Review: Undefeated Love by John Simpson

Can love survive the horrors of a dictatorship and a concentration camp?

Two young men fall in love just as the Nazi Party is coming into power in Germany. One man is talked into becoming involved with the S.A., and then the SS while his lover looks on horrified. When their love is discovered, both men become the victims of the institution that one of them helped protect.

224 pages, ebook and paperback

Review by Erastes

There’s one major thing that should be key when one reads a book, and particularly a romance: one should care about the protagonists. Even if they are anti-heroes, you should care about them in some way.

Sadly this book falls short of doing that in rather a spectacular fashion by having a two-dimensional guy joining the SA (Sturmabteilung “Storm Division”) and then the SS (Schutzstaffel “Protection Squadron”) because he didn’t like to say no. Then of course he realises how fabulous he looks in his uniforms and he’s totally on board as a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party. In no time at all, he’s causing the deaths of 300 so-called-communists just because one of them demoted his lover from an “important” machine to one that just made drills. Overkill, much?  (He thinks to himself that he’s “not really a Nazi” but erm, sorry – yes, Kurt you are. You bought the uniform (or had them given to you as a present), you joined the party, you wore the jackboots.

I’m appreciative that he might have been afraid as to what might happen to him, but as there’s no actual context to give us that perspective i.e. we aren’t told about any of the gradual and terrible changes happening in Berlin, the things that would have made him scared to say no to Röhm, a powerful leader of the SA, (Simpson oddly spells this without the umlaut, and the editor missed this too, but more on the editing later) but other than the SA were “brawling in the streets” we aren’t told why Kurt is so petrified of saying no.

I’m afraid Kurt lost ALL respect for me the first time he used the excuse “I was only following orders.” He behaves like a schizophrenic, one minute holding his pistol to the head of men and threatening to blow their brains out (for gossiping about him in the bathroom as to whether he was Röhm’s lover, despite him knowing that’s what they’d think) and the next he’s charging about saving lives. But there’s no connect there, we are told that he’s scared, he’s happy, he’s mad about the uniform, but we aren’t shown these things happening. Add to that some very serious head-hopping–we can leap into four or five points of view in one small scene–and I found myself having to force myself to read on.

Editing was a real problem, the editor is credited in the book, or I’d wonder whether it had been edited at all. Subject confusion was one of the biggest issues such as:

“he was holding a cigarette holder with a lit cigarette” 

which is a good trick, if you can manage it.

or

he stared back into Stefan’s eyes, long and hard.

And some of it just doesn’t make any sense, as if it’s been translated

The show went on for just over two hours. When it was over and nobody was feeling any pain…

or

No one had the slightest guess as to who Kurt’s dance partner was

and so on. Too many to list. I suppose I thought Total-ebound would be better at this stuff, being British, but clearly not.

The timeline is shaky, too. First of all, the book begins in 1929 and at the time, Röhm was in Bolivia–he didn’t return to Berlin until 1930 and didn’t take up his position as head of the SA until January 1931. Simpson brushes this aside, and in January 1931, Kurt has already moved from the SA to the SS as part of Hitler’s bodyguard. The errors ramble on, Röhm was shot by Lippert, not Eicke, The concentration camp section has continuity problems too, as they are arrested in 1934, get out in 1939, but we are told they were in the camp for two years! minute they were in there for four, perhaps five years, but they tell each other they’ve only been in for two. The major hurdle being that the concentration camp mentioned didn’t even come into being until 1936 – two years after Kurt and Stefan were put there.

I’m sad to say that the historical inaccuracies pile up until the last page.

The trouble is when you find this level of inaccuracy, you start to doubt everything and you find so much more wrong than you originally suspected. Things like the names of a plane, slipped in when Kurt travels to Munich, I looked up and found that they didn’t start manufacturing that type of plane until 1932. And the name of the plane is a Junkers Ju52 NOT a Junker Ju52. Why mention the plane at all if you don’t research it? It looks sloppy that you can’t even get the name right. I would expect any editor to check this kind of detail too–in this day and age you don’t need to be a historian to use Google, and “epublishers simply don’t have the time” or “why bother when an ebook will be forgotten in six months time” doesn’t cut it. Have pride in your product, or don’t produce it.

There is a plot here, and if I could care about either of the protagonists it would be an interesting plot–it follows the demise of the SA, the rise of the SS and the implementation of paragraph 175 (anti-homosexual law) throughout Germany. The thing is that it simply didn’t emote. I think this is due to a preponderance of telling, not showing. We are told that someone is “visibly scared” or visibly shocked or visibly angry, instead of the prose showing us these emotions. When the writer wants to emphasize the love affair he simply has his guys telling each other how much they love each other and having mind blowing sex (yes, even within the concentration camp.) A better edit would have smoothed this out, made it more believable and eased the author into showing us more.

The concentration camp section won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s a lot of beating, and some rape, even gang rape (even though Kurt consents, it’s still rape, despite the “dubious consent” label put on by the publisher.) But even this section is held at arms length. I know that not everyone wants to read the worst of human experience, but if you are choosing a concentration camp as a setting for a romance, you cannot go prettying it up. Kurt turns into a veritable Mary-Sue here, saving Stefan (who seems to exist merely to nag, weep, suck cock, or to be saved) and their final journey is achieved – with just the two of them getting all the gear (uniform, money, forged letter of carte blanche from Hitler which of course everyone falls for, and ID papers) they need with no problems at all – with such ease it’s almost unbelievable. All I could see in my mind was the film “Bent” and the stellar and harrowing story told there, compared with this almost Disney version of the Great Escape with a happier ending.

There’s so little emotion in this book (other than the random outpouring of love between the protagonists), that it was so hard for me to warm to it. There’s no emotional fallout from the things that they have experienced and seen, no sense of loss for their friends (if any, it’s never mentioned) No details of the changes to their way of life (they continue to live together and sleep together and go snogging in public) no mention of the Jews – and the men come through to their happy ending with nary an emotional scar. Even the author’s note – usually the place where the author acknowledges their research, confirms that certain things happened, etc – is amusing as Simpson tries to convince us that Kurt’s defection and subsequent debriefing made a big difference to the war effort. I found this very odd–it would have been better in an epilogue, perhaps.

I suppose the main reason that I’m so disappointed with this book is that Simpson clearly has a flair for story telling, but there are so many obstacles that mar the path to him doing it really well, despite him obviously selling books. When I look back at the books of his that I’ve reviewed I say the same things every time, shoddy research, telling vs showing, head-hopping.  These are are solvable issues, and I hope that he finds an editor who can really help him mould his work into something to be proud of in the future.

I like the cover a lot.

Buy at Total eboundAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: As Time Goes By by Anna Lee

In 1944, Matt Jackson, a wounded RAF pilot, ends up in the Royal Infirmary after his squadron is attacked. When he meets Doctor Trynt Andrews, both men’s lives are changed with the instant connection they feel for one another. Alone and injured, Matt is invited into Trynt’s home and they become inseparable, finding a love they thought they never would. As the year goes by, their commitment deepens despite having to keep their love a secret. When Matt is deployed and his plane goes down during battle will all be lost? Or will he make it home to Trynt?

Review by Erastes

Ok. Here’s the thing. When you know a fandom, it’s very difficult to read a book that’s obviously converted fanfic when it hasn’t been converted well enough to expunge all traces of the original canon.  I know how difficult this is–I used to write fanfic, and I have two novellas at least that I’m very proud of, but the work involved in making them entirely unrecognisable as to where they came from would be as hard work as writing something entirely new–so I haven’t done it.

And in this case–which is obviously Torchwood fanfic, it’s a shame, because the writing is decent enough to carry a story throughout.

But when you have an RAF Captain Matt (with an RAF greatcoat that becomes a sexual object in itself) who falls in love with a dark-haired, blue-eyed Welshman–now called Trynt–and then you have an assorted cast who are obviously name-changed versions of Torchwood’s cast: Gwen becomes Wynne, the gap-toothed Welsh nurse; Toshiko is now Kimioko,  Trynt’s room-mate etc etc–then I for one have difficulty reading it as an original story at all because I’m translating it back to fanfic in my head.

OK. Putting that aside, I couldn’t like this book at all. The writing is perfectly serviceable, no complaints there, but it’s just far too saccharine for my, and I’m guessing many people’s tastes.

Captain Matt wakes in a hospital after a terrible accident with his squadron where everyone has died, including his own lover and he almost immediately falls in love with his doctor, who of course, falls almost immediately back in love with him. The two men are femininely  sensitive to the point of hysteria, fall in love instantly and are touching, kissing, hugging and weeping on each other’s shoulders within a day of meeting. All this in a hospital in 1944…

There then follows half a book of their relationship building. This consists of Matt recovering–having moved in with Trynt and them having long girly talks, sleeping together but not actually doing anything. But there is a lot of talk and weeping. For the first 25% of the book one or other of them is just about crying on every page. It was ludicrously inconsistent with a doctor and a flight captain, and also was out of character for the fanfic counterparts.

Here’s just one sample of this overblown schmoopiness: (this conversation is happening during penetration while Matt rides Trynt’s cock)

“I know our love is strong enough to outlast whatever this war throws at us. And despite it, I promise I will do everything I can to make you happy and give you the life you want.”

“You already have, Matt.” Trynt began to thrust slowly as he held on to Matt. “All I want is a life with you. I want all the plans we just made.  And I won’t let anything stop us from having them; we’re going to build that life together. I know our love can overome whatever happens.”  He cupped Matt’s face in his hands, gazing into his stormy blue eyes. “And you’ll never be alone again. I’ll always be here for you, loving you with all my heart and making you happy. I didn’t know what true happiness or love was until you came along, now it all makes sense. You’re my whole word Matt and I couldn’t love you more. And I certainly couldn’t ask for anything more than to be here with you just this,” he admitted, then kissed Matt passionately, pouring all his feelings into the kiss.

“I love you too.” Matt slowly lifed himself up and then back down on Trynt’s cock. “Always, Trynt.”

“Always,” Trynt vowed.

This type of conversation goes on for pages, as does the sex which is very coy, to be honest. The author clearly has a problem with using more graphic terms, so there’s lots of “warm passages” and the like. The one that make me want to throw my Kindle against the wall was “essence” for sperm, and essence is used a lot. There’s much fanfic cliche too, the characters are always saying “Come for me” in fact they pretty much say it at every orgasm, and in fact the sex is quite repetitive although some might find it arousing.

As for an historical grounding, there is hardly any. We are told a war is going on, and Matt pops off in between injuries then comes back and “recovers” a bit more which involves sex, massages, wine(!), coffee(!), but you never get the atmosphere of London at war. Rationing is mentioned, but there’s no real impact of it in their day-to-day life.  They drink wine, and in one scene–in December–they eat lasagne and have strawberries for dessert. Words fail me. Where would they have got the strawberries from? Spain? I think the author lost control of her own timeline at this point, as she had them planning a picnic shortly afterwards.

1944 was a hugely important time in London’s war as the V2 rockets were fired at the city–look at this map here–but there’s no mention at all of any bombs, or indeed of anything much. I found this amazing, because the devstation was immense. Selfridges, Speakers Corner and Holborn was all bombed, but Trynt doesn’t seem to notice.

Matt’s involvement in the war is very confusing too. We are told he’s the captain of a squadron, and that he flies Spitfires, but we are also told that he leads bombing raids, and is also fighting on the ground with the infantry. In fact there’s so much wrong with the military details I’m not even going to discuss it.

Then there’s the OKHomo. Unsurprisingly really, seeing as this is converted Torchwood fic, but in 1944 London it’s absolutely mad. Everyone knows and just about everyone lurves the idea of it, understands it completely and the one person who doesn’t has something over him–blackmarket activity–which prevents him doing anything about it and he’s won over by the homo-love by the end anyway. The author makes a sop to having Matt and Trynt be careful in public but it’s purely pasted on, as their behaviour would be obvious to anyone.

And that’s about it, really. Conflict happens about 60% of the way through, which calls for a major crying jag from Trynt as the melodrama is plastered on with a trowel. The conflict lasts for about one chapter, though and the remaining 25% of the book is taken up with the inevitable HEA which loses a lot of its impact because how could they be any more soppy and romantic than they already have been almost on every page?

