Last Gasp by Erastes, Chris Smith, Charlie Cochrane and Jordan Taylor

Last Gasp, a series of four short novellas wherein we discover: four gay couples who struggle to find happiness during historical periods on the brink of change. Take a trip back to 1840s Hong Kong, Edwardian Syria, 1898 Yukon and 1936 Italy, and experience passion that will endure through the ages.

The Stories:

Tributary by Erastes

It’s 1936 and a generation of disaffected youth waits in the space between a war that destroyed many of their friends and family, and a war they know is bound to come. Guy Mason wanders through Italy, bored and restless for reasons he can’t even name, and stops at the Hotel Vista, high in the mountains of Lombardy. There, he meets scientist James Calloway and his secretary, Louis Chambers, and it’s there that the meandering stream of Guy’s life changes course forever.

The White Empire by Chris Smith

Edgar Vaughan sincerely believes that six-thousand miles is enough to give him a fresh start. Escaping in 1838 from the drawing rooms of Belgravia and the constraints of his landed family, he takes up missionary work in the trading post of Hong Kong. On arrival, he finds the region on the cusp of war; the Chinese Emperor has outlawed the importation of opium — the key link in the trade of the East India Company. Between Edgar’s sense of isolation, the sight of the puling opium addicts, and one memorable encounter with a man in a peacock waistcoat, Edgar finds himself embroiled in the very marrow of the British Empire’s machinations. He finds himself torn between espousing the expeditious whilst protecting his new acquaintance, and doing what is right and risking the wrath of the British Empire.

Sand by Charlie Cochrane

People come to Syria for many reasons; tourism, archaeology, or because they need to leave Edwardian England to escape potential disgrace. Andrew Parks is one of those, burying past heartache and scandal among the tombs.

Charles Cusiter has travelled here as well, as chaperone to a friend whose fondness for the opposite sex gets him into too much trouble at home. Out in the desert there aren’t any women to turn Bernard’s head – just the ubiquitous sand.

The desert works its magic on Charles, softening his heart and drawing him towards Andrew. Not even a potentially fatal scorpion sting can overcome the power this strange land exerts.

The Ninth Language by Jordan Taylor

Thousands of outsiders descend on Canada’s Yukon Territory during the 1898 gold rush, wreaking havoc on the landscape and the indigenous people who live there. Amid the backdrop of this once pristine land, a man struggling against the destruction of his home and culture finds himself indebted to one of the men causing it. These two strangers discover solace and wholeness where they least expect it: each other

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

As others have noted, anthologies can be a hit or miss or affair but fortunately that is not the case with Last Gasp, which consists of four excellent short novels that will keep any historical fiction fan happy for several hours of entertaining reading.

Three of the authors are familiar to me (Erastes, Charlie Cochrane, and Jordan Taylor); The White Empire by Chris Smith is her debut publication and it is an impressive first start. Although I enjoyed all four stories in Last Gasp, this one may edge out the others (by a hair) as my favorite. It was the longest and the most complex in terms of plot, with a little mystery, some suspense, more than a bit of moral ambiguity and, of course, a romance. I think, too, I am partial to the 1840s as a time period for a story so that added to my enjoyment. I look forward to Smith’s next published offering.

Jordan Taylor’s story was the only one that did not feature British characters and coming at the end of the book (I read the stories in order), it was a nice change. Her writing brought the Yukon Territories to  life and the push/pull conflict between the two main characters, Mitsrii and Troy, was palpable. Taylor is a new, young, and very talented author and I was excited to see her story was included in this collection.

Fans of Charlie Cochrane’s “Lessons” series will feel right at home with Sand, although the setting couldn’t be much further from St. Bride’s Senior Common Room! Even so, the writing was classic Cochrane with her signature funny turns of phrase and amusing expressions. Charles and Andrew quickly fall in love—some might feel a little too quickly, to the point of declaring themselves to each other and making what sounds like a lifetime commitment within days of meeting. I do think that Cochrane’s writing works a little bit better in longer-format fiction where she has time to carefully develop the characters and setting. Even so, I enjoyed this story very much and my little quibble is only a minor problem point in an overall excellent story.

Last, but not least (although it is the first story in the book), Erastes once again seduced me with her prose. While some writers excel at dialogue—and Erastes does fine in that respect—I love her beautiful descriptions of her characters, their locales, and their activities. Tributary did not disappoint. There was enough ambiguity to keep the story interesting and the uncertain future for the main characters certainly lived up to the premise of the entire collection—a world on the brink of change.

As historicals, the details were magnificent. Each story quickly pulled me into its world and kept me there. The characterizations, too, were excellent. At the end of each short novel, I wanted to know more, wondering what happened to the characters and where they moved on in their lives together—or maybe apart.

All in all, it is easy to recommend this collection. Fans of the authors will definitely want to add this to their “to buy” list. If you are a reader who says, “I’m not so sure about historicals…” this might be a good place to start, as the stories have enough variety and detail to give a good overview of what the world of historical fiction has to offer. The stories are full and rich and complete and made for a very satisfying reading experience. A definite keeper of four stories that I am sure to re-read. Brava to the authors, for a job well done!

Purchase from the publisher

Review: Hidden Conflict (various)

Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

Review by Vashtan

I’ve been in a reviewing funk over the question how to review and to what end. While I still believe that honest reviews require the occasional lashing, I concur with a friend who holds that reviewers should offer advice to authors as well as readers. Now, that requires a slightly different approach, and makes this a bit more difficult.

