Review: Hidden Conflict (various)

Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

Review by Vashtan

I’ve been in a reviewing funk over the question how to review and to what end. While I still believe that honest reviews require the occasional lashing, I concur with a friend who holds that reviewers should offer advice to authors as well as readers. Now, that requires a slightly different approach, and makes this a bit more difficult.

Not only would a reviewer have to express an opinion on something as intangible as moods and one’s personal reflections (easier thought than written), but also find the perceived “fatal flaw” in the writing and point it out so it can be fixed. This approach actually places a reviewer in the camp of the editor. What I then review is not just that author’s command of the craft, but the editor’s ability or inability to spot and fix issues. A weak book would then be not only the fault of an author, but the flaw of an editor in not fixing it, and the publisher for acquiring the text and contracting it. I will have to do more thinking about it.

Thankfully, “Hidden Conflict” is, by and large, an easy vote. I really enjoyed it. One word of warning. This is not a collection of romances. Only one text fits the bill and provides a happily ever after (at least we can hope that), while the other texts explore loss, suffering, social stigma, “fitting in with the boys” and barely-verbalised or expressed desire. This is also not the book for steamy sex scenes, so I would place this firmly in the camp of “gay historical writing”. What this book gives you is four intense,
emotional journeys, each one firmly grounded in history and fact. We see Native Americans counting coup, experience the mind-numbing shelling of WWI and the terrible wastelands of mud and rain, and the loss of families and boyfriends knowing their loved died “somewhere across the ocean”. Alienation, shell-shock, and the terror of war. In this, the authors explore the mind of the fighting man; the comradery,
the emotional bonds forged on the battlefield, looking out for one’s fellow man. As a historian with a strong bent towards military history, I’m always astonished at how war brings out the best and worst in humanity; both our bestial natures and our utterly selfless ability to sacrifice and preserve, and to value life most in the destruction of it. I felt the authors all grappled with those questions, so this is not a book for those who fancy men in uniforms getting it on. It’s so much more than that, which makes it difficult
to review.

All of the stories are well-written and carefully edited; the cover expresses the essence of the book well as a collection of four different voices. “Romance” as in romantic attachment, the possibility to love, the desire to love and hold features in the anthology, of course. It can be a love story against all odds and society as in “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft, a (possibly) unrequited love and uncanny, ambivalent, maybe brotherly love as in “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst, or the potential of love that was sadly cut short like so many lives during WWI in “No Darkness”, and, with a different slant in “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland, which focuses on the survivors and their ability – or inability – to move on after loss. But the setting is very real, too, and I found no major flaw with the research in terms of military and gay history. A different reviewer pointed out issues of military protocol in some of the stories, but as a civilian, I didn’t spot them.

Now comes the part where I have to choose a favourite, I guess, and the vote is clearly on “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft. I read her “False Colors” and it blew me away, and she did it again, with less words. Minor craft issues I had with “False Colors” (focusing on viewpoint, voice, and pacing) are gone in “Blessed Isle”. Beecroft continues to astound and amaze, and this story went down like very old, accomplished Bordeaux wine, served just exactly right. It’s not a story that you can “just read”, you have to savour it. The language was pitch-perfect, and I recommend taking your time to work out the nuances and let them resonate. Sometimes, prose is so well-made that it becomes a rush and a pleasure all by itself. The story Beecroft tells and the exploration of the characters just heighten the pleasure, but it’s always her prose that gets me first. Were “Blessed Isle” on it’s own, it would be a rare five stars.

The reason why the others aren’t my favourites (I hope that sentence makes sense) are minor. Each story would rate highly on its own (in the 4-star range), but I have minor quibbles with each one. “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst is emotionally honest (and I love authors facing those emotions – it takes a special kind of bravery), but I
didn’t fully warm with the main character, Brett Price. While it was painful to see him stumble through the battlefield and tell us all about the horrors of the massacre (well-done, gruesome writing), I didn’t quite warm with him. He appeared through much of this as a love-struck puppy, and I kept wanting to tell him to “man up” and stop
pining. But then, how many of us do manage to do that when our friends tell us? Exactly.

