Review: Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell

Traumatised by the nightmare of trench warfare in France, Robert Blake turns to rent boy Jack Anderson for solace. Neither man expects their business relationship to go quite so far.

It is 1919, less than a year after the end of the First World War with a recovering Britain in the grip of the influenza pandemic. Crippled veteran of the Somme battle, Robert Blake, is looking for someone to ease his nightmares of France and his guilt over what happened to his commanding officer. He turns to educated rent boy Jack Anderson for physical solace, not expecting how deeply the two soon become immersed in each other’s lives.

Review by Erastes

Rather a touching premise, a tart with a heart and a man paralysed from the waist down. You don’t at first (or rather I didn’t) twig that Jack Anderson is a prostitute but I suppose these days he’d be called an escort. He provides companionship and relief if needed from discreet and wealthy men. He hasn’t been soured by his life as a renter, and is both professional and attentive.

He’s called to the house of Robert Blake, who we discover is in a wheelchair. The two men meet once a week, a little tea and cakes, some sex and after a week or so they realise that they are becoming fond of each other.

It started well, and I was encouraged that this was something a little different, even though the tropes are well known, but sadly enough the men soon started to weep all over the place and to once they got into bed the old fanfic favourite chestnut of  “Come for me, [name here] both trends in m/m which I’m thoroughly tired of.

I liked both protagonists, Robert particularly because he seriously thought he was entirely useless to anyone being in the state he was and many men did–and do–think like this. Legs and cock not working=end of the world, and I can understand this. The interactions between them–and I don’t mean just the sex scenes which are detailed and many–are well done and believable when there’s no crying going on.

I enjoyed the read, but it’s not a keeper for me, I’m afraid.

However, it’s well-written, and thoroughly romantic with very little conflict so I’m sure that the readers of a more romantic brand of gay historicals will like it a lot. It’s not so over-the-top romantic as to spoil the story, so I did enjoy it. I also enjoyed that the ending was left a little in flux, and that Robert’s problem wasn’t magically cured entirely by all the gay sex.

Overall, well worth a try-out.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing

Review: The Bad and the Beautiful by Jamie Craig

It’s 1955, Las Vegas is swinging, and David Lonergan has the chance of a lifetime when he accompanies his cousin to be the headlining act at the Thunderbird Casino. A pianist who cut his teeth in the jazz clubs of Chicago, David is dazzled by the lights, the music, and the anything goes attitude of Las Vegas. But he’s not knocked off his feet until he meets Vincent “Shorty” Accardo.

Vincent is a full-time bodyguard and sometimes hitman for the mob controlled casino. He doesn’t indulge his interest in men very often, but there’s something different about David from the moment they meet. He’s attracted to David’s talent, his surprising innocence, and his easy smile. There are a million reasons to stay away from the young piano player, but Vincent can’t help himself. Even when there are lives at risk.

Review by Erastes

There seems to be a little flurry of show-biz books recently, and I for one am happy as hell about that, as there’s such a lot of potential in it.

Although the set-up is pretty standard–guy meets guy straight away and starts to fantasize about him–Jamie Craig doesn’t disappoint with setting the scene.  Whether it’s Hollywood or the Wild West, Craig (for those who don’t know, Craig is a writing partnership) always paints her backdrop in with meticulous detail, deep enough to make you feel you are there, but light enough to avoid the laundry list approach.  The historical detail is sparse enough not to swamp and correct enough for the purist.

However, I can’t say that I was entirely convinced by the initial banter — in public — between David and Vince.  For a mobster bodyguard to be talking so openly in 1955 – even in the more ‘anything goes’ area of Vegas didn’t strike me as very true.   Both men are from deepest Chicago, too, and while I didn’t want an entire dialogue written in dialect, (no thanks!)  a mere flavour of the speech patterns that these men would converse in with each other would have helped to season the story a little more, and make me believe they were from the mob-life in Chicago, their speech was just too ordinary to flavour the story enough.

