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.

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Review: The Auspicious Troubles of Chance by Charlie Cochet

Chance Irving is a young man with a gift for getting into trouble—not surprising, as trouble is all he’s ever known. After losing everything he held dear one fateful night, he decides to leave New York and his past behind, and joins the French Foreign Legion. But even in Algiers, Chance can’t seem to shake his old ways, and he ends up being transferred to a unit made up of misfits and rabble-rousers like him, a unit he finds just in time to be captured and thrown into a cell with his new commandant, Jacky Valentine.

A highly respected commandant with a soft spot for hard luck cases, Jacky is the kind of guy who would go to war for you, and the three equally troubled youths he’s more or less adopted feel the same way about him. Suddenly Chance starts to think that his life doesn’t have to be as desolate and barren as the wastelands around him.

But even after their escape, with the promise of a future with Jacky to buoy his spirits, or maybe because of it, Chance can’t stop making mistakes. He disobeys orders, lashes out at the boys in Jacky’s care, and blazes a trail of self-destruction across the desert—until someone makes him realize he’s hurting more than just himself.

Published by Dreamspinner Press, ebook only, 172 pages, 56K words

Review by Erastes

A first person narrative which hits many of my buttons. As with her other novel (The Amythest Cat Caper) Chance is a very American character, but this time he’s not particularly nice. He’s a hard-bitten guy who has seemed to have lived many lives (and didn’t really enjoy many of them) by the time he hits mid twenties. He hates himself, the person he’s grown to be, wants more than sleeping around, drinking himself stupid and killing himself slowly–but he doesn’t know how. But then he’s had an unusual upbringing; he was abandoned by his parents and shoved into an orphanage at an age where he understood what it meant, and promptly ran away, to be brought up by theatre folk. His happy existence there is spoiled, and the rest of his childhood is skipped over with a few pages.

I was disappointed here, there was a great opportunity to tell the whole story, to flesh Chance out–to give us real reasons why he turned into such a soulless adult and it was missed as the story seemed to say to itself “oh dear I’d better get to the romance.”

I think for me, this book was struggling to find its niche. It had such a promising start, full of excitement, a great narrative voice with Chance, and then even more promisingly went to the French Foreign Legion–a much ignored manly organisation within m/m writing. So I was hoping that this would be the kind of adventure story where the protagonists are gay and coping amongst a World Gorn Mad. But once we arrived at sandy climes, and Chance and Jacky are shut up in a wooden crate the whole thing collapsed under the morass of predictable romance.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just I was a bit disappointed, because the set up seemed to point more at the plot, and less about the romance.

Chance is sent across the desert to find a missing unit. He does, finding them all tied up, and it was here I got rather confused, because–even according to Chance:

“Trying to decipher Jacky’s conversation was like trying to find your way through a maze blindfolded while walking backward.”

Somehow they all got free–although it’s never really explained how. Once Jacky and Chance are out of the box, there follows a predictable period of prick teasing, meaningful looks, tightening trousers until finally they have fabulous best ever sex in a tent in the middle of the camp–with the lamps on. I’m sure the rest of the unit enjoyed the show. The prose suddenly turns from hardboiled (and we’d been told many times that Chance was hardboiled and are shown why) to descriptions of weak knees and melting souls.

After the most sweet and endearing love scenes the author does try to claw it back:

“Now at this stage, let me pause to say that by no means had Jacky and I become some kinda lovey-dovey couple.”

But when there’s phrases like this:

“..he filled me up inside, every inch of my tight space coated with his beautiful essence”,

Chance rather loses some of his street cred.

I’m afraid the sex scenes were just too purple for me–they aren’t purple in the pulsing rosebud of his anus purple, but being first person they do tend to be far too much on the “I quivered as he touched me and my soul melted” (not a quote) kind of thing and I found myself skipping the rather frequent and at times rather gratuitous sex scenes because of that.

There’s also a complete lack of time and place, we lose the fact that we are stuck in a desert with “unfriendlies” (who they are isn’t really explained) all around, and the courtship takes precedence.  They move their prisoners from the ambush site to Agadir, and this isn’t explored either. We aren’t shown camp life, or the difficulties of desert survival, desert travel,  just very frequent in-tent sex. I don’t know what the Foreign Legion’s rules re gay relationships were (Marquesate explores the modern-day thinking of it here) but I find it hard to believe that they were quite this accepting. Slapping of flesh against flesh and Chance lying around naked on Jacky’s bed, scoffing dates and reading The New York Times. Heartfelt protestations of love that anyone could hear, shouting, weeping and gasping–just try not hearing your neighbour’s conversation next time you go camping. It’s not exactly Beau Geste.

