Review: The Actor and the Earl by Rebecca Cohen

Elizabethan actor Sebastian Hewel takes his bow at the proscenium only to embark on the role of a lifetime. When his twin sister, Bronwyn, reneges on the arrangement to marry Earl Anthony Crofton, Sebastian reluctantly takes her place. At nineteen, Sebastian knows his days as a leading lady are numbered, but with this last performance, he hopes to restore his family’s name and pay off his late father’s debts. Never mind the danger of losing his head should he be discovered. 

He didn’t expect Anthony to be so charming and alluring—not to mention shrewd. While he applauds Sebastian’s plan, Anthony offers a mutually beneficial arrangement instead. Sebastian will need every drop of talent he has to survive with both his head and his heart intact, because this is the best part he’s ever had

ebook and paperback – 216 pages

Review by Erastes

This is a plot done before, and to be honest, done better–in Madcap Masquerade by Penelope Roth–but that’s not to say it’s not worth a read.

It’s set in an era that isn’t covered enough in gay historicals–Elizabethan England and although, as the title explains, one of the protagonists is an actor it’s not set solely in a theatre. Shakespeare does get a mention here and there, though–is there anyone living in London at this time who didn’t know him!?

Overall, it’s nicely readable, and the plot canters on engagingly, but there is a major error that runs throughout which made me grind my teeth and will do for others I suspect. Let me just get that out of the way first. An Earl is usually “an earl of somewhere” e.g. the Earl of Pembroke OR simply as a prefix e.g. Earl Waldgrave. They are NOT addressed as “Earl Crofton” but as “Lord Crofton” as is the case here.

That aside, the book makes a good attempt to get a flavour of the time without an overabundance of detail. The food is mostly convincing–there are good descriptions of feasts where the meat goes on forever and there’s nary a fork in attendance–and the clothes are nicely illustrated: the gaudy doublet and hose of the men and the uncomfortable and restrictive clothes of the women. There was one scene where Sebastian put on his own corset which I found a little unlikely, but in the main it’s well done. The author even manages to tip a nod to the make-up of the day–white lead paint for the face–by having Lord Crofton (Anthony) forbid Sebastian to wear it when not at court.

The way the deception was managed–having Sebastian “visit” in his male persona while Lady Crofton was in bed with a mysterious illness was a bit unlikely. Despite having a couple of staff in on the truth it was rather unbelievable that a country house with dozens of staff would not sniff out what was really happening. There’s one section where Sebastian (as a male) goes over to visit neighbours and has a serious fall, and no mention of contacting his sister is made, let alone how that sister’s illness is continued when Sebastian isn’t on the premises. I mean, there’s no flushing toilets, so someone would notice at the very least, the lack of chamber pots.

There’s a fair smattering of OKHomo throughout, however. Everyone who is in on the secret from the beginning is all right with it, and the people who discover it as the book progresses are also perfectly fine, and are more concerned for the couple’s safety than the horror of what they are doing, as was the tone of the day. In fact everyone in the book–with the exception of Sebastian’s sister–is thoroughly Nice and all the conflict, which could easily come from external sources in this time and place, is managed by jealousy.

And that’s its major failing, really because I was never really convinced of the couple’s devotion to each other. That’s possibly because of the fact that the point of view is only from Sebastian’s side, so we never see Anthony’s feelings–although that’s part of the plot, too. But I didn’t understand WHY Sebastian fell in love with Anthony; I could see why Anthony fell for Sebastian as he’s quite doormatty until he finally has enough, but Anthony–other than being sexy and seductive–isn’t particularly nice until he realises that he might lose Sebastian for good.

So, all in all, a decent enough read and if you like the era you’ll probably appreciate it, but not a keeper for me. The sequel will be out later this year.

