Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir Mitchell
This week Inside Reader is Alex Beecroft. Enjoy her list!
I've been making up m/m stories in my head since I was 11. At that time—sometime around the period when Stonehenge was built—I believed I was the only person in the world who wanted to read m/m love stories. I thought I was some kind of weird space alien, left on this planet without a number to phone home. Even though I treasured my first author on this list, the fact that she was writing historical biography failed to clue me in to the fact that she might be writing it out of the same impulse as my own.
So the discovery of slash fanfiction on the internet, about 10 years ago, was also the discovery that I was not alone. I might even be—imagine the relief—normal!
I realize now it's both just as simple as that, and a lot more complex, but the fact remains that this is the one community where I have felt that I genuinely belong. It's also the community that has lead me into writing my own books, Captain's Surrender, False Colors, Hidden Conflict and a couple more in various stages of readiness to come. It was the author of the second book on my list who gave me the much needed boot up the backside to stop thinking "one day I might try to get published" and actually do it. But I haven't included her book here because of that. I've included it only because it's genuinely one of my top favourites of the genre.
I should say that this is not a numerically ordered list—that is, it's not arranged in order of how much I like the book. I like 1 as much as 10 and vice versa. All of these books are (IMO) so good that I couldn't choose between them to give them an order of rank.
1) The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. This is the apotheosis of slave-boy fic, in which Bagoas, a noble young Persian youth, is captured by enemies, gelded and then sold as a pleasure slave. Given to Alexander the Great as part of a bribe, he falls in love with the great man, accompanies him on his military campaigns, and schemes to win first place in Alexander's affections from his wife, Roxane, and his long-time lover Hephaistion. My sympathies are with Hephaistion, but that didn't stop me from adoring the lush detail, the amazing historical accuracy, the beauty of the language and setting, the excitement of the plot and the large as life and twice as ugly characters in this book. Justifiably a complete classic.
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Vintage (February 12, 1988)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780394751016
Amazon: The Persian Boy
“It takes skill to depict, as Miss Renault has done, this half-man, half Courtesan who is so deeply in love with the warrior.”–The Atlantic Monthly. The Persian Boy traces the last years of Alexander’s life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. Abducted and gelded as a boy, Bagoas was sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but found freedom with Alexander after the Macedon army conquered his homeland. Their relationship sustains Alexander as he weathers assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a sometimes-mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper. After Alexander’s mysterious death, we are left wondering if this Persian boy understood the great warrior and his ambitions better than anyone.
2) Ransom by Lee Rowan. How could this not appeal to me, when it's a wonderful, detailed story set in the 18th Century Royal Navy, with a brave and inspirational Captain, and two gorgeous, honourable and star crossed lieutenants? Again, lovely writing and a firmly detailed setting, and a plot you can really get your teeth into, involving our heroes being kidnapped by pirates and forced—each in his own way—to face his own nature and fears, while slowly but surely working to turn their situations to their advantage. I do love clever and competent heroes and this has three of them.
Paperback: 302 pages
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing (August 1, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.cheyennepublishing.com/books/ransom.html
An officer, a gentleman... and a sodomite. The first two earn honor and respect. The third, a noose. Even as he finds himself falling in love with his shipmate, William Marshall, David Archer realizes it is a hopeless passion. Not only is Will the son of a minister, his first act aboard ship was to take pistol in hand and dispatch an older midshipman who made offensive advances. Davy realizes that Will would probably not shoot him if he expressed his feelings, but their affectionate friendship would surely end, once Marshall learned of Archer’s “unnatural” yearnings. William Marshall has never given much thought to any feelings beyond duty, loyalty, and honor. For a young Englishman in 1796, the Navy is a way to move beyond his humble origins and seek a chance at greatness. While others spend shore leave carousing with willing wenches, Marshall is more likely to be curled up with a navigation text. Captured by accident when their Captain is abducted, Archer and Marshall become pawns in a renegade pirate’s sadistic game. To protect the man he loves, David Archer compromises himself—trading his honor and his body for Marshall’s safety. When Will learns of his friend’s sacrifice, he also discovers that what he feels for Davy is stronger and deeper than friendship. The first challenge: escape their prison. The second: find a way to preserve their love without losing their lives. Ransom, the first book in the Royal Navy Series by Lee Rowan, introduces readers to the appealing characters of Lieutenants Marshall and Archer. Become part of the story as they discover their shared love against a backdrop of intrigue, mystery, and danger.
