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: The Walled Garden by F.M. Parkinson

William Ashton, retained as a gardener by Edward Hillier, discovers his new master to be a detached and driven man. Over the years, as travail and tragedy bring them closer together, he understands that they have more in common than he first realised, but the affection they feel for one another will be sorely tested by boundaries both of class and of rigid Victorian morality. Like the private garden behind the high walls their love must flourish only in the strictest secrecy – or else it will not do so at all.

102,000 words/380 pages /ebook only

Review by Erastes

I’m in two minds about this book.

While I have to say I appreciated most of the writing–which is deliberately done in an old-fashioned, if not quite Victorian style–this book annoyed me quite a lot for various reasons.

Firstly nothing much happens and while some may say that it’s simply a gentle, old-fashioned style it takes more than an old-fashioned style to create an old fashioned book.  Emma, Jane Eyre and books like that had plenty of things happening. Instead of things happening, this book contained what seemed like nothing much more than filler in many places–there’s a section where Hillier’s manager is getting old and gets replaced which is entirely pointless and dull for example and goes on for pages. The problem is that much of this filler is relatively pointless or if it seems to have a point, then it’s never followed up.

It takes the protagonists an endless age to get together, and that’s not exactly filled with angst filled nights, or rivals for affections, or anything particularly interesting. It’s simply because Hillier doesn’t find Ashton attractive until quite late in the day. To be honest, I can’t see what on earth Ashton saw in Hillier because his behaviour and attitude is pretty unpleasant–although he’s like that with more than Ashton. He’s much loved in the village which puzzled me because he wasn’t shown as doing anything for them other than at one point attending another pointless scenario–a ball on behalf of a campaign for laying drains. Other than that he does nebulous work “writing letters” and attending Parliament.

There’s an overuse of the hurt/comfort trope which raises its head not once, not twice but a colossal three times throughout the book, each time Hillier getting ill and Ashton running around getting him well and getting literally no thanks for it. This, aside from them having an argument, is the main use of conflict and together with lack of plot made for pretty dull reading.

However, although not very exciting–and we can’t always have post-chaise chases and gun fights in every book, it’s quite readable, and if it wasn’t for the final problem that had me grinding my teeth it would have got a 3.

It’s epithets. There are a record winning number of epithets in this book and I got to the stage of bursting into laughter when I found a new one. It’s like the author had had a rule sheet which said “you must never use the character’s name more than once on a page.”

Hillier is known as the lawyer, alternately, but Ashton wins the prize as “the broader man” “the gardener”, “the secretary” “the former gardener”, “the former secretary” and many many others. When there’s a scene with just the two of them it’s like there’s six people in the room. I hope, should Parkinson do another book, they will–or their editor will–ruthlessly red-pen this habit as it’s annoying as hell.

So while I appreciated the writing–mostly–the story didn’t so much grab me as much as mire me in treacle and I found it a heavy going read. But you might enjoy it more than I.

No website that I could find.

Buy at Manifold Press

Review: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

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

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: 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: Rag and Bone by J.S. Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #2)

Rag & Bone is #2 in the Inspector Raft Mystery Series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Philemon Raft arrives on the scene of a deadly fire in Whitechapel, only to find a much more sinister force at work, destroying lives with swift abandon – and a lunatic may help Raft capture the master criminal known only as “The Master.”

Review by Erastes

This is the follow up to “Willing Flesh” which we reviewed a while back. It’s taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.

What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you’ve read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone…

What I admire about J.S. Cook’s work is the sense of the grotesque–in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description.  It’s not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.

Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock’s office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet’s tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.

What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There’s too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in “The Master” and so on and so on. Raft–who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant–develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it’s just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn’t even notice.

The editing leaves something to be desired, too – misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn’t had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush,  pasted on and in the end weren’t really explained to my satisfaction. However it’s hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.

However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.

What shows clearly is Cook’s research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter–and other such home pursuits! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she’s not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it’s about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly–one of the children actually says “There aren’t any more” rather than “There ain’t none.” The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.

The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren’t romances – they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn’t happen, JS Cook doesn’t let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.

You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first–if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can’t help but be impressed by Rag and Bone.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA (Print and ebook)

Review: Bone Idol by Paige Turner

Book one in the Past Perfect Series

Love stripped down to the bare bones.

1875. The Bone Wars. Dinosaur hunters will go to any lengths to make bigger, better discoveries—and to see their rivals broken.

Henry is a man of science—precise, proper and achingly correct. When Albert arrives in his life in a storm of boyish enthusiasm, he’s torn between his loyalty to science and a new and troubling desire.

Albert wants to protect his father, and fears Henry means to ruin his reputation in the bone-hunter world. Will he be ruled by his fear, or by his feelings?

As they hunt for dinosaurs and explore their desire together, Henry and Albert find themselves digging up some secrets that could threaten their love—and their lives.

Review by Sal Davis

This is a very niely produced book with a beautiful and atmospheric cover. Posh Gosh, the cover artist, really does the story justice.

Henry Elkington is one of those well off, well educated and brilliant young men who, in the Victorian age, helped to make such strides in natural sciences. His particular interest is in palaeontology – a new science and the scene of vicious academic conflict amongst those who studied it. The story opens with Henry arriving on the rainswept Dorset coast to try and see the Reverend Arthur Boundry, a fellow enthusiast. Henry find Boundry on the beach trying to rescue a promising fossil with the aid of some local men and his son Albert. From the moment Henry sees Albert he is unusually aware of him and disturbed by the new feelings this new acquaintance arouses. Albert comes over as being an youthful, bright eyed innocent and his vast enthusiasm for his hobby, and that of Henry and his father, is very appealing. It’s also very nice that, as their relationship develops, Albert is the one who seems more at ease with his feelings and, in fact, makes quite a lot of the running.

But the story isn’t just about love amongst the fossils. It covers a lot of ground – from Dorset to London, to the fossil beds of Wyoming via ship then back to London again. Descriptions are sharp and economical but give a fine sense of place and there is a good ‘supporting cast’ of characters. There are villains and scapegoats, victims and aggressors. However, Henry and Albert manage several tender, and raunchy, moments despite a complex plot that sets them up for a sequel.

I enjoyed the story very much and will definitely look out for any sequel.

Author’s website

Published by Total-eBound (ebook)

Review: My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy

‘… The accounts of these cases are too bound up with events in my personal life which, although they may provide a plausible commentary to much of my dealings with Mr Sherlock Holmes, can never be made public while he or I remain alive …’

Although Dr Watson is known for recording some sixty of his adventures with the celebrated Sherlock Holmes, he also wrote other reminiscences of their long friendship which were never intended for publication during their lifetimes.

“Rescued from oblivion by Rohase Piercy,” here are two previously unknown stories about the great detective and his companion, throwing a fresh light upon their famous partnership, and helping to explain much which has puzzled their devotees. Together Holmes and Watson face disturbing revelations as they investigate the case of the Queen Bee; and we finally learn what actually happened at the Reichenbach Falls, and the real reasons which lay behind Holmes’ faked death and his subsequent return.

Review by Erastes

A nice deceit, that Rohase Piercy found the manuscripts and has published them. Watson’s preface is rather sad as it talks of how he hopes that men of his type have things better than men of his generation.

It’s been a very long time since I read Holmes in canon. I have the complete works and I hoovered them up all at once in my 20′s and haven’t read them since, but from what I remember these two little novellas, each cataloguing a different case of the great detective, are written by a true Holmesian.

The first story is:   A Discreet Investigation and is set just after the Sign of Four. I think the first story in this two-story collection is more original, although as I say, my canon knowledge is rusty–but the second story seems definitely more derivative but I did enjoy them both.

Watson simply runs the story through a filter telling “the truth” rather than what he published at the time. Dealing with why he left Holmes’ residence, how they ended up in Europe together, why Moriaty was chasing Holmes and why Holmes was missing for the time he was. it’s true that Watson does get a little emo at times, and more overtly towards the end, but I found that quite endearing, and he does bottle things up and he strikes me as the kind of a man who would break down after bottling things up for years.He did have cause to be upset, after all! The voice in both stories seems to be to be pitch perfect–I couldn’t tell you if there are canon errors, and if you aren’t a complete nit-picky Holmes-fanatic then you won’t care that much.

Watson’s voice is very good, and the language is done beautifully to match the canon and the time when the original was written.

The second story is The Final Problem and Holmes prefaces it with a note which says that “It is always diffcult – indeed, almost impossible – to set down an accurate record of the more painful events of one’s life…” As this story begins, Watson is married to Mary Morstan and has left Holmes, his residence and his cases behind. I believe (I may be wrong) that the canon never confirms that John married Mary–although a second wife is mentioned at some point, so it’s possible. I am pretty sure that if you are fan of the canon you will enjoy these two stories immensely. I think you will forgive Watson’s foray into sentimentality, after all, it was something he was accused of often by the great detective.

Holmes is also written beautifully, particularly pure even for being in love and entirely unable to say or show it–I think the pure brittle heartbreak of how this is worked was my favourite section. There’s perhaps a smidge of OKHomo throughout, or a dollop… but it was all such a good read, and obviously done as an homage by someone who knows and loves his/her subject, I was quite willing to overlook it when a lesser writer would get more a smacked wrist.

Overall the two novellas do tend to lurch into too much emo at times, but the pure Holmesian character keeps it buoyed up despite this. I’m sure anyone with any interest in Holmes, detective fiction, turn of the century fiction will enjoy this as much as I did.

No author’s website found

Amazon UK   Amazon USA Available as ebook and print

Review: The Psychic and the Sleuth by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Trusting a psychic flash might solve a mystery…and lead to love.

Inspector Robert Court should have felt a sense of justice when a rag-and-bones man went to the gallows for murdering his cousin. Yet something has never felt right about the investigation. Robert’s relentless quest for the truth has annoyed his superintendent, landing him lowly assignments such as foiling a false medium who’s fleecing the wives of the elite.

Oliver Marsh plays the confidence game of spiritualism, though his flashes of insight often offer his clients some comfort. Despite the presence of an attractive, if sneering, non-believer at a séance, he carries on—and experiences a horrifying psychic episode in which he experiences a murder as the victim.

There’s only one way for Court to learn if the young, dangerously attractive Marsh is his cousin’s killer or a real psychic: spend as much time with him as possible. Despite his resolve to focus on his job, Marsh somehow manages to weave a seductive spell around the inspector’s straight-laced heart.

Gradually, undeniable attraction overcomes caution. The two men are on the case, and on each other, as they race to stop a murderer before he kills again.  

Review by Erastes

I ummed and ahhed about reviewing this one, because it does have some paranormal aspects (spiritualism) but I’ve decided that this could be treated in the same way as ghosts – the only other paranormal theme we accept – because it could be subjective and brought on by other reasons, such as split personalities  etc.

This book continues this writing partnership’s run of titles with similar names, The Nobleman and the Spy, The Gentleman and the Rogue–there’s endless fodder here and long may they continue to do them.

If you enjoyed either of the last titles, then you’ll certainly enjoy this. The thing is that although the titles are similar and there might be the danger that the authors would find it easy to slip into a pattern of plot that would be highly predictable they are to be commended that they don’t do that at all.

This, quite apart from the gay romance within it, is a good Victorian sleuth story which stands firmly on its own two feet. You could remove the gay romance and the detective story would still be viable, and that’s needed in the genre, too many stories simply concentrate on the meeting and eventual falling in love.

Yes, there’s instant attraction on both sides, and this attraction is acted on pretty soon, and both parties start to realise they are becoming fonder of each other than is wise, but the detective story runs neatly parallel to this at a good pace, deflecting us from simply concentrating on the uncertain love affair. This makes the balance of the book great and therefore accessible to more than just people who want gay sex stories.

The sex is nicely written, with a BDSM theme. I’m not a fan of the trope, and find it odd that so many gay books have it–far higher percentage of men in fiction indulge than do in real life, I’m sure, but what there is is nicely done. At least for me with little knowledge of the lifestyle. It’s most definitely “play” and the bottom is the top, which is how it should be. There was one scene where–for me–it tipped from sexy to rather giggle worthy, but I am 12 and I’m sure others won’t be as juvenile as me.

There are many secondary characters here, as befits a sleuthing story, and each one is given the necessary weight as suspicion shifts from person to person. As well the suspects there is a veritable line-up of society matrons, simpering hopefuls for the bachelor Court’s affections and Dickensian work colleagues.

What I liked most is that both characters, whilst developing in their personality throughout, both for the better, remained true to their core beliefs. Robert is a copper, to his bootstraps and he was sent to investigate Oliver’s mediuming (don’t think that’s a word!) and the way he deals with it after Oliver becomes his lover is entirely in character. Similarly, the authors give Oliver a need to want to help people, and he’s never been comfortable conning them, although he’s been very clever never to actually do anything that could be proved to be fraudulent.

I would have liked to have seen a little more of Oliver’s original business, as he seemed to give it up altogether very quickly.

One thing that jarred for me–and again, I know that some readers love this device–was the sex scene that was put in after the denouement and the concluding sections. It seemed really jammed in and it added nothing to the plot, and my criteria has always been with sex scenes, if you can lift them out and they don’t cause a ripple, they didn’t belong there in the first place.

