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

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: Beyond the Spanish Road by Annie Kaye

Javier is fulfilling his parents’ wishes by serving as a soldier in the Spanish army—a duty that will take the young swordsman far from his beloved home and family to a planned invasion of England. In France, his unit awaits the arrival of the Armada, and it is there, near the shore of the English Channel, that Javier meets Gaspard, a local merchant who has the face of an angel.

Long ago, when he realized he would never truly love a woman, Javier resolved to remain celibate. What sparks between him and Gaspard shakes that determination to the core, a love that grows until it will no longer be denied. But their situation is impossible: Gaspard is intent upon having an heir, while in Javier’s future, war looms closer every day.

Ebook only –  60 pages

Review by Erastes

I learned something with this little book – I’d never heard of the the Spanish Road, and I went to look it up and found it was a well travelled military route and the main way that Spain moved its troops from Spain to the Low Countries. Obviously they were at war with France a lot, so it was imperative to get out of the country, which only has one major border to mainland Europe quickly and in very large numbers. Sea travel was more impractical as it was slower than the Spanish Road, but also couldn’t carry the numbers that were needed. There, now you’ve learned something too.

The blurb pretty much sums up this little novella. Javier is a nice protagonist; rather naive to be honest but likable in a nice but dim way. I found it rather amusing that once he realised his attraction to men he decided to be celibate–No sex for me! Ever!–and then the first time he’s offered it on a plate the vow is dropped like the hottest of bricks and it’s la la la all the way to love and ejaculation.

The very very insta-love was a tad implausible, even more so because both parties remained passionately in love with each other for years without ever seeking out anyone else for a bit of ‘oh-la-la’ and I have to say that I found Gaspard’s rejection of Javier after their one night pretty amusing (for the wrong reasons) as I said out loud “typical man!”

The writing is good, fluid and the writer has a bent for romance. In fact, lovers of romance will probably like it a good deal, as it is very romantic with plenty of feelings and lots of weeping and super sex – even on a beach. But the details were too off for me to really let myself go, and I wanted more, to read about an era I knew little about. They are able to leave camp without permission just about any time, and the two lovers ride from Dunkirk to Calais overnight — seemingly cantering the whole way–which is ludicrous without killing the horses, it’s about 30 miles and the roads wouldn’t have been good. They make love all day on the beach somewhere, and don’t seem to have to worry about being overlooked. Today, perhaps that might be possible, but back then the English Channel would have been stuffed with boats and shipping and sailors were pretty observant and had spyglasses!

Then they galloped 30 miles back. Sigh.

I also couldn’t understand, why the fireships that the English sent to destroy the Armada, were seen in Dunkirk, when the Armada was said to  be in Calais! I would have thought that the English would have got as close as possible to the Armada before setting the fireships off, not left them to drift 30 miles where they could have beached or hit just ordinary shipping. The Spanish troops at Dunkirk were blocked by flyships, so perhaps that’s the confusion.

I won’t dwell on more inaccuracies because it’s clear that this book is really about the undying romance rather than the adventure, and that’s a bit of a shame, because the writing is good and I for one would really have appreciated more of the nitty-gritty details such as camp life (such as the reason why Spain was accepted in the Low Countries was that they paid for everything) and the journey from Spain itself. Instead of which it’s rather papered over in a hurry to get to Dunkirk and meet the object of Javier’s affection.

I also–like Gaspard–was surprised that Javier had remained in France for years and had never tried to see him. Which sort of left a lot of the Happy Ending to rely on coincidence and luck, but it was a happy one, so people will be satisfied.

Overall, it’s a wasted opportunity for the author to have really got her teeth into a subject that has never been tackled in gay historical fiction before–but it’s an enjoyable and highly romantic read so give it a go, I’d say.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino


HOW COULD Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?

HOW COULD William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor?  Historians have noted that the Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution.

Review by Erastes

This is a very well researched and meticulously thought out book. I was in awe at just how much work Bacino has put into this, with foreword, and massive appendices.

It’s obviously massively researched and he’s clearly looked up every single point that he’s writing about, from plague to theatres to politics. I have to give Bacino a standing ovation simply for the work he’s done here with a foreword and a huge appendix But..

The trouble is — it’s not really a novel. This book is really going only to appeal to historians, because those wanting an immersive novel are going to find the style jarring–as I did.