3) The Phoenix by Ruth Sims. Another long book, The Phoenix follows flamboyant street-urchin turned actor Kit, and quieter but no less stubborn Doctor Nick, through the theatre world of Victorian England and the USA. Kit is gorgeous and driven, and haunted by a terrible incident in his childhood, which has left him ever so slightly and creatively insane. Nick is moralistic, a refugee from bad religion, and far too sensible to have anything to do with the self-destructive Kit—except that he can't stop himself. This is almost like a homosexual Wuthering Heights, with its moments of bleakness and madness, but enlivened with the glittering world of the theatre, half illusion and half inspiration. Beautifully written and with characters who stay with you long after you've finished.
Paperback: 372 pages
Publisher: Lethe Press; New edition (February 1, 2009)
Publisher Link: www.lethepressbooks.com/gay.htm
Amazon: The Phoenix
At fourteen, Kit St. Denys brought down his abusive father with a knife. At twenty-one his theatrical genius brought down the house. At thirty, his past and his forbidden love Â— nearly brought down the curtain for good. This is a compelling Victorian saga of two men whose love for each other transcends time and distance and the society that considers it an abomination. Set in the last twenty years of the 19th century, The Phoenix is a multi-layered historical novel that illuminates poverty and child abuse, theatre history in America and England, betrayal, a crisis of conscience, violence and vengeance, and the treatment of insanity at a time when such treatment was in its infant stage. Most of all it is a tale of love on many levels, from carnal to devoted friendship to sacrifice.
4) Transgressions by Erastes. I'm going to have to stop saying "a lovely long book with a plot you can really get your teeth into and a smooth and evocative writing style." It's more or less true of all my choices, but certainly never more so than this one. David is a beautiful but feckless young man who sees no problem with lying to get his own way. Jonathan is the principled, puritanical lover who wishes to see the best in him but can't. Ironically, David is out-lied by a local lass who wants to marry him, and runs off to war, and so begins the story of both of our heroes growing up. War and love and loss change David into a man. Jonathan is broken by the shining sadist, Michael, who makes the Witchfinders look good. By the time they come back together again there's a part of you that wonders how love can possibly survive, wonders if they will end up destroying one another. And it's painful and glorious and honest, and I kind of want a sequel.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Running Press (April 13, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/runningpress/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0762435739
1642, England: David Caverly’s strict father has brought home the quiet, puritanical Jonathan Graie to help his dreamer of a son work the family forge. With war brewing in Parliament, the demand for metal work increases as armies are raised. The fair David is drawn to his father’s new apprentice. And though his father treats them both as if they were brothers, David’s feelings toward the shy Jonathan develop as they hide their growing physical relationship. Until the fateful moment when local gossips force David’s father to banish him, to protect the family name. Freed, directionless, and whimsical, David is eager to experience the drama and excitement of war, and follows two soldiers headed for battle, but the reality is a harsh awakening for his free-spirited nature. Seizing the opportunity to desert, David heads to London to lead a secret life, unaware that Jonathan too has left the forge in search of him. Lost and lonely, the vulnerable Jonathan quickly falls in with the Witchfinders, a group of extremists who travel the country conducting public trials of women suspected of witchcraft. Jonathan is drawn to the charismatic Michael, finally embracing a cause for truth so wholeheartedly, he doesn’t recognize the danger—physical and emotional—that Michael represents. For the fanatic puritan is desperate to purge Jonathan of his memories of David in any manner possible....
