Home is the Heart by J M Gryffyn

The last thing war-weary veteran William O’Sullivan expects to find while walking his family’s property is the love of his life, but that is exactly what happens. Under the summer sun, well-born Irishman Will meets gypsy lad Brock, and the two are instantly love struck. 

Their newfound love may be rock solid, but so are the obstacles in their way. Will is expected to marry his childhood sweetheart and produce an heir for the family estate. Brock has his own waggon now and is expected to marry another Traveller.  The roads to their futures are embedded firmly in the past—and don’t include their love. Running off to America seems a perfect solution, but in the mean streets of New York City, they very quickly find that even a love as strong as theirs must be earned.  

ebook only – 100 pages approx

Review by Erastes

I really liked JM Gryffyn’s first book “The Wishing Cup” and I was eagerly looking forward to reading the second. Sadly I was disappointed by “Home is the Heart”

The writing is still good, there’s a flow to her prose that I like a lot but although The Wishing Cup managed a complete arc in a 100 pages, the pacing of Home is the Heart didn’t work for me at all. Perhaps it was the more static feel to the beginning–a young man stuck at home and travellers with their caravans. But throughout the book from literally the second scene it jumped around, introducing characters as though they rose from the grass and leaping from moment to moment with almost a dizzying speed.

The main protagonists literally meet and are just about having sex from second one. I’m not averse to insta-attraction but love, coupling and endless adoration from first sight is a bit too much for me. The author attempts to throw a couple of caltrops in the lovers’ path, but again, it’s sudden, seems shoe-horned in, and there’s no background to shore it up.

I think really, that there’s a point when a book simply can’t be done in 100 pages, not if the author wants to do the plot justice, and in this case to include sex scenes as well.  There’s too much here to be dealt with other than in this rather rushed way and it shows.

However, the research, particularly that around the gypsies, seems well done, I’m not familiar with the customs of the people, but what we are told seems to make sense.

There are a few minor quibbles, there are a good few Americanisms scattered around, like the dreaded “gotten” and a few context errors but all in all it is a sweet romantic tale and I’m sure that many will enjoy it. I can’t say I did, although that won’t stop me getting Gryffyn’s next book, as I’m sure that the promise of The Wishing Cup will bear fruit – it is a shame that this book didn’t live up to the promise.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

Review: King of Angels by Perry Brass

the story of Benjamin Rothberg, a 12-year-old master of shape-shifting, of changing identities while steadfastly grasping the unique features of his own. The child of a marriage between a handsome Northern Jewish father and a classic-WASP-beauty Southern mother, Benjamin must change identities from Jewish to non-Jewish, from being a smart, precocious self-aware kid to masquerading and passing as a regular boy, from growing into a sexually curious (and possibly gay) young man to experiencing a fragile adolescent innocence, almost in love with a pretty girl.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, during the tumultuous Kennedy years, King of Angels explores the role of Southern Jews in the still-segregated South, the explosive race relations and racial consciousness of this era, and the emergence of a genuine gay community with its own honest, outsider viewpoint. It is also a realistic story of the underground world of boys who must fool their parents and each other in order to achieve any form of unguarded closeness. As a half-Jew attending Holy Nativity, a Catholic military school in Savannah, Benjy will form some of the most important friendships of his life, and experience the full brutality of boys bullying each other. He will also become aware of many forms of seduction and attraction: the seductions of a secret sexual life in the school, the seductions of his own heart taken with a quiet handsome Puerto Rican male student, and the attractions of the Spirit itself in all of its revealed forms. This is truly a novel about the mysterious origins of identity and belief, in a questioning heart and questioning time, while growing up in the changing South in the early 1960s.

Paperback and ebook – approx 400 pages

Review by Erastes

The story is narrated by Benjamin Rothberg and it starts when he’s quite young, from his first memories of his mom and dad. It’s an engaging voice and easy to get into as you work your way through his early grade school years. He’s a Jew — or rather his father is a Jew even if the household doesn’t exactly keep a fully Jewish house and he learns about duality of personality very early on as his father is Leon when he’s being more Jewish and Robby when he isn’t. Benjamin considers himself a Jew–and he’s sent to a Catholic Military Academy (which accepts other faiths) he finds that duality even more pronounced.

I found it a little heavy going because like many memoire-type stories, it struggles as to whether it wants to tell the story from the actual point of view of a 13 year old boy–which may have lent it more weight–or from a hindsight perspective, told from an adult version of Benjy. I never quite felt it knew where it wanted to be as it tended to waver between the two.  The trouble with having a child’s pov is that you can’t have them understand much of what goes on, and the trouble with hindsight is that you can imbue your child protagonist with a much too knowing persona – this manages both at times.

Be warned that most of the sexual interaction  although it’s pretty lightly (although not lightly enough I think) described is between young kids. Benjy isn’t even 13 before he’s jacking and blowing his friend and having it done back to him. There’s very broad hints and rumours that many of the monks are child-abusing but thankfully this is not described at all.

There is a lot of repetition which I found an interesting device after three mentions and intensely irritating after about ten mentions. We don’t need to be constantly told that his mother is a social lightweight who seems to do nothing more than attend a country club and drink Salty Dogs (although what these are is only explained quite late on, and for my mental health I wish they had been explained earlier) with her friends and we don’t need to be constantly told about Benjy’s father using two different personas. It became rather wearing after a time when I was still reading these two same facts more than half way into the novel.

Other than the two facts above, Benjy doesn’t seem to describe his parents–he calls them by their first names (in the text, although not, it seems to their faces) and I found that odd, it’s not like he’d gone to any particular progressive school and he wasnt a rebellious kid with weird ideas (like Eustace for example from Prince Caspian). The parents simply spawn on the page as the Salty Dog drinker airhead and the big looming man that Benjy adores for some reason.  I would have liked to have seen them, particularly at the beginning, more often on the page, giving reasons for Benjy’s opinion on them.

The story itself doesn’t actually pick up until about half-way either when an incident at Summer Camp throws the whole military academy and Benjy’s life into a turmoil, plus the fact that his home life begins to fall apart at the same time.

One thing I felt was sorely missing was a real sense of when this was all occurring. If you passed a blind eye over the fact that no one had mobile phones or game consoles then this really didn’t feel rooted in American 1960′s. Perhaps that’s partially because of prejudices towards Jews and Catholics and gays are still sadly similar today as they were back then, but it’s partly also to do with the fact that much of it takes place at the Military Academy (which, like Public Schools in the UK can have a timeless feel) and indoors at people’s houses mostly in tents or bedrooms. Surely kids would have been listening to music, watching TV shows of the time, talking about Space and goodness knows what? There’s one instance where his mother has the radio on in the car and she’s listening to the Beatles, but really, that was a rare instance of pop culture. It needed more of a flavour of the time to make you feel you were there along with Benjy. These kids only ever seemed to talk about having sex with each other who was queer and who wasn’t.

The kids seemed impossibly knowing, too. I guess that the book is semi-autobiographical perhaps because Brass was half-jewish and grew up in the same area, but when I was 12 I certainly wouldn’t have been having the  same conversations about life and theology these kids were having. Or about having sex with each other and who was queer and who wasn’t either, to be frank.

It makes it all sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book at all, but that’s not true, I did like the voice, and although the whole religion thing left me cold as I couldn’t care less about it, the story was interesting enough to stick with, for all the niggles I had.

One thing I could have done was the tagline to the novel it’s officially called “King of Angels, A novel about the Genesis of Identity and Belief”

Well, really. Thank you, Mr Brass because I am obviously too dumb to have picked up on that, and with that swipe you’ve put off many of your potential readers who will think it’s far more preachy than it is, or some kind of religious text book, and you’ve insulted those who will read it, because you’ve already explained what it’s about. Those who haven’t been put off by that dreadful cover, at least!

Benjy does go through a lot, but as with many first person child narratives, it all felt very remote to me. Even his sexual experiences–which I clearly remember mine shaking me to my core at that age–don’t really seem to register with him.  Perhaps that’s because the author didn’t want to describe a 12 year old having mutual masturbation and blow jobs in any detail, but it’s more than that, there’s no aftermath to it even when he’s pretty much forced–although he denies he was afterwards–to have a blowjob by a much older boy. He says he “weirdly likes” the boy, although for the life of me I couldn’t see one reason for that, and no reason is given other than he likes him. He tends to drift in and out of his relationships with just about everyone, and as often happens in books with the main protagonist Benjy is irresistible, and just about everyone wants to be his friend or have sex with him, monks, older boys, girls, you name it. He’s told it’s because he’s got a “seducing” air but it struck me as Gary-Stu-ism, along with all the other things he could do with no effort at all.

It’s a shame that he was quite so intelligent and so knowing because when it comes down to it, this is a coming of age-coming of religion-coming of self-coming of gender book and I felt that Benjy had no doubts at all, and that he didn’t really cross any great Rubicon to be who he was because, as several people said in the book, he already knew who he was from the beginning.

Well worth a read, but it didn’t set me on fire.

Author’s Website

Amazon USA Paperback | Kindle

Review: Brook Street: Rogues by Ava March

London, 1822

Two of London’s most notorious rakehells, Linus Radcliffe and Robert Anderson, are the best of friends. They share almost everything–clothes, servants, their homes, and even each other’s bed on occasion. The one thing they don’t share: lovers. For while Linus prefers men, Robert prefers women…except when it comes to Linus.

As another Season nears its end, Robert can’t ignore his growing jealousy. He hates watching Linus disappear from balls to dally with other men. Women are lovely, but Linus rouses feelings he’s never felt with another. Unwilling to share his gorgeous friend another night, Robert has a proposition for Linus.

A proposition Linus flatly refuses–but not for the reasons Robert thinks. Still, Robert won’t take no for an answer. He sets out to prove a thing or two to his best friend–yet will learn something about the heart himself.

ebook only: 28,000 words

Review by Erastes

As my reviews have shown in the past, I’ve enjoyed Ava March  very much – she’s come to me to represent for me the “woman who specialises in gay regencies” but perhaps it’s time she took a holiday and tried another time era, because with this and the last one (Brook Street Thief) I feel that somewhere she’s lost the spark that made me find her so enjoyable. I’m hoping it’s a minor glitch, and perhaps it’s because she rattled out these three books (Thief, Fortune Hunter, Rogues) too quickly to develop, but her previous books had much more depth and distinct personalities and these three, particularly this one seems rather homogenised. In fact, once I’d started the review I had to reopen the book to re-read as I went because the protagonists are quite forgettable and I couldn’t remember what had happened from my reading it a week before.

However, perhaps I’ve missed the irony of the titles, but the protagonists in “Thief” wasn’t a thief and these guys weren’t exactly rogues. Rakes, yes, sleeping around like billio, wham bam thank you ma’am (and Sam) but that’s not how I’d term rogue in a Regency. I was expecting, I have to admit, highwaymen or generally Bad Eggs. But they are gentlemanly gentlemen, rakes, yes, both in love with each other and too daft to admit it. Not my idea of rogues, to be honest.

And that’s the crux of the plot, really. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a perfectly acceptable trope, but with March I’d become used to expecting a little more, and she has done that particular trope herself before.

There’s none of March’s previous trademark BDSM in this, perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, so if you are expecting that, it’s not there.March’s writing is good, there’s no doubt about that, and she’s easy to read while still keeping a good flavour of the historical. She doesn’t do Ken-doll historicals where modern men strut their stuff on the Regency stage. She’s a safe pair of hands in Regency England, the balls (you know what I mean) are well described, the dialogue is close enough to be realistic without boring the reader by being too flowery, and the details here are there are enough to anchor the reader in time.

But…this didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t care less what happened with the protagonists and it was obvious to me what would happen. Perhaps it’s because March did these books as a series and did them too quickly, or perhaps her real heart is more with her BDSM stuff, I don’t know. Out of the 3 of the books in the series, I’d rate “Thief” as the best and perhaps this one as the weakest. That’s not to say it’s not a decent read and probably will be enjoyed by a good many people, but I was disappointed.

As an aside to Carina Press, I wish they would put their “coming soon” blurb at the back of the book, because I for one hate having to skip through seven or eight pages to find the beginning of the story, and of course, in no time at all the newsletter is out of date anyway, as this refers to the month of May and I read this in August. In a year or so, that would be even sillier.

Author’s website

Buy at Carina Press

Review: Beyond the Spanish Road by Annie Kaye

Javier is fulfilling his parents’ wishes by serving as a soldier in the Spanish army—a duty that will take the young swordsman far from his beloved home and family to a planned invasion of England. In France, his unit awaits the arrival of the Armada, and it is there, near the shore of the English Channel, that Javier meets Gaspard, a local merchant who has the face of an angel.

Long ago, when he realized he would never truly love a woman, Javier resolved to remain celibate. What sparks between him and Gaspard shakes that determination to the core, a love that grows until it will no longer be denied. But their situation is impossible: Gaspard is intent upon having an heir, while in Javier’s future, war looms closer every day.

Ebook only –  60 pages

Review by Erastes

I learned something with this little book – I’d never heard of the the Spanish Road, and I went to look it up and found it was a well travelled military route and the main way that Spain moved its troops from Spain to the Low Countries. Obviously they were at war with France a lot, so it was imperative to get out of the country, which only has one major border to mainland Europe quickly and in very large numbers. Sea travel was more impractical as it was slower than the Spanish Road, but also couldn’t carry the numbers that were needed. There, now you’ve learned something too.

The blurb pretty much sums up this little novella. Javier is a nice protagonist; rather naive to be honest but likable in a nice but dim way. I found it rather amusing that once he realised his attraction to men he decided to be celibate–No sex for me! Ever!–and then the first time he’s offered it on a plate the vow is dropped like the hottest of bricks and it’s la la la all the way to love and ejaculation.

The very very insta-love was a tad implausible, even more so because both parties remained passionately in love with each other for years without ever seeking out anyone else for a bit of ‘oh-la-la’ and I have to say that I found Gaspard’s rejection of Javier after their one night pretty amusing (for the wrong reasons) as I said out loud “typical man!”

The writing is good, fluid and the writer has a bent for romance. In fact, lovers of romance will probably like it a good deal, as it is very romantic with plenty of feelings and lots of weeping and super sex – even on a beach. But the details were too off for me to really let myself go, and I wanted more, to read about an era I knew little about. They are able to leave camp without permission just about any time, and the two lovers ride from Dunkirk to Calais overnight — seemingly cantering the whole way–which is ludicrous without killing the horses, it’s about 30 miles and the roads wouldn’t have been good. They make love all day on the beach somewhere, and don’t seem to have to worry about being overlooked. Today, perhaps that might be possible, but back then the English Channel would have been stuffed with boats and shipping and sailors were pretty observant and had spyglasses!

Then they galloped 30 miles back. Sigh.

I also couldn’t understand, why the fireships that the English sent to destroy the Armada, were seen in Dunkirk, when the Armada was said to  be in Calais! I would have thought that the English would have got as close as possible to the Armada before setting the fireships off, not left them to drift 30 miles where they could have beached or hit just ordinary shipping. The Spanish troops at Dunkirk were blocked by flyships, so perhaps that’s the confusion.

I won’t dwell on more inaccuracies because it’s clear that this book is really about the undying romance rather than the adventure, and that’s a bit of a shame, because the writing is good and I for one would really have appreciated more of the nitty-gritty details such as camp life (such as the reason why Spain was accepted in the Low Countries was that they paid for everything) and the journey from Spain itself. Instead of which it’s rather papered over in a hurry to get to Dunkirk and meet the object of Javier’s affection.

I also–like Gaspard–was surprised that Javier had remained in France for years and had never tried to see him. Which sort of left a lot of the Happy Ending to rely on coincidence and luck, but it was a happy one, so people will be satisfied.

Overall, it’s a wasted opportunity for the author to have really got her teeth into a subject that has never been tackled in gay historical fiction before–but it’s an enjoyable and highly romantic read so give it a go, I’d say.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: The Slave’s Mask by Patricia Logan


American blockade runner, Captain Anthony Charles, has made a fortune in gold, running guns and other contraband between England and the Confederate States in 1863. He craves a young submissive man. Francois, a young prostitute, might be just the man to satisfy all of Anthony’s taboo desires.

Infamous American blackguard and blockade runner, Captain Anthony Charles, has made a fortune in gold, running contraband between England and the Confederate States at the height of the Civil War in 1863. Anthony knows good brandy and fine cigars and his English clients appreciate him for it, but the captain also craves young submissive men. When he wins a young prostitute at an auction, Francois becomes his slave for seven days.

Francois has turned to prostitution to survive, but he is more than a whore. While most men who enjoy his favors treat him cruelly, he is stunned by this temporary owner’s kindness. Being a slave to this blue-eyed Master is no difficult task. Both men find that love may not be as elusive as they thought. Will the separation of oceans and time test their love or bring pain beyond bearing?

Ebook only – 86 pages

Review by Sal Davis

This book is the middle one in the Masquerade Trilogy. All three bear the lovely cover designed by Reese Dante and the other unifying element is a masked ball held by the Downe family. This book takes place some years after the first in the series.

Captain Anthony Charles, blockade runner, smuggler and all man, is in London to celebrate a successful voyage by finding his preferred prostitute of choice – male, young, beautiful and submissive. In fact he’s so much of a man that he repairs to his cabin to have some quality time with Mrs Palm before he goes to the whorehouse. Francois is just what he requires, with a quivering eagerness to please fostered mainly from previous ill treatment, and Anthony’s previous activities in no way blunt his desire. The beautiful prostitute falls hook line and sinker for the blue-eyed captain, while, by the end of the first encounter, the larger man acknowledges that the smaller man could easily fulfill his deepest most secret desires.

There is some minor conflict when someone tries to make a move on Francois but that is soon resolved and we get down to the business of the book, which is a celebration of the varying ways two men can express their desire and the growing romance between the lovers.

Since that was the book’s aim, it succeeds admirably. The sex scenes are many and frequent, using a flashback during a part of the story when the lovers are not together. Most of the period detail is set dressing but there were bits I liked very much – brief scenes on board Anthony’s ship, descriptions of house interiors – but I felt I was in historical fantasy land rather than seeing a true depiction of life in Victorian London.

That prostitution was rife in the capital is well known, and it’s reasonable that the many ships that docked in the Pool of London would disgorge their crews, every man desperate to work off his appetites. That Anthony found Francois, a young man who was well up for what Anthony had in mind once he’d got the hang of it was sheer good luck and I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Francois hadn’t been available and some other less compliant boy had been handed over to Anthony, as on previous occasions. Even Francois though eager eventually, was very anxious at first but was given little choice. Anthony, frankly, came over as a dick, though obviously a fine, upstanding, prodigiously endowed one. As the hero he could be forgiven much, but it amused me that he considered everyone but himself to be lechers and I reserved my sympathy for Francois.

Historically I found the setting confusing – for instance, it is 1863 and King Edward VII is on the throne of England. The author must have intended this but I haven’t been able to work out why. If the story was overtly steam punky then I’d know it was an AU scenario. But everything apart from the monarch seems to be in accordance with mid-19th century history, unless my sparse knowledge of the American Civil War is letting me down. I would have loved to have seen a bit more of the Civil War action but I got the impression that it was mostly a cool way to separate the lovers for a while.

Naturally they are reunited and naturally they have their HEA, and I’m sure that the story is hugely popular. It deserves to be popular because it is written with such joy and I think readers who like a lot of detailed sex scenes and a lite approach to history will enjoy it very much.

Couldn’t find a website for this author.

Buy at Silver Publishing | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Convict Ass by Martin Delacroix

Kurt Delay has just served thirty months in prison, on an arson conviction. He’s on parole and crazy about his new lover, Eli, who’s also an ex-con. Passion between Kurt and Eli burns hotter than Kurt’s conflagrations; love between Eli and Kurt seems full of promise. But when Kurt’s former cellmate, Harold Grimm, comes between Kurt and Eli, the two are forced into desperate actions. Can they save the life they’ve built together? Set in 1965 Florida, Convict Ass offers a glimpse of a peculiar brand of love shared only by men who’ve done time behind bars

Ebook only, 86 pages (approx)

Review by Erastes

I admit, the title put me off a little, as I had visions that the book would be a novel-sized version of a John Patrick sex story full of unpleasant euphemisms and the like.

So I was actually quite pleasantly surprised to find a decent story and a character–whilst I couldn’t warm to in many respects–was interesting enough to keep me reading. In fact only a small proportion of the story takes place in prison, which made the title slightly a mismatch.

Kurt is an arsonist–but of course, he’s a “good” one. He makes sure no one is hurt by his fetish and gets sexually aroused by his fire-starting. This is set in the 60′s so there’s no psychiatrist around to try and get the obsession out of this mind. He’s simply tipped out into society and other than a corrupt parole officer, left to fend for himself.

He doesn’t consider himself gay. He’s had one sexual experience before prison, and that was a blowjob from a simple girl, so as far as he’s concerned he’s as straight as they come. When he gets “protection” from Harold Grimm (good name) in prison, he has a good streak of self-preservation, he rolls over (as it were) and does what has to be done. Harold is the worst kind of lover, not caring about anyone else’s pleasure but his own, and the sex is pretty graphic, and forced/dub-con/rape/ but not played for titillation.

He’s relieved to be released, and freed from Harold, and utterly amazed to find Harold sobbing like a baby when he’s about to lose Kurt. Kurt has never had love, and that’s something that annoyed me from page one, not that he hadn’t had love in his life, but that he banged on about at every available opportunity. We really only need to be told this sort of thing once and it’s done with such tub-thumping heavy handed clumsiness at the beginning of the book I wish I had a drinking game going for every other time it’s mentioned. Yes. I get it. He’s had a bad life. No one’s loved him. That’s why he’s such a bad boy (I assume, although this isn’t actually explored). Boo hoo.

Part of the reason that this annoys me is that PING! on his first foray into the outside world he meets a young man (Preston) on a bus who invites him round and in about three minutes flat Kurt’s in love with and living with (on a weekend basis) Eli, Preston’s room mate. They fall in love pretty much immediately which shortened the book significantly. I think I would have preferred Kurt to at least have a bit of a life–taking into account the end of the novel–before getting into what was for him at least, a monogamous relationship (Eli’s on the game).

As the blurb suggests, the big spanner in the works is Grimm being released from prison and it’s no surprise that he tracks his lover down and expects their relationship to continue where they left off. How the two men deal with this problem leads to how the novel ends and let me warn you here and now although the protagonists don’t end up killing themselves, it’s not a good ending, even though Kurt is pretty phlegmatic about it.

I really couldn’t warm to Kurt–or in fact, Eli as it was basically his idea of the solution, and he was swept along with all Eli’s return to his arson. They aren’t sympathetic characters and other than loving each other, we are given no reason to find them so. When they aren’t burning down buildings, all we are shown them doing is having long, hot sex, or in Kurt’s case, being lazy and refusing to do any chores around the house.

However, I am making it sounds like a bad book, and I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that had I edited it (and the editing is pretty good on a copy level) I might have asked for more of an exploration of Kurt’s obsession with fire, and more detail on an everyday level because it’s all a bit two dimensional for the characterisation. But the story is pretty absorbing, I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened next and how the dilemma was solved and the historical details–most particularly the aspect that Kurt had been inside during the early part of the sixties and had a culture shock upon release. I would have liked to have seen more of that.

If you can stand coercion-sex and don’t expect a happy or satisfying ending, then give this one a read, although you might feel as miserable afterwards as I did, even if Kurt didn’t.

As an aside, I hesitated to review a Noble Romance book given the problems there, but as the company has a new CEO who seems to want to move the company past the stigma the previous CEO has left him with, I  decided to go ahead. It’s a decent enough book and doesn’t really deserve to be plastered with the sticky mud of a CEO losing her professionalism.

