Review: On a Lee Shore by Elin Gregory

“Give me a reason to let you live…”

Beached after losing his ship and crew, and with England finally at peace, Lt Christopher Penrose will take whatever work he can get. A valet? Why not? Escorting an elderly diplomat to the Leeward Islands seems like an easy job, but when their ship is boarded by pirates, Kit’s world is turned upside down. Forced aboard the pirate ship, Kit finds himself juggling his honor with his desire to stay alive among the crew, not to mention the alarming—yet enticing—captain, known as Le Griffe. 

Kit has always obeyed the rules, but as the pirates plunder their way across the Caribbean, he finds much to admire in their freedom. He deplores their lawlessness but is drawn to their way of life, and begins to think he might just have found a purpose. Dare he dream of finding love too? Or would loving a pirate take him too far down the road to ruin?

ebook  - 289 pages (approx)

Review by Alex Beecroft

 First Impressions

 I love the cover – all that gold and rigging and lovely ruffly shirts. A proper naval jacket immediately catches my eye, but the piratical scarf and the fact that that’s clearly not a naval ship (with those crows’ nests) already suggests an interesting conflict.

My initial impression that this was going to be a romance between Kit and his delightful fashionable friend Tristan. The two of them had such chemistry that I was quite sad when currently turned-ashore Lieutenant Kit got a job as an elderly gentleman’s valet and set sail for the Leeward Islands. But soon their small merchant vessel is attacked by pirates and Kit is taken captive aboard the Africa, captained by the gentleman pirate La Griffe (Griffin to his friends.)

Kit is gay, but he has all the ingrained prejudices and internalized homophobia appropriate to a naval officer, for whom sodomy is a hanging offence. I liked the fact that he did not experience a sudden inexplicable change of heart on simply seeing Griffin.

I also liked the fact that Griffin is a cut above some romance-novel-pirates, who would think nothing of a bit of dub- or even non-con. I really dislike the whole ‘irresistible alpha male semi-forces himself on other bloke, confident he will like it in the end, and of course he does’ trope. It’s one of the things that generally puts me off pirate novels – all that threat of rape. Fortunately Griffin is too proud to force himself on an unwilling partner, which means that instead we get a relationship of slowly developing respect between the two men.

Kit is put to work doing such things aboard the pirate sloop that he can be trusted to do without sabotaging the ship or damaging his own honour. This gives rise to another of the great joys of the book, which is the fact that even without the m/m romance element this is a wonderful Age of Sail novel. I would almost go so far as to say that it’s an Age of Sail novel with m/m romance elements rather than a m/m romance-novel with AoS elements.

Elin Gregory’s research is impeccable, her scenes of shipboard life are endlessly engaging, full of lively characters, great nautical battles and intrigues and raving sailing. Anyone who has enjoyed Master and Commander, or Hornblower, would enjoy this novel as a thoroughly entertaining bit of historical swashbuckling.

The romance is slow developing, but I think it’s all the more convincing for that. Both men have time to show their finer qualities, which in both their cases are fine indeed. They also have time to work through their issues, making the development of the love between them more easy to believe. By the end, when Griffin is betrayed by one of his own men, it’s just as easy for the reader to be on the edge of their seat with nerves about how he will ever come back as it is for Kit.

Speaking of swashbuckling, there’s something satisfyingly old school about the ending, where by old school I mean ‘reminds me of classic pirate films like Captain Blood’. It’s a delightful twist, completely unexpected at least by me, and yet properly foreshadowed early on, so that when it does happen you go ‘oh, so that’s why…!’

To sum up. I can’t actually think of anything bad to say about this, other than that the pace and emphasis of the story is more that of an Age of Sail novel than that of a romance. To me that makes the book all the better. Lots to read and get your teeth into as well as a proper pace for the psychological journey Kit has to go on. But those who prefer a more wham, bam, thank you man pace may find it a little slow going. My advice would be to relax and enjoy the ride, because what a ride it is.

Author’s Blog

Buy at Amazon UK | Amazon USA | B&N | Kobo | All Romance eBooks

sin-five-star-read

Review: Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg

Newly discharged from the Marines after World War II, Scotty Bowers arrived in Hollywood in 1946. Young, charismatic, and strikingly handsome, he quickly caught the eye of many of the town’s stars and starlets. He began sleeping with some himself, and connecting others with his coterie of young, attractive, and sexually free-spirited friends. His own lovers included Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor, and he arranged tricks or otherwise crossed paths with Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, William Holden, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover, to name but a few.

“Full Service” is not only a fascinating chronicle of Hollywood’s sexual underground, it also exposes the hypocrisy of the major studios, who used actors to propagate a myth of a conformist, sexually innocent America knowing full well that their stars’ personal lives differed dramatically from this family-friendly mold. As revelation-filled as “Hollywood Babylon,” “Full Service” provides a lost chapter in the history of the sexual revolution and is a testament to a man who provided sex, support, and affection to countless people.

Review by Elliott Mackle

We knew that Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were housemates and longtime lovers. We knew that Tony Perkins and Tab Hunter were more than just close friends. And that the supposedly torrid romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was born in a Hollywood dream factory and acted out in the pages of fan magazines and gossip columns. In certain circles, the Duke of Windsor’s bisexuality seems to have been an open secret. Still, some parts of Scotty Bowers’ sizzling tell-all are pretty surprising. Here in the United States, especially on amazon.com, there seems to be an organized effort to one- and two-star the book to death—on literary as well as moralistic grounds. I couldn’t put it down.

Scotty Bowers spent his early years milking cows and tending livestock on the family farm in Illinois. Like many such youths, the facts of copulation and reproduction were to him simply facts of life, with no moral value attached. Although he noticed girls at an early age, and liked what he saw, his first sexual experiences were at the hands of a neighboring farmer, the father of schoolfellows, and he liked that, too. The pattern was set: sex was natural and necessary. Love was where you found it. His libido was high—three ejaculations a day was not uncommon in his twenties and thirties—and the handsome man he was to become was attractive to, and attracted by, men and women with exquisite taste (or memorable kinks) and the means to buy their own unfettered pleasure. Given the fame, variety and kindness of his partners, longtime sweethearts and wife, who could ask for anything more?

The opening is well crafted, with alternating chapters charting Bowers’ coming of age during the Great Depression and his experiences as a fighting Marine in the Pacific followed by almost immediate success as a stud-for-hire and date-arranger in the City of Angels.

After the farm was lost and the family moved to Joliet and then Chicago, Scotty followed an undercover but believable track of shining shoes (and accommodating the men who wore them), delivering papers (same scenario) and allowing pedophile priests to use his pre-adolescent body. His turf in California was a Richfield Oil station on Hollywood Boulevard near several major studios. One day, after he’d pumped gas into a very expensive auto at another station, the customer, a man with an unforgettable voice, tipped him twenty dollars extra and asked what he was doing for the rest of the day. Although Bowers had had sex with men in and out of the military service, and at that time lived with a woman and their daughter, this was his first paid trick with a male. His arrangement with the driver, married film star Walter Pigeon, was ultimately long- term and satisfactory on both sides, though hardly unique.

Scotty arranged to work the evening shift at Richfield. The station became a hangout for his ex-Marine friends, their girlfriends and buddies. Many of these attractive young people were long on time and short on cash. Scotty kept a little black book detailing who might be available for what sort of activity. Word got around. Tricks were arranged by phone as well as in person.  Scotty might tell an inexperienced customer the going price for what he or she required but he declares again and again that his was not a prostitution ring. He never took a fee or cut. He was merely the middle man for private transactions involving sex and money.

Although Bowers had enjoyed name-brand companionship during wartime shore-leaves (playmates Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, platonic pal Marion Davies), his numbers soared postwar. “Professionally married” composer, Cole Porter, for instance, had no hesitation in phoning Bowers to ask that he bring over three or four or seven or eight Marines to be serviced orally. Bowers became a confidante of the insecure Porter as well as a regular sex partner.

And so on, including George Cukor, ex-Marine buddy Tyrone Power, Edith Piaf, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, Vivien Leigh (while husband Laurence Olivier was busy with call boys), Alfred Kinsey (as an observer) and visiting notables, including both Windsors. No need here to mention every trick, affair and arrangement. Or to assume that an old man’s memory is faultless and every word literally true.

Probably the memoir’s juiciest section concerns the Tracy-Hepburn ménage conducted in a cottage on director George Cukor’s estate. Although Bowers was a source for William J. Mann’s “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” his own report on the so-called affair is more detailed and less nuanced than Mann’s. In short, according to Bowers, Hepburn was a full-time lesbian who called on him to provide younger, smaller, darker girls for her amusement whereas the married Tracy regularly summoned Scotty to help steel himself into the sort of drunken insensibility that allows closeted or bisexual men to claim that they “don’t remember a thing” the next morning. Oddly enough, Tracy is an exception to Bowers’ routine detailing of the whats, whys and hows of most of the stars’ preferences and peccadillos. “Nibbling on my foreskin” and “a damn good lover” are about as graphic as it gets. I’m guessing that Tracy was so habitually drunk that he was usually unable to either perform or fully enjoy Bowers’ considerable skills.

What’s not mentioned is almost as interesting as what is. Bowers eventually moved on from pumping gas to full-time bartending, catering, tricking with and liaison-arranging for Hollywood royalty. As far as I can tell, his career was entirely private and his sensibilities resolutely lower middle class. There is little or no mention of dining or meeting friends at such hallowed Hollywood hot spots as the Polo Lounge or the Brown Derby. Bowers doesn’t explain but my guess is that the managers of such high profile watering holes considered him persona non grata.

No matter. For us, the eighty-nine-year-old and his spicy memories are welcome guests. Would that all of us—and our favorite literary characters—could lead such a charmed, erotically charged and romantic life.

Buy:  Amazon UK | Amazon USA | TLA Video&books

Review: Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov

Love soars.

Germany, 1945. The Third Reich is on its knees as Allied forces bomb Berlin to break the last resistance. Yet on an airfield near Berlin, the battle is far from over for a young mechanic, Felix, who’s attached to a squadron of fighter pilots. He’s especially attached to fighter ace Baldur Vogt, a man he admires and secretly loves. But there’s no room for love at the end of the world, never mind in Nazi Germany.

When Baldur narrowly cheats death, Felix pulls him from his plane, and the pilot makes his riskiest move yet. He takes a few days’ leave to recover, and he takes Felix with him. Away from the pressures of the airfield, their bond deepens, and Baldur shows Felix the kind of brotherhood he’d only ever dreamed of before.

But there’s no escaping the war, and when they return, Baldur joins the fray again in the skies over Berlin. As the Allies close in on the airfield where Felix waits for his lover, Baldur must face the truth that he is no longer the only one in mortal danger.

Available from Riptide Publishing.

Review by Sal Davis

Let’s cut to the chase. I’ll just nail my colours to the mast and say I absolutely loved Skybound, no ifs, buts or maybes!

Okay, fangirly moment over. Now I’m going to say why I think it’s such a good read.

First of all – the cover. Jordan Taylor has really delivered the goods with this deceptively simple monochromatic image of a climbing plane. No idea what type it is but I’ll lay good money that it’s both relevant to the story and a spot on accurate depiction of its kind. The strong type, echoing the ‘military armour plate’ design at the edges of the image to contain the bold outward bound diagonal of the plane, the subtle background saltires that draw the eye back into the image, the warm tone of the author’s name – a very clever and visually satisfying piece of work.

I would think that the amount of fact checking for this story was enormous but it’s expressed in tip of the iceberg fashion. The sense of time and place is established economically but without resort to cliche. The language is also economical, precise, considered, yet detailed. Care is taken in describing the little things, important things – a book, a meal – that take the characters mind off the War, though the thought of it is never far away.

Written in first person present from Felix’s POV, the book plunges straight into the action with a breathless sequence as Baldur’s squadron comes in to land. Felix impressed me very much by getting on with his business despite his anxiety to be sure Baldur wasn’t injured, but he won my heart completely with his thoughts about the Karl May books he still reads, thrilled by the close friendship between the protagonists, dreaming of similar acts of selfless devotion, but with too much humility to cast himself in the role of the sacrifice. He never doubts that his love for Baldur will be unrequited so expresses it with the care and devotion with which he repairs, maintains and fine tunes Baldur’s plane. When his peaceful reflection is disturbed by Baldur, who plonks himself down and bums a cigarette, Felix is unprepared and is made to feel foolish. That Baldur is interested in him is shown subtly by signs that the reader can pick up but that baffle the inexperienced Felix. It’s a tender moment and sets up the relationship well for the action to follow.

Since the POV is Felix’s, we never get to see what he looks like. He is a little smaller than Balder, who shortens his stride so Felix can keep up, and has very short hair. Balder’s appearance is described a little more fully but the important things to Felix are not what one normally finds in romances. I particularly enjoyed how Felix made particular mention that Balder’s very short nails are cut rather than bitten, with all that implies of self control and nerve.

Felix spends a lot of time reflecting on their situation, which could have felt contrived but actually suits his character. He is a man apart from his fellows and recognises that distance in Balder too, though he is too naive to realise what it means. Balder won my heart too by the care he takes in allowing Felix the time to realise and his kindness once the connection is made.

The last days of the war were horrifying enough without the added problems offered by starting a proscribed relationship, yet the two lonely young men are unable to resist when an opportunity is offered. As the story progresses, tensions are drawn between love and duty, and the recognition that while honour is absolute, it’s worth taking chances to grab what little comfort they can. Felix and Baldur are in an impossible position and as it comes down to the wire, the question is not will they survive but will they die together or apart, killed by the Americans or the Russians.

When one spends the last third of a book sick with worry, and occasionally hyperventilating a bit, one can assure the author that they are doing it right! It’s a “rush through to the end, then re-read immediately to savour it” kind of book. I wish it was on paper so I could cuddle it. No hesitation in giving this five stars.

Review: All the Beauty of the Sun by Marion Husband

Soho 1925

Two young men meet – for one of them this is love at first sight, for the other only lust and guilt…

In 1925 Paul Harris returns to England from self-imposed exile in Tangiers for an exhibition of his paintings.  He leaves behind Patrick, the man he has loved since they met in the trenches in 1918, needing to discover if he has the strength to live without him and wanting to explore the kind of life he might have lived had it not been for the war.  In Bohemian Soho, Paul meets Edmund whose passionate love changes Paul’s idea of himself.  With Edmund, Paul begins to believe that he may have another life to live, free of the guilt and regrets of the past.  But the past is not so easy to escape, and when Patrick follows Paul to London a decision must be made that will affect all their lives.

281 pages. Available in ebook and paperback

Review by Erastes

This is a sequel of sorts to Husband’s “The Boy I Love” which I reviewed in 2007. It’s a little confusing because the three books in the series, “The Boy I Love”, “Paper Moon”, and “All the Beauty of the Sun” were written in the order above, but the timeline is: “The Boy I Love”, “All the Beauty of the Sun” and “Paper Moon”. This is important if you were setting off to read them all in order–and I highly recommend you do because these books are stellar. Simply the pinnacle of gay historical fiction.

Husband’s prose suits me perfectly, I’m quite aware that this more literary style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I find  her level of detail, her love for the minutiae in the depth of great emotion to be one of her greatest assets. She’s not content with someone walking with some distress through London streets; with skillful use of layering detail on detail she brings the scene to live through sights, scents, sounds, even touch. The effect of this is not only to show the protagonists emotional state, which literary fiction must rely on, but to immerse you entirely into the scene, sometimes you feel so close that you wonder that the characters can’t see you, peering in on them.

Paul Harris, whose story is more or less the mutual thread in the series, has returned from Tangiers, where he’s been living in exile with his lover, Patrick, in order to show his war paintings in a London gallery and hopefully to sell them. He’s uncertain as to whether the trip was sensible–he’s an ex convict, and would be in danger one again should his homosexuality be exposed again–and he’s left Patrick behind. He is anchored with Patrick–Patrick was his sargeant in the war, and Paul learned in the trenches to rely on Patrick–and it is Patrick that pulled Paul out of more than one terrible problems in the previous book.

Sadly though, Paul is very much “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with” so anyone who dislikes this ethos might want to avoid.

His story interweaves with the others in the story. Ann, the “good time girl” and artists’ model, Lawrence, straight but probably more on  his wavelength than any, the gallery owner and artist, Joseph Day, love rival for Ann, and Edmund, public schoolboy and bi-curious gay virgin. Some of it is written in third person, some in first, some in stream of conciousness, so if that literary style isn’t for you, you might not want to try it, but I think you should because the writing is so utterly beautiful.

Even when it is recounting the worst of times–death in the trenches being one dark subject, the prose remains clear and honest. This isn’t–for those who find World War One unreadable–something that dwells heavily on the trenches. It’s mentioned and obviously the effects of the war still resonate with everyone, physically and mentally, but it’s not the only factor. Paul has more demons than just the war, oh yes indeed.

I can’t help but care for Paul passionately. I felt tremendously sorry for him, and the things he does in London were unwise, but I felt he was a leaf, blown about by fate and he didn’t have the fibre to hold himself upright. I think any pretty young man would have captured him. Despite what he purports to feel about Edmund, I was never fully convinced–I don’t think he could separate love and sex, and Edmund was relatively untouched by the war. He lost a brother, but he was too young to have been in himself. Perhaps it is that aspect of Edmund that draws Paul, like a moth to a flame.

I did find the relationships rather confusing, and they lent heavily on coincidence. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Ann for example, who Paul has only met through Lawrence and Edmund, knows–and has had a relationship with–Matthew, a man who has spent years in hospital, the war drove him mad.

It’s hard to describe the plot, because other than the thread of Paul of Edmund there isn’t really much of one–but that’s no detriment. Rather it’s a “slice of life” we start watching these characters at a certain point, and we stop at a certain point. There’s no definitive ending, no neat tying up of plot lines, because this deals with life, and of course life doesn’t have genre ending.

All of the characters–and there are more than I’ve described, all of whom are connected to Paul in some way or other–are fully fleshed out, their actions and reactions explored and consequences–or the threat of consequences–worried about. I take my hat off to Husband, because she is a master juggler of plotlines, how she does it, and with such a deft touch is beyond me.

So, don’t miss this series–if you love the power of words, words rich in layer and tone without swamping themselves in the morass of “this is literature” you will love them. Can’t recommend them enough.

As a final note, I have to mention the covers. The trilogy has been republished by Accent Press with new covers and they are terribly misleading. On each cover (as you can see) there’s a close up of a beautiful woman with a war/London backdrop. Seeing that in a bookshop makes one think that you are getting a standard women’s fiction book or a romance. Granted, the back makes it clear that the story revolves around Paul and his loves but the cover? It’s baffling. If the publisher was actually afraid to put a picture of a man on “The Boy I Love” and “All the Beauty of the Sun” then it’s rather misrepresenting, and once a reader buys a book thinking it’s one thing and finds that actually it’s gay romance with some scenes with more description than the average non-gay-fiction-reader can cope with, they probably won’t come back. I would have much preferred a more honest cover, but this doesn’t affect the five star mark, of course.

