Review: Midnight Dude by Various

18 wonderful stories by 18 talented authors. A cornucopia of gay themed short fiction and a showcase of the talent of the authors at AwesomeDude. Most of these stories were written specially for this anthology, whilst just a few are favorites from the site. There is something for everyone: from fantasy and stark realism, to War stories and sports, humor and pathos, angst and passion. (the review refers only to the two historical short stories within the anthology)

Review by Jean Cox
“Midnight Dude: Selected Readings” is an anthology of stories, two of which are historical.

“Some Enchanted Evening” by Tragic Rabbit: A love story to die for. Set in a decaying country house this intense and atmospheric story will pull the reader into a world of the liminal.

“A Flower In France” by Bruin Fisher: War’s brutality and how that can touch those who experience it is graphically illustrated in this moving story.

I’d read Bruin Fisher’s contribution to “I Do Two” and enjoyed it greatly, so was looking forward to this one. “A Flower in France” tells the story of an English Tommy who finds an unexpected sympathy for and empathy with one of the enemy, against the backdrop of WWI trench warfare.

On the positive side it illustrates the author’s variety; the light hearted tone of “Work Experience” is here replaced by serious notes for a serious subject. The hero, Godfrey, is complex and interesting—I wanted to find out a lot more about him—and his wonderful pragmatism shines through. He’s typical of the wartime generation who just got on with things without grumbling. There are scenes of great power and great tenderness in this tale and some particularly powerful images.

On the negative side, the story could have been three times as long; the development, especially of the post war scenes, felt rushed. I kept thinking there was a novella length (at least) story to be told, with the WWI part as the prelude.

Bruin Fisher can write very well—I’d like to see him really develop a longer story.

“Some Enchanted Evening” is set in both early and mid twentieth century America. The author, Tragic Rabbit, has an elegantly descriptive style; the prose was absolutely breathtaking at times, which is in keeping with a story that feels more like a fairy tale than the average gay historical short. The ghostly aspect of the second half of the tale adds to the air of mystery.

Christian’s slow awakening to his feelings in 1910 is contrasted with that of Thomas in 1962, observed by Christian’s spirit. The interaction between ghost and human, which could risk appearing absurd, is well depicted, as is (generally) the contrast between the two eras and the similarity of the young men’s experience.

This is such an unusual story I can forgive the overabundance of contemporary references (brand names, chart songs) for the 1962 segment, which contrasts with a lack of the same sort of references for the earlier segment. However, like “A Flower in France”, “Some Enchanted Evening” rushes to its conclusion; the ending would have been better had it been at the same pace as the rest of the story.

Overall, I came away with the feeling that both of these would have benefitted from a harder copy edit, which could have transformed a pair of good stories into excellent ones.

The issue with both stories’ endings might have pulled the final star rating down, but the overall quality of the writing (and the fact the anthology contains at least one non-historical story which alone would justify reading the book) deserves four stars.

Awesome Dude Website

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Review: Algerian Nights by Graeme Roland

In 1900, bored, wealthy Bostonian Perceval Fain finds himself in the French colony of Algeria, amusing himself with a number of local men, including members of the French military. Falling under the spell of his exotic desert surroundings, unfulfilled by his hedonistic lifestyle, Perceval meets an impoverished English artist, Preston.

At first the two men dislike each other and seem to have nothing in common. Almost against their wills, though, an attraction develops between them, fulfilling an enigmatic prophecy.

Review by Erastes

Well, going by the cover I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this–the cover won’t affect the score of the book, but shoving two headless six-packs over a desert doesn’t cut it these days–perhaps four years ago it might, but I think readers demand more, even for an ebook. The cover also doesn’t make it clear that it’s a historical, and may even put off the sort of reader who would actually really like this book, as it screams “gay porn” and not much else.

And that would be a shame, because this is quite a good historical romp. I use the word romp advisedy, because there’s a lot of sex in it, although I’d probably say that it’s not gratuitious, each sex scene does add something to the plot and characterisation, even if it’s only what a character thinks at the end of it.

I have to say that Fain was a fascinating character. A Dorian Gray without a portrait, a man who has decided to do pretty much exactly what he likes and has the money and prestige to back it up and to protect himself from the punishment the law may chuck at him. I liked particularly that he didn’t get away with this scot-free, that he was not received by polite society and that he was considered decadent and immoral and many other things by the American upper-classes. Think James’s Washington Square, then insert a slightly reined in Dorian Gray.

He’s accompanied everywhere by his lovely bit of rough, his valet, confidente and sometime bed-warmer Tommy who is himself a great character and if the author were to write any more about either of these I would happily read it. Tommy and Perceval (shortened to Perce, which annoyed me throughout, as Perce very much (for an English person) smacks of working class–the cat in “This Happy Breed” was called Perce) love each other and at first I thought that was the focus but their love, although real, is more friends with benefits, and the romance element came from elsewhere.

That pretty much sums Perce up, for most of the book. He’s loose-living, carefree and although he likes everyone he goes to bed with, or he wouldn’t go to bed with them, he’s never really formed a lasting attachment. He doens’t think that he feels the lack of this. He’s of the opinion that men aren’t naturally monogamous with other men and nothing that happens in the book convinces him otherwise, even at the end.

I’m in two minds about the level of OK Homo in the book. Granted that Perce makes sure that doors are locked and he usually has his trysts in places where he won’t be discovered, but there are several times when people are talking in public about male nudity, male attraction and male/male sex–for example Tommy and the painter Preston at the breakfast table. The author has been clever to set it in an out of the way town in Algeria, and that part of Africa was a magnet for gay men for decades because of the liberal attitude, but it’s all a bit TOO liberal, and male sex available just about everywhere. This, and the lack of any women characters, makes a little over-weighted in the OK Homo department.

It also didn’t seem to know exactly what it wanted to be. Half of the book was happy to be a good old sexual romp, with Perce leaping from partner to partners to orgy with gay abandon and the sex pretty well graphically described. This was fine, because that’s what I was expecting, something on the sexual level of The Back Passage (althugh without the tongue in cheek humour). But half way through the sex scenes were sketchily described along the lines of “they undressed and when they had both orgasmed…” which left me feeling a little cheated as I had thought this was supposed to be more of a one-handed read all the way through.

Everyone’s nice too. With his activities and lusts there needed to be some conflict, and it shows how much I enjoyed the story that I didn’t realise there wasn’t any conflict at all until after I had finished it. Everything comes easy to Perce, and with his looks and money that’s not particularly surprising, but it’s all too easy. Every man falls into bed with him without even being heterosexual, his gaydar is never off, everyone’s his friend, his servants are loyal and nothing bad happens.

However, considering that I didn’t even notice this until after I’d finished and had time to mull it over, I’m not going to mark it down much for that.

I think it could have done with a tougher editor as there are times when the passive voice is used pretty much exclusively “there was a and there was this and there was and it was and he was” etc etc and there are moments of head-hopping although they aren’t rife.

But all in all, a good edition to anyone’s library, and I encourage you to give this a go.

Amazon UK       Amazon USA    available in print and ebook

 

Review: House of Mirrors by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Driven from his family when his sexuality is exposed, Jonah discovers drama, passion, and intrigue in a traveling carnival–and in the enigmatic owner, Rafe Grimstone. The preacher’s son and the lord who’s rejected his former life in England feel the heat of attraction from the moment they meet. Open-hearted Jonah is willing to risk hellfire and damnation for brief moments of pleasure with Rafe, but the older man is frozen in a past he can’t escape no matter how far he runs.

As Rafe struggles to choose between responsibilities of his present and his past, mysterious accidents assail the close-knit community of the carnival. Will the perpetrator be revealed before the traveling show is ruined, and will Rafe finally reveal his true self to Jonah or continue to mask his identity like the changing images in a house of mirrors?

Review by Erastes

I have thoroughly enjoy past forays by this talented team of writers and I jumped into this headlong, seduced by their past skill and the fact that I am a big sucker for circus stories.

I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the length–around 160 pages. It doesn’t rush into things and events are given time to mature, characters given space to develop. Secondly it takes the carny/circus theme and really runs with it. Rafe’s outfit isn’t a great big one like ones shown on Hollywood films, it’s a real “dog and pony show”–the “headline” act being just that, a dog and pony turn, there’s a magician, a strong man, a knife throwing act which perform in the show. In addition to that there’s the “freak show” which is hardly that at all. Over the past little while, they’ve lost their dwarf, and although he hasn’t told the Carny “family”, Rafe knows the show is losing money.

It’s a sad little outfit, to be honest which travels around Ohio, part of Indiana, and Kentucky. Playing to people who’s lives are so bleak and hopeless and miserable that even a poor little show with nothing much more than a couple of tents seems like something miraculous. There’s a scene at a funeral where this is so beautifully described you can see the por fabric of the people’s clothes, feel every bone in their starving horse’s ribs–people who are awed by the simplest of things, and grateful for it.

It’s this “Grapes of Wrath” level of detail that I loved most about the book; the main two characters, Jonah and Rafe are interesting, but they didn’t catch me on fire, and the romance was pretty predictable. However it’s solidly done, and no one will be disappointed by the set up and completion of the love story.  However, the other characters in the book were the genius touch. Mindy, the sour-tongued and loyal daughter of the previous owner, Sam the giant with health problems, the nebulous Parinsky, and Jamie the pretty woman with a big crush–and many others. None of them are skimped in favour of the main romance, and when something happens to one of them I freely admit I found myself crying without even realising it.

There’s a nice mini-mystery thread that runs through, and even with the limited pool of suspects the clues led me to the wrong suspect–and that pleases me.

What I didn’t like was (to me) a rather unsatisfactory ending. It seemed to go on for too long, as if desperate to assure the reader as to what would happen next and how. I found it unnecessary and bulky. I can understand the reasons why all the ends had to be tied up but after such deft and subtle storytelling it felt like the publisher had said “You can’t end it there, please let’s see what happens afterwards.”

But for all that, I find this a really well written book. Dee and Devon go from strength to strength and the maturity of much of the writing in this book is simply wonderful.  I have one plea. If Loose I-D don’t own the print rights to your books, girls, then please offer them to a print publisher because they will be keepers for many, me included.

Highly recommended.

Bonnie Dee’s website   Summer Devon’s website

Buy at Loose I-D

Review: Lessons In Trust by Charlie Cochrane

He thought he knew who he was. Now he’s a stranger to himself.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 7

When Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith witness the suspicious death of a young man at the White City exhibition in London, they’re keen to investigate—especially after the cause of death proves to be murder. But police Inspector Redknapp refuses to let them help, even after they stumble onto clues to the dead man’s identity.

