a powerful and yet tender coming-of-age tale that engages the reader with layers of emotion, from the pinnacle to the depths and back again.
Publisher’s blurb: Set in Dublin, At Swim, Two Boys follows the year to Easter 1916, the time of Ireland’s brave but fractured uprising against British rule. O’Neill tells the story of the love of two boys: Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of the foolish aspiring shopkeeper Mr. Mack, and Doyler, the dark, rough-diamond son of Mr. Mack’s old army pal. Doyler might once have made a scholar like Jim, might once have had prospects like Jim, but his folks sent him to work, and now, schoolboy no more, he hauls the parish midden cart, with socialism and revolution and willful blasphemy stuffed under his cap.
And yet the future is rosy, Jim’s father is sure. His elder son is away fighting the Hun for God and the British Army, and he has such plans for Jim and their corner shop empire. But Mr. Mack cannot see that the landscape is changing, nor does he realize the depth of Jim’s burgeoning friendship with Doyler. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, Easter 1916, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves.
Awards: Winner, Lambda Literary Award, 2002
About the Author (From Amazon.com): You may have read the hype. Irishman Jamie O’Neill was working as a London hospital porter when his 10-year labour of love, the 200,000-word manuscript of At Swim, Two Boys, written on a laptop during quiet patches at work, was suddenly snapped up for a hefty six-figure advance.
Review by Gerry Burnie
Shortly after I reviewed Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall, I received a note from author Les Brookes suggesting I read At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill [Scribner, 2002]. I took him at his word, and I am ever so happy that I did. This is an epic tale (576 pages) that has been compared to such heavyweights as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Flann O’Brien, and arguably so.
The setting is the village of Glasthule, near Dublin, Ireland, in the year 1915. Glasthule is a quintessential Irish village that O’Neill has populated with a cast of colourful characters: Jim Mack, the sixteen-year-old ingénue, unworldly to the point of being naïve; Doyler Doyle, similar in age but worldly in all the ways Jim isn’t, and a socialist-patriot; Mr. Mack, Jim’s father and an inveterate social-climber, both for himself and his son; Eveline MacMurrough, Glasthule’s local gentry and leading citizen; Anthony MacMurrough. Eveline’s nephew back in Ireland after his release from an English prison for ‘gross indecency’; Mr. Doyle, “Himself”, Doyler’s father and a veteran of the Boer War—which status he uses to illicit free drinks at the local pub; and the Catholic clergy-establishment represented by Brother Polycarp, a paedophilic conservative, and Curate Father O’Toiler, a devout, Irish nationalist.
Each of these characters is unique in some way, well-developed throughout, and each represents an element of traditional Irish society. Moreover, O’Neill has endowed them all—especially the poorer-classes—with a wonderfully quaint vernacular of Irish words and phrases; including Gaelic. He then goes on to surround these with an equally lyrical narrative that captures the lilt of the Irish language to a delightful degree.
At the beginning of the story Jim is a student at the Catholic college, a remarkable achievement for a lad of his modest, economic background, but it is only made possible by winning a scholarship. While this is a most credible accomplishment on Jim’s part, it also labels him a step below his wealthier classmates—a reflection of the classist-based stratification of Anglo-Irish society during this era. As a result Jim is somewhat of a loner; feeling neither at ease with his peers nor in his father’s pretentious, middleclass lifestyle. That is until he serendipitously encounters the rakish Doyler Doyle, a former childhood friend who has returned to Glasthule to assist his poverty-stricken mother and ailing father—i.e. “Himself.” Coming from the other side of the tracks, and employed as a “shit shoveller,” Doyler represents the lowest class of all on the economic scale; nevertheless he possesses a “what cheer, eh?” attitude, and a high level of fundamental honesty and principle—if one overlooks the occasional ‘sex-for-incentive’ activity.
