Review: Lessons In Trust by Charlie Cochrane

He thought he knew who he was. Now he’s a stranger to himself.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 7

When Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith witness the suspicious death of a young man at the White City exhibition in London, they’re keen to investigate—especially after the cause of death proves to be murder. But police Inspector Redknapp refuses to let them help, even after they stumble onto clues to the dead man’s identity.

Review by Erastes

As you will know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, or any other m/m review site, The Cambridge Fellows series starring Orlando Coppersmith and Jonty Stewart has been a seven book series published by Samhain. This is the last in this set of books from Samhain. I won’t say “this is the last ever appearance from the boys” because I know that Charlie Cochrane is hoping to write at least one more, but that’s not in her contract for the seven books she’s done with them so far.

The series has been almost uniformly excellent—I’ve asked different people to review the books as they were released, to try and instil some fairness, but that didn’t make any difference, quality is quality and The Cambridge Fellow Series has been loved by one and all.

So it will be no surprise to you to hear that Lessons In Trust doesn’t waver one iota in that regard.

The story kicks off with the boys on vacation, staying with the Stewarts.  It’s 1908 and The White City ( a hundred acre site holding the Franco-British Exhibition) has just opened, and the boys are enjoying it every day. And it’s there that the murder mystery begins.

One gets used to the fact that, when a detective (or a couple of them in this case) are on the loose anywhere at all, wherever they go, they are bound to discover a murder. You would be a very stupid person to invite Hercule Poirot to your dinner party, and if I’d seen him entering a train or plane or boat I was on, I’d ask to change my passage to another day.  What Cochrane does is play with that that trope sufficiently to make a nice difference. When they do see the murder, they don’t realise that it is one, and rather than being encouraged to help with the enquiry, they are positively ordered away from it but a wonderful minor character, a policeman who insults the amateur detectives at every available opportunity.

Despite the novella length of this book, Cochrane packs a lot in. Not only do the doughty pair have the challenge of a baffling murder, but one of them has a crisis in his personal life which causes a real rift between the two of them.  I think it was this section that was the only part of the book I didn’t really get. At this point of their relationship, when they’d been through so much–I didn’t understand Orlando’s actions at all. However, it is written entirely in character, so it didn’t jar me – I wasn’t sitting there thinking “he wouldn’t have done that,” – rather “I thought you loved him more.”

As usual, the plot is nicely obscure for the fan of the mystery genre and as usual, there are some wonderful character portraits within the book, and people who love Jonty and Orlando’s gentle and sweet interractions won’t be disappointed.

I can’t mark this with any less than five stars, the weight of the series behind it, and the unfailing quality of the writing, the characterisation and the plotting won’t let me.

Buy at Samhain

Author Interview: Ruth Sims

Sadly Myrlin Hermes was too busy to be interviewed in May, but this month we have the lovely Ruth Sims–author of novels “The Phoenix” and “Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story”

Speak Its Name: Welcome Ruth and thank you for taking the time to be interviewed.

Ruth Sims: You are welcome and thank you for letting me waffle on!

SIN:How long have you been writing? What inspired you to pick the pen up one day and create characters that capture the imagination?

Ruth Sims: Actually it was a stubby yellow #2 school pencil with a chewed on eraser, not a pen. Hey, I come from the days before ballpoints! I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have made-up characters in my head. For a long time all my characters had four legs. Nor do I remember when it dawned on me that I could actually take a piece of tablet paper and write down what my fictional dogs and horses were doing (and thinking and saying, of course. Black Beauty was the first novel I remember reading.). I was in third grade when I wrote my first novel. It was ten pages long, as I recall, and it began: “It was spring. The sun shined. There was a horse…” Alas, the rest of that amazing tome is lost. I was in high school before I decided that people were more interesting to write about than horses, about which I knew nothing.

SIN: What is the most memorable and most forgettable moment you’ve encountered on the writing path? Continue reading

Review: The Berlin Novels (Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin) Christopher Isherwood

We apologise for the break in reviews being posted. Personal reasons, real life, yadda yadda. We will back to normal as soon as possible!

