Review: King of Angels by Perry Brass

the story of Benjamin Rothberg, a 12-year-old master of shape-shifting, of changing identities while steadfastly grasping the unique features of his own. The child of a marriage between a handsome Northern Jewish father and a classic-WASP-beauty Southern mother, Benjamin must change identities from Jewish to non-Jewish, from being a smart, precocious self-aware kid to masquerading and passing as a regular boy, from growing into a sexually curious (and possibly gay) young man to experiencing a fragile adolescent innocence, almost in love with a pretty girl.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, during the tumultuous Kennedy years, King of Angels explores the role of Southern Jews in the still-segregated South, the explosive race relations and racial consciousness of this era, and the emergence of a genuine gay community with its own honest, outsider viewpoint. It is also a realistic story of the underground world of boys who must fool their parents and each other in order to achieve any form of unguarded closeness. As a half-Jew attending Holy Nativity, a Catholic military school in Savannah, Benjy will form some of the most important friendships of his life, and experience the full brutality of boys bullying each other. He will also become aware of many forms of seduction and attraction: the seductions of a secret sexual life in the school, the seductions of his own heart taken with a quiet handsome Puerto Rican male student, and the attractions of the Spirit itself in all of its revealed forms. This is truly a novel about the mysterious origins of identity and belief, in a questioning heart and questioning time, while growing up in the changing South in the early 1960s.

Paperback and ebook – approx 400 pages

Review by Erastes

The story is narrated by Benjamin Rothberg and it starts when he’s quite young, from his first memories of his mom and dad. It’s an engaging voice and easy to get into as you work your way through his early grade school years. He’s a Jew — or rather his father is a Jew even if the household doesn’t exactly keep a fully Jewish house and he learns about duality of personality very early on as his father is Leon when he’s being more Jewish and Robby when he isn’t. Benjamin considers himself a Jew–and he’s sent to a Catholic Military Academy (which accepts other faiths) he finds that duality even more pronounced.

I found it a little heavy going because like many memoire-type stories, it struggles as to whether it wants to tell the story from the actual point of view of a 13 year old boy–which may have lent it more weight–or from a hindsight perspective, told from an adult version of Benjy. I never quite felt it knew where it wanted to be as it tended to waver between the two.  The trouble with having a child’s pov is that you can’t have them understand much of what goes on, and the trouble with hindsight is that you can imbue your child protagonist with a much too knowing persona – this manages both at times.

Be warned that most of the sexual interaction  although it’s pretty lightly (although not lightly enough I think) described is between young kids. Benjy isn’t even 13 before he’s jacking and blowing his friend and having it done back to him. There’s very broad hints and rumours that many of the monks are child-abusing but thankfully this is not described at all.

There is a lot of repetition which I found an interesting device after three mentions and intensely irritating after about ten mentions. We don’t need to be constantly told that his mother is a social lightweight who seems to do nothing more than attend a country club and drink Salty Dogs (although what these are is only explained quite late on, and for my mental health I wish they had been explained earlier) with her friends and we don’t need to be constantly told about Benjy’s father using two different personas. It became rather wearing after a time when I was still reading these two same facts more than half way into the novel.

Other than the two facts above, Benjy doesn’t seem to describe his parents–he calls them by their first names (in the text, although not, it seems to their faces) and I found that odd, it’s not like he’d gone to any particular progressive school and he wasnt a rebellious kid with weird ideas (like Eustace for example from Prince Caspian). The parents simply spawn on the page as the Salty Dog drinker airhead and the big looming man that Benjy adores for some reason.  I would have liked to have seen them, particularly at the beginning, more often on the page, giving reasons for Benjy’s opinion on them.

The story itself doesn’t actually pick up until about half-way either when an incident at Summer Camp throws the whole military academy and Benjy’s life into a turmoil, plus the fact that his home life begins to fall apart at the same time.

One thing I felt was sorely missing was a real sense of when this was all occurring. If you passed a blind eye over the fact that no one had mobile phones or game consoles then this really didn’t feel rooted in American 1960’s. Perhaps that’s partially because of prejudices towards Jews and Catholics and gays are still sadly similar today as they were back then, but it’s partly also to do with the fact that much of it takes place at the Military Academy (which, like Public Schools in the UK can have a timeless feel) and indoors at people’s houses mostly in tents or bedrooms. Surely kids would have been listening to music, watching TV shows of the time, talking about Space and goodness knows what? There’s one instance where his mother has the radio on in the car and she’s listening to the Beatles, but really, that was a rare instance of pop culture. It needed more of a flavour of the time to make you feel you were there along with Benjy. These kids only ever seemed to talk about having sex with each other who was queer and who wasn’t.

The kids seemed impossibly knowing, too. I guess that the book is semi-autobiographical perhaps because Brass was half-jewish and grew up in the same area, but when I was 12 I certainly wouldn’t have been having the  same conversations about life and theology these kids were having. Or about having sex with each other and who was queer and who wasn’t either, to be frank.

It makes it all sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book at all, but that’s not true, I did like the voice, and although the whole religion thing left me cold as I couldn’t care less about it, the story was interesting enough to stick with, for all the niggles I had.

One thing I could have done was the tagline to the novel it’s officially called “King of Angels, A novel about the Genesis of Identity and Belief”

Well, really. Thank you, Mr Brass because I am obviously too dumb to have picked up on that, and with that swipe you’ve put off many of your potential readers who will think it’s far more preachy than it is, or some kind of religious text book, and you’ve insulted those who will read it, because you’ve already explained what it’s about. Those who haven’t been put off by that dreadful cover, at least!

Benjy does go through a lot, but as with many first person child narratives, it all felt very remote to me. Even his sexual experiences–which I clearly remember mine shaking me to my core at that age–don’t really seem to register with him.  Perhaps that’s because the author didn’t want to describe a 12 year old having mutual masturbation and blow jobs in any detail, but it’s more than that, there’s no aftermath to it even when he’s pretty much forced–although he denies he was afterwards–to have a blowjob by a much older boy. He says he “weirdly likes” the boy, although for the life of me I couldn’t see one reason for that, and no reason is given other than he likes him. He tends to drift in and out of his relationships with just about everyone, and as often happens in books with the main protagonist Benjy is irresistible, and just about everyone wants to be his friend or have sex with him, monks, older boys, girls, you name it. He’s told it’s because he’s got a “seducing” air but it struck me as Gary-Stu-ism, along with all the other things he could do with no effort at all.

It’s a shame that he was quite so intelligent and so knowing because when it comes down to it, this is a coming of age-coming of religion-coming of self-coming of gender book and I felt that Benjy had no doubts at all, and that he didn’t really cross any great Rubicon to be who he was because, as several people said in the book, he already knew who he was from the beginning.

Well worth a read, but it didn’t set me on fire.

Author’s Website

Amazon USA Paperback | Kindle

Review: Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg

Newly discharged from the Marines after World War II, Scotty Bowers arrived in Hollywood in 1946. Young, charismatic, and strikingly handsome, he quickly caught the eye of many of the town’s stars and starlets. He began sleeping with some himself, and connecting others with his coterie of young, attractive, and sexually free-spirited friends. His own lovers included Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant and the Duke of Windsor, and he arranged tricks or otherwise crossed paths with Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, William Holden, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover, to name but a few.

“Full Service” is not only a fascinating chronicle of Hollywood’s sexual underground, it also exposes the hypocrisy of the major studios, who used actors to propagate a myth of a conformist, sexually innocent America knowing full well that their stars’ personal lives differed dramatically from this family-friendly mold. As revelation-filled as “Hollywood Babylon,” “Full Service” provides a lost chapter in the history of the sexual revolution and is a testament to a man who provided sex, support, and affection to countless people.

Review by Elliott Mackle

We knew that Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were housemates and longtime lovers. We knew that Tony Perkins and Tab Hunter were more than just close friends. And that the supposedly torrid romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was born in a Hollywood dream factory and acted out in the pages of fan magazines and gossip columns. In certain circles, the Duke of Windsor’s bisexuality seems to have been an open secret. Still, some parts of Scotty Bowers’ sizzling tell-all are pretty surprising. Here in the United States, especially on amazon.com, there seems to be an organized effort to one- and two-star the book to death—on literary as well as moralistic grounds. I couldn’t put it down.

Scotty Bowers spent his early years milking cows and tending livestock on the family farm in Illinois. Like many such youths, the facts of copulation and reproduction were to him simply facts of life, with no moral value attached. Although he noticed girls at an early age, and liked what he saw, his first sexual experiences were at the hands of a neighboring farmer, the father of schoolfellows, and he liked that, too. The pattern was set: sex was natural and necessary. Love was where you found it. His libido was high—three ejaculations a day was not uncommon in his twenties and thirties—and the handsome man he was to become was attractive to, and attracted by, men and women with exquisite taste (or memorable kinks) and the means to buy their own unfettered pleasure. Given the fame, variety and kindness of his partners, longtime sweethearts and wife, who could ask for anything more?

The opening is well crafted, with alternating chapters charting Bowers’ coming of age during the Great Depression and his experiences as a fighting Marine in the Pacific followed by almost immediate success as a stud-for-hire and date-arranger in the City of Angels.

After the farm was lost and the family moved to Joliet and then Chicago, Scotty followed an undercover but believable track of shining shoes (and accommodating the men who wore them), delivering papers (same scenario) and allowing pedophile priests to use his pre-adolescent body. His turf in California was a Richfield Oil station on Hollywood Boulevard near several major studios. One day, after he’d pumped gas into a very expensive auto at another station, the customer, a man with an unforgettable voice, tipped him twenty dollars extra and asked what he was doing for the rest of the day. Although Bowers had had sex with men in and out of the military service, and at that time lived with a woman and their daughter, this was his first paid trick with a male. His arrangement with the driver, married film star Walter Pigeon, was ultimately long- term and satisfactory on both sides, though hardly unique.

Scotty arranged to work the evening shift at Richfield. The station became a hangout for his ex-Marine friends, their girlfriends and buddies. Many of these attractive young people were long on time and short on cash. Scotty kept a little black book detailing who might be available for what sort of activity. Word got around. Tricks were arranged by phone as well as in person.  Scotty might tell an inexperienced customer the going price for what he or she required but he declares again and again that his was not a prostitution ring. He never took a fee or cut. He was merely the middle man for private transactions involving sex and money.

Although Bowers had enjoyed name-brand companionship during wartime shore-leaves (playmates Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, platonic pal Marion Davies), his numbers soared postwar. “Professionally married” composer, Cole Porter, for instance, had no hesitation in phoning Bowers to ask that he bring over three or four or seven or eight Marines to be serviced orally. Bowers became a confidante of the insecure Porter as well as a regular sex partner.

And so on, including George Cukor, ex-Marine buddy Tyrone Power, Edith Piaf, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, Vivien Leigh (while husband Laurence Olivier was busy with call boys), Alfred Kinsey (as an observer) and visiting notables, including both Windsors. No need here to mention every trick, affair and arrangement. Or to assume that an old man’s memory is faultless and every word literally true.

Probably the memoir’s juiciest section concerns the Tracy-Hepburn ménage conducted in a cottage on director George Cukor’s estate. Although Bowers was a source for William J. Mann’s “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn,” his own report on the so-called affair is more detailed and less nuanced than Mann’s. In short, according to Bowers, Hepburn was a full-time lesbian who called on him to provide younger, smaller, darker girls for her amusement whereas the married Tracy regularly summoned Scotty to help steel himself into the sort of drunken insensibility that allows closeted or bisexual men to claim that they “don’t remember a thing” the next morning. Oddly enough, Tracy is an exception to Bowers’ routine detailing of the whats, whys and hows of most of the stars’ preferences and peccadillos. “Nibbling on my foreskin” and “a damn good lover” are about as graphic as it gets. I’m guessing that Tracy was so habitually drunk that he was usually unable to either perform or fully enjoy Bowers’ considerable skills.

What’s not mentioned is almost as interesting as what is. Bowers eventually moved on from pumping gas to full-time bartending, catering, tricking with and liaison-arranging for Hollywood royalty. As far as I can tell, his career was entirely private and his sensibilities resolutely lower middle class. There is little or no mention of dining or meeting friends at such hallowed Hollywood hot spots as the Polo Lounge or the Brown Derby. Bowers doesn’t explain but my guess is that the managers of such high profile watering holes considered him persona non grata.

No matter. For us, the eighty-nine-year-old and his spicy memories are welcome guests. Would that all of us—and our favorite literary characters—could lead such a charmed, erotically charged and romantic life.

