Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Anything Goes -- with John Barrowman and Torchwood

Here's everything you ever wanted to know about John Barrowman -- plus a lot you couldn't have imagined, and a few items you probably could have lived happily without knowing, but hey, if you're broad-minded it's all a chuckle.

Name me someone, anyone, who doesn't love John Barrowman?! Most people, though, would be tightly focused in on a couple of aspects of JB. It's going to be either Captain Jack Harkness who's their fascination, or it's going to be the very gayness of a very gorgeous actor who's out and always has been, or it could easily be the lure of the world of live theater.

In this book, you get to pick what you want, like you're strolling down the buffet table. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones ... I'm interested in the theater, and I'm interested in JB for his own sake, and I've been watching Doctor Who since about 1966, so anything that has DW or Torchwood in it or on it will send my antennas up faster than Uncle Martin's. (I could tell you coming out stories. What, coming out as gay...? No. Coming out as a Doctor Who fan. It was a harrowing experience, but the fact the place had gone gaga just recently for Captain Jack made it easy. I never came out as a DW fan back in the days of rubbery monsters and $2 spaceships. No guts.)

Anyway -- Anything Goes is basically the story of John Barrowman: The First 40 Years ... without omission, and with boatloads of detail, especially about his early years. Those chapters are endearing and amusing. His family (and his father especially) seem to have been fonder than usual of practical jokes, and JB grew up with an, uh, broad sense of humor that knows no shame. If you're of a delicate nature: be warned!

The Doctor Who and Torchwood years are obviously the last few chapters in a bio that's telling four decades of story. (I've heard a few criticisms of the book for this, but I can't see a good enough reason for being critical on this. Anything... isn't "Behind the Scenes with John on Torchwood." It's the story of the man's whole life, of which Jack Harkness features in the last few years. Be reasonable, guys.)

I hadn't realized that JB only "officially" came out to the world at large about five years ago. He gives the impression of a guy who was never "in," so I never thought to question his "in or out" status. I have to confess, my first experience with JB was in the Chris Eccleston season of DW, and like everyone else I was bowled right over. Anyway, the coming out parts of the book are light and easy ... Anything Goes also isn't any kind of "coming out" story. JB had it easy, it seems. I actually wish he'd written a bit more here, but it's possible there isn't anything else to write! If one's life isn't screwed up and traumatized, you just get on with your future, like the song says -- "Don't worry, be happy!"

Anything Goes is a very happy book. In a couple of places the humor isn't the kind of thing you'd want your dear old mom and aunt to read ... and maybe someone's romantic illusions will get a fracture or two ... but this is also a very male book: it's by a guy, about a guy, and one of the best, most interesting things about it, is that it opens a doorway into the mind and heart of a gay guy who's happy and successful -- and invites you in.

The book has loads of surprises which I'm not even going to get into here. It'd be like giving plot spoilers for a fiction book. Just because Anything Goes is non-fic doesn't mean you want somebody to tell you all the best bits before you read it! And do read it --

You can get it in hardback and paperback ... loads of fun, highly recommended! AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Here's John Barrowman online: http://www.johnbarrowman.com/, and right now you can get very good deals on Anything Goes at Amazon:



(There's also a bunch of Torchwood goodies which I'm going to be naughty and link you to here, as well. I know I should concentrate on the review in hand but ... what the heck, it's MY blog, and I'm going to bend the rules because ... well, because it's Torchwood. So here goes... I'll link a few, but seriously, link on over to Amazon and drool for a while!)





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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

LA's deep, dark heart ... Jackal in the Dark

David Patrick Beavers is a writer I don't know much about beyond the standard bio (born in California in 1959 and so on). Jackal in the Dark was his debut novel, and he went on to do at least six others, one of which is a sequel to Jackal... which stands on its own plot-wise. (I was never able to get a copy of that one in the 1990s; you can get it now, but with the shipping and exchange rate it'd come out at about forty bucks, and ... well, another time.)

Jackal in the Dark came out in 1994, and you knew from the first few pages, this writer was on his way to great things. Or should have been...

I wish I could tell you more about this gifted novelist, but his in-print career seems to have hit the rocky shoals at the same at as Mel Keegan's -- and probably for the same reason. (Josh Lanyon was another casualty). What happened? Well, it's a long sad story!

GMP was bought out by Prowler, which was in turn bought out by Millivres ... and Millivres decided, around 2000, that they had no interest in continuing their paperback list, so authors like Keegan, Lanyon and Beavers found themselves in limbo. MK tells the story in a few places. (If you're interested to know what happened -- what landed at least three great writers in the realm of the POD People, have a look at this: http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/07/blue-genes-and-gay-publishing.html.)

All three writers are presently marketing their own work, and I think they're succeeding. At least, I hope all three are doing fine, because they're all way too good to be stuck in this rut. Mel Keegan is online here, Josh Lanyon is online here; and I can't find a page for David Patrick Beavers anywhere, so I'm going to let Amazon take care of it for me:



Using those links as a start, you should be able to find DPB at Amazon -- but one could wish he'd get himself a website or a blog!

Jackal... is a deceptive book, just as DPB is a deceptive writer. It's a quick read (only 129 readable pages), and just right for a wintry afternoon, or maybe an interstate bus trip. It also has a sort of "neon art" cover which won't get anybody upset on a bus or train! The covers on a lot of gay books would easily get other passengers irate, but this one is okay.

The subject matter is ticklish. It about 1978 or '79, and this 19-year-old boy is running wild. It's all discos and drugs and sex. Retrospectively speaking, it's a wonder he survived, because AIDS was just showing up at the time, though it wasn't called AIDS yet. I recall it being referred to as GRD, which stood for Gay Related Diseases. Talk about passing the buck.

Jackal... is told in the first person by our 19-y.o. "hero" who is off the rails, and it can be a bit of a "weird read" for sober souls! But it's also funny, and sometimes touching, and the characters ring so true that what's really weird is that you feel like you've been there! The book is set in LA, which everybody on earth knows from tv shows. You also know the era from the same shows. If it wasn't Starsky & Hutch, it was SWAT or something. We all watched them.

So, this is the era and the place: the stage is set. Our wild hero careens through a lifestyle that's dangerous, and runs into some characters that show you just how dangerous it could get. Like Taylor, who's a barely-of-age hustler who's getting badly beat-up by his pimp. It's only a matter of time before our hero starts to wake up to himself. One day he starts to want love instead of sex ... he wants to belong, instead of drifting through an ocean of druggy parties and anonymous encounters.

Well, too bad: you can't always have what you want. Life isn't like that, and Jackal... is an up-close, in-focus look at the way it too-usually turns out. Unrequited love, callowness, fear, vulnerability, self-destruction ... death.

Jackal... sneaks up on you. At the start you think it's going to be a romp, an absolute blast that you'll enjoy with guilt because you know how dangerous all this is. By the end, you'll wish you had a tissue handy.

The writing style is so sparse, it's virtually bald, which is something you're either going to like or not. For me, it worked well. If the book has a downside, it's the baldness of the narrative (some people don't care for it, I know) and also the shortness of the book. It's only about 50,000 words.

The length of the story also makes me say, be careful what you pay for a used copy. The Millivres edition has been out of print for a long, long time, but copies are changing hands at alibris for $45! You can get it in a new edition from Lulu.com, published POD -- and I hope this indicates that DPB is going to follow in the footsteps of MK and JL and take charge of his backlist. I think the reprint from Lulu.com costs about US$17 ... but you can also get the original at a good price from Amazon.

