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: 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: Unspoken by R.A. Padmos

Stefan is a working-class man – or would be, if there was any work! – when he meets Adri and they begin an affair. Married with children, Stefan resists this development in a society where homosexuality is legal but scarcely tolerated. Nor does he understand when Adri warns him about the territorial ambitions of Hitler’s Germany, which their country will be unable to oppose. In a daily battle against guilt, poverty and other, more tangible enemies, Stefan and Adri struggle to hold on to a love which should never have existed at all – but which may be the only thing helping them to survive.

58,000 words/220 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

“Unspoken” is told from the point of view of Stefan, a 30-something working class man in a small-ish Dutch town. He is married with three children as the book opens, and if you asked him, he would probably say he’s happy, except for the problem of finding work to provide for his family in the middle of the depression. Stefan has done what was expected of him; he got married to a good woman, fathered children, and does whatever work he can find to put food on the table for them. He doesn’t know any better.

Then, one day in the dole queue, Stefan meets Adri, and it changes everything, or nothing. Stefan doesn’t understand his feelings at first, and Adri for his part takes things slowly. Unlike Stefan, Adri has always known that he prefers the company of men, and only men. His stepfather threw him out on the street when Adri’s predilections became clear, and he’s managed to survive thanks to the mentoring of other men like him.

Adri bides his time in part because he’s waiting until he’s 21 and completely legal. When he tries for his first kiss, Stefan is shocked, but not reviled. He’s confused by his feelings, as he remains for the entire book, which spans ten years of their relationship. Stefan is steadfastly loyal to his family, even though it’s obvious that his wife Marije’s feelings for him are no stronger than his for her, but his desire for Adri knows no reason and he can’t help but be drawn to the younger man.

You know those Bergman-inspired films of the 1960s, or even the parodies of them? You know, the ones where people just sit around, smoking cigarettes and talking? Sometimes the talk gets quite emotional, but in the end nothing actually happens. Well, that’s the feeling I had for much of this book. There’s a lot of angst from Stefan, as he’s torn between the duty to his family that his upbringing tells him is expected from a man, and his true love for Adri.

The younger Adri is a bit more worldly than Stefan, and he’s the one that initiates many of the discussions about what’s going on around them, such as Hitler’s rise in Germany. It’s also from Adri that we get lamentations about how homosexuals are second-class citizens who can’t, for example, get married. The discussions reflect the current debate over gay marriage. Now, the idea of two depression-era men discussing the merits of gay marriage in itself seems a bit unrealistic. These men have much bigger problems facing them. But, in a way, that’s almost beside the point. What struck me was that there was nothing new here. It’s still the same argument, and sending it back in time 75 years doesn’t change anything, and in the context it even comes off as a bit wingeing. As the discussions went on I began to wonder if the author really had anything to say, and with all the talking going on I started to think that the title, “Unspoken”, was some kind of joke I didn’t get.

Like those films I was talking about, “Unspoken” is told in a coldly objective, almost documentary-like tone that puts an emotional distance between the reader and the characters. Their drama is played out in front of us with a rather dispassionate voice. Not that there’s really much drama. The relationship has its ups and downs, as there are arguments and disagreements, and Stefan tries more than once to quit Adri, but it seems like they’re never put to the test, even though there are lots of opportunities. Early on, when a policeman catches them snogging in the park, they’re ‘invited’ down to the police station. But once they confirm Adri is of-age and ‘willing’ they let Stefan off with a slap on the wrist rather than charging him with public indecency. Likewise, when Germany invades and the two men are called up to defend Holland, they’re separated briefly but within a few paragraphs they’re back together again. More opportunities for a little drama are missed as the story plods along through the occupation.

To be honest, this book was headed for a two or two-and-a-half star rating, but it rather redeemed itself in the end. Hopefully it’s not too much of a spoiler to disclose that the two men survive the war. The issue here is at what cost. There’s a telling scene near the end where Stefan is leaving the park where he and Adri used to meet. The Germans have lost the war, but haven’t quit the city yet. Stefan has come to the park in search of fuel for the fires to keep them warm. He has taken the last scraps of wood from the bench where he and Adri once sat. The park has been stripped bare of anything that can be burned, eaten or traded in people’s desperate attempts to stay alive until the allies come. It’s a powerful metaphor for Stefan’s own emotions, which have been drained away by years of despair and worry over how to keep his family safe, put food on the table, and what will happen to his lover.

Adri is not quite the same person either. The open and optimistic young bohemian worked for the Resistance, and survived by learning how to hide things, even from his beloved Stefan. He talks of moving away once the war is over, starting a new life somewhere else, where he might even meet a man that he doesn’t have to share with a wife and children. Both men have survived, somewhat against the odds, but it’s taken everything they had, and it’s not clear if they have anything left for each other.

This is a hard book to categorize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to suggest who the audience might be. It’s hard to call it romance, given the angst-ridden nature of the main character. You certainly wouldn’t call it erotica. The descriptions of the men’s many sexual encounters are as quick and furtive as the encounters themselves. It’s decidedly un-erotic. As history, much of it rings true, aside from the rather ‘modern’ discussions about gay marriage, but here we run up against the question of what it all means. I couldn’t help thinking the author was trying to say something, but perhaps that’s what the unspoken part is.

In the end, I’ve decided to give “Unspoken” three stars.

Find our more about R. A. Padmos at her blog.

The book appears to be available only directly from Manifold Press

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

September 1919:20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, letters that she’d sent to her brother Will. Will and Tristan trained and fought together.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

Review by Erastes

I’ve redacted a bit of the blurb because it gives away a major spoiler in the book, which is kept from the reader for almost half of the pages, so it seems a bit unnecessary to give it away so easily in the blurb. Cut for spoilers.

Continue reading

Review: Shadowboxing by Anne Barwell


Can physicist Kristopher and Resistance member Michel find love and safety in the middle of World War II?

Berlin, 1943. An encounter with an old friend leaves German physicist Dr. Kristopher Lehrer with doubts about his work. But when he confronts his superior, everything goes horribly wrong. Suddenly Kristopher and Michel, a member of the Resistance, are on the run, hunted for treason and a murder they did not commit. If they’re caught, Kristopher’s knowledge could be used to build a terrible weapon that could win the war.

When Michel contacts the Allies, hoping they can work together, it isn’t long before the so-called “simple” mission becomes anything but. With both men realizing they can no longer ignore their growing feelings for each other,

Kristopher and Michel must fight—not just for a chance of a future together, but for their very survival.

Ebook and Print 266 pages

Review by Sally Davies

Dr Kristopher Lehrer, young, naive and intent upon his work, has no conception of the destructive potential of his research. Since he’s a physicist I’m assuming that he is working on the German equivalent of the Manhattan Project, though I don’t believe it’s ever actually stated. When he finds out that he’s not, as he thought, contributing to the sum of human knowledge but helping to build a weapon he is outraged and distraught.

Kristopher is a bag of nerves, but his paranoia is with good reason. He is being followed! One of the guards at his place of work, Schmitz, is showing a lot of interest in him. Luckily, when Kristopher’s panic makes a terrible situation worse, Schmitz shows his true colours. His real name is Michel and he is a member of the French Resistance, who was in the right place at the right time and able to take on the identity of the real Schmitz, killed in a bombing raid. He has been at the facility for six months, learning what he can, and has been ordered to steal the plans to the project but Kristopher convinces him to steal Kristopher too. The plan is incomplete. Vital formuli exist only in Kristopher’s brain. As if this isn’t argument enough, Michel fancies the pants of Kristopher, an attraction that has been growing over his months in disguise.

They go on the run, pursued by Holm, head of security of the facility and his scary assistant Reiniger, and assisted by three very nicely drawn strong women, and members of the Berlin Resistance. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Berlin, the team that has been sent to retrieve and verify the plans have problems of their own. Put together in a hurry they comprise two Englishmen, neither of whom speak good German, a Chinese physicist not qualified for field work, an American of Japanese-American extraction fighting his attraction for another member of the team and the leader, Matt, who is a bit of a loose cannon due to pyschological baggage he can’t shake off.

This spy caper is a detailed and meticulously researched account of an extraction attempt that goes horribly wrong. The trouble that the author has gone to with her research is clear. Official ranks, street names, medical details, routes and travelling times are laid out admirably. I felt confident that what I was being shown was a good picture of the scenes and situations through which the characters move.

The author also details the thought processes of her characters. I found it particularly interesting to see Holm’s point of view, and his absolutely sincere and uncritical devotion to his country. But elsewhere this is where the book fell down a little for me. Each action is mulled over and thought out – sometimes in the middle of what could have been quite exciting action scenes – and there were times where I found my attention wandering and I had to go back and re-read sections, skipping the internal monologue, to get a clear picture of what had happened. But the people who will be reading mostly for the romantic relationships won’t be disappointed. Emotions run at a high note and Kristopher and Michel are very tender with each other. The other relationship that developed in the latter part of the book is handled quite differently, which is good because very different personalities are involved. It should be noted that sex scenes are either non-explicit or fade to black.