So, no. I didn’t like this book at all. It had just about every aspect of m/m that I dislike and layered it all up so thickly I felt like giving up.

IF you can handle the constant weeping, pages of declarations of love, long talky sex, constantly crying men on a wallpaper war background with decidedly shaky historical accuracy–and IF you don’t already know the Torchwood fanon, then you might like this. But I’m sorry, I didn’t.

Manloveromance books

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: Pirates by G.A. Hauser

Justin Alexander Taylor had always dreamed of a life at sea. Living on the tip of England’s coastline, Justin escaped one night from his abusive father and stowed away on a ship. What Justin didn’t realize was the sloop, His Revenge, was a pirate ship, out for a broadside and gold. Captain Richard Jones escaped his own life of hell with the British Royal Navy. Leading the group of ragged men to their next adventure, Captain Jones never expected a stowaway to emerge from the bowels of the ship while they were asea. As the captain sought to protect Justin from the violent crew, a friendship blooms between him and his young charge. Soon immersed in bloody battles with Spanish galleons, the two men form a close bond which is about to be tested. Justin knew he would be in for an adventure when he left England, he just didn’t know he would find the love of his life in the process.

Spoilers ahoy!

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is quite an ambitious book, and a long one. At 223 pages it has more plot than most of the m/m Age of Sail books I’ve been reviewing recently. A quick run down of the story is going to take quite some space: Continue reading

Review: Loyal to His King by Sabb

Bahador is caught up in a losing battle and flees but fleeing is probably as dangerous as staying, because he is soon in the enemies camp–a prisoner. That night the Hittite general, Katuzili, uses him as a sexual toy and introduces him to his traitorous friend.

But Bahador is not lacking in courage or resoucefulness, and hearing their plots to destroy his beloved king he uses trickery to escape and warn his people and his king. When he arrives with his warnings though, it is he who is looked upon as a traitor and must prove his honestly and loyalty to the man he loves above all others.

Review by Erastes

“Have that slave washed and sent to my tent” is a stock joke in romance fiction, and this is story is plot-wise, exactly that.  Bahador lives in sometime BC somewhere–never explained–and is fighting the Hittites.  A quick Google I knew as much as I needed to know for purposes of this rape fantasy short story.

And rape fantasy it certainly is, as Bahador is no sooner gang raped and taken roughly from behind by a group of soldiers than he’s ‘rescued’ by a nobleman who issues the immortal line “Take him to my tent.”  I punched the air in glee, I didn’t think people actually said that outside my evil fantasy.  There is a plot here, of sorts, although highly silly–not only does the conquering nobleman speak his plans out loud in Bahador’s own language in front of him, but then falls asleep and Bahador easily steals clothes and nips out of the tent, grabs a chariot – all unseen by any of the hundreds of soldiers milling about and gets back to his king’s camp. All interspersed with lots of rape and sex.

The history, unsurprisingly, doesn’t hang together–the Hittite King Mursili (there were two) ruled in 1500BC and 1300BC respectively.  And the Perisan Daric coin mentioned wasn’t introduced until mid 500BC.  Picky I know, but the facts should mesh, however short and wallpaper the historical, in my opinion.

Added to that, the editing leaves much to be desired, but as Excessica is, basically a self-publishing model, that’s not unusual. “Reigns” instead of “reins” just one example, and one of the character’s names is in quote marks throughout which is very odd.

So, if rape fantasy is your bag, then it’s probably worth while spending $3 on this short story (40 pages) but otherwise I’d stay away.

Author’s Website

Buy at Excessica

Review: A Taste of Honey by Christiane France

Antoine Auguste, Marquis de Vernnay, is twenty-four and bored. Bored with women at the house he frequents on la rue Charles V, and bored with the elaborate rituals and devices he must use in order to achieve an orgasm. But then he meets Honey at an exclusive men’s club, and has his first sexual experience with another man. One taste of this beautiful, young creole man with the golden skin and Antoine’s life is forever changed. Honey is the only person he can think about and the only person he wants. Honey, however, is a servant of the lowest class, and also the property of another man. Can Antoine discover a way he can separate the two and keep Honey all to himself?

Review by Erastes

We are introduced to our hero on the first page, trying to wank (and failing) in his mother’s bedroom.  This was not a good start, as I found this rather distasteful and not a little icky.  Be warned for those of you who run screaming at the mention of heterosexual practices, that–up to now–Antoine has been shagging women and hasn’t found it very fulfilling (although he’s tried damned hard!), and his mastubatory fantasies are all about women.  He’s friends with the Maquis de Sade who has initiated him into the “delights” of causing pain-and Antoine is disgusted that the women he’s tried these on aren’t properly grateful.

he would have thought they understood a little pain increased their mutual pleasure a thousand-fold. But no, the merest touch of the whip on their delicate little backsides, the sight of the tiniest drop of blood, or the odor of burning pussy-hair from the brush of a hot poker, and they were screaming for madame, and madame was doubling, and sometimes even tripling her fees, then threatening to send for the police if it happened again.

Plus the fact he’s not a young man. He’s twenty four, (almost middle aged in the 18th/19th century and at his age you’d think he’d be a little more grown up instead of behaving like a sulky 17 year old.  All this sadly put me at odds against him, but I hoped that’s what the author was attempting to achieve.

His dissatisfied thoughts lead him–rather oddly, I thought–to wondering whether he’d have more luck with men (lucky men! /sarcasm)   He doesn’t do this because he considers himself to have desires in that direction, though.  It’s just he wants:

…something new and different—new friends and new amusements, and different avenues of pleasure to pursue.

However, help is at hand. His manservant needs no more than a hint that his master wants something less boring and immediately he suggests a club for men of that sort.

I found it rather staggering that, when the inevitable hook-up between the first man who approaches Antoine (coincidentally the man who is going to be the love of his life) happens, it happens in the middle of the room of the club!  They have each others’ cocks out in seconds, Honey’s finger is half way inside Antoine and they aren’t even in a booth or a private room.

Within minutes of them actually going to a private room, Honey is pushing his cock into Antoine. No preparation, no lubricant nothing.  While I know that, from discussions on various blogs, this is possible–I found it idiotic that a marquis would 1. allow it and the loss of status it entailed and 2. not be screaming in pain as he’s a virgin.

Of course the painful experience is hugely enjoyable.

[Honey]…was now pumping in and out of Antoine’s back entrance with a powerful thrust Antoine found more satisfying than anything he’d experienced with a woman.

Which I found odd because surely the women didn’t shag Antoine? Perhaps that’s what he actually wanted all along.

He returns again wanting to be touched by Honey and no-one but Honey.  Why? I wondered – how does he know “only Honey” can give him what he needs?  It all seemed rather odd.  There’s a seemingly huge angst section afterwards before the plot moves along and more than that I won’t spoil you – the book is less than 70 pages (on Microsoft Reader) so there’s not much plot to spoil.

However, I have to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  While not being badly written (apart from the sex scenes which struck me as rather bleak, clinical and non-erotic in the extreme) I couldn’t warm to Antoine in the slightest. He lurches from spoiled brat to frustrated spoiled brat and that’s about it, and I wasn’t won over by him and the way he thought he was in love after one painful shag.  There’s a lot of repetitive angst and sections which simply ask for suspension of disbelief.  One minute he’s worrying about how dangerous France is, politically, the next he’s getting his cock out in public. We are told that Honey is the “property” of an English lord which is errant bilge–although I think the author didn’t actually mean to imply that Honey is a slave, that’s how it comes over in the book and the blurb.

The denouement is little better, and considers more suspension of belief, I’m afraid, and I really felt that I’d wasted an hour of my time, so apart from the actual writing which isn’t that bad, I can’t find anything in this book to recommend, as the plot is weak, the history pretty much non-existent and the erotica not very erotic.

Amber Allure

Review: Lavender Boys by S.E. Taylor

Brock Evans heads for Hollywood in 1935, hoping to be the next Clark Gable, and meets another would-be star in Randy Pearce, who works as a soda jerk while awaiting his big break. It’s love at first sight, just like in the movies. But the path to stardom in Hollywood is not quite that easy. Brock finds a job as a florist shop delivery man and gets to meet some of Hollywood’s favorites, one of which finally gets him a screen test at a major studio.

Randy finds an agent who gets him a screen test, too. It turns out Randy is a ‘natural,’ but the big studios don’t want any more homosexual male stars after some previous bad experiences. What kind of Hollywood ending is in store for Randy and Brock, who are hiding their romance, their secret trips to the Lavender Lounge homosexual bar, and their homosexual boss and landlord with whom they live?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Having just read a very good story about Hollywood in the fifties (Sticks and Stones, reviewed here) I was looking forward to Lavender Boys, hoping it would live up to the same standard. Alas, it didn’t. The story was unrealistic, predictable, silly, and not very well written. This is the author’s first book and it is always exciting to test the unknown waters of a new writer, especially in the genre of historical m/m fiction. It saddens me, then, when the book is not one I can recommend which is the case with Lavender Boys.

The synopsis, above, pretty much tells the whole story, except for the anti-climactic and unrealistic HEA ending. Basically, Brock and Randy meet, instantly fall in love, and set out together on their big Hollywood adventure. They have one lucky break after another. Even when things don’t work out quite right—such as when Brock blows the screen test arranged for him as a favor by Myrna Loy—it doesn’t really matter because it is just a sign that that was not how things were meant to be. No sadness, no introspection, just an “Oh well, golly gee, at least we have each other!” and on to the next adventure. Any time conflict or danger threatens their lives, it is dealt with in a paragraph or two, meaning the reader doesn’t have to suffer any angst, either, just like Randy and Brock.

Hollywood circa 1935 is evoked by dropping famous names throughout the book. Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and others I am forgetting (there were dozens of them) all make guest appearances. They all love Randy and Brock because they are as cute as buttons and besides, Brock looks just like Clark Gable! This is a source of endless amusement to the stars and the basis of more than one practical joke. It’s a pretty open secret that Randy and Brock are lovers—not too hard to figure out since they call each other “Baby” and “Sugar” every single time they open their mouths, no matter who they are with or what they are doing—but the stars are all willing to look the other way on this issue because “the boys” are so adorable and besides, it’s the big studios who act like Neanderthals on the homosexual issue, not the free-thinking, open-minded and very liberal movie stars.

Um, right.

As I said, the story lurches along from adventure to adventure with no discernable plot. The writing is amateurish and the dialog inane. Things that might have been interesting to read about, such as Randy having a bit part in a movie, happen off page. They talk about the movie and go to the premiere but the actual filming experience is written away in a sentence or two.

I did enjoy the character of Gracie the housekeeper, only because her ruminations on “the queers” that she worked for were so over-the-top. She was disgusted by the stains on the bedspread and fretted about scrubbing her hands after cleaning the bathroom. However, because she was a source of conflict, she was very quickly given the axe, never to be heard of again. Oh well. Once she was gone, the story settled right back into its banal predictability.

All in all, there is not much in Lavender Boys to recommend. It fails as historical fiction and it’s not a particularly entertaining story, either. I suppose for readers who like super-sweet love stories it might appeal, but for me, it was too much sugar and not enough spice.

Buy at Torquere

Review: One Man Drowing by Steph Minns

Running away in 1762 from a dull life in fashionable Georgian Bath, Jesse Sunderland joins an ocean-going merchant ship. Just nineteen years old, naive and keen for adventure in the expanding world where England rules the seas and dominates the colonies, he has to not only deal with the harshness of this life at sea but coming to terms with himself and essentially his homosexuality, a hanging offence by law in these times. His adventures take him into a passionate affair with the charismatic Captain Jan Hough, who embroils him in his smuggling racket. Set in the ‘golden age’ of the 18th century English smuggler, this is the tale of one man’s quest to find himself, as he battles not only his own demons but the authorities as he is drawn into the dark and dangerous underworld of the smuggler.

Review by Alex Beecroft

As a reader, I’m firmly of the opinion that life is too short to read bad books. So if a book makes me go “oh, for goodness sake!” and throw it down in annoyance repeatedly in the first ten pages, as a reader I would just stop picking it up again. As a reviewer, however, I have a duty to read the whole thing, to see if it gets any better towards the end. Sometimes books do, and you’re glad you held on. The excellence of the end makes it worth having ploughed through the beginning.