Also, if you don't mind reading on-screen, you can get the ebook version of Jackal... free! There's a link through from this page: http://online-novels.blogspot.com/2008/08/gay-and-lesbian-novels-1.html. Scroll down to Jackal... and click onwards.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Being gay was dangerous ... The Mayor of Castro Street

Here's a book that's topical right now, because there's a major movie coming along ... it's also a very good book in its own right! The title tells all: it's the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political figure in the US of A, who was shot dead by a rival political candidate, in 1978.

Correspondingly, Randy Shilts was the first openly gay journalist to make a place and name for himself in the US press (and have the nerve to write gay stories). He worked in San Francisco for The Chronicle (it took him six years to get hired on in a homophobic industry!) and from what I've read, he had known Harvey Milk personally.

So, no surprise that RS should have made the biography of this amazing, milestone figure his debut work. The book is a very good read. The style is practically what we think of today as "docudrama." Almost like a novel in large patches. It's like a great collection of dramatized "bites of life," that build up to make an overall picture of Harvey Milk in episodic installments. The writing style is very journalistic -- which works well, in the context of the book. I found the methodical, meticulous, leave-nothing-out approach very satisfying.

You could wish wholeheartedly that RS had written more books, but he only did three. He was an AIDS victim and passed away in 1994 at a tragically young age. Mayor... is the first of his books, and you can actually tell. The style still has to settle down a bit! Maybe he could have done with a bit of polish here and there. But actually I'd slap the editing hands away and tell people to "leave off," don't mess it about, because there's also a candidness about it that's accentuated by the less-than-perfect style. (You could say it was the literary counterpart to the always-moving, jiggly camera work you see on modern tv shows, where the director's trying to make his million-dollar show look like it was shot on a handheld camcorder like Blair Witch ... Hollywood currently believes this effect makes footage look "real" and "immediate" and "exciting." Well, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the damn' gander! In the literary world, editors need to learn when to leave well alone and let the "reality" and "immediacy" of slightly rough writing speak for itself. I'll probably get beat up for saying that...)

Back to the book! Mayor... is a truly marvelous portrait of time and place and people. The book was put out by Saint Martin's Press in 1982, and then fell out of print for eons. It was reprinted just a few months ago (August or September of '08) also by SMP, as a partnership for the upcoming movie. I read a borrowed copy back in the late 1980s, and just got the new edition. I read it again, and was just as impressed this time around. Yet...

The book is a strange mixture (not RS's fault) of the contemporary and the historical. Hard to define. You swing back and forth like a pendulum while reading, when "this" strikes a chord as being contemporary, then "that" strikes another chord as being a historical note, and you realize how much has changed in the world since the era of the book.

30 years later it seems so totally weird that somebody like Dan White, who had once been a policeman, could haul off and shoot a guy for being gay and having the audacity to run for public office. But it happened. It was a real event. Nobody made this up. The first thing that hits you as being "out of the past" is the weirdness of the fact this actually happened. (A few years earlier, Patricia Nell Warren had written of the assassination of a gay athlete in The Front Runner ... which shows you a little bit about what the state of things was like in the USA at the time. Thank heavens things changed.)

The second thing that hits you when you read Mayor... is even more sad. AIDS wasn't an issue in 1978 when Harvey Milk was killed. Mr. Milk would never have even heard the word. He represented the gay and lesbian community for one of the cities that was about to be hit the hardest. He could probably have made an incredible difference in the next thirty years, using his influence to get funding for research and support -- and public AIDS education. A lot of lives could have been saved. And Randy Shilts's life could have been one of them.

Don't let me give you the impression that Mayor... is a sad book, because it's not. It's vigorous and witty, clever and insightful. Does it have a downside? Yes and no. Yes, if you're one of those readers that needs a footnoted citation for every syllable that comes out of someone's mouth. You're not absolutely sure where "fact" blurs into "faction" (can't say fiction ... would have to be a cross between the two, with RS as the stable master). For myself, I'm not that all-fired bothered, because somebody who knew Harvey Milk personally (and did as much research as Randy Shilts did, to bring this book together) would know the truth of things better than anybody else. I'm prepared to take what RS writes on trust.

Great book -- very timely, with the movie coming out and also with the Proposition 8 travesty taking place in the same location. California again! Harvey and Randy are up there somewhere, shaking their heads over us. Highly recommended. AG's rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Here's Randy Shilts's page at Wiki:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randy_Shilts

And you cam get great deals on The Mayor of Castro Street at Amazon right now:

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Gay romance and fantasy come alive: The Swordsman

If I had a wishlist, one thing that would definitely be on it is this: "Mel Keegan decides to write a sequel to The Swordsman." Because if there was ever a book that was crying out (screaming pitifully) for a sequel, this is it.

A few times across the years I've asked MK if there are any plans to write the book and I get the same answer. "A definite maybe." I've had thoughts about organizing a letter campaign, or a petition. Or maybe, if 250 red-eyed readers showed up on MK's driveway and made vague threats while waving their arms around ... pitch torches optional.

It's not that the story of The Swordsman ends unfinished or that The End is not satisfying. It ends beautifully. You just want more. There's so much that lies ahead of these guys, and as a reader I want those stories. So write to Mel and complain, people.

The book was put out by DreamCraft in 2002, with one of the best covers that's ever appeared on an MK book. The artwork was repainted for the version that is now printed in the USA, but nothing else was changed ... for which I'm glad. You don't change what's perfect already. (If it ain't broke, don't fix it.)

The story is a romance -- in fact it's two romances in one. On the cover you see Seb and Jack (Jack being the swordsman of the title), but there's a second couple, Janos and Luc ... the gypsy shaman and the captain of the guard. And unlike a number of other gay romances and fantasies, this one has some spice! At least enough to steam up your reading glasses -- though you could give The Swordsman as a gift to a coming-out late teen, without anxiety. In other words, when you get to the love scenes, they're real ones. Gay ones. [evil grin]

Jack Leigh arrives in the Riverlands of Rhondia as a soldier of fortune. He fights for money, which he needs to rescue his imprisoned father. The pickings are rich in Rhondia ... but street fighting (dueling) is illegal, so Jack has to be careful.

Meanwhile, almost a prisoner in the citadel, Michael Sebastien d'Astaghir is in mortal danger. Somebody's trying to kill him, and they come so close to succeeding that his friend, Luc Redmayne, reckons he needs a bodyguard. So, when Luc is privileged to see Jack fighting -- and is amazed by the swordsman's skill -- he recruits Jack as the bodyguard. It's Jack's job to see that no harm comes to Seb ... which means Jack is going to get very close to Seb.

Are you drooling yet?! Don't drool too soon, because MK makes you wait for it. Seb starts out as a gorgeous, haunted, troubled, hurting ... bastard, you'd like to kick his shins. Till you realize what's going on. How he has been, and is being, abused. It takes Jack to get through his armor, and then it all happens at once.

The love story runs side by side with a tale of dark magic, horrifying revenge, and mythical creatures that turn out to be real. It's very hard to say anything about the plot without blowing it. I can tell you, it's intricate, fully developed in the Mel Keegan style ... nothing left begging, everything rich as technicolor.

The landscape of The Swordsman is dark forests, stone castles, deep caverns and the river, the canals. This fantasy world is filled out with a history, even a kind of genealogy. The one thing it doesn't have that I wish it did is a map. (I like fantasy maps. Call me weird.) The action of The Swordsman is Gothic and intense: it's like being inside a place, and you know something is out to get you, but ... what? And I really, seriously can't even hint at what it is without telling you the plot, for which Mel Keegan and DreamCraft will excommunicate me!

Does the book have a downside? Only the fact there isn't a second one! As I said before, let's get up a petition.