The story arc is very good with plenty of alarms and excursions and various point of view characters that allowed some tense cliffhangers. I didn’t find the ending satisfying, in fact it was very abrupt. But this lays the story open to a sequel where, I hope, characters and readers will get more of a sense of closure.

Author’s Livejournal

Buy at Dreamspinner | Amazon UK | Amazon USA (ebook and paperback)

Film Review: Victor/Victoria dir. Blake Edwards

In 1934 Paris, trained coloratura soprano Victoria Grant, a native Brit, can’t get a job as a singer and is having trouble making ends meet. She doesn’t even have enough money for the basics of food and shelter. Gay cabaret singer Carole ‘Toddy’ Todd may befall the same fate as Victoria as he was just fired from his singing gig at a second rate club named Chez Lui. To solve both their problems, Toddy comes up with what he considers an inspired idea: with Toddy as her manager, Victoria, pretending to be a man, get a job singing as a female impersonator. If they pull this scheme off, Toddy vows Victoria, as her male alter ego, will be the toast of Paris and as such be extremely wealthy…

Review by Erastes

I dare say there are few people reading this blog who haven’t already seen this film, but if you haven’t, get it on Netflix, rent a copy, or simply pop on over to Youtube and seek it out because you’ve missed out on a real treat.

I first saw this film years ago, after it had just been released on video, in about 1984. I didn’t have any interest (or so I thought) in gay fiction, gay history, at the time but I loved the film to pieces for its sheer ebullience and camposity.

It’s very cleverly filmed, to my mind. Blake Edwards, having just directed “10” and “S.O.B” could probably have filmed the entire thing on location but he chose instead to build a mini portion of Paris as a set on the odd occasions that the characters have to be outside and dealt with the rest in restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. The sets he does build, though are gorgeous, dripping with Art Deco style and fixtures and fittings which would make any Art Deco fan’s mouth drool. Particularly Victor’s hotel bathroom.

The casting is bizarre but utterly inspired. Julie Andrews was still attempting to shake off Maria Von Trapp and had done so with some success in S.O.B. but I think that it was this film that gave her the space between Maria and the real world. She’s no character actor, that’s for sure, and she’ll always have the unmistakable and unique cut-glass spoken voice but it’s quite uncanny the way she can have her hair slicked back, put on a serious face, and even with more eyeshadow than Boots she’s suddenly a very attractive and androgynous youth.

I didn’t much fancy James Garner as King Marchand (I’d like to get hold of a copy of the 1995 made-for-TV-version which stars Andrews reprising her role but with Michael Nouri as Marchand to see what he makes of it. Garner played the bumbling Maverick and Rockford for too many years for me to find him convincing as a smouldering male romantic lead, but he does pretty well, and the confusion he’s feeling is managed perfectly with those Droopy-style eyebrows.

I wish he hadn’t found out conclusively that Victor was a woman before he decided to kiss her, but I can understand that for 1982 film audiences that would have been a kiss too far. It would have had the weight of “Nobody’s Perfect” that famous last line in “Some Like It Hot” if the studio had been brave enough to have Marchand say “I don’t care if you are a man” before he kisses Victor, whilst still being unsure as to whether he was or not.

The star of the show for me is Robert Preston who hams, camps and queens it up like the proverbial good ‘un, never seeming out of place or embarrassed but gleefully milking every joke and double-entendre for what they are worth. His final performance as Victor is a gem of film history and the giggling and general guffawing that is going on during it is–I’m sure–in no way faked. It really comes over as being a really fun day on the set.

Credit is also due to Lesley-Ann Warren who plays the dizzy blonde bombshell to a tee and a wonderful understated performance by Alex Karras as Marchand’s heavy.

Historically? Well, you have to take much of it with large handfuls of salt. Of course stage types and artistic types were–and are–often gay, but how outre Paris was about this at the time is probably exaggerated. Yes, there would have been clubs where men could go and dance together, but Toddy’s song “Gay Paree” is a bit of a puff even though what he describes is very true for the time. Gay was a word around from the early 20s, although more used for prostitutes of both the gay and straight persuasion. However, it’s a great song and we can forgive it for that.

It garnered a lot of attention, critically at the time, too. It had seven Oscar nominations, Andrews, Preston and Warren all being nominated but it “only” won one, that of Best Music. It did pick up a few Golden Globes and many other awards in 1983, though.

It’s a real feel-good film, with enough gentle humour and understated farce to make you giggle. Some of the humour is very slapstick, but in a Pink Panther kind of way–unsurprising as Edwards was responsible for the show and the films, too. Add to that outstanding performances by all concerned.  Don’t miss it. And if you have seen it, give yourself a treat and watch it again.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084865/

Review: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

Examining the mystery of love and passion in an intensely imagined narrative, Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that is revelatory in its insight.

Review by Erastes

Warning – spoilers ahoy.

I’m always a little trepidatious about doing a review of such a well-known and hugely reviewed book. I doubt there isn’t anything that hasn’t been said about it, and as such, my amateur ramblings aren’t scholarly, and aren’t deep and insightful. I avoided even reading the foreword, or any other reviews so I can try and put my views out there that aren’t influenced by anything else.

I’m reviewing it purely as a work of fiction—its historical significance is towering, of that there is no doubt, but the foreword (which I read after the book, as you should unless you want to be very spoiled) deals with that in enough detail and I don’t need to rehash it here.

The book begins clearly following a literary bent, written in the first person present tense and then slips into flashbacks of David’s life since he met Giovanni, written in the third person. However this does tend to slip from time to time and there are a few instances where Baldwin slips back in the present tense even within the past flashback which was a bit off-putting.

There are many places in so-called literary novels where sometimes I’m left feeling like I’m the simian left out in the cold, and not knowing whether this was a slip up or dazzling genius made me feel like that. If I’d been an editor, I’d have evened it out, that’s all.

There’s an over-use of French, too. I can speak a bare modicum of the language, enough to buy me train tickets, order a meal etc, but I don’t really need to have whole chunks, or even interspersed phrases of French bunged into a book. Editors have told me that it adds flavour—and I blow a raspberry at this.

They are in France. The people involved are American, French and Italian. They are all speaking French as a common language. This has been explained. I don’t then need words like quais (quays) hostelries (hotels) and many many phrases and words included. I had no idea what people were saying sometime, and I didn’t wish to break off reading to go and look. And as I read most of this out of range of a PC or a dictionary, I am still in the dark.

There is a point where Hella—David’s girlfriend—writes him a letter and that’s littered with French phrases. It works there, because she’s frankly as pretentious as David himself and it’s the way she should have written. But for David to think of words in French in his own thoughts, or for Giovanni to lapse into French when he’s already speaking it? Nom de nom! Imbecile! as Poirot would say.

There’s nothing wrong with the Americans being pretentious, by the way. This is the 50’s and the American abroad would have gone with mind-expanding experiences as much as possible—before returning to their suburban lives. Amply illustrated in Hollywood style in such films as Funny Face where Hepburn joins a group of free thinkerswho hang around in dark nightclubs and express themselves by wearing black and dancing to impossible jazz—and An American in Paris, where artists and performers live in garrets and not-quite-starve due to their allowances from back home.
I coudn’t like David. I wanted to—but (and this is another instance where I don’t know whether I’m barking up the right tree or not) I simply couldn’t. His self-loathing for his bisexuality, and his consequent deep seated loathing of everyone else around him tainted with homosexuality or bisexuality pissed me off. He was perfectly fine doing what he was doing in a foreign country as long as he could pretend it wasn’t happening. Even the pick up, when basically what happened was their eyes met across a crowded bar and they fell for each other like a ton of bricks was marred by David pretending la la la that nothing extraordinary was happening, while being secretly thrilled and disgusted that it was going to.

I can understand that revulsion, I really can. He had fears of becoming “unmanly” (probably because he father set such store on manliness—yes, that’s right, blame the parents!) and I can entirely understand that fear, that he knows he’ll have to return to the USA and will he have to forever be lusting after men, when he doesn’t want to?

In fact, along that line, I found it very interesting that there was such a parallel to how Hella sees her future life unless she finds a companion—the pensioned widows guzzling dry martinis and making eyes at anything in pants, to how David sees his life in the future: following any young boy into the darkness and forever lusting over younger and young men like Jacques does.

But I couldn’t forgive David for being quite as self-hating as he was. He knows he loves Giovanni, and he knows that he could be happy, but then again he knows he can’t be with him forever and he hates Giovanni for having “awoken” that side of his nature, a side he had squashed down for so long since his first and only other homosexual experience. He knows he can never send that part of himself to sleep again.

