Review: Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane

France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden–his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he’s never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can’t be so open with Frank–he’s attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man’s-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave–and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

ebook and audiobook- 18,000 words

Review by Erastes

Anyone who has read and likes Charlie Cochrane will be expecting quality and a sweet romance and you definitely won’t be disappointed in this book. She is consistently good and I always start one of her books with a sense of pleasure. I have to say I ended this one in that state too.

Frank is everything Tom would like to be. He sees the best in things, and can laugh even in the trenches, in the worst of conditions. To do otherwise, he tells Tom would be a road to madness. Tom is much more realistic and finds the war and the conditions next to unbearable.

Such a set-up could be a very hard read in other hands, but Cochrane deals with it well. Somehow she doesn’t lessen the impact of the horror–makes it very clear to us how badly Tom is affected by events that transpire–but it’s dealt with so wonderfully and subtly that it wouldn’t put the most ardent anti-war reader off. It takes skill to do this–a rare skill–which is why most WW1 books are  a much more harrowing read. Tom is living a life not lived; chances never taken, risks never risked and there are instances in his life which therefore he regrets for inaction. And now he’s in the middle of action of a very different sort, he can’t see beyond the end of the next minute.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story, in a way, as Tom has to solve a little but rather satisfying mystery (as the reader should twig onto the truth a long time before Tom) and when he does his life begins to change and he gets the chance to finally risk all for his future happiness.

Told in first person, Tom’s head isn’t the happiest place to be. He suffers (with a good portion of stiff upper lippiness) with a fair smear of depression although he does his duty, even when it’s unpleasant. He doesn’t particularly want to go and see Frank’s family but he does his duty even though the loss of Frank has hit him hard, so hard that only really his parents know how much it’s affected him.

It’s this repression that Cochrane manages to portray so very well. The fact that Tom and Frank had shared a trench and command for a good while but the repression of both men meant that they knew almost nothing about each other–not really–and they couldn’t trust each other enough to let each other know about their secret lives. She really gets into Tom’s mind and is utterly convincing as he unravels the tangle of Frank’s life.

As much as I enjoyed much of the Cambridge Fellows series, I prefer Cochrane’s standalone books. Her writing gets stronger as she finds her style (although she’s just as capable of contemporary, fantasy and historical) and gains strength and confidence in her writing. This is–to my mind–one of the most mature pieces she’s produced, and is romantic enough for those who seek it but thought provoking enough for those who want a more gritty read.

Author’s Website

Buy from Carina Press

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Review: The Red King by Rosemary O’Malley

A man abused and discarded is left to rebuild himself with naught but vengeance in his heart. A youth cruelly torn from all he knew and loved is cast adrift with no hope for the future. What will happen when Fate thrusts them together?

He is known as Ruaidhri and his extraordinary strengths and stamina are said to be born of the Devil. His ferocity is matched solely by his ruthlessness. For seven years, he has sailed his ship the Taibhse with one goal in mind: to avenge the years of torment he suffered at the hands of a depraved Danish lord. He has one final plan to succeed, but he searches yet for the implement.

His family destroyed by violence and his body enslaved to a brutal master, Andrew’s future promises only misery. He is saved from this desolate fate by a pirate captain with fiery hair and an ultimatum; help him achieve his revenge and go free, or be sent to a horrific, painful death. As Andrew struggles with the choice of slave or assassin, he finds that all is not as it seems aboard the corsair’s ship.

Pain is tempered by pleasure and loss consumed by love in the flames stoked by…The Red King..

ebook only – 320 pages (approx)

Review by Erastes

I always enjoy a well-written nautical adventure and this doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear right from the beginning that the author knows her subject and while I’m clueless about knots and lines and sheets I don’t really care about that stuff in the long run, as long as the book appears to know what it’s on about. Perhaps some expert sailor will find mistakes “a Xebec isn’t rigged like that” blah blah but I don’t know and with all else going on in the book I don’t particularly care. It reads like it does and that’s good enough for me!

The trouble with many nautical books-and I’m assuming that this is a hangover from all those hetero romances where the feisty heroine is dragged onboard by a scurvy but dangerously handsome captain and sparks fly–is that they tend to have the same trope which is exactly as described above, but with a feisty, or otherwise young man captured by that ubiquitous captain. This starts out like that but moves into different territory soon enough not to bore.

Here we have Andrew who is not-quite-a-monk and whose ship was waylaid by pirates.  Andrew – as these captives often are – is beautiful and everyone wants either to rape him or to protect him. I know it’s hard (cough) for a man to be without sex for a long time, but surely not every sailor automatically turns to gay rape rather than the alternatives.

Andrew, as the trope demands, starts out as particularly feeble–although that didn’t stop me from liking him. It wasn’t his fault he was raised gently by monks, after all. He mans up quite quickly which I approved of, and his character arc is fun to read, and he’s soon topping from the bottom and we find he’s not as feeble as we thought.

“I was raised by simple men, not simpletons!”

he says at one point and I cheered. There’s a bit of that problem with age and consent though, he’s 18, and of course has to be for American audiences, but at that age he’d be considered completely grown up in the 17th century, and it seems odd that despite raised by monks he never got around to taking holy orders, as that was his aim when in his monastery.

We get the first inkling that Andrew might eventually be swayed by the Captain’s lust quite quickly in the book.

“This was the captain? This man who looked like barbarian but was tending his wounds with the gentle touch of a Holy Sister? Where am I?” Andrew asked again, pulling his hands out of the man’s grasp. His touch, while gentle, was…disturbing.

Yes. the dot dot dots of foreshadowing!

The captain himself, Ruaidhri  or Rory, the Red King himself, is a larger than life character and one we can quite believe in, those of us raised on stories of Henry Morgan and Edward Teach. He’s a protector as well as a pirate and his aim is to kill a man and he is quite willing to use Andrew to do it. He has the fanatical devotion of his crew, and they are a great mixed bunch of miscreants too.

Lovers of yaoi will like this as it has very much a yaoi feel, particularly at the beginning where the naked innocent, who looks a lot younger than he is, is predated upon by “grown up” men. But I think lovers of shipboard romances will like it a lot too as there’s enough salty action to satisfy. There didn’t seem to be a lot of actual managing the ship–this tends to happen in books I’ve found. More chat than hauling on lines, but ships seem to sail themselves for the most part except in battles or storms! There are one or two tiny tiny instances which made me suspect this was converted fanfic, mentions of apples for example and people simply saying “Pirate” at each other, but if it is then it’s very well converted as never once did I see parallels in characterisation as I have in other books I’ve reviewed.

The growing relationship between Andrew and Rory is nicely done. There’s a rather delicious scene where Andrew tells Rory about a monk in the abbey who had confessed to wanting to kiss his bare bottom which is titillating and far more sensuous than many love scenes I’ve ever read. The fact that Andrew can’t see the effect he’s having while telling the story is quite squirmingly nice. All in all, there was rather too many sex scenes for me, but they aren’t really gratuitous, they do all lead forward in a progression, but well, there are a lot–although well written.

Description is pretty great throughout, to be honest. Without pages of the stuff, O’Malley manages to bring out the huge ocean, the huge sky, the hot claustrophobia of Algiers, the scent of a horse, the noises of the market. I could very easily see this transfer to a great graphic novel, as there’s images here in abundance. It’s much much more than a romance, there’s adventure and danger and philosophy and Cromwellian history and all sorts but it’s certainly never dull.

In fact, I thought I was the master of torturing my heroes especially when they look set for a happy ending, but O’Malley beats me hands down, she had me begging the book for a happy ending, which is something I never do. The ending for me, though, was a bit too drawn out and I got rather impatient with it and found myself skipping to get to the conclusion.

Editing is good, a couple of jarring instances -”lightning” was spelled “lightening” throughout for an example, compliment/complement being confused and some phrases that needed a firmer editing such as:

Rory quelled his sudden, urgent desire to kiss those lips and carry Andrew to the nearest couch with difficulty.

For those who need to know such things, there is one hetero sex scene in the book, and Rory as a ten year old had been taken and used by an adult. These scenes are short, rightly disturbing and not at all for titillation and are dealt with in memory segments. There are some unpleasant scenes towards the end too which if your squick factor is quite low you might want to avoid, but I hope it doesn’t put you off trying the book.  I’ve seen this book labelled BDSM on some sites but I certainly would not label it thusly. BDSM for me means a relationship and the abuse featured here is certainly no relationship, it’s abuse and shouldn’t be prettified.

Overall this is very enjoyable book, one that surprised me with each successive scene for the variety and scope. It should appeal to you whether you like your gay historicals to be well written, exciting, adventurous, factual (as far as this landlubber could ascertain, anyway), romantic and/or sensual. Well done, Ms O’Malley!

No Website that I could find.

Amazon UK | Amazon USA |

Review: Lost and Won by Sarah Ann Watts

‘There was a battle and you lost.’ Philip prayed never to see Francis again. Now the man who stole his heart is his prisoner, staking his life on Philip’s honour. All Philip has to do is let him go.

 1651: the Battle of Worcester is lost and won. Charles Stuart is a fugitive with a price on his head and Cromwell has the ‘crowning mercy’ of victory. Philip, a sober, respectable young man, fought bravely for the parliamentary cause and is looking forward to peace at his own hearth.

Francis, his lover and childhood friend, returns to make peace with his dying father and to give back Philip’s heart.

Soon Philip finds himself reluctantly sheltering a royalist spy and protecting the witch in his family.

Philip’s duty is clear and Francis staked his life on his honour. All he has to do is let Francis go. But how can Francis ask Philip to deliver him to justice?

Novella (79 pages, 16k words) ebook only

Review by Erastes

As far as I can ascertain, this is the author’s second offering (the first being a short story) but this is her debut book – and what a debut it is. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it’s verging on the literary side of romance but that fact merely underlines–in my opinion–this author’s talent. My mental ears were pricked when I noticed that it had been edited by Joanne Soper-Cook who is a major literary talent herself, and so I had good expectations going in and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a very simple tale, of a Roundhead (Philip) returning from the war and encountering a lost love, (Francis) who is — of course — a Cavalier, how they interact when they meet and Philip’s thought processes throughout. Does he protect himself and hand Francis (who’s a very wanted man) over to the militia? Should Francis break his allegiance to the new King, now hiding in France and stay with Philip?

The story–although quite a small novella of 16K words–manages to convey a great deal, not just of what is going on right now, but hints at such a wealth of back-story that I admit to–once again–wishing that the author had written the whole book, not just what really amounts to a longish short story about one part of these men’s lives, because this could easily fill a novel and more.

The atmosphere and the scene setting are blooming marvellous, and you can tell from the prose–and from the author’s blogspot–that they’ve put in a hell of a lot of research because the details are rapier sharp. From the description of ragged lace, to the weather and the interior of the houses–we are very firmly in 17th century England, and not here via Hollywood either. Next to Maria McAnn, I’ve not read anything in this era that evokes the sense of interior darkness and the constant paranoia that anyone would have had who had any brush with the two sides at this time in English history.

For those of you who buy a book with an eye to the sex, you’ll be disappointed, because it’s sparse and vague – but if you don’t get this because of that, you’ll be missing out. As the blurb suggests, there’s a mere hint of a paranormal element, but it is cleverly done, and given the times it could be entirely subjective rather than “a real witch” so I’ve chosen to ignore it.

There are some portions of the book which, due to the fractured dialogue (which makes it realistic, if somewhat tricky to read) and allusions to things the reader knew no wot of, that at times made it confusing. However, I am quite sure that on a second read it would iron itself out, and that each subsequent read would probably reveal more and more to a reader which is something I love about books like this. I’m sorry to say that due to time constraints, I have only read this once so far, but it’s a keeper and I’ll be reading it again very soon. Watch out for this author, I think she’s going to be good.

Author’s Blogspot

Buy at: Silver PublishingAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Games with Me (Vol 2) by Tina Anderson and Lynsley Brito (illus.)


Volume 2 of this gay historical drama continues with Dr. George Callahan certain that brothel-boy Jun is the one he knew as a child. When George attempts to better Jun’s life by buying his freedom, George’s intentions are marred by his addiction, and he risks losing Jun, forever.

Review by Erastes

This is volume 2 of what I assume is a two part graphic novel – and here’s the review of volume one. We really loved it here at Speak Its Name and we’ve been looking forward to part two for a long time.

This wasn’t a disappointment and well worth the wait. I read it ravenously first and then nice and slowly a second time, savouring the gorgeous art.

The set up in volume one, that of Dr George Callaghan knowing Jun is resolved, although that’s not really a surprise, but the story twists and turns in a satisfying way before we are given our ending.

One thing I really did like was the way the illustrations were very cinematic, such as sound effects like footsteps when dramatic tension was called for, and not too much of the labelled explanations of emotions, the art speaks for itself in that respect.

As I said, there’s a rather twisty plot, and a lot happens, with a good deal of backstory before we are done. The trouble I found was that there was so much to glean from this volume, that often I found myself guessing what was going on, or filling in gaps from the backstory and hoping I was right but not actually knowing. Perhaps it could have been extended to another volume, but that’s probably not feasible–I’m sure the logistics of getting a graphic novel out are tricky. But it did seem a bit rushed here and there, and a bit squashed for the amount of plot that had to happen. But that’s not really a detriment to the book.

I was surprised to find a few typographical errors, though. misused apostrophes and “your”/”you’re” confusion. With the small amount of speech in a book like this, there’s not really an excuse for these.

Jun is again, touchingly wonderful in this. George takes him out and about San Francisco–the poor boy has never seen a sunset, never been outside the brothel before and everything has a “wow” factor for him. Clothes, trains, traffic, people, he finds everything wonderful. Anderson being Anderson, she doesn’t whitewash problems in historical fiction. “Coolies” are less than second class citizens in this society and when Jun goes missing, the police admit that they wouldn’t waste time on the search, he’s only a coolie.

Due to the slightly squashed feel of the plot, trying to do too much in not enough panels, and the typographical errors, I’m going to mark this at 4.5 – but a resounding five stars for the two volumes as a set. There will also be an omnibus version, in print which I’m very happy about.

Tina Anderson’s Website

Linsley Brito’s Deviant Art Page

Buy at Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: An Angel in Hollywood (Hurrah for Hollywood 1) by Parhelion

When confronted by a rampaging comic genius, what’s a studio publicity fella to do?

Review by Erastes

I believe this book was out once with Torquere, but lucky you lot, if you didn’t manage to get hold of an ecopy back then (it was published in 2005 I think) there’s a free version on Parhelion’s website, together with the other books in the series which I’ll be reviewing at some point.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I’m a bit of a fangirl of Parhelion’s. I have no idea who he or she is, and I don’t really care. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that it is an alter ego Whoever they are they can write and that’s all that matters.

Parhelion has a knack of immediately–immediately–being able to drop the reader into whatever period that’s being written about, and Parhelion writes quite a wide stripe of time eras, although mostly in the 20th century, which is rather neglected, so that’s wonderful.

In this instance we are in the early days of the Talkies, around 1926 ish and the scene is set for us immediately with no need for tub-thumping back story:

“Two, please.  Ah, how charming.”  Sidney Beck smiled as he checked his new cards.  It did not mean much.  He had beamed at everything he had been dealt all evening.  His large hands fanned his cards shut before he shoved more chips and markers into the pile in the center of the fancy mahogany table.   Across the green baize from him, my Cousin Vincent took a long puff from his stogie and tried to look indifferent.  The other poker players seated in the private room in the back of Vincent’s nightclub fell silent, waiting for him to make his move.

A fella who had already folded, a character who owned a couple of Southern California department stores, snapped his fingers for me to get him a refill on his drink.  While I poured him the house’s best substitute for rye at the private bar in the corner of the room, he gave me a smirk that I did not like.  I came back over to the poker table and stood by his chair, offering him nothing but a cold eye.  Not until the smirk slipped off his plate did I hand over his hooch.   Just because I was the stake for this hand of cards was no reason for me to take such guff.

I was used for a white chip back in 1925 after my oldest brother Frankie had shipped me out west to live with Cousin Vincent, the owner of three social clubs around Southern California.  Back home, our family firm was having a small misunderstanding with the Garibaldi Medical Supply Company and my mother had put her foot down.  She was still sore that I had gone to work juggling figures and guarding tank trucks doing delivery runs around Broadway rather than finishing senior seminary, even though I did not have a vocation and was already real tired of the Jesuits. 

I knew better than to explain that to Ma.  I was the baby of a family of six and had learned the hard way not to tell anybody anything.  You can bet I was not going to talk to Frankie about how hot I was to blow town and why.  So, even though I had heard that my cousin Vincent was both a sanemagogna and a loffari, I just kept quiet and climbed onto the train.

I love Angelo’s voice, it has real echoes of Runyonese, a lovely mixture of slang and over-formal words with few contractions. In stark contrast to Angelo, we have Sid who speaks just like you would imagine a thespian to speak, over-blown, blousy and full of literary allusions. When they do have a conversation it’s utterly delightful.

Don’t expect a traditional romance, in fact as endings go, it’s not a “romance” at all, but more realistic than that. It’s more a coming-out story, a bromance layered with many issues and Catholic guilt. Parhelion has a gift, like Renault, for putting a lot of story into things that aren’t really said, or are only hinted at, and when it comes to men talking–especially hard-boiled men like Angelo–that works perfectly.