The risk factor–the whole “black hand” thing–(threatening notes from the Mafia) came out of the blue, for me.  There was no foreshadowing, and as David has come to Vegas to be under Moretti’s protection (as the accompanist and cousin of Moretti’s girlfriend) and Moretti was such a hard man, I didn’t understand

1. why they were targeting him and

2. why on EARTH he didn’t take the notes to Moretti.    He uses the excuse that Kate would worry – but as she’s DATING Moretti, and she’s a singer from Chicago, she’d be unlikely not to know who Moretti was and what he could do…  It works, in the scheme of things, but I’d have liked a little more intro–perhaps a scene with Moretti and Vincent discussing the rivalries in existence before the extortion notes were received, not after.

The two major characters are nicely disparate; Vincent always has his eye on the main chance and he finds David surprisingly untouched.  I had to agree with Vince, here – specially as David’s cousin was dating a mob boss, he did come over as a little unrealistically innocent. He comes over as the “woman” needing to be protected. This is shored up by some of the prose which puts David into a feminine role:

David whimpered. That was the only word for it. One of his hands fluttered at Vincent’s waist before finally settling along the hip. The touch was fragile, like David wasn’t sure he wouldn’t get his wrist snapped for trying, and Vincent pushed harder, erasing once and for all any doubts David might have had about his interest.

There’s some nice touches of history–which is always expected with Craig, I know they do their research–like the mention of The Moulin Rouge being the first desegregated casino in Vegas.  The sex scenes are very hot too, the build up to the first one, and the first one particularly, which doesn’t shy away from the discomfort losing your anal virginity can cause. The second half of the book I felt was stronger than the first, although I could never get my head around the contradiction of David: Chicago raised innocent who is more disturbed by the guilt of sodomy rather than Vince murdering people.

On a purely personal note, I don’t understand Amber Allure’s decision to copy famous titles of films/books.  Perhaps they think that people are going to come to the line because they haven’t heard of the more famous counterparts but this seems pretty impossible.  In the long run, it seems to invite unwarranted criticism.  This book was good enough to stand on its own merits, as Jamie Craig’s invariably have been.

To sum up, it’s an enjoyable read with a lot of punch.  It wasn’t my favourite of Jamie Craig’s works, and it didn’t have the same fluidity of plot or solid characterisation in it that other books by Craig does –  but I liked it a lot, nevertheless – it just won’t be a keeper.

Author’s Website

Buy at Amber Allure

Review: Bitten Peach by Habu

Bitten Peach is an eleven-story anthology capturing the essence of the deliciously euphemistic Oriental world of men making love to other men, arranged in a chronological sequence covering a 2,200-year period. These are stories that go beyond the random act of sexual release between men. They offer more complex and context-richer studies of gathering age-old themes, exotic settings, and all-so-human characters up into the Floating World of the Orient in which men give themselves to other men–some more freely than others–for something in return, whether it is for money, position, power, survival, honor, service, devotion–or, not all that rarely, really, in unconditional love.

Review by Aleksander Voinov

This is a collection of 11 short stories set in China and Japan, usually featuring oriental men (apart from four stories when Westerners enter the picture). The stories are varied, and as far as erotica/porn goes, they aren’t bad. There several things I honestly like about this collection. This has many good ideas and generally solid writing, and, I think, a good grasp of the cultures and locations—but I have to admit I’m not a specialist on Chinese/Japanese culture or sexual mores. It sounded authentic, apart from, I think, when some Chinese terms showed up in a story set in Japan.

So, as far as gay erotica/porn goes, this is much better than the average that’s out there. Erotica/porn doesn’t need much character development, and the characters here remain flat – they are, invariably “well-formed” and “well-muscled”, and that’s it.

One caveat: many of these stories deal with “forced seduction” – most often from the perspective of the guy being “forcibly seduced” (aka: raped), and invariably, they struggle and whimper and plead a bit and then they warm to it and “love it”.

Now, this is not the place to discuss “rape culture” or whether they are “allowed”. Regardless of well-deserved criticism levelled against rape depicted in this way, the rape fantasy is one of the most common fantasies for both men and women. So, the need/appeal does exist, and this caters to it. If that is your cup of tea, you can’t go wrong here. The anthology is placed into a niche—most m/m publishers won’t accept stories featuring rape that is written to titillate, and this is meant to titillate. In addition, there is a clear theme of hierarchy and dominance, and of innocence and virginity corrupted (often in a rape/forced seduction context that leaves out lube).