Author’s Blog

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: Secret Light by Z.A. Maxfield

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

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

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

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

ebook only  258 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s website

buy at Loose-ID

Review: Roses in the Devil’s Garden by Charlie Cochet

In a city overrun by lawlessness and corruption, best friends and lovers Prohibition Agents Harlan Mackay and Nathan Reilly, are fighting a losing battle. With bootleggers running amuck and countless speakeasies materializing every day, how can two men possibly hope to make a difference? Especially when they can’t even trust their own bureau?

If dealing with hoodlums wasn’t enough, a ghost from Nathan’s past threatens to destroy everything Harlan and Nathan hold dear.

Review by Erastes

Written for a Goodreads writing fest, (Love is Always Write) this is now out in ebook form and is a nice quick read. The more I read from Charlie Cochet the more I appreciate her. She knows her era, she specialises in the 20’s and 30’s in America- and I don’t know of anyone doing the era better than she does.

This is the story of Harlan and Nathan–two cops working in the Prohibition Unit in New York. Lovers and partners they have successfully managed to avoid anyone finding out about their love affair. At work they are as hard bitten and tough as any of the other cops on duty–and why should they not be, after all? The only thing that I didn’t like about these guys was the fact that their names were too similar because I am a bear of little brain and can’t remember which is which.

What I particularly like about Cochet’s writing is her economy; somehow she manages to push a quart into a pint pot, as it were, and in the space of a small novella–hardly more than a longish short story, there’s action, romance, jealousy, character building, backstory, promise of more to come and more action. She makes it look easy and believe me it isn’t.

She intrigues with her characters. Small hints are thrown out, the fact that Harlan is loaded–money from his family–but we aren’t told very much more than that and I for one wanted to know more. Then there’s a character introduction that deals with Nathan’s past, and again, you want to know the full story behind that too. Don’t get me wrong, Cochet doesn’t leave you hanging with these plotlines, she tells you exactly as much as you need to know for this story, but if you are like me you’ll be writing to her and saying “more please!”

The historical details are, or seem to be, spot on. She’s a “safe pair of hands” and there are no jarring moments which throw you back into the 21st century, these are men of their time, and if that makes them bigoted and makes them say things that we would find objectionable, then so be it. If a guy is considered a fairy by 1920’s standards, then he’s described as such as so it should be. No political correctness in Prohibition Noo Yawk no sirree!

Highly recommended and even better – its a FREE READ!

Author’s website

Download at Goodreads

Review: And There Was Silence by Louise Blaydon

Two years after the horrors of the Great War, Robert and Harry are fellow students at the University of Oxford, spending an idyllic day on the banks of the river. Robert idolizes Harry, though he’s sure the other man has no idea of his feelings. When Harry offers to take Robert out on a punt on the river, the afternoon takes a turn Robert never expected.

Short story, Ebook Only

Review by Erastes

This is more a mood piece and a soft-focus love scene rather than a short story, I felt. It had a taste of a missing scene from some larger work and I’d have liked to have read that larger work because this left me feeling – like one of the protagonists – rather unsatisfied.

The writing is pretty good and just the sort of thing I like, lush with description and heavy with summer:

They sat together at the river’s edge, lazily watching the boats go by. Robert’s feet, stretched out in front of him, were somehow damp, although the sun had been blazing all morning and dappled them now through the leaves, casting loose, blotted shadows that darkened their clothes like stains. Harry had taken off his shoes, setting them aside and drawing up his knees to dabble his toes in the grass. His hair was in his eyes, paled to its summer gold, and his sleeves rolled up past the elbow.

So I was drawn in immediately, and wouldn’t have stopped reading for a big clock.

There’s nothing much to it, lovely descriptions, Robert (as the blurb reveals) not knowing Harry’s predelictions and suddenly a stolen kiss in a punt (which struck me as a little incongruous due to all the “boats going by” — I was certainly expecting a furious shout of “you there, you cads, stop that unnatural behaviour” from the bank but nothing happened. Suddenly we are in Harry’s rooms and rather nice inferred sex is happening.

