Lee Benoit’s Book Swap

I have a paperback copy of His Master’s Lover by Nick Heddle that I’d be willing to ship to an interested party.

Also, I would be happy to share a PDF of the anthology I edited, SOMEPLACE IN THIS WORLD, which includes my 1930s historical short “Pack Horse,” if you think it’s appropriate (most of the stories in the antho are not historical).

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What to if you want any of these books

REPLY to this post with suggestions of what you have–it doesn’t matter if you’ve already had a post on the community, you can also offer your books on the replies. The owner of the post will then choose what they want (probably will take a day or so) and then I’ll connect the two of you and you can arrange your swap or gift.

Folly


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World’s longest pub crawl: An Interview with Alex Beecroft

Back in midwinter, I asked Alex Beecroft for an interview. We agreed to meet over virtual pints and spent the rest of the winter happily trading rounds along with questions and answers. Now that the lilacs and azaleas are blooming (in my corner of the world, anyway) it’s time to share our adventure with all of you. So belly up to the bar, the next round’s on us!

Lee Benoit: What inspired you to undertake Captain’s Surrender?

Alex Beecroft:The honest answer would be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’. While everyone in the world was swooning over Jack Sparrow, I was transfixed right from the beginning with the lads of the Navy. That fabulous great ship (which I now know was a twin of HMS Victory) emerging out of the fog. Those gorgeous young men in wigs and stockings, looking well scrubbed and well pleased with themselves in their fancy coats and their gold braid. I forgot about pirates in an instant and went away and bought ‘Master and Commander’ on DVD. After which I had to read the book.

Except that it turned out there were twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series about Captain Jack Aubrey. I went through them at a rate of two a week, feeling utterly transported. When I’d finished I found I had to move on to even harder stuff – text books about the 18th Century Navy, biographies of Admiral Lord Rodney, Lord Cochrane, Anson, Nelson and Collingwood, non-fiction about 18th Century society, etc. I had ended up with an 18th Century fixation. After that it was inevitable to want to tell a story in that setting, and as my mind naturally comes up with m/m love stories, it ended up as a m/m love story in the Age of Sail.

I’d also stumbled across Rictor Norton’s website about homosexuality in 18th Century England and was pondering what it would be like to be a fairly sensitive young man, living amid so much hatred. That’s why my character Josh turned out so angsty and so conflicted!

LB:Can you tell us a bit about how Captain’s Surrender came to be published by Linden Bay Romance?

AB: Oh, that’s one of those amazing flukes where you feel that someone up there is looking after you. I had known for a long time that what I really wanted to write was m/m fiction, but I thought there was no market for it at all. So I’d been writing a series of short stories for my friends just for our own enjoyment, when one day one of them discovered Ransom by Lee Rowan.

She reviewed it, saying how much she’d enjoyed it and how delighted she was to find that there were actual published books of the kind of fiction we enjoyed. And then Lee dropped by to say thank you for the review. I mentioned to her how exciting it was to find this new genre, and how I hoped one day to get involved myself. Then she said, “Well, my publisher is running their annual competition to select a new writer. If you can get something together in the next month, why not try entering it?”

At that point I didn’t have a book at all, I had a linked series of short stories. But I thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and spent the next month sitting up to all hours writing the bridging material needed to turn the stories into a novel. I entered it into the competition one day before the deadline. And it won! Unbelievable! I was sure that such things didn’t happen to me. But this time they did.

LB: That’s not unbelievable at all to those of us who’ve read and relished Captain’s Surrender. It sounds like your involvement — coming to the genre first as a reader, then as a writer — reflects the experience of many, including writers, who crave rich plots and fully-realized characters with their smex. Could you tell me more of your thoughts on this?

AB: Thank you! And yes, I know that there’s an initial rush when you discover m/m fiction or slash fic or whatever, and you read whatever you can get your hands on, the smuttier the better. It doesn’t really matter at that point about good writing, because it’s all so new and you’ve been starving for so long — and for the first time in your life there is enough of the stuff. But once that initial rush wears off, I think you start to want the same things you want in mainstream fiction too — namely good storytelling. There’s no reason why we can’t have m/m fiction *and smut* and quality writing too.