One Man Drowning does indeed make me go “oh, for goodness sake!” repeatedly at the beginning. There are so many anachronisms; so many things about what we’re told that don’t make sense in the context. For example, our hero is from a good family (his mother’s family is titled, she ‘spent her first season at the Palace of Marseille‘, and she is well respected among the high society of Bath). But they are impoverished, and he is marrying a girl from a family who runs a successful business, in order to get hold of her money.

So far so good. In the context of the society of the time it makes sense for him to marry the girl, get hold of the money, and then carry on living as a gentleman. He is getting money out of the bargain and she is getting increased status as a gentleman’s wife. But then he goes and lives in his mother-in-law’s house, and gets a job helping her sons run the family business. It makes no sense for him to immediately destroy his status by lowering himself to his wife’s social level. If he did, not only would it negate any benefit she got out of the deal, but the shame and degradation his mother would feel would be acute. Yet she doesn’t appear to feel any shame about his working for a living, and neither does he.

If you’re not sure I’m talking sense about the social stigma involved in work, think about Jane Fairfax in Emma and how she seems to feel that becoming a governess is only one step above becoming a whore. How all people of true sensibility feel terrible for her and try not to mention her oncoming degradation. Think about Pride and Prejudice, and the way all Darcy’s relatives consider that he can’t possibly marry Elizabeth—not because she isn’t a gentleman’s daughter herself, but simply because some of her relations are in trade.

So the set up on the very first page makes me think that the author has no real insight into the thought processes of a character born into society at that time. It makes me think that we are going to get modern characters and modern attitudes wearing dress-up, rather than any real approach to history.

And honestly, I think that reading further proves me right about that. Jesse’s worries appear to be the worries of a man who knows nothing about the society he lives in. He marries this girl for convenience, and all through the ceremony he is plagued by the thought that he doesn’t love her, and that he’s being a cad. Why? Marrying for love was a new and suspicious phenomenon at the time. Marrying as a business merger was a time honoured tradition and Jesse’s tortured scruples just make me think he’s a little ahead of his time.

Jesse actually likes the girl’s brother, James, who likes him back. They get as far as necking on the hearth-rug (without troubling to lock the door) and are discovered by James’ mother. This is clearly a society of matriarchs, because James’ mother takes it up with Jesse’s mother, and she has this verdict:

“But this cannot bring you anything but pain. It is all wrong, Jesse.”

“Wrong? [he replies] I’m in pain now by denying what I feel! Look at the pain I’ve caused Dora too because of the hiding, the dishonesty. Can you tell me that’s right? To hide my true self from society in case, oh God forbid, it disapproves of me and makes me an outcast? Pray don’t turn sanctimonious on me now as I know you are no Bible basher!”

Here we are on page 6 of 269 and I don’t want to read any more. “Bible basher”? Apart from being a phrase that was first recorded in 1885, where on earth is Jesse getting his conviction that only the sanctimonious would disapprove of sodomy? Everyone in British society at the time, from whores to archbishops, at least publicly disapproved of sodomy. And “in case society makes me an outcast”?! Don’t you mean “in case I’m hanged by the neck until dead” or “in case I’m put in the pillory so that the crowd can beat and stone me to death.”?

Where is he getting his pop psychological notions about how damaging it is to deny what he feels? He’s talking like a 21st Century teenager, and at this point I have lost all faith that I’m in a historical at all.

As the book goes on, this only becomes more and more apparent. Jesse apparently thinks that fox hunting is barbaric—a strange attitude for a high born man of his time. He thinks that bloodletting is barbaric (he just happens to know a doctor who just happened to train in China, and on the basis of this acquaintance he rejects a thousand years of medical authority.) He takes every opportunity – or rather the author takes every opportunity, because Jesse scarcely rises above the level of ‘mouthpiece’ until just before the end – to condemn every facet of his society.

Seriously, if I wanted to read a polemic about the evils of Christianity, and how it’s all ‘dogmatic drivel’ which no person of any intelligence or moral fibre could believe, I would not go to historical fiction to find it. Apart from being intrusively preachy, it’s another example of Jesse’s aggressively modern attitude which does not make him in the slightest bit believable for a man of his time.

In the same way, when he’s transported to America for 15 years for smuggling, and given a cushy job as a gardener, instead of being thankful that he’s got off lightly, he cheeks his supervisor and is somehow surprised to be punished. Then he actually slaps the lady of the house and is again surprised to be whipped within an inch of his life. I find it hard to believe that anyone could be that blithely oblivious and stupid.

While he’s there, the author uses him to indulge in further lectures about the evils of colonisation. Which I’m sure is very worthy, but I’m equally certain that his thoughts make him something of a prodigy for his era.

To be fair, I would not deny that an 18th Century man – by virtue of being an independent thinker – could have reached surprisingly egalitarian and modern positions on many things, if that person was presented as a deep philosophical thinker. I have no objection to Steven Maturin, for example, (from the Patrick O’Brian books) who unites some very modern views with a thoroughly 18th Century character. But I don’t see Jesse being presented as that kind of a philosopher. He doesn’t come across as an 18th Century man who has thought deeply about injustice. He comes across as a mouthpiece for a modern author who wants to display how politically correct she is.

She also has a tendency to break out into paragraphs of “my research, let me show you it” facts that read as if they’ve been copied from a text book. For example:

The Powhatans spoke a group language he said settlers knew as “Algonquian”, which they shared with related clans. I came to understand that to them the planet was a conscious being, inhabited by birds and creatures which all had their own spirits and they saw them as fellows, not inferiors. When a game animal was shot or captured it was thanked in a small prayer for giving up its life. I noticed during our hunting trips that not one warrior failed to do this quietly for each rabbit, deer, or bird he took.

This does contribute to a feeling that you are reading an uneven blend of anti-Christian anti-European polemic, non-fiction and anachronism. You’re not being entertained, or even shown the mechanisms, reasons and appalling consequences of colonialism, so that you can come to a deeper understanding of what really went on at the time. You’re being lectured. And I like being preached at no better than she does.

I would not say there was a story. Things happen to Jesse and he reacts to them. Then other things happen. He lurches from one disaster to the next. He’s a reluctant bridegroom. He runs away from his first lover to become a sailor. Then he’s a reluctant housewife, then he’s a reluctant smuggler, then he’s a reluctant convict, then he’s a reluctant revolutionary, then revolution starts looking dangerous so he decides to sell cheese. Then he (reluctantly) takes up with an Earl who happens to come along (but it’s all right because he’s an Earl who wants to live like a peasant), then he’s driven out of his house and goes off to be a smuggler again, then that gets too dangerous and he moves on to something else…. Admittedly, the ending resolves a number of things which had been left hanging, but it’s also a curiously unsatisfying ending, as you’re left with the impression that the next disaster is just around the corner.

Jesse himself is a very passive character and doesn’t appear to have any goals other than being sent to places so that the author can use him to give us her opinions about them. These opinions are generally without nuance—for example, all settlers appear to be evil, all slaves saintly, all Native Americans noble and kindly and supernaturally connected to nature.

I can’t even recommend the book as an interesting way of learning historical facts. I don’t know anything about the Powhatan, for example, so I can’t say how accurate the book is about them, but I do know that Holland was not a Catholic country in the 18th Century. When (following a barn burning) Jesse muses “Such a crime would be …barely considered anything but natural justice by the Catholic Church and the Amsterdam authorities.” I wonder how he’s managed to miss that the country has been Protestant for over a century. I also know about 18th Century ships, and the fact that the Captain of the Viper has “a small hearth with leaping flames” in his cabin makes me think that the level of historical accuracy is unreliable at best.

I think the book would have benefited enormously from the input of a skilled editor. Apart from eliminating the numerous typos, an editor might have been able to encourage the author to show rather than tell. The author clearly is passionate about what she believes in, but she has not yet learned how to immerse her reader in her imaginary world and invisibly guide them to live through the lessons she wants to convey. Currently the book is not an experience, it’s a lecture.

I began to be slightly more interested towards page 200, when Jesse went to Cornwall and actually started to drive the action of the book rather than just being tossed around by his circumstances. Once he became more active in the plot, he stopped, on the whole, being such a pathetic, whiny, judgemental git and I found myself more sympathetic to him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the end made me glad that I’d suffered through the first 200 pages, but it earned the book the 1.5 stars that it gets, and demonstrated a promise that the next book from this author might be better.

Full disclosure

1. I received this book free in exchange for a review

2. I am a Christian myself, so I may be more annoyed than the average person of other beliefs about the anti-Christian bits. I have, however, tried not to let that influence my review. If the author had been equally preachy for or against any other faith, I believe I would still have pointed that out as a criticism. I don’t think a novel benefits from being used as a soapbox for the author’s views, whatever they are.

Author’s Website

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Review: Soaring with a Hawk by Ken Dahll

Aaron, at nineteen the oldest son of a pioneer family, had discovered the joys of masturbation and was practicing his art naked in the woods while the rest of the family had gone into town to attend church. As he strokes his long, hard shaft, he is interrupted by a handsome young Indian brave, Soaring Hawk.

Clad only in a deerskin loin cloth, Hawk, as he asked Aaron to call him, is instantly attracted to the handsome and well-endowed white youth. Over many stolen Sundays they explore each others’ bodies in the myriad of ways two horny young males are capable of devising. In the process they fall deeply in love. When they are discovered in the middle of an act of what the puritanical standards of the time would call sodomy, they are forced to flee westward.

Review by Erastes

The Politically Correct blurb made me smile, but at least it was clear that this was going to be an erotic tale, even if it does explain the entire plot and almost makes the book redundant.

I won’t go into the plot, such as it is, as the blurb has explained all of it.  It’s a short story of about 20 or so pages and is little more than a series of sex scenes from Aaron’s first sexual awakening at 16 to his various couplings with the Indian Brave Soaring Hawk.

Aaron, as the blurb tells us, is 19, and is raised on a farm.  I find it incomprehensible that he, and his 3 brothers, have no idea what hard cocks are for, and what sperm is.  I would have thought that any young person on a farm, particularly one in the 19th century, would have been very aware of how baby animals were made and the processes involved.

The writer seems unable to stick to one term for sperm, and uses euphemism after euphemism: syrup, (a first for me), sap, juice, cream, liquid, sauce.  I find it odd that he points out that he knows the correct medical term for penis, yet for some reason he’s baffled as to what this white syrup is for.

The editing leaves a lot to be desired, if indeed any editing has been done at all.  There are words that don’t exist, such as “rhythmetically” and apostrophes used in plurals, such as “Sunday’s”–and the tense tends to leap from present to past without any explanation.

A warning for readers, there are definite incest moments in the book, so don’t go there if that squicks you.

Even as a short story, I can’t recommend it. I didn’t find it arousing–and believe me I enjoy a good one-handed read along with the best of them, but the euphemisms made me laugh out loud too often for me ever to get into the moment.  The best one is “secret cave” for anus. Please don’t ever let me find this one used again.

Buy at Excessica

Review: Simon A Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry by Nick Heddle

1957. Gorgeous, 23-year-old Simon heir to a peerage, meets and falls in love with a Cumbrian sheep farmer, disappointing his parents and flying in the face of the social mores of a period when gay relationships risked a life prison sentence. Told from the perspective of his lover who acts as narrator throughout, the story encompasses their relationship over a fifty year period spanning their first meeting, when post-war optimism is fast being replaced by decay, to 2007 when the couple can finally validate their relationship publicly in a Civil Partnership ceremony. In between we are treated to a cast of delightful characters Simon s myopic and hidebound parents determined to see their son married to a rich, eligible debutante; Harry, his younger brother, the spare , who also turns out to be gay and the riotous drunken fortune-teller Madame Claire Voyante, who takes great delight in informing Simon of the skeletons in the family closet. Simon: a Decline and Fall of the English Landed Gentry is an imaginative, enjoyable, but also poignant and touching novel. Set against the last gasp of a decaying old world and the first caterwauls of the new, it paints a portrait of an England which is in some ways in decline, and which in others is an improvement but remains, above all, the deeply erotic saga of an enduring love which lasts for over fifty years.

