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

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

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

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

Review by Hayden Thorne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy from the publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Review: The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

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

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

Review by Hayden Thorne

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book:, Amazon UK

Review: Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

London, 1918. Billy Prior is working for Intelligence in the Ministry of Munitions. But his private encounters with women and men – pacifists, objectors, homosexuals – conflict with his duties as a soldier, and it is not long before his sense of himself fragments and breaks down. Forced to consult the man who helped him before – army psychiatrist William Rivers – Prior must confront his inability to be the dutiful soldier his superiors wish him to be. The Eye in the Door is a heart-rending study of the contradictions of war and of those forced to live through it. The second book in the Regeneration trilogy.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

The Eye in the Door starts just about at the point Regeneration had got to – Billy Prior looking to get his leg over and not too bothered about who it’s with, male or female. He, and the real life characters Dr. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon, carry on their journey through World War I, finding the way to survive and do their duty as best they can.

One of the themes of Regeneration, the first book in the Trilogy, is the different ways in which men can be helped, or be made, to overcome what we’d loosely call shell-shock. This book looks at the ways in which people use separation of different parts of their personality to survive the rigours of war or of conforming to society. Sassoon combines being an excellent soldier, one who enjoys being with and leading his men, with a man whose conscience tells him that the war is being deliberately prolonged. Rivers has two conflicting parts to his character which are just hinted at, although the reader might guess that one of them is that he’s a closeted homosexual.

Manning, an injured officer now doing desk work, juggles his affection for his wife and children with homosexual desires – desires which leave him open to blackmail. And the continually intriguing and baffling Prior appears to have some sort of multiple personality disorder, a mechanism by which he has coped with traumatic experiences but one which is becoming an increasing threat to his leading a normal life.

All of these themes are deftly handled and interwoven, Pat Barker’s simple yet eloquently effective way with words driving the narrative and making it a riveting read. The mingling of real characters and original is generally handled well, Rivers and Sassoon being believable and sympathetic. However, there are a couple of places where the introduction of real characters – chance meetings with Robbie Ross and Harold Spencer – seem contrived and a bit ‘clunky’. (Like in a film when there’s some casual and unconvincing mention of a contemporaneous event or personality.)

The Eye in the Door won’t give you a comfortable read or a happy ending, but it’s a cracking good story and is well worth putting on your ‘to read’ list.

NB: An afterthought: I did wonder whether Russell T Davies had read these books and been influenced by Prior in the creation of another greatcoat wearing omnisexual officer…

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Review: In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson

During one week in 1916, 16-year-old Vincent de l’Etoile befriends the greatest writer in France and experiences the first great love of his life. Fortunately, he keeps a journal and writes letters, is an exquisitely limpid stylist (kudos to Wynne’s translation), and considers himself too young to have morals. His new friend is Marcel Proust, then 45 and known to be attracted to very young men. Vincent’s first lover is Arthur Vales, a soldier on leave to see his mother, a servant in the de l’Etoile household. Vincent meets Proust in the well-trafficked cafes in the afternoon and welcomes Arthur to his bed every night.

Review by Erastes

I thought originally, probably because it’s a French translation, that this was an old book, possibly published in the 30’s – but it was actually written in 2003. However, (again, possibly because of the translation) it reads like a story written in the year it portrays.

It’s short, novella sized, but it does pack a punch, (I advise NOT to read the full Amazon blurb which stupidly gives away the entire plot) and more so to me because I’d just finished reading The Ghost Road by Pat Barker which deals with the same war. Hint.

The style is hugely literary, so if that style isn’t your cup of tea, then you won’t like this. There is almost no conversation in the book, it’s written in first person, almost second person style “I say:…..You say:… turn over.” as if he’s talking directly to the person he’s in the scene with. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you do it pays off because there’s no doubt it’s beautifully written. I won’t go overboard and say it’s the best gay historical ever written, or that, like some reviewers, it’s innovative and original because it’s none of those things, but it is beautifully written — or translated, as I’m entirely incapable of reading it in the original French.