LB: You clearly know your era well. You mentioned Rictor Norton’s web site as a reliable source for information; can you tell us more about how you conducted your research? What advice would you offer someone who’s considering writing historical fiction? Any special advice for those writing gay historicals?

AB: My advice would be to set your book in a time that you love. When I fell in love with the 18th Century Navy I knew nothing about it other than that the uniforms were gorgeous and the cannons sounded cool (if the films could be believed). But it was sheer enthusiasm that drove me to read every book I could lay my hands on about the time. Because I was powered by an infatuation with the historical period, I emptied libraries and read textbooks for fun, going ‘oh wow, that’s so cool!’ all the time. As a result, I learned an awful lot, while enjoying myself at the same time. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to dispassionately decide on a period and to research out of obligation. I think that would make the research feel too much like work, and you would be tempted to skip it in order to get on with the story.

Because I loved the world first, it became fun for me to drop in little details like Emily’s fashionable ‘sack’ dress, or the ostentatious meal Captain Walker gives to Reverend Jenson. But if it had been miserable labour to look up the menus of the time, the proper set of a toga or whatever, I think the detail would be sparser.

As for advice on writing gay historicals — I think it’s important to check the specific shape of the prejudice at the time. For example, the later 18th Century was fairly modern in that there was already a dawning understanding that it might be an innate trait, whereas earlier it was seen as entirely a matter of choice. In Biblical times it was disliked because it was seen as a waste of seed (which was regarded as killing a potential child), whereas in Roman times it was all about status. No one cared if a Roman citizen buggered a boy or a foreigner, but it was an enormous shame for a Roman to allow himself to be buggered. So check which form the prejudice takes!

Also, try to keep away from the two extremes of ‘oh, everyone knows and they’re ok with it, despite the fact that it’s a crime that warrants the death penalty’ and ‘oh, it’s so dreadful, their lives are not worth living.’ Gay people seem to have managed to live full and defiantly happy lives under the worst conditions. As an author it’s a fine balancing act to keep both the dread and the happiness of gay love in a time when it could get you killed.

LB: Tell us about your writing process. Where and when do you work? Do you outline? Write each scene in order? Work on projects one at a time or concurrently? Have any special rituals or idiosyncrasies?

AB: I have a computer desk tucked in the corner of the dining room. (At least, the estate agent called the room a dining room. We have two computers, three bookshelves and no table in there). It’s not organized enough to be an office, though. It’s true that an office doesn’t need to be organized, but this isn’t even organized enough to contain useful books. I have to wander all over the house to find my research.

I try and write between 10am and 2.30pm (when I have to get the children from school) each day, though I’ll admit that I procrastinate a lot.

My process is to fly by the seat of my pants for the first 5 chapters or so, by which time things will have sorted themselves out in my mind enough for me to outline the whole thing. After that I do write each scene in order until I get to the end — and only start revising and editing when the first draft is finished. I prefer to work on one thing until it’s finished, not to do multiple things at once.

Heh, and I will admit that I have a special writing hat. I email and netsurf and so forth on the same computer I write on, so putting on the writing hat is a way to signal to myself that it’s time to stop all that and concentrate on the writing now.

LB: A special writing hat? What’s yours like and where do I get one?

AB: I bought myself a special beanie with scratchy glittery bits, so that I would be able to tell by feel that it was not a normal hat (I wear hats quite a lot, and didn’t want my subconscious to get confused).

LB: What’s surprised you the most about your own writing?

AB: I don’t know if I’m allowed to say so, but it still surprises me that anyone thinks it’s anything special. I look at Patrick O’Brian or Ursula Le Guin, and I still have a very long way to go!

LB:What has surprised you the most about being published?

AB:I never imagined it would be so much work! If I’m lucky I spend four hours a day writing, but now the rest of my life has gone under in trying to promote, keep up with chats, write reviews, deal with Facebook, MySpace, etc., write to Amazon, sort out tax etc., etc. If I do four hours writing a day, I then do another 10 hours trying to keep up with my various groups. It’s insane – but kind of fun.

I save up reviews or interviews or excerpts for a Monday (which is promo day on most of my lists) and then send the same thing simultaneously to five or six lists. I can’t keep up with commenting on everyone else’s promo, though I try to say something nice once in a while, whenever I have five minutes to spare. That’s about as much as I can manage. But then I don’t expect anyone to comment on mine – and very few people do, so that’s OK!