Highly recommended, and then some! AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

You can read the first part of the book online as a PDF. I'll link you through right here:
http://www.dream-craft.com/melkeegan/swordsman_samp.pdf

And the book is currently available from Amazon:




You can also buy it in hardcover, from the Lulu Online store:

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Small town romance ... gay style!

One of the best questions you can ask yourself would have to be this: "As a concerned and helpful adult, when you know a kid is growing up gay, what books would you recommend for him/her to read by the time he or she gets to maybe 14 or 15, and deserves to be treated like an intelligent person who knows where his/her sexual orientaties lies?"

It's not an easy question to answer. You have to choose books that have something positive to say ... but they have to say it in language that's suitable to somebody who's hovering between the PG and MA-15 audience.

If you were a writer, you'd probably find this was one of the hardest of all age brackets to aim for. Write too simply, and kids will chuck the book away for being childish (or even childlike). But step over some line that somebody drew in the sand, and you've written an adult book, not a "young adult" book.

I really don't think Patricia Nell Warren wrote The Fancy Dancer for a teen audience! There's no teeny-weeny stuff in it. No Prom night angst, and gym class jitters, and your basic schoolie plotting that kills teen books stone dead for anybody who's "put the high school campus to their rudder" with no intentions of ever going back there. In fact, Fancy... is about grown men, Real Life ... a gorgeous hunk called Vidal, and a young Catholic Priest, Father Tom ... and, oh yeah, about being gay.

It's been said that PNW wrote this as a "follow-up" to The Front Runner (I reviewed that one a while ago, here: http://ariciasgaybookblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/gay-edutainment-way-out-in-front.html), but I seriously doubt it. Fancy... has nothing whatever to do with the other book. The only two things they have in common are, 1) they have gay central characters, and 2) they were published by the mainstream press at a time when gay books were like hens' teeth. Rare. Some critic somewhere probably figured that for the same writer to write yet another gay book, it'd have to be a follow-up.

In fact, PNW was writing these books at the same time as Mary Renault was doing the Alexander books ... and both these authors were writing gay guys, and writing them well -- with a big BUT dangling off that sentence. Here it is: they were writing gay guys well, but they weren't allowed to write sex scenes that got even mildly spicy, because mainstream readers (publishers, editors, critics...) at the time would have thrown a hissy.

The Fancy Dancer was put out in 1976 by William Morrow, who took a bit of a risk on it because The Front Runner had been very successful. Yet, as a gay book -- well, it's a lovely little piece that's the gay equivalent of a Harlequin romance!

If you have a 14 or 15 y.o. kid who's growing up gay, and you wanted to give him a bunch of books that would help, not hurt or hinder, Fancy... would be in the list.

But the "teen rating" the book gets today is contextual. We rate movies and books for their crude language and nudity and explicit sex. If there ain't none of these goodies, the movie gets a PG. This is where rating gets pathetic. You can have a movie or a book that grapples with the most adult of adult content, but as long as it minds its language and doesn't show much skin, fine. (I can think of quite a few "old movies" that tell stories about rape, mutilation, slavery, terror, revenge, drunkenness, murder, lust, war ... but because they were made in the 1950s or 60s, they're not foul mouthed and full of nudity, so ... PG it is, even though an impressionable 9 y.o. could be scarred for life by the concepts expressed!)

And this is why The Fancy Dancer would be classified as a "gay Harlequin" today! The fact is, the book has a lot more to say about being human, being gay, being a hellraiser ... and a Catholic priest, and working to reconcile your spirituality with your sexuality.

When I read the book (I got the GMP reprint, about 1988 or 1990) I had a few reservations at first. I wasn't that keen to read a book about a priest! I have to tell the truth here: I have no vaguest interest in the church. I honestly don't. So I was amazed by how Patricia Nell Warren actually made a lot of the book interesting, when I'd expected to be skipping over 10-page-chunks. I think it's the way it's written that makes it interesting ... like The Da Vinci Code, sure, it's about the church in a way ... but it's more about the people in, and behind, the church.

The conflicts of interest, the clashes of ego, the arrogance of some, the ambition of others. This is what makes the book tick. Father Tom is a very young priest who's working in a little town in the Rocky Mountains. The location fascinated me at once. He's doing community work, and finds himself trying to drag a gorgeous half-caste Indian (Blackfoot) called Vidal back from the brink of self-destruction. The Native American aspect of the story was the second thing that got me interested. Cottonwood is an interesting town, with well-drawn characters, and Vidal is the most "living" of them all.

Turns out, Patricia Nell Warren is from Montana, so her depiction of the region is spot-on for those who live there, and very evocative for the folks who'd just like to visit. I often wonder if Vidal was based on someone she knew. He's very ... real. And he has even more to teach Father Tom than Tom has to teach him...

Because it turns out, Tom is gay as well as Catholic, and a priest to top it off. (You'd think it was an impossible, suicidal combination, but in fact there's a lot of gay priests. I don't actually understand what would inspire a gay boy to enter the priesthood, but -- hey, it's their lives to live, they know best.)

The story concerns the town, the people ... the priest and the tearaway gay Blackfoot dancer. It's a love story, and a good one. You like this book. You like the characters. For example, Vidal's parents -- his father, who is a cop, with a sharp sense of humor ... and the contrast between these people and Father Tom's parents.

When you finish The Fancy Dancer, it's going to be the characters you remember. And the fact that the book has a lot of good things to say -- about being human, and gay, even Christian, and a priest. And finding ways to be "good" in each one of those categories. No surprise that this book turned out to be a bestseller in hardback before it went into paperback!

Highly recommended, especially for teens. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Still in print, in something like the tenth edition...

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Greek guys and ... Persian lads

This is the most popular book of the "Alexander Trilogy" by Mary Renault ... but it's the fact it's become a cult-followed gay book that's made it so popular. Scholars don't like it too much! (And literary fiends don't like the first one, Fire From Heaven, too much; and gay fic fans can't seem much point in the third one ... so with this series, you really have to take what you want and leave the rest behind. If you're a Greek scholar, you'll go for the first and third. Literary fiends will go for the third. Gay fic fans will pick the second.)

The truth is, the so-called "Alexander Trilogy" isn't really a trilogy at all. It's actually three separate books that are loosely associated because they're set in the same approximate time, and some of the same characters run through the narrative...

The first one, Fire From Heaven, was about Alexander and Hephaistion growing up in the long shadows of Philip of Macedon (Alexander's father) and his weird, shrewish mother, Olympias. (If you saw the movie, Alexander, you know them: Val Kilmer and Aneglia Jolie played thm. I wrote about Fire From Heaven yesterday. Here is the post (or you can link to it from the title in "Books Reviewed"): http://ariciasgaybookblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/legend-boys-men-alexander-and.html. The third book takes place after Alexander and Hephaistion are dead -- Funeral Games is about the political wrangling following Alexander's demise. The great leader left a vacuum behind him, and about fifty different people figured they had a chance of filling it. The first book and third book are told in third person narrative, but they are utterly unconnected, except by the time they take place in. And as for he second part of the trilogy...

The Persian Boy is told in the first person by the character known as Bagoas. He was a eunuch who fell in love with Alexander and traveled with the army on its march into India. So, if you're looking for a gay read, The Persian Boy is your title -- but you should at least know what the other two books are about, so as to put this one in context, otherwise it really seems like it's hopping about on one leg.

The story really is about Bagoas. You're about ten chapters in before be meets Alexander ... but the early part of the story is one of the most interesting segments of the book. You see the world through the eyes of a young man who's being groomed into a courtesan for the king's bedchamber. You watch the process of the grooming...

