In the Comfy Chair – Alex Beecroft

Alex Beecroft is my guest today – for the second time, so the first can’t have been too scary.

Our subject today is her latest release, His Heart’s Obsession, about the difficulties experienced by young gay men when part of an organisation that punishes the expression of their desires by death, and the inventiveness required to establish a satisfying relationship.

Hi, Alex, thanks so much for agreeing to sit in my Comfy Chair again.

Elin: I understand from entries in your blog that His Heart’s Obsession has had a rather long gestation. Would you care to tell us a bit about that?

Alex: It’s a saga in its own right, certainly. It was originally a longish short story – about 12K words long – and was accepted by one publisher (I won’t give names) to go into an anthology in 2008. Then the editor in charge of that project became ill and all the writers were offered their stories back.

I took it back and sent it out to a different publisher, who also accepted it. Then nothing happened for two years, until eventually the contract ran out. So I took it back again. This time I decided that the story would make more sense if I expanded it to help get across a better picture of who the characters were. And particularly to help explain why Hal doesn’t trust Robert.

After I’d expanded it into a short novella, I sent it to Carina. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and it finally broke its jinx and has been released. I’m so relieved!

Elin: His Heart’s Obsession is the most overtly romantic of your stories – almost totally focussed on the play of emotions, the development of relationships. Do you find there to be a lot of structural differences between a relationship driven story and one with masses of action?

Sea Battle by Andries Van Eertvelt. From Wikimedia

Alex: There is a difference in that if you have a story with masses of action, the action in itself is a strand of plot which has to be developed sensibly and tied up or resolved at the end. The more strands of plot you have, the longer your story has to be to do justice to them all. So a story which is only a love story can be shorter than a story which is love story plus action (plus mystery etc.) In either case, the progression of the love story must make its own internal sense, so the difference is one of number of plots rather than structure of plots.

Some villains have such a rough time you have to sympathise.
Loki by Mårten Eskil Winge. Wikimedia.

Elin: Villains – incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize? A moustache-twirling nightmare or … ?

Alex: To tell the truth, I don’t generally have them at all. (Which makes ‘how to write a novel’ books terribly frustrating. They assume you’ve got a single hero facing off against a single villain, or at least an antagonist. I have two heroes and no villain.)

Very few of the struggles in my life have been against individuals. Most of them have been against society. So in my books, more or less, my heroes struggle to reconcile who they are with a society that cannot accept them for who they are. I don’t generally need a villain on top of that.

However – if I actually answer that question instead of avoiding it – I admit to quite liking a moustache twirling villain. If you’re going to lay the smackdown on someone, I don’t want to be feeling sorry for him. And I will feel sorry for him if he’s even slightly believable. If there’s a hint of a real human being in there, I’ll want him to be redeemed rather than punished. OTOH, if there isn’t a hint of real human being in there, I’ll find him unbelievable. This is probably one of the reasons why I don’t normally have a villain myself. The whole concept is hugely problematical.

Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?

Alex: I’m between books at the moment. I’ve just finished Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, which was a wonderfully high-concept cyber-punk SF novel with bonus Sumerian linguistic programming. I don’t know what to read next, though I’ve been told his “Cryptonomicon” is also very good.

On the non-fiction side, I’ve just downloaded “In the Shadow of Empires: The historic Vlad Dracula, the events he shaped and the events that shaped him,” in an attempt to bring some historic grounding to my vampire novel. There are very few available books out there on the history of Wallachia. It’s frustrating.

Elin: I sympathise. When I was flirting with writing about Scythia I thought I might have to learn Ukrainian.

I understand that you are on the planning committee for UK Meet and that we only have – ooh about 5 weeks to go. Any interesting developments lately?

Alex: Ooh, well, Silver Publishing have very kindly sent us three [three!] Kindle Touches to give away on the day. One will go into the raffle we’re running to support the Albert Kennedy Trust, and the other two will be prizes in various events. I want one!

Also Clare London has given us a sneak peek of the goody bags we’ll be giving away on the day, and they are seriously cool. We were able to get stylish messenger bags rather than cheap cotton ones because Dreamspinner Press are sponsoring them. I was quite cynical about the idea of goody bags at first, but now I’m all “where’s mine!”

Elin: I know that you are working hard – congratulations on getting an agent, by the way :D – so, have you any WIPs you could tell us about?

Alex: Thank you! Well, I’ve just sent “Pilgrims’ Tale” off to my agent. I don’t know if that counts as being ‘in progress’ but it’s certainly not out yet. I’ve got as far as writing back-cover copy for that one, which goes:

The helmet of Raedwald – possibly. Sutton Hoo.
Picture from Wikimedia

In Dark Ages’ England, warriors were the highest form of human life. They fucked whoever they pleased, women or men, but they were no man’s bitch. If a man allowed himself to be fucked, then he must be some craven little lickspittle coward – a boy, a slave or a whore – not a real man at all.

Reluctant berserker, Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome warrior, has spent most of his life trying to hide the fact that he would love to be cherished and taken care of by someone stronger than himself. Slight and beautiful harper, Leofgar, has the opposite problem – how can he keep the trained killers off him long enough to get them to acknowledge he’s as much of a man as any of them?

When Wulfstan kills his friend to cover up his secret, and Leofgar flees rather than submit to his lord’s lust, they meet on the road to the pilgrims’ shrine at Ely. Pursued by a mother’s curse and Leofgar’s vengeful lord, they must battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld with the aid of music, a single sword and a female saint. And if they fall in love on the way, there’s still that murderous shame to overcome too.

I’ve also got a completed first draft of a light-hearted fairy-tale called “Elf Princes’ Quest.” I’ll be editing and polishing that for a couple of months (and hopefully giving it a better name. Titling is not my forte!)

Then I’ve just started to write the first draft of a vampire novel set in 18th Century Wallachia. I quite like the title of that – “The Glass Floor,” but I’m no longer certain that there will turn out to be a glass floor in it. I’m only about a chapter and a half into that one, but I’m enjoying it a lot, and appreciating the fact that I’m learning all sorts of things about Romania in the process of research.

Elin: Finally – could we please have an excerpt of something?

Alex: Well, as we’re talking about His Heart’s Obsession, here’s Chapter One of that :)

~*~*~*~

“Mmm… Oh…yes.”

Robert Hughes stirred on his cot. They were at anchor and the night was still and quiet, or he would not have been able to hear the low murmuring of Hal’s voice from the next cabin. Tropical heat suffused the wooden womb in which he lay, made him kick off his one sheet and sit up.

He had never claimed to be a good man. Quite the opposite, he was as deep-dyed a rogue as a man could hope to meet in the British Royal Navy. So he did not hesitate to swing himself out of the narrow coffin of his bunk, land light-footed on the warm planks, and gently move aside the sea chest that lay against the canvas partition wall.

“Ah…” It was a little insinuating murmur, hot as the night, Hal’s woodwind deep voice broken from its daylight authority and gasping, breathless and needy. “Please…”

I’m doing this for his own good. Behind the chest, the canvas wall had been ripped, and a hole half the size of Robert’s fist stood out from the shaping battens. He had found it there six months ago and not reported it, because sometimes—like tonight—the wanting grew too much. Then he would draw the chest back and kneel here, with his face to the gap, watching Hal Morgan sleep.

It was a stolen intimacy, but those were the only kind he had, so he cherished them.

Hal had a child’s fear of darkness—he slept with a lantern freshly trimmed above him. Always had, in all the five years they had served together. Indeed, it was his shadow on the white canvas, his silhouette—dark against the pale background that moved as he moved, bending down to unbuckle shoes, drawing its shirt over its head—showing itself, slender and well shaped and unselfconscious, that had moved Robert to encourage the fraying hole.

Even now he would touch the silhouette and feign to be touching Hal’s spirit or his naked skin. He dreamed about it at times—of Hal asleep in the other room, and his shadow reaching out from the wall, coming to enfold Robert and fill with tenderness all the places inside that ached when he watched it.

But it seemed Hal had his own dreams.

Scrunched up in the tight corner of his tiny room, Robert kissed the fabric, then put his eye to the hole.

Dim rushlight seemed bright to him after the darkness of his own sleep. He made out Hal’s sheet, crumpled on the floor where he had kicked it off, allowed himself to look up by careful degrees, rationing the torment and anticipation.

Hal’s hand first—held at an awkward angle where his elbow must be jammed into the raised edges of the cot. Such beautiful hands he had—expressive, mobile, clever hands, tanned and capable. Awake, they punctuated his speech with movement and emotion—exclaiming, illustrating, never still. Here, drawn in sepia by the brown light, his fingers clenched and released as though they held tight to a lover’s flesh.

Quietly, Robert reached up and touched the place on his own shoulder where Hal clung demandingly to his dream-lover. A wave of arousal, oily as despair, curled up from his balls to his throat, drying his mouth. I should stop looking. He would knock me down if he knew.

But his gaze travelled on upwards to where he could see the curve of Hal’s throat, his head tilted back, his neck offered in submission to his lover’s mouth. Only the top of his chest was visible above the side of the bunk, the neckline of his nightshirt askew enough to show flesh as pale as his linen, and sweat like a dew of gold in the lantern light.

He lay on his back, his legs pulled up, one resting against the hull, the other against the board of the cot. His shirt had fallen down to pool in his lap, leaving the braced lines and undefended skin of those long legs bare to Robert’s gaze. Never had a thief more cherished a stolen intimacy than Robert cherished this. He personally slept half-clothed, breeches on, to be prepared for any emergency in the night, but now he stroked a hand up his inner thigh, pretending it was Hal’s bare leg. Fumbled at the buttons of his fly, pressing now uncomfortably hard against his aching yard.

“Nnh! Oh please. Please!”

Hal’s mouth was soft, half parted. His tongue touched his lower lip as if licking off the savour of a kiss, but his eyes were pinched closed, his brow creased as if in pain. His low whisper had grown louder, taken on a growl of frustration. Even—to the sensitive ears of a man obsessed by his moods—an edge of tears.

Not even in his dreams, Robert thought, soothing the ache between his own legs with a practiced hand, does his imaginary lover make him happy. I would. I would if he would let me. I would take that invitingly open mouth and fill it with bliss. I’d worship him from that vainly offered arse to… God, how I’d fill that until he screamed.

“Please. Oh W…”

Bloody hell, he was going to say it! Robert’s fantasy burst like a sail in a storm. Hal was dreaming, he didn’t know his voice had risen, and he was going to say it out loud. Oh, please, William. And God alone knew who else was listening in, idly in the dead of night when there was no other source of entertainment. Boult was as close on the other side as Robert was on this, and Boult would have quite a different reaction to learning of Hal’s fantasies than Robert did.

Buttoning himself back up fast, Robert got stiffly up from his knees, lurched out of his cabin’s sliding door. There was a light under Boult’s door—he was awake. Must be listening by now. Bloody hell. Robert crashed into the wall by Hal’s cabin, loud as he could. Then, to be sure, he made a noisy performance of rolling back the door and fell against the sword-belt hung up inside with a great jangle.

When he looked up, it was to find Hal sitting, shirt pulled down over his knees, dark eyes startled and haunted with something worse than sleep. Awake, thank God, and unincriminated. Now all that remained was for Robert to get himself out of here without casting suspicion upon himself, and at that he was infinitely practiced, having been something of a prankster since before he was breeched. That time at university, for example, when he had put down turf in young Smalting’s room and filled it with sheep. That had been most amusing.

So as Hal exclaimed, “Hughes? What on earth?” Robert feigned drunkenness, grabbed for the doorjamb as if to hold himself up, and slurred, “What’re you doing in my cabin?”

The brief glimpse of Hal’s misery, flayed and tender, was whisked away, to be replaced with a more familiar irritation. He had, Robert thought, the kind of face on which anger looked as enthralling as a smile.

“You woke me up, you sot! Your cabin is next door. Idiot!”

It was something just to have that fierce regard concentrated entirely on him. Robert clung on harder and smiled. Hal’s hair had been mussed by the pillow, crushed gold. He never got a chance to see it in the daytime because of the wigs. He could stand here and look forever, and as he now had a perfectly good excuse, that was what he did.

Hal shook his head and gave a small, long-suffering smile. “You’re drunk as David’s sow, aren’t you? Did you hear any of that? Next door. Your cabin is next door.” He reached for the housecoat that lay across the foot of the bed. “Do you need me to take you?”

Oh yes. Come back to my bed with me. Let me show you what I’m really thinking. I’ll banish that phantom from you. I’ll burn it away.

But no. If the others hadn’t been listening before, they certainly were now, and this was not the place, or time. It never was. “Sorry. No. I can… Don’t need any help. Perfectly capable of bedding to my walk on my own.”

The thought weighed him down as he returned to his own humid, empty bed, spoiled his satisfaction in a rescue so neatly pulled off. It never was the time to tell Hal how he felt. When would it ever be?

~*~*~*~

His Heart’s Obsession is available from Carina Press, here.

Alex’s website is here

Elin’s list of Comfy Chair interviewees is here

Review: His Heart’s Obsession by Alex Beecroft

Kingston, Jamaica, 1752

Robert Hughes, a lieutenant–and rogue–in the British Royal Navy, is in love with his gorgeous fellow officer, Hal Morgan. Hal only has eyes for their captain–a man who’ll never share their inclinations. Night after night aboard the Swiftsure, it kills Robert to listen to Hal’s erotic dreams of a man he can’t possibly have. Determined to protect his friend, Robert stages a seduction.

But Hal demands proof of love before he will submit to the rakish Robert.

Mission accepted. After all, how hard could it be to show what’s inside his heart? Yet Robert’s move to claim Hal’s love leads to the threat of exposure, and mortal danger from the French. Will a heart obsessed ever accept defeat?

Review by Sal Davis

Isn’t that a gorgeous cover? Sunlit ship and compass rose and the tenderness of that pressure of nose and chin on the nape of the neck. No cannon fire, no flashing cutlasses and a pretty good indication of the content.

This is the most obviously romantic of the author’s stories. It is about love – unrequited aching passion that drains souls of joy and makes every waking moment a torment.

Hal Morgan adores the captain of the Swiftsure but William Hamilton only views him as a most trusted friend and subordinate and, to add insult to injury, consults Hal about the best way to court a girl! Hal suffers for his love – OMG how he suffers – little knowing that there is another man in the next cabin just desperate to show him a good time.

That man is Robert Hughes, a landlubber promoted over Hal’s head, a practical joker and an unashamed voyeur. When first seen – peering through a hole he has made in the partition wall between the two cabins so he can evesdrop and observe Hal’s wet dreams – Robert comes across as unpleasantly creepy but then Hal’s self indulgent moanings over the oblivious Captain Hamilton are a bit creepy too and last a lot longer.

I’ll be honest – it didn’t take me very long before I wanted to give Hal a damned good smack and tell him to man up. I was rooting for Robert for most of the book especially when he came to the decision that the only way to win Hal was to show him that he could take their shared profession seriously. I also really liked Captain Hamilton, who came over as a decent, god fearing, naval professional.

I enjoyed the story and, as usual, was blown away by the language, clear and precise yet somehow luxuriant. The historical details were nicely presented, not so much as to make me feel educated but enough to place the action firmly within its period. I wish we had been shown a bit more of Robert’s change in attitude to his profession and I was looking forward to a bit more shipboard heroism than I got, BUT the novella is designed to be a romance and I don’t think any romance reader will find anything to criticise as the two young men arrive at their accommodation.

Buy at Carina

Yule be Happy to Know…

CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!

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Welcome to The Advent Calendar 2011!