I reviewed Mr Heddle’s other novel, His Master’s Lover, and was singularly unimpressed so I approached this book (which I had bought from Amazon, in case the FBI is watching) with some trepidation.

However, although it shares many of the problems of that novel, it’s actually a  better read I was pleased to find.

The story is told in two alternating sections, flashbacks to the past, when the narrator first meets Simon, set in 1957 and onwards, and one in the narrators present day, starting from 2001.  Simon arrives at the narrator’s house (he’s never named) one day when the narrator’s wife is away on a visit, and the narrator is instantly attracted to him. He’s deeply closeted, almost the point of fooling himself, and thought that a marriage would take away all those feelings he’d been having. However his marriage is not working out at all.

Naturally enough–for Heddle’s writing–you know that the main protagonists are going to get busy with the sexxing almost instantly and there’s no disappointment here.  Personally I would have preferred a gentle courtship–or even one lasting a day or two, especially considering that the narrator isn’t fully happy or even fully aware that he’s homosexual/bisexual at this point, but that’s not to be.  Simon bizarrely takes all of his clothes off (even before he’s told anyone his name) and the two of them are at it like rabbits in no time at all.  This is part of my dissatisfaction of the book–at no point was I convinced that either man really loved each other.  Oh yes, they said it, they said it all the time ad nauseam, but it seemed all to based on sex.  It’s because the narrator is so good at sex that Simon loves him, and what keeps him loving him.  It’s very “tell” not “show” – and there were very few instances where anyone did anything that convinced me that this was love and not just a 50 year lust-affair.

The story is, in some way, a potted gay history of a sort.  The Wolfenden Report had just been held in committee and recommendations that homosexuality should be decriminalised had been put in place. The story covers this, as well as the Windscale disaster, which leads Simon to build a water powered turbine on the farm.  As with Heddle’s previous work, Simon is beleaguered with many of the same problems that His Master’s Lover suffered from, one of the most annoying is the Dan Brown-esque obsession with telling us every single detail of national news in  conversation and the narrator’s thought.   Yes, you’ve done the research, Mr Heddle, I applaud that, but you need to learn that sometimes less is more.

There’s also a huge amount of OKHomo to contend with, as with his first book.  This is set in the Lake District, in the 1950’s.  A hard enough place to farm, even today, and filled with farmer more rugged and taciturn than anything even seen in Herriot’s vet books.  To have everyone in the village accepting of the gay couple living openly together, fondling and kissing each other in the pub, (even once to the point of ejaculation) is errant bilge.  No-one causes any problems for the husband, not even the wife, who left him.  Somehow he had an amazingly quick divorce, too, which is entirely impossible.  He’d had have to have waited five years and use desertion as his proof.  There’s no way (as is actually suggested that he do) that Simon could put himself forward as “the other man,” and it’s this level of idiocy that marks Heddle’s work down, when he’s clearly done a lot of research on other matters.  Simon’s brother loves the idea of their relationship and even wants to watch them at it, and finally his mother gives it the seal of approval.  It’s all very jolly.

I have to say that “the wife is a bitch” trope didn’t work for me either. Simon met the wife once, and he’s constantly bitching about her throughout the book, when I have to say, I think she behaved a lot better than she need have done, in 1957.

I’ll mention the sex, not because I think that all gay books should necessarily have sex in them, but this marks itself as a “deeply erotic novel”, which I’m sad to say, it really isn’t.  The sex scenes are vague, very short and consist basically of a lot of shouting of dialogue like “Oh yes, fuck me harder, oh yes, I’m coming,” which is not erotic at all.  There’s no description, no depth of sensation and if you wanted a one-handed read, which you’d be right in thinking this is, you’d be disappointed.

There are some really odd things in the book: a peculiar old fortune teller called Madam Clair Voyante, who, for the life of me I cannot see the point of; a repeated plot line used in His Master’s Lover of a treasure trove that fizzled out and went nowhere and many plot based editing errors such as a car pulling up in one chapter, but in the next, it hasn’t arrived yet.

It’s a shame, because I have to be honest, this is a much better book than His Master’s Lover.  I put the blame on the fact that it’s published by a Vanity Press and despite their assurances that editing is important to them, it’s clear to me that it’s not.  Granted there are few typos that I noted, but in the hands of a real editor, this book could have been quite good.  It needed the bloated dialogue reduced, the Dan Browning taken out and the OKHomo squashed at source.

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Review: The Tortured Secutor by Jardonn Smith

In third century Rome, being a freedman doesn’t exempt you from punishment, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. This is the story of a gladiator granted his freedom by an Emperor, only to be caught up in the web of a treacherous patrician whose wife has been murdered. He abducts the gladiator and tortures him – only to discover taht some men will not talk, whether they know the answer or not. Powerful forces are at work. But can one strong man hold out long enought for the good to put their plan into action?

Review by Vashtan

Disclosure first: Erastes received the book from the author and passed it to Vashtan solely for the purpose of this review.

To be frank, I struggle putting into words what I feel about this book. It’s usually a bad sign if I need longer than a week for a slim book.(145 pages)  This took almost three. After reading the first third of it, I just didn’t want to go back. I made a valiant effort to finish it a week ago, and just finished the last third. I do believe that you cannot review a book you haven’t actually finished, so I read everything to the last page.

I may revise the policy.

If a writer fails over the first 50 pages in a 150-page book, it’s highly unlikely they turn the ship around in the last 100 pages. And the longer the pain drags on, the less charitable the review. Sometimes, reviewers do feel angry after reading a bad book, it’s the nature of the world.

This is the story of the gladiator Philokrates and the physician Artimos. Both men meet after death in the Elysian Fields, and tell us their story. I think. Because there wasn’t really much story. After the gladiator gets freed by the Emperor after the games, and falls in love with his physician who looks after the gladiators, they get into trouble with a corrupt trader who wants to frame the gladiator’s co-gladiator for murder of his wife, and has the gladiator and the physician abducted and tortured.

The plot then kinda meanders a little, but gets resolved off-camera. The troublemaker dies, our couple receive gifts, go to parties, and that’s the end of it. I must admit I found the story very dull – there’s just no arch to it, as if the writer wasn’t interested much in the story her/himself. What the author was interested in are a couple of graphic scenes where muscular men get crucified, tied up, beaten and tortured, and the rest of the “novel” only serves as backdrop to provide excuses for those scenes. So this is very much about the kink and not at all about the story or the characters. Which begs the question why write a novel at all rather than a number of short stories with a graphic torture scene?

Another thing: The Nazca Plains Corporation seems to take the editing part of the publishing business quite lightly. This is the second book by them I’ve read that is sloppily edited, and they don’t seem to have a standard formatting, either. This book’s paragraphs are all disconnected by blank lines, something I‘m more used to seeing in ebooks rather than print books. The editing overall didn’t look at style, either. I found the style bloated, monotonous and dull – a good editor with some good cutting could have saved the book, possibly. If an editor had found all the weird shifts in point-of-view, language misuse, typos, the gushing about “masculine beauty” and assorted purple prose (I get it, the author doesn’t have to repeat it over and over and over again), fixed the sloppily-structured so-called “plot”, the characters’ motivation…. This might have turned out readable.

Then there’s the cover – while not horrendous and certainly not a Poser cover, it still looks cheap and tacky. Not a cover I’d want to be seen with out on the street.

Research. The author made some attempt to research. From the very setup of this book, it would have been a tough book to write. Very tough, in fact. We’re dealing with two first person narrators, one a learned man and one a rough gladiator. The author makes some attempt to have one speak more educated and more poetically, whereas the gladiator is more vulgar. They still ‘sound’ the same, like the same person tried very hard to change his voice a little. Getting a first person voice of a historical character right is a massive challenge – you try and mimic how people spoke, and what they would have said how. Smith didn’t. After a few attempts to do that, we get words like “okay”, and anachronisms galore.

Now, what happens. While revelling in getting people horrendously injured (the gladiator gets his Achilles tendon severed and his ankle pretty much turned into mush during a torture scene), Smith fixes these people quite quickly, too. Apparently, a physician in 3rd century Rome could sew an Achilles tendon back together, and operate a massively fractured ankle bone, put it into plaster, and the gladiator is fine after a few days or a week. There are people that survive having spikes driven through the abdominal cavity, and in general, this physician is a hundred times better than any Roman physician that I read about.

While there is some research, it falls flat when we have Romans use mahogany (they must have sneakily crossed the Atlantic to get the wood from South and Central America), and the way that gladiatorial games are portrayed doesn’t hold up. Another thing: the characters count time in minutes (maybe they invented a wrist-watch, or the sun dials were way more precise than I though). We have minor characters called Tacitus and Ovid (Ovid isn’t the author of “The Metamorphoses” as you might have thought, but “The Annihilator”, another gladiator), and Tacitus the historian would probably turn in his urn if he knew what his namesake is up to in this book.

I struggle finding a passage that sums up this book. Maybe you want one of the torture scenes?

Once again our Roman guards, a new pair coming on duty for the evening shift, seized Philo and hung him by his wrists onto the overhead spike. One stood behind Philo, clamping his hands onto Philo’s thighs; the other stood in front, pounding him with fists. “No bone,” said the one from behind, and the punches were concentrated on his belly. Philo’s hard and stretched muscle was pounded with meaty fists from below his sternum to above his pelvis, and with no way to draw up his legs or move forward, back or side to side, Philo took these punches with nothing but muscle for defense.

He wanted to puke, but there was nothing inside his belly to puke. All he could do was tighten himself, groan upon impact, grunt upon impact, and stare past the Roman guard throwing punches into him. Guard’s name? Drusus Macarius, and if ever a man could have lived his previous life as a bull and bring with him in this life these same physical traits as a human, that would be Drusus. With broad and compact chest, bulging and rounded shoulders supporting massive arms carved from central limbs of a mighty oak tree, Drusus’s thick-skinned, bony-knuckled fists penetrated like a battering ram.

The method and intent of Drusus and his assistant was not one of beating the man, questioning him, and then beating him some more until he answered correctly. No, initiation to the Ludus Magnus for an obstinate slave simply involved a continuous beating until either he voluntarily begged for an end to it with promises of good behavior, or until he passed out. As Philo took a barrage of punishing blows from left and right, he gave no indication he was anywhere near the point of surrender. It was as though he intended to die before giving in. Drusus threw his arsenal of straight punches, hooks and uppercuts with precise accuracy to the left of Philo’s navel, to the right, below it and above, but Philo showed no signs of weakening. With every muscle tensed from his forearms to the calves of his legs, his fists clenched and toes curled, Philo stared blankly, glassy-eyed, his mind seemingly elsewhere. In fact, Philo’s eyes, when opened and not clenched shut from pain, fixated upon me. He gazed past Drusus and concentrated on me.

Perhaps this was because I dressed differently than Drusus — he covered with leather around his waist, sandals on his feet and nothing else; I covered in tunic of brown wool from shoulder to knee, a corded fabric belt around my waist — but I believe that Philo more than likely saw in me a reason for hope. My expression could not lie. It saddened me that he suffered. It was my fault that he suffered, my decision to let him sleep rather than warning him of where I would touch him that brought about his second round of punishment, and I am certain Philo used my frown and the slow turn of my head left to right as his strength. I am also certain my image was the first sign of compassion shown him in many a day, and although I was mostly powerless to help him, I did have one option to use after giving Drusus and his partner a few minutes to make their point.” (Page 16-17)

Coming to the sex, the torture scenes were clearly meant to titillate, and if there’s no torture involved, the sex is rare, brushed over and fairly bland when it happens. It did nothing for me.

In short, a book that clearly makes some effort to be historical in the large picture, but pretty much all details are wrong. All this could have been forgiven if it had been really well-written or well-constructed (I’m happy to forgive wrong details if the author gives me a cracking good read otherwise), but as it stands, this just wasn’t very good.

Who would I recommend this to? People who like torture scenes and have a torture kink, but even those may want to skip the bits in between.