However, despite a couple of tiny niggles, it’s a really enjoyable read, and if you like Victoriana, crime fiction and anything written by this dynamic duo, then you’ll like this with great big brass knobs on.

The score doesn’t reflect it, but for shame, Samhain–surely you could have done a better job on the cover than that? Elasticated boxers? So much scope with lovely Victorian scenes and clothes and we get disconnected naked guys and a Matt Bomer lookalike.

Authors’ websites: Bonnie DeeSummer Devon

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA  Samhain

Review: Summer’s Lease by Scot D Ryersson (short story)

Calcutta, West Bengal, May 1891—Mair Calloway, Major Willoughby’s grandson, is arriving at Barrackpore for one night, en route to England for his first year at university. Captain Charles Blackthorne has been ordered to meet Mair at the train and take him under his wing for twenty-four hours. “No girls!” the Major orders. “Take care of his every need—personally!” Blackthorne, with an impeccable record in twelve years of military service would seem to be the perfect chaperone…

Summer’s Lease, an original short story from acclaimed author Scot D. Ryersson, brings the sights, smells, and tastes of colonial India to life. With a sensual undercurrent and simmering eroticism present throughout, the reader is transported to another world for a visit, that, like Mair’s stay at the Viceregal Lodge, is all too short and will leave you wanting more.

Review by Erastes

This is a most neglected era, and yet one so ripe with possibilities, I was thrilled to find that someone had finally written about it.

And it’s well done, too. I have to say I enjoyed it greatly, even though–because it’s a short story–it was predictable as to what actually is going to happen, but saying that, it didn’t have a hugely predictable ending, which worked well.

The language is very flowery, so be warned–that’s not to everyone’s taste, and if I say that even I found it a little over-florid at times, anyone who’s read my stuff will know what to expect.

That being said–the language takes the over-stimulation-to-the-senses that India can be, and paints it beautifully on the page. From the overbearing heat, to the crowded train station, seething with life and all types of castes, to the stuffy formality of the English club (although would they really have sat on the floor, Indian fashion?) to the scents and tactile senses of fabric, skin and hair.

Captain Charles Blackthorne is almost a pitable character as he’s spent 12 years in India and has managed to hide his proclivities pretty well. He sees new young men arriving, spots the tell-tale gleam in their eyes, and gradually, the chance of getting together with them becomes more remote as he gets older the young men get younger every year. You really feel that Mair is his last chance of happiness, and the reference to Summer’s Lease (Summer’s lease hath all too short a date” – Shakespeare, Sonnet 18) is quite sad.

I didn’t like the constant use of epithets. Mair is described as “the youth” and “the boy” throughout and although he’s not “underage” for the US laws (meaningless in 19th century, obviously) it kept pushing an image of a man that was too young, even though he wasn’t. I know some authors think it’s boring to keep saying the character’s name, but I prefer it to epithets. Sometimes, it feels there are five people in a scene when there’s only two!

There’s a couple of anachronisms I spotted, which only made me smile and the second one might not be one at all–the most glaring was the mention of the poem “Gunga Din” which wasn’t written until the year after this story was set. It’s easy done, I’ve done the same, but seeing as how the publisher is also an historical writer, and Mr Ryersson’s earlier novel with Bristlecone had many anachronisms in it, I’m surprised this wasn’t checked.

I find much of any book’s pre-amble–e.g. the stuff before the story: the legal bit, the acknowledgements a bit intrusive at the best of times, and I’ve noticed with Bristlecone that they put a “Dear Reader…” page in, explaining what the publishing house is and where it came from and please don’t pirate etc. That’s ok, but please put it at the end!

The promise in the blurb is quite right, because this is a wasted story, in the sense that it cries out for the whole thing. I want to know a lot more about Captain Charles Blackthorne and I hope that things work out for him.

Well worth the $1.59.

no website

Buy at: All Romance ebooks | Rainbow ebooks | 1Placeforromance

 


Review: A Gentleman and His Jockey by JM Cartwright

Jockey Gem Hardaway has a race strategy that will not only carry him and Pilate to victory, it will also show that he’s the best jockey at Templeton Yard. Lord Templeton, the Earl of Vickers, knows exactly what he wants to have happen at the racecourse. He demands Gem’s obedience.

When an unruly horse intervenes, the Earl insists on a meeting of the minds. Gem is shocked to learn exactly what that entails.

Review by Erastes

A very basic little short story about a jockey who likes men and the description of a race and the consequences of him not obeying the instructions of the horse’s owner regarding that race. Basically build-up, race, sex but it fills ten minutes of your time. I wouldn’t say it’s worth actually paying for,and I’d baulk at paying $2.29/£1.40 for it (even though I did!) 99c would be a much more reasonable price, and even so it’s not much for that price.

There’s no real grounding as to when and where the story takes place, just some generic racecourse during “the earlier days” of racing—I’m guessing early Victorian perhaps or Georgian. Nothing wrong with it but nothing to write home about either.

Author’s Website

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

When a series of bizarre murders occur in London’s notorious East End, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Philemon Raft is called on to solve the crimes, but even he is powerless to explain why the victims are displayed in public places — or why the killer insists on drilling burr holes in their skulls. With little to go on except the strange red dust found on the victims’ palms, Raft must scour the city looking for an explanation. Aided only by his newly-appointed constable Freddie Crook, Raft’s investigation takes him into London’s most dark and dangerous places, where human predators wait to devour and destroy.

But Raft has an even bigger problem: a casual acquaintance is blackmailing him, and what she knows about his secrets could tear Raft’s life to pieces

Review by Erastes

This is a grown up murder mystery. Don’t go into without an ability to read unpleasantness. This is Victorian London in all its gothic nastiness where life is extremely cheap and grotesque is the name of the game. In fact grotesque would be a good sub-genre for this, but that’s not an insult. This faces the dark, dingy and seedy London of the 1880′s head on and finds it covered it gore. If you liked The Alienist this will be right up your dark , cobbled street.

I’ve read JS Cook before and I know her from the internet. She is, although some of you will find this hard to countenance, even more obsessed with total accuracy than I am. She’s a perfectly nice looking woman who you would not think capable of experimenting with “Kensington gore” and fake paper mache skulls to see how brain and blood might spatter across a wall. She’s Dexter, but without the irritating habit of wrapping people in clingfilm. She takes her crime extremely seriously, and that echoes beautifully in her creation of Inspector Philemon Raft.

He’s a dour obsessive with a keen eye for observation. But he’s no idiot savant or genius and good job too. He can’t look at flowerbed and know that a drunk sailor stood there before travelling to Tahiti. What he finds out he finds out either by hard graft, sending someone else to do hard graft or by outside information. In this I found him to be extremely believable because even today most of police successes are based on outsider information. He’s ably assisted by the lovely Constable Freddie Crook who is not all he seems, and a lot more besides.

I found Raft a little uneven. I like detectives to have quirks–Poirot had OCD (must have had, surely!), Holmes took coke, and so on,and in that vein, Raft seems a little unhinged when he’s deep in thought, and I liked this rather frenetic side of him, but this device wasn’t regular enough to be a quirk. He’s also mildly clairvoyant, and I haven’t let this aspect of him preclude this book from review–because he may simply be hallucinating–or it could be his subconscious helping his detetcting. It’s good that this is not fully explored because he pushes it down and that works well.

I absolutely loved the Dickensian feel when it comes to the names. They were lush and rolled around the mouth like honey. Featherstonehaugh, Breedlove, Butter and so on. In fact it’s wrong to say “Dickensian” because Cook has her own style, her own voice and although there are tones picked up from others it comes over as entirely hers.

It needed a really tough and experienced edit, though. Not for typographical reasons but because one or two facts contradict themselves and that’s a shame and spoils an otherwise good effort. For example there’s a point where a thumb injury is pertinent to the plot and the first time Raft sees it he recognises what caused it because he’s seen something very similar before. BUT later in the story it’s said “Raft had never seen anything like it.” There are a couple of these continuity problems which probably wouldn’t matter in any other genre but did in this–it just made Raft seem rather stupid, and he’s certainly not that.

Where Cook really excels (aside from her medical knowledge) is her immersive description. Every scene is 3 dimensional–from the feel of the cobbles on the street, to a musty coat on a hook, to the smell of rotting flesh to the sounds of carriages passing by the window. It’s fantastically real and very addictive.

The story itself is deep, twisty, plotty and at times you feel that all the threads are going in different directions. It’s not the sort of cosy mystery that you’ll like if you want your detective to be following one lead which leads to another. It’s more like the time of TV drama where the detective is bombarded with conflicting and confusing theories and characters and information–and none of it seems to tie up. So you need to concentrate with this book, you can’t coast and let the author hand feed you the clues.

Yes, there is a gay plotline, but it’s not at all the main theme of the book. The crime’s the thing–and Raft and Crook will have to work out their relationship in the midst of another gruesome set of circumstances, which they will in “Rag and Bone” which I’ll be reviewing later.

Overall, I highly recommend this if you are lover of gritty detective fiction. It gets a very solid four from me and I look forward to more of Philemon Raft.

Author’s Website

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Review: The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

London 1889.

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s website

Bold Strokes Books    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Mere Mortals by Erastes

Orphaned Crispin Thorne has been taken as ward by Philip Smallwood, a man he’s never met, and is transplanted from his private school to Smallwood s house on an island on the beautiful but coldly remote, Horsey Mere in Norfolk. Upon his arrival, he finds that he’s not the only young man given a fresh start. Myles Graham, and Jude Middleton are there before him, and as their benefactor is away, they soon form alliances and friendships, as they speculate on why they ve been given this new life. Who is Philip Smallwood? Why has he given them such a fabulous new life? What secrets does the house hold and what is it that the Doctor seems to know?

Review by Jane Ellsworth

Three orphaned young men are picked by Phillip Smallwood as wards and brought to his isolated manor in the Norfolk Broads: Crispin Thorne, Jude Middleton and Myles Graham. Each impoverished young man has a secret in his past that haunted or drove him from his school. But the biggest secret is that of Phillip Smallwood, as he seems to shape the three young men for an unknown position.

Consciously and unconsciously, the young men compete for the honor, as they are dressed, valeted and tailored. Love affairs between them, and Phillip, blossom and wilt like tropical flowers caught out in the English winds. They are paraded at a party to the county, where neighbour Doctor Baynes upbraids Phillip for treating his wards like dolls. Then Dr. Baynes goes missing, and Thorne leaves the close confines of the manor for the open but dark marshes of the Broads at night to help find the body, and ends up finding out more than he wants to know about Phillip.

Mere Mortals blends gothic mystery story with gay romance, with a keen ear for the tone and voice of 19th-century English novels. It is almost completely unlike The Portrait of Dorian Grey, yet the characters and faint flavour of the “unnatural” are reminiscent of Wilde. More coltish than Wilde’s eponymous character, the young men of Mere Mortals enjoy each other with the same exuberance they bring to their enjoyment of the sudden supply of good food, wine, clothes and living quarters, but they are too young emotionally to sustain real relationships at this point. The narrating character, Thorne, through physical and emotional suffering, love and betrayal, finally emerges ready to love at an adult level.

The languorous pace of the first three fourths of the novel is in strong contrast to the last chapter, wherein All Is Revealed, which, while action-packed, is rather too rushed. The aftermath of the last death goes completely unexplained, in contrast to that of Dr. Baynes, and there is a several-year-jump to the epilogue. Nevertheless, the entire story was a pleasure to read. Erastes crafts this story so keenly and with such marvellous detail that the reader can come to feel she is part of the place and even the time of the story (I enjoyed particularly trying to determine the exact date from all the asides given by the characters, until it was settled by a particular item). The strong and distinct characterizations, recognizable as men of determinable ages, also show her excellent workmanship. And despite the corpses strewn about the Broads, there is a much less grim tone than in some of her previous works. Four out of five stars for Erastes!

Author’s website

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Review: Paper Valentine by AJ Llewellyn

London, 1840. At the height of Victorian hypocrisy, two men meet and fall in love. Their romance is forbidden, punishable even by death, but their passion blossoms thanks to a paper Valentine.

Saint Valentine’s Day has become a new and very popular day for lovers. Thousands of Londonites are clamouring for the ideal romantic gift. While men buy chocolate and posies, they yearn for something more unusual, more personal. Enterprising brothers Aldon and Samuel Barnaby hit upon the idea of paper Valentines, creating lavish presentations decorated with silk, lace, and paper flowers.

Aldon is fortunate to have his perfect valentine going to his expectant wife, Geneve, but Samuel still longs for his own true love, pouring his heart and soul into his beautiful creations. Samuel’s romantic verses inside his paper Valentines are in huge demand, yet not a single local girl can lay claim to his heart…because his passion lies not in a woman, but another man—Jude, a handsome but shy widower.

Jude’s heart, haunted by grief, hasn’t been ready to consider marriage again. But slowly, through his inclusion in the Barnaby family’s lives…and his frequent excursions to stop and stare at the Barnabys’ shop window…he begins to wonder in what direction his future lies.