This is a very different story from anything Ann Rice had to say in Cry to Heaven. In AR's book, Tonio Treschi was almost full grown and wanted women. In The Persian Boy, Bagoas is not too unhappy to be made a eunuch and serve the king. (Here's Cry to Heaven: http://ariciasgaybookblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/gay-novel-with-history-music-blood-and.html)

The depiction of Persia, before Alexander arrives and during the war in which Persia fell, is amazing. By the time Alexander arrives, Bagoas is grown and mature enough to be interesting, and when he enters the Greek camp it doesn't take too long before Alexander notices him. Bagoas is besotted with the general, and remains devoted to him for life.

The whole story of the campaign you saw in Oliver Stone's movie is told through the eyes of this eunuch courtesan ... which puts a spin on the material which is totally different, unexpected. To me, it was brilliant to tell it this way, because it made the story fresh. It's a tale that's been told so often, it's like the Arthurian story ... everybody knows how it turns out and there's always a major challenge thrown out to new writers who have to figure out how to make it fresh.

A fair number of reviewers have problems with The Persian Boy. I can see their point some of the time ... but I don't actually agree with them. The narrative sounds like Mary Renault is so obsessed with Alexander, she only knows how to worship him. Is this so -- or is it Bagoas who worships him? I think it's Bagoas. In his world, he understood "god kings." You did worship the king. MR wrote this into his thoughts and behavior.

Other reviewers have problems with the fact she has Alexander fancy Bagoas and be seduced by him. There's still a strong movement that wants to "defend" Alexander against the charge of being gay! Mary Renault was a "gay advocate" at a time when you were a voice crying in the wilderness if you wrote positive material abut gay people, or put them in heroic roles. I guess this is what reviewers and critics mean by her having "gay agendas." Writing in 2008, it's all a bit sad now.

The book is vast in scope, and yet is only about 350pp long, which means you don't get a fully developed examination of any particular event. You're like Bagoas, drifting through history, touching down here and there on a mighty journey. This is probably a good thing, because readers today don't have that much time or attention!

I want to say, "the book could have been steamier," but it was published in 1972. Any more explicit than this, dealing with gay characters and situations, and it'd have either been banned, or classified as porn. So you do have to use your imagination a good bit ... and it helps if you've seen the movie, Alexander, because a lot of the background and details of "things" will be easy to visualize. MR doesn't spend a whole lot of time describing what things actually are, or look like. You're supposed to know. Well ... watch the DVD, and then you will!

Does the book have a downside? To me, yes -- but a lot of people will tell you this 1) doesn't matter, or 2) what are you talking about?, or 3) what are you complaining about? Here's my own problem with the book: when I think about Alexander, I'm always drawn to the relationship between him and Hephaistion. But in The Persian Boy this relationship seems to have disappeared. Alexander goes with Bagoas instead, leaving Hephaistion I'm-not-sure-where. It's a very difficult question. Scholars will tell you flat out, it's only an assumption, an educated guess, that there was anything between Alexander and Hephaistion anyway! And if you're not at least a bit of a scholar, you don't know enough about this to care one way or another.

The other thing is, Mary Renault probably wanted to write about Alexander's gay aspect, and in 1970ish it might have been too controversial to write about him having a relationship with another guy who was older than himself by a small amount. It was safer to sneak the gay scenes in, if she wrote about Alexander and a eunuch. This, I understand. But wouldn't it have been nice to have a depiction of the real thing, the relationship between Alexander an Hephaistion? You can dream...

The Persian Boy is highly recommended. A great historical, even before you look at it as a gay book too. You can get multiple editions and most of them are available through Amazon. AG's rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

The legend, the boys, the men: Alexander and Hephaistion

Some of the real ground-breaking fiction that had a gay "aspect" came out in the early 1970s, and it's gone down in publishing history as a classic. It's Mary Renault's "Alexander Trilogy."

I want to look at the first two of the books separately ... because they're so different ... and because the name of this blog is 'Aricia's Gay Book Blog,' I'll probably skip over the third book. The last part of the trilogy certainly ties off the story of Alexander neatly, as it needs to be tied off, but since Hephaistion an Alexander are dead, and Bagoas (the Persian boy himself) is now an old man, there's not enough -- to my way of thinking at least -- in Book 3 to qualify it as a "gay book."

In fact, there's actually not much in Fire From Heaven to qualify it as a gay book, either! But you need to read this if you're going to make much sense of the second one, so you're compelled to plow through it ... so, you might as well know what you're getting yourself into!

Fire... might not be a hot-blooded gay book (and I wish somebody would write one about Alexander and Hephaistion!) but it's still a good book, although I don't rank it among the "classics of modern literature." What hits you between the eyeballs is MR's research. I'm no kind of a specialist, but it seems to me that what she doesn't know about the history, region, people etc., isn't to be known. I've heard that a few of the details are wrong -- but I've also heard that the research was state of the art when the book was written, something like the late 1960s (published 1970).

The first book in the trilogy tells the tale of Alexander's boyhood and growing up. MR gives the youth homoerotic tendencies which will become more apparent in adulthood, but the extent of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion in Fire... is a great fondness between two boys, and Hephaistion's total devotion to Alex. But ... but ... but ... you have to hunt for the characters among an enormous narrative with a cast of thousands and a million details and location shifts and changes of backdrop. Eventually you can't get past the fact that the characters get lost in the panoramic drama. You just go with the flow, and end up using your own imagination to bring the relationship between Hephaistion and Alexander to life.

Fire... is a lot less specific about anything that passes between them than the movie, Alexander, was. This sort of "handle with tongs and talk in riddles" treatment was typical of MR in general. Also typical of the way gay subjects were handled in mainstream fiction at the time. So you really have to use your imagination, fueled by images drawn from the movie with Colin Farrel and Jared Leto.


If you love ancient-world historicals as a genre, you'll enjoy this. If you know a bit about Greek history and religion, you'll also enjoy this -- you don't have to be a scholar, but it's probably a good idea to watch the movie first! The book is fairly easy to read. MR's writing style is plain enough to be readable by modern people, but still has a bit of the poetic flair of classic fiction. The narrative is a long way from what I'd call 'technicolor,' but it's evocative enough to carry the book.

If there's a downside, it's that the characters get hopelessly lost in the scope of the book, and you wish there was more about individuals, esp. Alexander and Hephaistion, who are probably the main reason you're reading it in the first place. There are some very nice "moments" featuring them, but you do have to hunt them down. Also, the book seems to be a lot longer than it is (up to 450pp depending on the edition) for some reason.

But you won't get to the "gay book" part of the trilogy without reading Fire From Heaven, so tough it out, fill in the blanks with your imagination and images from the movie!

Recommended for the research and the fact it puts in the foundations for The Persian Boy; also recommended as a purely historical novel, if you discount the under-written, understated gay aspect. AG's rating: 3.5 stars out of five.

You can get the trilogy under one cover, but if you're looking for a gay read, you can probably concentrate on The Persian Boy and skip the others, so I'm giving the links to get the three separate books at Amazon ... and I'll write about The Persian Boy tomorrow.

There's a couple more reviews on line at these urls, but the reviewers are NOT tackling these books with any interest to the "gay aspect." They're a lot more interested in the historical accuracy and literary merit of the work: http://myweb.unomaha.edu/~mreames/Beyond_Renault/renault.html

http://www.bookspotcentral.com/2008/09/book-review-fire-from-heaven/






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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gays at war -- again: Quince

If you wanted a book that was 150% different from Glamourpus (the last one I looked at), this could be it. David Rees is a novelist I don't know much about. It's hard to find him on the Internet because there are so many people with the same name ... and because the English novelist by that name (the correct David Rees) died in 1993 so obviously isn't keeping an online presence for himself. Which is a shame because he's written quite a few good books.