Like a moth to a beacon, Jim is drawn to this outgoing, verbose, and also affectionate rascal, and together they find common ‘ground’ in swimming at “Forty Foot”; a promontory near Dublin, famous for nude bathing. Thus the two become dedicated to the swim such that they make a solemn pact to swim to Muglins Rock a year hence—Easter Sunday, 1916—as the pinnacle of their achievement and their growing friendship. Unwittingly, therefore, they have also laid the cornerstone of their romance, which will grow apace.
Here O’Neill has purposefully cut through the economic class structure of the day to find a more meaningful commonality to bind the two boys together, acceptably, while letting their romantic love develop almost imperceptibly at the same time. Interestingly, for a novel written in 2002, it is a classic assimilationist approach to gay fiction; i.e. an idealistic love between two males ‘unblemished’ by sex. The melancholy ending also reflects the unwritten, pre-Stonewall (1969) rule that covert or overt gay characters couldn’t be allowed an ‘happily-ever-after’ ending.
Representing the Irish Nationalist movement of the period, O’Neill has surprisingly assigned Eveline MacMurrough, and to some extent Curate Father O’Toiler—although his nationalism is firmly grounded in the interest of the Catholic Church as the national church. Ergo, the landscape of early 20th-century Ireland is painted in shades of conflict: conflict between the classes; conflict between Ireland and Britain; conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, and conflict between gays and the heterosexual establishment.
Jim and Doyler are also caught up in these conflicts regardless of their quite innocent and as yet unconsummated love. Jim’s bullying peers taunt him about his relationship with Doyler, Brother Polycart is darkly jealous of Doyler’s attention toward Jim, and Jim is torn between his religious belief and his growing sexual desire for Doyler—so much so that he ultimately experiences a nervous breakdown, and Doyler is driven away for being a socialist.
Rising above all this the two boys do eventually reach the apex of their love/relationship by swimming to Muglins Rock, where they finally consummate their love as well. However, having reached the pinnacle of their relationship there is no place but down when they are caught up in the ill-fated, 1916 Easter uprising.
This is a powerful and yet tender coming-of-age tale that engages the reader with layers of emotion, from the pinnacle to the depths and back again.
See Two Irish Lads by Gerry Burnie
Those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes…
Publisher’s blurb: Duress – the extreme experience war produces – brings out the most remarkable human qualities, and letters written in wartime contain some of the most intense emotion imaginable. This anthology includes letters that date as far back as the Boer War (which began in 1899) and extend up to 2002, when Canadian peacekeepers served in Afghanistan. Between are letters from the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and a number of peacekeeping missions. It contains some of the most powerful writing that Canadians – whether reassuring loved ones, recounting the bitter reality of battle, or describing the appalling conditions of combat–have ever committed to the page.
The letters Canadians have written during wartime are proud and self-deprecating, stoic and complaining, brave and fearful, tender and violent, funny and poignant. The Book of War Letters tells us something about what it means to be Canadian, and what it means to be alive.
About the Authors
Paul Grescoe has been chronicling Western Canadian entrepreneurs for decades–from the legendary Vancouver billionaire Jim Pattison (“Jimmy”) to the Winnipeg couple who founded the Harlequin romance empire (“The Merchants of Venus”). With his wife, Audrey, he is also a compiler of three recent volumes of private correspondence that illuminate Canadian history. The Grescoes live on Bowen Island, a world away from the rest of British Columbia.
Audrey Grescoe has been a freelance journalist and a newspaper and magazine editor; more recently she has written books on travel and nature.
Paul Grescoe has contributed to most of the major Canadian magazines and has also written books, including detective novels and “The Merchants of Venus, about the Harlequin publishing empire. They live on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, B.C.
Review by Gerry Burnie
The Book of War Letters: 100 Years of Private Canadian Correspondence [McClelland & Stewart, 2005] is the second of a three-part series by the husband and wife team of Paul and Audrey Grescoe; the other parts being: The Book of Letters and The Book of Love Letters.
As I have oft stated in the past, it is a real cause for celebration when I come across personal journals, first hand observations, or in this case letters that tell us things about our ancestors and our past that history books can only hint at. Moreover, the several generations covered in this collection may be the last to speak in such a manner, for telephone calls cannot be bundled and e-mails can’t take us back to our ancestors’ ways of behaving and thinking and viewing the world.
