Review: Journey to Rai-Lay by Michael Joseph

Journey to Rai-Lay is the sequel to Journey to Angkor. It follows Henry, whose brief affair with Piero causes the Sicilian to be sent off on his journey to Angkor. Separated from the man he thought he might love, blaming himself for it, and still under the thumb of his uncle, Henry spirals into a deep depression, seeking sex in the underbelly of London’s docks, where more often than not he’s beaten and abused. But it’s while nursing a beer in a seedy docklands pub that Henry meets James Brooke.

Henry’s chance meeting with Brooke launches him on a journey of discovery. A journey that has him learning the ropes as a sailor, and learning more about himself and what he really needs. Sometimes we find what we need in the most unlikely places.

ebook only–122 pages

Review by Erastes

This is a sequel of sorts to Journey to Ankhor which I reviewed last year. I say of sorts because it follows Henry’s story who Piero left behind in England, and doesn’t feature Piero in person at all. For those who have been, or who would like to go to Singapore and Rangoon and other places in the area, it’s written by a man who has been based in Bangkok for 20 years and his experience helps. He writes well and descriptively and it’s clear he’s been to many of these places. He works as a travel writer and it shows.

But while the scenery is hotly pretty and the sex pretty hot, I had two problems with this book, one of which is probably more subjective than the other. Firstly, it’s again (I had the same problem with the first book, if I remember)  more of a travelogue than a novel, and doesn’t go into nearly enough detail to be a proper travelogue, so it falls between two stools and doesn’t really succeed in either genre. Basically nothing much happens. The only conflict–other than Henry “running away” from his not-actually-very-wicked-at-all-Uncle in the first place–is when he’s swept overboard when pirates attack the ship he’s on. As with so many other characters in books, he’s taken on the ship in the first place knowing nothing, learns how to do everything with no real problems at all, and makes friends wherever he goes.

After he’s swept overboard he floats around for two days before being washed up on a beach and amazingly the village he’s rescued by is manned (scuse the pun) by men who prefer men, and these men all welcome him with open arms. It really stretches the bounds of imagination here. To be washed up exactly there has the same coincidence factor as Doctor Doolittle sticking a pin in an entire atlas in order to find the Giant Pink Sea Snail. If Henry had, perhaps, heard of this village, if it had been a dangerous journey or trek to find it, and he’d arrived half dead but having achieved this aim, it would have been 1. more believable and 2. more of a story.

As it is, there’s a lot of making love, picking fruit, making love, picking fruit and then two journeys to visit the parents of each protagonist where some stuff is eaten and no-one cares that they are shagging like rabbits in a wooden bed on wooden floorboards, not even the Victorian parents of Henry. Nothing dreadful happens and they return to their fruit picking to live endless and dreary lives full of amazing sex. A couple of things struck me as the weeks went on in the book were:

1. Why he took so long to start learning the language – long after he’d started a relationship with one of the natives and

2. why it took him so long (people arrived on the island to “rescue him” before he really thought it necessary) to think about other people and how worried and sad his parents and friends would be having thought he had perished at sea. It was hugely selfish of him.

It’s not a bad book, and it absorbed me enough to keep me reading but if I hadn’t been reading for a review I would have given up because the second major problem I had with this book was the editing. I can excuse a few typos scattered here and there but there are just so many here that it seems that it wasn’t even run through Word, or had even the most cursory “here, mate, have a look through this and point out the typos” wasn’t done, let alone any kind of professional editing. There are just too many errors to be excused. I don’t think the word “led” was ever used when “lead” could be put in there instead. So many words missing, so many letters missing “The could see the gathering dark clouds ahead of them.” is just one example. So many misspellings, it was simply inexcusable. I can understand that professional editing for self published authors can be out of the price range, but there are many people on the internet who would be happy to enter into a quid-pro-quo arrangement editing books. Even a grammar check on Word would have found many of these mistakes.

It’s a shame because Joseph lets himself down in this respect and readers are unlikely to have the patience I had. I found that instead of letting myself read and enjoy the story–even though it was slightly uneventful it did show that Joseph’s credentials as a travel writer were solid–I found myself tensed up waiting for the next mistake, which did, I’m afraid, happen on just about every Kindle page.