The David Rees book I enjoyed the most is The Milkman's On His Way, but I can't review it because I don't have a copy! I read a borrowed copy back in the 1990s, which is (I think) when it as nominated for a literary award; I can't find any current info about this.

(To show how hard it is to get info, follow this link to Rees's page at GoodReads -- and then click on "...more" to try to get to the remainder of the abbreviated bio. You run round in circles going nowhere! Here's the link: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/861857.David_Rees)

Quince is a very good book ... but it's clearly a book written my a male, for males, about males. The romantic angle you get to expect when you're reading a book by a female writer (the feel-good sensation, even when the material is a long way from "fluffy bunny") isn't there. Quince does not have a happy ending. Two people do not settle down to a life together.

In fact, the opposite is true. The central character (you have a hard time saying "hero") is Stephen Faith, a young gay guy who goes out to Spain to teach the English language to a kid called Pablo, the son of the local mayor. He falls in love with Pablo, but when the Spanish Civil War breaks out he gets caught up in the meat grinder ... Pablo betray him, which lands Stephen in prison ... and he doesn't just fall out of love with Pablo, he falls out of love with love.

This is the exact opposite of a novel that's about a guy's journey from the promiscuous sleep-around to the love affair and the settling down. Stephen goes the opposite route. After Pablo, betrayal and some bad experiences in prison, he becomes the promiscuous sleep-around guy. And with the "epilogue" or tag taking place in 1986, about 50 years after the main body of the story, you know he never found love again. Never found a person to settle down with.

Quince is gritty but at the same time it's casually under-written. Nothing much is detailed. In some places (esp. the prison scenes) it reads like Rees's notes. A thread of storyline is jotted down and not developed. This is how Rees manages to skate or skip over a lot of material that would get heavy if he wrote it properly. Stephen is tortured in prison, but you can read it without much hardship, because it's done as a series of bald statements.

It's also a short-ish book, something like 70,000 words, max. You can read it in one sitting. The characters are drawn in shorthand, but they "ring true," and it's set in a time period and place that are so unusual. Everything I know about the Spanish Civil War comes from reading this book.

For this (the research and unusual nature of the "where and when"), and for the absolute challenge it presents to the reader, I recommend it. Things don't come out right in the end. The book does not recommend falling in love and settling down. Nobody comes along and rescues Stephen, and he apparently spends the rest of his love life in public loos and so on. It's sad in many ways, and yet even while it's being sad the book has a reality that's almost alien. Hard to explain ... you'll have to read it for yourself.

Recommended for the above reasons: it's good to stretch yourself occasionally, not just read the easy stuff. AG's rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars ... because it's a difficult book as well as being unforgettable. You can get it at Amazon. Not sure of the edition. The only I have (I scanned to cover) is from Third House, put out in 1988.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bits and pieces

Today I'm flying flat out and seriously doubt I'll have the time to review a book, so it's going to be news and trivia.

The big news is that THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE is launching today -- as an ebook. If you're waiting for the paperback you have to wait a while longer, and then you'll be able to order it from Amazon direct. This will be better for everyone because of the postage rates and printing quality. (Seems like Lulu has done something with its postage rates and things are expensive there -- I don't know the whole story, but I do know Amazon looks like a better deal now.)

The HARBENDANDE ebook is available from Mel Keegan's blog. Go right here:
http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/12/lords-of-harbendane-ebook-online-and.html


I'll be reviewing this book very soon ... I was one of ITS proofreaders, so I have a vested interest in it! Also, if you find typos (and you shouldn't!! It was proofread a total of 12 times by three readers plus the computer) you know who to blame!

I love the book ... don't miss it!

Terrific news on the blogging front here: this blog is starting to win Google searches, so people are finding it in places like France, New Zealand, Turkey, the USA, Scotland, Ireland. This is great. Looks like we're on our way.

I actually had two people asking if I would consider reviewing a certain book. The answer is -- sure; but I have to have READ it first! Unfortunately, I haven't read either of the two books that were suggested, but one of these days someone will ask for something I HAVE read, and then -- sure.

Right now, the list of books I have in my stack to review in the days and weeks to come include, The Buccaneer, Hold Tight, The Hustler, Street Lavender, Fortunes of War, Arson!, Edward, Edward, Lords of Harbendane, Gaveston, The Persian Boy, Windrage, China Mountain Zhang, The Charioteer, and ... a whole lot more. The stack's about two foot deep. Also, I want to look at some new(ish) books too.

In these times of economic distress, who isn't looking to get more for less? It doesn't get much better than free ebooks from good writers. Check this out: http://sharrow.wordpress.com/2008/12/14/free-christmas-goodness/

...and for those folks who -- like me -- haven't gotten into ebooks yet because we haven't bought a screen reader ... well, I followed links off the above page and got here:


This gizmo -- the eBookwise -- doesn't have the brains to open a PDF, but here's the info from the manufacturer's page:

The eBookwise-1150 can display premium content from eBookwise.com, including best-sellers from major publishers, with more signing on all the time. See our home page for major best-selling authors and titles, or browse our extensive catalog for details. In addition, the eBookwise-1150 can display your own personal content in the following file formats: plain text (.txt), rich text format (.rtf), Microsoft Word documents (.doc), HTML (.htm or .html), and Rocket eBook Editions (.rb). There are several ways to transfer personal content onto the device; for more information click here.



And a lot of the ebook stores are selling html versions lately. This will be why. (In fact, if you've been keeping up with Mel Keegan lately (http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/) you probably know MK is getting into the digital novel idea next year. The idea seems to be -- and I'm quoting here, so don't blame me! -- you give the fiction away and make your money on the advertising. MK has crunched a lot of numbers, and it looks like being an ultra-viable alternative.

The thing that worried me was, how the %@*! do you read a huge novel on the PC screen? And I can't afford one of the fancy schmancy ebook readers. The price is my groceries for three months!!! But I could probably take a look at the eBookwise without going belly-up financially.

Now I have to run off and take care of STUFF that must be done today, which is the whole reason I'm sure a book review will have to wait till tomorrow!

PS: did you get the DreamCraft newsletter? I know Dave was sending it out this morning (Aussie time). You can actually subscribe off MK's blog page ... I'm thrilled because I have a really nice "plug" in this newsletter!

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Murder and mayhem with a gay spin: Adrien English

I read this one for the first time way back when ... in the days when it was a GMP title with a purple cover with scarlet lettering -- clashing colors that didn't do anything to make you want to buy the book! (GMP had a long track record of tacky covers. They almost made a tradition of it. I'm glad I did order the book, because if I hadn't, I'd have missed a damned good one.)

Fatal Shadows is #1 in the Adrien English series of mysteries ... meaning, it's the first in the series, not the best. This one is a very good book, but others are better -- the series gathers momentum as it goes.

I think it's Josh Lanyon's style of writing that hooked me into the series and kept me there; and his characterization. He's brave enough to take risks with his characters ... for example, our hero, Adrien, is "bookish," with a gay bookstore; he's a cute (also mature, intelligent, and funny) young gay guy, but there's more to him than all this.

JL also takes risks with other characters, such as Jake, who's gorgeous, and a detective, and isn't shy about making his homophobia known. (The only other time I recall where one of the main characters in a drama is both a homophobe and a nice guy (you'd think it was mutually exclusive) is in the Midsomer Murders series in tv, where DS Gavin Troy is both a nice guy and ... has a big problem with gays.)

I should think it's very, very hard to write this kind of characterisation well enough to pull it off, esp in a novel where you don't have the natural charm of a young actor working for you. JL does it very well indeed. The character of Jake is one you definitely remember -- which is true of many of JL's characters. Jake develops along the way ... I don't want to give the plot away, so if you hate spoilers don't read the rest of his sentence! ... and becomes intimate with Adrien. Turns out, Jake is gay and his closet door is painted shut!

