Review: Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane

France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden–his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he’s never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can’t be so open with Frank–he’s attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man’s-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave–and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

ebook and audiobook- 18,000 words

Review by Erastes

Anyone who has read and likes Charlie Cochrane will be expecting quality and a sweet romance and you definitely won’t be disappointed in this book. She is consistently good and I always start one of her books with a sense of pleasure. I have to say I ended this one in that state too.

Frank is everything Tom would like to be. He sees the best in things, and can laugh even in the trenches, in the worst of conditions. To do otherwise, he tells Tom would be a road to madness. Tom is much more realistic and finds the war and the conditions next to unbearable.

Such a set-up could be a very hard read in other hands, but Cochrane deals with it well. Somehow she doesn’t lessen the impact of the horror–makes it very clear to us how badly Tom is affected by events that transpire–but it’s dealt with so wonderfully and subtly that it wouldn’t put the most ardent anti-war reader off. It takes skill to do this–a rare skill–which is why most WW1 books are  a much more harrowing read. Tom is living a life not lived; chances never taken, risks never risked and there are instances in his life which therefore he regrets for inaction. And now he’s in the middle of action of a very different sort, he can’t see beyond the end of the next minute.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story, in a way, as Tom has to solve a little but rather satisfying mystery (as the reader should twig onto the truth a long time before Tom) and when he does his life begins to change and he gets the chance to finally risk all for his future happiness.

Told in first person, Tom’s head isn’t the happiest place to be. He suffers (with a good portion of stiff upper lippiness) with a fair smear of depression although he does his duty, even when it’s unpleasant. He doesn’t particularly want to go and see Frank’s family but he does his duty even though the loss of Frank has hit him hard, so hard that only really his parents know how much it’s affected him.

It’s this repression that Cochrane manages to portray so very well. The fact that Tom and Frank had shared a trench and command for a good while but the repression of both men meant that they knew almost nothing about each other–not really–and they couldn’t trust each other enough to let each other know about their secret lives. She really gets into Tom’s mind and is utterly convincing as he unravels the tangle of Frank’s life.

As much as I enjoyed much of the Cambridge Fellows series, I prefer Cochrane’s standalone books. Her writing gets stronger as she finds her style (although she’s just as capable of contemporary, fantasy and historical) and gains strength and confidence in her writing. This is–to my mind–one of the most mature pieces she’s produced, and is romantic enough for those who seek it but thought provoking enough for those who want a more gritty read.

Author’s Website

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Review: The Pretty Gentleman by Max Fincher

Erotic sketches, a blackmail letter, a closeted aristocrat, his ambitious lover, and a sacrificial murder. Love, betrayal, deception and vengeance in Regency’s London’s art world.

George Rowlands, an aspiring young painter and apprentice to his father in the Haymarket theatre, meets Sir Henry Wallace while drawing the river at Richmond. Wallace invites George to his home in St. James’s square to draw his collection of sculpture and his good-looking valet Gregorio Franchese. Securing him a place to study painting at the Royal Academy of Arts under the eccentric Gothic painter, Henry Fuseli, George meets the mysterious John McCarther who befriends him. Meanwhile, Lady Arabella Wallace records in her diary her suspicions about her husband’s night-time absences and his ‘enthusiasm’ for his new protégé. George discovers his every move with Wallace is being watched after Wallace confesses his love for him.

ebook – 306 pages

Review by Erastes

I’ve been musing a while as to whether I should still be reviewing self-published books on this blog, and the editing–I’m sorry to say–on this book has pushed me so close to the edge of deciding, it’s only going to take one more like this to get me to fall off the fence one way or the other. From the huge list of helpers, encouragers and friends that the author lists in his acknowledgements, you’d think SOMEONE might have pointed out that he has a comma abuse problem. As well as subject confusion, and many other issues such as random tense changes, homonym mistakes and typos.

Sidebar: Self Published authors. I’m sick of this. Don’t go skipping towards self-publishing with the attitude that by not having to give most of your royalties to your publisher you can coin it. Think rather that you should be paying a fucking editor the money your publisher would have. Because? If you skip this, cut corners and think gleefully at the money you’ve “saved” you’ll produce a shoddy product which no one will bloody BUY. Rather defeats the object. I apologise for losing my temper, but this book really tipped me over the edge, and when you review books and you read so many self-published books which clearly are not ready for publication, and there’s so many authors doing good work, it makes me mad.

That all being said, there is something to like in this book. If it had not had that kernel of promise I would have either not reviewed it at all, or dismissed it with a half of one star for putting words in a line–kind of the equivalent of putting one’s name at the top of an exam paper, but there is talent here, there is a knack for description and the ability to communicate a time and place. It’s just a shame that the shoddy workmanship drags it down.

The other main problem is the pacing; putting aside all other issues, if this had been the type of polished self-publication–as say, The Painting was–I would still have problems with the execution. It’s possibly the most realistic Regency set book I’ve read, the research has been done mostly impeccably and you really feel that–with the descriptions of the grit and grime of the streets and the dark, candlelit rooms that you are in a time before gas lighting and electricity. But the first half of the book is so painfully slow and laboured if I hadn’t been reviewing it I would have given up, and I almost never feel that way. There’s just nothing much going on–George meets Wallace by chance whilst out painting the landscape and so slowly you can almost see the glaciers growing faster they move to a position of artist and patron while George falls in love with Wallace. Apart from one instance where George follows Wallace in stalkery fashion to Vere Street and another time he sees someone he thinks is following him, for over 50 percent of the book nothing much else happens. Oh, there’s attendance at art school, and the occasional party, and endless pages of George painting and sketching–all interspersed with the increasingly paranoid journal entries of Wallace’s wife, but there’s no real sense of foreboding or even burgeoning love on either side. George tells us he’s (probably, how can he tell?) in love with Wallace on numerous occasions, but he doesn’t really give any reason for that, nor is the reader given any. Wallace, for me, was a thoroughly objectionable, spoilt brat who wants everything his own way, and everyone to agree with his own opinions. He’s not even depicted as being entirely mesmerising which would explain why George falls so completely under his spell.

As I said, there’s a lot of historical detail in the book, most of which is accurate as far as I could tell–I wasn’t knocked out by modern language or attitudes. But many of the touches which the author obviously wanted to put in so we can tell he did the research were a bit superfluous and I was often thinking – “yeah, ok, nice scene, good description, but what’s the point of it in the plot?” I also rolled my eyes at George being paid £200 for his very first portrait and then wondering how he was going to live – the minimum conversion of that sum of money is well over £11k so it’s unlikely he’d have had any money problems for a good long while.

The major conflict, when it happens is not unexpected, but is actually well-handled. Wallace proves himself to be the git I took him to be all along which was gratifying, at least. I think what the author was aiming for was a gradual escalation of the plotline as after the middle of the book things start to kick off, but the beginning needs to have some acceleration rather than pages of walking around painting and or looking at things.

So, I’m torn about the book. On one hand it’s well done to the extent of the feel and the paranoia and the atmosphere of the times, but the painfully slow pacing would make it a do not finish for many. I would probably recommend it as a read if you can get past the pacing – AND if you are prepared to put up with the legion of grammatical errors throughout. I would advise the author to get it very carefully proofed by someone who knows how to punctuate, at the very least. A neatly edited version of this would have earned a 3.5 but as it is–specially the conversion from PDF to Kindle where all the double Ts were entirely missing–I can’t give it more than a 2.5

Author’s Website

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Review: Lord of Endersley by S.A. Meade

Will the passion ignited during a violent uprising survive the rigid confines of Victorian society?

Jacob Endersley is glad to escape the confines of his family home for the exotic and dangerous beauty of India during the glory days of the Raj.

Marcus Billington, an Army officer, is tired of the stifling social mores of life in a British enclave. When the Sepoy Uprising of 1857 leads to chaos and bloodshed, the two men seek the safety of Agra and find refuge in each other.

Once the rebellion is quashed, Jacob returns to England while Marcus remains in India. They have no hope of a future together until Jacob learns that Marcus has returned to England. When they meet again, Marcus makes it clear there can be nothing between them and Jacob returns to Endersley resigned to a solitary life until Marcus arrives out of the blue and then everything changes.

ebook and paperback – 161 pages

Review by Erastes

Now here’s something rare – I might even say unique! A gay historical romance set during the Indian Mutiny, a period that fascinates me and evokes the mysterious, the strange and the exotic. Jacob is the eponymous Lord of Endersley who has come to India to sort out a cousin’s finances and meets up with Captain Marcus Billington and sparks fly almost from the first.

I have to say that I was impressed with S.A. Meade’s writing. It’s nicely descriptive without being over the top, and with the exception of a couple of repeated sentences that a good editor should have winnowed out, she manages to place the reader in the stifling, lung drowning heat of India. The weather is almost a third character because everything one does in India is pretty much done in tandem with the weather. It’s excellent the way Meade notes small details such as the women struggling to deal with “roughing it” after the rebellion starts–struggling with their dresses for a start–without making such small details interfere with the flow of the story.

The romance trundles along nicely–I loved the way that they weren’t able to leap into bed together and have night after night of passionate sex, that the social structure of the time made this almost impossible and that it was clear that they had to be careful and circumspect all of the time. The couple of times they did get together were cleverly managed and quite believable. The one thing I didn’t really understand though was why they didn’t get more than one opportunity to use the little shack they used just the once. The ubiquitous handy vial of oil is really beginning to bug me, the more of these I read.

The one thing I would have liked more of was the rebellion itself, and the reasons for it, as there’s no explanation of it and the reader would come away from the book no wiser than when they started. I don’t believe that fiction books should be history tomes, but I do think they should reflect the situation. Englishmen and women talked a lot about the natives and there could easily have been club talk and gossip as to what was happening in the wider scheme of things. Sadly there’s not, and Jacob simply does guard duty. The infuriating thing is that when he leaves the fort after the rebellion has been put down, we get this sentence:

It seemed an anticlimactic moment after months of near starvation, close calls, death and privations.

And I agreed with him entirely, because we’d seen nothing of all this, and whilst I don’t think a blow by blow account of daily life at the siege of Agra would have been suitable for a romance–although there are books that get away with it– I would have liked to have seen something of this. Nothing is mentioned of the magnificent Agra fort either–other than one of the small pavilions along the walls, it surprised me that Jacob never gave any description of the wonderful interiors instead of moping around in the heat.

Only fifty percent of the book takes place in India; the rest plays out in England where again, the weather and the descriptions really anchor the reader in the sense of time and place. It’s a gasp of fresh air after the suffocating warmth of India and I laughed at Jacob already complaining about the chill when he’d spent all that time longing to be home in a cooler climate.

The dance between the two of them once they got back to Blighty became a little tedious for me, and it sadly was a case of rinse and repeat once back in England, including the hurt/comfort aspect. It was all “no no, we mustn’t” “but why not?” “no no, I must go” and so on and so on. It’s a convenient conflict, but it’s not terribly interesting reading. In fact I found much of the British section really boring, most particularly the chess match the two men have which is described for pages and pages and pages and I simply couldn’t see the point of it, as there wasn’t any sub-text dialogue going on at the same time, which you’d expect there would be.

The historical feel is quite well done, but it did tend to dip into a 20th/21st century vibe from time to time, particularly when the two men were “talking it out” some of the phrases were quite anachronistic and modern in feel

I am guessing–as this is the first part in a series–that the title of The Endersley Papers will become clear, and I have to say that as a personal niggle the title “Lord of Endersley” does nothing to evoke any interest in this book. Neither the title nor the cover give any hint of the exciting backdrop of the Mutiny and that’s a shame because I’m sure more people would try it if that was made a tad clearer.

Overall I enjoyed reading this, and I gobbled it up wholesale which is a good sign believe you me! I think that anyone who’s looking for a well-written romance will love this. I look forward to the next parts.

Author’s Blog

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Review: The Actor and the Earl by Rebecca Cohen

Elizabethan actor Sebastian Hewel takes his bow at the proscenium only to embark on the role of a lifetime. When his twin sister, Bronwyn, reneges on the arrangement to marry Earl Anthony Crofton, Sebastian reluctantly takes her place. At nineteen, Sebastian knows his days as a leading lady are numbered, but with this last performance, he hopes to restore his family’s name and pay off his late father’s debts. Never mind the danger of losing his head should he be discovered. 

He didn’t expect Anthony to be so charming and alluring—not to mention shrewd. While he applauds Sebastian’s plan, Anthony offers a mutually beneficial arrangement instead. Sebastian will need every drop of talent he has to survive with both his head and his heart intact, because this is the best part he’s ever had

ebook and paperback – 216 pages

Review by Erastes

This is a plot done before, and to be honest, done better–in Madcap Masquerade by Penelope Roth–but that’s not to say it’s not worth a read.

It’s set in an era that isn’t covered enough in gay historicals–Elizabethan England and although, as the title explains, one of the protagonists is an actor it’s not set solely in a theatre. Shakespeare does get a mention here and there, though–is there anyone living in London at this time who didn’t know him!?

Overall, it’s nicely readable, and the plot canters on engagingly, but there is a major error that runs throughout which made me grind my teeth and will do for others I suspect. Let me just get that out of the way first. An Earl is usually “an earl of somewhere” e.g. the Earl of Pembroke OR simply as a prefix e.g. Earl Waldgrave. They are NOT addressed as “Earl Crofton” but as “Lord Crofton” as is the case here.

That aside, the book makes a good attempt to get a flavour of the time without an overabundance of detail. The food is mostly convincing–there are good descriptions of feasts where the meat goes on forever and there’s nary a fork in attendance–and the clothes are nicely illustrated: the gaudy doublet and hose of the men and the uncomfortable and restrictive clothes of the women. There was one scene where Sebastian put on his own corset which I found a little unlikely, but in the main it’s well done. The author even manages to tip a nod to the make-up of the day–white lead paint for the face–by having Lord Crofton (Anthony) forbid Sebastian to wear it when not at court.

The way the deception was managed–having Sebastian “visit” in his male persona while Lady Crofton was in bed with a mysterious illness was a bit unlikely. Despite having a couple of staff in on the truth it was rather unbelievable that a country house with dozens of staff would not sniff out what was really happening. There’s one section where Sebastian (as a male) goes over to visit neighbours and has a serious fall, and no mention of contacting his sister is made, let alone how that sister’s illness is continued when Sebastian isn’t on the premises. I mean, there’s no flushing toilets, so someone would notice at the very least, the lack of chamber pots.

There’s a fair smattering of OKHomo throughout, however. Everyone who is in on the secret from the beginning is all right with it, and the people who discover it as the book progresses are also perfectly fine, and are more concerned for the couple’s safety than the horror of what they are doing, as was the tone of the day. In fact everyone in the book–with the exception of Sebastian’s sister–is thoroughly Nice and all the conflict, which could easily come from external sources in this time and place, is managed by jealousy.

And that’s its major failing, really because I was never really convinced of the couple’s devotion to each other. That’s possibly because of the fact that the point of view is only from Sebastian’s side, so we never see Anthony’s feelings–although that’s part of the plot, too. But I didn’t understand WHY Sebastian fell in love with Anthony; I could see why Anthony fell for Sebastian as he’s quite doormatty until he finally has enough, but Anthony–other than being sexy and seductive–isn’t particularly nice until he realises that he might lose Sebastian for good.

So, all in all, a decent enough read and if you like the era you’ll probably appreciate it, but not a keeper for me. The sequel will be out later this year.

Author’s Blog

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Review: Life Begins at 40 by Jessie Blackwood

After months of physiotherapy, Group Captain Jack Ratigan has regained some of the mobility lost in plane crash at the end of World War II. But six years later, he still requires the care of his cousin’s butler, Ifan—who is also Jack’s secret lover. In an era when homosexuality is an imprisonable offence, they have to maintain the utmost discretion or risk prosecution.

Insecurities, outside attacks, and misunderstandings are close to tearing Jack and Ifan apart: Jack’s impending middle age, an act of violence in their house, a letter threatening the close-knit community Jack now calls home—and the detective inspector from another jurisdiction investigating a similar unsolved case. The threat of exposure is growing, and for their love to survive, Jack and Ifan must determine who their true friends are—and if they are strongest together or apart.

ebook only 112 pages

Review by Erastes

OK. I had to work hard with this book and I took the effort because it’s pretty well written and it’s clear the author has talent. But there’s a but coming, you can tell, can’t you?

But.

It’s Torchwood fanfiction and it’s another one of those annoyingly done ones which have taken the merest cursory swipe of the cleaning rag to remove any serial numbers and frankly might as well not have bothered because anyone who has watched the programme and has any knowledge of the characters is going to spot it. Perhaps the place the author should have started was by not having her main protagonist be Captain Jack–an Englishman who was raised in America (hence the American accent) who flew in the RAF and (sigh) has a Welsh lover.

In fact this is the sequel to “Per Ardua” which Speak Its Name reviewed in 2010.

When you get this level of blatant non-conversion (despite it being set in the late 1940′s/early 50′s) it’s (for me, as least) almost impossible to enjoy the book as a book for itself as the characters from the canon keep leaping in and you are saying “oh, here’s Gwen, (Bronwen) here’s Rees  (Hugh) and so on and so on. I was constantly on edge waiting for the Japanese character to make an entrance. The author–who is possibly too close to it, and obviously extremely fond of the characters–probably thinks that this is merely an homage, and the little references (like to TW’s Captain Jack’s greatcoat) are such fun but it’s an extreme irritant when you know what’s being ripped off.

You might say that this shouldn’t be part of a review and I disagree. I don’t see how the author can think she’s fooled anyone by this veneer of changing the fandom. Just because it takes place in a different time from Torchwood doesn’t make it any less recognisable, and if I was the Torchwood creators and had spotted this, I think I would have issued letters to the publisher.  The trouble is that Dreamspinner have published near-to-the-knuckle fanfic, and outright plagiarism before and although in the latter case they nipped the book in the bud, I would have thought they would be very very careful choosing projects since then. The disclaimer clearly says: “Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously…” which in the case of character, clearly isn’t true.

THAT  BEING SAID, I can’t decry the book for entertainment value. I liked the story. I mean I already liked the characters, so that was a given. Blackwood makes Jack a little more vulnerable in that he’s had a major crash in his aeroplane before the story starts and it’s taken him months to get back on his feet and he’s only just managed that. There’s some nice tension introduced with poison pen letters, bringing their relationship into jeopardy and the relationship stretches almost to breaking point because of it and Jack’s infirmity.

I have to say I did chuckle a bit when Ifan (sigh) who is the Ianto character goes around declaiming that they hadn’t been at ALL indiscreet either inside or outside the house when two minutes later he’s calling Jack “cariad” in an open part of the house where anyone could have walked in. Not to mention having blazing arguments in their bedroom as well as loads of hot monkey sex. Not terribly discreet at all, old boy, to be honest.

I was rather confused too, when the poison pen person was revealed. The general trope for this kind of thing is to have it revealed at the end after we’ve met all the characters and for it to be someone we’ve met, whether we suspect them or not. However it was all cleared up in a short action sequence, and I was left scratching my head because I didn’t care or know who it was.

The reviewer of the previous book in the series had similar issues – that of the war taking a sideline to the relationship, and for me this shoehorning a plot, which had great promise, into the book only to tear it away and concentrate more on birthday parties and birthday presents left me feeling short-changed. But then this is basically romance fanfic for Torchwood fans, and isn’t about the plot, it’s more about how next to get Jack and Ifan into a schmoopy situation with their arms around each other.

As a continuing romance it works well and read simply as that I enjoyed the story as it was, it was just a little light when it could have had more punch. There’s a fair amount of repetition particularly at the beginning of the story where we are told about ten times that Ifan is Jack’s companion, Bronwen’s butler and goodness knows what which irritated me and some of the back story is lengthy and unnecessary as some of it was dealt with later on in dialogue and frankly could all have been dispatched thusly.

I will leave it, as usual, for the reader to decide whether to buy this book or not. Personally I wouldn’t want to make money on someone else’s characters–and I’d be scared to while they are very firmly still in copyright. It’s a good enough story, and that’s why I can’t understand why someone who writes as well as Miss Blackwood does can’t create her own world and characters and have them live it out, rather than those already belonging to Russell T Davis.

Author’s website

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Review: Brook Street: Rogues by Ava March

London, 1822

Two of London’s most notorious rakehells, Linus Radcliffe and Robert Anderson, are the best of friends. They share almost everything–clothes, servants, their homes, and even each other’s bed on occasion. The one thing they don’t share: lovers. For while Linus prefers men, Robert prefers women…except when it comes to Linus.

As another Season nears its end, Robert can’t ignore his growing jealousy. He hates watching Linus disappear from balls to dally with other men. Women are lovely, but Linus rouses feelings he’s never felt with another. Unwilling to share his gorgeous friend another night, Robert has a proposition for Linus.

A proposition Linus flatly refuses–but not for the reasons Robert thinks. Still, Robert won’t take no for an answer. He sets out to prove a thing or two to his best friend–yet will learn something about the heart himself.

ebook only: 28,000 words

Review by Erastes

As my reviews have shown in the past, I’ve enjoyed Ava March  very much – she’s come to me to represent for me the “woman who specialises in gay regencies” but perhaps it’s time she took a holiday and tried another time era, because with this and the last one (Brook Street Thief) I feel that somewhere she’s lost the spark that made me find her so enjoyable. I’m hoping it’s a minor glitch, and perhaps it’s because she rattled out these three books (Thief, Fortune Hunter, Rogues) too quickly to develop, but her previous books had much more depth and distinct personalities and these three, particularly this one seems rather homogenised. In fact, once I’d started the review I had to reopen the book to re-read as I went because the protagonists are quite forgettable and I couldn’t remember what had happened from my reading it a week before.