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Review: The Sheikh and the Servant by Sonja Spencer

Trapped in his life as a pleasure slave, Noori serves each master who passes through the amir’s realm. No one sees beyond the slave’s body—no one bothers to look—until the sheikh of a desert tribe discovers the once-free, educated man could be an asset to his business. Noori’s life is turned upside down as the sheikh takes him to his new home, where he will discover new challenges, new people, the possibility of freedom, and the irresistible lure of love.

One of Dreamspinner’s Timeless Dreams category which they describe as: “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.”

Review by Vashtan (warning – plot spoilers)

Okay, this review was two weeks in the making. When I got the list of titles to be reviewed, I was quite excited. Finally one of those fabled “sheikh stories” that I‘ve heard people talk about! I haven’t read a single one of them in my life, so, to me, that was like dipping my toes into something new and exciting. I read the text in one day, mostly morbidly fascinated from page one.

This is not a kind review, but honestly, this book deserves very little kindness. I don’t actually enjoy ripping books apart, I am a reviewer because I love reading and I adore finding a good book in unexpected places and getting to know authors that I haven’t read before to add to my “authors to buy” list.

I was glad that this book is almost ahistorical, so I thought I could ignore it and move on, forgetting I ever read it, but reading a few other reviews on Speak Its Name, I realized that just because it has next to no discernible setting and is a punch to the face of any intelligent reader, that doesn’t mean it’s not meant as historical. So I will treat it like that. Good things first: the cover is fine (no poser cover, no soft-porn male torso), and the style isn’t offensively bad, for the most part.

This is a short, 158 page story about Noori, a former pleasure slave, who is bought by the eponymous sheik. He lives with the sheikh as his “trusted servant” and they sleep in the same bed for many months. Noori is trained as a pleasure slave, and has been badly traumatized by it. The sheikh is the first man he really wants, but also the first man that doesn’t touch him. To those readers who like a lot of sex with their pleasure slaves, the only sex scene is on the last few pages, and it was… really fairly purple. If that was the pay-off for the other 155 pages of drivel, it didn’t work for me. The sheikh and Noori sleep in the same bed, cuddling a little, but nothing happens. You could think they are celibate nuns rather than men. Noori desires his master, but is too timid to do anything about it, so what we get is this simpering, wide-eyed slave adoring the sheikh for a long time.

Noori is as feminine as you can make a character. “Simpering doormat” is almost too gentle a description. For those of you looking for characters who actually have guts or balls, trauma or not, this is not the story for you.

The story-building is weak, to say the least. Most of the time is spent with Noori talking to people about how great and fearless and wonderful and gorgeous and tragic the sheikh is (show me, please, rather than tell me, dear author!), and the sheikh, on camera, so to speak, is pretty terse and “grunts” a lot. Sexy! Noori plays with the sheikh’s sweet cute pretty clever children (of two conveniently tragically deceased wives), and talks to the sheikh’s mother about how much the sheikh needs another person in his life. Yes, we can see that Noori’s going to make him a good wife; gets along well with the  “mother-in-law” and the children love him too. Very convenient, so the happy ending is set. At some point, Noori’s former, dastardly owner shows up and grabs Noori and one of the children. Noori, despite being wounded, escapes (how exactly remains a mystery), robbing the sheikh of the opportunity to a good action scene where we can finally see him as a glorious leader of men that the author tells us he is.

Then, after the rescue, there’s some “romance” and the purple-prosed sex scene.

So much for the story. Let’s look at the research.

It must be here somewhere.

I’m pretty sure I saw some kind of setting.

Oh, right. Desert. Bedouins. It’s on the cover, right?

What comes to mind when thinking Bedouins? Yes, they tend to be  Muslims. There are certain customs in the desert, think hospitality (not that anybody cares, mind you). The only thing properly “Bedouin” about the cast is that they wear flowy robes. Let’s look at the way Spencer shows us her research. (Let’s ignore the whole thing about male sex toy slaves being traded). What galled me that the two sexes, males and females, interact like in the Western World. No segregation, women seem to be very emancipated, and dating behaviour looks very western. Okay, I thought, so it’s not current-day, because reality looks a bit different in Saudi Arabia.

I knew I was in for a ride when the book opens with the sheikh getting drunk on wine (!). I’m not sure how many Muslims the author knows, but all but one of my Muslim friends (in current-day Europe), don’t drink. And the one I know is a non-practising Muslim. Okay, I thought, our  sheikh is obviously an apostate. That fits with him not praying on
camera and not following the tenets of his own faith throughout the book. It could have been an interesting conflict, apart from the fact that a sheikh (as a leader of his men) would have to answer some hard questions from his followers if he’s so obviously non-Muslim. Not so.

In this book, everybody loves the sheikh, he can do whatever he wants,
and that includes taking a male consort (after all, he already fathered two children), so that’s pretty much OKHOMO. There is a mention later of that he’s at odds with the Imam, but nothing much is made of the conflict. It’s introduced at a convenient time, but not resolved or used to further the story.

There is no sense of culture, history, or setting. Noori, being pale, is “from the land beyond the northern sea”:

“His people were quite fair, with lighter hair, as well. His was a dark blond, near the color of the sand of this desert land, and his blue eyes were definitely exotic. He was also slighter than the people here, with finer bones and features that ironically served him well as a pleasure slave.”

If we place the novel in Saudi Arabia, I’m not sure about what “northern sea” we are talking about. The Mediterranean? That would make him European. Noori (which, we learn, is his real name) is a  Persian/Turkish name as far as I know. There are blond Turks/Persians, but there is a “northern sea” missing between there and Saudi Arabia.

This is just one instance of the author being incredibly vague about everything regarding setting and culture, which tells me she couldn’t be bothered doing more than adapting the nice flowy robes. I’m all for good visuals, but this is simply not enough for me.

Noori spends a lot of time about obsessing about upsetting the sheikh:

“Grunting again, the sheikh looked back down at his papers after a dismissive twitch of his hand. Noori winced. The man did not want to be bothered, which was surely his master’s intention, thereby sending this interesting choice of distraction. His master would be very displeased that Noori had failed to keep the sheikh’s attention.”

Or:

“Noori dared to glance at the sheikh. Lowering his eyes again, he answered, “In my homeland above the northern sea, Master, I was trained as any free man’s male child would be. I studied numbers and words and sciences. After my father died, I was sold to cover his debts. Amir Qutaibah bought me, and his harem master dictated my education in the finer arts of art, dance, and pleasure.”

The constant “master” this, “master” that, and the melodramatic angsting over things like the twitch of an eyebrow galled the character for me. Noori has no spine, not a molecule of testosterone, and is a complete submissive doormat without any hopes or aspirations beyond getting finally fucked by the sheikh. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about him. If he was part of the harem, he would be castrated, so that maybe accounts for the lack of “balls”, but the author never mentions that, so I assume she ignored the facts of life for a male member of a harem.

Now, the time. The “feel” of the story was historical at the start.  When we learn that the sheikh wears glasses (I assume that’s the “flaw” that’s meant to make him a two-dimensional character), I put this post 1200s, as that’s when we learn of spectacles. Give or take a few years for the Arab world. I read it with that in mind. Then, the sheikh says:

“I have not decided your duties,” the sheikh said shortly, falling silent for a long moment before adding, “I do not believe in forcing someone to warm my bed,” he said gruffly. “It is … counterproductive.” (page 37)

Which catapulted me right back into post 1950ies – the online  etymological dictionary places “counter-productive” in 1959, so a good guess.

Now, there is a lot of archaic words being used, too, or archaic turns of phrase. But there’s nothing that we’d expect from a speaker of Arabic or a Muslim (no mention of Allah or the Prophet, for example), and the author does a pretty poor job making me believe those people speak Arabic, which is usually really poetic.

To confuse me more, there’s mentioning of a place called Meda’in Saleh, which is an archaeological site in current-day Saudi Arabia, which is a site dating from Late Antiquity, but apparently Bedouins lived there, so the time could be whenever. And its is “whenever”, and we’re not supposed to care and we’re not given anything to work with.

There’s one scene where the our demure little slaveling suggests seducing the Imam to give the sheikh a political advantage. That’s the scene I’ve chosen to give you an idea of the characters and writing:

“The Imam and I do not see eye to eye,” he [the sheikh] grumbled. Noori nodded, waiting for him to continue. Shahin narrowed his eyes as he saw Noori listening expectantly. He huffed aloud. “The Imam and I do not agree on a particular matter,” he specified. “And he will not let it rest.”

“What matter is that, my lord? Might I be of service to help change his views?” Noori offered timidly, yet automatically.

Shahin snorted, shaking his head. “His mind will not be turned, not on this matter,” he said firmly. “It is of little consequence. I let him bait me.” His nose wrinkled in displeasure.

“Are you certain I might not offer my services? I was often used as an … incentive … when the amir’s deals were not quite guaranteed.”

Turning his chin sharply, Shahin’s eyes flashed. “Incentive? Like when he—” His words cut off, and he shook his head. “No. I will not tolerate anyone being used in such a manner.”

“But I was trained to do this,” Noori tried to convince him. “It is nothing more than a mere business deal to me. I shall do it if you ask it of me, my lord.”

“I will not, and neither will any other!” Shahin snapped vehemently, sitting up, looking truly affronted. “I will not allow it.”

“You do not understand, my lord. I want to do this for you. I want to make your life easier,” Noori argued.

Lips pressing together in annoyance, Shahin glowered at Noori for a long moment, obviously choosing his words carefully. “I … appreciate … your devotion, but I will never ask that of you. Never,” he growled. “You are not a mere commodity to be plundered. No human is.”

“What if I insist on doing it? Even if you do not ask it of me?” Noori’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he found himself leaning closer to press his point.

Shahin gritted his teeth, practically in Noori’s face. “Then I will have you removed from the situation bodily,” he rasped. “I will not accept such services from any person; it is not a matter of loyalty! It is a matter of what is right, what is decent.”

“What if I desire it?” Noori’s voice dropped to a low, devious tone.

Stunned into silence, Shahin stared at him.

Noori smiled as he realized he might have found a way to help the sheikh without the other man being able to stop it. “I am a loyal servant to you, my lord. I am faithful to you. I wish to see your tribe grow and prosper.”

Shahin frowned deeply, looking quite put out. Noori stared at him, forgetting that he was merely a servant in thrall of a great lord. “Seducing the Imam will not help matters,” Shahin finally muttered, giving in and revealing more information. “He wishes to bend me to his will, and I shall not be tempered in this matter.”

“What is his will?” Noori asked, watching Shahin’s face for any clues.

That face shuttered and Shahin’s eyes darkened, going blank. “He wants my attendance at worship,” he muttered.

Noori closed his hand around Shahin’s forearm. “No man should be able to dictate to another whom he shall worship.”

Shahin sighed, shoulders slumping. “I still honor the heavens, in my own way,” he said quietly, eyes far away.

“I have heard you pray,” Noori admitted softly, “and my heart cries out for your loss.”

Shahin’s shoulders stiffened a bit, but just as quickly he relaxed back against the palm tree. They sat in silence for long minutes. Finally the sheikh spoke. “I forbid you to proposition the Imam,” he rasped.

Blue eyes shot up to meet black ones. “I will abide by your wishes, my lord, but I do not know why you forbid this.”

Shahin stood abruptly, folding his arms. When he looked at Noori, his face was pinched. “The Imam is my father’s brother,” he muttered.

“Then he must understand your … reluctance … to worship.” Noori stood and followed him, standing so close he could feel Shahin’s heat radiating through the wet fabric of his own clothes.

“How do you know of it?” the sheikh rasped.

Noori dipped his head. “I apologize for mentioning it, my lord.” He avoided answering the question directly. “A friend told me so that I might better understand how to serve you.” (page 87-89)

Don’t worry, the man doesn’t have throat cancer, he just “rasps” a lot. I assume that’s meant to be sexy. It can get damned dry in a desert.

So. If you like your Muslims talking casually about doing their own thing, swilling wine, your slaves little submissive doormats, your setting and time evenly stretched over the last 800 years or so, with plenty of angsty melodrama with zero emotional impact, if you like your sheikhs worshipped by everybody on very little merit, and your pleasure slaves effeminate and gormless, go for it. But this wasn’t for me.

