Review: Brook Street: Fortune Hunter by Ava March


London, 1822

Impoverished Julian Parker returns to London with one goal: marry an heiress. He’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means denying his desire for men. After all, with a fortune comes happiness and social acceptance–which have eluded Julian his entire life.

The only things a vast fortune has brought Oscar Woodhaven are greedy relatives and loneliness. At twenty-one years of age, he has everything a man could possibly want–except someone to love him. When he meets devastatingly handsome Julian Parker, he believes his luck has turned.

Between Oscar’s lavish gifts and their searing-hot nights, Julian is caught between what he thinks he needs and what his heart truly desires. But when a betrayal threatens to tear them apart, Julian discovers he’ll do whatever it takes to convince Oscar the greatest fortune of all is love.

Ebook only-44,000 words

Review by Molly Hart

Review in a nutshell: “You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea” (Earl Nightingale).

I’ve read Ava March’s stories in the past and enjoyed them. She’s well-known for her historicals that pair hot sex with fluid, extremely readable writing, and so far hasn’t disappointed me when I was looking exactly for that mix of sex and readability.

Fortune Hunter is a bit of a different animal (though March is very good when she gets naughty). This was the first time I was actively bored by the story and struggled against a great deal of resistance to pick it up again after reading about thirty pages—not a good sign, despite this historical romance being relatively short at 44,000 words.

The story is set in 1822 in London, amidst Regency high society. Enter the characters. The first one is Julian Parker, impoverished and from the wrong branch of the right family, he is looking for a rich heiress to marry despite being gay. The second is Oscar Woodhaven, rich but unhappy and lonely (and generous to the point of naïveté). After having been introduced at one of the big society dos, Julian moves in with Oscar, who showers him with attention, favours and gifts of a new wardrobe and a gold watch with diamonds and a meaningful engraving.

I found the introduction confusing; there were a great many people and as a reader I was given no chance to care for one of them. Nobody seemed particularly motivated to do anything, and the characters’ attitudes were bland and a bit boring. The only source of interest was Julian’s nervousness about fitting in, but that’s only entertaining for so long. The characters sounded too much the same to help with distinguishing them, so I ended up confusing them (and the minor characters) at the start, which didn’t help.

Once Julian and Oscar are indoors, the focus shifts to “will then, won’t they”, or at least to “when will they”? While March does a good job of evoking Regency characters, sentences like “You are more than welcome to fuck me until I can barely walk tomorrow” sound like spoken/thought by very modern men, and the modern thoughts and sex dialogue sits oddly with the overall Regency setting, which becomes wallpaper-thin at this point.

That brings me to another issue I had with the book. The characters stay indoors most of the time and the wider Regency world feels claustrophobic and inconsequential. People only care about gambling and the marriage market, which is about as dull as it sounds. The romance starts off well with very little doubt or tension, and both lovers are perfect specimens, despite one or two hang-ups that are woefully underplayed. In the end, I didn’t care about either of them and wasn’t invested in them finding each other or happiness.

At about 50% in, I was ready to simply scroll through to get it over with, but just before the temptation became too strong, things began to happen in the story, wrenching my interest right back into the novella. Julian makes a mistake; he has to choose between his lover and his social aspirations. Suddenly, the wheels are spinning, characters are affected by what they are doing, and they are on a learning curve, which meant I finished the book and was even decently entertained in the second half.

After the lovers break up, both realize they have to grow up. Julian attempts to better himself by honest labour rather than by marriage, and Oscar learns to be less trusting and naïve. This could have been great, but it’s told rather cursorily as a summary, whereas I would have enjoyed watching the characters grow and develop, so I felt cheated out of seeing them become better versions of themselves. They meet again, they talk about what went wrong, and the reader does believe that they’ll fit much better together now. Happy ending.

Rating this was a challenge. I was leaning towards a 2.5 but felt guilty for giving Ava March anything under a 3, but I also think that readers getting bored is a valid reason for dissatisfaction. Thankfully, the turnaround in the second half meant that it was a decent read overall, which I rate at 3, but not riveting (a 4) or outstanding/memorable (a 5) for this reader. I won’t be reading the other parts in this series.

