Review: Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War by Jeff Mann

During the Civil War, two young soldiers on opposite sides find themselves drawn together.

One man, Ian, is a war-weary but scholarly Southerner who has seen too much bloodshed, especially the tortures inflicted upon the enemy by his vicious, sadistic commanding officer, his uncle.

The other, Drew, is a Herculean Yankee captured by the ragtag Confederate band and forced to become a martyr for all the sins of General Sheridan’s fires.

When these two find themselves admiring more than one another’s spirit and demeanor, when passions erupt between captor and captive, will this new romance survive the arduous trek to Purgatory Mountain?

Lammy-winning author Jeff Mann’s first full-length novel brings two opposed war heroes together in a page-turning historical drama of homomasculine love.

Review by Elliott Mackle

For many Southern Americans, especially those of us descended from generation upon generation of British, Irish, Scots and French forebears, the American Civil War (A.K.A. The War between the States, The War of Northern Aggression, The Late Unpleasantness) is never far from our thoughts. Like a movie within a movie, a looped tape, or parallel reality, the war—its causes and outsize characters, its victories and defeats, the awful aftermath of Reconstruction and segregation—are endlessly replayed, debated, mourned, celebrated and reenacted. It’s almost as if, by turning up new bits of information or reimagining the details of crucial events, we might alter the outcome for the better.

Even today, some of us retain memories of the war. My maternal great grandmother was born in slavery times. Her father, a Confederate officer, was part of the Army of Tennessee that withdrew south prior to the battles of Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta, and she remembered and later wrote about being a child of the war. When she died in Nashville in 1950, I was in the house, a ten-year-old doorkeeper attending to worried callers. In her last delirium, I was told later, she mourned not two dead husbands, not parents and friends, but the five Confederate generals who died during the Battle of Franklin in 1864. I remember that.

Jeff Mann’s spectacular adventure-romance, Purgatory, creates war-related images and incidents I’d never imagined; characters who may have existed but who, until Dr. Mann conjured them out of history books, fevered dreams, blood-lusty desire and poetical sensibility, never appeared on any printed page, at least that I’m aware of.

The time and place: March 2, 1865, the Battle of Waynesboro, Virginia, and skirmishes thereafter, which will culminate at Appomattox the following month. The result: Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s forces are destroyed, with many killed and 1,500 captured, by the superior forces, masterful maneuvering and plain good luck of Union Major General Philip Sheridan’s gunners and cavalry divisions. General Early and his staff manage to escape, as do Mann’s fictional, untidy band of about two dozen half-starved volunteers from the Greenbrier country in West Virginia.

Among them soon arrives a lone Yankee prisoner, Drew Conrad, 20, a giant of a man, a Pennsylvania farm boy captured in the ensuing melee by the squad’s cruel, prudish, unbending leader, “Sarge” Erastus Campbell, who happens to be the uncle of the narrator, a bookish, bespectacled and diminutive private named Ian Campbell.

The man’s big and blond. His hands are tied in front of him and tethered to Sarge’s saddle horn. He’s bare-headed, cap lost in some scuffle, I guess, dressed in Union blue and muddy boots, and he’s gasping and stumbling, trying to keep up with the horse’s pace.

Oh, God, not again. A man that young and brawny, that’s the kind of prisoner Sarge tends to keep. I know what’s coming next, and it makes my belly hurt. Sarge has done this before, despite the proper rules of combat. No one in the company’s got the guts to object. Guess they’re afraid if they do, they might end up suffering like the Yankees. Besides, most of them enjoy the spectacle and convenience of a helpless foe to focus their rage on. The war’s been going on for years; despair and exhaustion make men mean.

“Ian! Get over here!” Sarge yells. I lope over just as the Yankee slips in the mud, falls onto one knee, then hits the ground face first.

Sarge, it seems, has a taste for torturing prisoners, a kink his nephew soon discovers in himself. In rapid succession, Ian becomes his brother warrior’s keeper; briefly and only partially unwillingly, his tormentor, and finally his lover.

The love scenes early in the novel are just that: tender explorations of feelings, touch, breath and warmth:

I slide against him, tugging my blanket off the cot to supplement his; I pull the doubled wool over us, tucking it around his bare shoulders. Then I do what I’ve ached to do for days: I slide one arm beneath his neck, wrap the other around his bare torso as best I can, considering my significantly smaller frame, and hold him close, his broad back pressed against my uniform jacket. Surely he can feel the physical evidence of my excitement against him, hard inside my wool pants, but, if so, he makes no objections, and besides, it’s my heart and not my groin that rules tonight. As much as I want to make love to him, it’s comforting, not fucking, he’s asked for, and that’s what he’ll receive. I may be an accomplice to torture but I still have some honor left.

The narrative line is a tale of retreat, survival, hardship and last-minute escapes punctuated by scrapes, repeated torture of the unfortunate Yankee, and stealing, begging and bargaining for food.

One of the most memorable images is that of an attractive young female trader who transports hams, coffee, fried pies, beef jerky and other comestibles under her voluminous skirts.

Food plays a big part in the novel. For men living out in the open, a hoecake or biscuit and a slice of warm bacon might be the difference between starvation and carrying on another day. When supplies run low, the soldiers are forced to consume such dainties as roasted rat with peanut sauce and weevil-infested hardtack. Dr. Mann’s well-known interest in traditional Appalachian fare gives the novel a kind of edible sub-plot. Among the sources listed in the bibliography, cookbooks and culinary histories far outnumber the works devoted to sex and everyday military life. Not surprisingly, the only other sympathetic male characters in the novel, besides Ian and Drew, are Rufus, the cook, and Jeremiah, a soldier whose brother left home after being caught kissing another man. Against the orders of Sarge, they conspire with Ian to share enough food and drink to keep the prisoner alive.
Sarge, whose wife was shot and killed by a Yankee soldier, seems to believe this loss gives him a pass to massacre the Union Army—one captive at a time. Drew, Ian explains to his prisoner, is one of a succession.

“Sarge has his fun for two or three weeks, till the prisoner dies on him after such steady abuse, or till Sarge gets bored and murders him. I’m in charge of them while they last. I keep them tied, I feed them, I mend them as best I can for Sarge to beat on and break down again. And eventually, I bury them.”

Sarge, in other words is a coward and petty tyrant with no further interest in facing the enemy. On several occasions he and his men hide behind trees and rocks, silent and still, as figures such as George Custer and Philip Sheridan ride by. Might a few choice shots, even then, have changed the course of the war? Probably not, but Sarge is unwilling to risk his own skin even on that faint chance. His excuse? That he’s shepherding his ragtag band toward Petersburg, there to join forces with the larger army for the ultimate battle that may turn the tide of history.

That he spends considerably less time traveling than attending church, drinking whiskey and torturing Drew gives lie to his stated intention.

The varieties of torture are manifold. Drew is whipped with Ian’s leather belt and Sarge’s bullwhip. He is strung from a branch, tied to a tree and “bucked”—bent over a sawhorse and tied to it. He is kicked, punched, slapped, pissed on, spat on and insulted verbally and physically.

On at least three occasions, Weasel-Tooth George, the most repellant of Sarge’s men, proposes to “poke” the gagged prisoner’s naked, bleeding ass as further proof of Confederate scorn. Here Sarge draws the line. Ian, a bit later, does indeed poke his by-then willing lover, albeit under very different circumstances. There are no complaints.

Drew is presented as herculean, a giant rippling with muscles, an Achilles. And yet he has a softer side:

“I didn’t take it. I cried when your uncle whipped me and I cried when I was bucked. I break easy, Ian.” Drew’s voice is low, shaky. “I may look strong, but I’ve got this scared little boy inside me. His tears shame me again and again.”

From what I know of Dr. Mann, both as an admirer of his work and as a fellow laborer in the garden of Southern fiction, it’s clear that Drew is here speaking in the author’s voice. Purgatory is a celebration of much that not only fascinates but drives the author: bondage and submission, the eroticization of pain, mountain men living the outdoor life, traditional food well prepared and enjoyed, the love of one man for another, and the quest for the precisely right word or phrase.
Full disclosure: bondage and pain hold little interest for me. Culinary matters, military adventure, manly love and good writing, on the other hand, define much of my own life and work. Were Purgatory merely a succession of torture scenes interposed with stealthy hand-feedings of the captive, I wouldn’t bother with it.

Mann, however, has more in mind than mere flesh, blood and spit-roasted rabbit. Drew is presented early and often as a Christ figure. Toward the end, he is forced to march carrying a thick branch tied across his shoulders and outstretched arms:

Drew’s brow furrows. He grunts, tries to rise, sags beneath the wood’s weight, then, heaving himself to his feet, straightens up, white teeth gnashing the rag and grim determination stiffening his features.

With this image of the suffering innocent stumbling toward Golgotha (Purgatory the place is in reality Purgatory Mountain, Virginia), the reference is clear enough, as it is in soaring earlier images such as this:

If Drew’s torment reminded me of Christ’s before, it does even more so today. During his week of captivity, his beard has filled out and his hair has grown shaggier. He’s like a German-blond version of Jesus. This morning he’s white, bruise-violet, and gold, a cuffed, rag-gagged, black-eyed savior wrist-tethered to my cart, trudging beside me along the road to Purgatory. He’s naked, save for slave-collar, layered bandages—those with which I’ve plastered his lash-maimed back, those which I’ve knotted into a makeshift loincloth around his hips—and a spare undershirt I’ve torn into pieces and bound about his feet. All that are missing are the crown of thorns and the Cross. Or rather, those take another form, the racked and bruised body he carries stiffly down the road.

Mann’s writing combines elegance and earthiness in realistic passages that move the action along swiftly and dramatically. A professor at Virginia Tech, Mann has taught such courses as Appalachian folk culture, gay and lesbian literature and creative writing. His familiarity with Southern history and American lit enrich and color the narrative. Whether intended or not, the cast of characters recalls that of Melville’s Billy Budd, with Drew the Billy-Christ martyr figure, George the repressed Claggart and Sarge an unreflecting Captain Vere. The novel’s last page, in which the lovers try to imagine the future, calls to mind nothing less than Prior Walter’s blessing in the final scene of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Still, Dr. Mann didn’t quite convince me to suspend my disbelief in the possibility that even a strong young man could be kept on the edge of starvation, forced to sleep naked in the snow, marched mile after mile tied to a cart and whipped into bloody insensibility on an almost daily basis—and walk away from it so easily. Occasionally, the succession of BDSM incidents reminded me of the kind of porn in which each of the partners enjoys five or six explosive ejaculations and then, after a few hours’ sleep, repeat the exercise. Could happen; feels improbable to me.

As does some of the language. Despite his book-learning, it seems doubtful that Ian would know and correctly use the word “trauma.” It’s just possible he might be on familiar terms with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

No matter. For lovers of gay historical fiction, fans of BDSM action and open-minded students of the Civil War, Purgatory is required reading.