If I had any issues with the book it was a little rushed and a little muddled. The characters have to solve a dilemma and that’s needed because it forces them into each other’s company for a length of time, but there’s almost a touch of slapstick and farce about it (entirely deliberate I’m sure, seeing as how when and where it’s set) but still, I found the almost Keystone Cops speed of how things went as they rushed around Los Angeles to be a be dizzying and confusing.

But overall, it’s well worth a read, and even better it’s free!

Parhelion’s website

Read here

Review: Sail Away by Lee Rowan

Corrupt governments, divided loyalties,lovingly exchanged gifts, astral travel and sensual love; not to mention a sailors unwanted little lodgers are all combined in this charming and entertaining collection of short stories by Lee Rowan, plus an extra treat from Charlie Cochrane.

THE CAPTAINS COURTSHIP
Set in 18th century New England amid revolutionary rumblings, The Captains Courtship is a nicely written and well researched traditional romance.

Cynthia Lancaster is a well brought up English girl living with her father, Edward and her grandmother in New Jersey. Her father is eager for her to marry the unprepossessing Mr Humboldt. But when Cynthia meets the handsome and dashing Commander Paul Andrew Smith when he intervenes in an argument between Edward, a loyalist and and two staunch Patriots,she is immediately smitten.

Now, with the help of her grandmother, Cynthia must attempt to persuade her father that the commander would be a better match than Mr Humboldt.

SEE PARIS AND LIVE.
Christopher St.John, the young Baron Guilford is asked by his mother, the Dowager Baroness, to travel to Paris to supervise the safe delivery of her shipment of brandy. But France is embroiled in Revolution and dangerous ground for an English Aristocrat.

Once there however, Kit meets Zoe Colbert, an extremely pretty,if rather forward young woman who immediately invites an astounded Kit to bed. Events take a turn for the worse for Kit, however and his sojourn in Paris turns out to be longer than he anticipated.

CASTAWAY.
Forbidden love aboard His Majesty’s Frigate, Calypso. When Lieutenants David Archer and William Marshall are washed overboard during a fierce storm at sea, the two find themselves stranded on a desert island. Away from the prying eyes of their shipmates David and William are able to express their love for each other without fear of punishment and almost certain death.  And for a while at least they can live out their fantasies in this tropical paradise until help arrives.

ALL SOULS.
When David Archer is confronted by the apparition of the man whom his lover, William Marshall killed in a duel, he instinctively realises that his friend is in mortal danger. Together David and William must fight the strangest battle of their lives. Will the love they have for each other help them to survive the night, and beat this most deadly of enemies?

GIFT EXCHANGE,TOKEN OF AFFECTION,FORTUNES FAVORS,TOUCH.
Four short stories featuring Davy and William celebrating Christmas, Valentines Day, risking a  ‘quickie’ in a skiff and enjoying some shore leave… and much more besides.

Reviewed by Grace Roberts

I really enjoyed this collection of stories.Beautifully written and well researched, the author Lee Rowan has delivered once again with some classic romance and adventure set on the high seas, in the American colonies and in Paris during the ‘Terror’.

Two of the stories (The Captains Courtship & See Paris and Live) are M/F and the rest are M/M, but don’t let that put you off. I did find that a little disconcerting at first but the author writes in both genres so well, I was able to put aside my bias and enjoy them just as much as the M/M stories. And I love the book’s cover. Nice and clean and uncluttered, and no naked torsos.

Set in the pre revolutionary American colonies, The Captain’s Courtship is a very traditional romance with the requisite handsome hero and a heroine who, though no raving beauty, has attributes which far transcend mere physical attraction. A strong will for one thing, and a determination to marry the man she loves and not the man her father wishes her to wed. Here also is the ubiquitous wise old grandmama colluding with her grand-daughter in her ambition.

As I said, a very traditional romance and a very charming read.

The one quibble I had with the next story, See Paris And Live was the main female character.I just couldn’t take her seriously at all, and I didn’t like her. I tried, but it wasn’t to be. She came across as arrogant and manipulative, and I found the scene where she entices a not unwilling Kit into bed five minutes after meeting him slightly unbelievable.

Later in the story, she voices concerns about the loss of her virtue, and how it would affect her father. Hmm, one can’t help but feel she should have thought of that earlier. But perhaps it was a case, for her at least, of not knowing when she may end up riding in a tumbril to the guillotine, so live for the moment. But I didn’t like it and I found it mildly off-putting.

It’s a decent story with a good, solid plot and we even have Kit undergoing Trepan surgery after a skirmish with revolutionaries.

The next four stories Castaway, Gift Exchange, Fortunes Favors and Touch feature Lieutenants David Archer and his shipmate, friend and lover,William Marshall, the stars of Rowan’s Royal Navy Series.

Castaway has the two being swept overboard during a fierce storm and managing to stay afloat by clinging onto a chicken coop. Washed up on a desert island, the two men battle to suppress their feelings for each other with some slightly comical results. While one leaves the sleeping quarters,where they share a hammock, to supposedly relieve himself among the bushes, the other takes the opportunity of his friends absence to relieve himself in a different way. (His father once told him to do it privately or ignore it) Only later do we discover what Davy has really been up to in the shrubbery. They do eventually stop beating about the bush, ho hum, throw caution to the wind, and consummate their love. And with no threat of Article 29 to bother them and no one to witness the act, they have a lovely frolic on the beach. Very sweet, very sexy,a lovely story with a very surprising ending. I certainly didn’t see it coming, and you may need a hanky or two.

Gift Exchange begins with a charming and affectionate letter from Davy to his mother thanking her for her Christmas gift of a marzipan rabbit, underclothing and woollen stockings.

He shares his gifts with William, and in return,William gives Davy a gift he’ll never forget in a beautifully written scene of illicit passion which, because they are on board ship must be conducted in silence.Difficult for Will, not so much for Davy who’s mouth is er, busy elsewhere.

My favourite after Castaway was All Souls. The author has obviously researched the subject of Astral Travel very thoroughly and whether you believe in it or not, it makes this story a gripping read. Its the first time I’ve seen anyone mention the Silver Cord (the mystical cord which attaches the corporeal body to the spirit. A sort of umbilical cord) for many years. Writers rarely mention it in fiction or in reports of so-called actual occurrences of Astral Travel.  But it enables Davy to float from one deck of his ship to another just by the power of thought. Marvellous, this is a sea faring adventure with a difference. I loved it. And it has a very satisfying ending with love triumphing over adversity and avenging spirits.

Token of Affection and Fortunes Favors have our heroes once again exchanging cute little gifts for Valentines Day and taking a newly repaired skiff for a practice run, and in Token, there are plenty of Bottom puns from the two while discussing Shakespeare, and a mention of a ‘New little mid- Beecroft’ who could play Puck, and looks the part but has an unfortunate stutter. Oh dear!

The first sentences in Fortunes Favors raised my eyebrows a little with the ‘Carry On’ type double entendres. Upright Shafts and Wet Leather! But no, tis only our intrepid twosome rigging up a mast when, having risked a ‘quickie’ behind a tiny island in the Calypso’s newly repaired skiff they are caught in a sudden squall. There’s more talk of Yardarms with er rosy tips etc plus the lovely, vivid line, ['Their] love being no less sincere for being hasty; like a hummingbird hovering in flight to sip nectar’.

Touch blew me away with it’s lusciously sensual and highly evocative sex scene. Playful and raunchy without being smutty or crude, it’s erotica at it’s tasteful best,and is written with skill and finesse.

Finally, With All My Worldly Goods I Thee Endow-Including Livestock By Charlie Cochrane.

This extra little vignette is typically Charlie Cochrane. Her wit, humour and sense of fun abound in every sentence as Davy attempts to rid Will of some unwanted little visitors…..head lice. Great fun to read and is a lovely, jolly finale to a book which I enjoyed immensely. Eight cracking tales with plenty of action, adventure, love, lust and humour, Sail Away has something for everyone between it’s covers. Available from Amazon at £4:53 for the Kindle edition, it’s also available in paperback, (a bonus these days) for £8:99, which is a little pricey, but for this collection I reckon it’s well worth it.

Lee Rowan’s Website

Buy at Amazon UK,  Amazon USA

Review: Bonds of Earth by G.N. Chevalier

In 1918, Michael McCready returned from the war with one goal: to lose himself in the pursuit of pleasure. Once a promising young medical student, Michael buried his dreams alongside the broken bodies of the men he could not save. After fleeing New York to preserve the one relationship he still values, he takes a position as a gardener on a country estate, but he soon discovers that the house hides secrets and sorrows of its own. While Michael nurses the estate’s neglected gardens, his reclusive employer dredges up reminders of the past Michael is desperate to forget.

John Seward’s body was broken by the war, along with his will to recover until a family crisis convinces him to pursue treatment. As John’s health and outlook improve under Michael’s care, animosity yields to understanding. He and John find their battle of wills turning into something stronger, but fear may keep them from finding hope and healing in each other.

Review by Sally Davis

The somewhat bleak black and white cover of this book caught my eye when it was released so I was delighted to be asked to review it. The unusual image might be passed over in favour of something more colourful but these two hands delving into the earth are appropriate for the story on more than one level, both evoking the torn up ground of the Western Front during the Great War and the garden that is so important to the story.

Michael Macready is the main protagonist and point of view character. He is an intelligent young Irish American educated well beyond his humble beginnings. But his studies were interrupted by the Great War and Michael has abandoned his ambitions, returning to what he knows – a job at the St Alexander bathhouse in the village where he works as a masseur and takes tips for sexual favours. The blurb suggests that he is losing himself to pleasure but Michael only bestows it on others. His experiences during the war have made him, he feels, a hollow shell.

Then fate intervenes in the form of self-righteous uncle Padraig who arranges for him to obtain the post of gardener at the country home of the wealthy Seward family. There Michael meets John, a broken man, and finds that his massaging skills can be put to good use.

At 240 pages this isn’t a quick read, but nor it it one to be rushed. Much better to take ones time and savour the elegant prose and the pin sharp descriptions. Michael and John are sympathetic without being mawkish – in fact John is a bit of a handful. Prickly, bad tempered, refusing either help or pity, John takes a long time to relax enough to accept the physical relief that Michael’s skill can offer his damaged muscles and even longer to acknowledge the relationship that grows between them. Meanwhile Michael does his best to tend the garden as well as John while fighting back the memories that the raw earth and John’s scars keep bringing back to him.

There is a very good cast of supporting characters – Michael’s and John’s families, their friends and John servants. I adored Millie, the manager of the bath-house with her careful maquillage, and, in complete contrast, Thomas Abbott, the Seward’s general factotum with his stiff manner and dreadful driving. One of the pleasures of the book is in finding characters mentioned at the beginning coming back to play an important role later.

The historical details, and especially the medical ones, are used deftly to give the story a sense of place and purpose. Sometimes the medicinal or massage terms are a bit heavy but on those occasions we are in Michael’s head and the complexity is appropriate. We are being shown just how much more he is than he appears on the surface and it works well, whereas in another context it might have felt over done.

The author doesn’t allow her protagonists the luxury of an easy way out. Both, but particularly Michael, have to pay for their pleasures, but I found the ending very satisfying. I think this book deserves a “Highly Recommended” rating.

Author’s Blog

Available in Paperback and ebook format.

Buy at: Dreamspinner PressAmazon UK,   Amazon USA

Review: The Master of Seacliff by Max Pierce

It is 1899, and young Andrew Wyndham has accepted a position tutoring the unruly son of wealthy industrialist Duncan Stewart in the hopes that the work will be brief yet provide an avenue to pay for his passage to France to study art. But Seacliff is a dark and eerie mansion enshrouded in near-eternal fog, dark mystery and suspicion-perhaps a reflection of the house’s master. An imposing Blackbeard of a man, brooding Duncan Stewart is both feared and admired by his business associates as well as the people he calls friends, for Stewart may have murdered his own father to gain control of his business.And his home, in which Andrew Wyndham must now reside, holds terrible secrets-secrets that could destroy everyone within its walls. 
Review by Erastes

This book has been reissued by Lethe Press, and was originally reviewed in 2007

It’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that I enjoyed this book.  I was positively drooling when I got the book in my hands and excited when I opened it.

If you are looking for an erotic romance, then you’ll be dissapointed by TMOS, but if you want a solid, multi-layered mystery chock full of quirky characters, death and over-arching gothic Doom, red-herrings and a surprise denouement, then you’ll like this as much as I did. (Oh and a lovely romance too…)

From the outset, the plot is familiar to those who have already read books such as Jane Eyre and Gaywyck. Young and innocent (not-quite-yet-aware-of-his-sexuality) Andrew gets a job as tutor to Stewart and we can already see where the story is going. However Pierce isn’t going to let us off that lightly and he throws so many obstacles in our protagonists way that you begin to wonder if they are ever going to get together.

It’s a refreshing change to see so many secondary characters; Pierce doesn’t stint with them, and each one is fully rounded, different and has his or her own story to tell. Also, in the tradition of the Golden Age of Agatha Christie, nearly every single one has a motive in the dark secret that overhangs the house of Seacliff. There are flashes of Rebecca here, with an obsessed and creepy faithful retainer, touches of Jane Eyre but never so much so to annoy, it was always its own story.

I was impressed also, as to the many threads of the mystery that were woven together, one after another until I was thoroughly convinced of the guilt of the person that everyone else thought it was. Bravo, Mr Pierce. There’s nothing I like more it’s being led by the nose to the throroughly wrong conclusion!

Andrew might be young, but he’s not a shrinking and fainting heroine type. He’s a little sensitive; he tends to hug-a-lot, and he cries from time to time but he can stand his own ground too, which was something I appreciated. He has a lot to stand up against, too, as Duncan is a difficult, prickly (and very hairy!) man and he tries to push Andrew away more than once. I liked Duncan’s persistence and his wanting to do the right thing, even when he had the opportunity to get away from a frankly difficult and dangerous position.

There’s the inevitable OK Homo, I’m afraid, not only that, you begin to wonder if anyone in the world is straight at one point – but that didn’t spoil this book when the same thing had spoiled other books for me. In this twisted, remote and decadent world that Pierce paints it doesn’t seem unusual and the reasoning behind the homosexual relationships are believable.

Previously published by Harrington Press’s Howarth Press at a time when their future was in the brink, this book has always deserved a wider audience and a better publisher and I’m very happy to see Lethe Press pick this up and run with it. I hope you try this book. You won’t regret it, as if you enjoy a really good gothic romance with all the trimmings – perfect for curling up with on a foggy night – then you’ll like it a lot. I certainly did.

Author’s website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA (available as paperback and ebook)

Review: Rag and Bone by J.S. Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #2)

Rag & Bone is #2 in the Inspector Raft Mystery Series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Philemon Raft arrives on the scene of a deadly fire in Whitechapel, only to find a much more sinister force at work, destroying lives with swift abandon – and a lunatic may help Raft capture the master criminal known only as “The Master.”

Review by Erastes

This is the follow up to “Willing Flesh” which we reviewed a while back. It’s taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.

What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you’ve read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone…

What I admire about J.S. Cook’s work is the sense of the grotesque–in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description.  It’s not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.

Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock’s office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet’s tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.

What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There’s too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in “The Master” and so on and so on. Raft–who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant–develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it’s just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn’t even notice.

The editing leaves something to be desired, too – misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn’t had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush,  pasted on and in the end weren’t really explained to my satisfaction. However it’s hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.

However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.

What shows clearly is Cook’s research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter–and other such home pursuits! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she’s not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it’s about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly–one of the children actually says “There aren’t any more” rather than “There ain’t none.” The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.

The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren’t romances – they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn’t happen, JS Cook doesn’t let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.

You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first–if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can’t help but be impressed by Rag and Bone.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA (Print and ebook)

Review: Gaius and Achilles by Clodia Metelli

Gaius and Achilles is a gay historical romance, set in Late Republican Rome, concerning the choices facing Achilles, a young aristocrat from Paphos whose life is thrown into confusion when he is captured by pirates and separated from his lover Hippothous.

He finds himself the slave of decadent Roman poet Gaius Manlius Torquatus, a sensitive soul, who must struggle with the conflicting demands and desires of his nature.

Achilles’ radical change in status from respected citizen to personal property forces him to struggle to redefine his threatened sense of self and ultimately to question what it is to be free.

Meanwhile, his lover Hippothous is facing his own perilous adventures and is determined to find and save Achilles at any cost.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s not often anymore that a book catches me completely by surprise, taking turns that you just don’t expect an historical romance to take. “Gaius and Achilles” surprised me, and I don’t mind saying right up front it was quite a pleasant surprise.

We’re first briefly introduced to Achilles and Hippothous, two aristocratic Greek youths of Paphos, on the island of Crete. The two young friends consider themselves lovers, although Hippothous would prefer the relationship conform to Platonic ideals, while Achilles yearns for greater physical expression. The men are both selected to compete in the Pythian games, and set sail along with the cream of the island’s youth for Delphi. Unfortunately, they’re set on by pirates, taken captive and sold into slavery in Italy.

When we first meet Gaius, he’s whipping a slave boy, only it’s not really a slave, it’s his boyfriend Antyllus, and he likes it. Or, maybe he doesn’t. Antyllus was once a slave, but now he’s a free man with a successful acting career. Unfortunately, he’s a sadly damaged and self-destructive young man who can’t seem to stop playing mind games with his boyfriend Gaius (sigh, been there). Gaius is almost driven mad by his young lover’s mercurial temperament, but finally wises up and resolves to part company with Antyllus.