Buy:  Amazon UK | Amazon USA | TLA Video&books

Review: Convict Ass by Martin Delacroix

Kurt Delay has just served thirty months in prison, on an arson conviction. He’s on parole and crazy about his new lover, Eli, who’s also an ex-con. Passion between Kurt and Eli burns hotter than Kurt’s conflagrations; love between Eli and Kurt seems full of promise. But when Kurt’s former cellmate, Harold Grimm, comes between Kurt and Eli, the two are forced into desperate actions. Can they save the life they’ve built together? Set in 1965 Florida, Convict Ass offers a glimpse of a peculiar brand of love shared only by men who’ve done time behind bars

Ebook only, 86 pages (approx)

Review by Erastes

I admit, the title put me off a little, as I had visions that the book would be a novel-sized version of a John Patrick sex story full of unpleasant euphemisms and the like.

So I was actually quite pleasantly surprised to find a decent story and a character–whilst I couldn’t warm to in many respects–was interesting enough to keep me reading. In fact only a small proportion of the story takes place in prison, which made the title slightly a mismatch.

Kurt is an arsonist–but of course, he’s a “good” one. He makes sure no one is hurt by his fetish and gets sexually aroused by his fire-starting. This is set in the 60’s so there’s no psychiatrist around to try and get the obsession out of this mind. He’s simply tipped out into society and other than a corrupt parole officer, left to fend for himself.

He doesn’t consider himself gay. He’s had one sexual experience before prison, and that was a blowjob from a simple girl, so as far as he’s concerned he’s as straight as they come. When he gets “protection” from Harold Grimm (good name) in prison, he has a good streak of self-preservation, he rolls over (as it were) and does what has to be done. Harold is the worst kind of lover, not caring about anyone else’s pleasure but his own, and the sex is pretty graphic, and forced/dub-con/rape/ but not played for titillation.

He’s relieved to be released, and freed from Harold, and utterly amazed to find Harold sobbing like a baby when he’s about to lose Kurt. Kurt has never had love, and that’s something that annoyed me from page one, not that he hadn’t had love in his life, but that he banged on about at every available opportunity. We really only need to be told this sort of thing once and it’s done with such tub-thumping heavy handed clumsiness at the beginning of the book I wish I had a drinking game going for every other time it’s mentioned. Yes. I get it. He’s had a bad life. No one’s loved him. That’s why he’s such a bad boy (I assume, although this isn’t actually explored). Boo hoo.

Part of the reason that this annoys me is that PING! on his first foray into the outside world he meets a young man (Preston) on a bus who invites him round and in about three minutes flat Kurt’s in love with and living with (on a weekend basis) Eli, Preston’s room mate. They fall in love pretty much immediately which shortened the book significantly. I think I would have preferred Kurt to at least have a bit of a life–taking into account the end of the novel–before getting into what was for him at least, a monogamous relationship (Eli’s on the game).

As the blurb suggests, the big spanner in the works is Grimm being released from prison and it’s no surprise that he tracks his lover down and expects their relationship to continue where they left off. How the two men deal with this problem leads to how the novel ends and let me warn you here and now although the protagonists don’t end up killing themselves, it’s not a good ending, even though Kurt is pretty phlegmatic about it.

I really couldn’t warm to Kurt–or in fact, Eli as it was basically his idea of the solution, and he was swept along with all Eli’s return to his arson. They aren’t sympathetic characters and other than loving each other, we are given no reason to find them so. When they aren’t burning down buildings, all we are shown them doing is having long, hot sex, or in Kurt’s case, being lazy and refusing to do any chores around the house.

However, I am making it sounds like a bad book, and I don’t think it’s that at all. I think that had I edited it (and the editing is pretty good on a copy level) I might have asked for more of an exploration of Kurt’s obsession with fire, and more detail on an everyday level because it’s all a bit two dimensional for the characterisation. But the story is pretty absorbing, I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened next and how the dilemma was solved and the historical details–most particularly the aspect that Kurt had been inside during the early part of the sixties and had a culture shock upon release. I would have liked to have seen more of that.

If you can stand coercion-sex and don’t expect a happy or satisfying ending, then give this one a read, although you might feel as miserable afterwards as I did, even if Kurt didn’t.

As an aside, I hesitated to review a Noble Romance book given the problems there, but as the company has a new CEO who seems to want to move the company past the stigma the previous CEO has left him with, I  decided to go ahead. It’s a decent enough book and doesn’t really deserve to be plastered with the sticky mud of a CEO losing her professionalism.

Author’s website

Buy from Amazon UK  |  Amazon USA

Review: Captain Harding and his Men by Elliott Mackle

When a C-130 bound for Southeast Asia explodes on takeoff at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding instinctively realizes that the cargo list—“medical supplies and radio tubes”—was faked. When Joe’s newly-married workout buddy does a swan dive off a fifth story balcony in downtown Tripoli, Joe refuses to accept the semi-official verdict: suicidal depression. And when Joe’s tennis partner, the son of the American ambassador, decides to celebrate his eighteenth birthday by appearing unannounced at Joe’s BOQ door, the potential difficulties of their love-match must be addressed––seriously and without delay.  

Continuing the adventures and misadventures begun in Elliott Mackle’s award-winning “Captain Harding’s Six-Day War,” Joe and his fellow officers and airmen contend with a highly decorated but sexually abusive wing commander (who happens to be Joe’s boss), a closeted Pentagon official fighting to save his career, a CIA agent who may be an imposter, and shipments of British weapons that fall into the hands of anti-royalist rebels.  When a kidnapping goes terribly wrong, Joe must fight for everything he holds dear: duty, honor, country and love. 

180 pages, published by Lethe Press, available in paperback and ebook

Review by Erastes

Some books take a while to get into–not so anything I’ve read from Elliott Mackle, and this is no exception. Right from the get-go we are thrust into Captain Harding’s narrative (first person) and within a very few pages, even if you hadn’t read the first in this series (Captain Harding’s Six Day War) you are up to speed with the good captain and his sit-rep. (ho ho, using jargon because of the military theme.)

In this book he’s up against some very powerful forces, the CIA, the American Ambassador to Libya, his cute boyfriend’s parents (one of whom is the Ambassador) and a shadowy plot of stolen weapons, a suspected coup, and silenced (murdered) soldiers. Harding doesn’t want to save the world, particularly, but he’d like his own to continue relatively unendangered. But seeing as his Lieutenant-Colonel knows he’s gay, and there’s also a straight buddy who knows his secrets, a beat-off buddy Major, a 17 year old boyfriend and more skeletons in his closet than Hercule Poirot, things can often get a bit hairy.

The main thing I’ve gleaned about Captain Harding and his book is that I NEVER want to get into the forces, and that goes double for being an officer. The level of intrigue, political shennanigans, hypocrisy and downright double dealing that goes on makes my head spin. I doubt that all units are quite as much as a hot-bed as Wheelus is in the late 1960’s but I bet a fair lot of it goes on wherever you are. People have secrets, a lot of secrets and they’ll keep them until they think by spilling them they can save their arses.

It’s the way the Harding deals with it all that makes this fascinating reading. He’s not an angel, and he certainly doesn’t have any “Give Me Honor or Give Me Death” going on, but in the main he’s a really great guy, and he wants to do the right thing and has to work damned hard at making it happen. He’s human–he wants to protect his friends but he has a real human streak of self-preservation, he isn’t likely to throw himself in too much harm to do it. Although he might, it just depends if he has to do so to protect those he loves.

And there’s the “and his men” tag – and where it comes in. Harding is pushing 30 and as full of testosterone as any man of his age. Despite the fact that he thinks that Cotton Boardman is “the one” they are both pragmatic about their situation–Cotton is 17 at the beginning of the book and they both want to wait until he’s “legal” (or as legal as he can be–that is, where it won’t make Harding feel so guilty–e.g. 18) and after a couple of unsatisfactory sexual try-outs, and getting caught sharing a hotel room by Cotton’s father, they cool it for most of the book while Cotton goes back to school and Harding waits on tenterhooks hoping his career won’t cascade around his ears, not knowing when or even if he’ll see Cotton again.

So Harding keeps himself busy and his sex-drive under control (mainly) by “rub-downs” with a Major, and fuck-buddy sessions with an enlisted airman on TDY (temporary duty) for six weeks at Wheelus. If he gets too desperate, there is a steam-room on base where there’s usually someone amenable to a little relief, and a bar in town but both are far more risky. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take risks and it’s one of these times that he meets a real Alpha male who gives him such a sound going over that he’s dizzy from it, wondering if Cotton is the one after all. But it’s this stranger that turns the tide of the investigation Harding is doing, and the man that will be instrumental in cracking the case, but not until everyone has gone through hell.

Just another year in Harding’s life!  I absolutely love these books, and I really hope that there’s going to be a third in the series. The writing is crisp and realistic for men (and women) in the situations that you find them in. The mystery is worth of Raymond Chandler as it twists around, buries itself in official red tape and forged documents, and the characters are fully rounded and fully flawed.

I have no hesitation in awarding this our five star rating. More please, Mr Mackle.

Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: One More Soldier by Marie Sexton

It is 1963. Being gay is a sin against God. And twenty-eight year old mechanic Will meets Bran for the first time.

Over the years a close bond forms between them despite the seventeen year age difference. Will teaches Bran to swim and helps him with homework. The years pass, Bran drops out of school and moves away.

Then Bran comes home. Can Will move past their age difference? And if he does, how can he keep Bran in 1970 America?

A beautifully told tale of love and loss told from the viewpoint of a deeply closeted gay man at the very beginning of the American Gay and Lesbian Rights movement

Review by Erastes

This little novella surprised me. For some reason I had the preconception that it was by an English author, one that writes Age of Sail and so in that, I’ve obviously got my Marie’s muddled (sorry to both of you) so when I encountered a bitter-sweet (be warned) love story with a rather worrying start:

I first met Bran eight years ago. He was eleven years old.

I was twenty-eight.

But this is all right, actually, because you are supposed to feel that prickle of unease, because that’s exactly what the narrator is attempting to explain. Will, the narrator, is–if not entirely closeted, damned careful about what he does and where he does it It’s 1963 and Houston there wasn’t a lot of gay liberation going on. Hookups in discreet bars, blow jobs in cars–that’s the level of his companionship and he thinks himself lucky if he gets it once a week.

When he meets Bran–the eleven year old–it’s not at ALL in a sexual manner. The young boy attaches himself to Will for a week or  two as he’s new to the area and makes a nuisance of himself, but by the time school starts, Bran finds his own friends and their paths meet as rarely as you would expect people living in the same complex might meet. Bran does odd jobs for Will from time to time, taking in the mail when he’s out of town, that kind of thing. Then, when Bran leaves school before his senior year and takes up ranching, Will doesn’t see him at all for a few years.

It’s when Bran does return, changed out of all recognition, that the trouble starts, and the slightly unsettling beginning comes into its own. Bran is handsome, bronzed, muscled and entirely unrecognisable as that skinny and irritating kid that Will taught to swim and sometimes helped with homework. Will finds himself attracted to Bran, and it’s soon clear that Bran feels the same way and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Will is uncomfortable getting close to Bran, and he does fight it (not for terribly long, it has to be said, but it’s a short book!) and he has to try and see two Brans–a kid, and a grown up. Bran emphasises that he’s eighteen now but we hit the old bump in the road with that. It’s a sop to the publishing industry of 2012, and has no relevance to what was going on in the late 196os. Bran could have been 22 and it would have been every bit as illegal, after all.

The book could–were it not for Bran himself–be swept aside with a shrug that this is like many other coming of age/first time/friends becoming lovers books. There are many tropes that you could hang onto it. But don’t write it off and don’t be put off by the age difference. What the author does is something very clever–she shows the generation gap–not just between the ages of the protagonists, but the mental attitide of the protagonists. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the crux of the story, but Bran became (impressive for such a short novella) one of those characters that get under the skin and stay with you long after you’ve started to read something new.

By using Bran in this way, the author has shown the tide of gay liberation–although only the sussurating damp edges of the waves down in Houston–but he points with enthusiasm to the world beyond, sure that “things will change” in his youthful enthusiasm. It’s what happens at the end which gives the title its double-edged poignancy.

As I say–it’s bittersweet–and were this a longer novel and written in the 70’s it probably would be a gay classic today. It would be easy for this book to be entirely overlooked and I beg that you don’t allow that to happen.  If you steel yourself for a non-romance ending I am quite sure you’ll be as impressed with this as I was. I shall snap up any further gay historicals Ms Sexton may come up with!