This is a monumental work (442 pages of letter) from the Boer War, 1899-1902, The Great War, 1914-1918, The Second World War, 1939-1945, Korea. 1950-1953, The various “Peacekeeping” missions, 1954—, and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, 2003—. However, these should not be viewed as just “war” correspondence, for they cover the gamut of emotions from patriotism to disillusionment; from protestations of love to “dear John letters; from “fear” lurking between the lines to reassurance for the folks back home. They are also happy-go-lucky, sad, resigned, and condoling when written by an officer or chaplain regarding a casualty.
Of course they all contain the admonition that “war is hell,” but the difference here is that this was written by individuals, boys, men, women, who were there, i.e.
About 1:30 the bombardment increased to an indescribable intensity, and shrapnel began bursting overhead. Through the din we could hear bullets whistling over the trench with a sound like the strings of a violin touched sharply and the beating of a gigantic bass drum. Word came down that the Germans were coming over, and we all got up and went back up the trench. The colonel was ahead up on the parapet waving on his men—a hero to the last. The bombardment stopped as suddenly as it begun. Instead the air was cleft and cut and sawed by millions of machine gun bullets. What they saw going on up the trench seemed to madden the fellows. We passed a man with a hole through both ankles, walking toward us. Another with both legs shot off at the hips, fast bleeding to death looking at us in mute appeal as we stepped over his mangled body. An then—but what’s the use—there were hundreds, one as bad as the other … I say we were maddened. It was not bravery nor bravado, nor patriotism, nor fear of being shot that drove us on … I think it was animal instinct and vengeance that prodded us on…
Barlow [Whiteside], July 1916
Having read this message written nearly 100 years ago, the question it has to raise is: Why do so-called ‘civilized’ nations, leaders, men and women continue this barbarous way of settling disagreements? Perhaps it might be of some good to send them all a copy of this outstanding look at the human side of war–with but one word emblazoned on the dust cover, i.e. “Why?”
The Book of War Letters is highly recommended for history buffs, writer and scholars specializing in military history, and for all those who have an interest and fascination in human nature.
Interested in Canadian history? Want to know more? Then visit my new page: In Praise of Canadian History.
It is a collection of little-known people, facts and events in Canadian history, and includes a bibliography of interesting Canadian books as well. Latest post: Springhill Nova Scotia Mine Disaster – Oct. 23, 1958: “The Springhill Bump”
If you would like to learn more about my other books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.
Get an autographed copy of my e-books, Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears throughAuthorgraph. Click on the link below to learn how.
Notice to all those who have requested a book review
Thank you for your interest, and my apologies for not responding to your request individually. I’m getting there, but the numbers have been overwhelming. Please extend your patience just a bit longer.
Thanks for dropping by! I’ll have another novel ready for next week, same URL, so drop back soon.
Reviews by Gerry Burnie
Overall this is a delightful read. Bite-sized nuggets covering some of most evocative periods in history, and the characters to match. Apart from Erastes, however, I am not immediately familiar with Jordan Taylor, Charlie Cochrane or Chris Smith, but their introductions have been admirable as well as memorable; the writings are of a very high standard throughout, the individual stories are well developed—as are the characters—and the pace is progressive and steady.
Highly recommended as the ideal book to take along on your vacation.
Tributary by Erastes
Publishers Blurb: It’s 1936 and a generation of disaffected youth waits in the space between a war that destroyed many of their friends and family, and a war they know is bound to come. Guy Mason wanders through Italy, bored and restless for reasons he can’t even name, and stops at the Hotel Vista, high in the mountains of Lombardy. There, he meets scientist James Calloway and his secretary, Louis Chambers, and it’s there that the meandering stream of Guy’s life changes course forever.