However, perhaps I’ve missed the irony of the titles, but the protagonists in “Thief” wasn’t a thief and these guys weren’t exactly rogues. Rakes, yes, sleeping around like billio, wham bam thank you ma’am (and Sam) but that’s not how I’d term rogue in a Regency. I was expecting, I have to admit, highwaymen or generally Bad Eggs. But they are gentlemanly gentlemen, rakes, yes, both in love with each other and too daft to admit it. Not my idea of rogues, to be honest.

And that’s the crux of the plot, really. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a perfectly acceptable trope, but with March I’d become used to expecting a little more, and she has done that particular trope herself before.

There’s none of March’s previous trademark BDSM in this, perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, so if you are expecting that, it’s not there.March’s writing is good, there’s no doubt about that, and she’s easy to read while still keeping a good flavour of the historical. She doesn’t do Ken-doll historicals where modern men strut their stuff on the Regency stage. She’s a safe pair of hands in Regency England, the balls (you know what I mean) are well described, the dialogue is close enough to be realistic without boring the reader by being too flowery, and the details here are there are enough to anchor the reader in time.

But…this didn’t do it for me. I couldn’t care less what happened with the protagonists and it was obvious to me what would happen. Perhaps it’s because March did these books as a series and did them too quickly, or perhaps her real heart is more with her BDSM stuff, I don’t know. Out of the 3 of the books in the series, I’d rate “Thief” as the best and perhaps this one as the weakest. That’s not to say it’s not a decent read and probably will be enjoyed by a good many people, but I was disappointed.

As an aside to Carina Press, I wish they would put their “coming soon” blurb at the back of the book, because I for one hate having to skip through seven or eight pages to find the beginning of the story, and of course, in no time at all the newsletter is out of date anyway, as this refers to the month of May and I read this in August. In a year or so, that would be even sillier.

Author’s website

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Review: Virgin Airmen by Michael Gouda

After a short hiatus we are back and I’m kicking off with a short story set during the early 50′s in England.

It’s a bitterly cold Saturday evening when Michael Duggan, RAF aircraftsman second class, meets Jim Ross on a train station platform. Together they experience life in the forces—including a near-miss with death when their bombing range is destroyed by American “friendly fire.” After being split up by the subsequent disbanding of their unit, they are reunited just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II—and decide to have a celebration of their own.

Ebook only – 40 pages

Review by Erastes

There’s one short review on the Dreamspinner site; it’s only a sentence, but I have to agree with every word. This little story has a lot of potential, but at $2.99 it’s a bit of a rip off.

This little story is set during the first wave of National Service in England which started up just after the war, and really there’s not much to say about it, being so short, as the blurb has pretty well outlined the plot, for what there is of it.

However, I did thoroughly enjoy what there is of it; I’m assuming, from the author’s bio (he was in the RAF and lost his virginity there) that it’s mostly autobiographical and that was interesting. There’s a real wealth of day-to-day detail which I liked a lot; descriptions of barracks, and the mindset of the National Service airman–amusingly taking time to fold their uniforms carefully over a chair (because they know all about uniform inspections) and the larking around (a way for mostly hetero men to get touched while hiding it under a silly game) that went on. The relationship described is pretty simple – as the blurb says, they meet up on their first day at camp and get to know each other but don’t consummate the deal until much later–but it’s nicely described. The men get on with their work and aren’t mooning around over each other or getting burgeoning hardons at any opportunity.

But while there is a real core to this short story, it doesn’t satisfy–and frustrated me–because there’s so much potential here and the author clearly has a wonderful insight into the National Service of this era and such descriptive flair to pull the reader in, really tight, made me care about the characters but then ultimately to end it all very abruptly, too abruptly even for a short story. The author may think that he’s written simply a story which needs to culminate in the main characters having sex but there’s too much else he’s explored for this ever to be considered “just an erotic short story.” The voice is excellent, and there’s humour and danger and companionship, which is a tough job for a story this length.

And yes, as for the price, I know that the author has no say in that, but Dreamspinner, you should be ashamed of yourself. The general price for short stories is $0.99 and this really doesn’t merit the $2.99 price tag. I was kindly given the book by the publisher for review, but at that price, for this length, I wouldn’t have bought it–and that’s a shame because I would have not discovered a writer with talent.

I shall certainly seek out more of Mr Gouda’s work, and I hope he does this short story justice one day and expand it into the novel that it really longs to be. I was torn between giving this a 3½ and a 4 star rating, and I’ve gone for the 4, because the problems with pacing and pricing can’t overcome the really rather nice writing.

No author’s website that I could find.

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Review: Lost and Won by Sarah Ann Watts

‘There was a battle and you lost.’ Philip prayed never to see Francis again. Now the man who stole his heart is his prisoner, staking his life on Philip’s honour. All Philip has to do is let him go.

 1651: the Battle of Worcester is lost and won. Charles Stuart is a fugitive with a price on his head and Cromwell has the ‘crowning mercy’ of victory. Philip, a sober, respectable young man, fought bravely for the parliamentary cause and is looking forward to peace at his own hearth.

Francis, his lover and childhood friend, returns to make peace with his dying father and to give back Philip’s heart.

Soon Philip finds himself reluctantly sheltering a royalist spy and protecting the witch in his family.

Philip’s duty is clear and Francis staked his life on his honour. All he has to do is let Francis go. But how can Francis ask Philip to deliver him to justice?

Novella (79 pages, 16k words) ebook only

Review by Erastes

As far as I can ascertain, this is the author’s second offering (the first being a short story) but this is her debut book – and what a debut it is. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it’s verging on the literary side of romance but that fact merely underlines–in my opinion–this author’s talent. My mental ears were pricked when I noticed that it had been edited by Joanne Soper-Cook who is a major literary talent herself, and so I had good expectations going in and boy, I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a very simple tale, of a Roundhead (Philip) returning from the war and encountering a lost love, (Francis) who is — of course — a Cavalier, how they interact when they meet and Philip’s thought processes throughout. Does he protect himself and hand Francis (who’s a very wanted man) over to the militia? Should Francis break his allegiance to the new King, now hiding in France and stay with Philip?

The story–although quite a small novella of 16K words–manages to convey a great deal, not just of what is going on right now, but hints at such a wealth of back-story that I admit to–once again–wishing that the author had written the whole book, not just what really amounts to a longish short story about one part of these men’s lives, because this could easily fill a novel and more.

The atmosphere and the scene setting are blooming marvellous, and you can tell from the prose–and from the author’s blogspot–that they’ve put in a hell of a lot of research because the details are rapier sharp. From the description of ragged lace, to the weather and the interior of the houses–we are very firmly in 17th century England, and not here via Hollywood either. Next to Maria McAnn, I’ve not read anything in this era that evokes the sense of interior darkness and the constant paranoia that anyone would have had who had any brush with the two sides at this time in English history.

For those of you who buy a book with an eye to the sex, you’ll be disappointed, because it’s sparse and vague – but if you don’t get this because of that, you’ll be missing out. As the blurb suggests, there’s a mere hint of a paranormal element, but it is cleverly done, and given the times it could be entirely subjective rather than “a real witch” so I’ve chosen to ignore it.

There are some portions of the book which, due to the fractured dialogue (which makes it realistic, if somewhat tricky to read) and allusions to things the reader knew no wot of, that at times made it confusing. However, I am quite sure that on a second read it would iron itself out, and that each subsequent read would probably reveal more and more to a reader which is something I love about books like this. I’m sorry to say that due to time constraints, I have only read this once so far, but it’s a keeper and I’ll be reading it again very soon. Watch out for this author, I think she’s going to be good.

Author’s Blogspot

Buy at: Silver PublishingAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Lord and Master by H.C. Brown

Lord Reynold Wilton, fearing exposure after a public argument with his sex slave, Lord David Litchfield, leaves England for the Americas. On his return, he finds his delicious man in the hands of a brutal sadist. In a time when homosexuality is a hanging offense, Reynold must use every trick in the book to regain the possession and trust of his young lover.

Approx 150 pages – ebook only

Review by Erastes

I’m not a great fan of BDSM, and that’s partly because it does seem to be almost mandatory in gay Regencies these days, and partly because so many don’t know, care, or are bothered to know about BDSM, the way it works. Happily, though, HC Brown either knows the genre, or has researched it enough to convince. My heart sank with the first lines, which jumps straight into a caning scene, but it’s soon clear that this is pain and punishment being meted out in a way that’s beneficial (if that’s the right word!) and consensual to both parties.

Lord David has been abandoned by his Master because of his possessive behaviour, and has been left alone in London. Another Master has taken him on, bound him with his debts and claims a ten year contract with him. Sadly, this Master is a man given only to his own violent pleasure with no consideration for his sub, and worse, he’s sharing him with his equally violent friends. The plot revolves around how Lord Reynold saves David from the brutal Lord Hale.

Although I enjoyed the story, I found that I couldn’t engage with anyone except the wet-lettuce Lord David. I didn’t really understand why the man stayed with an abusive sexual partner, but then I have about as much submissive in my soul as a rock. If he broke his contract–Hale could hardly come out and “out” David to the police, without incriminating himself. He had no fortune, being a 3rd son, so if he was disinherited it would hardly make much difference.

But it was Lord Reynold I didn’t like the most–closely followed by his good chum Lord John.

Reynold staggered me. He purports to be in love with David (who for some reason he continues to think of as an innocent) and when he rescues David the first time, David is traumatised, broken and clearly says he doesn’t want any contact–and what does Reynold do?  He says “I don’t want to fuck you, I just want to love you” and proceeds to suck off, masturbate and satisfy himself on David’s inert body. Then when David reiterates his wishes, saying he’s lost all trust in any master, all Reynold can do is whine that David has rejected his “love.” It didn’t endear me to him at all. David asks for their relationship to be exclusive, and that he needs to trust Reynold once again, and the first thing Reynold does is to shag Lord John and tell David.

Then there’s the attitude to women. Granted, I know that women were not exactly equals in the 18th century, but I don’t like every character in the book, including fathers and prospective husbands treating them and speaking of them as though they were rubbish. Both Reynold and John go through a lengthy and rather unnecessarily detailed “courtship” of two ruined socialites who they intend to marry and raise their by-blows as their own. Women are universally referred to as “chits” which really applies more to children, but overall there is no respect shown for women which put me off the main characters greatly.

What’s really wrong with this book, though, is the editing-which is just appalling. I’m surprised because Noble Romance usually produce more tightly edited books. The amount of errors left in the book are quite inexcusable for a publisher of the size of Noble. Homonyms misused (discreet/discrete for one), misspellings throughout (The Tattler, Blackfrier’s Bridge) and comma abuse which had to be bad, because even I noticed it. There’s a Duke who changes into a Baron and then back to a Duke in one short scene, and constant references to “sadists” which of course was impossible for at least another hundred years. It’s a shame because it kept pulling me out of what was generally a quite engaging book.

The descriptive passages are well done, however, and the dialogue, in the main, tries hard to be Not Modern and succeeds pretty nicely. The sex scenes are well-written and intense, and although they didn’t float my boat, I’m sure people who enjoy flogging and restraint and all that will enjoy them. I could have done with less of the rape scenes, to be honest, however lightly they were described, they were described. As I said at the top, Brown seems to know about–and indeed, according to her website, specialises in–BDSM erotic romance so as far as I can tell she gets the mindset right. However, it was an enjoyable read, despite my issues with it. A better edit would probably have upped the mark by a half point, though.

Author’s website

Buy at Noble RomanceAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Brook Street: Fortune Hunter by Ava March


London, 1822

Impoverished Julian Parker returns to London with one goal: marry an heiress. He’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means denying his desire for men. After all, with a fortune comes happiness and social acceptance–which have eluded Julian his entire life.

The only things a vast fortune has brought Oscar Woodhaven are greedy relatives and loneliness. At twenty-one years of age, he has everything a man could possibly want–except someone to love him. When he meets devastatingly handsome Julian Parker, he believes his luck has turned.

Between Oscar’s lavish gifts and their searing-hot nights, Julian is caught between what he thinks he needs and what his heart truly desires. But when a betrayal threatens to tear them apart, Julian discovers he’ll do whatever it takes to convince Oscar the greatest fortune of all is love.

Ebook only-44,000 words

Review by Molly Hart

Review in a nutshell: “You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea” (Earl Nightingale).

I’ve read Ava March’s stories in the past and enjoyed them. She’s well-known for her historicals that pair hot sex with fluid, extremely readable writing, and so far hasn’t disappointed me when I was looking exactly for that mix of sex and readability.

Fortune Hunter is a bit of a different animal (though March is very good when she gets naughty). This was the first time I was actively bored by the story and struggled against a great deal of resistance to pick it up again after reading about thirty pages—not a good sign, despite this historical romance being relatively short at 44,000 words.

The story is set in 1822 in London, amidst Regency high society. Enter the characters. The first one is Julian Parker, impoverished and from the wrong branch of the right family, he is looking for a rich heiress to marry despite being gay. The second is Oscar Woodhaven, rich but unhappy and lonely (and generous to the point of naïveté). After having been introduced at one of the big society dos, Julian moves in with Oscar, who showers him with attention, favours and gifts of a new wardrobe and a gold watch with diamonds and a meaningful engraving.

I found the introduction confusing; there were a great many people and as a reader I was given no chance to care for one of them. Nobody seemed particularly motivated to do anything, and the characters’ attitudes were bland and a bit boring. The only source of interest was Julian’s nervousness about fitting in, but that’s only entertaining for so long. The characters sounded too much the same to help with distinguishing them, so I ended up confusing them (and the minor characters) at the start, which didn’t help.

Once Julian and Oscar are indoors, the focus shifts to “will then, won’t they”, or at least to “when will they”? While March does a good job of evoking Regency characters, sentences like “You are more than welcome to fuck me until I can barely walk tomorrow” sound like spoken/thought by very modern men, and the modern thoughts and sex dialogue sits oddly with the overall Regency setting, which becomes wallpaper-thin at this point.

That brings me to another issue I had with the book. The characters stay indoors most of the time and the wider Regency world feels claustrophobic and inconsequential. People only care about gambling and the marriage market, which is about as dull as it sounds. The romance starts off well with very little doubt or tension, and both lovers are perfect specimens, despite one or two hang-ups that are woefully underplayed. In the end, I didn’t care about either of them and wasn’t invested in them finding each other or happiness.

At about 50% in, I was ready to simply scroll through to get it over with, but just before the temptation became too strong, things began to happen in the story, wrenching my interest right back into the novella. Julian makes a mistake; he has to choose between his lover and his social aspirations. Suddenly, the wheels are spinning, characters are affected by what they are doing, and they are on a learning curve, which meant I finished the book and was even decently entertained in the second half.

After the lovers break up, both realize they have to grow up. Julian attempts to better himself by honest labour rather than by marriage, and Oscar learns to be less trusting and naïve. This could have been great, but it’s told rather cursorily as a summary, whereas I would have enjoyed watching the characters grow and develop, so I felt cheated out of seeing them become better versions of themselves. They meet again, they talk about what went wrong, and the reader does believe that they’ll fit much better together now. Happy ending.

Rating this was a challenge. I was leaning towards a 2.5 but felt guilty for giving Ava March anything under a 3, but I also think that readers getting bored is a valid reason for dissatisfaction. Thankfully, the turnaround in the second half meant that it was a decent read overall, which I rate at 3, but not riveting (a 4) or outstanding/memorable (a 5) for this reader. I won’t be reading the other parts in this series.

Author’s website

Buy at CarinaAmazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Christmas Wishes by JP Bowie

York 1922

Christopher Fielding has no choice but to spend Christmas with his family in York, away from William MacPherson, the biology professor with whom he has fallen in love. Finding his sister Nan in some distress over her pregnancy, Christopher makes a wish that all will be well with her and the baby, and another that William, traveling by train to his family in Scotland will be safe from the blizzard raging over the countryside.

As Christmas Eve approaches, William’s train is stranded in snow drifts and Nan’s baby is about to arrive prematurely. Cut off by the weather from a doctor’s help, the family is in despair, and Christopher feels that his wishes may not be enough. Perhaps what they now need is nothing short of a miracle.

(60 pages, ebook only, MLR Press)

Review by Erastes

This is a winter’s tale, a Christmas themed book (obviously) and as so is warm as mulled wine and full of Christmas cheer with a guaranteed schmoopy ending.

The plot is relatively simple, hard to be otherwise in sixty pages, but it does manage to pack a lot into those pages, some conflict, two red-hot sex scenes at least, a dedicated love affair and a lot of individual characters.

My problem was that it clearly states that it’s set in 1922 but the prose and dialogue smacks all too heavily of an earlier era. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Victorian setting. This more antiquated feel could be explained by Christopher being a college man, but everyone talks like it, and considering this is the Jazz Age (even in England) and the time of the Bright Young Things it seems odd.

This illustrates it well, I think.

“What would you like to hear, Mama?”

“Something sacred perhaps, Silent Night?”

“Oh, something more cheerful,” Horace exclaimed. “Deck the Halls or something.”

“I shall play them both–and Horace I expect to hear lots of fa-la-la-la-las from you in particular. Charlotte can assist you.”

“Splendid!” Charles Fielding, their father, rose to his feet. “Let’s all gather around the pianoforte and have a sing-along. It’s almost Christmas after all.”

There’s no mention of World War One either, which is disconcerting. Christopher is 27, so he should have served, and his elder brother is 30. Yes, it’s only sixty pages, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the country had been ravaged by the loss of a generation, together with the ravaging of influenza so these things needs to have some nod given to them, even if it’s only to mention how lucky they all were to have made it with no casualties. I don’t expect there to be shellshocked ex-soldiers on every page, but some mention would have been more realistic and stopped it sounding like an Alternative Universe.

The love story was nicely told, and as I said, the erotica is hot. All in all it’s a decent little story and I think many people would enjoy it. You may not fancy reading about the snow and cold in June (unless you are from the antipodes) but I recommend you buy it anyway, tuck it away and pull it out of your stocking next Christmas.

Author’s Website

Buy at MLR Press

Review: Protection by S.A. Reid

When Gabriel MacKenna enters Wentworth Prison in 1931, he promises himself two things: never to be buggered and never to turn prison queer. Tough, smart, and ruthless in a fight, he quickly makes a name for himself inside. But Gabriel is serving two life sentences. And life is a very long time. Enter Joey Cooper. Trained at Oxford as a physician, the young doctor is innocent of prison culture and too handsome for his own good. Joey cannot hope to survive Wentworth without protection. And protection is just what Gabriel MacKenna offers. At a price…  102 pages

Available in paperback and ebook (Lyonesse Books)

Review by Erastes

This book is set in the fictional prison–says the author’s note–of Wentworth in England, a cross between Pentonville and Wandsworth. It’s an unfortunate name as I immediately thought of Wentworth prison from “Prisoner Cell Block H” the Australian show about women prisoners! However, as long as you aren’t as stupid as me, this won’t even occur to you. It’s clear the author has done their research, as the descriptions of the prison and the yard are pin sharp and detailed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a floor by floor plan pinned up somewhere.

The unfortunate first impression that this book gave me was that it hinged on one of the biggest tropes and personal squicks of mine, that of prison rape, and of Rape Turns to Love. I can work around it and suspend my disbelief usually, but the main trouble with this is that at 102 pages, there’s not enough space to have the characters turn around in their feelings. Yes, they do, but it’s too quick and in the case of Joey (the victim) rather unbelievable in light of what he’d been thinking up to that point. One minute it’s all “I’ll never forgive him, I’d rather die” and then the next minute he’s sucking dick like he was born to it. In Gabriel’s case it’s hinted as to why he pulled back from raping Joey every night, but again, this simply isn’t explored in enough depth to help the reader get over the fact that it’s an unpleasant trope. The fact that both men were aggresively heterosexual before entering prison adds weight to their love affair being far too quick.

HOWEVER, that being said, and once we get past this point the book is well-written and absorbing. I was drawn into the prison life, the claustrophobic feeling of never, ever being unobserved, even when you paid people to turn a blind eye. The petty injustices of the screws, the way that even with Gabriel protecting Joey he’s only as safe as the next five minutes (although this sense of peril did descrease as time went on) and the sadness of thinking of men incarcerated for decades, knowing no other home, growing old, remembering a world that no longer existed and dying there because there’s no way they’d be able to be released into 1936 when they’d been sentenced in 1888.

I have to say that I really warmed to their relationship, but I simply could not see any light at the end of their tunnels. Gabriel was sentenced to life, and Joey for 18 years. Even if they had stayed together for 18 years there could be no HEA for them. So be warned, there is no HEA, this is a love story, but absolutely not a romance.

Due to the almost entirely internal aspect of the prison life, there’s very little historical context other than the outbreak of WW2 (the book starts in 1936) so Reid doesn’t have to worry too much about historical detail, but what there is seems pretty good. The only thing that did amuse me was the campaign to ban “slopping out” (the routine of having a bucket in the cells, rather than a flushing toilet, and having to dispose of that bucket in the morning.) The reason I found it amusing is that even today, some prisons in Britain still do this despite the process having allegedly “been abolished” as late as 2004.

I know I say this often about novellas, but I think I’m justified with this, this book really really needed the extra space to develop. Not only would the coming together of Joey and Gabriel have been improved, but there’s so much else that had a lot of potential but didn’t get the space to fly. There are myriad other prisoners, as would be expected, and I would have loved to have seen more of the daily politics with–particularly as this isn’t a genre romance–little subplots to enjoy.

But this is–as far as I know–S.A. Reid’s first published gay historical, so I can live with it. The writing is impressive, the voices strong and the plot, while not given enough space to grow, is good enough. I think Reid has a real future in the genre and I look forward to their next book.

Buy at Amazon USA  | Amazon UK | Smashwords (ebook) Createspace (paper)

Review: The Walled Garden by F.M. Parkinson

William Ashton, retained as a gardener by Edward Hillier, discovers his new master to be a detached and driven man. Over the years, as travail and tragedy bring them closer together, he understands that they have more in common than he first realised, but the affection they feel for one another will be sorely tested by boundaries both of class and of rigid Victorian morality. Like the private garden behind the high walls their love must flourish only in the strictest secrecy – or else it will not do so at all.