The historical time line has been altered, but Joseph mentions this, which is helpful, and I wish more authors did the same.

I do recommend the book for people interested in the area, or who enjoy a nice uneventful story with plenty of perfect sex, but a story to fire my interest has actually to have a story not just a documentary style of discovering new people and nothing happening. If you do try it, I’d advise you to wait until the author issues a new edition because I am sure any reader will find the legion of errors very distracting and perhaps off-putting. Edited to perfection this would get a 3½, but in the state it’s in now, I can’t give it more than 2½ which is a shame.

Author’s Website

Buy at  Amazon UK | Amazon USA | Gumroad ePub MOBI PDF

Review: The Hun and the General by Tristram La Roche

 Livianus is bored and longs for action. His reward for serving Rome is the governorship of a quiet corner of Gaul, but as he whiles away his days at his sumptuous villa, his thoughts turn to Attila the Hun, the feared barbarian with whom Livianus once enjoyed an intimate friendship. When a desperate emperor asks him to return to Pannonia to broker a truce with Attila, Livianus’s old passion flares.

Attila is losing the will to go on. He is tired of being a tyrant but his people’s future depends on him. The arrival of Livianus renews Attila’s spirit as he prepares to march on Constantinople. Livianus has nothing to bargain with, but when the emperor’s sister delivers a proposition for Attila, a new and brighter future seems to lay directly ahead. For the people, and especially for the two men. But the deadly hand of the emperor isn’t interested in peace, and as their plans are destroyed, only one course of action remains open to the Hun and the general.

Word Count: 28,173 (Etopia Books) available in ebook only

Review by Erastes

I had to say, once again I wasn’t filled with hope for a happy ending for this one!  I knew absolutely nothing about Attila the Hun other than I had been spelling it wrong all my life and that he probably had nothing in common with Yul Brynner. So I found the period interesting to read about. The voice is quite modern, in a way–which is certainly allowable when no one is speaking the language of the story any longer. The translation works well–it may not be in the words they actually used, but I’m quite sure the meaning still remains the same. There were a couple of too modern expressions that jarred, but in the main it works all right.

I found Livianus a bit difficult to like, and I think that’s possibly he’s a little more at arm’s length in the book, or it seemed so from my angle. The author is fond of Attila, and he’s anxious to portray him as a firm (very firm, and I don’t mean that as a double entendre, but more in the way of “you’ve pissed me off, so I’m going to impale you” kind of way) ruler but while being firm, as fair and just as any tyrant might be. He has an abiding passion for promoting and looking after his people. He’s caught in a dilemma in a changing world. Do the Huns continue their nomadic existence, continually fighting everyone who wants a piece of land in a world that’s rapidly filling up, or do they “do as the Romans do”, settle down, build stone houses, put down roots, establish cities? No idea if Attila had this crisis of confidence, but it’s convincingly put.  I rather lost my respect for such a ruthless tyrant when he got tears in his eyes when he had to part with Livianus for a few months, but then I’m hard-hearted.

I liked the way there was no attempt to pretty up the protagonists. We have a good idea of what Attila may have looked like and he’s portrayed in much the same way, scrubby beard and all. We are told that Livianus is an older man, too, although still fit and healthy–these are not young studs with buff perfect bodies, they are men who have been through campaign after campaign and have the scars to show for it.

It’s the slightly mangled history that I couldn’t get my head around. Knowing nothing about Attila, I went to look up the details afterwards, because the book had piqued my interest. Honoria was Valentinian’s (the Western Roman Emperor) sister, and not, as is stated Theodosius’s (Emperor of the Eastern Empire) sister. She wasn’t killed before Attila reached Constantinople, she was exiled (although possibly killed later, as she drops off the history books). The envoy that she sent wasn’t murdered by Livianus but returned to Rome and was tortured by Valentinian order to find out the details and then beheaded.

Now, I know that historical fiction often inserts a fictional character to take part in great events that happened, but I’d prefer that the events that are happening actually, you know, happened. Or the author adds a note as to why things have been changed.