Gaius escapes to his country estate, which he hasn’t visited since he was a boy. His uncle, who raised Gaius when his parents died, used to look after the vineyard for Gaius but he has now passed away, leaving Gaius with the responsibility to look after the business which provides his income. Soon after his arrival, the estate is embroiled in turmoil. It seems the steward, Rufus, has purchased a new slave who is quite unruly, and has even tried to escape. Rufus wants to whip the slave into submission, but the more Gaius hears, the more concerned he becomes and so he asks to see the slave for himself.

The slave is, of course, Achilles and under questioning it becomes clear that Rufus has purchased the young man, at considerable expense using Gaius’ money, to act as his own personal sex slave. Achilles quite naturally balked at this. Rufus had, quite wrongly, assumed his new master would be some addle-brained upper class twit. Once he figures out what is really going on, Gaius has Rufus quite literally peeing his toga.

Gaius takes pity on Achilles, and tries to more gently ease him into his new life as a slave. He makes the young man is personal servant and treats him with respect. He is also strongly attracted sexually to Achilles, but Gaius has a surprisingly strong moral code, especially for a Roman. He won’t take any man, even a slave, without their willing consent. So, he sets about wooing Achilles, which doesn’t prove difficult. The young man, in spite of himself, is also attracted to his new master. Gaius gives the beautiful youth the physical expression of love that’s long been denied him, and allows Achilles to explore the darker desires he’s long suppressed. This is where things get really interesting, but Achilles can’t give himself totally to Gaius. He pines for his lost lover Hippothous, whose fate remains unknown to him, and he still rebels at the idea of his enslavement.

“Gaius and Achilles” is set at the very end of the republic (that’s the Roman republic, dears, this isn’t Star Wars fanfic). Julius Caesar is as yet an up-and-coming young politician, mentioned a few times in the story. The author, apparently writing under a pen name taken from the time of the setting, seems to be a serious student of the Greco-Roman period and has woven a rich background for the story. There are vivid details about the daily life of a country villa. Everything, right down to the foods eaten at every meal, rings true to me. It’s all delivered in a very readable style that never becomes pedantic.

The historic detail alone makes this a very capable story, but it’s the relationship between Gaius and Achilles that really sets this book apart as something entirely unique in my experience. Many ‘serious’ historical romances – those not intended simply as one-handed reads – often tread quite lightly when it comes to sex. Even when they do get descriptive, the sex is often rather vanilla. The depictions of sex between Gaius and Achilles is quite unabashedly detailed and erotic. But what really pushed it over the edge into something completely different, what made me stop and think “wow” when I realized where it was going, is that the sex between the two men moves quite firmly into the realm of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). That was really just totally unexpected in a historical romance set in ancient Rome. Non-consensual sex in a master/slave relationship is one thing, but consensual BDSM is quite another.

It took me a little while to see what the author was doing. This isn’t all about shock and titillation. What the writer manages to do is set up a rather exquisite tension between the two sides of Achilles’ personality. On the one hand, there’s his public persona, the free-born Greek aristocrat who can’t wrap his head around now being a slave, someone’s property, with no control over what happens to him. On the other hand is Achilles’ private self, with a sexuality at its core that has an strong need to serve a master. He finds strength in submission, and joy in the pain of a whipping. It’s the tension between these two opposites that sets the theme of the story.

It’s in the description of the BDSM scenes that I found the closest thing to a flaw in the book. There was something rather ‘modern’ about the scenes – safe words, boundaries and limits are openly discussed. These things are very important to the story, in making Achilles feel comfortable enough to submit to Gaius’ domination, but they still felt somewhat out of place in ancient Rome. Although the Romans left plenty of documentation about what they got up to in bed, I doubt we have the level of detail to know if they understood the importance of safe words. This wasn’t one of those things that jars you out of the story, it was more a slow realization, and frankly, once I noticed it I simply overlooked it and read on. It doesn’t really detract from the story.

In then end, I felt the author was acting rather more responsibly than most. I do read a fair bit of BDSM, and even review it for another site. A lot of what gets labeled as BDSM really isn’t. It’s non-consensual sex, sexual torture and even outright mutilation. In “Gaius and Achilles” the author has shown how two (or more) consenting adults can engage in extreme sex safely. She probably could have glossed over some of the safety details without detracting from the story, but I think it actually becomes more powerful the way it is.

Hippothous is not completely forgotten in all this. He’s constantly in the background, forming a wedge between Gaius and Achilles. We get regular updates on his adventures as well. He is first sold to a brothel, but he fakes a seizure his first night on duty and is promptly resold, this time to a merchant with need of a Greek scribe. This at first seems a more suitable position, but his talent soon lands him in trouble with the senior slave, who frames the lad for theft to get him out of the way. While awaiting his fate, which will be whipping, or worse, Hippothous is allowed to escape by his master’s daughter and soon falls in with a gang of bandits.

It becomes quite obvious early on that, for the story to resolve itself, Achilles and Hippothous have to meet again. When they do, Achilles is forced to choose between his friend and his lover, between the freedom of Paphos with it’s moral restrictions and life as a slave to Gaius allowed to explore his innermost desires. It’s not much of a choice, really.

This book pushed a lot of my buttons, and more importantly, it pushed a combination of buttons I don’t expect a single story to push. That said, I realize this book is not going to appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect it’s going to be one of those stories that people either love or hate. There won’t be much middle ground. If you have a taste for extreme sex, you’ll probably like this book. If too much sex in a book is a turn-off, just don’t read it.

I decided to give “Gaius and Achilles” 4.5 stars. The main reason I’m not giving it 5 stars is that, while it’s a ripping good yarn, it didn’t really tug at my heart-strings (although other bits got fondled). There’s nothing I can really put my finger on to account for this, the characters are well rounded and likable. I suspect it’s down to the remoteness of the time and circumstances. I just couldn’t get into the head of an ancient Roman or Greek aristocrat, and I certainly have absolutely no frame of reference for what it’s really like to be a slave, with absolutely no control over what happens to me. Others might get into it more easily, and really be tugged by Achilles’s situation, so I don’t consider this a real failing of the book.

Clodia Metelli’s web site

“Gaius and Achilles” may be purchased from Smashwords or Kindle (ebook only)

Review: Quatrefoil by James Barr

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: The Psychic and the Sleuth by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Trusting a psychic flash might solve a mystery…and lead to love.

Inspector Robert Court should have felt a sense of justice when a rag-and-bones man went to the gallows for murdering his cousin. Yet something has never felt right about the investigation. Robert’s relentless quest for the truth has annoyed his superintendent, landing him lowly assignments such as foiling a false medium who’s fleecing the wives of the elite.

Oliver Marsh plays the confidence game of spiritualism, though his flashes of insight often offer his clients some comfort. Despite the presence of an attractive, if sneering, non-believer at a séance, he carries on—and experiences a horrifying psychic episode in which he experiences a murder as the victim.

There’s only one way for Court to learn if the young, dangerously attractive Marsh is his cousin’s killer or a real psychic: spend as much time with him as possible. Despite his resolve to focus on his job, Marsh somehow manages to weave a seductive spell around the inspector’s straight-laced heart.

Gradually, undeniable attraction overcomes caution. The two men are on the case, and on each other, as they race to stop a murderer before he kills again.  

Review by Erastes

I ummed and ahhed about reviewing this one, because it does have some paranormal aspects (spiritualism) but I’ve decided that this could be treated in the same way as ghosts – the only other paranormal theme we accept – because it could be subjective and brought on by other reasons, such as split personalities  etc.

This book continues this writing partnership’s run of titles with similar names, The Nobleman and the Spy, The Gentleman and the Rogue–there’s endless fodder here and long may they continue to do them.

If you enjoyed either of the last titles, then you’ll certainly enjoy this. The thing is that although the titles are similar and there might be the danger that the authors would find it easy to slip into a pattern of plot that would be highly predictable they are to be commended that they don’t do that at all.

This, quite apart from the gay romance within it, is a good Victorian sleuth story which stands firmly on its own two feet. You could remove the gay romance and the detective story would still be viable, and that’s needed in the genre, too many stories simply concentrate on the meeting and eventual falling in love.

Yes, there’s instant attraction on both sides, and this attraction is acted on pretty soon, and both parties start to realise they are becoming fonder of each other than is wise, but the detective story runs neatly parallel to this at a good pace, deflecting us from simply concentrating on the uncertain love affair. This makes the balance of the book great and therefore accessible to more than just people who want gay sex stories.

The sex is nicely written, with a BDSM theme. I’m not a fan of the trope, and find it odd that so many gay books have it–far higher percentage of men in fiction indulge than do in real life, I’m sure, but what there is is nicely done. At least for me with little knowledge of the lifestyle. It’s most definitely “play” and the bottom is the top, which is how it should be. There was one scene where–for me–it tipped from sexy to rather giggle worthy, but I am 12 and I’m sure others won’t be as juvenile as me.

There are many secondary characters here, as befits a sleuthing story, and each one is given the necessary weight as suspicion shifts from person to person. As well the suspects there is a veritable line-up of society matrons, simpering hopefuls for the bachelor Court’s affections and Dickensian work colleagues.

What I liked most is that both characters, whilst developing in their personality throughout, both for the better, remained true to their core beliefs. Robert is a copper, to his bootstraps and he was sent to investigate Oliver’s mediuming (don’t think that’s a word!) and the way he deals with it after Oliver becomes his lover is entirely in character. Similarly, the authors give Oliver a need to want to help people, and he’s never been comfortable conning them, although he’s been very clever never to actually do anything that could be proved to be fraudulent.

I would have liked to have seen a little more of Oliver’s original business, as he seemed to give it up altogether very quickly.

One thing that jarred for me–and again, I know that some readers love this device–was the sex scene that was put in after the denouement and the concluding sections. It seemed really jammed in and it added nothing to the plot, and my criteria has always been with sex scenes, if you can lift them out and they don’t cause a ripple, they didn’t belong there in the first place.

However, despite a couple of tiny niggles, it’s a really enjoyable read, and if you like Victoriana, crime fiction and anything written by this dynamic duo, then you’ll like this with great big brass knobs on.

The score doesn’t reflect it, but for shame, Samhain–surely you could have done a better job on the cover than that? Elasticated boxers? So much scope with lovely Victorian scenes and clothes and we get disconnected naked guys and a Matt Bomer lookalike.

Authors’ websites: Bonnie DeeSummer Devon

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA  Samhain

Speak Its Name Awards 2011

Sorry to cut into the Advent Calendar which I hope you are all enjoying.

We will be reviving the Speak Its Name Awards this year and introducing a new category, the Readers’ Choice.

The Awards will be:

Best Novel

Best Cover

Best Author

and Readers’ Choice.

The first 3 are chosen by Speak Its Name, but the Readers’ Choice gives you a chance to participate. We’ve compiled the list of the top books rated 4,4½, and 5 stars. There’s a few but still only a fraction of the books reviewed in the year.

The poll is HERE - so please go and vote if you would be so kind.

The books concerned are these below, with a link to the reviews if you need a reminder of their goodness. The only thing I ask is that you vote for the book itself, and that you have read it. Not that you’ve reader other things by the author or you really love them as a person.

Many thanks and enjoy the rest of the year!

Captain Harding’s 6 Day War by Elliott Mackle

By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

Well Traveled by Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward

Placing Out by P.A. Brown

Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

This Rough Magic by Josh Lanyon

Muffled Drum by Erastes

The Puppet Master by Kate Cotoner

Kindred Hearts by G.S. Wiley

The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

Wingmen by Ensan Case

Bound Forever by Ava March

Missouri by Christine Wunnicke

Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Home is the Sailor by Lee Rowan

Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Midnight Dude by Various

Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

Earth and Sun, Cedar and Sage by Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward

Kindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell

The Last Tallyho by Richard Newhafer

The Painting by FK Wallace

Algerian Nights by Graeme Roland

Game of Chance by Kate Roman

Willing Flesh by J S Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #1)

Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck

Dulce et Decorum Est by JL Merrow

Mere Mortals by Erastes

Lion of Kent by Aleksandr Voinov and Kate Cotoner

Young Man in Paris by Sophia Deri-Bowen

Raised by Wolves 2 Matelots by WA Hoffman

The Wanderer by Jan Irving

Arson! The Dakota Series 1 by Cap Iversen

Living the Spirit: a Gay American Indian Anthology, compiled by Gay American Indians, Will Roscoe

Precious Jade by Fyn Alexander

Sam’s Hill by Jack Ricardo

Home Station on the Prairie Series-1 and 2 by Kara Larson

Walking in Two Worlds by Terry O’Reilly

Comstock by Aaron Michaels

Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

Pioneers by Lynn Lorenz

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

A Faint Wash of Lavender by Lucius Parhelion

Silver Lining by Lucius Parhelion

The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion by Heather Domin

The Only Gold by Tamara Allen

House of Mirrors by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Icy Pavements by Lee Wyndham

According to Hoyle by Abigail Roux

All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

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

His Client by Ava March

The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

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: Summer’s Lease by Scot D Ryersson (short story)

Calcutta, West Bengal, May 1891—Mair Calloway, Major Willoughby’s grandson, is arriving at Barrackpore for one night, en route to England for his first year at university. Captain Charles Blackthorne has been ordered to meet Mair at the train and take him under his wing for twenty-four hours. “No girls!” the Major orders. “Take care of his every need—personally!” Blackthorne, with an impeccable record in twelve years of military service would seem to be the perfect chaperone…

Summer’s Lease, an original short story from acclaimed author Scot D. Ryersson, brings the sights, smells, and tastes of colonial India to life. With a sensual undercurrent and simmering eroticism present throughout, the reader is transported to another world for a visit, that, like Mair’s stay at the Viceregal Lodge, is all too short and will leave you wanting more.

Review by Erastes

This is a most neglected era, and yet one so ripe with possibilities, I was thrilled to find that someone had finally written about it.

And it’s well done, too. I have to say I enjoyed it greatly, even though–because it’s a short story–it was predictable as to what actually is going to happen, but saying that, it didn’t have a hugely predictable ending, which worked well.

The language is very flowery, so be warned–that’s not to everyone’s taste, and if I say that even I found it a little over-florid at times, anyone who’s read my stuff will know what to expect.

That being said–the language takes the over-stimulation-to-the-senses that India can be, and paints it beautifully on the page. From the overbearing heat, to the crowded train station, seething with life and all types of castes, to the stuffy formality of the English club (although would they really have sat on the floor, Indian fashion?) to the scents and tactile senses of fabric, skin and hair.

Captain Charles Blackthorne is almost a pitable character as he’s spent 12 years in India and has managed to hide his proclivities pretty well. He sees new young men arriving, spots the tell-tale gleam in their eyes, and gradually, the chance of getting together with them becomes more remote as he gets older the young men get younger every year. You really feel that Mair is his last chance of happiness, and the reference to Summer’s Lease (Summer’s lease hath all too short a date” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 18) is quite sad.

I didn’t like the constant use of epithets. Mair is described as “the youth” and “the boy” throughout and although he’s not “underage” for the US laws (meaningless in 19th century, obviously) it kept pushing an image of a man that was too young, even though he wasn’t. I know some authors think it’s boring to keep saying the character’s name, but I prefer it to epithets. Sometimes, it feels there are five people in a scene when there’s only two!

There’s a couple of anachronisms I spotted, which only made me smile and the second one might not be one at all–the most glaring was the mention of the poem “Gunga Din” which wasn’t written until the year after this story was set. It’s easy done, I’ve done the same, but seeing as how the publisher is also an historical writer, and Mr Ryersson’s earlier novel with Bristlecone had many anachronisms in it, I’m surprised this wasn’t checked.

I find much of any book’s pre-amble–e.g. the stuff before the story: the legal bit, the acknowledgements a bit intrusive at the best of times, and I’ve noticed with Bristlecone that they put a “Dear Reader…” page in, explaining what the publishing house is and where it came from and please don’t pirate etc. That’s ok, but please put it at the end!

The promise in the blurb is quite right, because this is a wasted story, in the sense that it cries out for the whole thing. I want to know a lot more about Captain Charles Blackthorne and I hope that things work out for him.

Well worth the $1.59.

no website

Buy at: All Romance ebooks | Rainbow ebooks | 1Placeforromance

 


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: 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: A Faint Wash of Lavender by Lucius Parhelion

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s Website (out of date)

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: 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 *

Review: The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion by Heather Domin

Rome, 10BC. New soldier Manilus Dardanus is sent to apprentice under General Cassius Valerian in the hope of securing a military sponsorship. Dardanus is idealistic and naive, Valerian brusque and restrained – but each soon discovers the other is not what he expected. In the legion Dardanus finds purpose and strength; in Dardanus, Valerian finds hope. This bond will be tested on the northern frontier, as Valerian and Dardanus each realize the true nature of their connection just as war and betrayal threaten to end it – and possibly their lives.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Although my specialty is Canadian history, I have a great appreciation for all history, and I certainly bow to Heather Domin’s knowledge of Augustinian Rome, as demonstrated in “The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion.

I also like her writing style. She provides just the right amount of description to make both characters and settings vivid without slowing the pace. The characters are also well developed and distinctive although I did find Elurius and Pertinax somewhat similar in nature. This applies to their respective relationships with Dardanus and Valerian, as well. The author has also made very good use of dialogue (very credible), without being contrived.  What I liked most, however, was that the story builds to a climax gradually—like an orgasm—and the climax was gratifying.