What really did annoy me about Baldwin’s David was his omiescient know-it-all-ness. He knew what Hella was feeling (although he wasn’t exactly an expert with women)—he knew exactly how his father must be feeling about his long absence in France despite the fact that they couldn’t talk to each other, had never had a proper conversation in their lives and he knew all about Giovanni’s light and darkness.
In fact this was alluded to so many times “a new sense of Giovanni, his private life and pain, and all that moved like a flood in him when we lay together at night” – but this isn’t ever explained. On the surface, we are shown Giovanni as being a modern bi-sexual, moving along from man to man to woman, not really caring a fig about the world’s opinion of him, and the David throws in sentences like the one above and I’m all “what? Where are you getting this? Or at least, if that’s true, how about sharing it with the reader?”

In David’s last scene with Giovanni we are shown some of this, so it’s a little confusing that David attributes his life of pain before he actually knew about it, but as I say, David seems to know everything about everyone.

I don’t know whether it is ironic that his father’s nickname for David is Butch. That could be a coincidence, or simply something that means more now than it did then. There’s also a discussion between David and a girl he picks up – to show his manliness—about stonewalls, which I assume is where the bar took its name.

One of the most telling sentences of the book for me was in the final argument between Giovanni and David, where David says “what kind of life can two men have together anyway?” and this sums the book up quite well. David thinks he’s after a certain kind of life, the American dream, the one with his “manhood intact” and he’s lying to himself over and over and over about everything. When he tells Hella that (by saying he loved her and wanted to marry her) he was not lying to her, but lying to himself, she says (sarcastically) “that makes everything different, of course.”  Goodfor you,Hella.

The only really jarring part that I simply Did Not Get was the sudden intrusion of GOD into the last section. David had shown no religious tendencies. I assumed that he was probably one of the milder American faiths—he’d not said anything else, although he certainly had the inbred guilt of the Catholic that Graham Green weeps in every line. Despite Giovanni obviously being Catholic, there was no mention of God and Church until right at the end—and we get this section:

“I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.”

Do Not Get.

I will comment briefly on one aspect of the historical import—I am pleased that this was written by a black man. David is white, blond and isn’t poor. There was probably a shit storm by white and black alike that (shock!) a black man dared to write from the pov of a white man (as I say, I haven’t looked up any literary sources or learned reviews of this book, so I am only guessing going on what I would deem to be normal human prejudice and behaviour) but it resonates with me, as a white bisexual woman who has the temerity to write about gay men.

I’m giving this four and a half stars. It’s clearly an important book, both for gay fiction, and for gay history. It is beautifully written, even if David annoyed me beyond belief, it’s written from his own fucked up and muddled point of view and while I don’t agree with it, it is his mind that rebelling against itself. It’s an “essential read” – obviously – for anyone who wants to write gay historical, particularly in the post-war era of Europe or America. The historical significance actually pushes it up to four and a half stars, because I’d probably give it four had it been written by a contemporary writer.

In a way, this is a very contemporary book. Due to the very limited geographical scope the book explores: Paris cafe society, Giovanni’s Room, there are actually few markers which ground us to a particular time and place. Even the women who talk of sons lost during the war do not immediately tie us to the 50’s – if the cafe owner had said she had lost sons in the first Gulf war, it would not have seemed out of place. Technology is missing—no mobiles and they have no phones where they live, so that gives it away as not being of now than anything else, but read from a certain angle, it could be about modern times, and it’s sad really that David’s repression and self-loathing and longing for a normal life still abound.

No one said to him that “it gets better” because obviously it wasn’t going to get better for him. I don’t think he was ever going to be happy in his skin, and I feel desperately sorry for him. I wish he could have enjoyed what he had without destroying it for fear of a future that may not have happened.

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Review: A Strange Love by Georges Eekhoud

A very early gay novel, originally published in 1900, by a Belgian writer with the first English translation in 1908, set in 19th Century rural Flanders. A gay count returns after years abroad to an isolated uptight community where his love for a peasant boy brings furious attacks by fanatic and bigoted villages whipped up by the girl he spurned. The count’s gay education of his peasant boy includes the history of the boy-Emperor whose lover voluntarily joined him for beheading. This pioneer work of fiction was among the first novels to focus unapologetically on gay relationships and the author, a distinguished Belgian literary figure, faced legal prosecution for this book. Georges Eekhoud (1854-1927), a Belgian poet and novelist, became known as the editor of the Antwerp Precurseur, from which post he passed to the position of literary critic of the Etoile Belge.

Review by Erastes

I had to do a bit of research on this book, because it predates pretty much all of the gay fiction I know of, and I simply hadn’t heard of it, so I’ll talk about that before I do the review.

It was published in 1899. Eekhoud is the premier literary figure of the age in Belgium and very famous. He was well-known for his pieces describing peasant life, such as Campine. He wrote in French, and there is a free copy of the book–in French–on the Gutenburg website for those who might prefer to read it in the original. It was titled Escal-Vigor and I’m not sure how the title changed to A Strange Love. It–like many other books–was prosecuted in court but there was a literary swell of support, and Eekhoud was acquitted without a stain on his character. Shame more books didn’t get the same support!

The story concerns the young Count Henry Kehlmark who comes into his inheritance at quite a young age, and who is more than a little spoiled. This doesn’t make him a monster, but it does make him the kind of young man who wants to do what he likes. He lives quite a wild life and then suddenly he decides to retire to his country estate taking with him his housekeeper Blandine, a young woman with whom he had a brief affair in his youth, and Landrillon, his manservant. It is there, whilst being introduced to the neighbourhood, he meets and falls  passionately in love with Guidon, the son of the local burgomaster.

You can see by the illustration on the cover how this ends, which is badly, but that’s no real surprise, as far as I know Maurice was the first (and only for a long time) which dared to give gay men a happy ending. The story itself, while quite simple, has a lot of themes, such as the nature of loyalty, ambition, and what is true friendship. There’s (possibly) the first faghag in Blandine–who loves Henry to distraction, so much so that she stays with him, despite knowing that she’ll never have him, even before she finds out his true nature.  She is, however, angry at the way Guidon has usurped her as his best friend, and is alarmed at the gossip in the village–which is inflamed by the disloyal Landrillon. But when Henry explains it all to her, (with a rather disturbing confession that he lusted at one point over pre-pubescent boys but got control of this problem) she accepts him for what he is, and vows to stand by him, and will be friends with Guidon.

What I liked about this book was the way that Henry was no longer ashamed of his predilictions. He’d spent years hiding his nature–trying to “pass.” Making jokes about men like himself, pretending to leer at women with his friends and thinking he was truly alone in the world. But he came to terms with himself and his feelings and when he meets Guidon, he sees it as fate, something that was truly meant to be. Guidon was not an innocent that he had corrupted, but a man with similar desires. The ugliness is all perceived by the outside forces. The priest who wishes to destroy Henry, the dismissed servant, the woman (Guidon’s sister, Claudie) who wants Henry for herself.

This ugliness reaches a head, with the final chapter of the book, and it’s clear who the real monsters are.

The language is rather hard to take, and I wonder how faithful the translation is. It’s a curious blend of slang and thees and thous. It’s rather over flowery but not a difficult read because of that, just a little smirk inducing at times. Luckily there’s little conversation between Guidon and Henry because I couldn’t have taken much of the earnest declaiming. Even the huge argument that Blandine and Henry have is exquistely formal.

The edition I have is the plain green cover version, also found on Amazon, and the preface is most peculiar. It doesn’t give any indication as to who wrote it, and it’s almost as impassioned as the book itself, resorting to hyperbole and many many exclamation marks. It’s worth a read, but isn’t exactly instructive about the book, the time of its writing, or much about the author, prefering rather to bang on about how worthy the book is and how many other gay writers came before and since. The facts about the book I had to find elsewhere!

I can’t give it a high mark, because to the modern eye, and certainly compared to Wilde or Forster the prose doesn’t hold a candle to them (although the French itself might be beautiful, so if you do read it, let me know) but it’s an important book in the genre and if you get a chance to get hold of a copy and are interested in the development of gay literature then it’s worth seeking out.

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Review: Young Man in Paris by Sophia Deri-Bowen

I had always believed that I would return home to empty rooms for the rest of my life, for who would I want, and be wanted by in return? It had been an impossible alchemy until Alexander Montrose, and the summer of 1923.

1923 was the summer I fell in love with Alexander Montrose. I suppose I could say it was the summer I met my soul mate, but I have little poetry in my soul. That which I do have, however, was spent upon Alex. Nearly sixty years have passed since that summer, and I am an old man and Alex is gone, but here at least is our story, set down for all time.

Review by Sal Davis

I have to admit to some bias right from the beginning with this story. As soon as I opened the pdf I was saying ‘Cool’ because I love the personal touch of a painted book cover. This is particularly nice with the protagonists in colour against a monochromatic background with some nice period correct detail. Thumbs up to Dreamspinner for picking artist Paul Richmond. Definite thumbs DOWN for getting Sophia’s surname wrong. It’s BOWEN, guys, not BROWN!

