Review: The Charioteer by Mary Renault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Textbook: Gay & Lesbian Historical Fiction

 

£40.00

Description

The first extensive study of gay and lesbian historical fiction, this book demonstrates how the highly popular sub-genre helps us understand gay and lesbian history. It shows not only why the sub-genre should be taken more seriously by historians but also how it implicitly works to ameliorate divisions between Christianity and homosexuality.

Contents

Can We Talk?
Spot the Homo: Definitions
Revisionist Histories from Mysterious Hauntings
Coming-Out Stories as Conversion Narratives
Chosen Communities: Familiar Stories from Strange Bedfellows
Romancing the Past: The Uses of Identification

Author Biographies

NORMAN W. JONES is Assistant Professor of English at The Ohio State University, USA.

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Review: Standish by Erastes

Posted by girluknow

Standish is a lush, intensely romantic love story between scholarly Ambrose Standish and worldly Rafe Goshawk. Though the men are thoroughly unalike, the author does an excellent job of persuading the reader that theirs is a love almost predestined in its depth and steadfastness. Never once did I doubt that Ambrose and Rafe loved each other and continued to love each other, despite brief entanglements with other men in the course of the story. This was the story’s strength; the author has a distinct talent for conveying the passion between his characters.

At the same time, the various driving forces in the relationship are realistic. Jealousy and doubt cause separation, but the greater force of their love eventually brings them back into contact with each other. The two men behave as men, not communicating when they need to most, acting rashly when they shouldn’t, allowing pride to make a difficult situation worse, and occasionally succumbing to pure lust. The author did a good job of making me want to smack both men at various moments in the story. I was emotionally invested and if an author can make that happen, he gets big points from me, no matter what other errors I felt existed in the work.

The point of view switching was a little frustrating. Just when I was beginning to involve myself with the reactions of one character, I was abruptly handed over to another character’s internal musings. This prevented me from getting as attached to the characters as I could have been. I think Standish would be a more powerful reading experience had the author switched points of view chapter to chapter or at least scene to scene.

The author has a good grasp of realistic character development. I enjoyed seeing how much Ambrose changed from start to finish. I liked him much better as a person by the end of the story. He was stronger and wiser without entirely losing his romantic heart. His words to Rafe at the end revealed how much he’d changed and how much he hadn’t. I especially liked his last line of dialogue; both romantic and matter-of-fact. I felt the ways in which he’d changed did make him better suited to a lifetime with a man like Rafe. Rafe changed more slowly or was still the process of changing for the better by the story’s end. That was to be expected, considering his upbringing. He had much more to overcome, but I did feel he was beginning to overcome it just in time.

The author made character motivations clear to me in all but one instance. Alvisi’s motivations remained something of a mystery, so I felt perplexed by his involvement. I also found it bothersome that Rafe put up with Alvisi as long as he did. I understand that Rafe felt like a debased creature who deserved to fall into darkness, but most of the time, that seemed nothing more than a personal justification for satiating himself. He might have been suffering emotionally but he wasn’t suffering physically–to say the least. His grief and self-abasement would have made more of an impression on me if he had denied himself pleasure instead. Of course that wouldn’t have been as realistic, so maybe I’m being unfair. I just wanted to see a little more nobility on Rafe’s part, I guess. I wanted a sense that he was cleaning up his act, so to speak, instead of wallowing in debauchery disguised as some sort of penitence. I was mad at Rafe for that and mad at Ambrose for not really being fair to Rafe earlier on, though they were both just being human.

That the author made me care enough to be angry with her characters’ behavior says a lot about her ability as a writer. One other thing I wanted to briefly note is the author’s way with intimate scenes. The sex in Standish was scorching and yet did not go into so much mechanical detail that I got tired of it and wanted to skim. The author included the right amount of description and all the emotion needed to make such scenes meaningful. Rafe and Ambrose were very sweet together, when they were together. I really liked that Ambrose brought out the best in Rafe. I think that was part of why I was irked at Ambrose when he was upset with Rafe, though I appreciated that Ambrose needed to have a taste of the hard realities of life in order to come to a better understanding of Rafe’s frailties. I felt the author expressed all this exceptionally well and that made the ending all the more poignant.

The author included details throughout that provided a strong verisimilitude and evoked the era without overburdening the story. The characters behaved true to their time period in speech and manners (as far as I know) and yet they stayed accessible to the modern reader. That’s another difficult balance to achieve but I felt the author was successful in this instance. Despite the problems I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed the book. It was told with the sort of passion necessary in good story-telling, a passion that kept me reading despite point of view problems. I think if the author overcomes the frenetic point of view switching in future works, he has wonderful potential for continued success.

