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.

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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)

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