Review: The Actor and the Earl by Rebecca Cohen

Elizabethan actor Sebastian Hewel takes his bow at the proscenium only to embark on the role of a lifetime. When his twin sister, Bronwyn, reneges on the arrangement to marry Earl Anthony Crofton, Sebastian reluctantly takes her place. At nineteen, Sebastian knows his days as a leading lady are numbered, but with this last performance, he hopes to restore his family’s name and pay off his late father’s debts. Never mind the danger of losing his head should he be discovered. 

He didn’t expect Anthony to be so charming and alluring—not to mention shrewd. While he applauds Sebastian’s plan, Anthony offers a mutually beneficial arrangement instead. Sebastian will need every drop of talent he has to survive with both his head and his heart intact, because this is the best part he’s ever had

ebook and paperback – 216 pages

Review by Erastes

This is a plot done before, and to be honest, done better–in Madcap Masquerade by Penelope Roth–but that’s not to say it’s not worth a read.

It’s set in an era that isn’t covered enough in gay historicals–Elizabethan England and although, as the title explains, one of the protagonists is an actor it’s not set solely in a theatre. Shakespeare does get a mention here and there, though–is there anyone living in London at this time who didn’t know him!?

Overall, it’s nicely readable, and the plot canters on engagingly, but there is a major error that runs throughout which made me grind my teeth and will do for others I suspect. Let me just get that out of the way first. An Earl is usually “an earl of somewhere” e.g. the Earl of Pembroke OR simply as a prefix e.g. Earl Waldgrave. They are NOT addressed as “Earl Crofton” but as “Lord Crofton” as is the case here.

That aside, the book makes a good attempt to get a flavour of the time without an overabundance of detail. The food is mostly convincing–there are good descriptions of feasts where the meat goes on forever and there’s nary a fork in attendance–and the clothes are nicely illustrated: the gaudy doublet and hose of the men and the uncomfortable and restrictive clothes of the women. There was one scene where Sebastian put on his own corset which I found a little unlikely, but in the main it’s well done. The author even manages to tip a nod to the make-up of the day–white lead paint for the face–by having Lord Crofton (Anthony) forbid Sebastian to wear it when not at court.

The way the deception was managed–having Sebastian “visit” in his male persona while Lady Crofton was in bed with a mysterious illness was a bit unlikely. Despite having a couple of staff in on the truth it was rather unbelievable that a country house with dozens of staff would not sniff out what was really happening. There’s one section where Sebastian (as a male) goes over to visit neighbours and has a serious fall, and no mention of contacting his sister is made, let alone how that sister’s illness is continued when Sebastian isn’t on the premises. I mean, there’s no flushing toilets, so someone would notice at the very least, the lack of chamber pots.

There’s a fair smattering of OKHomo throughout, however. Everyone who is in on the secret from the beginning is all right with it, and the people who discover it as the book progresses are also perfectly fine, and are more concerned for the couple’s safety than the horror of what they are doing, as was the tone of the day. In fact everyone in the book–with the exception of Sebastian’s sister–is thoroughly Nice and all the conflict, which could easily come from external sources in this time and place, is managed by jealousy.

And that’s its major failing, really because I was never really convinced of the couple’s devotion to each other. That’s possibly because of the fact that the point of view is only from Sebastian’s side, so we never see Anthony’s feelings–although that’s part of the plot, too. But I didn’t understand WHY Sebastian fell in love with Anthony; I could see why Anthony fell for Sebastian as he’s quite doormatty until he finally has enough, but Anthony–other than being sexy and seductive–isn’t particularly nice until he realises that he might lose Sebastian for good.

So, all in all, a decent enough read and if you like the era you’ll probably appreciate it, but not a keeper for me. The sequel will be out later this year.

Author’s Blog

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Review: Over the Mountain of the Moon by Reiko Morgan

Tetsuya, a young male courtesan, is living a life of relative safety until an unknown samurai called Jin arrives on his doorstep, bringing passion and death. Awakened to the strange paths of destiny, Tetsuya chooses to leave the only place he has ever known to follow a samurai who is on a quest for vengeance. Their heels dogged at every turn by paid assassins, Tetsuya and Jin learn to trust each other as they discover hidden truths which may get them killed before their love has a chance to redeem them both.

Review by Sal Davis

The cover of this book is absolutely stunning, even in the black and white version I saw. It’s even better in colour. Deana C. Jamroz has done Reiko Morgan proud, illustrating a key scene in the book in a powerful and tasteful manner.

The character illustrated is Tetsuya, a male prostitute at the top of his profession. Beautiful and androgynous, he is a talented musician as well as being top class in the sack, and has reached the stage where he can pick and choose amongst the clients at the inn where he is employed, though not always wisely. He has a comfortable place to live, enough to eat, good friends amongst the other workers at the inn and in the town. But all that is turned upside down when he intervenes to save a young girl from a wandering soldier and is, in turn rescued by a samurai called Jin.

A day or two later Jin is imperilled and Tetsuya is able to return the favour, thus beginning a relationship that takes Tetsuya from everything he knows and setting them both on a long hard road to adventure and danger. Jin, naturally, is not what he seems, and Tetsuya is far more than the pretty boy for hire that he appears to be at the beginning of the book. That they are destined to be together is established almost immediately, and that their love for each other is unwavering is one of the main themes of the story. Most of the conflict is external, gleaned from plots concerning political manouvring and vengeance.