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: Devil’s Spawn by Sarah Masters

After an altercation with Vincent, Julian leaves the ton as captain of Le Frai de Démon, trading his wares in foreign parts. Two years pass, two years of Vincent abstaining from sex and mourning the loss of his love. Week nights, gay men gather in Devil’s Spawn, Julian’s club, and though Vincent doesn’t partake in sexual contact, he visits the club as a way to bring Julian closer despite his absence. One night, Vincent’s life is turned upside down with the return of Julian. Though his heart tells him to open up and allow Julian in, his pride rears its stubborn head. Will Julian be able to break down the barriers? And will Vincent find out why Julian is really called The Master?

Review by Alex Beecroft

The blurb for this 30 page story pretty much sums up the entire plot – particularly when it’s obvious that the answer to the rhetorical questions at the end is “yes”.

I feel I should preface everything I say by confessing up front that I am not a fan of erotica, and I’m particularly not a fan of the combination of porn and schmoop. You know the kind of thing—where five pages of throbbing cocks and spunk and improbable recovery times are punctuated by scenes of men talking like teenage girls about soulmates and saving themselves for their one true love and calling each other “baby”.

This story is very much something of that kind. If you like that kind of thing, you may well like this. And you may like it better if you prefer your ‘history’ to be nothing more than a thin veneer of flowery language and a tall ship on the cover.

If you prefer your history to be history and your characters to be firmly men of their century, however, you are unlikely to be enthralled by the level of detail and accuracy in this one. I… can’t tell when in history this is supposed to be set. The characters’ way of speaking and the mention of the ton would indicate possibly Regency. But the inside layout of Julian’s ship is more like something you’d find in a pleasure liner of a century later or more. A double bed on an 18th Century ship? At the end of a passageway lined by doors? Really no. Round portholes in the Captain’s cabin, with no cannon to fire through them? No.

Equally, Julian’s club bears little resemblance to the kind of molly house described in Rictor Norton’s research. Perhaps it’s not meant to—perhaps it’s meant to be a gay gentleman’s club, like a gay version of Whites. But even so, I doubt it would have topless bartenders. It’s a modern nightclub, retrofitted with period costume.

The backstory of Vincent, our POV character, makes no sense at all at any historical period. Vincent’s grandfather was the sort of farmer who held down his own sheep at shearing time. That makes him a peasant. A salt-of-the-earth working man. Yet we’re told he left Vincent enough money to enable Vincent not to have to work at all. That’s one impossibility before breakfast. Then we learn that Vincent—who is, throughout, successfully passing as a gentleman—was bored, not working, so he decided to become a bank clerk instead. No. No way. This would have been social suicide. This back story could only have been written by someone who knew nothing whatsoever about the workings of the British class system in this or any other century. It’s frankly unbelievable.

Does it matter? To me it does. If I can’t believe the character’s background or his surroundings, I find it harder to care about him. And I found it very hard to care about either Vincent or Julian in this. Vincent—aside from the implausible backstory—has no personality. He’s been implausibly celibate for the last two years after (if I’m reading this right) Julian didn’t actually get around to shagging him the last time. This may be supposed to be romantic but I just thought it was rather pathetic of him.

Julian in the mean time has set things up so that his current squeeze will come along as he’s penetrating Vincent, just in time to be thrown away like a used condom. I get the impression that this was supposed to be romantic too, in an “I never cared for anyone but you, Vincent” way, but surprisingly, Julian acting like a complete tosser to one boyfriend in the middle of rodgering another one did not endear him to me.

Add in a little, half-hearted, “is it really supposed to be BDSM or am I just reading too much into the whole ‘Master’ thing?” And it all adds up to something that just did nothing for me at all. I didn’t find any of it hot, but then I generally don’t, with erotica, so it’s hard for me to say whether this was good erotica or not.

If you enjoy porn + schmoop + a window dressing of ‘historical’ without too much of the inconvenient reality, it may be just the thing for you. If not, it is at least short, so you wouldn’t be wasting too much time if you decided to check it out just in case, but I really can’t recommend it.

Fictionwise

Review: Divided Hearts by Terry O’Reilly

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

When Jonathan and Nathaniel part ways, Nathaniel heads for the Ohio territory and a new life with Robert. Robert soon realizes his friend will never reciprocate his love fully. What can he do? Robert agrees to help the English translate in their negotiations with the Shawnee and in doing so meets Red Horse. Now there are two men living with Divided Hearts.

Review

Divided Hearts is one of the stranger books I’ve read in awhile. Let me try to explain.

Divided Hearts is the sequel to Awakening, which I read and reviewed earlier at this site. I had some issues with Awakening but was sympathetic towards the two central characters, Jonathan and Nathaniel. I also liked Robert, the young man with an Indian mother and English father who becomes an apprentice to Nathaniel in his cooperage. Awakening ends with Nathaniel and Robert heading off to a new life and some sense that there are lots of broken hearts littering the ground.

As Divided Hearts opens, we discover that Nathaniel and Robert are living in the Ohio Territory. It’s not exactly clear where they are living since very little description is given of their surroundings (in the village? Out in the woods?) but they have a house that they share and seem to be content. Robert longs for Nathaniel and Nathaniel is still longing for Jonathan. In a moment of weakness and need, Nathaniel invites Robert to bed with him; they have sex and Robert says “I love you” but Nathaniel doesn’t respond.

Time passes, which is described as “years.” Robert begins sleeping with Nathaniel more frequently but still does not receive the declaration of love that he longs for. Robert is trying to decide if this is his lot in life—“an unequal love”—when all of a sudden, on page 30, we have the first of several “jarring interludes.”

If you go back and re-read my review of Awakening, you’ll notice that I advised readers to skip the Afterword because I felt it was an unnecessary and intrusive add-on that ruined the bittersweet ending. Well, the author either didn’t read or care about my suggestion because in Divided Hearts, the “afterword” has become a series of jarring interludes that are peppered throughout the book. In these, the author flips to the present time and shares details of his life with his husband, Drew, and their seeing eye dog, Jive. Drew, who is blind, acts as the cheerleader for Terry’s writing (the interludes are written in the third person). Drew and Terry discuss the evolving story in such a way to make sure that we readers, in case we are too dense to figure it out on our own, know exactly what is going on. The interludes become increasingly irrelevant and personal (Jive’s week-long bout with diarrhea; Terry’s ill-advised one night stand with his boss) but they also have a train wreck quality. I actually began to look forward to them, more than I enjoyed reading the story because the story was…boring.

Yes, boring. As with Awakening, the writing is wooden and flat. People talk to each other, they ride around on horses and that’s about it. The sex scenes are the only lively part of the narrative. They do have a little passion and flair but that’s not enough to sustain a reader’s interest for 164 pages—at least not this reader.

Divided Hearts is supposed to be a historical fiction but the only thing that makes it historical is a very brief mention of the coming Revolutionary War, transportation is by horse, and the fact that Robert is running around with the Shawnee in parts of the US that would eventually become Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia. This is faithful to US history circa 1758 so I guess O’Reilly got that right, but none of this history is presented in the story—I just looked it up on Wikipedia. No detail, no description, no little flourishes that make historical fiction fun to read.

The story wraps up with not one but two happy-ever-after endings which makes Drew very happy (revealed to us in yet another interlude) but left me shaking my head. Now, here’s my paradox: I feel bad giving this book a bad review because the author seems like a genuinely nice guy (he shares quite a bit of personal information in the course of the text). But he really needs to find an editor/mentor who will help him with polishing his writing and storytelling and give him some good, honest advice, ie, “The interludes don’t work, Terry. Leave them out.” O’Reilly seems to have good ideas for stories but at the present stage of his authorial development, he is unable to convey them effectively, which is why I can only rate this book at 1.5 stars.

Available from Aspen Mountain Press

Disclosure: I received an ebook review copy of Divided Hearts from Erastes, owner of this site, who had also previously given me a copy of Awakenings, also for review.

Review: Bend in the Road by Jeanne Barrack

Bend in the Road, set in Eastern Europe in the 1880s, introduces us to two couples that find safe havens in the insular world of a traveling Yiddish theater troupe. IN THE LION’S DEN brings us Daniel Bercovich, a young man in the first throes of finding his identity. Can the man he comes to love accept a new side to him? Yuval Smolenski finds more than the inspiration for his music, he finds something everlasting in FROM STAGE TO STAGE. These Jewish men in love must deal not only with the stigma of that love but also fear the rise of anti-Semitism. Can their love survive all the forces that surround them?

Review by T J Pennington

Bend in the Road is a book composed of two stories, In the Lion’s Den and From Stage to Stage. Both are the stories of gay Jewish men who are actors in a troupe roaming around Poland circa 1881.

I was rather interested in how the author was going to deal with this. There were, of course, traveling troupes of actors in Eastern Europe–primarily, they appeared in the courtyards of synagogues around the time of Purim, put on comedies and satires, and then went back to their own villages and their day-to-day jobs. They were, for the most part, amateurs who put on a yearly performance.

A troupe of amateur Jewish actors could not travel far, of course. Poland, at that point, was owned by Russia and was part of the Pale of Settlement (1772-1917). Jews were restricted. They could not travel far or often without official permission; they could only live or sleep in certain areas; they could not own land; they could not brew alcohol or run taverns. Secondary education for Jews was severely restricted and at times was forbidden outright. Jewish professionals and artisans were sometimes forcibly evicted from their homes in the city and compelled to move to the smaller, all-Jewish villages in the country. Jewish women were even more confined–the only women who could travel throughout the Pale without fear of legal reprisals were prostitutes. (The prostitutes had special passports, proclaiming their profession.)

And on top of all the restrictions and legal discrimination were the vicious and bloody pogroms.

So I envisioned a tale about men shuttling between a collection of relatively close villages, putting on plays, and then going back to their home village and picking up their daily lives, and about the culture shock experienced by a very secular English Jew as he tried desperately to fit in to a world light-years from the one he knew for the sake of a man he liked and was attracted to…but whose faith and traditions and way of thinking were difficult for him to understand.

But Jeanne Barrack chose to tell stories that were quite different.

Aryeh Nachman, whose English name is Lionel Nachman, is the hero of In the Lion’s Den. We are told that Aryeh’s tutor calls him this because “Aryeh” is Hebrew for “lion.” It’s not. “Ari” is Hebrew for “lion.” “Aryeh” is what a mother, father or melamed (Hebrew primary school teacher) would call a small boy named Ari.  The implication is that his teacher doesn’t regard him as an adult.

Also, “Nachman” is a rather noteworthy name in Judaism–it’s the name of Reb Nachman of Breslov (April 4, 1772 – October 16, 1810) , a rabbi, scholar and holy man –and the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name), who was the founder of the modern Hasidic movement.  In the case of the Rabbi of Breslov, “Nachman” is a first name, not a surname–many Jews of the time didn’t have surnames. Even so, it’s rather like a poverty-stricken orphan having the surname of Rockefeller; the name makes you wonder if there’s a familial connection or if whoever filled out the kid’s birth records just grabbed the name at random.

The bastard son of a rich Englishman and his Jewish maid, Aryeh is tall, dark, handsome, gifted at languages, and oddly ignorant of Judaism or Jewish customs despite five years spent studying the Law of the Torah. He is also a spoiled and selfish young man who feels no obligation to be faithful to his lovers though he expects fidelity from them. And he is not good at accepting “no” for an answer–as the story begins, he’s been working his way toward the region of Galicia in Austro-Hungary because he wants to be reunited with his former tutor, a young man named Shimon who kissed him once and then refused to take up with him. Despite the fact that Shimon has already said no and informed Aryeh that he is going home to wed a merchant’s daughter, Aryeh goes after him. He simply cannot conceive of a world where he cannot have what he wants.

In Krakow, Poland, however, Aryeh runs into a traveling troupe of Jewish actors and falls in with them. And among the members of the troupe is the young man he will fall in love with–the tall, strawberry-blond Daniel (or Dani, despite the fact that this isn’t the Yiddish nickname for Daniel), who is “beautiful and very young,” innocent, modest, sweet, shy, fond of “pretty things” and prone to blushing, as well as painfully naive. Despite having lived in close quarters with other men for the past eighteen years, Dani is oddly ignorant of sex and sexuality. He notices when someone stares at him intently, but he’s completely unaware of the fact that he himself is extraordinarily handsome and, at least in the beginning, doesn’t understand why any man would look at him with the slightest bit of interest. He is, to be blunt, a chick with a dick.