Inside the book there are no blurb page or publishing details. It goes straight into the prologue of the story, which gives a little background for the narrator, Michael Clifton, who comes over as passionate, moody and a bit of a diva at 19, and amused by his own youthful behaviour in his seventies. Michael seems an honest narrator, nostalgic for the pains of the past as well as the pleasures, with a somewhat dry manner that I very much enjoyed.
Chapter one introduces his grand passion, Alexander Montrose, a golden young man whose chirpy manner makes a nice contrast to the dour Michael.

In subsequent chapters, both have secrets they need to share and problems they need to overcome, not least Michael’s tendency to theatrics.

There is another main character – Paris. The city is a major plot point in the story. Some story arcs could be moved just about anywhere, but this one requires Paris, with the way of life and the pleasures available, in order to work.

I think it worked very well. I must admit to an automatic “But what happened next?” grumble at the end, but that was because I hadn’t kept an eye on the page count. Once I reminded myself that it was the story of one summer and a first love, not a whole life I was very happy with it. It couldn’t have been longer unless it was MUCH longer, and it comes to a very satisfying conclusion as it is.

Author’s website: http://sophiaderibowen.wordpress.com/

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Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

(From Publisher’s Weekly) A biographical fantasia, White’s latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White’s impressionistic account of Crane’s life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a ganymede butt-boy buggaree. Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that someone skilled and open minded complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. Hotel de Dream, has some ideas of who among Crane’s friends fits the bill.

Review by Erastes

It’s a book of two halves, really. The first half, with Stephen Crane–who spends the entire book dying–is as slow as a meandering river. Suddenly, the “book within a book” which he’s writing hots up and the pace increases–it’s just that the two don’t really gel with each other. If you had told me two different people had written the book I would have believed you.

It begins with lengthy descriptions of Stephen Crane dying of tuberculosis and living in Engand in preparation for travel to the Black Forest for a hopeful cure. Crane is writing the “O’Ruddy” and he regrets that a manuscript he began about Elliott, a boy-prostitute he met in New York and who he interviews with journalistic zeal, was burned by another writer friend, so he begins it again, dictating it to his common-law-wife, Cora. This book “The Painted Boy” has become a writing myth, as there’s only that, and rumour to substantiate its existence, but it makes an interesting premise.

What I suppose I couldn’t really get over is that White could easily have made this story about a fictional author and it would have worked just as well. The fact that he’d set himself to write The Painted Boy himself, to take on the task of emulating Crane’s style seemed to me to be rather hubristic. Whether he does it well I will have to leave to others, as I haven’t read any of Crane’s works, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in style between White’s prose and that of what he puts forward as Crane’s.

I must apologise because this book didn’t appeal to me in any aspect. It was really a case of “gah, how many pages left?” and I appreciate that makes me a bit of a illiterate slob as this book has been lauded all over the place as being a work of genius, but frankly I’ve read books labelled “M/M” that have more literary merit in my eyes.

I’m more than slightly baffled about a couple of things. One, it’s called “A New York Novel” and this doesn’t really come over. You would have to squint hard to see much about the city–it’s mentioned here and there, more so towards the latter end of the novel, when the book gets more interesting, but it’s certainly nothing on the scale of other books that are steeped in the late 19th century city. Gaderene by Tina Anderson and C.B. Potts is far more New York than this, as is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Not only is Crane iving in Engand and travelling to Germany in the book, but when he,or any of the other characters, are shown in New York, they are inside somewhere, and very little flavour of the city at that time is shown. There’s one segment which smears on description, thick as lard, about the Five Points and Manhattan towards the end, but it really feels like the author had done a bit of research and wanted to shoehorn this local colour in instead of threading it through the entire book.

Also baffling is the title. Crane met his ex-prostitute Cora at the brothel “Hotel de Dream”, but unless I’m missing something (probably) it’s not mentioned otherwise, so any symbolism to the name entire skidded over my head.

That being said I liked the characterisation a good deal. From the real Elliott who Crane interviews–and has him take around part of the queer scene in New York of the time–namely a gay bar and a visit to an androdyne, to the characters they meet in their investigative travels, to Cora, Crane’s mistress who loves Crane so hugely and does anything it takes to try and get him the help he needs, from mumping off friends to writing her own hack stories (which sell) just to support them in their financial troubles. But the most compelling characters in the book for me were the fictional Elliott portrayed in The Painted Boy and his obsessed, entirely in love protector, Theodore Koch. The love that can come to an older man this late in love can be a frightening and destructive love and so it is here, the seven year itch taken to its nth degree. I think of all the characters in the book, it is Koch that will stay with me, as he’s so in love, and ultimately so destroyed–but hey, it wouldn’t be gay literature if everyone wasn’t as miserable as hell.

Oscar Wilde said this of The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

And I’m afraid you will think badly of me when I tell you that I roared with laughter at the denouement in Hotel de Dream. It was probably not meant to be funny, and I have a sick sense of humour but I thought it was hilarious. It reminds me of the best kind of shaggy dog story, so be warned.

Do I recommend this? It’s probably fifty fifty. I’d say get it from the library, and see what you think.

Author’s website

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Review: Suffer the Little Children by Tracy Rowan

When Victorian private investigator Nick Romney’s step-father, an Anglican bishop, is murdered, Nick refuses to get involved. At the urging of his family, though, Nick and his lover Davy step in to investigate. Together they uncover the truth of the bishop’s involvement in the dark and horrifying world of child prostitution, the reason why he was killed, and the shocking identity of the murderer.

Review by Erastes

The set up sounds familiar, a detective in fin-de-siecle Europe, but this isn’t really a Holmes homage. The author freely admits that she was inspired by Holmes:

“The initial inspiration was Sherlock Holmes and I jumped right to the idea of a gay Victorian detective and let the characters define the story, which they were quite happy to do.”

but the characters are nicely different from Holmes and Watson, or at least the Holmes and Watson I like to imagine, as I’ve never been part of that fandom. Nick, when Davy meets him, is a lab assistant–not some kind of genius and Davy is a bit of a wastrel, so it’s a far enough remove from “doctor and private detective”. I suppose I just wish that someone would do more than just Victorian detectives. It’s not like they didn’t exist.

The first kiss between the two was rather baffling, I didn’t see why it happened the way it did, and I felt it was a little abrupt – and frankly idiotic of Davy as he could have been in serious trouble. Nick hadn’t given him any encouragement and they’d hardly met more than thirty seconds. Similarly their proper first meeting and conversation was relayed in a tell-not-show manner -we are told they “sat and talked” until interrupted by Davy’s father.  And then Davy says this:

I was sent from the room for the duration of the interview, but I loitered in the waiting room because I didn’t want Romney to disappear from my life without at least trying to find out where he lived. Though I was no innocent, I had never felt such an attraction to another man before. It made all my previous dalliances seem inconsequential. However Nicholas Romney had stirred something in me that no one else had ever before touched, and I was anxious to explore all these new feelings.

The thing is–other than an impetuous kiss–we haven’t had any reason to suspect that Davy was madly attracted to Nick–nor are we given the reasons why, so I felt a little short changed. First meetings, first conversations, first attractions–like first sex–should always be described, even briefly. It was like leaving the cinema for a couple of minutes to get an icecream, only to find upon your return that the bunny has already been boiled.

I did like Davy’s family’s reaction to the fact that he was sharing rooms with Nick–his father seems to suspect their relationship, and it’s probable that his mother at least wouldn’t have been able to put words to what their relationship was, so maybe didn’t suspect. His brother deals with it by not dealing with it, and his sister is madly curious. It made his family decent (although probably quite unrealistic) without really breaching the OKHOMO barrier.  Similarly, the jump from his father being dismissive and disappointed with Davy, to this statement:

I knew he was a loving man,

was never truly explored. It’s often the way with books I like, though–I want all of the book, including all the things that can’t be fitted into 170 or so pages.

We are soon into familiar territory,a murder, a possible miscarriage of justice and things to investigate. One might say that Nick has similar methods to a certain detective living in Baker Street, but we can’t really blame him for that, methods are methods, after all.

Character-wise, there’s some solid building here, and we quickly learn about Davy (who Nick calls Fitz) and Nick (who Davy sometimes refers to as Rom.) Nick has interesting idosyncracies which make him rather alluring (to me, anyway!) and that’s all as it should be. Who wants a normal detective, gay or otherwise?

What is a nice touch is that in this book, Holmes is fictional–and he even gets a mention when a corpse is proclaimed by Nick to be a brewer and it made me laugh:

I had only recently read a story entitled “A Study in Scarlet” about a fictional detective, and much as I had enjoyed it, I harbored the suspicion that Romney was twice the detective this other chap was and not nearly as annoying. “Is that all?” I asked.

