Review: Heartache Cafe by J.S. Cook

J.S. Cook debuts haunted American expatriate Jack Stoyles, whose numb exile in an unexpected Atlantic outpost is suddenly brightened by a stranger who kisses him — and then dies. Betrayal, graft, a lost girl, and too many deaths. With good reason Jack called his place Heartache Cafe.

This short story in ebook format part of the Partners in Crime #5 Committed to Memory print series.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

The version of the e-book I received features two stories, “Don’t Look Back” by Josh Lanyon and “Heartache Café” by J.S. Cook. Only “Heartache Café” is historical fiction, which I realized halfway into “Don’t Look Back”—I just had too much fun with Josh Lanyon’s story to really care about that I only want to read historicals and my recreational reading was supposed to wait. Best-laid plans. So, I’d definitely recommend reading the two-author anthology; also because Lanyon and Cook have two very distinct voices which fit together very well for the purposes of this book that explores memory and memory loss.

Heartache Café is set in St John’s, Newfoundland, in the early 1940’s. The American Jack has just set up a new life for himself in the town and opened the eponymous café, when his peace is shattered by shady dealings. His bartender, Chris, gets involved with a lady and tied into a larger intrigue, which leads to people getting murdered and Jack investigating the mysteries of the harbor town. I don’t want to give too much away, and it isn’t really necessary to talk all that much about the plot, because I found the writing and the voice of our first person narrator Jack most compelling. This is one of those texts that aren’t easy, but it’s intense and engrossing; J S Cook shows her literary roots again clearly here. Just like in “Because you Despise Me”, it’s the language that compels about the story:

It was dark when I woke up, and the face looking back at me from the rearview mirror had a five o’clock shadow and then some. A little warning voice in the back of my brain was telling me that this was bad, this was really bad, this was worse than anything, and maybe I shouldn’t get out of the car, maybe I should just call the cops.

I didn’t listen. I never do. I went up that filthy, stinking little alley, and I opened his office door, but I was much too late, and he was gone. There was blood everywhere.

I stopped my car just before the bridge and walked on. The sun was rising, the first rays creeping over the city a little at a time. I looked up at the great steel span of the bridge, and I began to climb. The cables cut into my bare hands, and I was almost weeping with the cold, but I kept climbing. I’d climb so far that it would never touch me. I’d climb until I could forget that awful little room and the stink of blood and all the rest of this sordid mess. I’d climb till I was free. I stood there looking down into the icy water and wondering if the drop would be enough to kill me, or if I’d drown first…or die of cold. I saw the weirdest thing — a small sailboat coming down the river, tacking into the wind — a ridiculous little thing, no bigger than a minute, sailing down the Delaware like it had every right to be there. I thought about pictures I’d seen of graceful feluccas on the Nile River in Egypt, and as I watched the little boat tacking into the wind, something occurred to me. I climbed down from the bridge, walked to where my car was parked, got in and drove away.

Jack is a deep guy, seemingly private, but also readily makes friends. Much remains under the surface, not because Jack attempts to hide anything, but because he mostly keeps his own counsel and rarely shows his hand, unless he has to. What lies underneath is poignant loneliness which isn’t really resolved with sex (and he finds a couple casual ‘lovers’) or friendship. At the bottom of it, Jack is, I think, a romantic looking for the one true love, a man who can fascinate and enrapture him and sweep him off his feet to break through all his protective layers. One such man presents himself in a mysterious Egyptian who appears almost more like a fairy-tale creature than a man of flesh and blood at first. While Jack solves the crime and survives danger and distress, his heart gets stolen in the course of the story, but this love story isn’t resolved (yet).

“Heartache Café” is the first part of a series, or connected to an upcoming novel called “Valley of the Dead”, which will take us to Egypt on the quest for the vanished lover.

In terms of history, I saw no flaw, but I didn’t expect any—the writing is smooth and engrossing, I read this in two sittings and completely forgot everything else around me. Closing the book (or the file) I felt I knew that world and its inhabitants and Jack. And that’s really the point of reading, isn’t it?

Review: The Pleasure Slave by Jan Irving

Lucius Mettelus Carbo, once a legate on the rise in the Roman army, rescues a beautiful young prostitute, Varick, who immediately stirs him. However, Lucius doesn’t believe anyone could want him, a man cursed by the gods with an ugly, twisted leg. He resists his attraction to the pleasure slave as they forge a tempestuous relationship, and Varick tries to convince Lucius that he desires his master despite the injury. Both men are fighting their fears as they strive toward a future together… a future in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.

Review by Erastes

I have to say up front, that however my review seems to indicate the opposite, I did enjoy reading this book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the era.

The story takes place in Pompei, and a quick glance at the date (July 79AD) will set the scene immediately.  Volcano Day is on the way so we know our protags are going to be up against it.  However, sadly (and this is the second time in recent months that I’ve read an under representation of a cataclysmic eruption) the eruption, when it does come, is more of a damp squib than a OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE and the escape seems a little too easy, considering the rain of death that was going on.

Whilst I liked both protagonists, it was difficult to cheer them along, as I didn’t know if they even knew what they wanted.  The emotions are kept very much in check, Lucius’ less so, but he keeps himself back because he doesn’t want to fall in love with a slave, and Varick’s point of view is only very lightly visited, so we don’t get into his head much at all. However, the romance is very readable, warm and arousing, and the sexual level worked well for the length of the book.  I did feel that they cared for each other and that they needed to learn to trust each other, something that didn’t come easy for either of them.

The history is good and solid–the author even makes a note that she has, for her own timeline purposes, moved the destruction of Lucius’ regiment a few years, but that’s forgiveable, the best of historical novelists do that.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of this book a lot, because I love learning things, and the history and destruction of Lucius’ regiment was fascinating. The descriptions of the town, the murals, the graffiti and the villas are convincing, and never once did I get jolted out of the story.

Historically, too, Lucius’ behaviour is very apt–he no longer considers himself a man. He’s injured, and therefore is no use (in his mind). His friends shun him and he hasn’t even taken prostitutes since his disfigurement because it reminds him of all the men and women he had – paid or otherwise – when he was whole.  The stigma of falling in love with a slave is well described too.  Shag your property by all means, but you run the risk of being laughed at if you become “indulgent with it.”

I never quite understood what happened to Lucius’ leg, though – it’s twisted and wasted but I’d have liked a bit more of what actually happened to him when he got lost during the Batavian rebellion.

It’s sometimes a frustrating read, because there seems to be something else going on under the surface which is never quite explained, and there are a couple of dialogue sections which entirely baffled me.  Perhaps it’s due to the length restriction, but I feel that if the book had been perhaps 50 pages longer, it would have felt more complete.

At 90 or so pages (yes, it says 99 but of course many of those are introduction, cover, bio etc) I would have expected a little more story for my story, but at $3.99 it’s a pleasant read which will certainly fill an hour of your life and although may not set your world on fire, it shouldn’t disappoint.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

Review: Josef Jaeger by Jere’ M. Fishback

Josef Jaeger turns thirteen when Adolf Hitler is appointed Germany’s new Chancellor. When his mother dies, Josef is sent to Munich to live with his uncle, Ernst Roehm, the openly-homosexual chief of the Nazi brown shirts. Josef thinks he’s found a father-figure in his uncle and a mentor in his uncle’s lover, streetwise Rudy, and when Roehm’s political connections land Josef a role in a propaganda movie, Josef’s sure he’s found the life he’s always wanted. But while living in Berlin during the film’s production, Josef falls in love with a Jewish boy, David, and Josef begins questioning his uncle’s beliefs.

Complications arise when an old friend of his mother’s tells Josef that his mother was secretly murdered by the SS due to her political beliefs, possibly on Roehm’s order. Josef confides in his Hitler Youth leader, Max Klieg. Klieg admits he knows a few things, but he won’t share them with Josef till the boy proves himself worthy of a confidence.
Conflicting beliefs war within Josef until he must decide where his true loyalties lie, and what he really believes in.

Review by Hayden Thorne

I always get all giddy and delirious whenever I come across genre LGBT YA fiction. :) It remains a tiny and overlooked niche, and I hope that it enjoys growing exposure and respect through an expanding list of good quality titles like Josef Jaeger.

Now I must admit that I was hesitant at first to read Jere’ Fishback’s novel, as I really don’t have the stomach for Nazi-themed fiction or film. I’ve watched several movies before, and I always fall apart before the end, a wretched, sobbing mess. Since reading is more involved compared to watching, a novel focusing on Nazi Germany (or just Nazis in general) makes me dread what might be waiting for me in between the pages. Have you seen A Love to Hide? It took me over a week to recover from that movie. Had that been a novel…

But these stories should never be ignored, and with the book also being young adult and a coming-of-age one, I got over myself and plunged in. And I’m glad I did.

The first thing you’ll notice when you read Josef Jaeger is how incredibly detailed Fishback is in his description of Nazi Germany. Bayreuth, Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg – people, places, food, everything. I’m not sure if he’s traveled to Germany before or if he’s done extensive studies on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, but his knowledge of the place and era is exceptional.

That said, it does take a while for Josef’s story to unfold. Yes, I love it when authors take their time in telling a story, and the novel has a certain sweeping, epic scope to it. Josef travels from place to place, meets several characters along the way, and in the course of his adventures, learns about the darker yet incredibly complex side of human nature.

The downside, however, is that there are a number of scenes that were info dumps. Fishback is very particular in his descriptions, but they do go overboard at times, stretching Josef’s credibility as the narrator quite a bit. First of all, he’s only thirteen, and the novel follows his adventures in the course of a year or a little over a year. He’s shy, self-conscious, and very, very naïve. Yet, every so often, he’ll describe certain places and objects with a knowledge that you can only expect from someone who’s older and an actual expert on certain subjects, i.e., such as the exact sizes of cobblestones. Another effect of this is a dragging down of an already slow-paced story, so much so that I found myself lightly skimming over a few places that were chock-full of descriptive details that didn’t really add to the plot.

There’s so much attention paid to the environment and to the side characters that the novel reminds me of David Copperfield in the way Josef’s character progresses from wide-eyed innocent to a more jaded (but wiser) young man in the end, though the novel ends with him being only a year older.

Like Dickens’ novel, Josef Jaeger gives us an incredibly diverse cast of characters, each of whom is wonderfully developed to the extent that you feel as though you’ve been reading about them since the beginning even if they’re only there for a really short time. From Josef’s opera singer mother to his storm trooper uncle and Ernst’s heterosexual kept boy and the actors in Berlin, etc., there’s no dull moment in Josef’s young life at all, and more often than not, he’s a captive audience, watching in awe as people strut around before him – chain smoking, having sex, beating each other up, protesting the growing persecution of the Jews, and so on.

Now because of that, just like David Copperfield, Josef Jaeger seems to be more of a peripheral participant in his story. He reports what happens around him, and more often than not, he’s less an actor in everything and more of a boy who’s being acted upon. His story takes place at a time when Hitler’s just beginning his campaign against Communists and the Jews. Through Josef’s eyes, we see the growing tension in Germany and the vile propaganda finding increasing traction among disaffected Germans.

While Josef reacts to these events, I still found him curiously detached, emotionally, except for those scenes involving his developing romance with David, a Jewish boy whose family’s slowly being deprived of their rights. It’s because of the heavy focus on the unfolding political events in Germany and how they affect the people around him that I think Josef’s development as the main character becomes secondary. He cries, he gets excited, etc., but we’re told of those, and he neither evokes nor explores deeper feelings.

To some extent, it helps us keep a certain level of objectivity toward a very harrowing development in world history. On the other hand, I found it a little difficult empathizing with Josef.

