Review: A Daring Devoted Heart by Linda Hines

Years ago, revenge brought Emeric von Gondrecourt to New Mexico. Now, the force keeping him there is loyalty to the Metairie family — and his love for the young Calder Metairie, who has grown up while Emeric watched.

A DARING, DEVOTED HEART is a Western with a difference. Not merely an m/m romance, it’s also “quest fiction,” taking a pair of mis-matched heroes through country which brings to mind the works and words of Zane Grey, and culminating in a double-bareled climax — it’s a hail of hot lead and a struggle to survive, before Calder Metairie and Emeric von Gondrecourt take those devils by the horns.

Review by Jess Faraday

I really wanted to like this one. And to be fair, there is a lot to like here, even though the story ultimately didn’t work for me.

The story is well researched, for one. It was a bold move to bring together characters from such divergent backgrounds–the son of a rich New Mexico rancher and a dispossessed Austrian prince. And the author did enough research to come up with an explanation that was not just satisfying, but intriguing: Dispossessed Austrian Prince Hired as Old-West Hitman Changes Sides and becomes Protector of Intended Victims. With a side of forbidden love.

Oh yes. I’d read the hell out of that.

Add to this novel premise the fact that in the space of 117 pages, the author has created a solid plot with subplots and backstory. So far so good.

Unfortunately, the sloppy execution obscures the plot and the backstory. I have no idea how much time went into the writing of the story, but to this reader, it read like a hurried early draft. I can’t help but feel that it would have been much stronger if the author had put in a little more time to get it just right.

The backstory would have been much more powerful–and easier to connect to the story-in-progress–if it had been filtered in gradually rather than dumped in large, textbook-like chunks. The head-hopping confused me in places. And to beat the proverbial dead horse, there’s a lot of telling here, and not a lot of showing.

Which is what made this one a heartbreaker. Given one or two more drafts, this could have been a subtly crafted page-turner.

Linda Hines strikes me as an intelligent writer with terrific ideas and a good sense of what a historical should be. I will definitely read more from her, even though this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me.

Author’s website (although the links don’t work)

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Review: The Wanderer by Jan Irving

Doctor Jude Evans has built a safe but barren life for himself in a small western town where he pours all his passion into caring for his patients while hiding his secret yearning to love another man. Gabriel Fontenot is a drifter who is handy with a gun, prospecting for gold and trying to forget the night the letter “O” was carved into his hip. Suffering from hard living, he is cared for by Jude, but Gabriel is aroused by Jude’s gentle touch and offers to service the innocent doctor.

But Jude has other problems. A reformer in a small town reluctant to change, he is targeted by David Smith, a wealthy and dangerous landowner. Gabriel vows to protect shy Jude, becoming a reluctant guardian angel who helps to keep the doctor safe. But what will it take for Jude to finally feel free to give himself completely to his beloved gunfighter

Review by Sue Brown 4 stars

I come away from reading this book confused about my feeling towards The Wanderer. On one hand, this is a very well-written tale of Doc Jude, a man troubled by his sexual proclivities, who has sequestered himself in a small town of Sylvan to atone for not being what his family expected, trying hard to fit in, but never fully accepted by the townsfolk. Jan Irving has written an engrossing tale with well-written characters and I found myself immersed in their lives, particularly the young, blind Mouse, a young boy who as a misfit himself, had a much better understanding than the doctor just how unaccepted he really was.

I had no problems with the characters. On the contrary, they were warm and well-developed, leaving me wanting to know more. My issues came with the relationship between Gabriel and Doc Jude. I could see the attraction between them, world-weary Gabriel must have been very attractive and rather scary to the deeply closeted and frightened doctor. I could see why the drifter would be attracted to the virginal doctor. There was chemistry between the two men and therein lies my issue. The doctor was a thirty year virgin, yet immediately was embroiled in sexual practices as a sub and frankly, I couldn’t get my head around it. One minute the doctor disliked his first experience of penetrative sex and the next he was a compliant sub, complete with role playing and a belt to his backside. As a reader I don’t usually have a problem with dom/sub relationships but it didn’t ring true with this particular couple so soon into their relationship.