Author’s website

Buy at CarinaAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Unspoken by R.A. Padmos

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

58,000 words/220 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book appears to be available only directly from Manifold Press

Review: Cawnpore by Tom Williams

After his time in Borneo with James Brooke, John Williamson travels to India. Working for the East India Company in Cawnpore, he struggles to fit in: a gay man in a straight society; a farm labourer’s son in a world of gentleman’s clubs and refined dinner parties; a European adrift in an alien land. But he finds he is good at his job, overseeing a colonial administration that has been running the country for a hundred years. He falls in love with the country and, in particular, with a young nobleman in the court of the local lord.

Successful at work and happy with his lover, he thinks he can finally meet life on his own terms. Then Indian troops rise in mutiny and the country is plunged into war. With the British Raj teetering on the edge of destruction and Cawnpore a byword for horror across the Empire, Williamson has to choose whose side he is really on.

In this sequel to The White Rajah, the fictional Williamson is caught up in real historical events which provide a thrilling background to his own story. Williamson meets some of the key figures at a crucial point in British history and witnesses events which shocked the world and shaped the future of British India.

Paper and ebook – 288 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

Cawnpore picks up more or less where the author’s previous work, The White Rajah, left off. Like the first book, this one takes the form of a memoir of the fictional John Williamson. Williamson has parted company with his employer and lover James Brooke after the inquiry into the battles that firmly established Brooke as the “White Rajah”. While Williamson is still in love with Brooke, the ghosts of all the people killed in Brooke’s name has driven a firm wedge between them.

With a generous severance from Brooke, Williamson could easily return to England and a quiet life, but he’s not quite ready to settle down and, intrigued by Brooke’s own stories of India, he decides to stop there before going back to Britain. In Calcutta, he applies to work for the East India Company and is surprised to find he is readily accepted and assigned the post of Deputy Collector in Cawnpore. While Brooke did not have a very high opinion of “the Company”, they have certainly heard of his exploits in Sarawak, and have a high opinion of him, and by extension, Williamson.

Although taken aback by his ready acceptance and the relatively high position granted him, Williamson soon finds that the work isn’t all that different than what he did in Sarawak. It suits him well, and although he is very much a square peg in a round hole, he gets along well with most people. One day his boss notes that Williamson is working just a little too hard, and takes him out to meet the Nana Sahib in his palatial home outside of Cawnpore. There Williamson meets Mungo, a young cousin of the Nana Sahib. There’s an instant mutual attraction between the two, and they soon become lovers.

While Williamson professes that Brooke is still the true love of his life, he is clearly deeply infatuated with the much younger Mungo. Like Brooke before him, Mungo becomes Williamson’s mentor, teacher and guide through the mysteries of Indian culture. With Mungo’s help, Williamson learns the language and soon with a little disguise can pass for a local. Everything seems to be going great, until rumors of discontent and outright mutiny begin to circulate throughout the colony.

Cawnpore is, at its heart, the story of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and in particular the massacre at Cawnpore, which is an episode of history I assume most British readers are familiar with. Williamson’s ability to pass for an Indian allows him to hide in plain sight among the rebels and observe both sides of the siege. Although Williamson’s escapades themselves seem improbable, he does relate the events of the siege and massacre in vivid, even alarming, detail that appears to be historically accurate.

Williamson of course survives the massacre and even provides information that helps the British rout Nana Sahib’s forces and re-take Cawnpore. But as the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear, he starts to fear for his own safety, as well as Mungo’s, in the face of the British fury. They flee to the countryside to wait hopefully for tempers to cool, and this is where the full tragedy of the story unfolds.

Cawnpore is, on the whole, a well-written adventure tale. In some ways, I think the author has improved from the first book. One of the issues I had with The White Rajah was the extremely timid way in which the relationship between Brooke and Williamson was described. It was clear that the two men were lovers, but for all the reader was given, it could have been a rather platonic relationship. In Cawnpore it’s much more clear that Williamson and Mungo have a very physical relationship. We’re not given detailed descriptions of what they get up to, but it’s still clear the two men share a physical bond as well as a deep friendship.