Gery B’s Review: This story reads like an art-deco illustration—clean lines and decorated with beautiful people. It is 1930s-British to the core–sort of a ‘grand tour’ of distant lands while hauling along English-middleclass standards like a tortoise’s shell.
Guy Mason is this aloof, British middleclass traveler in a foreign land (Italy), but who still insists on dressing for dinner and having his English beer. A sense of honour is very high on the priority list as well, and having seen active service in the “Great War” (WWI) is the standard. After all, this is the era of the “Order of The White Feather”—the organization aimed at coercing men to enlist in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform. Guy Mason served his time shuffling papers at Whitehall, but he nonetheless earned the title of Captain. Unfortunately Louis Chambers was too young to have served, and this almost destroys a relationship with Mason.
Enough said, except that this story is a faithful reproduction of a nostalgic era, featuring and adherence to style and grace that—regretfully—is gone forever.
The White Empire by Chris Smith
Publisher’s Blurb: Edgar Vaughan sincerely believes that six-thousand miles is enough to give him a fresh start. Escaping in 1838 from the drawing rooms of Belgravia and the constraints of his landed family, he takes up missionary work in the trading post of Hong Kong. On arrival, he finds the region on the cusp of war; the Chinese Emperor has outlawed the importation of opium — the key link in the trade of the East India Company. Between Edgar’s sense of isolation, the sight of the puling opium addicts, and one memorable encounter with a man in a peacock waistcoat, Edgar finds himself embroiled in the very marrow of the British Empire’s machinations. He finds himself torn between espousing the expeditious whilst protecting his new acquaintance, and doing what is right and risking the wrath of the British Empire.
Gerry B’s Review: This is yet another faithfully recreated tale of the Britains in a foreign land; somewhat darker than the previous story, however, for this is a period of imperial history that does not reflect well on The Empire—Good Queen Victoria notwithstanding. Nevertheless, it should be seen—as the author has implied—in a context when capitalism, the monarchy and imperial government were virtually the same forces, and very often the same people.
Albeit, Chris Smith has ably captured the atmosphere to a “T”, as well as the arrogance that accompanied white, British middleclass arrivals in their relationships with native nationals all over the world. Moreover, this period of Chinese history is particularly interesting, for the “Opium Wars,” as they become known, (1839-1842, 1856-1860), were the beginning of the end of Chinese culture and domestic order. Being set in the year before (1838) this story effectively tells us why.
Sand by Charlie Cochrane
Publisher’s blurb: “Safe upon solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.”
People come to Syria for many reasons; tourism, archaeology, or because they need to leave Edwardian England to escape potential disgrace. Andrew Parks is one of those, burying past heartache and scandal among the tombs.
Charles Cusiter has travelled here as well, as chaperone to a friend whose fondness for the opposite sex gets him into too much trouble at home. Out in the desert there aren’t any women to turn Bernard’s head – just the ubiquitous sand.
The desert works its magic on Charles, softening his heart and drawing him towards Andrew. Not even a potentially fatal scorpion sting can overcome the power this strange land exerts.
Gerry B’s Review: This is a delightful story of evolving love that flows like the waves marking the sands of the Syrian desert. It has tension, yes, but mostly it is about love—period.
Superbly written, the setting is colourful; the characters are well-developed and interesting, and story leaves you with a nice, warm afterglow.
The Ninth Language by Jordan Taylor
Publisher’s blurb: Thousands of outsiders descend on Canada’s Yukon Territory during the 1898 gold rush, wreaking havoc on the landscape and the indigenous people who live there. Amid the backdrop of this once pristine land, a man struggling against the destruction of his home and culture finds himself indebted to one of the men causing it. These two strangers discover solace and wholeness where they least expect it: each other.
Gerry B’s Review: I read this story with particular interest, for it is set in the same era and setting as my forthcoming novel—i.e. 1898 in the Yukon Territory. My story also includes some Natives of the Dene Tha´ tribe, so it was interesting to see how the author dealt with this topic.