This heavy focus on environment and secondary characters also undercuts the conflict that Max Klieg, a Hitler Youth leader, brings into Josef’s life. If anything, this particular detail in the book is the most problematic to me. Max appears about a quarter of the way in, when Josef joins a Hitler Youth group. Then he vanishes, not to reappear till near the end of the novel, where he plays a significant role in Ernst Roehm’s undoing.

Because Max’s reapparance is so far into the book, I didn’t feel as though Josef’s sudden hatred of his uncle is convincing enough. This specific conflict happens too late, too suddenly, and too quickly, and Josef never really goes through a long process of confusion or re-evaluation that would’ve otherwise shown a clearer shift of attitude toward his uncle. Had Max deepened the doubt and suspicion in Josef early on (already planted into his mind by another character who vanishes), we’d have a more developed exploration of the conflicting nuances of human nature. I feel that the Berlin scenes involving the production of a Nazi propaganda movie, while interesting, could’ve been scaled back considerably in favor of a better developed dilemma involving Josef and the only family member he has left.

As a minor aside, I’m also a little baffled over Josef’s mother’s death. I’m not sure if I missed something, but Josef was told at the beginning that cocaine was responsible, and then later on, he says that it’s a heart aneurysm. *If you’ve read this novel and can clarify this, please do so in the comments. I could be mistaken and would appreciate an explanation.*

Even though I didn’t feel as much of an emotional connection with Josef, I did enjoy the other characters. David and his family, the actors at UFA, and especially Rudy, were the ones who stayed with me long after I finished reading the book. Poor Rudy’s the biggest tragedy in this novel. He’s the one who never gets a fair chance from the get-go, and while he does some pretty stupid things, I really didn’t want to see him end up where he is at the conclusion of the novel. I almost feel like writing AU fanfic just to give him a second chance.

That said, Josef Jaeger is a real treat, one of the more intelligently-written YA books I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s thought-provoking, wonderfully dense, and well-researched, touching on one of the darkest moments in world history. Kudos to Jere’ Fishback for giving us a behind-the-scenes look into the rise of Hitler without sentimentalizing things or toppling into melodrama through his use of clean, concise language and Josef’s matter-of-fact voice.

Warning: Underage sex.

Buy the book:  Amazon UK Amazon USA E-book

Review: To Hell You Ride by Julia Talbot

Big Roy is a hard rock miner with a not so secret love for the theater, so when he hears a new troupe of actors are coming to the Telluride opera house to put on a Shakespeare play, he saddles his mule and makes the trek into town to see it.

The play doesn’t disappoint, but the beautiful lead actor, Sir Edward Clancy, certainly does. Clancy is rude and arrogant, and Roy figures he’d never have a chance with such a man. He’s wrong, because Clancy needs some entertainment himself, being stuck in a Hellish mining town for the long, snowy winter.

Come spring, though, Clancy knows he’s going to want to move on, and he thinks Roy will be easy to forget. Then tragedy strikes, and Clancy has to rethink his entire life. Can these two strike gold?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

“‘Thank the Lord and all the angels,’ as Big Roy Marsh would say. ‘A historical western that gets it right.’”

Edward Clancy looked up from his book. “What’s that you say?”

Roy Marsh looked at him. “I’m readin’ a review and she quotes me.”

“A review? Of what?”

“The book about us, of course!” Roy gave Clancy an exasperated stare.

“Which one?”

Roy wondered if Clancy was being dense on purpose. “Tis only one, as you know. Ain’t dozens of books ‘bout us. To Hell You Ride, the one by Miss Julia Talbot.”

“Ah,” said Clancy. “And what does she say? Is it a positive review?”

Roy nodded. “I’d say so. Five stars.”

“Five stars! A superior rating! That’s better than my last performance.”

“You didn’t rehearse enough for that one.”

“You were too busy keeping me busy.”

Roy blushed at that.

Clancy gestured towards the paper. “Go on, read some more.”

Roy cleared his throat. “‘Big Roy Marsh is a gold miner, working high in the mountains above Telluride, Colorado. On Saturday, he likes nothing better than to ride his mule, Annie, into town, stop for a shave, haircut and perhaps a bath, then put on his ‘Sunday go-to-meeting clothes’ and head to the theater.’”

“That’s what you still like,” Clancy interrupted.

Roy nodded. “I surely do, even if you do make me wear a suit.”

“You look particularly fine in a suit.”

Roy blushed again. He looked back down at the paper. “‘On this particular Saturday, Roy is transfixed by the performance of Sir Edward Clancy in the role of MacDuff. He accidently bumps into the actor the next morning and wishes to pay him a compliment, but Sir Edward arrogantly brushes him aside.’”

Clancy frowned. “Why did she have to include that?”

“It’s true. You were arrogant.” He continued reading. “‘When a comment about Sir Edward’s rudeness makes it into the paper, Clancy decides he requires a personal apology and sets out to get it, which becomes the basis for an amusing encounter between the two men.’”

“Amusing, hmm? I thought it was odd.”

“Amusing or odd, you couldn’t get enough of me,” Roy said.

It was Clancy’s turn to blush.

Roy turned back to the paper. “‘Roy and Clancy are the unlikeliest of lovers, but Talbot tells their story deftly, moving from a relationship built on carnal lust and a base desire for each other to one of a strongly shared love and mutual need.’” Roy’s brow furrowed. “Sounds a little personal, here.”

“Well, if you didn’t want it to be personal, you shouldn’t have shared so many details. I told you to be a bit more circumspect.”

Roy looked at his lover, his lips tightening into a hard line, but didn’t say anything. “‘The reason why this story works so well as a historical western, as opposed to a story that takes place in the old days, is the way the author effortlessly evokes the time and period. Little details bring the frontier town of Telluride to life, with its wood-framed buildings and muddy roads leading high up into the mountains. I particularly loved this line, ‘Only thing he’d taken had been his own shoes and coat, assuming them after he was out in the hallway, bright with its fancy electric lights that looked so odd to Roy. Any light that didn’t flicker with the wind just oughtn’t be trusted.’” Roy looked at the electric lamp at his elbow, then looked at Clancy. “Not sure why she’d comment on that,” he said. “Still think it’s true.”

Clancy smiled at him. “Oh, my rough miner. You never change, do you?”

“Do you want me to?” Roy asked.

Clancy shook his head. “No,” he answered softly.

Roy took a minute to compose himself, then picked up the paper again. “‘Themes are beautifully woven throughout the story, such as shaving and bathing. At the beginning, they are impersonal acts between Roy and the barber—a business transaction. Then they become erotic moments between the two main characters and ultimately, an act of caring and love, when Edward bathes Roy after a life-threatening accident.’”

Roy stopped. “Well,” he said.

“Well,” Clancy replied.

“I didn’t know we was being erotic,” said Roy.

“I didn’t know we had themes, but I suppose I should have figured it out, given my prowess in the acting profession.”

Roy chuckled. “Gotta hand it to you, Clancy, you ain’t ever been one to hide your light under a bushel.”

Clancy pointed to the paper. “Go on. Is there anything else?”

Roy nodded. “‘All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying novella. Colorful, well-drawn characters, a totally engaging story, historical details that were pitch perfect in pulling me into turn-of-the-century Colorado. Having read a number of Westerns that come nowhere near this standard, it was a true pleasure to stumble upon this unexpected gem.’” Roy stopped reading. “Guess she liked it.”

Clancy nodded. “With a review like that, I suppose I shall have to stop ignoring this book and actually read it. Do we own a copy?”

“Yup,” said Roy. “It’s in the bedroom, next to the bed.”

“Will you fetch it for me?”

Roy shook his head mournfully. “Now, Edward, you know I ain’t your manservant, here to do your fetching. You can go get it for yourself.”

“I suppose I shall have to do that.” Clancy brushed an imaginary piece of lint from his trousers. “Perhaps you will accompany me?”

“To the bedroom?” Roy asked.

Clancy nodded. “Some of the things you read reminded me of memories that have, um, quite aroused me. I think, perhaps, some recreation is in order.”

“You mean getting fancy?” Roy winked.

“You know precisely what I mean, my love.”

Roy stood up. “You lead the way, honey,” he said with a smile.

“I don’t need to be asked twice,” replied Clancy, as they headed out of the room, the newspaper forgotten on the chair.

Buy from All Romance Buy from Torquere Press

Review: Calico by Dorien Grey

“Calico” is something of a breakthrough novel in that it spans a bridge which is only now opening for two-way traffic. The author describes “Calico” as a “western/romance/adventure/mystery with a twist”…the twist being that its cowboy hero/protagonist just happens to be gay.

Calico Ramsey finds himself with the responsibility of seeing that two 17 year old orphaned twins from Chicago, Josh and Sarah Howard, get safely from the rail line’s end to their aunt in Colorado. But things have begun to go terribly wrong even before the twins arrive, and it doesn?t take long for Calico to realize someone does not want him to reach his destination (though how anyone even knows the trio’s destination is a mystery to Calico).

There is enough action, adventure, and mystery to satisfy both diehard western fans, and even those who don’t normally care for the genre. The gently developing romance is non-threatening to those who have lived their lives on the “mainland” side of the bridge, but offers a unique insight into the 10 percent of the population living at the other end of the bridge.

Review by Alex Beecroft

When Calico Ramsey’s uncle Dan is gunned down by a hired killer, Calico inherits not only Dan’s ranch, but also a responsibility to Dan’s newly orphaned nephew and niece. He promises to see them safely into the custody of their Aunt Rebecca, even though nobody to whom he speaks has a good word to say about the woman. The twins’ parents died in a fire following a visit from Rebecca and her husband, so when Calico and the twins are almost killed themselves in a fire the first night out, Calico begins to suspect something sinister. As their journey continues it becomes clear that someone is trying to kill the three of them before they can get to Rebecca’s house. Calico must protect his two charges, figure out what is going on and why, and deal with the burgeoning love and attraction he feels for Josh.

I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a big reader of Westerns, and am not, unfortunately, any kind of expert in the time. Nothing in the setting of this book, or the behaviour of the characters pinged me as wrong for 19th Century America, but take that with a pinch of salt as I can’t speak with any kind of knowledge on the subject. What the book reminded me of most of all was the kind of TV Western series which I watched when I was growing up. It had the same kind of strong but decent, openhearted characters, a laconic expression and stoicism that covered up deep emotions and a real appreciation of a seemingly endless landscape, with all the beauty and freedom and danger that represented.

I was also reminded of these old series because the book proceeds in a number of episodes, each of which end in a cliffhanger. There is a lot of welcome action; a memorable gunfight, runaway horses, arson, ambushes and kidnapping – there’s really no chance to ever get bored. And if, like me, you find constant action a bit wearing too, you’ll still like this book because the action is interspersed with some lovely quiet moments; companionship around the campfire, the very sweet and tender romance between Calico and Josh, moments where the beauty of the countryside comes through, and moments of good food and hospitality from strangers who become friends.

After reading Brokeback Mountain, it’s slightly hard for me to believe that neither Calico nor Josh have much in the way of angst about accepting their attraction for men in general and each other in particular, and even harder to believe that nobody in the book who knows about it seems to have a problem with it. But Dorien Gray writes the characters in such a way that I was prepared to believe that these particular people are simply fortunate in their emotional makeup and friends, rather than feeling that the whole society was anachronistic.

I enjoyed the fact that the greater part of the story took place over a journey from the railway station to the Aunt’s house. It really gave a picture of how difficult travel was in those days. I also enjoyed the mystery, and although I had worked out who the villain was, and why they were doing this, by the time it was revealed, I hadn’t done it so early on as to be disappointed with the heroes for not realising it earlier.

My main problem with the book, and why it only gets a four and a half star review rather than a five, is the ending. The final confrontation with the villain is over very easily and for a moment I almost thought we’d lost a gunman. Although I find I was wrong about that and he was accounted for, my impression was still that the villain is disappointingly easily dealt with at the end.

