those, one can say that Aubade is the ultimate gay young adult novel. Elizabeth Bowen’s review for the Tatler sums it up best: “Most books about [adolescence] come from the pressure of emotional memory: Kenneth Martin writes from the very heart of them.”

The novel is very short: 150-plus pages with large text. I read the story first and then the book’s introduction afterwards – not advisable, in hindsight, because Kenneth Martin’s introduction provides a long, detailed account of his adolescence, his family, their hardships, and his experiences in publishing and beyond. Knowing all those beforehand would have made my reading experience much more comfortable because at the very least, I’d have been able to read through the book with a better understanding of Paul’s character.

Stylistically, Martin’s age and inexperience show. The prose alternates between concise and clunky. The novel’s rough around the edges, at times lyrical in its descriptions, and other times devoid of sensory details. The dialogue also teeters between natural and stilted, and Martin provides an interesting – and rather poignant – reason for his attempts at keeping proper syntax and not colloquial speech.

Paul, as the novel’s main character, makes things a little more difficult if one decided to skip Martin’s introduction. On the whole, Paul is unlikable. He’s cruel to his parents, his friends, and toward girls. He’s bored and restless, withdrawn and angry, selfish and proud, and he lashes out at the smallest provocation. Without understanding Martin’s background, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss Paul as another insufferable, angst-ridden teenager who’s suffocating under the pressures of family and convention. As it turns out, things aren’t that simple with him.

Kenneth Martin’s childhood and adolescence were a miserable time for him, being an adopted son of a large, impoverished Irish family (he was adopted to replace a child who died), where endless hardship had taught everyone to be silent and walled up despite their close physical proximity. Growing up under such unhappy circumstances, coupled with his own development as a confused gay kid, Martin lets it all out through Paul. The absurd quarrels, the outbursts of rage, the illogical cruelty, the loneliness, the extreme self-centeredness – everything about Paul becomes more solid once its foundation in real life is understood.

I think the only thing that makes Paul’s circumstances a little implausible is the fact that Martin makes Paul’s family more financially stable than his real-life family. The degree of Paul’s rage, then, is somewhat disproportionate, but I suppose one can always argue that we’re still looking at things through a disaffected teenager’s eyes. In that sense, financial stability doesn’t really matter.

Paul’s romance with Gary actually makes up a fairly small portion of the novel. Yes, most of the book focuses on Paul: his relationship with his dysfunctional family and his friends, with only occasional references to his restlessness and loss of interest in girls and growing fascination for Gary, at least in the first two-thirds of the book. The novel’s more of a character study, which builds up in the direction of Paul’s awakening sexuality. It’s in the last third of the book that we’re finally shown the growing relationship between the two young men.

The minor characters are limited in development. There’s enough there for us to have a pretty basic idea of who they are, but because a lot of them tease us with all sorts of interesting histories, complexities, and quirks, it won’t come as a surprise if we ultimately feel a bit let down because they’re not explored as deeply as perhaps they should be. Gary, especially, remains elusive despite Martin’s efforts at bringing him to life. There’s a certain untouchable quality in him that makes him, almost literally, an ideal that poor Paul can only dream of. That Paul renames him Gary (Gary’s real name is John) can be seen as a reflection of that, which to me is the saddest detail in the book.

The lack of polish in a sixteen-year-old writer’s first novel can be a bit off-putting at times, but the intensity of feeling and the crazy, sometimes disjointed fumbling around for answers work well in tandem with the absence of stylistic maturity.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Wicked Angels by Eric Jourdan (trans. by Thomas J.D. Armbrecht)

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
This is the classic French literary novel, banned for 30 years, now translated for the English market. Wicked Angels is the English translation of the classic 1955 French literary novel Les Mauvais Anges, banned for 30 years for what was called its ‘subversive’ subject matter. It is the story of Pierre and Gerard, two teenagers who share a love that no one else around them can condone. The two young men discover their destiny in each other’s arms, their passion coupled with violence – and ultimately pay the price.

Translator Thomas Armbrecht helpfully includes an informative introduction that puts the novel into the proper context of the times.

REVIEW:
Anyone interested in devouring Jourdan’s novel is well-advised to read Thomas J.D. Armbrecht’s introduction. Here, Armbrecht explains in great detail the circumstances behind the novel’s censorship when it was first published in 1955 – France’s censorship law, The Book Board (La Commission du Livre), and the novel’s literary predecessors in light of past obscenity laws. It wasn’t just about obscenity, Armbrecht claims, but also the attitude of defiance against the status quo that the two boys give voice to again and again. In the introduction’s second half, Armbrecht analyzes Jourdan’s narrative style, making several references to the book’s level of graphic sexuality and violence (treat this part of the introduction as a warning).