Can Samuel possibly allow his heart to explore love with another man? Could Jude ever love him in return? He sends Jude an exquisite, anonymous paper Valentine, not suspecting that his entire world is about to be turned upside down…

Review by Erastes

Dear Cover Artists. Please take note of the dates of the iconic structures, particularly in London. I’ve seen the Houses of Parliament used in Regency fiction and now we have Tower Bridge on this one, which is a quite nice cover, except the bridge wasn’t even begun until 1886, 46 years after this book takes place.I’m surprised, seeing as how the publisher is British.

However, this anachronistic tone, (after all I wouldn’t mark the book down merely for an incongruous cover), continues throughout the whole of the book, and although I’ll mention some later, there are egregious errors on just about every page, which layered with the other problems with the book made this a really hard read for me. The editing isn’t too bad, apart from Jude’s coachman changing names half way through, but what this needed was a damn good historical edit and a Brit pick. I understand that a small publisher cannot afford specialist editors for every genre, but I think that they should be prepared to check the author’s facts and not take on trust the author has it right. One or two checks with this book would have revealed the fact that just about everything was wrong,and as such it reflects badly on the publisher, not just the author.

Aside from the appalling anachronisms, the book just didn’t work for me because there is actually no plot. One could say that I’m asking a bit much expecting much more than a Plot-What-Plot in a story of sixty pages, but I certainly do. Other writers such as Ava March are capable of doing characterisation, plot, complications, BDSM and sex in as many pages, so we all know it can be done. Here however, I’m not sure what exactly the author was trying to achieve, or what message might be being transmitted.

Half of the book deals with the aforementioned dinner party, and at least half of that wastes time and plot-time while Samuel goes to his brother’s house, helps cook(!) and rants on for pages about how beautiful, how clever, how good, how shiny his sister-in-law is. So much so that I assumed that there was some plot point to this, but no. Eventually the dinner party is gathered and we finally meet the other hero of the story, Jude Curtis. They get together with no discernible difficulties and engage in perfect insta-recovery sex whilst weeping a lot and calling each other “baby” and asking if each other are “OK.” As you can tell by this, the dialogue is pretty awful–in fact in the throes of passion Samuel actually says to Jude “You’re so clean.” which made me giggle. It’s not exactly love-talk.

The food in a book is important–espeically when the author has made such a big deal of it–literally the first 30 or so pages (half the book) concentrates on entertaining, so when all the details are wrong it’s such a waste of time and effort. Strawberries, cranberries and bilberries, all available in February. Gas stoves, the lady of the house whipping up a quick meal for twelve without hardly turning a hair after the servants have left, no-one except the lady of the house changing for dinner, despite it being an important dinner which she is holding to get her husband admitted to the Atheneum Club.

I’m not going to list all the anachronisms, it would take too long and would be unfair, but a few include making artists a major plot point. This is fine except the ones mentioned were hilariously Whistler (who would have been six at the time), Rosseti (13) and Holman-Hunt who was about 12. Then there’s mention of the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphelites (which didn’t exist), gas stoves, mentions of “hotwired.” The thing is that the author goes into Dan Brown mode at times, describing in detail something historical that they think we’ll be interested in, such as a meticulous description of the first commercial stamp–the Penny Black–but the author didn’t take the two minutes it takes to do the research to find out that the stamp wasn’t issued until JUNE 1840, not February.

The sex (apart from the silly dialogue and much weeping) is all right, but for me it’s not enough to make the cover price worth while.

So, putting together the missing plot, the buildup of things that never became plot–the brother’s entry to the club, the making of the Valentines, the servant troubles–with the anachronisms on every page, I simply can’t recommend this as a historical. If you are only looking for some gay sex in costume, then you might enjoy it.

Buy from Total-ebound

Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

(From Publisher’s Weekly) A biographical fantasia, White’s latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White’s impressionistic account of Crane’s life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a ganymede butt-boy buggaree. Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that someone skilled and open minded complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. Hotel de Dream, has some ideas of who among Crane’s friends fits the bill.

Review by Erastes

It’s a book of two halves, really. The first half, with Stephen Crane–who spends the entire book dying–is as slow as a meandering river. Suddenly, the “book within a book” which he’s writing hots up and the pace increases–it’s just that the two don’t really gel with each other. If you had told me two different people had written the book I would have believed you.

It begins with lengthy descriptions of Stephen Crane dying of tuberculosis and living in Engand in preparation for travel to the Black Forest for a hopeful cure. Crane is writing the “O’Ruddy” and he regrets that a manuscript he began about Elliott, a boy-prostitute he met in New York and who he interviews with journalistic zeal, was burned by another writer friend, so he begins it again, dictating it to his common-law-wife, Cora. This book “The Painted Boy” has become a writing myth, as there’s only that, and rumour to substantiate its existence, but it makes an interesting premise.

What I suppose I couldn’t really get over is that White could easily have made this story about a fictional author and it would have worked just as well. The fact that he’d set himself to write The Painted Boy himself, to take on the task of emulating Crane’s style seemed to me to be rather hubristic. Whether he does it well I will have to leave to others, as I haven’t read any of Crane’s works, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in style between White’s prose and that of what he puts forward as Crane’s.

I must apologise because this book didn’t appeal to me in any aspect. It was really a case of “gah, how many pages left?” and I appreciate that makes me a bit of a illiterate slob as this book has been lauded all over the place as being a work of genius, but frankly I’ve read books labelled “M/M” that have more literary merit in my eyes.

I’m more than slightly baffled about a couple of things. One, it’s called “A New York Novel” and this doesn’t really come over. You would have to squint hard to see much about the city–it’s mentioned here and there, more so towards the latter end of the novel, when the book gets more interesting, but it’s certainly nothing on the scale of other books that are steeped in the late 19th century city. Gaderene by Tina Anderson and C.B. Potts is far more New York than this, as is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Not only is Crane iving in Engand and travelling to Germany in the book, but when he,or any of the other characters, are shown in New York, they are inside somewhere, and very little flavour of the city at that time is shown. There’s one segment which smears on description, thick as lard, about the Five Points and Manhattan towards the end, but it really feels like the author had done a bit of research and wanted to shoehorn this local colour in instead of threading it through the entire book.

Also baffling is the title. Crane met his ex-prostitute Cora at the brothel “Hotel de Dream”, but unless I’m missing something (probably) it’s not mentioned otherwise, so any symbolism to the name entire skidded over my head.

That being said I liked the characterisation a good deal. From the real Elliott who Crane interviews–and has him take around part of the queer scene in New York of the time–namely a gay bar and a visit to an androdyne, to the characters they meet in their investigative travels, to Cora, Crane’s mistress who loves Crane so hugely and does anything it takes to try and get him the help he needs, from mumping off friends to writing her own hack stories (which sell) just to support them in their financial troubles. But the most compelling characters in the book for me were the fictional Elliott portrayed in The Painted Boy and his obsessed, entirely in love protector, Theodore Koch. The love that can come to an older man this late in love can be a frightening and destructive love and so it is here, the seven year itch taken to its nth degree. I think of all the characters in the book, it is Koch that will stay with me, as he’s so in love, and ultimately so destroyed–but hey, it wouldn’t be gay literature if everyone wasn’t as miserable as hell.

Oscar Wilde said this of The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

And I’m afraid you will think badly of me when I tell you that I roared with laughter at the denouement in Hotel de Dream. It was probably not meant to be funny, and I have a sick sense of humour but I thought it was hilarious. It reminds me of the best kind of shaggy dog story, so be warned.

Do I recommend this? It’s probably fifty fifty. I’d say get it from the library, and see what you think.

Author’s website

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Review: Precious Jade by Fyn Alexander

Jade Swift has always wanted a man to fall madly in love with him and make him his own. He wants to be mastered. When he meets Marcus Wynterbourne, a dominant man with a passion for the whip, it is love at first sight.

Marcus is an MP, gay, and trying to live as freely as he can in 1885 when his sexuality’s not tolerated and his association with the beautiful Jade leads to rampant speculation. Hurt by a past betrayal, and unable to accept Jade’s loyalty because of his flirtatious nature, he casts Jade out of his house.

But Jade loves his Master and wants only to please him. Determined, he will do what he must to win his Master’s trust and restore his reputation amongst others who would ruin him.

Review by Jess Faraday

Goodness, how I enjoyed this.

BDSM romance is a category that I think, in careless hands, could go cringingly wrong. However, the author does a superb job exploring the emotional complexities of the relationship between the two main characters. Even if a reader has no personal interest in BDSM, the author’s sensitive treatment of the emotions underlying the POV character’s desires could make most readers, I believe, at least understand why someone else might. And this is not an insignificant achievement.

The POV character, Jade Swift, is larger than life. Although I thought there was too much weeping on his part, he is absolutely irrepressible. I loved him from the start, and rooted for him until the very last word.

The plot was a standard romance plot…well, sort of. Boy meets Master, boy loses Master, boy wins Master back. But the complexities specific to the master/slave relationship kept it from being stale.

If that’s not enough, the prose is delightful: clean, strong, but with character and flavor. There were a few typos, but they appeared to be software-generated rather than author-generated.

And the sex was hot.

In general, I found the book to be very well researched in terms of historical fact and physical surroundings. However, there were a few social inconsistencies that really got on my nerves, and these were what kept me from giving Precious Jade that fifth star.

First, I found it hard to believe that MP Marcus Wynterbourne’s mother would hire such a flamboyant creature as Swift for her son’s live-in secretary, when she is working so hard to dispel rumors of her son’s taste for young men. I found it impossible to believe that someone of her status would hire any sort of person with no experience and no references.

I likewise found it unlikely that two men, one with no experience in service, could walk up to the door of the Royal Pavilion, ask for jobs, and get them. And an unannounced visit from one of their mothers–especially when the PM and MPs are there for a conference? I don’t think so.

I probably would have overlooked the anachronistic use of the word “queer,” but it was used with such unrelenting frequency that it jolted me out of the story and straight to a dictionary. The first use of the word to mean “homosexual” (adj.) was recorded in 1922. The noun usage (both are used here) not until 1935. Admittedly, most readers probably wouldn’t have bothered, but it was the frequency that drove me to it. Likewise, the term “Nancy-boy” (1958, though “nance” was coined in 1883).

But other than these things, I found the story very well researched. And what was not researched well rankled less than it might have if the story hadn’t been so enjoyable, the narrator so engaging, and the writing so clean and sparkling.

So I’m giving it four stars, because it’s extremely well executed, I adore the protagonist, and it’s a really good story. And in the end, these are the things that count most for this reader.

Buy from Loose I-D

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: Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew he was a loving man,

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grew excited. “Can you do that?”

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

“Well, I don’t know!” I snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: 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

Buy at Dreamspinner

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

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

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

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

Review by Erastes Click here for the PODCAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This nicely sums up the differences between them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy from Loose I-D

Review: 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: The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Invalided out of the East India Company’s army, James Brooke looks for adventure in the South China Seas. When the Sultan of Borneo asks him to help suppress a rebellion, Brooke joins the war to support the Sultan and improve his chances of trading successfully in the area. Instead, he finds himself rewarded with his own country, Sarawak.

Determined to be an enlightened ruler who brings peace and prosperity to his people, James settles with his lover, John Williamson, in their new Eden. But piracy, racial conflict, and court plotting conspire to destroy all he has achieved. Driven from his home and a fugitive in the land he ruled, James is forced to take extreme measures to drive out his enemies.

The White Rajah is the story of a man, fighting for his life, who must choose between his beliefs and the chance of victory. Based on a true story, Brooke’s battle is a tale of adventure set against the background of a jungle world of extraordinary beauty and terrible savagery. Told through the eyes of the man who loves him and shares his dream, this is a tale of love and loss from a 19th century world that still speaks to us today.

Review by Erastes

It’s unfortunate that this book has the same title as that of one on the same subject by a very well known author, Nicholas Monsarrat–Brooke was indeed known as the first “white rajah” though, but perhaps a different title might have been prudent.

The book is fictionally written by John Williamson, who was in fact a real person but who has been fictionalised for this book. The writing is done deliberately in a way to convince us that it’s a memoire written at and of the time, which manages to do that quite well, and that’s partly to blame for failing to win me over, too.

My first impression of the first twenty or so pages though were more that it was recounting what happened, rather than allowing us to know the characters. I would have like to have known about the narrator a little more, because in order to care what happens to a character you have to care about them. He’s rather surprisingly erudite for a sailor before the mast, and he has such knowledge of places and people as to come across as an omniecent narrator. I don’t mind passages such as this:

“I tell you again, sir,” he was saying, “we can make no decent profit from such limited commissions as these. We must seek the sort of work we might find from Jardine Matheson who—”

Mr Brooke had been lounging back in his chair affecting a casual air that failed entirely to mask his irritation. At the name of Jardine Matheson, one of the largest and most respected firms amongst the Singapore merchants

But I’d prefer some connection with his knowledge, show us why he knows this about Matheson, rather than simply telling us.This telling rather than showing continues much of the way through the book, for example where we are told that Brooke is charismatic–but we’ve not actually had any personal insight into him through John’s eyes. No conversations, no action–so the fact he’s charismatic rather leaves me thinking. “Oh yeah? Says you.” He also says that seeing Brooke again after a gap of five years rekindled feelings that he thought he had forgotten. However, the author seems to have forgotten that he never mentioned any feelings in the first place, and these “feelings” aren’t mentioned again for a hundred pages.

