Review: Tangled Web by Lee Rowan

Brendan Townsend is a young man who is very loyal to his friends. So when Tony—his best friend, occasional lover, and a complete screw-up—comes to him in trouble, Brendan is determined to help. Tony is being blackmailed by the owner of a “molly house”, the private club that Tony—and other like-minded gentlemen—frequent in order to indulge their entertainment needs.

Brendan is disappointed in his friend, but goes to seek the help of his older brother’s military commander. Philip Carlisle is a gentleman to Society, and also a man Brendan’s brother trusted completely and told his younger brother to seek out if he ever was in trouble. Philip is a 40-year-old widower, and finds himself charmed, for the first time, by an attractive young man. Brendan is likewise besotted with hero-worship, especially when Philip turns the tables on the blackmailer and saves the day for many of Society’s closeted sons.

What follows is a tale of desire, regrets, cross-country pursuit, hidden identities, lovers torn asunder then reunited, clever cover stories, and the requisite pistols at dawn.

Review by Hayden Thorne

The first thing that caught my attention when reading Rowan’s novel was the way it takes on one of classic literature’s favorite studies in dichotomy: city versus country. It’s a subject that’s always been a favorite of mine as well, and Rowan explores the diverging elements between the two in great detail.

A Regency fan wouldn’t be disappointed with the settings and their treatment. London’s full of activity of both high and low society. We see the wealthy dazzle each other in glittering ballrooms, dinner-parties, or St. James’ Park. In these scenes, we’re treated to character interactions reminiscent of Austen. There are a lot of playful exchanges. There’s quite a bit of witty banter among members of the Townsend family, and I was very pleased to see a good deal of attention placed on Brendan’s relationship with his siblings, especially Elspeth, his younger sister and to whom he’s closest. As expected from the titled, their cares are pretty much focused on the usual problems involving courtship and landing the perfect husband.

Those scenes, along with the more sordid ones involving molly houses, are laid out in vivid detail, with each scene sequeing nicely into the next, but without the clunkiness of too many details that’s always the danger in writing historical fiction. The study in contrast is just as sharp within London as it is between London and Kent. One moment we’re surrounded by wealth, music, and lively conversation; the next moment, we’re skulking around in shadows, walking past shut doors, and being surrounded by masked gentlemen. There’s a stuffy, claustrophobic feeling in those scenes, and even outside Dobson’s establishment, private lodgings – normally a safe haven – shrink under the strain of fear that dogs Tony and Brendan.

Kent, just like London, is beautifully drawn – an idyll in and of itself, with gorgeous expanses, untouched Nature, and peaceful solitude. And just like London, it also has its own dark side, with Carlisle helping the local magistrate solve a murder that has a connection with a smuggling ring. The oppressive shadow of exposure, disgrace, or worse, capital punishment follows Brendan and Carlisle to Kent, though its effects aren’t as immediate and frightening there as they are in London.

The relationship between Carlisle and Brendan begins on a business-like note, but its highlight is the connection they enjoy whenever they talk about horses. I love how those scenes unfold so casually, with each man gradually shedding layers of himself to the other. Even though they haven’t confessed their feelings to each other at that point, I still found those moments the most subtly romantic in the book, for their connection feels almost spiritual. In fact, I’d have been satisfied if they didn’t confess their love and simply carried on, their relationship deepening (perhaps without their knowledge) as they find greater commonality between them, though it would’ve stretched the story out much more.

That said, one of the difficulties I had with this book was the romance between Brendan and Carlisle after they reveal their feelings. I simply didn’t feel enough of a chemistry between them, partly because it’s pretty much Brendan who falls hard for Carlisle first, and the older man doesn’t really experience an emotional epiphany till late in the story. Once Brendan finally expresses himself to Carlisle, he starts behaving like a needy teenager in the bedroom, throwing himself at the older man, begging the latter not to be indecisive and so on, while Carlisle remains emotionally aloof and tentative (though the reasons are explored later in long introspective scenes). Yes, they make love, and Carlisle, for all his waffling, really does enjoy it and eventually realizes that he is in love with Brendan and that he needs to let go of his late wife’s specter. Despite that, however, there still seems to be something lacking in their emotional connection, which baffles me because I can’t really put a finger on what’s missing. And it’s because of it that the sex scenes have a bit of a jarring quality to them despite the fact that they’re very well-written.

