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Last chance for Necessity’s Door

100NecessitysDoorA quick update – my gay crime/erotic romance novella Necessity’s Door comes out of contract from Riptide Publishing this coming Tuesday (1st November).

If you’ve been meaning to get yourself a copy and forgetting, then this weekend is pretty much your last chance.  Hurry along to my website for more details on where to get hold of a copy, before it vanishes from the shelves and you miss it forever!

Posted in Books, fiction, News, Writing

It could never happen…

Could it?  After all, police officers are there to uphold the law, not bend it to their own devices or desires.  However, the more often I read about cases like this, where an undercover officer had a relationship with a woman, whilst operating undercover using an assumed identity, the more I realise that that ain’t necessarily so.

100NecessitysDoorAnd this is exactly the sort of background I was thinking of when I wrote Necessity’s Door, just over three years ago now.  Back then, details about cases like this were only just beginning to creep out of the woodwork, but they were there if you knew where to look.  I didn’t reproduce them exactly (my hero is gay, where this case involves a heterosexual relationship) but they provided suitable inspiration for all sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios involving undercover police and just how far they would/should go to maintain their cover.

Including, it seems, lying to the people they were sleeping with about the fact that they were police.

It all goes to show that however outlandish a writer’s plots, real life almost always manages to be another shade darker, and to surprise us in all sorts of ways.

If you’d like to read Necessity’s Door for yourselves and see where I took the inspiration and ran off with it to, then it’s still available as an e-book on Amazon US or UK.  Happy reading, and don’t forget – however unlikely it sounds, the book is based on fact!

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‘Boulevard’ by Jim Grimsley


Don’t you just hate it when you find a book with a cover so awful that you very nearly don’t read it at all? This happened with ‘Boulevard’ – the copy I picked up in the library had a photo of a young man on the front that was so ‘blond brain-dead Eighties porno-flick twink’ that I was embarrassed to take the book to the desk. In the end I sandwiched it between two duller tomes and got it home, and found that the contents are nothing like the cover.

Yes, this is a book that skirts around the sleazier aspects of queer life, but it’s so much more than porn. Yes, the hero could probably be described as a twink, but he isn’t blond and he certainly isn’t stupid.

‘Boulevard’ is set in New Orleans in the pre-AIDS 1970s, and tells the story of Newell, a young man from the sticks who’s come to the city for a job, some excitement, but mostly to find himself. At first he struggles – no job means no money, no money means nowhere to live, no fixed address means no job. But then he’s drawn to an adult bookstore in the gay quarter of town and finds work there, and his life starts to fall into place. He meets a wide variety of characters – ageing queen Henry, tragic transsexual Miss Sophia, druggie Mark, dangerous Jack – who open his eyes to the gay lifestyle and to his own burgeoning sexuality.

My eyes were also opened the more I read. By the time I discovered gay fiction AIDS was a permanent and tragic fixture in the world, and I was startled by the element of ‘gay abandon’ in these mens’ lives. The endless round of night-clubs and bars, the casual sex, the movie-booths at the back of the bookstore with their constant couplings (and treblings and quadruplings by the sound of it) – the gay world was clearly a very different place back then.  As an inexperienced virgin Newell allows himself to be drawn into this colourful but seedy world, but he’s tougher than he first appears and can take care of himself.

Grimsley’s writing is amazing. In any other context this would be called literature; the fact that he’s writing about sleaze doesn’t detract from the elegance and sheer cleverness of his prose. The book’s structure, though, is odd, and it’s debatable whether this is a novel at all, or a collection of linked short stories. It consists of several separate sections, each a different length and each told from a different point of view. The first and longest, which takes us through Newell’s early days in the city and his search for work and a place to live, is easily the most engaging. After that the sections centre round some of the book’s other characters – people who are important to Newell or that he comes into contact with on a daily basis – but Newell himself is often only mentioned in passing. The penultimate section is, to be honest, a complete dog’s breakfast of head-hopping from one character to another, as the action heats up towards the climax and is seen in different ways by different people at the same time. I found this section particularly confusing as it’s not always clear where the switch is and who’s actually ‘speaking’. The only way to tell is by subtle changes in the style of the narrative.

