Review: The German by Lee Thomas

From the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Lee Thomas come a new thrilling novel. 1944 – Barnard, Texas. At the height of World War II, a killer preys on the young men of a quiet Texas town. The murders are calculated, vicious, and they are just beginning. Sheriff Tom Rabbit and his men are baffled and the community he serves is terrified of the monster lurking their streets. The only clues the killer leaves behind are painted snuffboxes containing notes written in German. As the panic builds all eyes turn toward a quiet man with secrets of his own. Ernst Lang fled Germany in 1934. Once a brute, a soldier, a leader of the Nazi party, he has renounced aggression and embraces a peaceful obscurity. But Lang is haunted by an impossible past. He remembers his own execution and the extremes of sex and violence that led to it. He remembers the men he led into battle, the men he seduced, and the men who betrayed him. But are these the memories of a man given a second life, or the delusions of a lunatic?

Review by Erastes

It took me a good while to read this book, since I started it in July 2011 and finished it in December! In my defence I wasn’t reading it all the time, I don’t read that slowly, honest. It was that I was expecting it to all go a lot darker than it did (although it does go to some dark places) and I’m happy that my anticipation didn’t match what actually happened. Although, as I say, it’s not full of fluffy rabbits.

Ok, so basically it’s set in 1944 in a smallish Texan town and is told in three different POVs:

Tom Rabbit: the sherrif. 3rd person past tense.

The German: first person diary entry

Tim Randall: first person past tense.

Now, don’t let this put you off, as it’s absolutely the best way to tell this convoluted and highly interesting story. Like many places in America, the small town has a German community and suddenly young men are dying in horribly mutilated ways and evidence found on the bodies points to the fact that it’s a German murderer. Thus begins an exquisite tale of paranoia, prejudice and a study of how a community can tear itself apart under all sorts of justification.

The German of the title is Ernst, who is clearly a troubled, and yet a good man at heart. He writes in his journal of his past–memories of serving in an army, commanding man, many many men, and a betrayal, a court martial and–and here’s where it’s delightfully opaque–an execution which he seems to have survived, despite the terrible bullet scars on his body. He lives across the street from Tim Randall, an ordinary young man growing up in a small town and with his father overseas serving in the war, at daily threat from “the Krauts”.

Tim’s interaction with Ernst is light. Tim is curious about his neighbour but he doesn’t bother him, although when they do meet up Ernst tries to educate the boy about prejudice and hate. Sadly, although at first Tim appears to see the sense in this, his father is declared “missing in action” and Tim’s grief and fear is channelled in the only way it could be at this time and place–directly towards Ernst.

I loved the feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia here. The way Ernst is pretty much trammelled and keeps to himself for very clear reasons. He frequents a bar from time to time but mostly stays indoors or sits on the porch or swims in the lake. He does have male company occasionally although for most of the book this is with men who are disgusted with their own urges–which puts Ernst off from wanting to see them again.

The interaction between the sheriff and Ernst was masterful. Ernst so clearly in control and almost a little bored with the interrogation–he’s been interrogated before and by masters of the art after all. His frankness to the sheriff about his sexuality was a brilliant stroke–and the effect it had on the countrified and rather naive sheriff was an interesting study.

It’s not a pretty story in any aspect, nor is it meant to be, nor should it be, so be warned that the violence is graphic and literal and shocking. This is entirely right because it is shocking, what happens and who it happens to and why. It’s a terrible but sadly true indictment of human behaviour, beautifully observed and told with true skill.

If I have one quibble, it was the epilogue–the character it portrays didn’t strike me as having learned the lessons that he said he learned and it didn’t really ring true from what we’d seen on the pages previously. However that’s just a small quibble and won’t affect the score because the remainder of the epilogue was note perfect.

Just a note on the cover and the design. I’ve noticed with Lethe Press before that they take real pains over the design of their books. Not merely the covers–this one is perfect–but the font, and the design of the headers inside. It probably won’t show on e-readers, but the headings in this book are just amazingly good, and add another dimension to the book, and I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. So well done, Lethe Press.

Yes, there is — perhaps — an element of the paranormal here, but as it is completely subjective, I’m not hesitating to review it on the site and to recommend it to anyone.

Author’s website

Amazon UK      Amazon USA (available in print and ebook)

Review: Butterfly Dream by Dave Lara and Bud Gundy

At 6 years old, long before he discovers that he is gay, Banat Frantz learns that being Jewish in Hitler’s Germany is a bewildering crime for which he and his family must pay. Fire and loathing greet his emerging consciousness and a resourceful child begins to learn survival skills. Violently forced from their home and a successful business, his family immigrates to Holland but discover that they haven’t traveled far enough. They realize too late that Hitler’s mania would spread across a continent. The Nazis wrench the family apart, tossing them into the maw of the holocaust where only survival matters. Even in places where humanity itself chokes on the ashes of hatred, Banat realizes that he is gay and has fallen in love with another young Jew. The knowledge shapes his existence as he copes with the relentless horror of his life in a series of ever-more grim and nightmarish places until he finds himself in the hushed and gray world of Auschwitz, where silent screams fill every mind. But nothing can truly kill the spirit if it is filled with a longing for beauty. A young man of such sensibilities can forge moments of sublime bliss in whatever setting he encounters, and through a network of Jewish actors, writers, singers and intellectuals he learns that art can shelter his passions and that his very longing is his refuge. From his earliest memories of Nazi rallies that unleashed teeming hatred, to his redemption in a New York gay club, Banat Frantz lives an entire life before it ever really begins.