Not only would a reviewer have to express an opinion on something as intangible as moods and one’s personal reflections (easier thought than written), but also find the perceived “fatal flaw” in the writing and point it out so it can be fixed. This approach actually places a reviewer in the camp of the editor. What I then review is not just that author’s command of the craft, but the editor’s ability or inability to spot and fix issues. A weak book would then be not only the fault of an author, but the flaw of an editor in not fixing it, and the publisher for acquiring the text and contracting it. I will have to do more thinking about it.

Thankfully, “Hidden Conflict” is, by and large, an easy vote. I really enjoyed it. One word of warning. This is not a collection of romances. Only one text fits the bill and provides a happily ever after (at least we can hope that), while the other texts explore loss, suffering, social stigma, “fitting in with the boys” and barely-verbalised or expressed desire. This is also not the book for steamy sex scenes, so I would place this firmly in the camp of “gay historical writing”. What this book gives you is four intense,
emotional journeys, each one firmly grounded in history and fact. We see Native Americans counting coup, experience the mind-numbing shelling of WWI and the terrible wastelands of mud and rain, and the loss of families and boyfriends knowing their loved died “somewhere across the ocean”. Alienation, shell-shock, and the terror of war. In this, the authors explore the mind of the fighting man; the comradery,
the emotional bonds forged on the battlefield, looking out for one’s fellow man. As a historian with a strong bent towards military history, I’m always astonished at how war brings out the best and worst in humanity; both our bestial natures and our utterly selfless ability to sacrifice and preserve, and to value life most in the destruction of it. I felt the authors all grappled with those questions, so this is not a book for those who fancy men in uniforms getting it on. It’s so much more than that, which makes it difficult
to review.

All of the stories are well-written and carefully edited; the cover expresses the essence of the book well as a collection of four different voices. “Romance” as in romantic attachment, the possibility to love, the desire to love and hold features in the anthology, of course. It can be a love story against all odds and society as in “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft, a (possibly) unrequited love and uncanny, ambivalent, maybe brotherly love as in “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst, or the potential of love that was sadly cut short like so many lives during WWI in “No Darkness”, and, with a different slant in “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland, which focuses on the survivors and their ability – or inability – to move on after loss. But the setting is very real, too, and I found no major flaw with the research in terms of military and gay history. A different reviewer pointed out issues of military protocol in some of the stories, but as a civilian, I didn’t spot them.

Now comes the part where I have to choose a favourite, I guess, and the vote is clearly on “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft. I read her “False Colors” and it blew me away, and she did it again, with less words. Minor craft issues I had with “False Colors” (focusing on viewpoint, voice, and pacing) are gone in “Blessed Isle”. Beecroft continues to astound and amaze, and this story went down like very old, accomplished Bordeaux wine, served just exactly right. It’s not a story that you can “just read”, you have to savour it. The language was pitch-perfect, and I recommend taking your time to work out the nuances and let them resonate. Sometimes, prose is so well-made that it becomes a rush and a pleasure all by itself. The story Beecroft tells and the exploration of the characters just heighten the pleasure, but it’s always her prose that gets me first. Were “Blessed Isle” on it’s own, it would be a rare five stars.

The reason why the others aren’t my favourites (I hope that sentence makes sense) are minor. Each story would rate highly on its own (in the 4-star range), but I have minor quibbles with each one. “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst is emotionally honest (and I love authors facing those emotions – it takes a special kind of bravery), but I
didn’t fully warm with the main character, Brett Price. While it was painful to see him stumble through the battlefield and tell us all about the horrors of the massacre (well-done, gruesome writing), I didn’t quite warm with him. He appeared through much of this as a love-struck puppy, and I kept wanting to tell him to “man up” and stop
pining. But then, how many of us do manage to do that when our friends tell us? Exactly.

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor sets out on a very difficult task—to tell a story with two men in a cellar, fearing impending death, and growing close by telling their stories. The story is heavy on dialogue, and attempts to draw the characters by dialogue, a task that
it didn’t quite accomplish for me. While I can believe that hysteria and stress (one is wounded) can make people sound more cheerful than I would expect them to sound under such circumstances, there were moments in the dialogue where I thought that the characters were on the verge of being self-indulgent, telling all those anecdotes while
quite literally fighting for their lives. I’d expect more of the raw stress and fear to come out, so I would have tightened up the dialogue quite a bit more than was done. The strongest parts of the story, I felt, were those where the characters don’t talk.

The last story, “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland explores the loss of a loved one, a life lost in battle during WWII, from the viewpoint of his lover. I struggled a bit with this story; while I understand that many struggle to move on after a loss, I felt forty years of
mourning was excessive, especially since the surviving boyfriend never had any other relationships and has never fallen in love. Instead of romantic, I felt “what a waste of one’s life”, but maybe I’m too cynical. The story explores the surviving boyfriend’s life, his
inability to let go, how he is part of the family of his beloved Edward, taking Edward’s position, while keeping his mourning mostly silent, “lover” becomes “good friend”. Nevertheless, I felt the story dragged and would benefit from some well-placed strategic cuts.

As diverse as these stories are, there is one for everyone, and I believe nobody can read this without being profoundly moved by the writing and the depth of emotion the authors explore. Bravo.

Cheyenne Publishing (print)  Bristlecone Pine Press (Ebook)

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