Author’s Website

Buy at Accent Press | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Captain Harding and his Men by Elliott Mackle

When a C-130 bound for Southeast Asia explodes on takeoff at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding instinctively realizes that the cargo list—“medical supplies and radio tubes”—was faked. When Joe’s newly-married workout buddy does a swan dive off a fifth story balcony in downtown Tripoli, Joe refuses to accept the semi-official verdict: suicidal depression. And when Joe’s tennis partner, the son of the American ambassador, decides to celebrate his eighteenth birthday by appearing unannounced at Joe’s BOQ door, the potential difficulties of their love-match must be addressed––seriously and without delay.  

Continuing the adventures and misadventures begun in Elliott Mackle’s award-winning “Captain Harding’s Six-Day War,” Joe and his fellow officers and airmen contend with a highly decorated but sexually abusive wing commander (who happens to be Joe’s boss), a closeted Pentagon official fighting to save his career, a CIA agent who may be an imposter, and shipments of British weapons that fall into the hands of anti-royalist rebels.  When a kidnapping goes terribly wrong, Joe must fight for everything he holds dear: duty, honor, country and love. 

180 pages, published by Lethe Press, available in paperback and ebook

Review by Erastes

Some books take a while to get into–not so anything I’ve read from Elliott Mackle, and this is no exception. Right from the get-go we are thrust into Captain Harding’s narrative (first person) and within a very few pages, even if you hadn’t read the first in this series (Captain Harding’s Six Day War) you are up to speed with the good captain and his sit-rep. (ho ho, using jargon because of the military theme.)

In this book he’s up against some very powerful forces, the CIA, the American Ambassador to Libya, his cute boyfriend’s parents (one of whom is the Ambassador) and a shadowy plot of stolen weapons, a suspected coup, and silenced (murdered) soldiers. Harding doesn’t want to save the world, particularly, but he’d like his own to continue relatively unendangered. But seeing as his Lieutenant-Colonel knows he’s gay, and there’s also a straight buddy who knows his secrets, a beat-off buddy Major, a 17 year old boyfriend and more skeletons in his closet than Hercule Poirot, things can often get a bit hairy.

The main thing I’ve gleaned about Captain Harding and his book is that I NEVER want to get into the forces, and that goes double for being an officer. The level of intrigue, political shennanigans, hypocrisy and downright double dealing that goes on makes my head spin. I doubt that all units are quite as much as a hot-bed as Wheelus is in the late 1960′s but I bet a fair lot of it goes on wherever you are. People have secrets, a lot of secrets and they’ll keep them until they think by spilling them they can save their arses.

It’s the way the Harding deals with it all that makes this fascinating reading. He’s not an angel, and he certainly doesn’t have any “Give Me Honor or Give Me Death” going on, but in the main he’s a really great guy, and he wants to do the right thing and has to work damned hard at making it happen. He’s human–he wants to protect his friends but he has a real human streak of self-preservation, he isn’t likely to throw himself in too much harm to do it. Although he might, it just depends if he has to do so to protect those he loves.

And there’s the “and his men” tag – and where it comes in. Harding is pushing 30 and as full of testosterone as any man of his age. Despite the fact that he thinks that Cotton Boardman is “the one” they are both pragmatic about their situation–Cotton is 17 at the beginning of the book and they both want to wait until he’s “legal” (or as legal as he can be–that is, where it won’t make Harding feel so guilty–e.g. 18) and after a couple of unsatisfactory sexual try-outs, and getting caught sharing a hotel room by Cotton’s father, they cool it for most of the book while Cotton goes back to school and Harding waits on tenterhooks hoping his career won’t cascade around his ears, not knowing when or even if he’ll see Cotton again.

So Harding keeps himself busy and his sex-drive under control (mainly) by “rub-downs” with a Major, and fuck-buddy sessions with an enlisted airman on TDY (temporary duty) for six weeks at Wheelus. If he gets too desperate, there is a steam-room on base where there’s usually someone amenable to a little relief, and a bar in town but both are far more risky. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take risks and it’s one of these times that he meets a real Alpha male who gives him such a sound going over that he’s dizzy from it, wondering if Cotton is the one after all. But it’s this stranger that turns the tide of the investigation Harding is doing, and the man that will be instrumental in cracking the case, but not until everyone has gone through hell.

Just another year in Harding’s life!  I absolutely love these books, and I really hope that there’s going to be a third in the series. The writing is crisp and realistic for men (and women) in the situations that you find them in. The mystery is worth of Raymond Chandler as it twists around, buries itself in official red tape and forged documents, and the characters are fully rounded and fully flawed.

I have no hesitation in awarding this our five star rating. More please, Mr Mackle.

Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Film Review: Victor/Victoria dir. Blake Edwards

In 1934 Paris, trained coloratura soprano Victoria Grant, a native Brit, can’t get a job as a singer and is having trouble making ends meet. She doesn’t even have enough money for the basics of food and shelter. Gay cabaret singer Carole ‘Toddy’ Todd may befall the same fate as Victoria as he was just fired from his singing gig at a second rate club named Chez Lui. To solve both their problems, Toddy comes up with what he considers an inspired idea: with Toddy as her manager, Victoria, pretending to be a man, get a job singing as a female impersonator. If they pull this scheme off, Toddy vows Victoria, as her male alter ego, will be the toast of Paris and as such be extremely wealthy…

Review by Erastes

I dare say there are few people reading this blog who haven’t already seen this film, but if you haven’t, get it on Netflix, rent a copy, or simply pop on over to Youtube and seek it out because you’ve missed out on a real treat.

I first saw this film years ago, after it had just been released on video, in about 1984. I didn’t have any interest (or so I thought) in gay fiction, gay history, at the time but I loved the film to pieces for its sheer ebullience and camposity.

It’s very cleverly filmed, to my mind. Blake Edwards, having just directed “10″ and “S.O.B” could probably have filmed the entire thing on location but he chose instead to build a mini portion of Paris as a set on the odd occasions that the characters have to be outside and dealt with the rest in restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. The sets he does build, though are gorgeous, dripping with Art Deco style and fixtures and fittings which would make any Art Deco fan’s mouth drool. Particularly Victor’s hotel bathroom.

The casting is bizarre but utterly inspired. Julie Andrews was still attempting to shake off Maria Von Trapp and had done so with some success in S.O.B. but I think that it was this film that gave her the space between Maria and the real world. She’s no character actor, that’s for sure, and she’ll always have the unmistakable and unique cut-glass spoken voice but it’s quite uncanny the way she can have her hair slicked back, put on a serious face, and even with more eyeshadow than Boots she’s suddenly a very attractive and androgynous youth.

I didn’t much fancy James Garner as King Marchand (I’d like to get hold of a copy of the 1995 made-for-TV-version which stars Andrews reprising her role but with Michael Nouri as Marchand to see what he makes of it. Garner played the bumbling Maverick and Rockford for too many years for me to find him convincing as a smouldering male romantic lead, but he does pretty well, and the confusion he’s feeling is managed perfectly with those Droopy-style eyebrows.

I wish he hadn’t found out conclusively that Victor was a woman before he decided to kiss her, but I can understand that for 1982 film audiences that would have been a kiss too far. It would have had the weight of “Nobody’s Perfect” that famous last line in “Some Like It Hot” if the studio had been brave enough to have Marchand say “I don’t care if you are a man” before he kisses Victor, whilst still being unsure as to whether he was or not.

The star of the show for me is Robert Preston who hams, camps and queens it up like the proverbial good ‘un, never seeming out of place or embarrassed but gleefully milking every joke and double-entendre for what they are worth. His final performance as Victor is a gem of film history and the giggling and general guffawing that is going on during it is–I’m sure–in no way faked. It really comes over as being a really fun day on the set.

Credit is also due to Lesley-Ann Warren who plays the dizzy blonde bombshell to a tee and a wonderful understated performance by Alex Karras as Marchand’s heavy.

Historically? Well, you have to take much of it with large handfuls of salt. Of course stage types and artistic types were–and are–often gay, but how outre Paris was about this at the time is probably exaggerated. Yes, there would have been clubs where men could go and dance together, but Toddy’s song “Gay Paree” is a bit of a puff even though what he describes is very true for the time. Gay was a word around from the early 20s, although more used for prostitutes of both the gay and straight persuasion. However, it’s a great song and we can forgive it for that.

It garnered a lot of attention, critically at the time, too. It had seven Oscar nominations, Andrews, Preston and Warren all being nominated but it “only” won one, that of Best Music. It did pick up a few Golden Globes and many other awards in 1983, though.

It’s a real feel-good film, with enough gentle humour and understated farce to make you giggle. Some of the humour is very slapstick, but in a Pink Panther kind of way–unsurprising as Edwards was responsible for the show and the films, too. Add to that outstanding performances by all concerned.  Don’t miss it. And if you have seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it again.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084865/

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: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

Painfully introverted and rendered nearly mute by a heavy stammer, Lord George Albert Westin rarely ventures any farther than the club or his beloved gardens. When he hears rumors of an exotic new orchid sighted at a local hobbyist’s house, though, he girds himself with opiates and determination to attend a house party, hoping to sneak a peek.

He finds the orchid, yes…but he finds something else even more rare and exquisite: Michael Vallant. Professional sodomite.

Michael climbed out of an adolescent hell as a courtesan’s bastard to become successful and independent-minded, seeing men on his own terms, protected by a powerful friend. He is master of his own world—until Wes. Not only because, for once, the sex is for pleasure and not for profit. They are joined by tendrils of a shameful, unspoken history. The closer his shy, poppy-addicted lover lures him to the light of love, the harder his past works to drag him back into the dark.

There’s only one way out of this tangle. Help Wes face the fears that cripple him—right after Michael finds the courage to reveal the devastating truth that binds them.

Review by Erastes

It’s not very often that I am charmed by a book almost from the first page–but this book blew a fresh wind into the rather overworked 19th century area of the m/m historical romance genre and I found myself won over and wooed.

I have to say that I took to Cullinan’s protagonist immediately. In fact I took to both of them because they were so refreshing in these days of perfect hunks of men. Granted they are both gorgeous as hell, but Lord George Albert Westin has a stammer that would make King George VI look fluent, and Michael Vallant wears glasses–without them, he’s as blind as Marilyn Monroe’s character in How to Marry a Millionaire.

These two disabilities are used with comic effect (without making light of the disabilities at all, I hasten to add) to get our two main characters into an amusing and tight situation where they get to know each other in a manner that I don’t think I’ve ever read before. In fact it’s the way that these two characters get together that was a refreshing change to read.

Both men–aside from their handicaps–are also damaged psychologically. I won’t reveal the nature of this damage as it would spoil a good deal of the plot but it creates the main part of the conflict in the book and due to both men’s inability to deal with real life in general nearly leads to their downfall.

There’s a good deal of research that’s gone into this book and it shows–but in a way that draws you in, intrigues you and makes you think “oo – I must look that up!” It’s not the kind of book that info dumps you with detail, rather, it makes the detail part of the story so you are mopping up facts about early Victorian London without realising it. I’m not sure of the exact date, but Euston Station is in existence, so it’s sometime after 1837.

There is a fair bit of weeping, and that would normally irritate me, but actually it works well here, and Ms Cullinan has worked to portray men who are at the edge of precipices they didn’t even know they were on, and it takes one small push to send them into the abyss. There’s a hugely touching scene in the Bodliean Library where Michael catches sight of himself in a glass case and metaphysically he almost disappears, because he doesn’t know who he is, and realises that he needs to “find himself” and I fully believed that he would break down at this point. It’s very realistically played. The psychology that is explored, in a time before everyone had a shrink, is well done and convincing.

I think I would have liked a little more interaction with Wes’s brother, and his nephew and even his father, because much of what we learn about the father doesn’t gel with what we actually see on the screen. But, the secondary characters are all well done, my favourite was Rodger, Michael’s procurer. Be warned, for those of you who will not read such themes that child abuse is a theme and although its never on the page and quite rightly horrific and not for titilation it is there and Samhain should drop their jokey “warnings” and put up some real ones.

I have one minor quibble, and that’s some of the language was a little modern, and there was a lot of talk of “blocks” e.g. He drove six blocks, and that kind of thing, which was a tad jarring but that’s not enough to dent the mark, because this was a pleasure to read and I hope Ms Cullinan continues to write historicals because she’s made a great debut into the genre with this one.

A lovely long read, with two protagonists thatwill have you rooting for them from the first, I highly recommend A Private Gentleman. It’s ludicrously cheap–and ebook only, and I hope that Samhain get this into print asap, because I want a forever copy.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: One More Soldier by Marie Sexton

It is 1963. Being gay is a sin against God. And twenty-eight year old mechanic Will meets Bran for the first time.

Over the years a close bond forms between them despite the seventeen year age difference. Will teaches Bran to swim and helps him with homework. The years pass, Bran drops out of school and moves away.

Then Bran comes home. Can Will move past their age difference? And if he does, how can he keep Bran in 1970 America?

A beautifully told tale of love and loss told from the viewpoint of a deeply closeted gay man at the very beginning of the American Gay and Lesbian Rights movement

Review by Erastes

This little novella surprised me. For some reason I had the preconception that it was by an English author, one that writes Age of Sail and so in that, I’ve obviously got my Marie’s muddled (sorry to both of you) so when I encountered a bitter-sweet (be warned) love story with a rather worrying start:

I first met Bran eight years ago. He was eleven years old.

I was twenty-eight.

But this is all right, actually, because you are supposed to feel that prickle of unease, because that’s exactly what the narrator is attempting to explain. Will, the narrator, is–if not entirely closeted, damned careful about what he does and where he does it It’s 1963 and Houston there wasn’t a lot of gay liberation going on. Hookups in discreet bars, blow jobs in cars–that’s the level of his companionship and he thinks himself lucky if he gets it once a week.

When he meets Bran–the eleven year old–it’s not at ALL in a sexual manner. The young boy attaches himself to Will for a week or  two as he’s new to the area and makes a nuisance of himself, but by the time school starts, Bran finds his own friends and their paths meet as rarely as you would expect people living in the same complex might meet. Bran does odd jobs for Will from time to time, taking in the mail when he’s out of town, that kind of thing. Then, when Bran leaves school before his senior year and takes up ranching, Will doesn’t see him at all for a few years.

It’s when Bran does return, changed out of all recognition, that the trouble starts, and the slightly unsettling beginning comes into its own. Bran is handsome, bronzed, muscled and entirely unrecognisable as that skinny and irritating kid that Will taught to swim and sometimes helped with homework. Will finds himself attracted to Bran, and it’s soon clear that Bran feels the same way and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Will is uncomfortable getting close to Bran, and he does fight it (not for terribly long, it has to be said, but it’s a short book!) and he has to try and see two Brans–a kid, and a grown up. Bran emphasises that he’s eighteen now but we hit the old bump in the road with that. It’s a sop to the publishing industry of 2012, and has no relevance to what was going on in the late 196os. Bran could have been 22 and it would have been every bit as illegal, after all.

The book could–were it not for Bran himself–be swept aside with a shrug that this is like many other coming of age/first time/friends becoming lovers books. There are many tropes that you could hang onto it. But don’t write it off and don’t be put off by the age difference. What the author does is something very clever–she shows the generation gap–not just between the ages of the protagonists, but the mental attitide of the protagonists. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the crux of the story, but Bran became (impressive for such a short novella) one of those characters that get under the skin and stay with you long after you’ve started to read something new.

By using Bran in this way, the author has shown the tide of gay liberation–although only the sussurating damp edges of the waves down in Houston–but he points with enthusiasm to the world beyond, sure that “things will change” in his youthful enthusiasm. It’s what happens at the end which gives the title its double-edged poignancy.

As I say–it’s bittersweet–and were this a longer novel and written in the 70′s it probably would be a gay classic today. It would be easy for this book to be entirely overlooked and I beg that you don’t allow that to happen.  If you steel yourself for a non-romance ending I am quite sure you’ll be as impressed with this as I was. I shall snap up any further gay historicals Ms Sexton may come up with!

Author’s website

Ebook only Silver Publishing    Kindle UK     Kindle USA

Review: The German by Lee Thomas

From the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Lee Thomas come a new thrilling novel. 1944 – Barnard, Texas. At the height of World War II, a killer preys on the young men of a quiet Texas town. The murders are calculated, vicious, and they are just beginning. Sheriff Tom Rabbit and his men are baffled and the community he serves is terrified of the monster lurking their streets. The only clues the killer leaves behind are painted snuffboxes containing notes written in German. As the panic builds all eyes turn toward a quiet man with secrets of his own. Ernst Lang fled Germany in 1934. Once a brute, a soldier, a leader of the Nazi party, he has renounced aggression and embraces a peaceful obscurity. But Lang is haunted by an impossible past. He remembers his own execution and the extremes of sex and violence that led to it. He remembers the men he led into battle, the men he seduced, and the men who betrayed him. But are these the memories of a man given a second life, or the delusions of a lunatic?

Review by Erastes

It took me a good while to read this book, since I started it in July 2011 and finished it in December! In my defence I wasn’t reading it all the time, I don’t read that slowly, honest. It was that I was expecting it to all go a lot darker than it did (although it does go to some dark places) and I’m happy that my anticipation didn’t match what actually happened. Although, as I say, it’s not full of fluffy rabbits.

Ok, so basically it’s set in 1944 in a smallish Texan town and is told in three different POVs:

Tom Rabbit: the sherrif. 3rd person past tense.

The German: first person diary entry

Tim Randall: first person past tense.

Now, don’t let this put you off, as it’s absolutely the best way to tell this convoluted and highly interesting story. Like many places in America, the small town has a German community and suddenly young men are dying in horribly mutilated ways and evidence found on the bodies points to the fact that it’s a German murderer. Thus begins an exquisite tale of paranoia, prejudice and a study of how a community can tear itself apart under all sorts of justification.

The German of the title is Ernst, who is clearly a troubled, and yet a good man at heart. He writes in his journal of his past–memories of serving in an army, commanding man, many many men, and a betrayal, a court martial and–and here’s where it’s delightfully opaque–an execution which he seems to have survived, despite the terrible bullet scars on his body. He lives across the street from Tim Randall, an ordinary young man growing up in a small town and with his father overseas serving in the war, at daily threat from “the Krauts”.

Tim’s interaction with Ernst is light. Tim is curious about his neighbour but he doesn’t bother him, although when they do meet up Ernst tries to educate the boy about prejudice and hate. Sadly, although at first Tim appears to see the sense in this, his father is declared “missing in action” and Tim’s grief and fear is channelled in the only way it could be at this time and place–directly towards Ernst.

I loved the feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia here. The way Ernst is pretty much trammelled and keeps to himself for very clear reasons. He frequents a bar from time to time but mostly stays indoors or sits on the porch or swims in the lake. He does have male company occasionally although for most of the book this is with men who are disgusted with their own urges–which puts Ernst off from wanting to see them again.

The interaction between the sheriff and Ernst was masterful. Ernst so clearly in control and almost a little bored with the interrogation–he’s been interrogated before and by masters of the art after all. His frankness to the sheriff about his sexuality was a brilliant stroke–and the effect it had on the countrified and rather naive sheriff was an interesting study.

It’s not a pretty story in any aspect, nor is it meant to be, nor should it be, so be warned that the violence is graphic and literal and shocking. This is entirely right because it is shocking, what happens and who it happens to and why. It’s a terrible but sadly true indictment of human behaviour, beautifully observed and told with true skill.