The synopsis of the story is that young Manilus Dardanus has come to Rome at his father’s insisstance. The father has arranged an introduction to the wealthy and illustrious general Marcus Cassius Valerian, who commands Augustus Caesar’s twenty-fourth legion. Crusty General Valerian is hardened by battle and tragedies of the past, and at first assumes that Dardanus is like the other sons of sycophants who have sought his favour—i.e. with the idea of an adoption in mind. Despite these reservations, valerian gives him a place within his household and arranges for him to be trained as a soldier. Theirs is an awkward relationship, but in spite of this they both undergo significant changes; Valarian re-discovers deeply buried emotions within himself, and Dardanus grows from a callow boy to a self-sufficient man. He also discovers friendships bonded from hard work and the heat of battle, as well as loyalty asa soldier and for his idol, Valerian.

Having said all that, I had some minor reservations. I certainly bow to Ms Domin’s knowledge of Roman history, but did they travel in carriages (I mean the four-wheel variety) is 10BC Rome? I don’t know, but it seemed at little ‘modern’ to me. Their were some other anachronisms aswell, For example, the phrases “working his ass off,” and “Cut them off at the pass,” also seem a bit modern. However, these certainly didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Highly recommended. 

This review was originally posted on Gerry B’s reviews

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Review: The Only Gold by Tamara Allen

New York 1888

Jonah Woolner’s life is as prudently regulated as the bank where he works. It’s a satisfying life until he’s passed over for promotion in favor of newcomer Reid Hylliard. Brash and enterprising, Reid beguiles everyone except Jonah, who’s convinced Reid’s progressive ideas will be the bank’s ruin. When Jonah begins to discover there’s more to Reid than meets the eye, he risks succumbing to Reid’s charms—but unlocking the vault to all of Reid’s secrets could lead him down a dangerous path.

Losing his promotion—and perhaps his heart—is the least of Jonah’s difficulties. When the vengeful son of a Union army vet descends upon the bank to steal a government deposit of half a million dollars during the deadliest blizzard to ever sweep New York, Jonah and Reid are trapped, at od ds and fighting for their lives.

Review by Sal Davis

I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about covers so excuse me while I enthuse about this one. It really is worth viewing in the pop out version (on Dreamspinner‘s site) because I don’t think the artist, Lorraine Brevig (her portrait work is fab), has missed a beat. Covers are so important as a come-on to potential readers and often one doesn’t appreciate the fine detail until well into the book. This one is warm and welcoming with two good figures whose pleasant expressions but wildly differing stances and fashions get across the polite antagonism with which they initially view each other. In the background is the massive romanesque architecture that suggests that the bank’s fiscal foundations are also rock solid, a window with driving snow beyond and a shadowy mystery figure in silhouette that I can’t quite make out.

The period detail of the dress of Reid and Jonah are taken directly from the descriptions in the book and seem spot on to me. Definitely a cover that made me want to read on.

The book is written from Jonah’s POV and right from the first sentence – “Jonah was late” – one can see that he’s a man who lives on his nerves. Very competent, precise, organised, he follows routines absolutely and is as meticulous in his approach to his dress, his manners and his morals as he is to accounting for the bank’s money. That he is drawn to other men is something he has repressed as being an unfortunate aberration. Life is proceeding as planned and his few excitements are restricted to the prestige of the bank and his place within it. He is well liked by his staff, though he is somewhat awkward socially, and as assistant cashier he is clearly valued by the bank’s Board members. He knows his place and is happy with it but now the cashier has retired he is due a step up and is confident of receiving it. He is expecting promotion, but this expectation doesn’t come across as smug or grasping. He has earned it, there is a career structure, it is the way of the bank.

The arrival of Reid Hylliard, therefore, is a tremendous shock on all counts.

Abandoning tradition, the Board members hire Reid for the cashier’s post Jonah should have taken. Everything about Reid is anathema to Jonah. He dresses inappropriately. He slouches. He makes jokes with the junior staff. He invites people to lunch individually and organises staff jollies to Delmonico’s. In short his behaviour is NOT appropriate for a cashier of a state, soon to be national, bank. He is far too frivolous. That he is good at his job is also a source of frustration. From the moment he leans over Jonah’s shoulder and adds a column of figures with a flick of an eye, the reader can sense that there would be fur flying and blood on the mat if this story wasn’t so firmly set in its period.

Some stories can be re-set without any dimishing of vigour. The Seven Samurai, for instance, worked very well in a Wild West setting. But this story has to be in this time and place to work. Everything – dresscodes, manners, living quarters, districts, class divisions, time frame – is combined to make a plot that is foremost about two very different characters combining their resources to combat a threat. The romance between Jonah and Reid isn’t exactly secondary but it is so much of its time that anyone who wants a one handed read had better look elsewhere. The sex scenes are very mild and most of them fade to black. The couple that are described dwell more on the feelings involved than the plumbing. It is an intensely emotional story without being overblown or angsty – a harder trick to pull off than one might think.

I didn’t notice any editorial issues with the book – I read the ebook version – but that could be because I read it in great big chunks over 24 hours. In retrospect there were a couple of minor niggles but nothing historical and since I didn’t notice the niggles while I was actually reading I’m not sure they really count. In short I found nothing in the story to grumble at and plenty to bring a big silly grin to my face.

Author’s website

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Review: House of Mirrors by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Driven from his family when his sexuality is exposed, Jonah discovers drama, passion, and intrigue in a traveling carnival–and in the enigmatic owner, Rafe Grimstone. The preacher’s son and the lord who’s rejected his former life in England feel the heat of attraction from the moment they meet. Open-hearted Jonah is willing to risk hellfire and damnation for brief moments of pleasure with Rafe, but the older man is frozen in a past he can’t escape no matter how far he runs.

As Rafe struggles to choose between responsibilities of his present and his past, mysterious accidents assail the close-knit community of the carnival. Will the perpetrator be revealed before the traveling show is ruined, and will Rafe finally reveal his true self to Jonah or continue to mask his identity like the changing images in a house of mirrors?

Review by Erastes

I have thoroughly enjoy past forays by this talented team of writers and I jumped into this headlong, seduced by their past skill and the fact that I am a big sucker for circus stories.

I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the length–around 160 pages. It doesn’t rush into things and events are given time to mature, characters given space to develop. Secondly it takes the carny/circus theme and really runs with it. Rafe’s outfit isn’t a great big one like ones shown on Hollywood films, it’s a real “dog and pony show”–the “headline” act being just that, a dog and pony turn, there’s a magician, a strong man, a knife throwing act which perform in the show. In addition to that there’s the “freak show” which is hardly that at all. Over the past little while, they’ve lost their dwarf, and although he hasn’t told the Carny “family”, Rafe knows the show is losing money.

It’s a sad little outfit, to be honest which travels around Ohio, part of Indiana, and Kentucky. Playing to people who’s lives are so bleak and hopeless and miserable that even a poor little show with nothing much more than a couple of tents seems like something miraculous. There’s a scene at a funeral where this is so beautifully described you can see the por fabric of the people’s clothes, feel every bone in their starving horse’s ribs–people who are awed by the simplest of things, and grateful for it.

It’s this “Grapes of Wrath” level of detail that I loved most about the book; the main two characters, Jonah and Rafe are interesting, but they didn’t catch me on fire, and the romance was pretty predictable. However it’s solidly done, and no one will be disappointed by the set up and completion of the love story.  However, the other characters in the book were the genius touch. Mindy, the sour-tongued and loyal daughter of the previous owner, Sam the giant with health problems, the nebulous Parinsky, and Jamie the pretty woman with a big crush–and many others. None of them are skimped in favour of the main romance, and when something happens to one of them I freely admit I found myself crying without even realising it.

There’s a nice mini-mystery thread that runs through, and even with the limited pool of suspects the clues led me to the wrong suspect–and that pleases me.

What I didn’t like was (to me) a rather unsatisfactory ending. It seemed to go on for too long, as if desperate to assure the reader as to what would happen next and how. I found it unnecessary and bulky. I can understand the reasons why all the ends had to be tied up but after such deft and subtle storytelling it felt like the publisher had said “You can’t end it there, please let’s see what happens afterwards.”

But for all that, I find this a really well written book. Dee and Devon go from strength to strength and the maturity of much of the writing in this book is simply wonderful.  I have one plea. If Loose I-D don’t own the print rights to your books, girls, then please offer them to a print publisher because they will be keepers for many, me included.

Highly recommended.

Bonnie Dee’s website   Summer Devon’s website

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Review: Icy Pavements by Lee Wyndham

Peter Scudamore, a former captain in the Royalist Army, has unwittingly become a tool in a game much larger than it seems. When Peter assists the English Queen in her escape to Paris, he finds himself caught up in the machinations of the infamous Corvay, a man determined to be the final word in espionage – and becomes friends with the enigmatic Guyon de Chesnay, a scholar and tutor of debate at the Sorbonne. Guyon’s service, too, is eventually bought by Corvay, but at a price he is unwilling to disclose, and which is directly linked to the Archbishop de Retz of Paris. As the two men fight to survive the intrigues of Court and Church, and those of a man who wants to gain power in his own right, they grow closer to each other in ways that neither one would ever have expected.

Review by Jess Faraday

The length is daunting–684 pages with around 400 words per page. And yet the prose is crisp and clean: never purple, never overwritten. In addition, I was bowled over by the immense research that the author obviously put into the story–not just historical events, but setting, character, clothing, and so on. By the end of the first chapter, which flew by, I had high hopes–and though it took a while to eventually learn how the first chapter fit in with the rest of the story, ultimately, I was not disappointed.

The second chapter introduced the snappy dialogue and witty repartee that would characterize the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, the chapter was long, and not much else seemed to happen. A more patient reader might revel in long passages that illustrate character through word-play. But by the middle of the second chapter, I found my eyes passing quickly over vast swathes of well-crafted, low-tension writing, searching for something to happen.

Fortunately, by the third chapter, the story picked up again, laying down several exciting plotlines: espionage, political intrigue, and romance–oh my! And by this point, I was hooked.

This is not a book for someone who wants a quick, uncomplicated read. But neither is it inaccessible. Though the author sometimes makes the mistake of assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader–an easy mistake to make when one has absolutely immersed oneself in research, as Wyndham clearly has–the story is interesting and well crafted. The characters are subtle, rich, and complex.

This also isn’t a book for someone who just wants a bit of titillation and a clear path to HEA.

Rather, this is a book for someone who enjoys reading. For someone who likes to settle into a well-crafted, complex story and enjoy the unfolding. It’s a book for someone who likes to think about what they’re reading, and to savor it afterward, turning over the characters and plot twists in their mind. It’s for someone who enjoys romance as a slow burn, gradually and realistically developing, rather than love-at-first-sight-sex-at-second.

It’s a book for grown-ups.

I’m giving Icy Pavements four and a half stars. Though it was slow to begin, once it did, it grabbed me and didn’t let go. Ultimately, it’s a fantastic read with sympathetic, three-dimensional characters and an intriguing, complex, and well-structured plot. In addition, the amount of work and research that has gone into it is clear from the very first page. And though one of the perks of reviewing is getting to read books for free, this is one that I intend to purchase for my collection.

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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.

Review: According to Hoyle by Abigail Roux

By the close of 1882, the inhabitants of the American West had earned their reputation as untamed and dangerous. The line between heroes and villains is narrow and indistinct. The concept that a man may only kill if backed into a corner is antiquated. Lives are worth less than horses. Treasures are worth killing for. And the law is written in the blood of those who came before. The only men staving off total chaos are the few who take the letter of the law at its word and risk their lives to uphold it. But in the West, the rules aren’t always played according to Hoyle.

US Marshals Eli Flynn and William Henry Washington are escorting two prisoners to New Orleans for trial when they discover there’s more to the infamous shootist Dusty Rose and the enigmatic man known only as Cage than merely being outlaws. When forces beyond the marshals’ control converge on the paddlewheeler they have hired to take them downriver, they must choose between two dangers: playing by the rules at any cost or trusting the very men they are meant to bring to justice.

Review by Sue Brown

I used to have an expectation of m/m stories that by page 5 the two men – or any other number thereof – would have their clothes stripped off and be getting down to business. I did not expect to find plot interrupting the sex. My knuckles have been firmly rapped with this amazing story. If you are expecting Wild West Sex, then According to Hoyle isn’t for you. If you like a complex plot, rounded and well-developed characters and some surprising twists, then this is definitely up your alley.

This is the tale of two US Marshals, Eli Flynn and William Henry Washington, escorting two prisoners to New Orleans for trial: the shootist and outlaw, the Englishman Dusty Rose, who surprises the lawmen by developing a relationship with the other prisoner, the silent man, Cage. Over the course of their journey Flynn, who has always played life according to Hoyle, by the book, learns that the criminals aren’t always the bad guys and he learn a lot more about himself and his old friend, Wash, as well. These characters aren’t exactly original, the stoic lawmen, the criminals finding their way into infamy through dime novels, but Abigail Roux has crafted them so well that you are swiftly drawn into their world.

As a reader I probably focus more on the interaction of the men. The developing relationships between Rose and Cage and Flynn and Wash, and the way they all have to learn to trust each other, are subtly woven. It isn’t about two men watching another two get together, but the four of them and the way their relationship develops from distrust into something more, not friendship, but a grudging admission of respect, particularly between Flynn and Rose

Considering the time in which the story was set I expected more overt homophobia. However a second reading made me see it was skilfully handled through the uncomfortable feelings engendered in Flynn as he watches Rose and Cage together. In fact of all the four men it was Flynn that fascinated me as he fights his feelings for Wash.

Meanwhile, I am unwilling to spoil the story too much, but there is another subplot woven through which makes the story more than just a journey of the lawmen and the outlaws, but gives it a touch of uncertainty and excitement.

One minor criticism, and it is minor, is that both times I read the book I felt the boat scene was a little too long. It was a necessary part of the plot but became a little tedious. I did like the end of the book though. Flynn came a long way, both as a lawman and a lover. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, whether you like westerns or not.

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Review: All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

He’s at the end of his rope…until fate casts a lifeline.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 8

The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost. All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.

A commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance gives Orlando new direction…temporarily. The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.

As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing aftereffects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…

Review by Erastes

I was expecting to have my heart put through the wringer with this book, and I wasn’t wrong. Charlie Cochrane warns, without too many spoilers that it’s a “three hanky read” and she’s not wrong. So if you aren’t a fan of angst, then stay away! There are hints in the blurb about the outcome, so don’t despair.

It is a brave thing that Cochrane does to build up characters and relationships over seven books only to tear it all down in the eighth–but it’s entirely right to do so because of the setting and the events that happened from 1914-1919. The book is set after the end of the Great War–the other great lie, that it was the “War to End All War”–and it’s all the shattered Britain can hang onto, because that’s the only thing that helps them make sense of what seems four years of senseless slaughter. To make things worse, many people who escaped being killed on the battlefield, including wives, husbands and children were wiped out in the influenza epidemic of 1919, further reducing an already battered population.

So we know from the outset—and from the blurb, that loved ones have been lost, although it’s more than the blurb hints at, so steel yourself for sadness.

Orlando’s reaction is entirely right. The Orlando from books 1 to about 3 would probably have retreated entirely within his mind and never come out again, but Jonty’s influence remains strong with him, and he’s able to cope on a day-to-day level  as long as he doesn’t allow himself to think too deeply—and that’s something a gentleman wouldn’t let himself do in public.  His initial interview with his—and Jonty’s—old friend Matthew Ainslie is perfectly pitched. What they can talk about and what they can’t, the feeling of unbearable, but gentlemanly repression. The way Ainslie has kept obituaries from the paper “in case you wanted to see them” and the way that Orlando takes them without reading them in public. This skill of writing shows a writer who completely understands, not only her characters, but the mindset of middleclass and upperclass England of 1919.

I’d definitely say to prospective readers of the series–don’t start with this one. That probably sounds unnecessary to say, but some readers will start at the end or in the middle of a series, but to get the full flavour out of this, you will need to get some of the backstory under your belt, because the impact won’t be anything like as powerful otherwise, and you’ll need to know who’s who–it might leave you feeling a little confused otherwise.

Here’s one part which had me sobbing like a baby:

Their eventual parting had been so painful, preceded as it was by snatched nights of shared passion and tender longeurs—giving and receiving each other’s bodies, lying in one another’s arms without speaking, reacquainting themselves with every inch of each other, lest they be parted. Lest they might then forget. The last meeting, on a crowded railway station, had been almost wordless, from both necessity of discretion and aching in their hearts. They had shaken hands, exchanged notes and gone off into the smoky night. And each note had been almost identical.

I love you. Do not forget me. Love again if I don’t return.

I think we all know (without spoiling, because Cochrane has advertised widely for her readers to “Just TRUST her”) that the story must end well, and we also know that Cochrane wouldn’t do that to her readers—it would probably be romance suicide to do it, but even so the pathos of this story hits hard. The bequest to honey-buzzards will resonate with readers only who have read the earlier books, and the tender way Jonty  is discussed and remembered will make even the hardest hearted of us well up with emotion.

