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The Sins of Jack Saul By Glenn Chandler (2016). A review by John Cook

Jack Saul

I admit to being a bit of a Jack Saul tragic. Like the author of this book, Glenn Chandler (lead writer for Taggart and substantial chops as a playwright), I have had a long interest in the history of gay life particularly that interesting period in the last half of the 19th century in Britain. Two of the focal points for that period are the Cleveland St brothel scandal and the Oscar Wilde trials. It is a watershed period as it would seem that a period of slightly increased tolerance (in some quarters) was matched by an increase in moral panic highlighted by the Labouchere amendment that laid down the foundations of nearly 100 years of blackmailing. I was intrigued by the involvement of the ‘Truth’ newspaper, the Australasian version of which continued in its prurient way well into my childhood (I read it every Sunday morning for the divorce reports).

 

One figure that sailed through this period was the shadowy ‘Dublin’ Jack Saul, putative author of ‘Sins of the Cities of the Plains’. Chandler has done the sterling service of exhaustively searching available resources to create the bare bones of his life and then fleshed out a story that incorporates his involvement in two great scandal trials, the Dublin scandal and Cleveland St. In doing so, he has created a window into the times, locations, social mores and institutions (especially the Police and courts). It is to his credit that he has done so carefully and has not indulged in unsupported fantasy or romanticism. Jack emerges as a character of interest and some mild sympathy as a creature of time, place and circumstance, someone the reader can understand without reading in too much modern sexual outlaw activist sentiment.

 

Anyone familiar with the growing Victorian desire to document the lives and living and working conditions of the underclass will not find the sketches of Jack’s birth and childhood in Dublin and his life in London surprising, some may find it depressing. The acute nature of the class system, its differences and impact, is made clear. I am always alert to courtroom judicial moralising and there is plenty of this and embedded fear of social change throughout the work.

 

The book is uneven with its share of occasionally jarring typos but that seems to be price of many modern books that are produced cheaply from computer script. Reader interest may vary a little but the two court cases are well documented and presented and hold reader interest particularly well. Chandler has followed up on many of the related characters who ended up in France (for the wealthy) and the US (for the adventurous) and perhaps Australia (for those who wanted to get as far away as possible).

 

This publication well satisfied my interests in history and biography and gave me a fascinating insight into a character one might well have believed otherwise was apocryphal.

 

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Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld by Theo Aronson (2013). A review by John Cook

Prince Eddy 1

 

I decided to tackle this offering as I knew that Jack Saul would be ‘on the menu’ for this meeting and I seem to have read my fair share on late Victorian homosexual scandals over the years (whether that term applies at that time is debatable). I must say that I think that the Jack Saul book gives a far better insight in the daily lives of homosexual men at that time – and there lies the rub. I think it is very difficult for we contemporaries to put themselves into the life space of those times. Apart from trial records and occasional crumbs found in personal correspondences of the times, there is very little to go on. Even then, I can see problems. Given the then taste for romanticism and the strange patterns of child raising that saw boys often closeted in exclusively male contexts for much of their youth and adolescence, it is little wonder that evidence of ‘crushes’ can be found even the lives of apparent Public School hearties who went on to marriage and careers. Likewise, given the prevalence of ‘homosexual’ behavior in young working class men, their availability (telegram boys) at Cleveland Street is hardly surprising. Even the references to past ‘homosexual’ kings have little relevance.

 

Into this mix goes two other available topics. Prince Eddy was an ultimate high flyer who was clearly somewhat odd (different) in his manner and behavior which was bound to attract public interest and some comment. I am almost inclined to pity the poor child born into such expectations. Add to this the classic Victorian murder mystery of Jack the Ripper and the stage is set for some extraordinarily wild accusations to be made. The one good thing about this book, is its systematic demolition of any connection between the two. The only problem is that the author is much less effective in dealing with the twin issues of the sexuality of the Prince and his involvement in the Cleveland Street affair.

 

Given the fluidity of human sexuality (Aronson goes all Freudian on this), I would conclude that Eddy may have had some leanings in the direction of male-male sexuality. There are plenty of background possibilities especially in his University period (the Apostles) but much of what else is raised has absolutely no material evidence to support it. The author makes much of the known sexuality of important persons in his milieu but again this is largely guilt by association. Even Eddy’s no doubt well-intentioned interest in improving the life and welfare of boys is seen as open to interpretation as being potentially unhealthy. What should he have shown an interest in? – the welfare of caterpillars?