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor sets out on a very difficult task—to tell a story with two men in a cellar, fearing impending death, and growing close by telling their stories. The story is heavy on dialogue, and attempts to draw the characters by dialogue, a task that
it didn’t quite accomplish for me. While I can believe that hysteria and stress (one is wounded) can make people sound more cheerful than I would expect them to sound under such circumstances, there were moments in the dialogue where I thought that the characters were on the verge of being self-indulgent, telling all those anecdotes while
quite literally fighting for their lives. I’d expect more of the raw stress and fear to come out, so I would have tightened up the dialogue quite a bit more than was done. The strongest parts of the story, I felt, were those where the characters don’t talk.

The last story, “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland explores the loss of a loved one, a life lost in battle during WWII, from the viewpoint of his lover. I struggled a bit with this story; while I understand that many struggle to move on after a loss, I felt forty years of
mourning was excessive, especially since the surviving boyfriend never had any other relationships and has never fallen in love. Instead of romantic, I felt “what a waste of one’s life”, but maybe I’m too cynical. The story explores the surviving boyfriend’s life, his
inability to let go, how he is part of the family of his beloved Edward, taking Edward’s position, while keeping his mourning mostly silent, “lover” becomes “good friend”. Nevertheless, I felt the story dragged and would benefit from some well-placed strategic cuts.

As diverse as these stories are, there is one for everyone, and I believe nobody can read this without being profoundly moved by the writing and the depth of emotion the authors explore. Bravo.

Cheyenne Publishing (print)  Bristlecone Pine Press (Ebook)

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Review: Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon

Grieving over the death of his lover, British flying ace Bat Bryant accidentally kills the man threatening him with exposure. Unfortunately there’s a witness: the big, rough American they call “Cowboy” – and Cowboy has his own price for silence.

“Out of the Blue” will be a standalone e-book published by Liquid Silver Books, and will also appear in Esprit de Corps, a military anthology due out in 2009 will feature stories by Victor J. Banis, Samantha Kane, George Seaton and Josh Lanyon.

review by Mark R. Probst

I’m a sucker for wartime stories so I was most eager to delve into the novella Out of the Blue by Josh Lanyon. Romance set during the First World War seems to be in very high demand right now, and I for one can’t get enough of it. WWI was the first major war to be fought in the skies as well as on the ground and this story is about the British flying aces known as the Royal Flying Corps who supported the troops in the trenches by engaging in aerial dogfights with the Germans. The world Lanyon carefully re-creates is the one I knew from such films as Wings, Hell’s Angels, and most notably the 1938 Errol Flynn vehicle The Dawn Patrol. Very much like the Flynn movie, this story shows the helplessness and desperation that the RFC pilots feel as an endless supply of younger, inexperienced new recruits take the place of the fallen. Only if they manage to survive long enough to gain some experience, do they actually have a chance to prolong their survival. The war-machine with its insatiable appetite devours the expendable resource known as the fighter pilot. The hero of the story, Bat, has learned to distance himself from the new recruits in order to shield himself from the pain when they are inevitably killed.

The story opens on the day after Bat’s best buddy, with whom he had a romantic though platonic relationship, is killed. The mechanic of their squadron has somehow gotten wind of the nature of Bat’s relationship to deceased pilot, and proceeds to blackmail him. Bat responds with a fist to the man’s jaw, which accidentally kills the would-be blackmailer. An American pilot referred to as “Cowboy”, skulking in the shadows, is witness to this scene and conspires to cover up the killing, convincing Bat that notifying the MPs would only go badly for him. There are several reasons why the mechanic’s killing and its cover-up are excusable. For one, he was a blackmailer; two, he was a lousy mechanic and his ineptitude was costing lives; and lastly, it really was just an unfortunate accident.