5) Maurice by EM Forster. Maurice is, again, long and beautifully written. It's a comfort read for me, because despite Maurice's ill fated affair with his university sweetheart Clive, by the time Clive has become a pompous hypocrite, Alec has breezed onto the scene. And I may be a little in love with Alec, who is aggressive and inarticulate and lower class, perfectly willing to engage in blackmail, and literally a breath of fresh air. This was a ground-breaking book in its day, with its insistence on a happy ending for its two heroes, and I appreciate that a lot. There's something, even in the book, that lets you know how unbearably poignant, how lucky, how unexpected are the tender scenes between stuffy old Maurice and forthright, unashamed Alec. I'd have liked more of Maurice/Alec and less of Maurice/Clive, but I can see that it took the failure of the first relationship to enable the success of the second. Another classic, as it should be.
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. (December 17, 2005)
Publisher Link: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?ID=12811
Amazon: Maurice: A Novel
"The work of an exceptional artist working close to the peak of his powers." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times. Set in the elegant Edwardian world of Cambridge undergraduate life, this story by a master novelist introduces us to Maurice Hall when he is fourteen. We follow him through public school and Cambridge, and on into his father's firm, Hill and Hall, Stock Brokers. In a highly structured society, Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way, "stepping into the niche that England had prepared for him": except that his is homosexual. Written during 1913 and 1914, immediately after Howards End, and not published until 1971, Maurice was ahead of its time in its theme and in its affirmation that love between men can be happy. "Happiness," Forster wrote, "is its keynote. In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him."
6) Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale. This, strangely enough, is not a long book. Or rather it is, but it's made up of two short novellas featuring William Harper and the half demon Belimai Sykes. I can't really better this review of the book, because it's so hard to summarise. It's a real original, set in a world whose world-building is wonderful, very steampunk, very elegant, very fascinating. A gas-light, almost Victorian place where the demons have been brought out of Hell and forgiven, only to be dispossessed and oppressed by a corrupt theocracy. And in this intricate and intriguing world, the Church inquisitor Harper and the drug addicted semi demon Sykes must solve two mysteries together and come to terms, somehow, with the fact that they're falling in love. This should be, by all rights, published by a big mainstream Fantasy publisher. (It isn't, of course, more's the pity.) A wonderful, fresh, detailed book and an amazing world.
Perfect Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Blind Eye Books (May 14, 2007)
Publisher Link: http://www.blindeyebooks.com/wicked.html
Amazon: Wicked Gentlemen
Belimai Sykes is many things: a Prodigal, the descendant of ancient demons, a creature of dark temptations and rare powers. He is also a man with a brutal past and a dangerous addiction. And Belimai Sykes is the only man Captain William Harper can turn to when faced with a series of grisly murders. But Mr. Sykes does not work for free and the price of Belimai’s company will cost Captain Harper far more than his reputation. From the ornate mansions of noblemen, where vivisection and sorcery are hidden beneath a veneer of gold, to the steaming slums of Hells Below, Captain Harper must fight for justice and for his life. His enemies are many and his only ally is a devil he knows too well. Such are the dangers of dealing with the wicked.
7) Roses in December by Fiona Glass. One of the first books I read in the m/m genre and still one of my favourites. I have the advantage here of being able to direct you to this review by Dear Author (http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/03/26/roses-in-december-by-fiona-glass/), with which I completely agree. Nat, injured in an IRA bombing is invalided out to a large military hospital-come-rest home, where he has to come to terms with his PTSD—handled far more realistically than these things usually are—and recover from his shattered leg. In the course of his recovery, he discovers the enchanted gardens of the place, and makes the acquaintance of a mysterious and delightful, haunting young man. Richie (said young man) really is to me the kind of elfin, alluring, fascinating creature he is to Nat, and I was spellbound by the way Nat was drawn deeper into his mystery, and the eventual twist of a conclusion. Just lovely. I can't find a buy link for this one. I hope it's only between publishers and not out of print for good.
8) Rough Canvas by Joey Hill. All the books I've recommended so far have been long, plot heavy and very light on the sex. Rough Canvas is different. It's long, plot heavy and erotica all the way. BDSM erotica at that. Marcus is the Dom and the owner of an art gallery, Thomas is the sub and a painter who is trying to deny his own artistic drives in order to go home and be the son his family wants him to be. I think what I liked about this was that both characters were so very fucked up. It's more obvious with Thomas at the beginning, but Marcus starts to fall apart by the end too, and there's a sort of fascination in the way that somehow they manage to balance each other out and make one functioning unit between the two of them. I like the messiness of the relationship which manages to survive and be good for both of them without being in any way perfect.