And that’s sort of that. If it had managed a real sense of a short story with a story to tell rather than a cliffhanger, I would have given this a five star for the sheer lushness of the writing, but it let me down with a bump and I wanted the whole book, and I hate always having to say that about short stories. Still it’s only $1.49, so I suppose I’m being greedy.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Review: The Celestial by Barry Brennessel

Hardened beyond his nineteen years, Todd Webster Morgan is determined to find gold high in the Sierra Nevadas. But his dream is violently upended. Complicating matters even more, he meets a young Chinese immigrant named Lao Jian, whose own dreams of finding gold have been quashed by violence. But life back in Sacramento isn’t any easier. Todd’s mother struggles to make ends meet. His invalid uncle becomes increasing angry and violent. Todd seeks employment with little success.

Meanwhile his friendship with Lao Jian turns to love. But their relationship is strained as anti-Chinese sentiment grows. Todd vows not to lose Lao Jian. The couple must risk everything to make a life for themselves. A life that requires facing fear and prejudice head on.

Paperback and ebook – 192 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

As “The Celestial” opens, Todd is working his claim in the mountains near Truckee, about 90 miles northeast of Sacramento. It’s about 20 years after the California gold rush started, but there are still a lot of men like Todd staking claims and hoping to strike it rich. Egged on by his irascible uncle, who was invalided in the civil war, Todd has stole away in the night, leaving his mother to care for her brother on their tumble-down farm near Sacramento.

Todd isn’t alone on the mountain where he has staked his claim. A group of Irishmen have a camp nearby, where they apparently are working their own claim, among other things. Todd doesn’t much care for the rough and tumble men, except for the youngest of them, Breandon. Todd has something of a crush on the other man, who isn’t much older than him, but he won’t dare admit it.

Unfortunately, just as it looks like Todd might have a chance to spend some time with Breandon when they go down to Truckee for supplies, the two camps erupt in conflict that results in Todd trying to get a wounded Breandon to a doctor. It’s while helping Breandon back to his camp that Todd first encounters Lao Jian, a Chinese man about his own age (‘Celestial’ was one of the more polite terms of the time for the Chinese). Lao Jian is also alone now, in this foreign land. He is uneasy around the two white men, since he has experienced a lot of ill treatment from the European settlers of North America, but he is still good hearted enough to help Todd out.

Unable to save Breandon, Todd and Lao Jian are thrown together in the middle of the wilderness. They learn to trust and rely on each other as they make their way to Truckee. The town is not a welcoming place for either of them, but especially for Lao Jian. (In 1886, less than 20 years after the time in which “The Celestial” is set, Truckee expelled its entire population of Chinese immigrants. At the time, Truckee’s Chinatown was the second largest on the west coast.) After just one night, both young men are ready to leave town, and the only place they have left to go is back to Todd’s home in Sacramento.

The reception for Lao Jian in Sacramento isn’t much better, but by this time the two young men are becoming more than friends and neither wants to be separated from the other. On returning to his home, Todd finds that his uncle is getting worse. His amputated leg is infected and his mother cannot afford the treatment he needs. But it seems that both mother and son have been keeping secrets from each other, and when it all starts to come out the path becomes clear.

“The Celestial” is a rather curious tale. Todd and Lao Jian are surrounded by a storm of violence and mistrust, which is what forces them together, yet the two find a calm place in the eye of the storm. It’s certainly not an unusual way for fictional romances to develop, but it’s not clear from the outset that these two will overcome the many obstacles to their relationship.

The story is told in the first person by Todd, in a style that sometimes wanders, the way a real person’s thoughts often do. Some might find this too distracting, but at least for me it never went far enough to take me out of the story. In some ways, the core issue of the book is the accuracy with which these thoughts are portrayed. Although inexperienced, both young men know that society strongly disapproves of the feelings they are developing for each other. So, while each is willing to acknowledge their friendship – something which is enough on its own to cause upset in both communities – they are both reticent to tell each other how they really feel.