That aside, it is an engrossing story and hence my rating. If I had engaged with the sex my rating would have been higher. I think the way Jan Irving has written the sense of otherness of the doctor, the blind boy and the other misfits was deftly handled. For me, by far the best part of the book was how Jan Irving portrayed the attitude of the townsfolk, actively colluding with the bully, David Smith, until shamed by Gabriel into helping to rebuild the doctor’s clinic. I have reread the book which is testament to how much I liked the story, even allowing for my reservations with the sex.

Author’s website

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Review: A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson

Everyone knows Jack Tulle as a widower, a doting father, and an honest businessman. The problem is, it’s all a lie.

For eight years Jack has enjoyed the quiet life in the sleepy little town of Bodey, Colorado where he owns and operates the General Store. He sits on the town council. He dotes upon his eight-year-old, headstrong daughter, Abigail. He is even being sized-up as a prospective new member of the family by the bank president.

But when the local saloon announces plans to host a grand prize poker tournament, Jack realizes it could spell trouble. One of the many secrets he’s been hiding is that he used to be a con man — mainly underhanded poker, but he wasn’t above the odd swindle when the situation presented itself. And a contest like the one his town is planning is sure to draw some old business acquaintances — fellows Jack would really rather not admit to knowing. But one he would–Tom Jude, the only person in the world other than Abigail Jack has ever loved–but one man who knows every secret in Jack’s past, secrets which could destroy his current life.

Review by Erastes

A debut novel, and a quite impressive debut too. I really liked the style of writing Wilson employs. It reminded me very much of “The Winter of our Discontent” by Steinbeck with the everyday narrative flow and observation of small-town living. We are introduced to Jack through his waking up, getting his daughter ready for school, interraction with towns people and working in his general store. We are set up to think, as do the townspople that he is indeed a pillar of the community.

But of course, things are not all they seem. Gradually the cracks appear. We learn that he’s vehemently against the planned poker tournament in the local saloon, but it’s not really clear why. He doesn’t come over as a really straight-laced Christian type, so we can’t help but wonder what his agenda is. It’s not until the tournament is a definite event that the cracks widen.

It takes its time to unfold, and I liked this. It’s not a hugely long book, about 130 pages or so but the meandering path it takes makes it feel like a full-size novel and as I said, the style is pretty polished. I would, perhaps have liked a bit deeper view into Jack’s head–especially as the story is not only first person, but presented as Jack actually writing it down himself–he considers deleting some text, so that adds to this memoire feel, but all the same there are times when it becomes a little remote.

The characters–in the main–are intriguing and easy to get toknow on face value (although it’s clear that Jack is a veritable onion and there’s much to learn) and when Tom Jude arrives he really sweeps everyone off their feet with his handsome good looks and charisma. He also causes a eyebrow or two from the townsfolk who find that solid business man Jack knows an armed gambler… But from the sherrif to the schoolteacher, to the store-clerk, each character is nicely described and no-one feels two dimensional.

However, one character that really didn’t work for me was Jack’s eight year old daughter. Writing children is hard, and I’m afraid that I had the same feeling about Abigail that I had for “Just William’s” Violet Bott or one of Dahl’s terrible Chocolate Factory children. I wanted her to die and quite horribly. Wilson obviously thinks that we should love Abigail which made me ashamed of my dreams of fire but she’s grating and not at all realistic, even given the fact that the book is set some 150 years ago. Firstly she comes over as about three years old, not eight, lisping and misspeaking which is probably intended to be cute. I could not equate her with Jack having brought her up, because Jack is almost impossibly erudite, using large words and complex concepts. He has a knowledge of art and travel, whereas his daughter speaks like Cletus the Slack Jawed yokel and hasn’t even heard of New Orleans. Er… no. Kids learn their speech patterns from their parents. From her appalling grammar, speech and behaviour, it’s like she’s been raised by hillbillies instead of an intelligent, well read and well-spoken father.