Now, someone who prefers reading about male homosexuals who behave more like Michaels than Michelles probably will not enjoy reading about a naive, sentimental pretty-faced man who, despite the fact that an eighteen-year-old in the nineteenth century would have been considered an adult, is constantly described in terms of boyhood. On the other hand, extraordinarily effeminate men who embody the stereotypes generally accorded to female characters are very popular among some readers of male/male romance, especially those who enjoy yaoi mangas and animes. For such people, Dani would be a godsend.

Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

The leader of the troupe is named Moyshe, but really, he’s Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, alternating between normal conversations and loud, indignant proclamations to God. As for his wife, Rivkeh…well, she is every stereotypical Jewish mother from jokes and sitcoms, ordering anyone in the house to “Eat, eat!” and proclaiming of a character that no one has met yet that “he’s a doll, a real mensch!”  Malkah, the wife of the actor who plays the villains, is the resident matchmaker, trying to set up Dani with her niece from Gdansk (which, in 1881, was part of Prussia). She thinks nothing of asking her niece’s mother to send Dani a “picture” of the girl, though an Orthodox Jew would most likely have problems with the whole “graven images” issue even if portraits and photographs were cheap and easily available even to the poor, which they were not.  These are stock characters, rather than individuals–but they’re familiar, which some readers might find pleasant or reassuring.

Of course, there must be a villain of the piece, and that is the girlishly named Beryl. (This is a prime example of the need for proofreading as well as Spell-check. B-E-R-E-L is a man’s name in Yiddish; B-E-R-Y-L is a woman’s name that became popular among American Jews around the early part of the twentieth century.) Naturally, Beryl shows inordinate interest in Dani; naturally, Dani is horrified without being sure why.  Sadly, Dani finds it impossible to stand up for himself and tell Beryl to fuck off. Nor does he slug Beryl, nor play any number of unpleasant tricks on him that would make him look stupid. Nor does he tell anyone–such as the leader of the troupe–that Beryl will not leave him alone. Dani is, to put it plainly, a uke, and ukes, in anime, manga and fiction, are generally cast in a helpless, passive, stereotypically female mode. Therefore, Dani cannot fight or oppose Beryl, nor can he protect himself; his love interest, Aryeh, must do that for him.

There is, to be frank, not much of a plot in In the Lion’s Den. Aryeh is a gifted natural actor–we are told this a number of times–and he fits into the world of the troupe easily. There is no culture shock, no period of adjustment. The main conflict arises from the fact that Aryeh wants Dani and Dani wants Aryeh, but, for a while, despite the fact that both of them are dropping anvils around each other, neither is willing to admit an attraction out loud, and each is convinced that he is the only one who feels any attraction. Then, when they do figure out that they’re both attracted, Dani goes into meltdown because Aryeh is able to pull back and stop touching him; in Dani’s circular logic, this means that Aryeh doesn’t love him, because if he loved him, he wouldn’t be able to stop.  Then he decides that Aryeh and Yuval, the homosexual composer-lyricist-

instrumentalist of the group, are in love when that’s the furthest thing from either man’s mind. (And yes, this does make four homosexual characters in one small troupe.) It’s like a French farce, where most of the difficulties could be ironed out if someone would just SAY something. It will probably come as no surprise that Aryeh and Dani end up together with the approval of the entire troupe.One thing that I found distracting was the author’s habit of salting the dialogue with Yiddish words. Since for the most part the characters were supposed to be speaking Yiddish anyway, it was odd to see an untranslated Yiddish word crop up in the middle of conversation.

And many of the words were used in a way that was, unfortunately, incorrect. Using Yiddish words correctly–as opposed to dropping a Yiddish word like “schlemiel” in conversation–can be tricky at the best of times; the literal meaning and the connotations are often drastically different from one another. I have lived in a Jewish neighborhood for forty years. I am familiar with most of the vocabulary in this book, as well as the connotations of the words…and even I would double and even triple check before using them, because it would be so easy to miss a shade of meaning.

Take the word “beshert,” which the author uses frequently.

I told you it was a beshert that you found him

is a typical sentence.

As a verb, “beshert” means “destined” or “fated.” However, when used as a noun, as here, “beshert” means “destined one.” A destined one is the person God appointed to be your spouse from the beginning of eternity. There’s a Hasidic legend that says that forty days before a baby is born, a cry echoes throughout heaven–“This boy for this girl!”  (The legend is strangely silent about same-sex couples.)

So the speaker is saying, “It was a destined one that you found him.”

Another word that gets misused a great deal is “momzer.” Literally, it means “bastard,” and Aryeh uses the term to describe himself. It’s worth noting, however, that by Jewish law, Aryeh is NOT a momzer. He is illegitimate, but being a momzer involves more than that. For Aryeh to be a momzer, he would have to be the child of a coupling forbidden by the Torah–either adulterous or incestuous. His parents were not married to anyone else, and his mother was his father’s servant, which makes incest unlikely. And illegitimacy isn’t the issue here that it might be in other cultures.  Here are some of the laws regarding precedence and capitivity :

“For example, in procuring their release from captivity,” A priest takes precedence over a Levite, a Levite over an Israelite, and an Israelite over a bastard… This applies when they are all [otherwise equal]; but if the bastard is learned in the Torah and the priest is ignorant of the Torah, the learned bastard takes precedence over the ignorant priest (Mishnah, Horayot, 3:8).

So a learned bastard of adulterous or incestuous parentage stands higher than an ignorant high priest. Scholarship trumps worldly status.

Aryeh is clearly not a scholar. But that’s his own fault. If he were poor and illegitimate but scholarly, he could STILL be considered a matrimonial catch.

And then there’s this about Rute, the mentally slow sister of the troupe’s composer-lyricist, Yuval:

He sighed. “Such a shonda, a shame. She’s a little slow, but such a voice!

“Shonda” DOES mean “shame,” but not in the sense the word is used here. To quote the Yiddish glossary : A “shonda for the goyim” means to do something shameful, publicly witnessed by non-Jews, thus bringing shame upon Jews in general (because, the theory goes, we are all held accountable for the worst deeds of the worst of us.) Also, “Such a smart girl like that. It’s a shonda she’s such a meiskeit (physically unattractive person).”

So a shonda is less about “it’s a pity she’s a bit slow” than “it’s shameful and humiliating to all Jews that she is slow.” The connotation is very different.

Other problems crop up in historical or religious details. I’ve already mentioned the contradictions between the book and the actual laws during the Pale of Settlement. To give another example, Aryeh’s artist-lover Simeon (no relation to the aforementioned Shimon who kissed Aryeh) is arrested in France for homosexuality. Which is strange, since France decriminalized homosexuality in 1791 . It was the first Western nation to do so.

There’s also this detail about a young woman, a stranger in town, who died in childbirth:

If it weren’t for the Rabbi’s interceding, she wouldn’t have been buried in the cemetery!

According to Houses of Life by Joachim Jacobs and Hans-Dietrich Beyer, funerals in shtetls were paid for by a group within the village called the chevra kaddisha. There were even special sections within the cemetery for different groups–Cohanim, children, people who died violently…and women who died in childbirth. Also, in the shtetl, when someone died–even a stranger, shops were closed and people were expected to attend the funeral. The idea was that when someone died–whether a stranger or odious or whatever–his or her fellow human beings should mourn.

Moyshe paid him money to hire someone to say Kadish for her each year and the Rabbi promised he’d have a marker put up for her.

And that’s an alien concept. You didn’t PAY someone to say Kaddish; it was a good deed (and one blessed by heaven) to pray for those who had no one to say the Mourner’s Prayer for them. The rabbi, if he was any kind of rabbi at all, would have encouraged his congregation to do so, as well as prayed for her himself…probably for the rest of his days.

Another anachronistic concept pops up in Aryeh’s protest against Shimon’s marriage:

“You’d sell yourself and enter a loveless marriage, and that you don’t consider a sin?”

Arranged marriages and deliberately marrying someone of good, noteworthy or scholarly family and/or someone who could support you and your family were acceptable, even expected, in both Jewish and secular societies of the time. There was also usually a “getting to know you” period in which presents were exchanged and conditions for the marriage contract were drawn up. It’s unlikely that Shimon would be marrying a total stranger by the time he DID get married. Again, Aryeh is voicing a concept that is modern rather than period–that only marrying for love is acceptable.  It’s a notion commonly accepted by romance fans…but it simply does not fit.

And finally there is this about Aryeh’s Bar Mitzvah:

As he neared the age of thirteen, his mother had begged his father for someone to prepare him for his confirmation. Finding someone willing to begin with the “Aleph Bet” took some doing, but one was found.

The author is talking about preparing for the Bar Mitzvah–a ceremony that celebrates a boy coming of age as a Jew, accepting the fact that he is of age to assume religious and ethical responsibility for his actions. And given the tradition of scholarship among the Jews–boys often started studying at cheder (Hebrew school) when they were about three, and rarely later than six–studying Hebrew and Torah would not be something that had to be crammed in shortly before the age of thirteen. Aryeh should have been learning about both all along.

Moreover, in calling the Bar Mitzvah a confirmation, the author is describing a modern American Reform Jewish attitude toward the Bar Mitzvah, rather than the more traditional one. In the Orthodox way of thinking, a young man could take on ethical, spiritual and moral responsibility, but he would not have to confirm his faith; what could a Jew be but a Jew?

The second story, From Stage to Stage, is a sequel to In the Lion’s Den and begins in 1882 Prague. Yuval is talking to Aryeh in the garden of a boarding house while Aryeh’s sister Ruteleh and Dani fuss over the baby of a member of the troupe.  Dani, it should be noted, is wearing one of Ruteleh’s dresses:

Dani wore one of Rute’s lightweight wrappers, a gift brought back by Yuval for her. The latest fashion from England inspired by the Bohemian lifestyle, the peacock colors suited Dani’s golden curls. Perhaps it was incongruous to be worn over his shirt, but it was the closest he could get in polite company to the manner in which he wanted to wear it.

No one even suggests that wearing women’s clothing outside where he might be seen by someone who was NOT a member of the troupe might attract unwanted attention to him and his male lover. No one points out that a man wearing a woman’s garb or a woman wearing a man’s garb is against Jewish law, either. It’s fine, because Dani likes it. And as quickly as that, we are in the world of OKHomo

The story’s point of view meanders around for a bit; I couldn’t really tell whose story it was going to be. But then the readers learn that Moyshe and Rivkeh are breaking up the troupe and moving to America (we aren’t told why), that Yuval has just returned from a whirlwind trip around Europe (I don’t know how he got permission to travel) and that the troupe’s final performance at a wedding (never mind that itinerant players and wedding singers were NOT the same thing) will be Yuval’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” A gay version:

What if he made the nightingale even more magical? The Emperor could still grow ill, but before Death comes for him, perhaps the nightingale would arrive earlier and sing to him and when he listens to him, he grows stronger. Perhaps, the nightingale would fall in love with the Emperor and the Emperor fall in love with him. Whenever they are by themselves, the nightingale becomes human. He looked at what he had written. ‘Him.’ The emperor falls in love with ‘him.’ He’d have to be more careful. Even something as innocuous as a slip in a pronoun could be misinterpreted. Though in this case, it would be exactly what he meant.

A gay romance drama, het-ified. Written for a wealthy Orthodox Jewish couple, who are going to be married somewhere in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.

Is it me, or is there a fundamental disconnect here?

It goes on in the same vein. The mother of the bride isn’t a well-to-do Orthodox matron from Prague, but a modern Jewish-American alrightnik. You can tell from the way she speaks:

“Excellent news, my dear. I can’t wait to see the faces of the other women of my club. Now, we can go ahead with the rose gazebo and the canopy.”

But Elizabeth Silberstein isn’t quite as Hyacinth Bucket-y as she sounds.  She’s more like Lady Chatterley, because she’s definitely trying to seduce the gardener. The problem is, Tsvi is gay. And this is not a gay man who will ever marry a woman. Oh no. If you were measuring from 0 to 6 on the Kinsey scale, this guy would score a ten.