The posts will go up around 14:00 hrs GMT daily – so no peeking in advance! And we will know if you try! Come back daily to check for new posts, and every day there will be a prize up for grabs for at least one person.

There will also be a BIG FESTIVE MYSTERY PRIZE (ok, not that big) so there will be a question posted every day. Save them up, email them in to me on Christmas eve on erastes at erastes dot com and be in the running for a bag of goodies.

   


       
         
   
     
Double day!

   

Double Day!

 

Review: By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

1748

Lieutenant Conrad Herriot and Seaman Tom Cotton have been master and servant for over a decade, and friends for almost as long. When Tom is injured during a skirmish, Conrad forgets himself and rushes to Tom’s side, arousing suspicion about the true nature of their relationship.

All Tom wants is the chance to consummate their love and embark on a new life together, outside the law that condemns them. Yet he fears Conrad won’t risk his career and his honor to become Tom’s lover.

Conrad believes his lust for Tom will damn his soul. There’s also their difference in class—a gentleman doesn’t socialize with a common tar. As Conrad struggles to refute the gossip on the ship, he must decide whether to commit the crime the crew’s already convicted them of, or part from Tom for good to save both their necks…

Review by Erastes

Just a small niggle, and this is nothing to do with the review or the mark – but I fail completely to see why Carina insisted on the American spellling of “honor” on the title and the blurb, and then used English spelling–including “honour” in the book itself. Very odd indeed. (plus the year is wrong, the book is set in 1750) Bad Carina, no biscuit.

I had to have some niggles, after all, because there’s not much else to niggle about here. Lovers of Alex’s writing–whether you like it for the mile deep descriptions, conflicted officers, multi-faceted characters–it’s all here.

Conrad is, as most people were, god-fearing and believing in concepts of immortal souls and all that jazz. He’s been humming and hah-ing about letting his manservant (horrors!) Tom know that he finds him quite delightful for many years and it takes a big sea battle for his feelings to surface–much to the chagrin of the captain and the amusement of his crew (leading to a subsequent lack of respect.) The irony is that he’s already been suspected of the crime–suspected and judged by his shipmates–and he hasn’t actually done anything. Stung by the injustice, and in danger of having Tom forcible separated from him by the captain, Conrad decides he’d rather be hung for a sheep than a lamb e.g. he might as well do the deed, if he’s already assumed to have done so. Better a short life but a merry one, as it were. Or, as he puts it should he:

“…save his heart and lose his soul? Or save his soul and lose his heart? “

The book is–I think–told entirely from the 3rd person viewpoint of Conrad, and although that felt right for the length of the book, it meant we did get a little shortchanged with getting to know Tom. All we had to go on was Conrad’s perceptions of what Tom thought and felt.  This actually pays off nicely at Tom’s reaction at the climax of the book, so I can see why this device was used, but it still leaves Tom as a little bit of an enigma in these days of dual pov books.

As usual, Ms Beecroft’s prose stuns with its seemingly effortless phrasing. Some of the descriptions are so beautiful I felt like giving up writing forever, but then her writing always makes me feel like that. She manages sometimes to mix descriptive words that are so wrong, but in her hands they feel entirely right. It’s a real gift.

Sex-wise, I think this is probably the smuttiest book that Alex has ever written, as she leans towards the more veiled sex scene as a rule, but the sex here is postively coarse (but great!). To quote one of the judges on Strictly Come Dancing “It was filthy and I loved it!”

I did feel the book was a little short, but I’m not going to mark it down for that, it was written deliberately as a novella and you can’t squeeze a quart into a pint pot. With the word count that she has, Ms Beecroft has done marvelously, and her naval descriptions — as always — are first class. There’s a bit that actually made me feel sick (sea-sick, that is) with a fantastic section where the protagonists are in their cabin and the ship is literally rolling and pitching on near enough a 90 degree angle – the floor becomes the wall and then goes all the way back. The casual way the experienced sailors deal with this, holding fast to the lines of the hammock — and each other — shows skill to portray without being confusing. It was so well done that I could feel every gravitational pull–and consequently felt rather queasy. It amused me how much more realistic it was done well in prose, than on the USS Enterprise, where everyone just leans from one side to another!

If you haven’t encountered Alex Beecroft’s longer works, particularly the Age of Sail novels (False Colors, Captain’s Surrender) then this is an excellent introduction to her remarkable talent at a reasonable price.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gay Historical Panel at GLBT UK MEET

On 23rd July, the 2nd annual GLBT UK MEETUP was held and it was a resounding success. In a year we went from 12 attendees to over 40 and we are planning even better next year.  Here’s the panel hosted by Alex Beecroft, Charlie Cochrane and Erastes. Hope you find it useful.

Alex Beecroft: Characters in your Historical Novel

1. What makes a historical feel like a historical? Characters.

If you were to ask me “what is the most important part of establishing your book as a historical?” I would have to say “it’s the characters.” I really don’t think that any amount of scene setting, even if it’s done in the most exquisite detail and with scrupulous historical accuracy, can convince the reader that they are in another era the way you can by having a character whose attitudes are historical and firmly embedded in their time.

I have read books where the setting certainly appeared to be 100% authentic and full of detail, and yet the characters who moved through that setting were so modern in their thoughts and actions that the overall experience of reading the book was similar to going to a mediaeval theme party. Where the character doesn’t match the setting you get a sort of cognitive dissonance that just screams fake fake fake, and it’s almost worse – imo – when the author has clearly got all the other stuff right. If they’ve gone to all that trouble and researched their physical world so well, it makes it even more jarring and unpleasant to see it populated by characters who would fit right at home in a contemporary if they only changed their clothes.

Some historicals I’ve read go as far as having aggressively modern main characters – characters whose role appears to me to walk through their world criticizing the way everyone else behaves and holding them up to 21st Century standards. These are the characters who are horrified at the barbaric practices of the doctors of their era (forgetting that these practices are the pinnacle of modern knowledge to the rest of their society,) who are unaccountably squeamish about standard forms of discipline (such as giving a child a thrashing, clipping a disobedient wife about the ear, or flogging a criminal) and who, for some reason, know better than everyone else in their society about matters of hygiene and diet, and are not ashamed to look down on their ignorant compatriots with all the smugness of a different century.

I mean, yes, if you really hate a particular era so much that you’d enjoy writing a book about how rubbish it was, by all means do so. But don’t create a character who could not have existed in that time to do it with. It would be far better to use a modern main character, who came by his attitudes honestly, being sent back into the past by freak wormhole incident or TARDIS.

2. So how do you write characters who don’t think like modern people?

This is tricky of course because you as an author think as a modern person does, and – as a modern person – you abhor many of the attitudes of the past (such as gay people are rubbish, women are rubbish, slavery is necessary, leeches are good for you etc.)

The first thing you have to do is to parcel all that up and leave it aside for a while, while you read as many of the original sources as you can get hold of. If the original sources exist, then listen to the voices of people from that century. You usually find that in some things they are indistinguishable from the voices of modern people – they still worry about their appearance and their income and what their families are up to. They have the same needs for love and wealth and respect that we have. But if you listen harder you can start to pick out the framework of assumptions that governs the way they go about fulfilling those needs.

For example, I read a journal of an 18th Century woman bewailing the sexual double standard between men and women – so far so modern – but she concluded that men ought to behave with more chastity rather than women with less. So far so unusual, so strange – so much an attitude that if you read it in a book you would be instantly convinced that you were in a different time. Just a little throwaway thought, and it’s different enough from what we take as written nowadays to make you feel like you’re in a different time.

Or, for a different example, it’s become quite fashionable to claim that Ancient Greece or Rome was a sin-free happy time for gay people. But that’s because we’re modern and we’re not paying attention to the nuances. Suppose you’re an Ancient Roman senator, and you fall in love with a barbarian gladiator – you’re fine if you want to be a top, but shame, shame upon your name and your ancestors if you don’t. There’s another attitude that makes no sense today, but if you based your characters internal or external conflict on it then the book could only be a historical, because it’s a conflict specific to that time.

3. Modern attitudes in historical characters.

This doesn’t mean that your characters have to have some kind of standard set of era-specific beliefs. In no age has everyone all believed exactly the same thing. For example, in the same century, there were people who loathed slavery enough to dedicate their lives to fighting it, people who dedicated their lives to fighting for it tooth and nail, people who might not have campaigned but who bought slavery-free sugar when they could, and a large set of people who were too busy with their own lives to have a position either way.

You can give your characters almost any attitude you wish, so long as you can show how they came by it given the conceptual framework within which they have to work. For example, gay people in the past had to come to some kind of reconciliation or rejection of their society’s views that allowed them to accept themselves, but how they achieved that will be specific to their time and society. They can’t – eg – say “God is love, therefore my love is holy,” before Christianity. They can’t say “this persecution is against my human rights,” before the invention of the concept of human rights.

On a less serious note, your characters probably shouldn’t say “ew, this cheese is full of mites, take it away!” in the 18th Century. In fact they should probably say “ooh, lovely, I do like to see a cheese with a bit of life to it. Bring me a spoon!” If they did, you’d certainly know you weren’t in 21st Century Kansas any more. And that is my whole point.

Erastes on Striking a Balance

I’m going to talk about balance, because sometimes I think writers have difficulty striking a balance when writing. not just historical either. It’s a Fine Line between THIS IS MY RESEARCH LET ME SHOW YOU IT  – and just getting the details right.

Don’t get e wrong—you got to do the research. You’ve got to try your very best to get those details right. Readers are forgiving if they can see you’ve worked like stink, but have made one or two silly errors. In Muffled Drum I made a big thing of the Red Light District in Berlin – and too late too late two people pointed out that the street I mentioned was actually in Hamburg and not Berlin.

But readers will be less forgiving if it’s patently obvious that you haven’t even bothered to use Google to check the most basic of facts.

But you shouldn’t over do relating that research to the reader and it’s this that is a little unfair to the writer, because you are going to learn a LOT more than you’ll ever put in the book.

I have to reference Dan Brown here, who does—and i have to grit my teeth to say this—write a damned good page turner. I actually own all of his books, because they are like crack. But whereas he writes a racketing good read and I for one can’t wait to turn the page and find out what’s happening next, he lets himself down with his signature move of telling us everything about everything.  I remember reading one of them, don’t know which…and it told you about the engine of the car he was driving and the type of plane he was on, down to –it seemed, every grommet and washer. I found myself flipping over pages of STUFF HE HAD TO TELL YOU BECAUSE BY GOD HE’D DONE THE RESEARCH AND YOU SHALL SHARE IT rather than simply absorbing some of the facts as the flavour of the book.

I got the impression that he was saying to the reader “Look, i slaved over this book. i did research about Russia and China and every conspiracy theory known to man. Look, I seriously worked hard. I spent hours in libraries. you need to see my research or you’ll think i just made it up!!!! It will all be wasted if I don’t write it all down!” and that’s not good, that’s not the message you want to give. I don’t want the author to intrude at all.

I can relate to this, and I felt much the same when I first started to write, but luckily my mother was around when I first started and she pointed out that we didn’t need to know every single detail and she went through and deleted many descriptive words and passages. After that I found it much easier. The trick to it for me was to walk across my own room and described how I did it. I left the sofa, walked past the tv and the dining table to the kitchen. What I didn’t do was to leave the Gillows sofa, walk across the Wilton carpet designed by XXXX in 1792 and the flat screen 32” plasma screen Sony TV (I wish) and into the bespoke B&Q kitchen stencilled with green and yellow flowers.

Modern books don’t do this (or at least they shouldn’t!) and so neither should historicals. Whether the chair is made my Chippendale or whoever doesn’t really matter. Unless it does, of course. If the story revolves around Chippendale and perhaps the theft of a chair made by him, or whether the provenance of the chair is IMPORTANT then that’s fine. But if the detail doesn’t add anything to the story — and in fact, as often happens (Dan, I’m looking at you) intrudes and distracts from the story — then leave it out.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t make the description lush and tangible. Alex, for example, particularly in her 18th century paranormal “Wages of Sin” WORKS magic with her details. How cloth feels, how candle light looks and smells (never forget the smells) what happens to wig powder when it rains. But none of it is infordumping. She is simply creating a real and entirely believeable and visual world that the 21st century reader isn’t familiar with. The details immerse the reader, so they are actually there, and they are participating in historical events rather than distancing the reader, and makingit more clear that they are simply reading a book.

A good beta is worth their weight in gold. A good beta (and not just one who will tell you how great you are!) will tell you if you’ve turned into Dan Brown and you are oversharing that research.

The depressing fact of life is, that 99 percent of the research you will do for your book will (should!!) never appear on the pages of your book, but you can’t skip that research because it will make your book and more 3-dimensional, and in response to that, more enjoyable to read.

 

Charlie Cochrane on Setting the Scene.

Erastes and Alex Beecroft had proper, typed up notes. I had scribbles, which I’ve just rescued from the recycling bin, and lots of busking, Gist of what I said was:

My heart sank at the start of Downton Abbey, when almost the first scene involved discussion of the Titanic sinking. Wouldn’t have been so bad if that had happened later, when we’d got to know the characters, and why it mattered to them, but as it was it just felt clichéd and lazy. Please, writers, if you can’t create a sense of era/place subtly, just put London, 1912 or what/wherever it is and get on with the story.

 

Also, can we have some less clichéd images/descriptions for setting place? Big Ben + Routemaster bus + cockney newspaper seller shouting “King Edward abdicates” = London, 1936 has been done to death. Anyway, using such obvious symbols risks making huge mistakes; I’ve read stuff set in the time of Queen Anne where the hero hears Big Ben striking (he must be psychic as it wasn’t even built then). Check everything, even the “obvious”.

The past can surprise us, though. I’d love to write a book full of seeming anachronisms (like watching a floodlit rugby match in 1880) so people could shout me down and I could prove them wrong.

It’s the people and how they think/act which best depicts an era. Go to contemporary sources for the best way of getting your head around this. For example, if you want to write about a late Victorian bank clerk, you could do worse than use Three Men in a Boat as your source.

There was more. There were jokes. Can’t remember a word of them.

Alex Beecroft’s Book Swap

Poisoned Ivy by Scot D Ryersson
Deadly Nightshade by Victor Banis
Faster than the Speed of Light by Parhelion

————————-

What to if you want any of these books

REPLY to this post with suggestions of what you have–it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had a post on the community, you can also offer your books on the replies. The owner of the post will then choose what they want (probably will take a day or so) and then I’ll connect the two of you and you can arrange your swap or gift.

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Review: The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft

Charles Latham, wastrel younger son of the Earl of Clitheroe, returns home drunk from the theatre to find his father gruesomely dead. He suspects murder. But when the Latham ghosts turn nasty, and Charles finds himself falling in love with the priest brought in to calm them, he has to unearth the skeleton in the family closet before it ends up killing them all.

Review by Erastes

Anyone familiar with Beecroft’s writing will know that she has turned her hand successfully to Georgian Age of Sail and also fantasy. To blend the Georgian era–about which she is superbly knowledgeable–with a phantasmagorical element seems a very logical next step.

The story is included in The Mysterious a trio of stories including others by Josh Lanyon and Laura Baumbach. However, The Wages of Sin (which, incidentally, if you are interested, seem to be more sin, happily) is available as a standalone title. As the title suggests it’s a mystery, and right from the first chapter it had me guessing, and in no time at all I was thoroughly spooked out, baffled, and enjoying myself hugely.