The twist at the end is clever, and I’m still not entirely sure I know exactly what happened, but I don’t mind because it fits perfectly with the nature of the book, and the lifestyle and setting it describes. And that setting is every bit as important as the characters. The spirit of New Orleans, with its constant rain, its gleaming reflective pavements, its beautiful old buildings and its air of gentle decay, shines off the pages every bit as much as Newell’s pretty face. What a pity the publisher didn’t put something of that on the front cover instead.


First published in Forbidden Fruit magazine.

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‘Time and Place’ by Alan Sheridan

Okay, I’ll admit it – this book had me baffled. It was billed as a fictionalised biography based on the diaries of a real-life actor, Mark Sheridan, as written by his descendant Alan Sheridan, but I have to admit I couldn’t tell if this was the case, or if it was really just a novel in disguise, so skilfully was it written.

The story was told in first person as though by Mark himself, almost-but-not-quite in the form of a diary of his experiences in the acting world, and earlier as the son of a diplomat based in China and Russia in the late nineteenth century. Much of the book (biography? novel?) was set in Peking and St Petersburg, with lengthy travelogue-style descriptions of both cities, as well as lengthy but slightly less orthodox descriptions of Mark’s many encounters with men. His essays on the usefulness of public conveniences as pick-up joints at a time when homosexuality was still expressly forbidden across most of Europe were quite an eye-opener!

The sense of place, then, was beautifully suggested. I felt I knew the avenues of Paris, the canals and underground toilets of St Petersburg, and the compounds and back streets of Peking, and that I was there with Mark as he explored, rutted, and trod the boards.

Where I was less convinced was with Sheridan’s handling of the time-scales involved. The book (novel? biography?) opens in the early twentieth century with Mark as a fully fledged actor but soon skips back to China and Russia of the 1890s when he was still a child, and from then on it leap-frogs backwards and forwards from the 1920s to the 1900s to the 1890s in a endless and bewildering series of flashbacks. Each section was complete in itself and each one nicely presented the time in which it was set, but I soon found my head was spinning and any continuity of narrative was hopelessly lost.

This applied to the central relationship as well. When we first met Mark he was living with another actor, the young Esmé, but their meeting wasn’t described until at least two-thirds of the way through the novel, after a series of other affairs, some earlier and some later. Even then the description of what must have been a life-changing event was curiously flat, and the same applied to many of the other encounters with men, be they political dialogues with diplomats or mutual masturbation sessions with rough trade. I never got the feeling that I knew the characters half so well as the places they visited.

Overall I found the book rather like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts. Beautiful scenery does not a novel make, and once I’d waded through several hundred pages of constantly-switching time and place, I struggled to finish the book.

Originally published at Speak Its Name.

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‘Death of a Monk’ by Alon Hilu

death of a monkFinding this book at all was something of a happy accident, since I’d never even heard of the author, let alone the title. This isn’t really surprising as Hilu is an Israeli writer and Death of a Monk was translated from Hebrew by an American scholar. Browsing the shelves of an Aladdin’s cave of a second-hand book shop in London’s Soho district, I thought the title looked intriguing and pulled the book out for a closer look. Straight away the blurb caught my eye, with various euphemisms for gay content: ‘close friendship with another boy’, ‘all is not as it seems’, ‘ill-advised relationship’. I sometimes think we slash-lovers have to develop a special radar to spot these codes!

That said, nothing about the blurb or the cover prepared me for this book. The artwork and the quotes, including one calling the work ‘gleefully bawdy’ from The Tablet, led me to expect a Gordon Merrick-style romp, but the book is much, much more than that. It tells the story, in his own words, of Aslan Farhi, a young Jewish man growing up in 1840s Damascus, whose actions led to a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community who were accused of murdering a Christian monk.

