Review: The Layered Mask by Sue Brown

Lord Edwin Nash has been sent to London by his father, threatened with disinheritance unless he finds a wife. Lord Thomas Downe sees through the mask Edwin presents to the world and leaves Edwin powerless to deny his love.

Threatened by his father with disinheritance, Lord Edwin Nash arrives in London for one season to find a wife. While there, Nash discovers he is the lamb, the sacrifice of the society matrons, to be shackled to one of the girls by the end of the season.

During a masquerade ball, Nash hides from the ladies vying for his attention. He is discovered by Lord Thomas Downe, the Duke of Lynwood. Nash is horrified when Thomas calmly tells him that he knows the secret that Nash had hidden for years and that he sees through the mask that Edwin presents to the rest of the world.

What will happen when the time comes for Edwin to return home with a suitable bride?

Review by Erastes

Just look at that cover! It’s absolutely beautiful. Sumptuous and completely in line with the book it’s mouthwateringly beautiful. It just proves that you don’t need headless torsos to illustrate gay romance. Well done, Silver Publishing. This book, incidentally, is part of 3 book anthology (all of which are available as standalones) and are linked. Two of which–this one, and The Slave’s Mask by Patricia Logan–are historicals. They seem to be using the same cover for all.

I haven’t read any of Ms Brown’s works before, simply because I spend so much time reading gay historicals and reading other stuff that I never get time to read any contemporaries at all, but what I’d heard had been good. And it’s pretty well deserved, I think. This is–forgive me if I’m wrong–her first foray into a gay historical and although it’s a simple plot and not a very long read it’s a very good effort. There’s a fair amount of careful research shown, which was appreciated. The patronesses are mentioned at Almack’s which is a rare enough occurence, and the waltz is shown as a seditiousness, whereas so many Regencies have this dance included as a matter of course.

As to the characters, though, I didn’t get swept away by either of them. Both of them seemed to be privileged and rather whiny young men–knowing their duty to their dynasties and being dragged towards it kicking and screaming. This leans more in the direction of Pride and Prejudice’s “I’d rather marry for love, thank you” which at the time was itself a rarer concept than marrying for the family’s benefit.

Thomas finds Edwin “perfect” and that “he had never met anyone like Edwin Nash” after two short conversations and a kiss–so there’s a good smattering of insta-love here. They didn’t set me on fire, but they were nice enough, I just found them rather dull together even though they seemed to turn each other on sufficiently. There’s a riding scene which seems to have absolutely no point at all, and in a short book, that’s not needed.

There’s also the ubiquitous upper-class male knocking-shop which is a trope I’m getting heartily sick of.  This is not the author’s fault of course, and it’s nicely described but it has become a trope. However I suppose men have to bonk somewhere, but I wish someone would do it elsewhere. Anywhere. There are several clubs of this type in London, according the owner of the one that Edwin and Thomas visit–a certain Lord Leicester, who was once Thomas’s lover (giving as a soupcon of conflict in the form of jealousy from Edwin before it dissipates). I found it amusing that one of the Leicester’s men was called Lester. Perhaps the author didn’t know how Leicester was pronounced!

This is quite a nice book, don’t get me wrong. It’s well researched and the love story is sweet and I’m sure people will like it, it’s just that there are a lot of gay Regencies around now and they are all coming out a bit samey these days. It just didn’t say anything to me that was new or refreshing, and I was a little bored. I’d read another by Ms Brown though, were she to write one.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing 

 

Review: A Private Gentleman by Heidi Cullinan

Painfully introverted and rendered nearly mute by a heavy stammer, Lord George Albert Westin rarely ventures any farther than the club or his beloved gardens. When he hears rumors of an exotic new orchid sighted at a local hobbyist’s house, though, he girds himself with opiates and determination to attend a house party, hoping to sneak a peek.

He finds the orchid, yes…but he finds something else even more rare and exquisite: Michael Vallant. Professional sodomite.

Michael climbed out of an adolescent hell as a courtesan’s bastard to become successful and independent-minded, seeing men on his own terms, protected by a powerful friend. He is master of his own world—until Wes. Not only because, for once, the sex is for pleasure and not for profit. They are joined by tendrils of a shameful, unspoken history. The closer his shy, poppy-addicted lover lures him to the light of love, the harder his past works to drag him back into the dark.

There’s only one way out of this tangle. Help Wes face the fears that cripple him—right after Michael finds the courage to reveal the devastating truth that binds them.

Review by Erastes

It’s not very often that I am charmed by a book almost from the first page–but this book blew a fresh wind into the rather overworked 19th century area of the m/m historical romance genre and I found myself won over and wooed.