The plot of Fatal Shadows is a pretty straightforward murder mystery. What makes it delightful is the gayness, the great characters and witty style of JL, and ... Adrien himself. He's a really fascinating character, what with the cardiac complaint, the bookstore, the authors' group he runs, and all. Then the murders start, and an unusual character rises to several challenges -- of which Jake is a major one.

If you get to the end of Fatal Shadows and think it seems like the start of something,you're right. It's part one of a series that has run to four books to date. The whole series (so far) is: Fatal Shadows; A Dangerous Thing; The Hell you say; Death of a Pirate King.

You can now get the first two books under one cover, which is good because the series gets better as it goes ... and it's cheaper to buy two books under one cover!

The first two books were done by GMP. The third one was done by JL himself after GMP melted down and rights reverted. In the last few years, it's been an impossible battle for gay writers to find conventional publishers (have you heard Mel Keegan on the subject?!) so JL went his own way. Bravo.

Does Fatal Shadows have a downside? Only the length. It's just 150pp, which is a very quick read. When you're used to meatier, heavier mysteries, this one comes off as a bit lightweight -- but for me this is more than made up for by the characterisations (which I loved) and the street-wise wit of the style (hits the spot).

Also, the fact the book is short is made up for by the series ... there's four now, and since they're starting to come out in anthologies, you don't get hit so hard with purchase and shipping. Every little bit helps these days.

My favorite of the series so far is The Hell You Say, but I'm not going to get into that one right now, because this is more a review of Fatal till get I around to it: http://www.who-dunnit.com/reviews/326/

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 4 out of 5 stars for this book ... 5 out of 5 for the series as a whole, because it starts well and gets better as it goes!


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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Gays in Hollywood: Glamourpus

And now for something completely different. I only know of two titles by Christian McLaughlin (the other one being Sex Toys of the Gods), and I wish he'd written -- or would get on and write! -- more, because Glamourpus was one of the funniest books I ever read.

It was done originally by Dutton but the edition I have (I scanned the cover) is the Plume/Penguin one put out as a reprint in 1995.

This was CM's debut novel and I think we all expected him to go on and write a slough of books, hopefully with gay twists and great gay characters. Well, 13 years after I bought the reprint of Glamourpus, we're still waiting!

I guess CM's life took him in different directions -- and that's fair enough too. (Life usually takes us in directions we never guessed and for writers this is going to get worse in the near future. Have you been keeping up with the publishing industry news?!!)

Glamourpus is about Hollywood having a laugh at itself. It features daytime soapie TV ... you know, things like The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless. (At least Keith Hamilton Cobb is in The Young...! Him you could watch all day ...). In the novel the show is entitled Hearts Crossing, but if you see one of these things, you've seen 'em all.

One of the stars of the show is a new actor called Alex Young who plays a cute sociopath named Simon Arable, the son of a mad scientis. And Alex has a major secret.

He's not a sociopath. He's gay. When the books starts, his fans don't know. Yet. He has a boyfriend who's just way too hard to get -- Nick. And he's trying to keep his love life under wraps.

Then a nation-wide gossip rag gets its hooks into Alex and runs a story that blows his secret, and ... suddenly Alex is not that popular in Hollyweird. His fans are dead nuts, and his part in the show doesn't look too secure, and to top it off he's got a stalker. The story takes place in 1990-1991, when there was still a lot more homophobia than you have today. I today's movie and TV industry you have hunky young actors like Neil Patrick Harris, and John Barrowman, who're out and proud of it, and beloved for it. Not the case in 1990 ...

The plotline of Glamourpus could also have been done dead-serious as a thriller. It would have worked if CM had played up the fear and dread aspect ... though he'd have had to write a different ending! But CM picked the right way to go and did it as a sexy gay comedy -- right down to the last line in the book, which makes anybody who knows anything about romance novels break a rib.

Let me explain. Mills & Boone (Harlequin) actually run night school courses in how to write the glop they publish. The DIY romance of the month course is called, And Then He Kissed Her.

The last line in Glamourpus is, "And then he kissed me." I laughed and laughed.

In fact, I laughed right through the whole book. I'd recommend this for anybody who's looking for a funny, sexy gay read; anybody who knows for a fact Hollywood is gay-controlled and wonders why there aren't more gay TV shows; anybody who likes contemporary books; and anyone who enjoys those movies where Hollywood makes films about itself (Hooper is still the best one I know).

The characters are numerous and well drawn. The book is written in the first person ... which is a neat trick, if a writer can pull it off. CM does, and the first person style gives him the opportunity to keep up a banter between writer and reader that far outstrips anything that can be done plausibly in third person.

If the book has a downside, it's only that the narrative is VERY American. If you're a fan of all things USA, you're going to lap this up. If you're not that far into American culture, you might find the narrative a bit abrasive. I don't call this a downside ... because it's a story about Hollywood, and how are you going to tell it without Americana? (Some critics and readers are not so understanding. Example: the stupidest criticism I ever read of the Lord of the Rings movies was that all the characters have English-type accents. How ludicrous would an American or French or German accent have sounded in Middle Earth?!) Personally, I don't have a bone to pick with Americana. I like reading about other people's cultures.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Here is CM's website: http://www.christian-mclaughlin.com/ -- you can get copies of his two books via the site. Unfortunately they don't seem to be available at Amazon right now, so I can't make it "one click easy" for you!

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gay historical fiction at full throttle: Mel Keegan's DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT

You think "Mel Keegan," and you probably think "science fiction." MK has published more SF than any other genre. But what you don't know if you're not "behind the scenes" is that MK has written more fantasy than any other genre (it just hasn't been put between covers and stuck to a webpage yet), and there are also loads of historical novels that have yet to see print ... and a gorgeous collection of historicals that are in print already.

Till recently my favorite was Fortunes of War. First off, I like pirates, and second, the book has absolutely everything. I will be reviewing it soon, but to fill in the blank till I get round to it, there's a great review of FOW on Squashduck so I'll put the link in here: http://www.squashduck.com/ltd/reviews/fortunesofwar.htm

But in the last year or so, my favorite MK historical (or anybody's historical!) has been Dangerous Moonlight, and I can't fathom what MK would have to write to change this around. The book is that good. About once a year you read a book that blows your mind. Usually it's SF that blows my braincells across the bus, but I also like historicals, and this one ...!

First, it's a BIG book. It's about 450pp and the type is not padded at all with whitespace. It's the length of two or two-and-a-half ordinary books, so it's not just "bang for your reading buck," it's a BIG bang, esp if you get the ebook which is about ten bucks for how much reading?

The story follows the adventures of Harry Trevellion (highwayman and smuggler) and Nick Grey (bastard son of a rich businessman). One night, Harry holds up Nick's coach -- sparks fly, it's high-blood-pressure time! But Harry robs him, so Nick is more furious than romantically inspired even though he fancies Harry ... a lot. The plot thickens with Nick's legitimate brother, Paul, who's a demon in human skin, and their frail aged father. Knowing what the legit son is like, the old father changes his will to favor the bastard ... and All Hell Busts Loose.

It's highway robbery, storms at sea, pistols and swords, noble houses, London brothels, casinos, fortunes changing hands in card games, wrongful arrest, murder, prison ... and if you've been looking for a book that gives some great steamy scenes, this is the one you want!

The book is Keegan at full throttle, and it's been getting great reviews everywhere. Check out The Rainbow Reviews one: http://rainbow-reviews.com/?p=552, and there's also a great one on Speak Its Name: http://speakitsname.wordpress.com/2007/08/22/review-dangerous-moonlight-by-mel-keegan/.