Review by Erastes

As you will know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, or any other m/m review site, The Cambridge Fellows series starring Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart has been a seven book series published by Samhain. This is the last in this set of books from Samhain. I won’t say “this is the last ever appearance from the boys” because I know that Charlie Cochrane is hoping to write at least one more, but that’s not in her contract for the seven books she’s done with them so far.

The series has been almost uniformly excellent—I’ve asked different people to review the books as they were released, to try and instil some fairness, but that didn’t make any difference, quality is quality and The Cambridge Fellow Series has been loved by one and all.

So it will be no surprise to you to hear that Lessons In Trust doesn’t waver one iota in that regard.

The story kicks off with the boys on vacation, staying with the Stewarts.  It’s 1908 and The White City ( a hundred acre site holding the Franco-British Exhibition) has just opened, and the boys are enjoying it every day. And it’s there that the murder mystery begins.

One gets used to the fact that, when a detective (or a couple of them in this case) are on the loose anywhere at all, wherever they go, they are bound to discover a murder. You would be a very stupid person to invite Hercule Poirot to your dinner party, and if I’d seen him entering a train or plane or boat I was on, I’d ask to change my passage to another day.  What Cochrane does is play with that that trope sufficiently to make a nice difference. When they do see the murder, they don’t realise that it is one, and rather than being encouraged to help with the enquiry, they are positively ordered away from it but a wonderful minor character, a policeman who insults the amateur detectives at every available opportunity.

Despite the novella length of this book, Cochrane packs a lot in. Not only do the doughty pair have the challenge of a baffling murder, but one of them has a crisis in his personal life which causes a real rift between the two of them.  I think it was this section that was the only part of the book I didn’t really get. At this point of their relationship, when they’d been through so much–I didn’t understand Orlando’s actions at all. However, it is written entirely in character, so it didn’t jar me – I wasn’t sitting there thinking “he wouldn’t have done that,” – rather “I thought you loved him more.”

As usual, the plot is nicely obscure for the fan of the mystery genre and as usual, there are some wonderful character portraits within the book, and people who love Jonty and Orlando’s gentle and sweet interractions won’t be disappointed.

I can’t mark this with any less than five stars, the weight of the series behind it, and the unfailing quality of the writing, the characterisation and the plotting won’t let me.

Buy at Samhain

Review: Lessons in Seduction by Charlie Cochrane

This time, one touch could destroy everything…

The suspected murder of the king’s ex-mistress is Cambridge dons Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart’s most prestigious case yet. And the most challenging, since clues are as hard to come by as the killer’s possible motive.

At the hotel where the body was found, Orlando goes undercover as a professional dancing partner while Jonty checks in as a guest. It helps the investigation, but it also means limiting their communication to glances across the dance floor. It’s sheer agony.

A series of anonymous letters warns the sleuths they’ll be sorry if they don’t drop the investigation. When another murder follows, Jonty is convinced their involvement might have caused the victim’s death. Yet they can’t stop, for this second killing brings to light a wealth of hidden secrets.

For Orlando, the letters pose a more personal threat. He worries that someone will blow his cover and discover their own deepest secret… The intimate relationship he enjoys with Jonty could not only get them thrown out of Cambridge, but arrested for indecency.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Lessons in Seduction is the sixth entry in the Cambridge Fellows series, and for me, it was the least satisfying, to date. That’s not to say it was a bad book—it wasn’t—and certainly fans of the series will want to add this to their collection. If you are new to the series, I would recommend starting with the first book, Lessons in Love and working your way through the prior five (Love, Desire, Discovery, Power and Temptation) before tackling this one. Although they can be read as standalones, I think there is enough character development between the lead protagonists, Jonathan Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith, that the series is more enjoyable read in order.

So, for this book. As noted above, a murder has occurred at the Regal Hotel. Jonty and Orlando, because of their growing renown as amateur sleuths, are asked to help with the investigation. Jonty’s father, Richard Stewart, also gets involved. Jonty and Richard are able to be themselves, but Orlando must go undercover as Oliver Carberry, posing as a dancing instructor and regular “fourth for bridge.”

Because Jonty and Orlando are forced to be apart for much of the story, the murder mystery takes center stage and that, for me, was one of the biggest problems of the book. One of the things that has really attracted me to this series is the interaction between Jonty and Orlando and because of their separation, much of that was absent. They few times they did manage to get together, they were so desperate for each other, they didn’t have as much of their usual funny banter. Jonty tried to poke fun at himself and their situation in one scene by pretending to be a caveman, but the humor felt forced and didn’t work—for me at least.

The murder investigation seemed overly complicated. Because they were at a hotel, there were dozens of guests who were all potential suspects and I’ll be honest, by about the halfway point, I had given up keeping them straight. Lady This and Sir That and ladies’ maids and sons and jilted lovers all paraded across the pages. Worse, this was a fairly cerebral investigation, in which clues were gathered during breakfast, lunch and dinner; while people were dancing; while people were playing golf; while people were playing cards; and once in a while, when folks took a stroll on the beach. After many repetitious scenes of characters chatting over tea, the entire narrative started to wear thin for me. Jonty and his father kept receiving notes warning them off the case, but I never really felt that their lives were truly in danger. If there could have been at least one late night chase across the golf course, or a few shots ringing out in the dark, it would have livened up things considerably.

That said, the writing is classic Cochrane, with funny little turns of phrase and wonderful descriptions of the various people, their clothes, and the locale. For her fans, this alone will be enough to draw them in and keep them reading and most likely ignore the problems I had with the story.

I think writing a series of books and keeping them fresh and interesting is a formidable challenge for any author. Cochrane set a very high standard for herself with the first five books, and I want to make it clear that this one, even though she’s fallen off the mark a little bit, in my opinion, is still very good. I am looking forward to seeing how she wraps this up in book seven, Lessons in Trust. I feel like the series is working itself to its natural conclusion and I look forward to reading the last installment.

Samhain Publishing Buy from All Romance Buy from Amazon (Kindle)

Review: Lovers’ Knot by Donald Hardy

Cornwall, 1906

After inheriting Trevaglan Farm from a distant relative, Jonathan Williams returns to the estate to take possession, with his best friend, Alayne, by his side. He’d only been to Trevaglan once before, fourteen years earlier when he’d been sent there after a family scandal and his mother’s death. But that was a different time; he’s a different person now, determined to put that experience out of his mind and his heart….

That summer, he’d been a lost and lonely young man. Healing came slowly; the hot summer days were filled with sunshine, the nearby ocean, and a new friend, Nat. Jonathan and the farmhand had quickly grown close, Jonathan needing comfort in the wake of his grief, and Nat basking in a peace and love he had never known could exist.

But that was also a summer of rumors and strange happenings in the surrounding countryside, of romantic triangles and wronged lovers. Tempers would flare like summer lightning, and fade just as quickly. By the summer’s end, one young man was dead, and another haunted for life.

Now Jonathan is determined to start anew. Until he starts seeing the ghost of his former friend everywhere he looks. Until mementos of that summer idyll reappear. Until Alayne’s life is in danger. Until the town’s resident witch tells Jonathan that ghosts are real. And this one is tied to Jonathan unto death…

Review by Hayden Thorne

This is going to be an unusual way of opening a review, and I might be getting some flack for it, but there’s a point to this.

To begin, I want to point out what I thought to be problematic things about Lovers’ Knot (bear with me, please). The romantic conflict (“I love him. I want to tell him. I don’t want to lose his friendship.”) happens to be my least favorite M/M source of angst. I’ve read so many stories that unfold along these lines, and majority of them simply fail in making me sympathize with the heroes, for all their incessant pining. Secondly, some of the dialogue between Jonathan and Alayne is somewhat clunky and awkward. The language isn’t stilted, no, but there’s a certain self-consciousness in the way the exchanges happen that gives them a false feeling. Ironically, it usually happens whenever they banter, and one would think that they’ve never really lived together in London for almost a decade. And thirdly, I find the novel’s villain to be – well – too convenient. The motive, especially, while understandable, doesn’t convince as much because of her single-mindedness in getting what she wants, which limits her characterization to an archetype: the lover scorned, with hardly any room for development.

Now that I’ve laid out the weaker points of this book, I can move on to the next bit.

I LOVE THIS NOVEL. Yes, I latched on to those issues pretty early on in the book, and they came back here and there in the course of reading, but by the time I finished, none of them mattered. None.

For all the heroes’ pining, they never wallow in it. They struggle internally, they fight against themselves and common sense, but on the whole, they’re also very pragmatic men. They mull over things and then decide on a course of action. We’re never treated to page after page of tedious “woe is me” moments. The novel’s villain, though an archetype, manages to rouse some sympathy in the end, given the nature of her punishment and the stupidity that took her to that point. In fact, nearly all of the principal players do some incredibly stupid things, but given the nature of their relationships as well as their relationship with the land, it’s not a surprise. In fact, they’re expected to be ruled largely by passion. The occasional awkward dialogue gets balanced by wonderfully detailed scene descriptions and a haunting (no pun intended), dreamy atmosphere.

Lovers’ Knot has a pretty simple storyline, both past and present. What Donald Hardy does, though, is flesh out his story in such a way as to make it much more complex and multi-layered. It’s a classic romantic tragedy, where the ending leaves you both happy for the lovers and completely heartbroken over the past and maybe even wondering “what if?” What if Nat survived? What if so-and-so gave up and moved on? How would the present look? There are so many gray areas that shape both the story and the characters (save for Alayne, who’s largely in the background and is more of an innocent bystander caught up in some pretty creepy happenings), and above all, the story left me thinking about connections, allegories, and so on, which is something I couldn’t help but do because of the book’s narrative structure.

The story unfolds with Jonathan’s past alternating with his present. Normally I’m not fond of this approach because it requires a pretty deft handling of two disparate and yet parallel (or cause and effect) storylines, and the author has to be careful in making sure that the significance of these flashbacks becomes evident as the present story unfolds. We get exactly that in Lovers’ Knot. Along with the juxtaposition of youth and innocence with maturity and world-weariness, we’re also treated to some wonderful contrast studies that add to the emotional resonance of Jonathan’s relationships with Nat and Alayne.