I found her approach to the story quite believable, although I found Mitsrii’s vocabulary just a bit too articulate for his background; however, it is the message that this character is meant to convey that is the more important to the reader. Moreover, some of the ideas and beliefs are too complex for a broken-English dialogue.
I also appreciated it for the Canadian content.
See a list of all the titles and authors reviewed to date.
See a preview of my forthcoming novel, Coming of Age on the Trail: An M/M adventure and romance.
If you like a gothic murder mystery and things that go bump in the night, you’re going to love this one!
Publisher’s blurb: Charles Latham, wastrel younger son of the Earl of Clitheroe, returns home drunk from the theatre to find his father gruesomely dead. He suspects murder. But when the Latham ghosts turn nasty, and Charles finds himself falling in love with the priest brought in to calm them, he has to unearth the skeleton in the family closet before it ends up killing them all.
Review by Gerry Burnie
In the past I have read and reviewed Captain’s Surrender and False Colours, and admired both as outstanding historical fiction set in nautical terms—18th-century British Royal Navy, and such. However, Wages of Sin [MLR Press, 2010] is quite a departure from both.
Set in a gothic mansion in the English countryside, young Charles Lantham, son of the Fourth Earl of Clitheroe, returns to find his father suddenly, and mysteriously dead. This is the pivotal event that underlies the entire story; however, the author has masterfully set the dark mood from the get-go; i.e.
Moonlight sucked the colour from damp grass and silvered rising wisps of dew. The deer-park lay dim and still to Charles’ left, receding to a black horizon. To his right, the Latham family chapel loomed dark again the lead-coloured sky.
Sultan’s hooves whispered across the verge as Charles rode past the private graveyard’s wrought iron gate and averted his eyes from the white glimmer of Sir Henry’s mausoleum. It was one thing to laugh together over newspaper reports of vampires in Prussia while reclining in the comfortable lewdness of an actor’s garret—lamp-s blazing, the magic revealed as greasepaint, squalor and hard work—quite another to think of it there, beneath a slice of pewter moon, in a silence so huge it annihilated him.
A fox cried. Sultan snorted, ears flicking. His own heart racing, Charles gentle3d the horse over the gravel drive that swept to the white Grecian pillars of the mansion. They turned towards the stable-yard—coach houses, stalls and grooms quarters arranged about and enclosed square, entered by a short tcobblecxd tunnel beneath the arch, Sultan sidestepping as Charles dismounted. He wrenched his wrist, landed a slap and slither loud enough to conceal the footsteps of a thousand walking corpses and stood propped against the horse’s strong shoulder, gathering himself. Sultan’s warm, straw-scented breath spiraled up comfortingly into the pr-dawn sky.
As you can see from these three opening paragraphs, they get the adrenalin flowing for the rest of this classic gothic paranormal, murder mystery.
Likewise, the author has populated this setting with an interesting cast of characters: The lecherous George Latham, heir to the earldom; his mysterious guest, Jasper, a papist priest and ward of the old earl’s declared enemy; Lady Elizabeth the pregnant sister, and the dying Emma, George Latham’s consumptive wife. In an upstairs-downstairs twist, there are also the servants—the plump, matronly cook and her pretty, cheeky daughter. Any one of whom could be a murderer.
However, murder is not the only thing that occupies Charles Latham’s thoughts as he slowly gets to know the enigmatic priest. For one thing Jasper is a very handsome—and surprisingly worldly—priest, who holds the answers to several questions that Charles is faced with—including his physical attraction to him.
If asked what the strong points of this short novel are, I would say “from cover to cover.” The story is tight, captivating and engrossing, and the writing is outstanding. So, if you like a plot that includes murder, sins of the fathers, a house possessed, a vengeful ghost, exorcism, a unique setting and last but not least such colourful and interesting characters, Alex Beecroft delivers all of these in spades.
Highly recommended as a good, summer’s-night read.
You can submit you story for review in PDF form to, gerryB@gerrybsbookreview.com
See a complete list of titles and authors reviewed.
 I wonder if he knew the Fifth Earl of Ardmore, a character in my forthcoming novel?