What this does need, though, is a good editor—one that finds the typos, repetitions, kills the purple prose (“love channel” makes me laugh, but even more in a rape setting where, sorry, “love” is not what I’m thinking of) and edits out the style mishaps which are still in the manuscript.

To sum up: some stories were hot, others left me a little bewildered, and readers with a non-con (non consensual sex/rape/forced seduction) kink get served well here. Character development is, as usual in porn/erotica, sparse, and the writing is, overall, solid, with patches of purple and weak editing, but clear enjoyment of telling a story and a varied and rich sexual imagination.

Author’s Website

Buy at  Excessica

Review: Queer Cowboys by Chris Packard

“Brokeback Mountain” exploded the myth of the American cowboy as a tough, gruff, and grizzled loner. “Queer Cowboys” exposes, through books by legendary Western writers such as Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister, how same-sex intimacy and homoerotic admiration were key aspects of Westerns well before “Brokeback’s” 1960’s West, and well before the word “homosexual” was even invented. Chris Packard introduces readers to the males-only clubs of journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, and vaqueros who defined themselves by excluding women and the cloying ills of domesticity and recovers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, and often intimate camaraderie in the fiction, photographs, and theatrical performances of the 1800’s Wild West.

Review by Gerry Burnie

While my usual genre is historical fiction, I am always on the lookout for research of a historical variety. Therefore, although it has been around for a while, “Queer Cowboys: And other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature” by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is one such work.

The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the “bonds that hold … [same-sex partners, i.e. ‘sidekicks’] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship.” To do this it painstakingly explores the “originary” texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to “teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships”—a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University.

Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let’s see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives.

At the risk of oversimplifying Packard’s thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900—i.e. before “the modern invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a social pariah”—cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of “savagery” as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, “even marriage rituals,” between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites.

Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as “…the problem of heterosexuality.”  The ‘problem’ being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly ‘free’ nature of the cowboy characters.

“Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America’s official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests … rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner.”

Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly “canonical” writings—i.e. Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” and Walt Whitman’s poetry.  He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland’s “The Story of a Life,” Frank Harris’s “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” and Frederick Loring’s “Two College Friends.”

While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all.  There are no ‘smoking-gun’ examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers—meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in “historic discourse.”

To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon—i.e. “nexus,” “praxis,” “lingua franca,” and so forth. A case on point:

Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West.

Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t find the “In other words” any more elucidating than the original statement.

Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points—giving a new dimension to the term ‘moot point’—he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought.

Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.

This review was originally posted on the reviewer’s blog here

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Review: Galleons and Gangplanks by Sean Michael, Julia Talbot, Mychael Black and Willa Okati

Pirates! Rapiers! Cannons and flintlocks! These are all the idea behind Galleons and Gangplanks. Bringing back the days when pirates ruled the high seas, this collection of stories has no shortage of adventure, danger, and excitement. From Sean Michael comes Searching the Seas, a story about an honest man kidnapped by pirates, used as collateral for a trade between the pirates and the seaside village at their mercy. Things are not always as they seem, though, and soon the constable and the pirate Captain are learning to love, and live, with the past and the future. Julia Talbot’s The White City takes on the Barbary Coast, with a legendary privateer meeting his match in an Algerian sheik. But who is the captor and who is the slave in this game of cat and mouse that runs from the sun baked streets of Algiers to the waves beyond the shore? Mychael Black’s Fool’s Gold is a romp in the best pirate tradition. Searching for his father’s lost gold, a young man teams up with a salty veteran to follow a treasure map. Can the two of them find something in common besides a lust for coin? In Willa Okati’s Of Boats and Bluebeards two young men are pressed into service on a pirate ship, one of them slated to be the Captain’s new toy, the other set to backbreaking work. Can Kit and Paul find a way to escape, and to share the budding love they find with each other? Get your arrr! on!

Review by Alex Beecroft

Like most anthologies, this is a mixed bag of stories, some of which are in my opinion better than others. I think I’ll consider them separately before I think about the book over all.