Author’s website

Buy from Amazon UK  |  Amazon USA

Review: Lord and Master by H.C. Brown

Lord Reynold Wilton, fearing exposure after a public argument with his sex slave, Lord David Litchfield, leaves England for the Americas. On his return, he finds his delicious man in the hands of a brutal sadist. In a time when homosexuality is a hanging offense, Reynold must use every trick in the book to regain the possession and trust of his young lover.

Approx 150 pages – ebook only

Review by Erastes

I’m not a great fan of BDSM, and that’s partly because it does seem to be almost mandatory in gay Regencies these days, and partly because so many don’t know, care, or are bothered to know about BDSM, the way it works. Happily, though, HC Brown either knows the genre, or has researched it enough to convince. My heart sank with the first lines, which jumps straight into a caning scene, but it’s soon clear that this is pain and punishment being meted out in a way that’s beneficial (if that’s the right word!) and consensual to both parties.

Lord David has been abandoned by his Master because of his possessive behaviour, and has been left alone in London. Another Master has taken him on, bound him with his debts and claims a ten year contract with him. Sadly, this Master is a man given only to his own violent pleasure with no consideration for his sub, and worse, he’s sharing him with his equally violent friends. The plot revolves around how Lord Reynold saves David from the brutal Lord Hale.

Although I enjoyed the story, I found that I couldn’t engage with anyone except the wet-lettuce Lord David. I didn’t really understand why the man stayed with an abusive sexual partner, but then I have about as much submissive in my soul as a rock. If he broke his contract–Hale could hardly come out and “out” David to the police, without incriminating himself. He had no fortune, being a 3rd son, so if he was disinherited it would hardly make much difference.

But it was Lord Reynold I didn’t like the most–closely followed by his good chum Lord John.

Reynold staggered me. He purports to be in love with David (who for some reason he continues to think of as an innocent) and when he rescues David the first time, David is traumatised, broken and clearly says he doesn’t want any contact–and what does Reynold do?  He says “I don’t want to fuck you, I just want to love you” and proceeds to suck off, masturbate and satisfy himself on David’s inert body. Then when David reiterates his wishes, saying he’s lost all trust in any master, all Reynold can do is whine that David has rejected his “love.” It didn’t endear me to him at all. David asks for their relationship to be exclusive, and that he needs to trust Reynold once again, and the first thing Reynold does is to shag Lord John and tell David.

Then there’s the attitude to women. Granted, I know that women were not exactly equals in the 18th century, but I don’t like every character in the book, including fathers and prospective husbands treating them and speaking of them as though they were rubbish. Both Reynold and John go through a lengthy and rather unnecessarily detailed “courtship” of two ruined socialites who they intend to marry and raise their by-blows as their own. Women are universally referred to as “chits” which really applies more to children, but overall there is no respect shown for women which put me off the main characters greatly.

What’s really wrong with this book, though, is the editing-which is just appalling. I’m surprised because Noble Romance usually produce more tightly edited books. The amount of errors left in the book are quite inexcusable for a publisher of the size of Noble. Homonyms misused (discreet/discrete for one), misspellings throughout (The Tattler, Blackfrier’s Bridge) and comma abuse which had to be bad, because even I noticed it. There’s a Duke who changes into a Baron and then back to a Duke in one short scene, and constant references to “sadists” which of course was impossible for at least another hundred years. It’s a shame because it kept pulling me out of what was generally a quite engaging book.

The descriptive passages are well done, however, and the dialogue, in the main, tries hard to be Not Modern and succeeds pretty nicely. The sex scenes are well-written and intense, and although they didn’t float my boat, I’m sure people who enjoy flogging and restraint and all that will enjoy them. I could have done with less of the rape scenes, to be honest, however lightly they were described, they were described. As I said at the top, Brown seems to know about–and indeed, according to her website, specialises in–BDSM erotic romance so as far as I can tell she gets the mindset right. However, it was an enjoyable read, despite my issues with it. A better edit would probably have upped the mark by a half point, though.

Author’s website

Buy at Noble RomanceAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Brook Street: Fortune Hunter by Ava March


London, 1822

Impoverished Julian Parker returns to London with one goal: marry an heiress. He’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means denying his desire for men. After all, with a fortune comes happiness and social acceptance–which have eluded Julian his entire life.

The only things a vast fortune has brought Oscar Woodhaven are greedy relatives and loneliness. At twenty-one years of age, he has everything a man could possibly want–except someone to love him. When he meets devastatingly handsome Julian Parker, he believes his luck has turned.

Between Oscar’s lavish gifts and their searing-hot nights, Julian is caught between what he thinks he needs and what his heart truly desires. But when a betrayal threatens to tear them apart, Julian discovers he’ll do whatever it takes to convince Oscar the greatest fortune of all is love.

Ebook only-44,000 words

Review by Molly Hart

Review in a nutshell: “You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea” (Earl Nightingale).

I’ve read Ava March’s stories in the past and enjoyed them. She’s well-known for her historicals that pair hot sex with fluid, extremely readable writing, and so far hasn’t disappointed me when I was looking exactly for that mix of sex and readability.

Fortune Hunter is a bit of a different animal (though March is very good when she gets naughty). This was the first time I was actively bored by the story and struggled against a great deal of resistance to pick it up again after reading about thirty pages—not a good sign, despite this historical romance being relatively short at 44,000 words.

The story is set in 1822 in London, amidst Regency high society. Enter the characters. The first one is Julian Parker, impoverished and from the wrong branch of the right family, he is looking for a rich heiress to marry despite being gay. The second is Oscar Woodhaven, rich but unhappy and lonely (and generous to the point of naïveté). After having been introduced at one of the big society dos, Julian moves in with Oscar, who showers him with attention, favours and gifts of a new wardrobe and a gold watch with diamonds and a meaningful engraving.

I found the introduction confusing; there were a great many people and as a reader I was given no chance to care for one of them. Nobody seemed particularly motivated to do anything, and the characters’ attitudes were bland and a bit boring. The only source of interest was Julian’s nervousness about fitting in, but that’s only entertaining for so long. The characters sounded too much the same to help with distinguishing them, so I ended up confusing them (and the minor characters) at the start, which didn’t help.

Once Julian and Oscar are indoors, the focus shifts to “will then, won’t they”, or at least to “when will they”? While March does a good job of evoking Regency characters, sentences like “You are more than welcome to fuck me until I can barely walk tomorrow” sound like spoken/thought by very modern men, and the modern thoughts and sex dialogue sits oddly with the overall Regency setting, which becomes wallpaper-thin at this point.

That brings me to another issue I had with the book. The characters stay indoors most of the time and the wider Regency world feels claustrophobic and inconsequential. People only care about gambling and the marriage market, which is about as dull as it sounds. The romance starts off well with very little doubt or tension, and both lovers are perfect specimens, despite one or two hang-ups that are woefully underplayed. In the end, I didn’t care about either of them and wasn’t invested in them finding each other or happiness.

At about 50% in, I was ready to simply scroll through to get it over with, but just before the temptation became too strong, things began to happen in the story, wrenching my interest right back into the novella. Julian makes a mistake; he has to choose between his lover and his social aspirations. Suddenly, the wheels are spinning, characters are affected by what they are doing, and they are on a learning curve, which meant I finished the book and was even decently entertained in the second half.

After the lovers break up, both realize they have to grow up. Julian attempts to better himself by honest labour rather than by marriage, and Oscar learns to be less trusting and naïve. This could have been great, but it’s told rather cursorily as a summary, whereas I would have enjoyed watching the characters grow and develop, so I felt cheated out of seeing them become better versions of themselves. They meet again, they talk about what went wrong, and the reader does believe that they’ll fit much better together now. Happy ending.

Rating this was a challenge. I was leaning towards a 2.5 but felt guilty for giving Ava March anything under a 3, but I also think that readers getting bored is a valid reason for dissatisfaction. Thankfully, the turnaround in the second half meant that it was a decent read overall, which I rate at 3, but not riveting (a 4) or outstanding/memorable (a 5) for this reader. I won’t be reading the other parts in this series.

Author’s website

Buy at CarinaAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Unspoken by R.A. Padmos

Stefan is a working-class man – or would be, if there was any work! – when he meets Adri and they begin an affair. Married with children, Stefan resists this development in a society where homosexuality is legal but scarcely tolerated. Nor does he understand when Adri warns him about the territorial ambitions of Hitler’s Germany, which their country will be unable to oppose. In a daily battle against guilt, poverty and other, more tangible enemies, Stefan and Adri struggle to hold on to a love which should never have existed at all – but which may be the only thing helping them to survive.

58,000 words/220 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

“Unspoken” is told from the point of view of Stefan, a 30-something working class man in a small-ish Dutch town. He is married with three children as the book opens, and if you asked him, he would probably say he’s happy, except for the problem of finding work to provide for his family in the middle of the depression. Stefan has done what was expected of him; he got married to a good woman, fathered children, and does whatever work he can find to put food on the table for them. He doesn’t know any better.

Then, one day in the dole queue, Stefan meets Adri, and it changes everything, or nothing. Stefan doesn’t understand his feelings at first, and Adri for his part takes things slowly. Unlike Stefan, Adri has always known that he prefers the company of men, and only men. His stepfather threw him out on the street when Adri’s predilections became clear, and he’s managed to survive thanks to the mentoring of other men like him.

Adri bides his time in part because he’s waiting until he’s 21 and completely legal. When he tries for his first kiss, Stefan is shocked, but not reviled. He’s confused by his feelings, as he remains for the entire book, which spans ten years of their relationship. Stefan is steadfastly loyal to his family, even though it’s obvious that his wife Marije’s feelings for him are no stronger than his for her, but his desire for Adri knows no reason and he can’t help but be drawn to the younger man.

You know those Bergman-inspired films of the 1960s, or even the parodies of them? You know, the ones where people just sit around, smoking cigarettes and talking? Sometimes the talk gets quite emotional, but in the end nothing actually happens. Well, that’s the feeling I had for much of this book. There’s a lot of angst from Stefan, as he’s torn between the duty to his family that his upbringing tells him is expected from a man, and his true love for Adri.

The younger Adri is a bit more worldly than Stefan, and he’s the one that initiates many of the discussions about what’s going on around them, such as Hitler’s rise in Germany. It’s also from Adri that we get lamentations about how homosexuals are second-class citizens who can’t, for example, get married. The discussions reflect the current debate over gay marriage. Now, the idea of two depression-era men discussing the merits of gay marriage in itself seems a bit unrealistic. These men have much bigger problems facing them. But, in a way, that’s almost beside the point. What struck me was that there was nothing new here. It’s still the same argument, and sending it back in time 75 years doesn’t change anything, and in the context it even comes off as a bit wingeing. As the discussions went on I began to wonder if the author really had anything to say, and with all the talking going on I started to think that the title, “Unspoken”, was some kind of joke I didn’t get.

Like those films I was talking about, “Unspoken” is told in a coldly objective, almost documentary-like tone that puts an emotional distance between the reader and the characters. Their drama is played out in front of us with a rather dispassionate voice. Not that there’s really much drama. The relationship has its ups and downs, as there are arguments and disagreements, and Stefan tries more than once to quit Adri, but it seems like they’re never put to the test, even though there are lots of opportunities. Early on, when a policeman catches them snogging in the park, they’re ‘invited’ down to the police station. But once they confirm Adri is of-age and ‘willing’ they let Stefan off with a slap on the wrist rather than charging him with public indecency. Likewise, when Germany invades and the two men are called up to defend Holland, they’re separated briefly but within a few paragraphs they’re back together again. More opportunities for a little drama are missed as the story plods along through the occupation.

To be honest, this book was headed for a two or two-and-a-half star rating, but it rather redeemed itself in the end. Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to disclose that the two men survive the war. The issue here is at what cost. There’s a telling scene near the end where Stefan is leaving the park where he and Adri used to meet. The Germans have lost the war, but haven’t quit the city yet. Stefan has come to the park in search of fuel for the fires to keep them warm. He has taken the last scraps of wood from the bench where he and Adri once sat. The park has been stripped bare of anything that can be burned, eaten or traded in people’s desperate attempts to stay alive until the allies come. It’s a powerful metaphor for Stefan’s own emotions, which have been drained away by years of despair and worry over how to keep his family safe, put food on the table, and what will happen to his lover.

Adri is not quite the same person either. The open and optimistic young bohemian worked for the Resistance, and survived by learning how to hide things, even from his beloved Stefan. He talks of moving away once the war is over, starting a new life somewhere else, where he might even meet a man that he doesn’t have to share with a wife and children. Both men have survived, somewhat against the odds, but it’s taken everything they had, and it’s not clear if they have anything left for each other.

This is a hard book to categorize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to suggest who the audience might be. It’s hard to call it romance, given the angst-ridden nature of the main character. You certainly wouldn’t call it erotica. The descriptions of the men’s many sexual encounters are as quick and furtive as the encounters themselves. It’s decidedly un-erotic. As history, much of it rings true, aside from the rather ‘modern’ discussions about gay marriage, but here we run up against the question of what it all means. I couldn’t help thinking the author was trying to say something, but perhaps that’s what the unspoken part is.

In the end, I’ve decided to give “Unspoken” three stars.

Find our more about R. A. Padmos at her blog.

The book appears to be available only directly from Manifold Press

Review: Cawnpore by Tom Williams

After his time in Borneo with James Brooke, John Williamson travels to India. Working for the East India Company in Cawnpore, he struggles to fit in: a gay man in a straight society; a farm labourer’s son in a world of gentleman’s clubs and refined dinner parties; a European adrift in an alien land. But he finds he is good at his job, overseeing a colonial administration that has been running the country for a hundred years. He falls in love with the country and, in particular, with a young nobleman in the court of the local lord.

Successful at work and happy with his lover, he thinks he can finally meet life on his own terms. Then Indian troops rise in mutiny and the country is plunged into war. With the British Raj teetering on the edge of destruction and Cawnpore a byword for horror across the Empire, Williamson has to choose whose side he is really on.

In this sequel to The White Rajah, the fictional Williamson is caught up in real historical events which provide a thrilling background to his own story. Williamson meets some of the key figures at a crucial point in British history and witnesses events which shocked the world and shaped the future of British India.

Paper and ebook – 288 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

Cawnpore picks up more or less where the author’s previous work, The White Rajah, left off. Like the first book, this one takes the form of a memoir of the fictional John Williamson. Williamson has parted company with his employer and lover James Brooke after the inquiry into the battles that firmly established Brooke as the “White Rajah”. While Williamson is still in love with Brooke, the ghosts of all the people killed in Brooke’s name has driven a firm wedge between them.

With a generous severance from Brooke, Williamson could easily return to England and a quiet life, but he’s not quite ready to settle down and, intrigued by Brooke’s own stories of India, he decides to stop there before going back to Britain. In Calcutta, he applies to work for the East India Company and is surprised to find he is readily accepted and assigned the post of Deputy Collector in Cawnpore. While Brooke did not have a very high opinion of “the Company”, they have certainly heard of his exploits in Sarawak, and have a high opinion of him, and by extension, Williamson.

Although taken aback by his ready acceptance and the relatively high position granted him, Williamson soon finds that the work isn’t all that different than what he did in Sarawak. It suits him well, and although he is very much a square peg in a round hole, he gets along well with most people. One day his boss notes that Williamson is working just a little too hard, and takes him out to meet the Nana Sahib in his palatial home outside of Cawnpore. There Williamson meets Mungo, a young cousin of the Nana Sahib. There’s an instant mutual attraction between the two, and they soon become lovers.

While Williamson professes that Brooke is still the true love of his life, he is clearly deeply infatuated with the much younger Mungo. Like Brooke before him, Mungo becomes Williamson’s mentor, teacher and guide through the mysteries of Indian culture. With Mungo’s help, Williamson learns the language and soon with a little disguise can pass for a local. Everything seems to be going great, until rumors of discontent and outright mutiny begin to circulate throughout the colony.

Cawnpore is, at its heart, the story of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and in particular the massacre at Cawnpore, which is an episode of history I assume most British readers are familiar with. Williamson’s ability to pass for an Indian allows him to hide in plain sight among the rebels and observe both sides of the siege. Although Williamson’s escapades themselves seem improbable, he does relate the events of the siege and massacre in vivid, even alarming, detail that appears to be historically accurate.

Williamson of course survives the massacre and even provides information that helps the British rout Nana Sahib’s forces and re-take Cawnpore. But as the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear, he starts to fear for his own safety, as well as Mungo’s, in the face of the British fury. They flee to the countryside to wait hopefully for tempers to cool, and this is where the full tragedy of the story unfolds.

Cawnpore is, on the whole, a well-written adventure tale. In some ways, I think the author has improved from the first book. One of the issues I had with The White Rajah was the extremely timid way in which the relationship between Brooke and Williamson was described. It was clear that the two men were lovers, but for all the reader was given, it could have been a rather platonic relationship. In Cawnpore it’s much more clear that Williamson and Mungo have a very physical relationship. We’re not given detailed descriptions of what they get up to, but it’s still clear the two men share a physical bond as well as a deep friendship.

However, that said, the sexual relationship between Williamson and Mungo is not really at the center of the story. It doesn’t provide any of the key dramatic elements or move the story along. The friendship between the two is certainly key to Williamson’s ability to observe both sides of the mutiny and survive the massacre, but you could easily remove the gay element from the story and still have essentially the same tale. Cawnpore is, in many ways, an adventure tale where the main character happens to be gay, rather than a ‘gay’ historical novel.

So, where does that leave us? If you’re looking for a gay romance, you almost certainly won’t like this book, especially given the ending which is anything but happily-ever-after. Cawnpore will appeal more to someone looking for action and adventure tales of war. While I wouldn’t compare the writing of the two, this book is more in the vein of Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven than most contemporary gay historical books. The writing is competent and sometimes vivid when describing scenes of battle, but it gets a little flat when it comes to the people and personal relationships. Once the mutiny begins, the scenes between Williamson and Mungo are quite short and even rushed when compared with the colorful descriptions of time spent with the Indian rebels, night raids or calvary charges.

Stories of battle and war aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I have, nonetheless, read quite a few of them. The ones I enjoy are carried along by the relationship between the main characters, which typically develops and changes over the course of the book, whether it’s the tried and true enemies-that-become-friends theme or something more unusual. This is the main failing of Cawnpore, for me. The relationship between Williamson and Mungo springs forth almost fully formed in an early chapter, and remains relatively unchanged for the rest of the book. Yes, there are arguments and disagreements, but they’re little more than lover’s spats.

Given the meticulous research and vivid descriptions of the mutiny, Cawnpore deserves three stars. I was tempted to give it more, but the flatness of the characters and lack of depth to the key relationship holds this book back.

Tom Williams has a blog, The White Rajah

Available from JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

September 1919:20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, letters that she’d sent to her brother Will. Will and Tristan trained and fought together.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

Review by Erastes

I’ve redacted a bit of the blurb because it gives away a major spoiler in the book, which is kept from the reader for almost half of the pages, so it seems a bit unnecessary to give it away so easily in the blurb. Cut for spoilers.

Continue reading

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes by G.A. Hauser

In the year 338 BC on the plain of Chaeronea, a war was fought between the allied armies of Thebes and Athens, against the might of Macedon ruled by King Philip and his son Alexander the Great. In that bloody battle Thebes was defeated and lost almost every man of its exclusive fighting force called the Sacred Band.

Nikanoras, born the only son to an aristocrat, is sent to train with a mentor and find a male lover in order to be selected to serve with the Sacred Band of Thebes. Unknown to Nikanoras his mentor holds a treacherous secret over his father and is in love with his mother. After Nikanoras is sent away for training, his mother and mentor kill his father and hope Nikanoras will die in war. Throughout the murderous intrigue, Nikanoras’ one saving grace is his lover, beautiful Meleagros, the only thing in his life that is stable. Together they face their destiny- to live or die in battle.

Review by Michael Joseph

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes opens on that fateful day on the plain of Chaeronea, when Philip and his golden son wipe out almost all of the Sacred Band. Almost all, for although badly wounded, Nikanoras still lives, much to his shame. Alexander finds him and has his wounds tended.

From that desperate opening scene, we flash back to Nikanoras’ childhood. ‘Nikki’ is the only son of the aristocrat Saliuikos. His mother Thessenike is a cold, uncaring woman, essentially leaving Nikki to be raised by his sister Euridises, who is almost 10 years older. As he enters his thirteenth year, Nikki believes that, like his father, he will one day marry, have children, and take his place as one of Thebes’ statesmen.

But much to his surprise, Nikki is turned over to the care of his father’s old friend Arybos, who will be the boy’s erastes as he is trained to take a place in the Sacred Band. This is quite a shock to the young man, who finds the idea of being a soldier and an eromenos to the old man rather repulsive. He doesn’t understand what could have brought about this drastic change of circumstances.

Unbeknown to Nikki, Arybos knows a dark secret that could destroy Saliuikos and his family. He holds Nikki’s father under his thumb, determined to take everything from Saliuikos, including his wife Thessenike, who is Arybos’ collaborator. Nikki’s only consolation is his sister Euridises, but soon Thessenike finds a husband for Nikki’s sister and sends her away. Her new husband, a powerful general, forbids Nikki from ever seeing his sister.

As a member of the Sacred Band, Nikki is expected to take a lover from one of the other members of the troop. From their very first meeting, Meleagros is enamored of the young Nikki, and sets about wooing him. It takes some time, but Meleagros finally finds a way to get Nikki to accept him as his lover. Nikki is quite cool at first, this isn’t the kind of relationship he expected to have, but as the years pass and he becomes increasingly isolated from his family, Nikki comes to realize Meleagros is the only only one who truly loves him. By they time they reach the plain of Chaeronea, the two twenty year-olds have a bond as strong as any other in the Band.

The story comes full circle to that battle on the plain against Philips forces. Held ransom like the other aristocratic Theban prisoners, Nikki is surprised when his freedom is paid for. Returning to Thebes, he finds a much different city, occupied by Macedonian mercenaries. He finds no welcome in his own home. The only one happy to seem him is Meleagros’ repulsive brother. Nikki finds himself more isolated than ever. While the ending is a bit of a surprise, you’d have to work very hard to convince yourself that it’s a happily ever after one.

There’s a really powerful plot line to this book, one of Shakespearean proportions. Indeed, Nikki is a brooding, indecisive Hamlet, whose ‘uncle’ Arybos plots to do away with his father and marry his mother. Only, Thessenike is less of a Gertrude and more of a Lady Macbeth. There’s also an almost Oedipal relationship between Nikki and his sister. Unfortunately, all this potential is let down by the storytelling. It never really grabbed me.

The problem, for me, was in the telling. The third-person narrative tells us everything. While Nikki remains clueless, we’re given all the intimate details of how his erastes and his mother plot against him. The evil plans, and the fact that Nikki is helpless to do anything about it, is hammered on repeatedly. I think the author was trying to create a sense of drama, but for me it had the opposite effect. The story really plodded along, as there was very little left to discover. I never really connected with Nikki. Meleagros is actually the more engaging character, but over the course of the book he’s all over the map emotionally, which left me a little confused as to his true self.

Having read Eromenos by Melanie McDonald not long ago, this book drives yet another nail into the coffin of the whole romantic notion of the erastes / eromenos relationship. It points out just how young – thirteen – the boys were when they entered into the arrangements, and that they often had no choice in the matter. I hope they never try to convince me Alexander was straight, because I don’t think I could cope with having any more bubbles burst.

Given the poor storytelling, this is a three star read at best.

G.A. Hauser’s website

Available as an ebook and in print

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Solace by Scarlet Blackwell (short story)

Solace by Scarlet Blackwell

Down on his luck Victorian gentleman Dorian is looking for solace on Christmas Eve and finds it in the form of rent boy Benedict.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s Christmas Eve in late-Victorian London. Dorian was once a gentleman of means, but now he’s alone and will soon have to sell his house in Chelsea. An unrequited crush on his houseboy landed him in jail. He managed to bribe his way out of prison, but he’s been disowned by his family and abandoned by all his friends. Dorian is strolling the streets of Whitechapel, looking for company despite the risk of the Ripper, when Benedict steps forward to offer his services.