Review by Erastes

I find books about the concentration camps difficult to review and rate, let alone that they are often difficult–that is, painful–to read and this is no exception. One feels that one should have an automatic sympathetic response to the book, that one should praise it because of the subject matter, and by criticising it, one is somehow lessening the horror of what actually happened in Europe (and elsewhere.)

But although there was much to like about the book, I’m going to be critical too. Firstly, it’s another self-published book, and like nearly all self-published books (note I said ‘nearly’ before you get on your self-publishing high horse) the editing is appalling. Not merely shoddy, but absolutely unforgiveable. If the book had been through a second pair of eyes other than the two authors’ then that editor needs to have his/her red pen forcibly inserted somewhere. So if you are going to take on the book–and for some that will be a difficult decision, you’ll need to take onboard that not only is the subject matter tricky, but the editing will make you want to throw your e-reader at the wall.

Basically it’s the story of the Jewish boy, Banat, who, when the story begins is about six and he witnesses one of the rallies that Hitler was having in the 30’s. Things had already started to become difficult for Jews at this time, trading was limited and hatred was common-place and open. There’s a shocking scene where Banat was beaten up on the street by the father of a school-friend and no-one helps him at all. It’s a powerful scene, but was marred for me by there being no repercussions about it. Banat had been told to stay in, that it wasn’t safe–and although I’m sure his parents would have been less annoyed with him when he came back with a bloody bruised face, no mention was made of what happened when he did go home. There’s a lot of this kind of loose end stuff lying around which again, an editor would probably have helped with.

The problem I had with baby Banat, and again and again throughout the book is that I would have preferred it to be through the eyes of the protagonist himself. Instead of which, it’s written as a memoir, with all the hindsight and knowledge of what is going to happen and a knowledge of world events. It probably suits more people this way, but I think if Mockingbird had been written from the perspective of a older Scout it wouldn’t have had the same impact. The author as narrator can’t help but talk about things that are happening, that are going to happen, things that Banat could not possibly have known about and these intruded into his day-to-day experiences, when I would have preferred just to know about those experiences and not the world stage. We know what happened on the world stage, and on a small scale, those things only affected Banat in the way of him being Jewish.

However, as a memoir, it’s very readable–aside from the appalling editing. The concentration camp sections seem a little lighter than I was expecting. I’m not saying that I wanted in-depth descriptions of what Banat went through but really, other than a lack of food and warmth he managed to have a bit of a charmed life and drifted through the camps with what seemed very little danger to himself. Others disappeared but he not only survived–as people did–but he kept his father with him and remained in “safe” occupations for the most part. When he does mention the horror around him, like dead people littered around the camp its almost a surprise because the suffering hadn’t really been mentioned much before and I knew he had to be suffering every day.

So we can imagine Banat’s suffering, and what he’s going through, but I had to import it from information  gleaned from documentaries, books and films on the subject. Seeing as how terrible things didn’t happen to him–he’s even spared from being a bum-chum to a guard simply by saying “no thanks”–it then surprised me that he developed pretty bad PTSD after the war. He begins to suffer from “waking nightmares” and although I know his experiences in the camps could not have been good ones, because we aren’t told the horrors, his waking nightmares seem a bit over the top.

The days after the immediate liberation were a bit convenient. A group of them set off together–and the Russians don’t help them, being rather pre-occupied, and they find a camp where British soldiers had been held. There’s loads of food here, and they find a cow and a pig too. I found this a bit of a stretch, because why would the British soldiers–who they met later–leave behind so much food? Again, it’s all a little too pat, a little too charmed. He manages to get to Paris with no difficulty to retrieve his mother and getting the papers and money to return again is a piece of cake.

When he moves to America it’s much the same. He has more than enough money to live on as his father sends him loads, and when he does get a job it’s handed to him on a plate, and it’s a good job too.

It’s in New York where I noticed a large continuity hiccup and that worried me about the research for the rest of the book, as up to now I had been taking as gospel what I was reading was accurate as to dates and times. There’s mention of Caffe Cino – a cafe opened in 1958 by a retired dancer – and which became the birthplace of “off-off-Broadway” plays – but it certainly wasn’t around in 1948!

The ending is unsurprising, but sweet and all in all I enjoyed the read. I wouldn’t read it again though, even if the errors were taken out–and I highly recommend to the authors that they address this, it’s just too War-Lite for my taste.

Authors’ Websites: Bud Gundy  Dave Lara

Amazon UK   Amazon USA (available as print and ebook)

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: Lavender Boys by S.E. Taylor

Brock Evans heads for Hollywood in 1935, hoping to be the next Clark Gable, and meets another would-be star in Randy Pearce, who works as a soda jerk while awaiting his big break. It’s love at first sight, just like in the movies. But the path to stardom in Hollywood is not quite that easy. Brock finds a job as a florist shop delivery man and gets to meet some of Hollywood’s favorites, one of which finally gets him a screen test at a major studio.

Randy finds an agent who gets him a screen test, too. It turns out Randy is a ‘natural,’ but the big studios don’t want any more homosexual male stars after some previous bad experiences. What kind of Hollywood ending is in store for Randy and Brock, who are hiding their romance, their secret trips to the Lavender Lounge homosexual bar, and their homosexual boss and landlord with whom they live?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

Having just read a very good story about Hollywood in the fifties (Sticks and Stones, reviewed here) I was looking forward to Lavender Boys, hoping it would live up to the same standard. Alas, it didn’t. The story was unrealistic, predictable, silly, and not very well written. This is the author’s first book and it is always exciting to test the unknown waters of a new writer, especially in the genre of historical m/m fiction. It saddens me, then, when the book is not one I can recommend which is the case with Lavender Boys.

