Review: Captain Harding and his Men by Elliott Mackle

When a C-130 bound for Southeast Asia explodes on takeoff at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding instinctively realizes that the cargo list—“medical supplies and radio tubes”—was faked. When Joe’s newly-married workout buddy does a swan dive off a fifth story balcony in downtown Tripoli, Joe refuses to accept the semi-official verdict: suicidal depression. And when Joe’s tennis partner, the son of the American ambassador, decides to celebrate his eighteenth birthday by appearing unannounced at Joe’s BOQ door, the potential difficulties of their love-match must be addressed––seriously and without delay.  

Continuing the adventures and misadventures begun in Elliott Mackle’s award-winning “Captain Harding’s Six-Day War,” Joe and his fellow officers and airmen contend with a highly decorated but sexually abusive wing commander (who happens to be Joe’s boss), a closeted Pentagon official fighting to save his career, a CIA agent who may be an imposter, and shipments of British weapons that fall into the hands of anti-royalist rebels.  When a kidnapping goes terribly wrong, Joe must fight for everything he holds dear: duty, honor, country and love. 

180 pages, published by Lethe Press, available in paperback and ebook

Review by Erastes

Some books take a while to get into–not so anything I’ve read from Elliott Mackle, and this is no exception. Right from the get-go we are thrust into Captain Harding’s narrative (first person) and within a very few pages, even if you hadn’t read the first in this series (Captain Harding’s Six Day War) you are up to speed with the good captain and his sit-rep. (ho ho, using jargon because of the military theme.)

In this book he’s up against some very powerful forces, the CIA, the American Ambassador to Libya, his cute boyfriend’s parents (one of whom is the Ambassador) and a shadowy plot of stolen weapons, a suspected coup, and silenced (murdered) soldiers. Harding doesn’t want to save the world, particularly, but he’d like his own to continue relatively unendangered. But seeing as his Lieutenant-Colonel knows he’s gay, and there’s also a straight buddy who knows his secrets, a beat-off buddy Major, a 17 year old boyfriend and more skeletons in his closet than Hercule Poirot, things can often get a bit hairy.

The main thing I’ve gleaned about Captain Harding and his book is that I NEVER want to get into the forces, and that goes double for being an officer. The level of intrigue, political shennanigans, hypocrisy and downright double dealing that goes on makes my head spin. I doubt that all units are quite as much as a hot-bed as Wheelus is in the late 1960’s but I bet a fair lot of it goes on wherever you are. People have secrets, a lot of secrets and they’ll keep them until they think by spilling them they can save their arses.

It’s the way the Harding deals with it all that makes this fascinating reading. He’s not an angel, and he certainly doesn’t have any “Give Me Honor or Give Me Death” going on, but in the main he’s a really great guy, and he wants to do the right thing and has to work damned hard at making it happen. He’s human–he wants to protect his friends but he has a real human streak of self-preservation, he isn’t likely to throw himself in too much harm to do it. Although he might, it just depends if he has to do so to protect those he loves.

And there’s the “and his men” tag – and where it comes in. Harding is pushing 30 and as full of testosterone as any man of his age. Despite the fact that he thinks that Cotton Boardman is “the one” they are both pragmatic about their situation–Cotton is 17 at the beginning of the book and they both want to wait until he’s “legal” (or as legal as he can be–that is, where it won’t make Harding feel so guilty–e.g. 18) and after a couple of unsatisfactory sexual try-outs, and getting caught sharing a hotel room by Cotton’s father, they cool it for most of the book while Cotton goes back to school and Harding waits on tenterhooks hoping his career won’t cascade around his ears, not knowing when or even if he’ll see Cotton again.

So Harding keeps himself busy and his sex-drive under control (mainly) by “rub-downs” with a Major, and fuck-buddy sessions with an enlisted airman on TDY (temporary duty) for six weeks at Wheelus. If he gets too desperate, there is a steam-room on base where there’s usually someone amenable to a little relief, and a bar in town but both are far more risky. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take risks and it’s one of these times that he meets a real Alpha male who gives him such a sound going over that he’s dizzy from it, wondering if Cotton is the one after all. But it’s this stranger that turns the tide of the investigation Harding is doing, and the man that will be instrumental in cracking the case, but not until everyone has gone through hell.