“Do you want me to tell you the location of the brewery by sniffing the hops?”

I grew excited. “Can you do that?”

Rom rolled his eyes. “Good heavens Fitz, you read too much nonsense.”

“Well, I don’t know!” I snapped.

As Nick’s “storyteller”in the same way Watson was for Holmes, Davy has a good eye. He’s the narrator of the story–which is first person–and he gives you great details of the locations they encounter in their travels, rooms and furniture, streets and buildings all come to life as he describes them.

The story unfolds in a parallel fashion, with the most recent case with frequent flashbacks to the time they met, and Nick’s first case. I – being a bear of little brain and less concentration (specially with reading on the PC) found this distracting, and if I’m going to be picky I would have liked both stories as individual books rather than this method–but I know that it won’t bother most people so it’s not getting marked down for that. Nor for the cover which is very ugly.

It’s well-written and pacy–just how a mystery of this genre should be. Never a dull moment, in either plot-lines. The American spelling pissed me off a little bit, but it is probably a Torquere requirement, many publishers insist on it. I wish they wouldn’t for English set books. But spelling aside there were no other Americanisms that pulled me out of the immersive detail.

I should warn for themes which might offend–that of child abuse–but of course it is not described in any way, and the only references to it are those that disgust the characters involved, but I need to point this out, in case you won’t read anything with that theme.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and feel that I should knock a mark off for the double plot-line, (or due to the fact that we’ve reviewed three books this month with a five star rating) but both reasons would be unfair.This is a solid addition to the genre, well researched (very well researched, I should add) well written with a detective that I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of–and I hope we see more of Ms Rowan’s work in the gay historical field.

Author’s website

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Review: The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

They once faced each other on a battlefield. Now soldier-turned-spy Jonathan Reese must keep watch over the man he’s never forgotten. A close encounter reveals Karl von Binder, the count’s son, also recalls the day he spared Jonathan’s life.

Sparks fly between the former enemies and Jonathan begins to lose perspective on his mission. He knows he must maintain distance because the heat he encounters in Karl’s touch stirs him far too deeply for his own good. He can’t keep away — especially when he suspects someone is trying to kill the nobleman.

The spy becomes a protector as Jonathan guards the man he’s begun to care for. Together the men try to puzzle out who would benefit from Karl’s death — and how much they’re willing to trust each other when a torrid sexual fling threatens to become an affair of the heart.

Review by Erastes Click here for the PODCAST

Having enjoyed hugely Dee and Devon’s Gentleman and the Rogue I was eager to read this one—although a little trepidatious about the title and it seemed a bit similar, and I wondered if they weren’t just resting on their laurels and writing the same book twice.

However I shouldn’t have doubted them, because this is a very different book in time, flavour and feel.

The eponymous spy, Reese is introduced to us from the start and he sets the scene quite wonderfully, following on from an excellent first line:

“We aren’t asking you to kill the man”

we learn a lot about Reese, and nothing, because that’s the kind of shadowy spy he is. He gives nothing away, not in speech or in body language. He understands how to fake interest, how to fake non-aggression and he’s damned good at his job. We learn early on that he will no longer kill anyone—so he’s been an assassin at some point, and that he had a liaison with his former handler, and that something went terribly wrong there, and after that Reese changed. But not a lot else, and that’s how it should be. However as the story went on, I have to say that I would have liked to have seen more of how good Reese was at his job; he broke his cover pretty soon and wasn’t much of a spy during the story itself, although we had a hint of his excellence from his backstory.

His target couldn’t be more different on the surface. He’s assigned to follow Karl Johann Peter, Erb-Pfalzgraf von und zu Neuschlosswold-Binder (try saying that with a mouthful of chips) who seemingly everyone knows about. A famous aristocrat, diplomat with a huge retinue and a famous family—but with his own secrets to hide.

I loved the way the relationship started early, and the way that Binder was the experienced one, when I’d half expected it to be the other way around. Binder has good gaydar and his seduction of the man he’d already spotted as following him was quite delicious. There’s a lovely sense of paranoia from both men as they size each other up: what is he up to, who is working for, all these questions go through both men’s minds and it works well and is very believable, even for men who have just had an intimate encounter.

Both characters, Binder and Reese are excellently portrayed, each with a distinct personality and voice; they rub each other up the wrong way (and the right way in more intimate moments) and the cat and mouse and cat game that they play is great to read.

This nicely sums up the differences between them:

Maybe it was this somber aspect that drew Karl, since his own nature was more flamboyant. Jonathan seemed to have a stillness about him, an ability to sit quietly and take things in. He reminded Karl of a pool with a smooth surface and all sorts of dark, hidden depths. And every time Karl saw the pool, he was compelled to drag his hand through it and ruffle the waters. He just had to splash around, and he wanted to dive deep and see what secrets lay at the bottom.

Although I had to laugh at the last of that, but I’m twelve.

There’s many characters in this story, too, which is tightly plotted and multi-layered, and each character has a definite place and no one feels like “filler.”

Set in 1866 (and I think) just before the Austro-Prussian-Italian war I have to say that having been researching this period myself for the last six months I was impressed by the research done here in respect to the political situation in England and Germany at the time, touching lightly on unrest in Russia and other hotspots in Europe–(Europe being a veritable powder keg about to explode at any time.)

If you are looking for a sexy book, you won’t be disappointed, but the sex here is decadently sensual, full of round ripeness and a languid time-wasting hedonism that had my toes curling with delight. I’ve said it before that a sex scene needs to be part of the plot, and although (for the size of the book) the sex is a large proportion, it never once feels gratuitous and for once I was looking forward to the next one, rather than rolling my eyes with “oh God, they are at it again.” I appreciated the masculinity of the scenes, too—sometimes gay erotic can get a little too feminine for my taste. There’s little of the sighing over a pair of eyes or lips; at a party Karl imagines flipping up the tails of Reese’s evening jacket, yanking down his trousers and rogering him hard. Quite right, sir. Quite right.

When I’m writing these reviews I generally tap out quibbles as I find them, and it amused me vastly that the first major quibble I had, regarding Reese’s identity and the persona he’d booked in at the hotel were debunked thoroughly by Karl’s staff, which made me laugh that I’d thought that Dee and Devon would make such a simple error. Other than Claridge’s having unaired sheets (heavens, no!) nothing much other than the word “cum” making an appearance which I always dislike. That’s probably Loose ID’s style guide, not the authors’ choice though. And a few Americanisms which crept in here and there, like “wash-up” for washing. So well done, ladies.

If I have any complaint it’s to Loose I-D – PLEASE can you vary your covers a bit? These are all getting a bit samey.

It’s an exciting and robust tale with mouth-watering intrigue, political machinations, witty banter and some fizzlingly sensuous sex scenes and like The Gentleman and the Rogue (which if you haven’t read why the hell not?) I can’t recommend it highly enough. I want to take away these ladies’ pens until they promise they write nothing else but gay historicals. I just wish I could get a set of theirs in print.

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Review: Duke of Orleans by John Simpson

Twenty year old Richard Giles is living on the streets of London in the year 1660, scrounging for food and shelter the best he is able after the closure of his place of employment and death of his mother.

After being given shelter for the night by a kindly old man Richard is back on the streets when an unfortunate incident brings him into contact with a man who may just change the direction of his life, for the better.

Review by T J Pennington

John Simpson’s The Duke of Orleans reads, in part, like a history book…and not in a good way. The descriptions of the time and place are stilted, sounding as if they were chucks of an essay by a very earnest student rather than observations by an omniscient narrator or by the main character. For example:

Many turned to crime, becoming pickpockets and petty thieves, transforming the streets into a morass of corruption.

For those caught plying their trade, it was a stint in Newgate Prison, which far surpassed the definition of cruel in any decent person’s mind. Women and their children were housed along with common debtors in cellblocks considered to be austere at best, unless you had the coin. Then you could buy your way into the section of the prison containing upscale furnishings and comforts, while enlarging the pockets of the jailors whose tender mercies you were subjected too.(sic)

All of which is more or less accurate (“austere” is a remarkably charitable description of the Newgate cells)…but all of which is irrelevant, at that point. We know nothing about the the main character yet save his name, so we don’t care for him. And we don’t wonder if Newgate Prison will be a threat somewhat later. (It isn’t.)

We learn more about the main character on the next page. Unfortunately, the author has not mastered the art of showing rather than telling. We are told that he won’t steal unless he’s on the verge of starving; we aren’t shown him having an opportunity to steal and resisting it despite the temptation. We’re told that he sold off everything that he inherited long ago, though we aren’t told why. And finally we read a sentence that pushes us away from the time, the place and the main character: In the jargon of the day, Richard was a pauper.”