Cowboy however has designs of his own and, from Bat’s perspective, coerces him into a sexual relationship. Now I’ll say right here that a lot of Romance fans who want their Romance to follow strict guidelines may be put off by this, because for a large part of the story, Cowboy does have an apparent streak of villainy in him. I however don’t believe in strict adherence to guidelines and welcome character flaws or even some bad behavior as I think it makes a character more human and much more interesting than say, a knight in shining armor. I would say the fact that I really felt some hate and disgust for the way Cowboy treated Bat through most of the story, demonstrates that Lanyon has expertly succeeded in getting a gut reaction from this reader.

The story proceeds with several exciting reconnaissance missions and then when the mechanic’s body is discovered, an investigation that leads the local French police chief to suspect one of the pilots.

I found the story to be compelling and well-told and I was able to closely identify with Bat’s confusion and inner turmoil. I also enjoyed little details like the fact that Bat, a fan of the Western stories of Zane Grey and Max Brand, is the one who gave the American pilot his nickname, and there is also an interesting bit about the introduction of an American candy.

Naturally there is an erotic component to the story. Personally this is an element I find unnecessary, but I know it is what many readers desire so all I can really say is that I’m grateful it was limited to just a few scenes.

My only real complaint is that there were a few instances where some of the details of what was happening were not completely clear. For instance during an engagement with the enemy when Bat noticed that one of the planes was missing from the formation, he uttered an expletive and I assumed that meant the pilot had been shot down, so I was naturally confused when the pilot was alive and well in the very next scene. Only later in the story was I able to piece together that the Bat’s expletive was annoyance because the other pilot had recently lost his nerve and had begun to hang back from the fighting and not supply cover to the other pilots.

Now my knowledge of WWI and the Royal Flying Corps comes mainly from the movies, rather than from any diligent research, so I didn’t notice any blaring inaccuracies in the details of Lanyon’s story. WWI aficionados might possibly have a different opinion. I heartily recommend Out of the Blue.

Buy from Liquid Silver Books

Review:Homesteads and Horseradish by Kiernan Kelly

Brace is none too happy to find a greenhorn building a sod house at the base of his mountain. In fact, he’s determined to run the little fellow right off his land. Unfortunately for Brace, Gaylord Quinn has nowhere else to go, and he has a patent from the US Land Office saying he has full rights to the land.

Quinn is scared to death of Brace, but he’s even more scared of having to return to a life he managed to escape. He needs the security of a new home. His dire circumstances might convince Brace to help him, but it will be the friendship that springs up between the men that endures. Will the friendship turn into something more?

Review by Mark R. Probst

Homesteads and Horseradish by Kiernan Kelly is a short and sweet “ingredient” in Torquere Press’s “Spice It Up” series. At 12,500 words it is closer to a short story than a novella and the download is priced accordingly.

Brace is a cantankerous young man who has detached himself from society to live like a hermit in a homestead he built atop his mountain, among the Teton Range. When a bespectacled, rather wimpy New Yorker named Gaylord shows up with a patent giving him legal claim to a section of Brace’s land, he’s having none of it, making idle threats to try and frighten this squatter off his land. Gaylord has been running from something and feels he has nothing to lose so he summons up the courage to defy Brace and stick to his legal claim. When things don’t go well for the ill-prepared Gaylord, Brace takes pity on him and decides to give the poor sap a helping hand. Eventually a friendship blossoms and they discover they have both been running away from the same demon, yes that persistent little desire that dare not speak its name.

What I appreciated about this story was its restraint. Most erotic romance these days tends to jump right into the hot stuff in the first page or two. Kelly takes her time to let the relationship between the two slowly develop before finally opening the floodgates at the very end.

It is a pleasant story. The two characters have distinct personalities that make them likable. Brace’s stubborn, antisocial demeanor slowly melts away and Gaylord’s timidity is countered with the savvy he picked up growing up as a street urchin. There are a few instances where the language seems a bit out of place for the nineteenth century setting, though overall the feel of the period is pretty accurate. Since the setting is an isolated homestead in the middle of nowhere, there really isn’t much reference to 19th century civilization or customs.