The whole beginning section was rather pointless, I felt, particularly as it didn’t give us any depth into either character other than “Mr Brooke told me years later that…” and it could have been excised entirely without losing much of the narrative. The only thing is served was to have John meet Brooke, and that could easily have been achieved by a sentence later on when they meet again. On page 23 there is this frankly kick-ass sentence:

In June of 1839, almost five years after I first arrived at Singapore in the Findlay, James Brooke came back into my life.

This would have been a great first line – and it would have been a marvellous place to start the story, because this is where the story actually begins.

Sadly the book continues with swathes of telling not showing. Scenes that could have been interesting were cut short with a modicum of conversation and finished off by telling us what happened after the brief exchange. It’s almost like the author is scared of conversations. I know that sometimes an author will think that they want to cut forward to more plot but the readers can get more from the characters with a conversation than they can from pages of exposition.

Part of the omniescent feel is probably based on the fact that it’s told in a memoire style. I do like memoires, but I think I’d have preferred this just to be a narration of events rather than an endless jumping back and forth. The narrator actually says:

I write now with an understanding I did not have then.

And that’s rather the problem, because we aren’t quite sure what we are reading, a historical record with all the facts in place, or the observations of a rather gauche ignorant sailor who seems to know everything. He tells us things that he couldn’t possibly have known at the time, such as Brooke’s motivations, things he’s gleaned from a more intimate knowledge of Brooke in the future of this narration, and this for me was quite off-putting.

I know next to nothing about ships and nautical matters, but I have to say that the seafaring experience of John seems rather overly idyllic. Other than one storm in the unnecessary first section he doesn’t have any problems with weather or with unruly bosses, and indeed seems to spend much of his time loafing around, hanging around the deck, or drinking and having shore leave – despite the ship being magically ship-shape, bristol fashion and gleaming. In fact, and it pains me to say it, because I haven’t encountered one of these for a long time, John is a bit of a Mary Sue, or more correctly a Gary Stu, because everything he does, he does effortlessly: learns Malay, negotiates treaties and the Rajah-ship (despite being unable to read or write) has an uncanny insight into the country and its customs, despite not having been there before, is a better sailor than anyone else, meets up with people who can give him exactly the information he needs, etc etc.

Here is a good example of many of the problems I found here:

I met with fewer Malays in the course of my business in the markets, for they generally felt themselves superior to such commercial activity. Those I did have dealings with were generally more forthcoming about the realities of the political situation. They soon became used to my presence, and the various small gifts I would take whenever I visited them helped form friendships with them.

Firstly, how does he know that they felt superior? Who was he meeting, how did they get used to his presence? Why did he go and meet them, if all he was doing was shopping in the market, how did he get invited to meet them? Who were they? All these questions and more formed in my head, because the author is simply using John as an all-too-convenient narration tool; someone who needs to be everywhere and to know everything which is unbelievable and doesn’t make us care about him as a person. In fact he was more like the kind of camera you get in a video game which is constantly standing behind your main character, than a character in his own right. Eventually he just becomes an extension of Brooke’s orbit and isn’t bothering to do any common sailoring, but just standing beside Brooke the whole time so he can tell us in excruitiang detail what’s going on. I can’t help but think this would have been a better book from Brooke’s POV, as John even goes so far as to interject Brooke’s feelings from time to time which he could not possibly have known.

Even the fighting scenes are done in this dry narration style, instead of spicing up the narrative.

When we finally do get the homosexual relationship, we are told that Brooke kisses John – and it’s described as the “most natural thing in the world” which made me laugh out loud because there had been absolutely no relationship building or even any sign of physical attraction for the 100 pages that came before it. John does realise that he loves Brooke a few pages earlier, but you get no sense that he feels it in a homosexual manner, as there was no shock of how unnatural that would be to him. He does add a bit about sin after the kiss, but it truly feels pasted on.

However, one does get used to this dry narration and as a fictional account of historical matters it’s not that bad, it’s just not terribly interesting, and I have to say that I had to force myself to read it, because it certainly didn’t grab me by the throat, which is a shame, because the experiences related had the opportunity to be exciting, rather than “we did this, then we did this” and the over descriptive passages where we are shown all the research the author did smack very much of Dan Brownism.

There were a few anachronisms here and there–hansom cabs making too earlyan  appearance being one of the in your face ones, but nothing too egregious.

If you like a dry historical account, then you’ll enjoy this, and Brooke was certainly a fascinating man, so I was pleased to know so much about a man I had not heard of before, but it was too dry and factual for me, and I would have preferred a lot more action and a little more conversation.

Author’s website

JMS Books

Review: Jungle Heat by Bonnie Dee

Congo Free State, 1888

On a mission deep in the jungle, Oxford anthropologist James Litchfield comes face-to-face with a local legend: a wild man who wanders with mountain gorillas and lives as one of their own.

The chance encounter with the savage, whom James calls Michael, leads to a game of observation and exploration. Their mutual curiosity turns to an attraction—one that Michael has never experienced and James is desperate to deny.

When members of the expedition unearth James’s secret discovery—a living specimen of man at his most primitive—Michael becomes a pawn in their quest for fame.

As their relationship deepens, James is compelled to protect Michael from the academics who would treat him as nothing more than a scientific acquisition and London society, which threatens to destroy their passionate bond…

Review by Erastes

“A re-imagining of the Tarzan legend” pretty much leaves you in no doubt as to what to expect with this book, and if you keep that in mind throughout, then you won’t be disappointed, because that’s exactly what it is for most of the book.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining, because it is, it’s just that if you already know the Tarzan story–and few don’t I’d imagine–then there won’t be much here to surprise you.

However! I’d certainly advise you to give it a go because I found it immensely entertaining.

The first section particularly impressed me because of the method Dee uses to communicate through the Ape-man’s point of view. She could have cheated and done it all from James’ point of view, glimpses of the ape-man (Michael, as he later is dubbed) through the trees and such-like but she takes the brave step of attempting to explain things that the ape-man can think in his head but can’t translate universally, as he struggles with these new sights of intruders in his land.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me very much of The Inheritors by William Golding, which is written from the point of view of the soon-to-be-extinct Neanderthals, and Jordan Taylor uses the same device in The Ninth Language.

Here’s a taste of Michael (obviously not named at this point) – the ape-man’s thoughts.

His heart pounded and he breathed faster as he glimpsed one of the creatures between the leaves. It walked upright on two legs just as he did and like the Others did some of the time. He wanted to leap forward, to see all of it at once instead of flashes through the undergrowth.

There were two of them, one walking behind the other. The pair communicated back and forth with their strange calls. He caught his breath. These were like the sounds he sometimes made when he was all alone in the forest, the noises his throat and tongue made that none of the Others could duplicate.

The pair moved into the clearing in front of him where they stopped and stood looking around. His heart raced even faster. The two creatures looked like him, or what he’d seen of himself reflected in still water. Their faces and hands were naked like his with the same prominent noses and fully formed lips. Hair grew on the lower part of their faces. Their bodies were covered with something that was neither fur, skin nor scales but something completely foreign.

One of them took a thing off the top of his head and ran a hand through sweat-flattened hair—hair like his, not fur as most animals had—and white like the streaks in Old Grunt’s ruff. These animals were his kind. There were more in the world like him. He wasn’t alone.

Obviously there are concepts there that the ape-man couldn’t know, like numbers and proper nouns, but overall, I like the feel of the prose, it sets a nice balance between bafflement and comprehension, and it’s nice to see an author doing something like this.

The friendship between the two is sweet, and the teaching and learning scenes were some of my favourites. I loved the protective nature that each had toward the other. Of course, with stories like this one has to have a certain suspension of disbelief, as if I’m going to be really picky then I’ll have to say that feral children have huge learning difficulties after a certain age…But – if like most rational adults and readers you don’t give a stuff about that, you’ll find yourself rooting for the pair of them and wanting them to be happy.

I’ve tried to make this review longer, but it’s a bit difficult–with the Burroughs parallel. I think I would have liked to have seen something a bit more different than gay Tarzan–a wild child in South America, or Russia, or India even…

But I did enjoy it, for all the familiarity, and I recommend it if you are a fan of the original!

Author’s website

Buy at Carina Press

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Review: Teleny and Camille by Jon Macy

Teleny is the haunted musical genius that everyone desires but no one has truly touched… until the fateful night that he senses Camille’s presence in the audience. The wealthy young man is instantly seduced by Teleny’s dark beauty and smoldering melancholy. This groundbreaking and powerful early gay novel, written in secret by Oscar Wilde and his anonymous circle of writers, is now re-interpreted as a graphic novel, in all its lush, pansexual excess.

Review by Hayden Thorne

When I first found out about Macy’s graphic novel adaptation, I was elated. I read Teleny a while ago and was moved – in so many different ways – by the book. Yes, there’s the breathless, passionate love story between Teleny and Camille, but along with that come scenes of ugly excesses (heterosexual and homosexual), tragedy, and grotesque surrealism, the last item oftentimes bursting at the seams with detail piled upon bizarre detail and written in pretty florid prose. The novel, believed to have been written by Oscar Wilde and a number of other writers (of varying talents) round robin-style, is groundbreaking in its open defiance of Victorian morality. Its uneven narrative style – alternating between painfully purple and elegantly subdued – weakens the story in some instances, but the rawness of emotion and the sincerity of these writers’ efforts in celebrating same-sex passion while condemning hypocrisy also add to the book’s strength, solidifying its place in the gay canon.

It’s very much a visual book, which, to me, makes it an ideal candidate for a graphic novel adaptation.

Macy’s graphic novel opens with a modern day dialogue involving the artist himself and a friend. Here Macy shows us the difficulties posed by the novel – more specifically, the challenge of making gay men from over a century ago accessible to a modern day audience. There were, after all, limitations to the way they communicated homosexual passion. They had to use metaphors and references to historical figures. There was also the problem of the visuals in the novel and how a twenty-first century artist could translate those without undermining the narrative’s social commentary, considering the pornographic nature of the book.

Oscar Wilde and his circle of friends decided to put down on paper a story so pure in its reveling in homosexuality that it was not just pornography, but a rallying cry for how they wanted to change society.

They were poets and aesthetes, carrying sunflowers and dressing flamboyantly. They shocked society and posted a threat to the status quo.

Every gay stereotype we have today comes from these men. They politicized their aesthetic. They broke all convention. They were the original uppity fags.

It’s impossible to include all of the scenes in the book in an adaptation, so a delicate balancing act needed to be made. In the end, Macy manages to capture the energy and the dizzying emotions through some carefully chosen scenes. In fact, I’ll go further and say that this adaptation of Teleny is practically minimalist in approach without sacrificing the essentials that shaped the narrative and its emotional impact.

And this is the great part about illustration. It captures, in one or two panels, a scene or a pivotal moment in the story that would’ve taken several paragraphs of text to convey.

I’m glad – very glad – to see that Macy didn’t hold back in not only showing the celebration of Teleny and Camille’s romance (angst and all), but also those very important scenes that are antithetical to the physical, emotional, and even spiritual connection these two men have. The brothel that Camille and his school friends visit as well as Briancourt’s symposium are two remarkably vivid scenes of sexual excesses that lead to tragedy. There’s also Teleny’s affair with the Countess, which is a quieter and more personal foil to Teleny’s relationship with Camille.

The chapters that never made it to the graphic novel are mostly found in the middle of the book, and to me, skipping them doesn’t really take too much away from the story’s main point. Those chapters, after all, are mostly about Camille and his desperate and ultimately disastrous efforts at playing the heterosexual card in order to avoid acknowledging his love for Teleny. Wilde and his circle made a point about the extremes that gay men were forced to go in order to play by society’s rules and how they sometimes came at a high price. In Camille’s case, the price is paid by his doomed servant.

If leaving those scenes out proves to be detrimental, the effects are really minimal, and that’s being nitpicky. Camille, for instance, in his desire to commit suicide by jumping into the river, might appear to be overreacting to seeing Teleny with Briancourt or to seeing the depressing nighttime cruising in a park. Before that point in the story, after all, he’s been tested heavily and painfully, but we don’t get to see it in the graphic novel.

But like I said, that’s being nitpicky.

As for Macy’s artistic style, I find it sensual and bold, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and certainly appropriate to the story. And as though to mimic the shifting narrative styles of the book from florid and purple to beautifully elegant, Macy’s art changes just as easily, from lovely to grotesque but remains, on the whole, decadent and lush.

And just as Macy uses a preface to tell us about the difficulties of a modern adaptation of a classic novel, he also appends an alternate ending after giving us the original conclusion. To explain this unusual approach, we’re back to seeing Macy and his friend discuss the depressing nature of so many gay novels that end in tragedy.

It’s like we’re too damaged to even dare imagine being happy.