We learn that Richard Giles is the world’s most passive prostitute. His method of attracting business? Standing in front of restaurants and looking attractive and pathetic so that rich men will pity him, feed him and take him home for sex. This doesn’t strike me as a viable way of attracting multitudes of customers, especially if one is homeless, penniless and starving—when was the last time that you went out to dinner and invited a street person to dine with you?–but apparently it works for Richard.

Well, a lord strolls by as lords are wont to do (he’s called “my lord” three or four times, so I presumed that he was intended to be nobility), sees Richard looking hungry and sad, and immediately invites him to partake of “some hot food and cool drink.” We get no sense that Lord X is looking for a bit of fun or that Richard is offering any. The man who owns the pub that they enter behaves believably, shouting at Richard to leave, as he doesn’t want paupers and potential thieves hanging about his pub. Of course, he is immediately smacked down by the lord for daring to suggest that he doesn’t have the money to pay and for criticizing the lord’s guest.

The lord, as it turns out, is not a lord. He is Henry Walker, merchant. He asks Richard why he’s on the streets and Richard recites his true biography. If the narrative had not told us that this was his real background, I would have thought that he had memorized a false story and was reeling it out for a customer. When questioned further about the job he lost, he slips from the formal recitation into 21st-century slang:“I kinda kept the records of what was made and who bought what we sold.”

Sadly, Simpson alternates between stiffly formal and anachronistic language and behavior throughout the book. The barmaid sing-songs, “May I take your order?” much as a waitress in today’s family restaurant would. Richard’s problem with finding employment is one that today’s homeless face; employers require an address for their records. I think that would have been less of a problem in the days when people could be hired on for X amount of hours and paid at the end of the day.

There’s also the problem of how much money was worth back then. Richard states that he came to London after he lost his job with only six shillings in his pocket. That doesn’t sound like much to us. But in 1660, £0 6s 0d would have the same worth of 2008’s £33.70 (using the retail price index) or £459.00 (using the average earnings of the time). Economist Jan Luiten van Zanden says that the income of an unskilled laborer on a construction site in Oxford, Cambridge, Dover or Canterbury was 12 pence (or one shilling) a week (worth £5.61 using the 2008 retail price index and £76.50 using average earnings); in London, the wage for an unskilled laborer was 20 pence (or one shilling eightpence) per week (£9.35 using the 2008 retail price index and £128.00 using average earnings).

So when Richard got to London, he was ridiculously well off. He had a small fortune in his pocket. And we haven’t seen any reason yet why he couldn’t live on that.

Walker takes Richard home. Not because he’s interested in men or boys—he states that openly—but because he “had a rough childhood and young adulthood.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, as Richard is neither a child nor an adolescent but a grown man. The housekeeper is only too happy to scrub and mend Richard’s clothes after a long day of work, just as Walker himself is only too happy to do a footman’s job and build the fire in the guest room that Richard is occupying.

The next day, though, Richard has to leave; Walker has relatives coming from York, and well, you know how it is. Richard, effusively grateful for the one night’s sleep, the bath and the newly mended, clean clothes, goes out onto London’s streets again. And that’s it. That’s the last we see of Walker until the end of the story, when Richard pops up again to tell him how well he’s doing.

Now that Richard is cleaner and more rested than he’s been in weeks, does he try to go get a day job somewhere, as would have been possible in his time? Does he tell a proprietor of a store or an inn that he’ll work for food? Does he go to a carriage house or livery stable and offer to help muck it out so that he’ll have somewhere to sleep for the night? Oh, no. He heads to Parliament to beg. And “[h]e hoped his clothes didn’t look too good for people to believe he was a pauper.”

When he gets to Parliament, he is “run off continuously by the local constabulary and finally threatened with arrest.” I’m not sure how that managed to happen, since Henry Fielding didn’t found the Bow Street Runners, an unofficial police force that worked for the Bow Street Magistrate’s office, until 1749 and Sir Robert Peel didn’t establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London—the first modern police force–until 1829.

Anyway, Richard gets rousted from one of the front doors of Parliament, so he starts wandering about in front of the more fashionable shops and gets splashed by a carriage drawing up to the curb. Richard charges up to the coachman and starts berating him. This is the point at which a “youngish” French noble (the eponymous Duc d’Orléans, who would have been twenty at the time of this story, and not, as the character later says, twenty-six) gets out of the carriage himself and goes over to talk to Richard. And he apologizes for the driver splashing Richard.

Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans

Let me repeat that. An aristocrat who is the younger son of King Louis XIII and his consort, Anne of Austria, the grandson of Philip III of Spain, the younger brother of King Louis XIV, and the Duke of Anjou and Duke of Orléans in his own right gets out of his carriage and apologizes to the poorly dressed commoner who is now soaking wet, covered in mud and shit, and screaming at his coachman.

Philippe (for that was the name of the Duke of Orléans) offers to make it up to Richard by buying him an entire set (read: suit) of new clothes. He also introduces himself as “Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Duke of Valois, Duke of Chartres and Lord of Montargis,” which is jumping the gun a bit; he was styling himself as Duke of Orléans as of February 2, 1660, but Louis didn’t grant his brother that title or any of the others until May 10, 1661.

Richard protests that he lacks “employ, money, or a place to rest each night” and that he’s “a non-person”—a word that didn’t exist in the seventeenth century—and, with that, tries to leave. The duke shouts at him not to do so…and Richard is instantly attacked by servants and shopkeepers who think that he’s trying to rob the duke. The duke explains that no, he wasn’t being robbed, he just wants to talk to Richard. Oh, and make him three sets of clothes. One in full evening dress.

While Richard is taking a bath in a washtub in one of the back rooms of this fancy tailor shop, the Duke of Orléans asks Richard what kind of work he’s looking for. When Richard says he can write and figure, Philippe hires him as a valet and personal secretary, despite the fact that Richard can neither read nor write French and says so. His appraising gaze as he looks at Richard’s naked soapy body says exactly why he’s hiring the man. He also notes that despite deprivation—and Philippe thinks to himself that he’s seen such deprivation before on the battlefield, though the first war that Philippe seems to have been in was the War of Devolution in 1667—despite it, Richard is “fairly well muscled.” He also talks to Richard about “the stunning beauty of your ass.”

Once the clothes are taken care of, Philippe explains to Richard why he’s in England—his brother and his advisors sent him to England to keep him from starting a civil war to grab the throne. This would be an interesting Dumaseque plot. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. The story contains no further information about a conspiracy to overthrow Louis or an upcoming civil war. Which is a pity. It would have made a compelling alternate universe story.

After a long section in which Philippe takes Richard to his ambassadorial residence, gives Richard all sorts of instructions about his duties and proper etiquette, and has a couple of meals with Richard (because servants always sat down and ate with their employers), Philippe finally asks Richard if he prefers men. Upon Richard admitting that he does, the Duke says that he prefers men as well…and would Richard “care to join [him] in bed tonight where we both can remain warmer?”

Of course Richard says yes, and of course Philippe assures him that nothing will happen that night…while at the same time asking Richard if he will be his “student in love.” You would expect that night to feature a passionate sex scene. But instead, Philippe curls up next to Richard and falls asleep. They don’t have sex until a week later—over the protests of Richard, who tells the duke, “I am not very experienced in the ways of physical love and I might disappoint you.” Um…Richard? Weren’t you working as a streetwalker earlier, sexually obliging men who would feed you?

After a couple of fairly standard sex scenes, Philippe tells Richard that he loves him and wants him to come back to France with him…as his lover. And, after a conversation with Charles II, in which Charles wants an Anglo-French alliance against Spain—never mind that an Anglo-French alliance already defeated Spain in the Franco-Spanish War in 1658 and England profited from that alliance in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659—Philippe suggests sending Richard to Louis XIV as a messenger.

Of course, Philippe says, a mere commoner can’t meet with his brother. So Charles agrees to make Richard the Earl of Dunleavy. The title doesn’t bring Richard any land, but it does give him what Charles calls “a token”–one hundred pounds a year. According to Measuring Worth, that’s about £11,200.00 in 2008 pounds, using the retail price index, or £153,000.00 in 2008 pounds, using average earnings. (I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of “small token” each year myself.)

And, naturally, as the story concludes, it is implied that Richard and Philippe are going to live together happily for the rest of their days. Unfortunately, the only way that works is if you ignore not only Philippe’s marriage in November 1660 to Henrietta of England (called Minette, and mother of four of his children) and his later marriage to Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate (called Liselotte, and mother of three more), but also the existence of the man who was allegedly the love of Philippe’s life, Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, called the Chevalier de Lorraine, whom Philippe met in 1668. The Chevalier was described as “fait comme on peint les anges”–“made as the angels are painted”–and remained with the Duc d’Orléans until the Duke’s death.

