Gerry B's Book Reviews

False Colors – Alex Beecroft

Publisher: Running Press Book Publisher

Five stars

Story outline: For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of  Algiers.

Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their  mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse 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, 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, piracy and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa, from the Arctic to the West Indies, in search of a safe harbor.


It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time

Review by Gerry Burnie

False Colors: An M/M Romance is yet another swashbuckler from the remarkable imagination of Alex Beecroft (Running Press Book Publishers, 2009). This is the latest in her high-seas-adventure series, and is, in my opinion, the best example yet.  

Set during the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France, c. 1754 to 1763, it is the tale of a young naval officer, Lieutenant John Cavendish, a Quaker by up-bringing, who is not only deeply religious but also fervently committed to duty, honour and country. As the story opens Cavendish has just received his first temporary command of a modest merchant ship, the “Météore,” by a politically motivated admiral, Admiral Lord Saunders. His Lordship’s orders, conveyed in private, are that Cavendish should attack a colony of Barbary Coast pirates that have been raiding the English coast. In truth it is a suicide mission, given the size of the renamed “Meteor”, and Cavendish is readily aware of this. Nevertheless, his commitment to duty dictates that he accept the assignment without question. 

The ragtag crew that has been assigned to him also reflects this pessimistic prospect; all except for another young lieutenant, “Alfie” Donwell. He is an infectiously sunny personality who radiates a generosity-of-spirit like morning sunshine. Nevertheless, Cavendish confides in him that they are probably both sailing toward their dooms with their first adventure together. Thus, the stage is set for some male bonding in the shadow of an emerging threat.  

They are further drawn together when Donwell is captured and cruelly tortured by the Barbary pirates, who regard the English as infidels, and Cavendish responds by first rescuing Alfie; then by ransacking the harbour of its prime ships before escaping into the open water of the Mediterranean. However, just before he reaches the sanctuary of Gibraltar he encounters an enemy corsair that easily outclasses the relatively modest “Meteor.” A bloody battle ensues—i.e. “Even Alfie … felt a little squeamish as he watched the bodies burst apart, the blood fountain out to stain the white sails red.” –and although he is victorious, John is severely wounded in the melee. 

By now Alfie Donwell has set his course on seducing the handsome but straight-laced commanding officer, and his lengthy convalescence that followed gives Alfie an opportunity to gradually work on his defences. However, he miscalculates by telling Cavendish about an adolescent crush he once had on a notoriously foppish captain—Captain Lord Lisburn—and John’s puritanical up-bringing rebels at this knowledge; so much so that he nearly names Donwell to the admiralty—meaning a veritable death sentence for Alfie. 

A reversal of roles then takes place as Alfie turns his attention away from Cavendish, returning instead to Lisburn, just as John becomes enamoured by Alfie’s honesty and erstwhile devotion. It is a juxtaposition that will repeat itself several times throughout the novel to considerable dramatic effect. Moreover, two predominant triangles are thus formed; one involving John, Alfie and Lisburn, and another to include duty and emerging—albeit forbidden—love. 

That said,  there is no disputing the fact that this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. In his Cambridge lecture on the “Aspect of the Novel ,” (1928), E.M. Forster maintained that a good novel is fundamentally comprised of two elements: life in time; and life by values, i.e. “I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it.” In this regard Alex Beecroft has fulfilled both, admirably. 

Life in time: One of the definite strong points of this story is the seemingly accurate depiction of the eighteenth century. Hollywood’s romanticized portrayals notwithstanding, the 19th-century was a rugged, grotty period of time. On the one hand it was almost idyllic and somewhat puritanical in its thinking, and on the other life was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ In my opinion Beecroft has captured this dichotomy remarkably well, and has admirably withstood the temptation to ‘rose-hue’ it. 

 Life by values: Fundamental to this category is a cast of strong, well-defined characters, and once again the author has delivered the goods. The two main characters, John Cavendish and Alfie Donwell, are distinct in their makeup and believably human in their thinking. Moreover, their developing relationship is well paced and credible throughout, and they are very much a part of their chosen professions and time. 

It is a superb piece of writing, a credible and exciting story, uncompromisingly authentic in time, and highly recommended.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Gay historical fiction | Leave a comment

The Early Journals of Will Barnett – Ronald L Donaghe

A touching coming out story

Story outline: From the time Will Barnett was fourteen until he entered college, the one constant in his life was writing in a journal, first about his Uncle Sean and the feelings he had for him, then his love affair with Lance, a violet-eyed boy he met on a windswept ledge in the desert of southwestern New Mexico. The Early Journals of Will Barnett, consisting of Uncle Sean, Lance, and All Over Him is now collected into one volume. 


About the author: Ronald L. Donaghe is a native of the desert Southwest, and he uses this mystical, wide-open place where the sky meets the universe, for the setting of many of his novels. He has published almost a dozen books in three fiction series, including the first book in a fantasy series known as “The Twilight of the Gods.” He is the editor of the online book review magazine, The Independent Gay Writer.


Review by Gerry Burnie

“The Early Journals of Will Barnett” by the prolific pen of Ronald L. Donaghe (Two Brothers Press, 2004) is a series of three stories under one cover; therefore, I will review each one in the order that they are presented. However, over all, it is a compelling story about a naïve teenager growing up in a remote part of New Mexico, and the sometimes painful evolution he undergoes from the time he first discovers his burgeoning physical attraction to his “pretty” Uncle Sean, until his eventual maturity–both sexually and as a man.

Therefore, the reader is drawn into the story at a very early stage–appropriately told in Will’s `transcribed’ words, and is then swept along as Will moves from one stage of his development to another.