102,000 words/380 pages /ebook only

Review by Erastes

I’m in two minds about this book.

While I have to say I appreciated most of the writing–which is deliberately done in an old-fashioned, if not quite Victorian style–this book annoyed me quite a lot for various reasons.

Firstly nothing much happens and while some may say that it’s simply a gentle, old-fashioned style it takes more than an old-fashioned style to create an old fashioned book.  Emma, Jane Eyre and books like that had plenty of things happening. Instead of things happening, this book contained what seemed like nothing much more than filler in many places–there’s a section where Hillier’s manager is getting old and gets replaced which is entirely pointless and dull for example and goes on for pages. The problem is that much of this filler is relatively pointless or if it seems to have a point, then it’s never followed up.

It takes the protagonists an endless age to get together, and that’s not exactly filled with angst filled nights, or rivals for affections, or anything particularly interesting. It’s simply because Hillier doesn’t find Ashton attractive until quite late in the day. To be honest, I can’t see what on earth Ashton saw in Hillier because his behaviour and attitude is pretty unpleasant–although he’s like that with more than Ashton. He’s much loved in the village which puzzled me because he wasn’t shown as doing anything for them other than at one point attending another pointless scenario–a ball on behalf of a campaign for laying drains. Other than that he does nebulous work “writing letters” and attending Parliament.

There’s an overuse of the hurt/comfort trope which raises its head not once, not twice but a colossal three times throughout the book, each time Hillier getting ill and Ashton running around getting him well and getting literally no thanks for it. This, aside from them having an argument, is the main use of conflict and together with lack of plot made for pretty dull reading.

However, although not very exciting–and we can’t always have post-chaise chases and gun fights in every book, it’s quite readable, and if it wasn’t for the final problem that had me grinding my teeth it would have got a 3.

It’s epithets. There are a record winning number of epithets in this book and I got to the stage of bursting into laughter when I found a new one. It’s like the author had had a rule sheet which said “you must never use the character’s name more than once on a page.”

Hillier is known as the lawyer, alternately, but Ashton wins the prize as “the broader man” “the gardener”, “the secretary” “the former gardener”, “the former secretary” and many many others. When there’s a scene with just the two of them it’s like there’s six people in the room. I hope, should Parkinson do another book, they will–or their editor will–ruthlessly red-pen this habit as it’s annoying as hell.

So while I appreciated the writing–mostly–the story didn’t so much grab me as much as mire me in treacle and I found it a heavy going read. But you might enjoy it more than I.

No website that I could find.

Buy at Manifold Press

Review: Brook Street: Thief by Ava March

London, 1822

It was only supposed to be one night. One night to determine once and for all if he truly preferred men. But the last thing Lord Benjamin Parker expected to find in a questionable gambling hall in Cheapside is a gorgeous young man who steals his heart.

It was only supposed to be a job. Cavin Fox has done it many times–select a prime mark, distract him with lust, and leave his pockets empty. Yet when Cavin slips away under the cover of darkness, the only part of Benjamin he leaves untouched is his pockets.

With a taste of his fantasies fulfilled, Benjamin wants more than one night with Cavin. But convincing the elusive young man to give them a chance proves difficult. Cavin lives with a band of thieves in the worst area of London, and he knows there’s no place for him in a gentleman’s life. Yet Benjamin isn’t about to let Cavin–and love–continue to slip away from him.

Review by Erastes

This is the first of what will be a “Brook Street Trilogy” focussing on the Grosvenor Estate section of London in extremely expensive Mayfair. Brook Street: Fortune Hunter and Brook Street: Rogues being the next parts.

Ava March is reliably good. A safe pair of hands is how I like to put it. You know jolly well that if you liked her other books, then you are quite likely to be enamoured of the next one. She’s an auto-buy/read for me and I’m sure many people. She specialises in gay regencies, and she does it well.

But that being said, I have enjoyed all of her books, but sadly this one didn’t set me on fire. Perhaps it’s because the characters are so damned nice. I can tolerate niceness up to a point but I like to see the real grain behind the characters. These two guys seem to have no bad  points at all, even the thief character – Cavin Fox – doesn’t even thieve except when he gets really desperate. The love of a good man cures him of ten years of his nefarious existence almost overnight. It just didn’t gel for me in that respect.

I liked the way they met, and the way they got together in bed, but of course there was then pretty much insta-love which I’m thoroughly tired of . Benjamin has had sex with Cavin twice and they’ve hardly had any conversation when Benjamin realises that he loves Cavin. Nothing specifically against this book, as the writing is stronger than many many others out there, but it just strikes me as very teenage. I know that I went around thinking every guy I kissed or fancied was going to be the one and falling in love at the drop of a hat. I think that these days I want a bit more than love at first sight.

However, that’s a personal aside.You will more than likely have no problem with this at all.

What I like about March’s work is an uneven dynamic and although that’s usually achieved via BDSM she uses a different approach here, with an aristocrat and a man living in the dregs of society, but passing as possibly a merchant’s son due to his stolen clothes and false accent. When offered a place by Benjamin’s side, he obviously balks at the idea and this is what causes much of the conflict. I don’t blame Cavin for this – he would be uncertain as to how he could possibly fit into Benjamin’s world and knows that he’d never be able to repay Ben even for a small gift of something like clean clothes. I don’t seen Cavin as being overly stubborn here, just very sensible.

There were a few irritants thrown into the research, which is unlike March. One of them refers to the nobility. England does not–emphatically not–have Marquis. It’s considered a foreign title, and the equivalent would be Marquess. I can see how the confusion might arise, though, as Marquess does sound like a female title. But a female Marquess is a Marchioness… I know.  There were a couple of other niggles, such as a young boy walking from Mayfair to the Fleet Street area in an evening (a long way, about 3 miles and not at all safe) or the same young boy roaming around the Lord’s house making himself free with the very expensive tea. The meal at this point has a quite modern feel too.

Where Ava March shines is in her sex scenes and if you are looking for well-written, heat filled sex with graphic description to make you tingle you certainly won’t be disappointed. There’s plenty of it and it’s written extremely well with no hint of repetition. This alone sets March above many authors to my mind. She never skimps a sex scene, never makes them unnecessary and goes from kiss to completion with great gusto.

But all in all, I found this a bit hard going, and that’s probably because of the lack of external conflict–I thought there might be a break-in at one point but it didn’t happen–and the eternal niceness of both main characters. I don’t see why Cavin couldn’t find a job–he’d asked for a recommendation for his young friend Sam, so Ben would have easily have given him one. He was prepared to do anything, and in Regency London, there was anything but full employment.

This isn’t really a fault of what is excellent writing, but I’d have just liked a bit more excitement rather than nice people chatting to each other (they quibble with each other for nearly an entire page about sweeping up a broken plate, for example) and then having lots of very hot sex.

Author’s website

Buy at Carina Press

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: 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)

Review: Stone by Stone: A Novel by Stevie Woods

Can two men build a relationship when one must tear down each stone that the other has worked so hard to build?

In the year 1535, after a misspent youth, Brother Mark is a hardworking Benedictine monk toiling as a stonemason at Tavistock Abbey. There he finds himself irrevocably drawn to one of the men sent out by King Henry to audit the monasteries prior to closure. Andrew Cheyne is fascinated by the handsome young man and breaks down the monk’s boundaries with an ease that neither expected.

When Andrew returns four years later to finally close the abbey, each man must also come to terms with their past to attempt to plan a future they can share. But fate plays a cruel trick on them. Or, as

Mark wonders, is it God teaching him a lesson? Attempting to forget Mark, Andrew commences a brand new life, but fate has more lessons in store for him yet.

Review by Elliott Mackle

The most riveting historical fiction is set against what the Chinese curse as “interesting times” —wars, revolutions, disputes between rival princes, invasions by barbaric hoards and widespread piracy upon the high seas. For every pastoral-domestic Pride and Prejudice, I’ll give you five Gone with the Winds and six Tales of Two Cities.

Stone by Stone is set in the turbulent period immediately following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and proclamation of himself as head of the Church of England. Henry, a profligate spender always in need of cash, saw the realm’s rich monasteries and nunneries as easy pickings. A program was devised whereby royal commissioners inspected these establishments, drew up lists of accounts and possessions, and gave abbots the choice of either turning over land, buildings, livestock, furnishings, art and manuscripts to the head of the new church – or facing trial and perhaps execution for heresy and failure to obey a royal command. Monks and nuns were simply turned out into the road, sometimes with a pension, sometimes with a trade to support themselves in the outside world, and sometimes not.

The king was then free to pay his debts with gold plate, priceless illuminated bibles, works of art, grain and cattle, and to sell or give the former cloisters and abbeys to those nobles and officials who had supported him in his long effort to rid himself of Queen Catherine, marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir.

Stone by Stone is based upon historical fact: the dissolution of Tavistock Abbey in Devon. Fictional and historical figures are nicely mixed. The last abbot, John Peryn, who surrendered the abbey in return for a pension of one hundred pounds, is sympathetically treated, and was a real person. The king’s henchmen, royal commissioner Sir Richard Louden and his assistant, Master Andrew Cheyne, are presumably fictional. They serve, however, at the pleasure of the quite real Thomas Cromwell, among the King’s closest advisors, who is also at the center of the international bestseller and Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. More on that below.

Stone by Stone opens with a short preface, contrasting snapshots of the protagonists: Andrew Cheyne, a confirmed bachelor, topping an anonymous male stranger in the flea-ridden back room of a tavern in Southwark, London; Brother Mark of Lydford, an apprentice stonecutter at Tavistock, awakening from a wet dream, guiltily savoring the pleasure of being fondled by another man. “He needed someone to love him—a man to love him. A man he could love. God forgive him…”

Brother Mark will soon get his wish.

The novel itself is divided into three parts spanning seven years. Sir Richard and Master Cheyne arrive at Tavistock during the summer of 1535. Cheyne, in order to better observe the easy lives of the friars, elects to sleep in a cell rather than the priory. He has hardly done more than drop off his saddlebags when he encounters Brother Mark. Their affair follows a familiar track: The Look. Instantaneous Mutual Recognition. The First Kiss. Solitary Masturbation (fantasizing the other, albeit including the very modern term “pre-come”). The Body-to-Body Kiss. The Initial Refusal (by Brother Mark) to Go Further. And so on to The First Encounter (very explicit undressing, sucking and fucking in the deserted library by candlelight).

After a few days, the inspection party must leave and the lovers must part. Brother Mark reflects thusly:

“He lifted his eyes heavenward and wondered, for maybe the hundredth time, why life was so complicated. Why couldn’t others see what now seemed straightforward to him. For some men, it was more natural to love a man. He had tried to blame the devil for his inclination, but everything was created by God, even the fallen angel. If one believed in the power of God, how could it be otherwise? God made nature, God made man, including those men who loved other men. Mark had come to understand the definition of what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ was made by man. Mark had found a measure of peace in accepting his own understanding of God—what He is, what He does and how He works.”

It hardly needs pointing out that this line of reasoning is modern, not renaissance, nor that the concept of homosexuality as a state of being did not exist until the nineteenth century. Randy monks, however, are stock figures in the comedy, fiction and art of many cultures, and Brother Mark is a particularly attractive example of the type.

Four years later, during the winter of 1539, Andrew Cheyne, now himself a king’s commissioner, returns to Tavistock to accept title to the abbey on behalf of the king, and to carry off the most valuable treasures. There is a good deal of discussion concerning administrative matters, valuations and pensions. While I understand that historical novels set in the distant past cannot succeed if cast in the exact language of the era, authors should make some attempt to suggest the flavor and accents of the characters within the narrative. Author Woods’s dialog is cast almost entirely in conversational modern English, some of it quite wooden.

The most egregious such lapse, among many, occurs during the initial exchange between the new commissioner and the abbot.

“‘Abbot Peryn,’ Andrew said, keeping his eyes on the abbot, ‘I am Andrew Cheyne, King Henry’s Commissioner. I am here to facilitate the procedure.’”

Beyond the inelegant repetition, the line is laughable. Phrases such as “facilitate the procedure” date to the late twentieth century and today are taken seriously only by tin-eared bureaucrats and non-commissioned officers.

After a good deal of “Does he?” “Should I?” “Will he?” dithering, Andrew and Mark do get it on again, declaring their love and expressing it in as hard-core an erotic encounter as anything available in today’s one-handed-fiction magazines and websites. Stand warned.

Mark’s apprenticeship has been transferred to a civilian master mason. Forced to make a hurried departure on the morning of the abbey’s dissolution, he leaves a note in Andrew’s saddlebag explaining where and with whom he is bound. Naturally, there is confusion and the note is lost.

Andrew, having made enough in commissions over a decade or so’s service to the crown, begs to retire and is rewarded with the opportunity to purchase a confiscated country house and surrounding acreage at a bargain price. Lacking only one thing to complete his happiness, Mark, he spends a year searching unsuccessfully for the younger man and, at the end of part two, gives up in defeat.

The HEA conclusion is clear from the opening pages of part three. It is the summer of 1542. Thomas Cromwell is two years dead, beheaded after losing King Henry’s favor. Andrew, lonely but engaged in his new role as country squire, takes a wife, Emily, the daughter of a wealthy neighbor. Andrew is able to make love to her only by imagining he is topping Mark. When Emily becomes pregnant, Andrew realizes he must make improvements to his crumbling, drafty old house. Applying to the Guild of Stonemasons in nearby Plymouth, he is swiftly reunited with Mark, now himself a master mason, who agrees to oversee the necessary repairs.

Andrew and Mark are likeable characters, well worth knowing. The novel’s historical frame and narrative are skillfully constructed. The Tudor period is of continuing interest to English and American readers. Typos and misspellings are relatively few and minor—monks for monk’s, “pouring over” a set of drawings, for instance. Unfamiliar words—dorter, obedentiaries, carrack—can be puzzled out, though I’d prefer they’d been explained.

Simply put, however, author Woods has failed to imagine herself inside the abbey, observing and eavesdropping on men as they argue, pray to God, spy on each other and make love. So many details—stonecutting, modes of travel, a monastery’s daily schedule—are well observed. It’s thus too bad that much of the scene setting fails to rise much above the level of tourist guidebook. Too bad, also, that the lovers experience so little fear and danger, that there’s so little tension in the novel. Although Henry’s reign was marked by violence, disorder and officially sanctioned, often whimsical murder, little or no blood is spilled here.

Finally, a note on Wolf Hall. That novel follows Cromwell’s meteoric rise from battered village youth to King Henry’s chief minister and Anne Boleyn’s confidante. The success of the novel has prompted author Mantel to compose a sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” to be published later this year in both the U.S. and U.K. I have no idea whether the popularity of Mantel’s epic had anything to do with the conception of Stone by Stone, a sort of sidebar to Cromwell’s story. In any case, it is a compelling tale but one not perfectly told.

Author’s website

Buy at Amber Allure (ebook and paperback)

Review: Almost an Equal by Heather Boyd

When Nathan Shern, Duke of Byworth’s, empty sham of a marriage is threatened by a fellow duke he is naturally aggrieved. He cannot allow the potentially damaging contents of his wife’s diary to reveal the depths of their estrangement because exposure of his secret dalliances with other men would taint his innocent children’s lives. Not to mention end his life. So, without revealing his mission to his steward, Henry Stackpool, a man he trusts for everything else, Nathan undertakes to steal the diary back alone.

Former pickpocket and molly house whore, Henry Stackpool, works hard to keep his position as right hand to a moral man, the Duke of Byworth, but he fears his kind hearted employer is ill-equipped for a confrontation with his unstable opponent. Yet Henry cannot reveal his knowledge of the threat without exposing the secrets of his past or his keen interest in Byworth’s safety. So when fate places Henry in harms way, he risks his hard won reputation to retrieve the diary. Yet he too is held captive, and when Byworth comes to his rescue his lies are revealed.

Can Byworth forgive him for his deception and will Henry keep the country life he’s grown to love?

Review by Erastes

Sadly unoriginal story which I think I’ve read at least six times since starting reviewing the genre. That’s not to say that it’s not readable, because it is and at $2.99 it’s not expensive. But it says nothing new and the characters and plot are so derivative I got a little bored.

Two men who both fancy each other and of course neither knows and both think they have heterosexual inclinations, then there’s an intervention and suddenly PING they fall into bed together–they can’t even look at each other (including in front of the children which was mildly repellent, no control at all) without getting instant hard-ons. You know. Then when they do go to bed, rather than being “Almost an Equal” the servant goes from calling the Duke “Your Grace” to “Nate” (after being asked to call him Nathan.) And in a day or so they are madly in love. Of course. Sound familiar? Yes.

Oh, and course the Token Woman who is necessarily Evil.

Then of course there’s the obligatory BDSM elements which seem to be de-rigeur these days. It appears that you simply can’t be a Regency homosexual without either being a sadistic rapist OR wanting to play BDSM games.

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it’s self-published and yes, the editing is dire. The author clearly didn’t bother to have anyone check it over (or if she did, she needs to use someone else) because there are dozens of typos–lack of apostrophes where they need to be, wrong homonyms etc etc.  I’m this close from never reviewing self-pubbed books again at this point.

I found myself intrigued, though in some respect. The books is subtitled “The Hunt Club Chronicles book 1″ and Henry and his friend “Archer” were both whores at the ubiquitous upper class gay brothel so I would be interested in reading more about the background of the two men. It might have been better though had the saga started in the Club and shown how they left rather than showing it as backstory.

There is a large proportion of sex in the book, which will probably please many. The build up is teasing and then there’s many long, long scenes which are meticulously described and well-written. Although, once again, there’s nothing new here, the sex scenes were the best parts of the book for me.

I might try book 2 if it gets published, but if it’s not noticeably better than this I won’t be going on to book 3. Unmemorable.

Author’s website

Buy at Smashreads

Review: My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy

‘… The accounts of these cases are too bound up with events in my personal life which, although they may provide a plausible commentary to much of my dealings with Mr Sherlock Holmes, can never be made public while he or I remain alive …’

Although Dr Watson is known for recording some sixty of his adventures with the celebrated Sherlock Holmes, he also wrote other reminiscences of their long friendship which were never intended for publication during their lifetimes.

“Rescued from oblivion by Rohase Piercy,” here are two previously unknown stories about the great detective and his companion, throwing a fresh light upon their famous partnership, and helping to explain much which has puzzled their devotees. Together Holmes and Watson face disturbing revelations as they investigate the case of the Queen Bee; and we finally learn what actually happened at the Reichenbach Falls, and the real reasons which lay behind Holmes’ faked death and his subsequent return.

Review by Erastes

A nice deceit, that Rohase Piercy found the manuscripts and has published them. Watson’s preface is rather sad as it talks of how he hopes that men of his type have things better than men of his generation.

It’s been a very long time since I read Holmes in canon. I have the complete works and I hoovered them up all at once in my 20′s and haven’t read them since, but from what I remember these two little novellas, each cataloguing a different case of the great detective, are written by a true Holmesian.

The first story is:   A Discreet Investigation and is set just after the Sign of Four. I think the first story in this two-story collection is more original, although as I say, my canon knowledge is rusty–but the second story seems definitely more derivative but I did enjoy them both.

Watson simply runs the story through a filter telling “the truth” rather than what he published at the time. Dealing with why he left Holmes’ residence, how they ended up in Europe together, why Moriaty was chasing Holmes and why Holmes was missing for the time he was. it’s true that Watson does get a little emo at times, and more overtly towards the end, but I found that quite endearing, and he does bottle things up and he strikes me as the kind of a man who would break down after bottling things up for years.He did have cause to be upset, after all! The voice in both stories seems to be to be pitch perfect–I couldn’t tell you if there are canon errors, and if you aren’t a complete nit-picky Holmes-fanatic then you won’t care that much.

Watson’s voice is very good, and the language is done beautifully to match the canon and the time when the original was written.

The second story is The Final Problem and Holmes prefaces it with a note which says that “It is always diffcult – indeed, almost impossible – to set down an accurate record of the more painful events of one’s life…” As this story begins, Watson is married to Mary Morstan and has left Holmes, his residence and his cases behind. I believe (I may be wrong) that the canon never confirms that John married Mary–although a second wife is mentioned at some point, so it’s possible. I am pretty sure that if you are fan of the canon you will enjoy these two stories immensely. I think you will forgive Watson’s foray into sentimentality, after all, it was something he was accused of often by the great detective.

Holmes is also written beautifully, particularly pure even for being in love and entirely unable to say or show it–I think the pure brittle heartbreak of how this is worked was my favourite section. There’s perhaps a smidge of OKHomo throughout, or a dollop… but it was all such a good read, and obviously done as an homage by someone who knows and loves his/her subject, I was quite willing to overlook it when a lesser writer would get more a smacked wrist.

Overall the two novellas do tend to lurch into too much emo at times, but the pure Holmesian character keeps it buoyed up despite this. I’m sure anyone with any interest in Holmes, detective fiction, turn of the century fiction will enjoy this as much as I did.

No author’s website found

Amazon UK   Amazon USA Available as ebook and print

Review: Junction X by Erastes

Set in the very English suburbia of 1962 where everyone has tidy front gardens and lace curtains, Junction X is the story of Edward Johnson, who ostensibly has the perfect life: A beautiful house, a great job, an attractive wife and two well-mannered children. The trouble is he’s been lying to himself all of his life. And first love, when it does come, hits him and hits him hard. Who is the object of his passion? The teenaged son of the new neighbours.
Edward’s world is about to go to hell.

Review by Ruth Sims

Webster defines “inexorable” as “not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped : relentless.”

I have always been drawn to books and plays with that quality. Erastes’ Junction X pulled me in from the first page. I have known for a long time that Erastes is an excellent writer, whether her protagonists are working at a forge, being tortured by a religious zealot, or any of the other trials her characters are heir to. Junction X doesn’t have the protagonist being tortured by outside forces. He is tortured and broken by the cruelest Inquisitors of all: love and his own conscience.