Author’s website

Ebook only Silver Publishing    Kindle UK     Kindle USA

Review: Junction X by Erastes

Set in the very English suburbia of 1962 where everyone has tidy front gardens and lace curtains, Junction X is the story of Edward Johnson, who ostensibly has the perfect life: A beautiful house, a great job, an attractive wife and two well-mannered children. The trouble is he’s been lying to himself all of his life. And first love, when it does come, hits him and hits him hard. Who is the object of his passion? The teenaged son of the new neighbours.
Edward’s world is about to go to hell.

Review by Ruth Sims

Webster defines “inexorable” as “not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped : relentless.”

I have always been drawn to books and plays with that quality. Erastes’ Junction X pulled me in from the first page. I have known for a long time that Erastes is an excellent writer, whether her protagonists are working at a forge, being tortured by a religious zealot, or any of the other trials her characters are heir to. Junction X doesn’t have the protagonist being tortured by outside forces. He is tortured and broken by the cruelest Inquisitors of all: love and his own conscience.

English Family Man Ed has a good life, to all outward appearances he has a perfect life. Success. A fit and gorgeous wife. Twins he adores. Friends. Respect. And as the reader would expect, this man with the perfect life, has a dark secret: his strictly-for-sex relationship with Phil, a former neighbor and long-time male friend. (Neither of them is gay–of course–though Ed is sometimes touched by doubt on the matter.) Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Phil initiates quick, risky sex with Ed in public places, where discovery is always imminent, and Ed never refuses. Love never enters into their relationship, though Ed has a guilty conscience that pokes at him a little–just not enough for him to call a halt to his risky behavior.

Everything changes when Ed glimpses and then later meets and gets to know the new neighbors’ seventeen-year-old son, Alexander. Alex is beautiful with the fleeting and impossible beauty of the very young. Ed is a bit stunned by the speed and completeness of his sudden infatuation with Alex. In no time at all, Ed starts to build “what-if” fantasies about Alex. There is, he convinces himself, no harm in it. No one will ever know. But not long after, it becomes apparent that Alex is constructing his own fantasies … about Ed. During this time, Alex becomes is befriended by Ed’s wife and idolized by the twins.

The inevitable first kiss, given by Alex, throws open the door which hides the impossible fantasies and they become real, taking shape in secret, furtive meetings filled with lust-love. Inevitably, there is one tryst too many, one scheme too many, one declaration of love too many, one denial too many. It’s inevitable that the fragile house of deception will crash around them. It’s inevitable that someone will pay for the crime of love in all the wrong places, with the wrong person.

The end is a shocker.

If you want a book with heart, compassion, and reality coupled with love fantasies divorced from reality, and if you can accept a story with inter-generational love and sex, then Junction X is for you. You will never forget it.

This is the most literary, most riveting, most heart-rending story Erastes has written.

Author’s website

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

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

Buy the book

Review: Captain Harding’s Six Day War by Elliott Mackle

Assigned to baby-sit a loose-cannon colonel at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding spends his off-duty time bedding an enlisted medic and a muscular major, then begins a nurturing friendship with the American ambassador’s teenage son. The boy swiftly develops a crush on the man, feelings that Joe, a Southern gent with a strong moral sense, feels he cannot acknowledge or return. Joe’s further adventures and misadventures during the course of the novel involve a clerk’s murder, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, a fist-fight in the officers’ club bar, a straight roommate whose taste for leather gets him in trouble, the combat death of Joe’s former lover, and participation in an all-male orgy witnessed by two very married but somewhat confused fighter jocks.

In the run-up to the 1967 war, a mob attacks the embassy in nearby Tripoli and the deranged colonel sets out to attack an Arab warship. To bring the pilots and their airplanes safely home and keep the United States out of the war Joe has two choices: either come out to his closest, straightest buddies or know himself to be a coward, a failure and a traitor to everything that he holds dear.

Review by Erastes

There’s something very engaging about Mackle’s writing. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be at all interested in this book–military realism set during a period I know absolutely nothing about–but damn! Mackle (who wooed and won me with his marvellous “It Takes Two“) had me gripped within a chapter of Captain Harding’s Six Day War and I was found myself enjoying reading about life on a military base and all its incestuous hothouse intrigue. Damn you, Elliott Mackle!

Imagine those wonderful 1950’s movies in black and white set in and around army bases. Films starring a youthful Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson and the like dressed in sharp light khaki and white shirts. Well, now add in a very likeable and not-at-all unhappy in his homosexual skin gay man who’s cautious and careful but up for action. Mix in a great supporting cast of friends (male and female) a couple of friends-with-benefits and a beautiful and dangerously young 17 year youth who calls to Harding like a candle does a moth. Shake vigorously with all the stresses that soldiers encounter in a tentative peace that could kick itself off at any time (although the Vietnam War is raging elsewhere) and you have a cocktail which proves to be a hugely gripping read.

Mackle was a soldier himself and draws on much of his own experiences and he delivers real gravitas and truth with this book. The claustrophobic village atmosphere of the base is like a powder keg and it becomes more and more pressurized when everything starts to hot up both militarily and personally for Harding.

Harding is a great character. He has a lot of heart but he’s a man, with very human foibles. He knows the drill when it comes to gaydar and setting up gay encounters. A couple of trusted buddies suits him fine. A NCO, Duane, who is often off base doing medical medicy duties (as you can see my military knowledge is so vast), and Hal–a major who only needs a bit of light “relief” but still can be depended on to watch Harding’s (and consequently his own) back when necessary.

Things start to go to pieces when Harding realises he’s falling for the too-young son of a local diplomat, and the young man professes his crush right back. He knows he’s not in love with Duane, although Duane has fallen in love with him and is desperate for that feeling to be returned. Harding finds himself torn in a dozen different ways, and as life often does, it lands him in a big mess with everything blowing up in his face–literally and figuratively in this case–all at once. A rash decision, fuelled by frustration and drink at a male-only party in town, and Harding’s world threatens to blow itself apart.

Don’t go thinking this is just about gay men getting it on–or not–because it’s far more than that, it’s also a well-researched, well-written story about a dangerous crisis in our near-history and it does a good job, I could easily see this as a film, it would even work well as a stage play, because of the claustrophobic nature of the setting. The characters are varied, entirely three-dimensional and range from every type you’d expect, and some you would not. There’s no open-sky dogfights on the page, just a man trying his best to stop his own world going to hell, the only fire fights that go on are him fire-fighting crises as they occur. It was nail-biting stuff, and towards the end of the book, in the thick of the action, I was holding my breath, alternating with a need to shut the book in case it all went horribly wrong.

The writing is crisp and mature. Not a word wasted or skipped. No extraneous passages; it’s as neat as a career soldier’s bunk space, everything in its place. If I have the smallest of quibbles about the language, it’s that to a complete layperson, such as myself, I was able to pick up some of the jargon that I’d learned from war films, such as NCO and AWOL–but many of the other acronyms were entirely beyond me, such as TDY, BOQ, TAC, OSI and others so I had to guess the gist of what they were saying. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have had a small glossary in for the uninitiated, and for those who are reading in bed and don’t want to get up, go downstairs and look up the words on the computer.

But that’s a very minor quibble, and not even worth chipping off half a point for. This is a proper gay book which strides the chasm of romance and litererachoor beautifully. It will appeal both to those who want a story with gay characters off doing stuff, and those who want Harding to have a satisfactory ending. I’m not spoiling it for you but my eyes were moist, that’s all I’m sayin’.

There are parts of the book that aren’t at all PC. This is 1967 and equal rights (hollow laugh) are still a way off. There are derogatory comments regarding skin colour, race, sexuality and much more. But this is realism, if you can’t handle people talking in a way that they used–still do–speak then go and read something else.

Mackle is probably one of my favourite writers in the genre, and if this spurs him on to write more of the same I’m going to be in the queue with my money clutched in my hand.

Do not miss this book, even if, like me, you don’t think that the setting would interest you. It will.`

Author’s website

Amazon USA

Review: Mergers and Acquisitions by Lucius Parhelion

Bob and Trip are best friends and business partners who are negotiating the sale of their company when Bob decides to come out of mourning for his dead wife, Melinda. Since Melinda was his cousin, Trip understands what Bob is going through, and while he figures Bob is as straight as they come, he has broken down and offered comfort at the risk of ruining their friendship.

When Bob finally does decide to turn his attention to love again, though, it’s Trip he finds himself caring about. Trip isn’t sure he can believe it, and he doesn’t want to lose what they do have together by rushing into things. Can Bob convince Trip that it’s not just a whim, and that they can find more together than a company merger?


Review by Sal Davis

Torquere has had a bit of a hiccup on their website. The cover displayed for Acquisitions and Mergers: The Four of Wands is actually that designed for Sanctuary: The Four of Swords. However the proper cover, I’m sorry to say, is no improvement. I turned the page quickly and got onto the good stuff.

The story is set in 1960. Dr Trip Doyle is an MIT man and a genius. His business partner, widowed Bob Eck, is negotiating the sale of D&E Optical Engineering to BTC, a company with access to defence contracts, desperate to get their hands on Trip’s patents. Trip is discreetly gay. Bob knows about it but they are keen that BTC shouldn’t know – the defence people wouldn’t like it.

That is one plot strand. Another is the affectionate relationship between brainy Trip and charming Bob, both of whom adored and mourn Melinda, Bob’s wife. Bob went through a very bad patch after her death and Trip moved in with him to keep him going. One night with Bob frantic and very drunk their relationship developed, Trip delivering, as they put it in the story, an ‘owblay objay’. Strung out by the tension of the sale, moving offices etc, Bob shocks Trip by declaring his love for him. The rest of the story concerns Trip’s somewhat drastic efforts to help Bob establish whether he’s straight and deluded or honestly has had a change of orientation, and Bob’s efforts to prove his sincerity in the face of everything Trip throws at him.

It has the trademark flashes of humour, the banter between the main characters, little period details slotted into the narrative and unfussy sex scenes. I enjoyed it very much but it was, perhaps a little lightweight. There were suggestions of plot at the beginning of the story that were disposed of very easily and I felt disappointed that more wasn’t made of them.

But it’s still a very good story with plenty going on in the 50 pages, well worth both the price and 3.5 stars.

Available from Torquere Press Inc

Review: The Painting by FK Wallace

Stefan, a naive young Pole, meets Gunter, an artist in 1930s Berlin. Their passionate love affair is overshadowed by the rise of the Third Reich. Denounced to the Nazis, they are sent to Auschwitz as pink triangle prisoners.

Some things even love cannot withstand.

Forty years later Stefan returns to Poland with one question: when you have nothing left, how can you prove that love ever existed?

Berlin in 1936; optimism fading, the freedoms of the Weimar Republic little more than a memory, yet the inhabitants of the city blind themselves to the approaching disaster. The Painting is a story of love, of survival, of a life lived at the mercy of the most terrible events of the twentieth century.

http://www.thepaintingnovella.com

Review by Erastes

Hidden away on Lulu and Smashwords there are quite a lot of gay historicals. I often search through those sites in case I find anything that seems promising, and often I do, so it is a worthwhile endeavour. This title, however, came to my notice through an industry friend Leslie Nichol who said it was a heartbreaking read, but well worth it.

The subject matter of the first half of the book certainly will put many people off from attempting this book, but I urge you to put that aside, be brave and to try this book out.  The issue of Paragraph 175, the Pink Triangle and the camps has been dealt with in many memoires and textbooks, but few fictional representations as far as I am aware. The play and film “Bent” deals with it fantastically, too—and this book has something of the feel of Bent to it—only it’s not quite as devastating to read. This should be obvious as I did say that the first half of the book deals with the camps, and so the book moves on from that point.

It’s the story of Stefan Brukalski, Polish born and raised—he comes to Berlin in the early 1930’s because he’s heard that it is a city bursting with inspiration and creative life. The book opens with him at a pavement cafe, at the end of his tether and deciding to return to his home town in Poland, because Berlin has changed drastically since he heard tales of how liberal and fun she was. The Night of the Long Knives put paid to much of the liberalism, and the city is beginning to learn how to live in fear. It is at this cafe where he meets Gunter, a man 14 years Stefan’s senior, a painter, who picks him up, takes him home and they begin a passionate and heartfelt affair. Stefan becomes a German citizen to be able to stay in the country with Gunter, and both men (as they had little choice in the matter) join the National Socialist Party, Stefan as a clerk, and Gunter as an architect/planner.

By the time the war begins, it is clear that Gunter is tortured by some secret he can’t and won’t divulge, and their relationship takes a nosedive, but Stefan holds on, trying to be strong for them both. Then one day storm troopers close off the street and arrest everyone they can. Stefan hides in a hidden place in the house and waits but the scare is enough for them to decide to split up for safety. Homosexuals are being rounded up, being put into camps, and they think the safest thing to do is to separate.