While my own personal taste would have been for a much lower heat level, I understand that the very high heat level in the finale is what Torquere’s fan base will be anticipating, so you can weigh that accordingly.

This is the first I had read of Kelly’s work, but based on this sample I would definitely read more. Her other novels set on the American frontier include In Bear Country and In Bear Country II: The Barbary Coast.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere Press

Submissions call:GLBT Military History

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS:

MILITARY HISTORY NOVELLA ANTHOLOGY

A Joint Venture of

CHEYENNE PUBLISHING AND BRISTLECONE PINE PRESS

CHEYENNE PUBLISHING and BRISTLECONE PINE PRESS are teaming up for a special publishing project.  This joint venture will be an anthology consisting of three novellas. This submission call is to select two novellas (20,000 to 35,000 words) to be included with an already selected novella about the battle of the Little Bighorn.  The theme will be gay/lesbian military personnel in a historical setting.  Stories can be set in any era circa 1600 forward, up to and including the Viet Nam War. Military personnel can be interpreted to include soldiers, officers, and support staff such as nurses; key is that the action of the story takes place in a military setting during war, truce, or peacetime support. Any military conflict within the past 500 years (circa 1600 on) or country is acceptable. While sexual relationships can be discussed and intimate acts implied, we   prefer the material to be non-explicitly sexual in order to accommodate a young-adult crossover readership. Please note that the main characters must be gay or lesbian and issues regarding their sexuality must be a primary element of the plot. Cheyenne Publishing and Bristlecone Pine Press allow the writer complete freedom in regards to genre – meaning your story does not have to fit into any particular mold such as “happy ever after” – in other words, soldiers can die.

As this is a small press project, there will be no advances offered. Cheyenne Publishing will publish the print version and Bristlecone Pine Press will publish the e-book versions. Authors will be paid a flat fee of $250 upon final acceptance of a completed manuscript. Final contractual details will be negotiated at the time of acceptance; note that Cheyenne Publishing and Bristlecone Pine Press are not vanity publishers and follow standard industry practices with respect to publishing and distribution.

You do not have to complete the full manuscript in order to submit an idea for review. To be considered, send a 600-1000 word synopsis of your story and a sample of at least 5000 words to webmaster@cheyennepublishing.com and publisher@bcpinepress.com . Include “Military Historical Submission” in the subject line. Include complete contact information including name, address, telephone, and email address in the email. The synopsis should be included in the body of the email; the sample should be included as a Word attachment. Submissions not following these guidelines will be rejected without review.

Theme: Gay/lesbian, historical, military personnel

Length: 20,000 to 35,000 words

Submission deadline:  April 30, 2009 for synopsis; acceptance by May 30, 2009; completed manuscripts due August 31, 2009.

Projected publication date: January 2010

Submissions and inquiries email to: webmaster@cheyennepublishing.com or publisher@bcpinepress.com

Websites: www.cheyennepublishing.com

www.bcpinepress.com

Review: Frontiers by Michael Jensen

The year is 1797. John Chapman, an impulsive young man and a sexual outlaw, forsaken in the bitter winter of the Allegheny Plateau, clings to his one tenuous dream: to claim a future in the Western outpost. Unarmed and near death, Chapman is on the brink of giving up when an unexpected rescue changes his course in life forever, and he discovers the true meaning of survival.

The mysterious savior is Daniel McQuay, a loner whose overpowering bond with Chapman is as shifting as a shadow, as dark as the prairie tale he spins for the impressionable young man. For Chapman, McQuay’s story of a deranged killer clings to his transient soul like a nightmare, tracking him further south and into the safe haven of a gentle Indian woman named Gwennie. His journey also takes him into the intimate deliverance of Palmer, a brash but irresistibly innocent seventeen-year-old settler.

As the three adventurers carve a new life out of the endless wilderness, they face the ultimate enemy — man — in a life-and-death struggle that unfolds in the shadow of a legendary and avenging evil.