LB: If you had the opportunity to travel back in time, where would you go and why? If you could bring one item or idea from the present to the past with assurances that your action wouldn’t disrupt space-time, what would it be? And, if you could nick something from your historical destination, what would that be?

AB: It’s quite boring, I’m afraid. I probably would go to mid 18th Century London, just to see how it really was. If I had to go as a woman, I’d take sanitary towels with me (oh and pants — is that underpants in America? Because they didn’t wear underwear in those days, and I think I’d feel a bit uncomfortable with that.)

I think the best thing to bring back would just be the experiences; no matter how you try to imagine things, really living them brings it home like nothing else. However, I wouldn’t mind bringing one of these fantastic coffee-percolators home with me.

LB: Not boring at all. Underthings are an inspired choice!

I’ve just picked up The Witch’s Boy, though I haven’t read it yet. It looks to be very different in theme and structure (as well as plot and genre) from Captain’s Surrender. I’d love to know how working on the new fantasy novel was different from working on your first, historical piece. Did you have any trepidation about shifting genres?

AB: Ah, well, curiously enough, The Witch’s Boy is the earlier written of the two books. I wrote it when I was first at home with my newborn daughter. She would sleep for an hour and a half a day, and I seized that chance to write. It took me two years to finish the book, but because it was slow and steady work I had plenty of time to think about the plot when I wasn’t actually writing it. It allowed me to make the plot quite complex — I was able to work out where all those loose ends could be sewn back in to achieve an effect that seemed inevitable.

I’ve always been a big fan of Fantasy; I grew up on Tolkien, and it seemed natural for my first book to be a fantasy. I have to admit that I love what I think of as ‘the appeal of the strange’. I like to open a book and be caught up in a different world, where everything makes sense, but it’s not the same sense as our ordinary, commonplace life. I like to take a holiday in a book, so that when I come back my own life is more welcome and homely — as it would be when you’ve just returned from somewhere exotic.

And that’s the link, I think, between Fantasy and Historical. Both are books about other worlds; strange, exotic places where people think and act differently. It’s just that in the historical that world was once a real part of our past. The only real difficulty with Captain’s Surrender was that it had a strict word-limit of 60,000 words, which I found a little too short. I wanted to pay more attention to Josh’s time with the Anishinabe, but I couldn’t manage to cram more than the bare minimum into the word count.

And thematically, they’re both about the triumph of love, whether that’s Sulien’s attempt to save Tancred from the consequences of his own evil actions, or Peter’s refusal to bow to the expectations of society and condemn Josh. So I didn’t really perceive much of a difference in any basic technique in writing them. I tend to feel that a story’s a story, no matter the genre. Though having said that I am a bit intimidated by the demands of the strict murder mystery. I haven’t tried one of them, but I’m keen to try at some point just to see if I can do it.

LB:Now I really can’t wait to read it! What’s next for you (besides a cab home)? I meant, what’s next on your writing agenda?

AB: I’m just entering the home stretch on the second draft/rewrite of another m/m Age of Sail novel, currently under the working title of ‘False Colors’. It’s 80k words at the moment, but needs a couple of extra scenes and a bit of expanding at the end, so it may end up 85-90,000. And I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with it! It’s exciting, but of course external forces are now conspiring to stop me doing that final twenty pages. Still, I should have a new novel to hawk around by August, touch wood!

LB: That certainly is exciting! What can you tell us about False Colors? Is it a sequel to Captain’s Surrender?

AB: It isn’t a sequel to Captain’s Surrender, as it has different characters, but it will be similar in tone — lots more nautical action, heroism and forbidden love.

LB: Something for us all to look forward to, then. What else is on your horizon?

AB: I have a short story called ‘90% Proof’ (when I say ‘short’ I mean 10,000 words) which is due out fairly soon from Freya’s Bower in a m/m anthology called ‘Inherently Sexual’. I’m looking forward to that one coming out because, from the summaries I’ve seen of the other stories included, it should be a really good read.

I’m also busily writing another m/m short of about the same length, tentatively called ‘Away With The Faeries’, and when that’s finished I’m going to settle down and write a short, lighthearted contemporary novel, just for a bit of a break.