If I have one quibble, it was the epilogue–the character it portrays didn’t strike me as having learned the lessons that he said he learned and it didn’t really ring true from what we’d seen on the pages previously. However that’s just a small quibble and won’t affect the score because the remainder of the epilogue was note perfect.

Just a note on the cover and the design. I’ve noticed with Lethe Press before that they take real pains over the design of their books. Not merely the covers–this one is perfect–but the font, and the design of the headers inside. It probably won’t show on e-readers, but the headings in this book are just amazingly good, and add another dimension to the book, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. So well done, Lethe Press.

Yes, there is — perhaps — an element of the paranormal here, but as it is completely subjective, I’m not hesitating to review it on the site and to recommend it to anyone.

Author’s website

Amazon UK      Amazon USA (available in print and ebook)

Review: Junction X by Erastes

Set in the very English suburbia of 1962 where everyone has tidy front gardens and lace curtains, Junction X is the story of Edward Johnson, who ostensibly has the perfect life: A beautiful house, a great job, an attractive wife and two well-mannered children. The trouble is he’s been lying to himself all of his life. And first love, when it does come, hits him and hits him hard. Who is the object of his passion? The teenaged son of the new neighbours.
Edward’s world is about to go to hell.

Review by Ruth Sims

Webster defines “inexorable” as “not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped : relentless.”

I have always been drawn to books and plays with that quality. Erastes’ Junction X pulled me in from the first page. I have known for a long time that Erastes is an excellent writer, whether her protagonists are working at a forge, being tortured by a religious zealot, or any of the other trials her characters are heir to. Junction X doesn’t have the protagonist being tortured by outside forces. He is tortured and broken by the cruelest Inquisitors of all: love and his own conscience.

English Family Man Ed has a good life, to all outward appearances he has a perfect life. Success. A fit and gorgeous wife. Twins he adores. Friends. Respect. And as the reader would expect, this man with the perfect life, has a dark secret: his strictly-for-sex relationship with Phil, a former neighbor and long-time male friend. (Neither of them is gay–of course–though Ed is sometimes touched by doubt on the matter.) Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Phil initiates quick, risky sex with Ed in public places, where discovery is always imminent, and Ed never refuses. Love never enters into their relationship, though Ed has a guilty conscience that pokes at him a little–just not enough for him to call a halt to his risky behavior.

Everything changes when Ed glimpses and then later meets and gets to know the new neighbors’ seventeen-year-old son, Alexander. Alex is beautiful with the fleeting and impossible beauty of the very young. Ed is a bit stunned by the speed and completeness of his sudden infatuation with Alex. In no time at all, Ed starts to build “what-if” fantasies about Alex. There is, he convinces himself, no harm in it. No one will ever know. But not long after, it becomes apparent that Alex is constructing his own fantasies … about Ed. During this time, Alex becomes is befriended by Ed’s wife and idolized by the twins.

The inevitable first kiss, given by Alex, throws open the door which hides the impossible fantasies and they become real, taking shape in secret, furtive meetings filled with lust-love. Inevitably, there is one tryst too many, one scheme too many, one declaration of love too many, one denial too many. It’s inevitable that the fragile house of deception will crash around them. It’s inevitable that someone will pay for the crime of love in all the wrong places, with the wrong person.

The end is a shocker.

If you want a book with heart, compassion, and reality coupled with love fantasies divorced from reality, and if you can accept a story with inter-generational love and sex, then Junction X is for you. You will never forget it.

This is the most literary, most riveting, most heart-rending story Erastes has written.

Author’s website

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Maroon: Donal agus Jimmy by P.D. Singer

The best jobs in 1911 Belfast are in the shipyards, but Donal Gallagher’s pay packet at Harland and Wolff doesn’t stretch far enough. He needs to find someone to share his rented room; fellow ship-builder Jimmy Healy’s bright smile and need for lodgings inspire Donal to offer. But how will he sleep, lying scant feet away from Jimmy? It seems Jimmy’s a restless sleeper, too, lying so near to Donal…

In a volatile political climate, building marine boilers and armed insurrection are strangely connected. Jimmy faces an uneasy choice: flee to America or risk turning gunrunner for Home Rule activists. He thinks he’s found the perfect answer to keep himself and his Donal safe, but shoveling coal on a luxury liner is an invitation to fate.

Review by Erastes

It wasn’t until I’d finished this book that I realised that it was actually quite short at 70 odd pages. However it doesn’t read short and it’s well worth every penny of the price. Somehow the author manages to squish a lot–a lot–into those 70 odd pages. But while this would be noticeable with some authors–I often come away from novellas thinking that the walls are being squashed the book could explode into a novel very easily–this is deftly done and it doesn’t seem that it’s wearing boots several sizes too small.

And this is moot, because there was a lot going on in Belfast at this time. Not only were the shipyards the envy of the world, pushing out ships like shelling peas and creating the gargantuans of the shipping world at the time–in particular the White Star Line including The Olympic, the Britannic and the Titanic–but there was unrest (as there had been for centuries) as Ireland chafed against the British yoke.

And it’s into this powder keg Singer drops her story–a simple gay love story which is tender and sweet until outside forces compel them to act in ways that will put their relationship at very great risk.

What I liked most of all about this book is the subtlety of the prose–please do not be put off by what I say here, but Singer weaves the flavour of the language and the rythym of the Irish into the third person narration. Not so much as–say–Jamie O’Neill, but enough just to lift the prose above the ordinary. It’s not there all the time, but it’s a delight when you catch a taste of the lilt. I enjoyed this hugely.

The research, while relayed entirely within the story (no Dan Brown info dumps here, and that would have been the choice of some authors, I know) the author has done a lot of work to learn about the interiors of these ships, the men that worked on them and how things were done, how they were built, how they were launched, tested. It’s great to ride along with Jimmy and Donal as they build these monsters: you can almost see the superstructures rising higher and higher above the dockyards.

You can also understand the duality of the situation, too. Here’s a highly skilled craftsman like Donal, capable of creating the most beautiful woodwork for the first class cabins, and he’s hardly making enough money to support himself and his family back home. He’s forced to take in a room-mate to make ends meet, whilst millionaires will use his washstands on the ships, paying prices for one journey that would keep a dozen families in food and heat for years.

Despite the fact that the book fits its bounds so well, despite the breadth of topics covered, I would have liked more, it’s impossible not to want more when something is this well written. I don’t know P.D. Singer’s work–I beleive this is her first gay historical–but if she writes another I will be snapping it up immediately.

I recommend this book highly, and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

As for the “Maroon” – this is one of Torquere’s bizarre themes, I don’t get why it’s sub-labelled “Maroon” in fact I actually thought that it was part of thee title until I looked up the book on the website. However, it’s not the author’s fault. I wish Torquere would stop doing this sort of thing. At least they’ve given this book a decent cover and not one painted by someone’s four year old. Neither is it the author’s fault that Amazon has the wrong title up on their sites!

Author’s website

Amazon UK   Amazon USA  Torquere

Speak Its Name Awards 2011

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

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

The Awards will be:

Best Novel

Best Cover

Best Author

and Readers’ Choice.

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

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

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

Many thanks and enjoy the rest of the year!

Captain Harding’s 6 Day War by Elliott Mackle

By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

Well Traveled by Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward

Placing Out by P.A. Brown

Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

This Rough Magic by Josh Lanyon

Muffled Drum by Erastes

The Puppet Master by Kate Cotoner

Kindred Hearts by G.S. Wiley

The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

Wingmen by Ensan Case

Bound Forever by Ava March

Missouri by Christine Wunnicke

Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Home is the Sailor by Lee Rowan

Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Midnight Dude by Various

Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

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

Kindred Hearts by Rowan Speedwell

The Last Tallyho by Richard Newhafer

The Painting by FK Wallace

Algerian Nights by Graeme Roland

Game of Chance by Kate Roman

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

Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck

Dulce et Decorum Est by JL Merrow

Mere Mortals by Erastes

Lion of Kent by Aleksandr Voinov and Kate Cotoner

Young Man in Paris by Sophia Deri-Bowen

Raised by Wolves 2 Matelots by WA Hoffman

The Wanderer by Jan Irving

Arson! The Dakota Series 1 by Cap Iversen

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

Precious Jade by Fyn Alexander

Sam’s Hill by Jack Ricardo

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

Walking in Two Worlds by Terry O’Reilly

Comstock by Aaron Michaels

Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

Pioneers by Lynn Lorenz

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

A Faint Wash of Lavender by Lucius Parhelion

Silver Lining by Lucius Parhelion

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

The Only Gold by Tamara Allen

House of Mirrors by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Icy Pavements by Lee Wyndham

According to Hoyle by Abigail Roux

All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

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

His Client by Ava March

The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

Review: By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

1748

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Lilac Tree by Marion Husband (short story)

The Lilac Tree is a short story included in Marion Husband’s short story collection “Six Little Deaths” dealing–as the title suggests with the subject of death.

The only gay historical story, The Lilac Tree, is a reminiscence of an elderly man–in a care home, or rented accommodation, being looked after by non-relatives who has nothing much but memories to bring any sunlight into his life. A child asks him an innocent question, and although the answer to that question is “no” it triggers bittersweet memories of a fleeting but intense first love with an officer in World War One.

Husband’s writing is always a delight to read, and this is no exception. It creates an atmosphere with the lightest of touches, says just enough and no more. We are taken from the old man’s life:

me, in my slippers and cake-crumbed cardigan

and transported, by the smell and sight of lilac, to that love affair, long long ago:

He waited for me beneath a lilac tree, the cigarette between his fingers sending its frail grey wisps of smoke to the pale blue sky.  He smoked cigarettes until there was nothing left of them except the stain on his fingers and when he kissed me the taste was pure tobacco.

For a short story it packs a punch, although one expects the sadness, it doesn’t make it any less poignant. The saddest part was the young man living his life and still remembering this as such a vivid memory. I wanted him to have more vibrant memories to erase it.

There are five other stories in the collection, and all are beautifully written, and for the price this is well worth getting and reading again and again.

Author’s website

Buy at  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: If It Ain’t Love by Tamara Allen (short story)

In the darkest days of the Great Depression, New York Times reporter Whit Stoddard has lost the heart to do his job and lives a lonely hand-to-mouth existence with little hope of recovery, until he meets Peter, a man in even greater need of new hope.

Review by Erastes

Tamara Allen is a very talented writer and doesn’t get the publicity she deserves. However, if there is any justice, word of mouth will continue to work for her and more and more people will come to her books. This is a perfect example, because it’s a free download and therefore a great introduction to her beautifully sparse, no word wasted style of writing.

Set in the 1930′s Depression it paints beautifully (if that is the right word) the struggle it was to live in New York at the time. We sometimes forget that the term “living on the bread line” meant exactly that. That you were dependent on free handouts of bread and perhaps soup if you wanted to stay alive. Today, it has rather blurred to mean the line between plenty and poverty, but that’s not where it started.

Some books take a long time to get going, and it can be a struggle to actually care two hoots about the main character–not so here, within 3 pages I was gripped by Whit and the world he lived in. I felt every cold gust of wind, every rubbery noodle, every insult, felt the shabby clothes he wore, his thin shoes, felt the despair he felt in slums and flop-houses he was forced to live in as–like millions of others–he was out of work.

Her prose, as I said, is clean and exactly enough and no more–this sentence echoes both Whit’s emotion, and the time he lives in:

Before shame could show through the ill-fitting nonchalance, Whit got up and headed for the door.

The first conversation between Peter and Whit is so crisp that it took my breath away. So many books–and we’ve all read them–have strangers talking like High School BFFs but this for me was on the knife edge of perfection. Anyone who says women can’t write men needs to read Allen–many would learn much.

Here’s a section that I particularly liked:

Only when evening shadows had grown thick enough to impress him with the lateness of the hour did the world regain his attention. Peter was a dark, warm shape pressed close, still catching his breath after Whit’s last successful effort to steal it, and Whit, drifting on the serene awareness that something wonderful had begun, wondered just how long the average miracle could last.

I won’t spoil the plot because it’s not big enough to really explain any of it without spoiling, and this is a short story that needs to be savoured slowly and read again and again. Suffice it to say that it manages in a mere 30 pages, conflict, misunderstanding, resolution, character growth, wonderful eroticism, heartbreak and a heart-warming twist that would make Ebenezer Scrooge reach for the Kleenex. And if you can manage all that in 30 pages, you hardly need a five stars from me. But it’s getting five stars anyway.

I wish I could write like Allen, and that’s the truth. Can’t recommend this any higher, and as it’s free, you’ve got no excuse not to rush off and read all 30 or so pages of it and then tell me I’m wrong, I dare you.

Author’s website

Free download here

Review: Well Traveled by Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward

Gideon Makepeace, a young man of twenty, knows who he is and what he likes: decency, men and women too, horse training, and fun… and in Livingston, Montana, in the lush autumn of 1895, he finds he likes a Lakota Sioux Indian better than he might ought to.

Jedediah Buffalo Bird is seriously wounded and seeking medical care, and Gideon helps Jed when some bigoted townsfolk might have done otherwise. Jed, who knows the wild far better than Gideon and feels indebted to him, agrees to repay him by being his guide to San Francisco.

Their trip takes them across thousands of wild miles, through the mountains men mine and the Indian reservations dotting the plains. Facing a majestic West, they learn from each other about white folks and Indians alike. Gideon’s interest in Jed is clear from the start, but will Jed give up the life he knows for a young, brash white man he has perhaps come to love? Or will he push Gideon away in favor of the peace of nature and the personal freedom of having nothing to lose?

Review by Bruin Fisher

There’s a reason why Hollywood made so many cowboy movies and TV series in the 60′s and 70′s – it’s a genre that provides plenty of scope for telling a good story. Of course much of the vast output from that period was trash, formulaic and unrealistic. Baddies wore dark hats, didn’t shave, spat and couldn’t shoot straight, goodies wore light hats, crisply laundered check shirts that never got sweaty, had perfect teeth and no body hair, and could shoot a Higgs boson off the the end of a Large Hadron Collider with both hands tied behind their back.

Hollywood, I assume, has realised they overdid it somewhat, and the occasional Western movie that still comes off the production line these days is usually more thoughtful, and often tongue-in-cheek or post-modern ironic. We’ve had Brokeback Mountain, but whether that will pave the way for more gay cowboy movies remains to be seen.

Brokeback Mountain was, of course, a short story by E.Annie Proulx before it was a movie, and we certainly do now have a plethora of gay cowboy books to choose from. May I advise choosing carefully – much like 1960′s Hollywood, some of the output in this genre is not as good as it might be.

When I pick up a gay Western story, I have a response a little like biting into a Steak and Ale pie in a restaurant: it ought to be a delight, but it so often isn’t. You will understand, therefore, my surprise and excitement when I began reading Well Traveled by Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward, and found that it’s utterly splendid. Starting with beautiful artwork on the cover by Catt Ford, it is well-written, believable, with sympathetic if flawed characters and an engaging storyline, it got my attention from the very beginning and held me spellbound all the way through. And if you get to the end and want more, there’s a novella-length sequel called ‘Earth and Sun, Cedar and Sage’.

Margaret Mills and Tedy Ward (spelled Tedi in the author’s bio at the back of the book) are experienced technical writers who have branched out into m/m historical romance, and on the basis of this book I hope they write many more together. There’s a sense of a harmonious writing team at work in the pages of the book, a team that doesn’t put a foot wrong in creating characters, setting and plot that draws the reader in and takes him with them through the story. It’s a treat to read.

Gideon Makepiece is a showman, a circus performer, although when the story begins he has just completed a secondment to a rancher, helping his hands with the training of his horses. Paid off, he’s about to take the train across the country to San Francisco where he expects to rejoin his troupe, but he chances upon a couple of locals mistreating a Lakota brave who has reluctantly come into town in search of medical attention, after being gored by a wild boar. Indians are not generally welcome in town, but Gideon persuades the local doctor to tend the brave’s wound and the further injuries he had suffered at the hands of the townsmen. Then he finds, and pays for, lodging for the patient and nurses him back to health. An updated Good Samaritan story. All this delays Gideon’s trip to San Francisco, and he’s spent the money that should have paid his rail fare. So in gratitude for his help, the Indian, Jedediah Buffalo Bird, offers to act as his guide so that he can make the journey on foot. He has his circus horse, Star, but Jedediah shows that on a long journey a horse will hold a traveller up rather than speeding his travel.
On their journey the two men learn a little about each other and develop first respect and later something more for each other. Jedediah is taciturn, and we don’t learn very much about him at first. It is well into the second half of the book that we learn a little about the circumstances of his birth – he’s half-caste – and the book ends with a number of questions still unanswered – scope for a sequel. Gideon talks more and thinks less, and manages to offend his fellow traveller a number of times, sometimes without realising his offence.

The story takes in an adventure or two on the way, and reaches a very satisfactory conclusion to qualify as a romance. I’m giving it five stars – it has a good story, interesting and believable characters, a good feel for the period including the danger that any same-sex attraction carried, and it’s very well crafted, grammar and punctuation both working to assist with a smooth reading experience.

It’s not perfect but its faults are minor. I did notice that the narrative occasionally ventured into moments of the same vernacular that the characters used. It was of course entirely appropriate to have Gideon say stuff like ‘You’d best teach me fast, if we ain’t got much time left together’ but it was surprising to come across narrative such as:

“Gideon hadn’t even found a feller really worth looking twice at around here, much less worth the risk of approaching, not when he couldn’t move on right quick if things fell out wrong. It weren’t no trouble to take matters in hand, so to speak…”

“…a grimace that Gideon knew didn’t have nothing at all to do with pain.”

“The farm was big, covering acres, but there weren’t nobody in the fields, and no one in the yard as they approached the house. “

I don’t think it’s usual for the narrator to speak the same colloquial variety of English as the protagonists, and it brought me up short when the narration, mostly in standard English, dropped into the text the occasional colloquialism. I got used to it, but if it was deliberate I don’t think it worked, and it was so sparsely distributed through the text that it might have been simply a mistake.

Also there were a couple of places where the wording made me rear up on my hind legs and go ‘Whoa!’. For instance:

“He felt limp as a wet rope.”

Cotton rope when wet is stiff and inflexible, it’s only limp when dry. Nylon ropes that remain as flexible wet as they are dry are a modern invention.

I wouldn’t even mention something like that if there were any worthwhile faults to pick on. The book is highly recommended to anyone who likes stories where the good guy is as likely to be an Indian as a cowboy.

Review: Placing Out by P.A. Brown

At the age of ten, Dylan Daniels was a placed-out kid sent from New York’s Five Points to a family in Nebraska. But Dylan ran away at the age of eighteen when he realized he preferred boys and didn’t want to be a farmer. Once he made his way to Hollywood, he wound up as a popular and high-class hustler with a number of wealthy clients.

Now in 1933 near the end of the Prohibition Era in America, Dylan meets Ben Carter during a bar raid. Ben, who’s a six-year veteran of the LAPD and deeply in the closet, is instantly both attracted and repelled by this beautiful man. Between them they struggle to overcome the barriers that keep them apart, including Dylan’s career, and Ben being in a brutal squad that frequently raids pansy bars and beats the patrons, which tears Ben apart.