It’s after this that everything goes to hell, for our two main characters (and everyone else) and the section regarding Stefan’s arrest and consequent experiences in Auschwitz are bravely done. The author seems to have reined back a little on what she could have written, but what she puts down is probably worse, because the imagination takes over, filling in the details from every newsreel and documentary our generations have seen, the generations who were not there. I think, though, that the author hints at the worst of it, and although the chimneys are described and the smoke, I didn’t really get the sense that Stefan knew what was going on. I think Wallace was relying too heavily on what the reader would actually know, and felt that she didn’t need to spell it out. Perhaps that’s the right approach. I don’t know.

But it’s this reining in that troubles me for the entire book in general. The description of Berlin as it turned itself inside out from a free-thinking, artistic haunt where anything goes and wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, to a police state, and then a city under threat of attack was not sketched out for me in enough detail. Most of the pre-war/pre-arrest sections are spent closeted away in Gunter’s apartments and I for one would have liked to have been shown more of the city. It is said that they rarely went out socially, for fear of giving themselves away, but I’d have liked to have seen even the shopping trips, and the like. We are told what’s going on, but we aren’t really shown it.

Aside from the camp sections—which, as I said—probably benefit from veiling the reader from day after day of the horror, the book runs like this with telling rather than showing, and we race along from the end of the war, careering into the fifties and sixties and seventies in a breathless rush, not really showing the passing of time, the changing of the fashions, the ideals in the country where the book takes place. I would have expected some social commentary on England, to be honest. There was a nice touch where the police call on Stefan after his story hit the headlines, and he panics that he’s going to be arrested, no charge, and dragged away, but of course—it’s England and nothing much happens at all. But England would have been such a haven (in comparison to Communist Poland or post-war Germany) and it’s not explored at all.

The book deals with a lot, family issues, people doing things because they had no choice, survivor guilt, and much much more—and with the weighty issues it has to cover it can’t help but skimp on some of the human detail.  I for one would have liked the pace to slow after the 1950’s, to show us him bringing up his niece in more chapters than we were given, but we leapt forward seven years in each chapter and it didn’t help to get me connected to Hannah at all, or to get a sense of that, for 14 years or so, he lived a happier life. It didn’t explain his rise as an author, and that’s something I’d have liked to have seen.

Perhaps it should have been two books. It reads as a family saga, and I’m a great lover of family sagas, and would happily read a book three times the size, watching the years go by. I felt a little cheated because I seemed to be there for all the terrible things that happened, but there must have been so much kitchen-sink sweetness and pleasure in Stefan’s life as Hannah grew up. He deserved that, and the reader deserved to share them with him.

There’s no mention of change in the political atmosphere regarding homosexuality in England either, even though Stefan doesn’t further that side of himself for many years, he would have—surely—noted the changes in the law as homosexuality finally became legal in 1967, even if it was only to himself. I’d expected this because Stefan was a Pole, and Poland (under Polish government) had no anti-homosexual laws.

Don’t get me wrong: even though I felt a lack of detail, this is still a beautifully written, thoughtful book. The ending sections, particularly, are touching and utterly believable. The theme that arises—although, once more, I would have liked a little more emphasis on the theme earlier in the book—of finding that  Stefan had begun to wonder if he had invented Gunther, to give his own life some focus, is warming and heartbreaking. I was happy for Stefan when I closed the book, but I wasn’t sobbing like a baby, and really—I think I should have been.

Considering it’s self-published it’s a bit of a jewel. The editing is top notch and the author has worked her socks off to get it in a state that—were it picked up by a mainstream publisher and i hope it might be—it would hardly need a comma moving.

It’s a challenging read, due to the subject matter, but don’t let that put you off. This book deserves as many readers as it can get and I look forward to a lot of eagerness to see what Ms Wallace comes up with next.

The author says she is negotiating to get the book into print format, but until then, there’s

Kindle  Smashwords

 

Review: Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck

Feckless, exasperating Alex Finch is a rich, handsome and talented singer/songwriter who longs for two things: a career as a professional rock singer, and to have his love for Sam Barrowdale reciprocated. But drifter Sam’s two aims are simply to earn enough money to pay his sister’s medical bills and to hide from the world his reading/writing and speech disability. At this time the word “dyslexia” is generally unknown so to most people he’s just a “retard”. From the severe knocks life’s dealt him, Sam’s developed a tough outer coating and he has no time for a spoilt, selfish guitar player.

Despite his defects, Alex’s love for Sam never wavers and when Sam unexpectedly disappears, Alex begins a somewhat bungling quest to find him, only to discover that Sam has a fearful enemy: Alex’s powerful and influential yet sociopathic uncle.

As Alex spirals downwards towards alcoholism, many questions need answering. Just why did Alex’s evil uncle adopt him at age eleven yet deny him any affection? And what’s the mystery behind Alex’s father’s death?

Both seem to face unbeatable odds. Are they doomed to follow separate paths forever?

Review by Erastes

I am going to enthuse. This–I know from people who complain that I’m too critical–is a rare thing, but I was so impressed by this debut novel I can’t not. It’s not perfect–and I can’t give it five stars for reasons I’ll explain later, but I’ll say right out that I consider it a must read and it has my highest recommendation. I will discuss plot points, so beware of spoilers.

The story hangs on either side of the Speak Its Name cut off of Stonewall. It starts in 1963 and goes on for twenty or so years.

It’s easy to get tripped up on “remembered history.” From experience I’ve found that writing recent history can be a lot harder than writing about several hundred years ago. It’s easy to take stereotypes and run with them, overdo the slang and the product references. Despite a teenaged Alex being full of “cool slang” in the first chapter, it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia and product placement.

It’s absolutely not an m/m novel. And for a debut novel this is very, very impressive writing.  Don’t make the mistake that “literary” means “I don’t understand a bloody word of this.” It’s readable without being coy or self-indulgent and you’ll be sucked in from the first chapter. The homosexual aspect–whilst actually being the core of the book isn’t the theme. It’s a love story, and the gender of the people involved doesn’t matter as much as the twisting and sometimes heart wrenching path they make while managing to not be together for one reason or another.

The story is told in three points of view. Alex’s story is in first person, Sam’s is in third, and there’s a final three chapter epilogue in first person by another character that I won’t list here. Don’t be put off by the rather literary device of mixing and matching the points of view–it works and it couldn’t work any other way. Alex’s mind is bright and colourful, full of self-indulgence, a selfish, rather spoiled young man who thinks more of himself than he has any right to be, and it’s his maturation that winds around the plot as he learns to care about other people instead of satisfying his own needs. Sam however is considered a “retard” — dyslexia was not as well-known a disorder as it is today, and anyone hearing his speak or seeing the way he interacts with the world would have thought he was educationally sub-normal. To have written his point of view in first person would have tripped this book up, and I think the readers would have been impatient with the way Sam stumbled over the words, even in his head. Doing it in third cushions the reader a little–just enough–from this mental and vocal confusion.

What wasn’t really needed then, in my opinion, was to be told at the beginning of each chapter, which young man it referred to–as only a few words in would have made it clear.

There’s a lot of layers to this book too. It’s not at all just a case of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy–but then I’ve already said it’s not a romance. (not a tragedy either, but that’s all I will say about the ending.) As the blurb suggests there’s a hell of a lot going on even without the tortuous way the young men never seem to catch a break. Even for a full-sized novel, it covers a lot of ground, has a lot of plot and I loved that, it really gave me plenty to get my teeth into.

What also impressed me was the sheer scale of the research involved. Not only does the history feel right–and that’s some doing in an era that went from the Beatles to the Space Age and into our technological era–but there’s dyslexia, chemistry, biochemistry, farming, mining, popular music and so much more, and if there was a bum note anywhere, I didn’t spot it.

Negatives, yes, there were a couple. There was a section–one of Sam’s–which was thumpingly subtitled “(ten days earlier)” and that jarred me. I wouldn’t have been so dim that I couldn’t have worked out we were skipping back to see what had happened to Sam at a slightly earlier point where we’d left Alex’s section. I was also a little bemused about the conflict Liza came up with, there didn’t seem that enough time had passed for her to be as sure as she was about that particular thing. (attempting to reduce spoilers here, but it’s difficult, :D)

There were a few–very few–typos here and there, but not enough to pull me out.

The ending–well, I absolutely don’t want to spoil, but I am pretty sure that (unless you are rabid about the falling into the arms and the HEA) you won’t be disappointed. The real kicker comes half way through the epilogue, which had me sobbing like a baby. I was railing at the end of the book proper and hating what had happened, but the explanation of the ending, and the way that it was concluded at the “proper” end was entirely right, and said buckets about the characterisation of Sam and the real coming of age of Alex.

There aren’t many books in this genre of ours that have me mulling over them after I’ve closed the book but this really got under my skin and it’s been eating away at me in the same way that “The Catch Trap” or “Brokeback Mountain” did.

Don’t miss this, because you’ll miss a real treat.  I can’t imagine what Ms Roebuck will come up with next, but I’ll be first in line.

Author’s Blog

Buy from Awe-struck Books (it’s only available in ebook right now, but the print version is due any time)

Film Review: Infamous

On November 16, 1959, Truman Capote reads about the murder of a Kansas family. There are no suspects. With Harper Lee, he visits the town: he wants to write about their response. First he must get locals to talk, then, after arrests, he must gain access to the prisoners. One talks constantly; the other, Perry Smith, says little. Capote is implacable, wanting the story, believing this book will establish a new form of reportage: he must figure out what Perry wants. Their relationship becomes something more than writer and character: Perry killed in cold blood, the state will execute him in cold blood; does Capote get his story through cold calculation, or is there a price for him to pay?

Director:

Douglas McGrath

Writers:

Douglas McGrath (screenplay), George Plimpton (book)

Stars:

Review by Erastes

A bit of an odd one, this–almost the exact same story had been released a year earlier with “Capote” – with a much higher profile and glittering prizes – Philip Seymour Hoffman received an Oscar for his performance in that particular film, and yet–having watched Toby Jones in this I think that this film does it better in just about every respect. and yes – that does include a great performance by Sandra Bullock.

I KNOW!!!!!!!!!!!

 

The story for those who missed Capote,and who haven’t read “In Cold Blood” starts in 1959 when Capote–a multi-published author, screenplay writer and considered to be the enfant terrible of the literati world of the time–catches a pretty small article in a paper talking of a mass slaying in Holcomb, a small town in Kansas. He persuades his newspaper editor to let him do an article on the case and sets off for Holcomb to interview the locals. However, as he is pretty outre, even for 1950’s New York, he’s jaw droppingly shocking to the good people of Holcomb and the story follows how he–and Nelle Harper Lee (beautifully underplayed by Bullock–I know!!!!) win over the townspeople and start getting them talking. The killers are apprehended and the story changes to Capote as he starts to interview the two young men and the relationship he forms with them.

Firstly, I adore Toby Jones. I loved him as Hogarth and more recently he did a lovely job of the man who Isherwood changed into Mr Norris in “Christopher and his Kind.” He picks projects that play to his strengths, and seeing how he’s short, a little pudgy and not blessed with chiselled features he’s found his niche and plays strongly to it.

He seems born to play Capote, and he did a wonderful job, even more swishy and unrepentant than Seymour Hoffman, and infinitable more likeable. As he flounces down the small-town street in bright canary yellow or wearing a red scarf bigger than him I can appreciate what a stir he must have caused.

I wonder why they made this film; considering the other being made at the same time–perhaps they were being made at exactly the same time, despite the fact they came out a year apart–perhaps this version with a much higher count of Big Names was expected to the one to make it big, but sadly that didn’t happen, and me thinking it deserves it more isn’t going to make any difference.

Aside from the fact that Capote was gay, and in a full-time relationship with Jack Dunphy, who he was with from 1948 until his death in 1984, the story line touches on the way that Capote interracted with the more reticent of the two killers: Perry Smith. Smith was not willing to speak to Capote–and unlike his partner in crime Dick Hickok, Capote paints him as educated, sensitive–once he’d decided to talk.

I liked the way that we are left in some doubt as to the veracity of the accounts given in the book–Capote’s behaviour with his New York socialite friends echoes the way he behaves in Holcomb. He says of the way he gets the NY set to open up and tell him everything, that he finds out what they want and then he gives it to them. Perry Smith seems to want a friend, and then, later, someone to love, and Capote gives him that. But did he mean any of it? or was it just a ruse to get his story?  I suppose we’ll never really know.