There were a couple of other things that made me blink with surprise, one of them using mud as anal lubricant. It would be fine (I suppose, although i wouldn’t like to try it) with processed filtered mud you can buy from The Body Shop but mud from the ground–with all the grit? Ouchie.

Although it’s not a Happy Ever After, it’s a hopeful ending for the pair of lovers, although knowing the date of Atilla’s death, it wouldn’t have been very “ever after.”

So, all in all an decent enough romp through a small section of Attila’s life, but don’t take the history as gospel, but anyone who likes alpha men getting it on will probably enjoy it.

Author’s Website

Buy at: Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Cawnpore by Tom Williams

After his time in Borneo with James Brooke, John Williamson travels to India. Working for the East India Company in Cawnpore, he struggles to fit in: a gay man in a straight society; a farm labourer’s son in a world of gentleman’s clubs and refined dinner parties; a European adrift in an alien land. But he finds he is good at his job, overseeing a colonial administration that has been running the country for a hundred years. He falls in love with the country and, in particular, with a young nobleman in the court of the local lord.

Successful at work and happy with his lover, he thinks he can finally meet life on his own terms. Then Indian troops rise in mutiny and the country is plunged into war. With the British Raj teetering on the edge of destruction and Cawnpore a byword for horror across the Empire, Williamson has to choose whose side he is really on.

In this sequel to The White Rajah, the fictional Williamson is caught up in real historical events which provide a thrilling background to his own story. Williamson meets some of the key figures at a crucial point in British history and witnesses events which shocked the world and shaped the future of British India.

Paper and ebook – 288 pages

Review by Michael Joseph

Cawnpore picks up more or less where the author’s previous work, The White Rajah, left off. Like the first book, this one takes the form of a memoir of the fictional John Williamson. Williamson has parted company with his employer and lover James Brooke after the inquiry into the battles that firmly established Brooke as the “White Rajah”. While Williamson is still in love with Brooke, the ghosts of all the people killed in Brooke’s name has driven a firm wedge between them.

With a generous severance from Brooke, Williamson could easily return to England and a quiet life, but he’s not quite ready to settle down and, intrigued by Brooke’s own stories of India, he decides to stop there before going back to Britain. In Calcutta, he applies to work for the East India Company and is surprised to find he is readily accepted and assigned the post of Deputy Collector in Cawnpore. While Brooke did not have a very high opinion of “the Company”, they have certainly heard of his exploits in Sarawak, and have a high opinion of him, and by extension, Williamson.

Although taken aback by his ready acceptance and the relatively high position granted him, Williamson soon finds that the work isn’t all that different than what he did in Sarawak. It suits him well, and although he is very much a square peg in a round hole, he gets along well with most people. One day his boss notes that Williamson is working just a little too hard, and takes him out to meet the Nana Sahib in his palatial home outside of Cawnpore. There Williamson meets Mungo, a young cousin of the Nana Sahib. There’s an instant mutual attraction between the two, and they soon become lovers.

While Williamson professes that Brooke is still the true love of his life, he is clearly deeply infatuated with the much younger Mungo. Like Brooke before him, Mungo becomes Williamson’s mentor, teacher and guide through the mysteries of Indian culture. With Mungo’s help, Williamson learns the language and soon with a little disguise can pass for a local. Everything seems to be going great, until rumors of discontent and outright mutiny begin to circulate throughout the colony.

Cawnpore is, at its heart, the story of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and in particular the massacre at Cawnpore, which is an episode of history I assume most British readers are familiar with. Williamson’s ability to pass for an Indian allows him to hide in plain sight among the rebels and observe both sides of the siege. Although Williamson’s escapades themselves seem improbable, he does relate the events of the siege and massacre in vivid, even alarming, detail that appears to be historically accurate.

Williamson of course survives the massacre and even provides information that helps the British rout Nana Sahib’s forces and re-take Cawnpore. But as the full extent of the tragedy becomes clear, he starts to fear for his own safety, as well as Mungo’s, in the face of the British fury. They flee to the countryside to wait hopefully for tempers to cool, and this is where the full tragedy of the story unfolds.