Heavily based on fact, the book brings to life a period of history I knew nothing about. Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Damascus had come under the rule of the rebel, Christian, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali. In the century before the foundation of the Israeli state when Jews were still scattered across the Middle East, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived cheek-by-jowl in the city, each with their own ‘quarter’ but mingling on a daily basis. Under the surface, though, the old tensions still ran deep and when the monk Tomaso and his manservant disappeared, it led to claims and counter-claims, betrayals and accusations, between and even within the various faiths.

The most noticeable thing about the book is its style. Hilu uses florid, almost poetic language. Here in the West writers are told not to let their voice get in the way of the story, yet Hilu does just that. Every noun has at least one adjective, tenses switch with confusing regularity, and Aslan himself hops between first and third person point of view, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. And oh! – those sentences! Some of them go on for years! Take this, for example:

And lo, in spite of his great weakness, when he takes notice of our sudden appearance at the door Alexis rises to his feet and greets us warmly, and he surprises Aslan by remembering his name, and their earlier embrace remains fresh in his memory, and after receiving us with a bright countenance he turns, suddenly outraged, his hands grasping a chair in his path, and asks Mahmoud why those men accused of Tomaso’s murder have not yet been hanged, why they are still contaminating this beautiful God-given earth with their tainted breath, for indeed their disgraceful, evil holiday is nigh upon them and their unleavened bread has been baked in preparation for the Seder night, drops of the murdered Tomaso’s blood concealed between its rows to satisfy their savage cravings, and he pounds the chair with a trembling hand, loses his balance and tumbles to the centre of the holy room, and now he pummels the chapel floor so that Jesus and Mary, sculpted into the wall above him, can witness his fury and the war he is waging.

Phew! That may be the longest sentence in the book (or even in existence) but it’s not the only example. Towards the end I was starting to find it tiresome and to wish that Hilu would just ’shut up and get on with it’ as the story of the libel unfolded. There are even frequent authorly interruptions of the ‘dear reader’ kind. These are explained at the end, in a neat twist, but I couldn’t help thinking the explanation would have been helpful earlier on. The style does, though, give the book a lyrical, almost biblical feel and some of the imagery is stunning:

…I thought about those persons I was leaving behind, and they are now buried in the pages of this book, alive one minute and frozen the next, trapped inside a short description, a fistful of words, their fate bound and sealed until a reader brings them to life….

Homosexuality forms an ongoing theme, as Aslan struggles to come to terms with his ‘different’ nature, his forced marriage, his distaste for his wife and his attraction to other men. His confusion – even fear – is strongly portrayed, at times bordering on melodrama, but I think that’s necessary to explain some of his more extreme actions. He’s a man in torment from the first pages of the book. There are sex scenes and some of these are surprisingly explicit for a mainstream book – the author isn’t afraid of calling a testicle a testicle. They are, however, always couched in the same very poetic language.

Overall, Death of a Monk is a strange book, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It throws light on a fascinating episode in history, and not just on the ‘Damascus Blood Libel’ itself but also on a Middle Eastern way of life which has probably vanished for ever. It’s entertaining, it’s earthy, it contains flashes of gallows humour, and above all it’s a compelling read. The style may be peculiar at times, at least to our eyes, but I believe it adds to the atmosphere. The translator has done an excellent job maintaining Hilu’s authorial voice; lose that and it would be like rewriting the Song of Solomon as a particularly tedious newspaper report!

(Originally posted on Speak Its Name)

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‘Better Angel’ by Forman Brown, writing as Richard Meeker

The use of a pen name is important in this book. It was published in the early 1930s when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, but the subject matter is a (clearly autobiographical) account of a young man ‘coming out’ and coming to terms with his own sexuality. The author was unable to use his real name and it’s only in the last ten years that the book has been updated with Brown’s name on the cover and a new section of author’s notes and photographs at the end. The fact that the characters are at best thinly disguised, at worst wholly undisguised, real people was no doubt another reason why an alias was used and it’s only now when most of those named are dead that the true story can be told.