Unfortunately, the first story in the anthology, “Searching the Seas” by Sean Michael is, I think, the weakest of the four. Abraham Sawyer is “a lawman” (whatever that means in the 17th/18th century, before the invention of the police), who lives on a small, peaceful island, and is taken aboard a pirate ship as a hostage following some negotiations that didn’t quite make sense to me. There he discovers that the despicable pirate is in fact his old lover who has been searching for him for years. And then they have lots of sex, and some hurt/comfort, and some more sex.

This ‘story’ is little more than a set up for endless amounts of smut. It’s fairly good smut, and if you’re looking for some explicit pirate/non-pirate porn, then it does the job. For me, I’m still shaking my head over the fact that this is the second time in as many Age of Sail books that an author has given the captain of a wooden ship a hearth in his cabin. An open fire, on a ship made entirely of inflammable wood, coated with inflammable pitch and containing a room full of gunpowder.

I realise this is probably not a deal-breaker for other people, but it is for me. For me it says “I didn’t care enough about my setting to even make the effort of looking at the internal layout of a tall ship (easily available by Googling), or sparing a moment’s thought about the realities of life at sea.” Why bother to set your story on a 17th Century ship if you’re going to write it as if it was a house on waves? Why should I, who was looking for some real tall ship action, care about a story that is just pirate-dress-up + porn? I don’t. However, if pirate-dress-up + porn is what you’re looking for, you will like this story better than I did.

I wish that the volume had opened with one of the other stories instead, because first impressions count, and all of the other stories have more to recommend them than the first.

Julia Talbot’s The White City is set in Algiers. Told alternately in the PoV of Jem Nettles, captured pirate, and his captor Hakim Reis, this is a story which is much more historically believable in terms of setting. I’m even delighted by the fact that Hakim Reis and his nemesis and overseer turn out to be British pirates employed by the Dey, like the infamous trio of Dutch pirates who ‘turned Turk’ in the early 17th Century.

Hakim finds himself falling in love with his captive and refuses to turn him over to his boss, Sharim Reis. Sharim is annoyed, as Jem has been a pain in his neck and he wants to see the annoying man punished. So Sharim captures Hakim, and is about to teach him a painful lesson when Jem (who has seized the opportunity to escape from them both,) rallies his scattered ship’s crew and rescues him. There is some sex with dubious consent in the story, and it is quite hard to see what it is that draws Jem and Hakim together and makes them willing to risk so much for each other. But it was so nice to see a setting that I could believe in, and a story that had some plot, that I put this down to the mysteries of love and just enjoyed the suspense of wondering what was going to happen next.

I liked this one and would like to read something longer by her.

Fool’s Gold by Mychael Black features mature pirate Ian Bowers being employed by naïve young gentleman Silas Christian to find the treasure to which Christian’s father has left him a map. Over the course of the story we discover that Christian is not really naïve, nor a gentleman at all, he’s actually the son of Bowers’ previous captain and lover. During the hunt for this and then a second treasure, the two of them fall in love, and Bowers has to prove to Christian that (a) he loves the son as much as he ever did the father, and (b) he’s willing to give up the sea in order to be with Christian.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I thought the characters were interesting, and the tangled story would have benefitted from being expanded to novel length and fully explored. I never did quite understand why anyone had to give up the sea – they could have become legitimate merchants rather than pirates and carried on sailing. There was a lot in here in terms of story and backstory and aims and themes and characterisation, and I felt it didn’t get a chance to be what it could have been because of the short length and the need to stuff it full of sex scenes. There are a lot of sex scenes, and I’m afraid my eyes did glaze over at points.

I can’t stop myself from saying that no 17th Century gentleman would be wearing trousers and boots, though. Trousers are not worn by respectable people until the early 19th Century. And this must be a 17th Century setting because a lot of it is set in Port Royal before the earthquake.

This one was interesting, I thought. Lots of potential, which I’d have loved to see expanded, but (IMO) sidetracked by too much sex. Again, your mileage may vary if the sex is what you’re looking for in the first place.

Of Boats and Bluebeards by Willa Okati:

Kit’s lover David runs away to sea and is drowned. Kit’s uncle, on finding out that Kit has a male lover, treats him so badly that Kit runs away to the docks too, hoping to be taken on as a sailor. This duly happens, but not before Kit acquires a hanger on in the shape of Paul, who is an old friend of David’s. However, the handsome and obliging captain who has press-ganged them both turns out to be a pirate of the old school – a rapist and murderer with a grizzly surprise locked away in one of the store rooms on his ship.