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Review: Historical Obsessions – A romantic quartet by Julia Talbot

Four historical tales. Gentleman of Substance, Post Obsession, and two shorter stories, Remembering Pleasure and Thrust and Riposte. In Gentleman of Substance, colonial America has never been hotter than when gentrified Michael meets country bumpkin Daniel and sparks fly. The two are irresistibly drawn to one another, but will their love ruin their lives? Post Obsession gives us Markus, a bored aristocrat who begins to receive some very steamy letters from an admirer. Will the intrigue and interest continue when he meets his mysterious writer in person? Remembering Pleasure sees Alistair forgetting what a man’s touch feels like as he does his duty to wife and title. He begins to remember the pleasure of it all when his best friend, Griff, sends him a very special stable hand to help him out. And in Thrust and Riposte, swordsman Rene Godard finds ways to challenge his young pupil’s tutor Owen Tregarth, at every turn. Whether fencing with swords or words, these two duel happily, but can they survive the trouble that comes with kidnapping and strife?

Review by Erastes

A nicely balanced quartet of historical stories of men in delicious costumes and frilly shirts which they shrug off on a regular basis! Talbot does a lot of things right in these stories, her characters are deeply sexy and memorable – and all different; the sex is hot and arousing without being coarse and there is plot which – more particularly in the two longer stories – is not neglected for the sake of the sex scenes which is often the case.

Thrust and Riposte is one of the shorter tales – and is a steamy story of tutor and fencing master who spar with words, spar with swords and then finally spar with… other kinds of swords. *cough* I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to fencing, but Talbot writes the fencing scenes very convincingly and I enjoyed them a lot. I couldn’t work out when the story was set though, as it mentioned The Promenade des Anglais in Nice which wasn’t named that until the latter half of the 19th century when it seemed to be happening in the earlier half.. But all in all, a good story, full of conflict and nice exchanges, both verbal and physical.

Post Obsession is a darkly wicked tale which uses letters as its theme. I have a particular weakness for epistolary fiction and plunged into this most happily. Markus, Viscount Farringdon, starts to get letters from a mysterious man, simply called “E” who seems to know his every move, especially those moves in certain male brothels. At first Markus thinks he’s going to be blackmailed but then he realises that the man is obsessed with him – a early stalker perhaps – and he becomes obsessed with finding out who his tormentor is.

It’s a nicely paced story, leading both Markus and the reader along by the nose and throwing out red herrings and clues as it progresses. The sex when it happens doesn’t disappoint, although I wasn’t turned on by the BDSM elements – there was rather too much talk of dark marks blooming on pale skin, but I realise that others will find that more than arousing, it just didn’t interest me.

Remembering Pleasure is the short story of Alistair, a repressed man who seems to have forgotten how to enjoy himself. He takes on Mick Cole, a gorgeous and darkly handsome stableman who he finds “abusing” one of the stable lads. Instead of chucking him out on his ear he finds himself drawn into Mick’s dominant sexuality and learns that he enjoys himself. Very erotic, and lots of spanking.

A Gentleman of Substance introduces us to Michael St James – a handsome dandy who has been banished from Boston by his father for his homosexual behaviour and has to join society in Virginia. There he meets the rough and handsome Daniel Calhoun, a well-heeled gentleman farmer who thinks more of his stock than he does of society, and Michael is piqued by the challenge that seducing the man would be. He sets out to tease and torment but gradually both men realise that they mean more to each other than that, and they have to make their decisions as to where their lives will take them.

This was the story I enjoyed most, although I was once again confused as to when it was supposed to be set. The back cover said “colonial America” but there were mentions of Empire dresses and roman hairstyles which only came to the fore in the Regency.

Overall, I like Talbot’s men very much, she doesn’t fall into the habit of having her men behave as anything else but men – they aren’t chicks with dicks which is a big point in her favour. I could smell the testosterone!

I’ve mentioned the not knowing what time era I was in most of the time and yes that did bug me. In three of the tales I was completely clueless as to when they were supposed to be set, and in the fourth the blurb seemed to be wrong.. In historical fiction I find this pretty essential, it’s not enough to give me verbal clues like carriages and duels, I want specifics. Some of the language jarred me: cut off sentences abounded, as did words in the narrative like t’was and t’would which were obviously put there to evoke a sense of olde worlde but they should have be confined to a character’s thoughts. But they appeared with annoying regularity in every tale.