However, that said, the sexual relationship between Williamson and Mungo is not really at the center of the story. It doesn’t provide any of the key dramatic elements or move the story along. The friendship between the two is certainly key to Williamson’s ability to observe both sides of the mutiny and survive the massacre, but you could easily remove the gay element from the story and still have essentially the same tale. Cawnpore is, in many ways, an adventure tale where the main character happens to be gay, rather than a ‘gay’ historical novel.

So, where does that leave us? If you’re looking for a gay romance, you almost certainly won’t like this book, especially given the ending which is anything but happily-ever-after. Cawnpore will appeal more to someone looking for action and adventure tales of war. While I wouldn’t compare the writing of the two, this book is more in the vein of Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven than most contemporary gay historical books. The writing is competent and sometimes vivid when describing scenes of battle, but it gets a little flat when it comes to the people and personal relationships. Once the mutiny begins, the scenes between Williamson and Mungo are quite short and even rushed when compared with the colorful descriptions of time spent with the Indian rebels, night raids or calvary charges.

Stories of battle and war aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I have, nonetheless, read quite a few of them. The ones I enjoy are carried along by the relationship between the main characters, which typically develops and changes over the course of the book, whether it’s the tried and true enemies-that-become-friends theme or something more unusual. This is the main failing of Cawnpore, for me. The relationship between Williamson and Mungo springs forth almost fully formed in an early chapter, and remains relatively unchanged for the rest of the book. Yes, there are arguments and disagreements, but they’re little more than lover’s spats.

Given the meticulous research and vivid descriptions of the mutiny, Cawnpore deserves three stars. I was tempted to give it more, but the flatness of the characters and lack of depth to the key relationship holds this book back.

Tom Williams has a blog, The White Rajah

Available from JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

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

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

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

Review by Erastes

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

Continue reading

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes by G.A. Hauser

In the year 338 BC on the plain of Chaeronea, a war was fought between the allied armies of Thebes and Athens, against the might of Macedon ruled by King Philip and his son Alexander the Great. In that bloody battle Thebes was defeated and lost almost every man of its exclusive fighting force called the Sacred Band.

Nikanoras, born the only son to an aristocrat, is sent to train with a mentor and find a male lover in order to be selected to serve with the Sacred Band of Thebes. Unknown to Nikanoras his mentor holds a treacherous secret over his father and is in love with his mother. After Nikanoras is sent away for training, his mother and mentor kill his father and hope Nikanoras will die in war. Throughout the murderous intrigue, Nikanoras’ one saving grace is his lover, beautiful Meleagros, the only thing in his life that is stable. Together they face their destiny- to live or die in battle.

Review by Michael Joseph

The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Band of Thebes opens on that fateful day on the plain of Chaeronea, when Philip and his golden son wipe out almost all of the Sacred Band. Almost all, for although badly wounded, Nikanoras still lives, much to his shame. Alexander finds him and has his wounds tended.

From that desperate opening scene, we flash back to Nikanoras’ childhood. ‘Nikki’ is the only son of the aristocrat Saliuikos. His mother Thessenike is a cold, uncaring woman, essentially leaving Nikki to be raised by his sister Euridises, who is almost 10 years older. As he enters his thirteenth year, Nikki believes that, like his father, he will one day marry, have children, and take his place as one of Thebes’ statesmen.

But much to his surprise, Nikki is turned over to the care of his father’s old friend Arybos, who will be the boy’s erastes as he is trained to take a place in the Sacred Band. This is quite a shock to the young man, who finds the idea of being a soldier and an eromenos to the old man rather repulsive. He doesn’t understand what could have brought about this drastic change of circumstances.

Unbeknown to Nikki, Arybos knows a dark secret that could destroy Saliuikos and his family. He holds Nikki’s father under his thumb, determined to take everything from Saliuikos, including his wife Thessenike, who is Arybos’ collaborator. Nikki’s only consolation is his sister Euridises, but soon Thessenike finds a husband for Nikki’s sister and sends her away. Her new husband, a powerful general, forbids Nikki from ever seeing his sister.