There’s also a heavy-handedness in the novel’s focus on the dangers of homosexuality. Tony’s situation certainly makes that clear to the readers, but we’re constantly reminded of it through Brendan’s growing paranoia in London, Dobson’s cynical approach to his business, Carlisle’s accounts of soldiers being hanged, and Brendan’s godfather’s threats (directed at Dobson). Then there’s Elspeth and her engagement, her happy prospects a depressing reminder of the kind of world to which Brendan doesn’t belong and the loneliness and isolation (if not a loveless marriage) that define his future. While I think it’s great that such an important issue isn’t ignored or glossed over, it can drag a good story down if overdone – especially since, in this novel’s case, Rowan gives Kent (an understandable refuge for a couple like Carlisle and Brendan) a nicely realistic treatment as an alternative to London. Simply showing that the danger of discovery can creep into a quiet country retreat would have been enough to ground home the dangers after all that’s happened in London.

Minor niggling involves occasional dialogue that sounds more contemporary than the rest and the use of “college” versus “university.” The shifts in points of view also happen without a scene break, which can lead to somewhat confusing reading at times. But those didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of Tangled Web. On the whole, I found the story engaging and wonderfully surprising (i.e., in the subplots involving smuggling, the Townsend family, and Carlisle and Brendan’s love of horses), with Rowan’s approach to the romance refreshingly different despite the problem I had with regard to the characters’ chemistry. She shows a lot of respect for Regency England in her detailed exploration of so many disparate scenes, so much so that each location becomes a character itself, adding more dimension to the world against which Brendan and Carlisle’s stories unfold.

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Review: Eye of the Storm by Lee Rowan

It’s the Winter of 1802 and the long war between England and France has entered a fragile truce. But the lives of Commander William Marshall and Lieutenant David Archer, have become more complicated than ever.

As a Commander, Will is accustomed to making tough decisions. Can he give an order that will surely put his Davy in harm’s way? He almost lost his lover to a bullet once before and he fears losing him now, yet duty calls.

Davy is tormented by doubt. Will walked away before, trying to end their relationship for Davy’s own safety. Can he trust Will again—not only to stay with him, but to believe that their love is worth the risks?

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

I had been waiting eagerly for Eye of the Storm to be released on January 1, 2009 and to my great delight, it popped up on the Linden Bay Romance website on that date. Since I have an e-reader I was able to download the book and get right to the important business of reading. If anyone reading this is waffling on getting an e-reader, let me assure you that instant gratification is tremendously rewarding.

To the story: this is the third in the Articles of War series, preceded by Ransom and Winds of Change.

Eye of the Storm picks up immediately where Winds of Change ends: Commander Marshall and Lt. Archer (now David St. John) have just been reunited. An uneasy truce exists between England and France. With the assistance of his relatives, Sir Percy and Baron Guilford, Archer/St. John has become the owner of the merchant vessel Mermaid. They are hoping that Marshall will sign on as its captain. The nature of the work of the Mermaid is vague; it seems that she will be transporting cargo but one suspects that more clandestine activities are in the offing.

The story begins with dinner with Marshall, Archer (St. John) and Sir Percy, which allows for discussion of practical matters and sets the stage for what’s to come. Then we have a joyous reunion between lovers Davy and Will which was certainly needed, since the previous book ended with nothing more than a passionate embrace and a few tears. In a post-coital moment, they have an interesting conversation about what sort of future they might possibly have together, including discussion of Will getting married “for appearances” since that is what may be best for him to advance in rank in His Majesty’s Navy.

Once the groundwork is laid, the story moves ahead briskly. Author Rowan knows how to tell a tale and the plot of this novella is tight and carefully constructed. Even though they are on the ship together – Davy as owner and Will as captain – they do not have much free time, to the dismay of the reader who might be hoping for lots of sex! Rowan stays focused on the narrative and keeps the events realistic to the era. Marshall is a very conscientious captain who does not let his own desires – and the desires of his lover – come before his responsibility to his ship and the men under his command.