LB: I’m sure I have lots of company is wishing you best of luck with your new projects. It’s been a real pleasure, Alex. Thank you.

Alex Beecroft is the author of the novels Captain’s Surrender and The Witch’s Boy, along with several stories. She is currently at work on False Colours, a new Age of Sail novel. She’s also the founder of The Macaronis, a blog dedicated to writing gay historical fiction.

Lee Benoit reviews fiction at Uniquely Pleasurable and Rainbow Reviews, and Speak Its Name, and is the author of several stories published through Torquere Press.

Review: Virginia Bedfellows by Gavin Morris

VA Bedfellows cover

From the publisher’s description:

Banished from England and forced to work as indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, Lance Morley and Adam Bradley share a secret that could cost them their lives. As Virginia Bedfellows, they find love, passion, and pleasure on the Ashley Landing plantation, building a life together that’s immoral in the eyes of society and criminal in the eyes of the law. Their unbreakable bond—and the friendships they form with kindred spirits in nearby Williamsburg and far away Philadelphia—help them face down fear, prejudice, and the constant threat that their secret will be exposed. Virginia Bedfellows is based on the author’s research on indentured servants, plantation life, and homosexuality in Colonial Williamsburg.

Review by Lee Benoit:

This is one of those books that, in failing to live up to it jacket hype, surpasses it. The gushy pull-quotes on the front and back covers and flyleaf give us to expect a lighthearted, pulpy romp through colonial landscapes. I was far from disappointed when the promise turned out to have feet of clay, for what we get in Virginia Bedfellows is a strongly plotted, astutely researched story of those folks whose position near the bottom of colonial America’s social hierarchy has rendered them all but invisible in fiction set in the period. Oh, we get our fair share of earthiness, and speaking as an erotica aficionado I must say there’s enough here to satisfy. The only things that get in the way of pure enjoyment of this unusual juxtaposition of careful research and relatively abandoned sensuality are certain stiltedness of exposition and dialogue and an uncomfortably politically correct feel to the character motivations.

The book begins like iconic Victorian literature, but lacks the grittiness of Stevenson or the satire of Dickens. Both protagonists are strangers in a strange land, faced with exotic settings and uphill battles, charged with becoming the men English society would never have allowed them to be. Lance (no comment on the name) is an journeyman cordwainer convicted of the manslaughter of a constable who insulted his master’s daughter and transported to the American colony of Virginia. Aboard ship he catches the eye of the captain (conveniently widowed) who resolves simultaneously to fuck the boy silly and indenture him to a Williamsburg acquaintance.

Unlike Lance, whose habitual anger landed him in his predicament, Adam is a milder sort, reared gently by an aunt in service in a manor house. His education gives him ideas above his station and when he demands turnabout in their lopsided affair from the lord of the manor he’s punished with a choice between transportation and execution. Naturally both youths end up on the same Tidewater plantation, their indentures bought by a compassionate and enlightened slaveholder. Their tentative approaches to each other yield some of the most affecting passages in the book, and make up for the psychological anachronisms that abound. Furthermore, the sex life Adam and Lance forge with each other is charmingly earnest (in an early-pulps sort of way) and suffused with earthiness and humor (the description of the origins of “cornholing” is worth the price of the book, and there’s a running riff on “navel gazing” that had me in stitches). The addition of a sympathetic friend or two brings variety and depth to what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary love story.

The psychological anachronisms are harder to stomach because the research is so solid and the settings, material culture, and behaviors so convincing. The animosities Adam and Lance suffer come across as the thinnest veneer, rendering the richness of the historical setting almost superfluous at times. For example, the main antagonist is another indentured man, a closet case named Matt whose threats to out Adam and Lance are toothless in the face of the plantation owner’s general tolerance (forget for a moment that he owns slaves). We know he won’t turn the lads out, nor turn them in to the law. When the situation reaches its inevitable conclusion, the dénouement lacks the excitement that would have existed if the dangers had been more real. Matt is an unpalatable figure, to be sure, but as with other aspects of the novel, there’s a lot of author-driven exposition and not enough character-driven story. We’re told of the lack of tolerance and need for discretion, and Lance especially spends a lot of time fretting about discovery and its consequences, but the author never shows us enough (the passages with the jealous Matt notwithstanding) for us to feel the danger in our guts.