I should add here, that Perry is played amazingly by Daniel Craig–made up to lessen his attractiveness but he loses none of his power–the scenes between Capote and Perry are mesmerising.

Add to that that little matter of Bullock’s quiet and beautifully judged (I KNOW!!!) performance, and with guest spots from Weaver, Paltrow, Bridges and others–I think I can recommend this with knobs on.  It may not be a subject matter that will appeal, and there are one or two scenes pertaining to the murder that will disturb you (but then, In Cold Blood is a disturbing book, and the murders were appalling) but overrall, you should seek it out.

Review: Sal Mineo: a biography by Michael Gregg Michaud

Sal Mineo is probably most well-known for his unforgettable, Academy Award–nominated turn opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and his tragic murder at the age of thirty-seven. Finally, in this riveting new biography filled with exclusive, candid interviews with both Mineo’s closest female and male lovers and never-before-published photographs, Michael Gregg Michaud tells the full story of this remarkable young actor’s life, charting his meteoric rise to fame and turbulent career and private life.

About the author: MICHAEL GREGG MICHAUD’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and publications, including the Los Angeles Times. He is also a playwright, editor, artist, and award-winning photographer. An animal-rights defender, he is a founding director of the Linda Blair WorldHeart Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles.

*Available in e-book format – 2137KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

When I first came upon the title “Sal Mineo: A Biography” by Michael Gregg Michaud [Crown Archetype, 2010], I knew it was something I had to read. You see, in 1965 I spent an intimate evening with Sal Mineo in Toronto, and although this time was brief I can attest to some of the characteristics Michaud writes about; certainly Mineo’s disarming charm, his impetuousness, and his passion for life at whatever he happened to be doing at the time.

Sal Mineo’s impoverished childhood in the Bronx is a testament to several things: i.e. if you stay true to your dreams they will come true (in some measure), and anything worthwhile is worth working for. Mineo did against formidable odds. Along the way luck also played a role when he was cast with Yul Brenner in “The King and I,” and Brenner became his inspiration as well as his mentor.

Eventually Hollywood beckoned, and on the basis of his accomplishments, youthful good looks and luck, at the tender age of fifteen he was cast in a supporting role opposite the (now) legendary James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” The female lead in this cinematic classic was Natalie Wood, and it is particularly interesting to note that all three of these individuals met an untimely and tragic end.

Mineo idolized Dean, who was known to be bi-sexual, and for the first time Sal began to realize how love between men could arise. Nothing ever transpired between these two, however, and eventually Dean’s brilliant career and unorthodox lifestyle was cut short by a tragic car accident—September 30, 1955.

In the Halcyon days of his career, Mineo was managed by his well-intentioned but domineering mother—the quintessential stage mother—who spent his considerable income faster than he could earn it. Moreover, lacking the business acumen to realize this, and being a bit of a spendthrift himself, the plot was set for a financial crises.

Also contributing to this downturn was Mineo’s inability to make the transition from a teen idol to more mature roles. Ironically, it was his baby face and stereotype casting as a juvenile delinquent—the very characteristics that had made him a famous—that worked against him in the eyes of the public. Consequently, he joined the ranks of childhood stars whose careers were short lived.

Until this stage his sexual orientation had been strictly heterosexual, particularly with a British starlet by the name of Jill Haworth. That was until he met Bobby Sherman; a virtual unknown until Mineo used his influence to launch Sherman’s singing career in the 1960s. Following his fling with Sherman, the floodgates seemed to open to a variety of attractive, young men who ended up in Mineo’s bed—some with familiar names from the era, i.e. Don Johnson, Jay North (Dennis the Menace), David Cassidy, and Jon Provost (Timmy of Lassie fame). Nevertheless, when he met a handsome actor by the name of Courtney Burr, he finally formed a love that lasted until Mineo’s death in 1976.

Not surprisingly rumours of this began to circulate, and since Hollywood’s attitude about sex was oddly (and not just a little hypocritically) guarded, Sal lived his private life under the radar for fear and professional recriminations.

“Sal knew that outing himself, declaring his sexuality, would destroy what little was left of his career. Though Sal never publicly came out in a conventional manner, there was a subliminal coming-out that began years before. He wanted his lifestyle and his choices to be accepted. He wanted a normalcy and legitimacy in his life.”

Not an unreasonable wish in a town where almost anything goes, sexually, and sensuality is a packaged product.

***

This exhaustive biography is not only a tribute to Sal Mineo, a talented and misunderstood individual who lived life to the fullest—no matter what he did—it is also a tribute to the author’s unrelenting dedication. For example, the writing of “Sal Mineo: A biography” took ten years and three-years of research to complete. Moreover, numerous interviews were conducted, most particularly with Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, to give it a personal insight beyond the written record. Bravo!

Full of details and previously undisclosed anecdotes, the biography captures a career of ups and downs and a private life of sexual impulses. Highly recommended.

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Review: Farewell my Concubine by Lilian Lee

A sweeping saga, Farewell my Concubine runs the gamut of China’s modern history, from 1924 to the 1980’s, and takes the revered Peking Opera as its centre stage. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou become friends under the harsh training regime of the opera (a mix of martial arts, deprivation and singing) and continue friends through the good and the very bad times of over 50 years of the country’s turbulent history

Review by Erastes

I’m going to say right out that if you have seen the film and are thinking about reading the book, and you expect the same optimistic conclusions to the character’s stories and actions within the film, you are likely to be either disappointed or surprised by the changes made – or both. Although the book does not end tragically, the film has a softer ending and also within the book the plotline regarding the abandoned child is not how it shown on the film. So be warned.

Ok – that’s that out of the way and I can concentrate on the book. Like many books about China, this is a fascinating read, because the cultures and mores of that culture are so very alien to most of a western audience. Lee lets us see Peking from the ground up; the surface “glamour” of actors and protitutes,looking affluent but look closer to see the ragged cloth shoes and the unhealthy pallor. Lee doesn’t flinch from the poverty and the squalour, and later on, the violence and degradation that the characters are forced to endure.

A young woman is desperate for her son to live, and to have a trade, carries her son to the Opera and asks them to take him on. We learn that Xiao Douzi (literally: Little Bean) has six fingers on one hand and in order for him to join the Opera–despite his excellent voice–he has to sacrifice it.There’s a theme of sacrifice that runs through the book, but you have to squint to see it.

Douzi’s mother was–for me–one of the unresolved plot lines, as this mother is never seen again, and despite Douzi missing her terribly, he does nothing to try and seek her out. It’s perfectly reasonable that she would disappear, but for him to do nothing about it, for he surely would have remember where he had lived, seems a little off, considering his character as it is painted for us.

We are introduced to the training regimen of the Opera, and from what I have read it’s not unusual, however harsh. I remember an interview with Jackie Lee who tells of his martial arts school and the terrible rigours he went through, so this is not much different, although absolutely shocking to our eyes, that young boys could be starved, beaten and humiliated in such a way. The training master is rather a cliche, I found, redolent of a sargeant major in a British sit-com or film, although he shows he does care about his charges, and whether they care for him or not, the respect they show him in later life (China, of course having a tradition of high respect for the older generation) is also highlighted.

Douzi is a natural “dan” due to his high clear voice and delicate features. A dan is a singer who specialises in female characters on stage—and in a similar fashion to the way that man-playing-female actors were trained in Shakespearian Britain – (see Stage Beauty for reference) – a dan is encouraged to consider himself female much of the time, and Douzi has to remind himself that he’s not.

The two friends stay together when they “graduate” from the ten years of their apprenticeship and they go out into the city singing their repetoire and getting better known. They are best known for the opera “Farewell my Concubine” in which Douzi (now renamed Deiyi as an adult) and Shito (renamed Xiaolou) play the concubine Yu Ji and her lover General Xiang Yu. Like many operas in the east and west, it has a tragic ending.

In the film it appears that Douzi’s sexual identity is a much bigger deal than the book, for here I found it incredibly muted, and other than a fierce loyalty, one touching scene in make-up when Shito was injured, I never really got the sense that Douzi loved Shito in some enormous way. It was very brotherly, quite hands off, and even his intense hatred and jealousy of Juxian–the prostitute that Shito marries–comes over as more of a Yoko Ono deal, and not ‘he would have loved me if it wasn’t for you.’ Douzi, doesn’t ever act on that love, so we never get a chance to find out.

The scenes where the Red Guards, consisting mainly of teenagers,  terrorise everyone who don’t adhere to the new ideals, were the most moving for me; the inhumanity of man against man, and the demonstration of just how blood-thirsty and cold young people. Harnessed for a task of cleansing the populace this section really shook me–particularly aligned against how very polite Chinese society was. The way that–even after the revolution of 1911–the country clung to its traditions, nearly had them entirely swept away in an Orwellian frenzy-only to start regaining a sense of their past was terrifying and made for a wonderful section to read.

There is a scene towards the end which is could almost be a scene from Orwell’s 1984, which is not terribly surprising, given the regime the three characters find themselves in, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking, although the real heartbreak comes at the end of the book.

However, I don’t know whether it was the translation, or just the book itself, but it didn’t really move me in the same way that other gay love stories have. I note that the translator was an academic but she wasn’t an author–perhaps it needed an author’s hand, because there were many grammatical issues, and there was some very American slang at times at times that was a tad jarring for 1920 and onwards. It’s when I read things like this that wish that I could read it in the original, but fat chance of that!

In fact I think that also, the book fails where the film shines, because it never really gives us a taste of the gorgeousness that the film is able to portray, the life of Deiyi and Xiaolou after they left the training regime and became actors, and started climbing the greasy pole to success is rather rushed, and I for one would have liked a bit more of this section.

It’s a fascinating read, however, if only for the portrait of a culture lost, and subsequent descriptions of the Mao regime as it attempted to eradicate anything that smacked of the “old traditions” and anyone with any interest in China will enjoy it for that reason, but the promise of the book in the first chapter  that it’s a story of men in love smacked just a little of a ploy to pull in people who want a gay romance, and it never delivers on that score.

Not a masterpiece, but well worth a read.

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Review: A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

The author’s favorite of his own novels.

When A Single Man was originally published, it shocked many by its frank, sympathetic, and moving portrayal of a gay man in midlife. George, the protagonist, is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life; the course of A Single Man spans twenty-four hours in an ordinary day. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness. Wry, suddenly manic, constantly funny, surprisingly sad, this novel catches the texture of life itself.

Now a major motion picture by Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

Review by Gerry Burnie.

How do you go about reviewing Christopher Isherwood “A Single Man,” (Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964, Vintage Classics, 2010) without the urge to genuflect at the beginning of each chapter? Answer: You don’t! It is somewhat similar to reviewing E.M. Forster, or perhaps Charles Dickens. To comment on Isherwood’s strengths as a writer would be presumptuous to say the least. His strengths lie in each word, times the number of words in a phrase, multiplied by the number of phrases in a paragraph, etc., etc. Besides, having been deceased since 1986 he is in no need of advice from a neophyte like me. Rather, about the most one can do, realistically, is to comment on what can be learned from this acknowledged master of observation, narrative skill, style, wit and humour.

“A Single Man,” considered by many to be his finest achievement, was a daring novel for 1964—the same decade that saw the homophobic ‘Stonewall Inn raid,’ in New York City, 1969. This story depicts George Falconer, a gay, middle-aged British college professor who has recently lost his longtime partner, Jim. It occurred as the result of a car accident while Jim was visiting his parents in Ohio, and to protect Jim’s image George declines an invitation to attend his lover’s funeral. Therefore, he is deprived of even this token closure.

Left alone in the modest house that Jim and he shared, which is only accessible by crossing a sagging bridge, George now uses this ‘moat’ to defend his lifestyle against the Strunks and Garfeins; representing suburban family values. In this milieu ‘The Girls’ nurture their obstreperous brood according to the latest psychology book; the self-expressing kids run amok; the grown-ups hold weekend barbeques complete with “martoonies” beside the kidney-shaped pool, and the paunchy Mister Strunks can be heard muttering such things as, “I don’t give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me.”

Consequently, overwhelmed by the surrounding common denominator, George is struggling to find meaning in his humdrum existence; a situation that Isherwood ingeniously captures with the opening line, casting George as an “it.”

That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. ‘Here’ comes next, and it is at least negatively reassuring, because here, this morning, is where it had expected to find itself;

Without addressing the issue directly, therefore, Isherwood nevertheless draws the reader into the depths of despair plaguing his main character; i.e., the purposelessness of his existence. He then proceeds to transition George by way of a sterile freeway to the San Tomas State College campus—passing an equally septic senior-citizen’s complex along the way. Once on campus, however, George starts to feel a measure of regeneration, for suddenly his life regains a semblance of meaning; like an actor stepping outside of himself to assume the role of an alter ego.