But she was only one character and I was willing to ignore her in favour of the main plotline.

The narrative is sometimes a tad jumpy, and more than once I found myself re-reading sections because I felt I’d missed something–characters would start to talk of things without any lead up leaving the reader running to catch up and hoping some light would be shed to give a clue. Here’s one example of this: (the earlier sentences do not shed any light on who they are talking about, the conversation pretty much starts with this.)

I started forward once more, and, when I reached him, he turned to walk beside me. We progressed in silence for a spell, then he said: “Y’know, I saw him a while back.”

We were both looking ahead again, and he didn’t gaze over at me as he told me that, and I didn’t do anything at all. I just mention those facts to show that I was beyond the point of offering up any noticeable reaction to that sort of pronouncement, and Tom knew it.

He was just telling me because he thought I might like to know. “He was looking mighty—well, spry would be overstating it. But he was  breathing pretty regular for a dead man.”

I still wasn’t troubled by any particular impulse to respond, though, finally, after a moment or two, I decided it would be impolite to let him think I might not have been paying attention. I scratched my ear. “You talk to him?”

“You could call it that.”

“How’d that go?”

He offered a noncommittal shrug. “I didn’t finish up by spitting on him, so I reckon it went a damn sight better than the time before.” He paused a moment to allow me ample time to relish his sense of humor, then confided: “He wanted money.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged again, and his tone lightened. “He asked after you. I suppose it was good I didn’t really know much—spared me the trouble of lying. ’Course, he figured I was lying, which I guess means his brain ain’t completely pickled.”

“How’d he look?”

“How’d he look!” Tom shook his fist at me. “You’re just itching for that pop!”

So, all right, I wasn’t as completely indifferent to mention of my father as I claimed, and I suppose Tom might have broached the subject because he suspected as much. In my defense, I told him: “He asked after me, didn’t he?”

As you can see it takes most of this exchange to explain it’s Jack’s father that is being discussed, whereas from hints in earlier conversations about certain dead men, I was completely led astray, thought they were talking about someone else, and when the father was mentioned I was entirely confused. This is also one of many plot threads that are never explored, never resolved which was a tad frustrating–unless this is going to be a series, but there was no hint of that.

The trouble could be that the author knows his backstory so much he doesn’t realise that readers don’t travel at the same speed and need a bit more support or they end up lost like me.

You can see that there are colons before certain parts of speech and while this might be a correct and formal way of expressing speech, I have to say I didn’t like it, I hadn’t read a book with this device before. One example of a hundred would be:

I asked him: “You remember the baths at Hollister House?”

Instead of

“You remember the baths at Hollister House?” I asked him.

Perhaps it’s to emphasize that it’s Jack writing this as a memoire I don’t know. But I hope the author re-considers in future and uses a more acceptable method of dialogue.

But these are matters that can be ironed out as the author learns and progresses.

However the good certainly eclipses the irritants. I loved the way that Jack says he feels sorry for men and women because it’s much easier for men to walk around with their arms around each other or to fake wrestle in the street and no-one thinks anything of it. I also liked the way that it dealt with an addiction; Jack is an addict, but not to drink or to drugs, although both are mentioned. He’s a recovering card sharp and just the feel of a packet of cards in his hands is enough to tempt his control. I found it endearing that the only pack of cards he had in the house was incomplete, but I understood the necessity for it.

There’s a section toward the end with a rather nice surprise, but this isn’t followed through–not even in thought, which was disappointing. I would have liked to have known how Jack got around this particular problem. Editing was fine but I’m afraid the cover does nothing for me—something more literary and vague would have done—but that’s cosmetic and doesn’t affect the mark at all. What marks it down is the confusion I felt at several points, the ends that never really got tied up and the hillbilly sounding daughter.