If you love the deeply Gothic, then this will certainly be your cup of horror, as the book positively drips with it. The protagonist, Charles–the rather dissolute second son of the Earl of Clitheroe appears in the first chapter, slightly worse for wear from a drunken night out and proceeds with the thoroughly mundane task of putting his horse in the stables. However, a head full of drink, the eerie dark, his conversation about vampires with his friends, and what he thinks is his imagination (at first) takes over and before long he’s encountering something that I’m sure many of us have encountered, a sudden dread of the real unknown. Shades of Udolpho shudder out from the hidden places: from the echo of the horse’s hooves on the cobbles, to terrifying shadows on the ivy, to an unease that can’t be explained and then something happens both horrible and inexplicable–which is passed off as being very explicable in no time at all, lulling us into a false sense of security.

If you are looking for a formula romance then this certainly isn’t it. If you looking for a light and frothy read, then this probably isn’t for you. Beecroft’s prose–always lavish and descriptive–is given full rein here: no fabric is undescribed, no ornamentation or wig left unnoticed. Any lover of antiques will positively wallow in the furniture and the trinkets. Historical purists will revel in the fact that the men are wearing as much–or more–make-up than the ladies and are dressed in just as much lace and peacock-bright finery. From a lesser writer, this layer upon layer of description might seem injudicious or heavy handed, but Beecroft’s skill merely brings this slightly more alien Georgian world than than the familiar Regency we know so well, to vivid, sensual life. You feel you are walking down those polished, creaking floors, that if you were to touch that lace, or brocade, you’d know just how it felt on your skin, you are left in no doubt that the clothes are unsuitable for just about every pursuit other than polite conversation, and that to be pilloried, or caught in the rain in a powdered wig are things you’re really glad you’ll never have to suffer.

The relationship–I hesitate to call it a romance, as the ending leaves Beecroft open to write more about these characters–ably shows why gay romance, and particularly gay historical romance baulks from being shoe-horned into a formula that readers of hetero romances have become used to. From what we can glean from the historical record homosexual men would often take their pleasure quickly on the slimmest of encouragements and so it is here; due to the length constraints of the novella it’s difficult to have a dignified wooing, so the pair tumble into a connection which is primarily sexual–it’s not until the end that Charles begins to wonder and hope if there’s any future for them both. This grabbing of touches and kisses where they can, and where they hope they are safe, adds to the tension of the book which is unremitting throughout.

I absolutely loved the protagonists: Charles, with his clever mind and impetuous youth, who gets to grow up fast and learn things about himself and his family which change him for the better, and the delicious mysterious, conflicted Jasper with his own inner demons, his filial loyalty and his fingers in the butter. :) The minor characters are rarely short-changed; the sister Elizabeth is quite masterly, the Admiral–I really loved the description of him–made me laugh with his silly feud with Charles’ father, and even the one-line servants are vibrant and believable. The only character that I didn’t really get a real line on, was Charles’ brother, George–he’s a little two-dimensional and his motives muddied – but that’s possibly because Charles is a lot younger than him, and they are not close. Plus I feel there’s more of this story yet to be told.

The book made some valid social comment, too–after a tragedy with a servant there’s an exasperated rant from Elizabeth about the inconvenience it will cause this close to Christmas which made me laugh. (Although it really wasn’t funny.)

The language overall is rich, and gives a real sense of being there, rather than simply reading about it. The mystery is beautifully paced, if you are anything like me you’ll have to read it at least twice to work out how you’ve been gulled, how you didn’t notice the clues being laid out there for all to see, and I happily went charging off in the wrong direction, which for me is the mark of a good mystery.

I did notice a couple of minor typos, and although the language was English English (colour etc) I did notice the dreaded whiskey sneak in. Once or twice I had to re-read sections to fully comprehend who the “he” was – an all too easy trap with gay romance, but it really only was once or twice. Sometimes the dialogue was a bit too modern, and clashed with the prose. The cover is horrible too, imho–for some reason known only to itself, MLR seems to favour covers with headless torsos and a jumble of out of focus images. but I’m being uber-picky–like a judge in the final of Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing with the Stars who criticises the angle of the shoulders in a 10 point performance.

I’m not sure if it’s called “The Wages of Sin” or just “Wages of Sin” as I’ve seen covers with both titles. No matter – whatever it is, it’s an utterly spellbinding and spooky read, a cracking mystery and a really lush piece of Gothic literature.

Buy at Manloveromance

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)

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Review: False Colors by Alex Beecroft

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

False Colors, by Alex Beecroft, is one of two books recently released by Running Press in their new line of m/m historicals (the other is Trangressions, by Erastes). Two more books are scheduled to be released in the third quarter of 2009. I have read both False Colors and Transgressions and if these are indicative of the types of books Running Press will be publishing, we fans of the genre are very lucky readers, indeed.

False Colors is Ms. Beecroft’s second historical novel and like her first, Captain’s Surrender, it takes place during the time when the British Royal Navy ruled the seas and half the world—-the golden “Age of Sail.” The story opens in 1762 with Lt. John Cavendish receiving his first captaincy and an assignment to stop the Barbary Corsairs off the coast of Algeria. Alfie Donwell signs on as his first lieutenant and it is clear from their very first meeting that Alfie has eyes
for John. But it will be a long time, ie, the whole book, with lots of adventures and misunderstanding in between, before they get to the point where they are able to negotiate their relationship and realize how they feel about each other.

Because John and Alfie spend so much time apart, the book is very much about their individual journeys to discover who they are—-until they have come to this realization, they can’t really be together. It’s an interesting dynamic and Ms. Beecroft handles the character development skillfully, having both men grow and mature from page to page. John’s growth is fueled by some particularly horrific situations in which he finds himself, as well as working to cast off beliefs ingrained into him from his youth and family life. Alfie, on the other hand, matures by falling in love with another man (although he never really falls out of love with John). As I enjoy character studies, I found Alfie’s portion of the story to be a bit more engaging but really, we’re talking “great” and “greater”—minute gradations of difference in excellence.

There’s a cast of secondary characters who are extremely well-drawn. In particular, I found myself going back and re-reading the parts of the story that featured Charles Farrant, Captain Lord Lisburn. He’s the Captain of the Britannia, the second ship in the story on which Alfie serves. He’s attracted to men and knows it but has done the things “required” of him to deny his homosexuality, including marrying, fathering children, and undergoing various “cures” from his physician in an effort to treat his “perversion.” All of this has created a man who is now, in his forties, angry, repressed, frustrated, and cruel. But he can also be kind, tender, and even loving, and flashes of this come through, when he lets down the wall he has so carefully built around his feelings. Of all the characters in the book, my heart ached the most for Charles and I wished his life could have been different. He deserved more than he got.

The story is carefully and thoroughly plotted. No loose ends, no characters swooping in from the wings to magically save the day. This is an improvement over Captain’s Surrender (which I enjoyed, but there were a few implausible moments in that book). Likewise, I think Ms. Beecroft’s writing has improved since her first book. She did tell me in an exchange of emails that she didn’t edit Captain’s Surrender as much as she wanted but I contend that it is not just editing differences between the two. In this book, Ms. Beecroft is more skillful in her writing and confident in her ability and it shows. Every word is precisely selected and there for a reason. It is a pleasure to read a book that is so beautifully constructed.

In sum, I highly recommend False Colors. My highest rating is what I call “the incredible sadness”—that feeling that I will never read a book again that is quite this good. Of course, I know I will but in interim I satisfy my longing by re-reading favorite parts and yes, re-reading the book. Which explains why it has taken me two weeks to write this review.  :-)

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Review: Banshee by Hayden Thorne

Nathaniel, or Natty as his family calls him, is a young man at a crossroads. His mother wants him to spend time with her family, far better off than his father, who is a poor vicar. His father would rather he do just about anything else, and his cousins have no interest in getting to know him. So what’s a young man with very few prospects to do? When Natty meets Miles Lovell, a sophisticated friend of his cousin, he thinks he’s found something worth his while. During their long visit together, Natty discovers things about himself that he never expected, and manages to acquire a ghostly companion, as well. Haunted by a faceless woman, who seems to appear when he’s at his weakest, Natty struggles with his own nature, and with his family’s increasing difficulties. His mother is distant, hiding things from him as she never has, and his father is growing old and tired before his eyes. While Natty tries to find his place in the world, his childhood is crumbling around him, and he becomes more and more convinced that his persistent spirit is a harbinger of doom. Caught in a web of deceit and desperation, Natty must decide whether he will let his life be ruled by others, or if he can make his way on his own, or if the family banshee will bring about his ruin.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I started reading this book under a misapprehension which rather coloured my enjoyment of it. You see, I thought it was m/m romance, and I kept waiting for the romance to kick in. Come on, I thought, at this rate we’ll reach the end and they’ll never get together!

And then I did reach the end, and I had to reconsider everything.

After a bit of thought, I realized that the book was never meant to be a romance. It’s a coming of age story – a story about a young man’s journey from childhood to adulthood, via a confused and tragic adolescence. The fact that the young man is attracted to other young men is almost incidental beside his struggle to find out who he is, and to get the people around him to accept him as an adult.

Once I’d got this sorted out in my mind, I was able to read it again and appreciate what it was doing, rather than what it wasn’t.

Hayden Thorne has a real gift with language and if this had been put before me as a memoire written in the 19th Century, I would have happily believed in its veracity – her language is that authentic. The pace and atmosphere of the novel is also very similar to 19th century classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and I felt it had a real kinship to both books.

We begin with an account of the hero’s childhood, where he is condescended to by his socially superior cousins. His mother foolishly eloped with his father, and although they have been happily married for years, still his father is just a lowly vicar. After having been all but disowned, his mother is intent on winning back her place in her family, and his father allows this, despite being too proud to go with her and risk looking like a supplicant.

All this, which seems incidental trivia at first, is going to be wound skilfully back into the story later, in what is a beautifully plotted book. Nothing can be assumed to be irrelevant here, and there are clues as subtly placed as in any mystery.

As Natty grows, he forms a special attachment to his cousin’s friend, Miles Lovell; an attachment which is returned. Through this friendship, Natty comes to realize that he is attracted to men, and that he is deeply in love with Miles. Miles, however, is due to be married to a young lady, and even if he were not, he is socially so much Natty’s superior that they have no real chance of a life together. This causes Natty surprisingly little general anxiety. For a vicar’s son, he seems remarkably unconcerned about God’s attitude to his inclinations, and if the story had been focussed entirely on his sexual awakening, I might have found his lack of faith disturbing ;) His lack of conflict with his faith, at least.

However, Natty’s realization that he is attracted to men is the least disturbing thing in his life at this point. His mother and father are quarrelling and their marriage is under threat. His own future is the subject of pressure and rebuke from his family. His mother’s connexions want higher things for him than he wants for himself, his father is reluctant to take handouts and the situation between his parents is deteriorating. And worse than all of this, he finds himself being haunted by the silent and awful figure of a white lady who comes upon him whenever he is out of doors and makes his every journey an ordeal of terror.

For my money, the ghostly parts of the book really stood out. They genuinely made my hair stand on end. Really well done and frightening!

Nathaniel must find it in himself to fact this terror, to face the disillusion of his family, and to grow up, and he does. I’m not going to say what happens with the ghost, because when I realized what was happening there, I was full of admiration for the author’s plotting, and I don’t want to spoil that satisfying moment for others. But suffice it to say, everything is resolved admirably, and sometimes surprisingly. Just don’t set your heart on a happy ending for Natty and Miles together, the way I did. It isn’t a romance, and if you read it as one, you will be disappointed.

If you read it as a coming of age story, however, it’s wonderful. So I recommend you do just that.

Buy: Powell’s Books, Prizm Books,

Review: Two Irish Lads by Gerry Burnie

When cousins Sean and Patrick McConaghy set sail from Ireland in 1820 to settle in the wilderness of Upper Canada, they have no idea what obstacles and opportunities await them in this new land. Sean and Patrick know little about clearing land, building a shelter and farming. But with hard work and the help of new friends, including squire Nicholas Nealon and blacksmith Timothy Logan, the McConaghys prosper. They also discover their emotional and physical love for each other-a relationship that, at the time, was illegal and fraught with danger.Told in a series of journal entries, reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novel, Two Irish Lads captures the difficulties of settling in the wilderness, earning a livelihood in a new country, and concealing the nature of their relationship from neighbours. The young men’s new life is punctuated by scandal, murder, tragedy, and hard-fought adventure.In a narrative told with understanding and humour, this is a heartening tale of personal growth, the struggle of the human spirit to overcome almost insurmountable circumstances, and the fierce determination of two young settlers to succeed in spite of it all.

Review by Alex Beecroft

First of all, I want to say that I love the cover of this book. It’s really tasteful – which is in keeping with the dignified prose and story inside. The forest reflects the forest from which our heroes must carve a living, and nothing about the book screams ‘gay romance’ as if gay romance, by its very nature had to exclude the possibility of a book being a beautifully written, serious piece of fiction.

This is one of those rare occasions when the blurb is an informative and accurate guide to what you’re actually getting in the book. The story is the tale of Sean and Patrick’s journey from Ireland to their new country; their claiming of their own land; the community they find already established when they arrive, and how they fit into it. It is, on the whole, a gentle and positive tale where something – the luck of the Irish, perhaps? – ensures that things tend to work out fairly easily for our heroes. The young men arrive and easily find a perfect place to claim. They are helped to build a cabin by the local community, and taken under the wing of the local magnate, Mr. Nealon, who treats Sean as a substitute son. This naturally smoothes things out for them, allowing Sean to become schoolmaster and then magistrate of the community pretty much without effort.

Nealon expects the two lads to marry his daughter and his ward, and, in time, to inherit his property and authority. And really, although this is a bit of a problem given that Sean and Patrick are in love with each other, I’m not sure that – in their situation as 19th Century eligible young gentlemen – it should count as anything other than another un-earned benefit.

A fly in the ointment appears in the shape of an unpleasant priest who begins to turn the villagers against them by the underhanded expedient of suggesting they might be gay. A situation which their threesomes with the village blacksmith doesn’t exactly help. A few tense moments do actually ensue as it looks as if the two of them will get lynched and/or accused of the subsequent murder of the priest.

But fortunately their luck holds out, they defend themselves successfully against the murder charge, and once they’ve done that, everyone seems to forget the accusations of sodomy levelled against them. With the evil priest removed, the villagers can return to being all sweetness and light. Sean and Patrick are received back into the community, and agree to marry the girls, but in another twist of the remarkable luck which has served these two so well, even that turns out happily in the end.

The beginning of the book is told in a very authentic sounding 19th Century journalistic style, which I enjoyed very much for its verisimilitude. The author clearly knows his period extremely well and is capable of sustaining an engaging but authentic writing style. Unfortunately, the author also wants you, the reader, to be aware of how much he knows, and he peppers the book with numerous footnotes which, in my opinion, do nothing to advance the story. In fact, in my case, they only succeeded in jerking me out of the story and damaging my suspension of disbelief. This was particularly irksome given that many of the footnotes seemed to be of the ‘yes, they really did believe that!’ kind – which are unnecessary, since as a reader I automatically assume the writer is correct unless I happen to know otherwise.

Looking back on what I’ve said so far, it looks as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but in fact I very much did. Once I’d learned to ignore the footnotes, I loved the immediacy of the journal format, which made the book read like an adventure actually written during its setting. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey on board ship, and all the little details about travel, logging, frontier society, wolves, fairies, how to build a log cabin, and the 19th Century legal process were fascinating to me. The author’s immersion in and fascination with the period made reading the trivial and not so trivial doings of the characters an education – like reading the best kind of text book, the kind that entertains you while you learn.