These developments the author unfolds with insight and understanding, as well as some unexpected twists along the way.

“Uncle Sean”

This is the first of Will Barnett’s journals, and the author has cleverly opened it with a credible (…or perhaps true) account of how he found these `scribblings’ in a derelict barn. Donaghe then takes on the voice of a unsophisticated, fourteen-year-old farm boy, to relate his awe and wonderment regarding his somewhat older uncle, Sean–recently returned from active duty in Vietnam.

Thereafter, Will’s fascination deepens as he tries to fathom this exceptionally handsome, but otherwise complex and troubled man, and his confused feelings toward him. In this regard, the author has awakened within all of us that wonderment over an older boy next door, or down the street, or perhaps a relative when we were Will’s age–I know it resonated with me.

“Lance” (The second in the series)

At the opening of this particular novel, the author conjures up a meeting with the real(?) Will Barnett–now in his early forties. This meeting auspiciously provides the material for this and the concluding novel as well.

Now, somewhat aware of his sexuality, Will encounters a boy his own age with a deeply troubled background. Lance is an abused youth with an abusive stepfather and condescending mother. Therefore, Will and Lance form a bond against the abuses of the world, and this bond gradually deepens into an abiding love

This is a recurring theme in the four Ronald L. Donaghe novels I have read to date, and I commend him for that. An author’s job is not just to tell a story. It sometimes involves holding up a mirror to society with a carefully crafted message attached. In this regard Ronald L. Donaghe has done both. He has not only vividly described the shortcomings readily apparent in our society, i.e., bigotry, intolerance, religious fundamentalism, bullying, child abuse, etc., but he has also dramatized the harm these intolerances cause to innocent youths already struggling to understand their own complex sexuality.

“All over him”

At the opening of this novel, Will and Lance have temporarily separated in order to attend different universities–Lance in San Francisco, and Will in Austin, Texas, to live with his Uncle Sean as well. It is a poignant separation, but they both vow to remain faithful for the two years that it will take Lance to graduate. Of course, the question is: Will they be able to honour their vows in spite of overwhelming temptation?

For obvious reasons I’m not going to answer that question, except to say that this is the final stage in Will’s evolution from boy to man.

Once again the author has captured the experience of every farm boy who migrates from farm to the big city with rmarkable credibility. Five Stars. 


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January 26, 2010 Posted by | Coming out, Fiction, Gay fiction, Gay historical fiction, Gay Literature, Gay romance | 2 Comments

Klondike Cattle Drive – Norman Lee

An absolute-must addition to your bookshelf. It would make a great gift for the kids as well!



Story outline: The latest addition to TouchWood Editions’ “Classics West Collection”, this is the colourful tale of a formidable trek undertaken by legendary Cariboo rancher Norman Lee. In 1898, Lee set out to drive 200 head of cattle from his home in the Chilcotin area of BC to the Klondike goldfields – a distance of 1,500 miles. He was gambling both his cattle and his life. This is his story, derived from the journal he kept, his letters and the loyal men who accompanied him. Throughout the daunting weeks of coping with mud, cold and sheer bad luck, Lee kept his sense of humour. When he returned from his Yukon trek, he rewrote the notes from his journal, illustrating his story with his own cartoons and sketches. He completed his manuscript around the turn of the century, but it sat untouched until 1960, when it was published by Howard Mitchell of Mitchell Press, Vancouver.


Review by Gerry Burnie

In terms of “Canadiana,” it just doesn’t get any more so than “Klondike Cattle Drive,” Norman Lee (Touchwood Editions. 2005). In fact, this sixty-four- page, absolute nugget of a story virtually epitomizes the Canadian pioneering spirit as it once was. That is why it should be made required reading for every history course taught in this country.

In 1898 Norman Lee, a dapper five-foot-eight rancher from the Cariboo District, British Columbia, undertook a 1500-mile cattle drive ‘north’ to Dawson City, Yukon Territory. This in itself was unusual, for most cattle drives at the time were headed south. Moreover, the route north passed through some of the most formidable wilderness imaginable; from pastureless forests to muskeg and belly-scraping swamps.

Just about every type of weather condition was encountered, as well; riding night watches in discomforting drizzle, getting lost in disorienting fog, and braving minus-forty-degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures on the way home.

Remembering that there was no how-to book on how this should be done, and that Norman Lee’s background was as an architect in England, he had to constantly improvise as the trail presented challenge after challenge. Mud, charlatans, lack of supplies, spent animals, all had to be overcome to achieve his goal. Nevertheless, he took it all in stride with humour and stoicism. That is another quintessential characteristic of the pioneer spirit that built this country and nation, and is now in real danger of being forgotten.

As a writer of Canadian, historical fiction I can say with authority that there are precious few published journals to be found. Therefore, it was with considerable rejoicing that I came across Norman Lee’s journal in connection with a Canadian western I was considering. I can also add that when I did find it, it became the inspiration for my forthcoming novel, “Coming of Age on the Trail,” scheduled for release in March 2010. A M/M romance built around a closely similar cattle drive.

In closing I will add that “Klondike Cattle Drive” is an intrinsically enjoyable read for any reason. However, for those who appreciate the rarity of a find like this, and the unquestionable authenticity it adds to the 19th-century pioneer experience, it is an absolute-must addition to your bookshelf. It would make a great gift for the kids as well!

January 26, 2010 Posted by | Canadian author, Canadian autobiography, Canadian content, Canadian frontier stories, Canadian historical content, Homesteading in Canada, Non-fiction | 1 Comment


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