Without spoiling the plot (and I’m not even tempted to do so, because this is a novel well worth reading despite the flaws I’ve mentioned, especially if you like colonial settings), I will say there is real tragedy here, and the historical setting (and Morris’s treatment of it) makes the outcome more poignant. By the time the novel itself draws to a close, the reader is much more fully invested in the characters and the plot, because for all the homo-tolerance and plantation-labor solidarity, the protagonists have been through the wringer and come out quite different men.

One of the more successful plot points involves a two-spirit man with whom Adam and Lance form a liaison. This character, Martin, is well drawn and the way his brief story resolves is deeply satisfying on an historical level, eschewing sentiment for plausibility. I appreciated that, because Martin was also the engine of some of the more modern-tinged psychological gentrification we encounter (can’t say more without giving too much away, but Martin sounds too much like Adam’s therapist).

I hope I’ve given enough reasons to read Virginia Bedfellows even with my criticisms. Perhaps the most valuable contribution the book makes is to show us a relationship of equals at the bottom of a social hierarchy. So many historicals with European 18th and 19th century settings give us relationships between well-aspected equals, or impossible relationships between deeply unequal protagonists (of course, any heterosexual romance set in these places and times does the same as a matter of course). But if one of the satisfactions of reading homoerotic historical fiction is to read about men loving men in distant times and circumstances, then Gavin Morris has given us the gift of something new.

Buy this book (USA) (UK)

Review: Song of the Loon by Richard Amory

Loon coverPublished way ahead of its time in 1966 by Greenleaf Classics, republished in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press. A lusty gay frontier romance that tells the story of Ephraim McIver, a 19th century frontiersman, as he travels through the American wilderness. Ephraim meets a number of characters who share stories, wisdom and homosexual encounters. Unique among pulp novels of the time, the gay characters are strong and romantically drawn – traits that have earned the book a place in the canon of gay American literature.

“A groovy little curiosity piece”

Review by Lee Benoit

I was a toddler when the Stonewall Riots occurred, and it was really difficult to approach this book without being subconsciously aware of the enormous impact Song of the Loon had on the intervening generations of gay literature, erotica, and porn. If you’re anything like me (40 and queer) you’ll recognize no end of snippets that made their way into gay canon, or were drawn from pulp fiction. In other words, I had to turn off my camp meter, no mean feat when confronted with such passages as the one in which the protagonist composes a poem for his lover containing the following lines: “Seeking your chest, your loins, your hips / My hardened penis downward dips / Into your asshole darkly tight / Warmly endlessly lost from sight” (p. 132-3 in the Arsenal Pulp edition).

Deep purple moments aside, I found I enjoyed the book immensely on its own merits. These include a tone of earnest sweetness that overcomes the camp factor. I ended up feeling quite affectionately towards the characters, especially the protagonist, Ephraim MacIver, who falls in love with practically everyone he meets, including the putative villain. I became involved in his travails, and vicariously delighted in his triumphs over convention and ill will. That a post-Stonewall queer reader could experience Song of the Loon as so emphatically fresh, forty years after its publication, attests to the power of Amory’s work.

Amory’s message is, in essence, that being homosexual is inherently good, and only through honesty with oneself and unapologetic openness with the larger world can one escape the constraints and negativity of mainstream society. It’s about freedom and pride. Speaking of freedom, the book is also about free love, that old chestnut! In Amory’s hands, the sex is simultaneously earthy and reverent, and exuberant in a way we sadly have lost. The ideas that love is infinite, and that love shared is love multiplied (and, conversely, that jealousy is a sort of violence), seem almost quaint.

In the long, erudite introduction by Michael Bronski and in the series of contemporary interviews with and articles by Amory (from which the quote at the beginning of this review was taken and which include a delicious reproduction of the poster for the 1970 film based on the book but unendorsed by Amory), it becomes clear that Song of the Loon was unusual. It’s a pastoral in the classic sense, a bucolic piece that sharply contrasts the idylls of country (in this case wilderness) life with the miseries and harshness of “civilization.” It is easy to understand Ephraim’s behaviors and motivations if we remember that, “The characters in such works are often vehicles for the expression of the author’s moral [or] social views.” Something else I learned about pastorals while researching for this review was that, “the pastoral convention sometimes uses the device of ‘singing matches’ between two or more” characters. That explains all the poetry! (Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature [1995].) (To be fair, much of it is structurally quite complex and follows demanding forms.)