It’s a shame, because from the hints here and there, Petain’s arrival in the area, mention of the Spanish and such-like, Cochet has obviously done some research. I just wished that it had come out more in the story instead of “When we reached Agadir, we dropped off the prisoners and set up camp.” When there’s a lengthy conversation, the soldiers aren’t doing anything but simply lolling about (something I think most armies try and avoid) rather than letting us see the minutiae of army life like KP duty, or standing sentry. Similarly Chance’s next few weeks in camp are dealt with by telling us what happened between Jacky and himself as Jacky attempts to tame Chance’s bad-boy personality. we are told they argued. We are told they fought. We are told there were skirmishes. But we aren’t shown them, (other than: “then I went charging in. I got shot in the leg.” These actions are brushed aside to concentrate on the relationship. As with Chance’s upbringing it’s rather rush and that for me made it an uneven balance, and I don’t think it fully works–I would have liked a more even display both of plot and character development, rather than character development as plot. Chance’s personality is uneven too, thinking like a New York gangster for part of the book, and a Mills and Boon Heroine for another part. Not knowing what a Charley Horse is, or who Chaucer is, but being able to say things like “malfunctioning neurological reasons.”

The thing is, when it takes a step backward from the sex scenes it’s interesting. The interraction between Chance and “the Brats” is exciting and really nicely done, and it fuels more character development than all the filling of asses.

All of that being said, this is a well-written novella, and Cochet (as I’ve said before) has talent and a bright future in the genre.  Ms Cochet is a relatively new find for me, but already she’s got five good stories under her belt. Lovers of romance will warm to this exceedingly and will fall in love with the love story itself. It’s just I was expecting a broader canvas, and this didn’t quite hit the mark for me. But it should state how much I rate the writing as a whole that it gets a four.

Author’s Website

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Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

September 1919:20 year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to Marian Bancroft, letters that she’d sent to her brother Will. Will and Tristan trained and fought together.

But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan’s visit. He holds a secret deep in his soul. One that he is desperate to unburden himself of to Marian, if he can only find the courage.

As they stroll through the streets of a city still coming to terms with the end of the war, he recalls his friendship with Will, from the training ground at Aldershot to the trenches of Northern France, and speaks of how the intensity of their friendship brought him from brief moments of happiness and self-discovery to long periods of despair and pain.

Review by Erastes

I’ve redacted a bit of the blurb because it gives away a major spoiler in the book, which is kept from the reader for almost half of the pages, so it seems a bit unnecessary to give it away so easily in the blurb. Cut for spoilers.

Continue reading

Review: Bonds of Earth by G.N. Chevalier

In 1918, Michael McCready returned from the war with one goal: to lose himself in the pursuit of pleasure. Once a promising young medical student, Michael buried his dreams alongside the broken bodies of the men he could not save. After fleeing New York to preserve the one relationship he still values, he takes a position as a gardener on a country estate, but he soon discovers that the house hides secrets and sorrows of its own. While Michael nurses the estate’s neglected gardens, his reclusive employer dredges up reminders of the past Michael is desperate to forget.

John Seward’s body was broken by the war, along with his will to recover until a family crisis convinces him to pursue treatment. As John’s health and outlook improve under Michael’s care, animosity yields to understanding. He and John find their battle of wills turning into something stronger, but fear may keep them from finding hope and healing in each other.

Review by Sally Davis

The somewhat bleak black and white cover of this book caught my eye when it was released so I was delighted to be asked to review it. The unusual image might be passed over in favour of something more colourful but these two hands delving into the earth are appropriate for the story on more than one level, both evoking the torn up ground of the Western Front during the Great War and the garden that is so important to the story.

Michael Macready is the main protagonist and point of view character. He is an intelligent young Irish American educated well beyond his humble beginnings. But his studies were interrupted by the Great War and Michael has abandoned his ambitions, returning to what he knows – a job at the St Alexander bathhouse in the village where he works as a masseur and takes tips for sexual favours. The blurb suggests that he is losing himself to pleasure but Michael only bestows it on others. His experiences during the war have made him, he feels, a hollow shell.

Then fate intervenes in the form of self-righteous uncle Padraig who arranges for him to obtain the post of gardener at the country home of the wealthy Seward family. There Michael meets John, a broken man, and finds that his massaging skills can be put to good use.

At 240 pages this isn’t a quick read, but nor it it one to be rushed. Much better to take ones time and savour the elegant prose and the pin sharp descriptions. Michael and John are sympathetic without being mawkish – in fact John is a bit of a handful. Prickly, bad tempered, refusing either help or pity, John takes a long time to relax enough to accept the physical relief that Michael’s skill can offer his damaged muscles and even longer to acknowledge the relationship that grows between them. Meanwhile Michael does his best to tend the garden as well as John while fighting back the memories that the raw earth and John’s scars keep bringing back to him.

There is a very good cast of supporting characters – Michael’s and John’s families, their friends and John servants. I adored Millie, the manager of the bath-house with her careful maquillage, and, in complete contrast, Thomas Abbott, the Seward’s general factotum with his stiff manner and dreadful driving. One of the pleasures of the book is in finding characters mentioned at the beginning coming back to play an important role later.

The historical details, and especially the medical ones, are used deftly to give the story a sense of place and purpose. Sometimes the medicinal or massage terms are a bit heavy but on those occasions we are in Michael’s head and the complexity is appropriate. We are being shown just how much more he is than he appears on the surface and it works well, whereas in another context it might have felt over done.

