Review: Casa Rodrigo by Johnny Miles

On a lush, tropical island inhabited by rogues, thieves and villains, where men take the law into their own hands, a father and son are thrust into tumultuous events that will change their lives forever.

Bernardo de Rodrigo is proud of his son. Alonso is handsome and winning, and everyone he meets is instantly drawn to the tall, warm Spaniard. But how could either of them have known that a forbidden love is about to claim Alonso’s heart?

Arbol, the charismatic male slave who was saved from the clutches of Raul Ignacio Martín, feels an instant connection with Alonso, the moment he looks into Arbol’s eyes, the moment they touch.

Bernardo has other things to worry about, however. He’s trying to exorcise himself of an intensely gratifying yet shame-filled sexual affair with Raul, who secretly adores Bernardo but doesn’t know how to show it.

When Raul blackmails Bernardo, their dark and sordid relationship not only threatens the bond between father and son, it places Arbol’s life in danger. Now Bernardo must make a difficult choice that could further alienate his son while Alonso must find a way to keep the man he loves.

Review by Jess Faraday

What I liked best about this story was the complicated way that the protagonists’ lives intertwined, both with those of the other characters, and with the slave trade. The author took the time to explain how the main characters could simultaneously find slavery objectionable and yet have their fortunes tied so inextricably to it that to get out of the trade would be to ruin not only their lives, but those of their families, employees, and slaves. It was refreshing and more realistic than I had expected.

I also liked the complicated way in which the lives of don Bernardo, his son Alonso, the slave Arbol, and the despicable Raul came together. For Bernardo and Raul, there had once been affection. Then came sex, somehow business became tied into the deal, and by the time of the story, Bernardo and Raul can’t stand one another, but have mind-blowing sex, and can’t avoid one another due to business. Alonso and Arbol grew up together after Bernardo rescued the infant Arbol from the murderous Raul, and now Alonso is both master to Arbol and his lover. And now Raul has his eye on Arbol, and Bernardo is powerless to deny him. Fabulous and tense.

The one thing that continuously bothered me, however, was the characterization of the slave Arbol. Don Bernardo and his son Alonso are complex characters. They love, they hate, they have moral dilemmas. Arbol is portrayed as property–not merely a slave, but an object. In the beginning of the story, he is an object of pity: an orphaned infant who must be hidden. Later, he is an object of lust: submissive, gorgeous, dependent, and willing–but not much more than this.

One might argue that Arbol, being a slave, is an object, at least in the eyes of society. But even a slave can have thoughts, insights, intelligence and ability. Arbol’s main ability seems to be taking Alonso’s Gigantic Cock, which had, before Arbol, been too big for any other man. One might argue that in a work written mainly for entertainment and titillation, one shouldn’t expect character depth. But the slave owners are complex and conflicted. One might argue that “objectified, submissive, naive, dark-skinned African slave” is a turn-on for some people, and I should get off my Politically Correct High Horse. But this characterization offended me, so there you go.

It is a titillating read. The tortuous relationship between Bernardo and Raul, with all its attendant history and complications is absolute fireworks. The sex is emotionally complex, fraught, and worth a read. It’s well plotted as well, with twists, turns and tension. And research has definitely been done. It’s just the appearance of the Slave-as-Prop that bothers me. So caveat lector.

Author’s website

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Review: Kindred Hearts by G.S. Wiley


Crippled by a devastating stammer, Alfie would prefer to hide himself away in the audience of London’s theaters. But as the perfect Georgian gentleman, it’s his responsibility to find a husband for his ward Eleanor. The pain of having to converse with strangers is lessened by the appearance of the kind-hearted Lord George Caldwell and his cousin Lieutenant Markham, who is far more interesting than any character Alfie has seen on stage, and far more intriguing than any man he’s ever met in person.

Review by Jess Faraday

This was a lovely, gentle romance. I enjoyed every minute of it.

With a deft hand, the author weaves intimate knowledge of the social intricacies of the period into a subtle story. This requires not only research, but also synthesis of what one has researched. It was not the case, as in so many stories that I’ve read, that the rules of the time and place were bent to accommodate the story, but rather that the plot complications arose from the author’s knowledge of those rules. This is one of the things that separates costume drama from historical writing, and Wiley does it very well.

In addition, it’s just a jolly good read. The prose is lively, the plot subtle, and the characters both realistic and sympathetic. The main character, Alfie, is particularly well drawn. His life and self-image have been handicapped by a stammer, but when push comes to shove, he can reach within himself to find the strength and confidence he needs to get the job done. He is flawed, but, like everything else in this book, it’s handled subtly and without the mawkishness that a less skilled writer might resort to. There is sex, but it fades to black at the bedroom door. It seemed very natural given Alfie’s shyness and inexperience, and given the understated nature of the story itself.

The only fault–and it’s not really a fault–is that the story was so short. It was so well written and so enjoyable, I wanted it to go on and on. It left me with a smile, and I’m certain that most readers will have the same reaction.

Author’s Website

Buy at Torquere Press

Review: The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion by Heather Domin

Rome, 10BC. New soldier Manilus Dardanus is sent to apprentice under General Cassius Valerian in the hope of securing a military sponsorship. Dardanus is idealistic and naive, Valerian brusque and restrained – but each soon discovers the other is not what he expected. In the legion Dardanus finds purpose and strength; in Dardanus, Valerian finds hope. This bond will be tested on the northern frontier, as Valerian and Dardanus each realize the true nature of their connection just as war and betrayal threaten to end it – and possibly their lives.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Although my specialty is Canadian history, I have a great appreciation for all history, and I certainly bow to Heather Domin’s knowledge of Augustinian Rome, as demonstrated in “The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion.

I also like her writing style. She provides just the right amount of description to make both characters and settings vivid without slowing the pace. The characters are also well developed and distinctive although I did find Elurius and Pertinax somewhat similar in nature. This applies to their respective relationships with Dardanus and Valerian, as well. The author has also made very good use of dialogue (very credible), without being contrived.  What I liked most, however, was that the story builds to a climax gradually—like an orgasm—and the climax was gratifying.