Collection of two previously published novels written by Christopher Isherwood, published in 1946. Set in pre-World War II Germany, the semiautobiographical work consists of Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935; U.S. title, The Last of Mr. Norris) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The Berlin Stories merge fact and fiction and contain ostensibly objective, frequently comic tales of marginal characters who live shabby and tenuous existences as expatriates in Berlin; the threat of the political horrors to come serves as subtext. In Goodbye to Berlin the character Isherwood uses the phrase “I am a camera with its shutter open” to claim that he is simply a passive recorder of events. The two novels that comprise The Berlin StoriesI Am a Camera (1951; film, 1955) and the musical Cabaret (1966; film, 1972) made Isherwood’s literary reputation; they later became the basis for the play

Review by Charlie Cochrane

Sometimes, when you look straight on at a small star, because of the way the eye’s constructed, you can’t see it. You have to look to one side and then it appears in your field of vision – elusive to the point that you begin to think you’re imagining its existence. That’s how I feel when I read novels by authors like Isherwood (or Forster), whose sexual preferences are now well known but who were writing at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and when they may well have been – to the public eye – in the closet. I don’t necessarily see the sexual references direct, they’re subtle and intriguing, and at times I wonder if they’re just wishful thinking.

So it’s hard to read Mr Norris Changes Trains ‘at face value’, knowing that William Bradshaw, who relates the story, is based on Isherwood himself and that Norris was inspired by Gerald Hamilton, himself a homosexual. The reader finds themselves looking for clues to a romantic liaison between the two, or with the other male characters in the story. They won’t find the former, but there are hints of the latter.

Norris himself is a marvellous anti-hero. Wig wearing, fastidious, of dubious morality, treacherous as they come (and with a passion for punishment), Norris is the sort of man the reader should abhor but, like Bradshaw, we fall under his spell. Even when we’re incredibly suspicious of what he’s up to – especially when he seems to be using Bradshaw as sexual bait for a German politician, Kuno. Set against the background of pre-war Berlin, the political intrigues of the Communists and the Nazi parties, the story deals subtly with truth, trust and the morality of those who simply do what they can to survive such times.

Worth reading? Of course; it’s a good story, well written (I like Isherwood’s no-nonsense style) and provides intriguing insights into a place and era I knew little about.

In Goodbye to Berlin, Bradshaw has reverted to Isherwood. An author’s note points out the overlap in characters and locations between this ‘book’ and Mr Norris Changes Trains; it also describes the volume as ‘this short loosely connected sequence of diaries and sketches’, although it emphasises that it is not an entirely autobiographical work. That description is important – if you come to this book thinking you’ll get the traditional story arc, you’ll be disappointed.

What you get are a delightful series of vignettes, some of which feature characters with whom the reader might think they’re familiar – although the Sally Bowles of these stories is a very different person from the Liza Minelli/Cabaret version. Not a very good singer, for a start… On Reugen Island is probably my favourite story, depicting the breakdown of the relationship of what might be a gigolo and his employer. Again, the depiction of gay relationships is circumspect, although there are more overt descriptions of the seamier underside of Berlin society, for example the short scene set in and around the Salomé club.

What strikes the reader is the sense of a society struggling to survive economic uncertainty and political turmoil – and we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that elements of this society are doomed. That sense of imminent disaster pervades the writing and adds a frisson and depth to stories that – in another setting and another era – might have worked less well. I’d also recommend that readers find out more about the real characters inspiring these tales; the real ‘Bernard Landauer’ – a marvellously complex character who appears to be trying to seduce Isherwood – is based on a man who helped many Jews escape Portugal and who died in the same plane as leslie Howard.

Buy from: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Reviews: Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac by Anel Viz

“When I think of the things that happened and the things I did, it is as though I were living them … My hands feel what I touched, and the smells that surrounded me fill my nostrils … Old joys swell my heart, old sorrows clutch at my throat … I remember every face, every name, every street …”

So Gérard Vreilhac begins the story of his life from his boyhood as a gardener at the Château d’Airelles before the French Revolution through six decades of upheaval and social change to the eve of Napoleon III’s coup d’état. It is a story of heroism and devotion, of political intrigue, of the great battles fought in Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and of unprecedented upward mobility. Most of all it is the story of the men he loved: Julien, the aristocrat; the jealous and possessive Laurent; his Egyptian houseboy, Akmoud; Anatole, a male prostitute… And every time he fell in love with a man, it was forever.