 

I note his birth condition and the possibility of slow development exacerbated by his upbringing by a pleasant yet very protective mother (pace Freud) where a range of conditions were disinclined to promote more outward social growth. He was clearly inclined to seek pleasantries in social discourse without being particularly productive (he writes a good standard Victorian letter assuming that they were all his own work). Much is made of his appearance and physique which I regard as rubbish along with his interest in clothing (pace Beau Brummel and George IV neither of whom came up short in the womanizing department). Once again, consider the clothing interests of the well-to-do in Victorian and our own times – I don’t really see much difference.

 

Was Eddy somewhat homosexual in orientation? – quite possibly. Was he the reason for the apparent shut-down of the Cleveland Street brothel case? Just possibly but rather unlikely. I believe there were plenty of other reasons for the clamp down – involvement of others, desire to shut down something that might spread to higher up government personages or nobility. I just don’t see that anything like a strong case was made for Eddy’s direct involvement.

 

I have visited his tomb in the Albert Chapel at Windsor with its over the top high Victorian décor (brilliant technically, though) and his (again) technically superb funerary image and my inclination is to let the poor sod rest.

 

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Micah Johnson Goes West (Get Out #2) by Sean Kennedy (2017). A review by John Cook

Micah Johnson

Sean Kennedy (b 1975 Melbourne, currently resides in Perth WA) has now authored two books in this Young Adult series. He already has a number of gay paperback titles under his belt but this series carries a potential message for LBGTI youth Australia wide. In the first of this series, he introduces Micah as a final year High School student in Melbourne who has to wrestle with the familiar problems of coming out complicated by his desire to excel (and play professionally) AFL.

 

In this book, he has succeeded in his ambition and has been transferred as a young (very young – 19) player with the Freemantle Dockers in Perth WA (the author clearly knows both environments). He is not an entirely happy camper (sorry about that) as he has plenty of unresolved issues from Melbourne with friends and family which he is able to re-visit on away matches and his life in Perth with an albeit supportive mentor and boarding family.

 

There is little direct narrative apart from his revisiting his Melbourne life, his career match playing activities and his adoptive family life in Perth particularly with Dane, the gloomy brother of his mentor Sam.

 

There is, however, sex. Yes, 19 year old AFL premier league players have sex – surprise! Micah is no exception and proves to be an accomplished user of Grindr to supplement mother thumb and her four daughters. However, it all seems lacking and incomplete for our young hero and he gradually becomes aware that he needs to put his life in the two cities on a more settled (adult?) basis, mend some of the errors of his past and find himself a network of friends and friends with benefits that will be viable for him on an ongoing basis.

 

Unsurprisingly, after a deal of angst, he manages a change of direction, receives support from unexpected quarters and seems set for a more interesting, stable and more broadly-based life pattern.

 

I only have two quibbles about this book. One is the language which is entirely printable (as it probably needs to be) but which leaves me wondering at times exactly what kind of language would have been more realistic (I would like to hear it). The author tried hard with appropriate use of social media and music but I wonder if things could have been a little more gritty (there is alcohol, drugs and barebacking consequences to deal with) while not falling foul of some form of censorship. The other relates to the handling of a key episode toward the end of the book when Micah and his mentor have a deep and meaningful that is a pivotal. It reads as wordy and again lacking in realism.

 

I am probably being too harsh for what has been attempted and produced here. We need to celebrate an effort that covers themes so close to many of us and also manages to embed it in an environment that needs to be supportive at all levels of its players and supporters. I seem to be on a sporting LBGTI roll lately with books on Indian cricket, English football and how Aussie AFL. Anyone for NRL or Rugby Union?

 

 

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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (2014). A review by John Cook

Lovers at the Chameleon Club

I thoroughly enjoyed this confection. It read like an historical memoir but is a factional novel based loosely around some very real historical characters. The period from the mid twenties through to WWII time, the war itself and its aftermath in Paris is a well-mined source of artistic endeavour. In this case, several aspects have been cleverly derived, given a light feminist twist and then produce a very good read. We are told that one of the (several) primary narrators (Gabor Tsenyi) is based on Brassaï (Gyula Halász;) and his famous moody photography of the period. The central female character (Lou Villars) is likewise based around one Violette Morris who was a cross-dressing athletic racing car driver who became an infamous Nazi collaborator. A third strand lies with the theme of car racing with fond memories of such glorious beauties as the Delahaye and Delage and finally populist French nationalism, religious fanaticism, anti-semitism and Nazism. What draws them together (and a range of other associated characters) are nights at a seedy but lively night club called the Chameleon club favoured by cross-dressing and sexual diversity. Once again, this setting can be related to the historic Parisian Club Monocle.