Benedict is a young male prostitute, a “Mary Ann” in the language of the time used by the author, and Dorian is quite taken with him. Despite the risk, Dorian decides to take Benedict home, rather than just getting off in some darkened doorway. Back in Chelsea, Dorian takes Benedict twice in the drawing room, and it’s obvious Benedict is not “gay for pay” to use the modern expression. He genuinely prefers the company of men, and likes nothing more than having another man deep inside him. Dorian is so enthralled he asks Benedict to stay the night, and the following Christmas Day. Benedict readily agrees and they retire to the bedroom.

In the bedroom, things get mildly kinky, with a little bondage and spanking. Dorian becomes even more enamored with the young man, finding in him the potential for the kind of love he had hoped to find with his houseboy. He also begins to see that, despite his profession, Benedict has rarely known real pleasure.

The dreaded insta-love rears its ugly head in this story, but then this is a really short novella that sets a good pace. In print it’s just around 40 pages. I’m generally not a big fan of these shorts, which are all the rage now that ebooks rule. All too often it seems like the characters are one-dimensional and the plot full of holes. But Solace is complete, with a proper beginning, middle and end, with characters that are endearing enough. It’s short, but it is what it is, which is why I’ve given it a solid 3 out of 5.

Scarlet Blackwell

Buy from Silver Publishing

Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

Review: Achilles a Love Story by Byrne Fone

Achilles: A Love Story

By the author of American Revolution: A Gay Novel. The story of the war at Troy, as Homer’s readers all knew, was not only a tale of battles and exemplary heroism, but also a a story of love between men–of the devotion of Achilles, unrivalled hero, terrible warrior, and so it is said in legend, the most beautiful man in the world, for another great warrior, the handsome Patroclus. Their names resound in the catalogue of heroes and lovers and their tragic tale is one of the greatest, most emblematic, and earliest gay love stories ever told. In the “Iliad” Homer also tantalizingly hints at another love story, that of the handsome Prince Antilochus for Achilles, as it plays out against the legendary battles of the Trojan war that brought down a great kingdom and created one of literature’s greatest stories and most enduring legends. 

Review by Michael Joseph

The Greek era has always been one of my favorites for historical romance. Perhaps it’s because Mary Ranault’s Alexander books were the first historical novels with a gay bent I ever read, or maybe it’s just because it was a time when love between men was not only accepted, but almost expected. So I had high, perhaps unreasonable, hopes when offered “Achilles: A Love Story”.

This is the story of Homer’s Iliad, re-told from the point of view of Antilochus, a prince, the son and heir of King Nestor of Pylos. The young prince has formed a sort of obsession with the already famous Achilles, who is only two years older. Antilochus comes off as a bit of a stalker at first, determined that one day he will meet the object of his desire, and they will instantly become lovers.

Then comes news of the impending war. Kind Agamemnon comes to Pylos to enlist King Nestor’s support in the war against Troy. Nestor somewhat reluctantly agrees. He and Odysseus then embark on a tour of the other Greek states to garner their support. One of the stops is to be Pythia, where the support of King Peleus and his son the mighty Achilles will be sought. Antilochus naturally jumps at the chance to finally meet his lover-to-be, and begs to go along. Of course, once the party lands in Pythia, Antilochus is slapped with the cold hard reality of Patroclus. Somehow, the fact that Achilles already had a lover to whom he was practically joined at the hip had escaped the young prince.

Antilochus is crushed, but he doesn’t give up the determination to one day make Achilles his. First though, there’s a war to fight. Nestor, Achilles and the rest of the Greeks take off to fight, while Antilochus is deemed too young and left behind in the care of his mother. The prince cools his heels in Pylos for eight long years. His mother won’t let him leave to join the war without word from his father, and Nestor never sends for his son.

Tired of waiting and anxious to partake of the glory of battle, as well as win the heart of Achilles, Antilochus arranges to make his way to Troy with the help of a sexy sea captain. Arriving in Troy, the prince faces the wrath of his father, but Achilles intervenes and it’s agreed that Antilochus will serve as Achilles’ squire. Actually, he will serve both Achilles and Patroclus since they live together. At first this seems like a boon, but faced with the obvious love the two have for each other every day does drive home how impossible Antilochus’ hopes are, although he never gives them up.

Not that Antilochus doesn’t get to experience what Achilles is like as a lover. Achilles and Patroclus seem to have an ‘open relationship’ and Achilles takes Antilochus from time to time when Patroclus isn’t around, and apparently Patroclus also beds the prince at least once. Achilles does teach Antilochus the art of warfare, and eventually the prince returns to his father’s service to lead his own battalion as captain.

Antilochus fights alongside Achilles on occasion, and he is there to witness the capture of Chryseis, a priestess of Apollo. This is a pivotal event that sparks the tiff between Achilles and Agamemnon, and ultimately leads to first the death of Patroclus, and then Achilles. If you know the Iliad, even the Marvel Comics version, then you know most of what happens.

The author does a rather good job, on the whole, of capturing the epic style of the Homeric tales. This is in spite of a huge number of typos and a few seeming anachronisms – would King Agamemnon really say “we’re in a pretty pickle”? However, the authentic sound of the prose was not entirely a good thing. I found that the formality of the style put a distance between the reader and the characters. I never quite connected to Antilochus in the way I would have liked.

Of course, a lot of this is because the author doesn’t really share much of what Antilochus is feeling. He’s very good at bringing alive the blood-lust and fog of battle with some rather eloquent prose, but when it comes to love – what the book is supposed to be about – Antilochus gets very terse and even downright vague. You would expect someone so besotted with a man that when he and Achilles do couple, even if it’s not as lovers, you would think he would go on and on about it. But Antilochus gives us little more than a sentence or two. He has flings with others on occasion, but says no more about them and sometimes simply infers that he’s slept with a man without really coming out and saying it.

As for Achilles, he never really becomes a fully fleshed character. He remains more the mythical abstract object of Antilochus’ obsession rather than a real person, or demi-god. While Achilles is the key character in the story, he doesn’t actually appear in person that much. We spend more time getting to know Odysseus and King Agamemnon. In many ways, this book is more about the folly of war and the greed of men than about love, but then I don’t suppose many people would want to read a book titled “Agamemnon: A Drunken Sod.”

Given the degree to which any discussion of love was avoided, in the end I’m not sure what the “Love Story” of the title is alluding to, even after reading the author’s afterword. Is it Antilochus’ unrequited obsession for Achilles? That never seemed real to me, and hardly qualifies as a love story. No, I have a hard time seeing this book as a love story, or a romance of any kind. It’s a capable, though unexceptionable, piece of classical literature with a slight homoerotic bent, which is why I’ve given it three stars.

[Author does not appear to have a web site]

This book may be purchased in hardcopy or ebook form from Amazon (self-published)

Review: Cross Bones (short story anthology)

Ahoy, me proud beauty, shiver me timbers! I ask ye to sail me jollyboat on the high seas, lubber, but will ye dare to accept? On offer be a pirate’s life full of danger and risk, and not just to yer neck, but to yer very virgin heart! There’s many a bodice to be ripped–or perhaps I should say many a codpiece to be snapped–and should ye be graced enough to cross bones with a corsair, don’t be an addlepate! Heave ho, lad, handsomely, and show him how ye bury yer treasure!

Pirates didn’t only sail the high seas in historical times. Modern-day renegades and futuristic rebels are just as ripe for adventure and plunder. No matter the time, place, or circumstances, bad boys steal affection as often as they salvage treasure, and in these stories of romance, a rogue’s black heart always conceals a center of gold.

Review by Sal Davis

This is one of the jolliest covers I have seen. Well done Catt Ford. Looking at it one knows EXACTLY what’s on offer – piratical passion, and that’s what the reader gets. Here are nine stories with an historical setting, 2 stories set in the present, 2 fantasies and 2 futuristic ‘piiiiirates in spaaaace’ romps, all of which are good fun too.

Captain Merric by Rebecca Cohen – Captain Daniel Horton risks losing more than his life when he falls into the hands of notorious Captain Merric, who is surprisingly familiar.

Touched by the West Wind by Ellen Holiday – The lyrical tale of Thomas’s love for Brendan.

The Golden Galleon by K.R. Foster – called in to work by his partner on his day off, restauranteur Flynn gets a surprise.

My Hand in Yours by Emily Moreton – pirate captain woos peace keeper in a world full of magic.

Ghost of Jupiter by Jana Denardo – space privateer Al is shocked to find his latest raid has netted him a collection of dangerous alien slaves.

Officer and a Gentleman Pirate by E.S. Douglas – the capture of pirate Rheinallt Jones causes a naval lieutenant a crisis of conscience.

Objectivity by K.J. Johnson – American journalist Matthew risks all to get a story about African pirates.

Worth the Price by Cornelia Grey – Lt Edward Moon, abandoned to pirates by his commanding officer, has to choose between loyalty to the Commodore he despises and the pirate he desires.

Peter and the Lost Boys by Juan Kenobi – Peter is drowning his job related sorrows in a cocktail bar when charismatic Kap offers a solution.

Irish Red by MJ O’Shea – Loving a pirate can so easily lead to heartbreak, as Chris, barman of The Dagger, discovers.

Black John by Piper Vaughn – Juan has to choose whether to declare himself or let his love go free when Jacob is returned to him by the sea.

Rough Trade by Cooper West – “Black market trader” Audacity Gunner, unofficial captain of the AI ship Carthage, has his already random lifestyle further disrupted by the embarkation of Dr Sagittarius Deifenbaker.

From a Simmer to a Burn by B. Snow – Sule Okonjo, ex-slave, hates the Dutch. Ship’s carpenter Olaf is Norwegian but that’s close enough to engage Sule’s fury.

On the Wings of Lir by Riley Shane – Hugh Edward, officer on one of Her Britannic Majesty’s airships, is determined to capture Patrick Kelly, airship pirate.

The Winds of Change by Maggie Lee – Theo Cook, pirate, is perpetually unfaithful to his mess mate Sebastiano. Then they ship out with Edward Teach and Theo suddenly has competition.

Good fun is what this selection of pirate stories is all about. But if you’re the sort of reader who demands pin-sharp historical accuracy before you can even begin to think about enjoying a book, you may not like this anthology. Some of the stories are much better than others in that respect but, as short stories, none of them have much time for world building. Some authors set the scene admirably but some have concentrated exclusively on the passion while hand-waving the historical/naval research. As a representation of generic pirate fiction the anthology is good – I enjoyed the rompy bits while greeting the more thoughtful stories with a cheer – but it’s not Patrick O’Brien.

Buy from Dreamspinner. (paperback and ebook)

Review: Summer Song by Louise Blaydon

Billy Bronner is, to all appearances, every inch the 1950s American dream: handsome, clever, captain of the high school football team, looks good enough in tight jeans that people can even forget he’s Jewish. Then the new guy on the block, the enigmatic Leonard Nachman, turns his head, and over the summer Billy discovers a new world of romance and love—in a man’s arms. But when Kit O’Reilly, Billy’s best friend and shadow, comes home after spending the summer with relatives, he finds Billy acting… differently. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that this change is related to Len, and Kit will have to decide if he’ll accept the relationship Billy and Len have forged, or if he’ll push Billy and their longtime friendship away.

Review by Erastes

This is a rather ambitious book which works on most levels, but falls down on others, but it’s a very brave attempt and shows the author’s disregard to write within “normal” parameters.

The book is told from four points of view, Billy Bronner himself, his best friend Kit, his love interest Leonard and Kit’s girlfriend Caitlyn. They are all told in first person present, with the exception of Leonard’s which is done in the form of a diary, so is more past. I admit that this isn’t my favourite way of delivery, but done well it can be very effective and to be  honest it is done well, with gusto and determination, even if it was a little confusing, because unless the chapter was a diary entry, it took a paragraph or two to work out who was “talking,” and as Caitlyn’s POV doesn’t come in until over half way through the book it was a bit of a jolt–I couldn’t see what her point of view added to the story, actually and the book wouldn’t have lost anything by losing her chapters. However, the voices of Billy, Kit and Leonard are well-written and pretty distinct. Billy and Kit’s are quite similar, but that makes sense because they were raised together since they were very young–Leonard’s voice–he’s a preppy from a public school from the East Coast, even though he’s described as coming from the “North Coast” more than once(!) and his voice is more formal with less slang.

So Kit goes on vacation for the summer, leaving the restless Billy behind and while he’s away, Billy–who we are told has a bad boy reputation, but sadly this really isn’t shown–meets Leonard on the beach. They get to go swimming and start spending time together, and things move along from there.

There’s no “insta-love” – the relationship has eight weeks to blossom and to reach a place where there’s no going back, and both young men (both 17 for those who are sticklers for this kind of thing) are entirely clueless as to what’s happening to them. After the kissing starts they have to assess their own feelings and how they feel about this affecting their lives.

An important leg to the 3-way relationship is Kit–and how he discovers their relationship, how he deals with it and how his loyalty overcomes his disgust and discomfort.

Rather stereotypically, Leonard is more aware of homosexuality than Billy, because he went to a public school where these things are done but not discussed. Leonard is more analytical about it all, and goes to books to find out more.  It surprised me a little that he relied entirely on Catullus’s “pornographic” poems for his research on anal sex–and didn’t seek out (once he’d discovered the over-labelled “happy button” inside himself) books on anatomy to find out what it was.

Overall, the voices of 1950′s teenagers are pretty well portrayed, if–again–all a little stereotypical. Red Chevvies and sprayed on jeans and the like but I felt it was all a little too insular. This is 1955 after all and there was a hell of a lot going on in the world and America at the time. McDonalds were expanding all over California, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, Gunsmoke started, James Dean is killed. Yet none of these are mentioned, the only music that’s mentioned is “song by Elvis” not even the names of the songs. Considering that Billy is rather setting himself up to emulate Dean, I was staggered that no-one, not even Caitlyn was affected by his death.  I know that teenagers all over the world were pole-axed by that event. The book needed a lot more popular culture to ground itself in the era. It’s a bit like writing about youth culture today and not mentioning hip-hop or the hoodie.

I have to say also, Elvis didn’t have a hit until 1956, so. Oops.

That being said there are some great “real-teenager” moments like the following from Leonard: “I was going to say something else but I can’t remember what it was” (after he’d been describing Billy). There’s also a hilarious moment which made me laugh out loud when Billy describes himself as a free radical–typical teenager using the wrong term, to sound clever. However some–and quite rarely–of the prose slipped into modernisms–To name but two – Billy calls Leonard “passive aggressive” which being a phrase from the 70′s – no teenager of the era would have done. Similar “skank” is not a word used of women of these era.

It does tend to go on a bit at times, with the characters saying the same thing over and over again–and the whole pre-prom thing was tedious in the extreme. A more judicious editing needed, I think.

There were a couple of boo-boos early on which jarred me and made me wonder what kind of research I was going to encounter. The very first diary entry was 31st June… and then when the 4th of July is mentioned there’s no mention of the celebration at all. No picnics, no fireworks–considering that Leonard lived on a busy beach, that seemed rather incongruous. He and his mother went shopping–do shops open on the 4th? Leonard bewails the fact that photos can’t show the colour of Billy’s eyes and that was a bit odd, because colour photography was well advanced by this point in time, and French homework changed into Spanish.

The major problem I had with the book, and why it didn’t get a four or a four and half which it could easily have merited (with better research too), was the entire lack of conflict. Granted there’s a fair bit of angst from all four participants, which can get a little wearing over the course of ¾ of the book, but conflict? No. I was reading the story with the feeling of the sword of Damocles hanging over me, because everyone was talking about how dangerous it was for them to be doing the things they were doing, but no-one actually cares to do much to disguise it. The couple are constantly wandering into conveniently empty schoolrooms, making out on a secluded beach that only Billy can access, dancing together in a restaurant with no-one commenting, kissing in the dark where ONLY Kit ever catches them.

No one at high school notices their preferential behaviour, despite the fact that it’s obvious not only to Kit but to Caitlyn too. There’s a character introduced early on who I thought was going to be trouble, but he’s also clueless about the situation.  There’s no “normal for the time” paranoia and homophobia. Leonard even has to look up the law to find out what is illegal and what isn’t. Now, I can understand that kids in school and suburbs might not be able to get hold of literature explaining things, but I’m damned sure that everyone knew what a queer, faggot, fruit, pansy [insert your word of choice here] was.

It’s all a bit Happy Gay Days, a bit Grease without the harder hitting issues that Grease managed to deal with. I think the author liked her characters so much–and that’s understandable, they are all nice nice kids, that she simply couldn’t bear to have them beaten up, insulted, suspected, arrested, or in fact anything nasty happen to them at all. Which is a shame, because the ending didn’t have the same happy punch as it should have had because they didn’t go through the mill, or even drive anywhere near it. Even in the epilogue it’s only said that “they had a couple of close shaves.” That might actually have been the case for some gay men–I’m sure it was, but it doesn’t make for a gripping read.

All in all this is an enjoyable book, and I’m sure the lack of external conflict won’t worry most readers. I could see this book having sold to the mainstream, were the mainstream sensible enough to publish it. Recommended, but you might be mildly disappointed.

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

Review: Samurai’s Forbidden Love (Katana Duet) by Silupa Jarun

The Matsumoto twins, or “mirror samurai,” are bound together by a horrible crime committed during the civil war. Eager for a new beginning, the brothers travel to America where they are befriended by the Lennartsson brother and sister, Konrad and Klara. Akeno becomes attracted to the seemingly innocent young Klara, while Aki allies himself with, Konrad, who is desperately trying to find a cure for his sister’s mysterious illness.

The bond of brotherhood between the samurai grows into a forbidden relationship as they realize “Katana Duet” is not the only stage show they must perform for money but they must also play out an elaborate act to free themselves from a deadly game in a household full of secrets.

Review by Erastes

I enjoyed this story in the main, and really warmed to the brothers in particular. The story worked for me, overall, but the mark reflects the several issues I had with the telling of it. The story in essence is a decent family saga, showing actual historical events, the war in Japan, the research on tuberculosis, and it was interesting to read about times, places and events that I knew almost nothing of.

Jarun clearly knows her subject and her locations and that comes through strongly, the research is there and I didn’t get jolted by anything terrible. I don’t know this era at all, but Jarun does write with an air of authority, so it seems like that “safe pair of hands” that I’m often banging on about.

As the title and cover suggest, this story involves brotherly incest, so if that’s an anathema to you, then you need to stay away. There is also some graphically described heterosexual sex, so again be warned.

When referring to Japanese items, I didn’t like the way it was punctuated and it threw me off. When the author introduces a Japanese word to the reader, and explains what it is, it’s done like this:

The traditional, simple fundoshi, undergarment.

With the translated word after the Japanese one, and a comma. This really jarred with me, and I found myself gritting my teeth every time an italicised word came up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to word it in context e.g. The traditional, simple undergarment, the fundoshi. As it was it had the effect of pulling me out of the story.

This is not a limited POV book. I won’t call it omniscient, because that’s handled in a different way but generally we get the thoughts of everyone on the page. When the twins speak to each other in Japanese, even if we are in Klara’s POV we are shown what they are saying. I don’t mind this, but I know that some readers have an issue with it. But to be honest, of all the head hopping I’ve read in books, this is one of the most readable types.

I think i would have preferred it to be more linear, too. As it is it jumps from the 1860’s Japan, then 1875 America, then back to 1874 Japan and so on—there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. My memory isn’t what it used to be and having to go back and forth to find out whether the piece  I was reading was before or after another piece was rather confusing, and with a converted pdf on a Kindle, not an easy task either. In the end I just made notes of the timeline, but of course that pulled me out of the book, too. This jumping around stopped about mid-book for which I was grateful.

It’s not a happy read, and for those expecting a gay romance I need to point this out. There’s a lot of dark lurking, the hints of which are gradually explained the further we go through the book. The subject matter of gay rape and tuberculosis and the unpleasant aspects of research for this disease will not appeal to everyone. Jarun seems to have a liking for animal dissection as I remember a cat being dissected in one of her earlier books.

I have to add, for readers seeking a gay romance that the ending is definitely not a romance ending, I can’t really put it clearer than that without spoiling.

But it is readable, and although there were a few confusing moments, in the end a lot of things were explained, but some were not. I would imagine that the research into tuberculosis was sound, but I can’t verify that, but it reads as if written from a position of confidence and that’s appreciated.

If you want a rather unique, but a little gory in spots, story with an unusual subject and setting then this will probably appeal to you. It’s a bit uneven, there are grammar and spelling errors throughout but it’s probably worth the investment.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK     Amazon USA

Review: Journey to Angkor by Michael Joseph

Piero leaves his home in Taormina to go to work for a renowned naturalist in England. Unfortunately, he hadn’t reckoned on falling for the Professor’s handsome young nephew, but it seems they have only just begun to explore their mutual attraction when the Professor discovers their relationship. To avoid scandal, he sends Piero away on a mission to Indochina, to explore the region and document the things he finds there. It’s truly a chance of a lifetime for Piero, even though he doesn’t want to leave his new friend.

On the voyage to Singapore, Piero meets a mysterious Siamese gentleman who, when they meet again in Bangkok, arranges for the Italian to meet Plai, a young Siamese man who will become Piero’s guide, interpreter, and more. As the two young men explore Siam and Cambodia, they encounter stinky fruits, stingy kings, lascivious princes, and the wonders of Angkor, an ancient city unknown to Europeans of the time.

Review by Erastes

Having just read one man on erotic foreign travels, I was hoping that Journey to Angkor would be out of the same stable, but I was a little disappointed.

The copy I had originally had a real problem with punctuation and homonyms, discrete, complement, that kind of thing – but when I mentioned this to the author (always awkward when you are in communication with authors, but in this genre, it’s difficult not to be) he edited the file again and put up a fresh copy which has ironed out many of these issues. 

Putting that aside, for those who don’t care and won’t notice the grammatical problems, the fact of the matter is that nothing much actually happens. Granted, Piero travels all over the place, “taking samples”—but there’s no conflict, other than at the beginning when he’s forced away from Henry, a young man he slept with once (and is in love with—he’s one of these guys who mistakes sex for love, all the time.). There’s a small wobble towards the end when the ship ALMOST hits a rock and some bloke we never met falls overboard, but other than that, everything is just lovely. The natives are lovely, the governors are lovely, the sailors are lovely, and Piero and his fuckbuddy Plai swan around having rampant noisy sex everywhere and no one bats an eyelid. Even in a boarding house where the clientele is both male and female – no one hears or sees anything and no one suspects.

I admit I was hoping that they would run out of food, or be abandoned by their guides, or get malaria, or have an elephant tread on them, but no!

I couldn’t really work out WHY Piero had been chosen to go to Siam. The author says in his afternote that the journey closely follows a French explorer, Henry Mouhot—but Piero seems an odd choice. If it had been a case of Henry’s father wanting him out of the way, then I could understand it, but for some reason, The Royal Society thought he was the best man for the job. He’s not an explorer. He’s not a botantist, or a biologist—he’s an artist—and his brief is to collect samples of flora and fauna he’s never seen before. And seeing he came from Sicily, that would be just about anything.

This aspect of the book is very much sketched over, too. I would have been rather interested in what he found and the descriptions he uses to catalogue them, but other than some butterflies that he gets the children to catch in one village, we are just told they are “samples”, and nothing more. It could have been a plant collection book along the lines of Philipa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, but it isn’t, and this gives us no insight into the work of plant collectors. How the samples were to be preserved and packed would have been interesting to know. Instead of which we just get a travelogue where nothig much happens.

I’m afraid to say that a period in a much unexplored area of the planet – which should have enthralled me – didn’t do that for me, and that was the major disappointment.