Author’s Website

Buy at: Amazon UK   Amazon USA (available in paperback and ebook)

(Bear Bones Books is an arm of Lethe Press dealing with Bear Fiction)

Review: Quatrefoil by James Barr

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

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

“This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense”

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

“The Case of the Overprotective Ass”

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Over-Protective Ass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy at AllRomance ebooks    Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: Captain Harding’s Six Day War by Elliott Mackle

Assigned to baby-sit a loose-cannon colonel at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding spends his off-duty time bedding an enlisted medic and a muscular major, then begins a nurturing friendship with the American ambassador’s teenage son. The boy swiftly develops a crush on the man, feelings that Joe, a Southern gent with a strong moral sense, feels he cannot acknowledge or return. Joe’s further adventures and misadventures during the course of the novel involve a clerk’s murder, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, a fist-fight in the officers’ club bar, a straight roommate whose taste for leather gets him in trouble, the combat death of Joe’s former lover, and participation in an all-male orgy witnessed by two very married but somewhat confused fighter jocks.

In the run-up to the 1967 war, a mob attacks the embassy in nearby Tripoli and the deranged colonel sets out to attack an Arab warship. To bring the pilots and their airplanes safely home and keep the United States out of the war Joe has two choices: either come out to his closest, straightest buddies or know himself to be a coward, a failure and a traitor to everything that he holds dear.

Review by Erastes

There’s something very engaging about Mackle’s writing. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be at all interested in this book–military realism set during a period I know absolutely nothing about–but damn! Mackle (who wooed and won me with his marvellous “It Takes Two“) had me gripped within a chapter of Captain Harding’s Six Day War and I was found myself enjoying reading about life on a military base and all its incestuous hothouse intrigue. Damn you, Elliott Mackle!

Imagine those wonderful 1950′s movies in black and white set in and around army bases. Films starring a youthful Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson and the like dressed in sharp light khaki and white shirts. Well, now add in a very likeable and not-at-all unhappy in his homosexual skin gay man who’s cautious and careful but up for action. Mix in a great supporting cast of friends (male and female) a couple of friends-with-benefits and a beautiful and dangerously young 17 year youth who calls to Harding like a candle does a moth. Shake vigorously with all the stresses that soldiers encounter in a tentative peace that could kick itself off at any time (although the Vietnam War is raging elsewhere) and you have a cocktail which proves to be a hugely gripping read.

Mackle was a soldier himself and draws on much of his own experiences and he delivers real gravitas and truth with this book. The claustrophobic village atmosphere of the base is like a powder keg and it becomes more and more pressurized when everything starts to hot up both militarily and personally for Harding.

Harding is a great character. He has a lot of heart but he’s a man, with very human foibles. He knows the drill when it comes to gaydar and setting up gay encounters. A couple of trusted buddies suits him fine. A NCO, Duane, who is often off base doing medical medicy duties (as you can see my military knowledge is so vast), and Hal–a major who only needs a bit of light “relief” but still can be depended on to watch Harding’s (and consequently his own) back when necessary.

Things start to go to pieces when Harding realises he’s falling for the too-young son of a local diplomat, and the young man professes his crush right back. He knows he’s not in love with Duane, although Duane has fallen in love with him and is desperate for that feeling to be returned. Harding finds himself torn in a dozen different ways, and as life often does, it lands him in a big mess with everything blowing up in his face–literally and figuratively in this case–all at once. A rash decision, fuelled by frustration and drink at a male-only party in town, and Harding’s world threatens to blow itself apart.

Don’t go thinking this is just about gay men getting it on–or not–because it’s far more than that, it’s also a well-researched, well-written story about a dangerous crisis in our near-history and it does a good job, I could easily see this as a film, it would even work well as a stage play, because of the claustrophobic nature of the setting. The characters are varied, entirely three-dimensional and range from every type you’d expect, and some you would not. There’s no open-sky dogfights on the page, just a man trying his best to stop his own world going to hell, the only fire fights that go on are him fire-fighting crises as they occur. It was nail-biting stuff, and towards the end of the book, in the thick of the action, I was holding my breath, alternating with a need to shut the book in case it all went horribly wrong.

The writing is crisp and mature. Not a word wasted or skipped. No extraneous passages; it’s as neat as a career soldier’s bunk space, everything in its place. If I have the smallest of quibbles about the language, it’s that to a complete layperson, such as myself, I was able to pick up some of the jargon that I’d learned from war films, such as NCO and AWOL–but many of the other acronyms were entirely beyond me, such as TDY, BOQ, TAC, OSI and others so I had to guess the gist of what they were saying. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have had a small glossary in for the uninitiated, and for those who are reading in bed and don’t want to get up, go downstairs and look up the words on the computer.

But that’s a very minor quibble, and not even worth chipping off half a point for. This is a proper gay book which strides the chasm of romance and litererachoor beautifully. It will appeal both to those who want a story with gay characters off doing stuff, and those who want Harding to have a satisfactory ending. I’m not spoiling it for you but my eyes were moist, that’s all I’m sayin’.

There are parts of the book that aren’t at all PC. This is 1967 and equal rights (hollow laugh) are still a way off. There are derogatory comments regarding skin colour, race, sexuality and much more. But this is realism, if you can’t handle people talking in a way that they used–still do–speak then go and read something else.

Mackle is probably one of my favourite writers in the genre, and if this spurs him on to write more of the same I’m going to be in the queue with my money clutched in my hand.

Do not miss this book, even if, like me, you don’t think that the setting would interest you. It will.`

Author’s website

Amazon USA

Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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

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

Review by Erastes

Warning – spoilers ahoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Not Get.

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: A Strange Love by Georges Eekhoud

A very early gay novel, originally published in 1900, by a Belgian writer with the first English translation in 1908, set in 19th Century rural Flanders. A gay count returns after years abroad to an isolated uptight community where his love for a peasant boy brings furious attacks by fanatic and bigoted villages whipped up by the girl he spurned. The count’s gay education of his peasant boy includes the history of the boy-Emperor whose lover voluntarily joined him for beheading. This pioneer work of fiction was among the first novels to focus unapologetically on gay relationships and the author, a distinguished Belgian literary figure, faced legal prosecution for this book. Georges Eekhoud (1854-1927), a Belgian poet and novelist, became known as the editor of the Antwerp Precurseur, from which post he passed to the position of literary critic of the Etoile Belge.

Review by Erastes

I had to do a bit of research on this book, because it predates pretty much all of the gay fiction I know of, and I simply hadn’t heard of it, so I’ll talk about that before I do the review.

It was published in 1899. Eekhoud is the premier literary figure of the age in Belgium and very famous. He was well-known for his pieces describing peasant life, such as Campine. He wrote in French, and there is a free copy of the book–in French–on the Gutenburg website for those who might prefer to read it in the original. It was titled Escal-Vigor and I’m not sure how the title changed to A Strange Love. It–like many other books–was prosecuted in court but there was a literary swell of support, and Eekhoud was acquitted without a stain on his character. Shame more books didn’t get the same support!

The story concerns the young Count Henry Kehlmark who comes into his inheritance at quite a young age, and who is more than a little spoiled. This doesn’t make him a monster, but it does make him the kind of young man who wants to do what he likes. He lives quite a wild life and then suddenly he decides to retire to his country estate taking with him his housekeeper Blandine, a young woman with whom he had a brief affair in his youth, and Landrillon, his manservant. It is there, whilst being introduced to the neighbourhood, he meets and falls  passionately in love with Guidon, the son of the local burgomaster.

You can see by the illustration on the cover how this ends, which is badly, but that’s no real surprise, as far as I know Maurice was the first (and only for a long time) which dared to give gay men a happy ending. The story itself, while quite simple, has a lot of themes, such as the nature of loyalty, ambition, and what is true friendship. There’s (possibly) the first faghag in Blandine–who loves Henry to distraction, so much so that she stays with him, despite knowing that she’ll never have him, even before she finds out his true nature.  She is, however, angry at the way Guidon has usurped her as his best friend, and is alarmed at the gossip in the village–which is inflamed by the disloyal Landrillon. But when Henry explains it all to her, (with a rather disturbing confession that he lusted at one point over pre-pubescent boys but got control of this problem) she accepts him for what he is, and vows to stand by him, and will be friends with Guidon.

What I liked about this book was the way that Henry was no longer ashamed of his predilictions. He’d spent years hiding his nature–trying to “pass.” Making jokes about men like himself, pretending to leer at women with his friends and thinking he was truly alone in the world. But he came to terms with himself and his feelings and when he meets Guidon, he sees it as fate, something that was truly meant to be. Guidon was not an innocent that he had corrupted, but a man with similar desires. The ugliness is all perceived by the outside forces. The priest who wishes to destroy Henry, the dismissed servant, the woman (Guidon’s sister, Claudie) who wants Henry for herself.

This ugliness reaches a head, with the final chapter of the book, and it’s clear who the real monsters are.

The language is rather hard to take, and I wonder how faithful the translation is. It’s a curious blend of slang and thees and thous. It’s rather over flowery but not a difficult read because of that, just a little smirk inducing at times. Luckily there’s little conversation between Guidon and Henry because I couldn’t have taken much of the earnest declaiming. Even the huge argument that Blandine and Henry have is exquistely formal.

The edition I have is the plain green cover version, also found on Amazon, and the preface is most peculiar. It doesn’t give any indication as to who wrote it, and it’s almost as impassioned as the book itself, resorting to hyperbole and many many exclamation marks. It’s worth a read, but isn’t exactly instructive about the book, the time of its writing, or much about the author, prefering rather to bang on about how worthy the book is and how many other gay writers came before and since. The facts about the book I had to find elsewhere!

I can’t give it a high mark, because to the modern eye, and certainly compared to Wilde or Forster the prose doesn’t hold a candle to them (although the French itself might be beautiful, so if you do read it, let me know) but it’s an important book in the genre and if you get a chance to get hold of a copy and are interested in the development of gay literature then it’s worth seeking out.

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Review: Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck

Feckless, exasperating Alex Finch is a rich, handsome and talented singer/songwriter who longs for two things: a career as a professional rock singer, and to have his love for Sam Barrowdale reciprocated. But drifter Sam’s two aims are simply to earn enough money to pay his sister’s medical bills and to hide from the world his reading/writing and speech disability. At this time the word “dyslexia” is generally unknown so to most people he’s just a “retard”. From the severe knocks life’s dealt him, Sam’s developed a tough outer coating and he has no time for a spoilt, selfish guitar player.

Despite his defects, Alex’s love for Sam never wavers and when Sam unexpectedly disappears, Alex begins a somewhat bungling quest to find him, only to discover that Sam has a fearful enemy: Alex’s powerful and influential yet sociopathic uncle.

As Alex spirals downwards towards alcoholism, many questions need answering. Just why did Alex’s evil uncle adopt him at age eleven yet deny him any affection? And what’s the mystery behind Alex’s father’s death?

Both seem to face unbeatable odds. Are they doomed to follow separate paths forever?

Review by Erastes

I am going to enthuse. This–I know from people who complain that I’m too critical–is a rare thing, but I was so impressed by this debut novel I can’t not. It’s not perfect–and I can’t give it five stars for reasons I’ll explain later, but I’ll say right out that I consider it a must read and it has my highest recommendation. I will discuss plot points, so beware of spoilers.