It’s more like a docu-drama. I haven’t read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote but I would imagine that this is the style he used–an omniscient narrator taking the place of any of the characters’ points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure omniscient narration–it’s a style I much admire but while it works for Thackeray and for Dickens and the like, it really doesn’t work here. In the same way as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, Bacino takes the place of a rather confiding narrator who behaves rather like a history teacher interrupting a video his class is watching. You are never allowed to relax into the storyline because every paragraph or so “history teacher” butts in and starts telling us a load of back information such as religious or political aspects—from the birth of Protestantism to the destruction of the Armada, to spy rings and exact wordings of many laws.

So, you’d think that those with a love of history would lap this kind of thing up, but I tend to feel that the facts we are presented with are already so well known from myriad incarnations of the Tudors on stage, screen, and book, historians are already going to know most of this. I certainly did.

Considering that the appendix (which takes up a good 20% of the size of the book) goes through every single historical point in every chapter with “FACT:[…]” or “FICTION:[…]” We could easily have had a novel-style book rather than a semi-text book and if one was interested one could look in the appendix for the facts, but because we are told once in the book that this was so and then once again in the appendix it really felt like we are being preached at. The way the facts or fictions are presented are rather patronising, to be honest. If anyone has watched “Horrible Histories” will know that after every sketch, the narrator, a rat, comes on and says “It’s TRUE- the Romans really did wash their clothes in pee.” Or some such validation, and this book has the same tone. Trouble is Horrible Histories is actually for kids. So I did feel a little talked down to at times while reading this. As regards to the FACT or FICTION issue, he could easily have just kept it down to the things he invented, and taken it as read that we’d assume everything else was fact related.

Here’s an example:

From the book itself:

Sir Francis Walsingham was known for his booming, threatening voice that seemed even more frightening when he lowered it to a softer tone. He had headed the Royal Intelligence Service (a euphemism for the spy network in England) for almost twenty years. He was quickly becoming the architect of modern espionage. As a fitting reward for his “unswerving” service”, Queen Elizabeth had named him England’s first Secretary of State in 1573—a position not quite structured yet – giving Francis the opportunity to do pretty much as he wanted with the position. He had the reputation of being the archetype of Machiavellian political cunning with tentacles to fathom out the smallest detail in the country. He knew he was courted and needed by everyone.

He was also hated by everyone.

(He was the inspiration for the line that would someday be written into the play Measure for Measure: “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.”)

Now – from the appendix:

FACT: Queen Elizabeth did name Sir Francis Walsingham to be England’s first Secretary of State in 1573. Sir Francis was the head of the English spy network. Historians frequently name him as the architect of modern espionage.

FACT: Shakespearean quote: ““it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice” “Measure for Measure” Act III, scene 2

As I said, the appendix takes up 20% of the total of the book (according to my Kindle) and all it does is mostly repeat what’s already been said. There are no citations, either, which I sort of expected with this level of “this is actually true.” We are just expected to take the author’s word for it.

The reason an omnisceint narrator worked so well for Thackeray and Dickens and the like was that they were presenting the narration from a closer perspective than this. From their time, or a few years after the events they were writing about. And anyone doing an omniscient narrator today would also use this device, narrating the book as a person who knew the characters or was involved in the events portrayed. But Bacino’s narrator – who is more than likely Bacino himself – is narrating this from a perspective of 21st century man, so the terminology is jarring: Marlow has “mesmerizing ways” Marlowe is “cute.” Comparisons to money—such as Wriothley’s payment of £5,000 to sever his engagement are compared to million pounds it would be in “today’s” money, which again, instantly reminds us we are reading a history book, rather than living a story with the characters. Lord Wriothley is referred to as “the poster boy for the homosexual movement” which is from the narrator’s pov so it’s not quite so bad—but then that same lord actually says later: “Her [Queen Elizabeth I’s] new Commission makes it really just a police state, doesn’t it?” which is gah-wrongness on so many levels.

But I can’t discommend this book, because of the sheer volume of work that has gone into it. I complain daily about authors who can’t be arsed even to open Wikipedia for the most basic of facts that can be found in seconds, so I’d be a hypocrite indeed to moan about someone who has done this level of research.

It’s just that—just because you do the research you don’t have to tell the reader about every single aspect of it. (Are you listening Dan Brown?) I prefer to be shown, not told.

Without all the infodumping, the story is amusing and enjoyable, Shakespeare’s portrayal being particularly funny as a real thicko. I can’t say that the conspiracy theory convinced me, though.

There are a few historical oopsies too–one being people drinking tea(!) a good hundred years before this was possible. This surprised me seeing as how much research had gone into the rest of the book.