Review by Nan Hawthorne (crossposted from “That’s All She Read“)

A friend of mine once told me when I told her I was planning to write historical fiction that if she wants to know about an event, she just reads a history book about it. I was so startled by the inconsideration of the comment that I had nothing to say. This novel is an example of why historical fiction, when it is well done and the writer is insightful and a careful researcher, can be so much better than a dry, impersonal, history. No matter how much the historian tries to address the immediate experience of an event, s/he simply doesn’t have the liberty to speculate on the inner motivations and reactions of the people who lived through it. That is why I value historical fiction so much, and one reason why I loved this book.

Imagine what it must have been like to live through the period in France from just before the Revolution of 1789 through Napoleon, two more revolutions and the continuous change in political systems and government and their impact on average people. I mean, have you ever wondered how you would have known from your middle class or lower neighborhood in Paris in 1789 that people were rioting in the streets and that the Bastille had been taken? I can tell you that this happened at this place as a result of this action, but wouldn’t you rather know what you may have seen out your kitchen window as early one morning you dragged yourself out of bed and went out to the courtyard well to draw water to make coffee, noticing odd sounds outside and seeing one of your neighbors running out of his front door with a musket?

Gérard Vreilhac experienced it all, either right in his face or as a victim of the consequences. He is the gardener’s son at a country estate of a nobleman. He is about as far from the focus of the revolutionary action as he can be, but not for long. He and the younger son of the household, already boyhood friends, become lovers, Gérard finding the first love of his life. Julian, the son, must leave to join the military, and Gérard is left to puzzle out his sexuality. He is in Paris when the proverbial Revolutionary trumpets sound and manages to get a job that introduces him to the leaders of the rebellion. As a result of impressing Robespierre, he becomes the clerk for the infamous trials of the Reign of Terror, finally finding himself convicted of crimes against the revolution and facing a guillotine that has already taken the lives of the many, both strangers and friends. He rots in prison, and miraculously is still there when Robespierre himself is taken down.

It is in prison that he meets Laurent, a sensitive and mild person who nonetheless joins the army of Napoleon the same time Gérard does and turns out to love fighting. They have an initially rocky relationship that settles into something no different from a marriage as they grow older and more mature. While in the army in Cairo with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Gérard takes in a servant, Akhmoud, who proves to be a willing and inventive bed partner. The scene when Gérard leaves Cairo, having given Akhmoud his house and furnishings, and Akhmoud’s face is streaming with tears watching him go was heart breaking. Still Gérard knows he could not have stayed, could not have fit into the society, and their relative class would have prevented anything truly deep from happening between them. Gérard knows, for it was Julian and himself in reverse. Back in France Gérard and Laurent return to their intense if peripatetic romance, until Laurent goes missing at Waterloo.
The rest of the novel sees Gérard trying to find a place in his new world without Laurent. An older wealthy friend acts as an excellent advisor and helps him find his way into salon society. He must marry to maintain that lifestyle and makes an old friend, also a former servant in Julian’s family estate, his wife. Other married men have mistresses, it is just that Gérard’s is a man, Anatole, a male prostitute, whom he sets up in an apartment. When Gérard is reaching the end of his life, prompted to write this memoir, Anatole is still there, his longtime companion and friend.

The most consistently present character in this book besides Gérard is France. Viz captures the idealism of youth that can become so violent so quickly, then the rollercoaster of idealism, realism, cynicism. One year they seek a republic, the next they want the King back, then they want workhouses, then they want war. Against this backdrop Gérard’s relationships reflect his changing role in his own frenetic society. He is Julian’s servant, Laurent’s working class lover, Akhmoud’s master, Anatole’s client and then Anatole’s companion and beloved. The novel is rich in erotic scenes, detailed and at the same time romantic. I would like to tell every heterosexual woman I know to read gay male erotica if you want to learn things you never knew a man likes in bed. I happen to believe that sex in a novel is an important way to develop the subtler aspects of a characterization, strive for that in my writing, and have a masterful example to follow in Viz’s novel. There is nothing cold or impersonal in Gérard’s accounts of bed sport, but rather are part of a vital and intelligent man’s self reflection and self determination.

In sum, I found this novel intelligent, insightful, quite well written, both sexy and romantic, and quite moving. Viz handles first person narrative appropriately in what is, after all, a memoir. For me, this novel was most of all about the importance of people in your life and how much friends of all types mean in the successful life of any person. There are so many fine characters in this novel, and each is distinct, important, and not just to the story but as well to each other.

I bought the book as a download at Dream spinner Press LLC’s web site and read it on my Kindle 2 – which, incidentally, was miserable with the French names!

Dreamspinner Press LLC

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