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Ellora's Cave (January 1, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.jasminejade.com/pm-6926-83-rough-canvas.aspx
Amazon: Rough Canvas
Part of the Nature of Desire series. When his father dies, Thomas is forced to abandon a burgeoning art career in New York. As difficult as it was to give up his lifelong dream, it’s nothing next to walking away from the man he loves. Marcus taught him to embrace who he is, a sexual submissive who responds to the touch of only one Master. But why would the sophisticated Marcus need some farm kid from the South? Then Marcus shows up and offers him a way to continue his art career and help his family. There’s only one hitch–he asks Thomas to spend a week with him in the Berkshires. Thomas knows he should refuse. But he’s never been able to say no to his Master.
9) Speak Its Name by Erastes, Lee Rowan and Charlie Cochrane. Still the best m/m anthology I've ever read. I can't do better than to refer you to my review of it, over here on the site of the same name (http://speakitsname.wordpress.com/2008/06/02/review-speak-its-name-by-charlie-cochrane-lee-rowan-and-erastes/).
Paperback: 204 pages
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing (October 1, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.cheyennepublishing.com/books/speak.html
Amazon: Speak Its Name
Three stories, six men and for all of them, a love that dare not Speak Its Name.
Aftermath by Charlie Cochrane. The time: 1920. The place: Oxford University. Since arriving at the college in the autumn, Edward Easterby has admired, and desired, popular and dashing Hugo Lamont from afar, never believing he had a chance for friendship—or more—with the man. Edward uses a chance, unfortunate encounter as a moment for an apology and a tentative conversation. Hugo, wary and guarded from a previous, unsatisfying liaison, slowly lets his defences down and opens his heart to the budding relationship between them. Poetic and beautifully written, Aftermath will stay with you long after Edward and Hugo’s picnic basket has been packed away.
Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan. Lord Robert Scoville seemingly has it all: good looks, intelligence, a successful military career, a title, and the most devoted manservant anyone could ask for in the form of Jack Darling. Jack would give his life for his lord and master but dares not breathe a word of the love he feels for the man, lest his advances be rejected. Then, a clandestine assignment, a train journey, and a double-crossing opens both their eyes to what exists between them. Against a backdrop of the Alps and Vienna, this intriguing story combines a satisfying blend of clever mystery along with the romance of a newly-discovered, mature love.
Hard and Fast by Erastes. Major Geoffrey Chaloner is back from the war, possessed of all his limbs but not a wife, a situation his father is determined to change. Demure but painfully shy Emily Pelham is presented as the potential bride-to-be. While Geoffrey finds her pleasant, he discovers he is far more intrigued with her moody and baffling cousin, Adam Heyward. In the midst of a proper courtship complete with hovering chaperones and parents, Adam manages to awaken feelings and emotions in Geoffrey that he never knew he possessed. Marked by Erastes’ signature writing style, this lyrical novella is laced with humor, magnificent descriptions, and a bit of a twist that leaves the reader satisfied but still wanting more.
10) Lord John and the Private Matter by Diana Gabaldon. Another long, plot heavy, sex light book which is written beautifully, has some amazing characters and pays lots of attention to the setting. I think it's admirable that Gabaldon, the author of a hugely successful time travelling mainstream fantasy/romance series should have chosen to foreground one of her gay characters and give him his own series. And I love Lord John's careful, methodical character. I love his mum and his brother, and all the supporting characters. I love the setting in 18th Century England, particularly when Gabaldon explores the molly houses and gay subculture in this novel. I'm less keen on the fact that John continues to moon after Jamie, the resolutely heterosexual and rather homophobic hero of Gabaldon's larger series, and John's discomfort with his own sexuality may be in keeping with the times, but also discomforts me. The balance is very much for the book, though, and I'm still patiently hoping for John to tell Jamie where to get off, and to find a nice steady English lad to settle down with.