He is all actor now; an actor on his way up from the dressing room, hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands to make his entrance. A veteran, calm and assured, he pauses for a well-measured moment in the doorway of the office and then, boldly, clearly, with the subtly modulated British intonation which his public demands of him, speaks his opening line ‘Good morning!’

He also feels some semblance of power as he signs a student card, thus giving some faceless student a bona fide academic identity; for without it the student would cease to exist in the eyes of San Tomas State College; and worse still, in the eyes of the IBM gods that are just beginning to stir in the early 60s.

Feeling thus re-invigorated he crosses the campus, coming across a tennis match in progress along the way. The sun has broken through the early morning smog, and the two boy-combatants are stripped nearly naked. They have nothing on their bodies but tennis shoes and tight-fitting shorts, the type that cyclists wear, moulding themselves to the buttocks and loins. One is Mexican, representing the growing ethnic challenge to the bastions of Caucasian middle-class establishment, and the other, representing the latter, is blond and beautiful but no match for the darkly handsome, aggressive and cat-like Hispanic. Therefore they are a metaphor, and George observes that the blond boy has accepted the rules and will suffer defeat and humiliation rather than break them. He will also fight clean with an almost un-modern-like chivalry until the game and the cause for which he stands are both lost. Nevertheless, from George’s perspective there is a more immediate and personal outcome:

The game is cruel; but its cruelty is sensual and stirs George into hot excitement. He feels a thrill of pleasure to find the senses so eager in their response; too often now, they seem sadly jaded. From his heart, he thanks these young animals for their beauty. And they will never know what they have done to make this moment marvellous to him, and life less hateful …

George then resumes his role as a college professor, boldly making his dramatic entrance into the classroom where he is now front-stage-centre. It is a role that he is expected to play, and one that he acquits with subtle mastery; lecturing, scolding, amusing and hopefully imparting as well. From his place in the limelight the majority of students are merely an amorphous blur of faces; however, certain students—a handful—stand out as individuals: Kenny Potter being one of them. Potter sits in the front row because he tends to do the opposite of what most people do. George finds himself constantly aware of Kenny, and Kenny seems aware of George as well, but since Kenny also has a steady girlfriend George puts no more significance on it than that.

Feeling fortified by this up-lift, he next makes a stop at the hospital. He has gone there to see Doris; a former femme-fatale who, like her kind, once thought nothing of openly raiding a gay partnership because “They can’t really be serious …” or “All they really need is a good woman in their mixed-up lives,” and Jim in his insecurity had succumbed to her wiles.

I am Doris. I am Woman. I am Bitch-Mother Nature. The Church and the Law and the State support me. I claim my biological rights. I demand Jim.

Now this yellow, shrivelled manikin with its sticks of arms and legs was all that was left of her, and George could let it go. Therefore, he quietly affirms his state of being: I am alive, he says, I am alive! His tough, triumphal body had outlived Jim and was going to outlive Doris, too; moreover, it felt good to be alive to dream about dark-eyed, Hispanic seducers and golden-haired Adonises.

In the same celebratory spirit he decides that he doesn’t want to eat alone that night. He therefore calls the remaining person in this world who still cares; his boozy best friend, Charlotte—“Charley.” At one time they had had a brief affair, and although other relationships had intervened on both sides they had remained friends. Like Woman, however, Charlotte still harboured hopes that they might one day pick up where they had left off. Nevertheless George was used to this by now, and in spite of having to diplomatically manoeuvre around compromising situations he was able to enjoy their times together. The booze helped, of course, and George was feeling no pain by the time he finally left for home.

Still on a high he decides to by-pass the house to visit a nearby bar on the ocean front; the very bar where he had met Jim looking gorgeous in his WWII sailor’s uniform. It was a neighbourhood hide-away with a long history of make-outs to its credit—mostly of the heterosexual variety, but tonight there is solitary young man sitting quietly at the bar. It isnone other than Kenny Potter, a surprisingly long way from his own neighbourhood on the other side of town. Surprised, George makes contact, and the two of them proceed to get drunk—Kenneth fairly, and George very. In the course of doing so it has now been revealed that Kenny’s choice of this bar was no coincidence; that, in fact, he has made quite a study of George’s haunts and habits, and in response to the question of how he managed to get there he readily admits that his girlfriend drove him.

George can almost feel the electric field surrounding them. More than anything he wants Kenny to understand it, too; to know what this dialogue is all about. So there they sit smiling at one another, or more like ‘beaming,’ and suddenly the suggestion of a skinny dip is raised—by Kenneth. Ever ready to accept a dare, especially from a radiant, younger man, George agrees through an alcoholic haze. Challenge given and challenge accepted, Kenneth suddenly becomes master of the situation, his physical size dictating the logic of it, and when it appears that George is floundering Kenneth insists that he take George home to recoup.

It has therefore become quite obviously that this is a flirtation, but George cannot bring himself to say the words of outright seduction; not to one of his students. The rules forbid it, and like the blond Adonis George must play by the rules. Moreover, his years of avoidance have made the idea somewhat of a taboo. Nevertheless he finally passes out, and wakes up in bed mysteriously dressed in his pyjamas. Meanwhile Kenneth has taken off, but his note provocatively suggests that they might have shared an intimate moment together: or is it just a tease?

“If those cops pick me up, I won’t tell them where I’ve been … I promise!

“This was great, this evening. Let’s do it again, shall we? Or don’t you believe in repeating things?”

George’s rejuvenation is now complete. However, at this point I will leave it up to the reader to discover how the story ends. Suffice it to say that it is as abstract and as real as the opening line. In other words, it is typically Isherwood!

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Review: The Why Not by Victor J Banis

The place is gaudy yet drab, lively yet death-like, dispassionate mother hen to a brood of dithered chicks. Discover its bizarre existence from the inside, through the muddled collective mind of the outcast in-group, a gay throng of third-sex bewildered ones who frantically seek a why–but must always settle for The Why Not!

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I just went back through my Speak Its Name reviews and saw that I’ve only given one five star review, namely to Josh Lanyon’s how-to book. Well, make this another five star, then. I’ve read some excellent books as a reviewer here, and I’ve given 4.5 and 4 stars to books I really enjoyed. For me to give five stars, however, I want to read a book that grabs me and doesn’t let me go, that picks me up by the neck like a puppy and shakes me, emotionally, and then, either tosses me away or puts me gently down.

Victor J Banis’ The Why Not is one of those by-the-scruff-of-your-neck books. I was a goner after a couple pages, and I’m flattened after finishing it, part fearing to go back and re-read it again, part wanting nothing more than to read it more slowly this time round and pick up all the small things that I must have missed, even though I inhaled every line and felt every character echo in his own way, for a few moments.

And it’s so cleverly done. The eponymous “Why Not” is a gay bar in California, and we’re in the Sixties, before Stonewall. The book consists of short stories or sketches, or portraits of men connected to the bar, their individual storylines crossing, approaching, diverging, moving apart, and vanishing just like faces in a crowd. The reader gets to know these people, sees moments in their lives, rather like cruising the crowd themselves. Do I like this one better? Do I recognize myself in that face?

There is little romance in here; I keep saying it, because so much about reading gay lit or m/m these days is all about the romance and I wouldn’t want to see people disappointed – but I would want people to read this book. Whatever they think they want to read, whatever they think they are prepared to deal with, because this book has such a strong emotional resonance that it is rather like a living thing. One of those books that pick you up and might put you down again. Might. If they are feeling generous.

The portraits, apart from being faces in a bar crowd, also form a chorus of solitary voices. Sometimes, you pick up a harmony, or a disharmony, sometimes a deeper layer unfolds and allows you a glimpse into what is really the human condition, not just the gay condition. Seeking mates, always hoping, with emotions and desires overwhelming the mind, the terrible silence between mother and son, the denial, the victimisation, unexpected moments of humor and lightness that sometimes just hide the shrillness papering over a deep sense of ennui and lack of fulfilment. Pretty much like real life. There are no heroes here, no idealised love, this is just about people in their helplessness, their moments of courage and pity, and of taking advantage and being taken advantage of. I found it deeply moving, because it’s all so very true, and facing those emotions honestly, regardless of what readers might expect or people might think, is the greatest challenge for every writer. Writing the truth is so much harder than going through the motions because people drop a coin in our hat – or promise to drop a coin.

Picking out quotes is difficult with this one, there are so many beautiful, intense passages. Most often, one passage stands out – I call that, in my metaphorical mind, “the beating heart of the novel” – but this doesn’t offer any quick and easy passage. The whole thing is pulsing with life, and I struggle picking out one over the other, but here’s a passage from a visit to the steam baths:

“The walls inside are rotting and musty, the floor dirty and unswept. Only a single customer in the locker area, a fat old man, eyeing me with interest but without hope as I strip. Cruelly I pose to heighten his appreciation, give him plenty to admire, and time to admire it, coolly aloof and impervious to his desire.

Upstairs, the darkened chamber reserved for sexual encounters is a snake pit of arms and legs, bodies writhing and twisting together, the smell of sperm overpowering and alarming. Someone follows me in, an arm slipping about my waist, but it is the old man from the locker room, made bolder now in the darkness and the universality of the chamber’s activities.

I shrug off his arm, and leave the room. Retreating back down the stairs, to the steam room, where the sperm smell is still strong and supplemented by another less pleasant odor. The heat, as one climbs higher on the benches, grows devastating, until one ceases to care when a body approaches, the unseen face of a stranger seeks my flesh and I am caught up in the act of fulfillment, weakly and mechanically performing until I shudder and draw away. The body goes, but not before another approaches, standing above me.

The door opens, a shaft of light in the darkness, and the room becomes for an instant a frozen tableau, everyone motionless, wary. But the newcomer is too young to be Tillie Law, young and pretty—too pretty, I tell myself, a lovely flower to be thrown into the muck and mire before him. In the fleeting light, the jackals can be seen crouching, tensely poised for the attack. The door closes and the movement be-gins, vultures moving in upon the newcomer, vying for positions. A new conquest, fresh meat upon which to feed.

Finally, wearied with the parade, unending and infinitely varied in its sameness, of bodies—large bodies, small bodies, short and long bodies, fat and thin bodies—I leave the steam room, make my way down the corridor, blinking my eyes against the glare of the harsh naked lights.

(…)

Unable to suffer myself longer, I leave and make my way back to the locker room. I avoid the mirror there, ex-pecting to find that my flesh is gone, ripped from me by the frantic clawing of teeth and mouths, but the mirror defeats me, remains stubbornly in my way, and I see myself, whole after all, a ghost of reflection in the glass—the reflection more real, perhaps, than I myself.”

It’s not an easy, fawning book; it packs a punch and I fully expect I’ll be reeling for a little while, but it came at the perfect moment for me, when all I wanted, after reading too many lifeless, competently-made pretty little things, was real emotion. Well, I received it, and plenty at that.

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Review: Common Sons: Common threads in the life by Ronald L. Donaghe

Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.

From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.

The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves.

Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Common Sons is the first of the “Common threads in the life” series set in the fictional town of Common, New Mexico, and for those not acquainted with this series it is the recommended place to start.

It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the small, dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there are some fundamental differences between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. They are also in love with one another although, at first neither one of them realizes this.

Donaghe has also done a superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the burdensome heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.

The catalyst is an ill-advised, but quite innocent kiss between the two boys at a Saturday night dance—read ‘a typical coming together of teenage testosterone and beer.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick-up truck, the first such experience for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.

Being the more pragmatic of the two, Joel soon decides that it is Tom he wants; however, Tom has a more difficult time of it. For one thing his preacher father rules him and the household with a fundamentalist zeal that is absolute, and Tom lives in fear of his father’s wrath. Tom is also well steeped in the usual fundamentalist jargon, i.e. “Sins of the flesh,” “reprobate mind,” and “unnatural lusts.” Upon meeting Joel, however, he begins to question his father, the Bible, and his own self-doubts. Also, Joel teaches him the true meaning of love, self-respect, and friendship.

At the same time Joel and Tom must cope with the peculiar form of homophobia that inhabits small places like Common—especially in the 1960s—and Kenneth Stroud in particular. He is the town’s redneck bad boy who has had bad blood for Joel since they were children. Another bigot is Paul Romaine, one of the church’s disciples with latent homosexual leanings of his own, and together these two set out to publicly humiliate and destroy Joel and Tom.