Jourdan’s novel is sexually graphic (though not by today’s standards), and, yes, it becomes quite violent as the story progresses. The book is divided into two parts, each recounting the process of adolescent passion that eventually spirals out of control from both boys’ perspectives. Pierre’s POV shapes the first half, Gerard’s, the second. The plot itself isn’t very complicated. Simply put, it explores the development of a love between two boys who happen to be cousins. There are other characters involved, such as the boys’ fathers and their neighbors, but their roles tend to remain in the periphery though in their neighbors’ case, some forward movement does take place – and along sexual lines. By and large, these side characters aren’t that deeply explored, but that doesn’t hurt the plot at all.

Much of the action isn’t only sexual, but internal. Jourdan takes us deep inside each boy’s head, and we see the initial blossoming of an attraction between them that gradually takes on more physical expressions till the boys, swept up in their love for each other, turn to sadomasochism and violence.

The power of the novel lies largely in Jourdan’s lyricism. While the plot itself moves at a fairly slow rate, given the characters’ alternating descriptions of scenes, events, feelings, and thoughts, Jourdan manages to sustain a certain fevered level throughout the book. Whether or not Pierre and Gerard are making love or simply enjoying a luxurious moment in the sun, coming to blows with their neighbors or surveying their environment at home, I sense a tension that rises and ebbs with every scene but never goes away. Perhaps it’s Jourdan’s lush descriptions, which suffuse each scene with a sensuality that’s sometimes raw, sometimes muted and elegant. Perhaps it’s the simmering passion between Pierre and Gerard, which reaches its boiling point without a pause in the process. Of course, I prefer to see it as the combination of both.

That said, Jourdan’s descriptions also tend to be overwhelming because of their relentlessness (for lack of a better term), at times giving me reason to wonder if I’ve read the same passages in an earlier scene. If I had less patience, I’d probably get tired of the repeated lusting and panting between the characters.

Though there are several idyllic, romantic moments throughout the novel, Wicked Angels isn’t a happily-ever-after story. The voluptuousness of summer and the beach, two teenagers in love, determination and subversion under repressive society’s nose – the novel has all the elements of Romeo and Juliet, and it explores both cause and effect in beautiful and disturbing detail till the inevitable conclusion is reached. That same conclusion comes hurtling toward the reader in the style of high romance, with fevered passion, angry fatalism, and defiance – not much different from any other given moment in Pierre and Gerard’s romance but with more dreadful consequences.

The book is by no means for everyone. Jourdan is just as detailed in his descriptions of tender adolescent love as he is in his descriptions of sadomachism (beatings and blood). He holds nothing back in expressions violence and affection, and the effect is poetic and uncomfortable. The book’s horrible beauty, the fascinating cultural and historical context of its publication, and its resulting censorship make this a significant title in gay literature.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Peridot by Parhelion

Steve is a jeweler who specializes in rare gems. He’s a rare gem himself for the 1950s, a bachelor with a certain reputation. Nate, his best friend and business partner, has never had that sort of reputation, so when Steve gets the call that Nate was caught in establishment that caters more to his type, he goes home to see what’s up. Nate’s got problems of his own, as well as the most supportive and nosy family a man could ask for. He has things he wants to tell Steve, but will society allow it to happen? Parhelion’s Peridot is the tale of an unconventional romance in a very conventional time, full of laughs, tears, and ultimately, friendship.

Review by Erastes

I’ve read a lot of gay short stories since I started in this game, and not many stand out, sad to say, I do have favourites that I return to… but that’s another story…. It generally takes something like a Saki short story to stick in my head.

So the discovery of this little gem (pun not intended but unable to avoid) was a nice surprise. I had no idea who Parhelion is, never heard of him/her before, so I had no expectations going into the story – I read it because it was marginally “historical” being set in the 1950’s but actually that wasn’t obvious in the slightest, as it turned out it was being told in flashback. There’s not much actual sense of historical context – other than the masquerade that gay men had to live under (but then, they still do) but once I’d read a couple of pages I didn’t particularly care.

Basically, it’s the story of Steve Corvey, who – although he has aspirations to cut loose and travel the world – is forced through circumstances to take over his father’s jewellery store in a small town in California, and becomes entangled with an extraordinary extended family called the Jowletts and ends up staying in the small town. He takes on and sponsors a young man called Nate – who he admits that he does not feel attracted to at all – but who over the years becomes his best friend and eventually his business partner. Having a partner enables Steve to travel and to indulge in sexual activities he’s unable to do in his small town. So when in Burma on a buying trip/sexual holiday he gets a call that Nate’s in trouble, he flies home to do what he can to help, unaware that the trip will change his life.

I can’t say more than that, but please, if you haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. It’s well written, thoughtful, unexpected and has a real resonance that will (should) hang with you for days after you’ve read it.

The only thing that disappointed me was that at 14,500 words it’s just too short. There is material in this for a full-scale novel, there’s so much richness and back story half hinted at – and the Jowletts alone could easily fill a book by themselves.

However despite the truly TRULY awful cover, this little tale is reminiscent of “Winter of our Discontent” by Steinbeck and as that’s one of my favourite books of all time, that’s a big thumbs up for me. If you like your homoerotica to be tinged with angst and internalisation, then you’ll love this.

Parhelion – if you are out there, say Hi, will ya? I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff.

Author’s Website

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