With that, he offers us an alternate conclusion to Teleny and Camille’s love story. Whether or not modern day readers will take to this is ultimately an issue of individual taste, but the context is certainly important. Given the ongoing desperate attempts of social conservatives to demonize the LGBT community, one can consider the more hopeful ending to be just as defiant a celebration of same-sex love as the original novel and its darker conclusion.

Read the first chapter

Author’s Website
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Review: Helpless by M J Pearson

In London during the gross indecency trial of Oscar Wilde, Douglas Shrove finds himself still haunted by memories of his dead lover while skirting violence, blackmail and the affections of two men.

There are two who seek you out

That is what the gypsy told Douglas Shrove a few months after the death of his lover. And the gypsy was right. Two men were vying for his affections.

Mark Goldcrest: an aristocrat like himself; a golden Adonis, cool and discreet.

Warren Scott: a shabbily-dressed denizen of a Bohemian world that Douglas can’t begin to understand.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

But which is which? Both men are attractive and attracted to him…but only one has a dangerous secret.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

One of Douglas Shrove’s admirers could be his salvation—if the other doesn’t destroy him first.

Review by Erastes

PLEASE do not be put off this book by the cover. If you’ve looked at it and thought “oh no, BDSM/torture isn’t my cup of tea” then please read this review and perhaps decide to read it anyway. Because frankly I don’t know what Seventh Window was thinking with this cover.  It in NO WAY represents the book. The Snidely Whiplash character doesn’t exist in the book, there’s no half naked men (bizarrely wearing jeans) no one gets tied to a chair and there’s a distinct lack of face fungus.  I appreciate that the artist has some talent, but it almost feels like the cover was created for another book and they didn’t want to waste it. Frankly, I consider it misrepresentation!

The mark of this site for the book won’t reflect the cover at all, that wouldn’t be fair, but I wanted to get that out of the way straight away, to encourage you to look beyond it and give this great little book a go.

I have to say, I really really enjoyed this book.  We are introduced to our main protagonist, Douglas, straight away and we find he’s reeling from the death of his lover who died a few months previously. It’s spring, and the restlessness that often accompanies that season, seeps into Douglas’ consciousness and before he knows it, he’s going outside and walking about for the first time in ages. You really feel the grief in Douglas’ very bones, he’s walking around half dead himself, but he’s coming round, slowly.

Then, as often happens, two things happen to him in short succession. He goes into a bookshop and is subtly chatted up by the owner, a gorgeous aristocratic man, and after that he feels sufficiently bouyed up that he doesn’t really want to go home and instead spends some time in the National Gallery where he meets a scruffy artist who’s really not his type, but who intrigues him and whose art he’s drawn to.  He finds that the artist knew Henry (Douglas’ dead lover) and that gives them a common ground to discuss. The blond hunk from the bookshop asks Douglas around for dinner, and the artist gives Douglas his address, saying he has some sketches of Henry he might like. Men–just like buses. Nothing for months, then two come at once.

As you can tell from the blurb, this is the main theme of the book – two men to choose from. It’s all about appearances and trust. Who is right for him. Who seems right and who is his type. This is handled cleverly by introducing real doubt about both men, and layering mystery on mystery. Personally I would have liked to have seen this stretched even further than it was–making me truly unsure about either man–for me as it stood it was rather too obvious, and I never really doubted who was “good” and who wasn’t.  But that’s possibly because I love being led by the nose down the wrong path, and I’m sure that 99% of readers will find the device quite satisfactory.

I was a little put off by the scene setting at the beginning. There’s a rather clumsy piece of As You Know, Bob, dialogue between Mark (the bookshop owner) and Douglas. I can understand why it was there, to establish that the Wilde indecency trial is on the horizon, but the way they discussed it, it was so obvious that it was there simply to tell the audience where and when we were–and it jarred me. It could easily have been done in Douglas’ point of view, but once we are past that scene, there’s no more of this, the dialogue is solid – and I was swept away into the narrative.

There’s much to like about the book: The characters are vibrant and believable, with surprises on just about every page. There’s excellent detail–not too much–for locations and houses. Pearson doesn’t prettify London in the late 1900′s–sights, sounds, smells are described well. And overall it’s a nice commentary on class, servant roles, and more importantly, the assumptions that people make about other people based on appearance, titles, family, obvious wealth and their houses.

The male/male romance that blossoms does so extremely well. I was dreading that we’d go from Douglas being so broken hearted to leaping into bed with all and sundry but it doesn’t work like that, and the book takes its time, and in that respect, the grief is well represented. Don’t buy this book looking for scorching sex scenes, because all of the sex takes place either behind a firmly closed door, or is of the dot dot dot variety. However, this doesn’t detract from what is a delightful love affair, and a tightly plotted mystery which I’m sure will be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, as long as they can get past Old Snidely on the cover.

Available in print and ebook

Author’s website

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Review: Seducing Stephen by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

What does a jaded earl see in a studious, shy man? Everything he never knew he was missing. Their first, scorching hot sessions were about passion, not love, but now Peter is desperate to win back the young man he spurned.

Review by Erastes

This book sort of took me by surprise. First of all, the title doesn’t really fit the book–because I was expecting that it would be about…yanno…seducing Stephen, but considering that Stephen gives it up to the Earl on the first page, he didn’t exactly need seducing! I thought that I was in for a good old sexy romp and not much else, but that’s where I was (happily) wrong, and slowly and surely an interesting and quite psychological little drama emerged from something looks at first glance to be filled with cliché and trope.

First lines are important – and this book has a great one.

“Gads, there’s a boy in my bed. It’s Christmas come early.”

The beginning is amusing and engaging and despite my misgivings I was drawn in, rather fascinated as to why the Earl expected a young man to be in his bed, or at least wasn’t at all surprised. This is soon explained!

As for a good old sexy romp–yes, we get that too. There’s a large chunk of sex, specially at the beginning, but each sex scene has a part to play and marks the progress in the burgeoning affair between Stephen and Peter. As the blurb already hints the affair starts as sex and then moves into more complicated territory and that’s the nice surprise; it could have easily have been nothing more than a sex-progression story, but for a small book it packs a lot more punch. There’s a bit too much “hardening” every time one or the other of them sees the other, or looks at the other but I suppose these things do happen, but sometimes it smacks of satyriasis rather than anything erotic.

I loved the progression of the romance–and for me there was a touch of Dangerous Liaisons at one point, where one of the characters did something really hurtful (even though it was because he considered to be best for both of them.) Sadly, due to the length of the book, this really wasn’t given enough time to develop as much as I would have liked–but it worked pretty well but in this respect it should have been called “Educating Peter” to be honest.

Two of the most memorable characters are a couple that make a brief appearance; two delightful old queens, Foxworthy and Wainwright, who have been living together all their lives, in public view and daring the consequences. I was so pleased to meet these characters because with gay historicals it’s more often the conflict that is the essence of the book–because a book must have conflict–and we forget all too often that some men were lucky enough to live together.

“Ah, to be young and in love.” Foxworthy chuckled. “I don’t envy you the ups and downs, Northrup, not even for the extra passion they engender.”

A little small talk and gossip later, Peter took his leave, noting the tenderness with which Timothy grasped Gilbert’s arm and helped him rise from his chair.

‘You may not envy me, you old codger, but I believe I envy you.’

On the con side – it badly needed a firm Brit Picking. Many non-Brit readers will probably not care, but for those who like their English-set stories to feel English, be warned. Having Stephen’s “ass” pounded just brings up images of donkey mistreatment that I’d rather not have. How can you tell if someone is comparing you to his rear end or his donkey if you don’t differentiate between arse and ass? There are many other Americanisms, such as gotten, whiskey, to name but two and I can’t help it, I get jolted. There were a couple of instances of “bum” too – which always makes me laugh; it’s like someone heard the word on a show and thinks that what English people actually say. Please don’t use this word, unless your knight is asking you if his bum looks big in his armour. (not seriously.)

A few mistakes in the history/details too, “matriculation” doesn’t mean to graduate out of a university, as it’s used here. The foxtrot didn’t exist pre 1914. Little mistakes which again, a harsher editor would have ferreted out.

I would have preferred a more definite sense of time, too. I knew it was probably Victorian (if only from the cover, as the Great Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament was built in 1859) and after the instigation of railways between London and Cambridge – but there was nothing in the story to ground me until Peter’s visit to Foxworthy and Wainwright. That was the first mention of a date, and that was over half way through the book.

But all in all this book is far more than it seems, a little TARDIS of a novel, if you like. Don’t be fooled by what it looks like at first glance. There’s a really nice character-fuelled story here, and characters with real feelings, pride, idiocy – people who make mistakes and say stupid things and regret them. People who hurt each other for good reasons – and for reasons perhaps more selfish.

I’ll certainly be looking out for any future historicals these authors do, that’s for sure.

Bonnie Dee’s website Summer Devon’s website

Buy at Loose ID

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: Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death by Gyles Brandreth

Talented and witty, and with a fabulously successful play playing to packed houses, Oscar is the toast of the town. On one of his club nights he plays a game with his guests, “who would you murder” and sets into motion events which look like they will result, not only in his own death, but the death of his beloved Constance.

Review by Erastes

I had been looking forward to this book ever since I had finished the first one, Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders.

At the risk of sound like Oscar, sadly, the journey is so often much more fun than the terminus. Where the first book captured me with with its sparkle this one bored me rather than entertained.

While Brandreth does a good job of taking one on a tour of fin de siecle London (with a map, no less, this time!) and introduces us to many interesting characters, real-life ones and invented, I felt this book simply didn’t hang together in the same way that the first book did. I was often confused and whole scenes would go by which turned out to entirely useless in furthering the plot in any way.  I think that Brandreth was attempting, in a Christie fashion, to create red-herrings, but it wasn’t done with any conviction and I never once was led down any path. In fact, I went through the entire book not knowing, or indeed not even caring enough to suspect anyone at all.

What annoyed me particularly was that Oscar was not charismatic in this book, he was extraordinarily annoying. I am not enough of a Wilde fan to know whether the sayings he continually came out with were his own, or Brandreth’s, but I couldn’t help but think that most of the book was just Brandreth trying to be clever.  Literally nothing happened for half the book, and nothing appeared to be happening for the other half.

The denouement was a complete surprise because other than the smallest of clues, there was literally no indication that this person was marked as the murderer. I like to be surprised, after all isn’t that part of the fun of reading a murder mystery? but I don’t like to go WTF? HIM? WHY? When the big moment comes. I was still boggling, even after Oscar Explained It All.

I know that the tradition in some murder stories is to have the amateur sleuth amazingly clever and the police incredibly dim, but in this book, EVERYONE, from the police to Conan Doyle to Robert Sherrad (the narrator) are thick as two short planks, and the only one with two brain cells to rub together is Wilde.

Not that I wanted a gay story, as the first book had a strong homosexual theme, but with Bosie on the scene and with their affair obviously in full swing, I would have expected a little more to be made of that. What did amuse me, though, was that Bosie’s older brother was also suspected of ‘unnaturallness’ with a politician.

I’d say that if you really really liked the first one, then get this from the library before shelling out any money on it. I have to say, also, that I don’t appreciate the first eight or so pages of any book I read to be filled with reviews of that particular book.

Buy Amazon UK Amazon USA Powells

Review: Artist’s Model by Z A Maxfield

From the anthology “Artistically Yours” published by Torquere Press

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

chauncey-gay-new-york31

Call for Submissions: A Study in Lavender

Editor Joseph R.G. DeMarco will be reading for a forthcoming Lethe
Press gay men’s anthology tentatively entitled A Study in Lavender:
Queering Holmes.

All stories must be both gay-themed and mysteries set in the Holmes
mythos, however the character of Sherlock Holmes need not be the focus
or even present.

Writers must do their homework to ensure that the stories are
historically accurate if taking place in the Holmes era (though tales
can be set later than the Victorian era, such as in the Golden Age of
Hollywood during the filming of a Holmes movie or other appropriately
familiar settings).

Before you submit, please query the editor with a synopsis of your
story and the content, specifically, which characters are being queered.

Word Count: Submissions should be between 1,000 words and 8,000 words.
Longer works may be considered but require advance permission from the
editor.

Payment: 2 cents a word, of course, plus 2 copies of the book.

Submissions will be read from January 1, 2009 through March 30, 2009.
Queries/Submissions to: holmesanthology@gmail.com

No electronic submissions will be accepted EXCEPT in the case of
writers living outside of the United States.

A street address for submissions will be provided once you send an
email query with the required synopsis, etc. If you would like to have
your submission returned, please send a self-addressed envelope with
sufficient return postage.

Electronic copies will be required for submissions accepted for
publication.

Email queries and other communication may be made to
holmesanthology@gmail.com

Review: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

NAPOLEON’S PRIVATES
2,500 Years of History Unzipped

by Tony Perrottet
Harper Entertainment, ISBN 978-0-06-125728-5

From the blurb on the author’s website:

What were Casanova’s best pick-up lines?
(They got better as he got older).
Which Italian Renaissance genius “discovered” the clitoris?
(He could have just asked the Venetian nuns).
What was the party etiquette at Caligula’s orgies?
(Holding one’s own could be a stressful business in ancient Rome).
How were impotence sufferers put on trial in medieval France?
(And why this should be a new reality TV show).
What were the kinkiest private clubs of Hogarthian London?
(Austin Powers would have blanched).

