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

Buy at Dreamspinner Press

Review: Per Ardua by Jessie Blackwood

Addicted to the soaring skies, brash high-flier Arthur Edward “Jack” Ratigan returns to Britain to fly bombers when his birth country goes to war against Germany in World War II. It also means a return to his ancestral home of Pren Redyn House in Wales—and risking his career and freedom if it comes to light that he is homosexual. The drama and peril of combat will create profound changes in Jack both during and after the war, as will the influence of Ifan Griffith, the young butler at Pren Redyn and the one person who seems immune to the Ratigan charm. The sky has always been Jack’s true love, but when he faces a future of never flying again, he’ll discover he’s already found a surprising new home for his heart—with Ifan.

Review by Alex Beecroft

The blurb is possibly a little misleading as it certainly led me to expect there to be more flying in this book. I would summarize the story more like this:

Jack Ratigan’s bomber is shot down. He manages to safely crash land at his own airfield and saves the life of all his crew, but it’s at the cost of spinal injuries that leave him paralysed from the waist down. When he gets out of hospital (with some hope that he may get some movement back in time) he goes to convalesce and build a new life back at Pren Redyn. The story revolves around the family who live there, and the relationship between Jack and the butler of the house, who volunteers to care for him.

Beyond the crash scene at the beginning, the war doesn’t really come into the story. When I realized this, about half way through, I exclaimed to my husband “why would you set a story in WW2 if you’re only going to have it all take place in a big house like any novel set from Georgian to Edwardian times?” He’s a lot wiser than me and remarked that just because it’s set in that era doesn’t mean it has to be about the war. To which I grumbled that I would have preferred a few more explosions.

But this is a quieter book than that. More about a man coming to terms with the loss of his RAF career, learning to live with disability and to give up part of his independence. Jack is used to being the charming centre of attention and the man of action, and has scorned Ifan because he did not understand how anyone could be a servant all their life. Now he has to learn to appreciate what a vital role Ifan performs and what a capable personality it must take to undertake it. He must also learn to redefine himself and find something new to live for now that he will never be a pilot again.

I read to the end of this book with no great sense of hardship, which is more than I can say for many m/m romances. But I can’t say that I was ever particularly riveted either. Quiet psychological drama is not really my cup of tea. I felt that Ifan never really became anything more than simply a very capable person – he didn’t really come alive for me enough to care about him. Equally, I felt that Jack was described as charming, but I never actually found him charming. In fact there was a lot of that – a lot of instances where we were told things but never shown them.

The opening scene in the crashing bomber is my favourite part of the book, a gripping, suspenseful and action packed scene which showed that the author had done her research and pulled me straight into the action.

After this high point, however, there is a chapter or so where we are filled in on the backstory of every character in the book, including where they grew up and went to school, their parents’ backstories and sometimes even their grandparents’ backstories. All of this in a massive info-dump which I found entirely pointless and annoying, particularly as none of the information proved to be relevant later. If I had not had to finish the book for reviewing purposes, I would probably have stopped reading it at this point. Which would have been a shame, as it improves later.

The story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks that fill us in on more of Jack and Ifan’s backstory individually and together. (They didn’t like each other initially. Jack taunted Ifan to the point where Ifan’s employer had to tell Jack to lay off. After which Ifan mysteriously fell in love with Jack.)

The nested flashback is another of those things that really isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer a story to start at the beginning and go on until the end. With this book there were a couple of occasions where I got confused about what time in Jack’s life I was reading about and had to stop and say to myself “no, hold on, he’s walking at this point, so it must be earlier than the part I was just reading about.”

Eventually the flashbacks do catch up with the present, and from that point on the story unfolds in linear fashion. This was a great relief and I enjoyed the final two or three chapters almost as much as the very first scene. My feeling, as a result, is that there’s a good book in here but it’s being undermined by the kind of structural problems which are often the downfall of first novels.

If you don’t mind backstory, info-dumps and flashbacks, and you enjoy a quiet romance where not a lot really happens, this will be very much more your sort of thing than it was mine. I still wish that there had been a few more explosions.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press (paper and ebook)

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