I liked the serious and capable Sean, and found him a pleasant and reliable narrator. I loved the fact that throughout the book, you could hear the Irish accent in the prose. And I was gripped by the slow but sure unfolding of the storyline, right up until the happy ending arrived, in my opinion, rather too early and rather too convenient to be believed.

It’s beautifully written and beautifully researched, a highly accomplished piece of literature which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. But on an emotional level it left me slightly tepid. I enjoyed it the way I would enjoy reading a history textbook, rather than the way I would enjoy reading a novel. I think possibly because I had very little sense of real peril for the characters. I learned very early on that their remarkable Irish luck would see them through, and it did, every time.

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Review: I Do! An Anthology in Support of Marriage Equality


0002kqd92Do you support the right of any human being to marry the person they love? The right to say ‘I Do’ to a life of commitment and sharing with that one special person? We do. All profits from this anthology will go to the Lambda Legal Fund to help fight Prop 8.

There are 2 historical stories in the anthology which are reviewed by Tamara Allen

Desire and Disguise by Alex Beecroft

Desire and Disguise is the plain-spoken title of Alex Beecroft’s contribution, a hurricane force story that knocks you flat. Robert Digby is young, healthy, and miserably celibate (if you don’t count the frequent, not-quite-satisfying relief he finds by his own hand). His wife, Lydia, has just endured pregnancy and childbirth in beautiful but hot and primitive Bermuda and she has been in no frame of mind to accommodate her husband during that time period. They’re at odds as the story begins—Robert aching with need and unrequited desire for his wife, Lydia angry and upset that her husband seems to have no regard for her feelings. I have to say that my sympathies were with Lydia and that I felt Robert had a thing or two to learn about putting himself in someone else’s shoes. To my pleasure, over the course of this lively, erotic story, he does learn, and in a most satisfying and entertaining way.

Beecroft does just a fabulous job of world-painting, with such vivid, living colors that the reader leaves his own world behind and resides within the world she creates. From Lydia’s sprigged cotton coverlet to Bill Wilkins’ crutch slipping on rounded cobblestones, to the ladies of the Walk with their Bird of Paradise feathers and powdered wigs, this story was a visual feast, even more so than the one I recall from Beecroft’s novel, Captain’s Surrender. In a lush, seductive setting that practically vibrates with eroticism, the reader does muster some sympathy for Robert, too. You can’t blame him, after a year without, for wanting to make some physical connection, even if it’s with a complete stranger. Beecroft so thoroughly convinces the reader of Robert’s state of near madness born of basic physical hunger, we believe it when he naively dives into a situation where he gets far more than he bargained for.

The Roaming Heart by Charlie Cochrane

Alasdair Hamilton, Toby Bowe, and Fiona Marsden are forever locked in a romantic triangle, but only on the silver screen in post-war Britain, where their popular films provide escape for a war-weary world. Cochrane’s tale begins with a fun twist and concludes with an even more delightful one, encouraging readers to daydream along with her in imagining what those wonderful old black-and-white films might have been like if they’d come about in a world less afraid of the different paths love can take and less squeamish about sexuality, generally. As delicately and deliciously layered as a pastry, Cochrane’s story invites the reader to consider the ways in which people must mislead their friends, family, and all of society, just to be able to live as their hearts guide them. Alasdair, Toby, and Fiona make do as they move from the chaste onscreen world to the “real” world where, for some of Cochrane’s characters, the acting is forced to continue. For some, the facade can only be dropped behind doors forever closed. It’s a situation all the more poignant in light of today’s lax onscreen rules. Movies today might be more eager to tell everyone’s story, but society is still quick to pass unjust judgment on those who don’t fall in love in the approved fashion.

Written in the same chummily engaging style as her novel, Lessons in Love, The Roaming Heart is pure fun to read. Cochrane’s affection for her characters shines through, as does her affection for romantic old films and their sometimes silly and repetitive plots. The ironies in her characters’ lives, including disparities in their war records, add to the sense of layers of deception going on. There’s a tremendous wistful quality to the story as Cochrane’s characters cope with the world’s expectations, keeping a sense of humor firmly intact; and when they finally rendezvous for that scene behind closed doors, we are allowed a heart-melting glimpse into the real romance before the credits roll.

I felt both of these stories were supremely fitting for an anthology in support of marriage equality. I haven’t yet read the other stories in this volume, but if they are anywhere close to as good as these two, this will prove to be the best anthology I’ve read in a long time. Consider also that the anthology’s profits will be donated to the Lambda Legal Defense to fight Prop 8 and you have all the more reason to purchase a copy.

In addition to the stories by Alex Beecroft and Charlie Cochrane, there are stories by Tracey Pennington, Clare London, Storm Grant, Lisabet Sarai, Sharon Maria Bidwell, Jeanne Barrack, Marquesate, Z.A Maxfield, P.A Brown, Allison Wonderland, Erastes, Zoe Nichols and Cassidy Ryan, Emma Collingwood, Mallory Path, Jerry L. Wheeler, Moondancer Drake, Fiona Glass, and Lee Rowan.

I Do is available now at Amazon or, if you prefer ebooks, at All Romance E-books.

Review: The Partisans by Martin Brant

Ethan Jones came to France long before the war started. He loved Paris—the lively cafés, the easy friendships with the artists and writers and whores. When the Germans invade France, everything changes.

Two years after he joins the Resistance, Ethan takes an assignment in occupied northern France. The objective: Team up with another partisan, Adrienne Follett, and recover a satchel that went down in a single engine plane just north of Reims. Along the way, they meet up with Jhan, a German defector that ultimately wins their trust. Convinced Jhan is a Nazi hater, they allow him to join the team.

They were told the objective was important. They were not told what the satchel contained. They had no reason to believe their involvement would help shorten the war, or save countless lives or cause them to have to leave France. They didn’t know that their own lives would soon hang by a thread; or that, in the end, a lifetime of loneliness would forever be left behind.

A sample chapter is available on Martin Brant’s website here
Review by Alex Beecroft

First of all, I have to say I really like the cover. I presume that’s Ethan, and I love the look of imminent peril. It looks exciting.

The blurb does a fine job of summarizing the plot. Ethan is a black man from New Orleans who settled in France to escape the apartheid of life in America. When the book opens he is an active member of the French Resistance, fleeing from a Gestapo raid. As the book goes on we learn that he and fellow resistance member Adrienne have been dispatched to recover important documents shot down over France en route from Britain to Russia. As Ethan is wounded at the beginning of the book, the two hole up in a barn where Adrienne hopes sexual tension will lead to something between them. But this idea is scuppered when they discover a German defector hiding in the same. Ethan and the defector, Jhan fall in fairly instant love, struggle against their fears of rejection and eventually confess all to each other, ending up blissfully together.

This is where most m/m books would finish, but for The Partisans this was only a brief diversion from the main plot. Now the three of them must make their way across France and recover those documents, hampered by the fact that the Germans everywhere are looking for a black man and Ethan is pretty conspicuous.

I won’t spoiler the plot any more than that, because it’s a delightfully meaty one. An awful lot happens in this book, and the twists and turns certainly kept me entertained. I enjoyed the large and varied cast of French peasants, German officers and soldiers and British Intelligence Agents. I loved the fact that there was a lot more in the book than just the m/m relationship. Adrienne doesn’t get left out or sidelined, and after a great deal of moping about how unhappy and lonely she is, she too gets her happy ending.

I liked the fact that we had a female hero who was in there not as a love interest but as an independent protagonist. The novel ticks just about every box it can in having a m/m, a m/f and a brief f/f relationship, and I appreciated the inclusivity. I must say too that I enjoyed having a black hero. It’s a rarity in my experience of m/m fiction and probably shouldn’t be. I did begin to feel – after every character Ethan encountered commented on how beautiful the colour of his skin was – that his depiction skirted the borderlines of exoticization, but it may be that that was just a symptom of a larger problem with the book.

My feeling is that this novel would have greatly benefitted by a firm editing. I spotted a number of typos and a couple of grammatical errors (lay/laid/lied). But more serious than that was the way that the author had a distinct tendency to tell not to show:

Ethan sighed, beset with questions and doubt.

How long will it take to get reoriented and find a way out of this forest? The girl, Adrienne Follet, did she survive? Will she make it to the backup rendezvous? If so, will they be able to find the plane using the small map Francois had given them? Do the Germans know where the plane went down? Are they, too, searching for it?

So many “what ifs”. It could be too late by the time they got there. Ethan felt anxious.

These are Ethan’s thoughts while wounded and alone in a dark forest, unable to know whether he is running in a straight line or not, with no assurance that the Germans won’t go and get some tracker dogs any moment. I should hope he would feel a lot more than anxious!

Much of the back-story is filled in during Ethan’s time fleeing, wounded in the dark, and this not only struck me as unlikely thoughts for a fugitive, but watered down any tension there might have been in such a perilous situation. Unfortunately this seems to be the author’s habit throughout. The characters tend to muse upon the meaning of life a lot, cutting down the impact of whatever is happening to them at the time.

There’s also a great deal of repetition. As mentioned above, the colour of Ethan’s skin is commented on so often that I found myself rolling my eyes when it happened again. But Adrienne’s loneliness is treated the same way. She angsts about it constantly. Elliot, the Intelligence guy, only seems to be in the book at all to angst about his ex wife and his current loneliness. He does nothing to influence the plot until the very last chapters, and his ineffectual worrying and whining grows tedious long before that.

The author’s sex scenes also are too full of the characters thinking about gender issues, theories of compatibility and what makes a great relationship for me even to be able to work out what was actually going on in them.

An editor once told me ‘cut down on character thought because it provides a buffer between the reader and the direct lived experience of the story.’ At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. But after reading this book I can see her point.

Plus points for remembering that characters sometimes need to go to the toilet, and that a woman’s period can occur even when she’s on an important mission. Minus points for Adrienne’s sudden decent into ‘bitch from hell, who irrationally puts the whole mission in jeopardy to adopt a cute puppy.’ Grouchiness I can believe, suicidal insanity I can’t.

As I say, there is a great story here. Lots of things happen, and there should be no shortage of excitement and tension. I love the story, but I’m less sold on the way that it’s told. If it was given a thorough editing – redundancies pruned out, action scenes made more immediate, and character musing cut down a little, it could be a tight, gripping read. As it is, it’s still an entertaining read, but it’s frustratingly not as good as it easily could be.

Buy Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Champion of Olympia by Margaret Leigh

Ariston is an athlete who dreams of fame and fortune and the chance to open his own Palaestra someday. Iason is an aliptes (masseuse) who dreams of winning the heart of Ariston. Can they overcome the competition of rival athletes and the caprice of fickle gods and attain their hearts’ desires?

This is a lovely short story set in Ancient Greece, between a champion athlete and the man who helps keep him in top physical condition.  Iason is a likeable, if possibly a little typical, protagonist, who thinks himself so unworthy of the object of his desire that he enlists Zeus’s help to win him over – and then is terrified that he may have gone too far and brought disaster on them both.  Ariston is a sunny, confident young man, sure of himself, his athletic prowess, and winning nature.  The romance between the two is sweet and charming, not hampered by any great obstacle other than the fact that neither has dared talk to the other about it yet.

This is not a story which is going to wring you out with angst or keep your heart in your mouth and your nails chewed to the stumps.  It’s a charming, unhurried tale of falling in love, enlivened and made interestingly exotic by its historical location.  The writer conjured up a sense of Ancient Greece – sun, sand, naked young athletes – that I thoroughly enjoyed, and even – in the Temple of Zeus – touched upon some of the fear which the ancient gods inspired.  I think my major criticism is that it ended too soon, and a little abruptly, with the question of Ariston’s health unanswered.  Did Zeus extract a terrible price from the couple after all?  I wish I knew!

A definite feel-good read.  I would recommend it.

Sadly out of print at the moment

Review: Slaves to Love: 1 and 2 by J P Bowie

Raised in the city of Capua, renowned for its gladiator training grounds—Lucius, a young patrician, is unprepared for the obsessive desire that almost overwhelms him when he first sees Callistus, a captive Gaul condemned to a life, and probable death, in the arena. Unsuccessful in his attempt to buy Callistus and save him from a premature death, Lucius instead follows his career, attending all of his bouts in the arena, including one with Spartacus, the rebel slave. Spartacus incites Callistus and his fellow gladiators to rebel and form an unbeatable army, almost bringing the Roman legions to their knees.

Although torn between his love for Callistus and loyalty to his friends and family, Lucius determines that before one, or both of them might die, he must find Callistus, confess his feelings, and spend at least one night in the arms of the man he loves.

When Damian, a young artist, is commissioned to sculpt the image of Demetrios, Rome’s current darling of the arena, he finds himself falling in love with the handsome gladiator. Despite his father’s vow to disown him, Damian follows his heart—and when he and Demetrios are caught in the conflagration that threatens to destroy Rome, their love for one another gives them the strength to survive the flames.

But their future together looks uncertain when Damian, rounded up along with Christians accused of setting the fire, is separated from Demetrios and forced into a fight to the death in the arena.

Review by Alex Beecroft

‘Slaves to Love’ is a beautifully written book consisting of two novellas. The linking factor which connects the two stories is the fact that in each story a youth of a Patrician Roman family falls in love with a gladiator.

In the first story, Lucius and Callistus, patrician Lucius, a rather limp youth, falls for a barbarian warrior, Callistus. Callistus is a barbarian chieftain, captured in the wars and forced to fight as a gladiator. He soon becomes involved with fellow gladiator Spartacus’s rebellion, and clearly leads a much more exciting life than Lucius, who is a (lackadaisical) teacher. The big drawback of this story, to me, is that all the exciting things are happening off camera, as it were. We are riding along in Lucius’ point of view, while he worries about his big brave man away at the war, but we don’t get to see any of the action.

In point of fact, Callistus treats Lucius exactly as a traditional hero treats his lady; he keeps the youth away from any danger, sends him home and refuses to allow him to participate in Callistus’ dangerous life at all. I believe this is meant to be romantic of him, but it’s exactly the sort of example of one person refusing to allow another person to live their own life and make their own decision that the rather heavy handed anti-slavery message of the story denounces. The lovers are so star crossed and so hobbled by Callistus’ refusal to treat Lucius as a man – and Lucius’ spineless acceptance of this ‘chivalry’ – that *spoiler warning* if one of the things you demand in a romance is a happy ending, you’re not going to like this at all. *End spoiler*

J.P Bowie writes with such authority about the period that I hesitate to wonder if any Roman youth, particularly of a patrician family, could be as passive as Lucius. But still I can’t help but find it odd. Taking orders from a barbarian slave? It really didn’t work for me at all.

I was also not at all happy by the fact that all the women in this story were bitches. In a climate where m/m is often attacked as misogynistic, I would find it hard to defend this story.

Which was unfortunate, because as I say the research seems impeccable, and the author has the most beautiful, powerful writing style. I desperately wanted to like the story, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, there is a second story. The story of Damian and Demetrios is much more to my taste. We do start off with a similar setup – Damian is a high class boy starting out as a sculptor, and Demetrios is a gladiator. But almost everything I didn’t like in the first story is overturned in this. Damian reacts to being thwarted by growing a backbone, becoming active in the story and beginning to shape his own destiny. Demetrios tries the high handed ‘I’m letting you go for your own sake’ tactic, but eventually gives in to Damian’s persistence. They go into peril and adventure together, and when one goes into exile the other goes with him. It almost seems a reward for their persistence that this story does have a happy ending.

Oh, and Damian’s sister, Portia, turns out not to be a bitch after all, so even there I have nothing at all to complain about.