But, an enjoyable, arousing anthology all in all, and if you are looking for a pretty decent historical read, with good characters and some deliciously erotic m/m sex, then I do recommend Historical Obsessions.

Author’s Website

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Review: Peridot by Parhelion

Steve is a jeweler who specializes in rare gems. He’s a rare gem himself for the 1950s, a bachelor with a certain reputation. Nate, his best friend and business partner, has never had that sort of reputation, so when Steve gets the call that Nate was caught in establishment that caters more to his type, he goes home to see what’s up. Nate’s got problems of his own, as well as the most supportive and nosy family a man could ask for. He has things he wants to tell Steve, but will society allow it to happen? Parhelion’s Peridot is the tale of an unconventional romance in a very conventional time, full of laughs, tears, and ultimately, friendship.

Review by Erastes

I’ve read a lot of gay short stories since I started in this game, and not many stand out, sad to say, I do have favourites that I return to… but that’s another story…. It generally takes something like a Saki short story to stick in my head.

So the discovery of this little gem (pun not intended but unable to avoid) was a nice surprise. I had no idea who Parhelion is, never heard of him/her before, so I had no expectations going into the story – I read it because it was marginally “historical” being set in the 1950’s but actually that wasn’t obvious in the slightest, as it turned out it was being told in flashback. There’s not much actual sense of historical context – other than the masquerade that gay men had to live under (but then, they still do) but once I’d read a couple of pages I didn’t particularly care.

Basically, it’s the story of Steve Corvey, who – although he has aspirations to cut loose and travel the world – is forced through circumstances to take over his father’s jewellery store in a small town in California, and becomes entangled with an extraordinary extended family called the Jowletts and ends up staying in the small town. He takes on and sponsors a young man called Nate – who he admits that he does not feel attracted to at all – but who over the years becomes his best friend and eventually his business partner. Having a partner enables Steve to travel and to indulge in sexual activities he’s unable to do in his small town. So when in Burma on a buying trip/sexual holiday he gets a call that Nate’s in trouble, he flies home to do what he can to help, unaware that the trip will change his life.

I can’t say more than that, but please, if you haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. It’s well written, thoughtful, unexpected and has a real resonance that will (should) hang with you for days after you’ve read it.

The only thing that disappointed me was that at 14,500 words it’s just too short. There is material in this for a full-scale novel, there’s so much richness and back story half hinted at – and the Jowletts alone could easily fill a book by themselves.

However despite the truly TRULY awful cover, this little tale is reminiscent of “Winter of our Discontent” by Steinbeck and as that’s one of my favourite books of all time, that’s a big thumbs up for me. If you like your homoerotica to be tinged with angst and internalisation, then you’ll love this.

Parhelion – if you are out there, say Hi, will ya? I’d love to see more of this kind of stuff.

Author’s Website

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Review: Smokescreen by Stevie Woods

Lord Richard Douglas (known as Chard to his best friend Julian) has just returned from the continent with a new wife. Sir Julian – seeing them together realises he loves his friend in a way that would not be acceptable to law or society.

Review by Erastes

This is a very simplistic story which way overstayed its 12,000 words by at least half.

Quite readable, but no more than a PWP and very little porn to reward you for wading through the previous 11,500 words. It’s reminiscent of one of those Harry Potter fics where Sirius and Remus struggle with the realisation that they are gay and then end up boinking at the end.

And I couldn’t find anyone called after a type of spinach arousing… I’m not Popeye.

There’s far far too much angst. Six thousand words of repetitive angst where both men wankst on internally about how much they love each other and how the other one must never know and how it can never be when this could be dealt with quite swiftly, and have the story move along to some substance.

Another problem for me was that the author sets “Chekov’s gun” up in the first couple of paragraphs with a reference that Lord Douglas’ new wife is no better than she should be, but the gun never really goes off – so there was a promise that the plot could have been – well, a plot – but I was left feeling let down that there wasn’t any to speak of.

As to historical accuracy, I lost my eyebrows to my fringe a couple of times; there’s no mention at all of the fact that Europe is plunged in a bloody war for a start. Then there’s this quote which nearly had me ripping the thing in half

Softly interrupting, Richard asked, “Are you afraid?”

Julian frowned, puzzled. “Afraid?”

“The sentence is still death. I know it hasn’t been carried out in decades, but still, it would mean prison…Is that what’s worrying you?”