The writing isn’t bad, and with professional editing, it could be much improved, along with the bland-nothing much happen-ness. But, for all that, it’s little more than a travelogue with many sex scenes, and–as in The White Rajah reviewed a little while back–I got similarly annoyed with the fact that Piero, who had not been anywhere other than Europe took everything in his stride. Whether it was talking to local people, experiencing the different foods and geography of the areas, or being taken in as guest by dignitaries, he didn’t seem very impressed. I’m a mid 20th century baby, and I travelled in these areas in the 80′s and I went around with my jaw on the floor most of the time.

The author has plans to continue the story of Piero and Plai, but will be following the story of the lost lover, Henry, first.

If you are really interested in this area of the world, it is probably worth a read.

Buy at Smashwords

Review: Magnolia Heat by Keta Diablo

North Carolina, 1876: Rumors abound about the dark, mysterious Dominic Beresford in Chapel Hill. Their curiosity piqued, their libidos functioning on overload, Craven and Anthony are intent on obtaining answers about the supposed licentious gatherings taking place every weekend.

When the duo are caught spying on Beresford Hall, their punishment will be swift and severe, and in Craven’s case, dispensed by none other than the stunning Lord of the Manor.

What begins as penance soon veers off to a session of feverish passion where the avenger becomes the pawn in his own game

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

Note: This is the re-release of “Carnal Cravings” by the same author and “completely expanded and revised” according to the publisher.

First off, I haven’t read “Carnal Cravings”, but from what I could glean from various reviews (especially on Goodreads), all the things that bothered readers with “Carnal Cravings” have been taken care of in “Magnolia Heat”, such as the fact that the protagonists were under-age and apparently there were rather off-putting enema scene flashbacks in the previous version of this story.

Having not read the first version, I can judge this story only on its own merits. It is a, for the most part well-written, very short “historical” novella featuring two students who spy on a gay lord of the manor, get caught, get sexually abused (i.e. one gets whipped and fucked, the other ends up restrained and spit-roasted, that is, fucked from both ends).

A solid helping of modern people in costumes (research here has been minimal, the history is nothing but a veneer), which features instant love and instant monogamy, which some people find offputting. Personally, I’m tired of the device, as it’s often crammed into a very short length, such as this one here, where, after a night of passion and some fucking, characters discover they are endlessly in love and become exclusive.

If you want a quick dirty read on the – very soft – side of dub con and don’t mind some hilarious stylistic howlers, you can have fun with this.

Author’s website

Noble Romance Publishing

Review: A Strange Love by Georges Eekhoud

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK      Amazon USA

Review: Test of Faith by Aleksandr Voinov and Raev Gray

July, 1187: Saladin has defeated the Crusader army at The Horns of Hattin. Thierry de la Tour Rouge, a Templar Knight, has survived only to be taken prisoner by the Saracens. Stripped and tied like an animal to the pole of a tent, Thierry fears torture in the attempt to break his faith. Abdul Basir is French by birth, a convert to Islam and an advisor to Saladin.

Thierry has been bought for him and while Abdul owns him, he cannot guarantee that Saladin will spare Thierry’s life. In the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, Thierry chastely kisses Abdul, hurtling them both into a clash of faiths and a contest of wills. One man motivated by the fulfillment of a long-lurking fantasy and the other by the need to keep his faith intact. They come to show each other mercy, kindness and trust—enough to reveal their desire for one another. As Saladin holds the fate of Thierry’s life in his hands, can Abdul keep this honorable crusader safe?

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS
Review by Sal Davis

Normally I would start with comments about the cover but that can wait. Instead I need to warn that this is quite a short book and I can’t really talk about the things that interest me most about it without giving away some really major spoilers. So I’m turning my review upside down. This has an excellent plot, it is set in a fascinating competently researched period of history, the characters are interesting and their situation compelling. I enjoyed reading it but it has some issues that might not suit other readers. If you want to read it and don’t want to be spoiled I’d stop reading this now if I were you.

And NOW I’ll talk about the cover for a bit to act as a spoiler buffer.

There was no cover on the review copy and I didn’t bother to look it up before reading it. That was a pity because it’s an attractive piece of work, richly coloured and nicely layered. I’d like to see a larger version some time because I’m guessing a bit, but I think there’s a distant landscape of the Holy Land overlaid by two male profiles, an early illustration of Jerusalem from the Madaba Mosaic and a period correct sword. After that it would be no surprise to discover that the story is about the Crusades. It’s a very lovely image, complementing a story that, while a good read, is just as bleak and hopeless as those dreadful conflicts were.

Thierry, a knight of Britanny, is captured at Hattin and given to Abdul Basir, once also of Britanny but now converted to Islam, who plans to indulge his desire for revenge on the Christians who expelled him by taking it out on Thierry’s body. Naturally things don’t go as planned and Abdul discovers not only that he would sooner have a willing lover than a victim but that he wishes to keep Thierry safe in his arms. The only way he can do this is by persuading Thierry to abandon his faith and embrace Islam but Thierry refuses, preferring immediate death to what he considers to be heresy and eventual consignment to hell. The decision made, they find peace together before Abdul hands Thierry over for execution.

Issue number one – that one of the protagonists dies, and that it is known that he will die for a good part of the story – would be a deal breaker for people who like their romances with at least a HFN. I found the tragedy of it quite satisfying in a morbid way. It would have been too easy to have Thierry give in to Abdul’s urging, abandoning his faith for love. As it is, what happens is true to the characters and the period. Speaking of which, the research is meticulous.

The other issue is stylistic. The point of view is 3rd person omniscient – the reader can see into both characters’ heads. It seems as though the two authors role-played the characters as the POV flickers from one to the other. I know that this ‘head hopping’ is unusual, but it didn’t bother me too much as I’ve been used to reading role-played fiction. There were occasions when I had to re-read a sentence and adjust my expectations of who was speaking, but that didn’t detract, too much, from the story. However there was one thing that gave me pause, and I believe that this is also due to the role played nature of the piece. The emotional atmosphere of the story is heightened right from the beginning, despite a good batch of ‘telling’, but once the two characters start to interact the needle whizzes off the chart. Thierry’s fear, his agony of thirst, Abdul’s rage and anticipation of Thierry’s defeat are on a very high note, and this sense of passion is sustained through much of the story. But at the end, at what should be the emotional climax, the style becomes quite cool and detached and is ‘told’ again. I must admit that after the skin crawling emotions earlier in the story I felt a little shortchanged. It’s possible this was deliberate – an indication that Abdul was feeling so much that he was in shock. It’s also possible that it was deliberate so not to take anything away from the last three paragraphs of the story [which I thought were fantastic and which I am NOT going to spoil].

Stars – yes, I enjoyed the story, the history, the period details, the bravery of killing one of the protagonists, very much. But … the head hopping! Only 3, I’m afraid. But a very appreciative 3!

Raev Gray’s website

Aleksandr Voinov’s website

Buy from eXcessica (ebook)

Buy from Lulu (print)

Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino

TWO QUESTIONS HAVE ALWAYS PLAGUED HISTORIANS:

HOW COULD Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?

HOW COULD William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor?  Historians have noted that the Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution.

Review by Erastes

This is a very well researched and meticulously thought out book. I was in awe at just how much work Bacino has put into this, with foreword, and massive appendices.

It’s obviously massively researched and he’s clearly looked up every single point that he’s writing about, from plague to theatres to politics. I have to give Bacino a standing ovation simply for the work he’s done here with a foreword and a huge appendix But..

The trouble is — it’s not really a novel. This book is really going only to appeal to historians, because those wanting an immersive novel are going to find the style jarring–as I did.

It’s more like a docu-drama. I haven’t read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote but I would imagine that this is the style he used–an omniscient narrator taking the place of any of the characters’ points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure omniscient narration–it’s a style I much admire but while it works for Thackeray and for Dickens and the like, it really doesn’t work here. In the same way as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, Bacino takes the place of a rather confiding narrator who behaves rather like a history teacher interrupting a video his class is watching. You are never allowed to relax into the storyline because every paragraph or so “history teacher” butts in and starts telling us a load of back information such as religious or political aspects—from the birth of Protestantism to the destruction of the Armada, to spy rings and exact wordings of many laws.

So, you’d think that those with a love of history would lap this kind of thing up, but I tend to feel that the facts we are presented with are already so well known from myriad incarnations of the Tudors on stage, screen, and book, historians are already going to know most of this. I certainly did.

Considering that the appendix (which takes up a good 20% of the size of the book) goes through every single historical point in every chapter with “FACT:[...]” or “FICTION:[...]” We could easily have had a novel-style book rather than a semi-text book and if one was interested one could look in the appendix for the facts, but because we are told once in the book that this was so and then once again in the appendix it really felt like we are being preached at. The way the facts or fictions are presented are rather patronising, to be honest. If anyone has watched “Horrible Histories” will know that after every sketch, the narrator, a rat, comes on and says “It’s TRUE- the Romans really did wash their clothes in pee.” Or some such validation, and this book has the same tone. Trouble is Horrible Histories is actually for kids. So I did feel a little talked down to at times while reading this. As regards to the FACT or FICTION issue, he could easily have just kept it down to the things he invented, and taken it as read that we’d assume everything else was fact related.

Here’s an example:

From the book itself:

Sir Francis Walsingham was known for his booming, threatening voice that seemed even more frightening when he lowered it to a softer tone. He had headed the Royal Intelligence Service (a euphemism for the spy network in England) for almost twenty years. He was quickly becoming the architect of modern espionage. As a fitting reward for his “unswerving” service”, Queen Elizabeth had named him England’s first Secretary of State in 1573—a position not quite structured yet – giving Francis the opportunity to do pretty much as he wanted with the position. He had the reputation of being the archetype of Machiavellian political cunning with tentacles to fathom out the smallest detail in the country. He knew he was courted and needed by everyone.

He was also hated by everyone.

(He was the inspiration for the line that would someday be written into the play Measure for Measure: “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.”)

Now – from the appendix:

FACT: Queen Elizabeth did name Sir Francis Walsingham to be England’s first Secretary of State in 1573. Sir Francis was the head of the English spy network. Historians frequently name him as the architect of modern espionage.

FACT: Shakespearean quote: ““it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice” “Measure for Measure” Act III, scene 2

As I said, the appendix takes up 20% of the total of the book (according to my Kindle) and all it does is mostly repeat what’s already been said. There are no citations, either, which I sort of expected with this level of “this is actually true.” We are just expected to take the author’s word for it.

The reason an omnisceint narrator worked so well for Thackeray and Dickens and the like was that they were presenting the narration from a closer perspective than this. From their time, or a few years after the events they were writing about. And anyone doing an omniscient narrator today would also use this device, narrating the book as a person who knew the characters or was involved in the events portrayed. But Bacino’s narrator – who is more than likely Bacino himself – is narrating this from a perspective of 21st century man, so the terminology is jarring: Marlow has “mesmerizing ways” Marlowe is “cute.” Comparisons to money—such as Wriothley’s payment of £5,000 to sever his engagement are compared to million pounds it would be in “today’s” money, which again, instantly reminds us we are reading a history book, rather than living a story with the characters. Lord Wriothley is referred to as “the poster boy for the homosexual movement” which is from the narrator’s pov so it’s not quite so bad—but then that same lord actually says later: “Her [Queen Elizabeth I’s] new Commission makes it really just a police state, doesn’t it?” which is gah-wrongness on so many levels.

But I can’t discommend this book, because of the sheer volume of work that has gone into it. I complain daily about authors who can’t be arsed even to open Wikipedia for the most basic of facts that can be found in seconds, so I’d be a hypocrite indeed to moan about someone who has done this level of research.

It’s just that—just because you do the research you don’t have to tell the reader about every single aspect of it. (Are you listening Dan Brown?) I prefer to be shown, not told.

Without all the infodumping, the story is amusing and enjoyable, Shakespeare’s portrayal being particularly funny as a real thicko. I can’t say that the conspiracy theory convinced me, though.

There are a few historical oopsies too–one being people drinking tea(!) a good hundred years before this was possible. This surprised me seeing as how much research had gone into the rest of the book.

If you can take the history professor on every page, and you like this approach then you’ll enjoy this. It’s well-written, fantastically well researched (even though I don’t agree with some of the “FACTS”) and I hope that Bacino goes on to write more. The story hangs together well, the conspiracy is well done and probably adds to the canon of Who Wrote Shakespeare. It’s just that I prefer a novel, with history blended in rather than a documentary with the presenter stopping the action every few minutes to tell you stuff.

Author’s website

Buy from Author’s House

Review: The New World by G.S. Wiley

Toby’s life is simple and uneventful. He spends most of his time working alongside his brother at the Blue Boar Tavern, welcoming travelers and serving locals. Occasionally, he indulges in illicit, illegal liaisons with men he knows he will never see again. When an old friend, a man who left to make his fortune as one of King George IV’s “redcoats,” returns in time for Valentine’s Day, Toby is forced to make a choice between his past and his future, and between his safe, quiet life and adventure beyond his imagination.

Short Story (5k)

Review by Erastes

And that’s about it, actually. Once you’ve read the blurb there’s not really any great point in reading the story–short story blurb writing is an art in itself and needs not to reveal the entire plot.

I was disappointed with this because I, like the reviewer of Kindred Hearts, had really loved that title, and I would have also given Kindred Hearts five stars. So I was looking forward to this, thinking it would be another little gem like that one.  But it was not to be.

But as this is GS Wiley and we know that Wiley can write, it is nicely written, and the description is true to the era, pre-revolution 18th century England, there’s a real atmosphere, andI liked Toby and felt his dissatisfation with his lot.It just doesn’t really deliver the way a short story should and therefore I can’t really recommend you spend even $1.99 on it, because as I said at the top, if you read the blurb there’s not a lot else there for you–sadly. Get Kindred Hearts instead.

Author’s website

Torquere Press

Review: Gladiators #1: House of Simeon by D J Manly

Gold was the unbeatable champion of the House of Simeon but after the gods foretell his death, his master refuses to put him into the arena again. Instead, he makes Gold his trainer, and uses his body for his own pleasure.

Gold wants nothing more than to fight again. It is all he knows, and he hates the fact that people think he is a coward, hiding behind his master. He longs for a death of glory in the arena, the only respectable way for a gladiator slave to leave this world.

Samson comes into Gold’s life unexpectedly. A slave with potential to rise through the ranks, but also the first man who has been able to rouse something inside of him he thought was dead.

Can Samson make Gold reveal his feelings, or will he remain the unattainable trainer who longs for a glorious death?

Review by Erastes

The trouble I found with this, that it was like reading an episode of the TV show Spartacus. Now, I don’t know when this was written, although it was published in 2010. It may have been written a long time before Spartacus hit our screens, but it’s unfortunate in that case for the author because so much of Spartacus is mirrored here. Gold is in the place of Oenameaus, the Doctore (trainer) in the show. He’s an ex-gladiator and his master doesn’t want him to fight any more and Gold resents that, just like the Doctore does. There’s a champion, and a possible up and coming champion. There’s a resentful son. In fact there’s much that’s derivative but in a way, that’s also to be expected. I don’t suppose ludi (the gladiator schools) were that different from each other.

The story, whilst familiar, isn’t bad. It’s certainly readable and if you like gladiator stories you’ll like this. It just didn’t sing for me.

Regarding the characters, Gold is one of these characters who EVERYONE in the world wants to shag. Obviously his fans from the arena, but his owner wants to shag him too, his owner’s wife ditto, the son, every single gladiator, the house servants, even rival gladiator owners. It gave the impression that he was of more use as a sex slave than a gladiator. And frankly, I couldn’t see what everyone saw in him. We are told he’s gorgeous, but other than his black hair and hugely muscled abs (yes, they get called abs, too) I couldn’t see the attraction. Yes, he’d get people who wanted to fuck him because he was a star (albeit waning) but he was a veritable iceberg and at least two of the other testosterone laden-cut-your-head-off-soon-as-look-at-you were sighing over their oatmeal in love with him. And as so often is the case, everyone (aside from the women) have homosexual tendencies, or are entirely homosexual.

Which leads me to the girly glads. The ones who show feelings seem altogether rather romantic for the setting they are in. I’m not saying relationships weren’t formed even in such horrible circumstances,but one particular gladiator spends more time swooning and hardening over his amore than he does actually worrying that he could be dead in a day or so. The love story wasn’t convincing, either. One moment Gold is all “I have no heart” and then he’s “I love him” and there really wasn’t enough interaction between the two to give this any kind of reality. Granted they had a couple of quick tumbles, but the communication between them both didn’t seem likely to have such passionate attachment. Your mileage may vary, I know.

There’s plenty of hot sweaty gladiator sex here, if that’s your bag, but my main problem with it is that most of it was rape. You might wave your finger at me and say “oh, surely, it’s only non-consensual isn’t it?” But no. Non con = rape and the fact that a slave submits to the abuse doesn’t change it from being wrong to being “Ok for titillation.” I didn’t like the rape scenes at all, and presented as erotica, I liked them even less. I suspect, having read the first section of Book 2, this is also going to be a big problem for me.  Present the full-blown rape penetrative scenes as veiled flashbacks and concentrate on the consensual stuff, specially in a romance. Save the other for mainstream fiction.

Rating “e-taboo”—I didn’t like this, because there’s nothing here that’s taboo. No-one’s shagging goats, or their sisters. Yes, there’s rape but others would call it non-con and say slave sex was not rape. But rating it taboo simply perpetrates the idea that gay sex is naughty and wrong. Need I go on?

Language – not bad. There’s no attempt, thank goodness to go and write it in translated Latin, like the Spartacus show, and the modern speech didn’t bother me all that much. But one or two instances did — e.g “I don’t know what makes him tick.” Really? What ticked in Roman times? I could gloss over a lot of the modern language, after all if we translated everyday speech from Roman times it would of course be colloquial, but if i’d been editing this, I would have suggested phrases that suited the time.

Talking of editing, it was pretty shoddy. Typing errors all over the place, e.g. trial for trail, Gracie at least 3 times for Gracia which made me chuckle—and homonyms such as discretely and discreetly being muddled. The POV needed a lot of tightening up, too as several chapters began in third person and then slipped into first which was disorienting and annoying.

But despite my catalogue of quibbles, it was very readable, and I read to the end, gripped by the story and worrying about the characters enough to enjoy the read in general. I’m looking forward to reading the next one despite the problems I know I’m going to have with it.

Author Website

Buy from Total E-bound

Review: Casa Rodrigo by Johnny Miles

On a lush, tropical island inhabited by rogues, thieves and villains, where men take the law into their own hands, a father and son are thrust into tumultuous events that will change their lives forever.

Bernardo de Rodrigo is proud of his son. Alonso is handsome and winning, and everyone he meets is instantly drawn to the tall, warm Spaniard. But how could either of them have known that a forbidden love is about to claim Alonso’s heart?

Arbol, the charismatic male slave who was saved from the clutches of Raul Ignacio Martín, feels an instant connection with Alonso, the moment he looks into Arbol’s eyes, the moment they touch.

Bernardo has other things to worry about, however. He’s trying to exorcise himself of an intensely gratifying yet shame-filled sexual affair with Raul, who secretly adores Bernardo but doesn’t know how to show it.

When Raul blackmails Bernardo, their dark and sordid relationship not only threatens the bond between father and son, it places Arbol’s life in danger. Now Bernardo must make a difficult choice that could further alienate his son while Alonso must find a way to keep the man he loves.

Review by Jess Faraday

What I liked best about this story was the complicated way that the protagonists’ lives intertwined, both with those of the other characters, and with the slave trade. The author took the time to explain how the main characters could simultaneously find slavery objectionable and yet have their fortunes tied so inextricably to it that to get out of the trade would be to ruin not only their lives, but those of their families, employees, and slaves. It was refreshing and more realistic than I had expected.

I also liked the complicated way in which the lives of don Bernardo, his son Alonso, the slave Arbol, and the despicable Raul came together. For Bernardo and Raul, there had once been affection. Then came sex, somehow business became tied into the deal, and by the time of the story, Bernardo and Raul can’t stand one another, but have mind-blowing sex, and can’t avoid one another due to business. Alonso and Arbol grew up together after Bernardo rescued the infant Arbol from the murderous Raul, and now Alonso is both master to Arbol and his lover. And now Raul has his eye on Arbol, and Bernardo is powerless to deny him. Fabulous and tense.

The one thing that continuously bothered me, however, was the characterization of the slave Arbol. Don Bernardo and his son Alonso are complex characters. They love, they hate, they have moral dilemmas. Arbol is portrayed as property–not merely a slave, but an object. In the beginning of the story, he is an object of pity: an orphaned infant who must be hidden. Later, he is an object of lust: submissive, gorgeous, dependent, and willing–but not much more than this.

One might argue that Arbol, being a slave, is an object, at least in the eyes of society. But even a slave can have thoughts, insights, intelligence and ability. Arbol’s main ability seems to be taking Alonso’s Gigantic Cock, which had, before Arbol, been too big for any other man. One might argue that in a work written mainly for entertainment and titillation, one shouldn’t expect character depth. But the slave owners are complex and conflicted. One might argue that “objectified, submissive, naive, dark-skinned African slave” is a turn-on for some people, and I should get off my Politically Correct High Horse. But this characterization offended me, so there you go.

It is a titillating read. The tortuous relationship between Bernardo and Raul, with all its attendant history and complications is absolute fireworks. The sex is emotionally complex, fraught, and worth a read. It’s well plotted as well, with twists, turns and tension. And research has definitely been done. It’s just the appearance of the Slave-as-Prop that bothers me. So caveat lector.

Author’s website

Buy from Loose ID

Review: The High Class Highwayman by Julia Talbot

When Julian is forced to turn to crime after he loses his inheritance, he decides that he can do better than the incompetent highwayman who tries to waylay him one dark night. That’s how the High-Class Highwayman comes into his own, and he does very well for himself, at least until Griffen Michalis comes along.

Griffen is far better versed in the criminal underworld than Julian, and he has no interest in the legitimate, and rather modest, fortune that is rightfully Julian’s. Being a Lord would cause him too much trouble. Griffen has far more planned for Julian than one night of excitement on the high road and Julian finds that being with Griffen is not just about mind-blowing sexual games, but danger as well.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a short, lively romp with lots and lots of sex. There’s a bit of a mystery plot, and an HEA. It was a fun read, and as long as you’re not looking for more than that, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.

The story starts out strong, with crisp, clear prose and a well-described setting. There are nice touches that show a fair amount of research: clothing, hygiene, transportation, and entertainment are, for the most part, spot on.

I also liked the main characters. Griffen and Julian are engaging, and it’s fun to watch them banter and circle each other. After the introduction of the mystery–who has it in for Griffen and why–the story goes on pause for a multi-chapter sex break. Without a lot of work, the plot wraps itself up for a not-so-surprising conclusion.

Although many of the little things were well researched, there were a few really big mistakes that surprised me. Use of the title “Sir Hisname” is reserved for baronets and knights of the realm, yet there seemed to be an awful lot of them running around this story, even the constable. Regarding crime and punishment, it surprised me that everyone seemed to know that Julian was a highwayman, but there didn’t seem to be any serious threat that he would be arrested for it.

But none of these things takes away from the fact that this story was really fun to read. And I know that a lot of readers will agree with me on that one.

Author Website

 

 

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Egypt’s Captive by CD Leavitt

After plotting against his incompetent king, Han and his supporters are driven from the Hittite Empire and seek refuge in Egypt. Instead, he finds only suffering. Taken captive by Prince Itamun to ensure the village of refugees will follow the pharaoh’s will, Han plots ways to turn the young prince’s desire for him into a weapon. Soon, desire becomes a double-edged sword and it’s no longer clear who’s seducing whom.