As a member of the Sacred Band, Nikki is expected to take a lover from one of the other members of the troop. From their very first meeting, Meleagros is enamored of the young Nikki, and sets about wooing him. It takes some time, but Meleagros finally finds a way to get Nikki to accept him as his lover. Nikki is quite cool at first, this isn’t the kind of relationship he expected to have, but as the years pass and he becomes increasingly isolated from his family, Nikki comes to realize Meleagros is the only only one who truly loves him. By they time they reach the plain of Chaeronea, the two twenty year-olds have a bond as strong as any other in the Band.

The story comes full circle to that battle on the plain against Philips forces. Held ransom like the other aristocratic Theban prisoners, Nikki is surprised when his freedom is paid for. Returning to Thebes, he finds a much different city, occupied by Macedonian mercenaries. He finds no welcome in his own home. The only one happy to seem him is Meleagros’ repulsive brother. Nikki finds himself more isolated than ever. While the ending is a bit of a surprise, you’d have to work very hard to convince yourself that it’s a happily ever after one.

There’s a really powerful plot line to this book, one of Shakespearean proportions. Indeed, Nikki is a brooding, indecisive Hamlet, whose ‘uncle’ Arybos plots to do away with his father and marry his mother. Only, Thessenike is less of a Gertrude and more of a Lady Macbeth. There’s also an almost Oedipal relationship between Nikki and his sister. Unfortunately, all this potential is let down by the storytelling. It never really grabbed me.

The problem, for me, was in the telling. The third-person narrative tells us everything. While Nikki remains clueless, we’re given all the intimate details of how his erastes and his mother plot against him. The evil plans, and the fact that Nikki is helpless to do anything about it, is hammered on repeatedly. I think the author was trying to create a sense of drama, but for me it had the opposite effect. The story really plodded along, as there was very little left to discover. I never really connected with Nikki. Meleagros is actually the more engaging character, but over the course of the book he’s all over the map emotionally, which left me a little confused as to his true self.

Having read Eromenos by Melanie McDonald not long ago, this book drives yet another nail into the coffin of the whole romantic notion of the erastes / eromenos relationship. It points out just how young – thirteen – the boys were when they entered into the arrangements, and that they often had no choice in the matter. I hope they never try to convince me Alexander was straight, because I don’t think I could cope with having any more bubbles burst.

Given the poor storytelling, this is a three star read at best.

G.A. Hauser’s website

Available as an ebook and in print

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Solace by Scarlet Blackwell (short story)

Solace by Scarlet Blackwell

Down on his luck Victorian gentleman Dorian is looking for solace on Christmas Eve and finds it in the form of rent boy Benedict.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s Christmas Eve in late-Victorian London. Dorian was once a gentleman of means, but now he’s alone and will soon have to sell his house in Chelsea. An unrequited crush on his houseboy landed him in jail. He managed to bribe his way out of prison, but he’s been disowned by his family and abandoned by all his friends. Dorian is strolling the streets of Whitechapel, looking for company despite the risk of the Ripper, when Benedict steps forward to offer his services.

Benedict is a young male prostitute, a “Mary Ann” in the language of the time used by the author, and Dorian is quite taken with him. Despite the risk, Dorian decides to take Benedict home, rather than just getting off in some darkened doorway. Back in Chelsea, Dorian takes Benedict twice in the drawing room, and it’s obvious Benedict is not “gay for pay” to use the modern expression. He genuinely prefers the company of men, and likes nothing more than having another man deep inside him. Dorian is so enthralled he asks Benedict to stay the night, and the following Christmas Day. Benedict readily agrees and they retire to the bedroom.

In the bedroom, things get mildly kinky, with a little bondage and spanking. Dorian becomes even more enamored with the young man, finding in him the potential for the kind of love he had hoped to find with his houseboy. He also begins to see that, despite his profession, Benedict has rarely known real pleasure.

The dreaded insta-love rears its ugly head in this story, but then this is a really short novella that sets a good pace. In print it’s just around 40 pages. I’m generally not a big fan of these shorts, which are all the rage now that ebooks rule. All too often it seems like the characters are one-dimensional and the plot full of holes. But Solace is complete, with a proper beginning, middle and end, with characters that are endearing enough. It’s short, but it is what it is, which is why I’ve given it a solid 3 out of 5.

Scarlet Blackwell

Buy from Silver Publishing

Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

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