The story hangs on either side of the Speak Its Name cut off of Stonewall. It starts in 1963 and goes on for twenty or so years.

It’s easy to get tripped up on “remembered history.” From experience I’ve found that writing recent history can be a lot harder than writing about several hundred years ago. It’s easy to take stereotypes and run with them, overdo the slang and the product references. Despite a teenaged Alex being full of “cool slang” in the first chapter, it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia and product placement.

It’s absolutely not an m/m novel. And for a debut novel this is very, very impressive writing.  Don’t make the mistake that “literary” means “I don’t understand a bloody word of this.” It’s readable without being coy or self-indulgent and you’ll be sucked in from the first chapter. The homosexual aspect–whilst actually being the core of the book isn’t the theme. It’s a love story, and the gender of the people involved doesn’t matter as much as the twisting and sometimes heart wrenching path they make while managing to not be together for one reason or another.

The story is told in three points of view. Alex’s story is in first person, Sam’s is in third, and there’s a final three chapter epilogue in first person by another character that I won’t list here. Don’t be put off by the rather literary device of mixing and matching the points of view–it works and it couldn’t work any other way. Alex’s mind is bright and colourful, full of self-indulgence, a selfish, rather spoiled young man who thinks more of himself than he has any right to be, and it’s his maturation that winds around the plot as he learns to care about other people instead of satisfying his own needs. Sam however is considered a “retard” — dyslexia was not as well-known a disorder as it is today, and anyone hearing his speak or seeing the way he interacts with the world would have thought he was educationally sub-normal. To have written his point of view in first person would have tripped this book up, and I think the readers would have been impatient with the way Sam stumbled over the words, even in his head. Doing it in third cushions the reader a little–just enough–from this mental and vocal confusion.

What wasn’t really needed then, in my opinion, was to be told at the beginning of each chapter, which young man it referred to–as only a few words in would have made it clear.

There’s a lot of layers to this book too. It’s not at all just a case of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy–but then I’ve already said it’s not a romance. (not a tragedy either, but that’s all I will say about the ending.) As the blurb suggests there’s a hell of a lot going on even without the tortuous way the young men never seem to catch a break. Even for a full-sized novel, it covers a lot of ground, has a lot of plot and I loved that, it really gave me plenty to get my teeth into.

What also impressed me was the sheer scale of the research involved. Not only does the history feel right–and that’s some doing in an era that went from the Beatles to the Space Age and into our technological era–but there’s dyslexia, chemistry, biochemistry, farming, mining, popular music and so much more, and if there was a bum note anywhere, I didn’t spot it.

Negatives, yes, there were a couple. There was a section–one of Sam’s–which was thumpingly subtitled “(ten days earlier)” and that jarred me. I wouldn’t have been so dim that I couldn’t have worked out we were skipping back to see what had happened to Sam at a slightly earlier point where we’d left Alex’s section. I was also a little bemused about the conflict Liza came up with, there didn’t seem that enough time had passed for her to be as sure as she was about that particular thing. (attempting to reduce spoilers here, but it’s difficult, :D)

There were a few–very few–typos here and there, but not enough to pull me out.

The ending–well, I absolutely don’t want to spoil, but I am pretty sure that (unless you are rabid about the falling into the arms and the HEA) you won’t be disappointed. The real kicker comes half way through the epilogue, which had me sobbing like a baby. I was railing at the end of the book proper and hating what had happened, but the explanation of the ending, and the way that it was concluded at the “proper” end was entirely right, and said buckets about the characterisation of Sam and the real coming of age of Alex.

There aren’t many books in this genre of ours that have me mulling over them after I’ve closed the book but this really got under my skin and it’s been eating away at me in the same way that “The Catch Trap” or “Brokeback Mountain” did.

Don’t miss this, because you’ll miss a real treat.  I can’t imagine what Ms Roebuck will come up with next, but I’ll be first in line.

Author’s Blog

Buy from Awe-struck Books (it’s only available in ebook right now, but the print version is due any time)

Review: Wingmen by Ensan Case

HEROES IN HELLCATS

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

Review by Elliott Mackle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy at Amazon UK Amazon USA

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

From Publishers Weekly

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

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

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

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

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

So too here:

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

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

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

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

“Well, almost. He stands staring.”

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

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Review: Prove a Villain by K C Warwick

Having returned to Elizabethan London after an absence of two years, Hugh Seaton is happy to resume his old job as tailor to the company of actors known as Strange’s Men.

He is less content when he finds himself looking for a murderer, and hiding his former lover, playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is suspected of stabbing one of the players to death. Marlowe wants to resume their relationship, but Hugh has doubts about the wisdom of this, especially as he has already decided to find himself a wife and family rather than risk his soul with the dangerous and disreputable Marlowe.

To complicate matters, the young actor, Barnaby Winter, also has his sights set on Hugh and seems determined to win him. Hugh’s enquiries, together with his efforts to keep Marlowe out of the hands of the law, cause him difficulties that threaten not only the lives of both men, but also the fragile relationship between them. Hugh also finds unexpected help from Marlowe’s newest rival, a young playwright named Will, who is trying to make a name for himself in the theater world.

Seeking the truth about the murder becomes the least of Hugh’s worries, as he tries to decide where his affections lie, and in the process learns more about Marlowe than he wants to know.

Review by Erastes

This is the first published novel by the author, who I hadn’t heard of before, and I admit I picked it up with a bit of a “ho-hum” point of view. As I’ve said before on this blog, every single book I seem to read about Tudor London involves either Kit Marlowe and/or William Shakespeare – the two of them must postively hang around at the city’s gates pouncing on any newcomers. I wish sometimes someone would find something else to talk about in this era.

However, if this author had taken my wishes seriously, I would have been deprived of “Prove a Villain”, and that would be a loss indeed.

Like many others of the books–although it’s concentrated around the theatures of the day, Burbage’s Theatre and Alleyn’s Rose–the story doesn’t really focus on the acting in particular. Much of the action and character interaction takes place in the “tiring room”–where the men dressed and undressed and the costumes were kept. As you can imagine in such an unstructured and chaotic world, the tiring room is much the same–and the author really creates the bustle and panic of a busy dressing room. Much of the remainder of the action takes place in various apartments around the city (which basically consist of one room each)–and it’s this claustrophobic device which works well, giving the characters tons of time and conversation to expound their personalities and their relations to each other, and of course to advance the threories and the plot.  I could really see this working so well as a play, or a film.

The relationships (and I don’t mean romantic, I simply mean the way the character interact and form friendships–or otherwise) are fascinating and endlessly moving. I couldn’t help but fall heavily for Hugh, as he’s a man with good intentions and he has a damned good heart. I love the way that he’d broken every single one of his good intentions before he’d been more than two days back in London.

Marlowe is–of course–endlessly fascinating and charismatic and fluctuates from personable and impish to being so impossible you want to throw a brick at him.  Add to that a beautiful young man who plays the women’s parts, two theatre owners who have a healthy rivalry, an up and coming playwright with everything to prove, name of Shakeshaft (as Hugh mistakenly calls him), and figures much more on the fringe with intentions who may or may not be benign and you have a GREAT murder mystery.

What this book is is READABLE. I know that sounds daft, because you’d think that all books are, aren’t they? But no, they don’t always go that way, some have confusing character introductions, muddy settings, blah blah – we all know when we are thrown out of a book and find ourselves confused.  But this is like a clear pool–the characterisations are knife-sharp, each character’s voice is unique and unmistakable, the descritpions of London are marvellously well done without having to bludgeon us over the head with “IT’S THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY YOU KNOW.”  Every page is readable, entertaining and I for one couldn’t put the damn thing down.

Consider this a standing ovation. More please, Ms Warwick.

Author’s Website

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

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

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

Review by Charlie Cochrane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Room in Chelsea Square by Michael Nelson

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: It Takes Two by Elliott Mackle


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

Now reissued in print and ebook by Lethe Press – 2012

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy at Lethe Press

Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

The author’s favorite of his own novels.

When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.

Now a major motion picture by Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

Review by Gerry Burnie.

How do you go about reviewing Christopher Isherwood “A Single Man,” (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964, Vintage Classics, 2010) without the urge to genuflect at the beginning of each chapter? Answer: You don’t! It is somewhat similar to reviewing E.M. Forster, or perhaps Charles Dickens. To comment on Isherwood’s strengths as a writer would be presumptuous to say the least. His strengths lie in each word, times the number of words in a phrase, multiplied by the number of phrases in a paragraph, etc., etc. Besides, having been deceased since 1986 he is in no need of advice from a neophyte like me. Rather, about the most one can do, realistically, is to comment on what can be learned from this acknowledged master of observation, narrative skill, style, wit and humour.

“A Single Man,” considered by many to be his finest achievement, was a daring novel for 1964—the same decade that saw the homophobic ‘Stonewall Inn raid,’ in New York City, 1969. This story depicts George Falconer, a gay, middle-aged British college professor who has recently lost his longtime partner, Jim. It occurred as the result of a car accident while Jim was visiting his parents in Ohio, and to protect Jim’s image George declines an invitation to attend his lover’s funeral. Therefore, he is deprived of even this token closure.

Left alone in the modest house that Jim and he shared, which is only accessible by crossing a sagging bridge, George now uses this ‘moat’ to defend his lifestyle against the Strunks and Garfeins; representing suburban family values. In this milieu ‘The Girls’ nurture their obstreperous brood according to the latest psychology book; the self-expressing kids run amok; the grown-ups hold weekend barbeques complete with “martoonies” beside the kidney-shaped pool, and the paunchy Mister Strunks can be heard muttering such things as, “I don’t give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me.”

Consequently, overwhelmed by the surrounding common denominator, George is struggling to find meaning in his humdrum existence; a situation that Isherwood ingeniously captures with the opening line, casting George as an “it.”

That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. ‘Here’ comes next, and it is at least negatively reassuring, because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself;

Without addressing the issue directly, therefore, Isherwood nevertheless draws the reader into the depths of despair plaguing his main character; i.e., the purposelessness of his existence. He then proceeds to transition George by way of a sterile freeway to the San Tomas State College campus—passing an equally septic senior-citizen’s complex along the way. Once on campus, however, George starts to feel a measure of regeneration, for suddenly his life regains a semblance of meaning; like an actor stepping outside of himself to assume the role of an alter ego.

He is all actor now; an actor on his way up from the dressing room, hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance. A veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line ‘Good morning!’

He also feels some semblance of power as he signs a student card, thus giving some faceless student a bona fide academic identity; for without it the student would cease to exist in the eyes of San Tomas State College; and worse still, in the eyes of the IBM gods that are just beginning to stir in the early 60s.