Eventually they are separated and this allows for more rumination, especially on Will’s part, about the nature of their love and the potential of their lives together. Will eventually reads some letters that have long gone unread that helps him to understand more fully the relationship that exists between him and Davy. There is also another exchange – very brief, but touching – which helps Will realize that he is attracted to men in general and Davy in particular. It is only a few paragraphs but telling and deftly written.

All of this happens against a background of ships and spies, wondering who’s who and what’s what. Like I said earlier, Rowan knows how to tell a story and her skills in this department seem to get better with each book.

My only complaint – and I had the exact same complaint with Winds of Change – is that things get a little abrupt in the last one-fourth of the book, to the point of it being ragged. There are transitions that just seem too unexpected. A few conversations are so brief that they seem truncated. Characters who seem to be present one minute suddenly disappear. It is frustrating because it wouldn’t have taken much rewriting to fix these points but they are annoying loose ends that should have been corrected – and weren’t.

Even so, Davy and Will are such beguiling characters that I am willing to forgive the author for these small transgressions. Their love is so joyous and real that I enjoy every minute I am able to spend in their company.

As a reader, I am often asked if books in a series should be read in order, or can you start at any point. With Rowan’s books, they definitely should be read chronologically and to assist anyone who may be coming upon the Articles of War series for the first time, here’s the list: Ransom, Winds of Change, Eye of the Storm. There is also a trilogy of short stories called Trilogy 109: Sail Away. These stories include important backstories on many of the characters included in the larger novels. I would particularly recommend reading the Trilogy before reading Eye of the Storm because it has essential information about Baron Guilford that will definitely enhance a reader’s understanding about the events in the present novella.

In sum, I heartily recommend this book and look forward to the next installment, which I understand from the author is due out sometime in late 2009. Sigh…so many months to wait, but something to look forward to!

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Review: Speak Its Name by Charlie Cochrane, Lee Rowan and Erastes

A Three novella anthology from Cheyenne Publishing

Featuring:
Aftermath by Charlie Cochrane
Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan
Hard and Fast by Erastes

Expectations riding on young Englishmen are immense; for those who’ve something to hide, those expectations could prove overwhelming.

Aftermath
When shy Edward Easterby first sees the popular Hugo Lamont, he’s both envious of the man’s social skills and ashamed of finding him so attractive. But two awful secrets weigh Lamont down. One is that he fancies Easterby, at a time when the expression of such desires is strictly illegal. The second is that an earlier, disastrous encounter with a young gigolo has left him unwilling to enter into a relationship with anyone. Hugo feels torn apart by the conflict between what he wants and what he feels is “right”. Will Edward find that time and patience are enough to change Hugo’s mind?

Gentleman’s Gentleman
Lord Robert Scoville has lived in a reasonably comfortable Victorian closet, without hope of real love, or any notion that it’s right there in front of him if he would only open his eyes and take notice of his right-hand man, Jack Darling. Jack has done his best to be satisfied with the lesser intimacy of caring for the man he loves, but his feigned role as a below-stairs ladies’ man leaves his heart empty. When a simple diplomatic errand turns dangerous and a man from their past raises unanswerable questions, both men find themselves endangered by the secrets between them. Can they untangle the web of misunderstanding before an unknown attacker parts them forever?

Hard and Fast:
Major Geoffrey Chaloner has returned, relatively unscathed, from the Napoleonic War, and England is at peace for the first time in years. Unable to set up his own establishment, he is forced to live with his irascible father who has very clear views on just about everything—including exactly whom Geoffrey will marry and why. The trouble is that Geoffrey isn’t particularly keen on the idea, and even less so when he meets Adam Heyward, the enigmatic cousin of the lady his father has picked out for him… As Geoffrey says himself: “I have never been taught what I should do if I fell in love with someone of a sex that was not, as I expected it would be, opposite to my own.”

Review by Alex Beecroft

It won’t be any secret that I’m a fan of both Erastes and Lee Rowan, so I’ve been looking forward to this trilogy ever since I first heard that it was on the books. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in, or at least it is for me, because I’m always afraid that if I look forward to something too much, it will end up being a disappointment.