Will Ben let Dylan’s love heal him or destroy him altogether?

Review by Sally Davis

Sometimes just getting the text to a story is a bonus. The cover of the book is uninspiring and I think I enjoyed the beginning of the story more without having read the blurb. The story is written partly in first person from Dylan’s point of view and partly from Ben’s POV in third person. I’ve seen reviews that claim this change of POV is confusing but I found it an interesting way of emphasising the great differences between the two characters.

Dylan’s voice changes as his story progresses from that of the defiant uneducated foster child to that of the young man with ambition to rise above his current station. He is practical, and has no illusions about how long he has before he’s too old to reap the benefits. Once his looks are gone his hustling days will be over so he has a limited amount of time to make his pile. His loneliness comes across quite strongly too – he is hungry to be loved and that he pretends when he is with one particular client that their comfortable cuddling doesn’t have to end, that they can be as he puts it “a forever couple”, is very sad.

Ben is lonely too, but that is because he is living a lie. Part of Red Squad, a special task force that breaks strikes and raids gay bars, he can barely admit even to himself that he is “queer” until the stress of the lying gets too much and he finds his regular lover Kevin for some brief and intense comfort. He hates what he does for a living, hates the way he is expected to join in the laughing brutality of his fellows, but he daren’t show any reluctance to conform. Then they raid a bar and he lays eyes on Dylan – the golden boy – and Ben’s life of lies becomes even more complicated.

This is a short story – only 40 pages including the extras at beginning and end – and I don’t want to give any more of the plot away. Let’s just say that I loved it and I’ve spent some time thinking about Ben and Dylan and what may have happened after the end of the story. I’m planning on working my way through P.A. Brown’s backlist.

Author’s Website

Available from Amber Quill Press in their Amber Allure line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

Wu Jin has both brains and beauty. Though poor, his family are noble enough for Jin to sit the imperial examinations in the hope of obtaining a high-ranking government position at the court of Tang Dynasty China. When his parents are killed, Jin clings to his dreams, and travels to the provincial capital for the exams. Pursued by a sinister horseman into the forest, Jin seeks refuge at a tumbledown inn, little realizing that he’s entered the abode of a fox-spirit. Tian Zhen is a transcendental fox of immense power and considerable seductive charm. He’s startled when Jin sees through his illusions, and believes it’s Jin’s destiny not only to become his lover, but also to help him find a lost talisman, the symbol of Zhen’s heavenly role as the Guardian of Thunder. But convincing Jin won’t be easy, and the search for the talisman turns dangerous when Jin discovers it’s connected to the man who murdered his parents.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a beautiful story on so many levels. The prose is smooth, lyrical, and lush, but never overdone. The characters, though recognizable to the m/m reader, leap off the page as delightful individuals. And the plot holds its own, side by side with the romance, rather than being dominated by it.

The best kind of complaint a reviewer can make about a story is that it’s too short. I would have loved to see this story expanded into a full novel. But that doesn’t mean that it was incomplete in some way. Far from it. In 65 short pages, the protagonist solves a mystery, finds his destiny, and gets an HEA. It’s short and sweet, and definitely left me wanting more.

The setting is well researched–geography, housing, dress, food–it even gives a thumbnail sketch of the intricate governmental system of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). With an expert hand, the author provides a three-dimensional social and geographical landscape, which gives all the information a reader needs without a single dry patch.

I enjoyed how the myth of the Huli jing, or Transcendental Fox wove itself through the plot. And speaking of the plot–a well-formed mystery with a splash of coming-of-age–it was solid enough to have been a good story even without the romance. But, I think most of us would agree, a good romance makes any plot that much sweeter.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. And I can’t wait to read more from Ms. Cotoner. Five stars.

Buy at Torquere Books.

Review: This Rough Magic by Josh Lanyon

Wealthy San Francisco playboy Brett Sheridan thinks he knows the score when he hires tough guy private eye Neil Patrick Rafferty to find a priceless stolen folio of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Brett’s convinced his partner-in-crime sister is behind the theft — a theft that’s liable to bring more scandal to their eccentric family, and cost Brett his marriage to society heiress Juliet Lennox. What Brett doesn’t count on is the instant and powerful attraction that flares between him and Rafferty.
Once before, Brett took a chance on loving a man, only to find himself betrayed and broken. This time around there’s too much at risk. But as the Bard himself would say, Journey’s end in lovers meeting.
Review by Sal Davis
Once again there was no cover with the review copy, so April Martinez’s cover came as a nice surprise once I started poking around the Loose Id site. There’s quite a lot in this picture that comes directly from the book and the faces of the two models suggest the somewhat overwrought sensitivity of Brett and the more hard-nosed approach of Neil. This depiction is much more modern than what I was imagining while reading. J.C.Leyendecker’s work doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I found it very handy to have those cocked hatted, high collared, buttoned up, hair slicked back, be-spatted images in my mind’s eye as I read Mr Lanyon’s story. There’s one particular image of 2 men talking to each other on a sofa [sadly, it is not public domain] that gets over the formality of the time in a way that pouting lips and bare shoulders don’t, even if they are beautiful. These were the days when a man wouldn’t step outside without a hat, no matter his income, and the Brett Sheridans would come equipped with gloves, watchchain, buttonhole and cane and a whole array of behaviours that seem pointless and persnickety nowadays but were just a way of life then.
The blurb is slightly misleading in that it suggests that the story is very much from Brett’s point of view. Not so – we get a look into both protagonist’s minds, and very nice too, in alternating chapters. In fact the story begins in the most traditional way possible for a tale about a private dick [am I allowed to say that on SiN?] with a first page from Neil’s point of view that could have come from Chandler or Hammett, except it has the delicious substitution of a homme fatale instead of the more usual female love interest. Not that Brett is that dangerous, poor dab. He is a young man with the weight of the world in worries on his shoulders, some of which I can’t mention due to spoilers. Suffice is to say that he is engaged, but his heart isn’t in it and he has some worries about how his body will cope as well. Tough guy Neil is as different from him as can be and one of the joys in the book is seeing how the two characters play off against each other, developing trust and reliance on one hand and the protective urge on the other.
But the story is not solely a romance. There’s a good plot on several levels, an excellent cast of supporting characters and several BIG surprises. I’m not one of those readers who pores over every little clue to try and solve the mystery before the denouement, I just let the story happen and go ‘oooh’ with each revelation. [Lazy? I prefer to say I move at the author's pace.] I enjoyed it immensely – definitely one for the “Read-Again” folder!
Buy at LooseID

Review: Muffled Drum by Erastes

Bohemia, 1866

They met in a port-side tavern, their lust-filled moments stolen from days of marching and madness. After eighteen months, Captain Rudolph von Ratzlaff and First Lieutenant Mathias Hofmann have decided to run away from everything they hold dear. Resigning their commissions is social suicide, but there’s no other choice. Someone will eventually see Rudolph’s partiality toward Mathias.

Now their plans have gone horribly awry… When Mathias goes to Rudolph’s tent after their last battle, his lover looks at him without a hint of recognition. Mathias can hardly believe the man he knew is gone. He wants to fill in so many of Rudolph’s missing memories, but the doctor says a shock could result in permanent damage. The pain of seeing Rudolph on a daily basis, when Rudolph doesn’t remember their love, is excruciating. Now Mathias must decide whether he wants to fight for the man he loves or forget him completely…

Guest Review by Marion Husband author of “The Boy I Love”

Muffled Drum is such a sexy, compelling read that it would be easy to overlook how much research must have gone into this novel – I found Erastes’ descriptions of horsemanship particularly convincing. All in all the historical details were done with a light touch, carefully judged not to stand in the way of a rattling good story but still interesting enough to give insight into the period. But then historical detail isn’t truly what we read Erastes’ novels for: we read these novels because they are entertaining and the heroes (and they are always heroes in the best sense of the word) are deliciously sexy men who are easy to fall in love with and root for – you want them to be happy, for it all to work out – these are happily-ever-after stories and all the better for that.

And what could be better than gorgeous Prussian officers being effortlessly sexy and fiercely brave on horseback? Heroic Rudolph and Mathias are the kind of men you would around in a fight, but also in a ballroom or, perhaps especially, the bedroom – what more can I say? This is fun, escapist stuff and very enjoyable…I even learnt a little about horses…what more could a girl want?

Author’s website

Buy from Carina Press  -  Amazon Kindle

Review: The Puppet Master by Kate Cotoner

Istanbul, 1622. Considered hotbeds of sedition, the city’s coffee houses are in constant danger of being shut down by imperial command. Haluk, who runs a cafe in an old caravanserai, is more concerned with brewing the perfect cup of coffee than inciting rebellion. While storms in coffee cups rage around him, Haluk tends his clientele and waits for the right moment to tell his friend and lodger Aydin how he really feels about him.
Aydin has been entertaining the people of the Old City for three years, but still he doesn’t fit in. He hides his courtly manners and graceful charms behind the boisterous satire of the shadow puppet plays that have made him popular.  He’s not what he seems. Now he fears his past is catching up with him, bringing danger to Haluk, the man he loves

Review by Erastes

I was a little confused over the rating of this book; Torquere has it in their “Spice It Up” line, which I assumed was an imprint handling the more spicy and erotic books in their already spicy and erotic stable, but this book has absolutely no sex in it, so don’t buy it thinking you are going to get a one-handed read. It seems however, that the line is all based around one particular spice and in this case it’s sumac.

Cotoner is a master of atmosphere, and in this book she doesn’t disappoint on that score. Even though the era, the history, the politics, the location were pretty much muddy waters for me, she writes so deftly and so immersively that it doesn’t matter. The book opens with a man working in his coffee house, and stopping a fight between two janissaries. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what a janissary  is, because it’s made clear in context, and there aren’t that many writers in the genre who can do that well with no info dumping at all.

The book is told mainly from Haluk’s point of view–the coffee shop owner–with forays into Aydin’s–and I particularly like how Cotoner doesn’t make the mistake of many books of this length, to dwell entirely on the charms of the love-interest, Aydin, and why Haluk loves him. No, in fact she whets my appetite with the way that coffee shops are considered to be hotbeds of sedition, and that coffee is thought to inflame the senses–and this simple drink is causing political unrest. True facts of course, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from this very thorough researcher.

The wonderful detail grounds you entirely in time and place. I really felt as if I had been dropped into a time that I didn’t know exactly when it was, but I was standing there watching the customers, and seeing the bright colours, the copper trays, the smell of the coffee and the spices of the suk. The setting is play-like, as it mostly takes place in one or two rooms in the same location but this works well, and for the shortness of the story, helps the totally immersive feel.

The plot revolves around one simple point, but it’s well done, and had me wondering who Aydin really was. (In fact, I’ve taken the fact out of the blurb which spoils the little spot of suspense in the book)

The only problem I had was that I would have liked a little more of it, but that’s my problem, not a problem with the structure of the book.  I have no recourse but to give this short novel a well-deserved five stars.

Author’s Website

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: Kindred Hearts by G.S. Wiley


Crippled by a devastating stammer, Alfie would prefer to hide himself away in the audience of London’s theaters. But as the perfect Georgian gentleman, it’s his responsibility to find a husband for his ward Eleanor. The pain of having to converse with strangers is lessened by the appearance of the kind-hearted Lord George Caldwell and his cousin Lieutenant Markham, who is far more interesting than any character Alfie has seen on stage, and far more intriguing than any man he’s ever met in person.

Review by Jess Faraday

This was a lovely, gentle romance. I enjoyed every minute of it.

With a deft hand, the author weaves intimate knowledge of the social intricacies of the period into a subtle story. This requires not only research, but also synthesis of what one has researched. It was not the case, as in so many stories that I’ve read, that the rules of the time and place were bent to accommodate the story, but rather that the plot complications arose from the author’s knowledge of those rules. This is one of the things that separates costume drama from historical writing, and Wiley does it very well.

In addition, it’s just a jolly good read. The prose is lively, the plot subtle, and the characters both realistic and sympathetic. The main character, Alfie, is particularly well drawn. His life and self-image have been handicapped by a stammer, but when push comes to shove, he can reach within himself to find the strength and confidence he needs to get the job done. He is flawed, but, like everything else in this book, it’s handled subtly and without the mawkishness that a less skilled writer might resort to. There is sex, but it fades to black at the bedroom door. It seemed very natural given Alfie’s shyness and inexperience, and given the understated nature of the story itself.

The only fault–and it’s not really a fault–is that the story was so short. It was so well written and so enjoyable, I wanted it to go on and on. It left me with a smile, and I’m certain that most readers will have the same reaction.

Author’s Website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

London 1889.

For Ira Adler, former rent-boy and present plaything of crime lord Cain Goddard, stealing back the statue of a porcelain dog from Goddard’s blackmailer should have been a doddle. But inside the statue is evidence that could put Goddard away for a long time under the sodomy laws, and everyone’s after it, including Ira’s bitter ex, Dr. Timothy Lazarus. No sooner does Ira have the porcelain dog in his hot little hands, than he loses it to a nimble-fingered prostitute.

As Ira’s search for the dog drags him back to the mean East End streets where he grew up, he discovers secrets about his own past, and about Goddard’s present business dealings, which make him question everything he thought he knew. An old friend turns up dead, and an old enemy proves himself a friend. Goddard is pressing Ira for a commitment, but every new discovery casts doubt on whether Ira can, in good conscience, remain with him.

In the end, Ira must choose between his hard-won life of luxury and standing against a grievous wrong.

Review by Erastes

Not your normal Holmes clone, that’s for sure. Although this story is set in late Victorian London, and around the Baker Street area, there’s a highly enjoyable twist.

The point of view is told, first person, by Ira Adler. But instead of being a Doctor Watson clone,and the companion of a great detective, Ira is the live-in companion, “private secretary” and lover of Cain Goddard, the dread “Duke of Dorset Street.” Goddard is a crime lord, so in some respects, he’s a Moriaty clone. But not quite. Because in this fictional imagining, the “great detective” of the time is Andrews St Andrews who is, frankly, a bit of a twat (written to be so) and adds some great giggles to the text. He’s a real Holmes wanabee, a poseur and frankly not very good at his job. The brains of the St Andrews outfit is St Andrews’ companion, Tim Lazarus–and Lazarus is an ex-lover of Ira. Already it promises to be quite tortuous and it won’t let you down on that score.

The beginning was excellently paced–and in no time at all we into an action scene that just begged to be filmed.

The plot is very nice indeed. It’s more Philip Marlowe than Conan Doyle. Each clue leads you deeper in and further away from where you began, and it’s as opaque as the London smog.

The characterisations are excellent, all round. Some books you read, characters have similar voices, but each and every character here, and there’s a good dusting, is his own person with his own demons and issues.  And boy are there are lot of demons. This is the underbelly of London in the 19th century and it’s not a nice place. Either you are a leader or you get used. Child labour, opium dens, brothels, and exploitation of every kind. Ira holds an interesting position in this world, because he came from the gutter, but now he steps in an upper middle-class world where never thought he would, but retains his knowledge and connections that he’d rather have left behind forever.

I absolutely loved–with a big squishy heart–the bittersweet relationship between Ira and Cain Goddard. In a way,this is a coming of age story, because Ira has to face to harsh truths, look deep inside him, and make some hard decisions. He has a massive chip on his shoulder, but that’s only to be expected. He started his relationship with Cain as his prostitute, so he finds it hard that Cain really and truly cares for him–and similarly, Cain would have similar fears. Despite there being much that is wrong about their relationship, and who Cain is, I wanted them to be happy.

Yes, there seems to be a good deal of homosexuality in the book: There area few couples. But seeing as how Ira was a renter before Goddard took him under his wing,that’s not really surprising.  The homosexuality is never glossed over, though,never treated lightly. You are always aware of Labouchere’s Amendment hanging like a sword of Damocles over everyone’s heads–and it’s this threat, in fact which launches the story, as both Goddard and St Andrews are being blackmailed. There’s a lovely scene in Hyde Park where they walk so they can hold hands in public (in the dark) and you can’t help but feel sorry for them, that even the smallest of touches have to be considered –you never know who’s watching.

Be warned,you don’t get a “Romance” ending, and more than that I will not say, but the ending is beautifully done, and leaves it wide open for a sequel or more and I hope there will be. I’m dying to see what Ira gets up to. This will apppeal to a broad swathe of readers–and should do, in a fair world this should be picked up by a mainstream audience, because other than homosexual themes there’s nothing a non m/m reader would find uncomfortable to read–whether you like detective fiction, noir, Victorian stories or just damned good love stories, this will appeal to you. I neglected to mention this is her first novel. Well done Ms Faraday.

Author’s website

Bold Strokes Books    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

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: Bound Forever by Ava March

Lord Oliver Marsden’s life is perfect…well, almost perfect. His bookshop is doing well, his bank account isn’t empty, and his nights are filled with a deliciously dominant man…who tends to be a bit too domineering outside of the bedchamber. But Vincent loves him and that’s all that should matter. Right? And of course, Vincent still firmly holds the reins of control. Yet while Oliver feels Vincent is finally ready to give himself fully to him, to make good on the offer Oliver refused a year ago, the looming threat his lover could someday be forced to marry keeps him from tugging the reins from Vincent’s grasp.

Then Vincent receives a letter that changes everything. Oliver seizes the moment and pushes Vincent toward a night neither of them will ever forget. Yet come dawn, Oliver awakens to an empty bed. Lord Vincent Prescot knows he loves Oliver. The man’s his best friend and he trustshim. So why does submitting to Oliver leave him so shaken? It doesn’t take him long to find the answer, yet his solution could drive his lover away for good.

Review by Erastes

This is part of a series, and previous books in the series were enjoyable: Bound by Deception and Bound to Him.

Ava March writes unashamedly erotic books and this one is no exception. From the first page we know we are in for a romp, and we aren’t disappointed. But March has talent when it comes to writing sex, she intersperses the action with input from the senses and this really helps us feel we are there along with the character. The heat of his lover’s erection on his skin, the chill of December air, a wrinkled cravat pulled from the floorboards, all subtle deft touches which stop this sex from  being just another sex scene.

I have to say that I’m probably not thebest person to review a BDSM book, because I don’t get the games, or the mindset involved, but it seems right—I understand Vincent’s reluctance to become a switch in their relationship when he’s been so happy being the dominant one, but I also understand that as he loves and trusts Oliver he wants to please his partner in as many ways as possible. But as I say, I don’t see why it’s such a huge issue as to nearly split them up, because it seems they are just finding conflict to beconflicted about.

The way the characters care for each other (just as well, after three books of submission, domination and flogging) is touching, and I liked the way they thought about each other’s daily lives, not just the way that their partner interacted with themselves. Vincent is concerned about Oliver’s shop, and his grandmother and wants him to be financially stable.

The way that Oliver refuses to submit to Vincent outside the bedroom interested me. As I said, I’m not an expert in the kink/lifestyle, but what I had been led to understand is that the Dom is the dom in every aspect, but perhaps I had been reading up on the more extreme paths of BDSM. Perhaps a switch relationship is possible, and I’m sure it is, all things are out there. I understood Oliver’s point exactly, as I would be much the same, so it did seem to me that what they did in the bedroom was more about games and less about a true D/s relationship.

The language remains nicely formal throughout, even when they are arguing—you really get a sense that these are men of their time, struggling with concepts new to them, and working around the difficult parts of their arrangement.