Cawnpore is, on the whole, a well-written adventure tale. In some ways, I think the author has improved from the first book. One of the issues I had with The White Rajah was the extremely timid way in which the relationship between Brooke and Williamson was described. It was clear that the two men were lovers, but for all the reader was given, it could have been a rather platonic relationship. In Cawnpore it’s much more clear that Williamson and Mungo have a very physical relationship. We’re not given detailed descriptions of what they get up to, but it’s still clear the two men share a physical bond as well as a deep friendship.

However, that said, the sexual relationship between Williamson and Mungo is not really at the center of the story. It doesn’t provide any of the key dramatic elements or move the story along. The friendship between the two is certainly key to Williamson’s ability to observe both sides of the mutiny and survive the massacre, but you could easily remove the gay element from the story and still have essentially the same tale. Cawnpore is, in many ways, an adventure tale where the main character happens to be gay, rather than a ‘gay’ historical novel.

So, where does that leave us? If you’re looking for a gay romance, you almost certainly won’t like this book, especially given the ending which is anything but happily-ever-after. Cawnpore will appeal more to someone looking for action and adventure tales of war. While I wouldn’t compare the writing of the two, this book is more in the vein of Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven than most contemporary gay historical books. The writing is competent and sometimes vivid when describing scenes of battle, but it gets a little flat when it comes to the people and personal relationships. Once the mutiny begins, the scenes between Williamson and Mungo are quite short and even rushed when compared with the colorful descriptions of time spent with the Indian rebels, night raids or calvary charges.

Stories of battle and war aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I have, nonetheless, read quite a few of them. The ones I enjoy are carried along by the relationship between the main characters, which typically develops and changes over the course of the book, whether it’s the tried and true enemies-that-become-friends theme or something more unusual. This is the main failing of Cawnpore, for me. The relationship between Williamson and Mungo springs forth almost fully formed in an early chapter, and remains relatively unchanged for the rest of the book. Yes, there are arguments and disagreements, but they’re little more than lover’s spats.

Given the meticulous research and vivid descriptions of the mutiny, Cawnpore deserves three stars. I was tempted to give it more, but the flatness of the characters and lack of depth to the key relationship holds this book back.

Tom Williams has a blog, The White Rajah

Available from JMS Books | Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Violet Thunder by Kate Cotoner

Wu Jin has both brains and beauty. Though poor, his family are noble enough for Jin to sit the imperial examinations in the hope of obtaining a high-ranking government position at the court of Tang Dynasty China. When his parents are killed, Jin clings to his dreams, and travels to the provincial capital for the exams. Pursued by a sinister horseman into the forest, Jin seeks refuge at a tumbledown inn, little realizing that he’s entered the abode of a fox-spirit. Tian Zhen is a transcendental fox of immense power and considerable seductive charm. He’s startled when Jin sees through his illusions, and believes it’s Jin’s destiny not only to become his lover, but also to help him find a lost talisman, the symbol of Zhen’s heavenly role as the Guardian of Thunder. But convincing Jin won’t be easy, and the search for the talisman turns dangerous when Jin discovers it’s connected to the man who murdered his parents.

Review by Jess Faraday

This is a beautiful story on so many levels. The prose is smooth, lyrical, and lush, but never overdone. The characters, though recognizable to the m/m reader, leap off the page as delightful individuals. And the plot holds its own, side by side with the romance, rather than being dominated by it.

The best kind of complaint a reviewer can make about a story is that it’s too short. I would have loved to see this story expanded into a full novel. But that doesn’t mean that it was incomplete in some way. Far from it. In 65 short pages, the protagonist solves a mystery, finds his destiny, and gets an HEA. It’s short and sweet, and definitely left me wanting more.

The setting is well researched–geography, housing, dress, food–it even gives a thumbnail sketch of the intricate governmental system of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). With an expert hand, the author provides a three-dimensional social and geographical landscape, which gives all the information a reader needs without a single dry patch.

I enjoyed how the myth of the Huli jing, or Transcendental Fox wove itself through the plot. And speaking of the plot–a well-formed mystery with a splash of coming-of-age–it was solid enough to have been a good story even without the romance. But, I think most of us would agree, a good romance makes any plot that much sweeter.