Is Song of the Loon realistic? No way. Historically accurate? Not by a long shot! But it’s not supposed to be. It can’t even be described as revisionist history for as Amory himself said, “…the most important element of the book … was its poetic distance from reality, which per se has little or nothing to do with the homosexual experience….” The book presents an idealized vision of a gay utopia, and the historical setting was necessary to drive home the contrast between the Society of the Loon and the intolerant townsfolk. As an example, consider Amory’s presentation of Indians as speaking “the Indian language,” a sort of universal symbolic code. A trained anthropologist, Amory declares in an epigraph that he has “taken certain very European characters from [Spanish pastoral novels], painted them a gay aesthetic red, and transplanted them to the American wilderness.”

As a homoerotic fantasy of freedom (to paraphrase Bronski’s introduction), as a pastoral novel, as an artifact of its time, and as an benchmark in gay literature it’s well worth strapping on your loin cloth, hopping into your canoe, and crossing a river of history, braving eddies of social movement and sandbars of camp, to experience it.

Amazon USA Amazon UK

Review: Street Lavender by Chris Hunt

Review by Lee Benoit 

Street Lavender cover 

In the current issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide literary critic David Bergman describes four dynamics that define gay literature: creating art; providing positive images; changing attitudes; and market viability (see comment below).  In Chris Hunt’s Street Lavender we get all four, neatly and delightfully packaged.  And it wrung tears from me, which isn’t something Bergman seemed concerned about, but which secures Hunt’s twenty-year-old novel a place on my “do not lend” shelf.

 

The book is set in 1880s London, around the time of the passage of 1885’s Criminal Law Amendment Act with its Section 11 that effectively (re)criminalized all male homosexual behavior; the law is mentioned once in passing, it figures not at all in the story.  Why not?  Because Willie Smith, our protagonist, couldn’t care less about what Parliament was up to, and neither does the reader, for the reader’s completely swept away by Willie’s distinctive voice and story.  The novel apes the style and structure of Victorian bildungsromans to great effect.

 

Willie is the best kind of unreliable narrator.  He’s got a terrific sense of moment (Hunt lets him Capitalize Important Things, which might grate on some but I found charming), he’s cheeky, and even as a lad (like any good Victorian epic we begin at the beginning) he’s blithely cognizant of his own shortcomings and his personal responsibility for the trajectory of his journey through life (until we leave him some 340 pages later at the ripe old age of 17).

 

I didn’t expect to laugh out loud at the adventures of a Victorian child prostitute, but I did.  The novel itself is gently tongue-in-cheek in parts, but Willie is genuinely funny.  And the humor matures right along with Willie.  For instance, at twelve, Willie arrives from his slum to live with his middle class aunt Louisa, her husband, and their young son Georgey, with whom  Willie is already half in love upon arrival.  The first order of business is to give the little guttersnipe a bath.  His delicate, histrionic aunt quails at the prospect of doing it herself (the idea of Helping a Poor Relation appeals, but the flesh-and-blood reality is another matter):

“When she contemplated the actual me … she pressed the back of her hand against her forehead in a theatrical gesture of stress and despair.“‘Mrs. Braddon!’ she cried [to the housekeeper].  ‘See to him.’“Georgey giggled.  I grimaced.“‘Mamma, may I stay?’ Georgey pleaded.“‘How does Willie feel about such an impudent request?’ asked my aunt who adored him.“‘Yeah, stay,’ I appealed to my sweet little friend.“I needed some support at the idea of being seen to by Mrs. Braddon.  She had the inevitability of a machine.” (pp. 67-68) 

At the risk of irritating you with another passage, I offer this as an example of Willie’s sense of humor at 17.  He has been living and modeling for a houseful of artists in Bloomsbury, and chafes at the callous way they bring street people in to model for them, giving them a glimpse of an alien, alluring life, only to dump them back onto the streets before the paint is dry.  Unbeknownst to his benefactors, Willie undertakes to keep a pot of soup at the ready, using the proceeds of his own modeling to feed his fellows:

“Oh! The eruption when I was found out!“Franklin was furious, Clara upset, and Charles rampant with sarcasm.” (p. 285) 

This passage reveals another of Hunt’s triumphs.  Willie’s knowledge of his world grows with his knowledge of himself, and Hunt never lets this boundary slip.  The power of the writing shows in the attention to period detail, both physical and psychological.