In spite of the violence that surrounds the main characters, “The Celestial” is a rather sweet story, with a very emphatically happily-ever-after ending. While sweet, the book is never really saccharin. There’s enough of an edge to it to make it seem real, rather than just romantic fantasy. The writing is competent if not especially memorable. I’m giving it four stars.

You can find out more about Barry Brennessel at his web site.

Buy from  Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Virgin Airmen by Michael Gouda

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

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

Ebook only – 40 pages

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

No author’s website that I could find.

Buy from Dreamspinner

Review: The Pleasuring of Men by Clifford Browder

In New York City in the late 1860s, Tom Vaughn, a respectably raised young man, chooses to become a male prostitute servicing the city’s affluent elite, then falls in love with Walter Whiting, a renowned scholar and lecturer who proves to be his most difficult client. Having long wrestled with feelings of shame and guilt, Whiting, a married man, at first resents Tom’s easy acceptance of his own sexuality. Their story unfolds in the clandestine and precarious gay underworld of the time. Through a series of encounters—some exhilarating, some painful, some mysterious—Tom matures, until an unexpected act of violence provokes a final resolution.

Paperback and ebook: 232 pages

Review by Elliott Mackle

Emotionally as well as financially prostrate by the early death of a husband who suffered heavy losses in a financial panic, a once stylish widow elects to rent out a room in her brownstone mansion in order to help pay bills, keep up appearances and support her two schoolboy sons, Stewart and Tom Vaughn.

The place: East Twenty-fifth Street, Manhattan, just off fashionable Fifth Avenue. The new roomer: Mr. Neil Smythe, a young gentleman of means and style. Although roughneck elder brother Stewart wonders if the newcomer’s subtle scent is “cologne or “‘hair slime,’” Tom, the novel’s narrator, is instantly smitten.

A clean-shaven man of twenty-two, he was tall and thin, with smooth skin  and wavy long blond hair. He came to us [for the initial interview] correctly  dressed in a gray frock coat, fawn trousers, and black pointed shoes, with a scarf  pin and cufflinks that glittered, and a boyish look that I, myself sixteen, found  stupendously appealing.

A bargain is struck and Smythe soon moves in. The observant Tom is fascinated to discover the irregular hours the new roomer keeps: breakfasting out, leaving again in the late afternoon or evening, always dapper, well groomed and elegantly dressed. Sometimes he stays away all night and is delivered home in a horse-drawn cab. On occasion, he leaves town for a week or two, directing that his mail be forwarded to chic resorts such as Long Branch, New Jersey.

Although I know next to nothing about the attire of sporty Manhattan young men in the late 1860s (Browder pays great attention to tightly tailored trousers, silk cravats, waist-length jackets and walking sticks), other period details ring true to this American ear. Stephen Foster’s popular parlor song, “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” is cleverly transposed into “I Dream of Johnny” by a lederhosen-wearing singer in a louche bar, the Lustgarten or “pleasure garden.” The reading matter of Tom’s pious mother consists of temperance tracts, abstinence cookbooks, the then-current bestseller Little Women and maudlin poetic musings on death and religion. No wonder both sons turn out to be something other than church-going drones: one a bullying stock broker with a taste for flashy women, the other a kept boy.

When an adventurous schoolfellow describes his night-time outings to various low bars and clubs, the virginal Tom begs to tag along. Amazed at the sight of men dancing together, men dressed as women and lisping boys making leering passes at older gentlemen (and vice-versa), he is at once shocked and convinced that this is a part of the life he wants to live.

Neil Smythe naturally turns up at the Lustgarten. In short order, Tom discovers that Smythe earns his living as an employee of Young America Messenger & Courier Service, a bribe-protected front for a call-boy operation owned by corrupt politicians and businessmen. Enamored of Smythe as well as his money, clothes and freedom, Tom asks to be taught the tricks of the trade of the b.b. (“beautiful boy,” the other categories being masculine, muscular “sturdies” and effeminate “poufs”) and to be enlisted into the ranks of Young America. Smythe is happy to oblige. During a series of one-on-one sexual seminars, both discover areas of sensuality in which they do and definitely do not wish to indulge. Few but very important physical areas, as events prove. (Spoiler details stop here.)