The small niggle is not enough to take the gloss of this series for me, and this installment deserves a five star–and if you haven’t checked out Ava March, then you really should.

Author’s website

Buy from Loose I-D

Film Review: Christopher and his Kind (BBC)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1651062/

 

(from imdb) In 1931 budding author Christopher Isherwood goes to Berlin at the invitation of his friend W. H. Auden for the gay sex that abounds in the city. Whilst working as an English teacher his housemates include bewigged old queen Gerald Hamilton and would-be actress Jean Ross,who sings tunelessly in a seedy cabaret club. They and others he meets get put into his stories. After a fling with sexy rent boy Caspar he falls for street sweeper Heinz,paying medical bills for the boy’s sickly mother, to the disapproval of her other son, Nazi Gerhardt. With Fascism rapidly rising Christopher returns to London with Heinz but is unable to prevent his return to Germany when his visa expires.

Review by Erastes

A visually beautiful film, which draws you into to the Berlin of the early 30′s, Christopher and his Kind is the dramatised version of the book of the same name which was not published until 1976. Becoming a figurehead for the growing gay movement, Isherwood reflects on his earlier life, particularly his relationships in Berlin and decides to add to the existing canon by writing Christopher and his Kind.

With immensely clever set direction and some CGI which did now and then show the join, it looks and feels like an immensely lavish production. There are all the familiar scenes we expect in a film like this in this era, steam from the trains billowing onto the platform, scary and omnious scenes with the Nazi flag flying from every building, book burning and the like. It’s cleverly done and you hardly notice that it’s actually done in small scale, but it looks like it’s done with a cast of thousands.

The cast is wonderful–Matt Smith could have overshadowed the piece with his performance, but he’s nicely tempered by the dour and slightly clingy WH Auden (Pip Carter), Isherwood’s domineering mother Kathleen (Lindsay Duncan) of whom Christopher takes no notice but has an more extreme effect on Isherwood’s younger brother Richard (Perry Millward) (who was also homosexual.)

Imogen Poots has large shoes to fill as Jean Ross (the woman who Isherwood immortalised into the unforgettable Sally Bowles) and here she is much more like her actual incarnation. Many American viewers will probably be surprised not to find Bowles is American!  Poots does a grand job, from her chewed green lacquered fingernails to her brittle strength to her not-brilliant singing ability! There’s a marvellously campy performance by Toby Jones as Gerald Hamilton (the inspiration for Mr Norris in the books) who double-entendres his way through his first meeting with Isherwood and enjoys every perverted pleasure Berlin can throw at him.

Of course, only having an hour and a half to play with, there’s a lot condensed here, and some people might say that there’s not enough time  spent on the political situation and it’s top heavy with the gay scene and gay sex, but that’s rather the point of the book. Isherwood wanted to show the reasons he went to Berlin, and he gives those reasons very succinctly at the top of the film:

It’s 40 years since I first wrote about my time in Berlin, and the book I’m now writing is perhaps an attempt to set the record straight, well,as straight as it’s possible to be. I destroyed my Berlin diaries you see, so have had to rely a good deal on memory. As to why  I went in the first placy, my friend Wystan Auden was there and encouraged me to join him. I could say that I went there because of what was happening politically, but in fact I went because of the boys. To me, Berlin meant boys

Smith, in recent interviews–and very sensibly–has said that he wanted to show that he’s not just The Doctor and he does that in spades in this film. I don’t think anyone was in doubt of his talent, but here he really drives home that he’s an old soul in a very young body. He absolutely convinces as the rather remote Isherwood, who says in an interview with the Jewish Landau, that he has his sympathies but he finds it hard to work himself up to the pitch required to “do something” about what’s happening in the city.  “I rather suspect I’m best equipped to observe and record.”

This is certainly borne out by Isherwood’s prescence in the city. He seems to glide along on the surface and never really engages with the maelstrom. I don’t criticise him for this, for I’m sure, being, like him, a Brit, with the luxury of simply being able to walk away when things got too hot, I would do the same.

Fan of the era, or Isherwood or Matt Smith, or simply gay history, this is a must-see, must buy.

 

Review: Missouri by Christine Wunnicke

Written in the language of the period, this vivid and utterly transfixing love story between two men is set in the nineteenth-century American Midwest. Douglas Fortescue is a successful poet in England who flees the country for America following an Oscar Wilde-like scandal insinuating sexual impropriety; Joshua Jenkyns is a feral young outlaw who was taught how to shoot a man at age six, and who, against the wishes of his father, teaches himself how to read, a skill that then unleashes a world of possibility beyond that which he knows. The two men meet when Joshua robs Douglas’s carriage and takes him hostage; soon, a remarkable secret is revealed, and these two very different men grow closer, even as Douglas’s brother tries to “save” him from his uncivilized surroundings.

Missouri was first published in Germany to wide acclaim. Now available in English for the first time, Missouri is destined to become a gay men’s camp classic for its earnest, romantic reinterpretation of a time and place in American history traditionally closed off to gay readers.

Review by Gerry Burnie (originally posted on Gerry’s Review Site)

Missouri by Christine Wunnicke[Arsenal Pulp Press; Tra edition, 2010] is a story that either pleases or displeases; there is very little middle ground shown by its critics to date. Therefore, I will have to say that I liked it. I found it wonderfully zany; offbeat; and unlike any other gay, American Western tale I have every encountered.

Douglas Fortesque is an ambitious court clerk in northern England, and not just a little bit of a con man. He therefore lets his hair down (literally), dyes it black, starves himself until he has that gaunt, poet-like appearance, and pens utter gibberish to the wild acclaim of an effete London literary society. Indeed, the more outlandish he becomes the more acclaim he receives from a pretentious, gullible public.

Eventually tiring of this masquerade he retires to the country, but legitimacy only makes him less interesting and also vulnerable to his critics, and in a thinly veiled allusion to Oscar Wilde’s persecution he escapes to the United States where his brother wishes to buy property.

Meanwhile, Joshua Jenkyns, the young, slightly psychotic half-breed offspring of a notorious American outlaw is terrorizing the Midwest, learning how to read and becoming enamoured by the disjointed words of one, Douglas Fortescue. In a bizarre turn of events, therefore, these two unlikely characters cross paths and Fortescue is hurried away on horseback to become Jenkyns’ coddled hostage.

Thus begins a process of assimilation whereby Fortescue is stripped of his pretentions, and Jenkyns of his savagery, until they meet in an ethereal love-making scene that is beautifully understated by the author. Any other approach—graphic for example—would have cheapened it.

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at this novella is that it is too short (134 pages) to develop a complex story of this nature; and I agree that it could have been longer. However, in those 134 pages Wunnicke has developed two very unforgettable characters, a unique love story set against a stark, primeval wilderness, and an outcome that is totally unpredictable.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Buy  Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

When Victorian private investigator Nick Romney’s step-father, an Anglican bishop, is murdered, Nick refuses to get involved. At the urging of his family, though, Nick and his lover Davy step in to investigate. Together they uncover the truth of the bishop’s involvement in the dark and horrifying world of child prostitution, the reason why he was killed, and the shocking identity of the murderer.

Review by Erastes

The set up sounds familiar, a detective in fin-de-siecle Europe, but this isn’t really a Holmes homage. The author freely admits that she was inspired by Holmes:

“The initial inspiration was Sherlock Holmes and I jumped right to the idea of a gay Victorian detective and let the characters define the story, which they were quite happy to do.”

but the characters are nicely different from Holmes and Watson, or at least the Holmes and Watson I like to imagine, as I’ve never been part of that fandom. Nick, when Davy meets him, is a lab assistant–not some kind of genius and Davy is a bit of a wastrel, so it’s a far enough remove from “doctor and private detective”. I suppose I just wish that someone would do more than just Victorian detectives. It’s not like they didn’t exist.

The first kiss between the two was rather baffling, I didn’t see why it happened the way it did, and I felt it was a little abrupt – and frankly idiotic of Davy as he could have been in serious trouble. Nick hadn’t given him any encouragement and they’d hardly met more than thirty seconds. Similarly their proper first meeting and conversation was relayed in a tell-not-show manner -we are told they “sat and talked” until interrupted by Davy’s father.  And then Davy says this:

I was sent from the room for the duration of the interview, but I loitered in the waiting room because I didn’t want Romney to disappear from my life without at least trying to find out where he lived. Though I was no innocent, I had never felt such an attraction to another man before. It made all my previous dalliances seem inconsequential. However Nicholas Romney had stirred something in me that no one else had ever before touched, and I was anxious to explore all these new feelings.

The thing is–other than an impetuous kiss–we haven’t had any reason to suspect that Davy was madly attracted to Nick–nor are we given the reasons why, so I felt a little short changed. First meetings, first conversations, first attractions–like first sex–should always be described, even briefly. It was like leaving the cinema for a couple of minutes to get an icecream, only to find upon your return that the bunny has already been boiled.

I did like Davy’s family’s reaction to the fact that he was sharing rooms with Nick–his father seems to suspect their relationship, and it’s probable that his mother at least wouldn’t have been able to put words to what their relationship was, so maybe didn’t suspect. His brother deals with it by not dealing with it, and his sister is madly curious. It made his family decent (although probably quite unrealistic) without really breaching the OKHOMO barrier.  Similarly, the jump from his father being dismissive and disappointed with Davy, to this statement:

I knew he was a loving man,

was never truly explored. It’s often the way with books I like, though–I want all of the book, including all the things that can’t be fitted into 170 or so pages.

We are soon into familiar territory,a murder, a possible miscarriage of justice and things to investigate. One might say that Nick has similar methods to a certain detective living in Baker Street, but we can’t really blame him for that, methods are methods, after all.

Character-wise, there’s some solid building here, and we quickly learn about Davy (who Nick calls Fitz) and Nick (who Davy sometimes refers to as Rom.) Nick has interesting idosyncracies which make him rather alluring (to me, anyway!) and that’s all as it should be. Who wants a normal detective, gay or otherwise?

What is a nice touch is that in this book, Holmes is fictional–and he even gets a mention when a corpse is proclaimed by Nick to be a brewer and it made me laugh:

I had only recently read a story entitled “A Study in Scarlet” about a fictional detective, and much as I had enjoyed it, I harbored the suspicion that Romney was twice the detective this other chap was and not nearly as annoying. “Is that all?” I asked.

“Do you want me to tell you the location of the brewery by sniffing the hops?”

I grew excited. “Can you do that?”

Rom rolled his eyes. “Good heavens Fitz, you read too much nonsense.”

“Well, I don’t know!” I snapped.

As Nick’s “storyteller”in the same way Watson was for Holmes, Davy has a good eye. He’s the narrator of the story–which is first person–and he gives you great details of the locations they encounter in their travels, rooms and furniture, streets and buildings all come to life as he describes them.

The story unfolds in a parallel fashion, with the most recent case with frequent flashbacks to the time they met, and Nick’s first case. I – being a bear of little brain and less concentration (specially with reading on the PC) found this distracting, and if I’m going to be picky I would have liked both stories as individual books rather than this method–but I know that it won’t bother most people so it’s not getting marked down for that. Nor for the cover which is very ugly.

It’s well-written and pacy–just how a mystery of this genre should be. Never a dull moment, in either plot-lines. The American spelling pissed me off a little bit, but it is probably a Torquere requirement, many publishers insist on it. I wish they wouldn’t for English set books. But spelling aside there were no other Americanisms that pulled me out of the immersive detail.

I should warn for themes which might offend–that of child abuse–but of course it is not described in any way, and the only references to it are those that disgust the characters involved, but I need to point this out, in case you won’t read anything with that theme.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and feel that I should knock a mark off for the double plot-line, (or due to the fact that we’ve reviewed three books this month with a five star rating) but both reasons would be unfair.This is a solid addition to the genre, well researched (very well researched, I should add) well written with a detective that I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of–and I hope we see more of Ms Rowan’s work in the gay historical field.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.

In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.

This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren’t worth being read more than once. There’s nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like “Eromenos” by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)

What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it’s a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.

Here’s one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if “Eromenos” is a gem, it’s an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex array of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.

On the surface, it’s another novel (or short novel/novella, it’s pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It’s the second Antinous novel I’ve read (after Gardiner’s “Hadrian Enigma” and it’s fascinating how different the two books are.

McDonald’s book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor’s lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it’s suicide.
But it’s more than that (so I’m not really giving away the twist of the story here). It’s a short memoir where we learn about Antinous’s youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It’s not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?

At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He’s not a player, he’s not a pawn, he’s an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as “Hadrian’s favourite.”

In this is the true tragedy of the character. He’s defined as Hadrian’s lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he’s getting too old, and while it’s fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it’s unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.

The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can’t be Antinous. He can’t discover who he really is, because he is the emperor’s consort. But even without Hadrian, he’ll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the Emperor and prolong his life.

The memoir we read is that search for identity, which ask these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.

If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it’s not. It’s an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There’s a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he’d refer to and how he’d express himself.

References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it’s not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there’s fondness and affection in the text, I don’t read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.

And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is “just” the consort. He plays his role because that’s his duty, he’s been chosen, but he’s never an equal partner and can’t possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.

Here’s a small piece of text from the start:

“When I was six, wandering about the cook’s garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.

Studying the creature’s unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.

I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men.”

This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the “famous man”, he’s nothing but a field mouse.

It’s layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it’s all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.

Author’s website

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

Love: it’s a triangle. War: is coming. Betrayal: is inevitable. Sex: watch out for the naughty puppets.

Review by Jess Faraday

This wasn’t an easy book. I mean this in a technical sense. It wasn’t like sitting down to read a civilized story in which one is introduced to the characters, setting, and story questions in a logical, straightforward manner. It was more like being dropped into the bustling backstage of a down-at-heel foreign theatre, with no knowledge of where or when you are. No one can see or hear you. Even if they could, they have more important things to do than answer your stupid little questions. Also, time doesn’t move in a straight line, but spirals back around on itself every now and then. And there’s a war on.

In exchange, though, you are magically granted access to every character’s most intimate thoughts and memories. Never mind that most of the many, many narrators are unreliable–either hopelessly biased or out-and-out liars. Their stream-of-consciousness ramblings and your newfound telepathy are the only tools you will be allowed for the task of figuring out what actually happens. Pay attention. There will be a quiz.

While all of this may pose a problem for readers looking for something they can read with the telly on, I can guarantee that if one is willing to give the story her full attention, it’s ultimately well worth the struggle.

While reading this book, I swung back and forth between admiring the author’s daring, and cursing her for writing a story that would disintegrate in my hands if I put it down for an hour. I finally came down on the side of admiration. Once I got over my initial frustration, the structure of the story began to take shape. The book may look like a lurching, ramshackle crazy-train of images, but underneath it is highly structured to reveal the story in a precise, though nontraditional way.

And I realized, as I approached the midpoint, just how easy it would have been to write this sort of story wrong.

To save potential readers a bit of hair-pulling, I’ll lay out the basics.

Brothel keepers Decca and Rupert and puppet-master Istvan grew up together. Decca and Istvan are sister and brother. Decca loves Rupert. Rupert loves Istvan. Istvan loves his puppets–though the puppets creep out enough important people as to provide significant plot complications. Rupert and Istvan each have other admirers whose one-sided affections provide further complications. And then there’s that pesky war (the Franco-Prussian war, by the way. We’re outside of Brussels. It’s 1870. Not that it’s ever stated outright.)

Now that that’s out of the way, I can direct your attention to the unbelievably lush setting. The amount of research that has gone into it–the comparative luminosity of tallow vs. beeswax candles, for instance–is staggering. It has been said of 19th century novels that setting often takes the role of a character, and it’s definitely the case here. The story is an almost continuous sensory assault. It gets in the way sometimes, but given the choice of too much setting or not enough, I’d choose too much–especially if it is this well researched.

As for the characters–rough, conflicted, often unpleasant but ultimately unforgettable–the lack of sentimentality with which the author treats them is refreshing. Many authors blither on about how their characters “make” them write things against their better instinct. Not here. Koja’s characters, in all their leaping-off-the-page, three-dimensional glory are servants of story and circumstance, and they know their place. The author’s unsentimental treatment of her characters reminds me of that of Sarah Waters in Fingersmith. It’s a difficult thing to do when one has spent so much time walking with a set of characters. And yet it makes for a much stronger story.

To give away more than I have would do the book a grave disservice. The joy for me was more in the journey than in the resolution: watching the structure unfold, taking in the scenery, enjoying the ride. And it’s a wild ride.

People will probably love this book or hate it–possibly both. But let me just say that it would take an author of extraordinary talent to open with a scene of a woman being sodomized by a ventriloquist’s dummy and make me want to keep reading.

And Kathe Koja is that talented. Five stars.

www.kathekoja.com

Buy from Small Beer Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Home is the Sailor by Lee Rowan

The fourth book in the Royal Navy series, Home Is the Sailor is set immediately following Eye of the Storm. After an unprovoked attack during peacetime — was it revenge for their abduction of one of Bonaparte’s top military scientists? — Commander William Marshall and his lover, David Archer, are sent into hiding at David’s ancestral home in Devon.

But this is no peaceful shore leave. With the best intentions in the world, Will has discovered that his fear of losing Davy is still stronger than his desire to keep Davy beside him on the quarterdeck. And Lieutenant Archer is having problems of his own — the family that seemed so rock-solid, if distant, is staggering under the loss of its eldest son and heir. Was it an accident… or murder? And if the latter, how will he ever prove it to an autocratic father who still sees him as the inept youngest son? Out of their element, Davy and Will are thrust into the role of sleuths while trying to determine what sort of future, if any, they may have together.

Review by Jean Cox

Lee Rowan was one of the first authors I read when I discovered gay romance. Before Forster, before Renault, I was reading Ransom and Winds of Change, and parts of those books stay vividly in my mind. So it was with a mixture of delight and trepidation that I approached Home is the Sailor, because you can never tell if this is the moment a series “jumps the shark”.

I should have had more faith in the author. The book is marked by all the things which make the Royal Navy Series enjoyable—cracking plot, believable characters, an ear for dialogue and a great sense of time and place. I’ll freely admit that I’m wary of reading stories set in historical England which aren’t by British authors. Too often I’ve ended up shouting at a book, “They didn’t have that word then. That place wasn’t even built!” but that doesn’t happen with these stories. If I can ask the author direct, do you just have an extraordinary, instinctive feeling for the Age of Sail or do you and that gang of Britpickers you mention in the acknowledgement really have to weed out many anachronistic moments?

The book starts with a bang, almost literally, as we’re flung into an engagement at sea, and with immediate hints of tension between Will and Davy. Will’s frightened for his lover’s welfare, which is no mental condition for a captain to possess going into combat. Immediately we see one of the strengths of Rowan’s writing; Will and Davy are men, fighting sailors, and their relationship never obscures that. No thinly veiled women masquerading, in this case.

The action soon moves ashore, where they encounter another perilous action to negotiate; a visit to Davy’s family home, Will meeting the family and discovering a house in mourning—and anguish. Will Marshall is a fish out of water socially and the middle part of the story’s tensions come initially come from his charting his way through unfamiliar waters and Davy navigating uneasy familial ones. Will is fiercely protective of his lover, determined to see him get his due and recognition within the Archer clan.