Yuval meets Tsvi when he goes to the Silberstein house. Sets for “The Nightingale” must be constructed and music composed, and Yuval and the set designer need to know where the play will be performed so that the sets and the acoustics for the music will fit. I can understand that. But then I started to read about the vast estates of the Silbersteins.

They have a house with an enormous back lawn, a greenhouse, orchards and gardens (plural)–in the middle of Prague. Prague, a place that has been quite a large city for more than 1,100 years. Also, the Silberstein estate is supposed to abut AltNeu Park. I cannot find anything called AltNeu Park in Prague. There IS an Alt-Neu Synagogue in Prague’s old Jewish Quarter–it’s the oldest active synagogue in Europe–but there’s no mention of a park near it.

Tsvi is struck by Yuval’s handsome, confident good looks as soon as he sees him. Yuval initially thinks that Tsvi looks like a golem–his features are broken, scarred and roughly made–but then Tsvi smiles one of those transformative smiles that reveal a soul in all its honesty and beauty, and instantly, Yuval is head over heels in love with a man he doesn’t even know. Tsvi, of course, is utterly convinced that Yuval is straight. Regrettably, so is Elizabeth Silberstein.  I found myself wishing that she would stop making plays for all the gay guys and just get herself a decent dildo.

Things continue roughly as you would expect them to. Yuval finds a beautifully tuned piano at the Silbersteins and can scarcely keep away from it or the gardens. Tsvi hears Yuval performing  and begins singing Yuval’s songs to himself; Yuval hears Tsvi’s voice and realizes that Dani will never, ever be able to sing these songs as they are meant to be sung. Naturally, he compliments Tsvi. Naturally, Tsvi tries to brush the compliment off. Naturally, Yuval is so moved by the other man’s voice that he lightly kisses Tsvi, and convinces the Silbermans to give Tsvi permission to practice with the troupe. Of course Tsvi has never felt so welcomed and loved before, and is  astonished that people are not cringing at the sight of his face. Yuval is more attracted to Tsvi than he’s ever been to anyone. And, just as in the case of Aryeh and Dani, everyone in the troupe realizes that the two belong together…except for them.

There’s more (a tragic backstory involving a young man who was attracted to Tsvi and who didn’t take being turned down well, the head gardener at  the Silbermans who would just as soon molest Tsvi as beat him up, Yuval and his visit to a male prostitute, and Yuval’s mentally retarded sister, who is basically a cheerful archetypal Fool), but really, I had no doubt that these two were going to end up together, and they do. On Shabbos, actually.  The two of them are so happy and the rest of the troupe so accepting that I could not figure out how the story would go on–the HEA had already been written. Once all their problems are solved–and the last loose end is tied up when, just as in the case of Aryeh and Dani, one of them is threatened by a dangerous man with sexual assault and violence on his mind and, just as in Aryeh’s and Dani’s case, the assailant is caught and driven off–the two men finally figure out that they love each other and don’t want to part.

All in all, the actors remind me of the small professional troupes who circulated around the Catskills’ Borsht Belt in the 1920s and 1930s. And that would be a story worth telling, mind you. It just wouldn’t be identical to the experiences of a shpieler troupe in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.

This is a situation where the stories are more plausible if you don’t know the period. This is not so much a historical novel as a novel with historical flavor.  If you know anything about Yiddish, the Pale of Settlement, the Maskilim, or the practices and traditions of Judaism itself, you won’t find the book remotely believable. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a wallpaper historical with a couple of yaoi pairings, you will very likely be extremely satisfied. And some people are looking for that kind of book, and would enjoy it immensely.

Personally, however, I cannot recommend Bend in the Road, as it has been widely praised for research and historical accuracy–which search after search proved to be untrue. Now, I don’t mind historically inaccurate tales; if I did, I wouldn’t watch Merlin. But I strongly dislike historical novels that are supposed to be accurate and aren’t, because there are far too many people who believe that historicals are, by definition, 100% true. Inaccurate historicals convince people that they know the facts and don’t need to learn any different.

Because of this, and because there were so many errors, not only in historical accuracy but also in language and in religious and cultural concepts, I’m forced to give the book 1.5 stars. I believe the author can do much better than this…but I cannot review a novel based on what I think the author’s best work could be.  I can only judge based on what is there.

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Review: The Ruling Passion by David Pownall

The Ruling Passion is a story of infatuation and a relationship pursued to its destruction.  Prince Edward was the only surviving son of Edward I, one of England’s greatest warrior kings, whose subjugation of the Welsh, campaign against the Scots and massive programme of castle building near-bankrupted the realm.  Not only was Prince Edward unsuited to carry through his father’s military ambitions, as heir to the throne, but his defiant resistance to every pressure to abandon his relationship with the Gascon warrior Piers Gaveston was to have disastrous consequences.

Review by Fiona Glass

I’ve had to give up on this book, which was a shame as I really wanted to like it.  It’s about a period of history that I know very little about – the death of King Edward I and the accession of his unpopular son Edward II – and all the blurbs raved about the ‘infatuation’ of the younger Edward for his friend Piers Gaveston.

Take this, for instance, from the front cover: “When Edward, Prince of Wales, met Piers Gaveston, it was the start of a passionate and defiant relationship that was to bring England to the brink of Civil War.” Sounds fascinating, I thought.  How interesting to find out exactly what happened and what effect such an unusually open homosexual relationship had on the medieval monarchy of England.  The trouble is that by the time the book starts, Edward has already known Piers for about ten years so all the drama of their meeting is lost, and the author seems to positively shy away from any mention of a sexual relationship between the two men.  An occasional minor character mouths off about ‘sodomites’ and there are pages of angst between Edward I and his chief advisor William Wild about the problems the infatuation is causing, but nowhere does the reader get to see that infatuation, or anything more than a close ‘buddy’ style friendship, for themselves.  Indeed, the few times Prince Edward and Piers appear together it’s in wholly innocent pastimes – teaching a servant to swim, riding off to the hunt, chatting and drinking and having the sort of fun that young men have together in any historical era.  We’re never, ever shown why this relationship teeters over into infatuation or why it should be so dangerous to the crown.

The book’s style doesn’t help.  Apparently Pownall is better known for writing plays and it really shows.  There is very little action and very little narrative beyond some rather basic descriptions of the ‘she was wearing a blue dress’ variety; instead all we get is pages and pages of modern-sounding, iconoclastic dialogue between various characters which is rather banal and wholly repetitive.  A quarter of the way through the book, the old king and his advisor were still having the same conversation they’d had on the very first page, which boils down to ‘What are we going to do about Ned?’ ‘I don’t know, sir’.  I expect dialogue to accomplish more in a book.  It should reveal things about the characters – their background, their hidden feelings, their habits – not just be used to ram home the plot or the book’s major themes for pages at a time.  Added to this the whole style of writing is surprisingly juvenile with simple sentences, childish speech-patterns and a distinct lack of imagery.  Prince Edward is supposed to be nineteen but comes across as about ten years younger than that which is disconcerting to say the least.

Pownall has written a total of eleven novels.  I couldn’t help noticing that whilst the earlier ones were published by the likes of Faber and Gollancz, this one was published by ‘Herbert Adler Publishing’, who I have never even heard of before.  Whether that was a deliberate choice or not I have no way of telling, but the book really isn’t very good.  I’ll be taking it back to the library tomorrow.

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Review: The Pet Rabbit by Silapa Jarun

Ono Suzue: A Man of Talent in the Meiji Era
Part One: The Pet Rabbit
by Silapa Jarun

Review by Alex Beecroft

Ono Suzue is the son of a samurai.  His father took the boy to war with him, exposing him to horrors which have permanently scarred his psyche.  Now he is a westernised doctor, whose hobby is the development of morphine.  With the aid of morphine and hypnosis he takes over the life of one of his students, Kawano Tomoji, who he trains to be his docile pet rabbit.  He also has a more sinister task in mind for the young man, intending him to kill the Emperor, in an act that Ono believes will finally bring peace to Japan.

This book, therefore, has an interesting concept.  The protagonist, Ono, is vile, inhuman, unsympathetic, and yet he has understandable reasons for being as psychopathic as he is.  There’s even the possibility that underneath his murderous exterior there may lurk the heart of someone who honestly is trying to do good.  This too is an interesting concept for a protagonist, and in other hands this could have been a good book.

Unfortunately that is the best I can say of it.  It’s a bad sign when a book begins with a piece of poetry which contains a prominent spelling mistake: “Now a piller of the state he stands”?

If the keynote poem in the very beginning is misspelled, what can we expect of the general level of proof-reading and literary merit?  Not much, alas.  And not much is exactly what we get.  I hate to be completely negative but I have never encountered such clunky, badly written language in a published book.  Listen to this:

“… Look into its eyes,” said the handsome teacher, “watch its pupils dilate”. The Kawano gently caressed the animal’s head and looked up into his teacher’s face and smiled, “they’re beautiful.”

“Mine or the feline’s?” Ono mused.

The student looked down at the animal and breathed, “yours sensei.”

Ono’s mask was enhanced with a warm expression, “Kawano-san please bring the cat to me.”

‘The’ Kawano is used instead of ‘Kawano’ – which is the man’s name.  This interchange is going on in front of a lecture hall full of students – so what’s with the sudden, inappropriate descent into flirting?  (Only a moment ago these two had never spoken to each other.)  As for ‘Ono’s mask’ – I believe the author means ‘face’.  Unless he’s actually wearing a mask, on which he’s drawn a warm expression, of course.

And this is only on the first page.  It carries on.  Point of view shifts in the middle of sentences; people being referred to by four or five different signifiers in a single paragraph…

“Do you have plans for this evening? If not, come by my estate,” he handed a card with his address printed in English, “Frock coat is adequate my servant will prepare a Western meal of course.”

How could Kawano decline? “I’m honored to attend.” He looked at the print, “Sensei, why is your first name Suzue?” It is usually a woman’s name.

“I’ll tell the story behind my name another day,” You have become fascinated with me and I with you.

Info-dumps, strange, jerky attempts by the author to convey what they want the reader to know in ways that the characters – if they were real people – would never behave or think.  Irrelevances – I don’t believe we ever do find out the significance behind ‘Suzue’, though after this build-up I was waiting to see what it was.

The structure of the novel suffers from the same heavy-handedness and lack of coherency.  For the first three quarters of the book Ono’s back story is interleaved between the ‘modern’ scenes with Kawano, so that you’ve only just settled into one period before you’re whipped back to the other.  And the back story – which should be dramatic and traumatic – is hampered by the inability of the language to rise to the occasion.

Ryuichi looked as well and saw that some legs and fingers were black and curling in the bonfire. Many heads were thrown back or hung forward. The smell became unbearable and he buried his face in his father’s waist. Smoke began to assault the eyes of the perpetrators and spectators. They walked away from the burning heap of their own evil act.
 
Perhaps as a reader I’m not willing to put in enough work to turn this into a horrifying scene, but I generally expect that the language will not need my help.  It should be up to the writer to hold me in their spell, not up to me to weave it for them.

Having said that, any possibility the author might have had of sucking the reader into their world and allowing the story to build up steam is thwarted by the massive footnotes which poke randomly into the ebook.  As a lover of history I am glad to see the author did their research, but I would rather that – if that information was relevant – it was worked into the story.  And if it wasn’t relevant, or couldn’t be worked in, I would rather it was left out altogether, or at least gathered in one lump at the back, where it wouldn’t keep interrupting the flow of the story.

As to the story itself – as I say, it could have been interesting, but in my opinion it failed in its promise.  Not just because of the poor writing, but also because so much effort was put into telling how Kawano was made into a docile pet that the idea that he was suddenly also meant to be an assassin came across as a bit hard to believe.  The training or pacification of the boy was, I believe, meant to be erotic.  To me, however, it was so very reminiscent of Anne Cain and Barbara Sheridan’s Dragon’s Disciple books that I kept thinking with regret about how much more I had enjoyed those.

It does grieve me to say this, but other than the concept of the book, I cannot find anything to praise.  There is the germ of a good book in there, but it’s unfortunate that the writer’s abilities are not yet at a level where they’re able to justice to it.

There’s an extraordinary website on this and the books yet to come, here

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