Feeling thus re-invigorated he crosses the campus, coming across a tennis match in progress along the way. The sun has broken through the early morning smog, and the two boy-combatants are stripped nearly naked. They have nothing on their bodies but tennis shoes and tight-fitting shorts, the type that cyclists wear, moulding themselves to the buttocks and loins. One is Mexican, representing the growing ethnic challenge to the bastions of Caucasian middle-class establishment, and the other, representing the latter, is blond and beautiful but no match for the darkly handsome, aggressive and cat-like Hispanic. Therefore they are a metaphor, and George observes that the blond boy has accepted the rules and will suffer defeat and humiliation rather than break them. He will also fight clean with an almost un-modern-like chivalry until the game and the cause for which he stands are both lost. Nevertheless, from George’s perspective there is a more immediate and personal outcome:

The game is cruel; but its cruelty is sensual and stirs George into hot excitement. He feels a thrill of pleasure to find the senses so eager in their response; too often now, they seem sadly jaded. From his heart, he thanks these young animals for their beauty. And they will never know what they have done to make this moment marvellous to him, and life less hateful …

George then resumes his role as a college professor, boldly making his dramatic entrance into the classroom where he is now front-stage-centre. It is a role that he is expected to play, and one that he acquits with subtle mastery; lecturing, scolding, amusing and hopefully imparting as well. From his place in the limelight the majority of students are merely an amorphous blur of faces; however, certain students—a handful—stand out as individuals: Kenny Potter being one of them. Potter sits in the front row because he tends to do the opposite of what most people do. George finds himself constantly aware of Kenny, and Kenny seems aware of George as well, but since Kenny also has a steady girlfriend George puts no more significance on it than that.

Feeling fortified by this up-lift, he next makes a stop at the hospital. He has gone there to see Doris; a former femme-fatale who, like her kind, once thought nothing of openly raiding a gay partnership because “They can’t really be serious …” or “All they really need is a good woman in their mixed-up lives,” and Jim in his insecurity had succumbed to her wiles.

I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.

Now this yellow, shrivelled manikin with its sticks of arms and legs was all that was left of her, and George could let it go. Therefore, he quietly affirms his state of being: I am alive, he says, I am alive! His tough, triumphal body had outlived Jim and was going to outlive Doris, too; moreover, it felt good to be alive to dream about dark-eyed, Hispanic seducers and golden-haired Adonises.

In the same celebratory spirit he decides that he doesn’t want to eat alone that night. He therefore calls the remaining person in this world who still cares; his boozy best friend, Charlotte—“Charley.” At one time they had had a brief affair, and although other relationships had intervened on both sides they had remained friends. Like Woman, however, Charlotte still harboured hopes that they might one day pick up where they had left off. Nevertheless George was used to this by now, and in spite of having to diplomatically manoeuvre around compromising situations he was able to enjoy their times together. The booze helped, of course, and George was feeling no pain by the time he finally left for home.

Still on a high he decides to by-pass the house to visit a nearby bar on the ocean front; the very bar where he had met Jim looking gorgeous in his WWII sailor’s uniform. It was a neighbourhood hide-away with a long history of make-outs to its credit—mostly of the heterosexual variety, but tonight there is solitary young man sitting quietly at the bar. It isnone other than Kenny Potter, a surprisingly long way from his own neighbourhood on the other side of town. Surprised, George makes contact, and the two of them proceed to get drunk—Kenneth fairly, and George very. In the course of doing so it has now been revealed that Kenny’s choice of this bar was no coincidence; that, in fact, he has made quite a study of George’s haunts and habits, and in response to the question of how he managed to get there he readily admits that his girlfriend drove him.

George can almost feel the electric field surrounding them. More than anything he wants Kenny to understand it, too; to know what this dialogue is all about. So there they sit smiling at one another, or more like ‘beaming,’ and suddenly the suggestion of a skinny dip is raised—by Kenneth. Ever ready to accept a dare, especially from a radiant, younger man, George agrees through an alcoholic haze. Challenge given and challenge accepted, Kenneth suddenly becomes master of the situation, his physical size dictating the logic of it, and when it appears that George is floundering Kenneth insists that he take George home to recoup.

It has therefore become quite obviously that this is a flirtation, but George cannot bring himself to say the words of outright seduction; not to one of his students. The rules forbid it, and like the blond Adonis George must play by the rules. Moreover, his years of avoidance have made the idea somewhat of a taboo. Nevertheless he finally passes out, and wakes up in bed mysteriously dressed in his pyjamas. Meanwhile Kenneth has taken off, but his note provocatively suggests that they might have shared an intimate moment together: or is it just a tease?

“If those cops pick me up, I won’t tell them where I’ve been … I promise!

“This was great, this evening. Let’s do it again, shall we? Or don’t you believe in repeating things?”

George’s rejuvenation is now complete. However, at this point I will leave it up to the reader to discover how the story ends. Suffice it to say that it is as abstract and as real as the opening line. In other words, it is typically Isherwood!

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Review: The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Outbursts! A Queer Erotic Thesaurus by A.D. Peterkin


Erotic slang words from Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, and other English-speaking nations number well into the tens of thousands. But the history of terms used to describe the sexual activities of gays and lesbians have opposing sources: one, the discreet networks of gay men and lesbians who sought to come up with a new terminology for the pleasures of their secret lives; and the other, those who found gay sexuality repellent, and created phrases that denigrated and insulted its proponents. The result? A coded language, for better or worse, that celebrates sexuality in all its queerness.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

This unusual reference book was published in 2003, but it is still (to this reviewer’s knowledge) the only one of its kind. It is a brave attempt to catalogue all the words used in English for “queer” (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) subjects, post-2000 and in the past.

In his introduction, the author explains some of the challenges of compiling this book:

“queer language is in a state of near constant flux much in keeping with the ever increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in contemporary culture.”

Peterkin goes on to explain that the need for secret “passwords” in more homophobic times gave rise to such elaborate identifying markers as:

“the secret male language called Polari (more or less from ‘parlare,’ to speak in Italian) used by gay men in London from the 1930s to 1970s. The language of Polari contained some 500 words about sex, the body, physical appearance, meeting places, straights and gays. . . some Polari terms, like ‘bod,’ ‘trade,’ ‘troll,’ basket,’ and ‘cottage’ are still used today, and many have been absorbed into mainstream vocabulary as well.”

According to Peterkin, the increased acceptance and visibility of queer culture since the birth of the “Gay Rights” movement in 1969 has not decreased the need for specialized vocabularies, especially as new sexual identities and sub-communities have emerged. The author claims: “As an example, in the 1990s we saw the emergence of bear culture and terminology to describe hirsute, physically large gay men and their admirers.”

The alphabetical entries begin with “abdomen,” “androgyne,” “anus,” “aphrodisiac” and “aroused.” The synonyms for “androgyne” include “morphodite,” a mysteriously insulting word that this reviewer remembers being used by other teenagers in rural Idaho in the 1960s, regardless of whether they knew what it meant. (The word was applied to male “sissies” and female “tomboys” in a rigidly gendered culture.) Peterkin confirms my suspicion that it is a corruption of “hermaphrodite,” originally the name of the child of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology.

Queer words meaning “aroused” include “having a pash for” (which was used as early as World War I, although usually in a heterosexual context) as well as “hot as a firecracker,” which the author describes as a Canadian term first used in the 1920s.

Strangely enough, “Canadian” is listed as a euphemism for any gay male. Perhaps it is not surprising that this use of the word seems unknown in Canada, although “Lebanese” for lesbian (which was widely used in the 1980s on the Canadian prairies, where actual immigrants from Lebanon were rare) is not listed at all. The author explains that the word “lesbian” itself was originally based on a place-name, since the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who wrote about love between women in the seventh century BC, came from the island of Lesbos. Presumably any native of that island can still be called a Lesbian, regardless of sexual identity.

According to this book, the use of place-names to indicate queer sexuality or queer culture continues in references to San Francisco (no surprise there) as well as to less-obvious locations such as Santa Fe. References to ethnicity or culture are included in traditional terms such as “the English vice” as a (non-British) term for BDSM (bondage/discipline/dominance/submission/sadism/masochism) and “French letter” as a (non-French) term for a condom. More recent references to culture in queerspeak include terms for those who are attracted to a particular race or ethnicity, such as “rice queens” (gay men who prefer Asian partners) and “Zebras” (white queers who prefer black partners and vice versa).

Other listed words for those whose sex practices are unusual or controversial even in the queer community include “Butcher boy” for a gay man who has sex with lesbians, “vampire” for a gay man who steals other people’s partners, “Gillette blade” for a bisexual woman, and “switch hitter,” derived from baseball terminology, for a bisexual woman or man.

“Beard” is listed as a term for a woman who dates gay men to help them “pass” as heterosexual. Besides being notable as a term used in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” (written in Middle English in the 1380s) to mean a practical joke, this use of “beard” seems similar to “fag hag,” except that a “hag” is usually assumed to initiate friendships with gay men for her own reasons.

As the author explains somewhat apologetically in his introduction, more queer terms (especially those that refer to the body and to specific sex practices) apply to men than to women. Considering this, it is notable that the word “gay” itself (which literally means happy) first seems to have been used as a sexual term in Shakespeare’s time to refer to women who were thought to be promiscuous. Like other feminine terms which have been appropriated by feminine men, “gay” came to apply to men who were also considered slutty because they were homosexual (even if monogamous). The extension of this use of the word to lesbians brings it back to women by a roundabout route. This book includes a more recent woman-centric term (which could possibly be extended to males) to mean “aroused:” the cute acronym “NDL” for “nipples don’t lie.”

This book is hard to summarize; it really needs to be read from cover to cover. Many of the black-and-white illustrations between blocks of print are vintage porn images from yesteryear. The flexible binding of this book enables it to be spread flat for easy reading. It deserves to be added to the growing library of scholarly material on queer culture through the ages.

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Author’s website

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Review: Fellow Travellers by T.C. Worsley

When Harry Watson, an attractive and personable ex-Guardsman, becomes involved with the young novelist Martin Murray, he is quick to assimilate Martin’s left-wing views.  He fits readily into Martin’s circle, along with the earl’s daughter and communist Lady Nellie Griffiths, her playboy nephew Pugh, and the unconfident Oxford undergraduate Gavin Summers.  But then Harry’s enthusiasm leads him to join the International Brigade, and all five are suddenly faced with the stark realities of the Spanish Civil War.

Review by Erastes

This is an English “Gone With the Wind” in a way, in the same way that Mitford’s 1930′s novels are; detailing a way of life that has gone forever–and a book which becomes a piece of social history, because although fictional on the surface, Fellow Travellers was written in the time, and is largely based on real-time events and real people.

The story is told in a fascinating manner; the unnamed narrator is a man who has been meaning to write a novel about these events, but has never really got around to it. (Many of us know that feeling!) So instead of wasting the time and research that he’s put into the project he presents us with his historical records of the events: letters, interviews with the five people involved and his own sporadic author’s notes.  He starts off with each of the five people giving their opinions of all of the other five, then deals with their political beliefs, and then the catalysts that led them all charging off to protect the doomed Spanish republic.