I have to say that I took to Cullinan’s protagonist immediately. In fact I took to both of them because they were so refreshing in these days of perfect hunks of men. Granted they are both gorgeous as hell, but Lord George Albert Westin has a stammer that would make King George VI look fluent, and Michael Vallant wears glasses–without them, he’s as blind as Marilyn Monroe’s character in How to Marry a Millionaire.

These two disabilities are used with comic effect (without making light of the disabilities at all, I hasten to add) to get our two main characters into an amusing and tight situation where they get to know each other in a manner that I don’t think I’ve ever read before. In fact it’s the way that these two characters get together that was a refreshing change to read.

Both men–aside from their handicaps–are also damaged psychologically. I won’t reveal the nature of this damage as it would spoil a good deal of the plot but it creates the main part of the conflict in the book and due to both men’s inability to deal with real life in general nearly leads to their downfall.

There’s a good deal of research that’s gone into this book and it shows–but in a way that draws you in, intrigues you and makes you think “oo – I must look that up!” It’s not the kind of book that info dumps you with detail, rather, it makes the detail part of the story so you are mopping up facts about early Victorian London without realising it. I’m not sure of the exact date, but Euston Station is in existence, so it’s sometime after 1837.

There is a fair bit of weeping, and that would normally irritate me, but actually it works well here, and Ms Cullinan has worked to portray men who are at the edge of precipices they didn’t even know they were on, and it takes one small push to send them into the abyss. There’s a hugely touching scene in the Bodliean Library where Michael catches sight of himself in a glass case and metaphysically he almost disappears, because he doesn’t know who he is, and realises that he needs to “find himself” and I fully believed that he would break down at this point. It’s very realistically played. The psychology that is explored, in a time before everyone had a shrink, is well done and convincing.

I think I would have liked a little more interaction with Wes’s brother, and his nephew and even his father, because much of what we learn about the father doesn’t gel with what we actually see on the screen. But, the secondary characters are all well done, my favourite was Rodger, Michael’s procurer. Be warned, for those of you who will not read such themes that child abuse is a theme and although its never on the page and quite rightly horrific and not for titilation it is there and Samhain should drop their jokey “warnings” and put up some real ones.

I have one minor quibble, and that’s some of the language was a little modern, and there was a lot of talk of “blocks” e.g. He drove six blocks, and that kind of thing, which was a tad jarring but that’s not enough to dent the mark, because this was a pleasure to read and I hope Ms Cullinan continues to write historicals because she’s made a great debut into the genre with this one.

A lovely long read, with two protagonists thatwill have you rooting for them from the first, I highly recommend A Private Gentleman. It’s ludicrously cheap–and ebook only, and I hope that Samhain get this into print asap, because I want a forever copy.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: Solace by Scarlet Blackwell (short story)

Solace by Scarlet Blackwell

Down on his luck Victorian gentleman Dorian is looking for solace on Christmas Eve and finds it in the form of rent boy Benedict.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s Christmas Eve in late-Victorian London. Dorian was once a gentleman of means, but now he’s alone and will soon have to sell his house in Chelsea. An unrequited crush on his houseboy landed him in jail. He managed to bribe his way out of prison, but he’s been disowned by his family and abandoned by all his friends. Dorian is strolling the streets of Whitechapel, looking for company despite the risk of the Ripper, when Benedict steps forward to offer his services.

Benedict is a young male prostitute, a “Mary Ann” in the language of the time used by the author, and Dorian is quite taken with him. Despite the risk, Dorian decides to take Benedict home, rather than just getting off in some darkened doorway. Back in Chelsea, Dorian takes Benedict twice in the drawing room, and it’s obvious Benedict is not “gay for pay” to use the modern expression. He genuinely prefers the company of men, and likes nothing more than having another man deep inside him. Dorian is so enthralled he asks Benedict to stay the night, and the following Christmas Day. Benedict readily agrees and they retire to the bedroom.

In the bedroom, things get mildly kinky, with a little bondage and spanking. Dorian becomes even more enamored with the young man, finding in him the potential for the kind of love he had hoped to find with his houseboy. He also begins to see that, despite his profession, Benedict has rarely known real pleasure.

The dreaded insta-love rears its ugly head in this story, but then this is a really short novella that sets a good pace. In print it’s just around 40 pages. I’m generally not a big fan of these shorts, which are all the rage now that ebooks rule. All too often it seems like the characters are one-dimensional and the plot full of holes. But Solace is complete, with a proper beginning, middle and end, with characters that are endearing enough. It’s short, but it is what it is, which is why I’ve given it a solid 3 out of 5.

Scarlet Blackwell

Buy from Silver Publishing

Review: My True Love Gave to Me by Ava March

Alexander Norton loathes the festive season. The revelry of the ton is a reminder of Christmas four years ago, when his first love, Thomas Bennett, broke his heart and fled to New York without a word. So when he encounters Thomas at a holiday ball, Alexander is determined not to let on how much he still hurts.