Review by Mark R Probst
I have a great deal of affection for Michael Jensen’s unique retelling of the origin of Johnny Appleseed in his pioneer adventure novel Frontiers. Since in reality Johnny Appleseed is more folklore and legend than historical fact, the character was a perfect vehicle for Jensen to mold into his own creation. In an interview from his website, Jensen talks about how through research he found that John Chapman (Appleseed) never married nor had a sweetheart but when he did occasionally settle down, it was always with a man. So it’s not that much of a stretch to presume that Chapman might have been gay.

Frontiers begins in 1797 with the 23-year-old Chapman heading to western Pennsylvania, an advertisement in hand offering free supplies and land to encourage western expansion. The giveaway is to occur in the spring but Chapman has arrived early, so he spends the winter with the overseer of the supplies for the management company. There is some sexual chemistry between the two men holding out the long winter in the small cabin, but I won’t spoil the twists and turns that occur. I’ll only say that a discerning reader will probably figure out the surprises, but I didn’t, and in retrospect I felt rather dense in that I couldn’t see what was coming up. But kudos to Jensen for fooling me! Once the winter is over, John takes over an abandoned claim complete with a furnished cabin and food store, close to the nearby settlement of Franklin. He becomes acquainted with the frontiersmen and women who are fired up by the town’s Native-hating preacher and anti-ecology mayor to kill all the trees and Natives (that is the ones who won’t convert to Christianity, though they are never really given a chance.) Palmer, the 17-year-old brother of the preacher, is the town rebel and not only is he sickened by the destructiveness of the townsfolk, but he is also an atheist and secretly, a sodomite. He takes a shine to John and gives him a lot of insight into the true nature of the town, all the while becoming more intimate. As John farms his land, Gwennie, a Native-American woman known as the “Apple Lady” because of the orchards she has planted and maintained, teaches him how to plant his own orchard, in a foreshadowing of what he will become. The end of the story is fraught with peril and I won’t spoil it to tell you any more.

I found a lot to like in this novel. Jensen’s breezy style is easy to read and the high adventure briskly rolled along with flourishes of humor and some really well-handled suspense as well as a few erotic scenes. Many have mislabeled this story as a Western. It really is not, since it is set in the early pioneer days before western expansion really took off. As part of the legend is John’s love of animals, I found the following particularly endearing.

Scowling, he flung a bag on the table. “Bloody hickory nuts from a squirrel’s nest.” Chocolate-hued nuts scattered across the table. “I figured we at least could roast them.”

“Sure,” I replied, unable to help wondering what the squirrel was going to eat.

Though I’ll have to admit it’s a little disheartening that every single animal John cares about meets a grisly death. Another tiny quibble I have is just my own personal dislike for the scenario where one goes to great lengths to save someone from a perilous situation only to have them killed off later. It’s also interesting to note that while legend has John as a man of God and perhaps even a minister, Jensen shows him as struggling with his faith.

As I have read a few complaints from readers regarding modern language, I will give a word of warning. If modern language in a historical is a particular pet peeve, I’d say you probably shouldn’t read this book. While Jensen did pepper the text with some relevant language from the time period, there are enough anachronistic words and phrases to lead me to believe that is was an editorial decision to use such modern language. It really wasn’t a problem for me, as I just treat it as though the modern words were a translation of what the characters really would have said.

I enjoyed my time spent with Johnny, Palmer and Gwennie and as this story only covers what led up to Chapman becoming Johnny Appleseed, naturally I was left wanting the story to continue so it’s nice to know that there is a sequel Firelands waiting for me. I, for one, will be curious to see how the legend plays out as well as how Johnny resolves his religious strife.

After I finished the book, for fun, I decided to pull out my Melody Time DVD and watch Disney’s interpretation of Johnny Appleseed for comparison. Here are the words of the narrator: “Workin’, singin’, carefree and gay, that’s how Johnny spent each day tendin’ to his apple trees.” I couldn’t help but smile, wondering if Michael Jensen had watched this as a young boy and that’s where he first got the notion that Johnny was gay.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

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