The synopsis of the story is that young Manilus Dardanus has come to Rome at his father’s insisstance. The father has arranged an introduction to the wealthy and illustrious general Marcus Cassius Valerian, who commands Augustus Caesar’s twenty-fourth legion. Crusty General Valerian is hardened by battle and tragedies of the past, and at first assumes that Dardanus is like the other sons of sycophants who have sought his favour—i.e. with the idea of an adoption in mind. Despite these reservations, valerian gives him a place within his household and arranges for him to be trained as a soldier. Theirs is an awkward relationship, but in spite of this they both undergo significant changes; Valarian re-discovers deeply buried emotions within himself, and Dardanus grows from a callow boy to a self-sufficient man. He also discovers friendships bonded from hard work and the heat of battle, as well as loyalty asa soldier and for his idol, Valerian.

Having said all that, I had some minor reservations. I certainly bow to Ms Domin’s knowledge of Roman history, but did they travel in carriages (I mean the four-wheel variety) is 10BC Rome? I don’t know, but it seemed at little ‘modern’ to me. Their were some other anachronisms aswell, For example, the phrases “working his ass off,” and “Cut them off at the pass,” also seem a bit modern. However, these certainly didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Highly recommended. 

This review was originally posted on Gerry B’s reviews

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Review: Bless Us With Content by Tinnean

Ashton Laytham came to Fayerweather, his uncle’s estate, as an orphan at the age of seven. Family and servants alike perceived Ashton as an unlovable child and shunned him; as an adult, the occasional illicit rendezvous aside, Ashton remains aloof and alone. When his uncle dies, yet more abuse falls upon Ashton’s shoulders: the estate is bankrupt and Ashton must make good on his uncle’s gaming debts.

With the family talisman stolen and the suspects fled, Ashton faces certain ruin until the arrival of Geo Stephenson, who holds all of Sir Laytham’s IOUs. Geo proposes a solution: Ashton will accommodate him in his bed, thereby paying off the debt. Attracted to Geo in spite of himself and desperate for any human kindness, Ashton agrees… never expecting to lose his heart to a man who claims he will never give his.

Review by Erastes

There’s a good story here, but it annoyed me as I was reading it, despite the fact the plot is decently formed and the structure was something I should have liked a lot.

The problem is with the pacing; it was very uneven. It spent a lot of time on some aspects that were sometimes less important than others that were frustratingly told not shown, and jumped about here and there. Characters were introduced as if we knew them well, when I’m scratching my head and saying “who’s this?” and searching back to find that they’d been mentioned once before in throwaway conversation.

I liked the beginning quite a lot–it had touches of Jane Eyre in the way that an orphan comes to a house and is looked after by relations who don’t think much of him because he’s upset about losing his parents. The trouble was, as is the case throughout the book, that the character description isn’t shown in any depth and when Uncle Eustace turns out to be a tyrant it’s a surprise, and doubly so when we are told that he’d whipped Ashton not just once but many times.  Ashton’s “awfulness” is not really shown either. We are told that Ashton decided that he would be as awful as his nickname “Awful” made him out to be, but we aren’t shown this behaviour–and there’s no real reason that I could see why people disliked him so much. Granted the other adoptive children in the story bully him but children do.

Similarly, as Ashton grows up, and the other adopted children and then young adults, continue to treat him badly (despite the fact that as the last in the line, he’s the heir) we have no character development from Ashton. I predicted that he would behave like an absolute horror (in some way or other) but really putting on an act until the day he inherited—but this did not happen. He would have had every right to be a very flawed Heathcliffian character but he wasn’t this either. It was hard to see what he was, to be honest as he turned out to be a Nice Chap which seemed a bit odd.

Telling not showing was prevalent all the way through. We are told that Ashton cares for the tenant farmers, and it wouldn’t have hurt to have had him doing something good in secret as a child, or perhaps visiting the tenants when he wanted to get out of the house, but we don’t see this. We are just told that he looks after his people and I’m all “why?”  Make him a saint, or make him a monster, but give us reasons.

Some of the sequences add to the disjointed effect. One minute he’s having dinner, the next he’s careering across the fields, the next brooding for days whether Geo loves him—despite the fact they’ve met once and shagged once.  It’s like a roller-coaster ride but one where you can’t see where the tracks are going. Little things like him avoiding a phaeton coming up the drive so he doesn’t have to see any neighbours, despite the fact that no visits to the hall are ever mentioned, even though the ladies of the house make visits—so one assumes they would have been returned.  It’s almost as if the author didn’t have the time to pad this out in a way it deserved, which is a shame because as I said at the beginning, there’s the kernel of a good story here.  There’s just not the depth—other than the emo-ing over “does he love me?”—that it needed to do justice to the many other characters in the story.

What I liked was the language, even though (once again) it’s a little disjointed. Sometimes Ashton speaks like aperfectly normal aristocrat, and then he suddenly lapses into cant that would do justice to any Heyer novel. I didn’t look up every word, so can’t tell you if the slang is historically correct or whether it’s taken from Heyer.  When it’s used, it’s used pretty well, although some words did need to have something in context to hang them on, for clarity.

There were no problems with historical accuracy that I could see, I might take issue with a two year old horse being broken to saddle and taken over jumps, but no-one’s except horse lovers would baulk at that anyway.

I look back at this review and it makes me look as if I hated this book—but I DIDN’T—that’s the crux of it. The problems that beset it could have been smoothed out to make the read more even, and the trope of “orphan makes good” (or bad!!) is one I highly enjoy and I did enjoy the book for all my criticisms. I suppose I got annoyed more because I did enjoy it than didn’t. Suffice to say that I’d seek out other historical by Tinnean.

Give it a try, it’s a nice meaty read and worth the cover price—and let me know what you think.

Author’s Website

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Review: The High Class Highwayman by Julia Talbot

When Julian is forced to turn to crime after he loses his inheritance, he decides that he can do better than the incompetent highwayman who tries to waylay him one dark night. That’s how the High-Class Highwayman comes into his own, and he does very well for himself, at least until Griffen Michalis comes along.

Griffen is far better versed in the criminal underworld than Julian, and he has no interest in the legitimate, and rather modest, fortune that is rightfully Julian’s. Being a Lord would cause him too much trouble. Griffen has far more planned for Julian than one night of excitement on the high road and Julian finds that being with Griffen is not just about mind-blowing sexual games, but danger as well.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a short, lively romp with lots and lots of sex. There’s a bit of a mystery plot, and an HEA. It was a fun read, and as long as you’re not looking for more than that, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.