If you can take the history professor on every page, and you like this approach then you’ll enjoy this. It’s well-written, fantastically well researched (even though I don’t agree with some of the “FACTS”) and I hope that Bacino goes on to write more. The story hangs together well, the conspiracy is well done and probably adds to the canon of Who Wrote Shakespeare. It’s just that I prefer a novel, with history blended in rather than a documentary with the presenter stopping the action every few minutes to tell you stuff.

Author’s website

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Review: Fortunes of War by Mel Keegan

In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I enjoyed this book. The tale of Irish-Spanish mercenary Dermot Channon who, during a diplomatic mission, seduced Robin Armagh, son of an English earl. Love blooms, politics and war get in the way. This is a plotty, meaty histoprical novel that sees Dermot softened and committed and Robin grown up into Dermot’s equal.

I’m a sucker for gay novels where both men are equals. And also masculine. While Robin starts out as a young man, innocent and quite willingly seduced and taught about love, much of the novel is about negotiating the relationship, until both settle on the fact they are equals.

The historical detail rings true (the time is not my speciality, and I enjoyed it too much to go out hunting for inconsistencies). The novel has plenty of historical meat to sink your teeth into, from map making to types of ships. There’s plenty of conflict. English versus Spanish, Catholic versus Protestant, add privateering adventures and grim tales of rape and slavery, and you have a novel that will keep you turning pages.

In terms of gay history, the author shows us two different worlds. The continent, where gay sex is forbidden (the English court is a little more permissive) and is punished, and the Caribbean, where a captured man might end up gang-raped, and then the couples that form quite naturally while at sea.

This is also my first book by Mel Keegan, who’s been around a lot longer than most of the writers in the genre I’ve read, and I’m not disappointed. The style is quite different to what I’ve read recently for Speak Its Name. Keegan does a fair job making the prose sound archaic and infuses it with plenty of flavour. For the most part, that’s successful – there are some bits that clash a bit, but the energy and drive of the writing sweeps you easily past the rockier bits.

What does need work, however, is the editing. Punctuation is very hit-and-miss, and there are more typos than necessary. In addition, the book (I have the PDF) is strangely formatted, with blanks separating the paragraphs, and the lines ending sometimes after two thirds of the page rather than fill the whole breadth.

Some scenes feel quite repetitive, and there’s a scene when Dermot Channon, our hyper-virile proud Spanish mercenary, sulks and throws a passive-aggressive hissy fit that felt completely out of character and seemed to mainly serve to ramp up the conflict at a point in the book when both characters were without a care in the world.

In the end, this is a book that is interesting in a different way from those I’ve rated similarly. Keegan has a distinctive voice and a distinctive style and in terms of history and plotting, this is way more ambitious than most other books I’ve read in the genre. For that, I would have liked to give 4.5 stars, but the poor editing, formatting and the pretty weak cover shave off half a star. I will, however, seek out more books by Keegan and recommend this to anybody who is looking for a different voice, pirates and 16th century gay adventure and love.

Author’s website

Buy from Author’s site

In the spring of 1588 two young men fell in love: an Irish mercenary serving the Spanish ambassador in London, and the son of an English earl. Then Dermot Channon must leave England when the embassy is expelled just prior to the onset of war, and Robin despairs of ever seeing him again. Seven years pass, and when Robin’s brother is kidnapped for ransom in Panama in the years following the war between England and Spain, Robin sets sail with a fleet commanded by Francis Drake, hoping to bring home his brother. But soon enough the ship on which Robin is traveling is sunk by privateers — pirates led by none other than Dermot Channon. Reunited by a cruel twist of fate, the two men embark with passion on a series of swashbuskling adventures around the Spanish Main.

Review: The World’s a Stage by Gail Sterling

After his younger sister is killed in a tragic accident, William Palmer’s family flees their quiet Warwickshire village for the bustling metropolis of Elizabethan London. The deaths of his parents and the marriage of his remaining sister soon separate William from his family. Taken on by a company of actors in an era where women are forbidden onstage, William makes a good living playing the parts of young girls and beautiful maidens.

As he gets older, William finds himself growing out of the female stage parts, even as he develops a less than strictly professional interest in his co-star, Jack Hawkins. The course of true love never did run smooth, and William soon finds himself torn between Jack, the return of an elder sister who needs his help, and the mysterious and intriguing son of the company’s patron, Lord Evering.

