Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Jane air


Male-male romances sex up history

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Tangled Web, an M/M Romance by Lee Rowan, $13.95

Lovers' Knot, an M/M Romance by Donald L. Hardy, $13.95

Both from Running Press

The required ingredients of the male-male romance novel are one part Jane Eyre, one part E.M. Forster, one part softcore erotica, and a grand helping of faux-retro syntax. The last time I trod upon this terrain, I confused one overwrought novel for another and was met with haughty outrage by one book's fan (or its author, veiled as a fan). Whatever, the latest two releases in the Running Press batch are both quite memorable, and distinguishable, from others in this genre.

The closeted life isn't a thing of the past, as many a Republican senator can tell you. Yet as the setting in Lee Rowan's Tangled Web reveals, private sex clubs were. Set in 1816 London, her tale revolves around Brendan Townsend, a ne'er-do-well with some societal privilege who runs into trouble when his amoral lover Tony takes him to a private sex club. The members range from low-born prostitutes to high-born politicians, each of whom dons a mask before partaking in the club's entertainments. Think Eyes Wide Shut, but without the women.

Tony begs for Brendan's help when he's blackmailed by the club's proprietor. Brendan turns to a trusted family friend, the handsome Philip Carlyle, who lost his wife and child years before. The two become friends, despite Brendan's confessions of his relationship with the slutty Tony.

Between escapes to the country, where Brendan assists Philip in dealing with the murder investigation of a local bootlegger poaching on his estate, the two men become close. How close? You'll have to read this smart, sexy, and engaging story. The characters are each well-hewn, and the action is suspenseful but never overwrought. The romance builds at a sensible pace without teasing, and the issues of privacy and the closet, even in early 1800s England, are as relevant today as the Proposition 8 trial.

Author Donald L. Hardy als

o succeeds in taking us back in time, but with a slightly more earthy tone. An important aspect of the historical romance is the avoidance of anachronistic text. With a heavy dose of ghostly mysticism that politely cribs the Gothic romances of Charlotte Bronte, Lovers' Knot takes a decidedly pagan turn toward its finale, and even includes a sort of gay marriage. While also borrowing a bit from E.M. Forster's Maurice, Hardy deftly avoids cliché and melodrama while retaining the repressed passion that charges works in this genre.

 Working-class stud Nat falls for upper-class Jonathan Williams, only to be torn from him under tragic circumstances in 1890s Cornwall during Jonathan's visit to his uncle's farm. When his bachelor uncle dies 15 years later, Jonathan inherits the farm where he'd met Nat. Upon his return, he's met by a teenage look-alike of his lost love, a resentful staff, a mysterious witch-like neighbor, and an apparent ghost or two.

By moving between time settings between chapters, Hardy is able to maintain a dual suspense in Jonathan's past tragedies and present perils. One highlight of the earlier setting is a campfire pagan ritual that the young squire crashes with his farmhand lover. By exploring the other side of British life in this era, Hardy breaks from the usual drawing-room fussiness that hampers other books in the historical fiction genre.

Frankly, these two novels, while no great works of literature, were less turgid than others, kept a spark of originality, and embraced their respective settings with sincerity. Either book would make for a good read by the fire through our local rainy winter. Whether some secret lover taps upon your study window is your own fate.

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