English Family Man Ed has a good life, to all outward appearances he has a perfect life. Success. A fit and gorgeous wife. Twins he adores. Friends. Respect. And as the reader would expect, this man with the perfect life, has a dark secret: his strictly-for-sex relationship with Phil, a former neighbor and long-time male friend. (Neither of them is gay–of course–though Ed is sometimes touched by doubt on the matter.) Whenever the opportunity presents itself, Phil initiates quick, risky sex with Ed in public places, where discovery is always imminent, and Ed never refuses. Love never enters into their relationship, though Ed has a guilty conscience that pokes at him a little–just not enough for him to call a halt to his risky behavior.

Everything changes when Ed glimpses and then later meets and gets to know the new neighbors’ seventeen-year-old son, Alexander. Alex is beautiful with the fleeting and impossible beauty of the very young. Ed is a bit stunned by the speed and completeness of his sudden infatuation with Alex. In no time at all, Ed starts to build “what-if” fantasies about Alex. There is, he convinces himself, no harm in it. No one will ever know. But not long after, it becomes apparent that Alex is constructing his own fantasies … about Ed. During this time, Alex becomes is befriended by Ed’s wife and idolized by the twins.

The inevitable first kiss, given by Alex, throws open the door which hides the impossible fantasies and they become real, taking shape in secret, furtive meetings filled with lust-love. Inevitably, there is one tryst too many, one scheme too many, one declaration of love too many, one denial too many. It’s inevitable that the fragile house of deception will crash around them. It’s inevitable that someone will pay for the crime of love in all the wrong places, with the wrong person.

The end is a shocker.

If you want a book with heart, compassion, and reality coupled with love fantasies divorced from reality, and if you can accept a story with inter-generational love and sex, then Junction X is for you. You will never forget it.

This is the most literary, most riveting, most heart-rending story Erastes has written.

Author’s website

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

Review: The Psychic and the Sleuth by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

Trusting a psychic flash might solve a mystery…and lead to love.

Inspector Robert Court should have felt a sense of justice when a rag-and-bones man went to the gallows for murdering his cousin. Yet something has never felt right about the investigation. Robert’s relentless quest for the truth has annoyed his superintendent, landing him lowly assignments such as foiling a false medium who’s fleecing the wives of the elite.

Oliver Marsh plays the confidence game of spiritualism, though his flashes of insight often offer his clients some comfort. Despite the presence of an attractive, if sneering, non-believer at a séance, he carries on—and experiences a horrifying psychic episode in which he experiences a murder as the victim.

There’s only one way for Court to learn if the young, dangerously attractive Marsh is his cousin’s killer or a real psychic: spend as much time with him as possible. Despite his resolve to focus on his job, Marsh somehow manages to weave a seductive spell around the inspector’s straight-laced heart.

Gradually, undeniable attraction overcomes caution. The two men are on the case, and on each other, as they race to stop a murderer before he kills again.  

Review by Erastes

I ummed and ahhed about reviewing this one, because it does have some paranormal aspects (spiritualism) but I’ve decided that this could be treated in the same way as ghosts – the only other paranormal theme we accept – because it could be subjective and brought on by other reasons, such as split personalities  etc.

This book continues this writing partnership’s run of titles with similar names, The Nobleman and the Spy, The Gentleman and the Rogue–there’s endless fodder here and long may they continue to do them.

If you enjoyed either of the last titles, then you’ll certainly enjoy this. The thing is that although the titles are similar and there might be the danger that the authors would find it easy to slip into a pattern of plot that would be highly predictable they are to be commended that they don’t do that at all.

This, quite apart from the gay romance within it, is a good Victorian sleuth story which stands firmly on its own two feet. You could remove the gay romance and the detective story would still be viable, and that’s needed in the genre, too many stories simply concentrate on the meeting and eventual falling in love.

Yes, there’s instant attraction on both sides, and this attraction is acted on pretty soon, and both parties start to realise they are becoming fonder of each other than is wise, but the detective story runs neatly parallel to this at a good pace, deflecting us from simply concentrating on the uncertain love affair. This makes the balance of the book great and therefore accessible to more than just people who want gay sex stories.

The sex is nicely written, with a BDSM theme. I’m not a fan of the trope, and find it odd that so many gay books have it–far higher percentage of men in fiction indulge than do in real life, I’m sure, but what there is is nicely done. At least for me with little knowledge of the lifestyle. It’s most definitely “play” and the bottom is the top, which is how it should be. There was one scene where–for me–it tipped from sexy to rather giggle worthy, but I am 12 and I’m sure others won’t be as juvenile as me.

There are many secondary characters here, as befits a sleuthing story, and each one is given the necessary weight as suspicion shifts from person to person. As well the suspects there is a veritable line-up of society matrons, simpering hopefuls for the bachelor Court’s affections and Dickensian work colleagues.

What I liked most is that both characters, whilst developing in their personality throughout, both for the better, remained true to their core beliefs. Robert is a copper, to his bootstraps and he was sent to investigate Oliver’s mediuming (don’t think that’s a word!) and the way he deals with it after Oliver becomes his lover is entirely in character. Similarly, the authors give Oliver a need to want to help people, and he’s never been comfortable conning them, although he’s been very clever never to actually do anything that could be proved to be fraudulent.

I would have liked to have seen a little more of Oliver’s original business, as he seemed to give it up altogether very quickly.

One thing that jarred for me–and again, I know that some readers love this device–was the sex scene that was put in after the denouement and the concluding sections. It seemed really jammed in and it added nothing to the plot, and my criteria has always been with sex scenes, if you can lift them out and they don’t cause a ripple, they didn’t belong there in the first place.

However, despite a couple of tiny niggles, it’s a really enjoyable read, and if you like Victoriana, crime fiction and anything written by this dynamic duo, then you’ll like this with great big brass knobs on.

The score doesn’t reflect it, but for shame, Samhain–surely you could have done a better job on the cover than that? Elasticated boxers? So much scope with lovely Victorian scenes and clothes and we get disconnected naked guys and a Matt Bomer lookalike.

Authors’ websites: Bonnie DeeSummer Devon

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA  Samhain

Review: Half a Man by Scarlet Blackwell

Traumatised by the nightmare of trench warfare in France, Robert Blake turns to rent boy Jack Anderson for solace. Neither man expects their business relationship to go quite so far.

It is 1919, less than a year after the end of the First World War with a recovering Britain in the grip of the influenza pandemic. Crippled veteran of the Somme battle, Robert Blake, is looking for someone to ease his nightmares of France and his guilt over what happened to his commanding officer. He turns to educated rent boy Jack Anderson for physical solace, not expecting how deeply the two soon become immersed in each other’s lives.

Review by Erastes

Rather a touching premise, a tart with a heart and a man paralysed from the waist down. You don’t at first (or rather I didn’t) twig that Jack Anderson is a prostitute but I suppose these days he’d be called an escort. He provides companionship and relief if needed from discreet and wealthy men. He hasn’t been soured by his life as a renter, and is both professional and attentive.

He’s called to the house of Robert Blake, who we discover is in a wheelchair. The two men meet once a week, a little tea and cakes, some sex and after a week or so they realise that they are becoming fond of each other.

It started well, and I was encouraged that this was something a little different, even though the tropes are well known, but sadly enough the men soon started to weep all over the place and to once they got into bed the old fanfic favourite chestnut of  “Come for me, [name here] both trends in m/m which I’m thoroughly tired of.

I liked both protagonists, Robert particularly because he seriously thought he was entirely useless to anyone being in the state he was and many men did–and do–think like this. Legs and cock not working=end of the world, and I can understand this. The interactions between them–and I don’t mean just the sex scenes which are detailed and many–are well done and believable when there’s no crying going on.

I enjoyed the read, but it’s not a keeper for me, I’m afraid.

However, it’s well-written, and thoroughly romantic with very little conflict so I’m sure that the readers of a more romantic brand of gay historicals will like it a lot. It’s not so over-the-top romantic as to spoil the story, so I did enjoy it. I also enjoyed that the ending was left a little in flux, and that Robert’s problem wasn’t magically cured entirely by all the gay sex.

Overall, well worth a try-out.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing

Review: By Honor Betrayed by Alex Beecroft

1748

Lieutenant Conrad Herriot and Seaman Tom Cotton have been master and servant for over a decade, and friends for almost as long. When Tom is injured during a skirmish, Conrad forgets himself and rushes to Tom’s side, arousing suspicion about the true nature of their relationship.

All Tom wants is the chance to consummate their love and embark on a new life together, outside the law that condemns them. Yet he fears Conrad won’t risk his career and his honor to become Tom’s lover.

Conrad believes his lust for Tom will damn his soul. There’s also their difference in class—a gentleman doesn’t socialize with a common tar. As Conrad struggles to refute the gossip on the ship, he must decide whether to commit the crime the crew’s already convicted them of, or part from Tom for good to save both their necks…

Review by Erastes

Just a small niggle, and this is nothing to do with the review or the mark – but I fail completely to see why Carina insisted on the American spellling of “honor” on the title and the blurb, and then used English spelling–including “honour” in the book itself. Very odd indeed. (plus the year is wrong, the book is set in 1750) Bad Carina, no biscuit.

I had to have some niggles, after all, because there’s not much else to niggle about here. Lovers of Alex’s writing–whether you like it for the mile deep descriptions, conflicted officers, multi-faceted characters–it’s all here.

Conrad is, as most people were, god-fearing and believing in concepts of immortal souls and all that jazz. He’s been humming and hah-ing about letting his manservant (horrors!) Tom know that he finds him quite delightful for many years and it takes a big sea battle for his feelings to surface–much to the chagrin of the captain and the amusement of his crew (leading to a subsequent lack of respect.) The irony is that he’s already been suspected of the crime–suspected and judged by his shipmates–and he hasn’t actually done anything. Stung by the injustice, and in danger of having Tom forcible separated from him by the captain, Conrad decides he’d rather be hung for a sheep than a lamb e.g. he might as well do the deed, if he’s already assumed to have done so. Better a short life but a merry one, as it were. Or, as he puts it should he:

“…save his heart and lose his soul? Or save his soul and lose his heart? “

The book is–I think–told entirely from the 3rd person viewpoint of Conrad, and although that felt right for the length of the book, it meant we did get a little shortchanged with getting to know Tom. All we had to go on was Conrad’s perceptions of what Tom thought and felt.  This actually pays off nicely at Tom’s reaction at the climax of the book, so I can see why this device was used, but it still leaves Tom as a little bit of an enigma in these days of dual pov books.

As usual, Ms Beecroft’s prose stuns with its seemingly effortless phrasing. Some of the descriptions are so beautiful I felt like giving up writing forever, but then her writing always makes me feel like that. She manages sometimes to mix descriptive words that are so wrong, but in her hands they feel entirely right. It’s a real gift.

Sex-wise, I think this is probably the smuttiest book that Alex has ever written, as she leans towards the more veiled sex scene as a rule, but the sex here is postively coarse (but great!). To quote one of the judges on Strictly Come Dancing “It was filthy and I loved it!”

I did feel the book was a little short, but I’m not going to mark it down for that, it was written deliberately as a novella and you can’t squeeze a quart into a pint pot. With the word count that she has, Ms Beecroft has done marvelously, and her naval descriptions — as always — are first class. There’s a bit that actually made me feel sick (sea-sick, that is) with a fantastic section where the protagonists are in their cabin and the ship is literally rolling and pitching on near enough a 90 degree angle – the floor becomes the wall and then goes all the way back. The casual way the experienced sailors deal with this, holding fast to the lines of the hammock — and each other — shows skill to portray without being confusing. It was so well done that I could feel every gravitational pull–and consequently felt rather queasy. It amused me how much more realistic it was done well in prose, than on the USS Enterprise, where everyone just leans from one side to another!

If you haven’t encountered Alex Beecroft’s longer works, particularly the Age of Sail novels (False Colors, Captain’s Surrender) then this is an excellent introduction to her remarkable talent at a reasonable price.

Amazon UK   Amazon USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Home Fires Burning by Charlie Cochrane

Two stories, two couples, two eras, timeless emotions. 

“This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense”

It is 1914 and The Great War is underway. When the call to arms comes, Nicholas Southwell won’t be found hanging back. It’s a pity he can’t be so decisive when it comes to letting his estate manager Paul Haskell know what he feels before he has to leave for the front line. In the trenches Nicholas meets a fellow officer, Phillip Taylor, who takes him into the unclaimed territory of physical love. Which one will he choose, if he’s allowed the choice?

“The Case of the Overprotective Ass”

Stars of the silver screen Alasdair Hamilton and Toby Bowe are wowing the post WWII audiences with their depictions of Holmes and Watson. When they are asked by a friend to investigate a mysterious disappearance, they jump at the chance—surely detection can’t be that hard? But a series of threatening letters—and an unwanted suitor—make real life very different from the movies. 

Review by Erastes

Let me say up front that I thoroughly enjoyed both books, as I expected I would. I just didn’t enjoy the overall experience as much as I thought I would.

The trouble for me came with the stark differences in tone. I can see possibly why this was done, to offer some light relief in the second story to compensate for the pain of reading the first one, but I found the disconnect a little too much. The light frothy feel of the second book seemed to lessen the really true impact of the first, and that was a shame. I wish I had read them the other way around.

This Ground Which Was Secured At Great Expense

You can usually assume that any book dealing with the Great War is going to be a harrowing story, unless the writer doesn’t do their job properly and this one is no exception. Don’t be put off–this deals as lightly as it can with the actual job of soldiering in the trenches, and while there is description of the environments and atmosphere of that time, it won’t make you go cold in sheer horror as some books have done.

One thing that struck me as I was reading was the way that Cochrane’s writing has evolved over the years that I’ve been reading her. She could always write a good yarn and she’s always been on my list of Must Reads but this book shines for me as the best thing she’s ever done.

She doesn’t take the easy option with this book–e.g. that of one man meeting another, having conflict in the war, and despite all odds coming through to find his true love. That, married to the wonderful writing, would have been sufficient–but (and forgive me if I’m wrong here) Cochrane for the first time decides to explore some flawed characters. In fact, this darkness had begun to creep into the Cambridge Fellows series towards the end, and that’s what made it fascinating for me, but Cochrane shows true strength of prose as she explores the love square, one must call it I suppose, between Nicholas, Paul, Phillip and Fergal.

The most touching moments for me were those between Nicholas and Phillip, and the way the story has them coming together (as it were) due to many reasons: war, anger with another, loneliness and just damned human need.

As you can see, there are too many people in the equation to have a realistic gay historical romance ending, so you’ll already realise that choices have to be made and something’s gotta give. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wrapped up very deftly, without cloying into saccharine sentiment and my eyes were moist, which is always a good ending for me.

Absolutely marvellous read–please do not miss this one. I can only hold my breath to see where Cochrane goes next.

The Case of the Over-Protective Ass

We are back on familiar ground here, as Ms Cochrane demonstates her skill at sleuthing. Our heroes, both stars of the silver screen, and protected as much as possible by their studio are in love and having a rather lovely affair, although as discreet as possible.  They are asked by a theatre impresario, to find his missing secretary and the game is afoot.

I quite liked Toby and Alasdair, but I didn’t warm to them the way I warmed to Orlando and Jonty from The Cambridge Fellows series, they seemed a bit too similar to the Fellows – not altogether surprising, I suppose, being two sets of homosexual sleuths deeply in love with a penchant for innuendo and double entendre. But I would have liked them to be more distinct from their Cambridge counterparts–to have voices more their own.

However, the story is engaging, with one mystery spilling into another and the progression of it is nicely handled with no sudden incomprehensible jumps as the reader is kept nicely informed of progress all the way. There was one glaring error I spotted, and that was Alasdair speaking of the Aunt’s will a couple of pages before said aunt and said will had even been discovered by Toby, but that was all. The editing slipped a little here and there, with a few missing punctuation marks, and the wrong homonym used at one point.

But as a piece of entertaining crime-solving fiction, I recommend it highly, the protagonists are amusing and sweet in turns, although the sex was a little over-stylised for me (compared with the more subtle and almost glossed over scenes in the first story) but the mystery rumbles along at a good pace never making the reader bored.  I could quite easily see these characters having their own series of books, but I hope that doesn’t happen and that Ms Cochrane investigates and develops the growing power of her writing as shown in “This Ground.”

It’s just that overall, I couldn’t gel the two stories together, I think I would have liked (as in Ginn Hale’s Wicked Gentlemen) two novellas relating to the same characters, or–if about two sets of people–two novellas more similar in tone. Not necessarily both about the Great War, but The Case of the Over Protective Ass didn’t have the impact it should have if it had been a readalone, because of the power and strength of the first story.

I liked both stories, but have to give “This Ground” a resounding five stars, as I couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards but “The Case of The Over Protective Ass” only gets a four. Overall, the duet of stories gets a 4½ and a highly recommended.

Buy at AllRomance ebooks    Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Review: Convincing Leopold by Ava March

Mr. Leopold Thornton finally has the man he’s loved for a decade, yet he can’t believe his good fortune. A reformed rake and a conservative solicitor? Can it possibly last? To add to Leopold’s worries, Arthur’s spending more time at the office…with a handsome new secretary. Desperate not to lose Arthur, Leopold does the only thing he can think of – use pleasure to keep him.

Mr. Arthur Barrington truly wants their relationship to work. Sinfully beautiful and devoted to him, Leopold’s the opposite of Arthur’s staid ex-lover. And Leopold’s given up his old vices, putting those concerns to rest. Yet lately, all Leopold wants is sex – in the study, in the carriage, and at Arthur’s office, no less. The sex is amazing, but juggling demanding clients and a demanding lover leaves Arthur exhausted and worried perhaps he and Leopold aren’t suited after all.

It takes one disastrous night for Arthur to realize how much Leopold means to him. But convincing Leopold he loves him, all of him and not just his body, proves difficult. For Leopold’s disappeared and Arthur hasn’t a clue where to find him.

Review by Erastes

As I’ve said often on this blog, I’ve enjoyed Ava March’s stories, particularly her “Bound” series quite a lot.  She does her research, and her characters are memorable and vivid. When it comes to erotic+Regency there’s  no-one as consistent.

But whereas the  characters in “Convincing Leopold” are just as memorable and vivid, I didn’t enjoy this novella quite as much as I have the others. It’s not for a lack of research. Her prose hasn’t suddenly gone out of the window, I think it was simply that I wanted to knock these characters’ heads together and say “oh for God’s sake, you had no problem communicating in “Convincing Arthur“, so why are you both behaving like a couple of wet blouses?” Here there is angst and moping and sulking and not much else.

Arthur has a problem with work/life balance, which is a bit of a modern concept, and Leopold is needy, clingy and is behaving like Russell Brand on Viagra. Arthur is finding it hard to do all the work and hours necessary to bring him legal practice up a notch, and all Leo wants to do is fuck all night. Eventually Arthur snaps and pushes Leopold out of bed. Feelings are hurt and tantrums ensue.

 

And that’s it, really. I admit I was disappointed that the conflict didn’t amount to more than this—because Arthur’s ex, Randolph, is sniffing around—the man who really broke his heart during “Convincing Arthur” and he could have caused real problems this time around. But this is solved altogether too neatly and the ending, and the solving of all the internal conflict was solved in a rather baffling way, for me. It probably showed Leopold having grown up, but it was all a bit lame.

That being said, if you liked any of March’s other books, you’ll probably like this one, because there is a lot to like, from ballroom to bedroom, and we all know she can write many smoking hot sex scenes in a smallish novel without repeating herself or boring the reader, but it just didn’t work for me. It was far too much angsting and not enough plot and external conflict.

Author’s website

Buy at Loose-ID

Review: Game of Chance by Kate Roman

When the young Duke of Avon takes a back exit at a masquerade ball, expecting to find like-minded players to share a high-stakes game of cards or dice, nothing can prepare him for what he finds. But in the arms of mysterious Lord Donahue, Sebastian finds this new game is more pleasurable than anything he anticipated…

Review by Erastes

A short review for a short story. I hadn’t read any Kate Roman before but I’m very appreciative of the time she took to set up what is really a wham bang thank you Sam plot. The story begins nicely and doesn’t rush to immediately tell us that our protagonist is homosexual. He’s a gambler and he’s come to a masque ball (always a sexy setup) to have a game of cards or dice. He hears rumours of back rooms where the real action takes place and whoops we have a delicious misunderstanding and a great place for much shagging in the Marsh.

Roman describes things well, and I’ll definitely have a look at her back catalogue and see if there are any other historical hiding away there. Within the space of this small setup, she leaves us in no doubt as to where adn when we are in time, wigs, coloured heels, our protagonist is a proper “macaroni” even though he doesn’t actually have any idea of his predictlictoins when it comes to me. Don’t worry, there’s someonewaitingin the wings to explain mattersto him. The sex scene when it does come—no pun intended—is again, nicely drawn out and uses enough of the historical colour to prevent us thinking that this could be set in any time at all. It’s graphic without being overly so, and will get you tingling in places that you like having tingled.

I don’t normally recommend such short stories, as i do think they are over-priced for what they are, and would prefer to have them as an extra in a novella, or ina collection of that author’s others tories, but I liked this one a lot, and it kept me amused for fifteen minutes or so and has introduced a writer to me who does her research. Four stars.

Author’s website

Buy from Torquere Press

Review: The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino

TWO QUESTIONS HAVE ALWAYS PLAGUED HISTORIANS:

HOW COULD Christopher Marlowe, a known spy and England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave — just days before he was to be tried for treason?

HOW COULD William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight — when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely an unknown actor?  Historians have noted that the Bard of Stratford was better known at that time “for holding horses for the gentry while they watched plays.”

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that intertwines the two mysteries and then puts the pieces together to offer the only possible resolution.

Review by Erastes

This is a very well researched and meticulously thought out book. I was in awe at just how much work Bacino has put into this, with foreword, and massive appendices.