The author doesn’t allow her protagonists the luxury of an easy way out. Both, but particularly Michael, have to pay for their pleasures, but I found the ending very satisfying. I think this book deserves a “Highly Recommended” rating.

Author’s Blog

Available in Paperback and ebook format.

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Review: Maroon: Donal agus Jimmy by P.D. Singer

The best jobs in 1911 Belfast are in the shipyards, but Donal Gallagher’s pay packet at Harland and Wolff doesn’t stretch far enough. He needs to find someone to share his rented room; fellow ship-builder Jimmy Healy’s bright smile and need for lodgings inspire Donal to offer. But how will he sleep, lying scant feet away from Jimmy? It seems Jimmy’s a restless sleeper, too, lying so near to Donal…

In a volatile political climate, building marine boilers and armed insurrection are strangely connected. Jimmy faces an uneasy choice: flee to America or risk turning gunrunner for Home Rule activists. He thinks he’s found the perfect answer to keep himself and his Donal safe, but shoveling coal on a luxury liner is an invitation to fate.

Review by Erastes

It wasn’t until I’d finished this book that I realised that it was actually quite short at 70 odd pages. However it doesn’t read short and it’s well worth every penny of the price. Somehow the author manages to squish a lot–a lot–into those 70 odd pages. But while this would be noticeable with some authors–I often come away from novellas thinking that the walls are being squashed the book could explode into a novel very easily–this is deftly done and it doesn’t seem that it’s wearing boots several sizes too small.

And this is moot, because there was a lot going on in Belfast at this time. Not only were the shipyards the envy of the world, pushing out ships like shelling peas and creating the gargantuans of the shipping world at the time–in particular the White Star Line including The Olympic, the Britannic and the Titanic–but there was unrest (as there had been for centuries) as Ireland chafed against the British yoke.

And it’s into this powder keg Singer drops her story–a simple gay love story which is tender and sweet until outside forces compel them to act in ways that will put their relationship at very great risk.

What I liked most of all about this book is the subtlety of the prose–please do not be put off by what I say here, but Singer weaves the flavour of the language and the rythym of the Irish into the third person narration. Not so much as–say–Jamie O’Neill, but enough just to lift the prose above the ordinary. It’s not there all the time, but it’s a delight when you catch a taste of the lilt. I enjoyed this hugely.

The research, while relayed entirely within the story (no Dan Brown info dumps here, and that would have been the choice of some authors, I know) the author has done a lot of work to learn about the interiors of these ships, the men that worked on them and how things were done, how they were built, how they were launched, tested. It’s great to ride along with Jimmy and Donal as they build these monsters: you can almost see the superstructures rising higher and higher above the dockyards.

You can also understand the duality of the situation, too. Here’s a highly skilled craftsman like Donal, capable of creating the most beautiful woodwork for the first class cabins, and he’s hardly making enough money to support himself and his family back home. He’s forced to take in a room-mate to make ends meet, whilst millionaires will use his washstands on the ships, paying prices for one journey that would keep a dozen families in food and heat for years.

Despite the fact that the book fits its bounds so well, despite the breadth of topics covered, I would have liked more, it’s impossible not to want more when something is this well written. I don’t know P.D. Singer’s work–I beleive this is her first gay historical–but if she writes another I will be snapping it up immediately.

I recommend this book highly, and I’m sure you will enjoy it.

As for the “Maroon” – this is one of Torquere’s bizarre themes, I don’t get why it’s sub-labelled “Maroon” in fact I actually thought that it was part of thee title until I looked up the book on the website. However, it’s not the author’s fault. I wish Torquere would stop doing this sort of thing. At least they’ve given this book a decent cover and not one painted by someone’s four year old. Neither is it the author’s fault that Amazon has the wrong title up on their sites!

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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.

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Review: The Lilac Tree by Marion Husband (short story)

The Lilac Tree is a short story included in Marion Husband’s short story collection “Six Little Deaths” dealing–as the title suggests with the subject of death.

The only gay historical story, The Lilac Tree, is a reminiscence of an elderly man–in a care home, or rented accommodation, being looked after by non-relatives who has nothing much but memories to bring any sunlight into his life. A child asks him an innocent question, and although the answer to that question is “no” it triggers bittersweet memories of a fleeting but intense first love with an officer in World War One.

Husband’s writing is always a delight to read, and this is no exception. It creates an atmosphere with the lightest of touches, says just enough and no more. We are taken from the old man’s life:

me, in my slippers and cake-crumbed cardigan

and transported, by the smell and sight of lilac, to that love affair, long long ago:

He waited for me beneath a lilac tree, the cigarette between his fingers sending its frail grey wisps of smoke to the pale blue sky.  He smoked cigarettes until there was nothing left of them except the stain on his fingers and when he kissed me the taste was pure tobacco.

For a short story it packs a punch, although one expects the sadness, it doesn’t make it any less poignant. The saddest part was the young man living his life and still remembering this as such a vivid memory. I wanted him to have more vibrant memories to erase it.

There are five other stories in the collection, and all are beautifully written, and for the price this is well worth getting and reading again and again.

Author’s website

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