The story starts out strong, with crisp, clear prose and a well-described setting. There are nice touches that show a fair amount of research: clothing, hygiene, transportation, and entertainment are, for the most part, spot on.

I also liked the main characters. Griffen and Julian are engaging, and it’s fun to watch them banter and circle each other. After the introduction of the mystery–who has it in for Griffen and why–the story goes on pause for a multi-chapter sex break. Without a lot of work, the plot wraps itself up for a not-so-surprising conclusion.

Although many of the little things were well researched, there were a few really big mistakes that surprised me. Use of the title “Sir Hisname” is reserved for baronets and knights of the realm, yet there seemed to be an awful lot of them running around this story, even the constable. Regarding crime and punishment, it surprised me that everyone seemed to know that Julian was a highwayman, but there didn’t seem to be any serious threat that he would be arrested for it.

But none of these things takes away from the fact that this story was really fun to read. And I know that a lot of readers will agree with me on that one.

Author Website

 

 

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Review: The Affair of the Porcelain Dog by Jess Faraday

London 1889.

For Ira Adler, former rent-boy and present plaything of crime lord Cain Goddard, stealing back the statue of a porcelain dog from Goddard’s blackmailer should have been a doddle. But inside the statue is evidence that could put Goddard away for a long time under the sodomy laws, and everyone’s after it, including Ira’s bitter ex, Dr. Timothy Lazarus. No sooner does Ira have the porcelain dog in his hot little hands, than he loses it to a nimble-fingered prostitute.

As Ira’s search for the dog drags him back to the mean East End streets where he grew up, he discovers secrets about his own past, and about Goddard’s present business dealings, which make him question everything he thought he knew. An old friend turns up dead, and an old enemy proves himself a friend. Goddard is pressing Ira for a commitment, but every new discovery casts doubt on whether Ira can, in good conscience, remain with him.

In the end, Ira must choose between his hard-won life of luxury and standing against a grievous wrong.

Review by Erastes

Not your normal Holmes clone, that’s for sure. Although this story is set in late Victorian London, and around the Baker Street area, there’s a highly enjoyable twist.

The point of view is told, first person, by Ira Adler. But instead of being a Doctor Watson clone,and the companion of a great detective, Ira is the live-in companion, “private secretary” and lover of Cain Goddard, the dread “Duke of Dorset Street.” Goddard is a crime lord, so in some respects, he’s a Moriaty clone. But not quite. Because in this fictional imagining, the “great detective” of the time is Andrews St Andrews who is, frankly, a bit of a twat (written to be so) and adds some great giggles to the text. He’s a real Holmes wanabee, a poseur and frankly not very good at his job. The brains of the St Andrews outfit is St Andrews’ companion, Tim Lazarus–and Lazarus is an ex-lover of Ira. Already it promises to be quite tortuous and it won’t let you down on that score.

The beginning was excellently paced–and in no time at all we into an action scene that just begged to be filmed.

The plot is very nice indeed. It’s more Philip Marlowe than Conan Doyle. Each clue leads you deeper in and further away from where you began, and it’s as opaque as the London smog.

The characterisations are excellent, all round. Some books you read, characters have similar voices, but each and every character here, and there’s a good dusting, is his own person with his own demons and issues.  And boy are there are lot of demons. This is the underbelly of London in the 19th century and it’s not a nice place. Either you are a leader or you get used. Child labour, opium dens, brothels, and exploitation of every kind. Ira holds an interesting position in this world, because he came from the gutter, but now he steps in an upper middle-class world where never thought he would, but retains his knowledge and connections that he’d rather have left behind forever.

I absolutely loved–with a big squishy heart–the bittersweet relationship between Ira and Cain Goddard. In a way,this is a coming of age story, because Ira has to face to harsh truths, look deep inside him, and make some hard decisions. He has a massive chip on his shoulder, but that’s only to be expected. He started his relationship with Cain as his prostitute, so he finds it hard that Cain really and truly cares for him–and similarly, Cain would have similar fears. Despite there being much that is wrong about their relationship, and who Cain is, I wanted them to be happy.

Yes, there seems to be a good deal of homosexuality in the book: There area few couples. But seeing as how Ira was a renter before Goddard took him under his wing,that’s not really surprising.  The homosexuality is never glossed over, though,never treated lightly. You are always aware of Labouchere’s Amendment hanging like a sword of Damocles over everyone’s heads–and it’s this threat, in fact which launches the story, as both Goddard and St Andrews are being blackmailed. There’s a lovely scene in Hyde Park where they walk so they can hold hands in public (in the dark) and you can’t help but feel sorry for them, that even the smallest of touches have to be considered –you never know who’s watching.

Be warned,you don’t get a “Romance” ending, and more than that I will not say, but the ending is beautifully done, and leaves it wide open for a sequel or more and I hope there will be. I’m dying to see what Ira gets up to. This will apppeal to a broad swathe of readers–and should do, in a fair world this should be picked up by a mainstream audience, because other than homosexual themes there’s nothing a non m/m reader would find uncomfortable to read–whether you like detective fiction, noir, Victorian stories or just damned good love stories, this will appeal to you. I neglected to mention this is her first novel. Well done Ms Faraday.

Author’s website

Bold Strokes Books    Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck

Feckless, exasperating Alex Finch is a rich, handsome and talented singer/songwriter who longs for two things: a career as a professional rock singer, and to have his love for Sam Barrowdale reciprocated. But drifter Sam’s two aims are simply to earn enough money to pay his sister’s medical bills and to hide from the world his reading/writing and speech disability. At this time the word “dyslexia” is generally unknown so to most people he’s just a “retard”. From the severe knocks life’s dealt him, Sam’s developed a tough outer coating and he has no time for a spoilt, selfish guitar player.

Despite his defects, Alex’s love for Sam never wavers and when Sam unexpectedly disappears, Alex begins a somewhat bungling quest to find him, only to discover that Sam has a fearful enemy: Alex’s powerful and influential yet sociopathic uncle.

As Alex spirals downwards towards alcoholism, many questions need answering. Just why did Alex’s evil uncle adopt him at age eleven yet deny him any affection? And what’s the mystery behind Alex’s father’s death?

Both seem to face unbeatable odds. Are they doomed to follow separate paths forever?