And what was the truth about Napoleon’s privates?
(Was it a big baguette or petit éclair? And did size matter to Josephine?)

There are some books you just have to order, even if you fear the worst when it comes to content. I hang my head in shame – when I stumbled over “Napoleon’s Privates” (now please don’t take that literally!) I couldn’t resist. Yes, yes, I know, my mind’s in the gutter at times. But if everything else fails, there’s still eBay, right?

I’m happy to report that I won’t have to deal with eBay. “Napoleon’s Privates” is an amusing collection of the high and mighty’s “raunchy little secrets” all through history. Reading it transported me back to the days when I was a really young teenage girl and read with a friend “Dr. Sommer’s Sex And Relationship Tips” in a teenage magazine. Means: lots of giggling and the occasional “d’oh?”-experience!

Author Tony Perrottet knows how to keep his readers captivated. In the slick tone of a gossip journalist (an almost extinct species capable of forming complete sentences), he shares the tale of the whereabouts of Napoleon’s little emperor with as much wit and glee as the rather mind-boggling “Holy Guide to Coital Positions”. Perrottet completely won me over with his “Impressionist Misery Index”, listing the social backgrounds, personal dramas, career lows and wretched dotages of artists like Monet, Cézanne, Renoir et al just like Marvel Comics would have described the special powers of their super heroes.

Some chapters are almost exclusively of a speculative nature, though – was Abe Lincoln gay or not? – but to his credit, the author points this fact out and notes that it really wasn’t uncommon for men to share a bed back in those days. So “Napoleon’s Privates” is also a journey through the urban legends of the past.

However, all gossip and giggles aside, the misogynistic roots of some anecdotes are pointed out several times. The “Boys Club” could not deal with strong women, the church tried its best to keep them down, and many of the rumours still clinging to great women’s names – Katharina the Great and her “horse lover”, for example (complete rubbish, of course) – have been born out of this attitude. It’s also interesting to see how disparaging rumours about sexual prowess, sexual orientation or even shape of genitals have been used – and are still used! – to impair an enemy’s reputation.

For those interested in the history of sexuality in general, beauty ideals, gay history, gossip and saucy details, this book offers a lot of material to shake your head over. Kinky clubs in 18th century Scotland, proof of (im)potence in front of witnesses and the court, brothels, ancient sex toys, horny popes and knitted condoms, syphilis and why castrati made better lovers – “Napoleon’s Privates” offers all this, and more.

The book consists of stand-alone chapters, so you can easily put it away for a while. I read the whole thing in one go, though, so I can now impress my friends at the next party with my amazing knowledge about Napoleon’s dick and dickery between the sheets. I might even throw in the amazing tale of “The Invention of Smut”, should anybody ask.

Especially you navy folk will be pleased to hear that the Duke of Wellington, if actress “Mademoiselle Georges” (a former mistress of Napoleon) can be believed, “was by far the more vigorous.”

In conclusion:
a) “Napoleon’s Privates” is a book wellworth buying, and
b) people are funnier than anybody.

In case you’re interested: the author’s website.

“Napoleon’s Privates” is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US and as e-book from Harper Collins.

* * *

(c) Emma Collingwood

Review: Icarus In Flight by Hayden Thorne

James Ellsworth is a bit jaded, especially for his young age. He hates school, and longs for his parents’ estate, where life is far more pleasant. Meeting new schoolmate Daniel Courtney is a much-needed distraction, one that will prove more and more engrossing as James and Daniel grow older. When his father dies, James is thrust into a position of responsibility, not just to his estate, but to his mother and sister as well. … As they grow older, James and Daniel discover that life is not what they thought it would be when they were schoolboys together, and that, even as they try to make their own way, they always come back to one another. Can they find a way to make things work, no matter what their friends and family think?

Review by Mark R. Probst

Hayden Thorne’s debut novel, (a bit about that in a moment) Icarus in Flight, is a truly remarkable Victorian love story and had I not known better, I would have believed it had been penned by a successful, seasoned writer. It’s not quite accurate to say Icarus is solely Ms. Thorne’s debut, as it is one of a trio of her novels, all published simultaneously. The other two are Masks: Rise of Heroes, and Banshee.

The story begins in Wiltshire, England in 1841 when 12 year old James Ellsworth is introduced to a new boy in school, Daniel Courtney. Daniel is poor, frail and orphaned, making him the target of bullying, whereas James is upper-class and heir to his family’s fortune. James takes Daniel under his wing, offering him protection and takes on the task of enriching Daniel’s life with culture thereby making him suitable as a comrade.

The novel quickly advances to 1847 where James’s father has died and James is now the master of his house, having the responsibility to financially care for his mother and two sisters. Meanwhile Daniel’s brother has been killed, leaving him with no family at all and he leaves school to take over the position left by his brother as a secretary to an old gentleman writing his memoirs. The two boys, now young men, continue their friendship with Daniel occasionally visiting James’s Wiltshire home. Needless to say romance blossoms and within a few years the relationship is consummated during a trip to James’s secondary house in London. James makes plans to take care of Daniel, provide a home for them both, and to sponsor Daniel’s budding career as a writer. But someone gets to Daniel and convinces him that he would be soiling his brother’s memory as well as James’s good name, so Daniel flees to Norwich with the hope of making good on his own. James is crushed and sinks into despair, eventually leaving England for Venice where he takes up a life of empty sexual encounters. Thus, either boy could be Icarus, the character in Greek mythology who escaped his exile on Crete by flying away with wax wings, as they both fled from a life that felt to them like imprisonment. I won’t disclose how the story ends except to say that you won’t be disappointed.

Both boys are richly-drawn, likeable characters. James, due to his being born into wealth and inheritance, is understandably a bit of a snob from time to time, and Daniel is so humble and demure that you just want to scoop him up and cuddle him. The fact that he idolizes James makes him particularly vulnerable.

What makes this novel so impressive is its tone. Thorne has wonderfully captured polite, privileged Victorian society with the manners and mores of England in the 19th Century, the cadences of proper dialog, and prudent behavior all coming together in grand style. I definitely felt the influences of Forster (and dare I say, Austen?) The female characters are as well-drawn as the male characters. In a time of Britain’s history where women were not allowed to own property, Thorne demonstrates how the mother and daughters dealt with having their livelihood left in the hands of a young son. While they would never cross him directly, for he did legally have all the power, carefully crafted language was the tool they used to manipulate him into serving the interests of propagating the family.

Icarus in Flight is a bit light on plot, which is to be expected from what could essentially be considered a parlor drama. The real strength of the writing is Thorne’s dialog, which just sparkles with wit and intelligence. A lot of historicals I’ve read have modernisms and gaffes that pull you right out of the story. Not so here. The dialog is so polished and authentic to the British period, that it would be comfortable on the lips of actors in a production on the BBC. What’s more, I was surprised to learn that Ms. Thorne is an American through and through!

One last point I’d like to make is that Icarus in Flight is being marketed as a young adult novel. That’s fine, in that there is nothing inappropriate for younger readers, but if you are thinking of skipping it because you are not inclined to read YA fiction, you’d be making a mistake. The novel is completely geared toward adult readers, and there is no “dumbing down” to make it more palatable to youngsters. The publisher states it is for 16 and up and I would say that’s about right because the language is probably too sophisticated for younger teens.

Buy from Prizm Books

Buy from Amazon USA Buy from Amazon UK

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

A Three novella anthology from Cheyenne Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

Review by Alex Beecroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

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

Review: Hyacinth Club by B A Tortuga

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

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

Review by Alex Beecroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available from Torquere Books

Review: A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel by J S Cook

In London, with Jack the Ripper’s crimes still raw in the great city’s memory, a well-known male prostitute is brutally murdered, the head neatly severed, and the body set on fire. Detective Inspector Phillip Devlin of Scotland Yard, mid-thirties and secretly gay, is called to the murder scene by plainclothes constable Freddie Collins, and soon both Collins and Devlin are caught in a web of intrigue as more savage murders occur. A Cold-Blooded Scoundrel resonates with the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of 1880s London. Witty and engaging, it unfolds the story of a man who must brave not only the killer but also his own inner demons in order to end the violence that is harrowing the city.

Review by Erastes

Oh… I started this book with such brio. It started (and continued for some time) so well. A bloody murder in Victorian London, lots of gore, a bloody thumbprint and a mad-man on the loose. I was certain I was in for a great ride. Sadly I ended up rather disappointed, but the ride was – in the main – enjoyable.

Inpector Phillip Devlin appeals. He’s taciturn to the point of silence and keeps a lot bottled up. He’s got secrets, and that doesn’t only include being homosexual in an era where the Labouchere Amendment has homosexuals running scared. He’s a pioneer in his field, without being a Mary-Sue or a carbon copy Holmes clone, even though he knows a little more about forensics and handwriting and the like than your average plod.

The other main character, and what one hopes will turn out to be Devlin’s love-interest, is Collins, the earnest and not-so-bright devoted assistant. Again, he’s well drawn, and he convinces in his dedication and loyalty to Devlin but I got rather annoyed with the fact that we were constantly told how not-bright he was, he didn’t seem any less dim than the inspector.  Collins holds a large…torch for his inspector but in the days of the Blackmailer’s Charter – when no proof was needed to destroy a career – he has been quiet for a long time, until matters start to turn which drag secrets out into the daylight and both men are suddenly aware of the other in new ways.

As I said, from the promising start it boded well. Good characters, excellent murder, a thinking gay detective, burgeoning evolution of forensics, a couple of resurrection men…

That’s good, and it seemed promising when he spotted strange substances under fingernails and gunpowder up noses … but – well, it just doesn’t GO anywhere.

It just didn’t mesh. I was inspectin’ some detectin’ I suppose, seeing as how it started as such a classic detective novel but about half way through Devlin admits that all the clues he’s got lead nowhere and he’s baffled. And I was too – completely baffled!  I spent the next half of the book waiting impatiently for him to suddenly do a Poirot and say “Incroyable, I have been the imbecile! It’s all so simple!” but the eureka moment just didn’t happen and what started as Holmesian foresenic detection ended up in a sort of John Buchan style chase with everyone knowing what was going on apart from Devlin (and me). Very little is explained, very few loose ends were tied up and I was going “but.. but… what about the ambergris” after I’d shut the book in disappointment.

That being said, there’s some quite delicious writing in this, and all the characters are likeable and believable and very male in parts.  I think that I might just pick up some of Ms Cook’s other books to see what they are like, but having been raised on a diet of Poirot,Marple and Holmes – this didn’t really work for me.  I would be happier too, if the only 2 reviews on Amazon.com were not by the author herself!

Buy Amazon UK    Buy Amazon USA

 

Review: Oscar Wilde & the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth

This work is set in London, 1889. Oscar Wilde, celebrated poet, wit, playwright and raconteur is the literary sensation of his age. All Europe lies at his feet. Yet when he chances across the naked corpse of sixteen-year-old Billy Wood, posed by candlelight in a dark stifling attic room, he cannot ignore the brutal murder. With the help of fellow author Arthur Conan Doyle he sets out to solve the crime – but it is Wilde’s unparalleled access to all degrees of late Victorian life, from society drawing rooms and the bohemian demi-monde to the underclass, that will prove the decisive factor in their investigation of what turns out to be a series of brutal killings.

Review by Erastes

Knowing of Gyles Brandreth from the television and radio, I rather thought this book might be a little “sophisticated” for me. He’s a vastly intelligent man and, like Stephen Fry, he often loses me with his mind but I needn’t have worried, because The Candlelight Murders is an enjoyable – almost frothy – murder mystery of the old school and thoroughly enjoyable.

It’s obvious from the word go that Brandreth is a big fan of Oscar Wilde and he sets the scene well. The books are narrated from the Point of View of Robert Sherrad, a real life friend of Wilde’s, and right at the beginning Robert makes it clear that although he loved Oscar, he was not his lover. The narration style is worthy of Watson, bumbling a good 20 steps behind the genius of Wilde as he burns his way across the page, leaving epithets and witticisms in his wake – believably so, as Brandreth explains that he would trial his “stock phrases” on his friends and relations before using them in his published works.

Oscar is totally believable, you can almost visualise him, almost believe that Brandreth had spent time with the great man, because he’s portrayed here in all of his greatness and his ambivalence. His love for his family and his wife is clear and yet the darker side of his life is never glossed over, not completely. It is clear that Sherrad knows of his predilections and they threaten to break through at any time.

I enjoyed this particularly because I grew up with Sayers and with Christie, I love romping through a book, catching some of the same clues as the detective and feeling smug, but I also love being led down a blind alley and being throughly duped by a clever writer. This doesn’t achieve that totally, not – for example – in the same magnificence as “Ten Little Niggers” did, or “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”, because I actually realised what was going on a couple of chapters towards the end. But it did a damned good job and once started it was impossible to put down.