It took me a little while to get my head around the way the books was structured, but once I did I found it a much easier read than I had anticipated.  The unnamed narrator has an appealing style, and a dry sense of humour at times, and all five of the characters come to life little by little in varying degrees.

We are introduced to Harry first of all

The homosexuality (and indeed bisexuality) in this book is a simple fact, no-one is expecting anyone to judge, and there’s no sense at all of censure (until they go to Spain and Martin is faced with arrogant bigots) as they all frequent a literary pack of like-minded individuals where the right and wrong of gay life doesn’t impinge.  Harry and Martin are living in “uneasy domesticity” at the beginning; before Martin took up with him, Harry is “undeniably attractive” but a male “tart” (as he’s described several times in the book), going with anyone who will support him, and – as Martin says he’s sure of – would have come to a bad end had Martin not taken up with him.  Although from working-class mining stock, he’s a bit of a chameleon.

His capacity to fit himself into any situation or social circumstances was remarkable in one who had after all come from a miner’s terrace.  It was this capacity which had served him so well when he first burst upon London and discovered that there were plenty of willing gentlemen ready to play host to such an engaging personality.

It’s this chameleon quality, his magpie-like capacity to take on the respectability of others, and the political views of others which drives the book along.  Harry–the odd-man out in this little group of upper-middle and upper class intelligentsia–becomes the catalyst to events.  He finds Martin’s left-wing views and embraces them, joins the Communist Party but soon becoming bored when–in peacetime–there’s nothing much for him to do other than flag waving, speech making and marching.

Second of the characters is Lady Nellie, daughter of an Earl, and sister to an Earl.  As many of this class did in this time, she’s the black sheep of her family, the English rebel without a cause, finding a cause within the Communist Party and joining the Party without truly understanding the true meaning of the practicalities of it, despite reading Marx and others.

Gavin is a bit of a wet hen. He is trying to write an autobiographical novel, but moans that nothing has ever happened to him, so why would anyone read it. He scoffs at all of the others’ political and religious beliefs while having none of his own.  He had been in love with Harry at one point, and had a brief passionate affair with Pugh, but like everything he does, he can’t commit to anything.  His involvement in the war was actually quite intriguing.

Martin is probably the most complex of all the characters – based very strongly on the novelist Stephen Spender – he tries to balance his life around the varying pressures that affect him.  After six months with Harry he realises that it’s not going to work, and manages to persuade him to leave, but because he feels responsible for “adopting” Harry and getting him accustomed to a life beyond his means, he continues to support him, with a flat and an allowance.  He goes to Spain purely to help Harry out of the scrape he gets him into, again based on fact, as Stephen Spender did for his own ex-Guardsman lover, Tony Hyndham.  Incidentally, these elements of the book are echoed in another book that concentrates on this era “While England Sleeps” by David Leavitt which is reviewed here.

Pugh is probably the least clear of the characters, even though his story winds clearly through everyone else’s.  I can’t put my finger on why he’s quite so vague as a character–perhaps it’s because there are no actual interview directly with Pugh himself, like there are with the others. We know he’s wanton, bisexual rather than homosexual, and gets into trouble over just about anything.  If anyone was going to get into trouble in the war, it was bound to be him.

The characters’ opinions of everyone else are the lightest part of the book, and amusing in parts as everyone thinks they know everyone else and it’s very clear that they know nothing of the sort.  Nellie is convinced that Harry is determined to get a job and believes every excuse as to why he won’t take one, Gavin decries everyone, and Martin feels he is acting for the best.  As for the political section, I admit that I was a little lost in that, not really understanding the differences between socialism, communism, crypto-fascism and goodness knows what else.

The war itself cover slightly less than half the book, in all, and is only really dealt with in letters from the characters (not Pugh) to the narrator, and from diary entries from Nellie and Martin.  But what is written is vivid and unforgettable.  It’s hard not to be swept up in Nellie’s and Martin’s exhilaration of the Anarchist spirit  of Barcelona and then to mourn with them as they realise that there really can not be any such thing as a purely communist army where everyone is equal, and if it attempts to be so, it cannot help but fail.  I for one, with the sang-froid brought on by 40 or so years watching warfare on the TV, felt Nellie’s sheer horror as a new kind of warfare was born–one where cities were destroyed, thousands of evacuees fled from nowhere to nowhere, and where women and children are raked by plane machine guns while already fleeing for their lives.

What is clear, and for me, hard to read, is the way that European events were largely ignored by England. The juggernaut of Hitler and Mussolini lumbers towards the Second World War but it seems that England has its head stuck firmly in the sand.  Nellie’s brother David is the face of this denial here.  When Pugh decides to join the Carlists, the Catholic Nationalist supporters (and quite the wrong side as far as Nellie and the others were concerned), this is what Nellie reports of her conversation between David and herself:

‘And you’ll just let him throw his life away?’ I said.

‘What’s he doing now but throwing his life away?  If he’s going to do that, he might as well do it for something he believes in.’

‘Something you believe in!’ I said furiously. ‘Don’t imagine the he believes in it!  He doesn’t believe in anything.  Why, Gavin told me the only reason he’d picked on the Carlists was because they wore scarlet cloaks and berets!’

‘Well, he may come to believe in it,’ David said. ‘As I see it, it’s his big chance.  He’ll be mixed with decent people and that will be a change for the better you must admit.’

(It should be added here, that Pugh was a step-son of David, the Earl…)

The way that the scales fall from most of the characters’ eyes is sad to watch, after the buoyed up enthusiasm of all the flag-waving and the bonhomie of the International Brigade.  The realism that a just cause isn’t necessarily the winning side, and the sheer frustration that no-one is listening to the stories of the prison camps and the persecution.

As is probably obvious by the length of the review I was hugely impressed with this book–for all that parts of it made me feel like an ignorant nihilist–and the characters will stay with me forever, more so, I think because they portray real events and real people, albeit in a fictional manner. If you enjoyed While England Sleeps or Nancy Mitford’s work, you’ll definitely like this.

Highly recommended, and essential reading.  You may need to track a copy down, but well worth doing.

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Review: Man, oh Man: Writing M/M for kinks and cash by Josh Lanyon

Lambda Award finalist Josh Lanyon takes you step-by-step through the writing process: from how to find fresh ideas and strong hooks, to how to submit your carefully edited manuscript. With help from the genre’s top publishers, editors, reviewers, and writers – experts in the field of M/M and gay romantic fiction – Lanyon offers insight and experience in everything from creating believable masculine characters to writing erotic and emotionally gratifying M/M sex scenes.

Review by Vashtan

I’m not giving five stars lightly, but five stars is what this is. Full disclosure: I bought this paperback with my own money last year, read it, loved it, and put it on my creative writing books shelf. I own a huge amount of creative writing literature. I’m weird like that—reading about creative writing makes me want to write, which is really the main reason why I keep buying them. And to sometimes do exercises to get the muses kickstarted, or to be able to recommend a good creative writing book to beginners. And I love reading about how other writers go about it; there’s some kind of comradely or even voyeuristic pleasure there.

Josh Lanyon doesn’t really need an introduction, award-winning writer, one of the big names in this tiny fishpond of m/m and gay fiction, and he tells us what’s what. I found myself nod an awful lot, and agreeing with almost everything he says (and the details are down to personal opinion).

With this, he has written an eminently useable book for m/m writers of all levels of experience, covering all the angles from finding ideas to writing that dreaded synopsis. He covers why men in fiction aren’t women plus penis, how men interact, and gently points out what so many m/m writers still get wrong (and no, it’s not the anatomical detail).

Lanyon has added a lot of great quotes from writers, reviewers, editors and publishers, which give a very good idea about whatever topic he’s currently covering. All his advice is hands-on, never preachy, and comes with a good dose of humour. It’s much like you’re sitting in a cafe with him while he chats about writing, the genre, his method, and what he thinks needs some work. He has included an outline, a synopsis, a query letter, and added an appendix of m/m writing contests, as well as a list of m/m publishers, so this book saves you a lot of work. Every chapter comes with recommendations for further reading (usually creative writing books), and his choices are for the most part excellent.

If I had to voice one criticism, then that there are a lot of fonts involved in the printing and the text looks a bit “busy” with those slightly gimmicky fonts, but I really prefer my layouts to be as clean and sparse as possible.

For anybody writing in the genre, or thinking about jumping into the little pond, this should absolutely be required reading. I would hope that this book helps prevent some of the train wrecks I’ve seen in the genre. Get it today.

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Review: The Golden Age of Gay Fiction

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

It was the first great explosion of gay writing in history. These books were about gay characters. They were written mostly by gay writers. Above all, they were for gay readers. And, as this entertaining chronicle of the emergence of gay literary pride makes clear, it was a revolution that occurred several years before Stonewall!

Their characters were mostly out or struggling to get out. The books were definitely out—out on the revolving paperback bookracks in grocery stores, dime stores, drugstores, magazine agencies, and transportation terminals across the nation for youths and senior citizens, in the cities and the rural areas alike, to find and to devour.

Here 19 writers take you on a tour of this Golden Age of Gay Fiction—roughly the period between the first Kinsey Report and the first collection of Tales of the City—paying attention to touchstone novels from the period but, even more, highlighting works of fiction that have been left unjustly to gather dust on literary shelves.

Written by authors, scholars, collectors, and one of the publishers, their essays will inform you. They will sometimes amuse you. They will take you into literary corridors you only suspected were there. And the some 200 illustrations, chosen for their historical as well as their artistic interest, provide a visual record of why this was the golden age.

REVIEW:

Pop Quiz: You enjoy reading m/m romances and gay fiction. Which of the following describes the depth of your familiarity with the genre?

A. You name it, I’ve read it, the more obscure, the better.

B. I’ve read Maurice and bought a used copy of The City and the Pillar off eBay to read…someday.

C. I read Brokeback Mountain in The New Yorker back in 1997 and that got me hooked.

D. I never heard of m/m until #amazonfail last spring – that’s when I read False Colors.

Whether you selected A or D or fall somewhere in between, run, don’t walk, to your favorite bookseller to order a copy of The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. If you are solely a reader, or a reader and writer both, this book is an essential resource that provides context and understanding for the gay fiction genre.

Edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn, the book is a collection of 22 essays from 19 contributors, organized in four sections: I) O Brave New World; II) “I Know It When I See It”; III) Frightening the Horses; and IV) Secrecy and Adventure. The Introduction by Gunn grounds the reader as to the purpose and scope of the book: a comprehensive review and analysis of gay fiction from its Golden Age, dated as 1948-1978. The books reviewed include “the pulps” – paperback novels that were cheaply printed, broadly distributed, and widely read. While often not paragons of great literature they were extremely influential in bringing gay writing—and many gay men—out of the closet. Gunn notes that “scholarly” writing about gay literature has largely ignored these books; bringing them to the forefront and recognizing their importance is a major strength of The Golden Age.