Review by Erastes

I am going to enthuse. This–I know from people who complain that I’m too critical–is a rare thing, but I was so impressed by this debut novel I can’t not. It’s not perfect–and I can’t give it five stars for reasons I’ll explain later, but I’ll say right out that I consider it a must read and it has my highest recommendation. I will discuss plot points, so beware of spoilers.

The story hangs on either side of the Speak Its Name cut off of Stonewall. It starts in 1963 and goes on for twenty or so years.

It’s easy to get tripped up on “remembered history.” From experience I’ve found that writing recent history can be a lot harder than writing about several hundred years ago. It’s easy to take stereotypes and run with them, overdo the slang and the product references. Despite a teenaged Alex being full of “cool slang” in the first chapter, it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia and product placement.

It’s absolutely not an m/m novel. And for a debut novel this is very, very impressive writing.  Don’t make the mistake that “literary” means “I don’t understand a bloody word of this.” It’s readable without being coy or self-indulgent and you’ll be sucked in from the first chapter. The homosexual aspect–whilst actually being the core of the book isn’t the theme. It’s a love story, and the gender of the people involved doesn’t matter as much as the twisting and sometimes heart wrenching path they make while managing to not be together for one reason or another.

The story is told in three points of view. Alex’s story is in first person, Sam’s is in third, and there’s a final three chapter epilogue in first person by another character that I won’t list here. Don’t be put off by the rather literary device of mixing and matching the points of view–it works and it couldn’t work any other way. Alex’s mind is bright and colourful, full of self-indulgence, a selfish, rather spoiled young man who thinks more of himself than he has any right to be, and it’s his maturation that winds around the plot as he learns to care about other people instead of satisfying his own needs. Sam however is considered a “retard” — dyslexia was not as well-known a disorder as it is today, and anyone hearing his speak or seeing the way he interacts with the world would have thought he was educationally sub-normal. To have written his point of view in first person would have tripped this book up, and I think the readers would have been impatient with the way Sam stumbled over the words, even in his head. Doing it in third cushions the reader a little–just enough–from this mental and vocal confusion.

What wasn’t really needed then, in my opinion, was to be told at the beginning of each chapter, which young man it referred to–as only a few words in would have made it clear.

There’s a lot of layers to this book too. It’s not at all just a case of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy–but then I’ve already said it’s not a romance. (not a tragedy either, but that’s all I will say about the ending.) As the blurb suggests there’s a hell of a lot going on even without the tortuous way the young men never seem to catch a break. Even for a full-sized novel, it covers a lot of ground, has a lot of plot and I loved that, it really gave me plenty to get my teeth into.

What also impressed me was the sheer scale of the research involved. Not only does the history feel right–and that’s some doing in an era that went from the Beatles to the Space Age and into our technological era–but there’s dyslexia, chemistry, biochemistry, farming, mining, popular music and so much more, and if there was a bum note anywhere, I didn’t spot it.

Negatives, yes, there were a couple. There was a section–one of Sam’s–which was thumpingly subtitled “(ten days earlier)” and that jarred me. I wouldn’t have been so dim that I couldn’t have worked out we were skipping back to see what had happened to Sam at a slightly earlier point where we’d left Alex’s section. I was also a little bemused about the conflict Liza came up with, there didn’t seem that enough time had passed for her to be as sure as she was about that particular thing. (attempting to reduce spoilers here, but it’s difficult, :D)

There were a few–very few–typos here and there, but not enough to pull me out.

The ending–well, I absolutely don’t want to spoil, but I am pretty sure that (unless you are rabid about the falling into the arms and the HEA) you won’t be disappointed. The real kicker comes half way through the epilogue, which had me sobbing like a baby. I was railing at the end of the book proper and hating what had happened, but the explanation of the ending, and the way that it was concluded at the “proper” end was entirely right, and said buckets about the characterisation of Sam and the real coming of age of Alex.

There aren’t many books in this genre of ours that have me mulling over them after I’ve closed the book but this really got under my skin and it’s been eating away at me in the same way that “The Catch Trap” or “Brokeback Mountain” did.

Don’t miss this, because you’ll miss a real treat.  I can’t imagine what Ms Roebuck will come up with next, but I’ll be first in line.

Author’s Blog

Buy from Awe-struck Books (it’s only available in ebook right now, but the print version is due any time)

Review: The Only Gold by Tamara Allen

New York 1888

Jonah Woolner’s life is as prudently regulated as the bank where he works. It’s a satisfying life until he’s passed over for promotion in favor of newcomer Reid Hylliard. Brash and enterprising, Reid beguiles everyone except Jonah, who’s convinced Reid’s progressive ideas will be the bank’s ruin. When Jonah begins to discover there’s more to Reid than meets the eye, he risks succumbing to Reid’s charms—but unlocking the vault to all of Reid’s secrets could lead him down a dangerous path.

Losing his promotion—and perhaps his heart—is the least of Jonah’s difficulties. When the vengeful son of a Union army vet descends upon the bank to steal a government deposit of half a million dollars during the deadliest blizzard to ever sweep New York, Jonah and Reid are trapped, at od ds and fighting for their lives.

Review by Sal Davis

I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about covers so excuse me while I enthuse about this one. It really is worth viewing in the pop out version (on Dreamspinner‘s site) because I don’t think the artist, Lorraine Brevig (her portrait work is fab), has missed a beat. Covers are so important as a come-on to potential readers and often one doesn’t appreciate the fine detail until well into the book. This one is warm and welcoming with two good figures whose pleasant expressions but wildly differing stances and fashions get across the polite antagonism with which they initially view each other. In the background is the massive romanesque architecture that suggests that the bank’s fiscal foundations are also rock solid, a window with driving snow beyond and a shadowy mystery figure in silhouette that I can’t quite make out.

The period detail of the dress of Reid and Jonah are taken directly from the descriptions in the book and seem spot on to me. Definitely a cover that made me want to read on.