The period detail is spectacularly well done, the demimonde feel of the fin-de-siecle cities, the descriptions of Oscar’s house, the dinner parties and most intriguingly the group of men who love boys is perfectly expressed. The cast of characters, ranging from the aesthetes to the grotesque as wonderfully drawn and suit the era and the darker undercurrents exactly.

Anyone who loves a good murder mystery will love this, and the homoerotic sublayers add even more flavour.

Buy: Buy Amazon UK Buy Amazon USA

Review: Doctor Reynard’s Experiment by Robert Black

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Walter Starling – newly engaged as a footman in the house of Dr. Richard Reynard – is shy, naive, and religiously inclined. His sheltered upbringing hasn’t prepared him for the world he encounters hidden behind the facade of upper-class Victorian respectability.

Dr. Reynard, dashing bachelor and celebrated London surgeon, is bored of the empty rituals of high society. Under the influence of Lord Spearman, a degenerate and predatory socialite obsessed with pain and domination, Reynard is introduced to the dark underworld of homosexual London – a world of secret brothels and flagellation houses, of encounters in dark doorways, of bizarre sexual cabarets performed in the dead of night.

But as Spearman draws him into ever more extreme forms of sex, Reynard finds himself turning to his young servant for protection. And Walter Starling finds his firmest principles under siege from without and within as he battles with his growing feelings towards his master and tries to avoid being sucked into London’s sexual maelstrom.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Black’s book is an erotic fantasy – endless sex scenes linked together with flimsy plotting and a host of unlikable characters in the mid- to late-1880s London.

I began reading the book with one bias: I’m not a fan of BDSM or kink of any kind. Yes, I’m fascinated with the psychology behind BDSM, but I don’t actively look for it in my erotic fiction, and neither do I get turned on by it when I do read it. I can appreciate a well-written kink scene, however, and I tried to approach Doctor Reynard’s Experiment with an open mind. In the end, it wasn’t the BDSM elements in the novel that turned me off.

The sex scenes are plentiful, yes. Too plentiful, in fact, that any flimsy excuse for a quick fuck becomes par for the course. Some are more erotic than others. Some are more disturbing than others. There are a number of scenes involving non-consensual sex, several involving torture, a few with blood, quite a bit involving golden showers, and a few mildly scatalogical scenes – there’s about an average of about two sex scenes (two and a half, maybe?) per chapter. But who’s counting? Richard Reynard, the doctor, is seduced by his friend, Lord Spearman, into the world of Victorian sado-masochistic gay sex. Walter Starling, the young servant, gets dragged into the dark world of forbidden pleasures, but unlike his employer, he manages to keep his head (by and large, at least) and tries to fight his way out of his predicament – only to fall into the clutches, gothic heroine-like, of the bizarre and evil Lord Spearman.

The highlight of this novel is Black’s descriptions and his use of period detail in creating a dark, atmospheric, and dangerous underworld. We’re looking at the poorest of the poor, the streetwalkers, the pimps, the long, miserable line of paying customers who range from filthy foreign sailors to respectable clerks to a bishop. I love the fact that Black takes his time in developing every scene with so many details, and I didn’t feel as though any one scene was better described than another. With such uniform care, I found myself easily immersed in Victorian London, all my senses engaged. The city became more of a live, organic thing – much more so than the characters that are supposed to move the plot.

The downside? Everything else, I’m afraid. The characters are very unrealistic and hopelessly unlikable in varying degrees. Lord Spearman is evil incarnate – two-dimensional in that regard, which is a shame. He could have been a wonderfully seductive serpent-like character, but he’s written as this addicted, pock-marked, insane aristocrat with very little personality and, in the end, very fuzzy and comically absurd motivations for what he does to Reynard and Starling.

Walter Starling, the sweet, innocent boy who gets entangled and ends up selling his body to survive, is the strongest character on the whole, but his descent into sexual corruption while in Dr. Reynard’s employ has a distinct edge of fantasy around it. Considering his strong Christian beliefs, it’s surprising to see him so easily swayed. He’s raped by a fellow servant in the middle of a harrowing, nightmarish scene involving religion and damnation as his conscience struggles against itself, and yet Walter actually gets turned on by his violation. In fact, after a while, he looks forward to being repeatedly assaulted.

Reynard’s the weakest character of the lot because he goes about his days with only two actively-firing synapses. He has no will, no courage. He weakly argues against his friend when he catches Spearman doing something so obviously despicable and unlawful. Conversation between the two friends in such a scene can be summed up thusly:

Reynard: This is outrageous! I’m sick of your twisted schemes! Get out!
Spearman: There’s an orgy tonight.
Reynard: Okay.

The romance between Reynard and Starling isn’t even there though, technically, Starling’s supposed to save Reynard from himself. However, there are no sparks between them at the outset. Sure, Starling gets promoted to valet, leapfrogging over another servant who deserves the promotion more, but what does that exactly mean for the two supposed lovers? Reynard has a young, beautiful, innocent valet, and he spends his time mocking Walter’s religious beliefs in the boy’s face. He kicks Walter out of his house under false impressions, and while he soon learns his mistake, he doesn’t even bother to look for the boy or send inquiries out for him. Instead, once he realizes his mistake, he simply rolls over and falls asleep. What a charmer.

That leads to one of the weaknesses in the plotting. The romance was never there to begin with, so when the climax commences (no pun intended), the two coming together (absolutely NO pun intended) in the end feels forced, false, contrived. Suddenly realization dawns on both characters: “I’m meant to be with him! I love him!” And more sex ensues. The main weakness of the plot really lies in the way the story unfolds and how things actually happen in the last third of the book – a tad late, yes, with quite a bit of information and plot twists crammed in. There was so much time spent in exploring kinky sex scene after kinky sex scene in the first two-thirds of the novel that space seemed to have run out, and we’re force-fed all sorts of information that make the plot far more convoluted (and unsatisfactorily resolved) than it should be.

Doctor Reynard’s Experiment is meant to be something like a morality tale since it has all the trappings of one, but it isn’t. Everyone (Walter a little less so, maybe) seems to enjoy every second spent in sexual degradation that their redemption in the end rings false.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

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

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Reviewed by Hayden Thorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book: Amazon USA, Amazon UK

Review: Teleny, att. to Oscar Wilde, et. al.

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Reviewed by Hayden Thorne

REVIEW:
It’s fairly common knowledge now that Teleny’s authorship continues to be debated among scholars. Was Oscar Wilde truly a part of the novel’s creation? If so, which scenes or chapters did he himself write? John McRae’s introduction (a very worthy read in itself) to the only annotated and unabridged edition (published by Gay Men’s Press) explores the fascinating process that gave birth to the novel. The “round robin” method of creating a book that’s a “celebration of uninhibited sensual passion between men” certainly explains the stylistic inconsistencies throughout the work.

Teleny’s plot is fairly straightforward: Camille Des Grieux, a wealthy young man, finds himself intensely attracted to René Teleny, a gifted pianist. Des Grieux struggles against his passion but in the end is forced to acknowledged his “aberration.” What follows next is textbook romantic fiction of the time regarding the lovers’ union and the consequences of their passion as well as Teleny’s excesses.

Even to non-academic readers, the stylistic inconsistencies are evident. The novel’s an aesthete’s pleasure ground, with descriptions that are elaborate and sensual and simply bursting at the seams. Teleny is, in many ways, an aesthetic – a decadent – exploration of love between men as well as the relationship of artist/lover and muse/beloved. Purple prose that seems to run on forever shifts into occasional elegant language, so that explicit sex scenes vary from chapter to chapter.

Heterosexual erotic scenes, while written with similar stylistic shifts as homosexual scenes, are still treated unequally throughout. These are almost always defined by grotesque – even disturbing – imagery and an attitude of distinct loathing, which, in turn, raises the same-sex love scenes to nobler heights erotically. One needn’t wonder at that. Strip the novel of its excessive, florid prose and descriptions, its elaborate exploration of artist and muse’s psychic connection, and its angry defiance – what’s left at its heart is a romance between two men.

Des Grieux and Teleny are classic heroes of the genre. Camille Des Grieux, while not exactly a wide-eyed waif, still fits the mold of the less experienced of the pair. René Teleny, conversely, is the tortured artist with mysterious gypsy blood, who enjoys the company of both men and women in bed. The novel’s accounts – often long and very, very elaborate – of the psychic bond between the two may draw a few sniggers and eyeball-rolling from contemporary readers. All the same, the baroque quality of these scenes doesn’t take away from the romance. In their overdone way, these scenes can satisfy fans of love stories with the element of inescapable fate or destiny woven tightly into the plot.

On the whole, Teleny is a fascinating read – though perhaps not completely enjoyable for those easily squicked, thanks to a few disturbing scenes involving a brothel, a rape and suicide, and an orgy. The method by which Des Grieux’s story is told (a dialogue between Des Grieux and another character) is also a bit messy, at times awkwardly breaking flashbacks with present conversation. However, its enigmatic authorship, its open defiance of Victorian mores, and its decadence all work together to give the book its unique, albeit bizarre, allure.

FINAL NOTE:
There are two published versions of Teleny, the circumstances behind the varying editions being covered in detail in the book’s introduction. The edition released by Gay Sunshine Press (1984) makes use of the “London version,” while that published by Gay Men’s Press (1999, New Ed) makes use of the “Paris version.” I read the GMP edition because it’s claimed to be the only unabridged version of the novel that’s currently in print.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon.com UK

Review: Wicked Game by Jade Falconer

Niels got more than he bargained for when he broke into a certain townhouse in the fashionable section of London. The arrogant and dictatorial lord who caught him red-handed was more than willing to take advantage of the situation. Temporarily forced into a unique form of servitude, Niels learns more than he ever expected to about the decadent ruling class that he wants so badly to emulate. Masquerading as a foreign nobleman is easy for the charming Fin (sic) who grew to manhood on the streets of London, abandoned by the only family he had. But will his experience at manipulating people and winning their confidence help him with Richard? Or get him into even more trouble?

Elements: M/M, BDSM, Historical Regency Excerpt

Review by Erastes

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book – but I did find it difficult to read, difficult to stay with and difficult to finish. For a start off, it’s NOT a Regency. In fact I don’t blame the publisher for thinking it is, because – like so many historicals – it’s a wallpaper historical and pretty hard to work out which era this IS in. I was more than half way through the book before I spotted a mention of trains and of Victoria Station which jolted me considerably – suddenly I had to jump forward to the Victorian era and re-set the story in 1862 onwards.

But really, that’s the only clue of the era – the historical background is almost invisible (unsurprising as most of it is set between the sheets) and you could remove the candles and carriages and you would have a modern romance with about four minutes editing.

From the first page I could tell this was going to be one of those books where the sex outweighs the plot and I wasn’t wrong, and apart from the last couple of chapters you could summarise this as “sex” and “shopping.” There’s sex near enough from the first page which continues almost non stop for about 40 or so pages as the reluctant thief is seduced and shown a good time by the randy lord. It starts in a promising fashion – the lord is suitably remote and brooding, due to a bitch of a mother – and the set up was a fun way to get Niels into Richard’s bed but I was expecting a bit more than “Niels gets jiggy with it pretty quickly.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like erotica – I do! It’s just that if I pay for a decent sized book (66,000 words) – and you can call me Ms Picky if you like – I actually like some plot with it. I feel a bit cheated if I find myself skipping entire chapters because the MC’s are “at it again.” It’s like buying a ham and lettuce sandwich and finding that there’s 10 leaves of lettuce and one wafer thin slice of ham.

I quite liked the characters despite all that. Richard was, as said before, nicely brooding and Niels, albeit pretty and virgin to men, is not your typical girlie submissive. I got the feeling that they’d be switching roles at some point. They act like men too in as much as they are totally incapable of saying what needs to be said at the right time, like “don’t go.” The two minor characters are nicely done, too, but this is one of the reasons that I can’t mark the book higher, because at 66,000 words, I’d expect more than four characters – it’s the marathon sex sessions that elbow any possibility of more plot/more characters out of the way, and that’s a pity.

No – or very little -OKHomo, which was a refreshing change – the characters are aware of the illegality of their liaison and the unlikelihood of their being able to just “set up house” together without major problems. But despite that, the anachronisms are legion, a duel in the late 19th century, when the last one was at least 10 years previous – characters saying “piss off”(1950′s) and “that’s brilliant!” and “sexy” (1925) just to mention a few. Oh and “gotten” but that almost goes without saying.

There are other technical problems, subject confusion abounds – and this is caused by switches in POV that make it very hard to understand who is thinking, who is talking. Reviews of Standish pointed this “sin” out to me, and now – as I attempt to keep faithful in POV for longer sections – I’m very glad they did. Phaze should have edited these switches out, especially when it led to me going “who’s talking? what’s he talking about?”

Falconer appears to be a collaboration of writers, as s/he speaks on her LiveJournal in the royal we. I think they aren’t bad writers, but they need to tighten up in a good few aspects, and then they’d have a book I’d really enjoy to read.