 

Willie is the sort of fellow who notices details, so it’s perfectly natural for him to describe a room, a nighttime street, or a whore’s dress.  What’s remarkable, however, is that as Willie travels from one strange land to another he grafts his observations onto those he had before; he sees and describes objects and settings and characters through the newly ground lens of what he’s experienced in the mean time.  This device brings Victorian London alive in a way I didn’t expect (for example, the younger Willie describes bedbugs as an unpleasant fact of life in his Aldgate digs, but when he encounters them again after one of his many reversals of fortune they’re a horror salient of the physical and psychological distance he’s traveled).

 

Which brings me to another point of interest for historical fiction aficionados.  There’s no taint of psychological gentrification in Willie’s story.  Self-reflective though he is, no 20th century sensibility seeps in, not even when Willie decides he’s proud of being an “Urning.”  The classically-influenced German idea that men who love men comprise female psyches in male bodies (better known, I think, as “Uranian”) gives Willie a sense of connectedness to men like himself throughout history, but that history extends no further than its 1880s parameters.  Willie knows there’s a wrongness to his interest in his young cousin Georgy, but at the end of the day he’s more worried that the spoiled, simpering Georgy doesn’t approach his Ideal than that it signals any moral turpitude on his part.  No Freudian imagery in sight – very refreshing.

 

Each of the six parts of the novel gives us one discrete leg of Willie’s journey, each with its own narrative arc.  That the six parts hang so elegantly together is due to three factors: Willie’s inimitable voice; a cast of characters that winds in and out like a cat through chair legs; and two overarching themes.  The first theme, Ideal Love, is established at the very beginning of the story with Willie’s elder brother Charley as the ideal (squick alert: incest and underage tampering, even by the standards of the day).  The theme is developed and refined throughout the narrative to the deeply satisfying conclusion.  The second theme is political.  Don’t groan!  Willie’s a remarkably political animal and gets himself in trouble with folks high and low for his critical and idiosyncratic approach to social justice.  Willie’s own self-awareness is molded in large part by his political opinion of himself (at one point, poignantly, he hangs a picture of Saint George in the room from which he prostitutes himself, as a model for his own behavior, tilting at the dragon of poverty and injustice).

 

Believe it or not, these two themes twine together perfectly.  In some sense, Willie is Love, caroming through his life in search of a Beloved worthy of him, and of whom he must be worthy.  If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Willie has to hit rock bottom before he can merit the love he seeks.  While, Hunt remains true to his character in that Willie himself sees the purgatory of his adolescence as a sort of extended purification rite, I thought I smelled Moral Judgement in the air around my reading nook once or twice.

 

This minor criticism shouldn’t deter readers.  By the thoroughly delightful, carefully hinted-at surprise ending Willie is ready for love, self-assured enough to stake his claim, and mindful enough of the consequences of living without love to defend that claim fiercely.  And we readers are so firmly allied to his cause by then that any ending other than the bittersweetly happy one we get is unthinkable.

Review: Dangerous Moonlight by Mel Keegan

Reveiw by Lee Benoit

Years ago, when I used to search desperately for anything and everything in gay fantasy (that is, when I would read anything), I came across Mel Keegan. The early works, regardless of genre, had a “boy’s own” feel that bored me after a while. The emphatic exceptions were Keegan’s historical novels (Fortunes of War, The Deceivers, White Rose of Night, and Nocturne [if historical fiction can be allowed a vampyre or three]). Dangerous Moonlight is the newest, set around the accession of George II in 1727, and I recommend it highly.

