A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I must say straight up that Bristlecone Pine Press who kindly sent me the eBook version of Hidden Conflict for review also publish two of my own books in e-format so you must judge my prejudices as best you may. I shall endeavour to be impartial. I’m also pleased to report that I read this book on my wonderful brand new Sony eReader, which I love to bits and (unlike my previous eReader from another company which shall remain nameless) is so far working like a dream, hurrah. The book is also available from Cheyenne Publishing as a paperback, however, so those of us of a more delicate persuasion do not need to panic.
Anyway, Hidden Conflict consists of four GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender) historical fiction novellas, where all four of the main characters are homosexual men. I’m not a huge fan of historical GLBT fiction, though I do acknowledge that there are one or two writers who do it extremely well; on the whole I prefer my heroes to be a little more contemporary. But I am a big fan of GLBT writing, so I was delighted to be asked to review this collection.
The first story, “Blessed Isle”, is by Alex Beecroft, a fact that gave me great pleasure when I saw her name as, frankly, I think that these days Beecroft can do no wrong. She’s in the top grade of those one or two good historical GLBT writers I mentioned above. Indeed I’ve already reviewed her latest novel, False Colors, on this site. Very favourably too.
“Blessed Isle” is set in the 1790s and purports to be the long-lost diary of Captain Harry Thompson who wrote his diary entries at night whilst, in the morning, his lover and former lieutenant, Garnet Littleton, would add his thoughts and commentary. Through this dialogue, we hear the story of the ill-fated voyage of the HMS Banshee, its mutiny, the escape of the two men, and ultimately, how they overcame all odds to build a life together in Rio de Janeiro. It’s an interesting premise that we already know the ending before we begin but, hey who cares, as what a fabulous beginning it is:
I look on the man sprawled face down among tangled bedclothes. The night air is sticky, almost as hot as the day. I’m sat here at the desk, sleepless from the heat, as I will be until dawn brings a breeze from the sea, the scent of tar and ships, and a faint cool. I’ll sleep then. For now, I’ll light a candle, take out this journal and write. And look at him.
It’s a typical Beecroft beginning as we’re right there, placed well and truly in the setting, with the two main characters strongly introduced, and we know exactly what’s going on. There’s something about the way Beecroft writes that draws you instantly into the centre of the frame and is at the same time very seductive. Neither does it let you go. Naturally, Beecroft’s descriptions of life at sea, the battles and the mutiny are all magnificent; with her, that really goes without saying. But I was equally impressed with the way she takes the traditional diary format and makes it into something lively and strangely interactive; the two men use it as a way of reassessing their past and how they came to be where they are now. It’s also a sharp method of contrasting their very distinctive voices – Harry being the conservative and cautious figure; and Garnet being more impulsive and recklessly courageous. After all, who else but Garnet would confront the sea-captain, Edwards, who discovers the two men in a compromising position (sodomy being a hanging offence at the time, of course) in this way (told from Harry’s viewpoint):
“We thought you might like to watch, sir,” he said.
Edwards’ disapproval flickered for a moment. Something intense went through it, fast as lightning. It looked to me a lot like panic.
Fabulous – Garnet assumes he’s going to die now anyway, so what the hell, and just cocks (as it were) that wonderful snook to it all. Great stuff. The diary format is even used as a way of revealing facts to each other that they hadn’t, for a variety of good reasons, been able to talk about directly. Clever indeed. Even their names are appropriate, with Harry being the lower class man made good, and Garnet being the more sophisticated and socially acceptable of the two.
There are however two sections where Beecroft, like the good Homer, nods. I didn’t like the overemphasis on the journal being read in the future by a society more liberal-minded about homosexual relationships. It was unnecessary and, to be honest, I don’t believe it’s the way people actually think. Or perhaps I’m just a narrow-minded, self-absorbed, sociopathic Essex Girl who doesn’t really care two hoots about what the generations to come might be like? It has been mentioned before … And I also believe that the first meeting between Harry and Garnet is ridiculously overwritten and would never, in a thousand voyages, be the way Harry would see it, let alone write it. Thankfully, Beecroft makes a magnificent recovery after that mistake, and the rest of the story is top class. I can thoroughly recommend it.