I sincerely hope that the second story was written after the first and represents the author growing into a m/m sensibility where nobody has to be the damsel in distress. If that’s the case, the combination of gorgeous writing, wonderful world-building, and likeable characters makes this one a winner and a definite sign of a rising star to come.

Author’s website

Lucius & Castillus  Manloveromance

Damian and Demetrios  Manloveromance

Review: Beyond the Veil by Stevie Woods

Captured by the aggressive pirate captain of a Barbary corsair ship off the North African coast in the latter half of the eighteenth century, David Jordan faces a life of slavery of the worst kind when he is taken to the specialist markets of Tripoli . However, the enigmatic man who finally buys him is not all what David expects.

Robert Charteris has a very personal reason for fighting against the iniquity of slavery and, in disguise, witnesses the disposal of the slave cargo from a captured English ship and, for the first time in fifteen years, Charteris feels an interest in another man.

His decision to rescue the young man has repercussions he could never have expected in this tale of high passion and forbidden love.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I admit I wanted to like this book from before I even picked it up. The Barbary pirates of the Ottoman Empire make a fabulous setting, rich with Arabian Nights romance, that isn’t explored enough, in my opinion. I would have picked the book up for nothing more than that.

‘Beyond the Veil’ makes great use of that setting to spin a tale that is equally balanced between action adventure and sensuality. It hits the ground running with the battle at sea during which David and his companions are captured by the mysterious pirate Malik, and keeps you turning pages through tense moments, exciting rescues, exotic voyages etc right to the end. As this is happening, David’s awareness of his own desires mounts and he has to come to terms with the fact that he is in love with another man – his rescuer, Robert Charteris.

This is a fast paced, entertaining novel with more than a flavour of the mysterious East, and I can recommend it on that level alone. I can also recommend it for the slow and sultry way that David experiences his sexual awakening. The sex scenes are some of the best in the book, and I really enjoyed the escalation of confusion, UST, fascination and finally abandon.

I did, however, have a couple of problems with the book which prevented me from enjoying it as wholeheartedly as I wanted to. A nitpick struck me in the first page – why are the pirates firing their cannons while their own boarding party are on the deck of David’s ship? They’ll hit their own men! A similar problem occurs during another chase at sea – the pirate ship, while coming up behind its prey, fires ‘a shot across the bow’. You can’t shoot across the front of a ship while you’re behind it.

These things stand out to me because I write Age of Sail stories myself, and the mechanics of sea-battles are of interest to me. I hesitated before pointing them out at all, because I don’t suppose many other readers would notice or care. But they bothered me.

A more fundamental problem to me was the book’s hero David. David is a beautiful young man, who seems to cry a lot. He occasionally puts up a plucky resistance to his captors, but it’s a very ineffectual resistance which only seems to emphasise that he’s a traditional spirited heroine. I call him a heroine advisedly because he’s too passive to be a hero. He’s the cause of action in other people, but not a force in his own right. Having said that he causes other people to act, this wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if he wasn’t so damn stupid. Other characters praise him for his compassion, but it’s a compassion mixed with blind irrationality and a tendency to nag people who know better to do things which they know are suicidal, but can’t resist doing to please him:

‘But why can’t you rescue everyone? I know you’ve explained that you can’t do this too often without risking the entire future of the white-slave underground railroad you’ve painstakingly built up over years. But why? I’m not going unless you rescue everyone. Oh dear, the attempt to rescue everyone has resulted in them all being killed? Never mind dear, you mustn’t blame yourself.’

I was waiting with baited breath for Richard to look up and say what I was thinking, which was ‘no, David, I blame you,’ but sadly this didn’t happen. David gets to demonstrate his loveliness by comforting Richard instead.

I wish I could say it was just one incident, but David’s inexplicable whining carries on throughout. He claims to be depressed because there’s nothing for him to do to help Richard. So Richard arranges to give him a job appropriate to his skills and interests. Whereupon David throws a strop and claims Richard doesn’t care about him. Huh?

By the end of the book Richard is claiming it’s too dangerous to use a certain disguise too often, and David is still going ‘but why can’t you use it?’ Fortunately Richard has learned better than to actually listen to him any more, or I would fear for Richard’s life expectancy beyond the end of the book.

This is not a flaw in the author’s conception, because Stephie Woods gives David a perfectly convincing backstory which does explain why he is so emotionally needy and messed up. It’s just a matter of what I like and don’t like in a character. Reading other reviews I see that many other people have fallen in love with David for his vulnerability and empathy. If I could have done that myself, I would have enjoyed the book much more.

A second place where the characters got in my way of complete enjoyment was in the subplot with Suzanna and the pirate captain Malik. I honestly have no idea at all how Suzanna could delude herself that being a pirate’s bedslave equalled achieving perfect freedom. But mention of the subplot reminds me of the many things I did enjoy in the book – the slave smuggling ring, the action-adventure plot and the luxurious, sensual journey into Egypt, where David’s ingénue-like delight in everything he was seeing made him for once a pleasure to be with.

If you don’t mind your men passive, weepy and irrational, then you will love this. If you do mind it, you may very well still enjoy the book for its other fine qualities. It’s worth a try, at least!

Buy the Book: Phaze

Review: Insubordination by Alex Beecroft

A nice bonus for you today as Insubordination is a free-read and can be found here at Linden Bay

For the sake of their lives and careers, Josh and Peter agreed to put their need for one another behind them. But then a luxurious and sensual dinner together becomes foreplay, leading Josh to an act of insubordination that Captain Peter Kenyon will never forget

Review by Erastes

The characters have – for reasons that hardly need explaining to any reader of gay historical fiction – decided to cease their affair,  but Josh – beautifully in character – is finding this hard to deal with. So is Peter, but being the more controlled of the two would rather snap in half than admit it as readily as Josh does.  Josh pushes the matter in this wonderful speech

“Despatches from London. Butcher’s bill from the
Seahorse. Sightings of the Avenger and the Cruel Bones.
Papers containing news of the war, and incidentally, Sir, I
still love you. Why not take an evening off from being
respectable? I’m owed a chance to bugger you for a
change, don’t you think?”

If you love UST, or if you don’t quite know what it is, or if you need help writing it – I can do no better for you than to point at Alex’s writing, especially here as the tension she writes is exquisite, almost painful and you find yourself screaming at the page for them to stop bloody fooling themselves and get on with it because you know they want to.

And that’s the point, really. They do want to, but Peter’s infuriating good sense and understandable fear gets in the way.  He feels that he’s dallying with Josh, that he’s risking Josh’s life over something that he can control, can stop, and after all there’s no future in it, he thinks – and it’s Josh who is the key to this, Josh who is the one who needs take the control away from Peter, to show Peter how much it all means and that it’s all worth the risk.

The writing is exquisitely crisp, perfectly in tone and the details of the period, the food, the crystal, the uniforms are all done with the deftness and expertise that you’d expect from Alex if you’ve read her work before. The sex is perfect, never overdone, just enough to leave a warm smile on your face.

If you haven’t read Captain’s Surrender, then I recommend this little freebie because it will convince you that you need to, and if you have, this will not help you, because it will leave you wanting more.

Linden Bay

Review: Speak Its Name by Charlie Cochrane, Lee Rowan and Erastes

A Three novella anthology from Cheyenne Publishing

Featuring:
Aftermath by Charlie Cochrane
Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan
Hard and Fast by Erastes

Expectations riding on young Englishmen are immense; for those who’ve something to hide, those expectations could prove overwhelming.

Aftermath
When shy Edward Easterby first sees the popular Hugo Lamont, he’s both envious of the man’s social skills and ashamed of finding him so attractive. But two awful secrets weigh Lamont down. One is that he fancies Easterby, at a time when the expression of such desires is strictly illegal. The second is that an earlier, disastrous encounter with a young gigolo has left him unwilling to enter into a relationship with anyone. Hugo feels torn apart by the conflict between what he wants and what he feels is “right”. Will Edward find that time and patience are enough to change Hugo’s mind?

Gentleman’s Gentleman
Lord Robert Scoville has lived in a reasonably comfortable Victorian closet, without hope of real love, or any notion that it’s right there in front of him if he would only open his eyes and take notice of his right-hand man, Jack Darling. Jack has done his best to be satisfied with the lesser intimacy of caring for the man he loves, but his feigned role as a below-stairs ladies’ man leaves his heart empty. When a simple diplomatic errand turns dangerous and a man from their past raises unanswerable questions, both men find themselves endangered by the secrets between them. Can they untangle the web of misunderstanding before an unknown attacker parts them forever?

Hard and Fast:
Major Geoffrey Chaloner has returned, relatively unscathed, from the Napoleonic War, and England is at peace for the first time in years. Unable to set up his own establishment, he is forced to live with his irascible father who has very clear views on just about everything—including exactly whom Geoffrey will marry and why. The trouble is that Geoffrey isn’t particularly keen on the idea, and even less so when he meets Adam Heyward, the enigmatic cousin of the lady his father has picked out for him… As Geoffrey says himself: “I have never been taught what I should do if I fell in love with someone of a sex that was not, as I expected it would be, opposite to my own.”

Review by Alex Beecroft

It won’t be any secret that I’m a fan of both Erastes and Lee Rowan, so I’ve been looking forward to this trilogy ever since I first heard that it was on the books. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in, or at least it is for me, because I’m always afraid that if I look forward to something too much, it will end up being a disappointment.

So colour me very happy indeed that this was nothing of the sort. All three stories are carefully observed, beautifully written and emotionally very engaging. All three also share an emphasis on romance, on following the burgeoning relationships of their protagonists through discovery, doubt, problems, conflicts external and internal, towards an eventual satisfying resolution.

Of the three, Aftermath is probably the one I liked least. I loved the setting! Who could not love flannel-trousered beautiful young men at university, strolling across the green lawns, talking about the meaning of life, while slowly, deliciously falling in love? My main problem was the structure. A flashback at the beginning left me wondering whether now was now or then was now or…. I got a bit chronologically confused as to when the shoes incident was happening. Reading back a second time I realised that that was the dramatic first meeting of the two heroes, but the impact was lost on me at the time.

Having said that, though, when I got my bearings, I became thoroughly invested in hoping that these two highly principled young things would throw their principles to the wind and settle down to making each other happy. Much praise to the author – whose first professional story this is – for making that happy ending so very much desired while also showing how unlikely, even impossible, it could seem. You can see both young men growing up even in so short a space.

Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan is a delight from start to finish. It felt a little like watching an episode of the Lord Peter Whimsey detective stories, if Lord Peter had been secretly in love with his manservant instead of with Harriet Vane. I don’t mean that in any kind of derivative way, but more to illustrate the feeling of place, from the battlefield to the first class carriage of a train racing across Europe, to the final meeting with the spy in the hotel in Vienna. And yes, there was a spy too, and a snuff box full of cocaine, and secret plans that had to be retrieved and taken to the Embassy before the Germans got their hands on them… In short, it was an exciting read just at the level of an adventure story. But add on top of that the wonderful familiar-but-repressed relationship of Lord Robert and his manservant, the conveniently named ‘Darling’ (Jack Darling), and there’s a whole new world of entertainment.

I loved the many convincing reasons why neither man had acted on his attraction so far, and the equally convincing way that the story unravelled every objection, from Robert’s principles to Jack’s reputation as a ladies’ man. It’s obvious that both characters are already comfortable and well suited to each other – and I liked both of them very much – so the final coming together is a coming home for both of them. Beautifully done and very touching. And a big thumbs up for the excuse they came up with to tell Lord Robert’s matchmaking mama!

Hard and Fast by Erastes is also a story in which matchmaking family members have a big impact. In this case it’s Geoffrey Chaloner’s father who wants him to get married to Emily Pelham, despite the fact that Geoffrey himself is fascinated by Emily’s cousin, Adam Heyward.

Normally I’m not a fan of stories told in the first person, but this is just lovely! Geoffrey’s ‘voice’ is delightfully in character for a man of his times, but he still comes across as very much of an individual. A rather lovable, bemused, good humoured, chivalrous, but none too bright an individual. Adam too immediately leaps off the page as a fully rounded person; clever, cynical, defensive. And it’s a treat to find that Geoffrey’s father, Emily Pelham and Lady Pelham are well drawn, likable characters too.

This is another story where I was able to really luxuriate in the sense of place – the settings were so beautifully detailed and real. The writing managed to be lush but powerful at the same time. I did really enjoy the fact that Geoffrey, who is all kitted out to be the ‘alpha male’ of this relationship – he’s big, powerful, a trained soldier, and literally at one stage so moved by passion as to sweep Adam off his feet – is also such an innocent. Adam, the physically frail, slight, non-combatant is three steps ahead of poor dim Geoff at every stage. And speaking of sweeping off the feet, the passion between the two leads is breathtaking.

With three very high quality stories, I thoroughly recommend this book. It left me with a smile on my face that hasn’t worn off a day later, and I’ll be buying it myself as soon as it comes out in print.

Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Erastes would like to blushingly say that the views of the reviewer are not necessarily shared by the management, however much the management appreciates said view.

Review: Hyacinth Club by B A Tortuga

Devlin Montebanc knows that a Victorian man needs a place to go, some place he can be at ease, enjoying his port, his cigars, and some special male companionship. That’s why he maintains the Hyacinth Club, a traditional men’s club with a twist.

The sophisticated men of the Hyacinth Club find their pleasure in this series of bawdy tales, from a Scottish earl who falls in love with a Texas rebel, to a bored noble who finds an innocent young scholar to instruct in the ways of dominance and submission. See how repressed those Victorians weren’t. Read Hyacinth Club today.

Review by Alex Beecroft

I feel I need to start this review off by explaining where I’m coming from as a reader. If you know what I like in a book, it’ll be clearer to you whether you share the same perspective, and whether you might expect to agree with me on the review or not.

I freely admit I am a narrative junkie. What I’m primarily looking for in a book is a gripping story; characters who I can love, or at least sympathise with, overcoming obstacles and challenges in an effort to obtain their hearts’ desires.

That makes me unsuitable to review this book, however. The Hyacinth Club is not really a narrative at all. I would say it was stretching it even to call it a ‘series of bawdy tales’, unless you think that ‘A meets B, they have lots of sex’ is a tale.

Essentially, the book is a series of sexual encounters between several different pairs of men, though I believe there’s a threesome towards the end (my brain had become oversaturated by then and had switched off.) Each pair follows the formula ‘A meets B, instant attraction, sex, vows that the other is the most perfect person ever, more sex, calling each other pet names, more sex.’

There is some differentiation of characters; ‘the Texan’ has a Texan accent and he calls his Scottish lover ‘my Scot’, which helped me to remember which pair we were talking about in their case.

There is an extremely seme/uke pair. A pair I couldn’t tell apart other than they called each other ‘my Fox’ and ‘my Dragon’ (they met at a masquerade). A slightly lower class pair whose re-union at the docks I found quite touching. A big Scotsman and a little actor, who seemed to belong in a different book entirely (a book which I would probably have enjoyed more.) But all these promising beginnings lead so inevitably to the sex and the declarations of perfection that I lost interest about 30 pages in and almost despaired when I reached page 92, only to discover there were 100 pages still to go.

I’m not in any way saying that this was a badly written book. On the contrary, apart from the stilted ‘olde worlde’ dialogue of the first couple, which did get on my nerves, it’s clear that BA Tortuga is a good writer. I believe it’s entirely possible that she is good at characterization, though it’s all but impossible for that to come out when the characters do nothing but have sex. The settings were nicely drawn, and though I admit I had thought they were 18th Century until I read the blurb, that might be more a product of my own obsessions than any fault of hers.