So colour me very happy indeed that this was nothing of the sort. All three stories are carefully observed, beautifully written and emotionally very engaging. All three also share an emphasis on romance, on following the burgeoning relationships of their protagonists through discovery, doubt, problems, conflicts external and internal, towards an eventual satisfying resolution.

Of the three, Aftermath is probably the one I liked least. I loved the setting! Who could not love flannel-trousered beautiful young men at university, strolling across the green lawns, talking about the meaning of life, while slowly, deliciously falling in love? My main problem was the structure. A flashback at the beginning left me wondering whether now was now or then was now or…. I got a bit chronologically confused as to when the shoes incident was happening. Reading back a second time I realised that that was the dramatic first meeting of the two heroes, but the impact was lost on me at the time.

Having said that, though, when I got my bearings, I became thoroughly invested in hoping that these two highly principled young things would throw their principles to the wind and settle down to making each other happy. Much praise to the author – whose first professional story this is – for making that happy ending so very much desired while also showing how unlikely, even impossible, it could seem. You can see both young men growing up even in so short a space.

Gentleman’s Gentleman by Lee Rowan is a delight from start to finish. It felt a little like watching an episode of the Lord Peter Whimsey detective stories, if Lord Peter had been secretly in love with his manservant instead of with Harriet Vane. I don’t mean that in any kind of derivative way, but more to illustrate the feeling of place, from the battlefield to the first class carriage of a train racing across Europe, to the final meeting with the spy in the hotel in Vienna. And yes, there was a spy too, and a snuff box full of cocaine, and secret plans that had to be retrieved and taken to the Embassy before the Germans got their hands on them… In short, it was an exciting read just at the level of an adventure story. But add on top of that the wonderful familiar-but-repressed relationship of Lord Robert and his manservant, the conveniently named ‘Darling’ (Jack Darling), and there’s a whole new world of entertainment.

I loved the many convincing reasons why neither man had acted on his attraction so far, and the equally convincing way that the story unravelled every objection, from Robert’s principles to Jack’s reputation as a ladies’ man. It’s obvious that both characters are already comfortable and well suited to each other – and I liked both of them very much – so the final coming together is a coming home for both of them. Beautifully done and very touching. And a big thumbs up for the excuse they came up with to tell Lord Robert’s matchmaking mama!

Hard and Fast by Erastes is also a story in which matchmaking family members have a big impact. In this case it’s Geoffrey Chaloner’s father who wants him to get married to Emily Pelham, despite the fact that Geoffrey himself is fascinated by Emily’s cousin, Adam Heyward.

Normally I’m not a fan of stories told in the first person, but this is just lovely! Geoffrey’s ‘voice’ is delightfully in character for a man of his times, but he still comes across as very much of an individual. A rather lovable, bemused, good humoured, chivalrous, but none too bright an individual. Adam too immediately leaps off the page as a fully rounded person; clever, cynical, defensive. And it’s a treat to find that Geoffrey’s father, Emily Pelham and Lady Pelham are well drawn, likable characters too.

This is another story where I was able to really luxuriate in the sense of place – the settings were so beautifully detailed and real. The writing managed to be lush but powerful at the same time. I did really enjoy the fact that Geoffrey, who is all kitted out to be the ‘alpha male’ of this relationship – he’s big, powerful, a trained soldier, and literally at one stage so moved by passion as to sweep Adam off his feet – is also such an innocent. Adam, the physically frail, slight, non-combatant is three steps ahead of poor dim Geoff at every stage. And speaking of sweeping off the feet, the passion between the two leads is breathtaking.

With three very high quality stories, I thoroughly recommend this book. It left me with a smile on my face that hasn’t worn off a day later, and I’ll be buying it myself as soon as it comes out in print.

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Erastes would like to blushingly say that the views of the reviewer are not necessarily shared by the management, however much the management appreciates said view.