 

Prose is highly skilled with a firm grasp of her background material (she toyed with an actual biography of Morris) but we can be grateful for this clever tale both in terms of the stories cleverly interwoven which attract and repel often with the same character and the use of several different voices developing the story line often in different formats and tones.

 

I wondered about one initially as I read much of what was happening in a light and enjoyable sense seeing the lives lived almost from the point of a then resident Hemingway or Henry Miller (even Picasso gets a Guernsey). However, moods and viewpoints begin to develop increasing shadows when love themes, jealousies, revenge and disappointments collide with ruthless ambition, religious mania, nationalism and fascism. There is quite a lot going on with a number of plot strands and early on there is a temptation to see things moving a little slowly. However, all is rewarded for the reader as things begin to focus and harden in the second half – it is a long read at 474 pages.

 

If there are two over-arching themes present in the read, they are the nature of love in its many forms as it impacts on so many lives and, given the different perspectives presented in the separate fragments, the nature and impact of memory and memories on the lives portrayed right through to the final (spoiler alert) torture scene.

 

Recommended for its evocation of a period and place in all its colours, its mostly wonderful characters (Oh, to have been at a Baroness Rossignol party! All that champagne! All those Swedish boys!) and its fine honed literary quality.

 

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Bitter Legacy By Dal Maclean (2017). A review by John Cook

 

Bitter Legacy

The Scots are at it again. Over the years, I have read a number of gay detective stories especially by Joseph Hanse, Grant Michaels and Mark Richard Zubro. However, my favourite remains Jack Dickson with his gritty Scots tales and some (occasionally) kinky sex. I have neglected the genre of late but have been welcomed back by an amazing (first effort!) offering by Scots female author Dal Maclean. (I found her website and acknowledgements rather female oriented but should keep my suppositions to myself). If this is a start only and there is more to come of a similar standard, she has my attention.

 

No book is perfect and while very well-written and entertaining, there are faults here. Like many, it could have been a bit shorter, some of the internal musings border on longueurs and some characters were a little pale (oddly enough the female detective boss, Ingham). Also, though perhaps appropriate, the gay characters are largely beauty contest winners with a similar emphasis on clothes and home décor.

 

James (or Jamie), the central detective character is quite interesting with his background of wealth and privilege being self-denied as he finds his new career and homosexual self as a university educated accelerated promotion Detective Sergeant. Once again, there are extremes including his dogged devotion to his Police duties, his gut instincts and his eagle eye for detail. His detective side-kick the usually wise and experienced Scot, Scrivenour, is neatly drawn and I would like to have heard more of him.

 

There are a number of other subsidiary characters and while tending to be ‘of a type’, they are largely convincing and well set in context.

 

There is sex with some quite lengthy descriptive passages with believable behaviour and detail without offending most adult taste, though it could be testing for some. Once again, things are always rather too wonderful and amazing for my taste.

 

The character of James is well if exhaustively drawn and most of his behaviours and motivations are acceptably believable enough and they tie in well with the overarching theme of behavioural legacies. However, the constant self-analysis and doubtings could be a little irritating for some readers.

 

I shouldn’t complain too much because this was a very good read which I think has extended the gay detective genre somewhat and could be a good introduction for many. From about half-way in, it became quite the page-turner.

 

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Bray’s Blog of Books (Jan-Mar, ’17) . Some book reviews by Errol Bray.

 

errol-bray

Sunday, 16 April 2017 – Having finished last night my SECOND book from the Reading List I’m putting brief notes about them first. TWO books when I usually don’t read any listed books??? Well, this month the genre is SciFi (neither book is at all gay) and that’s what I’m researching right now for my current novel (Oracle: 2121 – watch out for it in about 3-4 years time).