The synopsis, above, pretty much tells the whole story, except for the anti-climactic and unrealistic HEA ending. Basically, Brock and Randy meet, instantly fall in love, and set out together on their big Hollywood adventure. They have one lucky break after another. Even when things don’t work out quite right—such as when Brock blows the screen test arranged for him as a favor by Myrna Loy—it doesn’t really matter because it is just a sign that that was not how things were meant to be. No sadness, no introspection, just an “Oh well, golly gee, at least we have each other!” and on to the next adventure. Any time conflict or danger threatens their lives, it is dealt with in a paragraph or two, meaning the reader doesn’t have to suffer any angst, either, just like Randy and Brock.

Hollywood circa 1935 is evoked by dropping famous names throughout the book. Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and others I am forgetting (there were dozens of them) all make guest appearances. They all love Randy and Brock because they are as cute as buttons and besides, Brock looks just like Clark Gable! This is a source of endless amusement to the stars and the basis of more than one practical joke. It’s a pretty open secret that Randy and Brock are lovers—not too hard to figure out since they call each other “Baby” and “Sugar” every single time they open their mouths, no matter who they are with or what they are doing—but the stars are all willing to look the other way on this issue because “the boys” are so adorable and besides, it’s the big studios who act like Neanderthals on the homosexual issue, not the free-thinking, open-minded and very liberal movie stars.

Um, right.

As I said, the story lurches along from adventure to adventure with no discernable plot. The writing is amateurish and the dialog inane. Things that might have been interesting to read about, such as Randy having a bit part in a movie, happen off page. They talk about the movie and go to the premiere but the actual filming experience is written away in a sentence or two.

I did enjoy the character of Gracie the housekeeper, only because her ruminations on “the queers” that she worked for were so over-the-top. She was disgusted by the stains on the bedspread and fretted about scrubbing her hands after cleaning the bathroom. However, because she was a source of conflict, she was very quickly given the axe, never to be heard of again. Oh well. Once she was gone, the story settled right back into its banal predictability.

All in all, there is not much in Lavender Boys to recommend. It fails as historical fiction and it’s not a particularly entertaining story, either. I suppose for readers who like super-sweet love stories it might appeal, but for me, it was too much sugar and not enough spice.

Buy at Torquere

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: Conflict by Stevie Woods

The sequel to Cane.

Two men, one war. Can love survive when each takes a different side?

Leaving his lover behind to support the abolitionist cause, Piet Van Leyden finds himself leading one of the first all-black Union troops into the heart of battle. Reuniting with free slave and former love Joss brings some comfort, but will his presence tempt Piet into forgetting the love waiting for him at home?

Sebastian Cane wonders how he’s able to go on without Piet by his side. When a series of unfortunate events lands him a prisoner of the Union, Seb knows he must rely on his wits and his love for Piet to survive…and get home to him. 

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

Reader, I was bored. This book echoes, rather unfortunately, my impressions of J P Bowie’s “Warrior Prince”. I know that there are readers for this book, alas, I’m not one of them.

Short summary of what we find here. At the time of the American Civil War, Sebastian Cane, a “Southern gentleman”, his lover and plantation manager Pieter van Leyden, and Pieter’s childhood lover and Sebastian’s ex-slave, Joss, end up in something of a love triangle against the backdrop of the civil war.

Pieter goes off to fight, where he meets Joss again. Sebastian stays behind, moping, until he hears that Pieter is dead, and, seeking death himself now, joins the Confederates.

If I’d have to sum up the impression the book made on me in one word, that word would be ‘repetition’. Everything’s repeated. Both men (Sebastian and Pieter) are approached for sex in the name of comfort. Both men agree, after some soul-searching and angsting, both do the dirty with a stranger/friend, then feel terrible about it and angst some more. Both men are taken prisoners by the other side in the conflict. And so on, and so forth.

The book opens with a lot of backstory, many, many pages devoted to bringing us up to specs about what happened in the prequel, “Cane”, and my eyes glazed over during those long, long passages where absolutely nothing happened, and things were repeated in three different point-of-views – Sebastian Cane gets his version, Pieter van Leyden gets his version, and Joss gets his version, too. Not that any of this is important to the plot, only that Sebastian and Pieter love each other very much and Joss has a connection to both. That could have been told so much faster and more efficiently without boring the reader to tears (who was, in this case, not even aware he was dealing with a sequel).

The history seems okay for the most part. Woods’ main issue is that for the life of the author, they don’t manage to bring any of this alive. This reader didn’t care. It could have happened on another planet – nothing that happened had any impact on me. Instead I wondered why on earth anybody needs three characters telling the same story, when the author chooses an omniscient narrator. Technique here seems lacking; I’m not sure the author chose any point-of-vierw deliberately, because it seemed to want to be third person, but ended up omniscient – and all characters, slave, southern gentleman and plantation manager, sound exactly the same and act exactly in the same manner. Maybe Joss is even more selfless and sacrificing than the other two, but that’s really the only difference I could detect. They speak the same, they act the same, they sound the same when they think. And this reader didn’t care about them just the same.