Vincent is sixteen (and this got a bit wearing, due to the literary style, if we are told he’s sixteen with black hair and green eyes once we are told fifty times) and like all sixteen year olds everything is black and white. He’s embarrassed by his elderly parents and adopts the traditional world-weary pose that teenagers often take. He thinks he’s so sophisticated and clever the way he plays with Marcel Prout’s affections, and he attempts to be mysterious and full of sang-froid when faced with Arthur’s return to the front–but promptly falls apart when Arthur actually leaves.

What I found unrealistic was that he spent all night every night with Arthur, making physical (although not graphically described) love with him in “tangled sheets” and there’s a lot of releasing and spending, but no-one ever suspects he’s got a man with him. It’s a wealthy family with servants so what? Don’t they ever wash these sheets? I was also – having read Pat Barker’s trilogy and hearing many times about the censoring of mail – rather bemused that Vincent and Arthur’s love-letters were allowed to go through, but perhaps that did happen, it just didn’t ring very true. There was also mention of sodomy being a crime, which I thought it wasn’t in France, but as the author is French, I’m sure he knows better than me!

However, very lovely – and it’s a keeper for me, I had a library version but I’ll certainly buy a copy, I just wish I had the skills to read it in French.

Author’s website

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Review: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

Set in 1920s Chicago, The Folded Leaf follows two very different boys who find themselves forming an unlikely friendship. Lymie is thin, clever and terrible at sport. Spud is athletic and quick to fight and blithely accepts Lymie’s passionate devotion to him. The bond between them is obsessively close, until they leave home for college and both find themselves drawn to their new classmate, Sally.

Review by Erastes

This book was published in 1945, so it’s particularly “coded” in such a way that it can be read without some people noticing the homosexual sub-text. I think perhaps that if the ending had been more upbeat in the way The Charioteer had been written then it would be as popular as that book because it’s certainly written as beautifully and to read it is to truly immerse yourself in the high school and university life of 1920’s America with the coon skin coats, letterman sweaters and the heady importance of who you knew against what you knew. However, these aren’t grown men able to do what they like with their lives, and they aren’t in England. They are 19 year old American schoolboys in 1920 smalltown America.

I think I’d have to disagree with the blurb, though. I didn’t see any indication that Lymie was attracted to Sally at any point. They liked each other extremely well, but it is Spud’s misinterpretation of Lymie’s friendship with her that causes the conflict, not any realistic attraction at all.

Are Lymie and Spud homosexual? I think possibly, yes. I would say that Spud shows bisexual tendencies and Lymie homosexual. In today’s frat houses I think that they would–as they are sleeping together in The Folded Leaf, and always sleep touching in a sweet innocent fashion–take their relationship to another level. I got the impression from the story that neither boy ever had any suspicions as to what their deep feelings really meant. Even when Lymie longs to touch Spud, I felt it was more of an adoration of a body of a type that he could never hope to have, for he himself is an entirely different body shape, rather than any sexual desire.

Very often, looking at Spud, he felt the desire which he sometimes had looking at statues–to put out his hand and touch some part of Spud, the intricate interlaced muscles of his side, or his shoulder blades, or his back, or his flat stomach, or the veins of his wrists, or his small pointed ears.

The affection is clear between them both, but stronger from Lymie to Spud. Spud inhabits a much more physical world than Lymie; he boxes, he swims–does all sport well, while Lymie’s skills are cerebral and Spud takes Lymie for granted, while always wanting him in his life. I think that others see their relationship a little more clearly than they do themselves, notably the effeminate landlord (there’s always one!) and Spud’s own family, who, until Sally is brought home to meet them, had been entirely accepting of Lymie’s place in Spud’s life.

The crisis comes when a mutual acquaintance tells Lymie (and it’s never acknowledged as to whether it’s a true tale he tells) that Spud hates Lymie because of Sally’s friendship. Sensitive Lymie feels entirely betrayed and takes matters into his hands. Thankfully the book doesn’t end with tragedy (and I think for the sake of readers of this blog I’ll be forgiven for spoiling this much) but still, the author writes the only ending that would have been accepted in 1945, after giving us one of the most memorable scenes in the book.

If you liked The Charioteer, you’ll definitely like this, because it has much in common with its themes and has beautiful prose–and as a piece of homosexual history, I’d think it definitely rates a read from anyone interested in America at this time.

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