 

Clade by James Bradley. (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton; 2015)

I have to say I disagree with the eminent people and journals who praised this book. What one calls “Thrilling, chilling and riveting” I thought was pretty boring and banal. The dull, steady tone of the writing seemed almost determined to stop me getting excited. And none of the events – even the supposedly sensational bit near the end (which just peters out to …. nothing) – has any pace of excitement or even real danger. Having watched TV reports on that cyclone recently, the flooding was a much more engaging experience than reading this novel. Surely, a novel is supposed to be more than an objective statement of events. There seemed to be no developing story. On page 58 I wrote a note saying that I hadn’t had any real desire to keep reading for about 20 pages and was only doing so out of “duty”. I wrote, “I keep asking when will something interesting happen? So far have never asked ‘Wonder what happens next?’” Yes, it’s very predictable. BUT the actual events aren’t by their nature boring. It’s just the bland way he writes about them. The almost obligatory autistic character had some interest but even that died off in amongst the tedious writing.

 

 

The Fold by Peter Clines. (B/D/W/Y, New York; 2015)

More interesting as a story but incredibly irritating. My interest was roused at first by the idea of folding a map so places are brought close and instant travel is possible. This is how my aliens travelled in a novel I wrote 20-odd years ago (The Eleventh Joke – never published), not that I invented the idea. I read it in a New Scientist mag and then in 1994 the Stargate movie came up with the rings business and the wormholes.

Maybe I missed the comic tone of this book and wanted a more serious approach to the adventure. I was really irritated by the constant smartarse dialogue – a total cliché now in American movies, TV & (apparently) novels. No matter how dangerous or tense the situation the characters can manage to wisecrack – in this book one of them can even manage to say “Fuck me” several hundred times and on numerous occasions the response to that goes something like, “Too busy right now. But later?” I started noting my irritation on page 23 – I rush to point out that I purchased these 2 books so allowed myself to write notes in them. I was impressed that the main guy Mike had such a high/rapid IQ that he had to count to 5 before answering so people wouldn’t think he hadn’t listened or thought about the ideas. (I know people like that!) BUT that was p37 and I got heartily sick of everyone in the damn book doing various counts for various reasons. Mike had about 10 different reasons to do a count. Also later (p189) we are given a little lecture on how all bright people have social problems (US cliché again!). At p145, I pencilled in, “If someone says sorry one more time …” The pace is fairly brisk but I still was annoyed by the constant “cultural” references to TV shows and movies. (Probably part of the jokey, let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously, style of the story-telling.) The number of pointless descriptions of minor – no, totally insignificant – details is annoying because so pointless.

Is it an interesting story? Well, sort of. Towards the end the laying on of mega-huge twists becomes a bit too “horror” rather than SciFi. But the overall tale is again marred by the standard (mostly US) approach – this is an American-male-saves-the-world while breaking all the rules and keeping everyone, even his own team, in the dark. At least Mike does have some special qualities – ultra-photographic memory & Einstein-like IQ – but even though he’s not a he-man type the book still has him wounded to the point of near death at least 3 times while allowing him to carry off amazing physical feats. To be fair, a few other characters do the same thing, including some of the women. And even though none of the team knows what is happening, how it is happening, or how to stop it, they are determined not to seek outside help. When they finally do seek a bit of help it proves inadequate and the team – led by Mike – has to resolve it all themselves. It’s an absolute cinch that the movie will star Bruce Willis as Mike.

Maybe the separate jokes and the whole-book joke just didn’t work on me. Also it seemed weird to me that in 2015 a character would name her cat “Isis” and the characters would use that word as “a safe word” when they go into a dangerous situation (p253). Is that a joke? The appearance of 2 people in black suits at the end of the book offering Mike a job in a mysterious, deeply secret organisation … Is that a joke?

 

 

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. (Orion Books, London; 1958, 2000) (another SciFi)

Aldiss is (apparently) one of SciFi’s great story-tellers. I was fascinated by the fact that this novel was written in the late 1950s – in a note he says the 2000 version has “alterations here and there” – because he presents psychology/psychiatry as a religion in the far future period it’s set in. The common greeting from these folks is, “Expansion to your ego, son/sir/madam/ etc.” And the response is “At your expense, friend/father/etc.” Doesn’t entirely make sense to me but I probably don’t know enough about Freud. The story is hard to grasp for quite some time, in fact I gave up after 40 pages and then some months later tried it again and pushed through and felt moderately rewarded. As it takes Aldiss almost half the book before several vital bits of info are released and a further several chapters before the reader has enough data to understand the story and even then a couple of very nice twists near the end, I won’t give anything away.

 

It is published with a cover masthead declaring “SF Masterworks” – so it must be good. And I’m glad I read it though obviously I was a bit slow at realising what was really going on. As well as trotting out “Froyd’s” theories as religion it has a fairly backward view of women’s roles in this futuristic society. Froyd knows what might have happened if any of the characters turned out to be gay.