The next offering, “Not To Reason Why” by Mark R Probst, is set in 1876 and tells the story of Corporal Brett Price, who together with his married fellow soldier, Sergeant Dermot Kerrigan, is part of the 7th Cavalry following Custer into his final battle with the Sioux. The trouble with it is that I don’t think either of the characters ever comes fully alive, and their relationship, or lack of it, certainly doesn’t. What’s more, the journey towards the terrible massacre (or great rout, depending on your point of view) was really rather dull in parts. I just wanted them to get there and get on with it. Once they did, I do have to say that the battle parts were exciting and well described. However, I don’t think that the end, which introduces a whole new character, works at all in the context of what has gone before. In fact, I would have preferred to start with the actual battle, and then bring that new character in sooner, which would give Probst a chance to work up the relationship between this new man and Brett much much more. That in essence felt like the story that needed to be told, rather than the one that actually was. If you see what I mean. Still, I was impressed with the fact that quality time is given to the welfare of the horses – this strikes me as very realistic for a cavalry man, and is something that doesn’t often appear within, for instance, the gay cowboy genre of GLBT literature. The horses, after all, are hugely important to such people. I did also wonder if part of the reason for my lack of positive interest in the majority of this story was to do with the fact that, to my knowledge, Probst writes mainly in the Young Adult GLBT field, and I’m not a fan at all of children’s or YA literature (Harry Potter? Who? Never heard of him, and I’ve certainly never read him …). It may be that younger readers than I would get more out of this tale therefore.
“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor brings us into twentieth century history and is the story of Lieutenant Darnell and Private Fisher who are trapped in a root cellar after being shelled behind the First World War trenches on the Western Front. While their lives hang in the balance, and in their increasingly desperate bids for escape, they begin to form a bond that neither expected. I very much liked the start of this one, as we’re straight into the action with Darnell being given a fool’s mission to search a house that’s already been searched countless times before:
Now most of the soldiers were standing around the barn and house, smoking and waiting for someone to tell them what to do next. They had pulled off their haversacks and unslung the rifles from their shoulders. Darnell resisted reprimanding them for this since he had left his own rifle and pack leaning against a kitchen wall of the small house. He slogged through the mud to the cellar door, standing open from a previous search. The wood of the door was warped and beginning to rot; just like everything about this abandoned farm site; just like everything about this war.
I also thought the scenes of Darnell and Fisher being trapped in the cellar, facing a long slow death and in considerable physical pain, were bleakly and powerfully described. I could feel the cold, the sense of being abandoned and the increasing desperation of both men very well:
As time passed, Darnell found the work of clearing away rubble more and more difficult, not only because of his throbbing, burning hands, but because it had now been over thirty hours since he’d eaten anything. His brain seemed frozen, as dead as his mangled hands were becoming. His head throbbed almost as hard as his hands did. His back, legs and shoulders were on fire. The muscles seemed to have reached some sort of maximum capacity he had not known they could.
In fact, I do think that the descriptions and the driving force of the escape and survival plotline are so very strong that the fairly minor scenes of the attraction between the two men are not in fact necessary. The novella would have been far stronger if just Fisher was gay, and Darnell remained distinctly straight throughout. That would have been a better story, to my mind, and more realistic. Then the emotional journey of Darnell as a straight man of his era coming to terms with the fact that Fisher is a man still worth saving in spite of his sexuality would have been interesting to explore. That said (SPOILER ALERT …), I was impressed with the fact that we do lose one of the two main characters at the end in spite of all they’ve been through by then. That was a brave decision. Still, I didn’t like the final scene that took us out of the war zone and back into civilian life – it spoilt the power of the narrative and that loss. The story should have ended earlier.
For the final novella in the collection, we have “Our One and Only” by E N Holland. Here, the focus is on the life of Philip Cormier in the aftermath of the death of his closest friend and lover, Eddie Fiske, who is killed in France during D-Day in September 1944. What’s fascinating here is how the story covers a forty year arc, told in decade-long intervals, that chronicles Philip’s slow resolution of his grief.