Thomas has returned for one reason only: Alexander. Having finally come to terms with his forbidden desires, he will do whatever he must to convince Alexander to give their love another chance. But instead of the happy, carefree man Thomas once knew, Alexander is now hard and cynical. Saddened to know he’s to blame for the man’s bitterness, Thomas resolves to reignite the passion he knows lies hidden behind the wall of disdain…

Review by Erastes

Part of the “Men Under the Mistletoe” seasonal anthology from Carina Press.

I’ve yet to be disappointed with an Ava March novella and if you like her previous work you’ll like this every bit as much. She’s rapidly gaining a reputation–at least with this site–for writing good solid trustworthy Regencies.

The twist here is that the couple have just begun a tentative relationship whilst at university–Alexander is sure of his feelings and desires but Thomas is repressed, used to always trying to please everyone, always sure of doing the right thing in public and the sudden realisation of what he’s about to do–when the pair of them slip off for a dirty weekend breaks  his nerve and he runs away, unable to go through with it, breaking Alexander’s heart.

I have to say that I did enjoy the book, but I felt a little disappointed. Not because there’s no BDSM in this book–which is a departure from the books I’ve read by Ms March before–but the story just didn’t grab me. Perhaps it was because it was a holiday story and is written to be heart-warming. So really I found it was a bit too predictable, and not really much going on. Thomas comes back from America, determined to apologise and win Alexander back, and it doesn’t take a razor-sharp mind to realise that that is what is going to happen. I would have preferred a bit more resistence, a bit more conflict. Perhaps another plot twist to prevent the inevitable happy ending until the bitter end.

March writes sizzling sex, and this book is no exception so people coming to the book for the coming won’t be let down.  But there was quite a good deal of repetition–telling us over and over how much pain Alexander had felt until I said outloud – “Yes! We get it!”

I also wasn’t really convinced by the “True Love” aspect. The men had been together–at age 19–for a mere two terms at university and had grabbed a few occasions for kissing and cuddling so it wasn’t as if they’d had much time to fall into true love. Then later, when the acrimonious discussion begins, Alexander says:

“I had to push, to cajole, to get every kiss, every touch from you.” I believe that there was lust, but it doesn’t come over as true love.

However, despite all my minor quibbles, they are pretty minor and although this wasn’t the best of Ms March’s books for me so far, it was solid and dependable and it won’t stop me reading her for great pleasure in the future.

Ava March’s website

Buy as a separate novella (ebook only) See above for the anthology link

Review: Rag and Bone by J.S. Cook (Inspector Raft Mysteries #2)

Rag & Bone is #2 in the Inspector Raft Mystery Series.

Scotland Yard Inspector Philemon Raft arrives on the scene of a deadly fire in Whitechapel, only to find a much more sinister force at work, destroying lives with swift abandon – and a lunatic may help Raft capture the master criminal known only as “The Master.”

Review by Erastes

This is the follow up to “Willing Flesh” which we reviewed a while back. It’s taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.

What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you’ve read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone…

What I admire about J.S. Cook’s work is the sense of the grotesque–in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description.  It’s not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.

Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock’s office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet’s tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.

What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There’s too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in “The Master” and so on and so on. Raft–who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant–develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it’s just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn’t even notice.

The editing leaves something to be desired, too – misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn’t had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush,  pasted on and in the end weren’t really explained to my satisfaction. However it’s hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.

However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.

What shows clearly is Cook’s research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter–and other such home pursuits! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s almost impossible to imagine that she’s not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it’s about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly–one of the children actually says “There aren’t any more” rather than “There ain’t none.” The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.

The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren’t romances – they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn’t happen, JS Cook doesn’t let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.

You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first–if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can’t help but be impressed by Rag and Bone.

Author’s Website

Amazon UK Amazon USA (Print and ebook)

Review: One More Soldier by Marie Sexton

It is 1963. Being gay is a sin against God. And twenty-eight year old mechanic Will meets Bran for the first time.

Over the years a close bond forms between them despite the seventeen year age difference. Will teaches Bran to swim and helps him with homework. The years pass, Bran drops out of school and moves away.

Then Bran comes home. Can Will move past their age difference? And if he does, how can he keep Bran in 1970 America?

A beautifully told tale of love and loss told from the viewpoint of a deeply closeted gay man at the very beginning of the American Gay and Lesbian Rights movement

Review by Erastes

This little novella surprised me. For some reason I had the preconception that it was by an English author, one that writes Age of Sail and so in that, I’ve obviously got my Marie’s muddled (sorry to both of you) so when I encountered a bitter-sweet (be warned) love story with a rather worrying start:

I first met Bran eight years ago. He was eleven years old.

I was twenty-eight.