Another killing blow – the characters have no flaw. Joss is a saint, Pieter is a saint, and, guess what, Sebastian is a saint, too. They are all so good and pure and cute, possessing the pure hearts of five year old boys brought up in a cloister, that I found myself entirely disbelieving I was reading about people. The sex was all cute and nice and totally unerotic – nothing was resolved, there was, quite ironically for a novel called “Conflict” no real conflict, no real progress, no sparks flying, it was all nice and sweet and placid, with bad things happening that never really touched this reader or the characters. The author claimed they were suffering, but these saints bore it placidly, spiced up with lots of angst and luke-warm longing.

Add to that a language just as tepid and unexciting, and you get a good idea why I was dreading my commute more than normal (and it had nothing to do with London’s horror or the suffering of morning/evening cattle class). I just didn’t want to spend my time in the company of these weepy little boys. At no point did I feel I was dealing with characters from the time period. The most jarring example is when our “southern gentleman” sounds like a modern-day California porn star during a ‘wet dream’ sequence which I found cringeworthy rather than sexy. I’m talking about this scene, which, in terms of writing, is pretty typical:

It took longer than he expected before Lane was able to check on Cane, but he was relieved to find the man sleeping, and reasonably peacefully. Often delirium caused those affected to sleep very restlessly.

Lane pulled up a stool, taking the opportunity for a few minutes rest; it was for once fairly quiet in the ward. He’d almost started to doze when he heard muttering from Cane, and saw that even though the man still appeared to be sleeping peacefully, his eye movements were rapid. The captain realized he was dreaming and if the slight smile was any indication it was a good one. Cane began to mutter again, a little more clearly this time and Lane could’ve sworn he heard the words, ‘yeah, just there’.

Staring at the man he considered a friend, albeit not a particularly close one, Mason wondered if it would really matter if he listened a little closer. If his guess was correct,

Cane was having an erotic dream and a little titillation wouldn’t do any harm. Damn, but it would do him some good!

The man was well and truly out of it and he’d never even know. Carefully, so as not to disturb the sleeping man, Lane moved his stool as near as he could to the bed.

“God … harder … yeah, that’s … ooooh, fuck!” Cane moaned, tossing his head from side to side. Lane leaned closer. “Deeper, Pieter … more … oh, God.” Cane’s movement stilled, he gave a deep sigh and was silent.

Mason sat frozen on the stool, staring at Cane. He could hardly believe what he’d heard but then a smile broke slowly over his face. He’d wanted titillation and he got more than he bargained for. Who’d have guessed?

“Oh, boy, you and I have got some talking to do when you’re better,” Lane muttered. “Lord, do I hope you don’t die of this thing.”

Taking one last look at the lieutenant as he got to his feet, Lane nodded his head and whistling softly, walked away.

While I’m not an expert on Southern gentlemen and plantation owners in the 1860ies, I’m not convinced this is what one of them sounds like in his sleep. And this is just one example where the characters just weren’t believable.

As I said, the history seemed mostly okay, the main flaw was that I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t engage with the characters, I didn’t care about them. At the end of all these things that happened to them (wounding, long prison sentence, loss of friends), they haven’t changed at all. And I’m not starting on the fact that Sebastian spends many months in a prisoner-of-war camp with not a fruit or vegetable in sight and doesn’t lose his teeth – some creative license can be taken when dealing with the past. One is a bit thinner and greying, the other is tired of war. I’m not sure what the author tries to communicate here. War is hard? War isn’t worth it?

The book is a “historical romance” with a couple sex (pretty tame) sex scenes, so if you just want a nice sweet romance with lots of pining and a war that is mostly used to keep two lovers separated for almost all of the book, go for it. Personally, the book didn’t make any impact on me, the writing and characterisation was just not strong enough for me to get anything from this. I know there are readers out there for this kind of stuff, and at least it has a discernible plot and the research seems mostly ok, but this wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Author’s Website

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Review: The Why Not by Victor J Banis

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

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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Review: Heartache Cafe by J.S. Cook

J.S. Cook debuts haunted American expatriate Jack Stoyles, whose numb exile in an unexpected Atlantic outpost is suddenly brightened by a stranger who kisses him — and then dies. Betrayal, graft, a lost girl, and too many deaths. With good reason Jack called his place Heartache Cafe.

This short story in ebook format part of the Partners in Crime #5 Committed to Memory print series.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The version of the e-book I received features two stories, “Don’t Look Back” by Josh Lanyon and “Heartache Café” by J.S. Cook. Only “Heartache Café” is historical fiction, which I realized halfway into “Don’t Look Back”—I just had too much fun with Josh Lanyon’s story to really care about that I only want to read historicals and my recreational reading was supposed to wait. Best-laid plans. So, I’d definitely recommend reading the two-author anthology; also because Lanyon and Cook have two very distinct voices which fit together very well for the purposes of this book that explores memory and memory loss.

Heartache Café is set in St John’s, Newfoundland, in the early 1940’s. The American Jack has just set up a new life for himself in the town and opened the eponymous café, when his peace is shattered by shady dealings. His bartender, Chris, gets involved with a lady and tied into a larger intrigue, which leads to people getting murdered and Jack investigating the mysteries of the harbor town. I don’t want to give too much away, and it isn’t really necessary to talk all that much about the plot, because I found the writing and the voice of our first person narrator Jack most compelling. This is one of those texts that aren’t easy, but it’s intense and engrossing; J S Cook shows her literary roots again clearly here. Just like in “Because you Despise Me”, it’s the language that compels about the story:

It was dark when I woke up, and the face looking back at me from the rearview mirror had a five o’clock shadow and then some. A little warning voice in the back of my brain was telling me that this was bad, this was really bad, this was worse than anything, and maybe I shouldn’t get out of the car, maybe I should just call the cops.