The essays are uniformly well written and interesting; some are funny, some are serious, depending on the topic at hand. On Being There…Or Not by William Maltese had me laughing out loud. Lonnie Coleman Remembered by Nowell Briscoe was a touching memory of an author who is now, unfortunately, largely forgotten. I particularly enjoyed Conversation in a Coffee Shop by Dennis Bolin. He notes that in any serious conversation about “important” books that one “must” read, six titles always rise to the top: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote; The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (both published in 1948); Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, published in 1956; two from the sixties, City of Night by John Rechy and Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man; and last, but not least, Maurice by E.M. Forster, published in 1971 but written in 1914. Bolin bought all six, read them, and discusses them thoroughly. I freely admit that I have gaping holes in my own personal “must read” background—take me out and shoot me, I’ve never read To Kill A Mockingbird—but I’ve filled those holes (sort of) with essays like Bolin’s. So, thank you, Dennis, for doing the hard work since now I don’t have to. I probably won’t bother trying to plow through Pillar; I’ve never been much of a Vidal fan, anyway. But A Single Man sounds interesting and I may dig out my old copy of Maurice which is packed away in the attic for a second re-read, almost forty years later.

One bonus for readers is that many of the books discussed are being re-issued in new editions, so titles that catch your attention may be readily available in print and for some of them, as ebooks. Have you always wanted to read The Man from C.A.M.P. by Victor J. Banis? You can. Other Voices, Other Rooms has the “scandalous” picture of Capote with his bedroom eyes and come hither stare, only this time it’s on the cover, not the back.

But if you want to see what Capote looked like on the original cover, then turn to page 27, because this is another wonderful feature of The Golden Age: more than 200 full-color illustrations of book covers, many of them which are now very difficult, if not impossible, to find. The amount of work that went into tracking these down must have been phenomenal and we all benefit by having them preserved within the pages of The Golden Age forever.

The Golden Age of Gay Fiction is beautifully designed. I love the font that was used for the chapter titles (which is the same as on the cover, in case you want an example). The cover painting was commissioned by MLR Press for the book and was done by an Ohio artist named Paul Richmond (who also did the cover for Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville, in case his style looks familiar). I read the book as a PDF for this review but I will be ordering a print copy for my collection. While it is available as an ebook, really, you need to have it in print to do it justice. It is worth the $70 investment.

Scholarship throughout the book is evident. References are cited and the back matter includes a ten page “Index of Fiction Discussed” which includes not just the index to the book but also complete bibliographic data for the books that are cited, even in a casual mention. The book also includes a bibliography of secondary sources for further reading. I am so impressed with the index and bibliography, I daresay they will become the gold standard for a comprehensive listing of gay literature, both fiction and non, for the time period covered in the book.

Last, the contributors, who are the heart and soul of the book. I am going to list them all at the end of this review because they deserve to be recognized. They have an eclectic mix of backgrounds and experience, ranging from authors, avid readers, and book collectors to known scholars and academicians. As noted earlier, the writing is uniformly excellent. Clearly all the contributors have a passion for their chosen topic. They also pulled off a feat that eludes many contributed non-fiction collections: the book is interesting and fun to read. This is not some dry, dusty tome that will be relegated to the libraries of esoteric researchers; rather, anyone who is interested in gay fiction, even if only marginally, will find something enjoyable to read in The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. I am willing to bet on it.

Kudos to Laura Baumbach and the MLR Press team for bringing this book to fruition. It really is a jewel in the crown of her published titles and she should be very, very proud of this accomplishment.

Gunn, D.W., ed. (2009). The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. Albion, NY: MLR Press. Contributors: Victor J. Banis, Dennis Bolin, Nowell Briscoe, Michael Bronski, Philip Clark, Fabio Cleto, Neil DeWitte, Dave Doyle, Jan Ewing, Drewey Wayne Gunn, Earl Kemp, Josh Lanyon, Rob Latham, William Maltese, Rob McDonald, Tom Norman, Joseph M. Ortiz, Paul Richmond (artist), Roger H. Tuller, Ian Young.

Note: This review is also posted at Reviews by Jessewave. Thanks to Erastes and Wave for allowing me to post in both places and further spread the word about this excellent book.

Buy at MLR Press

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Review: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

Set in 1920s Chicago, The Folded Leaf follows two very different boys who find themselves forming an unlikely friendship. Lymie is thin, clever and terrible at sport. Spud is athletic and quick to fight and blithely accepts Lymie’s passionate devotion to him. The bond between them is obsessively close, until they leave home for college and both find themselves drawn to their new classmate, Sally.

Review by Erastes

This book was published in 1945, so it’s particularly “coded” in such a way that it can be read without some people noticing the homosexual sub-text. I think perhaps that if the ending had been more upbeat in the way The Charioteer had been written then it would be as popular as that book because it’s certainly written as beautifully and to read it is to truly immerse yourself in the high school and university life of 1920′s America with the coon skin coats, letterman sweaters and the heady importance of who you knew against what you knew. However, these aren’t grown men able to do what they like with their lives, and they aren’t in England. They are 19 year old American schoolboys in 1920 smalltown America.

I think I’d have to disagree with the blurb, though. I didn’t see any indication that Lymie was attracted to Sally at any point. They liked each other extremely well, but it is Spud’s misinterpretation of Lymie’s friendship with her that causes the conflict, not any realistic attraction at all.

Are Lymie and Spud homosexual? I think possibly, yes. I would say that Spud shows bisexual tendencies and Lymie homosexual. In today’s frat houses I think that they would–as they are sleeping together in The Folded Leaf, and always sleep touching in a sweet innocent fashion–take their relationship to another level. I got the impression from the story that neither boy ever had any suspicions as to what their deep feelings really meant. Even when Lymie longs to touch Spud, I felt it was more of an adoration of a body of a type that he could never hope to have, for he himself is an entirely different body shape, rather than any sexual desire.

Very often, looking at Spud, he felt the desire which he sometimes had looking at statues–to put out his hand and touch some part of Spud, the intricate interlaced muscles of his side, or his shoulder blades, or his back, or his flat stomach, or the veins of his wrists, or his small pointed ears.

The affection is clear between them both, but stronger from Lymie to Spud. Spud inhabits a much more physical world than Lymie; he boxes, he swims–does all sport well, while Lymie’s skills are cerebral and Spud takes Lymie for granted, while always wanting him in his life. I think that others see their relationship a little more clearly than they do themselves, notably the effeminate landlord (there’s always one!) and Spud’s own family, who, until Sally is brought home to meet them, had been entirely accepting of Lymie’s place in Spud’s life.

The crisis comes when a mutual acquaintance tells Lymie (and it’s never acknowledged as to whether it’s a true tale he tells) that Spud hates Lymie because of Sally’s friendship. Sensitive Lymie feels entirely betrayed and takes matters into his hands. Thankfully the book doesn’t end with tragedy (and I think for the sake of readers of this blog I’ll be forgiven for spoiling this much) but still, the author writes the only ending that would have been accepted in 1945, after giving us one of the most memorable scenes in the book.

If you liked The Charioteer, you’ll definitely like this, because it has much in common with its themes and has beautiful prose–and as a piece of homosexual history, I’d think it definitely rates a read from anyone interested in America at this time.

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Review: A Class Apart by James Gardiner

The Private Pictures of Montague Glover.

A Class Apart is a selection of photographs and letters culled from the archive of Montague Glover (1898-1983) documenting the intimate, rarely recorded lives of gay men in Britain from the First World War to the 1950s.  The book features Glover’s three obsessions: the Armed Forces, working-class men, and his lifelong lover Ralph Hall.

Review by Erastes

Who was Montague Glover?  No-one, really. But therein lies the reason why his legacy (boxes and boxes of letters and photos) is so very important in gay history. Just an ordinary man, a son of middle-class parents who was sent to a minor public school.

But by cataloging his life, collecting images of men, writing ordinary and heart-warming love letters, and most importantly by taking endless photos of men he found attractive, he paints a picture of a gay man’s life, well-adjusted and ‘ordinary,’

The book is photo-heavy, as you would expect and is split into eight sections and I’ll cover a few only.

The Story

Basic intro to the man’s life. An English middle-class life. The army straight from school and off to the trenches where he was awarded the Military Cross. Then university and 30 years as an architect. As well as his photos, he collected images of men he found attractive from newspaper clippings and magazines, seeing as homoerotic art wasn’t exactly freely available!

Rough Trade

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“In common with many other middle and upper class men of his class and generation, Monty Glover was principally attracted to working class men. Gardiner purports that perhaps this is because working-class men were “manly” and completely non-effeminate. Like all the photos of unnamed men in the book, it is unlikely that most of these young men were in fact homosexual, but rather approached by Glover and simply asked to pose. As a Brit it was fascinating to see the clothes, hats and shoes from the 20′s onwards, the detailing of the clothes (belts, scarves, boots) essential to any writer of historical men in these eras. Monty shows us delivery boys, postmen, barrowboys, farmhands – and soon you get a fair idea of Mr Glover’s taste in men! As well as candid shots of real people, there’s a lovely section of posed studio style shots, most likely done in Monty’s house, where young lovelies pose in various states of dress and undress. Prostitutes or just young men eager for a thrill, we’ll never know.

Soldier Boys

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Monty started taking photos of soldiers after he signed up in 1916, and in 1918, the year he was awarded the MC, he kept a diary, snippets of this are quoted in the book and show that although dealing with lice, rats, dead Bosche and horror on a daily basis, he still found time for love. It is at this time he meets Ernest (Ernie) with whom he has at least one “night of his life.”

Ralph

image00021Quite simply, the love of Monty’s life, and to look at him, it’s not hard to understand why. Coming from a working-class background, but with the looks of an Aryan angel, photogenic and very obviously hung like a donkey, Ralph is to die for. However, when it could very easily have happened that this younger man could have been nothing more than a kept man, staying with Glover for sex and money, it didn’t happen that way. This is very clearly a love affair with a capital L, which you cannot help but see in their extensive and lavishly adoring mutual love-letters. A large portion of these were sent during the second world war, when Ralph was drafted into the RAF in 1940. Indeed, it’s hard – reading a selection of these letters which are quoted in the book – to understand how these letters got past the censor! It’s wonderful that they did though, or we would miss out on lines like this written by Ralph to Monty in November 1940:

“Do you remember the old days when we first started darling.  I went back all over it again last night.  What a time we had in them days and I am sorry to say I am crying I canot hold it back no more my Darling. I love you my old Darling. I do miss you ever such a lot my dear as you know my dear.”

Monty and Ralph lived together (after meeting around 1930) for fifty years. The photographs of their lives together (other than the beautiful, posed, and artistic shots of Ralph) are ordinary and heartwarming for their ordinariness. Sitting in their sitting room, pictures of their bath, Ralph making toast, having breakfast, Monty shaving. Love in every image.

When Monty died in 1983, he left everything to Ralph, but Ralph went into a decline and died four years later.

Anyone with any interest in gay history will find this a resource they can’t be without, particularly if writing of gay men from 1910 onwards, anyone with an interest in photography will find it fascinating. But really, anyone with a heart cannot be moved by this book and the social record it has saved for posterity.