Itamun was sent to defend the borders of Egypt by his own father, Ramesses II. His heart heavy with the guilt of bloodshed, he’s all too willing to seek relief in the arms of his captive. From the start, Han satisfies Itamun’s dark needs for dominating a lover, desires Itamun never knew he had. But with so many scars on Han’s soul, can Itamun ever convince his captive that they may have something more together than temporary pleasure?

Review by Sally Davis

At the beginning of the book, where I had expected the blurb to be, was an excerpt that included the words submission, entry, plunder and cock, so I started reading with no particular expectations other than that the protagonists would be at it like knives. Sure enough, no sooner do they meet than they are. Lovers of stories that have a lot of sex scenes [almost one third of the book] will be pleased by this one.

One protagonist is Hanilis, exiled prince of the Hittites, who has brought a group of his supporters and their families to squat on the fringes of the Egyptian Empire after unwillingly participating in a failed coup attempt. Expert archer, commander of men and laden with issues, Hanilis is in mourning the lover whose life he failed to save in battle a year before. His opposite number is Itamununemwia, youngest son of Rameses II, a glossy, privileged youth used to having his own way, who has been sent to collect tribute from the area inhabited by Hanilis people to toughen him up a bit.

Both have certain specific unrealised sexual needs that they find fulfilled by the other. The POV alternates from chapter to chapter so the reader gets a good idea of the motivations of both characters but there are some interesting secondary characters, too, though not much time is spent fleshing them out.

There are also two subplots beyond the romance between the two princes, but it is their sexual relationship that is the main point of the story. I should also mention that this relationship has strong BDSM themes, to which I have no objections but may not be every reader’s cup of tea.

There are minor editorial issues, which surprised me because Amberquill markets itself as being the best, and the all-American lad on the cover, so neatly cropped and styled, made me assume that the book would be 20th century history rather than Ancient. I have to admit that I’m no expert on either Hittite or Egyptian history so Google has been my friend as I tried to locate the story on the historical timeline. The author has obviously done his/her research and has fitted the action of the story into actual historical incidents. There are also plentiful cultural references, some of which may be a bit too educational in tone for some tastes. This is, I suppose, the drawback when dealing with one of the less familiar periods of history. An author writing ‘Romans’ wouldn’t need to take the time to describe what a toga is because the majority of readers have a mental image associated with the word. But a ‘shenti’ requires some explanation.

My own reactions to stories are very much coloured by my reactions to the protagonists. It interested me that the author had chosen to make the younger protagonist the dominant character while the bigger, older, warrior type took the submissive role. The reasons for both are explained adequately and I think the sex worked quite well. However, I need to feel sympathy for the protagonists in order to enjoy their journey. Unfortunately both Hanilis and Itamun forfeited my sympathy in chapter one when, as military commanders during a battle, they left their men to fight unsupervised, and in Hanilis’ case to die, while they got busy in a hut. That one scene was a hurdle I couldn’t get over. I’m sure that if the author had used a different method to bring them together, for instance just having Hanilis captured, I would have enjoyed the story far more. Also, I’m passionate about plot and only one of the subplots was brought to an emotionally satisfying conclusion for me. It’s possible that this was deliberate and that the author was using it as a red herring to distract attention from the other plot. But both had been given equal weighting in terms of anticipation so when the first was resolved so easily I was more irritated than relieved.

A decent story, with plenty of sex for those who want it and some interesting elements, but it didn’t push many of my buttons

Buy from Amberquill Press

Review: A Daring Devoted Heart by Linda Hines

Years ago, revenge brought Emeric von Gondrecourt to New Mexico. Now, the force keeping him there is loyalty to the Metairie family — and his love for the young Calder Metairie, who has grown up while Emeric watched.

A DARING, DEVOTED HEART is a Western with a difference. Not merely an m/m romance, it’s also “quest fiction,” taking a pair of mis-matched heroes through country which brings to mind the works and words of Zane Grey, and culminating in a double-bareled climax — it’s a hail of hot lead and a struggle to survive, before Calder Metairie and Emeric von Gondrecourt take those devils by the horns.

Review by Jess Faraday

I really wanted to like this one. And to be fair, there is a lot to like here, even though the story ultimately didn’t work for me.

The story is well researched, for one. It was a bold move to bring together characters from such divergent backgrounds–the son of a rich New Mexico rancher and a dispossessed Austrian prince. And the author did enough research to come up with an explanation that was not just satisfying, but intriguing: Dispossessed Austrian Prince Hired as Old-West Hitman Changes Sides and becomes Protector of Intended Victims. With a side of forbidden love.

Oh yes. I’d read the hell out of that.

Add to this novel premise the fact that in the space of 117 pages, the author has created a solid plot with subplots and backstory. So far so good.

Unfortunately, the sloppy execution obscures the plot and the backstory. I have no idea how much time went into the writing of the story, but to this reader, it read like a hurried early draft. I can’t help but feel that it would have been much stronger if the author had put in a little more time to get it just right.

The backstory would have been much more powerful–and easier to connect to the story-in-progress–if it had been filtered in gradually rather than dumped in large, textbook-like chunks. The head-hopping confused me in places. And to beat the proverbial dead horse, there’s a lot of telling here, and not a lot of showing.

Which is what made this one a heartbreaker. Given one or two more drafts, this could have been a subtly crafted page-turner.

Linda Hines strikes me as an intelligent writer with terrific ideas and a good sense of what a historical should be. I will definitely read more from her, even though this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Author’s website (although the links don’t work)

Buy from Dream Craft Amazon UK Kindle Amazon USA Kindle

Review: The Framing of Dorian Gray by Barry Lowe

Sherlock Holmes is called in on one of his most personal cases ever when his young nephew, Bramwell, disappears. Has he been kidnapped by his own father and forced to marry against his nature or is something more sinister afoot? In his search for answers Holmes and Watson will cross swords with the angelically beautiful Dorian Gray and be forced among degenerates and rapists at Soho’s notorious Pandemonium Club. But the truth is more evil than anyone could have suspected.

Review by Erastes

This is a shift in my thinking, because I’m not a great fan of published fanfiction, be it out of copyright or not–so I want to be upfront about that. However, I’m going to review this for other merits than accordance with canon etc. Although having read all of Holmes, I’m not that familiar with the canon to do that. Also, I’m aware that it’s a literary tradition for some authors to change or embellish the canon, in this case giving Holmes a sister, so this makes it Alternative Universe fanfiction, I suppose. And although it has a paranormal aspect–the inclusion of Dorian Gray’s portrait–I’m including this on the list, as we have Wilde’s original book listed.

That’s that out of the way, let’s get on with it.

It actually starts quite well, and even if you had never read a Holmes story, you would be able to pick this up and not mind. It cleverly sets the scene and the modicum of back-story (with the additional relatives) without resorting to pages of tub-thumbing Basil Exposition and it’s deftly done.

I liked the language that Watson writes in, it’s archaic enough to be easily understandable, and gives a nice flavour. It may be a little too flowery for some, but then that “some” is unlikely to pick up a Holmesian piece and expect it to be in contemporary prose.

The editing, I’m afraid, left a lot to be desired–with wanton apostrophes, missing and also unnecessary commas, spelling mistakes, a weighty surfeit of epithets and some tenses getting tangled up around each other’s legs. I’m a little grammar-blind at the best of times, so if I noticed errors, I’m sure there were a lot more. I have not reviewed anything from this publisher before, so I hope that it’s not a feature.

I think it is the fanfic aspect that makes these books a difficult read for me, because I have to  rely on the author to get Holmes and others right. In an original book, if the main characters behave with derring- do or are amused or outraged at certain things, then I think little of it, because it’s their characters and they can do with them what they wish, but with Holmes (and the other myriad of spin-offs now proliferating the market) I find myself thinking “Would Lizzie/Darcy/Holmes/[insert name here] really behave like that? And I find myself doing this for inconsequential things like [character] chuckling, instead of being able to just relax and enjoy the story unfolding.

However, that being said – it did draw me in, and it felt like a real Holmesian caper, complete with grotesques and dodgy venues, many cab journeys and Watson fumbling around in the dark both physically and mentally.

This is not a “gay Holmes” by the way, for which I was actually grateful, but a Holmes story involving gay matters which struck me as much more realistic, despite the book’s other problems.

I didn’t see anything of Holmes’ skills, though, none of the “I can tell you are a Polish sailor who spent some time in Africa and you have two wives, one in Madagascar and the other died a year ago.” This was a shame, because that’s what draws people to Holmes, I would think. Overall he was a little bit jolly, laughing, chortling and throwing his arms around people.

The final action scene concerns a brutal rape, so be warned—and I didn’t like that it was played a little for titillation. This probably explains why this otherwise pretty good read hadn’t been picked up by one of the larger epubs, as they probably wouldn’t have allowed the rape scene to stay as written.

One or two misuses of words I spotted “erstwhile brothers” (referring to Mycroft and Sherlock) when they were hardy “former” brothers. “Queer” wasn’t used for another fifty years or so, but in the main, the research is pretty good—streets are where they should be, and buildings existed at the time. But nothing too jarring, and as I say, the research is decent.

Seeing as how Holmes isn’t very “Holmesy” this could easily have been converted to original fiction without much of a join, but it’s a pretty good read if you can skim over the dreadful editing. If you are fan of the Victorian detective genre,then you’ll probably enjoy this. I would give the story a 4 stars but the presentation a 2, so overall, it gets a solid 3.

Buy from Loveyoudivine

Review: The Sheriff and Pirate Booty by John Simpson

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The Sheriff

Life was quiet in Dry Oaks, Montana, and that was the way Sheriff Jeremiah Bates liked it. When a cattle drive hit town, he expected the usual lot of drinkin’, gamblin’, whorin’ cow hands – but the feelings cowboy Duke Milo aroused in him were anything but usual.

Review by Erastes

It piques the interest, I have to say, because I’m interested in the Sherrif and how he got to be there in a dead-end town where nothing ever happens and why he stays. I admit that I would like to know more about him, because he’s a good character. A taciturn man of few words works well in a short story.

The thing I find about it though, is that a short story should be something complete in itself–probably because I was raised on Maugham and Saki–this all seems a little pat. Man walks into a bar, picks up a cowboy and they have sex. If it was an uber hot erotic short story it would serve a purpose, but it’s not really written to titillate either. But what’s there isn’t bad and for $1.49 it will fill ten minutes or so–it just doesn’t say anything.

Editing leaves a lot to be desired which is a shame for something so small.

Three stars

Buy from Dreamspinner

Pirate Booty

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Armed with a royal commission, former Royal Naval officer Captain Blain Stillwater undertakes a new adventure as a privateer in the Caribbean, charged with combating pirates and the Spanish. But while the commission includes a ship—it doesn’t include a crew. A search of London’s Newgate prison provides Stillwater his crew, but not his officers or a cook. Luckily he discovers Todd Myers, an experienced cook who spends his days in the galley… and his nights in the Captain’s cabin. But danger stalks the ship in the form of the Spanish, and life at sea is never smooth sailing.

Review by Erastes

First off, this is a romp. It is not going for historical accuracy. This is clear from the first couple of pages–more anachronisms than the whole of Braveheart. If you can get past that and are eager to get to the piratey goodness then that’s fine.

Blain sets off with a crew all set to plunder and as in the best of piratey fantasies, all the men (except one) is OK about men loving men. This will lead to a contented crew, apparently–and one handed contended readers, I’m sure!

The sex scenes are paramount here, and the story is wrapped around them, so much of the 70 pages consist of sex, but it’s hot and steamy and enjoyable. I think I would liked a bit more character development, but difficult in a story this short, specially a historical.

Regarding ships–I probably wouldn’t recommend this if you know anything about ships of the day, the small complement of crew and the small number of guns for for a galleon will probably chafe you, but if you are looking for a pirates of the Caribbean type of story with hot sexy sailors plundering the seas and each other then you’ll enjoy this a lot.

Three stars

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: The Glass Minstrel by Hayden Thorne

Two fathers, Abelard Bauer and Andreas Schifffer, are brought together through the tragic deaths of their eldest sons. Bauer, a brilliant toymaker, fashions glass Christmas ornaments and his latest creation is a minstrel with a secret molded into its features. When Schiffer sees Bauer’s minstrel ornament in the toy shop, he realizes that Bauer is struggling to keep his son’s memory alive through his craft. At first he tries to fault him for this, but then recognizes that he, too, is seeking solace and healing by reading his son’s diary, a journal that reveals, in both painful as well as beautiful detail, the true nature of his relationship with the artisan’s son.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

To make it short, I didn’t like it, but I understand how people can like it, hence the 3 star rating. It took me a good week to work out what my issues with this book are. Because, to be honest, after my first read from Cheyenne/Bristlecone Pine Press, “Hidden Conflict” , I had high hopes. While the other book was a mixed bag (as anthologies are wont to be), I was prepared to really enjoy “The Glass Minstrel” as a short gay novel.

But the excitement turned to exasperation, then disbelief, and finally ennui mixed with a certain helping of resentment.

Let’s start with the things I liked. I think the cover is lovely. The editing is very good (apart from one thing I’ll talk about further down). It is, by all intents and purposes, a well-made book.

Plot-wise, not a lot happens on those slightly less than 200 pages. A toymaker, Abelard Bauer, sells toys. He is confronted by Andreas Schiffer, who resents him because Bauer’s son Stefan has eloped with Schiffer’s son Heinrich after both were expelled from school due to their indecent relationship. They went to Frankfurt and died in a house fire.

Now the widowed father, Bauer, is dealing with his loss and being the talk of the town, and Schiffer has to deal with the loss of his eldest son and the destruction of all the ambitions he’s had for him. He finds solace in the arms of an immoral woman (an artist), with whom he has an illicit affair (while his poor wife Henrietta is left with the numerous kids). During the book, Bauer has to find his way back into society, Schiffer has to find his way back to his family.

And there’s the third main character in the story, Jakob Diederich, who is another gay teenager. He has a crush on an Englishman who stays at the inn where Jakob works. When the crush turns to nothing, Jakob finds a father in the son-less Bauer, and Bauer finds a son in the father-less Jakob. Everybody’s happy.

I did like the premise and set-up. To categorize, this is a Young Adult historical novel. If anybody turns to this book for steamy sex, that will be a mistaken purchase. There’s one – kind of pointless and awkward – masturbation scene, and that’s it in terms of sex.

Instead, it’s a very Christmas-y tale of family ties, redemption and how humans need other humans to cope with life and themselves. Every one of the three main characters is isolated – through shame, grief, or sexual orientation. All find forgiveness and community at the end. It’s a feel-good ending and should make a good Christmas tale if you are so inclined. The only glimpses we get into the love story between Stefan and Heinrich is in the little snippets of Heinrich’s diary right at the beginning of each chapter.

And here is where things begin to fall apart for me. I do not believe that anybody – least of all a middle-class boy like Heinrich – talks that frankly about erections

“And my daydreams during Mass are embarrassing me. I’m just glad that no one’s bothered to look down at my trousers when we stand up.”

and anal sex

“He didn’t complain about being sore as we walked home, but he made me promise to take him in next time.”–

even as euphemistically as he puts it, not even in a diary. And I kind of disbelieve that sheltered teenage boys would come up with the idea to “put that thing there” on their own, to be somewhat delicate about it. We’re in around 1850 – there is mentioning of the revolution (of 1848) going on or having gone on.
With regards to the setting. It’s Germany, and the German bits and pieces make sense. The research has been clearly done – it rings true or is at least in the realm of possibility. I make a minor allowance for the fact that the book is set in around 1848-50, but Zirndorf, the village/town where this is set, only became the home of a sizeable toy industry in 1877 (informs me Wikipedia and the town’s website). But I’m happy to simply assume there were toymakers around before that date.

I definitely suspended my disbelief a bit at the family life of the Schiffers, where attitudes towards one’s own offspring seem really quite modern. Especially in a well-off family like the Schiffers, there is very little respect and the generations are very close and affectionate with each other, which isn’t quite what I remember from novels set and written during those times, but even that’s ok, all families are different, after all.

So, let’s get to the point why I barely managed to finish the book. I loathed the narrator voice. To recap Fiction 101, the narrator is the “voice” that tells us a story. The narrator is NOT the author. A nice, kind author can write a cynical, hard-bitten narrator. The narrator is the invisible main character of any book – who tells us the story. S/he’s the voice of the text. The vehicle through which the author tells their story. In this case, I hated the narrator.

Why?

Well, the narrator sounded wooden and inauthentic in my inner ear, like s/he was trying very very hard to be literary and clenched up so much in the process of trying to achieve that that the flow of the text stalled and froze.

Now, I’m a sucker for good narrators, and personally, I love authors that can write a real, gritty, authentic narrator (that skill is rarer than I’d like). This narrator is somebody who could just as easily tell you a fairy tale about the big bad wolf with many sharp teeth and the poor young boy with the dirty hands and torn clothes.

The characters and descriptions were often so clichéd and forced that I found myself groaning (my boss at work actually asked me if I was alright). Those who are evil are very evil. Those who are good are so pure and so utterly good that our hearts have to go out for them. Characters fall into one of two camps. They are either conceited and intolerant, or “gay allies”. And morality runs along those demarkation lines, too: Those that are tolerant are the “good” people, the others are ignorant and nasty and evil. I wish life were that easy. The only exception is Andreas Schiffer, who also changes the most. The problem with that character is, while he has the furthest to go and the biggest development as a person, he’s also a whining, terrible hypocrite and the least sympathetic.

Only, of course, that any narrator who tells me what to think of the characters I’m reading about creates an inner resistance to the not-so-subtle “suggestion” what to think and feel about the characters. It’s OK to be pushed and controlled like that when you’re reading fairy tales (of course the princess is the most beautiful girl that has ever lived! Of course the wolf is the scariest thing alive! We’d be disappointed if they weren’t), but in a prose novel, targeted towards readers that are adults or young adults, that seems awfully simplistic. I’d have liked more shades of grey, more well-rounded characters, rather than the narrator re-iterating the same few characteristics in every scene. (That’s when this reader wants to shout: “I get it! He’s poor! He’s the poorest, most down-trodden, hardest-working teenager that ever lived! He’d make Cinderella look like a spoiled brat!”)

I’d also have wanted a more nuanced and more interesting style, because if there’s very little else going on, I read more slowly and want to savour the words… only that I found very little in the style that I could have loved. Many dialogues have a stilted, contrived quality about it that had me constantly questioning if the characters would really talk about that here and this way.

As an example of the style, here’s a paragraph in the last third:

Jakob nodded. He’d heard of the Christkindlmarkt, mostly from visitors to the inn, from whom he’d learned bits and pieces about Dresden’s and Nuremburg’s Christmas markets, with the brilliant stalls and the wonderful crafts and food they offered eager shoppers. Their little town, with its snow and its nearly depressed economy dependent on the manufacture of toys, couldn’t afford such extravagant displays, and who in their right minds would even consider such a place for a visit? Travelers stayed for less than a week, and even those were very rare. No, all they had were their tiny shops and local skilled labor, from whom everyone within the town’s borders relied on for their daily maintenance. Very little came in, and hardly anything went out.

Expressions like “depressed economy” and “local skilled labor” kick me out of a historical novel extremely fast. The novel is largely told in a somewhat labored style that attempts to serve as a vehicle back into the time. Instead, I found it clunky and inauthentic and remote.

Finally, there’s one thing that drives me insane in all books, but it’s getting worse and worse. I know that creative writing books (and many editors) have huge hang-ups over the use of past perfect and present perfect. To reiterate, the present perfect of the verb “to go” is “has/have gone” and the past perfect is “had gone”. Both tenses are used when something has happened in the past. More importantly, they are legitimate, grammatically-correct tenses and serve a purpose. Now, some editors, laboring under the rule that “has” and “had” are “weak” words, require their authors to kill every instance of “has” and “had”. Well, last time I checked my style guides, they were legitimate. What’s more, using them is necessary and grammatically correct.

I don’t care, cry some editors, take’em out. Kill’em with fire.

And we end up with sentences where I have no idea what happened in what order or that sound incredibly weird. Let’s look at a couple instances in “The Glass Minstrel”. Spot the grammar mistake here:

He watched them for another moment, baffled and partly jealous of the careless joy that was so evident in them. How could they be so indifferent? How could they not see that things weren’t the same as they were, and that things would never be the same again? How could they laugh and play and ignore the empty space left by their oldest brother—the one who’d looked after them, helped raise them? How could they be so selfish? So thoughtless?

You found it. The sentence is “things weren’t the same as they were” – errr, no. the second “were” (past tense) should have been a “had been” (past perfect). THEN it makes sense. Clearly, the second part of the sentence has to refer back to a past further back than the past the narrator is currently in.

And another one:

Schiffer took a deep breath and sat down at the pianoforte to play a few notes. The sounds he coaxed from the instrument’s depths were familiar and lovely, but like everything else that surrounded him, they didn’t reach inside him as deeply as they used to. His spirit wasn’t touched the way it was before, and he didn’t know whether or not he should mourn that loss.

Found it?

Yes, it’s “wasn’t touched the way it was before” – the second was needs to be “had been” (past perfect).

Third one:

His other hand seemed to burn from the roughness of Jakob’s old coat, his palm pressing against the contrasting smoothness of a patch that had been sewn to cover a tear in the cloth—or perhaps a hole. He would, if he could, protect this boy from the world, the way he wanted to protect Stefan so long ago.

Yes, the mistake is right there at the end: “the way he wanted to protect Stefan so long ago”. There’s a “had” missing that would put the “wanted” (currently in past tense) into the correct past perfect and hence into a past further back than the past in which the story is set.

Yes, it’s a pet peeve. No, a dozen instances of wrong grammar don’t ruin a book. Personally, I get kicked out of a text by wrong tenses just as badly as if there’s been a starship landing in 1850′s Bavaria and Boney M emerges in silver suits, dancing to “Daddy Cool”.

Authors, editors, publishers, please leave the past and present perfect tenses alive. English is such a beautifully precise language, don’t treat it that way. Please keep the past tenses in the right order.

To sum up: The Glass Minstrel is a Christmas-themed young adult novel set in 1850′s Bavaria dealing with themes of isolation, community and redemption that will appeal to gay historical readers whose main considerations in choosing a book are not style and voice and can ignore a certain sentimental quality in the prose. This is not a romance, and the seasonal spirit of forgiveness covers whatever rifts the gay characters and their allies experience all too easily. It’s a bit heavy-going for a feel-good book, but the ending finally delivers.

Author’s website

Buy from Cheyenne Publishing (Print)

Buy from Bristlecone Press (Ebook)

Review: The Christmas Wager by Jamie Fessenden

To discharge a debt to his friend, Andrew Nash, Lord Thomas Barrington returns to the family estate he fled six years earlier after refusing to marry the woman his father had chosen. To Thomas’s dismay, Barrington Hall is no longer the joyful home he remembers from his childhood, and his young niece has no idea what Christmas is.

Determined to bring Christmas back to the gloomy estate, Thomas must confront his tyrannical father, salvage a brother lost in his own misery, and attempt to fight off his father’s machinations. As the holidays near, Thomas and Andrew begin to realize they are more than merely close friends… and those feelings are not only a threat to their social positions but, in Victorian England, to their lives as well.

Review by Erastes

This is rather a review in two parts as I explain what did work for me and what didn’t.

I enjoyed the story–despite the things I say later about it–it’s has a nice feel to it, and just about every character has something going for it. It has a coherent plot, and the slightly “gay for you” plot is well done, gradually realised and works well in this context.

I particularly liked the way the two main characters deal with their emotions for each other; Andrew, although initially a little put off when he finds out about Thomas’s true nature and feelings, realises that he still wants him as a friend, and hopes to keep the friendship on that footing. I liked this, it seemed loyal and realistic for a loyal friend to do.

I liked the way they kept each other at arm’s distance too, it was sweet and although I knew where it was all going, I enjoyed the journey.