Buy from Phaze

Review: David Blaize by E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson’s delightfully nostalgic classic of public school life is in the tradition of P.G. Wodehouse’s Tales of St. Austin’s. Memorably evoking the joys and torments of boyhood, from midnight feasts and glorious days on the cricket field to waxy masters and hilariously embarrassing parental visits, Benson follows young David Blaize from prep school to Marchester Collete – a thinly disguised portrait of the author’s own beloved Marlborough.

Affectionate, richly comic, and laced with E.F. Benson’s inimitable wit, David Blaize is a marvellous entertainment from one of the century’s greatest humorous writers.

Review by Renee Manley

David Blaize is a nostalgic and whimsical coming-of-age novel that follows the academic adventures of one of the most charming protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The novel was written during WWI, hence the idyllic and loving – perhaps elegiac – portrait drawn of schoolboy life in the late 19th century. E.F. Benson, almost in his fifties when he wrote the novel, certainly had good reason to fix his mind to happier, far more innocent days.

David, as the protagonist, is virtually a paragon of youth. Good-looking, bright, innocent, he might at first be mistaken for a soft, effeminate sort, but he cannot be stereotyped. He demonstrates a sharp wit that allows him to outfox his superiors as well as athletic prowess that makes him a star on the cricket field. In many ways, David embodies all that’s fresh and good about youth.

The novel offers not much by way of conflict. Rather than subject the reader to classic coming-of-age angst, Benson instead laughs himself silly from the first page to the last. There are hindrances, there are problems – but none of it comes close to the high drama so common in most coming-of-age novels. Even David’s freak accident in the final chapter, though dangerous, seems to be an afterthought – something thrown in as a last-minute plot device in order to bring Maddox back to David’s side. Its suddenness and sharp divergence in tone from the rest of the novel lends the scene an unfortunate grating quality, so much so that the contrivance becomes glaring.

The same-sex romance in this novel is beautifully subtle. While it remains platonic, it comes off strongly whenever David and Frank Maddox are together. Just as David Copperfield has his James Steerforth (albeit only to a certain point), and Laurie Odell has his Ralph Lanyon, David Blaize has his Frank Maddox. As with most schoolboy romances, David and Frank’s begins as adoration, which turns passionate without being physical. David is the younger of the two – wide-eyed and eager to please. Frank is older – handsome, smart, protective, and much more attuned to the nature of their relationship. He therefore becomes David’s protector (a classic scenario), and the scenes in which the two of them are together fairly drips with young romance. Even when Maddox angrily punishes David for infractions, the reader’s left without any doubt as to the nature of their relationship.

Bags, David’s best friend from prep school, finishes the triangle. Goofy, kind, selfless, and utterly in love with a rather clueless David, Bags parallels his friend in David’s adoration of Maddox. Benson, bless the man, doesn’t denigrate Bags in any way. There’s quite a bit of kind-hearted and sympathetic humor in his treatment of the boy, and there’s also a good deal of nobility in the way Bags’ quiet suffering is portrayed.

Everything is carefully and precisely captured. Every scene, every nuance, lovingly committed to text. Even cricket matches take up entire chapters, which might test a contemporary reader’s patience after a while. The humor is wonderful – satirical in many ways, but certainly softened with the fondness of nostalgia. Even the scenes involving David’s father, who tortures his son by embarrassing him in front of the entire school, are richly detailed and conveyed with so much wit.

Scholars believe that E.F. Benson mined his own history for material for his novels, and that David Blaize is semi-autobiographical. If so, the poignancy of an older man’s attempts at recapturing an idyllic chunk of time far removed from the war-torn present doesn’t soften the humor of the novel. No – rather, it enriches the reading experience.

Amazon USA Amazon UK Online version (free)

Review: Street Lavender by Chris Hunt

Review by Lee Benoit 

Street Lavender cover 

In the current issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide literary critic David Bergman describes four dynamics that define gay literature: creating art; providing positive images; changing attitudes; and market viability (see comment below).  In Chris Hunt’s Street Lavender we get all four, neatly and delightfully packaged.  And it wrung tears from me, which isn’t something Bergman seemed concerned about, but which secures Hunt’s twenty-year-old novel a place on my “do not lend” shelf.

 

The book is set in 1880s London, around the time of the passage of 1885’s Criminal Law Amendment Act with its Section 11 that effectively (re)criminalized all male homosexual behavior; the law is mentioned once in passing, it figures not at all in the story.  Why not?  Because Willie Smith, our protagonist, couldn’t care less about what Parliament was up to, and neither does the reader, for the reader’s completely swept away by Willie’s distinctive voice and story.  The novel apes the style and structure of Victorian bildungsromans to great effect.

 

Willie is the best kind of unreliable narrator.  He’s got a terrific sense of moment (Hunt lets him Capitalize Important Things, which might grate on some but I found charming), he’s cheeky, and even as a lad (like any good Victorian epic we begin at the beginning) he’s blithely cognizant of his own shortcomings and his personal responsibility for the trajectory of his journey through life (until we leave him some 340 pages later at the ripe old age of 17).

 

I didn’t expect to laugh out loud at the adventures of a Victorian child prostitute, but I did.  The novel itself is gently tongue-in-cheek in parts, but Willie is genuinely funny.  And the humor matures right along with Willie.  For instance, at twelve, Willie arrives from his slum to live with his middle class aunt Louisa, her husband, and their young son Georgey, with whom  Willie is already half in love upon arrival.  The first order of business is to give the little guttersnipe a bath.  His delicate, histrionic aunt quails at the prospect of doing it herself (the idea of Helping a Poor Relation appeals, but the flesh-and-blood reality is another matter):

“When she contemplated the actual me … she pressed the back of her hand against her forehead in a theatrical gesture of stress and despair.“‘Mrs. Braddon!’ she cried [to the housekeeper].  ‘See to him.’“Georgey giggled.  I grimaced.“‘Mamma, may I stay?’ Georgey pleaded.“‘How does Willie feel about such an impudent request?’ asked my aunt who adored him.“‘Yeah, stay,’ I appealed to my sweet little friend.“I needed some support at the idea of being seen to by Mrs. Braddon.  She had the inevitability of a machine.” (pp. 67-68) 

At the risk of irritating you with another passage, I offer this as an example of Willie’s sense of humor at 17.  He has been living and modeling for a houseful of artists in Bloomsbury, and chafes at the callous way they bring street people in to model for them, giving them a glimpse of an alien, alluring life, only to dump them back onto the streets before the paint is dry.  Unbeknownst to his benefactors, Willie undertakes to keep a pot of soup at the ready, using the proceeds of his own modeling to feed his fellows:

“Oh! The eruption when I was found out!“Franklin was furious, Clara upset, and Charles rampant with sarcasm.” (p. 285) 

This passage reveals another of Hunt’s triumphs.  Willie’s knowledge of his world grows with his knowledge of himself, and Hunt never lets this boundary slip.  The power of the writing shows in the attention to period detail, both physical and psychological.

 

Willie is the sort of fellow who notices details, so it’s perfectly natural for him to describe a room, a nighttime street, or a whore’s dress.  What’s remarkable, however, is that as Willie travels from one strange land to another he grafts his observations onto those he had before; he sees and describes objects and settings and characters through the newly ground lens of what he’s experienced in the mean time.  This device brings Victorian London alive in a way I didn’t expect (for example, the younger Willie describes bedbugs as an unpleasant fact of life in his Aldgate digs, but when he encounters them again after one of his many reversals of fortune they’re a horror salient of the physical and psychological distance he’s traveled).

 

Which brings me to another point of interest for historical fiction aficionados.  There’s no taint of psychological gentrification in Willie’s story.  Self-reflective though he is, no 20th century sensibility seeps in, not even when Willie decides he’s proud of being an “Urning.”  The classically-influenced German idea that men who love men comprise female psyches in male bodies (better known, I think, as “Uranian”) gives Willie a sense of connectedness to men like himself throughout history, but that history extends no further than its 1880s parameters.  Willie knows there’s a wrongness to his interest in his young cousin Georgy, but at the end of the day he’s more worried that the spoiled, simpering Georgy doesn’t approach his Ideal than that it signals any moral turpitude on his part.  No Freudian imagery in sight – very refreshing.

 

Each of the six parts of the novel gives us one discrete leg of Willie’s journey, each with its own narrative arc.  That the six parts hang so elegantly together is due to three factors: Willie’s inimitable voice; a cast of characters that winds in and out like a cat through chair legs; and two overarching themes.  The first theme, Ideal Love, is established at the very beginning of the story with Willie’s elder brother Charley as the ideal (squick alert: incest and underage tampering, even by the standards of the day).  The theme is developed and refined throughout the narrative to the deeply satisfying conclusion.  The second theme is political.  Don’t groan!  Willie’s a remarkably political animal and gets himself in trouble with folks high and low for his critical and idiosyncratic approach to social justice.  Willie’s own self-awareness is molded in large part by his political opinion of himself (at one point, poignantly, he hangs a picture of Saint George in the room from which he prostitutes himself, as a model for his own behavior, tilting at the dragon of poverty and injustice).

 

Believe it or not, these two themes twine together perfectly.  In some sense, Willie is Love, caroming through his life in search of a Beloved worthy of him, and of whom he must be worthy.  If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Willie has to hit rock bottom before he can merit the love he seeks.  While, Hunt remains true to his character in that Willie himself sees the purgatory of his adolescence as a sort of extended purification rite, I thought I smelled Moral Judgement in the air around my reading nook once or twice.

 

This minor criticism shouldn’t deter readers.  By the thoroughly delightful, carefully hinted-at surprise ending Willie is ready for love, self-assured enough to stake his claim, and mindful enough of the consequences of living without love to defend that claim fiercely.  And we readers are so firmly allied to his cause by then that any ending other than the bittersweetly happy one we get is unthinkable.

Review: Gaywyck by Vincent Virga

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

Review by Erastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Phoenix by Ruth Sims

At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past and his forbidden love nearly brought down the curtain for good. This is a Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice.

Review by Erastes

What a joy to read this book proved to be. From the very first page I was drawn in with the action, was instantly attracted to the characters and was very impressed how with so few strokes of her pen, Sims managed to draw the situation, the era, the environment and the characters. Language is certainly Sims’ gift but she doesn’t drown you in it. It’s an intelligent read, but steers clear of being a morass where the words become more important than the story itself.

Jack Rourke and his sickly twin brother Michael live by the river in London, picking a living any way they can, (which in Jack’s case means a bit of stealing) while they wait for sporadic visits by their father, away at sea. As the boys grow they dread his visits more and more, as Rourke is increasingly violent, both to them and to their mother. Matters come to a head with such a violent visit that Jack is forced to flee, and friends he has made in local theatre take him in.

The book is marginally longer than some of the books I’ve read recently, but there are points (like this early section) where I’d like it be even longer. I felt it – wasn’t rushed, exactly – but I’d have like to have seen more of this early life explored in the same lush detail that Sims goes on in other sections of the book. Jack’s (soon to renamed Christopher, and then Kit – and yes, this is important) rise from guttersnipe to an heir of a small fortune and a damned good actor could have been padded out and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. He had a worrying tendancy to be a little Sue-ish, or tainted with “Woman-of-Substance-itis” but I overlooked that for he does have faults, and these are brought into sharp relief when he meets Nicholas, a dour doctor – brought up in a strict religious environment who has fallen quite in love with Kit without Kit knowing.

It’s a lovely seduction and love affair, Kit’s licentiousness is contrasted starkly with Nick’s puritanical ideals and when the invevitable happens and both behave far too much like themselves for either of them to forgive each other….. Well – I don’t want to do too many spoilers, but this is where the book really kicks in.

Characterisation: Is great. I could really get under the skin of both main characters without any problem. Even when she shifted between one and the other, it was so starkly contrasted – the difference in their characters – that you simply thought as one then the other. While Nick’s choices made me want to brain him, they made perfect sense in the world he inhabited, and that’s the true test of a good homosexual historical for my money. Ruth doesn’t stick modern day characters in Victorian clothes, everything they do, even the much more openly shocking Kit – is coloured by what society thought and what society would and could do. It wasn’t quite as dangerous for men in 1890 as it was in 1820 – you weren’t hanged: but you still risked prison, disgrace and being exiled from polite society – even more rigid than it had been 150 years before. Sims shows the “salons” of the aesthetes – where the only safe place for a gentleman of a certain persuasion to meet others was in the drawing rooms of his friends.

Kit is larger than life throughout, and that’s perfectly in character, even when his life spirals out of control, it’s in a wonderfully tragedian way with Nick hardly able to keep up.

Period Feel: Wonderfully done, with no Dan Brown tub-thumping explanations of what is going on and the politics of the time. Sims doesn’t talk down to her reader. For someone who self-admittedly has rarely ventured from her own corner of the USA, to be able to recreate Victorian slums is pretty impressive.

Sexual Level. Warm and erotic, without being graphic in any way, a true lesson to me in less is more.

Summing Up. Very highly recommended. Certainly the best written gay historical I’ve read since At Swim Two Boys, and a book that convinces me that I can do better with my own prose. This is not a “romance” btw, chaps – so while I’m giving no clues to the ending, I adored it, because it left me guessing right up until the very last chapter. It’s a real keeper.

Excerpts here

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