It’s obviously massively researched and he’s clearly looked up every single point that he’s writing about, from plague to theatres to politics. I have to give Bacino a standing ovation simply for the work he’s done here with a foreword and a huge appendix But..

The trouble is — it’s not really a novel. This book is really going only to appeal to historians, because those wanting an immersive novel are going to find the style jarring–as I did.

It’s more like a docu-drama. I haven’t read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote but I would imagine that this is the style he used–an omniscient narrator taking the place of any of the characters’ points of view.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure omniscient narration–it’s a style I much admire but while it works for Thackeray and for Dickens and the like, it really doesn’t work here. In the same way as Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, Bacino takes the place of a rather confiding narrator who behaves rather like a history teacher interrupting a video his class is watching. You are never allowed to relax into the storyline because every paragraph or so “history teacher” butts in and starts telling us a load of back information such as religious or political aspects—from the birth of Protestantism to the destruction of the Armada, to spy rings and exact wordings of many laws.

So, you’d think that those with a love of history would lap this kind of thing up, but I tend to feel that the facts we are presented with are already so well known from myriad incarnations of the Tudors on stage, screen, and book, historians are already going to know most of this. I certainly did.

Considering that the appendix (which takes up a good 20% of the size of the book) goes through every single historical point in every chapter with “FACT:[...]” or “FICTION:[...]” We could easily have had a novel-style book rather than a semi-text book and if one was interested one could look in the appendix for the facts, but because we are told once in the book that this was so and then once again in the appendix it really felt like we are being preached at. The way the facts or fictions are presented are rather patronising, to be honest. If anyone has watched “Horrible Histories” will know that after every sketch, the narrator, a rat, comes on and says “It’s TRUE- the Romans really did wash their clothes in pee.” Or some such validation, and this book has the same tone. Trouble is Horrible Histories is actually for kids. So I did feel a little talked down to at times while reading this. As regards to the FACT or FICTION issue, he could easily have just kept it down to the things he invented, and taken it as read that we’d assume everything else was fact related.

Here’s an example:

From the book itself:

Sir Francis Walsingham was known for his booming, threatening voice that seemed even more frightening when he lowered it to a softer tone. He had headed the Royal Intelligence Service (a euphemism for the spy network in England) for almost twenty years. He was quickly becoming the architect of modern espionage. As a fitting reward for his “unswerving” service”, Queen Elizabeth had named him England’s first Secretary of State in 1573—a position not quite structured yet – giving Francis the opportunity to do pretty much as he wanted with the position. He had the reputation of being the archetype of Machiavellian political cunning with tentacles to fathom out the smallest detail in the country. He knew he was courted and needed by everyone.

He was also hated by everyone.

(He was the inspiration for the line that would someday be written into the play Measure for Measure: “it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice.”)

Now – from the appendix:

FACT: Queen Elizabeth did name Sir Francis Walsingham to be England’s first Secretary of State in 1573. Sir Francis was the head of the English spy network. Historians frequently name him as the architect of modern espionage.

FACT: Shakespearean quote: ““it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice” “Measure for Measure” Act III, scene 2

As I said, the appendix takes up 20% of the total of the book (according to my Kindle) and all it does is mostly repeat what’s already been said. There are no citations, either, which I sort of expected with this level of “this is actually true.” We are just expected to take the author’s word for it.

The reason an omnisceint narrator worked so well for Thackeray and Dickens and the like was that they were presenting the narration from a closer perspective than this. From their time, or a few years after the events they were writing about. And anyone doing an omniscient narrator today would also use this device, narrating the book as a person who knew the characters or was involved in the events portrayed. But Bacino’s narrator – who is more than likely Bacino himself – is narrating this from a perspective of 21st century man, so the terminology is jarring: Marlow has “mesmerizing ways” Marlowe is “cute.” Comparisons to money—such as Wriothley’s payment of £5,000 to sever his engagement are compared to million pounds it would be in “today’s” money, which again, instantly reminds us we are reading a history book, rather than living a story with the characters. Lord Wriothley is referred to as “the poster boy for the homosexual movement” which is from the narrator’s pov so it’s not quite so bad—but then that same lord actually says later: “Her [Queen Elizabeth I’s] new Commission makes it really just a police state, doesn’t it?” which is gah-wrongness on so many levels.

But I can’t discommend this book, because of the sheer volume of work that has gone into it. I complain daily about authors who can’t be arsed even to open Wikipedia for the most basic of facts that can be found in seconds, so I’d be a hypocrite indeed to moan about someone who has done this level of research.

It’s just that—just because you do the research you don’t have to tell the reader about every single aspect of it. (Are you listening Dan Brown?) I prefer to be shown, not told.

Without all the infodumping, the story is amusing and enjoyable, Shakespeare’s portrayal being particularly funny as a real thicko. I can’t say that the conspiracy theory convinced me, though.

There are a few historical oopsies too–one being people drinking tea(!) a good hundred years before this was possible. This surprised me seeing as how much research had gone into the rest of the book.

If you can take the history professor on every page, and you like this approach then you’ll enjoy this. It’s well-written, fantastically well researched (even though I don’t agree with some of the “FACTS”) and I hope that Bacino goes on to write more. The story hangs together well, the conspiracy is well done and probably adds to the canon of Who Wrote Shakespeare. It’s just that I prefer a novel, with history blended in rather than a documentary with the presenter stopping the action every few minutes to tell you stuff.

Author’s website

Buy from Author’s House

Review: Pleasures with Rough Strife by JL Merrow

One chilly night just before Christmas in 1922, eighteen-year-old poacher Danny Costessey comes to regret his impulse to climb a tree to fetch some mistletoe for his mother when he falls, breaking his leg. He doesn’t expect his luck to change when he is found by the furious gamekeeper who’s long hated his family. However, when he is taken to the manor house, the reclusive owner, Philip Luccombe, takes an interest in Danny rather than condemning him for his actions, and it surprises them both when that interest turns into something more.

Review by Jean Cox

Pleasures With Rough Strife is a short (around 13000 words) novella, set in the early 1920′s, a world where the aftermath of both WWI and the Spanish flu are keenly felt and the traditional deliniation of role of master and servants has yet to disintegrate.

JL Merrow depicts the world well, with elegant prose and dialogue. Not for her the clunky references to current events in order to set the era. She writes simply, cleanly and effectively – an economy with words that other writers could take note of. I love the humour in her work and the little affectionate nudges towards other stories – the appearance in this one of a butler called Standish made me smile. The origins of some of the names amused me too; I believe the author hails from the Isle of Wight, so having a character called Luccombe was a neat touch. That’s the sort of thing this reader appreciates.

In such a short story, it’s hard to discuss the plot without major spoilers, so bear with me on the sparcity of detail. Daniel Costessey poaches on the local estate, to help support his widowed mother and siblings. Drayton (the gamekeeper and enemy of the Costissey family) finds him injured and unexpectedly takes him to the owner’s house to recover. Philip Luccombe has become a recluse, pining for a lost love and being protected by his staff, including the formidable butler Standish. Two of these characters find a relationship developing, a relationship that crosses more than just social boundaries.

Plus points:

Apart from the general quality of writing, the story moves along at a good pace, the characters are well drawn, and the setting appeals to those of us who love early twentieth century England, a time of loss and wistful remembrance. Fans of hurt and comfort based stories will not be disappointed.

The depiction of era is consistent (not always something to be found in historical fiction) and the pervading sense of Christmastide, hope in the darkness, works well.

Minus points:

The lack of structure; at novella length, the tale pans out in a series of short scenes, some of them very short. This led at times to a sense of the story being a bit too fractured.

It was also a touch predictable–I’ve read a number of JL Merrow’s stories and what I’ve appreciated is her ability to produce the unexpected (her wonderful story in I Do Two is a case in point). I kept waiting for that here and it didn’t happen.

For what it is–a seasonal short–Pleasures with Rough Strife is perfectly fine and as a historical romance it’s well written. I just wish it had shown some more of the trademark Merrow touches.

Author’s Website

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

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: 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 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: 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

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Review: All Lessons Learned by Charlie Cochrane

He’s at the end of his rope…until fate casts a lifeline.

Cambridge Fellows Mysteries, Book 8

The Great War is over. Freed from a prisoner of war camp and back at St. Bride’s College, Orlando Coppersmith is discovering what those years have cost. All he holds dear—including his beloved Jonty Stewart, lost in combat.

A commission to investigate a young officer’s disappearance gives Orlando new direction…temporarily. The deceptively simple case becomes a maze of conflicting stories—is Daniel McNeil a deserter, or a hero?—taking Orlando into the world of the shell-shocked and broken. And his sense of Jonty’s absence becomes painfully acute. Especially when a brief spark of attraction for a Cambridge historian, instead of offering comfort, triggers overwhelming guilt.

As he hovers on the brink of despair, a chance encounter on the French seafront at Cabourg brings new hope and unexpected joy. But the crushing aftereffects of war could destroy his second chance, leaving him more lost and alone than ever…

Review by Erastes

I was expecting to have my heart put through the wringer with this book, and I wasn’t wrong. Charlie Cochrane warns, without too many spoilers that it’s a “three hanky read” and she’s not wrong. So if you aren’t a fan of angst, then stay away! There are hints in the blurb about the outcome, so don’t despair.

It is a brave thing that Cochrane does to build up characters and relationships over seven books only to tear it all down in the eighth–but it’s entirely right to do so because of the setting and the events that happened from 1914-1919. The book is set after the end of the Great War–the other great lie, that it was the “War to End All War”–and it’s all the shattered Britain can hang onto, because that’s the only thing that helps them make sense of what seems four years of senseless slaughter. To make things worse, many people who escaped being killed on the battlefield, including wives, husbands and children were wiped out in the influenza epidemic of 1919, further reducing an already battered population.

So we know from the outset—and from the blurb, that loved ones have been lost, although it’s more than the blurb hints at, so steel yourself for sadness.

Orlando’s reaction is entirely right. The Orlando from books 1 to about 3 would probably have retreated entirely within his mind and never come out again, but Jonty’s influence remains strong with him, and he’s able to cope on a day-to-day level  as long as he doesn’t allow himself to think too deeply—and that’s something a gentleman wouldn’t let himself do in public.  His initial interview with his—and Jonty’s—old friend Matthew Ainslie is perfectly pitched. What they can talk about and what they can’t, the feeling of unbearable, but gentlemanly repression. The way Ainslie has kept obituaries from the paper “in case you wanted to see them” and the way that Orlando takes them without reading them in public. This skill of writing shows a writer who completely understands, not only her characters, but the mindset of middleclass and upperclass England of 1919.

I’d definitely say to prospective readers of the series–don’t start with this one. That probably sounds unnecessary to say, but some readers will start at the end or in the middle of a series, but to get the full flavour out of this, you will need to get some of the backstory under your belt, because the impact won’t be anything like as powerful otherwise, and you’ll need to know who’s who–it might leave you feeling a little confused otherwise.

Here’s one part which had me sobbing like a baby:

Their eventual parting had been so painful, preceded as it was by snatched nights of shared passion and tender longeurs—giving and receiving each other’s bodies, lying in one another’s arms without speaking, reacquainting themselves with every inch of each other, lest they be parted. Lest they might then forget. The last meeting, on a crowded railway station, had been almost wordless, from both necessity of discretion and aching in their hearts. They had shaken hands, exchanged notes and gone off into the smoky night. And each note had been almost identical.

I love you. Do not forget me. Love again if I don’t return.

I think we all know (without spoiling, because Cochrane has advertised widely for her readers to “Just TRUST her”) that the story must end well, and we also know that Cochrane wouldn’t do that to her readers—it would probably be romance suicide to do it, but even so the pathos of this story hits hard. The bequest to honey-buzzards will resonate with readers only who have read the earlier books, and the tender way Jonty  is discussed and remembered will make even the hardest hearted of us well up with emotion.

I’ve already spoken about the characterisation being pitch-perfect, and you never need to worry about Cochrane’s historical detail. She makes me laugh, actually, as from time to time something jars with me and I gleefully trot to the etymology dictionary only to discover that she’s spot on—one example was “foxhole”—i had thought this was a later term, but no, I should have known better, it was coined in WW1. The thing with a book like this is that you actually forget that you are reading something written in the 21st century. It’s so immersive, you just lose yourself within it, whether you are strolling along the seafront of Caborg or having a pint in the Holloway Road.

There was a little too much cosy chat too for me which lost my concentration at times, but I know that this will be the main draw for lovers of previous books.

I also felt that Orlando’s “sleuthing” was a little too easy in spots—coincidence plays a part and he only has to say something out loud for one of the porters to say “oh I know where you can find that out, guv’nor.” And he not only finds the man he needs in a neighbouring college but the details of one man in all of the war. Coincidence plays a large part in the remaining plot, and I’d complain more strongly about that had Cochrane not made this a feature in the previous books. I can live with it in a cozy novella, it’s almost part of the genre.

I wouldn’t say that this is the strongest in the series because it’s not as strong on sleuthing as the others—and I would have liked a little more mystery to balance the Jonty—Orlando plotline, but it breaks the mould in good ways. The whole arching story—whether or not this book will be the last Cambridge Fellows book or not—is compelling and sweet, although nicely toned in light and shade. This last book shows us that Cochrane is more than capable of stepping well outside the cosy mystery and dealing with the most disturbing of subjects, war, shellshock, duty and death—and of doing it every bit as well as writers such as Pat Barker or Susan Field. Bring hankies with you when you read it, but read it. It will touch you in many good ways.

Title is an ebook only at the moment but will be moving to paperback in a few months.

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Review: Paper Valentine by AJ Llewellyn

London, 1840. At the height of Victorian hypocrisy, two men meet and fall in love. Their romance is forbidden, punishable even by death, but their passion blossoms thanks to a paper Valentine.

Saint Valentine’s Day has become a new and very popular day for lovers. Thousands of Londonites are clamouring for the ideal romantic gift. While men buy chocolate and posies, they yearn for something more unusual, more personal. Enterprising brothers Aldon and Samuel Barnaby hit upon the idea of paper Valentines, creating lavish presentations decorated with silk, lace, and paper flowers.

Aldon is fortunate to have his perfect valentine going to his expectant wife, Geneve, but Samuel still longs for his own true love, pouring his heart and soul into his beautiful creations. Samuel’s romantic verses inside his paper Valentines are in huge demand, yet not a single local girl can lay claim to his heart…because his passion lies not in a woman, but another man—Jude, a handsome but shy widower.

Jude’s heart, haunted by grief, hasn’t been ready to consider marriage again. But slowly, through his inclusion in the Barnaby family’s lives…and his frequent excursions to stop and stare at the Barnabys’ shop window…he begins to wonder in what direction his future lies.

Can Samuel possibly allow his heart to explore love with another man? Could Jude ever love him in return? He sends Jude an exquisite, anonymous paper Valentine, not suspecting that his entire world is about to be turned upside down…

Review by Erastes

Dear Cover Artists. Please take note of the dates of the iconic structures, particularly in London. I’ve seen the Houses of Parliament used in Regency fiction and now we have Tower Bridge on this one, which is a quite nice cover, except the bridge wasn’t even begun until 1886, 46 years after this book takes place.I’m surprised, seeing as how the publisher is British.

However, this anachronistic tone, (after all I wouldn’t mark the book down merely for an incongruous cover), continues throughout the whole of the book, and although I’ll mention some later, there are egregious errors on just about every page, which layered with the other problems with the book made this a really hard read for me. The editing isn’t too bad, apart from Jude’s coachman changing names half way through, but what this needed was a damn good historical edit and a Brit pick. I understand that a small publisher cannot afford specialist editors for every genre, but I think that they should be prepared to check the author’s facts and not take on trust the author has it right. One or two checks with this book would have revealed the fact that just about everything was wrong,and as such it reflects badly on the publisher, not just the author.

Aside from the appalling anachronisms, the book just didn’t work for me because there is actually no plot. One could say that I’m asking a bit much expecting much more than a Plot-What-Plot in a story of sixty pages, but I certainly do. Other writers such as Ava March are capable of doing characterisation, plot, complications, BDSM and sex in as many pages, so we all know it can be done. Here however, I’m not sure what exactly the author was trying to achieve, or what message might be being transmitted.

Half of the book deals with the aforementioned dinner party, and at least half of that wastes time and plot-time while Samuel goes to his brother’s house, helps cook(!) and rants on for pages about how beautiful, how clever, how good, how shiny his sister-in-law is. So much so that I assumed that there was some plot point to this, but no. Eventually the dinner party is gathered and we finally meet the other hero of the story, Jude Curtis. They get together with no discernible difficulties and engage in perfect insta-recovery sex whilst weeping a lot and calling each other “baby” and asking if each other are “OK.” As you can tell by this, the dialogue is pretty awful–in fact in the throes of passion Samuel actually says to Jude “You’re so clean.” which made me giggle. It’s not exactly love-talk.

The food in a book is important–espeically when the author has made such a big deal of it–literally the first 30 or so pages (half the book) concentrates on entertaining, so when all the details are wrong it’s such a waste of time and effort. Strawberries, cranberries and bilberries, all available in February. Gas stoves, the lady of the house whipping up a quick meal for twelve without hardly turning a hair after the servants have left, no-one except the lady of the house changing for dinner, despite it being an important dinner which she is holding to get her husband admitted to the Atheneum Club.

I’m not going to list all the anachronisms, it would take too long and would be unfair, but a few include making artists a major plot point. This is fine except the ones mentioned were hilariously Whistler (who would have been six at the time), Rosseti (13) and Holman-Hunt who was about 12. Then there’s mention of the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphelites (which didn’t exist), gas stoves, mentions of “hotwired.” The thing is that the author goes into Dan Brown mode at times, describing in detail something historical that they think we’ll be interested in, such as a meticulous description of the first commercial stamp–the Penny Black–but the author didn’t take the two minutes it takes to do the research to find out that the stamp wasn’t issued until JUNE 1840, not February.

The sex (apart from the silly dialogue and much weeping) is all right, but for me it’s not enough to make the cover price worth while.

So, putting together the missing plot, the buildup of things that never became plot–the brother’s entry to the club, the making of the Valentines, the servant troubles–with the anachronisms on every page, I simply can’t recommend this as a historical. If you are only looking for some gay sex in costume, then you might enjoy it.

Buy from Total-ebound

Review: Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

(From Publisher’s Weekly) A biographical fantasia, White’s latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White’s impressionistic account of Crane’s life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a ganymede butt-boy buggaree. Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that someone skilled and open minded complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. Hotel de Dream, has some ideas of who among Crane’s friends fits the bill.

Review by Erastes

It’s a book of two halves, really. The first half, with Stephen Crane–who spends the entire book dying–is as slow as a meandering river. Suddenly, the “book within a book” which he’s writing hots up and the pace increases–it’s just that the two don’t really gel with each other. If you had told me two different people had written the book I would have believed you.

It begins with lengthy descriptions of Stephen Crane dying of tuberculosis and living in Engand in preparation for travel to the Black Forest for a hopeful cure. Crane is writing the “O’Ruddy” and he regrets that a manuscript he began about Elliott, a boy-prostitute he met in New York and who he interviews with journalistic zeal, was burned by another writer friend, so he begins it again, dictating it to his common-law-wife, Cora. This book “The Painted Boy” has become a writing myth, as there’s only that, and rumour to substantiate its existence, but it makes an interesting premise.

What I suppose I couldn’t really get over is that White could easily have made this story about a fictional author and it would have worked just as well. The fact that he’d set himself to write The Painted Boy himself, to take on the task of emulating Crane’s style seemed to me to be rather hubristic. Whether he does it well I will have to leave to others, as I haven’t read any of Crane’s works, but I couldn’t really tell the difference in style between White’s prose and that of what he puts forward as Crane’s.

I must apologise because this book didn’t appeal to me in any aspect. It was really a case of “gah, how many pages left?” and I appreciate that makes me a bit of a illiterate slob as this book has been lauded all over the place as being a work of genius, but frankly I’ve read books labelled “M/M” that have more literary merit in my eyes.

I’m more than slightly baffled about a couple of things. One, it’s called “A New York Novel” and this doesn’t really come over. You would have to squint hard to see much about the city–it’s mentioned here and there, more so towards the latter end of the novel, when the book gets more interesting, but it’s certainly nothing on the scale of other books that are steeped in the late 19th century city. Gaderene by Tina Anderson and C.B. Potts is far more New York than this, as is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Not only is Crane iving in Engand and travelling to Germany in the book, but when he,or any of the other characters, are shown in New York, they are inside somewhere, and very little flavour of the city at that time is shown. There’s one segment which smears on description, thick as lard, about the Five Points and Manhattan towards the end, but it really feels like the author had done a bit of research and wanted to shoehorn this local colour in instead of threading it through the entire book.

Also baffling is the title. Crane met his ex-prostitute Cora at the brothel “Hotel de Dream”, but unless I’m missing something (probably) it’s not mentioned otherwise, so any symbolism to the name entire skidded over my head.

That being said I liked the characterisation a good deal. From the real Elliott who Crane interviews–and has him take around part of the queer scene in New York of the time–namely a gay bar and a visit to an androdyne, to the characters they meet in their investigative travels, to Cora, Crane’s mistress who loves Crane so hugely and does anything it takes to try and get him the help he needs, from mumping off friends to writing her own hack stories (which sell) just to support them in their financial troubles. But the most compelling characters in the book for me were the fictional Elliott portrayed in The Painted Boy and his obsessed, entirely in love protector, Theodore Koch. The love that can come to an older man this late in love can be a frightening and destructive love and so it is here, the seven year itch taken to its nth degree. I think of all the characters in the book, it is Koch that will stay with me, as he’s so in love, and ultimately so destroyed–but hey, it wouldn’t be gay literature if everyone wasn’t as miserable as hell.

Oscar Wilde said this of The Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

And I’m afraid you will think badly of me when I tell you that I roared with laughter at the denouement in Hotel de Dream. It was probably not meant to be funny, and I have a sick sense of humour but I thought it was hilarious. It reminds me of the best kind of shaggy dog story, so be warned.