I know nothing – nothing at all – about early feudal Japan. I haven’t even read Shogun by James Clavell. So from an historical point of view I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate is the author’s depiction of the period. This is a bit of a pity because, as I read, I frequently found myself feeling that I was missing very important points. At other times I laughed at what I assumed to be irony, then wondered if it was supposed to be funny. I found Tetsuya’s girliness and helplessness irritating. That Jin had to spend so much time carrying him around and looking after him when they were in very real danger annoyed me rather than impressing me with his devotion. In short – I just don’t think I understand the tropes of this genre of novel. I have the feeling it’s edging into yaoi territory and the rules that I am used to with western style plotting no longer apply. I also had some problems with the style. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing. In fact I had to go back and check that the first couple of pages of the book were actually part of the story because they read far more like a prologue to give unfamiliar readers some background than a novel. Production values were good, but there are some awkwardly used words, and some very clunky phrasing here and there that the editor should have picked up on.

I honestly tried to like it but it was just too different right from the beginning for me to be able to get into the story. I think that if a reader is a fan of manga or anime they’ll probably have a whale of a time with it but for me – sorry, no, it’s not on the read again pile

Couldn’t find an author’s website

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Review: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

2,500 Years of History Unzipped

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

From the blurb on the author’s website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

(c) Emma Collingwood

Review: Wheel of Fortune by Julia Talbot

From the Blurb: Fortunato is a mute lad, making his way in the shadowy world of Renaissance Venice. Angelo is the scribe charged with his education in reading and writing, all at the order of the mysterious Master Riccio. These reluctant allies come to know each other better than anyone could imagine and as Fortunato is dragged into a world of deceit and danger, Angelo is the only one he can trust and with any luck, love. Romantic historical suspense that begs for more at every cliffhanger.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When I started reading this, I was overjoyed by the way the author conjured up the setting.  I really felt that yes, life in the Doge’s palace in Venice might have been just like this for a child learning to be a tumbler and acrobat, and an ex-monastic scribe valued for his illuminations.  That delight carried me along for a good quarter of the book.  Little things, like the ink stains on Angelo’s hands, or the mosaic on the floor of the church, Basillio’s success at playing the female parts in plays, the atmosphere of the store-room where the old musical instruments are kept – these were so well written and enthralling that I was initially swept away simply by the lavish detail.

Both Angelo and Fortunato are very likeable characters, and I was intrigued by Fortunato’s dumbness and the efforts that the other characters had to make to communicate with him.  It’s an amusing twist that Fortunato is rejected by his family and goes through the angst so typical of m/m protagonists, but not because he’s gay – he’s flawed because he can’t speak.

The romance between Angelo and Fortunato also starts delightfully, with Angelo initially resentful of being given the task of teaching the boy to read, then charmed by Fortunato’s sweetness of temper, while dead set and determined not to allow himself to be attracted by someone who is at that point still a child.  The growing tenderness and trust which they each have for each other is another beauty of the book.  It’s nice to see a relationship which is obviously built on mutual kindness and liking, rather than the usual concentration on mere looks and lust.

Unfortunately my initial delight faded a little once I got past the midpoint of the book.  Fortunato began to grow up, enough to have a threesome with his friends and to develop fully realized desire for Angelo.  But his characterization did not seem to change in any way.  It’s hard to explain, but I felt he was still written as a sweet innocent child.  I was looking for some evidence that the child had turned into a man, and I didn’t find it.  This was also reflected in the way the other characters treated Fortunato; even at the end, when he’s stormed the dungeons and rescued his lover (while somehow still remaining sweet and innocent) the other characters persist in mothering him.  That had made sense at the beginning, but gradually became less and less convincing.

I also felt that once sex entered the equation, the novel’s wonderful attention to detail and characterization got sidelined in favour of fitting in a certain quota of sex scenes.  Fortunato’s discovery that his training has been in order to equip him to become Master Riccio’s assassin, and his reaction to being sent out on his first mission is passed by almost in parentheses.  All we see of it is him returning to weep on Angelo’s shoulder, and Angelo being outraged that Fortunato’s kind and gentle nature has been taken advantage of.  The fact that he’s killed someone in cold blood is ignored as though it was a triviality.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a naturally gentle person who is forced to kill and is devastated by it; I’m just saying that I didn’t feel it was given the weight it should have carried.  Angelo’s experience in the dungeons was passed over in almost the same kind of rush – as if it was an impediment to the story, rather than the story itself.  I came away wondering if the author had a deadline to hit, and had written the second half faster than the first.

I also became progressively more annoyed at the tarot card quotes scattered thick and fast throughout.  I have a pack myself and have occasionally used them for trying to think of a plot, but somehow showing them decreased the build up of tension and the feeling that the story was a cohesive whole.  Starting a new chapter with ‘sudden reversal of fortune’ or the like just made the text that came next feel as though it was colouring in between the lines of a picture you’d already seen.

From the first half of the novel, I formed the impression that Julia Talbot was a very talented writer, and I’m glad to have read the book for that alone.  I’ll be looking out for her other stuff with high hopes.  But I probably won’t be reading this one again.

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