The book is written from Jonah’s POV and right from the first sentence – “Jonah was late” – one can see that he’s a man who lives on his nerves. Very competent, precise, organised, he follows routines absolutely and is as meticulous in his approach to his dress, his manners and his morals as he is to accounting for the bank’s money. That he is drawn to other men is something he has repressed as being an unfortunate aberration. Life is proceeding as planned and his few excitements are restricted to the prestige of the bank and his place within it. He is well liked by his staff, though he is somewhat awkward socially, and as assistant cashier he is clearly valued by the bank’s Board members. He knows his place and is happy with it but now the cashier has retired he is due a step up and is confident of receiving it. He is expecting promotion, but this expectation doesn’t come across as smug or grasping. He has earned it, there is a career structure, it is the way of the bank.

The arrival of Reid Hylliard, therefore, is a tremendous shock on all counts.

Abandoning tradition, the Board members hire Reid for the cashier’s post Jonah should have taken. Everything about Reid is anathema to Jonah. He dresses inappropriately. He slouches. He makes jokes with the junior staff. He invites people to lunch individually and organises staff jollies to Delmonico’s. In short his behaviour is NOT appropriate for a cashier of a state, soon to be national, bank. He is far too frivolous. That he is good at his job is also a source of frustration. From the moment he leans over Jonah’s shoulder and adds a column of figures with a flick of an eye, the reader can sense that there would be fur flying and blood on the mat if this story wasn’t so firmly set in its period.

Some stories can be re-set without any dimishing of vigour. The Seven Samurai, for instance, worked very well in a Wild West setting. But this story has to be in this time and place to work. Everything – dresscodes, manners, living quarters, districts, class divisions, time frame – is combined to make a plot that is foremost about two very different characters combining their resources to combat a threat. The romance between Jonah and Reid isn’t exactly secondary but it is so much of its time that anyone who wants a one handed read had better look elsewhere. The sex scenes are very mild and most of them fade to black. The couple that are described dwell more on the feelings involved than the plumbing. It is an intensely emotional story without being overblown or angsty – a harder trick to pull off than one might think.

I didn’t notice any editorial issues with the book – I read the ebook version – but that could be because I read it in great big chunks over 24 hours. In retrospect there were a couple of minor niggles but nothing historical and since I didn’t notice the niggles while I was actually reading I’m not sure they really count. In short I found nothing in the story to grumble at and plenty to bring a big silly grin to my face.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Review: House of Mirrors by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Driven from his family when his sexuality is exposed, Jonah discovers drama, passion, and intrigue in a traveling carnival–and in the enigmatic owner, Rafe Grimstone. The preacher’s son and the lord who’s rejected his former life in England feel the heat of attraction from the moment they meet. Open-hearted Jonah is willing to risk hellfire and damnation for brief moments of pleasure with Rafe, but the older man is frozen in a past he can’t escape no matter how far he runs.

As Rafe struggles to choose between responsibilities of his present and his past, mysterious accidents assail the close-knit community of the carnival. Will the perpetrator be revealed before the traveling show is ruined, and will Rafe finally reveal his true self to Jonah or continue to mask his identity like the changing images in a house of mirrors?

Review by Erastes

I have thoroughly enjoy past forays by this talented team of writers and I jumped into this headlong, seduced by their past skill and the fact that I am a big sucker for circus stories.

I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the length–around 160 pages. It doesn’t rush into things and events are given time to mature, characters given space to develop. Secondly it takes the carny/circus theme and really runs with it. Rafe’s outfit isn’t a great big one like ones shown on Hollywood films, it’s a real “dog and pony show”–the “headline” act being just that, a dog and pony turn, there’s a magician, a strong man, a knife throwing act which perform in the show. In addition to that there’s the “freak show” which is hardly that at all. Over the past little while, they’ve lost their dwarf, and although he hasn’t told the Carny “family”, Rafe knows the show is losing money.

It’s a sad little outfit, to be honest which travels around Ohio, part of Indiana, and Kentucky. Playing to people who’s lives are so bleak and hopeless and miserable that even a poor little show with nothing much more than a couple of tents seems like something miraculous. There’s a scene at a funeral where this is so beautifully described you can see the por fabric of the people’s clothes, feel every bone in their starving horse’s ribs–people who are awed by the simplest of things, and grateful for it.

It’s this “Grapes of Wrath” level of detail that I loved most about the book; the main two characters, Jonah and Rafe are interesting, but they didn’t catch me on fire, and the romance was pretty predictable. However it’s solidly done, and no one will be disappointed by the set up and completion of the love story.  However, the other characters in the book were the genius touch. Mindy, the sour-tongued and loyal daughter of the previous owner, Sam the giant with health problems, the nebulous Parinsky, and Jamie the pretty woman with a big crush–and many others. None of them are skimped in favour of the main romance, and when something happens to one of them I freely admit I found myself crying without even realising it.

There’s a nice mini-mystery thread that runs through, and even with the limited pool of suspects the clues led me to the wrong suspect–and that pleases me.

What I didn’t like was (to me) a rather unsatisfactory ending. It seemed to go on for too long, as if desperate to assure the reader as to what would happen next and how. I found it unnecessary and bulky. I can understand the reasons why all the ends had to be tied up but after such deft and subtle storytelling it felt like the publisher had said “You can’t end it there, please let’s see what happens afterwards.”

But for all that, I find this a really well written book. Dee and Devon go from strength to strength and the maturity of much of the writing in this book is simply wonderful.  I have one plea. If Loose I-D don’t own the print rights to your books, girls, then please offer them to a print publisher because they will be keepers for many, me included.

Highly recommended.

Bonnie Dee’s website   Summer Devon’s website

Buy at Loose I-D

Review: Dulce et Decorum Est by JL Merrow

The First World War cast a long shadow, and in the winter of 1920, it’s still at its darkest. When solicitor’s clerk George Johnson moves into new digs, he’s instantly attracted to friendly fellow lodger Matthew Connaught, who lost an arm in the Great War. As the two become inseparable, George begins to wonder whether it’s just friendship that Matthew feels for him or something more. And if it’s something more… can George risk a revelation of his shameful past?

Review by Erastes

A seasonal story, this. I believe that it was planned to come out at Christmas to take advantage of the Christmas market and those who like to read seasonal stories. However, don’t let that put you off because it’s not offensively so with holly draped in every scene and enough sugar to bring on diabetes.

This is a very nicely written story which just happens to have a Christmas section. In truth it could have been set at any time in the year.