More than this, though, I felt that the romance was denied a scene that it needed to round it off. Throughout the book, Calico had been saying to himself and Josh “I’ll think about that later. I’ll think about it when you’re 18. I’ll think about it once we’re out of this life threatening peril.” All of which was very sensible and you couldn’t help agreeing that he was right to look at it that way. However, the end of the book finds Josh 18 and the life-threatening peril out of the way, but there never is a scene where Calico does that thinking and makes that ‘yes, we’re a couple’ decision that the book (I thought) had been leading up to. So I felt the romance part of the plot suffered from a lack of resolution. I’d have liked to see Calico make the commitment to Josh that had been hinted at throughout.

However, the ending does leave the two of them together, so I can happily imagine that they get that bit sorted out off camera, so to speak, and although I would have liked to see a more romance focussed ending, it doesn’t in any way take away from how much I enjoyed everything that went before it. I’ll definitely be reading this one again with a lot of pleasure.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Call for Submissions: Carina Press

Whilst this call doesn’t specifically mention gay submissions, Carina Press made it clear when they started up last year that they were going to accept and publish GLTBQ titles – so well worth a query.

Copyright Carina Press, Harlequin Enterprises Ltd
Hoop skirts, brocade, feathered headdresses, kid gloves, kid slippers, horses, carriages, talk of locomotion (not Kylie Minogue’s!), Queen Victoria, cowboys, discussion of women’s suffrage, ratafia, corsets, chemises, calling cards, pelisses, peers of the realm, cutthroats, Mary Wollstonecraft, six-shooters, hothouse flowers, wallflowers, parties lit by candles, cowboy hats, bluestockings, hunts, hounds, masquerades, horses, operas and operettas, tours of Italy, grand tours, wars (Napoleonic, Crimean), revolutions (French, Russian)…

Do you love these things? We do, and we want to read more about them—and share them with our readers! Carina Press’s acquisitions team and editors have begged me to find more historical fiction and romance, so I’m putting out the call. If you have a completed historical manuscript, 15,000 words and up, Carina Press would love to see it.

We’re looking for both historical romance and historical fiction (with or without the romance subplot) of any steam level (including none, none at all). Historical Victorian, Regency, Western, turn of the century or whatever other time period you’ve chosen to write in, we’re interested in publishing some amazing historical work. Our submissions guidelines can be found HERE, and we’re working through submissions very quickly, due to the large number of us reading them, so you won’t be waiting until summer (or next year) for an answer!

Clearing up a commonly asked question: What is the difference between Harlequin Historical Undone and Carina Press eBooks? Undone has a very specific word count requirement: 10-15,000. We’re looking for 15,000 up. So the two aren’t competing in any way, because we don’t take less than 15k and they don’t take more than 15k!

Full details here:

http://keirasoleore.blogspot.com/

Review: Lovers’ Knot by Donald Hardy

Cornwall, 1906

After inheriting Trevaglan Farm from a distant relative, Jonathan Williams returns to the estate to take possession, with his best friend, Alayne, by his side. He’d only been to Trevaglan once before, fourteen years earlier when he’d been sent there after a family scandal and his mother’s death. But that was a different time; he’s a different person now, determined to put that experience out of his mind and his heart….

That summer, he’d been a lost and lonely young man. Healing came slowly; the hot summer days were filled with sunshine, the nearby ocean, and a new friend, Nat. Jonathan and the farmhand had quickly grown close, Jonathan needing comfort in the wake of his grief, and Nat basking in a peace and love he had never known could exist.

But that was also a summer of rumors and strange happenings in the surrounding countryside, of romantic triangles and wronged lovers. Tempers would flare like summer lightning, and fade just as quickly. By the summer’s end, one young man was dead, and another haunted for life.

Now Jonathan is determined to start anew. Until he starts seeing the ghost of his former friend everywhere he looks. Until mementos of that summer idyll reappear. Until Alayne’s life is in danger. Until the town’s resident witch tells Jonathan that ghosts are real. And this one is tied to Jonathan unto death…

Review by Hayden Thorne

This is going to be an unusual way of opening a review, and I might be getting some flack for it, but there’s a point to this.

To begin, I want to point out what I thought to be problematic things about Lovers’ Knot (bear with me, please). The romantic conflict (“I love him. I want to tell him. I don’t want to lose his friendship.”) happens to be my least favorite M/M source of angst. I’ve read so many stories that unfold along these lines, and majority of them simply fail in making me sympathize with the heroes, for all their incessant pining. Secondly, some of the dialogue between Jonathan and Alayne is somewhat clunky and awkward. The language isn’t stilted, no, but there’s a certain self-consciousness in the way the exchanges happen that gives them a false feeling. Ironically, it usually happens whenever they banter, and one would think that they’ve never really lived together in London for almost a decade. And thirdly, I find the novel’s villain to be – well – too convenient. The motive, especially, while understandable, doesn’t convince as much because of her single-mindedness in getting what she wants, which limits her characterization to an archetype: the lover scorned, with hardly any room for development.

Now that I’ve laid out the weaker points of this book, I can move on to the next bit.

I LOVE THIS NOVEL. Yes, I latched on to those issues pretty early on in the book, and they came back here and there in the course of reading, but by the time I finished, none of them mattered. None.

For all the heroes’ pining, they never wallow in it. They struggle internally, they fight against themselves and common sense, but on the whole, they’re also very pragmatic men. They mull over things and then decide on a course of action. We’re never treated to page after page of tedious “woe is me” moments. The novel’s villain, though an archetype, manages to rouse some sympathy in the end, given the nature of her punishment and the stupidity that took her to that point. In fact, nearly all of the principal players do some incredibly stupid things, but given the nature of their relationships as well as their relationship with the land, it’s not a surprise. In fact, they’re expected to be ruled largely by passion. The occasional awkward dialogue gets balanced by wonderfully detailed scene descriptions and a haunting (no pun intended), dreamy atmosphere.

Lovers’ Knot has a pretty simple storyline, both past and present. What Donald Hardy does, though, is flesh out his story in such a way as to make it much more complex and multi-layered. It’s a classic romantic tragedy, where the ending leaves you both happy for the lovers and completely heartbroken over the past and maybe even wondering “what if?” What if Nat survived? What if so-and-so gave up and moved on? How would the present look? There are so many gray areas that shape both the story and the characters (save for Alayne, who’s largely in the background and is more of an innocent bystander caught up in some pretty creepy happenings), and above all, the story left me thinking about connections, allegories, and so on, which is something I couldn’t help but do because of the book’s narrative structure.

The story unfolds with Jonathan’s past alternating with his present. Normally I’m not fond of this approach because it requires a pretty deft handling of two disparate and yet parallel (or cause and effect) storylines, and the author has to be careful in making sure that the significance of these flashbacks becomes evident as the present story unfolds. We get exactly that in Lovers’ Knot. Along with the juxtaposition of youth and innocence with maturity and world-weariness, we’re also treated to some wonderful contrast studies that add to the emotional resonance of Jonathan’s relationships with Nat and Alayne.

The setting is Cornwall, very rural, and steeped in history. Jonathan and Nat’s blossoming love affair is defined by rugged Nature, superstition, village rites, the sea, and eternity. The two consummate their love all over the place, hiding constantly, yet completely vulnerable and exposed. Their “wedding rite” is primitive yet a truer connection of souls. Their minister (that is, if they were to recruit one)? The village witch.

For the present, Jonathan and Alayne’s relationship is defined by silence, lies, obfuscation. They’re protected against Nature by man-made structures, separated from each other by physical walls, stairways, and social convention. The vicar and his wife come to visit, and while Mrs. Deane shows some liberal leanings, she remains held back and kept in her place by – yes – social convention. There’s certainly much to be said about age and wisdom, but at what price? Emotional asphyxiation? The sharp contrast of Jonathan’s present with his past forces you to think about what could’ve been.

The gray areas encompass the characters as well. There are a number of them, and they bring different things to the story in different ways, but save for maybe a handful, none of them’s a saint. Through their strengths and especially their frailties, they add so many human dimensions to an otherwise simple story. I find Penhyrddin a very fascinating character, and his mystique remains even after the climax of Jonathan’s past. It’s almost fitting, really, that he’s almost a living ghost, just hovering in the background, seeing as how Lovers’ Knot is both a romance as well as a classic ghost story.

What I’ve always loved about ghost stories is that, compared to monsters, for instance, these stories tend to be very psychological. Was the specter a figment of the imagination? Why would it appear to A and not B? What relationship is there between the dead and the living? Lovers’ Knot doesn’t take the easy way out in explaining the hauntings. If anything, the cause happens to be one of the more heart-rending elements in the novel, and its resolution doesn’t make it easier to take. M.R. James is also invoked, which makes me a very giddy James fangirl.

The setting and historical details are very, very well-done. On the whole, the novel has a certain dreamy, lethargic quality to it – becauase of the story’s pace (and I really love it when authors take their time) as well as the attention that Hardy gives to practically every moment. You’ll feel as though you really are in rural England, exposed to the elements, to history, tradition, and the supernatural. You can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell practically everything. His focus on the poor and the uneducated is much, much appreciated. Historical fiction oftentimes being narrowed to the upper-class and aristocracy, I’m always dying to read a book about the lower-class and the rural poor. I find their lives so diverse and so rich, and I think that they have much more to say to us about a country’s history than their wealthier counterparts. Hardy’s novel does exactly that. In fact, I’d go further and say that his approach brings to mind another Hardy – Thomas Hardy – including the elegiac undercurrents and vanishing traditions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved and (no pun intended) haunted in such a way by a story I’ve read. The experience is wonderful and gratifying, and I certainly hope to see more books from this author.

Buy the book:   Amazon UK Amazon USA


Review: Sticks and Stones by Jamie Craig

Complementing each other on the dance floor isn’t enough to form a relationship. Is it? It’s 1953, and Hollywood is booming with extravagant musicals. Coming off a string of hits with MGM, Paul Dunham couldn’t be hotter. Hoping to capitalize on Paul’s popularity, the studio announces its attention to pair him with the latest actor to make a splash, Jack Wells. It seems like a match made in heaven, except for the fact that Paul can’t stand Jack. He hates the way Jack acts, and he hates Jack’s blue eyes, and he especially hates the fact that Jack is one of the most talented dancers he has ever met. Jack, however, doesn’t hate Paul. In fact, everything Paul does fascinates him. After their first meeting, Jack is determined to win Paul over, and he won’t back down until Paul admits that the two of them are perfect partners…in every way…

Review by T J Pennington

Those of you who know me know that I adore improbable pairings–people who shouldn’t even be friends, let alone lovers, because their personalities, attitudes and so on are so opposite each other. That’s the situation in Sticks and Stones.

Paul Dunham is an established actor in Hollywood–a leading man and excellent dancer with a reputation as a ladies’ man that he has carefully constructed over the years. Jack Wells is a Broadway actor/dancer who’s somewhat younger than Paul. Now Jack is trying to break into movies, and, since Paul’s last movie didn’t do as well as expected, the President of MGM, Dore Schary, has put the two men in the movie Sticks and Stones, hoping they can boost each other up.

It’s a match made in Hell.

Jack gets off on the wrong foot with Paul automatically by being an obsessive fanboy. When refused entrance to Paul’s house by the housekeeper, Jack, who is dazzled by the notion that he is going to be playing opposite the actor he’s had a crush on for years, simply climbs the fence and enters Paul’s studio by the back. He’s honestly puzzled by the fact that Paul, a deeply private man, doesn’t welcome his intrusion into his studio or into his career. And when Jack doesn’t know how to cope, he defaults to making passes at people.