Once Tom settles into his role as a b.b. for hire, and learns the ropes of sexual commerce with a variety of clients, mostly grey of beard and wealthy enough to double his fee when well satisfied (which is almost invariably the case), it is time for him to meet the client who will change his life forever.

Whether by design or lack of passion for the task, the author’s sexual vocabulary is modest, as are the descriptions of the acts involved and the physiques of the men and boys who perform them. “Spent” and “come” are used interchangeably; “erection” and “sweat” often figure in the proceedings. As for “pleasuring,” however, it is sometimes difficult to know whether the method employed is manual, oral or both.  In several instances I was unable to decide exactly who was doing what to who.

Fair enough. There are readers who prefer that a veil be drawn across the details of carnal commotion. But while a great deal of detail is given over to apparel and the decorative details of houses and hotel rooms, the physical descriptions of Tom’s clients when undressed are skewed to wrinkled old men, jolly fat men and corset-wearers at the expense of manly men with hairy chests, thick thighs and memorable, well-educated hands and other instruments of pleasuring.

Said clients are amusingly assorted: A wealthy European who masquerades as an aristocrat and hires young “friends” by the week; a rowdy, randy lawyer who demands energetic action in chambers; a powerful, elderly millionaire who is excited only by insults and verbal threats; even Mrs. Vaughn’s vaporous pastor, the Reverend Timothy Blythe.

After a series of try-out appointments and teasing references to a particularly interesting potential client by Neddy, the panderer-in-chief, Tom is sent to the townhouse of Walter Whiting, a scholar, lecturer and connoisseur of Greek language, renaissance culture and man-boy love. The early scenes between the two are worth the price of the book. The well-bred, properly-raised Tom’s willingness, nay eagerness to use coarse language with married, erudite Walter is hard to swallow at first, though swallow it I did. Such are the duties of a conscientious reviewer.

After the studious Tom corrects Walter’s misquotations from Keats and owns up to four years of Latin at his academy, the older scholar agrees to tutor the intelligent boy in Greek language and such higher forms of culture as Socratic love. One look at a reproduction print of a Greek urn’s decoration, however—it depicts a bearded, seated man fondling a standing boy—almost immediately turns the action into a literal erastes-eromenos moment. Walter strips Tom, seats himself on an ottoman and the two create their own, very passionate Grecian “ode.”

To a degree, this is contemporary erotic romance dressed in nineteen-century clothing. Hints of the twenty-first century sneak in, such as a reference to “truffled chicken … permeated with an earthy mushroom savor that was to die for.” Nonetheless, the author, an experienced poet, ghost writer and specialist in mid-nineteenth-century New York culture, brings the sordid underworld of Young America, the Lustgarten and Yankee-style man-boy love to life. The writing is generally crisp and well edited, so much so that when a clunker such as the following turns up, it all but stops the flow of what’s meant to be action:

“Excellent. Now if you’ll just follow me back to the viewing room …”

He raised a section of the counter, so I could pass behind it and follow him  down a short passageway to a room in back. We entered; he closed the door.  Having a skylight, the room was flooded with light.

Fortunately for the reader, such lapses are few. I did feel that the narrative dragged a bit toward the end and I remain unconvinced that Tom would make the one real mistake that lands him in so much trouble. But I have to admit using a similar device in my own fiction so perhaps my hesitation is merely a matter of style.

This is a valuable foray into a little-known aspect of American history, a pleasurable tale peopled by living, breathing boys and men, a recommended read. Ignore the cover which has little to do with the story. Go buy.

Buy at:   Gival PressAmazon UK | Amazon USA

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