There are two or three nicely juggled sub-plots too, which work well, even if (this is a Christmas story, after all, so that’s forgiveable) it can be a little saccharine when it comes to the child involved. So taken aside the things that knocked this from being a really good read to an annoying one–I did like this book, and would probably recommend it to those who like big country house stories.

But.

I have to say that a sterner editor would have been a good thing–because the writing smacks a little of fandom. There’s far too much use of epiphets “the blond” “the handsome blond” and such like. There are spelling mistakes, grammar errors and mistaken apostrophes liberally spattered throughout.

The constant use of “Christmas holidays” was an odd concept too–Andrew ran his own business, and–like Scrooge, most employees only had a day or so off, Christmas Day and perhaps another–and Andrew had no employment, living off his family’s allowance, so he wouldn’t have this idea in his head. I am reminded of the Dowager Duchess in Downton Abbey – “What is a weekend?”

The main trouble is that it’s clearly an English historical written by an American. It’s obvious that they’ve done a fair amount of research, but this could easily have been written in a 19th century New York setting and worked much better because the little niggles like the fifth of scotch and gottens would have been more excusable. There are a fair amount of anchacronisms here, too – words like teenagers  and sabotage and the mentions of muffins and scones for breakfast–and using balsam as a decoration which isn’t found in America and not England.

In an American setting, the rather republican aspects of the story which make any class conscious English person blanch, would have made a lot more sense. It’s too late to invite the “proper people” to the Christmas Ball, so instead everyone from the village is invited–and this is done without even a murmur of dissent, disapproval, horror or even amusement from the local gentry. “how quaint, look at the poor stuffing the pastries in their pockets” was what I was expecting, but they invite the great unwashed in — and the great unwashed know exactly how to behave — without a ripple from anywhere.

It’s a real shame, because I am sure Dreamspinner have or have access to editors who could have ironed these annoyances out, and if it had only had a couple of glitches I could have forgiven it. It would otherwise have been nudging a four stars, or even a four and a half, because the story is very charming, the characters loveable (although the child is not my cup of tea) but because of the “should have been set in the USA” aspect of it, I can only give it a grudging three.

Author’s website

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Review: The House on Birdgate Alley by Anel Viz

London, 1889.

Dr. John Williams suspects somebody has been blackmailing one of his patients, Sir Hugh Cockburn. The same day, the body of a young man is found floating in the Thames. Mere coincidence, or is there a connection?

Willliams’ eccentric cousin, Cyril Fosterby, turns his mind to unraveling the mystery.

Review by Erastes

The trouble with writing victorian “maverick sleuths” in 1889 is that one can’t help but wonder that perhaps this is Holmes fanfic revisted and it does read rather like it. It’s unfortunate for the story if it isn’t, of course, but I’ve read a lot of converted Holmes fic. This is a story about a doctor called John–in late Victorian England with a cousin who’s an experimental scientist who solves cases and is a master of disguise…

For all that, though, Anel Viz proves he can turn his hand to the Victorian era with good effect – it’s a decent enough story and an enjoyable hour’s read.

There’s not much gaslight and gaiters, if you get my gist, not much description of the familiar post-Ripper London that we are used to, and it depends more on conversation and indoor scenes than dripping grey bricks and eerie fog over the Thames, but what is there is done all right.

What I found odd, though was everyone’s openness about homosexuality. Two young men at Cambridge kiss in front of Doctor Williams, and the brothel keeper talks openly to him about her employees, and admits having talked to the Health Board and the Police about them.

Now, this is 1889, four years after the dreaded “Labouchere Amendment” of the Sexual Offences Act which, in an attempt to clean up the prostitution, also targetted homosexuals whether or not they were in private or not. There is much in this book that entirely ignores this Amendment, which caused a sensation at the time, and drove homosexual men underground.  In fact the Cambridge man says:

As for a scandal, what Freddy and I do in private need not go beyond these four walls or whatever four walls happen to surround us at the moment.

Um. Very very wrong, and no-one corrects him either.  So I find it very strange that the madam of the brothel talks to anyone at all, let alone the police the health board and John Williams.

I can’t say that I was impressed by Fosterby’s reasoning regarding the original blackmail note, in the same way I was often impressed by Holmes–he doesn’t really give me enough reasons to suspect that Sir Hugh was an “invert” – rather presented it as a fait-a-complis rather than “these are my reasons and there is no other explanation.”

I loved the working class Johnny Rice, his cheeky attitude and sexual enjoyment really lit up the page (even if I couldn’t stand the dialect written out) and he was quite my favourite character. I couldn’t warm to Dr John Williams as he abhored everything about the sex trade, said how he disliked cocks and anuses in particular and then suddenly PING he’s homosexual for Johnny, seduced by the power of the cock in the same way that the also married Sir Hugo had been too.

However, if you are expecting a Holmesian tale with tortious twists and clues scattered to find and pick up, then you are going to be disappointed, because the story serves only really as a vehicle for John and Johnny to hook up and for John to realise that he’s not faithful to his wife.

There really was not enough of the so-called “eccentric” cousin, the detective figure. We don’t find out why he was considered eccentric, we don’t learn his methods and in fact we only meet him a handful of times and we learn nothing much when we do.All detecting is done off stage and is wrapped up neatly after John and Johnny spend a lot of time together and fall in love.  However Fosterby explains all the dectecting he’d been doing at the end.  This is well explained, and works, but I think I would have preferred more involvement from Williams.

It has a nicely realistic ending, and sets itself for sequels. I did enjoy the story as a whole, despite the OK Homo aspects and lack of historical fear, and I’ll be looking out for further books if there are any.

Buy at Silver Publishing

Review: A Promise of Tomorrow by Rowan McAllister

Lord James Warren, Viscount Sudbury, lives a quiet, safe, and predictable life alone on his estate in Suffolk, only traveling to London once a year to visit family and satisfy his more forbidden needs. But this year, his routine is shattered when his niece and nephew ask him to help a beautiful young man they’ve only just met.

Kyle Allen, alone and running from his abusive lover, stirs feelings in James he has long denied for fear of tarnishing his reputation and losing his family’s love. Though undeniably drawn to Kyle, James’s honor demands he keep that part of himself completely secret, even if Kyle is feeling the attraction as well, despite the pain and betrayal he’s recently suffered.

Assistance and a future for Kyle might be secured, but then they would face a choice: stay apart and continue leading half-lives… or risk everything for love.

Review by Erastes CHECK OUT THE PODCAST!

I really like this cover–it’s not a fabulous piece of art, but it really gives a flavour of what gay historical fiction is all about. You really get a sense that these men have taken pains to hide what’s going on between them, and that’s pretty rare on gay historical covers.

The book itself was a pleasant surprise; it’s a “proper” Regency in many ways–enobled head of the family doesn’t want to do what his family expect of him. For family, read “his sister”, who threatens that if he doesn’t come to London at least once a year and gets his head out of the country, she will invade his estate with a house party.  So he bows to the inevitable, dances and puts up with the danger of marriagable women trying to snag him for a month just to keep the peace.  It also means that he can visit the ubiquitous male brothel while he’s there, so he at least gets one shag a year–and it’s a way of life he’s learned to live with, and thinks that it’s the way he can manage to do. This–to the reader–is obviously wrong as the poor man is beset by male figures on the street as soon as he gets out of the carriage, so you know he’s very deeply in denial.

The interplay between the main character James and the rather sensitive Kyle is nicely done, James fancies Kyle, Kyle fancies James but neither wants to act on it. James because he knows Kyle has had a bad experience and it would look as if he was taking advantage, and Kyle because James is a Viscount, and Kyle is a lowly disowned son of a curate, and he doesn’t know if the man shares his proclivities–and so they dance around each other in a rather pretty way.

Kyle is a bit wet. Yes–I have a cheek to say that, having written a weepy hero myself.  But Kyle is not the worst I’ve seen, he’s not a total chick with a dick, and he’s not a real whiner like some other characters in other books I could mention.  I didn’t mind the hugging impulses and tears springing to eyes at regular intervals, but I need to point this out in case that’s not your bag. I wouldn’t call Kyle girly, but he’s not really in control of his emotions, so let’s leave it at that. Sadly, it’s at these wet moments that the prose slips into cringeworthy purplish such as:

Kyle‟s tear-filled eyes met his, and for an eternity, he got lost in liquid emerald and gold.

But these aren’t terribly frequent, thank goodness.

The characters were all a bit black or white – the baddies terribly dastardly, the goodies were all a bit too goody goody for my personal taste; the niece sweet, the nephew loyal and open-minded, and James is dependable and reliable; a good dutiful head of the family, the uncle to whom the twins can turn to–no matter how scandalous the subject–the man who will never let you down in a crisis. Other than his worry about his sexual preferences, I would have liked to have seen a little more three dimensionalism in the man. Perhaps a crack or two in his NICENESS. I’m not saying I wanted a rake, there are enough of them to go around and to spare, but no-one’s that nice. Even the prostitute that James frequents is a tart with a heart.

Some of the nomenclature of the nobility was a little off but that only niggles other writers, probably!

The main sex scene between the protagonists has a section which made my eyebrows raise, and caught me entirely off-guard. After all the sweetness and light, I wasn’t expecting the BDSM element, and wonder if it had been pasted on because of all the other BDSM Regencies. I found it mildly eye-rolling that James kept a vial of oil in his cabinet, when it had been explicity explained that he only had sex once a year, when he went to London. Perhaps he was a boy scout as a child.

But despite my niggles, I’m sure that if you liked authors such as Ava March, you’ll love this story. It didn’t set my world on fire, but it was a very enjoyable, decently written read. I know nothing about the author, but if she’s not English, then my hat is off to her, because it’s solidly researched and has a good English feel to it. If it is not amazingly inventive, then there’s nothing at all wrong with that–The Regency is a well worn path in romance fiction and it’s about time that gay Regencies started making a few traditions and tropes of their very own. Recommended.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

A podcast of this review

Review: Come and Take it: 1 England, 2 Texas by Julia Talbot

Come and Take it 1: England

Leland August goes to London to work for the embassy of the failing Texas Republic. Feeling like a stranger in a strange land, Leland fears he’ll never understand his English peers. Ford Mayhew seems no exception, especially when the man all but calls Leland out for running him down on the street.

Ford is willing to forgive and forget. He likes what he sees in Leland, and wants to become friends, or perhaps more. When politics and scheming bosses intrude, though, both Leland and Ford turn their suspicions on each other. Can they learn to stand together against forces much larger than they are?

Come & Take It 2: Texas

Leland August is thrilled to be back home in Texas where things are familiar and he has his family with him. His lover Ford isn’t so sure, finding the whole country abrasive and hard to handle.

Things only get worse when Ford’s business associates ask him to do the impossible, and illegal. He decides to trust Leland to help him, confessing his difficulties, and the two hatch a plan to avert the threat to Ford’s life and love. Can Leland and Ford manage to stay one step ahead of trouble, and stay together?

Review by Erastes

This is a duet of short stories (about 40 pages each) set around 1845.  The first one, as the name implies is set in England, and the second in Texas.

These were originally part of the Torquere Press serial fiction line which is coming to an end at the close of 2010. As far as I can see, there should have been a third in this series, and there was no sign of it that I could find, which is a shame, because the story is left rather up in the air, leaving me a little disappointed. However, what there is is well done, I have generally liked Talbot’s work, and her characterisation is always sound. She manages to outline the differences between the rather stodgy Englishman and the more free-ranging Texan. It’s a shame that the stories are so short, really, because I’d have really liked to see their relationship in more detail as it built up.

There’s simply not enough time and space to give more than a outline of this, and I’d have loved to know more about the life and times when the story moves to Texas–there are far too many stories set in England, really.

It’s an interesting plot too, for all its brevity, spies and mistrust on each side which works well, but as I say, we don’t get to see how it was resolved and I hope that Talbot finishes the series off!

As much as I enjoyed this little series, I haven’t given it a higher mark for two reasons: There are few anachronisms (such as “dosh”) that jarred me, and although the final part says “to be continued in part three coming soon” which was in 2007 and as far as I can see there was never a part three, leaving our heroes in a perilous position for far too long.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere England - Texas

Review: HMS Submission by Jack Gordon

‘I know who you are.’The cat’s tangled thongs fell a second time. Mick flinched, arching away from the lash.

‘I know what you’ve done.’

Mick’s strong shoulders shivered under another blow. He caught the eye of the handsome midshipman. The stinging heat on his broad back increased, as did the burning ache between his spread legs

‘And by God, I will make your life the hell you have made mine!’

Under the command of Josiah Rock, a twisted man with cruel desires, HMS Impregnable navigates a course through pirate-infested waters of the Atlantic, bound for the Indentured Colonies. Christopher, Viscount FitzGibbons, has been forced by his father into a life on the high seas as a novice officer. Meanwhile, below decks, manacled and filthy, the roguish Mick Savage fights for food and plans his escape from the prospect of a lifetime in the penal colonies of the Americas.

The two men are unaware that they have embarked on a voyage towards a shared destiny. And they find that daring to transgress the boundaries of class and upbringing is as dangerous as becoming involved in Captain Rock’s power games or falling into the hands of lusty Spanish brigands.

Review by M. Kei

HMS Submission is a book with a split personality. The first half is a well-written, entertaining erotic comedy as the Irish rogue Mick Savage beguiles his way into the beds of a variety of England’s uppercrust, male and female, and robs them. With the assistance of his sidekick, the cutpurse Cat, he goes after the greatest prize of them all: The Gloucester Diamond. Disguised as a pair of priests, they discover that men of the cloth are just as fallible as the randy lords of London. Greed is his downfall, and he and Cat are arrested and transported to the colonies.

Meanwhile, the bookish and mild Christopher FitzGibbons is betrothed against his will to Lady Violet. Completely ignorant of sex, he finds himself strangely attracted to a Willicombe, an underfootman and young man like himself. With Willicombe’s help he attempts to get a sexual education and comic mishaps ensue. Just when he and Willicombe are finally reaching a mutually pleasurable understanding, they are discovered by Lord Christopher’s father. Lord FitzGibbons is Not Happy enlists his son in the navy to make a man of him.

And the book falls apart.

Once Christopher is assigned to the HMS Impregnable under Captain Rock, and Mick and Cat are tossed into the filthy hold along with the other prisoners Captain Rock is charged to deliver to the penal colony, the author loses faith in his materials and reverts to gay porn scenes. Previously in the book the numerous erotic encounters had some point in the story—Mick’s cuckolding of the betrothed Lord Christopher when each has no idea who the other is, for example, is an amusing scene that grows out of the characters of the various people involved and sets up the complications that will ultimately bring the two men together. The sex scenes aboard the Impregnable are not the result of any particular motivation aside from the author’s need to fill out the requisite number of pages of men screwing.

Needing to resolve Willicombe’s unrequited love for Christopher, suddenly we discover that he and Cat knew each other when they were boys and are happy to be back together again. After mistreating Mick, Captain Rock is enlightened and suddenly forgives and embraces his own gay son. Preposterously, all this happy-ending occurs aboard the ship belonging to the Spanish pirate El Niño, The Boy, who isn’t a boy at all, but either a hermaphrodite or a girl in disguise. It is El Niño who rearranges everything so that everybody (except Captain Rock) gets laid and everybody forgives and embraces everybody.

I’m all for happy endings, and those who know me know I’m utterly in love with wooden ships, but the second half of the book was a snooze. The author couldn’t tell a jib from a square sail, and aside from a few bits of wit when the other midshipmen set up the gullible Christopher for a prank, the nautical errors and mechanical behavior of characters who had formerly been engagingly believable, had me turning pages in a hurry to finish the book. One has the feeling that the publisher had a look at the manuscript in progress and snapped, “I’m paying you to write about men screwing, not Regency manners!”

What a pity. Gordon has a knack for humor. The bookish Lord Christopher—who is so earnestly struggling to be the man his father wants him to be while yearning for his books and other men—is the perfect foil for comic interludes. The reader can’t help sympathizing with the poor bewildered Christopher during the first half of the book. At the same time, Mick and Cat, whose flexible morality allows them to prey on the English, find that their streetwise wits can get them into more trouble than they bargained for. Even when we’re rooting for them to succeed, we can’t help but be amused when they get what’s coming to them—as in when Cat attempts to rob Mick after they have become lovers. I would have been very happy to read an entire book like this and given it five stars, but the second half of pirate porn ruins it.

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Review: Checkmate by Nicki Bennett and Ariel Tachna

When sword for hire Teodoro Ciéza de Vivar accepts a commission to “rescue” Lord Christian Blackwood from unsuitable influences, he has no idea he’s landed himself in the middle of a plot to assassinate King Philip IV of Spain and blame the English ambassador for the deed. Nor does he expect the spoiled child he’s sent to retrieve to be a handsome, engaging young man. As Teodoro and Christian face down enemies at every turn, they fall more and more in love, an emotion they can’t safely indulge with the threat of the Inquisition looming over them. It will take all their combined guile and influence to outmaneuver the powerful men who would see them separated… or even killed.

Review by Erastes

Wow.  Just look at that cover.  I’m not generally a fan of Ann Cain’s hand drawn covers, but I’ve probably only seen the more yaoi ones.  This is utterly brilliant and has everything that a gay historical needs.  Yes, there’s flesh but it’s not representative of “men shagging” it’s more relevant to the story. It has depth. Bloody brilliant and standing ovation from me.  My top cover of the year.

Although I did enjoy the story as a whole, the main thing that stopped this book getting a much higher mark–which with a hard edit it would have deserved–was the head hopping.  I can usually bear it (although I know most readers dislike it intensely) with two people, but this hopped between however many where on the page, which was often 3 people and caused my head to hurt at times, and made for some really difficult reading.

Christian realized he had not brought his valise into the room with him. Sighing against the inevitable, he wrapped the cloth more tightly around his waist and opened the door. He hesitated when he saw Teodoro and Esteban standing there, but there was no help for it. He needed his clothes. Without speaking, he crossed to his bag and rummaged through it for a clean shirt and breeches.

His already hard cock throbbed against Teodoro’s  breeches when Blackwood entered the room clad only in a bath sheet, his bare chest and limbs even more alluring than the Spaniard had imagined them.

As you can see, the head-hopping here causes definite confusion!

It also made it very difficult to get to know the characters–it’s hard to get inside the head of someone when they only have one paragraph, one reaction and then you are whizzing over to everyone else in the scene.  To be honest it made the book almost unreadable, as the POV even broke away from Teodoro in the middle of an exciting sword fight,  completely spoiling the scene,  to leap into Christian’s head who was elsewhere at the time.

The mercenary’s conscience surprised me – I wouldn’t have thought he’d have cared whether his client’s story was true or not – he was being handsomely paid.  I would have thought that a hired sword would have one loyalty – the the highest bidder.  Granted he was attracted to Christian from the first but not enough to immediately feel guilt that he was kidnapping Christian, not saving him from unnatural practices.

There were a couple of things that jarred, such as a horse travelling 400 miles in 5 days, and the mention of a Grand Tour which didn’t exist until after the Restoration, but other than that the history seemed pretty solid to me, so no complaints there.

Overall, it’s a good story with a tender romance, exciting moments, enough hurt/comfort to assuage the hardest heart – and if you can get past the confusion of the dizzying head hopping you’ll probably enjoy the book, but it makes it a not-read-again for me, I’m afraid.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The World’s a Stage by Gail Sterling

After his younger sister is killed in a tragic accident, William Palmer’s family flees their quiet Warwickshire village for the bustling metropolis of Elizabethan London. The deaths of his parents and the marriage of his remaining sister soon separate William from his family. Taken on by a company of actors in an era where women are forbidden onstage, William makes a good living playing the parts of young girls and beautiful maidens.

As he gets older, William finds himself growing out of the female stage parts, even as he develops a less than strictly professional interest in his co-star, Jack Hawkins. The course of true love never did run smooth, and William soon finds himself torn between Jack, the return of an elder sister who needs his help, and the mysterious and intriguing son of the company’s patron, Lord Evering.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Gail Sterling’s novel is a pretty short one, and I read it in its entirety in one evening. It’s a wonderfully quick read, and I’m glad that Sterling didn’t opt for too-authentic language, choosing instead clear, functional prose. The benefit is a fast, uninterrupted flow, though the downside is that there are parts here and there that sound too modern, with certain words and turns of phrases that are contemporary American.

On the whole, I enjoyed the novel. Written in first person, we get a pretty fascinating glimpse of Shakespeare’s London through Will’s eyes. The highlight to me, though, is the way the theatrical scene is explored. Behind the scenes, we get to see how actors rehearse, get fitted for their costumes, are received by the audience (their seating arrangements being nicely described according to social class), and especially, how they live outside the stage. It’s a miserable existence for them, with squalor, hunger, tattered dress, and exhaustion a daily reality. That Will’s company of actors – despite their diverging personalities – remain close to each other is testament to their shared hardships, dreams, and love of their art.

The historical details are there – London’s filth and stench, the variety of people attending each production, the taverns, the decrepit inns, etc. I’m also glad that Sterling doesn’t shy away from the physical conditions of the people back then. One scene has Will helping a drunk and passed out actor:

Feeling generous, I eased off his boots, and was immediately assaulted by a smell so foul, it caused the bile to rise to my throat. Gagging, I put a hand to my mouth and escaped the room, closing the door behind me.

I can only imagine, poor kid. Will’s situation as a young boy who’s growing out of his role (he’s sixteen in the novel) as well as the fit of his costumes is another highlight of the novel. It serves as a parallel to Will’s non-theatrical coming-of-age, in which he has to learn to reconcile his past with his present as well as to let it go and move on with his life.

There are a few things that keep me from giving this book higher marks, however. Yes, the language is accessible, and the historical details are well-researched. Yes, we see things unfold through the eyes of the principal player. That said, there’s a surprising degree of detachment in the novel, in that despite the period details, I never felt truly engaged with Elizabethan London. I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that there’s a lot of telling in the book and not enough showing. We’re told that London looks like this and smells like that, but none of our senses is engaged because we don’t really get much more than those references. The novel, in fact, almost gives the impression that we’re watching a play.

As with Will himself and most of the other characters, there’s a distance in the way they interact with each other. It’s also because there’s hardly any feeling evoked. Even though the opportunities are there, there are no moments of slowing down, of savoring a scene or of reflecting on something – anything – that would give us some much-needed glimpse of Will’s personality beyond what’s on the surface. Just like the scene descriptions, what goes on with the characters is told and not shown, with Will doing so in a pretty dry, matter-of-fact way.

Now to some extent that works with the narrative, but considering Will’s backstory as well as his relationship with the other characters, I was hoping for something more than simply quick references.

The most multi-faceted character in the book, in fact, is Anne, Will’s older sister. She’s a tragic figure, and the way her story unfolds is almost antithetical to everyone else’s. She brings out feelings of pity not just through her physical descriptions and backstory but also the little things she does, with her sewing skills completing a very poignant picture of her as a woman with so many dreams shattered. I find myself more attuned to Anne compared to Will from the moment she reappears in her brother’s life.

The love triangle that’s referred to in the back cover blurb is hardly there. In fact, that’s my main complaint. Because it was mentioned, I expected it to be one of the driving forces of Will’s story. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The novel focuses much more on the goings on in the theatre as well as the relationship between Anne and Will; Jack as well as Will’s feelings for him, however, are very sketchy at best, and their intimate moments are touched on dismissively. I wasn’t convinced that Will was in love, let alone that he lost his virginity, except for the fact that he kept grinning the following day. Lord Edwin is even sketchier in terms of romantic developments. He doesn’t appear till around halfway through the novel, and subsequent appearances are few and far between, so much so that he feels almost spectral. When he interacts with Will, they’re more like curious strangers than two people who’re finding each other attractive. Will hardly has any convincing reasons for falling in love with him, with the ending feeling so rushed and somewhat forced that I finished the book feeling more dissatisfied with the romance than anything.