The setting is Cornwall, very rural, and steeped in history. Jonathan and Nat’s blossoming love affair is defined by rugged Nature, superstition, village rites, the sea, and eternity. The two consummate their love all over the place, hiding constantly, yet completely vulnerable and exposed. Their “wedding rite” is primitive yet a truer connection of souls. Their minister (that is, if they were to recruit one)? The village witch.

For the present, Jonathan and Alayne’s relationship is defined by silence, lies, obfuscation. They’re protected against Nature by man-made structures, separated from each other by physical walls, stairways, and social convention. The vicar and his wife come to visit, and while Mrs. Deane shows some liberal leanings, she remains held back and kept in her place by – yes – social convention. There’s certainly much to be said about age and wisdom, but at what price? Emotional asphyxiation? The sharp contrast of Jonathan’s present with his past forces you to think about what could’ve been.

The gray areas encompass the characters as well. There are a number of them, and they bring different things to the story in different ways, but save for maybe a handful, none of them’s a saint. Through their strengths and especially their frailties, they add so many human dimensions to an otherwise simple story. I find Penhyrddin a very fascinating character, and his mystique remains even after the climax of Jonathan’s past. It’s almost fitting, really, that he’s almost a living ghost, just hovering in the background, seeing as how Lovers’ Knot is both a romance as well as a classic ghost story.

What I’ve always loved about ghost stories is that, compared to monsters, for instance, these stories tend to be very psychological. Was the specter a figment of the imagination? Why would it appear to A and not B? What relationship is there between the dead and the living? Lovers’ Knot doesn’t take the easy way out in explaining the hauntings. If anything, the cause happens to be one of the more heart-rending elements in the novel, and its resolution doesn’t make it easier to take. M.R. James is also invoked, which makes me a very giddy James fangirl.

The setting and historical details are very, very well-done. On the whole, the novel has a certain dreamy, lethargic quality to it – becauase of the story’s pace (and I really love it when authors take their time) as well as the attention that Hardy gives to practically every moment. You’ll feel as though you really are in rural England, exposed to the elements, to history, tradition, and the supernatural. You can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell practically everything. His focus on the poor and the uneducated is much, much appreciated. Historical fiction oftentimes being narrowed to the upper-class and aristocracy, I’m always dying to read a book about the lower-class and the rural poor. I find their lives so diverse and so rich, and I think that they have much more to say to us about a country’s history than their wealthier counterparts. Hardy’s novel does exactly that. In fact, I’d go further and say that his approach brings to mind another Hardy – Thomas Hardy – including the elegiac undercurrents and vanishing traditions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved and (no pun intended) haunted in such a way by a story I’ve read. The experience is wonderful and gratifying, and I certainly hope to see more books from this author.

Buy the book:   Amazon UK Amazon USA


Review: Lessons in Temptation by Charlie Cochrane

He thinks he has everything. Until someone tries to steal it.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 5

For friends and lovers Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart, a visit to Bath starts out full of promise. While Orlando assesses the value of some old manuscripts, Jonty plans to finish his book of sonnets. Nothing exciting…until they are asked to investigate the mysterious death of a prostitute.

Then Orlando discovers that the famous curse of Macbeth extends far beyond the stage. It’s bad enough that Jonty gets drawn into a local theatre’s rehearsals of the play. The producer is none other than Jimmy Harding, a friend from Jonty’s university days who clearly finds his old pal irresistible. Worse, Jimmy makes sure Orlando knows it, posing the greatest threat so far to their happiness.

With Jonty involved in the play, Orlando must do his sleuthing alone. Meanwhile, Jonty finds himself sorely tempted by Jimmy’s undeniable allure. Even if Orlando solves the murder, his only reward could be burying his and Jonty’s love in an early grave…

Review by Erastes

I think I’m going to have to either go round to Charlie Cochrane’s house and stop her from writing anything else, or stop reviewing her books on the site because it’s becoming embarrassing as to how much we all like them.  I even get different reviewers to review them, but it makes no difference.  We all love ’em, and that’s no exception with this book.

First of all, let me advise you that, as the blurb hints, these books are part of a series.  (I’ve even made a category now, to make them easier to find.) However, they are so skilfully written that they can easily be read as a standalone, and Cochrane manages this (somehow) without any infodumping and pages of “this is what happened in previous books.”  There is enough information, woven in with a deft hand, to tell you who these guys are, what they do, a touch of their previous adventures and that’s it.  And that’s excellent, because they are only 100 pages or so, so the last thing you need is 20 pages of info thrown at you.

That being said, despite the fact that they can be read as standalones, you’ll be depriving yourself if you read them out of turn, or only read one in the series.  There’s an over-reaching arc to the series, and with a romance, that’s a difficult thing to achieve.  After the happy ending of the first book you’d think that there would be nothing else to tell about the characters. Well, you’d be wrong. So wrong.

Cochrane must have had the same grandmother as mine, (“keep some mystery, dear!”) or be related to Gypsy Rose Lee or something because she knows just how to string her readers along, and each book–like the best burlesque dancer–reveals a little more about these characters, a little more of their backstory–sometimes to their own detriment.  What’s great about Jonty and Orlando is that, despite being deliciously affectionate with each other and really and truly soul-mates, something you never doubt–they are both rather flawed young men.  Part of this comes from their pasts, both have a little darkness they are fighting with, and part of this comes from the necessary unworldliness (Orlando more so than Jonty, but all academics have a particular oddness) that living in a secluded community like a Cambridge College will bring.

The books could easily be a mish mash of schmoop and sentiment, as the men are delightfully sweet with each other (when all is going well and they are in private) but there’s always a tinge of that dark hiding behind them.  Orlando is racked with guilt that he hasn’t been able to help Jonty deal with the terrors of his school years, and Jonty’s incandescent temper often threatens the subtle thread between them. And they never let their guard down, always aware of what discovery of their love would mean.

Ok – so on with this book specifically.  Straight away we are led into Jonty and Orlando’s world. This time they are working away on location in Bath. What I love about Cochrane’s work is that she uses locations that she knows and loves. Places she’s been regularly–like Jersey in Lessons in Desire–and can describe in all weathers and moods.   Bath is a Regency staple, of course, but it was nice to see it 100 years later, and see the differences.

As the title implies, there’s temptation on the menu in the form of the deliciously handsome bundle of gorgeousness, Jimmy Harding.  An American who has an earlier friendship with Jonty.  Orlando hates him at first sight, which causes friction, but then Jimmy makes it more than clear to Orlando that he’s going to make a direct play for Jonty and the sparks begin to fly.  You don’t come to the Cambridge Fellow’s books for the sex, by the way, the love scenes are veiled and shrouded in imagery, but none the less emotive for that.  The themes of love vs sex and loyalty vs temptation are well explored too; there were times I wanted to kill Jonty, I have to say.

This alone would be more than enough plot for most people, particularly in a novella of this size, but Cochrane isn’t that complacent.  Her guys are detectives and so not only do they have to cope with the danger of Jimmy Harding, but to solve the 25 year old murder of a prostitue that seemingly no-one or everyone about.   The mystery is a good “cold case” with no-one being entirely truthful or complete in their information with the two detectives, red herrings and blind alleys galore, which should satisfy the lovers of the genre.  If I have one niggle in this respect it’s simply my doubt that any prostitute would turn down any offer of marriage to a wealthy and respectable man on the chance that she might land another.

Cochrane’s writing style is subtly omniscient at times, which I happen to like a lot, but it may not appeal to those who prefer a tight third person point of view which never veers from one person at a time.  I think it suits the tone and the setting of the books, however.

Highly recommended and I look forward to the next book enormously.  I just need to find another reviewer–however if the standard continues this high, I’m sure they’ll love number six in the series as much as I loved one to five.

This being published by Samhain, the ebook is available now, with a wait of around a year for the print edition.

Buy from Samhain

Review: American Hunks by David L. Chapman and Brett Josef Grubisic


The “American hunk” is a cultural icon: the image of the chiseled, well-built male body has been promoted and exploited for commercial use for over 125 years, whether in movies, magazines, advertisements, or on consumer products, not only in America but throughout the world.

American Hunks is a fascinating collection of images (many in full color) depicting the muscular American male as documented in popular culture from 1860 to 1970. The book, divided into specific historic eras, includes such personalities as bodybuilder Charles Atlas; pioneer weightlifter Eugene Sandow; movie stars like Steve “Hercules” Reeves and Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller; and publications such as the 1920s-era magazine Physical Culture and the 1950s-era comic book Mr. Muscles. It also touches on the use of masculine, homoerotic imagery to sell political and military might (including American recruitment posters and Nazi propaganda from the 1936 Olympics), and how companies have used buff, near-naked men to sell products from laundry detergent to sacks of flour since the 1920s. The introduction by David L. Chapman offers insightful information on individual images, while the essay by Brett Josef Grubisic places the work in its proper historical context.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

American Hunks is a wonderful collection of photographs, spanning a bit more than a century from 1860 to the early 1970s. It shows muscular men in all their glory, starting with the early gymnasts and strongmen and moving on to bodybuilders and Hollywood stars with handsome physiques.

The pictures are drawn from the collection of author David L. Chapman, who opens the book with a wonderful memoir when he was eleven, in 1959, and wandered into a tobacconist and magazine store in his hometown of Chula Vista, CA. There, he stumbled upon the magazine, Physique Pictorial, with John Tristam on the cover, photographed by Robert Mizer. Chapman bought the magazine (which, given his age and the fact that the proprietor of the shop was blind, was amusing in and of itself) and in that moment, a collecting obsession was born.

The book has minimal text: a Foreword by Chapman and an essay, Flexed for Success: Consumer Goods, Pop Culture, and the Setting of Heroic Masculinity by co-author Brett Josef Grubisic. It is broken into seven chapters: The Pioneers (1860-1914); Hunks Make the World Safe (1914-1919); Jazz-Age Athletes (1920-1929); Depression Physiques (1930-1940); Supermen at War (1941-1949); The Age of the Chest (1950-1959); and Muscles à Go-Go! (1960-1969). The concluding pictures in the book are of an Austrian with an unpronounceable name who marked the end of normal

bodybuilding and the rise of steroid enhanced bodies. To those of us who appreciate the male form in its natural glory, the current crop of ‘roid puffed-up specimens are about as realistic as breast implants bolted onto a woman’s chest, and Chapman wisely left them out, letting the book end at its natural conclusion.

American Hunks is a large format book (8” x 10”) printed in full color on glossy paper. Many of the images are full-page and all have extensive comments in the picture captions, identifying the subject and photographer (when known) and additional contextual information. In addition to physique photographs, the book includes ads, magazine covers, movie posters and stills, postcards and a variety of other ephemera to illustrate the rise of muscular masculinity in popular American culture.