I was privileged to read Dangerous... about three months before anyone else, because I'm a proofie at DreamCraft. I read it three times "for work" and -- here's the ultimate compliment for a book! -- it was thrilling every time. A lot of times, you start to get bored by the time you finish the last proof "pass" ... not with this one.

Does the book have a downside? I haven't found one yet. The dialog is NOT written in that kind of hokey fake-Shakespeare style a lot of writers adopt, forsooth. The sex scenes are hot enough to steam up your glasses, but delicate enough to not get anyone upset (unless they should have been reading a bible and picked this volume by by mistake). The characters are so well-drawn, you seem to have a movie playing in your head.

And the research into the time of the novel (set in 1727) is amazing. I'm positive MK has a tardis parked somewhere, and jaunts back to a certain time, and then returns to the present and writes the book.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

Note that the Amazon version is wearing a smart new cover:


You can now buy this title in paperback, hardcover, and ebook version. The hardcover is only available from Lulu ... Aussie and New Zealand readers: if you order from Lulu, your book will be manufactured in Australia and you'll have it in about a week. Northern Hemisphere readers -- it's your call: Lulu or Amazon, as suits your whim, for the paperback.



Or,


Order the Paperback:

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.


Order the Hardcover:
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Gay fantasy: Swordspoint

Here's another very good read that came out in the mainstream press in the late 1980s. It was published by Arbor House in 1987. Ellen Kushner was out on a limb ... her bio says she was very well connected in the industry she could probably afford the risk. Also, Ann Rice had "broken trail" with the vampire stories and Cry to Heaven, but EK was going in different directions. Gay fantasy fiction.

There's a real shortage. Have you ever tried to track down something like Lord of the Rings, but where the book's love interest is between the two heroes? It's hard to find a book like this. Like a gay version of Conan the Barbarian, or Ladyhawke, or similar. You'll have a long search!

(I can only think of a few gay fantasy novels. It's as if professional gay writers have no affinity with fantasy worlds. (Though, if you get on the internet and look around, you'll find loads of amateur fiction written by fans of the LOTR movies, where the characters are "paired." It's often poorly written, and sometimes looks like it hasn't been edited ... but at least it's something!)

So, Swordspoint was unique in two ways when it came out. It has overt gay relationships -- gasp! In a book released my a mainstream publisher! -- and its story is set in a fantasy realm.

(Other gay fantasy novels I'm thinking of are The Swordsman, by Mel Keegan; The Last Herald Mage series by Mercedes Lackey; the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling ... and so on. You can get a lot of these at Amazon ... but you soon get into SF, weird, erotica, vampires, anything but "real" fantasy.)

So it was a nice surprise when Swordspoint came out. It's a "literary" kind of fantasy, so if you were hoping for a "down and dirty, raunchy, sword-swinging, dragon-slaying gay romp", this isn't the book you want. Swordspoint is like Sixteenth Century Europe (court of the Medici kind of thing), with Oscar Wilde style dialog, and a sophisticated fantasy backdrop, and characters whose sexual preference leans toward the m/m.

It's not explicit, but it is delightful. The plot is all about intrigue, courtly characters, menace and danger. The central character is the gorgeous Richard St. Vier, who's a duellist, and there's enough action, drama and derring do to satisfy someone whose guilty pleasure is, uh, Errol Flynn. (In fact, Gene Wolf said in his review of the book that this is "the book we might have had if Noel Coward had written a vehicle for Errol Flynn." Cool.)

If the book has a downside, it's that it's sometimes inclined to get a bit too clever with the repartee and witty, Coward/Wilde style dialog ... and in today's world that tends to make the book sound "stilted" -- people just don't talk like that. (You wonder if they ever did.) This can make the book hard to get through in patches, and can also make it hard to identify with the characters, who sometimes seem a bit "artificial."

If you can get past this (the problem being, if you skip over whole pages you'll miss the details that drive the plot), the book has some great characters -- like Richard's boyfriend, Alec, and Lord Horn, who loves to party. The story will hold you, from the real, honest, "once upon a time" beginning to the "feet on the fender" comfortable ending.

The book is literary; and if you were hoping for some steamy scenes -- sorry to disappoint. However, Swordspoint is delightful as well as subtle, and if you like Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, the dialog does sparkle.

Recommended. AG's taing: 4 out of 5 stars.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

A gay novel with history, music, blood and revenge: Ann Rice's CRY TO HEAVEN

When anybody quotes you Ann Rice's sorta-kinds gay fiction, they always talk about the vampire books -- and that's fair enough because those are great books too, and I'll talk about them in due course! But the one everyone overlooks, or forgets, or never even knows, is this one. Cry to Heaven.

Okay: some folks are asking already ... "Yes, but it is a gay book?" Well, yes it is, and no it isn't. But then again, the same could be said for the vampire novels. Are they gay books or vampire books? There's loads of hetero romance in there as well. So, where do you shelve Cry...? With your gay books, or with your historicals?

The story is set in Venice and other parts of Europe, way back in the 1700s, when music was maturing, and at the exact same time the authorities still embraced the, uh, well, the mutilation of children. In other words, castrating pre-teen boys for the cathedral choirs. Until Ann Rice did the research, most or even all people assumed that when the male gets castrated he's never going to feel anything sensual ever again. Not only does this turn out to be wrong, it turns out to be extremely wrong! The castrati, or eunuchs, were philandering and promiscuous -- and it gets "better." Because they'd been deprived of their gonads, the Vatican no longer recognized them as men.

Yeah. This mean homosexual relationships were "on," and Very Senior Priests could get romantically entangled with castrati without committing much of a sin. Okay. The stage is set.

Entering at Stage Right is Tonio Treschi: 15 y.o., too beautiful for his own good and annoying all the wrong people. They could have assassinated him, but they didn't. You guessed: they have him abducted and castrated. He'd had a glorious singing voice before being kidnapped, and at 15 his voice hadn't broken yet (which is probably stretching a point ... but Ann Rice didn't have a choice about stretching it. Tonio was having romantic liaisons -- which was the whole reason someone somewhere was furious enough with him to have him abducted and castrated in revenge. And if AR had made Tonio any younger than 15, modern day audiences would have had a big, big problem with the book ... we have terrible problems these days figuring out where the p*orno stuff starts when young people are concerned. There's a lot of books that are walking on a tightrope, and you could say Cry... is one of them because of Tonio being only 15 y.o. To read more on this difficult topic, I'll link you through to the new intro to MK's White Rose of Night. MK had the exact same problem with the character of Paul, in a (fantastic) 12th century novel about knights and squires and Saracens. Here's the link, go get it: http://www.dream-craft.com/tenthdimension/intro4wr.htm).

Anyway -- get past this. Understand that it's a historical. Times were different. People grew up faster. Girls were married at 11 etc. etc., and in about 1750 nobody gaver a fying f*** if a 15 y.o. was getting randy. They probably all did.

And here's the big debate: is Cry to Heaven a gay book -- or not? Because it centers on a boy who's been emasculated. In 1750, the Vatican sure didn't see the emasculated male as a man. Do we today? I think of Cry... as a gay book because there are loads of relationships and incidents between castrati and "full" males, as well as a hetero romance, which Rice seemed to throw in there to make the story resolve properly (ie., happily). Also, the hetero romance (Tonio and a young woman who's an artist) might have been added to make the book more swallowable -- or even plausible! -- to the mainstream publishing industry in 1982. It was published by Alfred A Knopf Inc., which made it as much a milestone as The Boy Who Picked The Bullets Up.

I definitely call it a gay book, because there's a whole lot more gay encounters than there are in other books that are categorically gay ... and Rice's writing is a lot more frank about them (meaning, explicit) than the writing you find in other gay books.