This, from Paul’s point of view, is even worse than the home invasion. For Paul is bisexual-leaning-gay, and since he knows that his preference is a) illegal and b) could destroy his career if word got out that one of MGM’s male stars likes men as lovers, he has avoided sex with men for the past four years and is working very hard at projecting the image of a very masculine, very heterosexual man. There are a few chinks in his armor; Paul’s best friend Martin knows that Paul is more attracted to him than to Martin’s wife Lilah, for all that Lilah is the one that Paul’s having sex with, and more than a few hints are dropped that Paul’s former girlfriend, actress Betty Thayer, also knows of his proclivities.

However, the secret is mostly intact…until Jack appears, operating on autoflirt. This terrifies Paul, who is afraid that someone will see Jack’s flirting and, based on his physical response to Jack, will deduce that Paul is less than straight, causing his carefully constructed life to come crashing down around his ears.

For much of the book, Jack, who is determined to put Paul in a position where he’ll have to react physically or admit that he’s attracted, desperately wants the star that he’s spent years idolizing to see him as a professional, as an equal and as a handsome man. And to this end, he’ll try anything that will allow him to spend a little extra time with Paul, from working long hours on the set to appearing with Paul and a couple of actresses publicly to promote the movie they’re currently filming. He doesn’t admit, even to himself, how much Paul’s good opinion is starting to mean to him, or how bothered he is by the other man’s lack of interest.

After a disastrous public “double date” in which Jack gets loudly and aggressively drunk, nearly exposing Paul’s secret, Paul takes Jack home and then, when Jack realizes his house keys are on the key ring to the Buick he’s loaned to their mutual dates and can’t unlock his door, over to Martin’s house. On the way to both places, they talk. Jack lets Paul know just how much he resents the walls that Paul’s built around himself–and the fact that he can’t get past them. Paul insists that his private life should stay private, and then says something very telling…and very sad, because it’s true, not only for Paul in 1953 but a great many LGBTQ people today:

“You’re right, you know. I don’t want anyone getting in. don’t know what world you’re living in, Jack, but where I live, there’s too much to lose by trusting the wrong person.”

Honesty helps the men talk out their differences, though it doesn’t fix what’s wrong. Jack is starting to grasp the strength of Paul’s willingness to do whatever it takes to pass as straight and thereby maintain his career; the problem is, he loathes the unwritten rules of Hollywood that make such games necessary. Moreover, he feels he’s never going to get Paul’s approval for anything he does or is. Paul, on the other hand, who knows he’s attracted to the man, discovers he’s changed his mind about Jack’s skill; he is a good dancer. And, despite Jack’s flaws, he’s learned to his surprise that he doesn’t mind Jack as a person, either. And once Paul deposits Jack at Martin’s house, the two share an intense kiss.

Of course, once they kiss, they both have to admit to themselves how attracted they are…as well as the fact that most of the animosity in their relationship has turned into something considerably more volatile. A few chapters later, an after-hours dance rehearsal at Paul’s home leads to wild passionate sex…which is followed by one of the best sex-in-the-shower scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s clear by now that the two of them are good together, and that they truly make each other happy. The authors are clever; they set up a potentially idyllic situation and then proceed to show that neither love nor sex solve all of Paul and Jack’s problems. Paul is still petrified about the prospect of exposure and the probability that a photographer will snap a picture of Jack leaving his house in the early morning or that Jack will do something publicly that can’t be passed off as Jack being…well, Jack. Jack’s quick temper leads him to say cruel, wounding things even when he knows better. And just as both men have started to work past their issues and are settling into the start of a new relationship, they’re haunted by a one-night stand with a young man who’s willing to do anything to succeed, including committing blackmail.

Though the authors were evenhanded in their treatment of the two protagonists, I found the Montgomery Clift-like Paul more sympathetic, partly because I initially found Jack’s expectations of instant friendship with his idol and his subsequent anger when he didn’t get it somewhat stalker-ish rather than romantic, and partly because Paul was living in the real world. He knew who he was and what he wanted…but he also knew that it was 1953, that MGM was focusing mostly on wholesome family pictures and that being exposed as a homosexual would compromise his reputation, his career, his future and possibly his life. Paul’s fear of exposure and its very real consequences lent the novel gravity, believability and power.

The sexual details, too, are powerful…intense, detailed, wholly credible. And they’re not only hot, but also say a great deal about the characters and their world. The scene that stands out most in my mind is that of Lilah sucking off Paul while her husband, Paul’s best friend Martin, watches. Now, I can hear some people in the back saying, “Ewww, het!” But to me, it was an incredible scene. Paul wanted to be touched by a man he cared about so badly that he was willing to let his best friend’s wife suck him off while Martin watched so that he could fantasize that Martin was the one making love to him. That says so much about the man’s isolation–that there is no one in Hollywood who can be trusted to give him the love he so desperately needs. This is the best he can do. And he’s so accustomed to this accommodation he doesn’t let himself think about what he really wants for even a second, lest he realize that he’s unhappy and very much alone.

One thing that I especially liked was the level of detail that the the authors included in the book. For example, at one point early on, Paul thinks that he doesn’t want to look like “a hulking bruiser of a bulldog” next to “a little yippy terrier,” like two characters that appeared in a “Warner Brothers cartoon last year.” Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier were only in two shorts for Warner Brothers: Tree for Two (1952) and Dr. Jerkyl’s Hide (1954), so right away the year had to be 1953 or 1955. And it’s emphasized throughout that what Dore Schary–who headed MGM from 1951 to 1956–wants, he gets, which would be far more probable two years after he was hired than the year before he was fired. So even if you didn’t know the date the story is set, you could still figure out from in-story references that it’s 1953.

I also liked that the authors took the time to show Paul and Jack’s relationship shifting from adversarial dislike and hurt pride to appreciation for each other’s talents and finally to honesty and the realization that, despite the risks, this relationship was worth keeping.

I was sorry, therefore, that neither the ending nor the epilogue quite rang true. I could accept one man sacrificing his reputation to a blackmailer to keep the other safe; what I couldn’t accept was the blackmailer going along with it. It seemed to me that such sacrifice would only tell the blackmailer that someone was willing to put everything on the line to save someone he loved…and then both men would be targets. So while I was deeply relieved to see the blackmailing snake foiled by a brave and generous lover, I couldn’t quite believe it would be that easy.

And while I was willing to accept that perhaps MGM had finagled matters to avoid having one of their actors arrested or imprisoned after he’d admitted his preferences publicly–it would have been in their interest to avoid scandal after all–I didn’t feel that one man giving up his studio name and going back to his real one would ensure that Paul and Jack could associate with each other with impunity. It’s not hard to discover for a reporter to discover an actor’s real name, after all. And I felt certain that the studio would be interested in damage control–including keeping one man as far away from the other as possible. It was a happy ending (it left Paul and Jack very much in love and very much together), but it was not a believable happy ending.

Nevertheless, it’s a very good book. And I would definitely recommend it.

Buy from Amber Allure

Review: Madcap Masquerade by Persephone Roth

When Loel Woodbine, Duke of Marche, receives news that his great aunt has engaged him to a young lady he has never met, he’s a little nonplussed. His lifestyle doesn’t exactly lead itself to entertaining the fair sex; in fact, he prefers to devote his attentions to men rather than women. However, Marche owes his livelihood to his wealthy aunt—indeed, he loves the old dragon – and he knows that he must fulfill his duty and marry Miss Valeria Randwick.

Marche never expects to be completely bowled over by his young bride when he meets her at their wedding ceremony, but she is the most beautiful, untouched creature he has ever seen. Given his preference for men, he is extremely surprised by his intense reaction to her. That is, until he finds out that his new wife is actually Valentine Randwick, Earl of Blythestone, who is disguised as his sister in order to distract attention from her elopement with a commoner.

Having been raised among monks, Valentine is innocent in the ways of the world. He knows that his reaction to the man he calls husband is unnatural, but he can’t deny the intense responses of his heart and his body to the man. Valentine doesn’t exactly enjoy the dresses and the corsets, but if Marche wants to continue the charade, he is willing. Before the two men can settle down into their own version of wedded bliss, however, Marche’s aunt is murdered, and blame is pointed at none other than Marche’s lovely new bride.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

I have a feeling that Madcap Masquerade is book that people will either love or hate. For me, my opinion doesn’t go all the way to love, but I enjoyed it and found myself re-reading big chunks of it prior to writing this review, which is always a personal subconscious sign that I liked a book quite a bit.

Now, let’s get some details out of the way. This is a Dreamspinner “Timeless Dreams” title that comes with the disclaimer that, “…these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma.” So, historical fiction purists be warned: this book may not be your cup of tea. But if you can get past that issue or don’t really care, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.

I will admit, I started reading this as a “straight” (well, gay) historical. At about the one-third point I thought things were getting a little preposterous and I was feeling annoyed, but I kept going. Then, I looked at the cover: Madcap Masquerade. Aha, I thought—maybe the author’s intention was to have this be a madcap romantic comedy. So I adjusted my thinking and kept on reading. As a “madcap” story it worked better, but this is probably the biggest weakness of the book. I think it is tough to be really funny with themes of murder, embezzlement, and betrayal. Certainly the author kept a light touch but it makes it hard for the story to be completely “over-the-top” which is what it needed to be to truly succeed as a comedy. On the other hand, if you read it as a mostly light-hearted romp and don’t dwell on the serious stuff, it mostly works.

What I liked the best was the interaction between Valentine and Loel and fortunately, they get a lot of page time which went a long way to keeping me interested in the story. They meet for the first time at their wedding, where Valentine is disguised as his sister Valeria. When Loel kisses his bride at the ceremony, she swoons. He takes her into the vestry, locks the door, loosens her corset and realizes that she is really a he. He’s a little surprised at this turn of events but not totally unhappy as he likes what he sees in Valentine, with his long dark hair, coltish frame, and violet eyes.

Valentine, for his part, is totally surprised at his reaction to Loel’s kiss (he had an erection) and Loel’s frank admission that he prefers men over women. But he’s no dummy and he realizes he needs to continue the charade for at least a little while until Valeria is safely married to the man she really loves. Once that happens, Valentine can sort out what he will do with his life and next steps.

Loel decides he wants to get Valentine into his bed but then surprises himself by starting to fall for the young man before the seduction occurs. Valentine also realizes he is developing very strong feelings, very quickly, for the man he is married to. Instead of ignoring each other or their emotions (and having some sort of blasted miscommunication; none of that here, thank God), they talk; Loel tells Valentine he’ll teach him about physical intimacy and “the ways of the flesh” while Valentine, in turn, will teach his husband and ultimate lover what it truly means to love someone. This was the strongest theme of the book and one that I felt was carried through very consistently and made the book work for me. Val and Loel are a good pair and as they get to know each other better and fall deeper in love they ratchet up the banter and witty dialog as well as the heat of their sexual encounters. Like I said, when they were on the page, I devoured every word; when they were absent, I tended to read a little faster.

The writing is colorful. Some may say too colorful to the point of being purple, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the elaborate descriptions of clothing, food, and interior decorations. Granted, during some of the sex scenes there were velvet sheaths and throbbing rods which I know are an instant turn-off for many readers but for me, it worked as part of the overall florid narrative.

All in all, I liked this book and would recommend it with the caveat that it is probably not for everyone. I would suggest reading an excerpt—there is a lengthy one at the Dreamspinner site to give you a feel for the author’s writing style. It appears that this is Persephone Roth’s first book and as a debut, I think it succeeds although as noted above, it’s not perfect. Even so, I look forward to more stories from her in the future. And as a final note, I love the beautiful Anne Cain cover, even though in my mind, I pictured Loel (he’s the blond) as a slightly larger and perhaps more mature man. But that’s a really minor quibble!

Disclaimer: Erastes sent me this book as a PDF for review but I ended up buying the Kindle version for myself (nicer formatting) since I enjoyed it so much and wanted to have a permanent copy in my archive.