I’m a bit of a sucker for post war stories, because they have the capacity to evoke great hope and regeneration and so it is with this book. One character is getting away from something, and the other protagonist has every reason to shut himself away and hate the world in general. It’s a refreshing change to find that he doesn’t and is–as many young men would have had to do in 1920–simply getting on with his life. So many books concentrate on the negative aspects of WWI injuries and mental incapacity, and while there is a touch of that here, it’s not enough to weigh it down with bleakness.

Neither does it take it to the opposite extreme. It could have been extremely sappy, but it avoids that–and I think that’s managed because Merrow writes the stiff upper lip and youthful breeziness of English young men very well. They don’t slip into stereotype either, nor wallow in too much angst or emotion, and in this it is nicely balanced. There are some frankly sweet moments, but it is a seasonal story, so I’ll forgive it.

If I have one tiny quibble is that the conflict was not sufficiently conflictly to really cause a rift. By the time it raises its head, the relationship between Matthew and George was strong enough to weather it and I never felt for one minute that rejection would be any part of an issue. I didn’t worry about their relationship, and that was a minus point for me. I wanted to say “Oh, Buck up, George!” at one point, because he spent a lot of time worrying about his problem which should have turned out to be a problem. But, again, it’s a short book (about 70 pages) and too much conflict would have marred the seasonal good feeling perhaps.

Overall, this is a nice seasonal story, beautifully written with memorable characters. Highly recommended.

Author’s website

Dreamspinner   Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: The Matelot by Ariel Tachna

Their pirate vessel destroyed, Captain Amery White, ship’s surgeon Gavin Watson, and quartermaster Quinn Davies are left without a livelihood or a home. The three men have served together since they were old enough to put to sea, sharing hardships and comfort until Amery and Gavin formalized their union with a matelotage—the pirate equivalent of a marriage contract.

Now they’ve been offered a letter of marque and a fine English galleon with enough speed and firepower to catch and capture any ship in the Caribbean. But their mission brings back memories long-buried and puts a strain on Amery and Gavin’s relationship, especially when the Silver Queen captures a Spanish slave ship, bringing the very young, very beautiful, and very abused Eliodoro to their crew.

Quinn finds himself torn between the love he’s always had for his friends and his desire for their new crew member. When secrets from the past come to light and cause a rift between Amery and Gavin, Quinn will have to choose between substituting for Gavin’s true love and becoming the center of Eliodoro’s world.

Review by Sal Davis

I do like pirates. I know I’m on very shaky ground historically speaking because pirates tended to be syphilitic psychopaths with bad personal hygiene and worse morals, but from an entertainment point of view pirates are excellent box office. Swash buckling, passion, open or no shirts, wind-blown hair, healthy exercise in the fresh air, a little light robbery from people who deserve it – the cover of The Matelot conjures up all of that. Cover artist Analise Dubner has produced a well-balanced sepia toned image that depicts Quinn and Eliodoro, the two main protagonists of the novel, very well.

Relationships in the book are quite complex. Amery and Gavin are in a formal relationship, having taken out articles of matelotage. This leaves old friend and some time lover, Quinn, out in the cold, listening to them boink through the thin canvas wall between his and their cabins. But discovering the gorgeous Eliodoro chained in the hold of a Spanish prize takes his mind off his loneliness. Naturally there are obstacles to their love, and Amery and Gavin’s relationship is imperilled as well before the story is brought to a satisfactory and loving conclusion. As a romantic romp the book works very well. There are sex scenes that are sufficiently different in pace and content to pique the interest, but not so frequent as to get tedious. I think that people who want a light, if substantial, read will be pleased with this.

Less pleased will be the people who are fans of Age of Sail novels. Patrick O’Brien this isn’t and even to my eyes there were enough maritime gaffes to make me giggle. There are also some editorial problems – words out-of-order, confusion of personal names, misuse of words, including ‘colossic’? – which surprised me. Dreamspinner are usually better than that. However both problems were within my tolerance and I could ignore them.

Less easy to ignore was the sheer emoness of these pirates. They all spent far more time angsting about their objects of desire than pirating. It also seemed to be an OK-Homo Caribbean since there was only one person in the novel who had a problem with the male/male relationships, and that was expressed merely as a disapproving sniff and nothing more came of it. I also had problems with the ‘abuse’ angle. Luckily none of it was shown but they talked about it a lot. Quinn, Gavin and Eliodoro had all been raped, sometimes repeatedly, with varying degrees of emotional damage.

So – emo pirates – not my cup of tea but I think that people who want a light, if lengthy, read will be pleased with this, especially if they aren’t too picky about their history.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: Wingmen by Ensan Case

HEROES IN HELLCATS

Jack Hardigan’s Hellcat fighter squadron blew the Japanese Zekes out of the blazing Pacific skies. But a more subtle kind of hell was brewing in his feelings for rookie pilot Fred Trusteau. As another wingman watches–and waits for the beautiful woman who loves Jack–Hardigan and Trusteau cut a fiery swath through the skies from Wake to Tarawa to Truk, there to keep a fateful rendezvous with love and death in the blood-clouded waters of the Pacific.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The appearance this month of a new, digital edition of James Jones’s World War II classic, From Here to Eternity (1951), is good news not only for general readers but for fans of m/m historical fiction. The edition reportedly includes two scenes edited out by Scribner sixty years ago. One involves oral sex between a wealthy Honolulu civilian and Private Angelo Maggio (the soldier played by Frank Sinatra in the movie), for money. The other concerns a military investigation into homosexual activity. Accounts of the restored edition prompted my rereading of another classic of the Pacific war, the equally well told m/m adventure-romance, Wingmen, by the pseudonymous Ensan Case. Published by Avon as a paperback original in 1979, the book has long been out of print. I recently snapped up a used first edition on amazon.com for under $10. Copies usually start at around $40.

Like From Here to Eternity, Wingmen is character- and event-driven. Set mostly aboard the fictional aircraft carrier Constitution during the latter half of the war, much of the tension in the novel derives from the physical and emotional pushing and shoving of fighting men packed too close together under extremely dangerous circumstances. Most of them are brave, dedicated and noble; some are hard drinkers who shield their feelings from even their closest friends. All but a few polish their manly-man reputations to a very high gloss.