I really can’t recommend this highly enough. And I can’t wait to read more from Ms. Cotoner. Five stars.

Buy at Torquere Books.

Review: Journey to Angkor by Michael Joseph

Piero leaves his home in Taormina to go to work for a renowned naturalist in England. Unfortunately, he hadn’t reckoned on falling for the Professor’s handsome young nephew, but it seems they have only just begun to explore their mutual attraction when the Professor discovers their relationship. To avoid scandal, he sends Piero away on a mission to Indochina, to explore the region and document the things he finds there. It’s truly a chance of a lifetime for Piero, even though he doesn’t want to leave his new friend.

On the voyage to Singapore, Piero meets a mysterious Siamese gentleman who, when they meet again in Bangkok, arranges for the Italian to meet Plai, a young Siamese man who will become Piero’s guide, interpreter, and more. As the two young men explore Siam and Cambodia, they encounter stinky fruits, stingy kings, lascivious princes, and the wonders of Angkor, an ancient city unknown to Europeans of the time.

Review by Erastes

Having just read one man on erotic foreign travels, I was hoping that Journey to Angkor would be out of the same stable, but I was a little disappointed.

The copy I had originally had a real problem with punctuation and homonyms, discrete, complement, that kind of thing – but when I mentioned this to the author (always awkward when you are in communication with authors, but in this genre, it’s difficult not to be) he edited the file again and put up a fresh copy which has ironed out many of these issues. 

Putting that aside, for those who don’t care and won’t notice the grammatical problems, the fact of the matter is that nothing much actually happens. Granted, Piero travels all over the place, “taking samples”—but there’s no conflict, other than at the beginning when he’s forced away from Henry, a young man he slept with once (and is in love with—he’s one of these guys who mistakes sex for love, all the time.). There’s a small wobble towards the end when the ship ALMOST hits a rock and some bloke we never met falls overboard, but other than that, everything is just lovely. The natives are lovely, the governors are lovely, the sailors are lovely, and Piero and his fuckbuddy Plai swan around having rampant noisy sex everywhere and no one bats an eyelid. Even in a boarding house where the clientele is both male and female – no one hears or sees anything and no one suspects.

I admit I was hoping that they would run out of food, or be abandoned by their guides, or get malaria, or have an elephant tread on them, but no!

I couldn’t really work out WHY Piero had been chosen to go to Siam. The author says in his afternote that the journey closely follows a French explorer, Henry Mouhot—but Piero seems an odd choice. If it had been a case of Henry’s father wanting him out of the way, then I could understand it, but for some reason, The Royal Society thought he was the best man for the job. He’s not an explorer. He’s not a botantist, or a biologist—he’s an artist—and his brief is to collect samples of flora and fauna he’s never seen before. And seeing he came from Sicily, that would be just about anything.

This aspect of the book is very much sketched over, too. I would have been rather interested in what he found and the descriptions he uses to catalogue them, but other than some butterflies that he gets the children to catch in one village, we are just told they are “samples”, and nothing more. It could have been a plant collection book along the lines of Philipa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, but it isn’t, and this gives us no insight into the work of plant collectors. How the samples were to be preserved and packed would have been interesting to know. Instead of which we just get a travelogue where nothig much happens.

I’m afraid to say that a period in a much unexplored area of the planet – which should have enthralled me – didn’t do that for me, and that was the major disappointment.

The writing isn’t bad, and with professional editing, it could be much improved, along with the bland-nothing much happen-ness. But, for all that, it’s little more than a travelogue with many sex scenes, and–as in The White Rajah reviewed a little while back–I got similarly annoyed with the fact that Piero, who had not been anywhere other than Europe took everything in his stride. Whether it was talking to local people, experiencing the different foods and geography of the areas, or being taken in as guest by dignitaries, he didn’t seem very impressed. I’m a mid 20th century baby, and I travelled in these areas in the 80’s and I went around with my jaw on the floor most of the time.

The author has plans to continue the story of Piero and Plai, but will be following the story of the lost lover, Henry, first.

If you are really interested in this area of the world, it is probably worth a read.

Buy at Smashwords

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