Amazon UK Amazon USA Dreamspinner Press ebook Dreamspinner Press print book Amazon (Kindle)

Review: Bys Vyken by Syd McGingley

Jack saves Nehemiah from drowning, or worse, on the Cornish coast, surprised to find he has an American in his midst. He’s also afraid that his fellow villagers will kill Nehemiah rather than look at him, all for the peridot ring on his finger. He takes Nehemiah in, sharing his home, and eventually his secrets.

Pressed into the navy, Nehemiah is lost at sea, and lost for words when Jack pretends to rob him when he washes up on shore. Close quarters makes for close companions, though, and his growing feelings for Jack make it hard for Nehemiah to return home when he has the chance. Can they find a way to stay afloat?

Review by Erastes

Bys Vyken means “for ever” and is most associated with “Kernow bys vyken” meaning “Cornwall for ever”, and obviously using a double meaning here.

The story starts in a dramatic way, miners streaming out from a mine, a ship foundering off the rocks, and our protagonist Jack has his heart in his mouth because he doesn’t want to take part in the “wrecking” (the concerted efforts of a community to act on the law of salvage – all the goods and chattels belong to the finder…as long as there is no-one left alive on the ship) but his position in the village is precarious, and so he needs to put on a good show. It’s a great beginning and one that kept me very interested–bloodthirsty reader that I am, I think I would have liked a bit more tragedy, particularly considering that Jack is a Good Guy and isn’t going to murder anyone.

The pair discover their mutual interest pretty quickly, as would be expected in a story of around 60 pages, and what I liked about the sex is that it struck me as quite masculine.  Jack had refused to “take the woman’s part” in his previous relationship which strikes true in many sodomitical partnerships, there was still a stigma in taking it rather than giving it.  And I liked the way that Nehemiah referred to his cock as “my lad” as that seemed very fitting.  Men DO refer to their cocks as individuals and you don’t see it often enough in fiction.

It reminded me a little of Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s lover, and there’s a sweet scene after Jack comes where I was reminded of this again, because of the learning experience that they go through, experimenting with each other’s bodies.

I’m not sure where Syd lives, but if not in England, there’s been a lot of research done regarding Cornwall, and the story, setting and language is convincing and keeps one grounded in the time and place. The research into tin mining is impressive, too – when it’s a subject I don’t know I tend to research as I’m reading, and found nothing to contradict, which left me free to enjoy the book, feeling I was in a safe pair of hands.

There’s some interesting comments about America by Nehemiah – who is a first generation American:

“…our nation is free of a Church dictating our conscience. That it is our nation.”
Jack blinked. “That’s, that’s—”
Nehemiah kissed his mouth. “That’s freedom. Neither Crown nor Church to yield to.”

Which is very redolent of a young nation, and I’m very glad he’s not around to see what his nation is like now!

Those of you who shy away from the harshness of life in historical times will probably prefer to stay away from this, as it pulls no punches when Jack measures his life without mining and wonders how he’ll stay alive – there’s not much hope for him without it, and with it, he won’t live past 40.

The whole insularity of the community is well documented, too.

Jack was pretty sure it was only twenty or so miles to Falmouth

Which brings home the way these people lived–in their community, rarely going further than the next village.

I think I was less convinced by Jack’s immediate latching himself onto Nehemiah, if they’d stayed sex-buddies and gone onto adventure because of it, I would have liked that, but a loving relationship after two days seemed unlikely — however it’s a romance and that’s what many people expect, and the end is romantic as any that one would expect.

All in all, a good, solid historical read and one I really enjoyed.  I liked the smattering of Cornish within the book – now officially pretty much a dead language – and the slight fervour of Cornish nationalism, which was pretty much extinct, even in 1808.   An unusual setting, and I think many people will like this as much as I did.

Author’s website

Buy from Torquere Press

Author Interview: Donald L Hardy

Today’s interviewee is author, actor and general Good Egg, Donald L Hardy, who has recently had his first novel – LOVER’S KNOT – published by Running Press, set around the turn of the century Cornwall.

Speak Its Name: Tell us a little bit about Donald L Hardy and your writing career to date.

Donald L Hardy: I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and when I turned forty had a midlife crisis of Biblical proportions.  I got rid of everything, moved to California, moved onto a sailboat and lived on it for 11 years. Continue reading

Review: Because You Despise Me by J S Cook

When Feldwebel Horst Stussel is murdered in Jake’s Plenty’s brothel, local police chief Captain Nicholas Renard suspects Jake’s involvement in the crime – but with an Allied invasion of North Africa mere days away, Jake and Renard must combine their wits, their cunning and their courage to defeat the Nazis for once and for all.

Review by Vashtan

It’s hard to review a friend’s book. Any quick Google search would reveal that J S Cook and me chat a lot, are “friends” on Goodreads and Livejournal, so I tell it as it is. I know the writer, and I like what she does.

I’ve been struggling with whether to review her books at all, and a case could be built either way. The more I interact with other writers, the more people I get to know and like. In several cases, I’ve sent them the review first, we started chatting…and there’s
another writing friendship/contact made. I can’t help it, it happens.

Now, I don’t want to cut myself off from my peers and other writers to stay “impartial”. But I also want to keep my integrity as a reviewer. I am the critique partner of several writers, and those can all attest that I will tell them “this sucks, do it again” if I honestly believe it does suck. I expect no less from them when they critique me. Yet, under no circumstances, would I review a book I’ve critiqued – that kind of involvement is totally different to that of a reader and my objective eye would be totally blind. But if I wouldn’t review any books by people I know in one capacity or other, I will pretty soon be in the position where I can’t review at all.

However, these relationships happen after the fact in most cases. It’s the prose that catches my eye first, not the writer. And since I’m terribly picky in my private reading, I tend to hang out with people whose work I enjoy and like.

That’s the background. Feel free to read anything I write about this book with a few pinches of salt. I’ve been thinking about how to do this for two weeks, and I still might not be totally impartial, but here goes.

The reason why I wanted to read this book is the setting. “Because You Despise Me” is set the fictional town of Maarif in WWII-era Morocco, and since my non-fiction reading at the moment is all about WWII and research for the same time period, I was very curious how Cook handles the era.

She handles it exceedingly well – I found the period detail and people overall historically believable, and Cook seems to have researched details meticulously well. It’s the kind of setting I can relax into, knowing that the author won’t let me down with a reference that catapults me into the ‘modern’ age. There are a few things that don’t
match up, however. The evil guy’s name, Aleksander Danzig, has a very uncommon spelling of the first name for a German – it looks rather like a strange hybrid between the German and Russian spelling of the name, and as a German, I found the German sentences used in the book to be mostly nonsensical. A non-native speaker of German would probably not have noticed, but it did throw me in one scene (proof that I haven’t critiqued this book). There’s an editing issue as well – the murdered whore, Yvette, becomes Yvonne once or twice in the book.

Those niggles aside, what we are reading with this book is probably best described as “the gay ‘Casablanca’”. The set-up of the plot, the setting, the time, and the overall feel reminded me strongly of ‘Casablanca’, and what I remember of that film after about fifteen or twenty years seems to match up. A little research on http://www.imdb.com
unearthed the full range of parallels; we have the police officer, the Nazi plot, the resistance fighters desperate to leave, and a love story, but the love story in “Because You Despise Me” naturally happens between two of the men rather than the heterosexual couple in the 1942 classic.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have turned into a gay rip-off of a classic tale, but Cook plays with the reader and gives us a whole level to explore and hints to discover. The title of the book is from a famous line in the film, and rather than rip the tale off wholesale, she mirrors the story, distorts it, re-imagines key scenes and the two men driving her tale. There are many clever allusions, such as very similar names and quotes from the film, so that this becomes less ‘fan fiction’ or ‘rip-off’ and more a homage, skirting the edge of a meta story. However, the woman who parallels the film’s love interest Ilsa felt like she didn’t really serve a purpose in the book, and I wonder if it hadn’t been better if she had been removed from the cast altogether.

For all the inspiration drawn from the film, “Because You Despise Me” stands on its own, and can be enjoyed both by those who know the film and always wondered about the chemistry between the two male actors, and those who are unaware of the classic. There is also the murder investigation that draws the two men together and which is seamlessly
worked into the plot.

What we then have is a tale about living on the edge of civilisation, in a place where the scoundrels, riff-raff and assorted adventurers congregate, and, if they are lucky, find themselves and each other.

It’s romantic, but the love story is not the be-all and end-all of the book; while the love story is central to the story about espionage, deceit and mistrust, Cook balances it well with the rest of the tale. So few gay romances have a world and plot built around the characters; too often, they serve as window dressing in the couple’s bedroom.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this (and the writer in general) is that Cook is an accomplished craftswoman, and I really enjoy her clear, evocative and subtly nuanced style. Here’s a great writer who has previously published literary fiction and transfers those skills into adventure and romance fictio, which makes her clearly stand out. Exactly what I want to see more of. I would love to be entertained more often by a writer that knows their craft and uses it and that strives and works hard on their prose so that it looks effortless.

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Review: Wanted by J.M. Snyder

Jesse McCray ekes out a hard living cutting cattle from the local beef baron of Defiance, Texas. He’s known for his quick draw and his steady aim; no one outguns him. Whenever he and his ragtag group of friends known as the Rustlers ride into town, the local cowboys hold their breaths, waiting for the men to ride through. But one evening, while playing faro at Billy’s Saloon, Jesse’s attention is drawn to a new face in the crowd.

Ethan Phillips is an idealistic tenderfoot from back East, passing through Defiance on his way to the California coast. He’s heard tales of the gold that enriches the west coast, and he’s looking for a way to make his dreams come true. When his horse pulls up lame, he offers to sing for the cowboys of Billy’s Saloon to earn a few coins, but the men jeer at his song until a man in black quiets them. With one look into Jesse’s dark eyes, Ethan finds himself falling for the man.

Ethan’s horse heals, but he stays in Defiance, enamored by his outlaw lover. But the cattle baron has a grudge against one of Jesse’s outlaw friends, and a gunfight in Billy’s Saloon puts a price on the Rustlers’ heads.

Review by Erastes

I have to say that I was really drawn into the beginning of the book.  The description is pure western gold, four men, all different, all hard as nails and Really Bad Eggs™ ride into town and the author paints a little picture of them all before they pull up at the saloon and start to do things that cowboys do.

I’ll say right now that I have little in-depth knowledge of the cowboy era, my knowledge is highly flavoured by Hollywood, so any things that western purists might find eye-rollingly dreadful I certainly won’t spot.  This certainly has a lot that feels very familiar to watchers of Hollywood westerns. Men in black hats (yes, really), corrupt sheriffs,  cattle rustlers and cattle barons. The bar with no-one wanting to annoy the Rustlers, the honky-tonk piano, the tart with a heart, rund0wn hotel, the dirt sidewalks.  So, yes. It’s a western.

It’s a shame, therefore, that after all this delightful cinematic build up that the relationship between Jesse and Ethan rushes ahead so fast that I didn’t even see it happening.  It’s obvious that they fancy each other and that Jesse picks up boys from time to time, but I’d like to have seen more than a few fingers brushing each other, some veiled “dating” which involves riding out to Make Out Point (my name, not Snyder’s) and then culmination in the sex scene.

What’s odd, too, is the OKHomo. Granted, all the members of the Rustlers are Jesse’s friends and have been for years, and they are all accepting of his homosexuality. They rib him about liking ‘em pretty and how he picks up guys but no-one bats an eyelid in the bar about their behaviour, almost holding hands and they saunter off to the hotel and have mad noisy monkey sex (remember the buildings would all be wood) and no-one cares about that either.  I chose to think it was because everyone was scared to death of Jesse and his gang and so let him get away with anything he wanted, but there’s a scene in the book towards the end which makes me think that there’s another reason for this over-accepting feel throughout the book.  Ethan has a bath in the creek and:

On their own accord, his fingers paused to press against the soft flesh of his pubic mound.His eyes closed as a shiver ran through him which had nothing to do with the cool water.