Despite the fact that this is another ship which leaves only a skeleton crew on watch at night (better than none at all, but still, what happens when the wind changes and there aren’t enough men to man the sails?) and continues to use the cannon even when boarding (thus mowing down their own men) I enjoyed this story. It’s refreshing to find a pirate who is genuinely piratical and not very nice. The threat of rape hanging over Kit, and the later threat of murder gave the story a real tension and suspense, and there’s a wonderfully grotesque and gruesome moment half way through that really had an impact on me. Paul and Kit’s hate/love relationship was also a nice twist, and I liked the open-ended ending which took them out of immediate danger but allowed them to go on to further adventures together.

Given the title and the historical Bluebeard, I should have been expecting the surprise, but I wasn’t, and I give the story due kudos for that. It woke me up, and I like that.

So… on the whole this anthology presents more good than bad. Few of the stories are exactly historically correct, but (except for the hearth) the anachronisms are not so egregious that I couldn’t enjoy the stories despite them. There was too much sex for me, but there was at least enough story to keep me reading despite that. One of the best examples of its sort, I think, and if you’re actually looking for erotica rather than romance it would be even better.

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Review: The Pleasure Slave by Jan Irving

Lucius Mettelus Carbo, once a legate on the rise in the Roman army, rescues a beautiful young prostitute, Varick, who immediately stirs him. However, Lucius doesn’t believe anyone could want him, a man cursed by the gods with an ugly, twisted leg. He resists his attraction to the pleasure slave as they forge a tempestuous relationship, and Varick tries to convince Lucius that he desires his master despite the injury. Both men are fighting their fears as they strive toward a future together… a future in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.

Review by Erastes

I have to say up front, that however my review seems to indicate the opposite, I did enjoy reading this book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the era.

The story takes place in Pompei, and a quick glance at the date (July 79AD) will set the scene immediately.  Volcano Day is on the way so we know our protags are going to be up against it.  However, sadly (and this is the second time in recent months that I’ve read an under representation of a cataclysmic eruption) the eruption, when it does come, is more of a damp squib than a OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE and the escape seems a little too easy, considering the rain of death that was going on.

Whilst I liked both protagonists, it was difficult to cheer them along, as I didn’t know if they even knew what they wanted.  The emotions are kept very much in check, Lucius’ less so, but he keeps himself back because he doesn’t want to fall in love with a slave, and Varick’s point of view is only very lightly visited, so we don’t get into his head much at all. However, the romance is very readable, warm and arousing, and the sexual level worked well for the length of the book.  I did feel that they cared for each other and that they needed to learn to trust each other, something that didn’t come easy for either of them.

The history is good and solid–the author even makes a note that she has, for her own timeline purposes, moved the destruction of Lucius’ regiment a few years, but that’s forgiveable, the best of historical novelists do that.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of this book a lot, because I love learning things, and the history and destruction of Lucius’ regiment was fascinating. The descriptions of the town, the murals, the graffiti and the villas are convincing, and never once did I get jolted out of the story.

Historically, too, Lucius’ behaviour is very apt–he no longer considers himself a man. He’s injured, and therefore is no use (in his mind). His friends shun him and he hasn’t even taken prostitutes since his disfigurement because it reminds him of all the men and women he had – paid or otherwise – when he was whole.  The stigma of falling in love with a slave is well described too.  Shag your property by all means, but you run the risk of being laughed at if you become “indulgent with it.”

I never quite understood what happened to Lucius’ leg, though – it’s twisted and wasted but I’d have liked a bit more of what actually happened to him when he got lost during the Batavian rebellion.

It’s sometimes a frustrating read, because there seems to be something else going on under the surface which is never quite explained, and there are a couple of dialogue sections which entirely baffled me.  Perhaps it’s due to the length restriction, but I feel that if the book had been perhaps 50 pages longer, it would have felt more complete.

At 90 or so pages (yes, it says 99 but of course many of those are introduction, cover, bio etc) I would have expected a little more story for my story, but at $3.99 it’s a pleasant read which will certainly fill an hour of your life and although may not set your world on fire, it shouldn’t disappoint.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

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.

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