The book opens with Ensign Frederick Trusteau, the junior of the two wingmen, in bed with a Honolulu prostitute. Though he brings her to climax, his own satisfaction is limited to the knowledge that some of his fellow pilots are aware of the encounter. Later, in a similar exchange, Trusteau again performs the act primarily to establish his heterosexual creds–because it’s expected and he knows no better–rather than for any real pleasure or release.

Trusteau is handsome, skilled, determined, loyal and–a product and symbol of his time–just a bit dense in matters sexual. Although he becomes painfully aroused at the sight of another officer lounging naked in his berth aboard ship, he isn’t able to put one and one together by himself.

Lieutenant Commander J.J. “Jack” Hardigan, his new skipper, as befits a senior officer, dates a rich and willing widow who owns a house in the hills above Honolulu. Kisses aside, there is no evidence in the book that they ever go to bed together. Hardigan’s prior sexual history goes unmentioned. When the widow breaks off the relationship in favor of one of Hardigan’s subordinates, he is more relieved than disappointed. Like his wingman Trusteau, he dates women out of habit and social convention, not desire.

The relationship between Hardigan and Trusteau is initially built on the expertise both men develop in flying Grumman Hellcats off the deck of a carrier. The bond of trust necessary for successful cooperation in combat is quickly and firmly established. The help that each gives the other for the good of the squadron, the navy and the prosecution of the war leads to triumph in battle and mutual respect. There are no shower scenes, no groping in the dark. Leaning shoulder to shoulder during a movie on deck is as physical as the m/m action gets. When Hardigan eventually elects to act on his feelings–during Christmas leave in a Waikiki hotel, not aboard ship–their physical union is presented as the natural next step in the bonding of brother warriors, true to each other unto death. Whether author Case’s love scenes were never written or cut out of this essentially mainstream novel I have no idea. As published, the curtain comes down before the shirts come off.

Just as masters of age-of-sail historical fiction must be intimately familiar with foremasts, rigging, celestial navigation and hardtack, Ensan Case is equally at home with the details of aerial and naval warfare. Presumably a veteran of the conflict, he is entirely convincing in his scene-setting, expertly mixing technical details and the emotions of men in love and at war. Here, about midway through the book, is his first description of a pilot taking off from the deck of a carrier–in almost total darkness. The point of view, though written third person, is Trusteau’s:

Shadowy shapes moved around Fred, and a single red wand popped into existence in the hands of some invisible deck officer. Taxi her forward, said the wand. Fred released his brakes and increased his throttle, rolled the Hellcat forward. Hold it there, said the wand. Fred stood on the upper portion of the rudder pedals and felt the plane hunker to a stop. Run her up, said the wand.

Fred stood on the brakes with all the strength he possessed and increased the throttle smoothly all the way to the stop, feeling the cyclonic power of the engine lift the tail into the air. Then he leaned all the way to the left and found the hooded deck lights that told him where the deck was, and where it wasn’t. In that brief interval, before the wand snapped downward and he released his brakes, he had time to think that despite the chaos of the launch, he was ready for whatever would come, ready because the only man among them who had kept his temper and remained calm through it all would be flying there in front of him.

Go, said the wand, and Fred flew away into the night.

This is solid, no-nonsense American writing: hunker, cyclonic, hooded, “where the deck was, and where it wasn’t.”

Case also has fun with names. Jack Hardigan explains itself. Trusteau acquires the nickname “Trusty” partly because of his supposed prowess with women but also because of his reliability as a warrior. One pilot is named Brogan, another Duggin.

There are battles: Wake Island, Tarawa and Truk Lagoon. In the latter attack, Jack’s fighter squadron and other U.S. planes sink a large portion of the Japanese fleet. Men on both sides are wounded, shot down, burned to death and blown to pieces. Suspicions about the lovers arise in at least one pilot’s mind but are too terrible, too dangerous, to voice. Fred becomes an ace, one of the top navy guns, thereby acquiring a new nickname: Killer. In a final, and ultimately secret act, Jack risks his life for his wingman.

The last couple of chapters, a postwar montage, wraps up loose ends without adding much to what’s come before. For my money, Wingmen would be a finer novel if it ended in 1945. Still, I know of no better m/m adventure-romance set during World War II. This is a five-star must read, a treasure for all fans of historical military fiction.

Buy at Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: One Eyed Jacks by India Harper

A Civil War veteran and recovered opium addict, Adam Finlay, knows the cost of taking pleasure too far. In life, as in poker, he plays things close to the vest. The only way he knows to survive is to let no one in. Jackson Talbot loves a challenge. And no one is a greater challenge than the closed-off Adam Finlay. An awkward partnership gets Jackson’s foot in the door, but it will take every bit of skill he possesses to get any further with Adam.

Amidst the excitement of a high-stakes poker game, white lies and past mistakes threaten to destroy the fragile relationship the two men have begun to build. In the end, can two Jacks beat the Queen of Hearts?

Review by Erastes

I have to say I was easily sucked into this story because the whole idea of the paddle-steamers and the poker games that were played upon them fascinate me hugely, with the romance and atmosphere. In general, this book does well and it kept me interested although it was a little light on immersive atmosphere.

The two main characters meet believably and I enjoyed the banter between them. I found it a bit difficult to remember who was who–and I’m not sure whether it was just my attention span, or whether it was subject confusion,because there was a smattering of this here and there. I had to concentrate and think to myself “Which one is Adam again?” which pulled me out of the story from time to time. The description of their meetings is well done, although I would have loved more of the life of the paddle steamer but that’s just me–I’m greedy and if I find a nice novella, I always want a full sized novel!

I had a couple of major niggles which stopped this book from being a four star, which otherwise it deserved.

One was the money. I haven’t done the research to know how expensive these games were, but the “buy-in” for this particular game was $5,000 which struck me as a HUGE sum- worth around $500,000 in today’s money.  The plot point which causes the men to meet is that Jackson needs an extra  $200 to join the game and it struck me that if a man had $5,000 at this time, he’d hardly need to earn more, gambling. The winning pot was $250,000 which again was a king’s ransom at this time. ($28 million today–source: Measuring Worth). I think these amount are vastly over-inflated.

The other was the total disregard for the protagonists regarding sex–they hardly seem to care that they are on a boat with thin wooden walls and bounce and thump and scream and roar and fuck like rabbits and discuss their proclivities in public and with others.  At one point they fuck on deck in the open on a very crowded ship, and no measures are put into place to ensure their privacy.