But this is all right, actually, because you are supposed to feel that prickle of unease, because that’s exactly what the narrator is attempting to explain. Will, the narrator, is–if not entirely closeted, damned careful about what he does and where he does it It’s 1963 and Houston there wasn’t a lot of gay liberation going on. Hookups in discreet bars, blow jobs in cars–that’s the level of his companionship and he thinks himself lucky if he gets it once a week.

When he meets Bran–the eleven year old–it’s not at ALL in a sexual manner. The young boy attaches himself to Will for a week or  two as he’s new to the area and makes a nuisance of himself, but by the time school starts, Bran finds his own friends and their paths meet as rarely as you would expect people living in the same complex might meet. Bran does odd jobs for Will from time to time, taking in the mail when he’s out of town, that kind of thing. Then, when Bran leaves school before his senior year and takes up ranching, Will doesn’t see him at all for a few years.

It’s when Bran does return, changed out of all recognition, that the trouble starts, and the slightly unsettling beginning comes into its own. Bran is handsome, bronzed, muscled and entirely unrecognisable as that skinny and irritating kid that Will taught to swim and sometimes helped with homework. Will finds himself attracted to Bran, and it’s soon clear that Bran feels the same way and won’t take “no” for an answer.

Will is uncomfortable getting close to Bran, and he does fight it (not for terribly long, it has to be said, but it’s a short book!) and he has to try and see two Brans–a kid, and a grown up. Bran emphasises that he’s eighteen now but we hit the old bump in the road with that. It’s a sop to the publishing industry of 2012, and has no relevance to what was going on in the late 196os. Bran could have been 22 and it would have been every bit as illegal, after all.

The book could–were it not for Bran himself–be swept aside with a shrug that this is like many other coming of age/first time/friends becoming lovers books. There are many tropes that you could hang onto it. But don’t write it off and don’t be put off by the age difference. What the author does is something very clever–she shows the generation gap–not just between the ages of the protagonists, but the mental attitide of the protagonists. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the crux of the story, but Bran became (impressive for such a short novella) one of those characters that get under the skin and stay with you long after you’ve started to read something new.

By using Bran in this way, the author has shown the tide of gay liberation–although only the sussurating damp edges of the waves down in Houston–but he points with enthusiasm to the world beyond, sure that “things will change” in his youthful enthusiasm. It’s what happens at the end which gives the title its double-edged poignancy.

As I say–it’s bittersweet–and were this a longer novel and written in the 70’s it probably would be a gay classic today. It would be easy for this book to be entirely overlooked and I beg that you don’t allow that to happen.  If you steel yourself for a non-romance ending I am quite sure you’ll be as impressed with this as I was. I shall snap up any further gay historicals Ms Sexton may come up with!

Author’s website

Ebook only Silver Publishing    Kindle UK     Kindle USA

Review: Bone Idol by Paige Turner

Book one in the Past Perfect Series

Love stripped down to the bare bones.

1875. The Bone Wars. Dinosaur hunters will go to any lengths to make bigger, better discoveries—and to see their rivals broken.

Henry is a man of science—precise, proper and achingly correct. When Albert arrives in his life in a storm of boyish enthusiasm, he’s torn between his loyalty to science and a new and troubling desire.

Albert wants to protect his father, and fears Henry means to ruin his reputation in the bone-hunter world. Will he be ruled by his fear, or by his feelings?

As they hunt for dinosaurs and explore their desire together, Henry and Albert find themselves digging up some secrets that could threaten their love—and their lives.

Review by Sal Davis

This is a very niely produced book with a beautiful and atmospheric cover. Posh Gosh, the cover artist, really does the story justice.

Henry Elkington is one of those well off, well educated and brilliant young men who, in the Victorian age, helped to make such strides in natural sciences. His particular interest is in palaeontology – a new science and the scene of vicious academic conflict amongst those who studied it. The story opens with Henry arriving on the rainswept Dorset coast to try and see the Reverend Arthur Boundry, a fellow enthusiast. Henry find Boundry on the beach trying to rescue a promising fossil with the aid of some local men and his son Albert. From the moment Henry sees Albert he is unusually aware of him and disturbed by the new feelings this new acquaintance arouses. Albert comes over as being an youthful, bright eyed innocent and his vast enthusiasm for his hobby, and that of Henry and his father, is very appealing. It’s also very nice that, as their relationship develops, Albert is the one who seems more at ease with his feelings and, in fact, makes quite a lot of the running.

But the story isn’t just about love amongst the fossils. It covers a lot of ground – from Dorset to London, to the fossil beds of Wyoming via ship then back to London again. Descriptions are sharp and economical but give a fine sense of place and there is a good ‘supporting cast’ of characters. There are villains and scapegoats, victims and aggressors. However, Henry and Albert manage several tender, and raunchy, moments despite a complex plot that sets them up for a sequel.

I enjoyed the story very much and will definitely look out for any sequel.

Author’s website

Published by Total-eBound (ebook)

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