I didn’t listen. I never do. I went up that filthy, stinking little alley, and I opened his office door, but I was much too late, and he was gone. There was blood everywhere.

I stopped my car just before the bridge and walked on. The sun was rising, the first rays creeping over the city a little at a time. I looked up at the great steel span of the bridge, and I began to climb. The cables cut into my bare hands, and I was almost weeping with the cold, but I kept climbing. I’d climb so far that it would never touch me. I’d climb until I could forget that awful little room and the stink of blood and all the rest of this sordid mess. I’d climb till I was free. I stood there looking down into the icy water and wondering if the drop would be enough to kill me, or if I’d drown first…or die of cold. I saw the weirdest thing — a small sailboat coming down the river, tacking into the wind — a ridiculous little thing, no bigger than a minute, sailing down the Delaware like it had every right to be there. I thought about pictures I’d seen of graceful feluccas on the Nile River in Egypt, and as I watched the little boat tacking into the wind, something occurred to me. I climbed down from the bridge, walked to where my car was parked, got in and drove away.

Jack is a deep guy, seemingly private, but also readily makes friends. Much remains under the surface, not because Jack attempts to hide anything, but because he mostly keeps his own counsel and rarely shows his hand, unless he has to. What lies underneath is poignant loneliness which isn’t really resolved with sex (and he finds a couple casual ‘lovers’) or friendship. At the bottom of it, Jack is, I think, a romantic looking for the one true love, a man who can fascinate and enrapture him and sweep him off his feet to break through all his protective layers. One such man presents himself in a mysterious Egyptian who appears almost more like a fairy-tale creature than a man of flesh and blood at first. While Jack solves the crime and survives danger and distress, his heart gets stolen in the course of the story, but this love story isn’t resolved (yet).

“Heartache Café” is the first part of a series, or connected to an upcoming novel called “Valley of the Dead”, which will take us to Egypt on the quest for the vanished lover.

In terms of history, I saw no flaw, but I didn’t expect any—the writing is smooth and engrossing, I read this in two sittings and completely forgot everything else around me. Closing the book (or the file) I felt I knew that world and its inhabitants and Jack. And that’s really the point of reading, isn’t it?

Review: To Hell You Ride by Julia Talbot

Big Roy is a hard rock miner with a not so secret love for the theater, so when he hears a new troupe of actors are coming to the Telluride opera house to put on a Shakespeare play, he saddles his mule and makes the trek into town to see it.

The play doesn’t disappoint, but the beautiful lead actor, Sir Edward Clancy, certainly does. Clancy is rude and arrogant, and Roy figures he’d never have a chance with such a man. He’s wrong, because Clancy needs some entertainment himself, being stuck in a Hellish mining town for the long, snowy winter.

Come spring, though, Clancy knows he’s going to want to move on, and he thinks Roy will be easy to forget. Then tragedy strikes, and Clancy has to rethink his entire life. Can these two strike gold?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

“‘Thank the Lord and all the angels,’ as Big Roy Marsh would say. ‘A historical western that gets it right.’”

Edward Clancy looked up from his book. “What’s that you say?”

Roy Marsh looked at him. “I’m readin’ a review and she quotes me.”

“A review? Of what?”

“The book about us, of course!” Roy gave Clancy an exasperated stare.

“Which one?”

Roy wondered if Clancy was being dense on purpose. “Tis only one, as you know. Ain’t dozens of books ‘bout us. To Hell You Ride, the one by Miss Julia Talbot.”

“Ah,” said Clancy. “And what does she say? Is it a positive review?”

Roy nodded. “I’d say so. Five stars.”

“Five stars! A superior rating! That’s better than my last performance.”

“You didn’t rehearse enough for that one.”

“You were too busy keeping me busy.”

Roy blushed at that.

Clancy gestured towards the paper. “Go on, read some more.”

Roy cleared his throat. “‘Big Roy Marsh is a gold miner, working high in the mountains above Telluride, Colorado. On Saturday, he likes nothing better than to ride his mule, Annie, into town, stop for a shave, haircut and perhaps a bath, then put on his ‘Sunday go-to-meeting clothes’ and head to the theater.’”

“That’s what you still like,” Clancy interrupted.

Roy nodded. “I surely do, even if you do make me wear a suit.”

“You look particularly fine in a suit.”

Roy blushed again. He looked back down at the paper. “‘On this particular Saturday, Roy is transfixed by the performance of Sir Edward Clancy in the role of MacDuff. He accidently bumps into the actor the next morning and wishes to pay him a compliment, but Sir Edward arrogantly brushes him aside.’”

Clancy frowned. “Why did she have to include that?”

“It’s true. You were arrogant.” He continued reading. “‘When a comment about Sir Edward’s rudeness makes it into the paper, Clancy decides he requires a personal apology and sets out to get it, which becomes the basis for an amusing encounter between the two men.’”

“Amusing, hmm? I thought it was odd.”

“Amusing or odd, you couldn’t get enough of me,” Roy said.

It was Clancy’s turn to blush.

Roy turned back to the paper. “‘Roy and Clancy are the unlikeliest of lovers, but Talbot tells their story deftly, moving from a relationship built on carnal lust and a base desire for each other to one of a strongly shared love and mutual need.’” Roy’s brow furrowed. “Sounds a little personal, here.”