Just another year in Harding’s life!  I absolutely love these books, and I really hope that there’s going to be a third in the series. The writing is crisp and realistic for men (and women) in the situations that you find them in. The mystery is worth of Raymond Chandler as it twists around, buries itself in official red tape and forged documents, and the characters are fully rounded and fully flawed.

I have no hesitation in awarding this our five star rating. More please, Mr Mackle.

Amazon UK | Amazon USA

Review: Captain Harding’s Six Day War by Elliott Mackle

Assigned to baby-sit a loose-cannon colonel at remote Wheelus Air Base, Libya, handsome, hard-charging Captain Joe Harding spends his off-duty time bedding an enlisted medic and a muscular major, then begins a nurturing friendship with the American ambassador’s teenage son. The boy swiftly develops a crush on the man, feelings that Joe, a Southern gent with a strong moral sense, feels he cannot acknowledge or return. Joe’s further adventures and misadventures during the course of the novel involve a clerk’s murder, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, a fist-fight in the officers’ club bar, a straight roommate whose taste for leather gets him in trouble, the combat death of Joe’s former lover, and participation in an all-male orgy witnessed by two very married but somewhat confused fighter jocks.

In the run-up to the 1967 war, a mob attacks the embassy in nearby Tripoli and the deranged colonel sets out to attack an Arab warship. To bring the pilots and their airplanes safely home and keep the United States out of the war Joe has two choices: either come out to his closest, straightest buddies or know himself to be a coward, a failure and a traitor to everything that he holds dear.

Review by Erastes

There’s something very engaging about Mackle’s writing. I couldn’t imagine that I’d be at all interested in this book–military realism set during a period I know absolutely nothing about–but damn! Mackle (who wooed and won me with his marvellous “It Takes Two“) had me gripped within a chapter of Captain Harding’s Six Day War and I was found myself enjoying reading about life on a military base and all its incestuous hothouse intrigue. Damn you, Elliott Mackle!

Imagine those wonderful 1950’s movies in black and white set in and around army bases. Films starring a youthful Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson and the like dressed in sharp light khaki and white shirts. Well, now add in a very likeable and not-at-all unhappy in his homosexual skin gay man who’s cautious and careful but up for action. Mix in a great supporting cast of friends (male and female) a couple of friends-with-benefits and a beautiful and dangerously young 17 year youth who calls to Harding like a candle does a moth. Shake vigorously with all the stresses that soldiers encounter in a tentative peace that could kick itself off at any time (although the Vietnam War is raging elsewhere) and you have a cocktail which proves to be a hugely gripping read.

Mackle was a soldier himself and draws on much of his own experiences and he delivers real gravitas and truth with this book. The claustrophobic village atmosphere of the base is like a powder keg and it becomes more and more pressurized when everything starts to hot up both militarily and personally for Harding.

Harding is a great character. He has a lot of heart but he’s a man, with very human foibles. He knows the drill when it comes to gaydar and setting up gay encounters. A couple of trusted buddies suits him fine. A NCO, Duane, who is often off base doing medical medicy duties (as you can see my military knowledge is so vast), and Hal–a major who only needs a bit of light “relief” but still can be depended on to watch Harding’s (and consequently his own) back when necessary.

Things start to go to pieces when Harding realises he’s falling for the too-young son of a local diplomat, and the young man professes his crush right back. He knows he’s not in love with Duane, although Duane has fallen in love with him and is desperate for that feeling to be returned. Harding finds himself torn in a dozen different ways, and as life often does, it lands him in a big mess with everything blowing up in his face–literally and figuratively in this case–all at once. A rash decision, fuelled by frustration and drink at a male-only party in town, and Harding’s world threatens to blow itself apart.

Don’t go thinking this is just about gay men getting it on–or not–because it’s far more than that, it’s also a well-researched, well-written story about a dangerous crisis in our near-history and it does a good job, I could easily see this as a film, it would even work well as a stage play, because of the claustrophobic nature of the setting. The characters are varied, entirely three-dimensional and range from every type you’d expect, and some you would not. There’s no open-sky dogfights on the page, just a man trying his best to stop his own world going to hell, the only fire fights that go on are him fire-fighting crises as they occur. It was nail-biting stuff, and towards the end of the book, in the thick of the action, I was holding my breath, alternating with a need to shut the book in case it all went horribly wrong.