(NOTE – Aldiss in mid-career wrote a very explicit sexual-blossoming-of-a-young man novel. It’s cover is pornographic. It’s called The Hand-Reared Boy. The adventures are all heterosexual. An Observer reviewer wrote, “So filthy, I read it with the door of my office closed, as if afraid of being caught.”)

 

ADDING TO my Isherwood/Auden collection – with 1,800 pages (in 3 volumes) of CI’s diaries, 10 novels & fictional/biogs, & 2 books about his spiritual life (not to mention the various DVDs relating to “Cabaret” & his life) PLUS 3 books of WH’s poetry & philosophy & his biog, I couldn’t resist buying (on sale) the 670pp biography of Stephen Spender, famous poet who went to Oxford with Auden, and maybe/maybe-not to bed with both of them as one does when one is at Oxbridge in the early twentieth century.  Stephen Spender: A Literary Life by John Sutherland (Oxford Uni Press; 2004.) Although Sutherland is a professor at a couple of impressive universities his writing is very lively and draws you in. He tells a terrific story about life amongst the great writers, great artists, and the famous of Spender’s time (Francis Bacon, Hughes & Plath, Stravinsky, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Dylan Thomas, WB Yeats, Gore Vidal, Gide & Camus, etc etc) as well as about Spender’s life and work. If anything the detail is almost too much but the number of fascinating anecdotes makes the long read worthwhile. Part way through this book I found a 2nd hand copy of his Journals (1939-1983; from 30-74) in a bookshop and find it interesting to cross-check it against the huge biog. Interesting that Spender in his journal gives 7 pages to his meeting with the gay spy Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1960, but the biog only gives it a couple of paras.

GAY LIFE – he followed Auden and Isherwood to Berlin “for the boys” and had a busy gay life. At 25 he fell in love with a woman and married her while still on with his gay lover who went off to the Spanish civil war. Spender had to rescue him. Divorce came soon after. Later (1941) he married again and stayed married until his death (1995). He had two children.  His daughter married Barry Humphries who became close friends with Spencer. He was eventually knighted and lived until 85. Even near to his death a critic of Spender referred to him – “… as a nut, a pimp, a homosexual, and a woefully imperceptive husband.”

A fascinating historical view of the 20th Century through the life of one man.

 

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Hard by Wayne Hoffman (2006) A Review by John Cook

hard

You can update on Hoffman at http://www.waynehoffmanwriter.com/ and listen to an interview at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=We1e_WkcEV0 (oddly enough with an American Pilipino, given the role of another prettier in ‘Hard’). This book was written in 2006 about New York gays in the 1990’s with certain lifestyles and issues highlighted. It is now between 11 and 20 years since those times and some things change and some don’t. The young (26) man becoming a bear is now confirmed in that variety and is now married (obviously to his male partner) while his latest book  ‘An Older Man’ (2015) is more reflective of contemporary times.

 

As a period piece, I found enough to enjoy here. The tone is very much in the mode established by Larry Kramer’s ‘Faggots’ and revisited regularly by authors like Edmund White and a stable of others. I found the balance of sex (plenty of it and quite explicit – not a read for your Nana), contemporary politics and sex issues, characterization and narrative a bit out of balance.

 

I found it a little difficult to keep track of the characters and their interactions though this eased a little with time. The two clearest characters are Moe, the 26 year old ‘best cock-sucker’ in Manhattan who essentially narrates and is a central figure in the newspaper showdown as a writer/author/would-be academic and Frank de Soto the wealthier misdirected crusader wounded by the early phases of the AIDS years into a kind of blind single-minded opposition. His behavior in slyly removing a condom mid f***k was, for me, one of the few key interesting moments as Hoffman strove to explain the behavior. I thought it linked well with the central issues of the emergence of ‘undetectables’ and the decision some gay men had to confront with regard to serodiscordant partnerings under some conditions and the kind of confusions that still rein in some minds.

 

Understandably enough, marriage is a non-issue though ironically, as indicated initially, that has filled much of the intervening time and as even borne fruit with the author. The issue of when bareback sex can responsibly occur remain as lively as ever (something I know from personal experiences with my circle of friends) though a lot of pornography shows little enough awareness.

 

A relatively light read (quite funny at times), something of a blast from the past that retains a surprising degree of contemporary relevance.

 

 

 

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