Julian was concerned, though. “Conviction is very difficult, but just an accusation…I just don’t want to ruin your life.”

Um – No. Sorry, Stevie Woods, but During the first thirty-five years of the nineteenth century more than fifty men were hanged for sodomy in England. The law had to prove BOTH penetration and ejaculation to make it a hanging offence – but a lot of accusations were reduced to assault with a sodomitical intent, which meant at least six months in prison, sometimes with the pillory and a very hefty fine.

http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/history/crime/crimes.html#sodomy

I suppose part of the reason that I do point this kind of inaccuracy out is that I don’t want gay regency to follow the leader in the way that some heterosexual regencies do – where Heyer is considered canon. It was illegal, it was a death sentence, to say nothing of queer bashing, and a complete loss of reputation.

Talking of penetration… When we get to the sex I found it more textbook than arousing, and found it a little bit strange that Julian, who had never done anything with men was (from what he’d learned in books – and I’d have liked to know which books?) more knowledgeable about what to do than Richard who admitted that he had had sex with men at least a couple of times before, and really, the men were a little too girly for my taste.

So all in all, I was disappointed. I’m always excited to find a gay Regency, but this just didn’t do it for me. But if you are a fan of angsty feminine men, and don’t give a stuff about period feel, then you’ll probably like it more than I did.

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Review: Sound and Fury by B A Tortuga

Running from his past, Declan Murtagh arrives in London and immediately sets it on its ear, earning himself so many duels with his temper that he never needs to shoot for target practice any more. One early morning assignation leads him to the most intriguing, and infuriating, man he’s ever met. Seth Rhodes.

Seth is a old rakehell, and he sees something of himself in Declan, vowing to take the young man in and teach him a few things about controlling his temper, polite society, and debauchery. When they come together it’s like lit gunpowder, but what will they do when their pasts catch up to them?

Review by Erastes

Once more I encountered a problem I see again and again with these gay historicals, that don’t tell you WHEN they are occurring. When you pick up a book at the library or in a bookshop you flip over to the back and read something like: Fresh from Waterloo -Captain Carter is ordered by Lord Wellesley to quell an uprising in the SoandSo province. Will Carter be able to infiltrate the warlord’s defences? Blah blah…

So we know where – and when – we are!

But this (and many others I read recently) has no clues as to setting it firmly WHEN. And call me picky, but I like to know! The early and mid 19 th Century was a hugely transformative century, the modern civilisation was being born and even 20 years here and there made a large difference to the fashions, the language, the transport etc.

So I had to ASSUME it was pre-Victorian, even Regency perhaps but I had no idea, and as I said, it’s about the sixth book I’ve read recently (more if you count the four short stories of J Talbots) that has this problem and I’m getting more and more sensitive to it. /rant

However, the books starts in a promising fashion, our hero Seth is acting as second to a friend’s duel. The antagonist Declan Murtagh (who is surprised that Seth knows he’s Irish!!…no jokes please) is a kind of D’Artagnan figure when we first meet him, and he admits that he’s been in eight duels in a fortnight. Seth becomes attracted to the young man, invites him back to the house for breakfast and Declan stays for good, and they are shagging before you can say “what era is this?”

If you like long long LONG sex scenes you’ll love this – the first sex scene goes on for 22 pages!!! – about 5000 words. I have trouble writing entire short stories of that length… The book is 35k words long approx and about 18k of those are sex. They are fairly hot, but really, who wants to wank for 5k??? Ouchie.

However – unless my version had something missing – I couldn’t find any actual plot at all. There’s a “conflict” shoe-horned in half way through which causes Declan to bolt but the resolution is weak and the reunion is unrealistic. After its promising start the book deteriorated into a series of rather strange arguments which seemed to have no point, a lot of scenes of the characters eating rather anachronistic things and the marathon love-making scenes as mentioned.

The writing isn’t bad, at all, it’s engaging and I warmed to both characters early on – surprisingly they are three dimensional but I’d like have have seen them given something to do other than.. well, you know. The trouble is that it got boring and I just thought OMG NOT AGAIN – flipped forward for pages – which meant I only read about half of this book at most because when I saw them (after a break of about five paragraphs) getting into another clinch I just kept turning pages until they’d both spent. Again.  It actually feels very much like a converted RPG, now I come to think about it.

If you want huge tender sex scenes, you’ll love it, but if you want some story with your sex you’ll be disappointed, it’s probably one of the longest PWP’s I’ve ever read.

Author’s Website

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