And the sex scenes are very good; well drawn, lush without being tasteless, hot, varied and prolonged. It’s an amazing achievement considering how technically difficult it is to write sex. It’s just not my cup of tea.

I wanted conflict, drama, heroism, true love winning out over almost insuperable obstacles, but there was no conflict whatsoever. Not even conflict of the internal, psychological kind. None of these Victorian men, not even the innocent ingénue, seemed at all troubled by the thought that they were doing something their society perceived to be criminally immoral. True love turned up and everyone skipped directly to – heh – the climax.

I might even have preferred ‘Victorian men fuck like bunnies’ if it had not been overlaid with the ‘A+B+great sex = automatic HEA’ message, which I found a bit, well, shmoopy. But that’s probably just me being cynical.

Basically, if you read m/m fiction for the sex, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for a story of some kind – if sex only becomes meaningful for you in the context of everything else the characters have gone through together – I would advise you to give it a miss.

Available from Torquere Books

World’s longest pub crawl: An Interview with Alex Beecroft

Back in midwinter, I asked Alex Beecroft for an interview. We agreed to meet over virtual pints and spent the rest of the winter happily trading rounds along with questions and answers. Now that the lilacs and azaleas are blooming (in my corner of the world, anyway) it’s time to share our adventure with all of you. So belly up to the bar, the next round’s on us!

Lee Benoit: What inspired you to undertake Captain’s Surrender?

Alex Beecroft:The honest answer would be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’. While everyone in the world was swooning over Jack Sparrow, I was transfixed right from the beginning with the lads of the Navy. That fabulous great ship (which I now know was a twin of HMS Victory) emerging out of the fog. Those gorgeous young men in wigs and stockings, looking well scrubbed and well pleased with themselves in their fancy coats and their gold braid. I forgot about pirates in an instant and went away and bought ‘Master and Commander’ on DVD. After which I had to read the book.

Except that it turned out there were twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series about Captain Jack Aubrey. I went through them at a rate of two a week, feeling utterly transported. When I’d finished I found I had to move on to even harder stuff – text books about the 18th Century Navy, biographies of Admiral Lord Rodney, Lord Cochrane, Anson, Nelson and Collingwood, non-fiction about 18th Century society, etc. I had ended up with an 18th Century fixation. After that it was inevitable to want to tell a story in that setting, and as my mind naturally comes up with m/m love stories, it ended up as a m/m love story in the Age of Sail.

I’d also stumbled across Rictor Norton’s website about homosexuality in 18th Century England and was pondering what it would be like to be a fairly sensitive young man, living amid so much hatred. That’s why my character Josh turned out so angsty and so conflicted!

LB:Can you tell us a bit about how Captain’s Surrender came to be published by Linden Bay Romance?

AB: Oh, that’s one of those amazing flukes where you feel that someone up there is looking after you. I had known for a long time that what I really wanted to write was m/m fiction, but I thought there was no market for it at all. So I’d been writing a series of short stories for my friends just for our own enjoyment, when one day one of them discovered Ransom by Lee Rowan.

She reviewed it, saying how much she’d enjoyed it and how delighted she was to find that there were actual published books of the kind of fiction we enjoyed. And then Lee dropped by to say thank you for the review. I mentioned to her how exciting it was to find this new genre, and how I hoped one day to get involved myself. Then she said, “Well, my publisher is running their annual competition to select a new writer. If you can get something together in the next month, why not try entering it?”

At that point I didn’t have a book at all, I had a linked series of short stories. But I thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and spent the next month sitting up to all hours writing the bridging material needed to turn the stories into a novel. I entered it into the competition one day before the deadline. And it won! Unbelievable! I was sure that such things didn’t happen to me. But this time they did.

LB: That’s not unbelievable at all to those of us who’ve read and relished Captain’s Surrender. It sounds like your involvement — coming to the genre first as a reader, then as a writer — reflects the experience of many, including writers, who crave rich plots and fully-realized characters with their smex. Could you tell me more of your thoughts on this?

AB: Thank you! And yes, I know that there’s an initial rush when you discover m/m fiction or slash fic or whatever, and you read whatever you can get your hands on, the smuttier the better. It doesn’t really matter at that point about good writing, because it’s all so new and you’ve been starving for so long — and for the first time in your life there is enough of the stuff. But once that initial rush wears off, I think you start to want the same things you want in mainstream fiction too — namely good storytelling. There’s no reason why we can’t have m/m fiction *and smut* and quality writing too.

LB: You clearly know your era well. You mentioned Rictor Norton’s web site as a reliable source for information; can you tell us more about how you conducted your research? What advice would you offer someone who’s considering writing historical fiction? Any special advice for those writing gay historicals?

AB: My advice would be to set your book in a time that you love. When I fell in love with the 18th Century Navy I knew nothing about it other than that the uniforms were gorgeous and the cannons sounded cool (if the films could be believed). But it was sheer enthusiasm that drove me to read every book I could lay my hands on about the time. Because I was powered by an infatuation with the historical period, I emptied libraries and read textbooks for fun, going ‘oh wow, that’s so cool!’ all the time. As a result, I learned an awful lot, while enjoying myself at the same time. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to dispassionately decide on a period and to research out of obligation. I think that would make the research feel too much like work, and you would be tempted to skip it in order to get on with the story.

Because I loved the world first, it became fun for me to drop in little details like Emily’s fashionable ‘sack’ dress, or the ostentatious meal Captain Walker gives to Reverend Jenson. But if it had been miserable labour to look up the menus of the time, the proper set of a toga or whatever, I think the detail would be sparser.

As for advice on writing gay historicals — I think it’s important to check the specific shape of the prejudice at the time. For example, the later 18th Century was fairly modern in that there was already a dawning understanding that it might be an innate trait, whereas earlier it was seen as entirely a matter of choice. In Biblical times it was disliked because it was seen as a waste of seed (which was regarded as killing a potential child), whereas in Roman times it was all about status. No one cared if a Roman citizen buggered a boy or a foreigner, but it was an enormous shame for a Roman to allow himself to be buggered. So check which form the prejudice takes!

Also, try to keep away from the two extremes of ‘oh, everyone knows and they’re ok with it, despite the fact that it’s a crime that warrants the death penalty’ and ‘oh, it’s so dreadful, their lives are not worth living.’ Gay people seem to have managed to live full and defiantly happy lives under the worst conditions. As an author it’s a fine balancing act to keep both the dread and the happiness of gay love in a time when it could get you killed.

LB: Tell us about your writing process. Where and when do you work? Do you outline? Write each scene in order? Work on projects one at a time or concurrently? Have any special rituals or idiosyncrasies?

AB: I have a computer desk tucked in the corner of the dining room. (At least, the estate agent called the room a dining room. We have two computers, three bookshelves and no table in there). It’s not organized enough to be an office, though. It’s true that an office doesn’t need to be organized, but this isn’t even organized enough to contain useful books. I have to wander all over the house to find my research.

I try and write between 10am and 2.30pm (when I have to get the children from school) each day, though I’ll admit that I procrastinate a lot.

My process is to fly by the seat of my pants for the first 5 chapters or so, by which time things will have sorted themselves out in my mind enough for me to outline the whole thing. After that I do write each scene in order until I get to the end — and only start revising and editing when the first draft is finished. I prefer to work on one thing until it’s finished, not to do multiple things at once.

Heh, and I will admit that I have a special writing hat. I email and netsurf and so forth on the same computer I write on, so putting on the writing hat is a way to signal to myself that it’s time to stop all that and concentrate on the writing now.

LB: A special writing hat? What’s yours like and where do I get one?

AB: I bought myself a special beanie with scratchy glittery bits, so that I would be able to tell by feel that it was not a normal hat (I wear hats quite a lot, and didn’t want my subconscious to get confused).

LB: What’s surprised you the most about your own writing?

AB: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say so, but it still surprises me that anyone thinks it’s anything special. I look at Patrick O’Brian or Ursula Le Guin, and I still have a very long way to go!

LB:What has surprised you the most about being published?

AB:I never imagined it would be so much work! If I’m lucky I spend four hours a day writing, but now the rest of my life has gone under in trying to promote, keep up with chats, write reviews, deal with Facebook, MySpace, etc., write to Amazon, sort out tax etc., etc. If I do four hours writing a day, I then do another 10 hours trying to keep up with my various groups. It’s insane – but kind of fun.

I save up reviews or interviews or excerpts for a Monday (which is promo day on most of my lists) and then send the same thing simultaneously to five or six lists. I can’t keep up with commenting on everyone else’s promo, though I try to say something nice once in a while, whenever I have five minutes to spare. That’s about as much as I can manage. But then I don’t expect anyone to comment on mine – and very few people do, so that’s OK!

LB: If you had the opportunity to travel back in time, where would you go and why? If you could bring one item or idea from the present to the past with assurances that your action wouldn’t disrupt space-time, what would it be? And, if you could nick something from your historical destination, what would that be?

AB: It’s quite boring, I’m afraid. I probably would go to mid 18th Century London, just to see how it really was. If I had to go as a woman, I’d take sanitary towels with me (oh and pants — is that underpants in America? Because they didn’t wear underwear in those days, and I think I’d feel a bit uncomfortable with that.)

I think the best thing to bring back would just be the experiences; no matter how you try to imagine things, really living them brings it home like nothing else. However, I wouldn’t mind bringing one of these fantastic coffee-percolators home with me.

LB: Not boring at all. Underthings are an inspired choice!

I’ve just picked up The Witch’s Boy, though I haven’t read it yet. It looks to be very different in theme and structure (as well as plot and genre) from Captain’s Surrender. I’d love to know how working on the new fantasy novel was different from working on your first, historical piece. Did you have any trepidation about shifting genres?

AB: Ah, well, curiously enough, The Witch’s Boy is the earlier written of the two books. I wrote it when I was first at home with my newborn daughter. She would sleep for an hour and a half a day, and I seized that chance to write. It took me two years to finish the book, but because it was slow and steady work I had plenty of time to think about the plot when I wasn’t actually writing it. It allowed me to make the plot quite complex — I was able to work out where all those loose ends could be sewn back in to achieve an effect that seemed inevitable.

I’ve always been a big fan of Fantasy; I grew up on Tolkien, and it seemed natural for my first book to be a fantasy. I have to admit that I love what I think of as ‘the appeal of the strange’. I like to open a book and be caught up in a different world, where everything makes sense, but it’s not the same sense as our ordinary, commonplace life. I like to take a holiday in a book, so that when I come back my own life is more welcome and homely — as it would be when you’ve just returned from somewhere exotic.

And that’s the link, I think, between Fantasy and Historical. Both are books about other worlds; strange, exotic places where people think and act differently. It’s just that in the historical that world was once a real part of our past. The only real difficulty with Captain’s Surrender was that it had a strict word-limit of 60,000 words, which I found a little too short. I wanted to pay more attention to Josh’s time with the Anishinabe, but I couldn’t manage to cram more than the bare minimum into the word count.

And thematically, they’re both about the triumph of love, whether that’s Sulien’s attempt to save Tancred from the consequences of his own evil actions, or Peter’s refusal to bow to the expectations of society and condemn Josh. So I didn’t really perceive much of a difference in any basic technique in writing them. I tend to feel that a story’s a story, no matter the genre. Though having said that I am a bit intimidated by the demands of the strict murder mystery. I haven’t tried one of them, but I’m keen to try at some point just to see if I can do it.

LB:Now I really can’t wait to read it! What’s next for you (besides a cab home)? I meant, what’s next on your writing agenda?

AB: I’m just entering the home stretch on the second draft/rewrite of another m/m Age of Sail novel, currently under the working title of ‘False Colors’. It’s 80k words at the moment, but needs a couple of extra scenes and a bit of expanding at the end, so it may end up 85-90,000. And I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with it! It’s exciting, but of course external forces are now conspiring to stop me doing that final twenty pages. Still, I should have a new novel to hawk around by August, touch wood!

LB: That certainly is exciting! What can you tell us about False Colors? Is it a sequel to Captain’s Surrender?

AB: It isn’t a sequel to Captain’s Surrender, as it has different characters, but it will be similar in tone — lots more nautical action, heroism and forbidden love.

LB: Something for us all to look forward to, then. What else is on your horizon?

AB: I have a short story called ’90% Proof’ (when I say ‘short’ I mean 10,000 words) which is due out fairly soon from Freya’s Bower in a m/m anthology called ‘Inherently Sexual’. I’m looking forward to that one coming out because, from the summaries I’ve seen of the other stories included, it should be a really good read.

I’m also busily writing another m/m short of about the same length, tentatively called ‘Away With The Faeries’, and when that’s finished I’m going to settle down and write a short, lighthearted contemporary novel, just for a bit of a break.

LB: I’m sure I have lots of company is wishing you best of luck with your new projects. It’s been a real pleasure, Alex. Thank you.

Alex Beecroft is the author of the novels Captain’s Surrender and The Witch’s Boy, along with several stories. She is currently at work on False Colours, a new Age of Sail novel. She’s also the founder of The Macaronis, a blog dedicated to writing gay historical fiction.

Lee Benoit reviews fiction at Uniquely Pleasurable and Rainbow Reviews, and Speak Its Name, and is the author of several stories published through Torquere Press.

Review: A Hidden Beauty by Jamie Craig

Poetry drew them together. Forbidden love bound their hearts.

A student of letters, Micah Yardley wants one thing: To meet Jefferson Dering, a poet he’s long admired from afar. After hearing his idol speak at Harvard, Micah travels to Jefferson’s home in Wroxham, entertaining visions of discussing poetry over dinner and drinks. What he experiences exceeds anything he ever anticipated.

Jefferson finds Micah mesmerizing, passionate, everything he has ever wanted. But ten years earlier, caught in a compromising position with another young man, he exiled himself from Boston and proper society. Now Jefferson represses his desire out of respect for Micah, but his tumultuous emotions stir the restless ghost of Wroxham church—with deadly consequences.

Amid denial, desire, and the villagers rising panic, a single kiss is enough to change the course of their lives…and ignite the flame that could fulfill a generations-old promise.

Review by Alex Beecroft

To start with the outside, this is one of the most beautiful covers I’ve yet seen on an ebook; it’s moody, tasteful and sensual and, what’s more, it completely fits the contents of the book.  It might even be an illustration for a particular scene.

The cover sets a high standard and to my pleasure the book inside lived up to it.

Again, I’m pleased to find that the blurb is not at all misleading and does actually summarize what the story is about! I wish I didn’t have to be quite so impressed at both of these things.

This is a slow-paced, tender and beautiful love story between two poets, set – if I’m reading it correctly – in early 19th Century America. Micah is a young gentleman of good family, studying at Harvard, whose admiration for Jefferson’s poetry leads him to visit the man himself in his artistic exile. Micah’s innocence is such that initially he believes his infatuation is merely with Jefferson’s mind, his words, and the shock of discovering his own nature and his real desires is beautifully portrayed and very realistic.

One of the things I liked about the book was that it gave enough time for Micah’s journey of self-realization. Neither his innocence nor his eventual acceptance felt rushed or hard to believe. I also particularly appreciated the epistolary sections, where the different voices of the two men came across sharply. There’s something very charming about reading their love letters.

The slow and careful development of the relationship also allowed time for the forces of society to be amply ranged against the two men. I enjoyed – in a sort of masochistic way – the feeling that, slowly but surely, the jaws of intolerance were closing on the burgeoning love story. By the end I was on tenterhooks as to which force would come to the point of action first. The slow but sure build up of tension almost certainly contributed to the fact that the sex scenes in the book are some of the best I’ve read. By this time we know exactly how much they mean to both men, and some of that awe and wonder comes across, making these scenes truly intimate rather than merely voyeuristic.