The writing is crisp and mature. Not a word wasted or skipped. No extraneous passages; it’s as neat as a career soldier’s bunk space, everything in its place. If I have the smallest of quibbles about the language, it’s that to a complete layperson, such as myself, I was able to pick up some of the jargon that I’d learned from war films, such as NCO and AWOL–but many of the other acronyms were entirely beyond me, such as TDY, BOQ, TAC, OSI and others so I had to guess the gist of what they were saying. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have had a small glossary in for the uninitiated, and for those who are reading in bed and don’t want to get up, go downstairs and look up the words on the computer.

But that’s a very minor quibble, and not even worth chipping off half a point for. This is a proper gay book which strides the chasm of romance and litererachoor beautifully. It will appeal both to those who want a story with gay characters off doing stuff, and those who want Harding to have a satisfactory ending. I’m not spoiling it for you but my eyes were moist, that’s all I’m sayin’.

There are parts of the book that aren’t at all PC. This is 1967 and equal rights (hollow laugh) are still a way off. There are derogatory comments regarding skin colour, race, sexuality and much more. But this is realism, if you can’t handle people talking in a way that they used–still do–speak then go and read something else.

Mackle is probably one of my favourite writers in the genre, and if this spurs him on to write more of the same I’m going to be in the queue with my money clutched in my hand.

Do not miss this book, even if, like me, you don’t think that the setting would interest you. It will.`

Author’s website

Amazon USA

Review: Test of Faith by Aleksandr Voinov and Raev Gray

July, 1187: Saladin has defeated the Crusader army at The Horns of Hattin. Thierry de la Tour Rouge, a Templar Knight, has survived only to be taken prisoner by the Saracens. Stripped and tied like an animal to the pole of a tent, Thierry fears torture in the attempt to break his faith. Abdul Basir is French by birth, a convert to Islam and an advisor to Saladin.

Thierry has been bought for him and while Abdul owns him, he cannot guarantee that Saladin will spare Thierry’s life. In the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, Thierry chastely kisses Abdul, hurtling them both into a clash of faiths and a contest of wills. One man motivated by the fulfillment of a long-lurking fantasy and the other by the need to keep his faith intact. They come to show each other mercy, kindness and trust—enough to reveal their desire for one another. As Saladin holds the fate of Thierry’s life in his hands, can Abdul keep this honorable crusader safe?

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS
Review by Sal Davis

Normally I would start with comments about the cover but that can wait. Instead I need to warn that this is quite a short book and I can’t really talk about the things that interest me most about it without giving away some really major spoilers. So I’m turning my review upside down. This has an excellent plot, it is set in a fascinating competently researched period of history, the characters are interesting and their situation compelling. I enjoyed reading it but it has some issues that might not suit other readers. If you want to read it and don’t want to be spoiled I’d stop reading this now if I were you.

And NOW I’ll talk about the cover for a bit to act as a spoiler buffer.

There was no cover on the review copy and I didn’t bother to look it up before reading it. That was a pity because it’s an attractive piece of work, richly coloured and nicely layered. I’d like to see a larger version some time because I’m guessing a bit, but I think there’s a distant landscape of the Holy Land overlaid by two male profiles, an early illustration of Jerusalem from the Madaba Mosaic and a period correct sword. After that it would be no surprise to discover that the story is about the Crusades. It’s a very lovely image, complementing a story that, while a good read, is just as bleak and hopeless as those dreadful conflicts were.

Thierry, a knight of Britanny, is captured at Hattin and given to Abdul Basir, once also of Britanny but now converted to Islam, who plans to indulge his desire for revenge on the Christians who expelled him by taking it out on Thierry’s body. Naturally things don’t go as planned and Abdul discovers not only that he would sooner have a willing lover than a victim but that he wishes to keep Thierry safe in his arms. The only way he can do this is by persuading Thierry to abandon his faith and embrace Islam but Thierry refuses, preferring immediate death to what he considers to be heresy and eventual consignment to hell. The decision made, they find peace together before Abdul hands Thierry over for execution.

Issue number one – that one of the protagonists dies, and that it is known that he will die for a good part of the story – would be a deal breaker for people who like their romances with at least a HFN. I found the tragedy of it quite satisfying in a morbid way. It would have been too easy to have Thierry give in to Abdul’s urging, abandoning his faith for love. As it is, what happens is true to the characters and the period. Speaking of which, the research is meticulous.