I’ve already spoken about the characterisation being pitch-perfect, and you never need to worry about Cochrane’s historical detail. She makes me laugh, actually, as from time to time something jars with me and I gleefully trot to the etymology dictionary only to discover that she’s spot on—one example was “foxhole”—i had thought this was a later term, but no, I should have known better, it was coined in WW1. The thing with a book like this is that you actually forget that you are reading something written in the 21st century. It’s so immersive, you just lose yourself within it, whether you are strolling along the seafront of Caborg or having a pint in the Holloway Road.

There was a little too much cosy chat too for me which lost my concentration at times, but I know that this will be the main draw for lovers of previous books.

I also felt that Orlando’s “sleuthing” was a little too easy in spots—coincidence plays a part and he only has to say something out loud for one of the porters to say “oh I know where you can find that out, guv’nor.” And he not only finds the man he needs in a neighbouring college but the details of one man in all of the war. Coincidence plays a large part in the remaining plot, and I’d complain more strongly about that had Cochrane not made this a feature in the previous books. I can live with it in a cozy novella, it’s almost part of the genre.

I wouldn’t say that this is the strongest in the series because it’s not as strong on sleuthing as the others—and I would have liked a little more mystery to balance the Jonty—Orlando plotline, but it breaks the mould in good ways. The whole arching story—whether or not this book will be the last Cambridge Fellows book or not—is compelling and sweet, although nicely toned in light and shade. This last book shows us that Cochrane is more than capable of stepping well outside the cosy mystery and dealing with the most disturbing of subjects, war, shellshock, duty and death—and of doing it every bit as well as writers such as Pat Barker or Susan Field. Bring hankies with you when you read it, but read it. It will touch you in many good ways.

Title is an ebook only at the moment but will be moving to paperback in a few months.

Buy at Samhain Amazon UK Kindle Amazon USA Kindle

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

From Publishers Weekly

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy from:  Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: His Client by Ava March

Mr. Nathaniel Travers has been visiting Madame Delacroix’s brothel for five years. On every visit, he requests the same man. Stunningly handsome and highly skilled, Jasper not only shares Nate’s fondness for wickedly erotic games and black leather corsets, but he’s become a friend. Someone he can talk to. Someone he can share a supper with. And Jasper’s the only person who knows Nate secretly harbors a love for his old childhood friend, Peter Edmonton.
Mr. Jasper Reed has been working at the house for a decade. He’s saved enough to retire, yet he remains at the decadent London brothel. Retiring would mean leaving Nate and the hope perhaps someday the rugged gentleman would stop pining for his best friend and realize he loves Jasper, just as Jasper loves him.
Review by Erastes

I like Ava March’s work. I can’t help it. I don’t know her, and I don’t like BDSM as a rule, but there’s something about March’s writing of the subject that gets under my skin and makes it tingle.

This is no exception, and I can say hand on heart that if you liked her other work, you won’t be disappointed with this.

It’s a tart-with-a-heart story. Jasper is a whore of ten years, a man who already has enough money to set himself up in a decent house and retire, but he hasn’t for one simple reason, Nathaniel, a regular client.

As with March’s other gay historicals, the sex is a large proportion of the story. Unashamedly erotic, this is what erotica is all about – somehow, although it describes all the action, it never seems crude or over descriptive, you are given just enough to turn you on, and never too much to turn you off. An excellent balance, and the roleplay seems very realistic.  I don’t know if men in Regency times ever did these things–although I can’t see any reason why not–but March’s descriptions are note perfect. I loved the ridges the corset leaves in Jasper’s skin, the descriptions of well-researched dildoes,the nightshirts and the ribbons. It summons images that are more than just arousing, they are beautiful.

You’ll probably need to like BDSM to like March’s books, and although I have to say that I don’t like BDSM in general – but March does manage to make me warm in places they set out to do, as well as having a decent storyline attached to them.

I spotted one tiny anachronism, and couple of typos, which stood out, but nothing worse, and your eye might skim them. Although I had to grin at a marble dildo being snuggly rather than snugly.

As for the characters: Jasper got on my nerves at one point as he kept prolonging the agony of separation, rather than making a swift cut which would have been more sensible, but he didn’t revert to uber-girliness thank goodness.

I would have liked some indication as to how he’d managed to turn himself into a facsimile of a gentleman – how he learned to read, how he changed his accent from common to cultured. I would liked to have seen Nate outside the brothel—particularly in the boxing club. It was a mighty different sport back then, as Nate’s injuries prove, and it would have been good to see a little of that.

The ending was all a little obvious—once Jasper had mentioned the village to where he was retiring to Nate—it struck me like a suicide who really wants to be found. He’d always be hoping that Nate would turn up, and that spoiled my belief that he wanted to break from Nate. It would have been harder for Nate to find him, in that case, but more proof that he wanted to find him. But the reconciliation was nicely done, no insta-love and throwing themselves into each others’ arms in a girly frenzy.

I think what annoyed me was that Nate—once he’d discovered that he wanted Jasper– just assumed that Jasper wanted him, and that was a little presumptuous, because really Jasper had never given him that impression—had been careful not to.

In fact when Nate—when trying to convince Jasper he’s serious says: “Have I ever shown myself to be fickle?” I had to laugh, because “YES, you did rather! You’ve been mooning over your best friend and then when Jasper takes a break your affections switch!” Jasper thinks that Nate has never been unfaithful, and that’s not strictly true because he’d been taking male whores while professing himself madly in love with his best friend. And even when Nate satisfies himself by telling Jasper that he loves him, he doesn’t care to inquire whether his feelings are reciprocated, that he loves Jasper is enough, apparently!

I’m being picky, though, partly, I suppose because instead of 124 pages, I would have liked 250 pages or more and that’s a good sign—when I want more, it means I really enjoyed it. This is the longest Ava March book so far, so I live in hope that one day I’ll have a paper made and full-sized novel by Ava March on my shelf.

Author’s website

Buy at Loose-ID

Review: Home Station on the Prairie Series-1 and 2 by Kara Larson

Home Station on the Prairie

The Nebraska territory is a lonely place for young Jamie, who longs to be a Pony Express rider, but only manages to take care of their horses. Still, he has the ponies, and his father, and before he knows it he has Thad, a boyhood friend from back in Iowa.

Jamie has always found Thad fascinating, and soon the two young men strike up a friendship that might just turn into more. War looms on the horizon, though, and even as Jamie is realizing his dream of riding for the Pony Express, he knows his life is about to change drastically. Will he find a way to keep all he holds dear, including Thad?

Review by Sue Brown

This story is a little gem and I was really pleased to have the chance to read this tale and the one that follows, Little Family on the Homestead. The setting for Kara Larson’s story is the Pony Express in Nebraska. Jamie is a young man who dreams to be a Pony Express rider while he cares for their horses at the relay station run by his father. Kara Larson does an excellent job of drawing you into the world of the Pony Express run, its days numbered by the railroad and the encroaching civil war.

I got really caught up in Jaime’s dreams and desires, as he learns that riding between the stations in all weathers isn’t as romantic as he first believed, and the trials of his burgeoning romance with his boyhood friend, Thad. Kara Larson manages to interweave the harsh realities of their lives in with the joys and tears of their tentative relationship. I really enjoyed the way we see Jamie grow up in this short tale, from innocent boy to hardened veteran, coming home to turn the Midway Home Station into Patchwork Ranch, providing horse stock.

If I have one quibble it was that Jamie and Thad’s relationship seemed to take second place in the story, but I was kept so interested in the rest of the plotlines that it really didn’t matter.

4.5 stars

Published by Torquere

Little Family on the Homestead

Thad had thought that he was saying goodbye to Jamie forever when he left eleven years before. Like the Pony Express, their relationship was supposed to die out quietly, gracefully. What he hadn’t expected was how much Jamie Boyd and that little patch of Nebraska meant to him, and how much he wanted to spend the rest of his life on that Pony Express station turned homestead.

Eleven years later, and Thad’s happier than he’s ever been, helping Jamie’s cousin raise her five girls and making sure that Patchwork Ranch runs as smoothly as can be. But that all changes when Mattie Alden, the actual impetus that drove Jamie and Thad apart years ago, steps back into all their lives. With Mattie come complications, like men interested in both Jamie’s family and the ranch itself. Thad’s not the only one who has to make the journey of self discovery, but he’s not sure they’ll all survive the journey if they have to make it together.

Review by Sue Brown

Another lovely instalment in the Home Station on the Prairie series. Once again, I was easily drawn into the world of Jamie and Thad and the Patchwork Ranch. This time Jamie and Thad are settled together, with Jamie’s cousin and her children. I am pleased to see that in this book the relationship of two men takes centre stage.

While this doesn’t have the immediate freshness of Home on the Prairie, the plotline I particularly enjoyed about Little Family on the Homestead was the return of Mattie and the tension that brings to our heroes, particularly Thad. Thad was almost incidental in the first story and I was glad to see him develop more in this story.

Again Kara manages to combine historical detail with the development of the characters. Her deft touch shows in the roundedness of the secondary characters, including the children. Having children myself, the discussions about Santa Claus made me giggle, although I did question whether the children would actually know about Santa Claus and did some research to find out.

This is developing into a lovely series and I am looking forward to the next instalment from Kara.

4 stars

Author’s Livejournal

Published by Torquere

Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. Travelling through fifth century BC Greece, Simonides learn not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the political intrigue surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the flourish and fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer’s unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable grasp of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.

Review by Jean Cox ( apologies that there’s no podcast yet, the pronounciation is hard!)

If you come to this book thinking it’s another “Persian Boy”, then you’ll be disappointed. This is primarily Simonides’s story, he’s heterosexual and his sexual encounters are given their due. There are homosexual elements, though—integral because of the nature of Greek society at the time and also key to the plot. The cover blurb of my copy states, “Hipparchos’s folly precipitates his murder by Harmodios and Aristogeiton…” and that simple phrase hides a wealth of intrigue and unrequited sexual longings.

You won’t be disappointed by Miss Renault’s writing, however; it constantly amazes me how she can say so much by saying so little—I reread “The Charioteer” every few months and always find fresh nuances.

So too here:

Dark-haired Aristogeiton stroked the horse’s neck; they smiled; spoke a few words, as it seemed about the race; Harmodios gave the groom his orders and handed over the bridle.

I can see that scene clearly as if it were being played out on screen, despite what appears to be a paucity of description. Many writers would have taken a page to depict the same occurrence, and not as elegantly. Less is more, sometimes. Simonides himself might have concurred; one of the running threads of the book is the nature of composition and the most economical use of words in describing something, the learning of old works to recite and the composing of new ones.

There’s also what feels like a “soap opera” thread running through—passion, arguments, tittle-tattle, everyday things mingled among the feasts and festivals. Simonides and his protégé aren’t averse to gossiping like old women, although they’re too wise to do it in public

“But you don’t tell me the (Hipparchos) pays his court on the wrestling-ground?”

“Well, almost. He stands staring.”

If you want explicit sexual scenes, this is not the book for you. Nor is it right if you’re looking for flowery praise or overblown explanations about life “back then”. It does work if you want an intelligent and elegant story in an entirely believable world, the political intrigue, domestic dramas and petty jealousies as fresh and relevant now as they would have been in ancient Greece. This ceases to feel like ‘history’; it’s just life, in all it’s abundance. If you know people who don’t “do” historicals, they could start reading at a much worse place than with Renault.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Fall of a State by Kate Cotoner

The desire of an emperor… Bored with his usual palace musicians, the emperor Liu Che is tempted by a new song from lowly qin-player Li Yan Nian. Yan Nian is also beautiful, and Liu Che is in the mood to take a new lover. His lovers usually come to him, but Yan Nian’s shy reticence intrigues the emperor.

The yearning of a man… Yan Nian has been in love with the emperor since he entered the palace. Regardless of his heart, he made a promise on his father’s deathbed to use his musical skills to bring his beloved younger sister to the emperor’s attention. However, Lady Li has no intention of becoming an imperial concubine.

The danger of love… An attack at a victory celebration heralds an attempt on the emperor’s life, and desire and yearning collide when it’s revealed there may be no way to protect all the hearts threatened by a plot to overthrow the state.

Review by Erastes

The author herself calls this book a “fluffy version” of the true-life affair between Lui Che, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty of China and Li Yan Nian a court musician in the Emperor’s court. But I wouldn’t call it fluffy, as such. Perhaps it is a little rose-tinted, but there’s no way this could be labelled as “wallpaper” because of the solidity of the world painted around the characters and the obvious depth of knowledge that the author has. If you dig a little deeper into the “what happened to these characters in real life” then the happy ever after loses some of its gloss it has to be said.

It’s a shame, really, that this is almost a throwaway novella with a sharply erotic focus because Lui Che was a hugely fascinating man–and the way he shaped the Empire around him would be more than enough material for many, many books — and has been.

But what this book does–as an erotic novella–it does exquisitely well, and exquisite is a good word here, because the careful elegance of Chinese courtly life is described so beautifully that you can see every graceful movement of the courtiers, hear the swish of silk and brocaded satin as it sweeps along nightingale floors, and even smell the weight of history.

I don’t doubt the a man as powerful as Lui Che was could have had any man or woman in the kingdom, so his manner of “seduction” strikes true (that being said, it stretched my credulity a tad that he’d bother to go to Nian’s room in the musical quarter to have sex with him) and the interplay between them, particularly in the first sex scene is as taut as a guitar string and quite lovely. There’s some whipping, and even though it’s not my thing, I admit it’s gorgeously done, and you really get a sense that–as with the time period–Cotoner knows exactly what she’s doing and how to describe this play.

It’s a hard balance to do quite such an erotic novella of this length and still include enough plot and characterisation to keep you enthralled from beginning to end, but this manages it very well. Highly enjoyable. I hope that the author does a more detailed book in future of this era because I’d love to know more about it.

The cover deserves a special mention and is certainly one of my favourites this year. It really looks like it could have been done in the era concerned.

Interested in China and same sex relationships? Then read Kate’s article on The Macaronis.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Review: Teleny and Camille by Jon Macy

Teleny is the haunted musical genius that everyone desires but no one has truly touched… until the fateful night that he senses Camille’s presence in the audience. The wealthy young man is instantly seduced by Teleny’s dark beauty and smoldering melancholy. This groundbreaking and powerful early gay novel, written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his anonymous circle of writers, is now re-interpreted as a graphic novel, in all its lush, pansexual excess.

Review by Hayden Thorne

When I first found out about Macy’s graphic novel adaptation, I was elated. I read Teleny a while ago and was moved – in so many different ways – by the book. Yes, there’s the breathless, passionate love story between Teleny and Camille, but along with that come scenes of ugly excesses (heterosexual and homosexual), tragedy, and grotesque surrealism, the last item oftentimes bursting at the seams with detail piled upon bizarre detail and written in pretty florid prose. The novel, believed to have been written by Oscar Wilde and a number of other writers (of varying talents) round robin-style, is groundbreaking in its open defiance of Victorian morality. Its uneven narrative style – alternating between painfully purple and elegantly subdued – weakens the story in some instances, but the rawness of emotion and the sincerity of these writers’ efforts in celebrating same-sex passion while condemning hypocrisy also add to the book’s strength, solidifying its place in the gay canon.

It’s very much a visual book, which, to me, makes it an ideal candidate for a graphic novel adaptation.

Macy’s graphic novel opens with a modern day dialogue involving the artist himself and a friend. Here Macy shows us the difficulties posed by the novel – more specifically, the challenge of making gay men from over a century ago accessible to a modern day audience. There were, after all, limitations to the way they communicated homosexual passion. They had to use metaphors and references to historical figures. There was also the problem of the visuals in the novel and how a twenty-first century artist could translate those without undermining the narrative’s social commentary, considering the pornographic nature of the book.

Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends decided to put down on paper a story so pure in its reveling in homosexuality that it was not just pornography, but a rallying cry for how they wanted to change society.

They were poets and aesthetes, carrying sunflowers and dressing flamboyantly. They shocked society and posted a threat to the status quo.

Every gay stereotype we have today comes from these men. They politicized their aesthetic. They broke all convention. They were the original uppity fags.

It’s impossible to include all of the scenes in the book in an adaptation, so a delicate balancing act needed to be made. In the end, Macy manages to capture the energy and the dizzying emotions through some carefully chosen scenes. In fact, I’ll go further and say that this adaptation of Teleny is practically minimalist in approach without sacrificing the essentials that shaped the narrative and its emotional impact.

And this is the great part about illustration. It captures, in one or two panels, a scene or a pivotal moment in the story that would’ve taken several paragraphs of text to convey.

I’m glad – very glad – to see that Macy didn’t hold back in not only showing the celebration of Teleny and Camille’s romance (angst and all), but also those very important scenes that are antithetical to the physical, emotional, and even spiritual connection these two men have. The brothel that Camille and his school friends visit as well as Briancourt’s symposium are two remarkably vivid scenes of sexual excesses that lead to tragedy. There’s also Teleny’s affair with the Countess, which is a quieter and more personal foil to Teleny’s relationship with Camille.

The chapters that never made it to the graphic novel are mostly found in the middle of the book, and to me, skipping them doesn’t really take too much away from the story’s main point. Those chapters, after all, are mostly about Camille and his desperate and ultimately disastrous efforts at playing the heterosexual card in order to avoid acknowledging his love for Teleny. Wilde and his circle made a point about the extremes that gay men were forced to go in order to play by society’s rules and how they sometimes came at a high price. In Camille’s case, the price is paid by his doomed servant.