Do I recommend this? It’s probably fifty fifty. I’d say get it from the library, and see what you think.

Author’s website

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Film Review: Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me

In the 1950s Frankie Howerd, the famous radio and film comedian, meets a young waiter Dennis Heymer, who,like himself,is a closet homosexual. Their relationship blossoms into a partnership, rather than a purely sexual one, and Dennis becomes Frankie’s manager. By the early 1960s however things are looking bleak for Frankie. He has lost popularity with mainstream audiences and suffered a nervous breakdown.He is full of self hatred about his appearance – he wears a wig – and his homosexuality, putting huge stress on his relationship with Dennis. Matters are not helped by the death of Frankie’s mother Edith. However, Frankie is able to reinvent himself as a satirical comedian, with a gig at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club and his fortunes soar,with successful television comedies and a well-publicised appearance at the Oxford Union.


Imdb page

Director:John Alexander

Writer:Peter Harness

Stars:David Walliams, Rafe Spall

Review by Erastes

I went into this with a little trepidation because I am a huge fan of Frankie Howerd and wasn’t sure if someone so entirely unique could be done with the respect I feel he demands. While I never really thought Walliams captured Howed as perfectly as Michael Sheen did in Fantabulosa! it was clearly a studied and well-prepared performance, and going on the reaction of Dennis Heymer, Howard’s lover and manager (see further reading at the end of the review) it was certainly convincing for those who knew him well.

There’s two aspects to this film that I liked a great deal. Firstly that Williams didn’t do an out and out impression of Howerd, and other than prosthetics to imitate Howerd’s baldness (strange how I never really acknowledge his wig, when it was so very obvious) he relied on performance to play him, rather than make up. Secondly, that although the film touched on much stress–such as Howerd’s denial that he was homosexual, (despite being notorious for trying it on with every pretty boy who passed his way) his treatment to be “cured” and clashes between Heymer and himself–despite this, I felt the overall tone was quite upbeat and the ending in particular had me smiling like a loon.

The affection between the two men comes over well–even if there may have been more love from Dennis’s side than Frankie’s–it’s hard to tell over time and distance. The whole thing does seem a little rushed, which is hardly surprising seeing as how they cram 20 odd years into the film, and would have worked better as a three-parter perhaps. You would almost believe from this that Howerd had no friends other than a fag-hag and Dennis and never socialised, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s a little bleak, and certainly does not hold the glamour of something like “Mad Men” – because it’s set in austere 1950′s Britian, still reeling from the war and rationing. Howerd was one of the best paid entertainers and he lives in a brown-coloured flat such as Mad Men’s Don Draper wouldn’t rent for his maid. There was glamour there, in fact Dennis says “I’m not in this for the glamour” – but it’s not really shown on screen, and a touch of that, mixing with the Carry On crowd and the Krays, might have enlivened this up a smidge.

But on the whole it was a solid and interesting watch, especially, if like me, you grew up not having a clue that Howerd, who portrayed himself as a lech in films, was homosexual.  I wasn’t convinced by Walliams’s performance, but there’s no doubt of the man’s depth of talent.

Further reading: There’s an indepth article here as Dennis helps Mark Walliams and Rafe Spall prepare for the film. Frankie Howerd’s lover breaks his silence.

Review: Precious Jade by Fyn Alexander

Jade Swift has always wanted a man to fall madly in love with him and make him his own. He wants to be mastered. When he meets Marcus Wynterbourne, a dominant man with a passion for the whip, it is love at first sight.

Marcus is an MP, gay, and trying to live as freely as he can in 1885 when his sexuality’s not tolerated and his association with the beautiful Jade leads to rampant speculation. Hurt by a past betrayal, and unable to accept Jade’s loyalty because of his flirtatious nature, he casts Jade out of his house.

But Jade loves his Master and wants only to please him. Determined, he will do what he must to win his Master’s trust and restore his reputation amongst others who would ruin him.

Review by Jess Faraday

Goodness, how I enjoyed this.

BDSM romance is a category that I think, in careless hands, could go cringingly wrong. However, the author does a superb job exploring the emotional complexities of the relationship between the two main characters. Even if a reader has no personal interest in BDSM, the author’s sensitive treatment of the emotions underlying the POV character’s desires could make most readers, I believe, at least understand why someone else might. And this is not an insignificant achievement.

The POV character, Jade Swift, is larger than life. Although I thought there was too much weeping on his part, he is absolutely irrepressible. I loved him from the start, and rooted for him until the very last word.

The plot was a standard romance plot…well, sort of. Boy meets Master, boy loses Master, boy wins Master back. But the complexities specific to the master/slave relationship kept it from being stale.

If that’s not enough, the prose is delightful: clean, strong, but with character and flavor. There were a few typos, but they appeared to be software-generated rather than author-generated.

And the sex was hot.

In general, I found the book to be very well researched in terms of historical fact and physical surroundings. However, there were a few social inconsistencies that really got on my nerves, and these were what kept me from giving Precious Jade that fifth star.

First, I found it hard to believe that MP Marcus Wynterbourne’s mother would hire such a flamboyant creature as Swift for her son’s live-in secretary, when she is working so hard to dispel rumors of her son’s taste for young men. I found it impossible to believe that someone of her status would hire any sort of person with no experience and no references.

I likewise found it unlikely that two men, one with no experience in service, could walk up to the door of the Royal Pavilion, ask for jobs, and get them. And an unannounced visit from one of their mothers–especially when the PM and MPs are there for a conference? I don’t think so.

I probably would have overlooked the anachronistic use of the word “queer,” but it was used with such unrelenting frequency that it jolted me out of the story and straight to a dictionary. The first use of the word to mean “homosexual” (adj.) was recorded in 1922. The noun usage (both are used here) not until 1935. Admittedly, most readers probably wouldn’t have bothered, but it was the frequency that drove me to it. Likewise, the term “Nancy-boy” (1958, though “nance” was coined in 1883).

But other than these things, I found the story very well researched. And what was not researched well rankled less than it might have if the story hadn’t been so enjoyable, the narrator so engaging, and the writing so clean and sparkling.

So I’m giving it four stars, because it’s extremely well executed, I adore the protagonist, and it’s a really good story. And in the end, these are the things that count most for this reader.

Buy from Loose I-D

Review: Home is the Sailor by Lee Rowan

The fourth book in the Royal Navy series, Home Is the Sailor is set immediately following Eye of the Storm. After an unprovoked attack during peacetime — was it revenge for their abduction of one of Bonaparte’s top military scientists? — Commander William Marshall and his lover, David Archer, are sent into hiding at David’s ancestral home in Devon.

But this is no peaceful shore leave. With the best intentions in the world, Will has discovered that his fear of losing Davy is still stronger than his desire to keep Davy beside him on the quarterdeck. And Lieutenant Archer is having problems of his own — the family that seemed so rock-solid, if distant, is staggering under the loss of its eldest son and heir. Was it an accident… or murder? And if the latter, how will he ever prove it to an autocratic father who still sees him as the inept youngest son? Out of their element, Davy and Will are thrust into the role of sleuths while trying to determine what sort of future, if any, they may have together.

Review by Jean Cox

Lee Rowan was one of the first authors I read when I discovered gay romance. Before Forster, before Renault, I was reading Ransom and Winds of Change, and parts of those books stay vividly in my mind. So it was with a mixture of delight and trepidation that I approached Home is the Sailor, because you can never tell if this is the moment a series “jumps the shark”.

I should have had more faith in the author. The book is marked by all the things which make the Royal Navy Series enjoyable—cracking plot, believable characters, an ear for dialogue and a great sense of time and place. I’ll freely admit that I’m wary of reading stories set in historical England which aren’t by British authors. Too often I’ve ended up shouting at a book, “They didn’t have that word then. That place wasn’t even built!” but that doesn’t happen with these stories. If I can ask the author direct, do you just have an extraordinary, instinctive feeling for the Age of Sail or do you and that gang of Britpickers you mention in the acknowledgement really have to weed out many anachronistic moments?

The book starts with a bang, almost literally, as we’re flung into an engagement at sea, and with immediate hints of tension between Will and Davy. Will’s frightened for his lover’s welfare, which is no mental condition for a captain to possess going into combat. Immediately we see one of the strengths of Rowan’s writing; Will and Davy are men, fighting sailors, and their relationship never obscures that. No thinly veiled women masquerading, in this case.

The action soon moves ashore, where they encounter another perilous action to negotiate; a visit to Davy’s family home, Will meeting the family and discovering a house in mourning—and anguish. Will Marshall is a fish out of water socially and the middle part of the story’s tensions come initially come from his charting his way through unfamiliar waters and Davy navigating uneasy familial ones. Will is fiercely protective of his lover, determined to see him get his due and recognition within the Archer clan.

A series of suspicious deaths—and the chance to investigate them—brings a new challenge to our heroes. Will and Davy prove they’re more than up to the task, adept at spotting the clues which will solve not just this mystery but help to heal the deep and bitter wounds that lie within Davy’s family. In so doing, they risk their lives and happiness, but ultimately find the solution to both Will’s dilemma about going into action with his lover at his side and the need to maintain a public face which obscures the reality of their relationship. They—and Ms Rowan—handle the denouement neatly and pragmatically.

I know some readers are drawn to Rowan’s books for the gorgeous love scenes, but give me the domestic banter any day. And there are times, for example when Lady Virginia talks about the threat to her unborn child, that I hear resonances of Austen, as I also do in the dinner table dialogue:.

“But it must be so exciting.” Lady Eugenie leaned forward, fluttering her lashes at Will. “Did that really happen—the Frogs, the falling yardarm?”

“Any number of times, my child.” David received the expected glare for the endearment. “And eventually it ceases to be exciting and becomes just a part of the job. May His Majesty’s Navy be preserved from midshipmen who sign aboard for the excitement!”

There are extra little delights: the deft use of real characters, such as Sir Edward Pellew, in a way that doesn’t smack of their being included just for the sake of it and an array of minor characters, such as David Newkirk, who are skilfully and economically portrayed. Rowan is a good writer, a solid and reliable author in a genre that can vary from the sublime to the unreadable.

I suspect that Home is the Sailor will become my favourite of the Royal Navy series, eclipsing Eye of the Storm; I certainly hope it isn’t the end of Will and Davy’s adventures.

Buy at Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: The Christmas Wager by Jamie Fessenden

To discharge a debt to his friend, Andrew Nash, Lord Thomas Barrington returns to the family estate he fled six years earlier after refusing to marry the woman his father had chosen. To Thomas’s dismay, Barrington Hall is no longer the joyful home he remembers from his childhood, and his young niece has no idea what Christmas is.

Determined to bring Christmas back to the gloomy estate, Thomas must confront his tyrannical father, salvage a brother lost in his own misery, and attempt to fight off his father’s machinations. As the holidays near, Thomas and Andrew begin to realize they are more than merely close friends… and those feelings are not only a threat to their social positions but, in Victorian England, to their lives as well.

Review by Erastes

This is rather a review in two parts as I explain what did work for me and what didn’t.

I enjoyed the story–despite the things I say later about it–it’s has a nice feel to it, and just about every character has something going for it. It has a coherent plot, and the slightly “gay for you” plot is well done, gradually realised and works well in this context.

I particularly liked the way the two main characters deal with their emotions for each other; Andrew, although initially a little put off when he finds out about Thomas’s true nature and feelings, realises that he still wants him as a friend, and hopes to keep the friendship on that footing. I liked this, it seemed loyal and realistic for a loyal friend to do.

I liked the way they kept each other at arm’s distance too, it was sweet and although I knew where it was all going, I enjoyed the journey.

There are two or three nicely juggled sub-plots too, which work well, even if (this is a Christmas story, after all, so that’s forgiveable) it can be a little saccharine when it comes to the child involved. So taken aside the things that knocked this from being a really good read to an annoying one–I did like this book, and would probably recommend it to those who like big country house stories.

But.

I have to say that a sterner editor would have been a good thing–because the writing smacks a little of fandom. There’s far too much use of epiphets “the blond” “the handsome blond” and such like. There are spelling mistakes, grammar errors and mistaken apostrophes liberally spattered throughout.

The constant use of “Christmas holidays” was an odd concept too–Andrew ran his own business, and–like Scrooge, most employees only had a day or so off, Christmas Day and perhaps another–and Andrew had no employment, living off his family’s allowance, so he wouldn’t have this idea in his head. I am reminded of the Dowager Duchess in Downton Abbey – “What is a weekend?”

The main trouble is that it’s clearly an English historical written by an American. It’s obvious that they’ve done a fair amount of research, but this could easily have been written in a 19th century New York setting and worked much better because the little niggles like the fifth of scotch and gottens would have been more excusable. There are a fair amount of anchacronisms here, too – words like teenagers  and sabotage and the mentions of muffins and scones for breakfast–and using balsam as a decoration which isn’t found in America and not England.

In an American setting, the rather republican aspects of the story which make any class conscious English person blanch, would have made a lot more sense. It’s too late to invite the “proper people” to the Christmas Ball, so instead everyone from the village is invited–and this is done without even a murmur of dissent, disapproval, horror or even amusement from the local gentry. “how quaint, look at the poor stuffing the pastries in their pockets” was what I was expecting, but they invite the great unwashed in — and the great unwashed know exactly how to behave — without a ripple from anywhere.

It’s a real shame, because I am sure Dreamspinner have or have access to editors who could have ironed these annoyances out, and if it had only had a couple of glitches I could have forgiven it. It would otherwise have been nudging a four stars, or even a four and a half, because the story is very charming, the characters loveable (although the child is not my cup of tea) but because of the “should have been set in the USA” aspect of it, I can only give it a grudging three.

Author’s website

Buy at Dreamspinner

Review: The Nobleman and the Spy by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

They once faced each other on a battlefield. Now soldier-turned-spy Jonathan Reese must keep watch over the man he’s never forgotten. A close encounter reveals Karl von Binder, the count’s son, also recalls the day he spared Jonathan’s life.

Sparks fly between the former enemies and Jonathan begins to lose perspective on his mission. He knows he must maintain distance because the heat he encounters in Karl’s touch stirs him far too deeply for his own good. He can’t keep away — especially when he suspects someone is trying to kill the nobleman.

The spy becomes a protector as Jonathan guards the man he’s begun to care for. Together the men try to puzzle out who would benefit from Karl’s death — and how much they’re willing to trust each other when a torrid sexual fling threatens to become an affair of the heart.

Review by Erastes Click here for the PODCAST

Having enjoyed hugely Dee and Devon’s Gentleman and the Rogue I was eager to read this one—although a little trepidatious about the title and it seemed a bit similar, and I wondered if they weren’t just resting on their laurels and writing the same book twice.

However I shouldn’t have doubted them, because this is a very different book in time, flavour and feel.

The eponymous spy, Reese is introduced to us from the start and he sets the scene quite wonderfully, following on from an excellent first line:

“We aren’t asking you to kill the man”

we learn a lot about Reese, and nothing, because that’s the kind of shadowy spy he is. He gives nothing away, not in speech or in body language. He understands how to fake interest, how to fake non-aggression and he’s damned good at his job. We learn early on that he will no longer kill anyone—so he’s been an assassin at some point, and that he had a liaison with his former handler, and that something went terribly wrong there, and after that Reese changed. But not a lot else, and that’s how it should be. However as the story went on, I have to say that I would have liked to have seen more of how good Reese was at his job; he broke his cover pretty soon and wasn’t much of a spy during the story itself, although we had a hint of his excellence from his backstory.

His target couldn’t be more different on the surface. He’s assigned to follow Karl Johann Peter, Erb-Pfalzgraf von und zu Neuschlosswold-Binder (try saying that with a mouthful of chips) who seemingly everyone knows about. A famous aristocrat, diplomat with a huge retinue and a famous family—but with his own secrets to hide.

I loved the way the relationship started early, and the way that Binder was the experienced one, when I’d half expected it to be the other way around. Binder has good gaydar and his seduction of the man he’d already spotted as following him was quite delicious. There’s a lovely sense of paranoia from both men as they size each other up: what is he up to, who is working for, all these questions go through both men’s minds and it works well and is very believable, even for men who have just had an intimate encounter.

Both characters, Binder and Reese are excellently portrayed, each with a distinct personality and voice; they rub each other up the wrong way (and the right way in more intimate moments) and the cat and mouse and cat game that they play is great to read.

This nicely sums up the differences between them:

Maybe it was this somber aspect that drew Karl, since his own nature was more flamboyant. Jonathan seemed to have a stillness about him, an ability to sit quietly and take things in. He reminded Karl of a pool with a smooth surface and all sorts of dark, hidden depths. And every time Karl saw the pool, he was compelled to drag his hand through it and ruffle the waters. He just had to splash around, and he wanted to dive deep and see what secrets lay at the bottom.

Although I had to laugh at the last of that, but I’m twelve.

There’s many characters in this story, too, which is tightly plotted and multi-layered, and each character has a definite place and no one feels like “filler.”

Set in 1866 (and I think) just before the Austro-Prussian-Italian war I have to say that having been researching this period myself for the last six months I was impressed by the research done here in respect to the political situation in England and Germany at the time, touching lightly on unrest in Russia and other hotspots in Europe–(Europe being a veritable powder keg about to explode at any time.)

If you are looking for a sexy book, you won’t be disappointed, but the sex here is decadently sensual, full of round ripeness and a languid time-wasting hedonism that had my toes curling with delight. I’ve said it before that a sex scene needs to be part of the plot, and although (for the size of the book) the sex is a large proportion, it never once feels gratuitous and for once I was looking forward to the next one, rather than rolling my eyes with “oh God, they are at it again.” I appreciated the masculinity of the scenes, too—sometimes gay erotic can get a little too feminine for my taste. There’s little of the sighing over a pair of eyes or lips; at a party Karl imagines flipping up the tails of Reese’s evening jacket, yanking down his trousers and rogering him hard. Quite right, sir. Quite right.

When I’m writing these reviews I generally tap out quibbles as I find them, and it amused me vastly that the first major quibble I had, regarding Reese’s identity and the persona he’d booked in at the hotel were debunked thoroughly by Karl’s staff, which made me laugh that I’d thought that Dee and Devon would make such a simple error. Other than Claridge’s having unaired sheets (heavens, no!) nothing much other than the word “cum” making an appearance which I always dislike. That’s probably Loose ID’s style guide, not the authors’ choice though. And a few Americanisms which crept in here and there, like “wash-up” for washing. So well done, ladies.

If I have any complaint it’s to Loose I-D – PLEASE can you vary your covers a bit? These are all getting a bit samey.

It’s an exciting and robust tale with mouth-watering intrigue, political machinations, witty banter and some fizzlingly sensuous sex scenes and like The Gentleman and the Rogue (which if you haven’t read why the hell not?) I can’t recommend it highly enough. I want to take away these ladies’ pens until they promise they write nothing else but gay historicals. I just wish I could get a set of theirs in print.

Buy from Loose I-D

Review: The House on Birdgate Alley by Anel Viz

London, 1889.

Dr. John Williams suspects somebody has been blackmailing one of his patients, Sir Hugh Cockburn. The same day, the body of a young man is found floating in the Thames. Mere coincidence, or is there a connection?

Willliams’ eccentric cousin, Cyril Fosterby, turns his mind to unraveling the mystery.

Review by Erastes

The trouble with writing victorian “maverick sleuths” in 1889 is that one can’t help but wonder that perhaps this is Holmes fanfic revisted and it does read rather like it. It’s unfortunate for the story if it isn’t, of course, but I’ve read a lot of converted Holmes fic. This is a story about a doctor called John–in late Victorian England with a cousin who’s an experimental scientist who solves cases and is a master of disguise…

For all that, though, Anel Viz proves he can turn his hand to the Victorian era with good effect – it’s a decent enough story and an enjoyable hour’s read.

There’s not much gaslight and gaiters, if you get my gist, not much description of the familiar post-Ripper London that we are used to, and it depends more on conversation and indoor scenes than dripping grey bricks and eerie fog over the Thames, but what is there is done all right.

What I found odd, though was everyone’s openness about homosexuality. Two young men at Cambridge kiss in front of Doctor Williams, and the brothel keeper talks openly to him about her employees, and admits having talked to the Health Board and the Police about them.

Now, this is 1889, four years after the dreaded “Labouchere Amendment” of the Sexual Offences Act which, in an attempt to clean up the prostitution, also targetted homosexuals whether or not they were in private or not. There is much in this book that entirely ignores this Amendment, which caused a sensation at the time, and drove homosexual men underground.  In fact the Cambridge man says:

As for a scandal, what Freddy and I do in private need not go beyond these four walls or whatever four walls happen to surround us at the moment.

Um. Very very wrong, and no-one corrects him either.  So I find it very strange that the madam of the brothel talks to anyone at all, let alone the police the health board and John Williams.

I can’t say that I was impressed by Fosterby’s reasoning regarding the original blackmail note, in the same way I was often impressed by Holmes–he doesn’t really give me enough reasons to suspect that Sir Hugh was an “invert” – rather presented it as a fait-a-complis rather than “these are my reasons and there is no other explanation.”

I loved the working class Johnny Rice, his cheeky attitude and sexual enjoyment really lit up the page (even if I couldn’t stand the dialect written out) and he was quite my favourite character. I couldn’t warm to Dr John Williams as he abhored everything about the sex trade, said how he disliked cocks and anuses in particular and then suddenly PING he’s homosexual for Johnny, seduced by the power of the cock in the same way that the also married Sir Hugo had been too.

However, if you are expecting a Holmesian tale with tortious twists and clues scattered to find and pick up, then you are going to be disappointed, because the story serves only really as a vehicle for John and Johnny to hook up and for John to realise that he’s not faithful to his wife.