And as per gay books, it's got to be in the Top 50 because it has so much: fantastic research, great writing, 532pp of all this -- a complicated plot that keeps you reading, characters that come to life. (A large slice of gay literature is actually not very well written. Other books are anorexic in terms of plot. Or else they're so well written and plotted, they forget to be gay -- you go for 50pp without stumbling over an element you could call "gay enough" to call the overall book a "gay book." I'm sure you know what I mean here.)

Cry to Heaven is about personal survival and, eventually, revenge. It's also about music, singing, European history, and human nature. I must have read it four or five times since I was loaned a copy back in the '80s, and it's always the "darkness" of the theme that pulls me in, and the richness of Rice's writing than keeps me there. This book is better written than the vampire novels, esp. the later vampire novels where ... is it me, or does the writing get rather slipshod? And much more readable than The Feast of All Souls, which came out in 1979.

Copies are absolutely, positively available from alibris and Amazon.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Here's Ann Rice at Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Rice

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gay edutainment, way out in front

I thought everybody knew this book ... until I was talking on some website somewhere, and mentioned it ... and it turned out I was talking to a Twinkie of about 20 years old, who said "What's The Front Runner?" He or she had never even heard of it. They could quote me Captain's Surrender (Alex Beecroft), My Fair Captain (J.L. Langley), Eclipse of the Heart (Emily Veinglory - seriously, that's the pen-name), Bareback Mountain (Frank Sol), and basically anything that's doing the rounds digitally (this whole list and maybe 250 more and available at Diesel Ebooks), but if it was printed on paper ... "What's a paperback?"

Grrrr. So, even though I might be preaching to the choir in a lot of cases, I'm still going to talk about The Front Runner, because the book was published in 1974, which is 34 years ago ... maybe 16 YEARS before some of today's readers were even born!

It's possible some very young readers might have a problem with this book. The reason I say this is because PNW's fiction is about the anti-gay prejudice of the 1970s, and things have lightened up so much lately that kids who're just coming out now might find it hard to believe crap like this happened. Or else, they know it happened but they can't relate to it.

Well ... that's not good. The Holocaust happened over 60 years ago now, which is a long time before most readers looking at this page would have been born. And we'd all better find a way to relate to the Holocaust, quick, because somebody very wise once said, "Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it." I'd love to know who said that. They were so right.

So ... if you had an 18 y.o. who was just coming out and saying, "What am I supposed to read?" I'd be recommending The Front Runner. PNW's book sits right on the fence where two zones are divided. One one side you have entertainment. On the other side you have education. Front... is like a cross between the two.

(I actually went into this in a comment on someone's webpage a couple of months ago, and Mel Keegan took up the thread, and Dusk Peterson got into commenting, and quite a discussion was going on this subject -- http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/10/gay-fiction-edutainment-or.html. It all started with something I'd said on a page at Speak Its Name: http://speakitsname.wordpress.com/about/ ... so there's food for thought for you. If there was ever anything in reality where gay fiction could be called "education" I think I'd nominate The Front Runner... but it's also a really great novel.)

The story is another "gay sporting tale" so it has something in common with Out of Bounds, which I blogged about a few days ago. It also features a relationship between a very young guy (in this book it's Billy Sieve, who's an endurance athlete, a long-distance runner) and his coach/trainer, Harlan Brown, who's about 40, and thinks he's too old for Billy ... fortunately Billy has other ideas.

The book has a LOT about running, but PNW manages to make it really interesting. You'd have to be seriously allergic to sports to not find something interesting here. The relationship between Billy and Harlan is very well drawn ... but there's also a lot of very very angsty material. Reading it back in the 1980s, I really did feel keenly for the characters. Reading it in 2008 -- you are very aware that it's a historical. But at the same time, the recent Proposition 8 situation in California makes you realize gay rights are still delicate. Which makes The Front Runner poignant all over again.

The book has an extremely sad ending. Billy does get to run in the Olympics, but as the first openly gay gold medal winner, someone in the grandstand has a big problem with him ... and a high-powered rifle.

Again, you have to remember: The Front Runner has turned into a historical. In the days of the "War against Terror" where you get to walk through metal detectors and get frisked on your way into a footy game or cricket match, and you're under the eye of CCTV everywhere you go, younger readers would probably find it utterly unbelievable that anyone could get into the Olympic stadium with a rifle.

But in the 1970s the security wasn't there. It could happen. No gay athletes got shot, but it definitely could have happened. Very nasty events took place at Munich in 1972, where people weren't killed for being gay ... they were killed for being Jewish. In fact, they made a movie about it a couple of years ago. (Drat. I'm old enough to remember watching Munich '72 on the news as-it-happened.)

So... The Front Runner. Great book. Historical. Highly recommended. Is it edutainment? Read it and make up your own mind. I love the book, because it's not "just" a gay love story where everything turns out right in the end ... everything doesn't! The book is a gay love story where everything goes wrong. It's a story about freedom, gay rights, human rights. Oh, and long distance running. You can definitely, positively get copies from alibris or Amazon.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gays at war -- Vietnam, that is

Whenever I reread this novel (or parts of it; you can read a few pages here and there, jump ahead, turn around, or leave it) I still can't believe it was published 27 YEARS ago by a mainstream publisher. It was done in 1981 by Avon, and re-re-re-reprinted. I think I have a 10th edition paperback. You see the cover scan right here.

THE BOY... is diarist's dream. It's told journal-style, in the form of letters to a variety of people. The whole thing revolves around Kurt Strom, a young gay guy from Detroit and parts south-east, who enlisted in the US Army to go to Vietnam as a medic. It would have been a hell of a book, even if Kurt wasn't gay.

But he is, and the book is amazing. It's not just gay, it's very gay. It's explicit, never pulls punches, says it all ... in 1981, in the mainstream press! I don't know how writer Charles Nelson and/or the publishers got away with it. But I'm glad they did.

There's an ultimate novel for every war. Or maybe for the whole "genre" of war. You can name books like THE CRUEL SEA, and RED BADGE OF COURAGE and so on. The "ultimate" novels are not stories about derring do and glory. They're usually about the evils of war. Or at least they tell the story of the people, not the action, and what it costs human beings to do the things that look heroic and glorious in the newspapers.

If we were talking about movies, I'd name GALLIPOLI right here. (It's actually been called a gay movie, but the jury is still out on that score. Watch it yourself, make up your own mind!)

But we're talking books. And there's just not that many books about gays in war. (I'm going to be reviewing and recommending a couple in weeks to come...)

THE BOY... is also close to unique because it's set in the Vietnam War. Everything else I know is set in WWI and II. And here's where it crosses over a line from "good" to "great." Because it not only tells the story of a gay guy in the Army, in the field, under fire ... it also tells the story of real people in the Vietnam war.

It's a fantastic book if you're in the mood for something different. It's also funny and moving at times. You'll learn so much about war in general, and the Vietnam war in particular. And the gay content has such a "real" feeling about it that this could actually be a problem for some readers.

Loads of readers of gay books are women, and their preference is often (but not always) for a sort of soft-edge fiction that's written by a lot of gay writers (male and female). THE BOY... doesn't have this soft-edge romantic approach. It's a slice of life. In fact, it's a slice of life that's still bleeding. Charles Nelson tells a guy's story, from a guy's POV, in a guy's language. The realism is 120%. So, if your favorite gay read is something more like Mike Seabrook or Chris Hunt, you might find THE BOY... too raw.

But even if you find it too raw, read it anyway, because I think of it as an absolute milestone. You may not end up loving it, but you're not likely to ever forget it. And that's another mark of a really great novel. Highly Recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5.

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