This 351 page book retails for $29.95 (US) which in my mind is a bargain; right now it is discounted at Amazon to $19.77 which is an absolute steal. For UK readers, it is available for pre-order at a price of £19.54 which isn’t quite as much of a good buy but still a pretty good deal. And let’s be honest, to have such an exquisite collection of handsome looking men to drool over—is money really the issue?

At Out.com, I found a slide show of pictures from the book so if you need any more temptation to add this book to your collection, go there and look at them. In the meantime, I’ve included a few of my favorites here, along with the captions (just hold your cursor over the picture too see the caption), to

give you first-hand impression of what the book is all about. Enjoy!

Visit Arsenal Pulp Press for more information.

Buy from Amazon USA and pre-order from Amazon UK

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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Review: Lessons In Power by Charlie Cochrane

The ghosts of the past will shape your future. Unless you fight them.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 4

Cambridge, 1907

After settling in their new home, Cambridge dons Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart are looking forward to nothing more exciting than teaching their students and playing rugby. Their plans change when a friend asks their help to clear an old flame who stands accused of murder.

Doing the right thing means Jonty and Orlando must leave the sheltering walls of St. Bride’s to enter a labyrinth of suspects and suspicions, lies and anguish.

Their investigation raises ghosts from Jonty’s past when the murder victim turns out to be one of the men who sexually abused him at school. The trauma forces Jonty to withdraw behind a wall of painful memories. And Orlando fears he may forever lose the intimacy of his best friend and lover.

When another one of Jonty’s abusers is found dead, police suspicion falls on the Cambridge fellows themselves. Finding this murderer becomes a race to solve the crime…before it destroys Jonty’s fragile state of mind.

Review by T J Pennington

This book contains the best warning label I’ve ever seen: Warning: Contains sensual m/m lovemaking and hot men playing rugby.

I freely admit that I have not read the first three books of the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries and that I know nothing about rugby. That said, I was relieved to discover that you don’t need to have read the previous mysteries or to be a rugby fan to comprehend–or, indeed, to savor–this book.

The story starts in February 1907 at St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, when Matthew Ainslie, a professor at University College London, comes to his friend and fellow professor Jonty Stewart, asking him (and, by extension, Jonty’s lover, Orlando) to investigate a murder. The suspect? Alistair Stafford, Matthew’s old lover–and more recently, his blackmailer. Complicating matters is the fact that Stafford was in Jardine’s company shortly before the murder, that they had exchanged words concerning the way Jardine had treated Stafford’s sister, and that Stafford had threatened Jardine’s life. Nevertheless, Matthew has heard Stafford’s story, and while he knows that Stafford is both vengeful and spiteful and is quite capable of crime, he honestly doesn’t believe that the man is guilty of this crime. And he isn’t willing to stand by and let Stafford hang for something he didn’t do.

The murder victim–and I found this to be an artful touch–is no more a sympathetic character than Stafford is. He is, or was, Lord Christopher Jardine, one of those who sexually abused Jonty Stewart at school–in fact, the first one who raped him. Of all the people in the world, Jonty has the least reason to care who smashed in Jardine’s head…and the most cause to celebrate.

But he does not. Like Matthew, Jonty is an honorable man who believes in doing his duty, even if he finds it unpleasant. “I wouldn’t want his killer going free just because the victim was such a toerag,” he says to Orlando. “Truth above all, it has to be so.”

Yet at the same time, he’s deeply conflicted; his memories of the rape and torture he underwent at school are a torment, both physically and psychologically. “I can tell myself we’re serving justice and that I don’t want Matthew’s friend unfairly convicted,” he says a bit later. “But when it comes to it—when we have the man or woman in our grasp—I have no idea how I’ll react.” And he prays to the Lord Almighty for help, saying that he knows he’s supposed to forgive those who have sinned against him, but that this feels impossible.

I think that it was at that point that I started to love Jonty. I cannot resist flawed but honorable characters who will do what is right even if it hurts. Given the popularity of antiheroes, such protagonists are not easy to find.

The investigation–which has to be carefully timed to take place on weekends and holidays, the only times that Drs. Stewart and Coppersmith aren’t working, a detail that both amused and pleased me–then begins…with the assistance of Jonty’s brother and father, who, respectively, share a club and a Savile Row tailor with the victim.

(It’s worth noting that though Jonty’s parents are aware of his relationship with Orlando, Orlando himself–after four books–is only just beginning to build some kind of relationship with his lover’s father and seems a bit overwhelmed by Jonty’s mother. Despite the fact that the Stewarts are nice people who love their son and want him to be happy, and despite the fact that Orlando likes the Stewarts, things are both amiable and a little awkward. I liked that; it was positive and yet believable.)

The early evidence, unfortunately, doesn’t so much favor Stafford as indicate that others might have wanted Jardine either dead or permanently blackmailed. Another man who’d helped Jardine rape and torture younger boys at school says that he wanted to confess what they’d done, while Jardine did not. The two men argued loudly enough for anyone inclined toward extortion to hear them. Stafford’s sister let herself be seduced by Jardine, thinking that he would marry her, and was furious when he refused to do so. Finally, Jardine had at least one unidentified visitor on the night of his death.

In addition to the mystery, a number of other things take place–a rugby match between the English department and the mathematics department at Cambridge; confrontations between Jonty and Timothy Taylor (Jonty’s second rapist and one of the chief suspects in Jardine’s death); seductions and attempted seductions by Orlando; and Jonty suffering flashbacks due to what we’d probably call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And that’s before there’s a second murder…which brings Jonty and Orlando under the scrutiny of the police.

I must mention that an American reading this book may trip over a couple of phrases–not because of any flaw in the writing, but because Americans probably won’t recognize rugby slang. I wished, more than once, that there was a rugby glossary in the back of the book; there were many times when it would have helpful. For example, when I read this sentence:

…a cannonball came flying across the field to take him, itself and the ball firmly into touch.

Orlando was winded, the rugby ball flew away, then the cannonball got up with a big grin all over its gob and said, “Sorry, Dr. Coppersmith, don’t know my own strength,” without meaning a word of it.

Now, the problem with this passage is that I don’t know what a cannonball is in this context, though I presume it’s a rugby term. So I was picturing an English football flying down the field and hitting Orlando in the stomach like, well, a cannonball. I was a bit thrown, therefore, when the cannonball turned out to be a person…albeit one described as having a grin all over ITS gob rather than HIS.

However, this is quite a minor detail; the book overall was excellent. One of the most delightful things about this book is that despite the fact that there is plenty of tension and despite Jonty having plenty of reason to be frightened and unhappy, the characters retain their sense of humor–even under the most trying circumstances. For example, while talking to one of the men who connived at the sexual abuse of a number of young boys at Jonty’s school, Orlando, irate on Jonty’s behalf and frustrated beyond words, thinks: I’ll kill him now and make it look like his aunt was responsible. Which is such wry and Saki-like statement and such an implausible scenario–the aunt in question being elderly, proper, and a tad dotty–that it surprised me into laughing.

Finally, I must mention the cover. The cover by Scott Carpenter is truly beautiful–an image of a young man gazing at an old-fashioned classroom, and underneath that, a realistic sketch of a college with the legend “A Cambridge Fellows Mystery.” The cover is washed in sepia tones, but with color accents and shadows in key places that make both the classroom scene and the sketch of the college at Cambridge both more vivid and more solid. All in all, the art deftly hints at some of the plot, one of the main characters, the importance of the setting and the genre of the tale while stating, “I am a good, solid, classy book. You would be proud to be seen reading me.”

I give it five stars, and wish that the book had been longer.

Author’s website

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Buy from Samhain Publishing

ebook available now, paperback version in around 9 months.

Review: Lessons in Discovery by Charlie Cochrane

Orlando’s broken memory may break his lover’s heart.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 3

Cambridge, 1906.

On the very day Jonty Stewart proposes that he and Orlando Coppersmith move in together, Fate trips them up. Rather, it trips Orlando, sending him down a flight of stairs and leaving him with an injury that erases his memory. Instead of taking the next step in their relationship, they’re back to square one. It’s bad enough that Orlando doesn’t remember being intimate with Jonty–he doesn’t remember Jonty at all.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Lessons in Discovery is the third book in the Cambridge Fellows series by Charlie Cochrane. In the first book, Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith meet and fall in love; in the second, they go on holiday together; and in this one, Orlando falls down the stairs and conks his head. As a result, he becomes amnesic and totally loses his memories of the past year, most notably his friendship with and love for Jonty. Also in this book, just as in the prior two, Jonty and Orlando put on their detective caps and solve a mystery. The combination of the sweet affection and a mystery works well for this series and makes the books very entertaining and enjoyable as quick, easy reads.

While I have been thoroughly entertained by all three books, if I had to rate them as to my favorites, Lessons in Discovery would be at the top of the list, which surprised me. I’ll be honest – I enjoyed book number two (Lessons in Desire) but it had moments where it was a little too sweet and slightly over the top, at least for me. I worried that if Cochrane kept on this trajectory, with the plot of Orlando losing his memory, Lessons in Discovery had the potential to veer either into the realm of completely saccharine or totally maudlin. Fortunately, my fears were baseless.

Orlando does lose his memory, yes, but what he doesn’t lose is the maturity and insight into his own personality that he has acquired through his friendship and love for Jonty. As a result, his re-discovery of himself is very compelling. I’ve occasionally thought of Orlando as “a lovable goof,” which is endearing, but sometimes seemed at odds with his keen intelligence and analytical mind. In this story, he has grown up and he realizes it. He is able to reflect on issues of friendship, loyalty, sexual awareness, and his own repressive childhood with new eyes and new emotions. I’ve always liked Jonty as a character but by the end of this book, I really, really liked Orlando which speaks to just how well characterized he was through Cochrane’s deft writing.

Jonty and Orlando re-establish their relationship (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that, since there are four more books planned in the series) but they also create a network of family and friends who understand about their “secret.” Personally, I think this is realistic. Even though, throughout history, many gay people were persecuted and imprisoned because of their sexuality, I think that there were many who were able to live normal lives without the condemnation of society. My reasons why Oscar Wilde couldn’t, and Jonty and Orlando can, are more than I want to get into in this review. Rather, my point is that Cochrane has set herself up very well for the future books. Jonty and Orlando turned the corner in this book and became rich, well-developed, three dimensional characters and I look forward to reading more about them as they live their lives together.