The other issue is stylistic. The point of view is 3rd person omniscient – the reader can see into both characters’ heads. It seems as though the two authors role-played the characters as the POV flickers from one to the other. I know that this ‘head hopping’ is unusual, but it didn’t bother me too much as I’ve been used to reading role-played fiction. There were occasions when I had to re-read a sentence and adjust my expectations of who was speaking, but that didn’t detract, too much, from the story. However there was one thing that gave me pause, and I believe that this is also due to the role played nature of the piece. The emotional atmosphere of the story is heightened right from the beginning, despite a good batch of ‘telling’, but once the two characters start to interact the needle whizzes off the chart. Thierry’s fear, his agony of thirst, Abdul’s rage and anticipation of Thierry’s defeat are on a very high note, and this sense of passion is sustained through much of the story. But at the end, at what should be the emotional climax, the style becomes quite cool and detached and is ‘told’ again. I must admit that after the skin crawling emotions earlier in the story I felt a little shortchanged. It’s possible this was deliberate – an indication that Abdul was feeling so much that he was in shock. It’s also possible that it was deliberate so not to take anything away from the last three paragraphs of the story [which I thought were fantastic and which I am NOT going to spoil].

Stars – yes, I enjoyed the story, the history, the period details, the bravery of killing one of the protagonists, very much. But … the head hopping! Only 3, I’m afraid. But a very appreciative 3!

Raev Gray’s website

Aleksandr Voinov’s website

Buy from eXcessica (ebook)

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Review: The Puppet Master by Kate Cotoner

Istanbul, 1622. Considered hotbeds of sedition, the city’s coffee houses are in constant danger of being shut down by imperial command. Haluk, who runs a cafe in an old caravanserai, is more concerned with brewing the perfect cup of coffee than inciting rebellion. While storms in coffee cups rage around him, Haluk tends his clientele and waits for the right moment to tell his friend and lodger Aydin how he really feels about him.
Aydin has been entertaining the people of the Old City for three years, but still he doesn’t fit in. He hides his courtly manners and graceful charms behind the boisterous satire of the shadow puppet plays that have made him popular.  He’s not what he seems. Now he fears his past is catching up with him, bringing danger to Haluk, the man he loves

Review by Erastes

I was a little confused over the rating of this book; Torquere has it in their “Spice It Up” line, which I assumed was an imprint handling the more spicy and erotic books in their already spicy and erotic stable, but this book has absolutely no sex in it, so don’t buy it thinking you are going to get a one-handed read. It seems however, that the line is all based around one particular spice and in this case it’s sumac.

Cotoner is a master of atmosphere, and in this book she doesn’t disappoint on that score. Even though the era, the history, the politics, the location were pretty much muddy waters for me, she writes so deftly and so immersively that it doesn’t matter. The book opens with a man working in his coffee house, and stopping a fight between two janissaries. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what a janissary  is, because it’s made clear in context, and there aren’t that many writers in the genre who can do that well with no info dumping at all.

The book is told mainly from Haluk’s point of view–the coffee shop owner–with forays into Aydin’s–and I particularly like how Cotoner doesn’t make the mistake of many books of this length, to dwell entirely on the charms of the love-interest, Aydin, and why Haluk loves him. No, in fact she whets my appetite with the way that coffee shops are considered to be hotbeds of sedition, and that coffee is thought to inflame the senses–and this simple drink is causing political unrest. True facts of course, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less from this very thorough researcher.

The wonderful detail grounds you entirely in time and place. I really felt as if I had been dropped into a time that I didn’t know exactly when it was, but I was standing there watching the customers, and seeing the bright colours, the copper trays, the smell of the coffee and the spices of the suk. The setting is play-like, as it mostly takes place in one or two rooms in the same location but this works well, and for the shortness of the story, helps the totally immersive feel.

The plot revolves around one simple point, but it’s well done, and had me wondering who Aydin really was. (In fact, I’ve taken the fact out of the blurb which spoils the little spot of suspense in the book)

The only problem I had was that I would have liked a little more of it, but that’s my problem, not a problem with the structure of the book.  I have no recourse but to give this short novel a well-deserved five stars.

Author’s Website

Buy from Torquere Press

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