Review by Hayden Thorne

Gail Sterling’s novel is a pretty short one, and I read it in its entirety in one evening. It’s a wonderfully quick read, and I’m glad that Sterling didn’t opt for too-authentic language, choosing instead clear, functional prose. The benefit is a fast, uninterrupted flow, though the downside is that there are parts here and there that sound too modern, with certain words and turns of phrases that are contemporary American.

On the whole, I enjoyed the novel. Written in first person, we get a pretty fascinating glimpse of Shakespeare’s London through Will’s eyes. The highlight to me, though, is the way the theatrical scene is explored. Behind the scenes, we get to see how actors rehearse, get fitted for their costumes, are received by the audience (their seating arrangements being nicely described according to social class), and especially, how they live outside the stage. It’s a miserable existence for them, with squalor, hunger, tattered dress, and exhaustion a daily reality. That Will’s company of actors – despite their diverging personalities – remain close to each other is testament to their shared hardships, dreams, and love of their art.

The historical details are there – London’s filth and stench, the variety of people attending each production, the taverns, the decrepit inns, etc. I’m also glad that Sterling doesn’t shy away from the physical conditions of the people back then. One scene has Will helping a drunk and passed out actor:

Feeling generous, I eased off his boots, and was immediately assaulted by a smell so foul, it caused the bile to rise to my throat. Gagging, I put a hand to my mouth and escaped the room, closing the door behind me.

I can only imagine, poor kid. Will’s situation as a young boy who’s growing out of his role (he’s sixteen in the novel) as well as the fit of his costumes is another highlight of the novel. It serves as a parallel to Will’s non-theatrical coming-of-age, in which he has to learn to reconcile his past with his present as well as to let it go and move on with his life.

There are a few things that keep me from giving this book higher marks, however. Yes, the language is accessible, and the historical details are well-researched. Yes, we see things unfold through the eyes of the principal player. That said, there’s a surprising degree of detachment in the novel, in that despite the period details, I never felt truly engaged with Elizabethan London. I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that there’s a lot of telling in the book and not enough showing. We’re told that London looks like this and smells like that, but none of our senses is engaged because we don’t really get much more than those references. The novel, in fact, almost gives the impression that we’re watching a play.

As with Will himself and most of the other characters, there’s a distance in the way they interact with each other. It’s also because there’s hardly any feeling evoked. Even though the opportunities are there, there are no moments of slowing down, of savoring a scene or of reflecting on something – anything – that would give us some much-needed glimpse of Will’s personality beyond what’s on the surface. Just like the scene descriptions, what goes on with the characters is told and not shown, with Will doing so in a pretty dry, matter-of-fact way.

Now to some extent that works with the narrative, but considering Will’s backstory as well as his relationship with the other characters, I was hoping for something more than simply quick references.

The most multi-faceted character in the book, in fact, is Anne, Will’s older sister. She’s a tragic figure, and the way her story unfolds is almost antithetical to everyone else’s. She brings out feelings of pity not just through her physical descriptions and backstory but also the little things she does, with her sewing skills completing a very poignant picture of her as a woman with so many dreams shattered. I find myself more attuned to Anne compared to Will from the moment she reappears in her brother’s life.

The love triangle that’s referred to in the back cover blurb is hardly there. In fact, that’s my main complaint. Because it was mentioned, I expected it to be one of the driving forces of Will’s story. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The novel focuses much more on the goings on in the theatre as well as the relationship between Anne and Will; Jack as well as Will’s feelings for him, however, are very sketchy at best, and their intimate moments are touched on dismissively. I wasn’t convinced that Will was in love, let alone that he lost his virginity, except for the fact that he kept grinning the following day. Lord Edwin is even sketchier in terms of romantic developments. He doesn’t appear till around halfway through the novel, and subsequent appearances are few and far between, so much so that he feels almost spectral. When he interacts with Will, they’re more like curious strangers than two people who’re finding each other attractive. Will hardly has any convincing reasons for falling in love with him, with the ending feeling so rushed and somewhat forced that I finished the book feeling more dissatisfied with the romance than anything.

There are a few formatting errors that I found throughout the book – excessive quotation marks and missing quotation marks (both of which made some passages confusing to read), a double-space in between two paragraphs, and a sentence that breaks in two, with one half on one line and the other half in the next line. Those things would’ve been easily corrected during the print galley edits.

For all those, though, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book from Sterling. She shows a good grasp of history, and the book has a number of witty moments as well that made me grin. If this book is her first effort, I think it would be a treat watching her talent blossom with future titles.