And an intriguing story it was too. From Brown’s early days as a penitent member of a strict Christian sect to his happy-ever-after love affair was a long and complicated journey encompassing two or three affairs with men, a misguided and ultimately ill-fated affair with his first lover’s sister, and a growing love for his first lover’s best friend.

As an autobiography it works well. As what ought to have been an important piece of social history it’s less successful, at least in my opinion. There’s little feel for the unbelievable danger of finding other gay men in such an intolerant society, and Brown packs in far too many internalized monologues on his state of mind and the condition of his love for ‘David’ which leaves too little room for anything else. Whether the hero Kurt is attending church as a child, holidaying in Italy as a young man, or having sex, he spends pages at a time micro-analyzing his life instead of telling us about it!

I found it rather dry and tedious, and was more interested by the all-too-brief biographical notes after the story proper had finished. According to these, Kurt and his friends set up a travelling puppet theatre in the US later on in life. Oh for some (any!) description of this fascinating way of life!


This review is currently appearing at Speak Its Name.

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‘The Facts of Life’ by Patrick Gale

Facts of LifeI’m normally a big fan of Gale’s work.  His ‘Rough Music’ has made it onto my all-time favourite book list, so when I saw this book on the shelves of my local Oxfam bookshop, I grabbed it.  It’s a big thick volume, and tells the story of one family, through three generations of trials and tribulations, rather like a man’s take on Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

The book opens in the years just after World War Two.  The first characters we meet are Edward, an exiled German Jew, and Sally, a working class girl who’s made it to the rank of doctor by intelligence, hard work and sheer determination, at a time when such positions were usually held by men, or by women of a higher social class.  Both characters have a ’surrogate parent’ in the form of someone who sponsored them through university, who they turn to in times of need, and both of whom are generous to a fault.  Sally’s sponsor retires to a nunnery and leaves them a strange little house in the wilds of the Norfolk Broads, which they fall in love with almost as much as they fall in love with each other.  They marry, move to the house and produce a family, who become the focus of later chapters of the book: their daughter Miriam, and their grandchildren Alison and Jamie, both of whom fall in love with the same man.

 Unfortunately the book has some major flaws.  The most obvious of these is that it’s told in third person omnipresent, which seriously detracts from getting to know the characters.  The focus shifts from Edward to Sally and back again seemingly at random, and we’re no sooner told that Sally is annoyed about something, than the focus flips to Edward, and doesn’t return to Sally until half way through the next chapter by which time the action has moved on by several months.  It’s very distancing and very frustrating, and it means that when the characters are presented with serious problems, you don’t feel you know them well enough to care. 

The second flaw is that unlike Harrod-Eagles, Gale has crammed all three generations into a single volume.  It’s already over 500 pages long but even so, telling the story of five different main characters in a book that ’short’ means that inevitably a lot of the fine detail gets left out.  When Edward is faced with a terrible choice regarding the last surviving member of his family, his actions don’t ring true because we haven’t read enough about his inner battles, or his reasons for making the choice he does.  It’s almost as though Gale says “Oops, Edward decided to do this,” without any further explanation, or any fallout, and it’s too disconnected to make any real sense.

I would have liked the book to be split into at least two, perhaps three volumes.  I think Edward’s story alone would have been interesting enough to carry the first volume – there aren’t many books written about the Jews who fled to England just before the War, leaving so many family members and friends behind, and his relationship with his ‘father-figure’ Thomas, who is clearly a homosexual and clearly in love with him, could have been developed hugely.  Why wasn’t Thomas jealous when Edward decided to marry Sally?  Why didn’t he try to persuade Sally not to marry Edward, or at the very least make a few not-very-well-hidden passes at the younger man?  Too often Gale doesn’t include nearly enough tension, and the tension he does introduce is often not very well used.

Sally’s character too could have been so much better developed.  I’m assuming Gale did his research; it must have been very unusual for a working class girl to become a doctor in those days and the story of her struggle to be accepted for what she was would have been fascinating.  As it is, we get a few snippets where male colleagues patronise her, and a few scenes where the rest of her family disapprove, and that’s about it.