Review: Winds of Change by Lee Rowan

In 1802, a love worth dying for is more than just a romantic notion. Lieutenants William Marshall and David Archer, of His Majesty’s frigate Calypso, have been lovers for more than a year. Courage, devotion, and extreme discretion have kept them from the hangman’s noose-the price they must pay if their relationship is discovered. The occasional night of passion ashore is all the more precious to them for its rarity. But in the Royal Navy, nothing lasts forever. A transfer to a new ship brings with it a bizarre turn of events: their Captain orders them to behave as though they are involved in an illicit relationship in order to smoke out a suspected traitor, blackmailer, and saboteur.

Winds of Change” is the sequel to Lee Rowan’s “Ransom” and continues the adventures and misadventures of Lts William Marshall and David Archer after their capture and escape in the book of that name. And it’s a very good read.

The two men are transferred to a new ship, together with their captain; a “Trouble ship” where there is unrest and sabotage. A method of smoking out the sabateur is proposed but it is not without a great deal of risk for David and William, and for their growing relationship.

The characters are wonderfully drawn, they would slide into any of the Hornblower novels without even causing the slightest bow wave. William is a career man and his duty is every bit as important to him as it is to Nelson himself. He puts his heart and soul into everything he does, whether it’s managing a 74 gun ship of the line, or loving the love that dare not speak its name. David is my favourite, I have to say, for his innate love of life despite everything he’s been through.

For my money, this book has everything. It’s a wonderful love story, without underplaying the very real danger that homosexuals faced in His Majesty’s Navy in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It’s meticulously researched, but Lee writes in a way that doesn’t bore you with facts of the time, she writes simply as if she were writing in that time, and the period detail becomes as unobstruvive as if it were a contemporary novel. It’s a mystery, a thriller and it has lines that made me giggle, parts that made a hard boiled cynic like me cry (twice) and some wonderfully tender sexual moments.

If you found Ransom a little slow, then you’ll be happy with WoC, as it’s faster-paced, tighter and there’s a very real tension throughout.

If I had one tiny quibble, I was dissapointed that the ending of the mystery was done off screen, I was expecting as much adventure in the last part of the book as I’d read in the first part, but in reality, what Lee decides to concentrate on in the final pages doesn’t spoil the story at all.

In the growing genre of homosexual historical fiction, Lee Rowan is at the forefront. She never sacrifices period detail or excellent writing in an attempt to dumb down at any time.

Very highly recommended.

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Review: Ransom by Lee Rowan

For a young Englishman in 1796, the Navy is a way to move beyond his humble origins and seek a chance at greatness. Captured by accident when their Captain is abducted, Archer and Marshall become pawns in a renegade pirate’s sadistic game. To protect the man he loves, David Archer compromises himself-trading his honor and his body for Marshall’s safety. When Will learns of his friend’s sacrifice, he also discovers that what he feels for Davy is stronger and deeper than friendship. The first challenge: escape their prison. The second: find a way to preserve their love without losing their lives.

Review by Erastes

I found this book, completely by accident and I was intrigued by the blurb as it was a a Regency Gay Romance, which made me beam, because there are just Not Enough of those, but more excitingly, it’s a nautical tale, set in the same time period as Master and Commander and Hornblower – so if any of you have ever slashed Archie and Horny or Horny and Pellew – you are going to LOVE this. It’s 1799 and not only is homosexuality on land punishable by prison and death – on His Majesty’s Ships the Articles of War give an automatic death penalty for it – and very little proof was needed – if a man of a higher rank gave evidence against one of a lower, that man would hang.

But it’s more than just “oh whoopee another historical homoerotic romance do buy” This is excellently written. It could easily be Forrester on a Slashy day, and I’ll stick my neck out and go further to say that the writing surpasses Forrester. It’s also immaculately (as far as I can see) researched and what brings it alive to me is that the language is in the tone of the TIME.

Nothing jars me more than reading about 21st century men who just happen to find themselves on a 18th century warship.

The sex is beautifully described and perhaps some readers won’t find it as graphic as they’d like, but it is all there, it’s just written so beautifully and so lightly that it’s inferred rather than explicitly shown.

Anyway – HIGHLY recommended especially for all of your who moan that there’s no historical slash out there.

Don’t miss her sequels – Winds of Change and Eye of the Storm.

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