The story itself has problems. First, I must mention both the cover and the editing—which are not the author’s responsibility, but which do count, nevertheless. The cover is attractive, and looks as if it were modeled on the Running Press covers, but it is not even vaguely accurate; of the two men on the cover, the one on the left is dressed in what appears to be late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century garb, while the one on the right is clad in what looks like a black jacket and a white mock-turtleneck. Neither is wearing anything approaching seventeenth-century attire…or the long and elaborate curly wigs that were the hallmark of fashionable men’s hairstyles in the seventeenth century, either. And the editing is ill-done; there are many, many missing quotation marks, missing commas and commas inserted scattershot into the text. The errors were distracting and annoying; they kept pulling me out of the story.

As for the writing itself…well, as mentioned throughout this review, the story is very, very poorly researched; even the age of the bisexual Duc d’Orléans is wrong. The language is alternates between being stilted and being slangy and anachronistically modern. And the characters are not developed; we never get a sense of them as people with thoughts, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. I’ve finished the book, but I don’t feel that I know Richard any better now than I did on the first page.

Finally—and this is linked to the lack of characterization–there is no overarching plot. The novella is, fundamentally, a series of anecdotes about a impoverished young man who is given everything that he could ever want because he is a wonderful, noble, humble and saintly person. We never see Richard being poor or unhappy or struggling or starving; we hear about it, but we don’t see him suffering. Richard, like many fairy tale heroes and heroines, is kind and courteous to the right mysterious old man and old woman (Henry Walker and the housekeeper Martha, respectively) and gets his heart’s desire. It is the Cinderella story with the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters left out.

And because there is no opponent, no antagonist, no threat to Richard, no conflict at all, and because Richard, who is the quintessential Passive Protagonist, never needs to accomplish any goals through his own efforts (and, indeed, never tries to do so), the story is not interesting. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy—and while everyone on earth has daydreamed about getting wealth, power, the perfect job and the perfect lover, a daydream is not a fully developed story.

Because there are so many basic problems with the book, the most I can give it is one star.

Author’s website

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Review: All for One by Nicki Bennett & Ariel Tachna

Aristide, Léandre, and Perrin pledge only three loyalties in life: their King, their captain, and their passion for each other. So when the musketeers discover a plan to accuse M. de Tréville of treason, the initial impulse to kill the messenger, Benoît, is tempered by their need to unmask the plotter. But their first two suspects, the English ambassador and Cardinal Richelieu, prove to be innocent, forcing the musketeers to delve deeper into the inner machinations of the French court.

Meanwhile, Aristide finds himself falling in love with the ill-fated messenger, a blacksmith without a home who rouses all of his protective, possessive instincts. Benoît, however, has no interest in any man. Torn between desire and duty, Aristide must find a way to protect the King and clear his captain’s name—all while heeding the demands of his heart.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The musketeer Aristide enjoys the good life with his two comrades, Leandre and Perrin. The three of them take the famous motto ‘all for one, one for all’ literal, as they aren’t just comrades but members of a ménage-a-trois. This arrangement serves them well until they save Benoit, who has been shot on the road while delivering a letter to Cardinal Richelieu. The contents of the letter accuse the commanding officer of the musketeers of treason, and the four set out to uncover the plot which may hint at an attempt to murder the king.

Aristide, who looks after Benoit while he’s healing, falls in love with the peasant who lost his wife and child to the plague. Unobligingly, though, Benoit abhors the idea of having sex with another man. Eventually he comes round to it, though, after much angsting and many misunderstandings, and helped along by a cast of characters mostly made up of happy exclusive gay couples and their understanding allies, who all adore Aristide.

I have to admit I was bored for most of the book. The sex is the best about it – the frequent sex scenes are realistic for the most part (coming back to this later), even if they are, more often than not, completely unnecessary. Though there were a few where I wasn’t quite sure how the positions work and the bodies fit together, as pure erotica, they were well handled, if not particularly revealing about the characters.

Once it moves away from the sex, the story falls apart on several counts. Despite some attempts at making this a historical novel by detailing clothes and mentioning bits and pieces of the times peppered throughout, the attitudes of the characters are decidedly modern. Under no circumstances do I believe a musketeer is calling the
Queen-Mother “that bitch” without raising at least an eyebrow. But never mind that they speak in a modern way (many instances of“’twas” and “’tis”nothwithstanding) – the dialogue just never rang true to me, regardless of any historical timeframe.

While the author does mention they have to be discreet, the characters never really are, instead talk openly and brazenly about their mindblowing sex and what they intend to do to each other once opportunity arises. One gaffe like that is funny, two gets repetitive, but ten or more is just grating.

Lucky, then, that almost all of Paris is gay and happily exclusive, if we judge it by the supporting cast, which is made up of couples that read like they had their own novels or will get their own novels in due course. True to form, our happy menage is about to break up into two couples, with even the slutty Perrin yearning for one man to claim wholly and exclusively. This happens of course, so Perrin mends his slutty ways and, having sworn exclusivity with Leandre, wishes for nothing more than not having slutted around. I’m not sure what this hang-up about exclusivity is, but I guess it’s one of those things that m/m romances have inherited from m/f romances, however psychologically dubious this yearning for a restoration to purity and virginity is. Applied to a gay male, a fighter, and a man of his century, that is a pretty bizarre thought.

The main drama in the first two thirds of the book is about the fracturing menage on one hand and misunderstandings and fears that keep Aristide and Benoit apart. The last third is about Benoit and Aristide having sex and swearing eternal love to each other.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded if they had stayed apart.

Beyond being really pretty, I see nothing loveable about Benoit. (I’d call him a “girly weepy girl” if that wasn’t pretty damn sexist and insulting to my kick-ass female and female-identified friends).

This is not remedied by the authors telling me he is a peasant blacksmith. His manners and fears and blushing innocence make him appear more like an underaged runaway from a monastery. His combination of stupidity (which I guess is supposed to be innocence), insolence, sullenness, unreasonable demands and taking any excuse for self-pity is a deeply unattractive combination. I couldn’t help but laugh at the scenes where Benoit is staying in the house of the three musketeers and keeps bitching about how loud they are during sex until they vow to be silent – and Aristide flips over backwards to accede to Benoit’s petulant and childish demands.

Aristide, built up to be the tough alpha male to sweep sweet little blushing Benoit into his arms, loses my respect with all his pining, self-pity (again) and passive-aggressive behaviour. Supposedly a gifted officer, he doesn’t have an ounce of empathy for other people – constantly misreading their intentions and then sulking that things don’t go his way.

But then, the misunderstandings are the only things that keep the story moving. Well, kind of. There’s a bit of an intrigue going on, which is sprinkled in, but never develops into a real plot. After two hundred pages of pretty much nothing happening but relationship drama and sex sex sex, when the politics finally do happen they are as subtle as a plan cooked up by fire-year-olds. I’d have expected better from accomplished players like the Cardinal Richelieu and the De Medici Queen-Mother. This ‘plot’, when it happens, takes around twenty-five pages of the 352 pages, with the rest taken up by relationship drama that leaves me cold, because of the, for the most part, unrealistic and overwrought emotions.

There was also a sore lack of all the cool stuff in that time and setting. The fighting/fencing was done with some empty phrases and sometimes was plain wrong, such as the one character bitching about how Benoit failed to ‘parry a feint’. Well, you’re not supposed to *parry* the feint, since doing so opens your guard for the real attack. So the wrong way to respond to a feint is to be deceived by it. Many other details are wrong, or sound wrong.

It’s great all our gay characters love and accept each other, but an ambassador who’s drinking in a musketeer tavern, chats up a bunch of musketeers and tells them to call him with his Christian name, until all of the minor and major characters are on a first-name basis lacks all the decorum that such lofty station warrants, never mind him being a nobleman (or English).

The POV constantly jumps around into all the characters heads, which I’d find a lot less grating if that hadn’t been slowing things down to near-paralysis, and if all the characters had had something interesting to contribute. This way, it seems like it was some kind of roleplaying game between the authors, where lots of unnecessary repetitions were never edited out.

There was simply not enough plot or believable conflict in that book to warrant the pagecount or the lengthy explanations and the many, many, many repetitions where everything was repeated and still people constantly contradicted their original intentions just two paragraphs later. There is no sense of danger or urgency in the story, until the reader wonders why he should bother even finishing the book.

There was enough purple in the prose to paint a mid-sized village. ‘Passages’ and ‘channels’ were invariably ‘anointed’ (the religious connotation nothing short of disturbing even for this atheist), and this has a sex scene where a tongue reaches a prostate – which made me laugh. All that overwrought emotion rang false, especially when the authors spend so much time with taking Benoit’s virginity…The threesome sex scenes, which are unabashedly porny, are way better and more honest than all the heart-rending and soul-searching emotion of the entirely predictable Aristide/Benoit sex, which was shown to me to be so much better for Aristide than the empty threesomes he had with his friends. Well, I’d have chosen the empty sex over that overwrought nonsense from that weepy blushing blacksmith any time.