I also think the mystery in this story is the best of the three. Orlando is tasked with solving a 400 year old historical puzzle which, of course, is very well suited to his mathematical abilities. If another contemporary murder had happened under Jonty’s and Orlando’s noses, as did in each of the previous two books, I think that would have stretched the bounds of plausibility. On top of that, the mystery itself was intriguing and very cleverly written and had lots of interesting tidbits of English history.

I particularly enjoy Cochrane’s writing style which reminds me classic English mysteries such as those by Agatha Christie. She has lots of funny expressions and clever turns of phrase which sound very British and very “I say old chap” –at least to this American reader.

All in all, this is a lovely series of books: charming and tender, full of loving affection between the two main characters. I highly recommend them.

NB: Lessons in Discovery has recently been re-released by Samhain Publishing. I had read the earlier Linden Bay version and read the new Samhain version for this review and I didn’t really see any major differences between the two, aside from the new cover. In an email message, the author confirmed that this was correct: except for correcting a few minor typos, the books are essentially the same.

Buy the ebook from Amazon or through the Samhain’s website.  A print version is scheduled for publication in 2010.

Review: His Master’s Lover by Nick Heddle

In 1919 His Lordship declares that the Western Front may now be secure but the home front is still being undermined by Prime Minister Lloyd George and all his damned meddling . Only the humble gardener, Freddy has the intelligence to make money out of the new garden city full of homes fit for heroes , which is being built next to the ancestral estate. Heroic Freddy restores the family fortunes by opening the first profitable garden centre. However, His Lordship unwisely invests the family treasure in New York, just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Freddy’s fate becomes further entwined with that of this noble English family when he becomes, in succession, the passionate gay lover of two generations of its heirs and only the profits from Freddy’s garden centre save the day.

Review by Erastes

I wanted to like this novel, I really really did.  I’m always excited when I find a new (to me) author of gay historical fiction, and I bought both books by Mr Heddle without hesitation.  However, I found it entirely impossible to like anything about it, I’m sorry to say, and now regret the purchase of both books, because I’m sure the sequel is likely to be similar to this.

Firstly, the characters.  The main protagonist, Freddy, has just returned from the Western Front and has come back to his place at a stately home as under-gardener.  He catches the attention of Charles, the Lord & Ladyship’s son, a disgraced officer, who is suffering from severe shell-shock and mental problems who stages a clumsy seduction which succeeds.

Freddy, unfortunately, is a Gary-Stu of the highest type.

Gary Stu: (n.) A fanfiction term for the male version of Mary Sue. A Gary Stu refers to an original character, sometimes a Self Insert, who is more powerful than any canon character, can beat them at anything, and usually supersedes them as the story’s main character. (Dictionary of Anime Fandom)

Here’s just some of the things he can do/knows about.

Bear in mind, please, that this is 1919, he’s an under-gardener educated (probably until the age of 14) at a village school by his grandmother who still lives in his tied cottage.

He knows about the Classics

He can play chess

He can read – in fact he’s read the war poets, Oscar Wilde and, from his knowledge of the daily world, obviously the newspaper (a good one, not a rag) daily.

He can fix cars better than anyone around

He’s a dab hand at geometry

He’s conversant with world politics, and the nitty gritty of English politics.

He’s built a gym in his cellar.

He saved a relation of the King from his downed plane, crawling out into no-mans land to get him.

Because of the above, he earned the Victoria Cross.

And more and more and more.  In fact, he’s entirely sickening. There is nothing he can’t do. He fixes sewers. He finds treasure. When the Lord and Ladyship go to America he offers to go with them because he has dealt with American customs officers before in the war (God knows where). He build a garden centre with no effort, and when a small obstacle lands in his path,he charms the local Mayoress and gets the entire council on his side.

Not only that but everyone who meets him falls in MADLY love with him. And it’s the universal lurve for Freddie that makes me want to smash him in the face with something painful. Everyone loves him (with one exception) and not only that, everyone knows he’s gay.  Yes, this is the land of OKHomo, and boy is this the land of the tolerant.  The first people told are Charles’ parents.  Yes. The Lord and Lady of the manor, who not only understand but embrace the entire concept with what only can be described as glee, and there are one or two thoroughly sickening scenes where the young men are caught in flagrante delicto by her ladyship, who loves the experience, (as she fancies Freddy herself.) Then a Harley Street doctor is told who thinks it’s a Jolly Good Thing, the local doctor knows, and so on and so on.

The only person who doesn’t think it’s a good idea is the sadly neglected (by the otherwise saintly Freddy) Grandmother of Freddy himself.  A old woman with no visible means of support living in Freddy’s old tied cottage who Freddy hardly bothers about other to come and tell her he’s fucking the son of the nobility. She eventually turns into a mad religious ranter.

The relationship between Charles and Freddy never strikes true. Freddy gets into it for reasons that are never really explained, as he never seems to be physically or mentally attracted to Charles and there’s some very boring sex and suddenly they both profess to be madly in love. Plus, Charles is mentally unstable, and threatens to kill himself if Freddy leaves him, at every available opportunity, forcing Freddy to stay. Charles’ parents both urge Freddy to stay–or Charles will do himself harm–and this aspect of it made me cringe.

However, even if I hadn’t cared about any of the above–it’s the writing itself that made this book a nightmare to read.  More than once I thought “I can’t finish this.”  The prose is clunky in the extreme, for example, almost every section of dialogue has the name of the person being spoken to within it, a device that simply dosn’t happen in real life, and in order to present (I assume) a historical provenance, the author info dumps on every single page. Nothing is mentioned that doesn’t have an Act of Parliament and a corresponding date with it, and it was so hard to read without screaming.

Then, the way Freddy acts towards the end of the book is utterly un-endearing (if anyone was endeared in the first place) – he starts an affair with a boy of 16 while he’s still “married” (yes, they got married in a faux ceremony with a ring and with a horse for a witness) to Charles and when Charles dies he shows not one iota of grief – not one after ten years – and buggers off to France with his self-proclaimed and obviously unstable fratricidal toyboy, leaving his Granny to fend for herself. Nice.

Good, I thought. In 9 years time they’ll probably both be blown up.

So, no I am sorry. I do try to find the good in any book I read, because there usually is something, even if I give it one or two stars – but this has to be the first book I can’t even mark at all. The only thing I liked was the photo on the cover, and would like to know who did it, and commission him/her to do others.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Lessons In Desire by Charlie Cochrane

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 2

With the recent series of college murders behind him, Cambridge Fellow Jonty Stewart is in desperate need of a break. A holiday on the beautiful Channel Island of Jersey seems ideal, if only he can persuade Orlando Coppersmith to leave the security of the college and come with him. Orlando is a quiet man who prefers academic life to venturing out into the world.

Within the confines of their rooms at the university, it’s easy to hide the fact that he and Jonty are far more than friends. But the desire to spend more time alone with the man he loves is an impossible lure to resist. When a brutal murder occurs at the hotel where they’re staying, the two young men are once more drawn into the investigation. The race to catch the killer gets complicated by the victim’s son, Ainslie, a man who seems to find Orlando too attractive to resist. Can Stewart and Coppersmith keep Ainslie at bay, keep their affair clandestine, and solve the crime?

Review by Erastes

I have to say I dislike romance blurbs with questions, because due to the restrictions on a HEA, the answer is pretty much answerable at the first page, but that wasn’t going to stop me enjoying Charlie Cochrane’s second outing with her Cambridge Fellows, as I had enjoyed book one immensely.

Right from the word go she had me hooked, as Jonty and Orlando’s banter made me smile–I love the way that Orlando is shocked at the very idea of going AWAY for a holiday–and how Jonty loves to tease him. After all, the man nearly freaked out at eating outside of Hall in the first book.

Jersey then, seems a very suitable compromise. English enough to be reassuringly familiar, but with enough of a tang of France to give a flavour of being “abroad.”

The charm of Cochrane’s writing, specifically with this series, is not reliant on action, gun fights, car chases and explosions, but takes you back to a time where life was slower, where you changed for each meal, where life was regulated by the gong, manners and polite conversation.  Cochrane does this so beautifully that to there are scents of such classics as Rattigan’s Seperate Tables or The Raj Quartet. (Both would have been improved with a repressed gay love affair of course.)

Their time on the beach brought tears to my eyes, to be honest, because I was raised by the seaside and I miss doing all those simple things like throwing seaweed, exploring rock-pools and terrorising crabs. Cochrane knows her Jersey, having been there many times, and the scents and the sounds of the place fairly bounce from the page.

I love the humour in Cochrane’s work too, Jonty often puts his foot in it, causing Orlando to storm off in a huff, it’s gentle, English humour but it made me giggle a lot, and I had a smile on my face for a lot of this book. Orlando’s reactions to Ainslie’s attempted seduction was priceless.

All this and a murder mystery too, which I’m saying nothing about in case I spoil it.

What I like about the series is that Cochrane doesn’t give us everything at once. Orlando is like a nervous virgin–and although he’s participated in much with Jonty he hasn’t consummated their love affair entirely. More of the men’s backstory is revealed and slowly the relationship takes tiny steps forward, or perhaps three steps forward and a couple back.  Readers coming to the Cambridge Fellows wanting pages of graphic monkey sex will be disappointed, but readers who enjoy a slow burn and exquisite knife-edge sexual tension will appreciate it hugely.  Cochrane can do no wrong.

Buy:  Samhain Bookstore (ebook & paperback)   Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Ship of Dreams by Reilly Ryan

An attraction fated to go down in history…if they survive.

Liar. Thief. Con man. James Hyde keeps these labels well hidden under the veneer of a high-class gambler. He knows how to charm his way to where the money is, and right now it’s aboard the world’s most luxurious ship, ripe for the taking. From the moment he locks eyes with Will Woods, though, James is tempted. Tempted, for once, to be the kind of man that another can trust with his heart.

Will is sailing toward everything he’s ever wanted: marriage and family. His instant attraction to James is a complete surprise—and too powerful to ignore. In his arms, Will rediscovers passion he’s kept long buried. And it tempts him to abandon the safety of wealth and position. Perhaps even his family’s good graces. All for James—a man who is only now beginning to understand the meaning of honor.

Then there’s the last obstacle standing in their way. Their ship of dreams…is the Titanic.