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Review: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

The story of the climactic last seven years of Alexander the Great’s life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. Abducted and gelded as a boy, Bagoas was sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but found freedom with Alexander after the Macedon army conquered his homeland. Taken as an attendant into Alexander’s household, the beautiful young eunuch becomes the great general’s lover and their relationship sustains Alexander as he survives assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

This book took me forever to read, but not for the usual reasons – that it’s some disappointing tome that ends up mouldering half read on your beside table. With The Persian Boy, I kept going back over parts I’d already read, savouring the wonderful prose and characterisations. It’s a much easier read than the rather confusing sequel, Funeral Games, with its plethora of characters. The only problem with The Persian Boy is that it’s too short by at least half.

Written entirely from Bagoas’ point of view, the book is alive with simple yet effective descriptions of place and era. Mary Renault’s characterisations are, as always, a delight; she produces deep insights into the key players with just a few well constructed phrases. She captures wonderfully the duality of Alexander – military leader/man and proto-God – as she does the ‘almost love affair’ between him and his army. She doesn’t shrink from showing his feet of clay, even if the tale is told through the eyes of someone besotted with him. Renault’s skill is also evident in the way that, although Bagoas tells his own story, we are aware of his faults and weaknesses, even if he isn’t.

The key turning point of the story is when Bagoas meets Alexander, where autobiography turns to romance. He falls headlong for the Macedonian king, dedicating his life to the man’s love and service. Alexander’s tender response and the developing relationship is beautifully portrayed – the love scenes aren’t in any way explicit, but written with such skill that they’re still sensual. I know that Renault has been criticised for romanticising the relationship between king and eunuch, but Bagoas’ motivation and actions ring true to life, and he’s as believable as all the other characters woven in and out of the tale. This isn’t a history book – it’s a well crafted and incredibly moving historical romance.

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Review: Artist’s Model by Z A Maxfield

From the anthology “Artistically Yours” published by Torquere Press

Emile Laurent had a child’s fascination for artist Auguste Fournier. Now a grown man, he pursues Fournier with a passion born of worship. Fournier has denied his nature for the whole of his life. Paralyzed with fear, he rejects Emile’s advances, even in the face of desire that threatens to consume them both.

Review by Erastes

The old adage is “write a good beginning” and Maxfield does this; for me it was an irresistable beginning.

My first glimpse of Fournier, the man he was before he became the legendary artist, came when I was but six years old. He was so striking then, even more so than later, his countenance too beautiful to take in at once. He sat at the table on the balcony of our flat and smoked, laughing with my father while my mother filled his glass. I could only watch from inside the tiny drawing room as I was relegated to writing my name, Emile, over and over again until my hand shook with the effort.

That day, my stern-faced nurse had eyes that shifted, like mine, to the window where Fournier brushed his loose golden hair with a casual hand. He was so fascinating to me then, wearing smoked-glass spectacles that hid his eyes. I should have had his image in my head forever, even had I never seen him again, but when I did, the shock came to me that I had loved him all that time. All that time.

It certainly hooked me, and that’s the main point!

It starts as a charming read, the interplay between Fournier and Emile warmed my heart and it read in a very realistic way, I thoroughly believed that it was a conversation between a 40 year old man and a love-struck teenager, but when the relationship suddenly takes a turn I was thrown in the best kind of way–for the ingenue was suddenly in charge and the older man was helpless, floundering to fight his nature and everything he wants.

The prose great throughout but at times is heartstoppingly good–I found myself holding my breath, gripping the edge of the desk because the breathless desperation of the characters poured out of the page.

He leaned in to kiss me, gentle and promising, his lips tender and passionate. His face held a terrible beauty, a kind of mad light that I at once recognized and responded to.

It really paints the tale of a man who has fought his nature, found nothing but loss and despair in his homosexuality, and that mad, fluttering joy of someone who has wanted something all his life, and then gets it.

As I often find when I read a short story that touches me like this, I find myself wish for the novel that it never became, in so few pages, Maxfield spreads unknown backstory to intrigues us–the friendship between Fournier and Emile’s parents, and Fournier’s vow not to succumb to the desires he feels, Emile’s upbringing and everything inbetween. It would have made a wonderful novel and I hope that the author will attempt it–or another historical one day.

I haven’t read Ms Maxfield’s work before, because up to now she’s written contemporaries, but if this is the standard she writes at, then she deserves to call the likes of Andre Aciman her peers. So yes – put me at the head of the queue if she ever writes another historical.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

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Review: The Taos Truth Game by Earl Ganz

When Myron Brinig arrived in Taos in 1933, he thought he was just passing through on his way to a screenwriting job in Hollywood. But, Brinig fell in love – with the landscape, the burgeoning art colony that centred around Mabel Dodge Luhan, and especially with Cady Wells, a talented young painter who had left his wealthy family in the East to settle in Taos. Brinig remained in the West off and on for the next twenty years. Earl Ganz centers this entertaining novel on Brinig’s conflicted relationships with Taos and its denizens. Myron Brinig, a completely forgotten writer, is brought back to centre stage, along with many of the people who made Taos the epicentre of the utopian avant garde in America between the world wars. Among the cast of characters are Frieda Lawrence, Robinson and Una Jeffers, and Frank Waters, with cameo appearances by Gertrude Stein and Henry Roth.

Review by Erastes

I started this book with a little trepidation, I have to admit, because I’d never heard of Myron Brinig–and worse than that, I’d never heard of most of the people mentioned in the book, with the exceptions of D H Lawrence, Nero Wolfe and a couple of others. So I was rather unsettled–was I reading biography? Or fiction? Was I poking my nose into private lives or an imagining of what those lives were like?

Well, it seems it’s a little of both. Earl Ganz discovered Myron Brinig when researching, and found that not only was he a Jewish writer writing at an exciting time–and was labelled with other luminaires as being an up and coming star–but he was a homosexual and that several of his books had that theme.  Ganz (as he explains in a lengthly and interesting afterword) became a little obsessed with finding out how this man could have dropped out of the public eye so very completely, after having written books that won awards and in one notable case wase made into Hollywood motion picture – one of them starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn (The Sisters – 1938). He tracked Brining down, now in his 80′s, to New York and went to see him.  Brinig gave him a copy of his unpublished memoire, and it is from this memoire that Ganz spun Taos Truth Game.

Once I got past this feeling of voyeurism I settled in and found a book full of lavish prose and wonderful (although none of them really loveable) drawn characters.  In essence, the book is hinged on the friendship (if one can even call it that) between Brinig and the frankly unstable Mabel Dodge Luhan, (someone again this ignorant Brit hadn’t heard of) an uneasy feud of a friendship that embraces and lashes out, soothes and damages all in its immediate circle.

Added to this there are Brinig’s relationships with others, his friendships with millionaires and literary luminairies, and his sweet love affair with his “Martian” – the artist Cady Wells which is at times so touching that it made me cry.

The book mainly concentrates from the time that Brinig moves to Taos after an unhappy break-up, to the time when he leaves the area a decade later, although it dips forward and back in time giving a well-rounded picture of the man itself, and nothing really happens of major import, it’s very much centered on personal relationships, literary discussion and the highs and lows of artistic endeavour. The Truth Game itself, although only played once in the book, becomes a central theme and when Brinig and Mabel finally unravel their own truths about themselves, you’ll find yourself calmed and complete as I did.

I won’t say this is an easy read. It’s a book about hugely clever people and about a time of indolence and “private incomes” that is far beyond my ken–but it’s worth every sentence. The writing is incredible, at times as stark as the landscape, at other times witty and erudite and at others cutting, self-destructive and full of vitriol.  But to me, this is my best read of 2008 and I’ll be forever wondering how this book was overlooked. If anything deserved a pile of awards, it’s The Taos Truth Game.

I can’t think of any reason not to recommend it. Astounding.

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Review: The Leather Boys by Gillian Freeman

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Mr Clive and Mr Page by Neil Bartlett

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review by Hayden Thorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: The Hill: A Romance of Friendship by Horace Annesley Vachell

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Reviewed by Hayden Thorne

FROM THE PUBLISHER:
In this novel based on the life of the masters and boys at Harrow school, two boys compete for the love of a third. Lord Horace Vachell was an English novelist who introduced polo to Southern California when he moved there in 1882.

REVIEW:
I must say right now that this novel was the most frustrating, exasperating work of fiction I’ve read in a long time. It isn’t badly written though at first I railed against Vachell’s characterization of Scaife and Desmond. As it turned out, my complaints were largely unfounded, at least with regard to Desmond.

Jonathan Verney, the new kid in school, falls hard for Henry Desmond (or Caesar, as he’s called), and he does all he can to develop and nurture a close friendship with the older boy. Unfortunately for him, Reginald Scaife, who’s older and more street-wise than the other two, also has plans of winning Desmond over. And so begins the tug-of-war between good (Verney) and evil (Scaife), innocence and guile, intellect and brute strength. The opposing forces are classic – cliché, almost. Yet Vachell’s presentation is anything but, hence my growing frustration that made me set the book aside two-thirds of the way through, while I redirected my energy elsewhere.

I picked up the book again and finished it, finally. Yes, I stand corrected on a number of things. My initial complaint was characterization. I found Scaife and Desmond at first to be so one-dimensional that I simply wanted to reach into the book and give both boys a damned good thrashing. By the book’s conclusion, however, my opinions of Desmond had shifted favorably, and not because of the conclusion, in which Verney’s friendship and love play a significant role.

Desmond, while admittedly a weak character, is still complex in his own way, which is the reason why the tug-of-war and growing hostility between Verney and Scaife don’t seem to have an end. He’s torn between the two boys for reasons he can’t understand because he’s ruled mostly by his emotions though deep down, he really is a good, decent fellow. Scaife, also called Demon by his peers, is pure evil, his initial charm and wit slowly losing their veneer till in the end, Verney sees him as “deliberately setting about the devil’s work.” And I saw nothing else about Scaife other than he’s simply rotten to the core, so much so that when Verney admits to himself (much to his horror) that he’s actually wished Scaife to be dead, I didn’t feel outrage at Verney’s sentiments. “The bastard deserves it” was the thought that crossed my mind, and it’s an uncomfortable one. I like my villains more multi-dimensional than that. I want to feel a little torn between sympathy and disgust. Unfortunately for Scaife, I felt nothing but the sense of being cheated out of a potentially very good antagonist.

Verney shines as the lead character. Though the angel against Scaife’s devil, he still makes all sorts of errors of judgment, which end up giving Scaife ongoing ammunition to be used against him. It’s because of his innocence that he hurls himself headlong into this wild, romantic, and passionate attachment to Desmond. It’s also because of his innocence that he holds on to hope, defying Scaife’s expectations, which, in turn, fuels the other boy’s antagonism toward him.

It’s the perpetual battle between good and evil that ultimately wore me down because it simply dragged on. However, Vachell saves the best for last, when all things seem to be so hopeless in Verney’s eyes. There’s redemption, but in a manner that I never expected. The Hill concludes with an event that’s tremendously heartbreaking yet ennobling, the final scenes being the stuff of classic, enduring romance.