The rest of the plot I will leave for readers to discover for themselves; however I will comment on some of the admirable points that the author has incorporated into the story.

For example, the author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of realism. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular communities like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, for that matter—can attest to how well he has captured the alienation that Joel and Tom experience when they realize that they are ‘different.’ We can also attest to the delight that others took in pointing this out to us.

Donaghe has also given us an insight into the dark ages of psychology, i.e. when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or a ‘deviation,’ at best. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along with fundamentalist, religious dogma.

Unfortunately Religious fundamentalism still exists, in spite of the ‘defrocking’ of many of its outspoken proponents, but it is hoped that fewer people are listening.

Having said all that Common Sons is an inspirational read, and highly recommended for anyone coming out—young or old.

Author’s website

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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: Death of a Blues Angel by Sarah Black

Rafael Hurt comes from Mississippi to play Blues guitar, and he’s hiding a dangerous secret. When a young girl is found murdered during Rafe’s first gig at The Blues Angel, Rafe and Deke Davis, a veteran reporter, have to find the killer before the secrets of the past explode into racial violence and destroy any chance for the love growing between them.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

This story is a little more modern than many of the books reviewed at this site. It takes place in 1966 with the civil rights struggles of the sixties as its backdrop. That is an interesting time in US history and certainly provides a wealth of material for plot and characterization. Unfortunately, Death of a Blues Angel didn’t quite live up to that promise.

The story takes place in Washington, DC. Rafael Hurt has come to the city with three legendary blues players who are very old, very famous, and very black. Rafe is white and of course that brings up the whole “do you have to be black to play the blues?” meme. Deacon Davis, a reporter for an unnamed Washington newspaper, gets sent to the club by his boss for Rafe’s premiere performance. Why exactly he has been given this assignment is not clear to Deke or the folks at the club, so there is lots of “eyeing each other suspiciously” going on.

The story opens with the murder of a young woman and her body is found at the end of the evening, which drives the rest of the story as a murder mystery with racial overtones. It is written to be very murky with lots of crossing and double-crossing going on. Trouble is, the actually mystery wasn’t much of a mystery at all, so the story just seems thin at its conclusion.

And thin, I guess, is the problem. The story clocks in at 51K words. If the author had written another 20K or so, and put some meat on the bones of the plot, I think, overall, Death of a Blues Angel would have been much better. Black writes well—all she needed to do was write a bit more to move this from good to very good—maybe even great. But in this iteration, it’s not there.

I have two major complaints. First, the pacing. The first third of the story takes place over the course of one evening in the club—maybe six hours. Then, for the rest of the book, things speed forward, covering days, then weeks, in a matter of pages. There is an epilogue which covers years. Personally, this drives me nuts. If a story starts off such that it seems like it will cover a day or two or three, then that’s the groove my mind gets into and I can’t stand it when time suddenly starts racing by.

My second complaint is grammatical, to whit: if a character is speaking and that character’s dialog continues into a second paragraph, then at the end of the first paragraph, you omit the close quotes, but include opening quotes at the beginning of the second paragraph. This signals to the reader that the same person is speaking. My understanding is that this is a basic grammar rule but for some bizarre reason it was not adhered to in this book, so I was constantly being jarred out of the story since I repeatedly had to go back to try to figure out who was speaking. I am not quite sure how an error like this would slip by an editor, but it did, and it really damaged the pleasure of my reading experience.

This is the first thing I’ve ever read by Sarah Black, although I know she is a popular author with many fans. Overall she does write well and I’d be willing to give another story of hers a try. Which is probably pretty high praise given my two major beefs. Hopefully those were aberrations not to be seen again.

Would I recommend this? Yes for Sarah Black fans, yes for folks who like interracial m/m romance, yes for those who enjoy simple mysteries that aren’t too hard to figure out. On the other hand, if you want a story that explores racial issues in the turbulent sixties and paints a realistic picture of that time in history, this story will ultimately disappoint.

Author’s website

Amazon USA

Review: Coming Home by Victor J Banis

Victor J Banis “Coming Home”, published by MLR Press in 2009, available either as a stand-alone ebook or in the print anthology “Esprit de Corps”, also MLR Press.

The swinging sixties, the Sunset Strip a smorgasbord of horny Marines, looking for a little action before heading off to Nam. A queen’s delight, and it’s all too easy for a guy to fall in love with these brave, young warriors. But some of those shipping out won’t be coming home, and not all of the wounded wear uniforms

Review by Vashtan

Some people have been asking me why I start each review with how I got a book, and asked me “is that really necessary”? Yes. One author and her publisher have contacted the FBI with allegations that this blog reviews from pirated copies. Personally, I wouldn’t find my way around a torrent these days, and besides, apparently many files you can download there are either fake or riddled with virii. Contacting the FBI first and then the blog is not a way to show your good manners; while I’m not the affected reviewer, hysterical writers and their equally-hysterical publishers like this are the reason why I don’t start with a witty opener but with the legal stuff. I don’t like SWAT in my study or having my computer confiscated. It’s quite disruptive to my own novels.

The legal stuff, then. After my last review of a Banis book, Lola Dances, I found it only polite to contact the author direct to send him the review before it went online. Mr Banis was great about it all, polite, grateful and perfectly happy to discuss the story with this reviewer. As a thank you, he sent me a free short story, which I loved (not sure whether it’s out or where). I asked Mr Banis whether he had any more recently published historical books, with the full intention to either buy whatever book he pointed out to me or to contact MLR Press to send me a review copy. I received the file for “Coming Home” unprompted with the next email. So, I got a free copy from the author himself.

“Coming Home” is set in the Swinging Sixties just before Stonewall, and that way clings to the very end of the period that this blog covers. And to come right to the point, I really enjoyed this story of just under 50 pages, with around 15-16thousand words. It’s heavy on the sex, steamy, and maybe wasn’t the best thing to read on the commute to work.

Mike, our first person narrator, is a young gay man who goes out to pick up men on the Strip. Usually, these are servicemen, Marines and sailors seeking some relief before having to return to the barracks. This is the time of the Vietnam War, and also the time of greater sexual freedom and general openness to gay experiences. He picks up Doug, a Marine who hasn’t done this kind of thing before, but is perfectly happy to try things out. Much steamy sex ensues (that made me completely blind to what was going on around me on the bus, train, and bus), which is well-told and good fun.

Once that is out of the way, the story is about the blossoming of love—but at first, it is, cleverly, not Doug’s and Mike’s love. Banis brings in some complications that make this whole experience quite harrowing for poor Mike. Things look the worst when Doug gets shipped off to war.

I really don’t want to spoiler you for the rest of the story, only tell you it’s a satisfying journey that felt real to me and held me captive for a while after I’d finished.

The setting is very vividly painted; I found it completely believable, so full marks for that. Mike’s voice is laced with humor; we get a very good picture of who this guy is, and above all, I really got to like him and hoped things turned out well for him.

Here’s a bit right from the start:

The Swinging Sixties. To some, that conjures up images of The Haight in all its flower power glory, before the lilies festered. To others, it was Greenwich Village and that heady period leading up to the events at Stonewall; or the love-ins in Griffith Park.

For me, it was The Strip. Sunset Boulevard. Not the Norma Desmond Boulevard, of flame red Maseratis and grand hotels and pink mansions with heart-shaped swimming pools, but the hurdy-gurdy strip of once-elegant-now-sleazy clubs, discount record stores and gay bars.

And Marines. Scores of them, hundreds of them, flocking there every weekend from Camp Pendleton down the road, strolling about wide-eyed in twosomes, three-four-and-moresomes. And some of them alone. On the prowl. Happily, because these were the ones a gay man like me looked for.

This was the era of the Vietnam war — or police action, as some put it. The population of the one-time Rancho Santa Margarita between Oceanside and San Clemente had soared from a few hundred Marines who marched there from San Diego in 1942 to somewhere around a hundred thousand, give or take a thou or two at any time. Every one of them young, buff, tough — and best of all, as many of us saw it, terminally horny. (page 4)

This is a well-written, short, sweet, enjoyable read set in the late Sixties, with likeable characters, plenty of hot sex, and there’s enough romance in there to put a grin on your face when it’s done. Definitely recommended.

Author’s website

Buy MLR (ebook) Mobipocket

Review: A Son Called Gabriel by Damian McNicholl

Set in the hills of Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, the book is told from the point of view of Gabriel Harkin, the eldest of four children in a working-class family, who struggles through a loving yet often brutal childhood.  It’s a turbulent time in Ulster, and, in the staunchly Catholic community to which Gabriel belongs, the strict code for belief and behaviour is clear.  As Gabriel begins to suspect that he is not like other boys, he tries desperately to lock away his feelings, and his fears.  But secrets have a way of being discovered, and Gabriel learns that his might not be the only one in the Harkin family.

Review by Erastes

This book struck a lot of chords for me, and I found myself reading it in one session because I simply couldn’t put it down.  Being raised myself by a Catholic mother with the same values and standards as Gabriel’s mother–don’t shame the family, don’t show yourself up, don’t give in to bullies, always look nice, study hard, do better–I could empathize with everything in this story.

Gideon is a normal little boy–until he starts to worry that he isn’t.  He’s about six at the start of the book and going to school.  Or at least, he decides he’s not going to school because he’s being bullied.

The choice was school or the big stick and seemed easy to make.  My younger sister Caroline and any boy in the whole of Ireland would choose school, but I knew I was right in refusing to go.

No, he’s not the most self-aware boy in Ireland, he’s just not into sports.  However that’s enough of a reason for Henry Lynch to pick on Gabriel and when pushed to the point of fighting, and then backing down he realises that he’s never going to be able to fight–which makes matters worse.  There are gradual hints as he gets older that he’s not like the other boys in his immediate circle which he doesn’t understand.

In this respect I was reminded of William Golding’s The Inheritors, or more recently, Terry Pratchett’s Nation where someone tries to understand a way of life that in many ways makes no sense at all.  Gabriel’s so desperate to fit in; but there are things that even he’s not aware of that make him stand out.

Don’t go thinking that this is a bleak and tragic story.  It could easily have gone that way, but there’s a bubbling exuberance that buoys it up, and a streak of black humour running through it which saves it from irremediable emo.

As an example, Lynch picks on Gabriel at the funfair. Gabriel is wearing purple jeans, jeans he begged his mother to buy him, and of course, they are unlike anyone else’s jeans.  Gabriel is stripped by the bullies and saved by the girls–who he plays with at school.  A dreadful situation but the sting is taken out of it when his cousin remarks that she’s seen her brother’s thing a hundred times and Gabriel’s is no different.

The book is full of childhood smut, like this.  Children experiment with sex, and these children are no different, so if you are averse to children playing doctors and nurses (in one case quite delightfully with Gabriel and his male cousin) then this isn’t the book for you.  But it’s not presented in any titilaating way–simply as a fact of life, because that’s what children do.  They learn “bad words” and keep them from their parents because they know they shouldn’t know them.

In this respect is a lovely nostalgic read, children certainly being more innocent than they are today.

As would be expected in the time and place, religion plays a strong part in the book, and Gabriel is buffeted between the Church and his family when he learns the confusing facts of how to deal with confession.  “Tell the priest the truth.”  “Don’t you dare tell the priest anything about this family.” and other impossible matters.  He’s often punished for telling the truth, when it’s discovered that he tells the truth about a lie he told earlier.

When Gabriel really begins to realise what might be “wrong” with him, that’s when the tone of the story changes and he struggles with his possible homosexuality with all of his might.  The book could have spiralled into despair at this point, but it’s Gabriel’s tenacity and–even more importantly, the strength and solidity of his family that prevent this.

His family are every piece as important in this, and I came to know and love (and dislike!) all of them.  Anyone with a largish family will be able to take something away from this, the nice grannie, the not so nice grannie, the embarrassing aunt, the brother no-one talks about… and so on.

I don’t know if the author is planning a series of books about Gabriel, but I hope so.  The book ends with him just about to leave Ireland for London, and it seems perfectly set for a sequel.  I’ll certainly be getting it if so.

I think many people will find something to take away in this book–especially if they were raised in the 1960s and 70s.  As a debut novel, it’s a terrific read, and anyone with an interest in this era will find it absorbing – and I’m sure, as unputdownable as I did.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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Review: A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

Translated from the original German by John Brownjohn.

Erneste is master of the Blue Room in a Swiss Restaurant. He is the ‘perfect waiter’, a model of order in every way, and his private life seems to embody the qualities he brings to his job. But inwardly this polite, dignified, withdrawn man has been caught in the grip of an overwhelming passion that began many years before, in the summer of 1935.