“Well, if you didn’t want it to be personal, you shouldn’t have shared so many details. I told you to be a bit more circumspect.”

Roy looked at his lover, his lips tightening into a hard line, but didn’t say anything. “‘The reason why this story works so well as a historical western, as opposed to a story that takes place in the old days, is the way the author effortlessly evokes the time and period. Little details bring the frontier town of Telluride to life, with its wood-framed buildings and muddy roads leading high up into the mountains. I particularly loved this line, ‘Only thing he’d taken had been his own shoes and coat, assuming them after he was out in the hallway, bright with its fancy electric lights that looked so odd to Roy. Any light that didn’t flicker with the wind just oughtn’t be trusted.’” Roy looked at the electric lamp at his elbow, then looked at Clancy. “Not sure why she’d comment on that,” he said. “Still think it’s true.”

Clancy smiled at him. “Oh, my rough miner. You never change, do you?”

“Do you want me to?” Roy asked.

Clancy shook his head. “No,” he answered softly.

Roy took a minute to compose himself, then picked up the paper again. “‘Themes are beautifully woven throughout the story, such as shaving and bathing. At the beginning, they are impersonal acts between Roy and the barber—a business transaction. Then they become erotic moments between the two main characters and ultimately, an act of caring and love, when Edward bathes Roy after a life-threatening accident.’”

Roy stopped. “Well,” he said.

“Well,” Clancy replied.

“I didn’t know we was being erotic,” said Roy.

“I didn’t know we had themes, but I suppose I should have figured it out, given my prowess in the acting profession.”

Roy chuckled. “Gotta hand it to you, Clancy, you ain’t ever been one to hide your light under a bushel.”

Clancy pointed to the paper. “Go on. Is there anything else?”

Roy nodded. “‘All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying novella. Colorful, well-drawn characters, a totally engaging story, historical details that were pitch perfect in pulling me into turn-of-the-century Colorado. Having read a number of Westerns that come nowhere near this standard, it was a true pleasure to stumble upon this unexpected gem.’” Roy stopped reading. “Guess she liked it.”

Clancy nodded. “With a review like that, I suppose I shall have to stop ignoring this book and actually read it. Do we own a copy?”

“Yup,” said Roy. “It’s in the bedroom, next to the bed.”

“Will you fetch it for me?”

Roy shook his head mournfully. “Now, Edward, you know I ain’t your manservant, here to do your fetching. You can go get it for yourself.”

“I suppose I shall have to do that.” Clancy brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his trousers. “Perhaps you will accompany me?”

“To the bedroom?” Roy asked.

Clancy nodded. “Some of the things you read reminded me of memories that have, um, quite aroused me. I think, perhaps, some recreation is in order.”

“You mean getting fancy?” Roy winked.

“You know precisely what I mean, my love.”

Roy stood up. “You lead the way, honey,” he said with a smile.

“I don’t need to be asked twice,” replied Clancy, as they headed out of the room, the newspaper forgotten on the chair.

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Review: Calico by Dorien Grey

“Calico” is something of a breakthrough novel in that it spans a bridge which is only now opening for two-way traffic. The author describes “Calico” as a “western/romance/adventure/mystery with a twist”…the twist being that its cowboy hero/protagonist just happens to be gay.

Calico Ramsey finds himself with the responsibility of seeing that two 17 year old orphaned twins from Chicago, Josh and Sarah Howard, get safely from the rail line’s end to their aunt in Colorado. But things have begun to go terribly wrong even before the twins arrive, and it doesn?t take long for Calico to realize someone does not want him to reach his destination (though how anyone even knows the trio’s destination is a mystery to Calico).

There is enough action, adventure, and mystery to satisfy both diehard western fans, and even those who don’t normally care for the genre. The gently developing romance is non-threatening to those who have lived their lives on the “mainland” side of the bridge, but offers a unique insight into the 10 percent of the population living at the other end of the bridge.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When Calico Ramsey’s uncle Dan is gunned down by a hired killer, Calico inherits not only Dan’s ranch, but also a responsibility to Dan’s newly orphaned nephew and niece. He promises to see them safely into the custody of their Aunt Rebecca, even though nobody to whom he speaks has a good word to say about the woman. The twins’ parents died in a fire following a visit from Rebecca and her husband, so when Calico and the twins are almost killed themselves in a fire the first night out, Calico begins to suspect something sinister. As their journey continues it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill the three of them before they can get to Rebecca’s house. Calico must protect his two charges, figure out what is going on and why, and deal with the burgeoning love and attraction he feels for Josh.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of Westerns, and am not, unfortunately, any kind of expert in the time. Nothing in the setting of this book, or the behaviour of the characters pinged me as wrong for 19th Century America, but take that with a pinch of salt as I can’t speak with any kind of knowledge on the subject. What the book reminded me of most of all was the kind of TV Western series which I watched when I was growing up. It had the same kind of strong but decent, openhearted characters, a laconic expression and stoicism that covered up deep emotions and a real appreciation of a seemingly endless landscape, with all the beauty and freedom and danger that represented.

I was also reminded of these old series because the book proceeds in a number of episodes, each of which end in a cliffhanger. There is a lot of welcome action; a memorable gunfight, runaway horses, arson, ambushes and kidnapping – there’s really no chance to ever get bored. And if, like me, you find constant action a bit wearing too, you’ll still like this book because the action is interspersed with some lovely quiet moments; companionship around the campfire, the very sweet and tender romance between Calico and Josh, moments where the beauty of the countryside comes through, and moments of good food and hospitality from strangers who become friends.