Review by Tara-Chan

Having been given the opportunity to read a gay romance taking place on the infamous Titanic, I looked forward to reading the story since I’m a huge Titanic junkie. See, I’m one of those who enjoyed James Cameron’s 1997 film, but I enjoyed it more for giving me the opportunity to see the ship come to life than the romance, and I also enjoyed the Titanic exhibition that came to my city several years ago. Point of the matter is that I was given the opportunity to read about some gay romance happening on this “Ship of Dreams”, and I was thrilled.

I wasn’t expecting my excitement to be broken up so quickly — in the first chapter nonetheless. The introduction was sudden, and the pacing was just way too fast. Even at the most pivotal moment of the ship’s distress, it flew by. In a way, because of the author’s writing style, the words flew past me, and by that, the whole book was actually an easy read. But I still felt like the plot was delivered to me without warning.

To be honest, after the first couple of chapters, I was really tempted to stop reading the book. But two things stopped me. I had to finish it since I started it, and I wanted to finish it just to write this review! I plodded on, and I’m kind of glad I did. See, the beginning really was the weakest part of the book for me, the middle proved to be better, and the ending was better than the beginning but not as decent as the middle.

I mentioned how the author’s writing pace was too sudden. Along with that, her characterisations of the character was quite bland until the middle of the book. In fact, I didn’t really like most of her characters, males and females included. The interactions between the characters weren’t that strong either. An example is the relationship between James and Will. Those two were supposed to be soul mates, love-at-first-sight kind of thing ala Jack and Rose. Until the middle of the novel, I felt like their interaction and relationship was really superficial and unrealistically done.

Luckily, the smutty scenes sort of converted me to accept their relationship eventually. See, that’s where Ryan’s strength lies. Her erotic portrayal of James and Will in several different scenes of the book ended up being quite steamy, and the images stayed in my mind upon reading them. The Turkish bath scene was where I started to get really into the story; actually the end of the fifth chapter was where things started to pick up and yet that was just a non-sexual scene.

Since this is a historical novel, based on an event I am quite familiar with, the question of its accuracy comes up in my mind. From reading the novel, I’d say Ryan did do her research. She penned down plenty about the doomed ship, mentioned about the people’s etiquette, the people’s mindset of that time, and the class difference from that era. She talked about the icebergs warning, about the speeding to break world records of travelling across the ocean. She even made historical references to Oscar Wilde’s “Earnest”, Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor.

While I commend her for putting these historical references down, I never once felt like I was aboard the mighty ship. I felt like Will, James, and the other characters were just on some random ship travelling in 1912. It also didn’t help when she had a couple of the characters (American characters) using “gotta”, “wanna”, “gonna”, and so on in their dialogue. Now I cannot prove for sure that they talked like that in the early 1900s in America. Maybe they did! But that just bothered me a bit and made me and a friend I mentioned to ponder about this issue.

All in all, I have to say that this is a fair novel. It’s something to read when I want to pass time. I believe that if the author had written it at a better pace and with better characterisations for me to like the characters, this would have been a really fantastic novel. It’s fair, but it could have been better, but I have to say that this wasn’t a bad attempt for a debut novel from the author. Perhaps in the future, her novels will be better and more of a good read than a fair one!

Author’s Website

Buy from Samhain Publishing Amazon (Kindle)

Review: A Class Apart by James Gardiner

The Private Pictures of Montague Glover.

A Class Apart is a selection of photographs and letters culled from the archive of Montague Glover (1898-1983) documenting the intimate, rarely recorded lives of gay men in Britain from the First World War to the 1950s.  The book features Glover’s three obsessions: the Armed Forces, working-class men, and his lifelong lover Ralph Hall.

Review by Erastes

Who was Montague Glover?  No-one, really. But therein lies the reason why his legacy (boxes and boxes of letters and photos) is so very important in gay history. Just an ordinary man, a son of middle-class parents who was sent to a minor public school.

But by cataloging his life, collecting images of men, writing ordinary and heart-warming love letters, and most importantly by taking endless photos of men he found attractive, he paints a picture of a gay man’s life, well-adjusted and ‘ordinary,’

The book is photo-heavy, as you would expect and is split into eight sections and I’ll cover a few only.

The Story

Basic intro to the man’s life. An English middle-class life. The army straight from school and off to the trenches where he was awarded the Military Cross. Then university and 30 years as an architect. As well as his photos, he collected images of men he found attractive from newspaper clippings and magazines, seeing as homoerotic art wasn’t exactly freely available!

Rough Trade

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“In common with many other middle and upper class men of his class and generation, Monty Glover was principally attracted to working class men. Gardiner purports that perhaps this is because working-class men were “manly” and completely non-effeminate. Like all the photos of unnamed men in the book, it is unlikely that most of these young men were in fact homosexual, but rather approached by Glover and simply asked to pose. As a Brit it was fascinating to see the clothes, hats and shoes from the 20’s onwards, the detailing of the clothes (belts, scarves, boots) essential to any writer of historical men in these eras. Monty shows us delivery boys, postmen, barrowboys, farmhands – and soon you get a fair idea of Mr Glover’s taste in men! As well as candid shots of real people, there’s a lovely section of posed studio style shots, most likely done in Monty’s house, where young lovelies pose in various states of dress and undress. Prostitutes or just young men eager for a thrill, we’ll never know.

Soldier Boys

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Monty started taking photos of soldiers after he signed up in 1916, and in 1918, the year he was awarded the MC, he kept a diary, snippets of this are quoted in the book and show that although dealing with lice, rats, dead Bosche and horror on a daily basis, he still found time for love. It is at this time he meets Ernest (Ernie) with whom he has at least one “night of his life.”

Ralph

image00021Quite simply, the love of Monty’s life, and to look at him, it’s not hard to understand why. Coming from a working-class background, but with the looks of an Aryan angel, photogenic and very obviously hung like a donkey, Ralph is to die for. However, when it could very easily have happened that this younger man could have been nothing more than a kept man, staying with Glover for sex and money, it didn’t happen that way. This is very clearly a love affair with a capital L, which you cannot help but see in their extensive and lavishly adoring mutual love-letters. A large portion of these were sent during the second world war, when Ralph was drafted into the RAF in 1940. Indeed, it’s hard – reading a selection of these letters which are quoted in the book – to understand how these letters got past the censor! It’s wonderful that they did though, or we would miss out on lines like this written by Ralph to Monty in November 1940:

“Do you remember the old days when we first started darling.  I went back all over it again last night.  What a time we had in them days and I am sorry to say I am crying I canot hold it back no more my Darling. I love you my old Darling. I do miss you ever such a lot my dear as you know my dear.”

Monty and Ralph lived together (after meeting around 1930) for fifty years. The photographs of their lives together (other than the beautiful, posed, and artistic shots of Ralph) are ordinary and heartwarming for their ordinariness. Sitting in their sitting room, pictures of their bath, Ralph making toast, having breakfast, Monty shaving. Love in every image.

When Monty died in 1983, he left everything to Ralph, but Ralph went into a decline and died four years later.

Anyone with any interest in gay history will find this a resource they can’t be without, particularly if writing of gay men from 1910 onwards, anyone with an interest in photography will find it fascinating. But really, anyone with a heart cannot be moved by this book and the social record it has saved for posterity.

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Buy:  Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen

whistlingNew York City, 1919. His career as a concert pianist ended by a war injury, Sutton Albright returns to college, only to be expelled after a scandalous affair with a teacher. Unable to face his family, Sutton heads to Manhattan with no plans and little money in his pocket but with a desire to call his life his own.

Jack Bailey lost his parents to influenza and now hopes to save the family novelty shop by advertising on the radio, a medium barely more than a novelty, itself. His nights are spent in a careless and debauched romp through the gayer sections of Manhattan.

When these two men cross paths, despite a world of differences separating them, their attraction cannot be denied. Sutton finds himself drawn to the piano, playing for Jack. But can his music heal them both, or will sudden prosperity jeopardize their chance at love?

Review by Hayden Thorne

When you pick up a copy of Allen’s debut novel, don’t expect the following: wide, sweeping landscapes; breathless, passionate exchanges; an overly thorough history lesson on early 20th century New York; glamour, scandal, intrigue; anything and everything in epic proportions. If you’re a fan of high emotions and luxurious settings in gay romance, skip the book.

Allen’s novel is the kind that moves you quietly. It’s got romance, it’s got history, and it’s got some pretty memorable characters, but what makes this book so appealing is the skillfully light touch it uses on conflict and emotion. It’s so light, in fact, that the reader’s often left with what’s unspoken, allowing him to savor that vague hint or two with a kind of languid ease. There are a number of sex scenes, yes, but they’re never graphic and are always conveyed along more emotional and psychological lines, not physical. Because of that, we get a better sense of the love Sutton and Jack feel for each other without being hit over the head with page after page of Insert-Tab-A-Into-Slot-B sex scenes or page after page of hand-wringing, hair-tearing angst over their future happiness against society’s displeasure. Allen knows when to rein things in, and she does so exquisitely.

The same can be said about the non-romantic elements and conflicts in the book. Through alternating POVs, we see, first-hand, New York’s less glamorous side, as well as the terrible toll of WWI on its survivors, poverty on the whole, the “gay underground,” and even simple day-to-day things like selling wares, eating at a nearby cafe, etc.. Nothing gets blown out of proportion in Allen’s world. People come and go, bringing with them their private demons and their dreams, and they move in their world as real people do.

In a sense, the novel is like a slice-of-life, sans the pretensions of that narrative structure. The historical angle gives it a unique and refreshing edge, which keeps our interest high. The fact that Jack’s shop deals in odds and ends – novelty items from all over – only adds to the reality of the setting along more poignant lines, given how the shop reflects not only Jack’s devotion to his late parents, but also his father’s lost dreams of seeing the world.

The side characters are a mixed, Dickensian bag of good guys, villains, and just plain quirky types, and a lot of them are well-developed, which is an amazing accomplishment if we were to consider how many they are and how long they tend to stay in any given scene. And that leads me to what I consider to be the highlight of the novel: pacing.

Allen’s book is richly-plotted, yes. We have the main conflicts (Sutton and Jack’s terrible pasts, their dreams, and their future together) as well as the smaller ones (threat of eviction, Ox and Esther’s romance, Theo’s tragi-comic adventures in his search for love, among others), and what I love the most is the fact that Allen gives these subplots almost equal time. Slow and steady seem to be her mantra, and I absolutely appreciate seeing an easy, almost idle unfolding of events because it allows the reader time to see – really see, understand, and absorb – Jack and Sutton’s world, their blooming relationship, and their complex connections with other characters, both good and bad. This is definitely not a book for the impatient.