Buy the book: Print or E-book

Review: Reconstruction by GS Wiley

The second son of a noble family, James has retreated from his family’s fall from favor, finding peace at his beloved abbey. When the abbey burns to the ground, James knows his life is in ruins, and he is forced to return to the genteel world his relations still inhabit under the reign of Henry VIII.

The one good thing about James’ life outside his sanctuary is his love for Richard, who holds a dreaded high place in society. Richard’s life is also torn apart, and threatens to separate the lovers as nothing else could. When James has the chance to run away to his abbey once more, things get even more difficult. Will James be able to discover what is truly important in his life?

Review by Hayden Thorne

“Reconstruction” has all the potential for a longer work of fiction, given all the character and situational complexities that G.S. Wiley manages to stuff into a novelette. Because of the length of the published story, however, these complexities fall a bit short by way of development. The promise is clearly there, and I really hope to see Wiley expand her scope and go all out next time.

As a work of M/M fiction, “Reconstruction” is a bit unusual. Firstly, there’s no sex. A few very light touches of sensuality here and there, but there’s nothing graphic, nothing by way of paragraph after paragraph of kissing, undressing, and fucking. There might be something coy about Wiley’s approach, but it works perfectly for the story, whose focus is less about the romance, let alone the actual physical act itself. There’s no overwrought angst-ing over one’s beloved or one’s forbidden feelings or over society’s censure. The relationship’s already established, and it’s met with uncomfortable acceptance or a half-hearted blind eye from those who know about it. The characters belong to Henry VIII’s court, hence the story’s exploration of the scandalous nature of different relationships between men and women. There’s resistance, of course, from people close to James, and that resistance is also defined by an ambivalence toward the dictates of church, society, and the individual’s right to happiness.

The story is also less about James’ relationship with either Hugh or Richard. He’s torn over the choices he’s being forced to face, but his decisions aren’t completely dictated by his romance with these two men (one from his past, one from his present). “Restoration,” on the whole, is about James. Period. The story follows his progress from his spiritual to his secular life, what he desires and what he’s willing to sacrifice. To whom does he owe his allegiance? To whom does he turn for answers? For the latter question, especially, Wiley resolves James’ dilemma in a short yet beautifully-written and poignant flashback that segues nicely into the present, which makes the final passage of the story all the more vindicating.

The strength of “Reconstruction” is two-fold: Wiley’s graceful, lyrical writing style and the quiet, contemplative quality of the story. Every scene is given equal care so that the pacing slows down, but it’s necessary, given the inward-driven focus of the conflict. Readers who’re used to – or are big fans of – stories brimming with action, breathless passion, and drama might not take to “Restoration”‘s languid quality. There’s a lot of emphasis on family, both happy and unhappy, in addition to marriage (also happy and otherwise). As with James’ intimate relationships, family scenes are given quite a bit of “screen time,” which helps in creating a multi-layered world in which the conflict takes place.

That said, there are a few things that held me back. First, there’s the lack of sense descriptions. Given Wiley’s chosen period and location, it would’ve helped to have drawn the readers more deeply into James’ Tudor world with detailed descriptions of scenes as varied and colorful as a jousting tournament, a banquet held in Henry VIII’s court, a monastery, and a domestic scene. Most of the details are generalized and at times rushed, which is unfortunate. We need to be more firmly entrenched in James’ world, which would’ve given us even more reason to sympathize with him or the monks (as they’re persecuted under Henry VIII’s reign) or Thomas or any other character.

Second, the flashbacks aren’t set apart from present scenes, which can be pretty confusing to some readers, especially since the flashbacks tend to be pretty lengthy. It often took me about three paragraphs into the flashback to realize that I was reading one, which was a bit of a jolt.

Language quibbles are very minor. There are a few modern terms like “dad,” for instance, but I appreciate Wiley’s attempts at finding a balance with regard to historical accuracy in the dialogue. The farther back in history we go, the more delicate the balancing act becomes, since we can’t be too accurate in the language to the extent of sacrificing readability or flow. There’s enough of a dated and formal quality to Wiley’s prose to set the story in the 16th century without the awkward “markers” that some historical writers use in their characters’ dialogue.

“Reconstruction” is the kind of story that deserves to be expanded into a novel. What we’re given right now is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and I really do hope that once the e-book contract expires, Wiley would work on developing this into a longer work of fiction.

Buy the book: Torquere Press

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