After reading Brokeback Mountain, it’s slightly hard for me to believe that neither Calico nor Josh have much in the way of angst about accepting their attraction for men in general and each other in particular, and even harder to believe that nobody in the book who knows about it seems to have a problem with it. But Dorien Gray writes the characters in such a way that I was prepared to believe that these particular people are simply fortunate in their emotional makeup and friends, rather than feeling that the whole society was anachronistic.

I enjoyed the fact that the greater part of the story took place over a journey from the railway station to the Aunt’s house. It really gave a picture of how difficult travel was in those days. I also enjoyed the mystery, and although I had worked out who the villain was, and why they were doing this, by the time it was revealed, I hadn’t done it so early on as to be disappointed with the heroes for not realising it earlier.

My main problem with the book, and why it only gets a four and a half star review rather than a five, is the ending. The final confrontation with the villain is over very easily and for a moment I almost thought we’d lost a gunman. Although I find I was wrong about that and he was accounted for, my impression was still that the villain is disappointingly easily dealt with at the end.

More than this, though, I felt that the romance was denied a scene that it needed to round it off. Throughout the book, Calico had been saying to himself and Josh “I’ll think about that later. I’ll think about it when you’re 18. I’ll think about it once we’re out of this life threatening peril.” All of which was very sensible and you couldn’t help agreeing that he was right to look at it that way. However, the end of the book finds Josh 18 and the life-threatening peril out of the way, but there never is a scene where Calico does that thinking and makes that ‘yes, we’re a couple’ decision that the book (I thought) had been leading up to. So I felt the romance part of the plot suffered from a lack of resolution. I’d have liked to see Calico make the commitment to Josh that had been hinted at throughout.

However, the ending does leave the two of them together, so I can happily imagine that they get that bit sorted out off camera, so to speak, and although I would have liked to see a more romance focussed ending, it doesn’t in any way take away from how much I enjoyed everything that went before it. I’ll definitely be reading this one again with a lot of pleasure.

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Review: Sticks and Stones by Jamie Craig

Complementing each other on the dance floor isn’t enough to form a relationship. Is it? It’s 1953, and Hollywood is booming with extravagant musicals. Coming off a string of hits with MGM, Paul Dunham couldn’t be hotter. Hoping to capitalize on Paul’s popularity, the studio announces its attention to pair him with the latest actor to make a splash, Jack Wells. It seems like a match made in heaven, except for the fact that Paul can’t stand Jack. He hates the way Jack acts, and he hates Jack’s blue eyes, and he especially hates the fact that Jack is one of the most talented dancers he has ever met. Jack, however, doesn’t hate Paul. In fact, everything Paul does fascinates him. After their first meeting, Jack is determined to win Paul over, and he won’t back down until Paul admits that the two of them are perfect partners…in every way…

Review by T J Pennington

Those of you who know me know that I adore improbable pairings–people who shouldn’t even be friends, let alone lovers, because their personalities, attitudes and so on are so opposite each other. That’s the situation in Sticks and Stones.

Paul Dunham is an established actor in Hollywood–a leading man and excellent dancer with a reputation as a ladies’ man that he has carefully constructed over the years. Jack Wells is a Broadway actor/dancer who’s somewhat younger than Paul. Now Jack is trying to break into movies, and, since Paul’s last movie didn’t do as well as expected, the President of MGM, Dore Schary, has put the two men in the movie Sticks and Stones, hoping they can boost each other up.

It’s a match made in Hell.

Jack gets off on the wrong foot with Paul automatically by being an obsessive fanboy. When refused entrance to Paul’s house by the housekeeper, Jack, who is dazzled by the notion that he is going to be playing opposite the actor he’s had a crush on for years, simply climbs the fence and enters Paul’s studio by the back. He’s honestly puzzled by the fact that Paul, a deeply private man, doesn’t welcome his intrusion into his studio or into his career. And when Jack doesn’t know how to cope, he defaults to making passes at people.

This, from Paul’s point of view, is even worse than the home invasion. For Paul is bisexual-leaning-gay, and since he knows that his preference is a) illegal and b) could destroy his career if word got out that one of MGM’s male stars likes men as lovers, he has avoided sex with men for the past four years and is working very hard at projecting the image of a very masculine, very heterosexual man. There are a few chinks in his armor; Paul’s best friend Martin knows that Paul is more attracted to him than to Martin’s wife Lilah, for all that Lilah is the one that Paul’s having sex with, and more than a few hints are dropped that Paul’s former girlfriend, actress Betty Thayer, also knows of his proclivities.

However, the secret is mostly intact…until Jack appears, operating on autoflirt. This terrifies Paul, who is afraid that someone will see Jack’s flirting and, based on his physical response to Jack, will deduce that Paul is less than straight, causing his carefully constructed life to come crashing down around his ears.

For much of the book, Jack, who is determined to put Paul in a position where he’ll have to react physically or admit that he’s attracted, desperately wants the star that he’s spent years idolizing to see him as a professional, as an equal and as a handsome man. And to this end, he’ll try anything that will allow him to spend a little extra time with Paul, from working long hours on the set to appearing with Paul and a couple of actresses publicly to promote the movie they’re currently filming. He doesn’t admit, even to himself, how much Paul’s good opinion is starting to mean to him, or how bothered he is by the other man’s lack of interest.