That said, the understated, quiet quality of the book works against the story in a few (very few) instances. There are some moments in which the emotions are so subtle that the results are a sense of odd detachment and an ephemeral quality in the scene that pulls the reader away, when the moment really needs to draw on his sympathy or outrage instead. These moments are rare, though, and on the whole, they don’t at all detract from the novel’s better points.

Even though the setting is contained (nicely reflective of the “contained” emotions that define the plot), we still get to experience New York. Engaging all our senses with details that help fix us firmly in the characters’ world, Allen manages to capture a very real city at a specific point in its history. Dingy alleys, grimy walls, rundown apartments, cluttered shops, Ida’s restaurant and her home-cooked meals – we get to see, smell, feel, taste, and hear everything. It’s a great complement to a host of very real, very human characters.

Buy the book: Amazon.com, Amazon UK (not yet listed)

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Review: “Napoleon’s Privates” by Tony Perrottet

NAPOLEON’S PRIVATES
2,500 Years of History Unzipped

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

From the blurb on the author’s website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

(c) Emma Collingwood

Review: The Vesuvius Club (Graphic Novel) by Gatiss and Bass

Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Mark Gatiss presents the first adventure of Lucifer Box rendered in every detail. Lucifer Box, the greatest portraitist of the Edwardian Age and England’s most dashing secret agent, investigates a series of bizarre disappearances and plunges headlong into low life and high society. Who is killing Britain’s most prominent vulcanologists? What secrets lie beyond the grave? And which tie goes best with a white carnation? See him confront the purple undead, instruct the mysterious and beguiling Bella Pok, disguise himself with a false moustache, face an ominous evil in the depths of a volcano, and come to grips with his new manservant, Charlie Jackpot.

REVIEW:
When I purchased Mark Gatiss’s book, I learned that it was also transformed into a graphic novel, and the long-slumbering manga/comic book fan in me stirred, bleary-eyed and pawing instinctively at the computer screen. I’d already seen previews of Ian Bass’s art style since Bass did the illustrations for Gatiss’s novel, and on that basis (in addition to curiosity as to how the novel could be interpreted in a visual medium), I eagerly snapped up a copy.

As I’ve already noted in my review of Gatiss’s novel, I was very much disappointed in the story, particularly in the way the second half seemed to fall apart, plot-wise. In the graphic novel, the story is distilled to the main mystery, and all other subplots have been removed. I’m not an illustrator, let alone a graphic novel artist. However, I’m very well aware of the difficulties that may come with turning something purely textual into something visual. Bass’s decision to rewrite the plot in some places is quite understandable, and to some extent, it does work.

On the whole, I like the art style despite its inconsistencies. Ian Bass’s illustrations work pretty well with the hybrid of mystery, sci-fi, comedy, and history that defines Gatiss’s novel. The characters are distinctive – as in their personalities are nicely captured and given more definition with an exaggerated detail or two. There are occasional decorative flourishes in the background or on the characters that make me think of Aubrey Beardsley – quite appropriate, given the historical period. It’s not a very “pretty” style, and manga fans who’re used to seeing beautifully stylized illustrations when it comes to gay-themed stories will be sorely disappointed in this book. Mark Gatiss’s novel is a romp, and it’s written in a very visual way (considering Gatiss’s writing background involving film, it’s not at all surprising). It translates well into graphic novel form, where the more fantastic elements that might not work in the book are quite at home.

In terms of plot, the graphic novel is rather lean. As mentioned before, subplots have been pruned, and the character list has dwindled to about half, the focus placed mostly on the main characters. If not completely rewritten, several scenes were dropped, many of which involved Bella Pok and her role in the book. Considering that she’s a significant player in one of the subplots (and it’s a subplot that’s really more of the throwaway kind that adds nothing to the overall story), her drastically reduced scenes make me wonder why she’s kept in the graphic novel at all. To show how much of a cad Lucifer Box is, maybe? If so, it doesn’t quite work, given the heavy emphasis on the main mystery, what with all those side stories being dropped. There’s just no room left for Lucifer Box’s amorous bisexual adventures.

What works in this case, though, is that Ian Bass gives us a much better treatment of Bella’s presence in Naples. In the novel, she’s there, and then she’s gone – a plot device that doesn’t work at all. In the graphic novel, she remains in Naples, and everything that takes place in the novel’s climax is squished into one setting, not two.

A final word of warning to readers: this graphic novel is for adults. There’s an orgy scene in a brothel (not very detailed), both het and gay, and one of the characters exposes his genitals. It’s an important detail in the story, trust me.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
This sex-filled farce is part James Bond, part Austin Powers. Lucifer Box is a portrait painter and a rake who catches the eye of all the ladies. But there are two things these women don’t know about him. First, Lucifer is His Majesty’s top secret agent. Second, Lucifer is a mad, passionate lover…with his delectable right-hand man, Charlie. Together, the two must set out to discover why Britain’s most prominent scientists are turning up dead. They and a cast of quirky characters must work together to save the world from total destruction. And it all seems to center around an underground sex club, which goes to show that sometimes, you just have to mix business with pleasure.

REVIEW:
The first thing I need to point out in my review of Gatiss’ novel is the description above, which is taken directly from the book’s cover blurb. The description is misleading to a degree. Firstly, it’s not sex-filled – or at least as sex-filled as the blurb seems to impress upon readers. There are sex scenes, yes, but they’re few, and they’re of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety. Even the description of the underground sex club isn’t as titillating as it might sound, with the details being largely general and almost dismissive in tone, with the emphasis more on atmosphere. Secondly, there’s the matter of Box’s “delectable right-hand man” and his relationship with him. For that bit, I’ll have to leave you in a cliffhanger of sorts while I go over other points first.

On the whole, The Vesuvius Club is a fun read. Very fun. Gatiss knows his Victorian and Edwardian London – please excuse the cliche – like the back of his hand. He firmly cements us in his world, its elegance and its seediness, its host of refined and coarse residents. He pours on the details without bogging down the narrative, and we’re left with vivid mental pictures of a time and a place that’s so far removed from ours but ends up feeling very real. Gatiss peoples his novel with a variety of quirky characters, and he gives them distinct personalities and names that make you think of Dickens: Lucifer Box, Charlie Jackpot, Bella Pok, Jocelyn Poop, Christopher Miracle, Emmanuel Quibble, etc.

Mark Gatiss is known as an author of Dr. Who novels, and he also writes for the new Dr. Who series and in fact wrote “The Unquiet Dead,” the episode involving Charles Dickens and zombies for the new series’ first season. One can certainly see his love of Victorian England (in the novel’s case, Edwardian England) in the way he establishes both the setting and the characters’ personalities. In the first half of the book, with the events taking place in London, the story is at its most interesting. Though a comedy and definitely a satire of spy/assassin/detective fiction, the novel still impresses us with a fairly complex plot and a quick pace, with the story being told from Lucifer Box’s point of view.

It’s when the novel’s action moves to Italy that things go down. It’s an odd switch – not in terms of location, no, but in terms of focus. In the first half of the novel, we’re treated to a funny and engaging Sherlock Holmes-style plot; in the second half of the novel, however, things unaccountably turn sci-fi, and what could have been a more solid climax and denoument becomes a study in absurd plot twists involving Mt. Vesuvius, a cult (which made me scratch my head a few times), and the mastermind (and master plot) behind the scientists’ deaths. In brief, there’s such an incongruence in the story elements between the first and the second half of the novel, and what starts out as a very promising Holmes-meets-Austin-Powers plot unravels into a rather weak and silly end.

As for Charlie Jackpot? He’s not introduced till the second half of the novel, which I feel is far too late for him to be as significant a character as the book’s description implies. Yes, he does become Box’s right-hand man, but at that point in the story, his participation brings with it a certain forced feeling into the mix. Lucifer Box, as the protagonist, is witty, self-centered, narcissistic, and an insufferable cad. He’s given so many great lines of the laugh-out-loud variety, but I don’t feel as attached to him as I’d like to be. For all his attractive roguish qualities, the man’s a bastard, and he even takes pleasure in hurting Charlie in one scene or telling some poor, unattractive rent boy that he’s butt-ugly, point blank.

There are a few subplots that also don’t feel satisfactorily tied up. Mrs. Knight’s disappearance and the murder of Abigail, for instance, though largely explained, still leaves holes insofar as justice being brought to the true criminal is concerned. There are also a few involving Bella Pok, which makes me wonder if Gatiss simply bit off more than he could chew in putting his mystery together.

The Vesuvius Club is the first of a trilogy involving Lucifer Box. This book has also been turned into a graphic novel, which I’m really interested in reading though I understand that it’s a distilled version of the original.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: The Loom of Youth by Alec Waugh

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
And if the modern reader after turning a page or two finds his attention held and wants to go on reading it will mean that this book has become at last what in fact it was always meant to be—a realistic but romantic story of healthy adolescence set against the background of an average English Public School.

REVIEW:
Alec Waugh (older brother of Evelyn Waugh of Brideshead Revisited fame) wrote The Loom of Youth when he was seventeen-and-a-half-years-old. He was, he admits in his introduction, lost in nostalgia as well as rebellion. He’d been expelled from his school – Sherborne School in Dorset – for engaging in homosexual practices, i.e., a mild flirtation with a younger boy. He remains the only student to be expelled from Sherborne.

Part (perhaps a great part) of the book’s notoriety rests on its matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality among public school boys, the other part being Waugh’s scathing attack on the public school system.

If potential readers pick up this book all agog over boarding school romances, they shouldn’t hold their breath. I myself, being a fan of schoolboy romance, was sorely disappointed with – not to mention baffled by – the controversy, given the extreme brevity of the “infamous gay theme.” Then again, I’m a reader from the 21st century – hardened and liberal – who wouldn’t even blink at the sight of same-sex couples holding hands or kissing publicly, smack dab in the middle of downtown Berkeley.

As for the novel’s gay angle? Not only does it take place toward the end of the book, but it also covers a whopping half a chapter. Half a chapter. It resurfaces afterwards in – and, yes, I counted – two sentences total in reference to Gordon’s romantic friendship with Morcombe. To get there, one has to slog through several chapters of fascinating, humorous, and excruciatingly tedious accounts of Gordon Caruthers’ life in Fernhurst.