In the end I lost interest in the younger generations and the book is still sitting, half-read, on my bedside table.  My overall impression is one of huge frustration at a valuable story wasted.  Such a shame for an author who’s produced some wonderful books.


This review first appeared at Speak Its Name.

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‘Fool’s Errand’ by Louis Bayard

The first of the holiday reads…

Fool\'s ErrandGorgeous, just gorgeous! This book is warm, funny, lively, involving and, er, did I mention gorgeous?

It tells the story of Patrick, a gay man living in Washington DC who falls asleep at a friend’s house and sees the man of his dreams. But has he dreamt ‘Scottie’ (so called because he was wearing a cranberry Shetland jumper) or does he really exist? Patrick sets off on a quest to find Scottie again and embarks on a crazy carousel ride of broken relationships, broken down cars, new friendships, new directions, and ultimate happiness – with a houseful of rats and a dog thrown in for good measure.

Bayard’s writing is sheer joy. The words flow so skillfully that you’re hardly aware of them as you immerse yourself in Patrick’s ever-so kooky world. It’s a real slice of life, too, full of intricate detail and the sort of ruefully amusing everyday disasters that happen (all too often) to us all. I didn’t often laugh out loud, but there was hardly a page where I didn’t smile at something. And the romance, unexpected in a book written by a man, is believable and very, very sweet.

If I had to grumble about anything I’d say Patrick’s change of heart at the end is a little too sudden and unexplained. But that’s only a niggle in a simply wonderful book. This is only Bayard’s first novel. I can’t recommend it enough and will definitely be on the lookout for more.

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‘Dancer’ by Colum McCann

This is a fictionalised biography of Rudolf Nureyev. And wow. What a book! I’d give my right arm to be able to write like that. The narrative is experimental to say the least, with frequent changes in point of view from one of Nureyev’s friends, colleagues or relatives to another. Each time the point of view switches, the style changes – from diary entries to letters to rambling monologues, each reflecting the characteristics of the person whose voice is being heard. In one case an entire chapter of 32 pages is told in a single sentence, bringing a breathless, non-stop quality to the voice of a breathless, non-stop social butterfly of a character. It’s masterly stuff.

I found the early chapters relating to Nureyev’s childhood in Russia particularly moving. The life was one of unmitigated bleakness and left me at least in no doubt as to why he defected the minute he discovered an alternative, and more colourful, lifestyle elsewhere.

Some of the character’s homosexuality was also touched upon, although this was primarily about Nureyev the dancer, not Nureyev the sex-machine. 🙂

My only criticism is that in choosing to write from everyone’s point of view but Nureyev himself, the central character remains rather shadowy and insubstantial, almost as though he’s dancing behind a net curtain. For such a strong and dynamic character as Nureyev undoubtedly was, that seems rather a shame.

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‘Rough Music’ by Patrick Gale

rough musicIt’s always very satisfying when you find a totally ‘new’ author you’d never even heard of before, read one of their books and love it, because it opens up a whole new world of books to grab from the library or buy. And at this point I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to my friend Fennie for telling me about Patrick Gale, because this is exactly what happened to me when I read this book.

To put it briefly, I couldn’t put the thing down. I read and read and read, stayed up far too late at night, and finished the whole thing in two days flat, which is quite incredible for me.

So, what makes it so gripping? In a word, characters. Nice, everyday, engaging, likeable, real characters, who jump off the page and take up residence in your living room, so vividly do they come across.

This doesn’t mean the book is light and fluffy. The sections dealing with the hero’s mother’s illness and gradual deterioration with Alzheimer’s are both true to life and harrowing, and there’s also a doomed love affair and family problems and rifts galore. Overall, though, the feel is surprisingly upbeat and the resolution for the hero is nicely satisfying.

The early part of the novel is set around Wandsworth prison and is apparently the closest thing to autobiography Gale has yet written. It also involves a character based on Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, who influences future events in the hero’s life to a surprising degree.

I can’t praise the book or the writer enough and will definitely be on the lookout for more of his titles to devour.