There are a few formatting errors that I found throughout the book – excessive quotation marks and missing quotation marks (both of which made some passages confusing to read), a double-space in between two paragraphs, and a sentence that breaks in two, with one half on one line and the other half in the next line. Those things would’ve been easily corrected during the print galley edits.

For all those, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book from Sterling. She shows a good grasp of history, and the book has a number of witty moments as well that made me grin. If this book is her first effort, I think it would be a treat watching her talent blossom with future titles.

Buy the book: Print or E-book

Review: Pacific Nights by Lynn Lorenz

On a deserted island in the Pacific, surrounded by the enemy, two very different men learn to rely on each other for survival. Mike is an uneducated rascal, one step ahead of prison and a court-martial. He’s given one chance to redeem himself: if he wants to stay out of jail, he has to keep Professor James Hamilton alive. No matter what.

James is everything Mike isn’t–suave, educated, intellectual, and rich. He’s also a conscientious objector and he’s made a deal with the army–three months on the island breaking codes as long as he doesn’t have to kill anyone.

Mike is Catholic, the son of immigrants, and has never acted on his desires. James is Jewish, the son of Boston society, and experienced in love between men. During their hazardous stay on the island, they teach each other about life, friendship, and survival. With only them to say what’s right and wrong, the men make a deal: Mike must give himself to James for one day, submit to him completely, and James will allow Mike to take him whenever Mike wants to slake his sexual needs.

But once the war is over, can they keep the promises made on those hot Pacific nights and find one place both of them can call home?

Review by Vashtan

“Pacific Nights” tells the story of Mike Dabrowski and James Hamilton, who get the job to break codes on an island in the Pacific during WWII. The guys are very much the ‘odd couple’. Mike is a rough sergeant, Polish, Catholic, lower class, whereas James is a Jewish mathematician and code-breaker, refined, upper class.

This short novel of around 32-33k words starts at night as our heroes jump out of the plane and land on the island. They set up their camp, and discover the wreck of a Japanese plane. From now on, they know there might be a Japanese survivor on the island.

After not too long, Mike becomes aware of an attraction towards the professor who is so very unlike himself. He resents the man but can’t help thinking about him. The tension rises until Mike accuses (for whatever reason, I assume psychological projection) Hamilton of being gay. When Hamilton doesn’t deny or confirm it, Mike is convinced that Hamilton is, indeed, gay, and reverts to sullen hostility.

One month into their three-month mission, Mike suffers from a major case of blue balls and begins to masturbate vocally, aware that the professor can hear him in the other tent and unwilling and seemingly unable to keep it down. Here’s a taste of that:

He lay on his side, as every touch seemed to wrench some sound from his throat. No matter how hard he tried not to make a sound, they bubbled up.

It just felt so good, and he needed to relieve his raging hard-on. He woke with one in the morning and went to bed with one every night, and during the day he struggled to keep one from popping up. It was like he was a kid again, reacting to any glimpse of flesh he could see.

And Hamilton acted as if he didn’t have a dick.

Fuck Hamilton. Mike tasted blood as he bit down on his lip to keep from moaning.

Fucking Hamilton.

Mike’s hand pistoned and his hips jerked in rhythm as he sought that place where he could finally let loose. No more silence.

He moaned, loud and clear, and couldn’t believe how good it felt. It intensified his enjoyment, prolonged the pleasure as if the sound and the feeling were in some way joined.

Let Hamilton hear, damn it. Mike didn’t care anymore. All he needed was to express his pain and his pleasure.

Shit, he didn’t even care if the Jap heard him.

“Keep it down, Sergeant.” Hamilton’s cool voice floated out of the night.

Mike’s dick throbbed harder just knowing James had heard.

“No can do, Professor,” he gritted out. “It’s up, and it’s going to stay that way for a little while longer.”

This is about the moment when the plot, which so far seemed to have been about codebreaking and two very different men learning to cooperate, careens off into all-out porn/erotica. Suffice to say that the two reach an agreement, and from then on, the main focus is on the joys of light bondage. That is where the book stays for a long time, then returns to a semblance on plot, which I found somewhat unconvincing.

Technically, the sexual tension and sex is competently handled and fairly hot. It’s also pretty anachronistic. In their sexual mores, and especially in the porn-style dialogue, I don’t believe for a moment that these are men from the forties. The author strictly uses the Second World War as a pure backdrop – there is very little impact of this massive conflict on these two men (apart from the Japanese survivor, who provides what little plot there is and is responsible for the “dark moment”). I found the characters a bit too cliché to really feel for them, the colours are very stark indeed, up to the point of near-caricature. I would have liked much more exploration of these men, and a bit more subtlety and banter to really see them men fall in love for other reasons than that their sex is good.

The times and setting. Since they are on a nice Pacific island, the war doesn’t really touch them, they don’t have to deal with society or its views on gays, all they have to do is get to grips with each other. Apart from brushed-over codebreaking, they don’t really do much else.

Mike, who’s supposedly a sergeant and a bit of a rogue, doesn’t strike me as a very military man. Both characters are dumped out of a plane at night with seemingly no training, and no survival skills that, as far as I know, every soldier would get that was actually deployed in the wilderness without any other means to feed or care for himself.

While I would believe that from Hamilton who is a civilian, Mike’s relative military incompetence was less convincing. There was none of the grit and realism that I would expect from a novella set in those times and that theatre of war, which was every little bit as horrifying and bloody as the European theatre.

But this novella works quite well if you’re only looking for hot sex and don’t care much about the history, the setting, the morals of the time, and are okay with an ending that evades all potential conflict.

It’s a nice little read that is competently written, but I would have enjoyed a lot more meat – and less “oh my god, James/Mike!”-style sex dialogue.

I received this ebook for the purpose of this review from Erastes.

Author’s website

Buy from:  Loose-ID, Kindle

Review: Stand and Deliver by Scarlet Blackwell

When Lucien Mayer, 14th Earl of Ravensberry is taken hostage by a gang of highwaymen, he is drawn to the damaged, reclusive Ambrosius and the dangerous, brooding Dante. Torn between escaping and satisfying his body’s needs, his life will never be the same again.

Review by Erastes

Oh dear, I thought. Another kidnap/rape-non con turns to love story.  However it turns out that it’s not quite as predictable as I imagined and that was a nice surprise.

The cover is quite nice. Frilly shirt: check. Moonlight and a castle: check.  Not a bad cover at all.

The length is only 34,000 words, though – even though Total e-bound Publishing call it a novel. I wouldn’t call that size anything but a novella, so pay your £2.99 knowing the length.

Lucien is travelling the London to Nottingham road (incidentally where his parents were killed by highwaymen some years before.)  I’d thought that it was nice to see highwaymen represented at killers, rather than “give us a kiss milady and I’ll stop at taking your earbobs” which you see too often. They were as nice and chivalrous as pirates were like Jack Sparrow. Sadly the men who kidnap Lucien fall prey to this Hollywood stereotype later in the book, content with kissing the bejewelled hand of the Baron’s daughter than nicking all her bejewells.

Lucien is waylaid by four highwaymen and when he jumps out of the carriage to defend himself, his coachman sensibly runs away.  It’s a good, exciting beginning to the story, and made me want to read on, despite the editing, which was sadly lacking in commas in many places, such as before names (e.g. “I don’t want to see you suffer Lucien” which actually means that he doesn’t want to see him suffer from Lucien), and inconsistencies such as two men sticking their head through a carriage window, and the face that it was very late at night and yet eye colour is clearly noticed. There are unforgivable typos too. “Dual” instead of “duel” and Lucien’s name misspelled for two examples. All little things on their own, but put together they irritate and pull a reader out of the immersion of the story.

What happens next is pretty predictable.  Even though Lucien has been kidnapped–and he seems to have no thought that anyone would miss him– he immediately gets aroused just by looking at the sexy quartet, and rather than worrying about his life, he starts fantasising about having sex with them all, even to the point of wanking off  There’s obvious tips to the yaoi fans; Lucien has turquoise eyes (later blue green, then aquamarine), another has green/amber/gold eyes and so on.

The men are not really manly men either, there’s lots of soul-searching and I love you’s and a lover that can never be forgotten, lots of teardrops trembling on eyelashes and betrayed hearts.  If that’s your cuppa tea, you’ll revel in this.

From the clothes, black velvet breeches with embroidered work, and the fact that there are glamorous highwaymen, I’m assuming that the time period is the 18th century, rather than the late 19th, so a cottage with a fully fitted bathroom with a large bathtub “swimming in soapsuds” was a little unusual.  Granted the richest of the land could afford such luxuries, but these four bandits live alone with no servants and cook for themselves. They are not princes and kings.  There’s no real sense of fear of capture for the highwaymen, either.  They live very close to the road they predate, and they don’t worry about the watch at all–there would certainly be patrols out to capture four active highwaymen like these.

Lucien decides to seduce whoever it takes to get away, and he’s soon grappling with a few of the highwaymen, both participating willingly and watching avidly.

It’s all a little confusing and inconsistent, one minute he wants to escape, one minute he really fancies Ambrosius, the next he knows he’s going to beg the evil Dante to shag him.  It’s like a big sexy orgy in the 1800s with everyone wanting everyone else.

There’s a quite jaw-dropping “revenge” issue to the story which I won’t spoil, but whilst I don’t want any 21st century values to creep into a historical story, I found this aspect particularly repulsive, as the man being sought out for revenge had only defended himself against armed robbers!  It didn’t endear me to the highwaymen in the slightest, to be frank. Neither did the constant weeping.

I won’t spoil the plot any more than that, but if are a fan of the Black Lace type of erotica and you like a lot of sex with your story, then you won’t be disappointed with Stand and Deliver.

It’s not a bad story and as I say, if you like sexy sensual stories with your heroes finding their erections more diverting than being in fear for their lives then you’ll enjoy this.  I’ll probably give this author another go, particularly if they work harder on the editing and make their men a bit less like erection obsessed love-struck girls.

Author’s website

Total ebound

Review: Bounty of the Heart by JM Snyder

Bounty of the HeartFor seven years, Emmett Ward has harbored amorous feelings toward his partner, Jack Robison. A chance encounter brought them together—Emmett slaved in an illegal warehouse run by a Korean criminal known as the Dragon Lady, when Jack, a notorious bounty hunter with his sights set on her son Lin Ji, was captured. Emmett helped Jack escape in return for his own freedom. They’ve been together ever since, but Emmett aches for so much more than their platonic partnership.

A new bounty has been placed on Lin Ji’s head, sending Emmett and Jack to the wilds of Alaska, where they hope to take out the crime lord during an annual dog-sled race. As they near their target, they run into Monty Becker, another hunter Jack used to know. He takes an interest in Emmett, who is drawn to the sexy, charismatic fellow despite Jack’s warnings.

Emmett is torn between the two men—Monty is more than willing to show him what he’s missing, but Jack is what his heart wants. When the three team up to take out Lin, Emmett learns more of the past Jack and Monty share, and discovers just why his partner has ignored his obvious feelings for so long…

Review by Hayden Thorne

I took on this novella, intrigued by the non-romantic premise despite my initial reservations regarding the main romantic conflict, which is really pretty standard in romance: the hardened man with a painful past, unwilling to open his heart to a lovestruck, young, wide-eyed thing who pines away endlessly. The setting, being in Alaska, added to the allure of the novella, as I really haven’t read anything that takes place there.

Unfortunately, there’s really not much for me to hold on to in this story. Yes, we’re shown through vague references that it’s the 19th century, but a lot of the character interactions – and the fact that the era isn’t really grounded solidly on dates or events – have a stronger contemporary, not historical, feel to them. With the dog sled race playing a vital role in the story, I had the impression that the novella actually takes place in the early 1900s, not the 19th century, because it’s my understanding that mushing races in Alaska – at least the big ones that drew the kind of large, excited crowds described in the novella – didn’t happen till then.

The descriptions, however, are wonderful, especially those involving Emmett’s past hardships as a slave and the little town of Aliak*, with the spectators of the dog sled race and Lin Ji’s pavilion. The romance isn’t sexually explicit and in fact has a nice sweetness to it. Even Monty’s initial attempts at seduction are teasing, and Emmett’s fantasies are innocent. These instances are great examples of evoking so much with very little, so that they give off a quiet kind of eroticism that I appreciate.

But despite that, there seems to be a disconnection, with the romance being one entity and the rest of the story being another, without any smoothing over of relationships between the two. There’s a lot of making eyes, hopeful touches, a near rape, and an awkwardly placed conversation between Monty and Jack regarding Emmett and his unrequited love for Jack, i.e., an exchange that takes place during what should be a nerve-wracking moment before their attack on Lin Ji. When the stakes are high, and a bounty hunter’s after a dangerous criminal, I’d imagine that an argument over a young man’s unhappy love would be far, far removed from their minds as they prepare for a showdown.

The characters are also archetypes: the brooding, distant love interest, the wide-eyed innocent, and the slimy encroacher. There’s nothing that makes them unique, and in fact, I find myself baffled by Monty’s characterization. For someone who’s betrayed and continues to betray, suspension of disbelief can be a little difficult to do when he does a complete turnaround after being caught doing something that’s always been his nature. Yep, even with the threat of death hanging over his head – considering how much he sneered at that prospect up until that point, his reversal feels a touch too convenient to be convincing.

There’s really not much said about Lin Ji and his operation except through flashbacks, so that when the climax comes around, I felt a certain detachment from all the shootings and rising body count. It’s a real shame as the criminal element was one of the highlights of the story and a great foil to the quieter love story that’s unfolding. The way the criminals and Monty were removed from the scene also seemed rushed and unsatisfyingly resolved, as though they were simply pushed out of the picture because they no longer served a purpose.

There’s certainly enough wonderful material in this novella for a longer work of fiction, and I wish that Snyder pursued it. Alaska has a fantastic history, and the days of the gold rush would’ve been fertile ground for a great adventure and love story. As it stands, though, the novella’s unevenly developed, and with the romantic conflict being a pretty common one, it could’ve been given something a little extra to make it stand out from the rest of M/M romances that explore the same theme. The historical angle would’ve helped, but with it being nothing more than backdrop, it does what could’ve been a better-developed plot very little good.

The end result is a story with a tender enough romance but no surprises and a curiously disjointed relationship with its historical setting.

* I tried to search for Aliak, Alaska, and I found Aniak instead, which didn’t enjoy any kind of real development till the early 1900s as a result of the Alaskan gold rush.

Buy the e-book: Amber Allure

Review: Warrior Prince by J P Bowie

Set in the early turbulent years of the Roman Empire, and seen through the eyes of three men, Warrior Prince tells the story of a love that will not be denied, of courage in the face of adversity, of political intrigue, betrayal and death. Against this backdrop of death and mayhem, Lucius and Callistus, two estranged lovers, meet at last, but can their love overcome the enormous odds they must face when it seems that every man – and the gods – are determined to tear them apart once more?

Review by Vashtan

Dear FBI,

I got this book for free from Erastes for the purpose of the review. If you do come knocking, please arrive in the morning, so you don’t interrupt the writing. And – may I take my bonsai? He’s been looking down, lately.

Yours sincerely,

Vashtan

I must admit I’m torn on this. I Googled (and binged) reviews for “Warrior Prince” to help me form an opinion. It didn’t help. I have notes and thoughts and I’m still torn. I’ll likely remain torn on this. While this book didn’t work for me at all, I know there are many people who will enjoy this. So I will write a lot about how it didn’t work for me and why, and then rate it three stars, because it is exactly what it wants to be, and the misfortune is that I don’t like what it is.

This is the story of Lucius Tullius, a Capuan (not a Roman) middle-class youth who was one of the protagonists of “Slaves to Love”, the first part of this  “Warrior Prince” is the sequel of that book. The first part of “Slaves to Love” develops the love story between Lucius Tullius and the Gallic noble Callistus, who is a gladiator, joins Spartacus’ rebellion, then returns home, leaving behind a heart-broken Lucius.

In “Warrior Prince”, Lucius hears stories that Callistus is fighting against the Romans in Gaul, and joins the army to be reunited with his lost love.

History first: so far, this seems fair enough; while I doubt very much that our “hero”, Lucius Tullius, could just join the Roman army a bit for a couple years and then just leave, and then re-enlist on a whim, that is something I’d need to check more closely. Roman soldiers served for a long, long time, and at least 6 years according to one source I have here. But it doesn’t matter, because Bowie is being very vague on the history anyway. It’s the Late Roman Republic (rather than the Roman Empire as the blurb claims – that happens later), and Capua, but there are very few in-depth details. The military service is just a backdrop, and shows us a Roman army that is staggeringly incompetent, undisciplined and so corrupt that only the vainglorious, stupid and self-absorbed rise to any kind of importance. Doesn’t really matter, this is what I call “history light.” It’s not blatantly wrong, but the feel isn’t quite right – there’s an absence of the “telling detail” or an insight into the depicted culture or time, and the small details are left out and nebulous, which often happens with writers who don’t care that much about the period to get the small stuff right.

I’ve read much, much worse, but it didn’t grip me.

The story is told in first person by the main characters (and a Roman officer called Flavius, who I found insignificant to the plot and unbelievable as an officer, a military man, a Roman citizen and a member of the social elite), who endlessly reflect on what has just happened, so this feels very repetitive, like the author wants to make sure we don’t get lost in the plot. The way these characters speak didn’t ring very authentic to me, nor what they say or how they frame it, but at least they are not totally modern characters.

The writing. To state up front, I’m a voracious reader. I love to read. It’s a bad sign if I keep checking how many pages I have to trawl through. In this case, that “oh dear, still X pages left” started from pretty much page 1.

Why? For my personal taste, the style is simply schmoopy. The emotions are over-the-top, the characters spend forever thinking about how much they love each other and how wonderful the other is, to which my mind responds with: “I get it, he’s great and you love him, can we please now get to the meat of the story? Please?” The characters seem to spend 50% of their time pining for each other:

Never would I forget that first moment when his lips met mine in a kiss that had set my senses reeling, and my body on fire with a passion that had never abated. The memory of the time we had spent together making love would live with me for all time, and diminish any other moment spent in another’s arms. Sometimes I would curse him for having given me a taste of a rapture I could never again experience. But then I would immerse myself in the memories of his smile, of his strength and of his sweetness of nature that had brought me from mere infatuation to a deep, abiding love of the man he truly was.

And

Belenus was brought to me, saddled and bridled, and as I swung myself up onto his back, I thought for the thousandth time of Lucius, and how he had looked astride the steed on the day I sent him back to his family. I hoped he had forgiven me for taking Belenus from him after our last night together. I urged Belenus forward, and the men gathered behind me to watch what they imagined would be a very short conference with the emissary that now cantered toward the camp. I knew him before he got near, and for a moment my heart stopped in my chest and my breath caught in my throat.

“Lucius…”

His name was torn from my lips as my eyes took in every part of his face and form. Despite the fact that he was wearing a Roman soldier’s uniform, I could tell he had not changed one whit in the years that had passed since our last all-too-brief meeting. As he drew abreast of me, I could see those same shining brown eyes now fixed upon mine, and the same sweet smile I remembered each time he looked at me.

Oh, Lucius, what have you done? Why are you here on this field that will soon be covered in blood, and the bodies of men? But of course, I knew the reasons, and as he gazed at me with an expression of longing and love, I felt my loins burn with lust, and the need to crush him in my arms and cover his face and body with my lips.

I know this kind of writing works for some, but I find it grating and much prefer realistically depicted, believable emotion. The sex scenes and writing seemed quite repetitive to me, too. I was tempted to start a drinking game – one shot of vodka for every time an embrace is described with the words “I was a willing prisoner in his arms” or a variation of that. I would easily have got through three bottles before the book was up. I’m totally okay with having only a couple sex scene, as long as those are smoking hot and mean something. Here, they are just “proof of how much they love each other” and the sexual spark hits the moment gay or gay-inclined men look at each other – no more meaning or relevance than that.

The characters. Lucius Tullius is 26 years old and has the emotional maturity of a 14 year old girl. There is a lot of blushing and tears in this book, many, many “I love you!”s and Lucius to me comes across not as a full-grown man, but a child, a push-over, whose main aim is to have sex with the love of his life, the barbarian prince Calllistus. It’s good for him he also has the famous self-lubricating anus – the sex scene sometimes involve a little spit or rimming beforehand, but there are several instances in the book where Lucius takes it like a girl, without preparation. Little Lucius has no mettle whatsoever, or at least I just don’t believe he does. When he thinks he’s cunning, he really is not. If the author tells us he’s tough, he really isn’t (or maybe show me some basic training/army life in the late Republican army), and I never liked him. I had no chance to. He never really struggled, and it takes more than a lot of luck and a lot of whining for me to feel with a character. Every time Lucius gets in a tight spot, he’s rescued by happy coincidence, which will not only solve all his problems, but often reward him in some way, too. This rather reads like the story of a pampered pet that ends up in a spot of bother and then is rescued by some deus ex machina with no credit to his own mettle.

In short, I really couldn’t get into the character. I disbelieved him going through army life, and to me, he wasn’t a believable male character of the time. I think I may have winced when he told us he treats his slaves like “friends” and “servants”, he disagrees with slavery, and treats his slaves like confidantes (in “Slaves to Love”, he just lets one of his own slaves join the forces of Spartacus and wishes him luck on the way).

That kind of anachronistic thinking stretches to other characters. We have Flavius, a Roman character so blown away by Callistus’ charisma that he would rather serve him than Rome. O-kay.

Callistus, the Gaul, is the cliché of the “noble savage”. He’s more honourable, humane, and everything else than any Roman character in the book. He’s just so great that everybody respects and loves and follows him, even the few Romans who aren’t simply evil and incompetent. Never mind he’s shagging an enemy who could be a spy. Never mind that, according to what I’ve read, Germanic tribes killed homos. Here, nobody seems to care much (at least, Callistus is shagging his little Lucius behind closed doors/inside his tent).

The sex: lots of “willing prisoners”, lots of quick shags that did nothing to me – they were too purple, for once, too over-the-top, with self-lubricating anuses, people crying out each other’s names and “I love you!” all the time, and miraculous recovery times (well, I guess those Gauls are just *better* at recovering).

Now, the good bits. It’s well-edited, and the cover is ok. It has a discernible plot, so you can read this without wondering what the hell you’re doing. The history in broad strokes is enough to make this “history light”. It is a fluffy romance, written like a fluffy romance, with over-the-top emotions, a manly man, and a little boy (who’s legal age for sex), and if you like that kind of dynamics, you can’t go wrong here.

To sum up: History-light costume piece in the sentimental romance tradition narrated from a number of first-person POVs, with plenty of sex, over-the-top emotions, much pining, a hard-warrior-and-pliant-eager-boy dynamic and characters that often feel anachronistic but few glaring errors. Many settings and scenes are very vague (like Roman army life and warfare); the good people are very good, the bad people are very bad. I could see the plot twists come for a mile or two, but it is an art form to give the reader exactly what they are expecting, and many readers like that.

It didn’t work for me and I was glad it was over, but I know there are people out there who will enjoy this kind of book, so I rate it with three stars. It’s solidly made for what it wants to be.

Author’s website

Amazon UK Amazon USA Manloveromance

Review: Frozen Embers by Sasha Skye

Rescued from the freezing streets, Ashley finds himself in the arms of an angel – a handsome doctor who nursed him back to health. Little did he know that he’d crept into Oliver’s heart, and the other man wants him to stay warm in his arms forever.

Review by Erastes

Short review for a short story.  It’s only 35 pages, so there’s no point me going on and on.

It’s a recognisable theme; the first part is almost entirely a rewriting of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson. Ashley is a starving, badly dressed and hungry wood carver and we are told this over two pages.  He strikes a match, sees a wonderful feast, and instead of his grandmother, a dove arrives, disguised as an angel to take him to heaven, and the little wood carver lies down to die, just like the Match Girl.