A series of suspicious deaths—and the chance to investigate them—brings a new challenge to our heroes. Will and Davy prove they’re more than up to the task, adept at spotting the clues which will solve not just this mystery but help to heal the deep and bitter wounds that lie within Davy’s family. In so doing, they risk their lives and happiness, but ultimately find the solution to both Will’s dilemma about going into action with his lover at his side and the need to maintain a public face which obscures the reality of their relationship. They—and Ms Rowan—handle the denouement neatly and pragmatically.

I know some readers are drawn to Rowan’s books for the gorgeous love scenes, but give me the domestic banter any day. And there are times, for example when Lady Virginia talks about the threat to her unborn child, that I hear resonances of Austen, as I also do in the dinner table dialogue:.

“But it must be so exciting.” Lady Eugenie leaned forward, fluttering her lashes at Will. “Did that really happen—the Frogs, the falling yardarm?”

“Any number of times, my child.” David received the expected glare for the endearment. “And eventually it ceases to be exciting and becomes just a part of the job. May His Majesty’s Navy be preserved from midshipmen who sign aboard for the excitement!”

There are extra little delights: the deft use of real characters, such as Sir Edward Pellew, in a way that doesn’t smack of their being included just for the sake of it and an array of minor characters, such as David Newkirk, who are skilfully and economically portrayed. Rowan is a good writer, a solid and reliable author in a genre that can vary from the sublime to the unreadable.

I suspect that Home is the Sailor will become my favourite of the Royal Navy series, eclipsing Eye of the Storm; I certainly hope it isn’t the end of Will and Davy’s adventures.

Buy at Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

Sal Mineo is probably most well-known for his unforgettable, Academy Award–nominated turn opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and his tragic murder at the age of thirty-seven. Finally, in this riveting new biography filled with exclusive, candid interviews with both Mineo’s closest female and male lovers and never-before-published photographs, Michael Gregg Michaud tells the full story of this remarkable young actor’s life, charting his meteoric rise to fame and turbulent career and private life.

About the author: MICHAEL GREGG MICHAUD’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and publications, including the Los Angeles Times. He is also a playwright, editor, artist, and award-winning photographer. An animal-rights defender, he is a founding director of the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles.

*Available in e-book format – 2137KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

When I first came upon the title “Sal Mineo: A Biography” by Michael Gregg Michaud [Crown Archetype, 2010], I knew it was something I had to read. You see, in 1965 I spent an intimate evening with Sal Mineo in Toronto, and although this time was brief I can attest to some of the characteristics Michaud writes about; certainly Mineo’s disarming charm, his impetuousness, and his passion for life at whatever he happened to be doing at the time.

Sal Mineo’s impoverished childhood in the Bronx is a testament to several things: i.e. if you stay true to your dreams they will come true (in some measure), and anything worthwhile is worth working for. Mineo did against formidable odds. Along the way luck also played a role when he was cast with Yul Brenner in “The King and I,” and Brenner became his inspiration as well as his mentor.

Eventually Hollywood beckoned, and on the basis of his accomplishments, youthful good looks and luck, at the tender age of fifteen he was cast in a supporting role opposite the (now) legendary James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” The female lead in this cinematic classic was Natalie Wood, and it is particularly interesting to note that all three of these individuals met an untimely and tragic end.

Mineo idolized Dean, who was known to be bi-sexual, and for the first time Sal began to realize how love between men could arise. Nothing ever transpired between these two, however, and eventually Dean’s brilliant career and unorthodox lifestyle was cut short by a tragic car accident—September 30, 1955.

In the Halcyon days of his career, Mineo was managed by his well-intentioned but domineering mother—the quintessential stage mother—who spent his considerable income faster than he could earn it. Moreover, lacking the business acumen to realize this, and being a bit of a spendthrift himself, the plot was set for a financial crises.

Also contributing to this downturn was Mineo’s inability to make the transition from a teen idol to more mature roles. Ironically, it was his baby face and stereotype casting as a juvenile delinquent—the very characteristics that had made him a famous—that worked against him in the eyes of the public. Consequently, he joined the ranks of childhood stars whose careers were short lived.

Until this stage his sexual orientation had been strictly heterosexual, particularly with a British starlet by the name of Jill Haworth. That was until he met Bobby Sherman; a virtual unknown until Mineo used his influence to launch Sherman’s singing career in the 1960s. Following his fling with Sherman, the floodgates seemed to open to a variety of attractive, young men who ended up in Mineo’s bed—some with familiar names from the era, i.e. Don Johnson, Jay North (Dennis the Menace), David Cassidy, and Jon Provost (Timmy of Lassie fame). Nevertheless, when he met a handsome actor by the name of Courtney Burr, he finally formed a love that lasted until Mineo’s death in 1976.

Not surprisingly rumours of this began to circulate, and since Hollywood’s attitude about sex was oddly (and not just a little hypocritically) guarded, Sal lived his private life under the radar for fear and professional recriminations.

“Sal knew that outing himself, declaring his sexuality, would destroy what little was left of his career. Though Sal never publicly came out in a conventional manner, there was a subliminal coming-out that began years before. He wanted his lifestyle and his choices to be accepted. He wanted a normalcy and legitimacy in his life.”

Not an unreasonable wish in a town where almost anything goes, sexually, and sensuality is a packaged product.

***

This exhaustive biography is not only a tribute to Sal Mineo, a talented and misunderstood individual who lived life to the fullest—no matter what he did—it is also a tribute to the author’s unrelenting dedication. For example, the writing of “Sal Mineo: A biography” took ten years and three-years of research to complete. Moreover, numerous interviews were conducted, most particularly with Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, to give it a personal insight beyond the written record. Bravo!

Full of details and previously undisclosed anecdotes, the biography captures a career of ups and downs and a private life of sexual impulses. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Amazon USA Kindle Edition

Review: The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

They once faced each other on a battlefield. Now soldier-turned-spy Jonathan Reese must keep watch over the man he’s never forgotten. A close encounter reveals Karl von Binder, the count’s son, also recalls the day he spared Jonathan’s life.

Sparks fly between the former enemies and Jonathan begins to lose perspective on his mission. He knows he must maintain distance because the heat he encounters in Karl’s touch stirs him far too deeply for his own good. He can’t keep away — especially when he suspects someone is trying to kill the nobleman.

The spy becomes a protector as Jonathan guards the man he’s begun to care for. Together the men try to puzzle out who would benefit from Karl’s death — and how much they’re willing to trust each other when a torrid sexual fling threatens to become an affair of the heart.

Review by Erastes Click here for the PODCAST

Having enjoyed hugely Dee and Devon’s Gentleman and the Rogue I was eager to read this one—although a little trepidatious about the title and it seemed a bit similar, and I wondered if they weren’t just resting on their laurels and writing the same book twice.

However I shouldn’t have doubted them, because this is a very different book in time, flavour and feel.

The eponymous spy, Reese is introduced to us from the start and he sets the scene quite wonderfully, following on from an excellent first line:

“We aren’t asking you to kill the man”

we learn a lot about Reese, and nothing, because that’s the kind of shadowy spy he is. He gives nothing away, not in speech or in body language. He understands how to fake interest, how to fake non-aggression and he’s damned good at his job. We learn early on that he will no longer kill anyone—so he’s been an assassin at some point, and that he had a liaison with his former handler, and that something went terribly wrong there, and after that Reese changed. But not a lot else, and that’s how it should be. However as the story went on, I have to say that I would have liked to have seen more of how good Reese was at his job; he broke his cover pretty soon and wasn’t much of a spy during the story itself, although we had a hint of his excellence from his backstory.

His target couldn’t be more different on the surface. He’s assigned to follow Karl Johann Peter, Erb-Pfalzgraf von und zu Neuschlosswold-Binder (try saying that with a mouthful of chips) who seemingly everyone knows about. A famous aristocrat, diplomat with a huge retinue and a famous family—but with his own secrets to hide.

I loved the way the relationship started early, and the way that Binder was the experienced one, when I’d half expected it to be the other way around. Binder has good gaydar and his seduction of the man he’d already spotted as following him was quite delicious. There’s a lovely sense of paranoia from both men as they size each other up: what is he up to, who is working for, all these questions go through both men’s minds and it works well and is very believable, even for men who have just had an intimate encounter.

Both characters, Binder and Reese are excellently portrayed, each with a distinct personality and voice; they rub each other up the wrong way (and the right way in more intimate moments) and the cat and mouse and cat game that they play is great to read.

This nicely sums up the differences between them:

Maybe it was this somber aspect that drew Karl, since his own nature was more flamboyant. Jonathan seemed to have a stillness about him, an ability to sit quietly and take things in. He reminded Karl of a pool with a smooth surface and all sorts of dark, hidden depths. And every time Karl saw the pool, he was compelled to drag his hand through it and ruffle the waters. He just had to splash around, and he wanted to dive deep and see what secrets lay at the bottom.

Although I had to laugh at the last of that, but I’m twelve.

There’s many characters in this story, too, which is tightly plotted and multi-layered, and each character has a definite place and no one feels like “filler.”

Set in 1866 (and I think) just before the Austro-Prussian-Italian war I have to say that having been researching this period myself for the last six months I was impressed by the research done here in respect to the political situation in England and Germany at the time, touching lightly on unrest in Russia and other hotspots in Europe–(Europe being a veritable powder keg about to explode at any time.)

If you are looking for a sexy book, you won’t be disappointed, but the sex here is decadently sensual, full of round ripeness and a languid time-wasting hedonism that had my toes curling with delight. I’ve said it before that a sex scene needs to be part of the plot, and although (for the size of the book) the sex is a large proportion, it never once feels gratuitous and for once I was looking forward to the next one, rather than rolling my eyes with “oh God, they are at it again.” I appreciated the masculinity of the scenes, too—sometimes gay erotic can get a little too feminine for my taste. There’s little of the sighing over a pair of eyes or lips; at a party Karl imagines flipping up the tails of Reese’s evening jacket, yanking down his trousers and rogering him hard. Quite right, sir. Quite right.

When I’m writing these reviews I generally tap out quibbles as I find them, and it amused me vastly that the first major quibble I had, regarding Reese’s identity and the persona he’d booked in at the hotel were debunked thoroughly by Karl’s staff, which made me laugh that I’d thought that Dee and Devon would make such a simple error. Other than Claridge’s having unaired sheets (heavens, no!) nothing much other than the word “cum” making an appearance which I always dislike. That’s probably Loose ID’s style guide, not the authors’ choice though. And a few Americanisms which crept in here and there, like “wash-up” for washing. So well done, ladies.

If I have any complaint it’s to Loose I-D – PLEASE can you vary your covers a bit? These are all getting a bit samey.

It’s an exciting and robust tale with mouth-watering intrigue, political machinations, witty banter and some fizzlingly sensuous sex scenes and like The Gentleman and the Rogue (which if you haven’t read why the hell not?) I can’t recommend it highly enough. I want to take away these ladies’ pens until they promise they write nothing else but gay historicals. I just wish I could get a set of theirs in print.

Buy from Loose I-D

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

Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Cut Hand by Mark Wildyr

Billy Strobaw’s world turns on its axis when he has a surprising and physical reaction to a young Indian he and two of his travelling companions have taken captive. The handsome warrior, Cut Hand, eventually not only earns his freedom but also steals Billy’s heart and prevails upon the American to come live among his people. Plunged into a strange culture where lust for another man is not regarded as disgraceful, Billy agrees to become Cut’s ”winkte” wife and comes to understand that the Native Americans have just as much to offer him as he has to share with them.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Mark Wildyr’s cross-culture novel “Cut Hand” [StarBooks Press, 2010] was a delightful find for me. To explain, I usually shy away from “Wild West” stories because they tend to be little more than loosely strung together sexual romps, to which the plot only serves to move the characters from one tryst to another. On the contrary “Cut Hand,” while sexy, is a plot-driven, insightful look at “Two Spirit” customs within North American Native cultures. Moreover, since it places a white boy in the role of the wink-te (pronounced “wan-te” in this story) it is unique approach to it.

Billy Strobaw is the product of Tory parents (called “Loyalists” in Canada) who are unsettled as a result of the American War of Independence. He and his family therefore become outcasts in their own land, and after their untimely deaths young Billy decides to seek his fortune in the Far West. Enroute, his party saves a handsome young Indian named Cut Hand from certain death by a rival band. Thereafter Billy is surprised by his unexpected physical reaction to the Indian brave. Surprisingly Cut Hand returns his attention to not only steal Billy’s heart but also convinces him to live among his people.

Thrust without preparation into a strange culture, Billy agrees to become Cut Hand’s winkte wife; an act that brings problems but not from the direction he expected. As the two men work to overcome the differences in their cultural backgrounds, Billy comes to appreciate the Native Americans for their oneness with the land and their staunch loyalty to one another.

To simply say that this story is “plot-driven” does not do it the justice it deserved. This is a superbly researched glimpse of “a time never again to be seen on the Great Plains,” and done with such credibility that it is a veritable history lesson in itself. Also woven into this is a sometimes poignant story of love between men: manly men; husbands and wink-te wives; warriors; and yet so human that anyone could identify with them.

While commenting on the superlatives inherent in this work, one shouldn’t overlook the cast of true-to-life characters. Wildyr has given each of these a distinctive character, and then goes on to develop and expand it as the story progresses. Moreover, he has resisted the pitfalls of stereotyping the Natives, especially, and has not attempted to ‘sanitize’ them, either.

Altogether, this is quintessential historical fiction encompassing a fascinating topic and period in history.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. The Lacuna is a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identities.

Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico—from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City—Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Lev Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

Review by Ammonite

I admit that Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, and I think she has outdone herself in this, her latest. The setting is the 1930s and 1940s of Mexico and the United States, and it is obvious that she has dug deeply into research of the period. The story begins with the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, as a young boy living (practically prisoners) with his mother and her wealthy lover on an island off the coast of Mexico. She is an attractive, vivacious Hispanic woman who constantly seeks that perfect wealthy gentleman who will take care of her and her son, in spite of the fact she is still married to his father, a conservative and rather dull paper-pusher in Washington, D.C.

The boy (and the man) becomes involved with wonderfully-dawn characters, including the artists Diego Rivera, his wife, Frida Kahlo, and Leonin Trotsky, as well as many others he meets on his life-changing journey from the island to Mexico City, thence to New York, until he eventually settles in Asheville, North Carolina, where he becomes a famous writer of novels about the Aztecs. It is this last, becoming famous, that is his downfall, in the twisted way so many famous (and not so famous) were ruined by J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of supposed communists in the years after WWII.

It is only gradually, with hints here and there, that the reader becomes aware that Harrison Shepherd is gay. This is another reason I love this book–it is not about a gay man. It is about a courageous, intelligent, compassionate man that happens to be gay. Kingsolver focuses on how persons may be ruined by gossip, by fear of the unknown, by the press, by how ordinary folks tend to “jump on the bandwagon” of what is made popular by others’ paranoia–in this case, their fear of communism. It is this paranoia that ruins Harrison’s life. Only he happens to be gay, as well. Someday, maybe all stories will be approached like this, wherein being gay only happens to be one more side of one’s personality.

I have been studying how to become a better writer, and it is all in this novel: the perfect metaphors, the spot-on characterizations, the beautifully-structured sentences, sensory descriptions, stimulating ideas, on and on and on. The title is a metaphor and so is the first paragraph:

“In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”

Author’s Website

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Review: Counterpoint by Ruth Sims

At eighteen Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.

But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?

Review by Erastes

I’ve always been of the opinion that books should be pretty. To (probably) misquote the Arts & Crafts Movement, “one should have nothing in one’s house, that is not useful and decorative.”

Counterpoint is beautifully laid out. From the gorgeous cover by Alex Beecroft (which clearly tells the story) to the wonderful art nouveau font on the headings, this book looks good.

But is it useful? I.e. It might look good, but is it well written?

In a word, yes. This won’t come as any surprise to those readers who have already read Ms Sims’ first book “The Phoenix.” They–as have I–have been waiting a long time for this book, and the polite thing would be to say that the wait was worth it, but I’m greedy and wouldn’t complain if Ms Sims wrote a book a year. This shows progression from the Phoenix; there is a richer depth of emotion and characterisation, and the love affairs described are touching in a way that I never felt with the characters from the first novel.

This is, as the title suggests, Dylan’s story, and he stands firmly at the core of it all:  young, passionate, arrogant with a very firm belief in his talent and entirely obsessed with music, and with little care for anything else, whether it be rules, or family. It’s only the attempts of his family and friends that save him from ruining himself entirely, because if he had been allowed he would have run off and studied music right from the beginning of the book.

It’s a real coming-of-age story, not in a clichéd way of “I’m homosexual and have to come to terms with it” but the way that life forces Dylan to get to grips with his pride, overcome it at times, and compromise with other people, other artists. At first he’s all “it’s my way or nothing” but gradually he learns to work with others, even if that sense of “no, I’m right, and they’ll realise it one day” never leaves him. He sees something, and in his brash young, privileged manner he thinks everything, including love, will fall into his lap, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes to see how he finds that life isn’t like that.

I think the blurb hints that there’s real tragedy in this book, and so readers who can’t bear anyone dying might need to check out whether they want to get invested in the story before starting. But I liked it because life’s like that, you don’t always get to live with the person you love–not forever, and this handles that very well.  I have to say that the “forbidden love” tag in the blurb confused me – in that day and age, I couldn’t see why one homosexual relationship was any more forbidden than another.

There are themes here that are echoed from The Phoenix, and I think I would have preferred something altogether different rather than another artisan who works hard to get to the top of his profession. There’s a top-heavy amount of tragedy, too, which didn’t put me off, as I’m a lover of unremitting angst, but it would have been nice if we’d been shown some of the lighter, sweeter moments in Dylan’s life, especially with his relationship with Laurence Northcliff.

It might sound like I’m being super critical, but when a book is actually as good as this, there’s little point me telling who how damned good. But it is. Sims’ prose is never too layered or dense that you get lost in run-on sentences and too many adjectives; she seems to have an instinct of exactly how much description to add to create an atmosphere, and when to let well enough alone and let the imagination take flight.She never becomes over-technical, particularly when dealing with concepts such as the Gypsies or music, but neither does she dumb down–relying instead on context to make her meaning crystal clear.

As a rich and winding story of love, obsession, disappointment and talent it works beautifully, and anyone with an interest of the fin de siècle period of London and Paris will find it satisfying and intense. Don’t miss this one.

Author’s website

Buy from Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Lessons In Trust by Charlie Cochrane

He thought he knew who he was. Now he’s a stranger to himself.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 7

When Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith witness the suspicious death of a young man at the White City exhibition in London, they’re keen to investigate—especially after the cause of death proves to be murder. But police Inspector Redknapp refuses to let them help, even after they stumble onto clues to the dead man’s identity.

Review by Erastes

As you will know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, or any other m/m review site, The Cambridge Fellows series starring Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart has been a seven book series published by Samhain. This is the last in this set of books from Samhain. I won’t say “this is the last ever appearance from the boys” because I know that Charlie Cochrane is hoping to write at least one more, but that’s not in her contract for the seven books she’s done with them so far.