Mass Market Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Dell; Reprint edition (October 28, 2008)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385337489
Amazon: Lord John and the Private Matter
Adored bestselling author Diana Gabaldon brings us the first book in a new trilogy featuring many of the characters from her wildly popular Outlander series. In her New York Times bestselling Outlander novels, Diana Gabaldon introduced millions of readers to a dazzling world of history and adventure— a world of vibrant settings and utterly unforgettable characters. Now one of these characters, Major Lord John Grey, opens the door to his own part of this world—eighteenth-century London, a seething anthill of nobility and rabble peopled by soldiers and spies, whores and dukes. Great Britain is battling France for supremacy on three continents—and life is good for a soldier. The year is 1757. On a clear morning in mid-June, Lord John Grey emerges from London’s Beefsteak Club, his mind in turmoil. A nobleman and a high-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Army, Grey has just witnessed something shocking. But his efforts to avoid a scandal that might destroy his family are interrupted by something still more urgent: the Crown appoints him to investigate the brutal murder of a comrade in arms, who may have been a traitor. Obliged to pursue two inquiries at once, Major Grey finds himself ensnared in a web of treachery and betrayal that touches every stratum of English society—and threatens all he holds dear. From the bawdy houses of London’s night-world to the stately drawing rooms of the nobility, and from the blood of a murdered corpse to the thundering seas ruled by the majestic fleet of the East India Company, Lord John pursues the elusive trails of a vanishing footman and a woman in green velvet, who may hold the key to everything—or nothing. The early days of the Seven Years War come brilliantly to life in this historical mystery by an author whose unique and compelling storytelling has engrossed millions of readers worldwide.
And a bonus:
11) Remastering Jerna by Ann Somerville. Because any book where I find myself genuinely sobbing for the sake of the character must be a good one. Not an easy read, as Jerna is falsely accused of paedophilia and in his world's penal system, has the choice of community service either in brutally punishing heavy labour or in a brothel. Throughout the book, he's systematically taken apart until he reaches breaking point. But there's something about that breaking point which is cathartic and very satisfying, to this reader at least, in a 'sob your heart out' way. It probably goes without saying by now that it's a long, plot heavy, very well written book with interesting and believable characters and a good eye for the setting. Also a happy ending. I think I may have discovered the pattern in what I like to read.
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: P.D. Publishing, Inc. (August 6, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.pdpublishing.com/jernaendpage.html
Amazon: Remastering Jerna
In a world not unlike our own, Jerna Setiq has a perfect life, a beloved wife and two adored children, with his past desires and needs firmly put behind him. But when he’s falsely accused of child abuse and imprisoned, he’s cast into hell, with no apparent means of redemption, or regaining all that he’s lost. In the most unlikely of places, in the most unpromising of circumstances, fate offers Jerna his second chance and a path to freedom. With the cruelly fascinating Tolomy, a dominant in need of education and a patient submissive, Jerna dares to satisfy the long denied passions of his dual nature – but will he risk losing what has become so dear to him, all over again? Remastering Jerna is a complex, erotic story of redemption, love, and the contract of trust in a relationship of control and submission.
About Alex Beecroft: Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the Peak District. After studying English and Philosophy at Manchester University, Alex moved to London to work for the Lord Chancellor’s Department. She married her husband, Andrew, in St. James' church, Paddington—famous for being the church where Oscar Wilde had his wedding. Alex, Andrew and their two daughters live near the University of Cambridge, where they try to avoid being mistaken for tourists. Her first novel, Captain’s Surrender, was published in January 2008. Please visit her at www.alexbeecroft.com.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Running Press (April 13, 2009)
Publisher Link: http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/runningpress/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0762436581
Amazon: False Colors
1762, The Georgian Age of Sail: For his first command, John Cavendish is given a ship—the HMS Meteor—and a crew, both in need of repair and discipline. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfred Donwell will stand by his side as he leads his new crew into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers. Alfie knows their mission is futile, and that their superiors back in England will use the demise of this crew as impetus for war with the Ottoman Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer—a secret punishable by death. With the arrival of his former captain—and lover—on the scene of the disastrous mission, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John. Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa to the West Indies in search of a safe harbour.