However, this is a gay romance so matters don’t end there.

I found it a little confusing, because he was in his freezing cold rooms attempting to burn his carvings to keep warm and suddenly he’s dying in the street.  When he’s rescued it’s Christmas, and when he wakes up it’s New Year. Seems a little long to be comatose and near to death without nourishment, but I’m not a doctor.

However, things move along, Ashley is rescued and finds himself warm and dry and being interviewed by a strange woman.  For some bizzaro reason, we are told that Ashley has a “soft, English accent.”  What else would he have, considering this is England?  We are introduced to the woman’s brother (he’s Danish, as a wily tip of the hat to Hans) and things move predictably from there, it’s fairly obvious that within  minutes of meeting each other (especially due to the shortness of the story) that Ashley and the good Doctor will be falling in love and getting unsuitable feelings in no time at all.

It’s a decent, if short read, but what spoiled it for me was the fact it was obviously written by (I assume) an American, (or at least a non-Brit), and the thing needed a damned good Britpicking.  British readers will get annoyed at the Americanisms, and frankly Dreamspinner should have edited them out–it’s an old complaint by now–we don’t have sidewalks in London for example, or cranberry sauce  either at this time in history and other things–and it’s about time that authors and publishers were hotter on this aspect than they are.  Either that, or what would be the harm in writing this set in Victorian New York?  Write what you know is a good adage at times.

It’s not a bad little story, but it’s rather overpriced at $2.99 I feel (considering some pubs do novella-length for this price, and Torquere do sips for under a dollar) but I found it rather over saccharine .  I’ve grown out of weeping heroes, but anyone with a penchant for schmoopy will love it, and it is seasonal.

Author’s Livejournal

Dreamspinner Press

Review: Another Chance by Shawn Lane

Ten years ago, Aubrey St. Clair, Viscount Rothton, watched the man of his dreams, Daniel Blake, the Earl of Graystone, walk out of his life after a brief sexual encounter. Now Graystone returns to London after the death of his wife and Aubrey is given another chance with his dream man. But Daniel is determined he will have only one night of sexual bliss with Aubrey and then they must once more go their separate ways.

Review by Erastes

This is a short erotic story – around 40 pages and due to that, it does feel a little rushed.  There’s a flashback at the beginning which zips by at breathtaking speed, cramming in a sex scene when really I’d like to have got to know the characters, at least a little.  This frantic pace continues as we are flung into a graphic heterosexual sex scene which jolted me as I really wasn’t expecting it, and the publisher’s page says m/m, no mention of het or bisexuality.  So if that’s not your cuppa tea, I’d recommend avoiding this.  Then almost instantly we find out that Aubrey has children with this woman he’s having sex with (who we’ve hardly been introduced to), so it’s all a bit too much for the length of story.

What annoyed me is that if Aubrey was so taken with Daniel – WHY hadn’t they seen each other for ten years? It seemed improbable, both from the point of view of the ton, which was madly incestuous and everyone knew everyone else (just read Vanity Fair) or from the point of view of lust, attraction and friendship. Why were they attracted to each other?  Why did they fall out? This is skated over, but never truly resolved, pushed aside for the sake of more sex.

The second half of the book is stronger in this respect, with some characterisation coming into play and some insight into why these two men like each other. Personally I’d prefer this to be at the front of the book as I find it difficult to empathise for characters I know nothing about.  Even when the characters begin their path to reconciliation I still wasn’t convinced, two sexual encounters don’t equal “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” I need a bit more explanation than that.

It has a Regency feel, so readers who love the genre will probably like this, a couple of things that didn’t fit, like all the men in the ballroom dressing in black, which would certainly not have been the case, and the scent of citrus blossoms in England (bwhahaha!!!) but otherwise it works all right.

It’s more of a wallpaper historical than I’d like–modern guys having sex, thinking about cum and prostates, having blowjobs and rimming each other which would have been pretty unlikely–but anyone looking for hot sex in costumes will enjoy it.

Buy Ellora’s Cave

Review: Redemption: King of Swords by A J Wilde

In this sequel to Shadow Road: The Page of Swords, Bailey is now training under Lord Charles, and he’s working hard toward his goal of taking over as The Shadow, just as Charles took the position over from his late lover, Robert.

Things are not easy for either of them, though. Bailey yearns for Charles’ approval, but Charles refuses to let Bailey become the Shadow until he has experienced defeat at least once. Things come to a head when a late night encounter between a coach, a pair of highwaymen and the Shadow himself results in chaos, and the lord is injured. Will the events from that night change Charles and Bailey forever?

Review by Erastes

I didn’t read the prequel to this book, so I had to hit the ground running, but it’s fairly well explained without being over-informative.

Wilde has a nice touch, and I found her writing style easy to read and rather engaging.  I immediately liked Lord Charles as soon as we are introduced to him, and I wasn’t led to believe that we are in Hollywood.  The whole feel of the opening setting is right, down to the clothing.

It slips into OKHomo a little too quickly for my liking, however, as Charles goes to embrace his half naked blacksmith lover in full view of the stable lad and Duncan, another stable boy. His valet is also in on the secret, which I’d expect–but I found it a little unreal that all the staff could be trusted.

I was a bit puzzled at the highwayman angle.  At the beginning of the book it seems to hint that Charles continues to operate as The Shadow to keep the highway free of the really nasty brigands, but then he goes and robs and coach full of terrified passengers, so I sort of went off him at this point.  I admit to getting very confused with all the highwaymen that came and went, and it took a couple of readings to get it all straight so it probably would have been better if I’d read the prequel after all.

It’s a short, but enjoyable read with no hideous research and I enjoyed it.  I could have done without the inverted commas around some of the historical facts like “Tyburn Jig” and “tree” referring to the gallows, as that kind of thing reminds the reader they are outside the action, but all in all it’s not a bad read at all.

There are a few anachronistic phrases here and there, but nothing too dreadful and are probably unnoticeable to most, so I wouldn’t worry about them. It’s the feel of the story that’s right, and you can tell that the author has done the necessary work.

It was a bit short my liking, and once I got to know and like the characters it was all over, and I wanted to know more, but that’s probably because Torquere needed it to be this particular length.

From the review of Shadow Road last year,  it seems that some of the characterisation points particularly have been taken on board, so I’m happy to give Redemption an extra star.

Author’s website (can’t find one)

Buy Fictionwise Torquere Press

Review: All Shook Up by J M Snyder

The year is 1883. Eduard van De Lier is a Dutchman overseeing a spice plantation on the island of Java, in the South Pacific. His obsessive attraction to dark-skinned men is just one of his many secrets. His wife Marien knows of his indiscretions, but as she’s content with their Colonial lifestyle, she stays silent.

Until a former lover of Eduard’s shows up in their parlor with thoughts of blackmail.

Reza was a crewman on the ship that brought the van De Liers to Java. During the passage, Eduard spent many a night in the younger man’s arms. Two years have passed, and the last person Eduard expects to find in his drawing room is Reza, a letter in hand that could destroy the life he and Marien lead.

Seeing Reza again ignites Eduard’s lust for his first dark lover. He hopes to retrieve the letter, either through seduction or subterfuge, and the longer Reza eludes him, the more his desire grows. But they’re on shaky ground, and before things can heat up between them, their world explodes—literally—when the unstable island of Krakatoa erupts.

Review by Erastes

It all starts promisingly enough with a delicious scene of almost-sex; I’ve read several of Snyder’s before and I’ve always liked the erotica scenes so this was a good beginning, but then I was left gasping at the mention of “an underage boy” which had caused the scandal which had young Eduard shipped to the Dutch Colonies. There was no concept of that, seeing as how homosexual acts where illegal, it wouldn’t really have mattered if the boy was 15 or 25. Not only that, Eduard’s older brother is suspected of having put the stable boy up to pressing charges! Perhaps I’m missing something of Dutch history, but surely this would have meant the boy would have been arrested.

Eduard is a self-confessed sex addict, he’s always been homosexual and his marriage is purely one of money and convenience–but it’s not until he’s on the boat to Java when he begins to be obsessed by the dark skin and the wiry bodies of the natives. Once he leaves his first love, Reza, behind, he works his way through the rest of them with enthusiasm. But he does think about it ALL THE TIME. When he’s alone, when he’s with his wife, when he’s having tea with important visitors, even as the volcano is erupting – it might be symbolic but it’s just a bit too much. Reza is repelled by him for his profligate behaviour and I don’t blame him, even after Reza spurns him, he’s “salivating” over the house boy.

Those of you looking for steamy sex won’t be disappointed, as JM Snyder writes very delicious and erotic scenes without tipping over the line into pornography–but I have to admit that the sheer size of Reza’s cock frightened me to death.

“the thick cock whose base Eduard could barely encircle with both hands.”

One hand I can just about believe, but both? I remember my mother saying that my father could put his hands around her waist, to think that a waist can be cock width is truly scary.

I can’t say I warmed to Eduard, his complete preoccupation with sex brought to mind the irritating bloke in the pub or at the party who can’t do anything but bring down the tone of the conversation with smutty innuendos and talking about sex at every available moment. Even when his world threatens to come crashing down on him, all he can think about is sex.  But I think that’s actually what Snyder was working at here, and his profligate behaviour, his attitude towards his wife (he needs her a lot more than she needs him in some ways), and his selfish attitude is deliberate.

The second half of the book improves greatly, and I wish that Snyder had used more plot in the beginning, and not endless lust, because I was bored of Eduard by the time Krakatoa erupted.    I would have thought, though, that at some point, some of the characters would have made a comment that, prior to the main explosion, the volcano had actually been erupting for months.

Eduard and Reza make a risky journey the three miles into the town of Anyer, and just when I was thinking that Eduard might be improving under the pressure of the eruption, he goes and spoils it all again, when Reza tells him he has a small boat and he wants Eduard to leave with him, Eduard says:

“Of course I will. Tonight. Right this minute. What a brilliant idea. If we leave now—”

Class, Eduard; leave the wife and your servants to be buried in ash, good on you.

It gets silly again after that, as Eduard denies help to a desperate mother looking for her child. Instead he finds a empty shack and hides in it,  and has a quick stroke of his cock and unbelievably falls asleep.  Then Reza–who had ducked off to see to his ship–finds him, and I think you can imagine what they did. Edward tops it all by this little intercourse:

“I leave with you.”
“What of your wife?” Reza asked.
Oh yes, her.

Eduard shrugged. The movement settled him closer against Reza. Marien would have to understand.

Some readers might find some of the point of view a little disconcerting, as it slides from tight third to omniscient and back again.  There were also a couple of problems with the editing. Amber Allure, the self-proclaimed “Gold Standard in publishing” lets itself down with a misplaced homonym very early on (reign, instead of rein) that made me grit my teeth.

As for the eruption itself, although much research has been done, for me it doesn’t fully portray the horror of it all – the town of Anyer where Reza and Eduard head for was actually completely destroyed by a 30 meter tsunami–and the eruption went on for days.  The sky didn’t clear, as Eduard notes, and in fact half of the globe had darker skies because of this event for many years thereafter. The worst explosion ruptured eardrums.

But, although the book does improve latterly–in the main, it’s Eduard who ruins it for me, as I hated him and I thought he should have been given some opportunity to redeem himself and to my eyes he didn’t.

Author’s website

Buy Amber Allure

Review: Forbidden Love (anthology) – Various

Four m/m stories with a historical flavour by Stormy Glenn, H. C. Brown, Anna O’Neill, Aleksandr Voinov.

(I’ll only be reviewing 3 of the stories, as the Poisoned Heart, by Anna O’Neill is a time-travelling/paranormal story, so doesn’t qualify for review here.

Review by Erastes

My Outlaw by Stormy Glenn

After getting injured and losing his horse during a cattle drive, Daniel Branson is ordered to ride the stagecoach back home. Little does he realize that it will put him in the hands of the notorious outlaw, Black Bart. And the handsome outlaw has plans for Daniel that don’t involve holding him for ransom!

Quite a simple erotic story, cowboy Daniel is captured by the handsome Black Bart and Bart proceeds to sexually abuse Daniel, bordering on rape, without caring or not whether Daniel is that way inclined and of course Daniel loves it.While you might roll your eyes (like I did) and think this is yet another “rape turns to love” stories you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this one as the twist caught me by surprise. Well written–not exactly a ton of historical context, but hot, funny and touching at the same time. Three Stars

Forbidden by H.C. Brown

England 1075—Sir Renoir Danier finds himself in an intolerable situation when he is ordered by King William to marry an elderly Spanish countess. Five years earlier, he met the great love of his life, Sir Sebastian. This deeply sensual dark angel taught him all that a man could give to another. Renoir became a slave to his erotic punishment. After a month of bliss, Sebastian sailed to Spain. Will he return or leave Renoir with a shattered heart?

First of all I have to say that I didn’t like the faux olde worlde English, which was used not only in the speech, (Mayhap it is best) but unforgivably–in the narrative! (He oft’ wondered).   It’s a difficult line to walk, I know, but back in 1075, the protagonists would not be speaking any kind of English that we would understand, and I prefer to see speech patterns indicate a sense of antiquity rather than sticking in random “antiquated” words that actually wouldn’t  be used until a much later time. (for example, mayhap is from the 16th century.) It’s a personal dislike, but prithee don’t forsooth and nuncle me. It’s horrible.

However what really  let the story down from the beginning was the appalling research, or more to the point, lack of it.  The thing reads like fanfic of Kingdom of Heaven crossed with George RR Martin’s Westeros saga.  The facts in the story were ludicrous.

El Cid was NOT the Spanish ruler. Not at any time, and although he conquered several cities and took them for his own fiefdom, that wasn’t until much after the time when this story is set–he didn’t rule Spain. There was no Spain as we know it. Just warring fiefdoms, and a fight to rid the country of the Moor. In that light, it was bloody unlikely that the cream of Spain’s knights were in England training for a tournament.  William the Conqueror had only been in charge for 9 years, and I can’t see him welcoming a load of heavily armed Spaniards in.

In another light – Knight’s tournaments did not become an international event until the 12th century. Cologne (as in perfume) didn’t exist, and there was no way to spray it onto someone! Ye earlie atomiser!  There are many other problems, but there’s no point listing them. The whole thing was full of holes.

The trouble with erroneous facts in books that call themselves historicals is that they are self perpetuating.  I’ve seen this happen in hetereo-historical fiction and it drives me insane that we are seeing this kind of thing happen in gay historical. If one author writes a thing, another believes it, passes it on and I’ve seen readers say that they believed a thing just because they’d seen it written about so many times.  (for examples, see Georgette Heyer.)  “if it’s written about it must be true.”  er. no.

The sex is hot, if mildly implausible (sex on a galloping horse) and that’s the best thing I can say about this one. Two Stars.

Deliverance by Aleksandr Voinov

William Raven of Kent joined the Knights Templar to do penance for his sins. Formerly a professional tournament fighter and mercenary, William is brought face-to-face with a past he’d thought he had escaped.

Quite the most historical of the three stories that I read. There’s a good feel of time and place, deft mentions of the organisation of the Templars and other factions without being too info-dumping and the characters, particularly William, are real-life men of their time, not 21st century insertions. He’s a man riddled with guilt for his homosexual activity, and it’s realistic angst in that time and place. Not only is he in danger of being punished by the Templars (being expelled from the Order would be the mildest of punishments) but it’s impossible to separate law and faith in the 13th century, and Voinov, sensibly doesn’t try. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but to take out either part of the equation would unbalance the story. This is a time when the seven deadly sins were as real to these people as the ten commandments.

Another touch I liked was the mention that it was less monstrous for William to have sex with servants or prostitutes – there’s the whole “the penetrated is a lesser man” stigma which was very real, and by being the top to Guy–a nobleman, a knight– William feels he dishonours him.

The sex when it comes is very nicely done, hard, muscled knights wrestling with each other, I was reminded forcibly of the nude wrestling scene in Men In Love, although with men who matched my memory of that scene, not the rather flabby and pale actors that really acted it out.  A good ending too, in my opinion, taking into consideration the time and place–although other readers might feel short changed. Four Stars

Overall two of the three stories get a thumbs up, and if you enjoy Edo-period Japan, you’ll probably like this anthology, it’s just a shame that the one story brings its score down one star to Three.

Buy from Noble Romance

Review: The Desire for Dearborne by V.B. Kildaire

The Desire for DearborneLeander Mayfield is the only surviving son of a poor farmer… or so he believes until the day he learns he is in fact the new Earl of Dearborne. Still recovering from a lingering illness, the sensitive young man travels to Great Britain to claim his estate and embarks upon a bewildering new life.

Julien Sutcliffe, the Earl of Blackstone, is suffering from ennui. He’s tired and bored with all the finery and wealth and wonders about him. Then he meets this refreshingly naive American Earl, newly arrived in England, and suddenly the world comes alive around him again.

Irresistibly drawn to one another, Julien finds himself besotted, and Leander is equally smitten. But just when they think they may have finally found happiness together, Julien and Leander discover that something–or someone–is determined to separate them permanently.

Review by Hayden Thorne

For those who enjoy their historicals with a very generous dollop of classic aristocratic intrigue and idleness, V.B. Kildaire’s debut novel delivers. There are balls a-plenty, dinner-parties, invitations to country estates, gossip, gambling, artful subterfuge, drinking, whores of both sexes, and smartly-dressed gentlemen. There’s romance, there’s a mystery, with one unfolding at a nice, leisurely pace, and the other, quickly and clumsily handled.

The story’s set in 1831, I’m guessing, because the only reference to a time period is a quick description of William IV’s modest coronation ceremony. Considering political and social events during that year, however, I’m surprised that the author doesn’t allude to the growing unrest over the dissolution of Parliament and the Second Reform Bill – or that the party-obsessed bon ton (seeing as how at least some of the long list of titled side characters would be sitting in the House of Lords) wouldn’t even comment on the wild goings-on in the government.

Instead, the novel’s happily cocooned in the glittering world of the rich and famous, where the most pressing concerns are gossip and marriage, and the real world never intrudes unless it’s to add a clue to the mystery of Dearborne’s determined enemy. As to this mystery, there are a handful of clues scattered through the book, but the bulk of the novel centers on the growing romance between Blackstone and Dearborne. The romance, as noted earlier, unfolds at a nice pace – no rushing into bed, no immediate lust-filled attraction the moment one man claps eyes on the other. There’s a lot of confusion (mostly in Dearborne) and a gradual chipping away at walls that I enjoyed seeing. It’s just too bad that the characters are more stock than unique, with Dearborne teetering on cliché.

He’s young, beautiful, sickly, fragile, shy, innocent, the quintessential ingenue to Blackstone’s world-weary cynic. The damsel in distress through and through, who, in the end, leaves me somewhat unsatisfied with his character, Dearborne’s passivity seems carefully designed to ensure that he takes on the classic role of the endangered virgin in nineteenth-century gothic novels. I must admit that several pages of descriptions of, or ruminations on, his innocence can be rather wearing.

The mystery gets swept aside for the most part till the last quarter of the book, where a casually-paced narrative picks up speed, and we’re suddenly crammed in several characters’ heads. The unexpected head-hopping is rather jarring, especially if one were to consider the fact that the first three-quarters of the novel are firmly fixed on two alternating POVs: Dearborne and Blackstone. Had the mystery been given equal treatment as the romance, the story would’ve made for a more intriguing read from start to finish; as it stands, it almost feels as though one were reading two separate stories, with the mystery feeling more like an afterthought.

On the whole, the novel’s historical elements are well-researched, though I think it would make for a much smoother reading if the author didn’t resort to laundry lists (Arthurian essays and stories, street names, and character names and titles come to mind) to establish facts and firmly ground the story in place and time. Kildaire’s novel is promising in concept but clumsy in delivery, but as this is a debut, the author still shows quite a bit of promise.

Important Note: This book is the first of a series of historical romances from Dreamspinner Press called Timeless Dreams: While reaction to same-sex relationships throughout time and across cultures has not always been positive, these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma. You can visit the rough and tumble Old West, travel the ancient kingdoms of desert sheikhs, see the black and red lacquer of the Far East, or dance in dramatic Regency England. No matter where or when, in the romantic worlds of Timeless Dreams, our heroes always live happily ever after.

In reference to this, there’s an almost obligatory discussion between Dearborne and Blackstone about their “unnatural” proclivities, and while Kildaire attempts to provide us with a balanced treatment of attitudes toward homosexuality back then, Blackstone’s glib and rather dismissive response strains credibility somewhat.

Buy from the publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Review: The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

The City and the PillarA literary cause célèbre when first published more than fifty years ago, Gore Vidal’s now-classic The City and the Pillar stands as a landmark novel of the gay experience.

Jim, a handsome, all-American athlete, has always been shy around girls. But when he and his best friend, Bob, partake in “awful kid stuff,” the experience forms Jim’s ideal of spiritual completion. Defying his parents’ expectations, Jim strikes out on his own, hoping to find Bob and rekindle their amorous friendship. Along the way he struggles with what he feels is his unique bond with Bob and with his persistent attraction to other men. Upon finally encountering Bob years later, the force of his hopes for a life together leads to a devastating climax. The first novel of its kind to appear on the American literary landscape, The City and the Pillar remains a forthright and uncompromising portrayal of sexual relationships between men.

Review by Hayden Thorne

The process of Jim’s journey of self-discovery was what drew me to this novel, the time period offering a very promising backdrop to an interesting exploration of homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Because Jim, after graduating from high school, takes on odd jobs and wanders almost aimlessly, there was also the anticipation stirred by the image of a colorful parade of different characters who’d shape Jim’s immediate world for better or for worse.

Whether in peace time or during war, in the luxurious glamour of Hollywood or the seedier corners of New York, among the superficial, the bitter, the poseurs, or even among family – Jim’s meandering education is an adventure of the tragi-comic kind. We see much of the multi-layered nature of the homosexual underground, the divisions among gay men, and, tragically, the ambivalence toward their own nature as shaped by their world and the heterosexual status quo. In terms of concept, The City and the Pillar succeeds in carrying out its purpose, and we’re given a complex tapestry of human relationships, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Unfortunately for this reader, that’s all that I can say about the novel’s high points. Vidal’s narrative style is detached and dry. Too dry, in my opinion, so that from start to finish, I wasn’t able to feel any kind of sympathy for Jim or all the other characters, regardless. Whatever tragic or comic elements are there can only be picked up on a more superficial level. We know that Jim’s sad because we’re told that he is. He’s pleased because we’re told that he is. Vidal’s spare prose is too abrupt for it to evoke any kind of significant emotion, and every scene, regardless of its nature, reads like the one before it. It’s almost like listening to a monotonous drone in a lecture hall.

Maybe in the end it’s for the good that the narrative is overly detached and lacking; otherwise, we’d be drowning in an endless parade of lamenting and drama from some of the most miserable characters we’ve ever read. In addition to not feeling any sympathy for Vidal’s cast, I also found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the utter wretchedness of their existence, with each – Sullivan being the worst – not only incapable of feeling joy but also doing everything in his power to ensure a lifetime of disasters and heartbreak. What can we learn from all this? Except for Jim’s final resolution (and, really, the scene offers little comfort), I found nothing to cheer for, and whatever happens to each character at the conclusion of his or her appearance in the novel did little to rouse anything in me. This novel doesn’t only touch on homosexual relationships, but also on heterosexual ones, and across the board, no one’s happy. Those who appear to be, i.e., Carrie and Sally, seem to be that way only because they can’t see beyond the tiny little cubicle that they’ve been forced into, being young rural women.

The novel does attempt to convey the same idea put forth by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which is the fruitless desire for an ideal. Every character, male or female, gay or straight, plays out that desire and its depressing consequences. It’s just too bad that the emotional gap kept me from fully appreciating all of that.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon UK

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