After a disastrous public “double date” in which Jack gets loudly and aggressively drunk, nearly exposing Paul’s secret, Paul takes Jack home and then, when Jack realizes his house keys are on the key ring to the Buick he’s loaned to their mutual dates and can’t unlock his door, over to Martin’s house. On the way to both places, they talk. Jack lets Paul know just how much he resents the walls that Paul’s built around himself–and the fact that he can’t get past them. Paul insists that his private life should stay private, and then says something very telling…and very sad, because it’s true, not only for Paul in 1953 but a great many LGBTQ people today:

“You’re right, you know. I don’t want anyone getting in. don’t know what world you’re living in, Jack, but where I live, there’s too much to lose by trusting the wrong person.”

Honesty helps the men talk out their differences, though it doesn’t fix what’s wrong. Jack is starting to grasp the strength of Paul’s willingness to do whatever it takes to pass as straight and thereby maintain his career; the problem is, he loathes the unwritten rules of Hollywood that make such games necessary. Moreover, he feels he’s never going to get Paul’s approval for anything he does or is. Paul, on the other hand, who knows he’s attracted to the man, discovers he’s changed his mind about Jack’s skill; he is a good dancer. And, despite Jack’s flaws, he’s learned to his surprise that he doesn’t mind Jack as a person, either. And once Paul deposits Jack at Martin’s house, the two share an intense kiss.

Of course, once they kiss, they both have to admit to themselves how attracted they are…as well as the fact that most of the animosity in their relationship has turned into something considerably more volatile. A few chapters later, an after-hours dance rehearsal at Paul’s home leads to wild passionate sex…which is followed by one of the best sex-in-the-shower scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s clear by now that the two of them are good together, and that they truly make each other happy. The authors are clever; they set up a potentially idyllic situation and then proceed to show that neither love nor sex solve all of Paul and Jack’s problems. Paul is still petrified about the prospect of exposure and the probability that a photographer will snap a picture of Jack leaving his house in the early morning or that Jack will do something publicly that can’t be passed off as Jack being…well, Jack. Jack’s quick temper leads him to say cruel, wounding things even when he knows better. And just as both men have started to work past their issues and are settling into the start of a new relationship, they’re haunted by a one-night stand with a young man who’s willing to do anything to succeed, including committing blackmail.

Though the authors were evenhanded in their treatment of the two protagonists, I found the Montgomery Clift-like Paul more sympathetic, partly because I initially found Jack’s expectations of instant friendship with his idol and his subsequent anger when he didn’t get it somewhat stalker-ish rather than romantic, and partly because Paul was living in the real world. He knew who he was and what he wanted…but he also knew that it was 1953, that MGM was focusing mostly on wholesome family pictures and that being exposed as a homosexual would compromise his reputation, his career, his future and possibly his life. Paul’s fear of exposure and its very real consequences lent the novel gravity, believability and power.

The sexual details, too, are powerful…intense, detailed, wholly credible. And they’re not only hot, but also say a great deal about the characters and their world. The scene that stands out most in my mind is that of Lilah sucking off Paul while her husband, Paul’s best friend Martin, watches. Now, I can hear some people in the back saying, “Ewww, het!” But to me, it was an incredible scene. Paul wanted to be touched by a man he cared about so badly that he was willing to let his best friend’s wife suck him off while Martin watched so that he could fantasize that Martin was the one making love to him. That says so much about the man’s isolation–that there is no one in Hollywood who can be trusted to give him the love he so desperately needs. This is the best he can do. And he’s so accustomed to this accommodation he doesn’t let himself think about what he really wants for even a second, lest he realize that he’s unhappy and very much alone.

One thing that I especially liked was the level of detail that the the authors included in the book. For example, at one point early on, Paul thinks that he doesn’t want to look like “a hulking bruiser of a bulldog” next to “a little yippy terrier,” like two characters that appeared in a “Warner Brothers cartoon last year.” Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier were only in two shorts for Warner Brothers: Tree for Two (1952) and Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide (1954), so right away the year had to be 1953 or 1955. And it’s emphasized throughout that what Dore Schary–who headed MGM from 1951 to 1956–wants, he gets, which would be far more probable two years after he was hired than the year before he was fired. So even if you didn’t know the date the story is set, you could still figure out from in-story references that it’s 1953.

I also liked that the authors took the time to show Paul and Jack’s relationship shifting from adversarial dislike and hurt pride to appreciation for each other’s talents and finally to honesty and the realization that, despite the risks, this relationship was worth keeping.

I was sorry, therefore, that neither the ending nor the epilogue quite rang true. I could accept one man sacrificing his reputation to a blackmailer to keep the other safe; what I couldn’t accept was the blackmailer going along with it. It seemed to me that such sacrifice would only tell the blackmailer that someone was willing to put everything on the line to save someone he loved…and then both men would be targets. So while I was deeply relieved to see the blackmailing snake foiled by a brave and generous lover, I couldn’t quite believe it would be that easy.

And while I was willing to accept that perhaps MGM had finagled matters to avoid having one of their actors arrested or imprisoned after he’d admitted his preferences publicly–it would have been in their interest to avoid scandal after all–I didn’t feel that one man giving up his studio name and going back to his real one would ensure that Paul and Jack could associate with each other with impunity. It’s not hard to discover for a reporter to discover an actor’s real name, after all. And I felt certain that the studio would be interested in damage control–including keeping one man as far away from the other as possible. It was a happy ending (it left Paul and Jack very much in love and very much together), but it was not a believable happy ending.

Nevertheless, it’s a very good book. And I would definitely recommend it.

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