On the whole, the book is well-written – wonderfully so, given Waugh’s age when he worked on it for six weeks. In this case his perspective greatly helps the novel’s satiric edge, having enjoyed and loved his school years, only to have them taken away from him over something so natural as the development of a deeper friendship with another boy. As master after ineffectual master parade across the pages, nearly all of whom become victims to the students’ pranks, one can almost imagine Waugh in his army uniform, grinning insanely as he scribbles down his criticisms of the public school system.

Waugh’s writing style is strong and natural, vividly descriptive and certainly dripping with a sly sense of humor. It’s very easy to be taken in by his cheeky observations, but it can also be a tiresome exercise in redundancy.

In exploring Gordon Caruthers’ school experiences from the moment he sets foot in Fernhurst as a thirteen-year-old till he leaves at nineteen, Waugh indulges – too much, I think – in recounting moment after moment, term after term, year after year, ad infinitum. Classes, sports, dorm life, pranks, ragging, cribbing, quarrels with masters – while at first these provide readers with an interesting first-hand, detailed account of public school life, after several chapters of the same thing, one feels his energy tapped and his brain frozen. In fact, I found myself skimming through all the football and cricket matches because while they demonstrate Waugh’s love for the sports, they really add nothing much to the story other than to stoke Gordon’s determination to rise to the top by his final year in school.

The novel’s redeemed in its final quarter. It’s largely because Gordon grows up, and he’s exposed to things other than sports, and he stops almost all of the silliness he used to indulge in with his friends. He’s exposed to poetry and things that go well beyond the superficial reach of sports and other academic goals. He meets Ferrers, a new master who stirs the pot with his modernist ideas. He develops a romantic attachment with Morcombe though he doesn’t quite understand what it is. He begins to question so many things, and the veneer of superficial schoolboy triumphs grows dim.

Much of the impact of the final chapters centers on England going to war against Germany. All of a sudden, schoolfriends and many of the younger masters are dropping out in order to enlist in the army. School life is affected by the war, and paradise suffers a sharp tug back down to earth. There’s a strong, poignant, elegiac undercurrent that runs through the last part of the book, and when Gordon finally leaves Fernhurst, it becomes a bittersweet moment. I was moved so much by the final chapters that I had to skim through the first part of the novel to let things sink in. Waugh’s purpose becomes clear, and all one has to do is to set the first few chapters next to the final ones, and he can see how far Gordon has traveled in his development. Suddenly all those horrible, tedious moments of dragging oneself through chapter after chapter of similar scenes and interchangeable characters are forgiven and forgotten – for the most part, that is.

FINAL NOTE: The copy I have has strange misplaced periods, by the bye. They pop up here and there, often in the middle of sentences, which threw me off again and again. I don’t know if that’s a printing issue that’s specific only to my edition (2007 BiblioBazaar), but it’s worth a quick heads up.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Maurice, directed by James Ivory

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Review by Hayden Thorne

FROM MERCHANT IVORY PRODUCTIONS:
The traditional bildungsroman, or novel of education, ends with a marriage. E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1914), the second of his novels to be adapted by Merchant Ivory, takes on a subject that no major novel in the genre had ever addressed: the problem of coming of age as a homosexual in a restrictive society. First published in 1971, after Forster’s death, and long neglected by critics, it is only recently (and largely since the release of the film adaptation) that critics have come to set Maurice in its unique place among “Reader, I married him” narratives. Starring James Wilby (Maurice) and Hugh Grant (Clive) as two Cambridge undergraduates who fall in love, the film is set amidst the hypocritical homoerotic subculture of the English university in Forster’s time. In an environment in which any reference to ” the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” is omitted, and any overture toward a physical relationship between men might be punishable by law, Maurice and Clive struggle to come to terms with their own feelings toward each other and toward a repressive society.

REVIEW:
The dichotomy of love – that of the idealized (intellectual/platonic) and the physical – is beautifully captured in Merchant and Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, Maurice.

The film is made with a remarkably sharp eye for detail. England becomes a lush panorama that enriches every scene – the green, rolling countryside, the sprawling grandeur of Penge (or Pendersleigh in the movie), the grayness of rain-soaked London. We’re treated to the rich traditions that define university life in Cambridge, with young, aristocratic students sharply-dressed and immersed in their Greek translations or raucously celebrating athletic victories. The side characters are also used to paint a detailed picture of the mores of those times, both within social classes as well as between.

James Ivory takes his time in feeding us Maurice’s world, and the pace is luxuriously idle without turning dull. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it never distracts us from the characters and the story. One can say that Ivory turns England into a character in the movie, and in many ways, she is. She’s the hidden puppet-master who controls and dictates the tension within and between characters with her history, faith, and laws, and everyone’s powerless against her.

The acting is strong (though Kingsley seems a bit uncomfortable in his role as a hypnotist with an odd American accent) and effective in expressing the way turbulent yet natural emotions are confined by a rigid, intellectual veneer that very much defines the English upper-class. Unlike his counterpart in the novel, Clive is actually made into a more sympathetic character, with more believable reasons (compared to those in the novel) for choosing the path he takes. Hugh Grant, in one of his better performances, captures the fear, the despair, and the resignation that will shape Clive’s life for the rest of his days.

James Wilby fleshes out Maurice with great skill, moving from innocence to love to heartbreak to hope with a subtlety that’s alternately admirable and gut-wrenching. His portrayal certainly defies common – and bigoted – misconceptions of ineffectual softness or effeminacy as the defining character of a gay man – yes, even as a refined, upper-class gentleman. He’s athletic, well-built, and his scenes with Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who gives his role a cheeky roughness and vulnerability that makes one hope like heck that he’ll get his man in the end) show a nice blending of masculinity and deep emotion.

Unlike Clive, Alec is unpolished and unabashed in his expressions of love, constantly seeking Maurice’s companionship, which terrifies Maurice at first but eventually leads him to make a decision that’s both bittersweet and satisfying though largely improbable on another level. Given the social atmosphere of pre-World War I England, after all, class, no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, was a ruthless force in defining people’s behavior. Maurice, in fact, has shown himself to be a snob in several instances. The chances of a successful relationship with a social inferior are open to question. On the other hand, it’s the romance of a “what if?” situation that should be allowed the final word.

In a time and a place that were dominated by convention and the soul-deadening hypocrisy of the status quo, a slow and quiet stroll down the paths of improbability and romanticism sometimes make the best medicine.

The DVD contains several deleted scenes in a separate disc, one of them involving Maurice’s relationship with young Dickie Barry. It’s dismaying seeing those scenes taken out of the final theatrical release because Dickie’s presence marks another turning point in Maurice’s development. The boy inadvertently introduces Maurice to feelings of lust, which Maurice rather pathetically hopes to explore by dropping hints regarding his sleeping arrangements (just up the stairs from Dickie’s assigned room, thank you). Another deleted scene involves Lord Risley’s fate after his disgrace, which would have been an even more desperate call for Clive and Maurice to dive back into the closet. Yet another shows Clive (still a university student) showing signs of rebellion at home and dispensing his duties with a pretty cynical (even bitter) attitude. Here he gives his staff presents for Christmas, and had the scene been left in the movie’s final form, it would’ve given us our first glimpse of Alec Scudder.

Given the film’s length as it is, I can understand the need to excise those scenes, but it’s still unfortunate that we miss a few excellent – even significant – moments because of it. Thank the stars that they’re at least part of the final package for us to view again and again.

Buy the DVD: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Master of Seacliff by Max Pierce

Review by Erastes

Andrew Wyndham takes a post as tutor to the son of the weathly Duncan Stewart at the mysterious and beautiful mansion “Seacliff” surrounded by rugged seas and mysterious fogs. Mysteries and scandal follow in traditional gothic fashion.

It’s not going to be a surprise to anyone that I enjoyed this book. First it’s an American gay gothic with a fab innovative cover. I was positively drooling when I got the book in my hands and excited when I opened it.

If you are looking for an erotic romance, then you’ll be dissapointed by TMOS, but if you want a solid, multi-layered mystery chock full of quirky characters, death and over-arching gothic D00M, red-herrings and a surprise denouement, then you’ll like this as much as I did. (Oh and a lovely romance too…)

From the outset, the plot is familiar to those who have already read books such as Jane Eyre and Gaywyck. Young and innocent (not-quite-yet-aware-of-his-sexuality) Andrew gets a job as tutor to Stewart and we can already see where the story is going. However Pierce isn’t going to let us off that lightly and he throws so many obstacles in our protagonists way that you begin to wonder if they are ever going to get together.

It’s a refreshing change to see so many secondary characters; Pierce doesn’t stint with them, and each one is fully rounded, different and has his or her own story to tell. Also, in the tradition of the Golden Age of Agatha Christie, nearly every single one has a motive in the dark secret that overhangs the house of Seacliff. There are flashes of Rebecca here, with an obsessed and creepy faithful retainer, touches of Jane Eyre but never so much so to annoy, it was always its own story.

I was impressed also, as to the many threads of the mystery that were woven together, one after another until I was thoroughly convinced of the guilt of the person that everyone else thought it was. Bravo, Mr Pierce. There’s nothing I like more it’s being led by the nose to the throroughly wrong conclusion!

Andrew might be young, but he’s not a shrinking and fainting heroine type. He’s a little sensitive; he tends to hug-a-lot, and he cries from time to time but he can stand his own ground too, which was something I appreciated. He has a lot to stand up against, too, as Duncan is a difficult, prickly (and very hairy!) man and he tries to push Andrew away more than once. I liked Duncan’s persistence and his wanting to do the right thing, even when he had the opportunity to get away from a frankly difficult and dangerous position.

There’s the inevitable OK Homo, I’m afraid, not only that, you begin to wonder if anyone in the world is straight at one point – but that didn’t spoil this book when the same thing had spoiled other books for me. In this twisted, remote and decadent world that Pierce paints it doesn’t seem unusual and the reasoning behind the homosexual relationships are believable.

The editing wasn’t 100 percent, as there were a few typo’s I spotted (lightening instead of lightning for example), which is a shame. It’s also a shame that this book is under the Howarth’s Harrington Press imprint – so its future is in the balance. If you want a copy, particularly with the delicious double cover than another printer might not go for – I’d advise you get one now, while it’s still available and still reasonably priced. You won’t regret it, as if you enjoy a really good gothic romance with all the trimmings – perfect for curling up with on a foggy night – then you’ll love this. I certainly did.

Buy from Amazon UK: Amazon USA

P.S Please watch out for MAX PIERCE’S author interview which will be posted in the New Year, believe me, you are not going to want to miss that.

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