There really was not enough of the so-called “eccentric” cousin, the detective figure. We don’t find out why he was considered eccentric, we don’t learn his methods and in fact we only meet him a handful of times and we learn nothing much when we do.All detecting is done off stage and is wrapped up neatly after John and Johnny spend a lot of time together and fall in love.  However Fosterby explains all the dectecting he’d been doing at the end.  This is well explained, and works, but I think I would have preferred more involvement from Williams.

It has a nicely realistic ending, and sets itself for sequels. I did enjoy the story as a whole, despite the OK Homo aspects and lack of historical fear, and I’ll be looking out for further books if there are any.

Buy at Silver Publishing

Review: A Promise of Tomorrow by Rowan McAllister

Lord James Warren, Viscount Sudbury, lives a quiet, safe, and predictable life alone on his estate in Suffolk, only traveling to London once a year to visit family and satisfy his more forbidden needs. But this year, his routine is shattered when his niece and nephew ask him to help a beautiful young man they’ve only just met.

Kyle Allen, alone and running from his abusive lover, stirs feelings in James he has long denied for fear of tarnishing his reputation and losing his family’s love. Though undeniably drawn to Kyle, James’s honor demands he keep that part of himself completely secret, even if Kyle is feeling the attraction as well, despite the pain and betrayal he’s recently suffered.

Assistance and a future for Kyle might be secured, but then they would face a choice: stay apart and continue leading half-lives… or risk everything for love.

Review by Erastes CHECK OUT THE PODCAST!

I really like this cover–it’s not a fabulous piece of art, but it really gives a flavour of what gay historical fiction is all about. You really get a sense that these men have taken pains to hide what’s going on between them, and that’s pretty rare on gay historical covers.

The book itself was a pleasant surprise; it’s a “proper” Regency in many ways–enobled head of the family doesn’t want to do what his family expect of him. For family, read “his sister”, who threatens that if he doesn’t come to London at least once a year and gets his head out of the country, she will invade his estate with a house party.  So he bows to the inevitable, dances and puts up with the danger of marriagable women trying to snag him for a month just to keep the peace.  It also means that he can visit the ubiquitous male brothel while he’s there, so he at least gets one shag a year–and it’s a way of life he’s learned to live with, and thinks that it’s the way he can manage to do. This–to the reader–is obviously wrong as the poor man is beset by male figures on the street as soon as he gets out of the carriage, so you know he’s very deeply in denial.

The interplay between the main character James and the rather sensitive Kyle is nicely done, James fancies Kyle, Kyle fancies James but neither wants to act on it. James because he knows Kyle has had a bad experience and it would look as if he was taking advantage, and Kyle because James is a Viscount, and Kyle is a lowly disowned son of a curate, and he doesn’t know if the man shares his proclivities–and so they dance around each other in a rather pretty way.

Kyle is a bit wet. Yes–I have a cheek to say that, having written a weepy hero myself.  But Kyle is not the worst I’ve seen, he’s not a total chick with a dick, and he’s not a real whiner like some other characters in other books I could mention.  I didn’t mind the hugging impulses and tears springing to eyes at regular intervals, but I need to point this out in case that’s not your bag. I wouldn’t call Kyle girly, but he’s not really in control of his emotions, so let’s leave it at that. Sadly, it’s at these wet moments that the prose slips into cringeworthy purplish such as:

Kyle‟s tear-filled eyes met his, and for an eternity, he got lost in liquid emerald and gold.

But these aren’t terribly frequent, thank goodness.

The characters were all a bit black or white – the baddies terribly dastardly, the goodies were all a bit too goody goody for my personal taste; the niece sweet, the nephew loyal and open-minded, and James is dependable and reliable; a good dutiful head of the family, the uncle to whom the twins can turn to–no matter how scandalous the subject–the man who will never let you down in a crisis. Other than his worry about his sexual preferences, I would have liked to have seen a little more three dimensionalism in the man. Perhaps a crack or two in his NICENESS. I’m not saying I wanted a rake, there are enough of them to go around and to spare, but no-one’s that nice. Even the prostitute that James frequents is a tart with a heart.

Some of the nomenclature of the nobility was a little off but that only niggles other writers, probably!

The main sex scene between the protagonists has a section which made my eyebrows raise, and caught me entirely off-guard. After all the sweetness and light, I wasn’t expecting the BDSM element, and wonder if it had been pasted on because of all the other BDSM Regencies. I found it mildly eye-rolling that James kept a vial of oil in his cabinet, when it had been explicity explained that he only had sex once a year, when he went to London. Perhaps he was a boy scout as a child.

But despite my niggles, I’m sure that if you liked authors such as Ava March, you’ll love this story. It didn’t set my world on fire, but it was a very enjoyable, decently written read. I know nothing about the author, but if she’s not English, then my hat is off to her, because it’s solidly researched and has a good English feel to it. If it is not amazingly inventive, then there’s nothing at all wrong with that–The Regency is a well worn path in romance fiction and it’s about time that gay Regencies started making a few traditions and tropes of their very own. Recommended.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

A podcast of this review

Review: Jungle Heat by Bonnie Dee

Congo Free State, 1888

On a mission deep in the jungle, Oxford anthropologist James Litchfield comes face-to-face with a local legend: a wild man who wanders with mountain gorillas and lives as one of their own.

The chance encounter with the savage, whom James calls Michael, leads to a game of observation and exploration. Their mutual curiosity turns to an attraction—one that Michael has never experienced and James is desperate to deny.

When members of the expedition unearth James’s secret discovery—a living specimen of man at his most primitive—Michael becomes a pawn in their quest for fame.

As their relationship deepens, James is compelled to protect Michael from the academics who would treat him as nothing more than a scientific acquisition and London society, which threatens to destroy their passionate bond…

Review by Erastes

“A re-imagining of the Tarzan legend” pretty much leaves you in no doubt as to what to expect with this book, and if you keep that in mind throughout, then you won’t be disappointed, because that’s exactly what it is for most of the book.

That’s not to say it’s not entertaining, because it is, it’s just that if you already know the Tarzan story–and few don’t I’d imagine–then there won’t be much here to surprise you.

However! I’d certainly advise you to give it a go because I found it immensely entertaining.

The first section particularly impressed me because of the method Dee uses to communicate through the Ape-man’s point of view. She could have cheated and done it all from James’ point of view, glimpses of the ape-man (Michael, as he later is dubbed) through the trees and such-like but she takes the brave step of attempting to explain things that the ape-man can think in his head but can’t translate universally, as he struggles with these new sights of intruders in his land.

It might not be to everyone’s taste, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me very much of The Inheritors by William Golding, which is written from the point of view of the soon-to-be-extinct Neanderthals, and Jordan Taylor uses the same device in The Ninth Language.

Here’s a taste of Michael (obviously not named at this point) – the ape-man’s thoughts.

His heart pounded and he breathed faster as he glimpsed one of the creatures between the leaves. It walked upright on two legs just as he did and like the Others did some of the time. He wanted to leap forward, to see all of it at once instead of flashes through the undergrowth.

There were two of them, one walking behind the other. The pair communicated back and forth with their strange calls. He caught his breath. These were like the sounds he sometimes made when he was all alone in the forest, the noises his throat and tongue made that none of the Others could duplicate.

The pair moved into the clearing in front of him where they stopped and stood looking around. His heart raced even faster. The two creatures looked like him, or what he’d seen of himself reflected in still water. Their faces and hands were naked like his with the same prominent noses and fully formed lips. Hair grew on the lower part of their faces. Their bodies were covered with something that was neither fur, skin nor scales but something completely foreign.

One of them took a thing off the top of his head and ran a hand through sweat-flattened hair—hair like his, not fur as most animals had—and white like the streaks in Old Grunt’s ruff. These animals were his kind. There were more in the world like him. He wasn’t alone.

Obviously there are concepts there that the ape-man couldn’t know, like numbers and proper nouns, but overall, I like the feel of the prose, it sets a nice balance between bafflement and comprehension, and it’s nice to see an author doing something like this.

The friendship between the two is sweet, and the teaching and learning scenes were some of my favourites. I loved the protective nature that each had toward the other. Of course, with stories like this one has to have a certain suspension of disbelief, as if I’m going to be really picky then I’ll have to say that feral children have huge learning difficulties after a certain age…But – if like most rational adults and readers you don’t give a stuff about that, you’ll find yourself rooting for the pair of them and wanting them to be happy.

I’ve tried to make this review longer, but it’s a bit difficult–with the Burroughs parallel. I think I would have liked to have seen something a bit more different than gay Tarzan–a wild child in South America, or Russia, or India even…

But I did enjoy it, for all the familiarity, and I recommend it if you are a fan of the original!

Author’s website

Buy at Carina Press

Review: Prove a Villain by K C Warwick

Having returned to Elizabethan London after an absence of two years, Hugh Seaton is happy to resume his old job as tailor to the company of actors known as Strange’s Men.

He is less content when he finds himself looking for a murderer, and hiding his former lover, playwright Christopher Marlowe, who is suspected of stabbing one of the players to death. Marlowe wants to resume their relationship, but Hugh has doubts about the wisdom of this, especially as he has already decided to find himself a wife and family rather than risk his soul with the dangerous and disreputable Marlowe.

To complicate matters, the young actor, Barnaby Winter, also has his sights set on Hugh and seems determined to win him. Hugh’s enquiries, together with his efforts to keep Marlowe out of the hands of the law, cause him difficulties that threaten not only the lives of both men, but also the fragile relationship between them. Hugh also finds unexpected help from Marlowe’s newest rival, a young playwright named Will, who is trying to make a name for himself in the theater world.

Seeking the truth about the murder becomes the least of Hugh’s worries, as he tries to decide where his affections lie, and in the process learns more about Marlowe than he wants to know.

Review by Erastes

This is the first published novel by the author, who I hadn’t heard of before, and I admit I picked it up with a bit of a “ho-hum” point of view. As I’ve said before on this blog, every single book I seem to read about Tudor London involves either Kit Marlowe and/or William Shakespeare – the two of them must postively hang around at the city’s gates pouncing on any newcomers. I wish sometimes someone would find something else to talk about in this era.

However, if this author had taken my wishes seriously, I would have been deprived of “Prove a Villain”, and that would be a loss indeed.

Like many others of the books–although it’s concentrated around the theatures of the day, Burbage’s Theatre and Alleyn’s Rose–the story doesn’t really focus on the acting in particular. Much of the action and character interaction takes place in the “tiring room”–where the men dressed and undressed and the costumes were kept. As you can imagine in such an unstructured and chaotic world, the tiring room is much the same–and the author really creates the bustle and panic of a busy dressing room. Much of the remainder of the action takes place in various apartments around the city (which basically consist of one room each)–and it’s this claustrophobic device which works well, giving the characters tons of time and conversation to expound their personalities and their relations to each other, and of course to advance the threories and the plot.  I could really see this working so well as a play, or a film.

The relationships (and I don’t mean romantic, I simply mean the way the character interact and form friendships–or otherwise) are fascinating and endlessly moving. I couldn’t help but fall heavily for Hugh, as he’s a man with good intentions and he has a damned good heart. I love the way that he’d broken every single one of his good intentions before he’d been more than two days back in London.

Marlowe is–of course–endlessly fascinating and charismatic and fluctuates from personable and impish to being so impossible you want to throw a brick at him.  Add to that a beautiful young man who plays the women’s parts, two theatre owners who have a healthy rivalry, an up and coming playwright with everything to prove, name of Shakeshaft (as Hugh mistakenly calls him), and figures much more on the fringe with intentions who may or may not be benign and you have a GREAT murder mystery.

What this book is is READABLE. I know that sounds daft, because you’d think that all books are, aren’t they? But no, they don’t always go that way, some have confusing character introductions, muddy settings, blah blah – we all know when we are thrown out of a book and find ourselves confused.  But this is like a clear pool–the characterisations are knife-sharp, each character’s voice is unique and unmistakable, the descritpions of London are marvellously well done without having to bludgeon us over the head with “IT’S THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY YOU KNOW.”  Every page is readable, entertaining and I for one couldn’t put the damn thing down.

Consider this a standing ovation. More please, Ms Warwick.

Author’s Website

Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Duke of Orleans by John Simpson

Twenty year old Richard Giles is living on the streets of London in the year 1660, scrounging for food and shelter the best he is able after the closure of his place of employment and death of his mother.

After being given shelter for the night by a kindly old man Richard is back on the streets when an unfortunate incident brings him into contact with a man who may just change the direction of his life, for the better.

Review by T J Pennington

John Simpson’s The Duke of Orleans reads, in part, like a history book…and not in a good way. The descriptions of the time and place are stilted, sounding as if they were chucks of an essay by a very earnest student rather than observations by an omniscient narrator or by the main character. For example:

Many turned to crime, becoming pickpockets and petty thieves, transforming the streets into a morass of corruption.

For those caught plying their trade, it was a stint in Newgate Prison, which far surpassed the definition of cruel in any decent person’s mind. Women and their children were housed along with common debtors in cellblocks considered to be austere at best, unless you had the coin. Then you could buy your way into the section of the prison containing upscale furnishings and comforts, while enlarging the pockets of the jailors whose tender mercies you were subjected too.(sic)

All of which is more or less accurate (“austere” is a remarkably charitable description of the Newgate cells)…but all of which is irrelevant, at that point. We know nothing about the the main character yet save his name, so we don’t care for him. And we don’t wonder if Newgate Prison will be a threat somewhat later. (It isn’t.)

We learn more about the main character on the next page. Unfortunately, the author has not mastered the art of showing rather than telling. We are told that he won’t steal unless he’s on the verge of starving; we aren’t shown him having an opportunity to steal and resisting it despite the temptation. We’re told that he sold off everything that he inherited long ago, though we aren’t told why. And finally we read a sentence that pushes us away from the time, the place and the main character: In the jargon of the day, Richard was a pauper.”

We learn that Richard Giles is the world’s most passive prostitute. His method of attracting business? Standing in front of restaurants and looking attractive and pathetic so that rich men will pity him, feed him and take him home for sex. This doesn’t strike me as a viable way of attracting multitudes of customers, especially if one is homeless, penniless and starving—when was the last time that you went out to dinner and invited a street person to dine with you?–but apparently it works for Richard.

Well, a lord strolls by as lords are wont to do (he’s called “my lord” three or four times, so I presumed that he was intended to be nobility), sees Richard looking hungry and sad, and immediately invites him to partake of “some hot food and cool drink.” We get no sense that Lord X is looking for a bit of fun or that Richard is offering any. The man who owns the pub that they enter behaves believably, shouting at Richard to leave, as he doesn’t want paupers and potential thieves hanging about his pub. Of course, he is immediately smacked down by the lord for daring to suggest that he doesn’t have the money to pay and for criticizing the lord’s guest.

The lord, as it turns out, is not a lord. He is Henry Walker, merchant. He asks Richard why he’s on the streets and Richard recites his true biography. If the narrative had not told us that this was his real background, I would have thought that he had memorized a false story and was reeling it out for a customer. When questioned further about the job he lost, he slips from the formal recitation into 21st-century slang:“I kinda kept the records of what was made and who bought what we sold.”

Sadly, Simpson alternates between stiffly formal and anachronistic language and behavior throughout the book. The barmaid sing-songs, “May I take your order?” much as a waitress in today’s family restaurant would. Richard’s problem with finding employment is one that today’s homeless face; employers require an address for their records. I think that would have been less of a problem in the days when people could be hired on for X amount of hours and paid at the end of the day.

There’s also the problem of how much money was worth back then. Richard states that he came to London after he lost his job with only six shillings in his pocket. That doesn’t sound like much to us. But in 1660, £0 6s 0d would have the same worth of 2008′s £33.70 (using the retail price index) or £459.00 (using the average earnings of the time). Economist Jan Luiten van Zanden says that the income of an unskilled laborer on a construction site in Oxford, Cambridge, Dover or Canterbury was 12 pence (or one shilling) a week (worth £5.61 using the 2008 retail price index and £76.50 using average earnings); in London, the wage for an unskilled laborer was 20 pence (or one shilling eightpence) per week (£9.35 using the 2008 retail price index and £128.00 using average earnings).

So when Richard got to London, he was ridiculously well off. He had a small fortune in his pocket. And we haven’t seen any reason yet why he couldn’t live on that.

Walker takes Richard home. Not because he’s interested in men or boys—he states that openly—but because he “had a rough childhood and young adulthood.” I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, as Richard is neither a child nor an adolescent but a grown man. The housekeeper is only too happy to scrub and mend Richard’s clothes after a long day of work, just as Walker himself is only too happy to do a footman’s job and build the fire in the guest room that Richard is occupying.

The next day, though, Richard has to leave; Walker has relatives coming from York, and well, you know how it is. Richard, effusively grateful for the one night’s sleep, the bath and the newly mended, clean clothes, goes out onto London’s streets again. And that’s it. That’s the last we see of Walker until the end of the story, when Richard pops up again to tell him how well he’s doing.

Now that Richard is cleaner and more rested than he’s been in weeks, does he try to go get a day job somewhere, as would have been possible in his time? Does he tell a proprietor of a store or an inn that he’ll work for food? Does he go to a carriage house or livery stable and offer to help muck it out so that he’ll have somewhere to sleep for the night? Oh, no. He heads to Parliament to beg. And “[h]e hoped his clothes didn’t look too good for people to believe he was a pauper.”

When he gets to Parliament, he is “run off continuously by the local constabulary and finally threatened with arrest.” I’m not sure how that managed to happen, since Henry Fielding didn’t found the Bow Street Runners, an unofficial police force that worked for the Bow Street Magistrate’s office, until 1749 and Sir Robert Peel didn’t establish the Metropolitan Police Force in London—the first modern police force–until 1829.

Anyway, Richard gets rousted from one of the front doors of Parliament, so he starts wandering about in front of the more fashionable shops and gets splashed by a carriage drawing up to the curb. Richard charges up to the coachman and starts berating him. This is the point at which a “youngish” French noble (the eponymous Duc d’Orléans, who would have been twenty at the time of this story, and not, as the character later says, twenty-six) gets out of the carriage himself and goes over to talk to Richard. And he apologizes for the driver splashing Richard.

Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans

Let me repeat that. An aristocrat who is the younger son of King Louis XIII and his consort, Anne of Austria, the grandson of Philip III of Spain, the younger brother of King Louis XIV, and the Duke of Anjou and Duke of Orléans in his own right gets out of his carriage and apologizes to the poorly dressed commoner who is now soaking wet, covered in mud and shit, and screaming at his coachman.

Philippe (for that was the name of the Duke of Orléans) offers to make it up to Richard by buying him an entire set (read: suit) of new clothes. He also introduces himself as “Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Duke of Valois, Duke of Chartres and Lord of Montargis,” which is jumping the gun a bit; he was styling himself as Duke of Orléans as of February 2, 1660, but Louis didn’t grant his brother that title or any of the others until May 10, 1661.

Richard protests that he lacks “employ, money, or a place to rest each night” and that he’s “a non-person”—a word that didn’t exist in the seventeenth century—and, with that, tries to leave. The duke shouts at him not to do so…and Richard is instantly attacked by servants and shopkeepers who think that he’s trying to rob the duke. The duke explains that no, he wasn’t being robbed, he just wants to talk to Richard. Oh, and make him three sets of clothes. One in full evening dress.

While Richard is taking a bath in a washtub in one of the back rooms of this fancy tailor shop, the Duke of Orléans asks Richard what kind of work he’s looking for. When Richard says he can write and figure, Philippe hires him as a valet and personal secretary, despite the fact that Richard can neither read nor write French and says so. His appraising gaze as he looks at Richard’s naked soapy body says exactly why he’s hiring the man. He also notes that despite deprivation—and Philippe thinks to himself that he’s seen such deprivation before on the battlefield, though the first war that Philippe seems to have been in was the War of Devolution in 1667—despite it, Richard is “fairly well muscled.” He also talks to Richard about “the stunning beauty of your ass.”

Once the clothes are taken care of, Philippe explains to Richard why he’s in England—his brother and his advisors sent him to England to keep him from starting a civil war to grab the throne. This would be an interesting Dumaseque plot. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. The story contains no further information about a conspiracy to overthrow Louis or an upcoming civil war. Which is a pity. It would have made a compelling alternate universe story.

After a long section in which Philippe takes Richard to his ambassadorial residence, gives Richard all sorts of instructions about his duties and proper etiquette, and has a couple of meals with Richard (because servants always sat down and ate with their employers), Philippe finally asks Richard if he prefers men. Upon Richard admitting that he does, the Duke says that he prefers men as well…and would Richard “care to join [him] in bed tonight where we both can remain warmer?”

Of course Richard says yes, and of course Philippe assures him that nothing will happen that night…while at the same time asking Richard if he will be his “student in love.” You would expect that night to feature a passionate sex scene. But instead, Philippe curls up next to Richard and falls asleep. They don’t have sex until a week later—over the protests of Richard, who tells the duke, “I am not very experienced in the ways of physical love and I might disappoint you.” Um…Richard? Weren’t you working as a streetwalker earlier, sexually obliging men who would feed you?

After a couple of fairly standard sex scenes, Philippe tells Richard that he loves him and wants him to come back to France with him…as his lover. And, after a conversation with Charles II, in which Charles wants an Anglo-French alliance against Spain—never mind that an Anglo-French alliance already defeated Spain in the Franco-Spanish War in 1658 and England profited from that alliance in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659—Philippe suggests sending Richard to Louis XIV as a messenger.

Of course, Philippe says, a mere commoner can’t meet with his brother. So Charles agrees to make Richard the Earl of Dunleavy. The title doesn’t bring Richard any land, but it does give him what Charles calls “a token”–one hundred pounds a year. According to Measuring Worth, that’s about £11,200.00 in 2008 pounds, using the retail price index, or £153,000.00 in 2008 pounds, using average earnings. (I wouldn’t mind getting that kind of “small token” each year myself.)