However, the sex is also one of the things where I felt the balance of the book was just that little bit off. For my own tastes, there was slightly too much sex in the last quarter of the story. I found that it got in the way of both of the threats the couple faced – the threat of exposure, and the increasingly violent threat of the ghost in the church.

Speaking of which, to me, the ghost and his spooky doings felt a bit shoehorned in. I found myself far more aware of how dangerous it was for Micah – with his powerful father and vigilant tutors who already suspected Jefferson of homosexuality – to move in with Jefferson, than I was of the danger of the ghost. I was waiting for the long arm of the law to reach their idyll, and for the last minute flit to the safety of the wild West, all of which were looming deliciously on the horizon. But instead we had a church burning and the laying of a ghost. I daresay that it was metaphorical or thematically important and I wasn’t paying attention, but I felt it was a bit of a sidetrack.

Oh, and one other quibble; it took me a while to realize that Micah was an innocent young man who didn’t understand his own desires, because I was lead into error by the first sentence:

Prior to his journey, Micah Yardley would never have considered anticipation as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

I have to admit that I spent the first chapter and a half thinking that he was a worldly and debauched young aristo who had come into the country to corrupt a timid poet. Whether this was accidentally misleading, or a deliberate, amusing irony, I’m still not sure. It made for a strange twist in the head a couple of chapters in, which did leave me feeling a little seasick.

Apart from those few things, however, this is a book I really enjoyed – a book I felt immersed in with delight – and one that will go up on my favourites shelf to read again often.

Buy: Samhain

Review: Wheel of Fortune by Julia Talbot

From the Blurb: Fortunato is a mute lad, making his way in the shadowy world of Renaissance Venice. Angelo is the scribe charged with his education in reading and writing, all at the order of the mysterious Master Riccio. These reluctant allies come to know each other better than anyone could imagine and as Fortunato is dragged into a world of deceit and danger, Angelo is the only one he can trust and with any luck, love. Romantic historical suspense that begs for more at every cliffhanger.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When I started reading this, I was overjoyed by the way the author conjured up the setting.  I really felt that yes, life in the Doge’s palace in Venice might have been just like this for a child learning to be a tumbler and acrobat, and an ex-monastic scribe valued for his illuminations.  That delight carried me along for a good quarter of the book.  Little things, like the ink stains on Angelo’s hands, or the mosaic on the floor of the church, Basillio’s success at playing the female parts in plays, the atmosphere of the store-room where the old musical instruments are kept – these were so well written and enthralling that I was initially swept away simply by the lavish detail.

Both Angelo and Fortunato are very likeable characters, and I was intrigued by Fortunato’s dumbness and the efforts that the other characters had to make to communicate with him.  It’s an amusing twist that Fortunato is rejected by his family and goes through the angst so typical of m/m protagonists, but not because he’s gay – he’s flawed because he can’t speak.

The romance between Angelo and Fortunato also starts delightfully, with Angelo initially resentful of being given the task of teaching the boy to read, then charmed by Fortunato’s sweetness of temper, while dead set and determined not to allow himself to be attracted by someone who is at that point still a child.  The growing tenderness and trust which they each have for each other is another beauty of the book.  It’s nice to see a relationship which is obviously built on mutual kindness and liking, rather than the usual concentration on mere looks and lust.

Unfortunately my initial delight faded a little once I got past the midpoint of the book.  Fortunato began to grow up, enough to have a threesome with his friends and to develop fully realized desire for Angelo.  But his characterization did not seem to change in any way.  It’s hard to explain, but I felt he was still written as a sweet innocent child.  I was looking for some evidence that the child had turned into a man, and I didn’t find it.  This was also reflected in the way the other characters treated Fortunato; even at the end, when he’s stormed the dungeons and rescued his lover (while somehow still remaining sweet and innocent) the other characters persist in mothering him.  That had made sense at the beginning, but gradually became less and less convincing.

I also felt that once sex entered the equation, the novel’s wonderful attention to detail and characterization got sidelined in favour of fitting in a certain quota of sex scenes.  Fortunato’s discovery that his training has been in order to equip him to become Master Riccio’s assassin, and his reaction to being sent out on his first mission is passed by almost in parentheses.  All we see of it is him returning to weep on Angelo’s shoulder, and Angelo being outraged that Fortunato’s kind and gentle nature has been taken advantage of.  The fact that he’s killed someone in cold blood is ignored as though it was a triviality.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a naturally gentle person who is forced to kill and is devastated by it; I’m just saying that I didn’t feel it was given the weight it should have carried.  Angelo’s experience in the dungeons was passed over in almost the same kind of rush – as if it was an impediment to the story, rather than the story itself.  I came away wondering if the author had a deadline to hit, and had written the second half faster than the first.

I also became progressively more annoyed at the tarot card quotes scattered thick and fast throughout.  I have a pack myself and have occasionally used them for trying to think of a plot, but somehow showing them decreased the build up of tension and the feeling that the story was a cohesive whole.  Starting a new chapter with ‘sudden reversal of fortune’ or the like just made the text that came next feel as though it was colouring in between the lines of a picture you’d already seen.

From the first half of the novel, I formed the impression that Julia Talbot was a very talented writer, and I’m glad to have read the book for that alone.  I’ll be looking out for her other stuff with high hopes.  But I probably won’t be reading this one again.

Buy Fictionwise 

Review: A Warrior’s Hope, by Sabrina Luna

From the Blurb:
As political unrest swirls in the palace of Tutankhamun, Commander Thabit, a Warrior of Amun-Ra, is eager for a stolen moment with his lover, the royal scribe, Akil. Leading his men to the border to face an unfamiliar tribe of renegades, Thabit isn’t sure when he’ll return home to Thebes…or his beloved again.

Review by Alex Beecroft 

This is a short read – 29 pages, of which fully10 pages are copyright information, a biography of the author and PHAZE advertising.  As a short erotic story it would be unfair to expect too much plot, and if anything this story has the opposite problem.  There is more plot than there needs to be:

Thabit is a warrior of Thebes, who is being sent out by the evil vizier to pacify some border tribes.  Thabit wants to persuade the tribes to move away by diplomacy, but the evil vizier wants them destroyed.  Little, eight year old Tutankhamun daren’t say anything against the evil vizier in public, but sneaks out at night dressed in the clothes of the common people to tell Thabit that he wants his army to just go and ask the tribes nicely to move away.  Thabit and his lover Akil then get together for some sex in a bath-house.  When Thabit leaves in the morning he looks back to find the young king holding Akil’s hand, and thinks to himself that there is hope that Tut will grow up to get rid of the evil vizier and a new age of justice for all will reign (or something like that.)

I’m not quite sure how to tackle this.  On the one hand I like plot, but on the other hand, I like a set up for something to happen to be followed by that thing actually happening.  Given the amount of time spent on Thabit’s mission to the border tribes, I’d have liked to see what happened when he got to the border and had to deal with the tribes.  Given the ‘omg, the country is in the thrall of an evil vizier‘, I’d have liked to see the protagonists working together to get rid of the evil vizier.  It seems odd to have two threads of a story set up, and then to ignore them both in favour of hot bath-house sex.

By all means, lets have the hot bath-house sex, but maybe it just doesn’t need to come wrapped in a set up for a story that never happens.

In addition, there were a couple of other things about the framing story that just didn’t sit right with me.  The evil vizier, the virtuous young king who goes among his people in disguise, they seemed too archetypal to be a true reflection of a specific court.  Even though Tutankhamun may very well have historically been murdered before he could begin to rule (a fact that makes the ending of this story heavily ironic) the handling of the issues felt fairy-tale, even cliché, rather than historical.

I also felt that the author had tweaked the characters for modern sensibilities, in a way that made it hard for me to believe in them any more.

Would any ancient king really think it was a good idea to just talk to potential invaders?  When a culture’s iconography depicts their king standing over a kneeling prisoner, about to bash his brains in, the idea of him using his armies for gentle diplomacy seems hard to swallow.  Equally, I could not buy Tutankhamun—the living incarnation of a god—holding hands with a scribe.  Even a modern eight year old boy is beginning to think it’s below his dignity to hold hands with adults; would the god-king of Egypt really be more approachable?

It’s quite possible that I’m over-thinking this.  At this rate my review will be longer than the story itself, but I feel that in some respects the author shot herself in the foot.  The bath-house scene, which seems to me to be the heart of the story, is really very nice.  The author has quite a gift with metaphor and description, and the bath house, the steam, the scent of lotuses and myrrh, for the first time really captured that evocative sense of being in another, more romantic country.

As a little sensual vignette, the bath house scene made sense.  I wouldn’t say it was the best written sex scene I’ve ever read, but it was very pleasant, and there was no feeling that something was missing or wrong.  It was just the envelope which this central sex scene came in that let it down.

I know I’m always asking for more plot, but this could either have done with less, or with being long enough to wrap up the threads of plot that were started at the beginning but never finished.

Having said all that, I did enjoy it, and I would love to see more with this sort of setting.  Ancient Egypt is a treasure house of stories just waiting to be opened, and this was like a first glimpse through the wall into a jumble of gold.

Buy: Phaze

Review: Snowball in Hell by Josh Lanyon

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

Review by Alex Beecroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowball in Hell from Aspen Mountain Press

Author Website

Review: Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon

 

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is not a novel at all, but a collection of three long short stories.  (Or perhaps a short story and two novellas).  The three are ‘The Hellfire Club’, ‘The Succubus’, and ‘The Haunted Soldier’.  The Hellfire Club is set before ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ and sees John investigating the murder of a young relative of Harry Quarry’s.  This leads him to the infamous Hellfire Club, a botched initiation ritual, a rescue by Harry and a final scene in which the villain explains all.

The Succubus is set after ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’, but before ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  Lord John is in Prussia, acting as liaison between the English and German forces, when two soldiers are murdered in circumstances which make it seem that there is a supernatural female demon abroad, sexually preying on men.  Naturally this makes the armed forces rather nervous.  Evading the marital clutches of a local princess, John investigates and eventually all is revealed in the final scene when the villainess explains all.

The Haunted Soldier is set after ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  John, haunted by the explosion of the cannon he was working in ‘Brotherhood’, finds himself in front of a court martial who seem to think the explosion was no accident.  Is John’s half-brother, dim Edgar, really a saboteur, producing unstable gunpowder for government use?  Is something dodgy going on at the cannon foundry?  Can John discover the whereabouts of the young woman who eloped with the lieutenant who was killed in the explosion before she is utterly ruined?  If not, can he at least restore her child to its grandparents?  Fortunately, despite the complexity of the plot, everything is revealed in the final scene where the villain explains it all.

As you can see from the short summaries, Lord John is still consistently solving his cases by conveniently having the villain reveal all at the end.  However, it’s to Gabaldon’s credit that this device doesn’t get so tedious that it undoes the enjoyment of the stories.  And there are many things to enjoy in each story.  For a start, I appreciated the way the stories fitted into the time-scheme of the books, filling out the characterization of each.  It was particularly nice in the last to have John restored to health, since ‘Brotherhood’ left him so battered.

Given the notoriety and fascination of the real-life Hellfire Club, I found the first story a little short.  By Lord John standards it was very skimpy on details and rather simplistic.  Which is not to say that it wasn’t good to read.  Gabaldon is very good at drawing beautiful young men (and then killing them off) and the victim of this story is no exception.

The Succubus, I found an amusing romp through some dark superstition, and the love triangle between John, Stefan and the princess provided some wonderful irony.  I felt a little cheated at the ending but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.

The Haunted Soldier was most like a short Lord John novel; complicated, beautifully detailed, full of interesting people and everything you wanted to know about gunpowder manufacture in the 18th Century.  It was also very satisfying to watch John recover from his shell-shocked depression at the end of ‘Brotherhood’ back to his normal self. 

The poor man is still fancying just about everything male that breathes, and having a complete lack of success at getting into anyone’s breeches.  And I admit that his complete celibacy throughout was a little tedious.  Surely it’s about time he had a love interest who didn’t despise or betray him?  His continual lack of romantic success is getting me down.

Apparently the next book in the series is called ‘Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner’, so I hope fervently that that will be the book in which John finally puts the whole Jamie Fraser thing behind him.  He has outgrown his status of being a minor offshoot character of the Outlander series, in my opinion.  Until that happens, Fraser continues to cast a certain blight over the stories.  His presence, and the obligingness of John’s villains, are the reason why I’ve marked this as a 4½ rather than a 5. 

But still, there’s no way I won’t be reading the next one.

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: Captain’s Surrender by Alex Beecroft

Review by Erastes

From the blurb: “Ambitious and handsome, Joshua Andrews had always valued his life too much to take unnecessary risks. Then he laid eyes on the elegant picture of perfection that is Peter Kenyon.

Soon to be promoted to captain, Peter Kenyon is the darling of the Bermuda garrison. With a string of successes behind him and a suitable bride lined up to share his future, Peter seems completely out of reach to Joshua.

But when the two men are thrown together to serve during a long voyage under a sadistic commander with a mutinous crew, they discover unexpected friendship. As the tension on board their vessel heats up, the closeness they feel for one another intensifies and both officers find themselves unable to rein in their passion.

Let yourself be transported back to a time when love between two men in the British Navy was punishable by death, and to a story about love, about honor, but most of all, about a Captain’s Surrender.”

Now this is what I’m talking about. If you want a taste of what floats my boat when it comes to gay historical fiction, (no pun intended), then this is it.

I’m not mad on the cover, but that won’t be a surprise to any regular reader of this blog. It doesn’t sum up any part of the book (so readers – don’t expect nakedness on a beach somewhere), doesn’t look like the characters and doesn’t explain it’s a historical. I would find a detail of a naval captain (oo all those lovely brass buttons) to be much more sexy and more in keeping with the era – so if I hadn’t read the blurb I wouldn’t buy this.

But don’t let that stop you, for God’s sake.

There are so many reasons why I liked this book. The writing is formal enough to give more than a flavour of the era, but not so formal that you are tied up in huge run on sentences. If, like me, you are not an expert in the Age of Sail, it matters not. With Beecroft you feel that you are in a “safe pair of hands” right from the word go. In every scene there is enough detail to paint the pictures needed, and she paints them richly, but not so fussily that you roll your eyes and shout “enough about ropes and knots already, just cast off!” The blurb says “let yourself be transported to a time…” and that’s just what Beecroft does.

But be warned, this is accurate. Shipboard life was no picnic. Although in the main, English sailors were well looked after on good ships, even in good ships the discipline was unforgiving. The Captain of Peter and Josh’s ship is a tyrant of the first water and the punishments he metes out are over the top but historically correct and are described in some detail. At times it’s hard to read but I found it fascinating and illuminating to see such barbarism in a so-called age of enlightenment.

But what I liked most is that this is a story; granted yes, there is a romance at the heart of it, a coming of age romance if you like – implicit by the title; but the romance is not the mainstay of it all – there’s a lot going on and the threads work well together. There’s enough yearning and forbidden love to keep a m/m lover happy, but please note – this isn’t an erotic romance and if you are looking for more sex than plot you won’t find it here. The sex is present, not it’s not often, not graphic but it’s beautifully written. The second kiss for example is one of the best kisses I think I have ever read in an m/m book so far.