Um. Men don’t actually have pubic mounds… So I wonder if the book was actually a m/f once upon a time and has been converted. This would explain why everyone turns a blind eye to Ethan and Jesse (and explains why one of the other cowboys makes a very loud and obvious pass at Jesse in public too and no-one cares)

The only other thing that grated on my nerves was the constant reference to horses as “steeds,” but that’s just a personal quibble and won’t bother anyone else and nor should it.

However, despite this is a short book – about 80 pages and there’s two sex scenes it’s pretty rounded with characterisation, a good adventurous plot and a nice romance, even if that aspect is a bit rushed.  I enjoyed, read it in one sitting and was genuinely worried that things might all go very wrong.

Anyone who likes westerns with a real cinematic feel will really enjoy this, I think.

Buy from Amber Allure

Review: Cane by Stevie Woods

As this book has been reissued by Phaze and is now available in print and ebook – we are reprinting the review showcasing the new cover.

From the blurb: Sint Marteen 1855. Privileged young Pieter may have grown up on a sugar cane plantation, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with the way his father runs things. He falls in love with Joss, one of his father’s slaves, and their affair sets off a chain of events that is destined to tear them apart. When Pieter’s father dies, he returns home hoping to find Joss. It’s too late for their love, but maybe it’s not too late for Pieter to find happiness. As he makes his way to America, Pieter realizes old conflicts still rage, and even as he finds a new love, danger stalks his every move. Can Pieter learn to overcome the hate and fear that threaten to tear his world apart?

Review by Erastes

It’s an intriguing premise and Woods has obviously done a ton of research about Sint Maarten, sugarcane and the Dutch trade, and that shows. There’s rather a little too much history at the beginning of the book – which follows on from the very opening scene, a sex-scene between Pieter and Joss and pulls you away from a erotic beginning into HISTORY! Then the time-line jumps back and forth and is a little disruptive, and in fact (as far as I can see, from just one reading) goes wrong at one point, and Pieter goes from being nearly 21 to 25 years old in only 2 years.

Pieter’s complete ignorance of his surroundings, and the workings of the plantation, relationships of the slaves struck me as rather implausible. He’s about 12 before he starts asking questions, and .. well… that just didn’t ring very true. He doesn’t seem to have a tutor, and I’d imagine that his father would have had him learning the business (as an only son) pretty early on. He has, however to become an abolitionist so I suppose this might have been necessary. What struck me, too, is that the voices were all so similar. You had a Dutch-Caribbean young man who’d never been off the island, a young negro slave, an American plantation owner from Louisiana and so on, but they all spoke identically. I’m not saying that I want phonetic representations of accents, but I’d like to have seen some differentiation here and there.

I did like the way that the author showed the reasons why some plantation owners could not follow the abolitionist route, but I did find it ironic that, for all Pieter’s talk and attempts to convince Sebastian of his views, he still owned slaves in St Marteen, even if they did run the plantation themselves.

The conflict takes a while to kick in, and everything is bit laboured for the first half of the book – particularly the episode back in Holland where nothing much happens except to introduce Cane himself – but when it does it relies heavily on not only one major coincidence but two, which was a bit much to swallow. The reintroduction of previous characters could have been done a little more elegantly.

The thing is, that I did enjoy this book – I appreciated the work that the author had put into it, and I liked the set up at the end which screams sequel. If there is one, I’ll definitely be buying it, but there were too many reasons that stopped this from being a book which, with a few tweaks, was one that would have easily earned five stars.

Buy from Phaze

Review: The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley

A colorful novel of the circus world of the 1940s and 1950s, rich in detail, bursting with power and emotion.  Mario Santelli, a member of the famous flying Santelli family, is a great trapeze artist. Tommy Zane is his protege.

As naturally and gracefully as they soar through the air, the two flyers find themselves falling in love. Mario and Tommy share sweet stolen moments of passion, but the real intensity of their relationship comes from their total devotion to one another and to their art.

As public figures in a conservative era, they cannot reveal their love. But they will never renounce it.

Review by Erastes

As a fan of circus stories, and someone who has been so since a little kid, this was something I was really looking forward to.  I had very few preconceptions, as I didn’t know what era it was set in or whether it had a romance ending, or anything.  I love films such as Trapeze (I saw the homoerotic subtext in there, even before I discovered gay romance) and The Greatest Show on Earth so as I say I was happy to jump in to The Catch Trap.

And overall I wasn’t disappointed.  Tommy Zane  is the young son of lion tamers who realises early on that he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and train the big cats, he’s always wanted to fly–and before the Santellis arrive at the second-rate circus his family is working in–he hasn’t been given the chance.  He has, however, had a lot of experience in many related disciplines; he helps out with the aerial ballet, does tumbling and generally helps out wherever needed.  When watching one of the flyers working, he’s invited up onto the practice rig, and his life changes forever.

The story is–at its core–the tale of the romance between Tommy and Mario, and this takes many years to spin out, and has inevitable ups and downs, but it’s a lot more than that too.  Mario is working on a triple somersault, something that had, at this time (1940s/1950s) only been done by a very few people.  In fact, it was, before someone did it, considered an impossible feat.

A note should be added here about the history.  In a lengthy foreword, the author explains that she decided for various reasons to make the history of the trapeze and in particular, the triple somersault, an alternate history. I can see her concerns, considering the homosexual plotline, but I wish she hadn’t done it, as I always like to be informed when reading, saying to myself “I did not know that!” and as she’s invented the first proponent of the triple, and the men who are performing it, I didn’t get that kick of real history.

After a while, Tommy is invited to train properly and moves in with the Santelli family, a vast, bickering exuberant bunch. The family Santelli is a wonderful invention, from the matriarch down to the children.  The family are all flying mad, and are held together by discipline and tradition going back fifty years.  At times I found the endless bickering and arguing repeitive in the extreme, and there’s sometimes too much dialogue which goes nowhere, and could easily have been cut, but this doesn’t spoil the story overall.  Like all families, there’s good and bad, and acceptance, when it does come, comes from an unexpected source, and rejection and bigotry also comes from a source you don’t see coming.

Tommy is fifteen when he’s first approached sexually by Mario, so people who find anyone having sex under 18 as distasteful are going to want to avoid this.  I admit I found it mildly disturbing–not because of Tommy’s youth even in the times that this was set–but because Mario’s first approach came over as little more than “interfering” with Tommy when he was in no position to object (they were sitting in the back of a moving car).  Previous to this they had been sharing a bed, and arms had been put around each other “in sleep” and “unconscious” kisses exchanged, but this was passed off by Tommy as that Mario was asleep and didn’t know what he was doing.  It didn’t matter to me that Tommy was accepting of this back seat advance, Mario knew that Tommy could hardly scream “get off me!” and so in this case I did, as I said, find it a little creepy, even though Tommy didn’t mind.

This is actually echoed by Mario, as the first part of their relationship is peppered with a lot of guilt and disgust on his part as he castigates himself for having “corrupted” Tommy and is justifiably scared of what would happen if it was found out, as he’s about 8 years older, he knows that Tommy would not–in all likelihood–have anything really bad happen to him, but it would be jail for Mario, and that’s somewhere he’s been before.

At times I found Mario pretty hard going, and I think that if I was Tommy I would have given up on him pretty early on, but Tommy is in love and there’s little stronger than a teenager’s first love.  Their relationship is pretty stormy; inevitable really, considering the pressure cooker it’s kept in–not being able to be openly affectionate in any way, keeping it secret despite sharing a room.  Both of them have hot tempers, Mario in particular, and this is another reason why I lost respect for him, because his own self-loathing breaks into violence with Tommy on more than one occasion.

Tommy is a little difficult to get to know–he goes through a lot, but because the author rarely lets us into anyone’s head, it’s hard to fathom.  He leaves home for the Santellis and hardly looks back, or thinks about his parents, and even when a tragedy hits him–one that I know would have poleaxed me for weeks, it’s hardly mentioned after the occurrence.  I’m sure the author didn’t mean to make him shallow, she’s probably concentrating on other aspects of the plot, but at times he comes across as such.

It’s very much Tommy’s story–and we follow it from his underage crush, to the state where he’s grown up and out from Mario’s aggressive and over-moody wing and begins to doubt whether he can live with this man, this secret and this family any more, and what place he’ll ever have in Mario’s life, and how to achieve it.

What I was a little disappointed with, is that there’s not enough of the life of the circus in the description.  There’s a good deal of the trapeze of course, and I learned a lot–the Catch Trap for example is the Catcher’s Trapeze–but there wasn’t enough of the daily routine, little description of the tearing down and the rebuilding of the circus, few interractions with all the varied people who must frequent such a place, and I would have liked to have seen more of that.

Anyone expecting an easy, loving romance should be aware, it’s simply not that.  There are very few scenes where the couple are comfortable and sweet with each other, and that’s just how it should be.  It’s often an uncomfortable read–a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not only with the fear of the discovery of their relationship, or for queerbashing purposes, but because of the very real danger that the flyers face, every time they climb the ladders onto the rig.  I doubt Ms Bradley ever flew, but she’s certainly done her research.

I’m slicing a star off from the review for the beginning love scene, and for the uneven and often repetitive writing. It’s a large book, and would have benefited from a bit of a chop here and there.  But as a stimulating and thoughtful romance, forged in danger and cemented in the air,  it’s certainly a book that will keep you thinking about the protagonists, long after you’ve finished.

What’s unbelievable, in these days of a gay romance boom, that this book is out of print, and copies aren’t that easy to come by, and often are hugely expensive, but if you fancy a good read, then keep trying, you’ll pick one up eventually. Despite the missing star, I do consider this to be an Essential Read for anyone serious about writing gay historical fiction.

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Review: The Confession of Piers Gaveston by Brandy Purdy

The history books tell us that Piers Gaveston was many things: arrogant, ambitious, avaricious, flamboyant, extravagant, reckless, brave, and daring, indiscreet, handsome, witty, vivacious, vain, and peacock-proud, a soldier and champion jouster, the son of a condemned witch, who used witchcraft, his own wicked wiles, and forbidden sex to entice and enslave King Edward II, alienate him from his nobles and advisors, and keep him from the bed of his beautiful bride Isabelle. Edward’s infatuation with Gaveston, and the deluge of riches he showered on him, nearly plunged England into civil war. Now the object of that scandalous and legendary obsession tells his side of the story in The Confession of Piers Gaveston: “Mayhap even now, when I have only just begun, it is already too late to set the story straight. My infamy, I fear, is too well entrenched. Whenever they tell the story of Edward’s reign I will always be the villain and Edward, the poor, weak-willed, pliant king who fell under my spell, the golden victim of a dark enchantment. There are two sides to every coin; but when the bards and chroniclers, the men who write the histories, tell this story, will anyone remember that?”

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is the story of the passionate relationship between King Edward II and his favourite Piers Gaveston, told from Gaveston’s point of view, in the form of a diary written by him while he awaits his execution.

I couldn’t help but compare this book with Chris Hunt’s Gaveston which I read before it. That was a beautiful, accomplished book which still ended up making me despise both Edward and Gaveston for their disastrous political mismanagement of England. I wondered if Purdy’s book would have the same effect on me, but I’m glad to say that it didn’t. I think it’s slightly less well written in terms of mere literary style, but in her hands I only ended up despising Edward. After a slow start, Gaveston himself began to endear himself to me, and by about half way through I was really enjoying his company.

The result of which is that although I think Hunt’s is technically the better book, Purdy’s book is the one that I enjoyed most and would willingly read again.