If leaving those scenes out proves to be detrimental, the effects are really minimal, and that’s being nitpicky. Camille, for instance, in his desire to commit suicide by jumping into the river, might appear to be overreacting to seeing Teleny with Briancourt or to seeing the depressing nighttime cruising in a park. Before that point in the story, after all, he’s been tested heavily and painfully, but we don’t get to see it in the graphic novel.

But like I said, that’s being nitpicky.

As for Macy’s artistic style, I find it sensual and bold, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and certainly appropriate to the story. And as though to mimic the shifting narrative styles of the book from florid and purple to beautifully elegant, Macy’s art changes just as easily, from lovely to grotesque but remains, on the whole, decadent and lush.

And just as Macy uses a preface to tell us about the difficulties of a modern adaptation of a classic novel, he also appends an alternate ending after giving us the original conclusion. To explain this unusual approach, we’re back to seeing Macy and his friend discuss the depressing nature of so many gay novels that end in tragedy.

It’s like we’re too damaged to even dare imagine being happy.

With that, he offers us an alternate conclusion to Teleny and Camille’s love story. Whether or not modern day readers will take to this is ultimately an issue of individual taste, but the context is certainly important. Given the ongoing desperate attempts of social conservatives to demonize the LGBT community, one can consider the more hopeful ending to be just as defiant a celebration of same-sex love as the original novel and its darker conclusion.

Read the first chapter

Author’s Website
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Review: The Dark Farewell by Josh Lanyon

It’s the Roaring Twenties. Skirts are short, crime is rampant, and booze is in short supply. Prohibition has hit Little Egypt where newspaper man David Flynn has come to do a follow-up story on the Herren Massacre. But the massacre isn’t the only news in town. Spiritualist Medium Julian Devereux claims to speak to the dead–and he charges a pretty penny for it.

Flynn knows a phoney when he sees one, and he’s convinced Devereux is as fake as a cigar store Indian. And he’s absolutely right. But when Julian begins to see bloodstained visions of a serial killer, the only person he can turn to for help is the cynical Mr. Flynn.

Reviewed by Erastes

We are always, as authors, being advised by Those That Know that to get a book sold and to capture the reader, you need a killer first line. And this book certainly has one:

The body of the third girl was found Tuesday morning in the woods a few miles outside Murphysboro.

It sets the scene and intrigues, without being trying too hard. And yet – although this hints at much, this isn’t really even the main plot of this clever, convoluted novella.

This is (embarrassingly) the first book I’ve read of Lanyon’s. My reasons–or excuses–are simple: People generally clamour to review his books for the site before I even know they are out, and with the amount of books I have to read I’m happy to let others cover it. But I found that no-one had picked this one up and I did it myself.

I have to say, I’m impressed, although–having heard my friends’ praise that shouldn’t have surprised me. Lanyon writes very well in a direct, but descriptive manner. The tone reminded me a little of Chandler, with the touches of description and personal opinion, shuttered away behind a tough guy veneer.

It would be entirely wrong to try and tag a label on this book. It is a standalone, but it is to published in The Mysterious anthology (along with Laura Baumbach and Alex Beecroft) and that’s a good way to label it, if labelling is necessary: mysterious. That being said, with it not exactly being a romance and it not being exactly a paranormal – it IS a great whodunnit, with a great cast of characters all of whom could be the guilty party.

What I particularly liked, though, was the way that this didn’t go at all the way I expected. We meet a couple of guys that the  protagonists tags with his gaydar, and without spoiling too much I thought things would go otherwise than they did.  While I didn’t feel feel ever very close to Flynn–and I think this was deliberate because he’d shut himself off from just about everyone due to the war, and his job, and losses he’d suffered–I fell almost instantly in love with Julian, the spiritualist. “A sissy, if ever he’d seen one” thinks Flynn, and he’s right.

I loved how Flynn disliked Julian – and the reasons why he disliked him. He’s coloured by prejudice against spiritualism, and he hates that Julian is effeminate–because it reflects something in himself that he isn’t able to show openly, something that he’s learned to be disgusted in himself. I loved their first private encounter, and when more was learned about Julian, it made me sad to see Flynn treat him like that.

I think my main complaint about the book would be a purely personal one, and that’s one I’ve often stated with novellas, that this has more than enough material in it to be a full-sized novel, and it short changes itself by being the size it is. It might be this aspect, the pure distillation of so many facets and ideas that made me a little confused at times, and I would rather have meandered along those Illinois byways for a happy 80,000 words without a complaint. Because of the size (42,000 words)

I felt the characterisation was sometimes a bit rushed, we are whizzed around the introductions for everyone in the boarding house for example, the other gay relationship Flynn forms is picked up and dropped rather too abruptly too. There’s so many themes here, the debunking–or not–of spiritualism, antiquated methods of medicine, mine safety, unions, prohibition, and much more. With a novel to play in, Lanyon could have wallowed in the intimate talks with all the other inmates of the hostel, layered the tension, laid more red herrings.  But I can’t mark the book down because of what I’d like it to have been!

On the negative side: the cover is pretty misleading, as it looks like naked men in the trenches, which is so not what the book is about–and the blurb within the book itself could have done with an editor. There are two(!) typos in it–and I really hate these jokey warnings Samhain do.  Warning: This novella contains phony spiritualists, cynical newspapermen, labor disputes, illicit love affairs, high-calorie southern cooking, and more than fifty-percent humidity! But that’s probably just me being curmudgeonly, I’m sure loads of readers love this touch. To me it smacks of fanfiction (from where these warnings seem to have come) and lessens the worth of the book. It makes it sound like a comedy, and it’s anything but that, and it doesn’t do the book the justice it deserves.

But if you haven’t read this novella, then I strongly recommend it, it was exactly “my kind of book” with enough difference from many other books to keep me reading and reading. I’ll certainly be trying other books of Lanyon’s now on the strength of this.

Author’s website

Buy from Samhain Press

Review: Helpless by M J Pearson

In London during the gross indecency trial of Oscar Wilde, Douglas Shrove finds himself still haunted by memories of his dead lover while skirting violence, blackmail and the affections of two men.

There are two who seek you out

That is what the gypsy told Douglas Shrove a few months after the death of his lover. And the gypsy was right. Two men were vying for his affections.

Mark Goldcrest: an aristocrat like himself; a golden Adonis, cool and discreet.

Warren Scott: a shabbily-dressed denizen of a Bohemian world that Douglas can’t begin to understand.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

But which is which? Both men are attractive and attracted to him…but only one has a dangerous secret.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

One of Douglas Shrove’s admirers could be his salvation—if the other doesn’t destroy him first.

Review by Erastes

PLEASE do not be put off this book by the cover. If you’ve looked at it and thought “oh no, BDSM/torture isn’t my cup of tea” then please read this review and perhaps decide to read it anyway. Because frankly I don’t know what Seventh Window was thinking with this cover.  It in NO WAY represents the book. The Snidely Whiplash character doesn’t exist in the book, there’s no half naked men (bizarrely wearing jeans) no one gets tied to a chair and there’s a distinct lack of face fungus.  I appreciate that the artist has some talent, but it almost feels like the cover was created for another book and they didn’t want to waste it. Frankly, I consider it misrepresentation!

The mark of this site for the book won’t reflect the cover at all, that wouldn’t be fair, but I wanted to get that out of the way straight away, to encourage you to look beyond it and give this great little book a go.

I have to say, I really really enjoyed this book.  We are introduced to our main protagonist, Douglas, straight away and we find he’s reeling from the death of his lover who died a few months previously. It’s spring, and the restlessness that often accompanies that season, seeps into Douglas’ consciousness and before he knows it, he’s going outside and walking about for the first time in ages. You really feel the grief in Douglas’ very bones, he’s walking around half dead himself, but he’s coming round, slowly.

Then, as often happens, two things happen to him in short succession. He goes into a bookshop and is subtly chatted up by the owner, a gorgeous aristocratic man, and after that he feels sufficiently bouyed up that he doesn’t really want to go home and instead spends some time in the National Gallery where he meets a scruffy artist who’s really not his type, but who intrigues him and whose art he’s drawn to.  He finds that the artist knew Henry (Douglas’ dead lover) and that gives them a common ground to discuss. The blond hunk from the bookshop asks Douglas around for dinner, and the artist gives Douglas his address, saying he has some sketches of Henry he might like. Men–just like buses. Nothing for months, then two come at once.

As you can tell from the blurb, this is the main theme of the book – two men to choose from. It’s all about appearances and trust. Who is right for him. Who seems right and who is his type. This is handled cleverly by introducing real doubt about both men, and layering mystery on mystery. Personally I would have liked to have seen this stretched even further than it was–making me truly unsure about either man–for me as it stood it was rather too obvious, and I never really doubted who was “good” and who wasn’t.  But that’s possibly because I love being led by the nose down the wrong path, and I’m sure that 99% of readers will find the device quite satisfactory.

I was a little put off by the scene setting at the beginning. There’s a rather clumsy piece of As You Know, Bob, dialogue between Mark (the bookshop owner) and Douglas. I can understand why it was there, to establish that the Wilde indecency trial is on the horizon, but the way they discussed it, it was so obvious that it was there simply to tell the audience where and when we were–and it jarred me. It could easily have been done in Douglas’ point of view, but once we are past that scene, there’s no more of this, the dialogue is solid – and I was swept away into the narrative.

There’s much to like about the book: The characters are vibrant and believable, with surprises on just about every page. There’s excellent detail–not too much–for locations and houses. Pearson doesn’t prettify London in the late 1900′s–sights, sounds, smells are described well. And overall it’s a nice commentary on class, servant roles, and more importantly, the assumptions that people make about other people based on appearance, titles, family, obvious wealth and their houses.

The male/male romance that blossoms does so extremely well. I was dreading that we’d go from Douglas being so broken hearted to leaping into bed with all and sundry but it doesn’t work like that, and the book takes its time, and in that respect, the grief is well represented. Don’t buy this book looking for scorching sex scenes, because all of the sex takes place either behind a firmly closed door, or is of the dot dot dot variety. However, this doesn’t detract from what is a delightful love affair, and a tightly plotted mystery which I’m sure will be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, as long as they can get past Old Snidely on the cover.

Available in print and ebook

Author’s website

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Review: Bound to Him by Ava March

Lord Vincent Prescot’s life couldn’t be better. Thriving investments, well-respected by his peers, and mind blowing sex with a man who submits to his every desire — what more could he want?

Lord Oliver Marsden should be more than happy with his life. He’s been in love with Vincent for over a decade and six months ago the impossible happened and they became lovers. But since then, nothing has changed. More specifically, Vincent hasn’t changed. Oliver has tried to be patient — it took a lot for Vincent to accept the fact he preferred men. But what felt like a tiny distance between them six months ago now feels like an ever-widening chasm. Why can’t Vincent stay the night? Is it too much to ask for Vincent to call him Oliver and not Marsden? He knows Vincent cares for him, but does Vincent love him?

Then Vincent’s father asks him for a favor — one that involves marriage. If Vincent agrees, he’ll have the respect he’s craved from his father his entire life but he could lose Oliver. Nor does Oliver make the decision easy. To keep Oliver, he’ll have to do more than deny his father. He’ll have to give Oliver his heart.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

Lord Vincent Prescott has everything he could possibly want – he’s young, rich, handsome, intelligent and he has a friend, Oliver Marsden, who is his enthusiastic and loving sub and bottom in bed. The two men have a great sex life, but it’s all behind closed doors, because we’re in the Regency, where sodomy could be a hanging offence. While all that is mostly fine and dandy with Oliver, he does resent that he’s not getting as much back as he’s giving, and friction enters their relationship, which is made much worse when Lord Vincent agrees to his father’s demand to marry.

This is a captivating little novella which I enjoyed and kept reading well past bedtime (so much for ‘first five pages’). The characters are well-drawn and the writing is fully engrossing. The text has just the right amount of period detail that shows that the author knows her period, and watching a great writer spin their yarn is always enjoyable, regardless of the plot or the time period. I’m not well-versed in the Regency, but I found the setting believable as presented. The characters are interesting and layered – while Oliver is a sub and a bottom, he isn’t the mewling weepy doormat a lesser writer would have turned him into, and quite clearly has a pair (and uses it). And while Vincent is a kinky dominant and top, what drives him in the story are the desire to please, the need to fit in, and some serious abandonment issues.

There is a lot of explicit sex in the short (102 pages) story, and it’s well done and hot. Here, the sex reveals the characters, and especially the last scene serves as the pivotal moment when the relationship changes and develops beyond what it was.

Both men have to hide what they like and who they do it with, but that doesn’t make them coy about it at all. If there’s one issue I have, it’s that one. They behave like Regency men outside the bedroom, while inside, they speak and act like modern-day porn stars with the full repertoire of practices and the kind of dialogue that is pretty much to be expected. Of course that is a fine line – how to satisfy the demand for ‘hot explicit sex’ with a cast that has different sexual morals and habits, but then, I haven’t witnessed Regency-era gay sex, so whatever I’d assume about it is conjecture anyway and anybody’s guess is probably as good as mine.

Overall, I really liked this novella because of the strong writing, the well-drawn characters and the amount of period detail that all fuses together seamlessly and in that effortless way that betrays a great writer at work. Well done!

Note: This is a follow-up piece for Bound by Deception, reviewed by SIN here:
http://speakitsname.com/2009/01/12/review-bound-by-deception-by-ava-march/

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

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

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

Review by Charlie Cochrane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas II: Men of Honor by M Kei

Peter Thorton and his lover set out on a quest to rescue a captive duke who is the pretender to the throne of Portugal. Thorton is arrested and placed on trial for desertion and sodomy. Men of Honor continues the further adventures of a gay officer during the Age of Sail, replete with perils, excitement, and nautical detail.

Review by Alex Beecroft

The plot of this one is somewhat labyrinthine, so I despair of being able to do a summary which will make sense in a short space. However, a brief recap of part of it goes thusly:

Peter Thorton, now a Captain of the Sallee Rovers, with a lover called Shakil and a commanding officer, Isam, who is his ex, is sent to rescue Duke Henrique of Portugal from Sebta, where he is being held prisoner by the Spanish. Henrique has some claim to the throne of Portugal, and if he acts on this, it will put a spanner in the works of the Spanish crown.

So, Shakil enters Sebta in disguise, finds the Duke and they escape to Peter’s ship. Peter then has to convey Henrique to Gibraltar despite the efforts of the Spanish to stop him.

After various incidents he almost reaches Gibraltar, only to be intercepted by his old ship, HMS Ajax and put under arrest for sodomy and desertion.  However, in an attempt to avoid war between Britain and the Sallee states, he is allowed to remain serving as a lieutenant on the Ajax until he can be brought to court martial.  While he’s aboard the Ajax, he finds that he has made an enemy of his old friend Perry; they are wrecked on an island and have to defend themselves against a Spanish warship and …. you’ll have to see the rest for yourself but just from that part you can see that a hell of a lot happens in this book, and while in one respect that’s good – there are no periods where the action lags – in another respect it’s a bad thing. Structurally, this is a much more even book than PoNS1, which had a very slow first 8 chapters but then picked up and became fascinating later on. In this book the pace is pretty even throughout.

Having complained about the slow start of #1, it seems a bit churlish of me to complain about the speed of #2, but that’s what I’m going to do. The pace of this book is relentless, with incident piled upon incident and then stirred up with some more action. As a result, there doesn’t seem time for the characterization and atmosphere of book #1. We didn’t stay in any place long enough for me to be able to get a feel of it, and even the battles had an air of being rushed past in order to get onto the next bit.

Some of the situations this time around struck me as very unlikely – Captain Horner allowing Thorton to serve as a lieutenant despite the charge of desertion on his head. Thorton being made acting captain in the British Navy, despite being a Muslim. My understanding is that all officers in the RN had to be members in good standing of the Church of England. And in fact M.Kei knows this because – earlier on – Peter’s refusal to recant his belief in Islam is a stumbling block during his court martial.

In addition I found I was disappointed that the second book did not go further into the culture and seafaring lore of the Sallee Rovers, but instead returned to the well trodden paths of the European perspective on the Age of Sail. PoNS #1 had a real freshness to it simply because of its focus on the ships and culture of the Barbary pirates. #2 barely touches on it before it’s back to business as usual as far as AoS books go.

Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad book. That would be very far from the truth. As I’ve said, there was something different happening on every page, and while the cast list was so huge that I couldn’t always remember who was who, there was always something exciting going on. M. Kei’s writing has smoothed out from the beginning of #1 and there are no more of the info-dumps that clogged up the beginning of that book. The ample amounts of action keep the book moving fast and breathlessly onwards, and there are some real standout scenes of naval warfare. My favourite by far is the scene where the ships are being fought inside a cave. Wow! That was a corker.

I also enjoyed Shakil’s mission ashore in disguise. There was a tension in this part that some of the later ones lacked, partly because we know by now that Thorton can get out of almost anything at sea, but Shakil has been established as a gentle, unworldly book-keeper. So it’s easier to think of him being out of his depth and to worry for him.

One of the things which were sacrificed for the sake of action in this book was any kind of romance. Yes, there’s an uncomfortable entanglement with Perry, and yes, Thorton reveals that he’s unable to say no to anything in trousers, but these things very much take a back seat to the other action. So, unlike #1, there isn’t really a relationship to root for in this book. Perhaps that’s why, although I think that from an objective stand point it’s a better book than #1, it failed to grip and involve me as much. I come away impressed by the scope and sweep of it, but rather unmoved, emotionally, by the story.