The author does some clever things with characterisation – she uses the minor characters to observe what’s going on and I really appreciated this. There’s one scene when a character is watching the goings on on deck and it’s truly nerve-wracking – I was right there with the watcher and was (almost) as worried as he was. I had (as had the character) been given the choices of what might happen but there was no way to know which way it could go. It’s a scene that wouldn’t have worked so well from either of the main protagonists point of view because they would have been thinking completely different things from the layman watching on. It’s hard to believe that, with this level of skill, that this is Beecroft’s first book.

Peter and Joshua are such excellently drawn young men, as different as can be – Joshua has experience and knows what he is, and although comfortable with that, he’s petrified of the very real danger that puts him in. The Navy at this time were generally less forgiving than the land-based justice system, and men could be hanged on the say-so of sodomy, rather than requiring any evidence.

Peter, however, has only had experience of women and his reasons for succumbing so readily to Joshua’s advances begin with friendship and then work rationally and logically to a passionate conclusion. Peter reminded me a little of Carrot in Discworld; “Personal is not the same as important” says Carrot and it could well be Peter’s motto. Without spoiling you for the plot, all I can say is that there’s a section just toward the end where the Peter is working all this out in his head and the decisions that he nearly makes made me hate him. I hated him merely for being able to consider the things he was considering, but it’s a necessary right of passage for him as he moves towards the reason for the book’s title.

If I have one quibble it’s that the middle section seemed rushed, and I had the distinct feeling that perhaps the book had been edited for length, and if so, that’s a shame. Again, without spoiling you for a very vital plot point, all I can say if that there is a lot dealt with in one chapter that, for my money, should have been given more time to mature and develop from all sides. I felt a little cheated after the wonderfully rich build up for the first half of the journey.

But, altogether a very good book, a definite keeper and one I shall read and re-read. It’s absorbing, well written and exciting. The only thing that stops it hitting five stars is the slightly rushed middle section. Any lover of historical fiction should love it, whether an afficianado of homosexual romance or not, and I look forward to Alex Beecroft’s next book with anticipation.

Buy Direct from the publisher

 

Review: Silk & Poison by Barbara Sheridan and Anne Cain

Subtitle: Book One of the Dragon’s Disciple trilogy

Review by Alex Beecroft

Review:  Toshiro Itou is an ambitious young man in 19th Century California.  His mother sent him to a father he never knew so that she could pursue her own ambitions with her powerful lover.  Bitter and rebellious, when he chances to meet the top ranking tong assassin Dao Kan Shu he yearns to have the power and fear the older man inspires for himself.  Seduced by Toshiro’s beauty, ruthlessness and ability to withstand pain, Shu takes him on as his apprentice.

Meanwhile Toshiro’s mother, Ume, has an unpleasant surprise when her lover sends her to the Tong elders in repayment of a debt.  Her efforts to keep herself out of the whore-house lead to her becoming an assassin herself, under the control of crime-lord Ren Yang.  Yang has fallen in love with her, but her only concerns are firstly survival, and secondly to free her son from the abusive relationship she believes he has with the sadistic Shu.  The fact that he has no desire to be freed, or that the effort will bring them all into lethal disfavor with the tong elders, is not something she is prepared to think about.

I must say that I loved the setting of this.  The contrast of the Ages old Chinatown culture with the Wild West setting is a joy to behold.  I’m only sorry that that culture clash was not exploited at all.  In fact the book could as easily have been set in China itself.  Equally I didn’t feel that Toshiro or Ume’s Japanese culture was a strong enough element in their personalities or the plot for it to be necessary that they should be Japanese rather than Chinese.

However, having said that, this was still a great change of setting and an interesting culture to explore.  There’s no getting away from the fact that we’re talking about a crime empire either.  The book is heavy on violence, bad language and sexual threat.  Ume’s thread, indeed, is constant, wearing, sexual threat all the time until by the end you react to the threat of rape with ‘oh not again!’  It is a dark book.  Dao Kan Shu and Toshiro bond over their shared enjoyment of killing people in nasty ways.  Ume’s motherly love expresses itself in an attempt to get her son’s lover murdered, and she herself can be very inventive with a hair-pin.

When the book began I very much enjoyed the verve of the writing, the wonderful detail and description, and the high quality characterization and plotting.  I also enjoyed Shu and Toshiro’s gleeful rampage and mutual sadism.  They aren’t a cute couple by any means, but I could quite easily believe in their sick and twisted love.  By the end of the first third, however, I was yearning for a change of tone – the unrelieved darkness became a little wearing.  I’d have liked to see a variation in tone now and again.  Instead we got another third in which Ume was thrust into a succession of humiliating experiences and sexual perils.  I didn’t enjoy this very much.

The final third united the two plots by bringing Toshiro’s thread and Ume’s together.  This third was exciting, ever so slightly less humiliating for the female character, breathlessly paced and had an emotional weight that the other two was missing (I thought.)  Shu had clearly fallen for Toshiro and was paranoid that Ume was trying to take him away, Ume was terrified for her son.  We suddenly had emotions that could be almost considered admirable.  Unfortunately this third was marred by wild point of view shifts which made it difficult to tell which character was thinking what at what time.  The editing was also fairly poor – at one point the point of view even slipped into first person.

All of this dampened my enjoyment a little.  I must say that the characters are so violent, so selfish, self centered, sadistic and so generally amoral that by the end of the book I was rather tempted just to get a machine gun and solve their problems once and for all in a hail of bullets.

But having said all of this the delightful complexity, the fascinating setting, the very hot sex and strangely sympathetic relationship between Shu and Toshiro and the obvious skill of the writers made me glad to have read it.  I don’t know that I’d read it again, but I enjoyed it very much this once.

Buy from Liquid Silver Books

Textbook: Mother Clap’s Molly House, (The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830) by Rictor Norton


Review by Alex Beecroft

First published in 1992 by GMP Books. A Second, Revised and Enlarged edition published in October 2006 by Chalfont Press (Tempus Publishing, UK).

Available through Amazon, or via Rictor Norton’s site  HERE which is a great place to go for a more detailed run down of the contents.  It’s also a fascinating site in itself, where you can find essays on all sorts of queer issues from the homosexual pastoral tradition to bawdy limericks.

Table of Contents
Introduction
1. The Renaissance Background
2. The Birth of the Subculture
3. Mother Clap’s Molly House
4. The Sodomites’ Walk in Moorfields
5. Maiden Names and Little Sports
6. Caterwauling
7. Popular Rage
8. Blackmail
9. The Third Sex
10. The Warden of Wadham
11. The Case of Captain Jones
12. The Macaroni Club
13. The Vere Street Coterie
14. A Child of Peculiar Providence
15. Men of Rank and Fortune
16. Tommies and the Game of Flats

Review:

Basically, for anyone interested in what it was like to be gay during the 18th and early 19th Century, this book is a must.  By combing through records of criminal prosecutions for buggery, and the documents kept by the Societies which persecuted gay men, Rictor Norton has amassed an enormous wealth of evidence about a heretofore unknown subculture.  He’s able to prove that our own century was not the first to have cruising grounds, gay bars and even a sense of gay pride.  On the contrary, our own views on homosexuality and our own modern gay culture have their roots in the culture which came to light in the 18th Century.

I say ‘came to light’ because as the book shows, it’s entirely possible that this gay subculture had already evolved by the 16th Century.  The first chapter of the book describes King James Ist’s court, in which the King’s love for George Villiers made the court a relatively tolerant place for gay relationships to flourish.

Norton holds that the specific subculture we see in the 18th Century did not spring to life in that century, but was merely revealed as a result of the purges organized by the newly formed Societies for the Reformation of Manners.  These societies organized ordinary people to shop their neighbours for immoral behaviour, and as a result an awful lot of gay men were prosecuted for buggery.  With the result that there were a lot of executions, but also that for the first time we have documented existence not just of one or two isolated individuals but of a whole culture of homosexuality.

In successive chapters, Norton explores some of the plays that show the playwright’s knowledge of this culture; the locations of the cruising grounds; the most famous gay bars (or Molly Houses).  Incidentally, I was amused and a little relieved to find out that Mother Clap’s molly house was so called because it was run by a gay-friendly lady called Margaret Clap, and not because that was what you could expect to acquire there!

Norton also covers the molly’s slang, some of their stranger rituals – like the practice of having pretend marriages, and sometimes even pretend childbirth.  We’re introduced to an enormous variety of characters, from blackmailers to Dukes.  I have to admit my heart was warmed to read of the butcher ‘Princess Seraphina’, who borrowed the clothes of his female neighbours and was obviously treated as one of the girls by the neighbourhood.  It was also good to read of Reverend John Church, the ‘child of peculiar Providence’, who as a gay priest had worked out a theology of God’s love long before our own time, and officiated at some of the marriages at The Swan molly house.

Less happy, however, are Norton’s accounts of so many trials and executions, and the enormous hatred of the general public for the mollies.  Such hatred that even those who were only sentenced to the pillory often barely made it out alive.

There is also a very interesting final chapter on Tommies or Lesbians – Norton is able to show that the word ‘lesbian’ was already in use in its modern sense at this time.

The strength of this book is its reliance on primary sources, so that the reader almost feels she is meeting the people described and participating in their tumultuous, dangerous, but ultimately surprisingly positive lives.  They seem to have been, despite the level of hatred and persecution surrounding them, confident, unashamed and well able to justify themselves to themselves.  The sense of positive, courageous joy in life is a welcome antidote to the statistics of trials and persecution.  I came away impressed by their resilience and convinced that it was not necessarily all doom and gloom, after all, being a gay man in the 18th Century.

The weakness of the book, I think, also comes from its reliance on primary sources.  There is a sense that although we’re meeting a number of fascinating individuals, the writer hasn’t managed to synthesize this information into very much of a larger picture.  There was a feeling of listening to repeated anecdotes, and by the end I yearned for some sort of pulling together of the evidence into a summary.

That didn’t happen.  I didn’t get any sense that an argument was being made, or a logical plan was being followed through the sequence of chapters.  There’s a sense in which this is simply a disorganized dumping of information on the reader.  But really, it’s such interesting information, and so lightly and amusingly told, that asking for more would be grasping.

A must have book for anyone writing m/m historical fiction from the late 17th Century to the early 19th.

Buy: From the Author: Amazon UK: Amazon USA

Promo: “In Their Own Words”

One of the reviewers, Alex Beecroft, has started a blog where your characters can be interviewed.

Here’s her blurb:

Some time ago a lady set up a blog for which people were invited tosubmit interviews with the characters of their books. She preferred to keep this as a space for m/f romance novels only – which is of course her right. But I thought it was a bit of a shame that those of us who write m/m or f/f (or trans romance, if there is such a thing – and if there isn’t, there should be) didn’t have a place to do the same.

So after a long delay I have finally launched In their own words -a blog for interviews of characters in GBLT romances. So if you know anyone champing at the bit to send in an interview and promote their novel, ask them to send it to alex@alexbeecroft.com, and I’ll post it up as soon as maybe :)

Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Jeanne Laws

Review by Alex Beecroft

Kade Black Eagle is a bounty hunter in the Wild West.  When he is shot by the man he’s pursuing, his one regret is that he never told his old friend, Warren (Ren) Hayes that he loved him.  When Kade unexpectedly recovers, therefore, he decides to finally take the chance of telling Ren, hoping that he feels the same.

The blurb on the book is a great deal more informative than this short summary of mine.  It says: Best friends since childhood, Warren Hayes and Kade Black Eagle worked together as bounty hunters in lawless gold country until Ren quit a year ago. Since then the job hasn’t been the same for Kade. While he had long ago resigned himself to living without Ren’s love, he never thought he would have to do without his companionship.

Having grown up in a brothel, Ren has seen all of the ways sex can destroy. He has no intention of screwing up his relationship with Kade by bring sex into the picture – no matter how much he is in love with his friend. He thought ending their partnership would make dealing with his feelings for Kade easier; he has found entirely the opposite to be
true. The longer he is away from Kade, the more he realizes that there’s no way he can be without him.

But the book itself explores none of these themes.  The two main characters’ backgrounds and motivations (Ren’s in particular) are introduced in throwaway sentences that have no real impact on the way the plot plays out.  There’s never any real doubt shown on either character’s part.

Despite Kade being a bounty hunter and Ren being a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I had no real feeling that the story had to have been set in the past.  Make Kade a cop and Ren a rodeo rider, and you would have exactly the same story.  Oh, and the happy acceptance of their relationship by Kade’s mother and Ren’s masseuse (had sports massage even been invented then?) also contributed to the un-historical feeling.

As someone who likes historicals, I was a bit disappointed that the history was just window-dressing.  But if I take the book as a simple tale of how Kade, spared from death, finds Ren, they declare their love for each other and then have fairly protracted and reasonably hot sex, it’s a pleasant enough, undemanding read.  I do have to congratulate the author for the twist at the end, though!  I didn’t see that coming, and it was a really good touch.

Buy from Loose-ID

Review: Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon


Reviewed by Alex Beecroft

Lord John’s mother is getting re-married, and the change threatens to stir up more than one thing which should remain hidden. For a start John is in danger of falling very much in love with his new step-brother to be, Percy, a love which is distinctly reciprocated. But in a more sinister turn of events, the fact that John’s mother now has a protector to whom she can speak of the past alarms the murderer of John’s father. Attempts are made on John’s life, his brother and mother are warned off with pages of a missing diary, and a conspiracy and scandal which has hung over the Grey family name for years threatens to burst back into life.

In the middle of all this, John and Hal’s regiment are posted to the Rhineland, to take part in several battles of the Seven Years War which seem like something of a relief after the tension at home. But tragedy follows John onto the battlefield, and when everything falls apart for him he must turn to Jamie Fraser, the Jacobite prisoner with whom he has a poisonous love/hate relationship, not only to provide him with the final clue as to the murderer of his father, but also to tell him how… whether to save Percy’s life.

I think I said in my review of ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ that I liked that book because it was not as overwrought as the Outlander series, and because it didn’t have Jamie Fraser in it. This book, alas, was as overwrought as the Outlander series, and did have Jamie Fraser in it, with all his (to me) graceless, unattractive, overbearing, arrogant macho bullshit. Consequently I didn’t enjoy it half as much as ‘Lord John and the Private Matter.’ I like a happy ending, and this book did not have it – in fact, when I put the book down at the end I felt severely depressed. My respect for Lord John himself decreases with every instance of his inability to get over the fact that Jamie Fraser is a homophobic git who will never love him, and if I never read another book in which the tedium of troop maneuvers on the Prussian front is so excruciatingly well drawn (yes ‘Temeraire: Black Powder War’ I’m looking at you too) I will be very happy.

However, having said all of that, all the reasons why I loved the first Lord John book still apply – the gorgeous, fully immersive experience of living in the 18th Century in London, from the effervescent Irish squalor of St. Giles to the high class literary salons and coffee shops. I’d have paid the price of the book entirely to make the acquaintance of the O’Higgins brothers and not felt short changed. The love affair between John and Percy is so tender and delightful and frustrating and just gorgeously sexy that it too is worth the admission on its own. The mystery is intriguing and kept me turning pages. I’m more in love with John’s family than ever. And as much as I don’t like Jamie Fraser, I’m well aware that there are many more people who do like him than don’t. I can’t deny that there is an intensity in the parts of the book where he appears which grips you by the throat. I personally don’t like that experience, but I know that a lot of fans of the Outlander series will find this book much more to their taste than the last. It is more… full blooded, in a way. (To a point that at times felt likely to give me a nosebleed.) If you like to be put through the emotional wringer by a book, this one is definitely for you!

Buy Amazon UK Buy Amazon USA

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