The book begins with Gaveston introducing himself and telling us all about his terrible childhood. This was, I presume, in an attempt to build up a fund of sympathy for him which the reader would need to draw on later. However, this was the least successful part of the book for me for two reasons. One is simply that I feel I’ve seen the abusive childhood background too often for it to work as it is intended on me. From Batman to Harry Potter, heroes these days all seem to have had terrible childhoods and it no longer has the impact it once did.

My second problem with this part of the book was the importation of modern, Celtic-based paganism as the religion for which Gaveston’s mother was burned as a witch. Talk of “the Lady” made me wonder which lady in particular we were talking about – Nerthus? Eostre? Danu? A moment’s Googling reveals that in pre-Christian Gascony they worshipped a goddess called Mari who lived in a cave in the mountain of Anboto and met up with her consort Sugaar on Fridays to cause storms. Seeing a Gascon character talking about Samhain and the Isle of Apples struck me as just as odd as it might be to see an author go “oh, it’s all Judeo-Christian, isn’t it?” and make everyone in Britain go to the synagogue on Sundays.

However, once this part of the story was over with, and Gaveston was all grown up and presented to Edward, I found myself relaxing into the story, gaining a liking for the character’s voice and really quite enjoying his antics. This is not a novel for those who are interested in the politics of the time. We see everything from Gaveston’s point of view, and he is a vain, gossipy fellow who loves Edward madly (despite the fact that Edward, in this book, is intensely selfish and continually horny), and otherwise cares for little but his clothes. Court life is glossed over and the main players in the drama that is to come were only clear to me because I had read Chris Hunt’s book earlier. This didn’t worry me too much because, as a romance reader, I enjoy having a tight focus on the main relationship, and the book delivered there in spades.

Gaveston quips and seduces his way about the court with merry abandon. His childhood as a whore is used to excuse his promiscuity, but for me it didn’t need any excuse – it was one of his more endearing qualities. Edward is such a total git in this book, that I rather rejoiced to see him cuckolded, and there’s a puppyish desire to be loved at the bottom of Gaveston’s behaviour, which made me like the character better. His attempts to treat his wife with some affection also endeared him to me, and I enjoyed the character’s frank enjoyment of the finer things in life and his attempts to do no harm to anyone.

I was quite surprised at the way the relationship between Edward and Gaveston progressed. Surprised, because it isn’t a particularly romantic twist, but not unhappy. It was wholly consistent with the way Edward had been presented throughout, and had the excellent effect of allowing me to maintain my sympathy for Gaveston right up to the end. In fact my sympathy for him increased as the story went on and it began to look as if he was growing up and realising the impact his actions had on other people. For a brief moment I even forgot myself and hoped for a happy ending, although I know that history does not allow it.

It was very pleasant, after reading Hunt’s Gaveston, to find an antidote which allowed me to regain some of the liking I had once had for this much vilified historical character. Now that I know how difficult it must be to work with such material, I’m even more impressed. I recommend this as a read for people who like romance, but don’t require a happy ending, and who would enjoy spending a day or two in the company of a high spirited, sensuous, sensitive, fashion conscious young man who in the end proves to have a heart, too late for it to do him any good.

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Headless Naked Torsos: A Note on Cover Art

by Tracey J. Pennington

I must say something about covers which feature the ubiquitous headless naked male torso. Please note–this is not a criticism of authors, who typically have no control over what gets put on the covers of their books.

I will state here that publishers of gay romances are generally coping with numerous costs and are trying to find a cheap way of dealing with expenses. Costumes and wigs are costly. A naked male torso, on the other hand, looks roughly the same in any era. Cut off the head, and you’ve removed any evidence of a hairstyle that might identify the time period in which this is taking place. In fact, you can use the headless naked torso over and over again, and no one will know the difference. I know that it is a cost issue, and I do sympathize.

(I cannot say that it is as much a cost issue for the larger publishers of mysteries, who seem to adore using headless women, or women turned away from the viewer, on their covers. But I digress.)

Despite my knowing that expense plays a large part in the use of such covers, a headless naked torso suggests a couple of things about the book before I even pick it up. First, the nakedness tells me–rightly or wrongly–that this is essentially a book about sex. Not about love or romance. Certainly not about characters or characterization, since the man on the cover has no face and therefore no individuality or identity.

Now, I’ve had enough friends write books that were published with headless naked torso cover art to know that the axiom “you can’t tell a book by its cover” is never more true than in the field of gay romance. Nevertheless, I do wish that more gay romance covers looked as if there was more to the book than “Woot, lots of sex!”

The second thing that pops into my mind when I see a headless naked torso cover–and I’m sure this isn’t typical of everyone–is murder. I don’t see a headless torso as a man I can visualize as anyone I like; I see the dead and mutilated victim of a serial killer. (It probably doesn’t help that when I was about seventeen, there was a case at a Travel Inn Motor Lodge involving two young women who had been tortured, sexually abused, mutilated and beheaded. And as recently as 2007, a serial killer was leaving headless torsos outside the New Delhi jail, and had been doing so for more than a year.)

I’m sure this is anything but intentional. But the image chills me just the same, and it does so whether the headless or faceless body on the cover is that of a man or a woman. And my repulsion for such covers does indeed affect whether or not I’ll buy the book. In fact, it’s a determining factor. I don’t want to buy a book whose cover disturbs me.

Which, again, is not fair to authors, who may have a wonderful story ensconced between horrible covers. But that’s how much of a selling point that headless naked torsos are for me…or rather, how much of a non-selling point.

And I suspect that I may not be alone.

Also, while I’m sure the use of naked torso pictures is mostly an economic choice, and an understandable one in this recession, I think that it’s vital to show pictures of gay lovers as individuals and as people. Running Press’s covers are superb in that respect, displaying men in historical garb and realistic settings which say mutely, “This could have happened to real people who loved each other. And maybe it did. Read. Read and see.”

I suspect that showing pictures of specific men wearing clothes does a lot to counteract the common misperception of non-fans (and often critics as well) that “gay romance = gay erotica.” The men’s faces and clothes indicate that “male/male romance” is not a polite term for “sex with any random man,” but about one particular person above all else. That same-sex romance, like the more heteronormative variety, is about love.

And honestly, if you’re selling love stories, then use the covers to sell the love…not just the sex.

Review: Lessons in Temptation by Charlie Cochrane

He thinks he has everything. Until someone tries to steal it.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 5

For friends and lovers Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart, a visit to Bath starts out full of promise. While Orlando assesses the value of some old manuscripts, Jonty plans to finish his book of sonnets. Nothing exciting…until they are asked to investigate the mysterious death of a prostitute.

Then Orlando discovers that the famous curse of Macbeth extends far beyond the stage. It’s bad enough that Jonty gets drawn into a local theatre’s rehearsals of the play. The producer is none other than Jimmy Harding, a friend from Jonty’s university days who clearly finds his old pal irresistible. Worse, Jimmy makes sure Orlando knows it, posing the greatest threat so far to their happiness.

With Jonty involved in the play, Orlando must do his sleuthing alone. Meanwhile, Jonty finds himself sorely tempted by Jimmy’s undeniable allure. Even if Orlando solves the murder, his only reward could be burying his and Jonty’s love in an early grave…

Review by Erastes

I think I’m going to have to either go round to Charlie Cochrane’s house and stop her from writing anything else, or stop reviewing her books on the site because it’s becoming embarrassing as to how much we all like them.  I even get different reviewers to review them, but it makes no difference.  We all love ‘em, and that’s no exception with this book.

First of all, let me advise you that, as the blurb hints, these books are part of a series.  (I’ve even made a category now, to make them easier to find.) However, they are so skilfully written that they can easily be read as a standalone, and Cochrane manages this (somehow) without any infodumping and pages of “this is what happened in previous books.”  There is enough information, woven in with a deft hand, to tell you who these guys are, what they do, a touch of their previous adventures and that’s it.  And that’s excellent, because they are only 100 pages or so, so the last thing you need is 20 pages of info thrown at you.

That being said, despite the fact that they can be read as standalones, you’ll be depriving yourself if you read them out of turn, or only read one in the series.  There’s an over-reaching arc to the series, and with a romance, that’s a difficult thing to achieve.  After the happy ending of the first book you’d think that there would be nothing else to tell about the characters. Well, you’d be wrong. So wrong.

Cochrane must have had the same grandmother as mine, (“keep some mystery, dear!”) or be related to Gypsy Rose Lee or something because she knows just how to string her readers along, and each book–like the best burlesque dancer–reveals a little more about these characters, a little more of their backstory–sometimes to their own detriment.  What’s great about Jonty and Orlando is that, despite being deliciously affectionate with each other and really and truly soul-mates, something you never doubt–they are both rather flawed young men.  Part of this comes from their pasts, both have a little darkness they are fighting with, and part of this comes from the necessary unworldliness (Orlando more so than Jonty, but all academics have a particular oddness) that living in a secluded community like a Cambridge College will bring.

The books could easily be a mish mash of schmoop and sentiment, as the men are delightfully sweet with each other (when all is going well and they are in private) but there’s always a tinge of that dark hiding behind them.  Orlando is racked with guilt that he hasn’t been able to help Jonty deal with the terrors of his school years, and Jonty’s incandescent temper often threatens the subtle thread between them. And they never let their guard down, always aware of what discovery of their love would mean.

Ok – so on with this book specifically.  Straight away we are led into Jonty and Orlando’s world. This time they are working away on location in Bath. What I love about Cochrane’s work is that she uses locations that she knows and loves. Places she’s been regularly–like Jersey in Lessons in Desire–and can describe in all weathers and moods.   Bath is a Regency staple, of course, but it was nice to see it 100 years later, and see the differences.

As the title implies, there’s temptation on the menu in the form of the deliciously handsome bundle of gorgeousness, Jimmy Harding.  An American who has an earlier friendship with Jonty.  Orlando hates him at first sight, which causes friction, but then Jimmy makes it more than clear to Orlando that he’s going to make a direct play for Jonty and the sparks begin to fly.  You don’t come to the Cambridge Fellow’s books for the sex, by the way, the love scenes are veiled and shrouded in imagery, but none the less emotive for that.  The themes of love vs sex and loyalty vs temptation are well explored too; there were times I wanted to kill Jonty, I have to say.

This alone would be more than enough plot for most people, particularly in a novella of this size, but Cochrane isn’t that complacent.  Her guys are detectives and so not only do they have to cope with the danger of Jimmy Harding, but to solve the 25 year old murder of a prostitue that seemingly no-one or everyone about.   The mystery is a good “cold case” with no-one being entirely truthful or complete in their information with the two detectives, red herrings and blind alleys galore, which should satisfy the lovers of the genre.  If I have one niggle in this respect it’s simply my doubt that any prostitute would turn down any offer of marriage to a wealthy and respectable man on the chance that she might land another.

Cochrane’s writing style is subtly omniscient at times, which I happen to like a lot, but it may not appeal to those who prefer a tight third person point of view which never veers from one person at a time.  I think it suits the tone and the setting of the books, however.

Highly recommended and I look forward to the next book enormously.  I just need to find another reviewer–however if the standard continues this high, I’m sure they’ll love number six in the series as much as I loved one to five.

This being published by Samhain, the ebook is available now, with a wait of around a year for the print edition.

Buy from Samhain

Review: The Highwayman by Emily Veinglory

Reynard is the impoverished son of a cavalier, driven to highway robbery to support his sister, Emilia.  But a puritan he robs proves to be his new neighbor–and Emilia returns to the house with her intended fiancé, who demands her promised dowry or the deeds to the family lands.

Finally a new sheriff turns up in town to put an end to the latest spate of robberies.   Just when Reynard needs quick money all he can steal is the heart of an insolent roundhead who has a few secrets of his own!