Vachell lovingly paints Harrow school as a gorgeous pastoral. Even with the presence of the proverbial serpents (Scaife, Lovell, and their circle), the school still resonates with the lushness of spring and youth all richly detailed. When Verney, in his final year, looks forward with trepidation to the darker, murkier waters of Oxford and Parliament, I also wished that he – as well as his friends – needn’t go anywhere else. The side characters are also vividly drawn, with Caterpillar (a snobby older student who openly despises Scaife for being lowly bred) and Fluff (a younger student who attaches himself at first to Verney but eventually drifts away) being my favorites.

Yes, it was initially an agonizing read, but The Hill is really much more complex, much deeper than a simple rivalry between two boys over a third. As a rare book that specifically deals with 19th century/early 20th century boarding school romance between boys, it’s a significant addition to the library of historical gay fiction enthusiasts.

Buy the book: Amazon USA, Amazon UK

Review: A Different Sin by Rochelle Hollander Schwab

 

Review by Erastes

Wow. What a read!  I had few expectations of this book – I’d seen it around here and there, in this limited genre the same books are bound to crop up from time to time – but the cover always put me off.  However, eventually I ordered a copy and it arrived  (and it’s a signed copy no less!) 

It starts simply and familiarly enough; our main protagonist, David, is the son of a plantation (and slave) owner.  He chafes against living at home and the hum-drum existence and wants more. But the twists start almost immediately and there’s a hell of a lot packed into this not very long book.

It would be almost impossible to write a book about this war without mentioning race and RHS meets this head on. David’s father has a shameful “secret” – which is no longer a secret – he fathered a child, Mike, from one of his slaves and has helped him escape from Virginia to Boston to become a doctor.  David lives under the impression that, as an artist and someone who has no interest in taking over the plantation, that Mike is the son that his father would have really wanted, especially now as he’s acknowledged him publicly.

David is offered a job on a New York paper and becomes friendly with Zach who he quickly becomes friends with and soon realises that his feelings are a little more than platonic.

The nice difference here is that the men aren’t the usual hairless 20 year old Adonises, (Adoni?). These are bearded men of their era in their late 30′s and early 40′s. Zach in particular is rather beary-hairy and the way that David fixates on his solid mature body is no less sexy than the endless stories of six packs and ridged hips.

The love story itself is familiar though, Zach is an experienced homosexual who knows what he is and he’s finding a way to communicate his preferences to others, finding others with his tastes in the big city. David has been unsatisfied with sex with women and doesn’t know there’s something missing. The difference between them is that when David does fall in love and into bed with Zach he can’t accept himself for what he is and he fights his “perversion” almost every step of the way. (This jarred me a little because I knew that the word pervert/perversion applied in this sense was anachronistic in itself and wish that (as Schwab has so much right) that she had found another word to use – because David uses it a LOT.)

He’s a very angsty man, and sometimes he was so repetitive in his angsting that I wanted to smack him.

He tries to break with Zach time and again, (despite knowing now that he loves him) as the country falls into conflict and then into war and then finally he can bear his own perversion no longer and volunteers to go to the front for the paper, despite having had it proved to him that he’s no hero.  He joins Grant and some very bloody history is recounted at this point, seen, on the fringes by David, and his new friend, Al.

I’ve seen this book accused of having “too much history” which has to make me smile – it’s rather difficult to avoid the history in the middle of Grant’s Wilderness Campaign!  However I know that military campaigns aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and despite having a penchant for Sharpe they aren’t usually mine, but here I really I enjoyed reading about an era that I only know from Gone With The Wind.  I didn’t know anything about the draft riots for example – and some of the violence, truthfully written, is quite hard to read.

People’s wildly varying attitudes to the black population are interesting, difficult to cope with, and inspiring in turns, and I admire that the author didn’t shy away from all this, as she could have done, she could have smothered a difficult and bloody time for all involved with a gay love affair in a wallpaper historical.  But she doesn’t, for my money – there’s politics, and the man on the street, and the soldier’s opinions about many different things.  I would have been happy if this book had been twice the length, to be honest – I find it hard to work out how she managed to cram so much in.

Yes, this is about love, but it’s also a message (that Zach mentions) that there are “different sins” and perhaps two men loving each other in private can’t compare with what America was doing to itself. It’s still easier for some Americans to see a man with a gun in his hand than another man’s hand, actually, isn’t it?

I also particularly liked the New York social scenes; they are entirely masculine – the only mention of women being when one of the group goes to a brothel.  The newspaper men meet up in journalists’ bars, men frequent gymnasiums and you get a real feel of hard bitten journalists working round the clock. Walt Whitman makes an appearance (at one point rather disturbingly kissing a young armless soldier) and there are hints of men meeting up in groups for possibly orgies, but as David turns the offer down, we never know. It is clear however, (Zach gives us broad hints of this) that there is a large and close homosexual fraternity in New York.

Anyway – all in all very enjoyable. However, I have to say- it has possibly one of the worst covers ever. I AM going to continue to critique the covers of these books because I think that it’s important. However, as one of the protagonists is a war artist in the American Civil War, I can’t help but wonder if this was deliberate and that the painting is supposed to reflect that.  However I hope that David’s art was a little better.  If I saw it on a shelf, there’s no way in God’s green earth I would turn it over to see what the blurb said.

And then I’d have missed an excellent book, which would be a criminal shame.  Historically weighty, yes, (for the size of it) but the theme of this blog is Gay Historical Fiction, and this book certainly is one of the examples I shall point to when I say “This is gay historical fiction.”

Buy: Amazon UK   Amazon USA

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

Review: Gaywyck by Vincent Virga

Gaywyck is the first gay Gothic novel. Long out of print, this classic proved that genre knows no gender. Young, innocent Robert Whyte enters a Jane-Eyre world of secrets and deceptions when he is hired to catalog the vast library at Gaywyck, a mysterious ancestral mansion on Long Island, where he falls in love with its handsome and melancholy owner, Donough Gaylord. Robert’s unconditional love is challenged by hidden evil lurking in the shadowy past crammed with dark sexual secrets sowing murder, blackmail, and mayhem in the great romantic tradition

Review by Erastes

Considered the “grandaddy of gay historical fiction” “Gaywyck” is certainly one of the first of its kind, and although not the most literary or beautifully written of the genre, it is essential reading and deserves more than a little respect that, despite being out of print, it is still being read and sought out after more than 20 years.

On the surface, it’s a familiar story: Robert Whyte does not want to conform to his father’s plans for him and through the good graces of a friend he obtains a post at Gaywyck, a mansion on Long Island in early 20th Century America owned by the mysterious Donough Gaylord.  There’s everything you expect in a Gothic Romance: faithful retainers, an animal who is almost human, mysteries of long-dead fathers and twin brothers, locked rooms, instant attraction between the protagonists and plenty of misunderstandings and conflict to keep them apart.

But it does have flaws; the language is over-blown at times and there’s a tendency to info-dump with information on architecture, flowers, paintings, decorations, furniture that I often found myself skipping forward to get to the next section that moved the story along.  Robert Whyte did not endear himself to me until the end, and even then I wouldn’t have been too unhappy if Gaylord (oh Lord…) had stuck the boy’s head in a bucket and put his foot on it.  I know I’ve written a physically frail protagonist but sheesh – he does improve. Robert – when he’s not weeping, fainting, angsting or trembling in fear is getting himself into dangerous situations that Catherine Moreland would have paid good guineas to be in and then has to be rescued by all and sundry.

It has to be said that he doesn’t exactly do much work, either, for all that he’s being paid quite a decent sum to do so.

There are some excellent secondary characters, although everyone appears to be gay (friends and servants) which is always an irritant, but I particularly enjoyed Gaylord’s New York friends who were some light relief from all the brooding and fainting.  Despite all that, I did like the way the love affair progressed and the internal conflicts the characters had to overcome to get close to each other.

The solving of the mystery was actually a surprise to me, and a really good one, so stick with it because there’s a good twist at the end.  Oh – and the epilogue broke me into tiny tiny pieces and I cried my eyes out, but then I’m a big soppy.

There’s a sequel of sorts in Vadrial Vail, where Whyte and Gaylord make a cameo appearance but I haven’t read that yet – review when I have.

All in all, a decent Gothic romance.  It is showing its age a little, in my opinion. “Master of Seacliff” is similar to this but superior in many ways, but as one of the forerunners of the genre, it is worth a spin.

I would have given it 3 stars as it didn’t light any fires under me or do anything I hadn’t seen before, but due to its age and durability, and the fact that it made me cry, I’m adding an extra star.

It is out of print at the moment, but you can get hold of copies here and there for a reasonable price with a little searching.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Charioteer by Mary Renault

It’s hard for me to do a review of this book for many reasons.  It seems a bit cheeky for me to even try – and it’s  been around for so long I would imagine that just about everyone I know has read it, but if this review tempts one person who hasn’t to give it a whirl, then I’ll have achieved something. So perhaps it’s less of a review and more of a personal rave. That I love it, is a given.

It’s a simple enough story on the surface. Laurie, young idealistic, attempts to defend Ralph, the head boy at his school, when he is about to be sent down for “misbehaving with a younger boy.”  Ralph finds out before Laurie can act and warns him off. During the discussion Ralph gives Laurie a copy of Plato’s Phaedrus which he keeps with him and uses as a model for his life. Time moves on – World War 2 happens and we next catch up with Laurie in hospital where he’s developing a heavy crush on a concientious objector, Andrew – and then he meets Ralph again.

The Charioteer is the thread and metaphor which runs throughout the book. The Charioteer of Phaedrus handles two horses, one runs smoothly and obediently, the other fights against the control – it is up to the charioteer to make them run as a pair.  The parallels for the charioteer are myriad – the comparison between “normal” sexual behaviour and the homosexual – the love that Laurie feels for Andrew and the relationship he eventually forms with Ralph to name just two.

I’m sure there are tons of themes that the more intellectual have found/discussed to the skies, but the best thing for me is that it’s a lesson in how to write – without actually writing.  The book is sparse to the extreme, it’s like she wrote a much longer book and then cut huge hunks out of the middles of each scene. Conversations are handled in real time, characters don’t finish sentences, and there are utterly intriguing gaps where the reader “loses time” – where something may have happened, a look, a kiss or a sex scene.  It’s amazingly skilful and all I could do was smash my keyboard to pieces in frustration that I’ll never come close to that.

The characters are indelibly imprinted on my mind, all except  perhaps Andrew, which is probably deliberate because we see him only through Laurie’s eyes and Laurie isn’t objective. I found him too remote to be interesting, whereas the characters that Laurie meets at the queer party he attends are stronger – and my heart broke over the young airman who comes over brash and unbearable until you think about what he’s doing, for his job. Ralph is irresistable – as Laurie finds him to be, and I really felt the attraction, he’s quite my favourite character – but all of them are amazingly well done, complex, contrary, stupid and real.

One of the best books I’ve ever read – regardless of theme – and one of the Essential Reads for anyone interested in the genre, in my opinion.

Buy it

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