Don’t come to this book looking for a stock gay cowboy romance. Come instead for a beautifully written story with characters that will stick in your head. Well worth a read.  I look forward to what this author can do in the future because it might be pretty amazing.

Buy at Cheyenne Publishing Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: According to Hoyle by Abigail Roux

By the close of 1882, the inhabitants of the American West had earned their reputation as untamed and dangerous. The line between heroes and villains is narrow and indistinct. The concept that a man may only kill if backed into a corner is antiquated. Lives are worth less than horses. Treasures are worth killing for. And the law is written in the blood of those who came before. The only men staving off total chaos are the few who take the letter of the law at its word and risk their lives to uphold it. But in the West, the rules aren’t always played according to Hoyle.

US Marshals Eli Flynn and William Henry Washington are escorting two prisoners to New Orleans for trial when they discover there’s more to the infamous shootist Dusty Rose and the enigmatic man known only as Cage than merely being outlaws. When forces beyond the marshals’ control converge on the paddlewheeler they have hired to take them downriver, they must choose between two dangers: playing by the rules at any cost or trusting the very men they are meant to bring to justice.

Review by Sue Brown

I used to have an expectation of m/m stories that by page 5 the two men – or any other number thereof – would have their clothes stripped off and be getting down to business. I did not expect to find plot interrupting the sex. My knuckles have been firmly rapped with this amazing story. If you are expecting Wild West Sex, then According to Hoyle isn’t for you. If you like a complex plot, rounded and well-developed characters and some surprising twists, then this is definitely up your alley.

This is the tale of two US Marshals, Eli Flynn and William Henry Washington, escorting two prisoners to New Orleans for trial: the shootist and outlaw, the Englishman Dusty Rose, who surprises the lawmen by developing a relationship with the other prisoner, the silent man, Cage. Over the course of their journey Flynn, who has always played life according to Hoyle, by the book, learns that the criminals aren’t always the bad guys and he learn a lot more about himself and his old friend, Wash, as well. These characters aren’t exactly original, the stoic lawmen, the criminals finding their way into infamy through dime novels, but Abigail Roux has crafted them so well that you are swiftly drawn into their world.

As a reader I probably focus more on the interaction of the men. The developing relationships between Rose and Cage and Flynn and Wash, and the way they all have to learn to trust each other, are subtly woven. It isn’t about two men watching another two get together, but the four of them and the way their relationship develops from distrust into something more, not friendship, but a grudging admission of respect, particularly between Flynn and Rose

Considering the time in which the story was set I expected more overt homophobia. However a second reading made me see it was skilfully handled through the uncomfortable feelings engendered in Flynn as he watches Rose and Cage together. In fact of all the four men it was Flynn that fascinated me as he fights his feelings for Wash.

Meanwhile, I am unwilling to spoil the story too much, but there is another subplot woven through which makes the story more than just a journey of the lawmen and the outlaws, but gives it a touch of uncertainty and excitement.

One minor criticism, and it is minor, is that both times I read the book I felt the boat scene was a little too long. It was a necessary part of the plot but became a little tedious. I did like the end of the book though. Flynn came a long way, both as a lawman and a lover. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, whether you like westerns or not.

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Review: Arson! The Dakota Series 1 by Cap Iversen

People look up when Dakota Taylor rides into town. His legend precedes him and if that legend isn’t always founded in reality … well, Dakota’s not about to disappoint folks. Nor does he want to disappoint the handsome Bennie Colson, who has a job for him. Trouble is, Ben’s job means taking on a whole town of angry cattle ranchers.

Review by Gerry Burnie originally posted on Gerry’s Book Reviews

Pretty well everyone enjoys a cowboy story; especially if the principal characters get out of the sack long enough to ride a horse or chase a cow. Cap Iversen(?)[1] has therefore struck an agreeable balance between the two types in “Arson!: The Dakota Series, No.1” [Alyson Books, 1st edition, 1992].