Review by Erastes

The story is narrated by Reynard, and we are immediately drawn into his world, and the action that he takes part in, as he dresses and arms up for the task in hand–that of robbing on the public highway.  The 17th and 18th century were the golden age of the highwayman, flintlock pistols having been invented made life easier for a man with a pistol on a horse.

So yes, Reynard is a highwayman.  But I like a conflicted hero – one who does bad things for good reasons – and Reynard fits the bill nicely here.  He needs money for his estate and his sister–who he is determined to find a wealthy husband for (thereby helping his own impoverished state) and slippers and petticoats don’t grow on trees.  Reynard is described as wearing his old-fashioned and over-elaborate clothes, which are the only ones not too patched and ruined, but they are still a bit too tatty for society.

The Puritan, Geoffrey, is an interesting character–hardly puritanical at all in fact, he’s very wealthy, has a ton of servants and indulges himself in whatever he likes.  What I found odd, though was the fact that he just pounced on Reynard within a few minutes of their being acquainted. If Reynard had been a servant, and in a more vulnerable situation, unable to say no, I could understand this precipitate action,  but Reynard is an equal, a neighbour, an earl,  and Geoffrey (as far as I could tell) had been given no indication that such sudden sexual advances would even be welcome.  He puts himself much at risk.  And as the story is told from Reynard’s point of view, there’s very little indication that he even finds Geoffrey sexually attractive before Geoffrey starts disrobing him.

However, that aside, the sexual encounter once started is everything one expects from Veinglory, beautifully erotic and sensual and thoroughly enjoyable.

Reynard is just about keeping the wolf from the door when his sister appears and suddenly Reynard is worried about how he’ll ever afford to produce a dowry for the girl, without losing his house–and discovering how much he dislikes the young men to whom she’s become betrothed. So he makes a rash decision and the plot charges ahead from here.

I have to say that I was surprised just how good Reynard’s eyesight was, the first time we see him the moon was nearly waned and a few days later it should have been pitch dark but the descriptions of people and carriages in the dark are very exact!

I noticed a couple of typos – sheering/shearing – reign for rein, but this book was published a good while ago (2006)  and some epubs were less nice in their editing than they are today.

Overall, it’s a little patchy. Some of the language is nicely formal, some has modern phrases. The companion Emilia brings with her is just escorted from the coach with no introductions, and like the first sex scene the whole thing seems rather rushed.  At around 90 pages it’s a decent read, but I think there was much potential here to provide a full-sized novel.  However, niggles aside, it’s a very enjoyable read–good plot, good characters and the story rackets along at a cracking pace.

Still, I do recommend you try it as books set in this era are pretty rare, and Veinglory is a good, solid writer.

Buy at Cobblestone

Review: Le Frai de Demon by Sarah Masters

Life at sea brings new experiences to Vincent, but tragedy eclipses the happiness in his heart. Blurb: As Le Frai De Demon coasts the ocean waves, Vincent and Julian continue their love affair. Upon arriving at Hellion to trade wares, Julian takes Vincent to a special place where the crack of a whip brings them both pleasure. However, their private time is interrupted when a crew member brings news of a rogue trader causing trouble. The men return to the ship intent on leaving Hellion as soon as possible, but a tragedy is in their midst. Once at sea again, Le Frai De Demon battles through a storm, but will all the crew survive?

Review by Erastes

This is a sequel to Devil’s Spawn reviewed last year, which I must admit I haven’t read, so it was interesting to me whether it could stand on its own.  I found it didn’t, not really–as within the first couple of pages I was a bit confused as to who anyone was and why they were there.  The crew seemed entirely accepting of Vincent and Julian, and in fact seemed all gay themselves which is a fantasy trope I can do without.

The ship docks at an unnamed place–dubbed Hellion by Julian, but we are told that’s not its real name–and predictably, there’s a brothel there that caters for homosexuals. There’s one major sex scene, which involves a woman whipping the pair of them, which I really didn’t like that much–I don’t see the attraction of whipping, when it’s out of context–there didn’t seem to be any BDSM relationship between the two of them – and I wasn’t expecting any female action in my m/m.

The language tries hard to be old fashioned, and is a tad too purple for my current taste, but the lack of care with anachronistic words such as adrenaline and libido jars from time to time.  Libido dates from around 1892 – although there’s no time frame to this story.  With the mention of breeches and sailors, I am guessing late 18th century/early 19th, but there’s no real way to tell.

I have to say, that it rather surprised me, that when the ship seemed to be in trouble and they had to get out of Hellion in a hurry, the pair retired to their cabin to shag, rather than to take care of the necessities of leaving port. In fact, it’s Vincent, not the captain, Julian, who eventually says that they should get out of bed and go and help the crew who are struggling with a storm!

The blurb promises excitement in the storm, but as they spent most of it in bed, saying that the crew can cope, I rather lost my sympathy for the pair of them.

Age of Sail purists should probably avoid this.

Other than that, I think my main concern is that there’s no actual plot. The men dock at a port, are chased off, get into a storm, shag a lot, speak endless endearments and that’s about it.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, which was set up from the beginning, but nothing actually happened, and as with the last book, the entire plot is described within the blurb.  Even with my short stories, I expect some kind of surprise.

So, it doesn’t really work as a standalone, I’m afraid, whatever happened in the first book might explain some of the bafflement – and I understand that this is an ongoing series, with five books now–but at two-three dollars each, I think I’d prefer one whole book to read.

Buy from Lovedivine Alterotica (also available on Fictionwise and Kindle)

Review: The Lonely War by Alan Chin

The key issue keeping the U.S. armed forces from going beyond Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to give gay servicemen equal rights is a blind fear of love relationships forming, not between enlisted soldiers but between officers and soldiers, which would undermine the chain of command. The Lonely War tackles this topic head on. It tells the story of an enlisted sailor who falls in love with his executive officer. When the crew of the USS Pilgrim become POWs in Changi, a notoriously brutal prison camp, this sailor is elevated though hardship and love to discover his inner resources and extraordinary courage, allowing him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved. Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story written about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.

A collaborative review by Leslie H. Nicoll and Natasha Villion

Let’s start the year with a five star review, shall we? If you are hankering for a well written, historically accurate World War II story that will tug at your heartstrings, The Lonely War by Alan Chin should go straight to the top of your TBR pile.

I read and reviewed this book for jessewave’s site a few weeks ago and promised Erastes I would revise my review for Speak Its Name. Reviews here at the site were put on hold due to the Advent Calendar festivities and that turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events. One of the regular commenters at Wave’s site, “Tish” (Natasha), got in touch with me about The Lonely War. She had recently read and enjoyed another book of military stories, Hidden Conflict (which was reviewed here just a few days ago) and was interested in The Lonely War. But, she also had a personal history with Changi prison and wondered how explicit The Lonely War was. “Chin doesn’t pull any punches,” I said. “He’s pretty clear about what went on in the notorious POW camp.” Even though she had a few trepidations, Tish decided to read The Lonely War—and was glad she did. “This is definitely one of my top reads for the year,” she wrote me. “Maybe even forever—it’s that good.”

I asked Tish if she would write a review for Speak Its Name because I thought her personal experience with the prison (through her family) was an interesting context for reading the book. At first she demurred but then, with some urging from her husband, decided to accept my invitation. The following is her review.

~~~

This story both terrified and enthralled me. Maybe I should explain a little bit about who I am. I was born in Singapore to a Malay/Indian mother and a white Royal Navy father in the 1960s. So WW2 was still quite fresh in people’s minds. Singapore had expelled the communists and had moved away from British rule. It was a glorious upbringing but the underlying sadness of those that lived through WW2 was ever present.

Changi had become a full prison but the beaches around it were a popular swimming place for locals and us temporary locals. There were still small Malay villages with houses sitting on stilts with their palm frond roofs. The old men sat in the shade and watched the mad Europeans dash around the beach playing cricket and other English staple sports.

I was raised by a Malay woman who was both our amah (maid) and nanny.  She told my sister and me stories of the Japanese invasion of her island and how her father had helped smuggle British and Australian soldiers out of the prison and into Malaysia.

My mother told me stories of her father and grandfather and the torture they suffered at Changi prison during the war. They were accused of aiding and spying for the British, which they most proudly did. My great grandfather died during one of these torture sessions watched by his son, my grandfather.

I have yet to come across any Asian who is bitter about the war. Maybe they know more about forgiveness than I do.

This story, The Lonely War by Alan Chin, is about Andrew Waters, an Asian American seaman with the US Navy.  The book is written in three distinct parts. The first is set aboard the US Navy ship, The Pilgrim; the second, at Changi prison; and the third, in Japan, after the war has ended.

Raised in Thailand and forced to leave when it is invaded, Andrew tries to make a life for himself as a Buddhist and pacifist in the US Navy.  It was his American father’s wish that Andrew join the Navy and Andrew, being a good Asian son, complies. He is very well educated but not of officer rank. He struggles to maintain a polite distance from all the other men on the ship except one.

The first part of the story, while aboard the USS Pilgrim, has Andrew battling wits with an officer, who is both enthralled and confused by him. This part of the book sets the tone and pace of a love story that lasts a lifetime. It also shows what life was like for non-whites during WW2 and the way they were treated and what was expected of them. It is a good depiction of life aboard a ship of war. Part One ends when the ship is attacked and the men are taken prisoner by the enemy.

Part Two is set during the prisoners’ internment at Changi prison, run by the Japanese. For me, this section of the book was terrifying, as I knew from family accounts how ruthless the Japanese were. Even telling such a horrific tale, the writing was very tastefully done. Some of what is described is completely believable, such as the making protein from insects to trade among prisoners. In this part of the story, Andrew shines, although you might not realize it at first. His love for his officer makes him do something that changed him forever. I liked the way this part of the book unfolded and Andrew’s dilemma was handled. It wasn’t gratuitous or unbelievable. He kept the soul of himself intact and that alone made this section more believable for this reader.

Part Three is Andrew’s journey after the war; it is about promises kept and finding your humanity. His soul is shattered and bleeding. Andrew’s journey in body and spirit is harrowing. His loss and failings are heartbreaking and the writing is so true to his experience that it hurts to read. This kind, gentle, man has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to and it leaves such a bitter taste in your heart you don’t know if you can recover or if he can.

This part sold the story for me. It was so well written that you feel every blade in Andrew’s soul.

I know this story sounds more about war then love, but is it? The author Alan Chin, has written a very good story about WW2 from an Asian American perspective. It is a story of a life-altering experience during internment at one of the most barbaric prisons in Asia and redemption after the war. I found it a truthful telling of one man’s life and a faithful account of the war in Asia. I also found a love story that will stay with me long after the last page has been read. I fell in love with all these brave men and I wish them well wherever they might land.

~~~

At my jessewave review, I gave The Lonely War 4.75 stars because I had a few minor quibbles with some of the writing. While I still stand by what I said, I find I can honestly give the book 5 stars here at Speak Its Name. I was influenced by Tish’s strong reaction to the book and she told me in no uncertain terms it was a 5 star read for her. Also, the historical accuracy was outstanding and that, here at SiN, is the gold standard by which I judge a book and in that respect, it definitely earned its stars.

To conclude, let me repeat my closing paragraph from my earlier review:

I sometimes wonder why I like war stories so much, since I certainly don’t like war! Maybe it is because the well-written ones do so much to point out the futility and ultimate uselessness of killing each other; that being brutal and hateful is not the way to solve problems even when we are put up against evil people. But we persist. In The Lonely War, Chin makes us ask those hard questions again, framing them against the background of very real men caught up in extraordinary and terrible circumstances. He puts World War II on a human plane, which is, for the soldiers and sailors—men like Andrew—how it was fought. As I closed the last page, my heart ached for all of them.

I would suggest that a fitting resolution for 2010 is to put this book on your “must read” list—sooner, rather than later. It’s that good and Tish and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Amazon USA Amazon UK Fictionwise link (ebook)

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