One morning three decades later, Erneste receives a letter from that lover, Jakob – now in America – asking for his help. It means that Erneste must engage with the world again and risk delving into his memories of those years gone by – and uncovering what they might really mean.

Review by Erastes

The main action starts on the first page – a letter arrives from America and we are told that it’s from a man that Erneste knew 30 years before – and that person is someone who Erneste has thought of daily for every day of those 30 years. It’s clear fairly soon that Erneste is repressed in every facet of his life. He works diligently and perfectly; he has no friends and no acquaintance aside from one cousin who he sees once a year. Soon we slide into flashback and we are in a pre-war summer in “The Grand Hotel” on a Swiss lake. Erneste is sent down to the lakeside to meet a new member of staff – Jakob, trainee waiter – and from the very moment they shake hands, Erneste knows his life will never be the same again.

It wasn’t until all four of them were standing on the shore that Jakob shook Erneste’s hand and introduced himself. “Jakob Meier,” he said simply, and the handshake that accompanied this formal introduction seemed to say: “Here I am, having come here purely for your sake.” The little world in which Erneste had so blithely installed himself collapsed under the aegis of Jakob Meier’s shadow. He quit that world for evermore- for evermore, he knew it- and gladly, unresistingly left it behind.

We are left in no doubt of Erneste’s love – at first, helpless, hopeless passion. He is content, happy to take the handsome 19 year old German under his wing and to teach him to be – as he is himself – the perfect waiter. We are convinced of his devotion, a high church kind of devotion that makes him proud just to be called Jakob’s friend and he is convinced that everyone who sees Jakob must be jealous that he, Erneste is his friend, and not they. One of the most touching and erotic scenes is when Jakob goes to be fitted for his uniform. The seamstress measures Jakob, her hands travelling over every part of Jabob’s body and Erneste sits and watches, his hands are her hands imagining every muscle, every hair. When Jakob strips down to his underwear – the seamstresses all turn away and Erneste is almost gleeful that as a man there is nothing out of the oridinary for a man to watch another in this act.

Two months into their friendship Jakob instigates a kiss and their friendship turns to the physical. Erneste and Jakob live, love and work in the hotel and Erneste – having no discernible personality of his own, is subsumed by Jakob.

However, it’s fairly obvious by the information at the beginning of the book that this love-affair didn’t last and as the book slides from past to present and back again we are shown why and how and if Erneste’s heart doesn’t break on his own account, the reader’s does for him as he tucks his emotions back into a safe place.

Back in the present Erneste isn’t entirely celibate. Even in clean, calm serene Switzerland in the 60’s there were still places where gay men would meet and Erneste indulges his longings by cottaging. It is only after an attack by queer-bashers one night which seem to bring his emotions close enough tot he surface for him to decide to do something about the letters and do what Jakob asks of him, which leads to more truth than he can handle.

The themes of first love-and of anyone hoarding that love so close to them for their entire life, not allowing themselves to live because of it- touched me closely because I understand how one can put barriers up in one’s life to prevent hurt happening to one again. But I think it was the fact that Erneste (and the others that Jakob came in contact with too) almost deified Jakob. Erneste wanted to mould him into his own image, others simply wanted to worship at the pedestal of his youth and beauty. It comes as no surprise when Jakob proves to have feet of clay, what is surprising is the depth of deceit that these men maintain – they all blame themselves, when they should be blaming Jakob.

Beautifully written, if the translation is anything to go by at least, this little book is well worth a read. It was rather too frustrating for me – I’m more active than the characters here. I’d fight, I’d make scenes – I find it hard to understand such perfect repression, but for all that – Erneste is never unbelievable and in this way I felt nothing for him but bitter pity.

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Review: The Carnivorous Lamb by Agustin Gomez-Arcos

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
A brilliant, lunatic tale filled with black humor and decadence, The Carnivorous Lamb is a compelling family saga of power, love, and politics. Into a shuttered house, haunted by ghosts of past rebellion and Franco’s regime, Ignacio is born. His mother despises him; his failed father ignores him; his older brother becomes his savior, his confidant…his lover. Shocking, irresistibly erotic, their forbidden relationship becomes the center of exiled Spanish author Agustin Gomez-Arcos’ savagely funny, stunningly controversial novel – and a damning indictment that neatly spears Franco, family, Church, and the modern world.

REVIEW:
Ignacio and Antonio are brothers. They’re also lovers. Priests are hebephilic perverts, and they stink of incense and shit. Franco’s regime drips from every corner of a decaying house that’s literally, emotionally, and psychologically cut off from the rest of Spain. Within this household, religion and politics play themselves out day after day, shaping Ignacio’s birth, childhood, and adolescence, offering us a bizarre tableau of family dysfunction and oppression.

The novel might sound like an erotic melodrama, but it isn’t. What Gomez-Arcos does – and does magnificently – is take Spain, the Catholic Church, Franco, and notions of family by the hair, and skewer them through with a knife. Again. And again. And again. His tone is brazen, defiant, and angry, with Ignacio telling his story with a dark, biting humor that kept me enthralled from start to finish. I have, I must admit, a special fondness for angry, subversive fiction that takes no prisoners, and The Carnivorous Lamb does so with wit and a vicious satire that would make Juvenal weep with pride (sort of). Like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, the novel, in a nutshell, is one big “Fuck you!” from start to finish.

To say that the characters are fascinating would be an understatement. Because Gomez-Arcos limits his scope to Ignacio’s family, bringing in an occasional outsider in order to place the family within a certain social context or, in the case of Don Gonzalo (the priest) and Don Pepe (the tutor), to just plain tear apart, the characters are explored to near minute detail in a kind of vacuum. Their complicated relationships, their ambivalence toward each other (in the case of Ignacio and his mother, a mutual hatred), and their ties to the past (notably the Spanish Civil War) play out like a surreal stage production.

Of all the characters, Matilde (Ignacio’s mother) is the most interesting and the most complex. She’s born into wealth, and her family’s aligned with Franco’s Nationalists, but she loves and marries a Republican, whom her family saves from imprisonment. Her conflicting allegiances show themselves again and again, and at times, we’re left wondering which side she truly belongs. She starts out as a satirical figure, representing the Catholic church in many ways, but as the novel progresses and Ignacio begins to touch on the more “hidden” corners of her character, she grows into a much more fascinating and exasperating figure.

Carlos (the father) and Antonio are the least developed of the major players. Carlos, a former Republican soldier and failed lawyer, spends his days hiding in his study, listening to old propaganda records that talk about peace and victory while locals consult with him over legal matters. He wastes away slowly, practically dead well before he dies. Antonio’s given more room for development, but though he remains a constant in Ignacio’s life – a strong, erotic, protective figure who exerts a remarkably strong influence on Ignacio – he still remains largely in the periphery.

Ignacio’s anger – simmering and sustained throughout the novel – colors our views of Spain, but we’re also made to laugh (maybe in shock, maybe in sympathy) at the occasional wry observation and simply out-and-out hysterical commentaries and exchanges he makes with the other characters. The scenes involving his baptism, confirmation, and first communion, for instance, are classic. Even America, represented by Evelyn (the graduate with a degree in Home Economics), isn’t spared a vicious tongue-lashing. Some readers might find Ignacio’s loathing of his mother and of Evelyn a blatant show of misogyny, but I think that’s limiting one’s reading of the text to a surface level. The nature of the story itself is so bizarre and outlandish that to read on a literal level would be doing the book a bit of injustice.

As the novel progresses, and Ignacio’s rage escalates, the scenes turn more and more surreal. Even Evelyn, who plays a small but effective part near the end of the book, becomes less of a character and more of a metaphor, and it’s clear that it isn’t because she’s a woman that Ignacio learns to despise her. It’s what she represents in addition to her role in the family, what with all his contemptuous observations of her diploma and her American bacon-and-eggs efficiency in the kitchen.

Gomez-Arcos’s novel can be taken apart in so many ways, given its subject and its narrative approach. It’s the kind of novel that’s memorable in its in-your-face subversion and celebration of anarchy. Darkly funny, incredibly erotic, I give this book four stars for the writing and one extra star for the damned fine cojones.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

Review: Lord Dismiss Us by Michael Campbell

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK BLURB:
Weatherhill is a minor English public school, and it is the last term of a school year. A new headmaster, Mr. Crabtree, has arrived, determined to restore the school’s slipping reputation for producing leaders of men and, above all, to crack down on the “moral laxity” he fears is rife. He embarks upon a program of reform, trampling heedlessly on sensitivities, and, in his earnestness, produces often farcical results. There is a particularly hilarious episode when, in an attempt to woo the boys from “unnatural ways,” he invites a girls’ school for tea and tennis.

The public tragicomedies that Crabtree sets in motion are paralleled by the private ones that overtake both Carleton, a student about to go up to Oxford, and Ashley, a brilliant young teacher who was, not so long ago, a pupil at Weatherhill.

Among the memorable supporting characters are the headmaster’s neurotic wife; his abominable adolescent daughter; the school chaplain, the Reverend Cyril Starr, with his attendant coterie of young favorites, the Starlings; and the dispassionate housemaster, Dr. Rowles, who “met the new creatures with a puzzled amusement and said goodbye to the old without much regret…”

REVIEW:
Campbell’s novel is one of those brilliantly-written books that I relished from cover to cover but can’t get myself to reread. Despite its occasional flashes of wit, humor, and romanticized vision of same-sex love, it’s a downright soul-draining reading experience. It’s a painfully haunting book, more tragic than comic, with hardly enough room for a reader to surface and recover from its exploration of human nature, morality, and an ignorant establishment that seeks to set things right.

The characters are varied and colorful, with some more detestable than others, some nobler than others, some more humane than others. For all those, however, every one of them – except perhaps for Jimmy Rich, Carleton, and Nancy – is haunted by the past and as such struggles to be a natural part of a severely controlled (and therefore abnormal) environment. These ghosts from the past rear their heads whenever masters and students cross paths, either on the cricket field or the classrooms, the dormitories or the more secluded corners of Weatherhill. Despite their close physical proximity, therefore, many characters fail to connect with each other again and again, exacerbating misinformation, misjudgments, biases, etc. They are, in short, a miserable group, doomed to make the same mistakes again and again – with tragic results in some cases.

Campbell tells their stories with the utmost care, taking his time in not only exploring the inner world of the major players, but also the developing and extremely complex relationships between them and/or their pasts. The physical environment as well enjoys a nice, drawn-out examination, with wooded areas, hills, dormitories, and chapel nicely detailed without being overbearing. It’s a terrific contrast he creates, painting a pastoral in Weatherhill the school, while peopling it with a pretty fascinating albeit wretched bunch of masters and students alike.

That devotion to detail, however, also contributes to some of the book’s flaws, the most problematic being the third person omniscient POV that Campbell takes. Yes, it’s a very effective strategy in establishing all of the characters, their histories and present situations, their thoughts and feelings, almost all of which the others don’t know. However, it proves to be a bit of an encumbrance when it comes to reeling me in and getting me fully interested in the story, since I was trying to follow too many characters at the same time. It took me several chapters of puzzled reading before Ashley and Carleton’s stories began to rise above the rest more concretely.

Ashley, to me, is the most problematic character – not because of his issues (and the man’s got some pretty hefty baggage), but because of the heavy-handedness with which Campbell chooses to explore them. At times Ashley’s wallowing in self-pity and anger becomes a bit wearing, and I found myself tempted to skip over his introspective scenes whenever I began to feel depressed, which was quite often whenever he stepped into the picture.

The romance between Carleton and Allen – and, I suppose, between any given pair of boys in the book – is presented as the supreme expression of platonic love, which is one of the ongoing themes in the novel. There’s a line that ought not to be crossed, and once physical pleasure works its way into the picture, everything falls apart – to Carleton, at least. The romance is both beautiful and exasperating as hell. It appears much nobler because of its horribly idealized (and therefore more delicate) nature, given the atmosphere of intense paranoia that Mr. Crabtree creates in Weatherhill the moment he steps in as the new headmaster.

While we’re shown the results of such a romance between Carleton and Allen, much of it’s already foreshadowed through the older characters – Dr. Rowles, Ashley, the chaplain, among others. It’s a set of sad results we’re given, made so by the passage of time within the confines of Weatherhill. Escape is the only answer, and Carleton’s literary dreams offer him his only chance of not being another casualty of his school.

This is a wonderfully multilayered novel – rich in insight, comedy, romance, and utter misery. I’d kill to read a sequel, if only to see things set right between certain characters, but I suppose life rarely ever works that way. I love this book, but my heart’s too shattered for me to read it again.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

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