And, naturally, as the story concludes, it is implied that Richard and Philippe are going to live together happily for the rest of their days. Unfortunately, the only way that works is if you ignore not only Philippe’s marriage in November 1660 to Henrietta of England (called Minette, and mother of four of his children) and his later marriage to Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate (called Liselotte, and mother of three more), but also the existence of the man who was allegedly the love of Philippe’s life, Philippe de Lorraine-Armagnac, called the Chevalier de Lorraine, whom Philippe met in 1668. The Chevalier was described as “fait comme on peint les anges”–”made as the angels are painted”–and remained with the Duc d’Orléans until the Duke’s death.

The story itself has problems. First, I must mention both the cover and the editing—which are not the author’s responsibility, but which do count, nevertheless. The cover is attractive, and looks as if it were modeled on the Running Press covers, but it is not even vaguely accurate; of the two men on the cover, the one on the left is dressed in what appears to be late-eighteenth to early nineteenth century garb, while the one on the right is clad in what looks like a black jacket and a white mock-turtleneck. Neither is wearing anything approaching seventeenth-century attire…or the long and elaborate curly wigs that were the hallmark of fashionable men’s hairstyles in the seventeenth century, either. And the editing is ill-done; there are many, many missing quotation marks, missing commas and commas inserted scattershot into the text. The errors were distracting and annoying; they kept pulling me out of the story.

As for the writing itself…well, as mentioned throughout this review, the story is very, very poorly researched; even the age of the bisexual Duc d’Orléans is wrong. The language is alternates between being stilted and being slangy and anachronistically modern. And the characters are not developed; we never get a sense of them as people with thoughts, likes, dislikes, hopes and fears. I’ve finished the book, but I don’t feel that I know Richard any better now than I did on the first page.

Finally—and this is linked to the lack of characterization–there is no overarching plot. The novella is, fundamentally, a series of anecdotes about a impoverished young man who is given everything that he could ever want because he is a wonderful, noble, humble and saintly person. We never see Richard being poor or unhappy or struggling or starving; we hear about it, but we don’t see him suffering. Richard, like many fairy tale heroes and heroines, is kind and courteous to the right mysterious old man and old woman (Henry Walker and the housekeeper Martha, respectively) and gets his heart’s desire. It is the Cinderella story with the wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters left out.

And because there is no opponent, no antagonist, no threat to Richard, no conflict at all, and because Richard, who is the quintessential Passive Protagonist, never needs to accomplish any goals through his own efforts (and, indeed, never tries to do so), the story is not interesting. It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy—and while everyone on earth has daydreamed about getting wealth, power, the perfect job and the perfect lover, a daydream is not a fully developed story.

Because there are so many basic problems with the book, the most I can give it is one star.

Author’s website

Silver Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Counterpoint by Ruth Sims

At eighteen Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.

But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?

Review by Erastes

I’ve always been of the opinion that books should be pretty. To (probably) misquote the Arts & Crafts Movement, “one should have nothing in one’s house, that is not useful and decorative.”

Counterpoint is beautifully laid out. From the gorgeous cover by Alex Beecroft (which clearly tells the story) to the wonderful art nouveau font on the headings, this book looks good.

But is it useful? I.e. It might look good, but is it well written?

In a word, yes. This won’t come as any surprise to those readers who have already read Ms Sims’ first book “The Phoenix.” They–as have I–have been waiting a long time for this book, and the polite thing would be to say that the wait was worth it, but I’m greedy and wouldn’t complain if Ms Sims wrote a book a year. This shows progression from the Phoenix; there is a richer depth of emotion and characterisation, and the love affairs described are touching in a way that I never felt with the characters from the first novel.

This is, as the title suggests, Dylan’s story, and he stands firmly at the core of it all:  young, passionate, arrogant with a very firm belief in his talent and entirely obsessed with music, and with little care for anything else, whether it be rules, or family. It’s only the attempts of his family and friends that save him from ruining himself entirely, because if he had been allowed he would have run off and studied music right from the beginning of the book.

It’s a real coming-of-age story, not in a clichéd way of “I’m homosexual and have to come to terms with it” but the way that life forces Dylan to get to grips with his pride, overcome it at times, and compromise with other people, other artists. At first he’s all “it’s my way or nothing” but gradually he learns to work with others, even if that sense of “no, I’m right, and they’ll realise it one day” never leaves him. He sees something, and in his brash young, privileged manner he thinks everything, including love, will fall into his lap, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes to see how he finds that life isn’t like that.

I think the blurb hints that there’s real tragedy in this book, and so readers who can’t bear anyone dying might need to check out whether they want to get invested in the story before starting. But I liked it because life’s like that, you don’t always get to live with the person you love–not forever, and this handles that very well.  I have to say that the “forbidden love” tag in the blurb confused me – in that day and age, I couldn’t see why one homosexual relationship was any more forbidden than another.

There are themes here that are echoed from The Phoenix, and I think I would have preferred something altogether different rather than another artisan who works hard to get to the top of his profession. There’s a top-heavy amount of tragedy, too, which didn’t put me off, as I’m a lover of unremitting angst, but it would have been nice if we’d been shown some of the lighter, sweeter moments in Dylan’s life, especially with his relationship with Laurence Northcliff.

It might sound like I’m being super critical, but when a book is actually as good as this, there’s little point me telling who how damned good. But it is. Sims’ prose is never too layered or dense that you get lost in run-on sentences and too many adjectives; she seems to have an instinct of exactly how much description to add to create an atmosphere, and when to let well enough alone and let the imagination take flight.She never becomes over-technical, particularly when dealing with concepts such as the Gypsies or music, but neither does she dumb down–relying instead on context to make her meaning crystal clear.

As a rich and winding story of love, obsession, disappointment and talent it works beautifully, and anyone with an interest of the fin de siècle period of London and Paris will find it satisfying and intense. Don’t miss this one.

Author’s website

Buy from Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Come and Take it: 1 England, 2 Texas by Julia Talbot

Come and Take it 1: England

Leland August goes to London to work for the embassy of the failing Texas Republic. Feeling like a stranger in a strange land, Leland fears he’ll never understand his English peers. Ford Mayhew seems no exception, especially when the man all but calls Leland out for running him down on the street.

Ford is willing to forgive and forget. He likes what he sees in Leland, and wants to become friends, or perhaps more. When politics and scheming bosses intrude, though, both Leland and Ford turn their suspicions on each other. Can they learn to stand together against forces much larger than they are?

Come & Take It 2: Texas

Leland August is thrilled to be back home in Texas where things are familiar and he has his family with him. His lover Ford isn’t so sure, finding the whole country abrasive and hard to handle.

Things only get worse when Ford’s business associates ask him to do the impossible, and illegal. He decides to trust Leland to help him, confessing his difficulties, and the two hatch a plan to avert the threat to Ford’s life and love. Can Leland and Ford manage to stay one step ahead of trouble, and stay together?

Review by Erastes

This is a duet of short stories (about 40 pages each) set around 1845.  The first one, as the name implies is set in England, and the second in Texas.

These were originally part of the Torquere Press serial fiction line which is coming to an end at the close of 2010. As far as I can see, there should have been a third in this series, and there was no sign of it that I could find, which is a shame, because the story is left rather up in the air, leaving me a little disappointed. However, what there is is well done, I have generally liked Talbot’s work, and her characterisation is always sound. She manages to outline the differences between the rather stodgy Englishman and the more free-ranging Texan. It’s a shame that the stories are so short, really, because I’d have really liked to see their relationship in more detail as it built up.

There’s simply not enough time and space to give more than a outline of this, and I’d have loved to know more about the life and times when the story moves to Texas–there are far too many stories set in England, really.

It’s an interesting plot too, for all its brevity, spies and mistrust on each side which works well, but as I say, we don’t get to see how it was resolved and I hope that Talbot finishes the series off!

As much as I enjoyed this little series, I haven’t given it a higher mark for two reasons: There are few anachronisms (such as “dosh”) that jarred me, and although the final part says “to be continued in part three coming soon” which was in 2007 and as far as I can see there was never a part three, leaving our heroes in a perilous position for far too long.

Author’s website

Buy at Torquere England - Texas

Review: A Secret Arrangement by Farida Mestek

Henry Chadderton’s father earned his wealth in trade, but he looks to elevate his son to the gentry through marriage into a titled family. And so it is that Edward Montford, the second son of an impoverished baronet, accompanies his twin sister Emma to London in order to introduce her to her future husband.

Henry neither appreciates being ordered around nor has any intention of marrying anyone. Then he meets Emma—and Edward—and falls in love with the wrong sibling, setting off a chain of events that will cause arguments, bloodshed, jealousy, and scandal. But Henry will endure it all if it will eventually lead Edward to him.

Review by S. Endicott

I’ve given this book two stars because it’s a remarkably good imitation of an antique style of writing. But its major virtue is also its major drawback, and shows why most writers don’t attempt a close imitation of period style. The author, who says her dream “is to build a Regency village, the aim of which would be to provide Regency-lovers from around the world with a veritable Regency lifestyle experience,” has immersed herself so deeply that she has written one hundred and fifty-nine pages of speechifying and run-on sentences and this makes for terribly dull reading.

I can appreciate the work this must have taken if Farida Mestek’s native language is not English (her bio says she lives in Ukraine), but it’s surprising that her editor at Dreamspinner didn’t encourage her to bring the language just a little more up to date and attempt to show, rather than tell. Many of the events in the story are seen only when the characters tell one another about them, and these people never use one word when fifteen will do. It was a struggle to get past the first chapter, and the going never got any easier—and this wasn’t helped by a prologue set in April 1810, two chapters in May of that year, and a third chapter that bounced back to April.

The story has a typical Regency plotline: the Montford family fortunes are on shaky ground due to the profligate habits of Sir Charles Montford and his equally improvident heir and namesake. Edward Montford, the younger of the two romantic leads, is the ingenuous younger half-brother sent to chaperone his sister Emma while she meets Henry Chadderton, the other m in this m/m. Sir Charles has arranged with Chadderton Senior that his daughter Emma will marry Henry and rescue the Montford fortunes, but Henry takes a gander at the two pretty young things, Edward and Emma, and decides Edward is more his type. Instead of honourably telling his father he’s not interested, he decides not to pitch woo to the lady, hoping that his abrupt retreat will give Emma a gentle hint. Unfortunately for him, Emma doesn’t take hints.

Poor Edward is stuck in the middle. He finds Henry quite charming (so we are told) but has no clue at all why the man won’t pop the question to Emma, since it’s supposed to be all arranged. His attempts to persuade the reluctant suitor to get back on-task don’t succeed, so Sir Charles sends his obnoxious heir to show his younger brother how it’s done.

Charles the younger is a complete ass. He seems to think that the way to fill a man with ardour is to threaten to put a bullet through him.

Edward looked from Emma to Charles, shocked. “Do you not find it extreme to duel with someone because he does not wish to court your sister?” he asked.

“He has to answer for the offence he inflicted upon our family,” said Charles frostily.

“What offence? His lack of interest in Emma?”

“His lack of honor! He broke his word as a gentleman and disgraced Emma in the eyes of society!”

“It was a private understanding between his father and ours, and if not for Emma’s vanity and conceit, which had her clamouring about their upcoming engagement at every gathering, no one in society would know of it!” said Edward, his breathing quickening. “He gave no word to break! Whatever bargain our fathers had struck between the two of them, it was done without his consent, and he had every right to excuse himself from the scheme that he found not to his taste!”

“He will answer for compromising Emma’s honor!”

“How in heavens did he manage to compromise her honor?”

“By withdrawing from the courtship he implied that her virtue was in question! He will take her as his wife or face the consequences.”

“This is ridiculous! A man should be at liberty to choose who he wishes to marry!” cried Edward.

He turned to his sister.

“Emma, I entreat you to be reasonable. Do not let our family’s obsessive gluttony for riches blind you! Chadderton should not be the one to pay for our indiscretions and squandering. Upon my word, this is hardly the best way to go about getting a husband. I should feel profoundly sorry for any young lady who could consider it a triumph to accept an offer of marriage that was enforced by her brother’s hand! Did Chadderton’s snubs and indifference make no impression on you?” he demanded. “How can you justify chasing a man who has made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in you? Emma! Where is your dignity? Your self-respect? Your pride?”

Emma either doesn’t have any or she turned Edward off halfway through that last speech, and who can blame her? Edward’s right, though—since Henry never proposed, or even asked Emma’s father for permission to court her, there were no grounds to challenge him to a duel. You don’t bag a brother-in-law with a pistol.
But the duel takes place anyhow. Chadderton delopes in the finest heroic style, but by accident or intent, Charles wings Chadderton and the result—for no evident reason besides getting Henry and Edward alone together—is that Edward winds up accompany Henry to his country estate, where they spend some time in cultural pursuits (Edward reads Shakespeare to Henry, Henry teaches Edward to shoot and gamble.) It’s kind of a shame that Mestek never actually quoted Shakespeare, because the sonnets would have brought some life to this extremely stodgy courtship. Anyone who is expecting any sex in this situation is going to be sorely disappointed. Edward blushes a few times, but that’s about the extent of it.

Further plot complications from Emma and one of Chadderton’s less savoury friends do slowly move the story along, but by the time it gets to the end, with Emma and Charles safely disposed of and Henry and Edward getting ready to take the Grand Tour of Europe (in 1810?) I was fed up with the whole crew. Emma came across as yet another of those tiresome females thrown into a gay romance to make the guys look wonderful in comparison, and in fact every significant character in this story, other than Edward and Henry, was a shallow, selfish jerk to one degree or another—and Edward and Henry weren’t that much better. Edward seemed like a nice kid but he was painfully dim, and Henry’s treatment of Emma was genuinely boorish.

“When I set out to meet your sister I had heard much of her beauty. I was prepared to admire her without any danger of being taken in by her allurements, as I have long since discovered that such charms, though captivating and pleasant to behold, have no power over me. Imagine my astonishment when upon entering the drawing room with every intention of playing the part of a scoundrel at a later date, I perceived not one but two divine creatures, one of whom proved to be an immediate temptation….

“How alike your aspects appeared to me on first notice, and yet as I sat in front of the double vision and took in the whole picture, how different I found you. Your frank and curious air appealed to me instantly. You seemed unspoilt by attention and thus craving it. You spoke freely and unguardedly and gazed at me with such a flattering expression of awe and adoration that I could not imagine not pursuing your further acquaintance.”

This doesn’t sound like someone I’d want my brother or sister to marry—this is sheer selfishness. Later in the story, what appeared to be a generous gesture on Henry’s part was really just a means of buying off Edward’s father and sister.

Miss Mestek’s bio says that she has read Jane Austen’s novels many times, and her writing style is proof of that—but she lacks Austen’s human insight and ability to create three-dimensional characters, and she’s overlooked some things that Austen would never have bothered to explain because her readers in that era would have known about them–the legitimate grounds for a duel or the common presence of firearms. Explaining away a gunshot wound would not have required the elaborate charade of Edward going to Henry’s estate and making up some wild story. All that was needed was for Henry to say he’d had a mishap while loading his pistol. And that happy ending? In 1810 Europe was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, not the best time for attempting the Grand Tour. A little basic research would have prevented these errors.

Forced plot, weak characterizations, dialog that created a craving for strong coffee… this book never caught or held my interest and I would recommend it only to Regency completists.

Author’s website

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Review: Helpless by M J Pearson

In London during the gross indecency trial of Oscar Wilde, Douglas Shrove finds himself still haunted by memories of his dead lover while skirting violence, blackmail and the affections of two men.

There are two who seek you out

That is what the gypsy told Douglas Shrove a few months after the death of his lover. And the gypsy was right. Two men were vying for his affections.

Mark Goldcrest: an aristocrat like himself; a golden Adonis, cool and discreet.

Warren Scott: a shabbily-dressed denizen of a Bohemian world that Douglas can’t begin to understand.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

But which is which? Both men are attractive and attracted to him…but only one has a dangerous secret.

One is what he seems, and one is not, and one is dangerous.

One of Douglas Shrove’s admirers could be his salvation—if the other doesn’t destroy him first.

Review by Erastes

PLEASE do not be put off this book by the cover. If you’ve looked at it and thought “oh no, BDSM/torture isn’t my cup of tea” then please read this review and perhaps decide to read it anyway. Because frankly I don’t know what Seventh Window was thinking with this cover.  It in NO WAY represents the book. The Snidely Whiplash character doesn’t exist in the book, there’s no half naked men (bizarrely wearing jeans) no one gets tied to a chair and there’s a distinct lack of face fungus.  I appreciate that the artist has some talent, but it almost feels like the cover was created for another book and they didn’t want to waste it. Frankly, I consider it misrepresentation!

The mark of this site for the book won’t reflect the cover at all, that wouldn’t be fair, but I wanted to get that out of the way straight away, to encourage you to look beyond it and give this great little book a go.

I have to say, I really really enjoyed this book.  We are introduced to our main protagonist, Douglas, straight away and we find he’s reeling from the death of his lover who died a few months previously. It’s spring, and the restlessness that often accompanies that season, seeps into Douglas’ consciousness and before he knows it, he’s going outside and walking about for the first time in ages. You really feel the grief in Douglas’ very bones, he’s walking around half dead himself, but he’s coming round, slowly.

Then, as often happens, two things happen to him in short succession. He goes into a bookshop and is subtly chatted up by the owner, a gorgeous aristocratic man, and after that he feels sufficiently bouyed up that he doesn’t really want to go home and instead spends some time in the National Gallery where he meets a scruffy artist who’s really not his type, but who intrigues him and whose art he’s drawn to.  He finds that the artist knew Henry (Douglas’ dead lover) and that gives them a common ground to discuss. The blond hunk from the bookshop asks Douglas around for dinner, and the artist gives Douglas his address, saying he has some sketches of Henry he might like. Men–just like buses. Nothing for months, then two come at once.

As you can tell from the blurb, this is the main theme of the book – two men to choose from. It’s all about appearances and trust. Who is right for him. Who seems right and who is his type. This is handled cleverly by introducing real doubt about both men, and layering mystery on mystery. Personally I would have liked to have seen this stretched even further than it was–making me truly unsure about either man–for me as it stood it was rather too obvious, and I never really doubted who was “good” and who wasn’t.  But that’s possibly because I love being led by the nose down the wrong path, and I’m sure that 99% of readers will find the device quite satisfactory.

I was a little put off by the scene setting at the beginning. There’s a rather clumsy piece of As You Know, Bob, dialogue between Mark (the bookshop owner) and Douglas. I can understand why it was there, to establish that the Wilde indecency trial is on the horizon, but the way they discussed it, it was so obvious that it was there simply to tell the audience where and when we were–and it jarred me. It could easily have been done in Douglas’ point of view, but once we are past that scene, there’s no more of this, the dialogue is solid – and I was swept away into the narrative.

There’s much to like about the book: The characters are vibrant and believable, with surprises on just about every page. There’s excellent detail–not too much–for locations and houses. Pearson doesn’t prettify London in the late 1900′s–sights, sounds, smells are described well. And overall it’s a nice commentary on class, servant roles, and more importantly, the assumptions that people make about other people based on appearance, titles, family, obvious wealth and their houses.

The male/male romance that blossoms does so extremely well. I was dreading that we’d go from Douglas being so broken hearted to leaping into bed with all and sundry but it doesn’t work like that, and the book takes its time, and in that respect, the grief is well represented. Don’t buy this book looking for scorching sex scenes, because all of the sex takes place either behind a firmly closed door, or is of the dot dot dot variety. However, this doesn’t detract from what is a delightful love affair, and a tightly plotted mystery which I’m sure will be enjoyed by anyone who picks it up, as long as they can get past Old Snidely on the cover.

Available in print and ebook

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Review: Pride/Prejudice by Ann Herendeen

For readers who’ve loved Jane Austen’s most popular novel—the inestimable Pride and Prejudice—questions have always remained. What is the real nature of Darcy’s intense friendship with Charles Bingley, to explain why he would prevent Bingley’s marriage to Elizabeth’s beautiful and virtuous sister Jane? How can Darcy reconcile his own desire for Elizabeth with his determination to save his friend from a similar entanglement? What is the disturbing history behind Darcy’s tortured relationship with his foster brother, George Wickham? And what other intimacies, besides their cherished friendship, are exchanged between Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas?

Review by Kalita Kasar

As the subtitle to this book says, this is a story of Elizabeth Bennet, Mister Darcy and their forbidden loves. A rewrite of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with the added premise that both Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are bi-sexual and have enjoyed various affairs with other characters from the original novel in the time leading up to, and even after their meeting and stumbling through a comedy of misunderstandings to the happy estate of marriage.

I first heard about this book on Lara Zeilinsky’s readings in lesbian and bi-sexual literature podcast and thought that the idea sounded somewhat intriguing. I bought the book in hopes of finding within it’s pages a lesbian story which was hinted at in the reading given from the book on the show.

I was disappointed in that hope. The relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and her bosom friend, Charlotte Lucas is barely mentioned and most of the story is spent in exploring Darcy’s relationship with Charles Bingley and as such makes for more of a standard m/m romance with a few women thrown in to facilitate the men in hiding their true natures from society.

This book was a mixed bag for me. There were times when I found myself grinning from ear to ear, delighted as the action sparkled across the pages and led me to keep avidly reading on, but this was interspersed with long–interminably– long conversations between characters which had me wanting to skim past them to get back to the real action and meat of the story–that being the romance upon which this book was originally built.

Perhaps I am too much of a “Janeite,” but I really felt that this book did the original an injustice, reducing the delightful Lizzy from a worthy match for Darcy, to a simpering, silly bride of convenience whom (though he did seem fond of her) he only married because it was the perfect way for him to continue his trysts with Bingley who, as we know, marries Jane Bennet, Lizzy’s sister.

The story is well written, but could have benefited from having at least half of the over-long conversations removed The editing was as near to pristine as any book gets these days and what small errors I noticed were not too distracting.

However, I find it difficult to ignore that my feeling on finishing this book was one of relief at having finally got to the last page, rather than the satisfaction I get from finishing a good read.

YMMV.

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