The saving grace is that I did like Perrin and Leandre and some scenes were well-handled and interesting (such as the beginning and whenever the actual plot made an appearance). I can easily see the book that this could have been, and I’d have rated that one pretty highly, but that’s not the book I read. I think it might be a fun read for everybody who likes yaoi, doesn’t care about the history or real emotions, and doesn’t need a plot to be a happy reader.

Buy at Dreamspinner Press (paperbook and ebook available)

Reviews: Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac by Anel Viz

“When I think of the things that happened and the things I did, it is as though I were living them … My hands feel what I touched, and the smells that surrounded me fill my nostrils … Old joys swell my heart, old sorrows clutch at my throat … I remember every face, every name, every street …”

So Gérard Vreilhac begins the story of his life from his boyhood as a gardener at the Château d’Airelles before the French Revolution through six decades of upheaval and social change to the eve of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. It is a story of heroism and devotion, of political intrigue, of the great battles fought in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and of unprecedented upward mobility. Most of all it is the story of the men he loved: Julien, the aristocrat; the jealous and possessive Laurent; his Egyptian houseboy, Akmoud; Anatole, a male prostitute… And every time he fell in love with a man, it was forever.

Review by Nan Hawthorne (crossposted from “That’s All She Read“)

A friend of mine once told me when I told her I was planning to write historical fiction that if she wants to know about an event, she just reads a history book about it. I was so startled by the inconsideration of the comment that I had nothing to say. This novel is an example of why historical fiction, when it is well done and the writer is insightful and a careful researcher, can be so much better than a dry, impersonal, history. No matter how much the historian tries to address the immediate experience of an event, s/he simply doesn’t have the liberty to speculate on the inner motivations and reactions of the people who lived through it. That is why I value historical fiction so much, and one reason why I loved this book.

Imagine what it must have been like to live through the period in France from just before the Revolution of 1789 through Napoleon, two more revolutions and the continuous change in political systems and government and their impact on average people. I mean, have you ever wondered how you would have known from your middle class or lower neighborhood in Paris in 1789 that people were rioting in the streets and that the Bastille had been taken? I can tell you that this happened at this place as a result of this action, but wouldn’t you rather know what you may have seen out your kitchen window as early one morning you dragged yourself out of bed and went out to the courtyard well to draw water to make coffee, noticing odd sounds outside and seeing one of your neighbors running out of his front door with a musket?

Gérard Vreilhac experienced it all, either right in his face or as a victim of the consequences. He is the gardener’s son at a country estate of a nobleman. He is about as far from the focus of the revolutionary action as he can be, but not for long. He and the younger son of the household, already boyhood friends, become lovers, Gérard finding the first love of his life. Julian, the son, must leave to join the military, and Gérard is left to puzzle out his sexuality. He is in Paris when the proverbial Revolutionary trumpets sound and manages to get a job that introduces him to the leaders of the rebellion. As a result of impressing Robespierre, he becomes the clerk for the infamous trials of the Reign of Terror, finally finding himself convicted of crimes against the revolution and facing a guillotine that has already taken the lives of the many, both strangers and friends. He rots in prison, and miraculously is still there when Robespierre himself is taken down.

It is in prison that he meets Laurent, a sensitive and mild person who nonetheless joins the army of Napoleon the same time Gérard does and turns out to love fighting. They have an initially rocky relationship that settles into something no different from a marriage as they grow older and more mature. While in the army in Cairo with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Gérard takes in a servant, Akhmoud, who proves to be a willing and inventive bed partner. The scene when Gérard leaves Cairo, having given Akhmoud his house and furnishings, and Akhmoud’s face is streaming with tears watching him go was heart breaking. Still Gérard knows he could not have stayed, could not have fit into the society, and their relative class would have prevented anything truly deep from happening between them. Gérard knows, for it was Julian and himself in reverse. Back in France Gérard and Laurent return to their intense if peripatetic romance, until Laurent goes missing at Waterloo.
The rest of the novel sees Gérard trying to find a place in his new world without Laurent. An older wealthy friend acts as an excellent advisor and helps him find his way into salon society. He must marry to maintain that lifestyle and makes an old friend, also a former servant in Julian’s family estate, his wife. Other married men have mistresses, it is just that Gérard’s is a man, Anatole, a male prostitute, whom he sets up in an apartment. When Gérard is reaching the end of his life, prompted to write this memoir, Anatole is still there, his longtime companion and friend.

The most consistently present character in this book besides Gérard is France. Viz captures the idealism of youth that can become so violent so quickly, then the rollercoaster of idealism, realism, cynicism. One year they seek a republic, the next they want the King back, then they want workhouses, then they want war. Against this backdrop Gérard’s relationships reflect his changing role in his own frenetic society. He is Julian’s servant, Laurent’s working class lover, Akhmoud’s master, Anatole’s client and then Anatole’s companion and beloved. The novel is rich in erotic scenes, detailed and at the same time romantic. I would like to tell every heterosexual woman I know to read gay male erotica if you want to learn things you never knew a man likes in bed. I happen to believe that sex in a novel is an important way to develop the subtler aspects of a characterization, strive for that in my writing, and have a masterful example to follow in Viz’s novel. There is nothing cold or impersonal in Gérard’s accounts of bed sport, but rather are part of a vital and intelligent man’s self reflection and self determination.

In sum, I found this novel intelligent, insightful, quite well written, both sexy and romantic, and quite moving. Viz handles first person narrative appropriately in what is, after all, a memoir. For me, this novel was most of all about the importance of people in your life and how much friends of all types mean in the successful life of any person. There are so many fine characters in this novel, and each is distinct, important, and not just to the story but as well to each other.

I bought the book as a download at Dream spinner Press LLC’s web site and read it on my Kindle 2 – which, incidentally, was miserable with the French names!

Dreamspinner Press LLC

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: Checkmate by Nicki Bennett and Ariel Tachna

When sword for hire Teodoro Ciéza de Vivar accepts a commission to “rescue” Lord Christian Blackwood from unsuitable influences, he has no idea he’s landed himself in the middle of a plot to assassinate King Philip IV of Spain and blame the English ambassador for the deed. Nor does he expect the spoiled child he’s sent to retrieve to be a handsome, engaging young man. As Teodoro and Christian face down enemies at every turn, they fall more and more in love, an emotion they can’t safely indulge with the threat of the Inquisition looming over them. It will take all their combined guile and influence to outmaneuver the powerful men who would see them separated… or even killed.

Review by Erastes

Wow.  Just look at that cover.  I’m not generally a fan of Ann Cain’s hand drawn covers, but I’ve probably only seen the more yaoi ones.  This is utterly brilliant and has everything that a gay historical needs.  Yes, there’s flesh but it’s not representative of “men shagging” it’s more relevant to the story. It has depth. Bloody brilliant and standing ovation from me.  My top cover of the year.

Although I did enjoy the story as a whole, the main thing that stopped this book getting a much higher mark–which with a hard edit it would have deserved–was the head hopping.  I can usually bear it (although I know most readers dislike it intensely) with two people, but this hopped between however many where on the page, which was often 3 people and caused my head to hurt at times, and made for some really difficult reading.

Christian realized he had not brought his valise into the room with him. Sighing against the inevitable, he wrapped the cloth more tightly around his waist and opened the door. He hesitated when he saw Teodoro and Esteban standing there, but there was no help for it. He needed his clothes. Without speaking, he crossed to his bag and rummaged through it for a clean shirt and breeches.

His already hard cock throbbed against Teodoro’s  breeches when Blackwood entered the room clad only in a bath sheet, his bare chest and limbs even more alluring than the Spaniard had imagined them.

As you can see, the head-hopping here causes definite confusion!

It also made it very difficult to get to know the characters–it’s hard to get inside the head of someone when they only have one paragraph, one reaction and then you are whizzing over to everyone else in the scene.  To be honest it made the book almost unreadable, as the POV even broke away from Teodoro in the middle of an exciting sword fight,  completely spoiling the scene,  to leap into Christian’s head who was elsewhere at the time.

The mercenary’s conscience surprised me – I wouldn’t have thought he’d have cared whether his client’s story was true or not – he was being handsomely paid.  I would have thought that a hired sword would have one loyalty – the the highest bidder.  Granted he was attracted to Christian from the first but not enough to immediately feel guilt that he was kidnapping Christian, not saving him from unnatural practices.

There were a couple of things that jarred, such as a horse travelling 400 miles in 5 days, and the mention of a Grand Tour which didn’t exist until after the Restoration, but other than that the history seemed pretty solid to me, so no complaints there.

Overall, it’s a good story with a tender romance, exciting moments, enough hurt/comfort to assuage the hardest heart – and if you can get past the confusion of the dizzying head hopping you’ll probably enjoy the book, but it makes it a not-read-again for me, I’m afraid.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

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