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.
It’s 1762. For his first command, John Cavendish is given a ship and a crew both in need of repair. Determined to make a success of his mission to stop the slave trade in Algiers, he hopes Lieutenant Alfie Donwell will prove a valuable asset. Alfie however knows the mission is futile, but keeps a darker secret in his growing attraction to the morally rigorous Cavendish. Against a backdrop of war, political intrigue, piracy and betrayal, both men must sail through dangerous waters in search of an elusive safe harbour …
Let me nail my colours to the mast (sorry, couldn’t resist that one …) and say first off that this book is a total and absolute pleasure. And I say that as someone who doesn’t even usually go for historical seafaring novels, but here there’s a perfect and very real level of detail which meant I was drawn in from the first sentence and felt part of the whole scenario without being overwhelmed by it. Actually the first sentence is a stunner and reveals setting and character viewpoint (John Cavendish’s) in one easy and subtle move, so is well worth repeating here:
“Beneath the Termagant’s imposing side, the newly captured Meteore wallowed like a discarded boot.”
Isn’t that an absolute pleasure? It’s possible I fell in love with Cavendish at that point and purely because of that sentence. Anyway, the characters here are gripping, well-rounded and very human – even the minor people feel real. The two main leads of John and Alfie are well-matched, and their arcs of personal and professional discovery balance very well together. I never had any difficulty working out whose viewpoint I was in. John is the more reserved of the two, career-minded and determined to live up to his own high standards. Later in the book, one character describes him beautifully and with delightful humour:
“As always, Cavendish was spotlessly turned out. Though Gillingham was reliably informed that the man had no valet, he still managed to give the impression of starch.”
Even so, John has an underlying charm that is impossible to resist. It’s a delight to see how he rises to the occasion in times of danger or war, and proves a cool strategist under pressure. Alongside that, Alfie is the more impulsive of the two. He has a better understanding of his own character and his own sexual preferences, but is set to come up against the morals and ethos of the age, with explosive effect. However, because of this, it does mean that Alfie is able to chart a more emotional journey, and provides the passion of the novel, where John provides the rigour. Although, again, that division is too simplistic, and these two characters always rise far above the sum of their parts. It’s a good mix, well handled.
Plus the level and detail of sex is just right. Coupling takes place only at key points where it is vital for the plot, and each instance either moves the story along or shows details of the characters involved that would have been impossible to convey in any other way. A particularly good sex scene has to be the first encounter between Alfie and his former captain, Farrant, where the latter, a man I’d been prepared to accept as the “baddie” of the piece due to previous related history, is suddenly revealed as a flawed and complex human being. It was a pleasure to have my reader sympathies turned so expertly and with such lasting effect – Farrant quickly became one of my favourite minor characters and stayed that way. It was also very satisfying to see how Beecroft takes the character of Farrant’s wife and makes her too into someone I genuinely cared for and who had personality depths of her own – I mention this aspect as, in many GLBT (Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender – for those not aware of the acronyms of the genre) novels, the wife of a gay character is sadly all too often only a two-dimensional means of showing what the husband has to break away from. Thankfully, this isn’t true here. Indeed it strikes me that Beecroft has thought carefully about each person in her story, however minor, and made them rounded characters we can care about, whatever their faults and failing.
Beecroft has also, as I’ve already mentioned, thought carefully about her historical context and setting. Life on board ship and in the different countries John and Alfie spend time in is richly and deeply described, but with a pleasingly light touch so that the flow of the narrative is never lost. It is certainly not a question of the research knowledge overpowering the story at any point. The same is true of the battle scenes which are so well written that I could see them in my mind’s eye whilst reading. The film version definitely beckons …
I have to admit therefore that this for me is that rare find: a book I can’t think how to improve upon and it’s in my five-star (Amazon-inspired) rating by any measure. I can thoroughly recommend it and look forward to more.
Looking now at the wider context of False Colors, it’s important to note that the novel is amongst the first offerings of a new GLBT historical romance line from Running Press, with two further novels set to be published in the near future. As a keen reader (and indeed writer of course) of GLBT books, this new imprint is greatly to be welcomed – but I am rather puzzled that the website (Running Press) which is itself advertised on the back of the books doesn’t seem to have any of this new imprint or its present or future books on it in a very obvious position. You have to really start digging to discover what’s going on and, even then, you appear to have to know the author name first. Which is a shame as I – and I’m sure many others – would love to find out what’s next in a customer-friendly way. Is there a secret password I haven’t been told about perhaps? Or do they simply not like visitors?…
I’m also rather concerned about the Running Press cover branding. Though it’s a minor issue, and the two books that have been published so far do have covers that fit them and the genre labelling – m/m (male/male) romance – they’re aiming at. But I can easily see the concept of two men, one turned slightly back to face towards the other behind him, becoming very clichéd very quickly. I personally think it would be wiser not to pursue that idea too strenuously. There’s nothing wrong with simply having a logo brand and ringing the cover changes to fit other aspects of a particular novel after all. Otherwise, we GLBT fiction readers will be forced to endure a rerun of the dreaded “two naked torsos without heads” scenario (a regular occurrence in GLBT literature cover art, sadly, which means it’s almost impossible to read the book on a train without embarrassment, sigh …) over and over again and, frankly, it gets a bit wearing. Do publishers really think we like them? Well, maybe the first two or three were fun, and of course a naked man is never entirely unwelcome, but we’d have thought they’d have moved on by now. Most of the readership has. At least Running Press covers thus far keep the clothes on, on the whole. A wise choice.
Talking of trends, there’s another, and rather more off-the-wall, fact about the writers and readers (and indeed reviewers) of GLBT books, which I’ve been longing to raise for some time and this may well be my only opportunity so I’m going to do it anyway and I’m going to do it here: there’s a significant minority of us GLBT book fans who appear to be women connected in some way or other with the church (and I include myself in that category). A curious link that is practically screaming for someone to write an official Government report about it. At least. My personal theory is that those of us who love GLBT fiction really can’t resist the lure of men wearing frocks, carrying candles and chanting – but I appreciate that’s probably a whole other article. In the meantime, I can only encourage Running Press to bring out a novel with an historical gay priest protagonist. With no naked torsos on the front. If my theory’s right, I have a hunch that one should do well …
Before that happens, however, may I thoroughly congratulate them on the publication of False Colors, which sits perfectly within a rapidly growing and increasingly popular genre as well as having the heart and intellect to rise far above and beyond it. It’s a classic in the making, in my opinion. If you’ve ever wondered about gay fiction – or even if you haven’t – may I suggest this is probably one of the best places to start.