I give it a 4.5 because it’s unquestionably better than the majority of m/m Age of Sail books I’ve been reading recently. M. Kei has a fine grip on his period and his sailing details, and has produced a book which can stand comparison with C.S Forester’s Hornblower series. In fact I was reminded of the Hornblower novels because that’s another series that I can’t really find fault with, but nevertheless didn’t enjoy very much.

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Review: The Hadrian Enigma by George Gardiner

An emperor’s search for love destroys the very person he most adores. Crime/mystery/romance historical fiction based upon real events and characters of pagan Rome. Set two centuries before Rome’s recognition of Christians, it is an era of intrigue, torrid relations, raging ambition, wild sensuality, & unconventional love. Caesar Hadrian’s ‘favorite’ is found one dawn beneath the waters of the River Nile. Is it a prank gone wrong, a suicide, murder, or something far more sinister? Barrister & historian, Suetonius Tranquillus, & his courtesan companion Surisca are allowed two days to uncover the truth on pain of penalty. They discover more than they bargained for ..

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I got this book a couple months ago and started right away – then my own writing went insane and all reading fell to the wayside. I re-started about a week ago and read The Hadrian Enigma” straight through, which is always a good sign.

So, yes, I liked this book. The backcover blurb is a bit ambiguous – the investigation into the death of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s “favourite” (read: lover) is not conducted by Emperor Hadrian himself, but rather by three men he orders to investigate. The investigating team is led by Suetonius, historian, scandal-monger and author of “Lives of the Caesars”. That, alone, is a genius idea. When I read that part – the whole set-up of Hadrian ordering Suetonius to investigate, I was immediately smitten. The novel begins with a lot of verve, told in first person, and I really enjoyed Suetonius’ voice there.

The year is 130 after Christ. Emperor Hadrian, grief-struck, orders Suetonius and a couple others to investigate the death of Antinous, who apparently drowned in the Nile. They have three days to accomplish that, and the investigation centers on the travelling court in Egypt, where several people have a stake in Antinous’ life and death. There are rivals, old enemies, politicians and courtiers, and during the course of this enormous 476 pager, the author draws a lively picture of life in the second century, court politics and the Roman and Greek world. From what I remember of my history courses, the research is spot-on, nothing struck me as wrong in the way the historical setting is presented, so full marks on the history.

When it comes to the gay elements, the book spends a fair amount of time explaining the Greek erastes/eromenos model versus the Roman “anything goes, as long as love isn’t involved and only slaves, youths and women are penetrated”. Erotic relationships are pursued with no regards to gender, race or culture, and we see people further their own agendas with sex, sex traded as a commodity, and sex as expression of love. Again, full marks on how the author treats gay history and gay culture – he gets the sexual morals of the time right, and spends a lot of time discussing sexual morals and codes of conduct of the time, and also shows characters be shocked that Hadrian and Antinous seem to have breached the Roman concept of what is proper in a relationship between an older man and a younger man – their relationship was far more reciprocal than was politic at the time. In fact, the accusation of Emperors taking the passive/female role is one of the most damning things a Roman historian could say about an emperor, just look at the character assassination of Heliogabalus/Elagabal.

This leads directly to the criticism of the novel. It’s the nature of the beast that reviews spend more time on the flaws or perceived faults of a book than what the reviewer liked, which is really unfortunate. It’s also unfortunate that I have to rate the book with the same ratings system that covers everything from fluffy little romances to all-out porn. This book is an epic undertaking of three or four years of research, and it shows. Rating that along the same lines as a formulaic historical romance or porn in historical customs is awkward.

It’s important to say what the book is not. It is not a historical romance, or even a historical m/m romance, despite what it says on the back cover. In my book, it’s a historical crime story, which happens to explore a gay relationship, in a fairly bisexual setting. The book does spend time exploring how Antinous and Hadrian “happened”, the courting, the politics, Antinous’ enemies, and discusses the sexual morals at length. There are two sex scenes, but the focus is not, like m/m romances require, on the relationship as it develops.

For once, Antinous is dead when people talk about him, and is only resurrected in the lengthy accounts of how things happened. He is talked about and the center of the novel, but not the protagonist of the novel. His lover, emperor Hadrian, remains mostly closed off. This is a relationship as witnessed, not as lived.

The author tries to get closer to the characters and lets those witnesses look into Hadrian’s and Antinous’ heads, but the way it’s told, all this has to be guesswork, because the characters themselves are not involved. Another thing – m/m romances as currently marketed and sold require a “happy ever after” or a “happy for now”. Well. Hadrian’s and Antinous’ relationship ended a few weeks before the young man’s death, with is what is being investigated. Death is a no-go area in m/m romances as they are currently sold. Death is a no-go area for the romance genre, period (as I learnt the hard way when I tried to sell “Test of Faith”).

For me, personally, it was too much history (I know, that’s a weird thing to say). There were many instances when the characters were telling the readers things about their world and culture (somebody explains in the book that the Roman world is “phallocentric” – that’s not something I expect a Roman of the 2nd sectury after Christ to say), and exploring at length and in detail themes that they would find quite natural. We never question our natural assumptions, so this felt awkward. Having Greeks talk about the erastes/eromenos model with such academic detail felt like they were doing so for the reader’s benefit, as mouthpieces of all that enormous bulk of research. This is a key challenge of writing historical characters – the research shouldn’t draw attention to itself. In this book, it sadly did.

In addition, the point of view was all over the place. We start with first person, go into third person, and then we have the lengthy interviews with the witnesses before we go back to first person to wrap things up. The characters tell things they cannot know (such as what Antinous and Hadrian were thinking/feeling). Even statements such as “he told me over a cup of wine” fail to convince. Here, the book falls short on suspending my disbelief. I know the author really wants to tell me about Antinous’/Hadrian’s emotions, but he does so in a way that breaks my fictional dream. I can’t believe a character who is clearly not (just) a character but a tool to tell things that he or she cannot possibly know. One chapter that deals with the Dacians doesn’t have a narrator at all – who’s telling this? We don’t know.

The style can be officious at times, which works for a court setting. I’d have liked it to be toned down a little. We know, for example, that Augustus, despite his drive towards “pure classical Latin” cursed like a sailor in private and spoke a gibberish of Latin and Greek. I’d expect a writer like Suetonius to write with more of a poisoned pen at times – whereas passages dealing with Antinous are more hagiographic than I’d expect from that barbed historian. He was the Perez Hilton of his time, he could easily have been more sarcastic and generally funnier. Roman wit is acerbic and devastating, and the book could have used a bit more of that – it would also be very in character for the narrator.

Overall, the book could use a good cutting – all the self-conscious history, a few characters (we really only need one Special Investigator, and possibly the helper, Surisca) and the repetitions on themes. If it has been explained what the erastes/eromenos relationship is, we don’t need that repeated several times in dialogue. People reading this kind of book can be trusted to remember such things.

In terms of plot, the book works great as a crime novel, far less so as a romance, and I could see a mainstream appeal for the book. Historical crime is big as a genre – much bigger than m/m romance.

So what we see here is a very ambitious debut which has a few, but pervasive craft issues, but it’s strong enough on other counts to still be very readable. There is an undeniable energy in the prose and writing, a fearlessness to tackle that kind of project, imagination, boldness and heartblood. If the issues mentioned above would get fixed, the POV settled, the self-conscious research sorted, the cast streamlined a bit, this would be a great book, a definitive five-star read for me and more likely than not, had potential to make it in the mainstream.

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http://www.mmromancenovels.blogspot.com/

Review: The Year Without a Summer by G.S. Wiley

Lieutenant Robert Pierce of the Royal Navy was raised in the shadow of his father, a great admiral, and has spent his life on the high seas fighting the ships of Napoleon Bonaparte. When he loses a leg in battle and is confined to land, Robert is devastated. Taken in by his sister Maria, Robert faces the infamously cold, wet summer of 1816 trying to adjust to his new life. It’s made all the gloomier by his worry for his best friend and lover, Lieutenant John Burgess, who is still at sea…until a visitor brings a bright ray of sunshine into Robert’s overcast life.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

What happens when a career naval officer is grievously wounded and unable to return to active duty? That’s the question that is explored in this short novella.

It’s the summer of 1816, the famous “year without a summer.” Lieutenant Robert Pierce is at his sister’s home, sitting by the fire and watching the rain. He had been a career naval man, joining as a midshipman at age fourteen, until a plank of wood pierced his thigh and his left leg had to be amputated, high enough that a prosthesis was not possible. So he’s become a cripple, living with his sister, and no clue what he is going to do with the rest of his life. He does have a small inheritance from his father the Admiral and could afford to take a wife, burdening her instead of his sister. Trouble is, Robert has no interest in women. The love of his life, John Burgess, is a lieutenant aboard the Dauntless and that is who he wants to be with. If he can’t have him, is life worth living?

The story is told mostly in flashbacks, of Robert and John meeting and beginning their affair. The scenes of them together are beautiful and I loved John’s voice: “I am completely besotted with you, Mr. Pierce.” The writing is evocative. There is a scene in Italy where I could smell the lemons and see the blue sky. The cold, rainy summer in England was also well portrayed, as was Robert’s depression and unhappiness. The ending was melancholy and bittersweet, but completely realistic. And there was even, maybe—a little glimmer of hope, or at least understanding. That managed to keep me from being a sobbing mess.

This is the first story I’ve read from author G.S. Wiley and I definitely look forward to more. Wiley definitely brought the era and characters to life and I don’t have any quibbles with the historical accuracy. I’d like to read a historical story from this author with more depth and complexity; I hope one is in the works.

Buy from the publisher, Dreamspinner

Review: Black Wade by Franze & Andärle

Graphic Novel

Dreaded pirate Black Wade has a cruel mind and an explosive sexuality. His mercilessness is legendary, but it wavers when he encounters the young and warm-hearted English officer Jack Wilkins. these two absolutely different men are prisoners to their fate. overwhelmed by their passion they unite in a fight for freedom and love.

Review by Erastes

Age of sail pedants, abandon ship.  But everyone else, climb aboard for a fruity and surprisingly touching naughty-cal romp. (Yes, I know. I’m shameless.)

The review is under a cut because I’ve included pictures which are not for minors. Continue reading

Review: Pirates of the Narrow Seas by M. Kei

Lt. Peter Thorton of the 18th century British navy must struggle to come out gay while surviving storms at sea, ship to ship battles, duels, kidnapping, and more in his quest for true love and honor.

My own Quick Summary

Lt. Peter Thorton is in love with fellow lieutenant Perry. Both men are given commissions to serve aboard HMS Ajax, taking an Islamic envoy to talks in France. Peter makes an enemy of the Captain, who is largely incompetent but doesn’t like people who show they know it. During a storm, the Ajax comes to the rescue of a sinking Spanish galley. The Spanish abandon their vessel, leaving their slaves, chained to the oars, to sink with the ship. Peter and several of the other British sailors attempt to free the slaves and stop the galley from sinking. As they do so, the storm blows the two ships apart, leaving him surrounded by freed slaves who have no desire to voluntarily sail back to the Ajax to be reunited with their captors.

Command of the galley is taken by Isam bin Hamet al-Tangueli (Captain Tangle to his crew) a famous pirate of the Barbary coast, who had been serving as a galley slave following capture by the Spanish. The story then follows Peter’s slow naturalization into the ways of the Sallee Rovers, and his growing understanding that he’s better off in a culture that allows him to love other men without censure. Rejected by Perry and wooed by Tangle, Peter has to decide where his loyalty really lies.

(First of a series)

Review by Alex Beecroft

As Speak Its Name’s reviewer most familiar with the Age of Sail, I tend to get all the books which deal with pirates and naval officers in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This is not a bad thing, as I’m always keenly on the look out for the next Patrick O’Brian, and I enjoy a naval battle possibly slightly more than the next person.

Recently I seem to have read nothing but the kind of Age of Sail book where all the action goes on in the Great Cabin, the sails apparently handle themselves, the Captain has nothing to do except to shag his cabin boy, and wind, waves, currents and the ships of other nations never appear at all.

So I was excited to be given this book to read. I had already seen M. Kei’s blog and knew he was someone who was interested in the history and the sailing for its own sake. This, I thought, was going to be different from the outboard-motor historicals I’d read before. I went into it with great hopes.

I almost gave up on it in the first five pages. There are two flaws, IMO, that a historical novel can fall into – one is not to care about the history at all, and the other is to care so much that you load your story with all your research, so that it reads like pages out of a text book cut up and joined together with a thin excuse for a story.

At the beginning of the book, I feared I’d come up against the second type. There seemed to be a lot of explaining how the Admiralty works, explaining about the Articles of War, and the “Captain’s Cloak” which gives a captain absolute authority at sea, etc etc. By contrast there wasn’t a lot of concentration on the characters of Peter and Perry. Also, the first few chapters were very similar to the first few chapters I’ve read of very many AoS books—officers receive their orders, travel to find their ship. The ship and the other officers are introduced. They make ready to sail, etc.

So up until about chapter 7 (the chapters are quite short) I was feeling that this was a worthy attempt which had become choked by its own research.

However—this is a big however—once I hit chapter 8 I started to sit up and take notice. The story suddenly took off. The scene of Peter and his boarding party frantically struggling to free the slaves before the whole ship sank under them was nail-bitingly intense. I cast off all my quibbles and began to thoroughly enjoy myself.

From chapter 8 onwards, the story moved from the path, well-trodden by Forester and O’Brian, of adventures in the British Navy, and entered the realm of the Barbary corsairs. The research began to feel more naturally embedded in the story – for example, it becomes not only fascinating to find out that galleys have watertight bulkheads, but also vitally important for the story. The culture clash between Peter and Tangle was beautifully drawn and gripping—Peter simultaneously proving that he is an admirable, honourable man while learning to appreciate the Islamic way of doing many things, from daily washing to sail-handling.

His realization that Tangle finds him attractive and that he returns the admiration is handled beautifully. Peter has been in the grip of some pretty terrible low self esteem as a result of his “unnatural” and “abominable” inclinations, and it’s beautiful to watch his confidence blossom as he slowly begins to accept that in Tangle’s culture it really isn’t that big a deal.

Over the course of the novel, Tangle and Peter negotiate a treaty with Britain and France which enables them both to serve together united in enmity against Spain. Peter converts to Islam and resigns his commission as a result. Tangle fights a duel with Bishop (Peter’s bad ex-captain) and then spends much of the end of the book trying to get his old ship and possessions back out of the hands of his brother in law, who snapped them up when everyone thought that Tangle would never be coming back.

As is typical for an Age of Sail book, this is more of a “slice of life” than a “romance” with a strict beginning, middle and end. Things happen the way they happen in real life—unexpectedly and often surprisingly. And I like that. The plot here is formed by the arc of character development—Peter learning to accept himself, and Isam learning that although he’s a mighty pirate, sometimes there are things he can’t have all his own way. Just as I enjoyed Peter’s development from self-hatred to confidence, I enjoyed the slow way that Isam’s character went from ‘tragic heroism’ to ‘slightly overbearing but endearingly sunny’. I also enjoyed the constant nautical competence of both characters. I do like a hero who knows how to do his job!

To conclude: I loved the book. I enjoyed it immensely, and I thought it was a wonderful breath of fresh air that it concentrated on the culture of a maritime nation which normally gets cast as the baddies in AoS books.

I wish I could give it five stars. However I’m going to take off a half for the slightly belaboured start. Also—I presume because it’s self-published—there are numerous typos. I would very much urge M. Kei to offer it to a publisher like Lethe Press because I’m certain that a professional edit would be all this book needs to be perfect. Even at 4.5 stars though, if you have any interest at all in the age of sail, I highly recommend that you rush out and get this book. I received an ebook copy for the purposes of this review, but as soon as I’ve posted this I’m going to go and buy it in print.

Author’s Website

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Review: The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

1918, the closing months of the war. Army psychiatrist William Rivers is increasingly concerned for the men who have been in his care – particularly Billy Prior, who is about to return to combat in France with young poet Wilfred Owen. As Rivers tries to make sense of what, if anything, he has done to help these injured men, Prior and Owen await the final battles in a war that has decimated a generation.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

The third part of a trilogy, which began with Regeneration and continued with The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize. Given that certain writers’ associations would like to see fiction with a gay content put right back in the closet, it’s worth pointing out that both this book – and The Line of beauty – have won prestigious awards. Quality of story telling and writing should take precedence over other considerations.

As the reader moves through the trilogy, more and more is revealed about the four key characters – the fictional Billy Prior and the real life Rivers, Sassoon and Owen. These are complex men and neither they. Nor the story line, are easy to compartmentalise or even warm to at times. Not one of these three books is an easy to read, ‘formulaic’ piece of fiction

Certain themes run through the books. The interweaving of physical and psychological measures in healing features constantly, as does the nature of war and the appropriate response to it (is there a definitive one?)  The ghosts in the Ghost Road aren’t just the ones from the past that dictate the present. There are spirits manifesting themselves –Sassoon sees them, Rivers has encountered them in his past travels to Melanesia. Are they real? Are they a factor of shell shock or superstition? Pat Barker leaves it to the reader to decide.