The sex scenes however, because the erotic love affair is the focus, rather than the rather thin plot, are well described and nicely hot. Like many other recent books there’s a nod to BDSM which seemed a little pasted on, but I know many readers like bondage.

All in all,it’s an enjoyable and hot read which will occupy a good couple of hours and I do recommend it. It does teeter on wallpaper historical, but only just and there’s been sufficient research done to satisfy more picky readers, and less-picky ones will enjoy it a great deal.

India Harper is a writing collaboration between Philippa Grey-Gerou  and Emery Sanborne

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure


Review: Mere Mortals by Erastes

Orphaned Crispin Thorne has been taken as ward by Philip Smallwood, a man he’s never met, and is transplanted from his private school to Smallwood s house on an island on the beautiful but coldly remote, Horsey Mere in Norfolk. Upon his arrival, he finds that he’s not the only young man given a fresh start. Myles Graham, and Jude Middleton are there before him, and as their benefactor is away, they soon form alliances and friendships, as they speculate on why they ve been given this new life. Who is Philip Smallwood? Why has he given them such a fabulous new life? What secrets does the house hold and what is it that the Doctor seems to know?

Review by Jane Ellsworth

Three orphaned young men are picked by Phillip Smallwood as wards and brought to his isolated manor in the Norfolk Broads: Crispin Thorne, Jude Middleton and Myles Graham. Each impoverished young man has a secret in his past that haunted or drove him from his school. But the biggest secret is that of Phillip Smallwood, as he seems to shape the three young men for an unknown position.

Consciously and unconsciously, the young men compete for the honor, as they are dressed, valeted and tailored. Love affairs between them, and Phillip, blossom and wilt like tropical flowers caught out in the English winds. They are paraded at a party to the county, where neighbour Doctor Baynes upbraids Phillip for treating his wards like dolls. Then Dr. Baynes goes missing, and Thorne leaves the close confines of the manor for the open but dark marshes of the Broads at night to help find the body, and ends up finding out more than he wants to know about Phillip.

Mere Mortals blends gothic mystery story with gay romance, with a keen ear for the tone and voice of 19th-century English novels. It is almost completely unlike The Portrait of Dorian Grey, yet the characters and faint flavour of the “unnatural” are reminiscent of Wilde. More coltish than Wilde’s eponymous character, the young men of Mere Mortals enjoy each other with the same exuberance they bring to their enjoyment of the sudden supply of good food, wine, clothes and living quarters, but they are too young emotionally to sustain real relationships at this point. The narrating character, Thorne, through physical and emotional suffering, love and betrayal, finally emerges ready to love at an adult level.

The languorous pace of the first three fourths of the novel is in strong contrast to the last chapter, wherein All Is Revealed, which, while action-packed, is rather too rushed. The aftermath of the last death goes completely unexplained, in contrast to that of Dr. Baynes, and there is a several-year-jump to the epilogue. Nevertheless, the entire story was a pleasure to read. Erastes crafts this story so keenly and with such marvellous detail that the reader can come to feel she is part of the place and even the time of the story (I enjoyed particularly trying to determine the exact date from all the asides given by the characters, until it was settled by a particular item). The strong and distinct characterizations, recognizable as men of determinable ages, also show her excellent workmanship. And despite the corpses strewn about the Broads, there is a much less grim tone than in some of her previous works. Four out of five stars for Erastes!

Author’s website

Amazon UK    Amazon USA

Review: Lion of Kent by Aleksandr Voinov and Kate Cotoner

Squire William Raven has only one goal—to finally receive his spurs and become a knight. When his lord, Sir Robert de Cantilou, returns from a five-year crusade in the Holy Land, William wants nothing more than to impress him.

After Sir Robert’s return, noble guests arrive from France, bringing intrigue to the castle. William is oblivious to the politics, as he’s distracted by nightly visits from a faceless lover—a man who pleasures him in the dark and then leaves—a man he soon discovers is none other than his master, Sir Robert.

But William can’t ignore the scheming around him when he overhears a plot to murder Robert. He becomes intent on saving his lord and lover from those who would see him killed…

Review by Sally Davis

Mailed fists, velvet gloves, illicit passion plus the tension of a planned assassination attempt – Lion of Kent is a romping read and the authors have packed a lot into about a hundred pages.

First of all the cover made a very good impression on me. Lovely font, attractive design, two models suitably kitted out as hard man knight and pouty youth. Possibly, in retrospect, the youth is a little too pouty for William and the armour is way too late for 1176 but I can forgive Carina for that. From a design point of view, plate armour is much more interesting to light than mail. It’s a GOOD cover, so ignore the quibble.

The whole story is written from the point of view of William Raven. He comes across as a little out of place. He is older than the other squires, illegitimate, totally dependent upon the goodwill of his overlord for advancement. Consequently he has a huge chip on his shoulder and is willing to defend his honour against any perceived slight. He even challenges Sir Robert, verbally, when they meet. This is a young man desperate to prove himself, yearning for action and not overfond of thinking things through. I liked the character very much and loved the means the authors used to get this tension in him across:

The thought of fighting alongside his lord made William curl his hands as if to grip a weapon.

He’s ready to fight at the drop of a hat – or a gauntlet – but also has the nous to rein in his aggression when absolutely necessary.

Sir Robert, his master and eventual lover, is self-contained, self-controlled and civilised. I liked his ease with the French contingent and his forbearance under the verbal lash of his obnoxious churchman brother, Stephen. He also shows a lot of patience with hot-headed William. If there’s a war, I would like Sir Robert on my side, please.

Their relationship builds slowly leaving plenty of time to explore the other plot – the assassination of Robert – and didn’t ignore the illegality of what they were doing. The authors trod a fine line, using Roberty’s privileged position and the way of life at the time to allow the protagonists steamy encounters. For instance their first encounter takes place in the great hall at night. All the squires, men at arms, servants etc are bedded down together. The shutters are closed, the fire has died, the candles are out, the darkness is complete so nobody can see, and the sounds William and his visitor make are masked by those of other lovers nearby. This lack of privacy, appalling to our minds, becomes an aid to fulfillment in the hands of Kate and Aleksandr.

Great stuff.

Aleksandr Voinov’s website
Kate Cotoner’s website

Buy at Carina

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