Like Keegan’s better works, Dangerous Moonlight is densely plotted, with fully realized characters and enviably palpable settings. It’s the story of Nick Gray, bastard son of a wealthy jewelry merchant and horse breeder, and Harry Trevellion, erstwhile law student paupered by his father’s rash investment in one of Britain’s corporate colonization enterprises. They meet when Harry, turned highwayman to raise capital for a stud farm of his own, holds up the carriage in which Nick is transporting goods to a well-heeled client of his father’s. Sparks fly, but no one falls into bed with anyone – yet. We’re not given a drawing-room romp; indeed, anyone with a title appears fleetingly or off-page. This is an historical adventure: romance lies at its core, but as lifeblood rather than life itself. Eroticism, likewise, provides grace notes to plot and character, but never overtakes the story. Given the historical setting, the personalities of the characters, and the plot itself, the restrained (though nevertheless hot-blooded) treatment of romance and eroticism are exactly as they should be.

In another gratifying auctorial decision, Keegan gives us two fully adult and self-aware men as protagonists, then deftly deploys then in such a way that neither overshadows the other. Nick is the “good son,” scant months older than his father’s wastrel of a legitimate heir. He has learned his father’s businesses, undertakes the perilous duties of courier for the jeweler, and has studied sword and firearms to great effect. He’s humble and principled, and loves his father. Therefore, the father’s decision to disinherit the nasty Paul in favor of Nick seems logical. This is, naturally, the source of a great deal of trouble.

Harry is a bit of a Robin Hood figure: he chooses his quarry carefully, preying upon slavers and coal barons and abusers of animals. He is self-interested, arrogant, and unscrupulous, but Keegan saves him from caricature by giving him a romantic heart and fierce sense of loyalty. His moral compass turns upon honor among thieves, but pragmatically rather than romantically. Nick has a hard time seeing Harry as one of the good guys when Harry robs him a second time, nearly seducing him in the process. The confrontation that ensues is the germ of love, and the bedrock of respect, between the two men.

Here I must mention another of the most welcome aspects of the novel. Both Nick and Harry are experienced, self-accepting lovers of men. There is no moral hand-wringing, no tremulous surrender of virginity, no whiff of alpha-beta action at all. Nick and Harry meet as equals in bed and out; each admires and respects the other’s skills and personality (among other things!). They are canny about the risks of sodomy in their time, and carry on carefully (one wonderful detail has Nick refusing to kiss Harry before he’s shaved, in order to avoid tell-tale whisker-burns). Keegan gives us a story with homosexuality placed firmly in its historical context, but in which being outed is not the fulcrum of the plot. Furthermore, their sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum – former lovers of both protagonists figure in the plot in important capacities and the mature responses of each lover to his beloved’s past is gratifyingly real.

The conflict is carefully developed, perhaps a bit slowly, but with 349 closely printed pages to work with, many readers will welcome the fermenting process. There’s plenty of description here, but it’s all organic to the plot (if a sunset or horse race or Roman road is described, there’s a reason for it), and delicious (even at its ugliest). Likewise class relationships are carefully explored without being overdone: Harry and Nick are decent to servants and rent boys, disdainful of the idle (or predatory) rich, and judge everyone else on their merits and usefulness to their purposes. That pragmatism, while not the stuff of romantic heroes, perfectly suits two young men trying against steep odds to make their way in a world that has scant place for them, and represents a literary risk by Keegan that pays off in spades.

Nick’s father’s new will is at the center of the conflict, and without spoiling anything I can tell you there is no heroic, anachronistic triumph of the good bastard over the dissipated former heir. There are court scenes that unfold, not as a starry-eyed 21st century reader might wish, but exactly as one would expect in an age that valued birth status over character. Nick’s half-brother Paul is the bad guy, but the system is the real villain here. There are nice indictments of the aristocracy, but none that ring untrue given the state of the world in the first quarter of the 18th century. (Disclaimer: I’m not a particular student of this era in Europe, but rather of colonialism, so I can’t vouch for my interpretations except to say what rang true to me and what didn’t. Not much didn’t.) The characters we cheer for are the ones who work, neither the hapless victims nor the genteel parasites. That seems a pretty modern concept, but after all, the modern era was young and fresh in Harry and Nick’s time, old enough to know itself, young enough to rebel a little, rash enough to revel, wise enough to hedge its bets – just like Keegan’s protagonists.

The book is available only through Keegan’s web site, which is a shame as it makes the price high (the shipping from Australia accounts for a lot of that). It’s worth a read, regardless.

Buy it

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