Also, there’s a rumbling theme concerning the homoerotic nature of war – the closeness of men, both in terms of actual space and camaraderie, the attractions between them to be acted on or ignored as appropriate. In one memorable scene Prior’s thoughts flit between comparing Owen to a rent boy and wondering how he feels about killing:

He looks like one of the boys you see on street corners in the East End. Open to offers. I must say I wouldn’t mind…And I wonder if he sees those faces, grey, open-mouthed faces, life draining out of them before the bullets hit…

To outline the plot of this book is pointless – it’s more a jigsaw than a flowing stream. Inevitably, given that Prior ends up in the same unit as Owen, one can guess at the outcome – it’s not hard to put some sort of odds on (or against) the sort of happy ending that’s often demanded in romantic fiction. But this isn’t your usual romance, although it has romantic elements. It’s hard hitting fiction and none the less worthwhile for that.

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Review: Heartache Cafe by J.S. Cook

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

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

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Calico by Dorien Grey

“Calico” is something of a breakthrough novel in that it spans a bridge which is only now opening for two-way traffic. The author describes “Calico” as a “western/romance/adventure/mystery with a twist”…the twist being that its cowboy hero/protagonist just happens to be gay.

Calico Ramsey finds himself with the responsibility of seeing that two 17 year old orphaned twins from Chicago, Josh and Sarah Howard, get safely from the rail line’s end to their aunt in Colorado. But things have begun to go terribly wrong even before the twins arrive, and it doesn?t take long for Calico to realize someone does not want him to reach his destination (though how anyone even knows the trio’s destination is a mystery to Calico).

There is enough action, adventure, and mystery to satisfy both diehard western fans, and even those who don’t normally care for the genre. The gently developing romance is non-threatening to those who have lived their lives on the “mainland” side of the bridge, but offers a unique insight into the 10 percent of the population living at the other end of the bridge.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When Calico Ramsey’s uncle Dan is gunned down by a hired killer, Calico inherits not only Dan’s ranch, but also a responsibility to Dan’s newly orphaned nephew and niece. He promises to see them safely into the custody of their Aunt Rebecca, even though nobody to whom he speaks has a good word to say about the woman. The twins’ parents died in a fire following a visit from Rebecca and her husband, so when Calico and the twins are almost killed themselves in a fire the first night out, Calico begins to suspect something sinister. As their journey continues it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill the three of them before they can get to Rebecca’s house. Calico must protect his two charges, figure out what is going on and why, and deal with the burgeoning love and attraction he feels for Josh.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of Westerns, and am not, unfortunately, any kind of expert in the time. Nothing in the setting of this book, or the behaviour of the characters pinged me as wrong for 19th Century America, but take that with a pinch of salt as I can’t speak with any kind of knowledge on the subject. What the book reminded me of most of all was the kind of TV Western series which I watched when I was growing up. It had the same kind of strong but decent, openhearted characters, a laconic expression and stoicism that covered up deep emotions and a real appreciation of a seemingly endless landscape, with all the beauty and freedom and danger that represented.

I was also reminded of these old series because the book proceeds in a number of episodes, each of which end in a cliffhanger. There is a lot of welcome action; a memorable gunfight, runaway horses, arson, ambushes and kidnapping – there’s really no chance to ever get bored. And if, like me, you find constant action a bit wearing too, you’ll still like this book because the action is interspersed with some lovely quiet moments; companionship around the campfire, the very sweet and tender romance between Calico and Josh, moments where the beauty of the countryside comes through, and moments of good food and hospitality from strangers who become friends.

After reading Brokeback Mountain, it’s slightly hard for me to believe that neither Calico nor Josh have much in the way of angst about accepting their attraction for men in general and each other in particular, and even harder to believe that nobody in the book who knows about it seems to have a problem with it. But Dorien Gray writes the characters in such a way that I was prepared to believe that these particular people are simply fortunate in their emotional makeup and friends, rather than feeling that the whole society was anachronistic.

I enjoyed the fact that the greater part of the story took place over a journey from the railway station to the Aunt’s house. It really gave a picture of how difficult travel was in those days. I also enjoyed the mystery, and although I had worked out who the villain was, and why they were doing this, by the time it was revealed, I hadn’t done it so early on as to be disappointed with the heroes for not realising it earlier.

My main problem with the book, and why it only gets a four and a half star review rather than a five, is the ending. The final confrontation with the villain is over very easily and for a moment I almost thought we’d lost a gunman. Although I find I was wrong about that and he was accounted for, my impression was still that the villain is disappointingly easily dealt with at the end.

More than this, though, I felt that the romance was denied a scene that it needed to round it off. Throughout the book, Calico had been saying to himself and Josh “I’ll think about that later. I’ll think about it when you’re 18. I’ll think about it once we’re out of this life threatening peril.” All of which was very sensible and you couldn’t help agreeing that he was right to look at it that way. However, the end of the book finds Josh 18 and the life-threatening peril out of the way, but there never is a scene where Calico does that thinking and makes that ‘yes, we’re a couple’ decision that the book (I thought) had been leading up to. So I felt the romance part of the plot suffered from a lack of resolution. I’d have liked to see Calico make the commitment to Josh that had been hinted at throughout.

However, the ending does leave the two of them together, so I can happily imagine that they get that bit sorted out off camera, so to speak, and although I would have liked to see a more romance focussed ending, it doesn’t in any way take away from how much I enjoyed everything that went before it. I’ll definitely be reading this one again with a lot of pleasure.

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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: Because You Despise Me by J S Cook

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

Review by Vashtan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Hidden Conflict (various)

Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

Review by Vashtan

I’ve been in a reviewing funk over the question how to review and to what end. While I still believe that honest reviews require the occasional lashing, I concur with a friend who holds that reviewers should offer advice to authors as well as readers. Now, that requires a slightly different approach, and makes this a bit more difficult.

Not only would a reviewer have to express an opinion on something as intangible as moods and one’s personal reflections (easier thought than written), but also find the perceived “fatal flaw” in the writing and point it out so it can be fixed. This approach actually places a reviewer in the camp of the editor. What I then review is not just that author’s command of the craft, but the editor’s ability or inability to spot and fix issues. A weak book would then be not only the fault of an author, but the flaw of an editor in not fixing it, and the publisher for acquiring the text and contracting it. I will have to do more thinking about it.

Thankfully, “Hidden Conflict” is, by and large, an easy vote. I really enjoyed it. One word of warning. This is not a collection of romances. Only one text fits the bill and provides a happily ever after (at least we can hope that), while the other texts explore loss, suffering, social stigma, “fitting in with the boys” and barely-verbalised or expressed desire. This is also not the book for steamy sex scenes, so I would place this firmly in the camp of “gay historical writing”. What this book gives you is four intense,
emotional journeys, each one firmly grounded in history and fact. We see Native Americans counting coup, experience the mind-numbing shelling of WWI and the terrible wastelands of mud and rain, and the loss of families and boyfriends knowing their loved died “somewhere across the ocean”. Alienation, shell-shock, and the terror of war. In this, the authors explore the mind of the fighting man; the comradery,
the emotional bonds forged on the battlefield, looking out for one’s fellow man. As a historian with a strong bent towards military history, I’m always astonished at how war brings out the best and worst in humanity; both our bestial natures and our utterly selfless ability to sacrifice and preserve, and to value life most in the destruction of it. I felt the authors all grappled with those questions, so this is not a book for those who fancy men in uniforms getting it on. It’s so much more than that, which makes it difficult
to review.

All of the stories are well-written and carefully edited; the cover expresses the essence of the book well as a collection of four different voices. “Romance” as in romantic attachment, the possibility to love, the desire to love and hold features in the anthology, of course. It can be a love story against all odds and society as in “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft, a (possibly) unrequited love and uncanny, ambivalent, maybe brotherly love as in “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst, or the potential of love that was sadly cut short like so many lives during WWI in “No Darkness”, and, with a different slant in “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland, which focuses on the survivors and their ability – or inability – to move on after loss. But the setting is very real, too, and I found no major flaw with the research in terms of military and gay history. A different reviewer pointed out issues of military protocol in some of the stories, but as a civilian, I didn’t spot them.

Now comes the part where I have to choose a favourite, I guess, and the vote is clearly on “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft. I read her “False Colors” and it blew me away, and she did it again, with less words. Minor craft issues I had with “False Colors” (focusing on viewpoint, voice, and pacing) are gone in “Blessed Isle”. Beecroft continues to astound and amaze, and this story went down like very old, accomplished Bordeaux wine, served just exactly right. It’s not a story that you can “just read”, you have to savour it. The language was pitch-perfect, and I recommend taking your time to work out the nuances and let them resonate. Sometimes, prose is so well-made that it becomes a rush and a pleasure all by itself. The story Beecroft tells and the exploration of the characters just heighten the pleasure, but it’s always her prose that gets me first. Were “Blessed Isle” on it’s own, it would be a rare five stars.

The reason why the others aren’t my favourites (I hope that sentence makes sense) are minor. Each story would rate highly on its own (in the 4-star range), but I have minor quibbles with each one. “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst is emotionally honest (and I love authors facing those emotions – it takes a special kind of bravery), but I
didn’t fully warm with the main character, Brett Price. While it was painful to see him stumble through the battlefield and tell us all about the horrors of the massacre (well-done, gruesome writing), I didn’t quite warm with him. He appeared through much of this as a love-struck puppy, and I kept wanting to tell him to “man up” and stop
pining. But then, how many of us do manage to do that when our friends tell us? Exactly.

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor sets out on a very difficult task—to tell a story with two men in a cellar, fearing impending death, and growing close by telling their stories. The story is heavy on dialogue, and attempts to draw the characters by dialogue, a task that
it didn’t quite accomplish for me. While I can believe that hysteria and stress (one is wounded) can make people sound more cheerful than I would expect them to sound under such circumstances, there were moments in the dialogue where I thought that the characters were on the verge of being self-indulgent, telling all those anecdotes while
quite literally fighting for their lives. I’d expect more of the raw stress and fear to come out, so I would have tightened up the dialogue quite a bit more than was done. The strongest parts of the story, I felt, were those where the characters don’t talk.

The last story, “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland explores the loss of a loved one, a life lost in battle during WWII, from the viewpoint of his lover. I struggled a bit with this story; while I understand that many struggle to move on after a loss, I felt forty years of
mourning was excessive, especially since the surviving boyfriend never had any other relationships and has never fallen in love. Instead of romantic, I felt “what a waste of one’s life”, but maybe I’m too cynical. The story explores the surviving boyfriend’s life, his
inability to let go, how he is part of the family of his beloved Edward, taking Edward’s position, while keeping his mourning mostly silent, “lover” becomes “good friend”. Nevertheless, I felt the story dragged and would benefit from some well-placed strategic cuts.

As diverse as these stories are, there is one for everyone, and I believe nobody can read this without being profoundly moved by the writing and the depth of emotion the authors explore. Bravo.

Cheyenne Publishing (print)  Bristlecone Pine Press (Ebook)

Review: Common Sons: Common threads in the life by Ronald L. Donaghe

Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.

From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.

The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves.

Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Common Sons is the first of the “Common threads in the life” series set in the fictional town of Common, New Mexico, and for those not acquainted with this series it is the recommended place to start.

It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the small, dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there are some fundamental differences between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. They are also in love with one another although, at first neither one of them realizes this.

Donaghe has also done a superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the burdensome heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.

The catalyst is an ill-advised, but quite innocent kiss between the two boys at a Saturday night dance—read ‘a typical coming together of teenage testosterone and beer.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick-up truck, the first such experience for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.

Being the more pragmatic of the two, Joel soon decides that it is Tom he wants; however, Tom has a more difficult time of it. For one thing his preacher father rules him and the household with a fundamentalist zeal that is absolute, and Tom lives in fear of his father’s wrath. Tom is also well steeped in the usual fundamentalist jargon, i.e. “Sins of the flesh,” “reprobate mind,” and “unnatural lusts.” Upon meeting Joel, however, he begins to question his father, the Bible, and his own self-doubts. Also, Joel teaches him the true meaning of love, self-respect, and friendship.

At the same time Joel and Tom must cope with the peculiar form of homophobia that inhabits small places like Common—especially in the 1960s—and Kenneth Stroud in particular. He is the town’s redneck bad boy who has had bad blood for Joel since they were children. Another bigot is Paul Romaine, one of the church’s disciples with latent homosexual leanings of his own, and together these two set out to publicly humiliate and destroy Joel and Tom.

The rest of the plot I will leave for readers to discover for themselves; however I will comment on some of the admirable points that the author has incorporated into the story.

For example, the author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of realism. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular communities like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, for that matter—can attest to how well he has captured the alienation that Joel and Tom experience when they realize that they are ‘different.’ We can also attest to the delight that others took in pointing this out to us.

Donaghe has also given us an insight into the dark ages of psychology, i.e. when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or a ‘deviation,’ at best. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along with fundamentalist, religious dogma.

Unfortunately Religious fundamentalism still exists, in spite of the ‘defrocking’ of many of its outspoken proponents, but it is hoped that fewer people are listening.

Having said all that Common Sons is an inspirational read, and highly recommended for anyone coming out—young or old.

Author’s website

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Islands by Samatha Kane

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

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

Review by Vashtan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, and it’s a Hollywood movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s Website

Buy at Ellora’s Cave

Review: Coming Home by Victor J Banis

Victor J Banis “Coming Home”, published by MLR Press in 2009, available either as a stand-alone ebook or in the print anthology “Esprit de Corps”, also MLR Press.

The swinging sixties, the Sunset Strip a smorgasbord of horny Marines, looking for a little action before heading off to Nam. A queen’s delight, and it’s all too easy for a guy to fall in love with these brave, young warriors. But some of those shipping out won’t be coming home, and not all of the wounded wear uniforms

Review by Vashtan

Some people have been asking me why I start each review with how I got a book, and asked me “is that really necessary”? Yes. One author and her publisher have contacted the FBI with allegations that this blog reviews from pirated copies. Personally, I wouldn’t find my way around a torrent these days, and besides, apparently many files you can download there are either fake or riddled with virii. Contacting the FBI first and then the blog is not a way to show your good manners; while I’m not the affected reviewer, hysterical writers and their equally-hysterical publishers like this are the reason why I don’t start with a witty opener but with the legal stuff. I don’t like SWAT in my study or having my computer confiscated. It’s quite disruptive to my own novels.

The legal stuff, then. After my last review of a Banis book, Lola Dances, I found it only polite to contact the author direct to send him the review before it went online. Mr Banis was great about it all, polite, grateful and perfectly happy to discuss the story with this reviewer. As a thank you, he sent me a free short story, which I loved (not sure whether it’s out or where). I asked Mr Banis whether he had any more recently published historical books, with the full intention to either buy whatever book he pointed out to me or to contact MLR Press to send me a review copy. I received the file for “Coming Home” unprompted with the next email. So, I got a free copy from the author himself.

“Coming Home” is set in the Swinging Sixties just before Stonewall, and that way clings to the very end of the period that this blog covers. And to come right to the point, I really enjoyed this story of just under 50 pages, with around 15-16thousand words. It’s heavy on the sex, steamy, and maybe wasn’t the best thing to read on the commute to work.

Mike, our first person narrator, is a young gay man who goes out to pick up men on the Strip. Usually, these are servicemen, Marines and sailors seeking some relief before having to return to the barracks. This is the time of the Vietnam War, and also the time of greater sexual freedom and general openness to gay experiences. He picks up Doug, a Marine who hasn’t done this kind of thing before, but is perfectly happy to try things out. Much steamy sex ensues (that made me completely blind to what was going on around me on the bus, train, and bus), which is well-told and good fun.

Once that is out of the way, the story is about the blossoming of love—but at first, it is, cleverly, not Doug’s and Mike’s love. Banis brings in some complications that make this whole experience quite harrowing for poor Mike. Things look the worst when Doug gets shipped off to war.

I really don’t want to spoiler you for the rest of the story, only tell you it’s a satisfying journey that felt real to me and held me captive for a while after I’d finished.

The setting is very vividly painted; I found it completely believable, so full marks for that. Mike’s voice is laced with humor; we get a very good picture of who this guy is, and above all, I really got to like him and hoped things turned out well for him.

Here’s a bit right from the start:

The Swinging Sixties. To some, that conjures up images of The Haight in all its flower power glory, before the lilies festered. To others, it was Greenwich Village and that heady period leading up to the events at Stonewall; or the love-ins in Griffith Park.

For me, it was The Strip. Sunset Boulevard. Not the Norma Desmond Boulevard, of flame red Maseratis and grand hotels and pink mansions with heart-shaped swimming pools, but the hurdy-gurdy strip of once-elegant-now-sleazy clubs, discount record stores and gay bars.

And Marines. Scores of them, hundreds of them, flocking there every weekend from Camp Pendleton down the road, strolling about wide-eyed in twosomes, three-four-and-moresomes. And some of them alone. On the prowl. Happily, because these were the ones a gay man like me looked for.

This was the era of the Vietnam war — or police action, as some put it. The population of the one-time Rancho Santa Margarita between Oceanside and San Clemente had soared from a few hundred Marines who marched there from San Diego in 1942 to somewhere around a hundred thousand, give or take a thou or two at any time. Every one of them young, buff, tough — and best of all, as many of us saw it, terminally horny. (page 4)

This is a well-written, short, sweet, enjoyable read set in the late Sixties, with likeable characters, plenty of hot sex, and there’s enough romance in there to put a grin on your face when it’s done. Definitely recommended.

Author’s website

Buy MLR (ebook) Mobipocket

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