The series has been almost uniformly excellent—I’ve asked different people to review the books as they were released, to try and instil some fairness, but that didn’t make any difference, quality is quality and The Cambridge Fellow Series has been loved by one and all.

So it will be no surprise to you to hear that Lessons In Trust doesn’t waver one iota in that regard.

The story kicks off with the boys on vacation, staying with the Stewarts.  It’s 1908 and The White City ( a hundred acre site holding the Franco-British Exhibition) has just opened, and the boys are enjoying it every day. And it’s there that the murder mystery begins.

One gets used to the fact that, when a detective (or a couple of them in this case) are on the loose anywhere at all, wherever they go, they are bound to discover a murder. You would be a very stupid person to invite Hercule Poirot to your dinner party, and if I’d seen him entering a train or plane or boat I was on, I’d ask to change my passage to another day.  What Cochrane does is play with that that trope sufficiently to make a nice difference. When they do see the murder, they don’t realise that it is one, and rather than being encouraged to help with the enquiry, they are positively ordered away from it but a wonderful minor character, a policeman who insults the amateur detectives at every available opportunity.

Despite the novella length of this book, Cochrane packs a lot in. Not only do the doughty pair have the challenge of a baffling murder, but one of them has a crisis in his personal life which causes a real rift between the two of them.  I think it was this section that was the only part of the book I didn’t really get. At this point of their relationship, when they’d been through so much–I didn’t understand Orlando’s actions at all. However, it is written entirely in character, so it didn’t jar me – I wasn’t sitting there thinking “he wouldn’t have done that,” – rather “I thought you loved him more.”

As usual, the plot is nicely obscure for the fan of the mystery genre and as usual, there are some wonderful character portraits within the book, and people who love Jonty and Orlando’s gentle and sweet interractions won’t be disappointed.

I can’t mark this with any less than five stars, the weight of the series behind it, and the unfailing quality of the writing, the characterisation and the plotting won’t let me.

Buy at Samhain

Reviews: Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac by Anel Viz

“When I think of the things that happened and the things I did, it is as though I were living them … My hands feel what I touched, and the smells that surrounded me fill my nostrils … Old joys swell my heart, old sorrows clutch at my throat … I remember every face, every name, every street …”

So Gérard Vreilhac begins the story of his life from his boyhood as a gardener at the Château d’Airelles before the French Revolution through six decades of upheaval and social change to the eve of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. It is a story of heroism and devotion, of political intrigue, of the great battles fought in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and of unprecedented upward mobility. Most of all it is the story of the men he loved: Julien, the aristocrat; the jealous and possessive Laurent; his Egyptian houseboy, Akmoud; Anatole, a male prostitute… And every time he fell in love with a man, it was forever.

Review by Nan Hawthorne (crossposted from “That’s All She Read“)

A friend of mine once told me when I told her I was planning to write historical fiction that if she wants to know about an event, she just reads a history book about it. I was so startled by the inconsideration of the comment that I had nothing to say. This novel is an example of why historical fiction, when it is well done and the writer is insightful and a careful researcher, can be so much better than a dry, impersonal, history. No matter how much the historian tries to address the immediate experience of an event, s/he simply doesn’t have the liberty to speculate on the inner motivations and reactions of the people who lived through it. That is why I value historical fiction so much, and one reason why I loved this book.

Imagine what it must have been like to live through the period in France from just before the Revolution of 1789 through Napoleon, two more revolutions and the continuous change in political systems and government and their impact on average people. I mean, have you ever wondered how you would have known from your middle class or lower neighborhood in Paris in 1789 that people were rioting in the streets and that the Bastille had been taken? I can tell you that this happened at this place as a result of this action, but wouldn’t you rather know what you may have seen out your kitchen window as early one morning you dragged yourself out of bed and went out to the courtyard well to draw water to make coffee, noticing odd sounds outside and seeing one of your neighbors running out of his front door with a musket?

Gérard Vreilhac experienced it all, either right in his face or as a victim of the consequences. He is the gardener’s son at a country estate of a nobleman. He is about as far from the focus of the revolutionary action as he can be, but not for long. He and the younger son of the household, already boyhood friends, become lovers, Gérard finding the first love of his life. Julian, the son, must leave to join the military, and Gérard is left to puzzle out his sexuality. He is in Paris when the proverbial Revolutionary trumpets sound and manages to get a job that introduces him to the leaders of the rebellion. As a result of impressing Robespierre, he becomes the clerk for the infamous trials of the Reign of Terror, finally finding himself convicted of crimes against the revolution and facing a guillotine that has already taken the lives of the many, both strangers and friends. He rots in prison, and miraculously is still there when Robespierre himself is taken down.

It is in prison that he meets Laurent, a sensitive and mild person who nonetheless joins the army of Napoleon the same time Gérard does and turns out to love fighting. They have an initially rocky relationship that settles into something no different from a marriage as they grow older and more mature. While in the army in Cairo with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Gérard takes in a servant, Akhmoud, who proves to be a willing and inventive bed partner. The scene when Gérard leaves Cairo, having given Akhmoud his house and furnishings, and Akhmoud’s face is streaming with tears watching him go was heart breaking. Still Gérard knows he could not have stayed, could not have fit into the society, and their relative class would have prevented anything truly deep from happening between them. Gérard knows, for it was Julian and himself in reverse. Back in France Gérard and Laurent return to their intense if peripatetic romance, until Laurent goes missing at Waterloo.
The rest of the novel sees Gérard trying to find a place in his new world without Laurent. An older wealthy friend acts as an excellent advisor and helps him find his way into salon society. He must marry to maintain that lifestyle and makes an old friend, also a former servant in Julian’s family estate, his wife. Other married men have mistresses, it is just that Gérard’s is a man, Anatole, a male prostitute, whom he sets up in an apartment. When Gérard is reaching the end of his life, prompted to write this memoir, Anatole is still there, his longtime companion and friend.

The most consistently present character in this book besides Gérard is France. Viz captures the idealism of youth that can become so violent so quickly, then the rollercoaster of idealism, realism, cynicism. One year they seek a republic, the next they want the King back, then they want workhouses, then they want war. Against this backdrop Gérard’s relationships reflect his changing role in his own frenetic society. He is Julian’s servant, Laurent’s working class lover, Akhmoud’s master, Anatole’s client and then Anatole’s companion and beloved. The novel is rich in erotic scenes, detailed and at the same time romantic. I would like to tell every heterosexual woman I know to read gay male erotica if you want to learn things you never knew a man likes in bed. I happen to believe that sex in a novel is an important way to develop the subtler aspects of a characterization, strive for that in my writing, and have a masterful example to follow in Viz’s novel. There is nothing cold or impersonal in Gérard’s accounts of bed sport, but rather are part of a vital and intelligent man’s self reflection and self determination.

In sum, I found this novel intelligent, insightful, quite well written, both sexy and romantic, and quite moving. Viz handles first person narrative appropriately in what is, after all, a memoir. For me, this novel was most of all about the importance of people in your life and how much friends of all types mean in the successful life of any person. There are so many fine characters in this novel, and each is distinct, important, and not just to the story but as well to each other.

I bought the book as a download at Dream spinner Press LLC’s web site and read it on my Kindle 2 – which, incidentally, was miserable with the French names!

Dreamspinner Press LLC

Last Gasp by Erastes, Chris Smith, Charlie Cochrane and Jordan Taylor

Last Gasp, a series of four short novellas wherein we discover: four gay couples who struggle to find happiness during historical periods on the brink of change. Take a trip back to 1840s Hong Kong, Edwardian Syria, 1898 Yukon and 1936 Italy, and experience passion that will endure through the ages.

The Stories:

Tributary by Erastes

It’s 1936 and a generation of disaffected youth waits in the space between a war that destroyed many of their friends and family, and a war they know is bound to come. Guy Mason wanders through Italy, bored and restless for reasons he can’t even name, and stops at the Hotel Vista, high in the mountains of Lombardy. There, he meets scientist James Calloway and his secretary, Louis Chambers, and it’s there that the meandering stream of Guy’s life changes course forever.

The White Empire by Chris Smith

Edgar Vaughan sincerely believes that six-thousand miles is enough to give him a fresh start. Escaping in 1838 from the drawing rooms of Belgravia and the constraints of his landed family, he takes up missionary work in the trading post of Hong Kong. On arrival, he finds the region on the cusp of war; the Chinese Emperor has outlawed the importation of opium — the key link in the trade of the East India Company. Between Edgar’s sense of isolation, the sight of the puling opium addicts, and one memorable encounter with a man in a peacock waistcoat, Edgar finds himself embroiled in the very marrow of the British Empire’s machinations. He finds himself torn between espousing the expeditious whilst protecting his new acquaintance, and doing what is right and risking the wrath of the British Empire.

Sand by Charlie Cochrane

People come to Syria for many reasons; tourism, archaeology, or because they need to leave Edwardian England to escape potential disgrace. Andrew Parks is one of those, burying past heartache and scandal among the tombs.

Charles Cusiter has travelled here as well, as chaperone to a friend whose fondness for the opposite sex gets him into too much trouble at home. Out in the desert there aren’t any women to turn Bernard’s head – just the ubiquitous sand.

The desert works its magic on Charles, softening his heart and drawing him towards Andrew. Not even a potentially fatal scorpion sting can overcome the power this strange land exerts.

The Ninth Language by Jordan Taylor

Thousands of outsiders descend on Canada’s Yukon Territory during the 1898 gold rush, wreaking havoc on the landscape and the indigenous people who live there. Amid the backdrop of this once pristine land, a man struggling against the destruction of his home and culture finds himself indebted to one of the men causing it. These two strangers discover solace and wholeness where they least expect it: each other

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

As others have noted, anthologies can be a hit or miss or affair but fortunately that is not the case with Last Gasp, which consists of four excellent short novels that will keep any historical fiction fan happy for several hours of entertaining reading.

Three of the authors are familiar to me (Erastes, Charlie Cochrane, and Jordan Taylor); The White Empire by Chris Smith is her debut publication and it is an impressive first start. Although I enjoyed all four stories in Last Gasp, this one may edge out the others (by a hair) as my favorite. It was the longest and the most complex in terms of plot, with a little mystery, some suspense, more than a bit of moral ambiguity and, of course, a romance. I think, too, I am partial to the 1840s as a time period for a story so that added to my enjoyment. I look forward to Smith’s next published offering.

Jordan Taylor’s story was the only one that did not feature British characters and coming at the end of the book (I read the stories in order), it was a nice change. Her writing brought the Yukon Territories to  life and the push/pull conflict between the two main characters, Mitsrii and Troy, was palpable. Taylor is a new, young, and very talented author and I was excited to see her story was included in this collection.

Fans of Charlie Cochrane’s “Lessons” series will feel right at home with Sand, although the setting couldn’t be much further from St. Bride’s Senior Common Room! Even so, the writing was classic Cochrane with her signature funny turns of phrase and amusing expressions. Charles and Andrew quickly fall in love—some might feel a little too quickly, to the point of declaring themselves to each other and making what sounds like a lifetime commitment within days of meeting. I do think that Cochrane’s writing works a little bit better in longer-format fiction where she has time to carefully develop the characters and setting. Even so, I enjoyed this story very much and my little quibble is only a minor problem point in an overall excellent story.

Last, but not least (although it is the first story in the book), Erastes once again seduced me with her prose. While some writers excel at dialogue—and Erastes does fine in that respect—I love her beautiful descriptions of her characters, their locales, and their activities. Tributary did not disappoint. There was enough ambiguity to keep the story interesting and the uncertain future for the main characters certainly lived up to the premise of the entire collection—a world on the brink of change.

As historicals, the details were magnificent. Each story quickly pulled me into its world and kept me there. The characterizations, too, were excellent. At the end of each short novel, I wanted to know more, wondering what happened to the characters and where they moved on in their lives together—or maybe apart.

All in all, it is easy to recommend this collection. Fans of the authors will definitely want to add this to their “to buy” list. If you are a reader who says, “I’m not so sure about historicals…” this might be a good place to start, as the stories have enough variety and detail to give a good overview of what the world of historical fiction has to offer. The stories are full and rich and complete and made for a very satisfying reading experience. A definite keeper of four stories that I am sure to re-read. Brava to the authors, for a job well done!

Purchase from the publisher

Review: The Gentleman and the Rogue by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

When war veteran Sir Alan Watleigh goes searching for sex, he never imagines the street rat he brings home for one last bit of pleasure in his darkest hour will be the man who hauls him back from the edge of the grave.

A night of meaningless sex turns into an offer of permanent employment. As Sir Alan Watleigh’s valet, Jem offers much more than polished boots and starched cravats. He makes Sir Alan Watleigh smile and warms his bed. Just as the men are adjusting to their new living arrangement, news about a former soldier under his command sends Sir Alan Watleigh and Jem on the road to save a child in danger.

The journey brings them closer together as they travel from lust toward love. But is Sir Alan Watleigh’s love strong enough to risk society discovering the truth about him?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

This is the second historical I have read from these authors (the first was Seducing Stephen) and I have to say, on the basis of these two books, Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon are quickly earning a space on my “auto-buy authors” list. Brava, ladies!

Similar to Seducing Stephen, the core of The Gentleman and the Rogue is about a slightly older man who is jaded and discontent; he meets a younger man who re-introduces him to joy and happiness in life. In The Rogue and the Gentleman, the older man is Sir Alan Watleigh, formerly Captain Watleigh, who has returned from the Iberian War, injured and ill and also family-less. The younger man is Jem, a prostitute that he picks up, intending on one night of sexual release before he commits suicide. Jem very quickly gets under Alan’s skin, however, and over the course of the story becomes an essential part of Alan’s life.

Jem is a terrific character. He’s funny and kind and full of love. It’s not hard to see why Alan falls for him. Alan is taciturn and reserved. He acts like the military man that he was and Jem makes it his mission to get Alan to smile—at least once in a while.

Jem has wonderful interior and exterior dialog. In his mind, he wonders about Alan and makes up all sorts of funny nicknames for him—Lord Bumbuggerer is my favorite. He also shows his insecurities and his fears, wondering if, at any minute, Alan will suddenly change his mind about the life he is living and return Jem to the streets of London from whence he came. Exteriorly, he tells Alan stories, shares his thoughts and opinions and eventually, his love. Alan, for his part, slowly comes to trust and accept Jem, ultimately realizing how important he is in his life.

The story has two very distinct parts. The first half concerns the developing relationship between Alan and Jem. In the latter part, the situation referenced in the synopsis, “news about a former soldier under his command sends Sir Alan Watleigh and Jem on the road to save a child in danger…” comes into play. This structure was interesting. In the first part of the story, the conflict came from the interactions between Alan and Jem as they established their bond as lovers and the boundaries that must exist, given the time and place in which they were living (Regency England in 1813). But, in the second half, the conflict came from their quest to save the child in danger and not from some sort of misunderstanding or blow-up between them. I appreciated this as I find “the big misunderstanding” trope to be overused. On the other hand, there was a distinct change of tone in the book—much less sex in the second half and much more adventure and derring-do, with Jem in particular putting his life at risk to save the young girl, Annie. This two-part structure didn’t particularly bother me, but some readers might find that it makes the book feel a little choppy. I note it here as a caveat but not a criticism.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story of two men from very different walks of life who meet, develop an attraction, fall in love, and share an adventure that further cements their relationship. The writing was crisp and solid and the fast moving story kept me completely absorbed from the very first page. Highly recommended.

Buy at the Loose Id website

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: The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy at Manloveromance

Review: 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 Why Not by Victor J Banis

The place is gaudy yet drab, lively yet death-like, dispassionate mother hen to a brood of dithered chicks. Discover its bizarre existence from the inside, through the muddled collective mind of the outcast in-group, a gay throng of third-sex bewildered ones who frantically seek a why–but must always settle for The Why Not!

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I just went back through my Speak Its Name reviews and saw that I’ve only given one five star review, namely to Josh Lanyon’s how-to book. Well, make this another five star, then. I’ve read some excellent books as a reviewer here, and I’ve given 4.5 and 4 stars to books I really enjoyed. For me to give five stars, however, I want to read a book that grabs me and doesn’t let me go, that picks me up by the neck like a puppy and shakes me, emotionally, and then, either tosses me away or puts me gently down.

Victor J Banis’ The Why Not is one of those by-the-scruff-of-your-neck books. I was a goner after a couple pages, and I’m flattened after finishing it, part fearing to go back and re-read it again, part wanting nothing more than to read it more slowly this time round and pick up all the small things that I must have missed, even though I inhaled every line and felt every character echo in his own way, for a few moments.

And it’s so cleverly done. The eponymous “Why Not” is a gay bar in California, and we’re in the Sixties, before Stonewall. The book consists of short stories or sketches, or portraits of men connected to the bar, their individual storylines crossing, approaching, diverging, moving apart, and vanishing just like faces in a crowd. The reader gets to know these people, sees moments in their lives, rather like cruising the crowd themselves. Do I like this one better? Do I recognize myself in that face?

There is little romance in here; I keep saying it, because so much about reading gay lit or m/m these days is all about the romance and I wouldn’t want to see people disappointed – but I would want people to read this book. Whatever they think they want to read, whatever they think they are prepared to deal with, because this book has such a strong emotional resonance that it is rather like a living thing. One of those books that pick you up and might put you down again. Might. If they are feeling generous.

The portraits, apart from being faces in a bar crowd, also form a chorus of solitary voices. Sometimes, you pick up a harmony, or a disharmony, sometimes a deeper layer unfolds and allows you a glimpse into what is really the human condition, not just the gay condition. Seeking mates, always hoping, with emotions and desires overwhelming the mind, the terrible silence between mother and son, the denial, the victimisation, unexpected moments of humor and lightness that sometimes just hide the shrillness papering over a deep sense of ennui and lack of fulfilment. Pretty much like real life. There are no heroes here, no idealised love, this is just about people in their helplessness, their moments of courage and pity, and of taking advantage and being taken advantage of. I found it deeply moving, because it’s all so very true, and facing those emotions honestly, regardless of what readers might expect or people might think, is the greatest challenge for every writer. Writing the truth is so much harder than going through the motions because people drop a coin in our hat – or promise to drop a coin.

Picking out quotes is difficult with this one, there are so many beautiful, intense passages. Most often, one passage stands out – I call that, in my metaphorical mind, “the beating heart of the novel” – but this doesn’t offer any quick and easy passage. The whole thing is pulsing with life, and I struggle picking out one over the other, but here’s a passage from a visit to the steam baths:

“The walls inside are rotting and musty, the floor dirty and unswept. Only a single customer in the locker area, a fat old man, eyeing me with interest but without hope as I strip. Cruelly I pose to heighten his appreciation, give him plenty to admire, and time to admire it, coolly aloof and impervious to his desire.

Upstairs, the darkened chamber reserved for sexual encounters is a snake pit of arms and legs, bodies writhing and twisting together, the smell of sperm overpowering and alarming. Someone follows me in, an arm slipping about my waist, but it is the old man from the locker room, made bolder now in the darkness and the universality of the chamber’s activities.

I shrug off his arm, and leave the room. Retreating back down the stairs, to the steam room, where the sperm smell is still strong and supplemented by another less pleasant odor. The heat, as one climbs higher on the benches, grows devastating, until one ceases to care when a body approaches, the unseen face of a stranger seeks my flesh and I am caught up in the act of fulfillment, weakly and mechanically performing until I shudder and draw away. The body goes, but not before another approaches, standing above me.