And I must say it started off in rather a clunky fashion with a minor character being given a viewpoint on the day Eddie is killed – a character whose viewpoint we never get again. It would have been much stronger simply to have started with Philip. He is where the story lies. Neither was I very impressed with the glimpse we get at an early stage of how things were between Philip and Eddie before Eddie went to war – the love scenes here are somehow rather bland and strangely distancing.
So far so disappointing. But, my goodness, Holland then takes my assumptions by the scruff of their neck and shakes them up in ways I’d never expected at all. It’s a gripping and unusual choice to tell the story of a love affair after one of the participants is dead and, as I mention above, over a period of forty years in the life of Philip. I actually found myself slowly falling in love with Philip and looking forward to seeing what he was up to every ten years or so, almost as if he was a personal friend who lived abroad. Which was a very strange feeling indeed. His interactions with Eddie’s mother and family are both moving and realistically described, and I did enjoy watching the shifting relationships as time went by.
I also appreciated the way significant moments of remembrance are not sugar-coated. Here’s Philip at the end of a conversation with a high-ranking army officer who asks who he is at a memorial service in 1954:
“I’m Philip Cormier,” Philip said simply.
“PFC Fiske’s brother…relative…?”
“Friend,” Philip said shortly. “Close family friend.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “Well, thank you for coming. I hope to see you at the Mayflower. Of course, Mr. Cormier, you are invited too.”
He turned and left, Philip watching his broad shoulders as he walked away from them. He realized he had never felt so invisible in his life.
The terrible issue of the official lack of acknowledgement of an unacceptable partner to a dead war hero is subtly put here, I think. In addition, when Philip finally gets to see Eddie’s grave in the 1980s, I thought the first visit to the war cemetery was very powerful, as it is not seen in soft-focus in any way. Not only does Philip and the woman friend he is with, Phyllis, have to put up with some hugely irritating official interference, but his reactions when he’s finally able to get to Eddie’s grave are not what he expected at all:
“Why did you leave me?” he asked softly. “Why did you go and get yourself killed?” Another deep breath. His throat felt tight. “You could’ve let that officer get shot instead, you know. Why did you have to be a hero? I never wanted a hero …”
He felt a rush of hot anger in his chest and his hand tightened into a fist, as if to hit some invisible opponent.
In fact Philip is so angry with Eddie, after forty years of not being so, that he has to leave and it’s only on his second visit on the following day that some kind of closure begins to be reached. I have to admit that I did find these scenes very moving, and realistic – especially in terms of the emotions of graveside visits never being those one imagined one would have.
The tracking of the love affair between Eddie and Philip was also cleverly brought into full clarity in these final sections, with Phyllis acting as a listening ear for how the two men really began and experienced their relationship. It was interesting that Eddie suddenly came into much clearer view at this point, in a way that he never had earlier in the story. Which supports my opinion that we don’t need the scenes between Eddie and Philip that didn’t work at the start. Sometimes less is more, and it’s worthwhile making the reader wait.
I also thought that the brief sex scene between Philip and the male hooker in the hotel is particularly worthy of mention. Powerful and ultimately bleak indeed. Finally I must also say that there’s a very good twist at the end of this story, which in this case, unlike in the previous two novellas, worked beautifully and had me punching my fist in the air and shouting Yes! Which certainly startled my husband, for one. Good for Philip is what I say.
So, in conclusion, Hidden Conflict is perhaps something of a mixed bag offering in the historical GLBT genre, but nonetheless the jewel of Beecroft’s story and the surprising slow-burn power of Holland’s are both well worth the price of battle.
Hidden Conflict, by Various (Cheyenne Publishing (paperback) & Bristlecone Pine Press (eBook), 2009), ISBN: 978-1-60722-009-1
[Anne writes and reads in the GLBT fiction genre with enthusiasm, but thinks the present is difficult enough without worrying about the past too. To catch up with some rather more contemporary angst-ridden gay men, please click here.]