The door opens, a shaft of light in the darkness, and the room becomes for an instant a frozen tableau, everyone motionless, wary. But the newcomer is too young to be Tillie Law, young and pretty—too pretty, I tell myself, a lovely flower to be thrown into the muck and mire before him. In the fleeting light, the jackals can be seen crouching, tensely poised for the attack. The door closes and the movement be-gins, vultures moving in upon the newcomer, vying for positions. A new conquest, fresh meat upon which to feed.

Finally, wearied with the parade, unending and infinitely varied in its sameness, of bodies—large bodies, small bodies, short and long bodies, fat and thin bodies—I leave the steam room, make my way down the corridor, blinking my eyes against the glare of the harsh naked lights.

(…)

Unable to suffer myself longer, I leave and make my way back to the locker room. I avoid the mirror there, ex-pecting to find that my flesh is gone, ripped from me by the frantic clawing of teeth and mouths, but the mirror defeats me, remains stubbornly in my way, and I see myself, whole after all, a ghost of reflection in the glass—the reflection more real, perhaps, than I myself.”

It’s not an easy, fawning book; it packs a punch and I fully expect I’ll be reeling for a little while, but it came at the perfect moment for me, when all I wanted, after reading too many lifeless, competently-made pretty little things, was real emotion. Well, I received it, and plenty at that.

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Review: To Hell You Ride by Julia Talbot

Big Roy is a hard rock miner with a not so secret love for the theater, so when he hears a new troupe of actors are coming to the Telluride opera house to put on a Shakespeare play, he saddles his mule and makes the trek into town to see it.

The play doesn’t disappoint, but the beautiful lead actor, Sir Edward Clancy, certainly does. Clancy is rude and arrogant, and Roy figures he’d never have a chance with such a man. He’s wrong, because Clancy needs some entertainment himself, being stuck in a Hellish mining town for the long, snowy winter.

Come spring, though, Clancy knows he’s going to want to move on, and he thinks Roy will be easy to forget. Then tragedy strikes, and Clancy has to rethink his entire life. Can these two strike gold?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

“‘Thank the Lord and all the angels,’ as Big Roy Marsh would say. ‘A historical western that gets it right.’”

Edward Clancy looked up from his book. “What’s that you say?”

Roy Marsh looked at him. “I’m readin’ a review and she quotes me.”

“A review? Of what?”

“The book about us, of course!” Roy gave Clancy an exasperated stare.

“Which one?”

Roy wondered if Clancy was being dense on purpose. “Tis only one, as you know. Ain’t dozens of books ‘bout us. To Hell You Ride, the one by Miss Julia Talbot.”

“Ah,” said Clancy. “And what does she say? Is it a positive review?”

Roy nodded. “I’d say so. Five stars.”

“Five stars! A superior rating! That’s better than my last performance.”

“You didn’t rehearse enough for that one.”

“You were too busy keeping me busy.”

Roy blushed at that.

Clancy gestured towards the paper. “Go on, read some more.”

Roy cleared his throat. “‘Big Roy Marsh is a gold miner, working high in the mountains above Telluride, Colorado. On Saturday, he likes nothing better than to ride his mule, Annie, into town, stop for a shave, haircut and perhaps a bath, then put on his ‘Sunday go-to-meeting clothes’ and head to the theater.’”

“That’s what you still like,” Clancy interrupted.

Roy nodded. “I surely do, even if you do make me wear a suit.”

“You look particularly fine in a suit.”

Roy blushed again. He looked back down at the paper. “‘On this particular Saturday, Roy is transfixed by the performance of Sir Edward Clancy in the role of MacDuff. He accidently bumps into the actor the next morning and wishes to pay him a compliment, but Sir Edward arrogantly brushes him aside.’”

Clancy frowned. “Why did she have to include that?”

“It’s true. You were arrogant.” He continued reading. “‘When a comment about Sir Edward’s rudeness makes it into the paper, Clancy decides he requires a personal apology and sets out to get it, which becomes the basis for an amusing encounter between the two men.’”

“Amusing, hmm? I thought it was odd.”

“Amusing or odd, you couldn’t get enough of me,” Roy said.

It was Clancy’s turn to blush.

Roy turned back to the paper. “‘Roy and Clancy are the unlikeliest of lovers, but Talbot tells their story deftly, moving from a relationship built on carnal lust and a base desire for each other to one of a strongly shared love and mutual need.’” Roy’s brow furrowed. “Sounds a little personal, here.”

“Well, if you didn’t want it to be personal, you shouldn’t have shared so many details. I told you to be a bit more circumspect.”

Roy looked at his lover, his lips tightening into a hard line, but didn’t say anything. “‘The reason why this story works so well as a historical western, as opposed to a story that takes place in the old days, is the way the author effortlessly evokes the time and period. Little details bring the frontier town of Telluride to life, with its wood-framed buildings and muddy roads leading high up into the mountains. I particularly loved this line, ‘Only thing he’d taken had been his own shoes and coat, assuming them after he was out in the hallway, bright with its fancy electric lights that looked so odd to Roy. Any light that didn’t flicker with the wind just oughtn’t be trusted.’” Roy looked at the electric lamp at his elbow, then looked at Clancy. “Not sure why she’d comment on that,” he said. “Still think it’s true.”

Clancy smiled at him. “Oh, my rough miner. You never change, do you?”

“Do you want me to?” Roy asked.

Clancy shook his head. “No,” he answered softly.

Roy took a minute to compose himself, then picked up the paper again. “‘Themes are beautifully woven throughout the story, such as shaving and bathing. At the beginning, they are impersonal acts between Roy and the barber—a business transaction. Then they become erotic moments between the two main characters and ultimately, an act of caring and love, when Edward bathes Roy after a life-threatening accident.’”

Roy stopped. “Well,” he said.

“Well,” Clancy replied.

“I didn’t know we was being erotic,” said Roy.

“I didn’t know we had themes, but I suppose I should have figured it out, given my prowess in the acting profession.”

Roy chuckled. “Gotta hand it to you, Clancy, you ain’t ever been one to hide your light under a bushel.”

Clancy pointed to the paper. “Go on. Is there anything else?”

Roy nodded. “‘All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying novella. Colorful, well-drawn characters, a totally engaging story, historical details that were pitch perfect in pulling me into turn-of-the-century Colorado. Having read a number of Westerns that come nowhere near this standard, it was a true pleasure to stumble upon this unexpected gem.’” Roy stopped reading. “Guess she liked it.”

Clancy nodded. “With a review like that, I suppose I shall have to stop ignoring this book and actually read it. Do we own a copy?”

“Yup,” said Roy. “It’s in the bedroom, next to the bed.”

“Will you fetch it for me?”

Roy shook his head mournfully. “Now, Edward, you know I ain’t your manservant, here to do your fetching. You can go get it for yourself.”

“I suppose I shall have to do that.” Clancy brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his trousers. “Perhaps you will accompany me?”

“To the bedroom?” Roy asked.

Clancy nodded. “Some of the things you read reminded me of memories that have, um, quite aroused me. I think, perhaps, some recreation is in order.”

“You mean getting fancy?” Roy winked.

“You know precisely what I mean, my love.”

Roy stood up. “You lead the way, honey,” he said with a smile.

“I don’t need to be asked twice,” replied Clancy, as they headed out of the room, the newspaper forgotten on the chair.

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Review: Lovers’ Knot by Donald Hardy

Cornwall, 1906

After inheriting Trevaglan Farm from a distant relative, Jonathan Williams returns to the estate to take possession, with his best friend, Alayne, by his side. He’d only been to Trevaglan once before, fourteen years earlier when he’d been sent there after a family scandal and his mother’s death. But that was a different time; he’s a different person now, determined to put that experience out of his mind and his heart….

That summer, he’d been a lost and lonely young man. Healing came slowly; the hot summer days were filled with sunshine, the nearby ocean, and a new friend, Nat. Jonathan and the farmhand had quickly grown close, Jonathan needing comfort in the wake of his grief, and Nat basking in a peace and love he had never known could exist.

But that was also a summer of rumors and strange happenings in the surrounding countryside, of romantic triangles and wronged lovers. Tempers would flare like summer lightning, and fade just as quickly. By the summer’s end, one young man was dead, and another haunted for life.

Now Jonathan is determined to start anew. Until he starts seeing the ghost of his former friend everywhere he looks. Until mementos of that summer idyll reappear. Until Alayne’s life is in danger. Until the town’s resident witch tells Jonathan that ghosts are real. And this one is tied to Jonathan unto death…

Review by Hayden Thorne

This is going to be an unusual way of opening a review, and I might be getting some flack for it, but there’s a point to this.

To begin, I want to point out what I thought to be problematic things about Lovers’ Knot (bear with me, please). The romantic conflict (“I love him. I want to tell him. I don’t want to lose his friendship.”) happens to be my least favorite M/M source of angst. I’ve read so many stories that unfold along these lines, and majority of them simply fail in making me sympathize with the heroes, for all their incessant pining. Secondly, some of the dialogue between Jonathan and Alayne is somewhat clunky and awkward. The language isn’t stilted, no, but there’s a certain self-consciousness in the way the exchanges happen that gives them a false feeling. Ironically, it usually happens whenever they banter, and one would think that they’ve never really lived together in London for almost a decade. And thirdly, I find the novel’s villain to be – well – too convenient. The motive, especially, while understandable, doesn’t convince as much because of her single-mindedness in getting what she wants, which limits her characterization to an archetype: the lover scorned, with hardly any room for development.

Now that I’ve laid out the weaker points of this book, I can move on to the next bit.

I LOVE THIS NOVEL. Yes, I latched on to those issues pretty early on in the book, and they came back here and there in the course of reading, but by the time I finished, none of them mattered. None.

For all the heroes’ pining, they never wallow in it. They struggle internally, they fight against themselves and common sense, but on the whole, they’re also very pragmatic men. They mull over things and then decide on a course of action. We’re never treated to page after page of tedious “woe is me” moments. The novel’s villain, though an archetype, manages to rouse some sympathy in the end, given the nature of her punishment and the stupidity that took her to that point. In fact, nearly all of the principal players do some incredibly stupid things, but given the nature of their relationships as well as their relationship with the land, it’s not a surprise. In fact, they’re expected to be ruled largely by passion. The occasional awkward dialogue gets balanced by wonderfully detailed scene descriptions and a haunting (no pun intended), dreamy atmosphere.

Lovers’ Knot has a pretty simple storyline, both past and present. What Donald Hardy does, though, is flesh out his story in such a way as to make it much more complex and multi-layered. It’s a classic romantic tragedy, where the ending leaves you both happy for the lovers and completely heartbroken over the past and maybe even wondering “what if?” What if Nat survived? What if so-and-so gave up and moved on? How would the present look? There are so many gray areas that shape both the story and the characters (save for Alayne, who’s largely in the background and is more of an innocent bystander caught up in some pretty creepy happenings), and above all, the story left me thinking about connections, allegories, and so on, which is something I couldn’t help but do because of the book’s narrative structure.

The story unfolds with Jonathan’s past alternating with his present. Normally I’m not fond of this approach because it requires a pretty deft handling of two disparate and yet parallel (or cause and effect) storylines, and the author has to be careful in making sure that the significance of these flashbacks becomes evident as the present story unfolds. We get exactly that in Lovers’ Knot. Along with the juxtaposition of youth and innocence with maturity and world-weariness, we’re also treated to some wonderful contrast studies that add to the emotional resonance of Jonathan’s relationships with Nat and Alayne.

The setting is Cornwall, very rural, and steeped in history. Jonathan and Nat’s blossoming love affair is defined by rugged Nature, superstition, village rites, the sea, and eternity. The two consummate their love all over the place, hiding constantly, yet completely vulnerable and exposed. Their “wedding rite” is primitive yet a truer connection of souls. Their minister (that is, if they were to recruit one)? The village witch.

For the present, Jonathan and Alayne’s relationship is defined by silence, lies, obfuscation. They’re protected against Nature by man-made structures, separated from each other by physical walls, stairways, and social convention. The vicar and his wife come to visit, and while Mrs. Deane shows some liberal leanings, she remains held back and kept in her place by – yes – social convention. There’s certainly much to be said about age and wisdom, but at what price? Emotional asphyxiation? The sharp contrast of Jonathan’s present with his past forces you to think about what could’ve been.

The gray areas encompass the characters as well. There are a number of them, and they bring different things to the story in different ways, but save for maybe a handful, none of them’s a saint. Through their strengths and especially their frailties, they add so many human dimensions to an otherwise simple story. I find Penhyrddin a very fascinating character, and his mystique remains even after the climax of Jonathan’s past. It’s almost fitting, really, that he’s almost a living ghost, just hovering in the background, seeing as how Lovers’ Knot is both a romance as well as a classic ghost story.

What I’ve always loved about ghost stories is that, compared to monsters, for instance, these stories tend to be very psychological. Was the specter a figment of the imagination? Why would it appear to A and not B? What relationship is there between the dead and the living? Lovers’ Knot doesn’t take the easy way out in explaining the hauntings. If anything, the cause happens to be one of the more heart-rending elements in the novel, and its resolution doesn’t make it easier to take. M.R. James is also invoked, which makes me a very giddy James fangirl.

The setting and historical details are very, very well-done. On the whole, the novel has a certain dreamy, lethargic quality to it – becauase of the story’s pace (and I really love it when authors take their time) as well as the attention that Hardy gives to practically every moment. You’ll feel as though you really are in rural England, exposed to the elements, to history, tradition, and the supernatural. You can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell practically everything. His focus on the poor and the uneducated is much, much appreciated. Historical fiction oftentimes being narrowed to the upper-class and aristocracy, I’m always dying to read a book about the lower-class and the rural poor. I find their lives so diverse and so rich, and I think that they have much more to say to us about a country’s history than their wealthier counterparts. Hardy’s novel does exactly that. In fact, I’d go further and say that his approach brings to mind another Hardy – Thomas Hardy – including the elegiac undercurrents and vanishing traditions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved and (no pun intended) haunted in such a way by a story I’ve read. The experience is wonderful and gratifying, and I certainly hope to see more books from this author.

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Review: Lessons in Temptation by Charlie Cochrane

He thinks he has everything. Until someone tries to steal it.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 5

For friends and lovers Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart, a visit to Bath starts out full of promise. While Orlando assesses the value of some old manuscripts, Jonty plans to finish his book of sonnets. Nothing exciting…until they are asked to investigate the mysterious death of a prostitute.

Then Orlando discovers that the famous curse of Macbeth extends far beyond the stage. It’s bad enough that Jonty gets drawn into a local theatre’s rehearsals of the play. The producer is none other than Jimmy Harding, a friend from Jonty’s university days who clearly finds his old pal irresistible. Worse, Jimmy makes sure Orlando knows it, posing the greatest threat so far to their happiness.

With Jonty involved in the play, Orlando must do his sleuthing alone. Meanwhile, Jonty finds himself sorely tempted by Jimmy’s undeniable allure. Even if Orlando solves the murder, his only reward could be burying his and Jonty’s love in an early grave…

Review by Erastes

I think I’m going to have to either go round to Charlie Cochrane’s house and stop her from writing anything else, or stop reviewing her books on the site because it’s becoming embarrassing as to how much we all like them.  I even get different reviewers to review them, but it makes no difference.  We all love ‘em, and that’s no exception with this book.

First of all, let me advise you that, as the blurb hints, these books are part of a series.  (I’ve even made a category now, to make them easier to find.) However, they are so skilfully written that they can easily be read as a standalone, and Cochrane manages this (somehow) without any infodumping and pages of “this is what happened in previous books.”  There is enough information, woven in with a deft hand, to tell you who these guys are, what they do, a touch of their previous adventures and that’s it.  And that’s excellent, because they are only 100 pages or so, so the last thing you need is 20 pages of info thrown at you.

That being said, despite the fact that they can be read as standalones, you’ll be depriving yourself if you read them out of turn, or only read one in the series.  There’s an over-reaching arc to the series, and with a romance, that’s a difficult thing to achieve.  After the happy ending of the first book you’d think that there would be nothing else to tell about the characters. Well, you’d be wrong. So wrong.

Cochrane must have had the same grandmother as mine, (“keep some mystery, dear!”) or be related to Gypsy Rose Lee or something because she knows just how to string her readers along, and each book–like the best burlesque dancer–reveals a little more about these characters, a little more of their backstory–sometimes to their own detriment.  What’s great about Jonty and Orlando is that, despite being deliciously affectionate with each other and really and truly soul-mates, something you never doubt–they are both rather flawed young men.  Part of this comes from their pasts, both have a little darkness they are fighting with, and part of this comes from the necessary unworldliness (Orlando more so than Jonty, but all academics have a particular oddness) that living in a secluded community like a Cambridge College will bring.

The books could easily be a mish mash of schmoop and sentiment, as the men are delightfully sweet with each other (when all is going well and they are in private) but there’s always a tinge of that dark hiding behind them.  Orlando is racked with guilt that he hasn’t been able to help Jonty deal with the terrors of his school years, and Jonty’s incandescent temper often threatens the subtle thread between them. And they never let their guard down, always aware of what discovery of their love would mean.

Ok – so on with this book specifically.  Straight away we are led into Jonty and Orlando’s world. This time they are working away on location in Bath. What I love about Cochrane’s work is that she uses locations that she knows and loves. Places she’s been regularly–like Jersey in Lessons in Desire–and can describe in all weathers and moods.   Bath is a Regency staple, of course, but it was nice to see it 100 years later, and see the differences.

As the title implies, there’s temptation on the menu in the form of the deliciously handsome bundle of gorgeousness, Jimmy Harding.  An American who has an earlier friendship with Jonty.  Orlando hates him at first sight, which causes friction, but then Jimmy makes it more than clear to Orlando that he’s going to make a direct play for Jonty and the sparks begin to fly.  You don’t come to the Cambridge Fellow’s books for the sex, by the way, the love scenes are veiled and shrouded in imagery, but none the less emotive for that.  The themes of love vs sex and loyalty vs temptation are well explored too; there were times I wanted to kill Jonty, I have to say.

This alone would be more than enough plot for most people, particularly in a novella of this size, but Cochrane isn’t that complacent.  Her guys are detectives and so not only do they have to cope with the danger of Jimmy Harding, but to solve the 25 year old murder of a prostitue that seemingly no-one or everyone about.   The mystery is a good “cold case” with no-one being entirely truthful or complete in their information with the two detectives, red herrings and blind alleys galore, which should satisfy the lovers of the genre.  If I have one niggle in this respect it’s simply my doubt that any prostitute would turn down any offer of marriage to a wealthy and respectable man on the chance that she might land another.

Cochrane’s writing style is subtly omniscient at times, which I happen to like a lot, but it may not appeal to those who prefer a tight third person point of view which never veers from one person at a time.  I think it suits the tone and the setting of the books, however.

Highly recommended and I look forward to the next book enormously.  I just need to find another reviewer–however if the standard continues this high, I’m sure they’ll love number six in the series as much as I loved one to five.

This being published by Samhain, the ebook is available now, with a wait of around a year for the print edition.

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