Dakota Taylor is a gunslinger—a ‘hired gun’—the fastest in the West. He has a pair of custom-made, silver-plated colts on his hip, and an instinct for calculated eradication of people’s enemies.

He is juxtapositioned with Benjamin Colsen, a Harvard law student, who hires Taylor’s gun to avenge the Colsen family’s brutal murder—father, mother and siblings—on their mountain-top, sheep ranch by a group of unknown assailants. The issue seems to be a drying-up of the water supply that has mysteriously struck the valley, and the overall cast of suspects includes the cattle baron, James T Anderson, and practically everyone else in the dusty town of Turnpike.

There are the usual supporting characters: A fat, incompetent and cowardly sheriff; a slick-talking merchant; a ‘meat-head’ butcher; and the weaselly manager of the local meat packing plant. However, there are a few that are slightly out of the loop, i.e. Ryder McCloud, another gunslinger, who has been hired by Anderson. McCloud and Taylor have had shootouts before, but these generally involved fleshy weapons between sheets. Nevertheless, with McCloud’s arrival the plot definitely thickens.

Anderson’s young son, Seth, enters the picture as well. He is your typical brash, young Turk; enamoured with McCloud and not at all adverse to romping with Taylor.

Meanwhile a sub-plot is developing, which involves a fabled Eternal Spring that only the Shoshone Indians and a few others—including Dakota Taylor—know about. Dakota is the adopted son of a Shoshone Shaman, and also becomes the confidante (and bed mate) of his warrior-like grandson; therefore, the only other(s) to know about it must also be the murderer(s).

I will not go further for fear of spoiling the story; however, I will say that the writing style, told in a first-person narrative, is both colourful and appropriate. Moreover it has the air of authenticity, and it reads almost effortlessly. Whoever Cap Iversen is he or she is/was definitely not a novice writer or journalist.

I do have some reservations regarding the number of gay characters that pop up quite ‘coincidentally’ in what is otherwise an insular and isolated community. There are, I believe, six such individuals, which is perhaps stretching the laws of chance and probability. In addition, the story seemed to lose its compactness toward the end.

Nevertheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted story, and I look forward to reading the other two, i.e. “Silver Saddles,” and “Rattler.” Recommended.

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Review: Missouri by Christine Wunnicke

Written in the language of the period, this vivid and utterly transfixing love story between two men is set in the nineteenth-century American Midwest. Douglas Fortescue is a successful poet in England who flees the country for America following an Oscar Wilde-like scandal insinuating sexual impropriety; Joshua Jenkyns is a feral young outlaw who was taught how to shoot a man at age six, and who, against the wishes of his father, teaches himself how to read, a skill that then unleashes a world of possibility beyond that which he knows. The two men meet when Joshua robs Douglas’s carriage and takes him hostage; soon, a remarkable secret is revealed, and these two very different men grow closer, even as Douglas’s brother tries to “save” him from his uncivilized surroundings.

Missouri was first published in Germany to wide acclaim. Now available in English for the first time, Missouri is destined to become a gay men’s camp classic for its earnest, romantic reinterpretation of a time and place in American history traditionally closed off to gay readers.

Review by Gerry Burnie (originally posted on Gerry’s Review Site)

Missouri by Christine Wunnicke[Arsenal Pulp Press; Tra edition, 2010] is a story that either pleases or displeases; there is very little middle ground shown by its critics to date. Therefore, I will have to say that I liked it. I found it wonderfully zany; offbeat; and unlike any other gay, American Western tale I have every encountered.

Douglas Fortesque is an ambitious court clerk in northern England, and not just a little bit of a con man. He therefore lets his hair down (literally), dyes it black, starves himself until he has that gaunt, poet-like appearance, and pens utter gibberish to the wild acclaim of an effete London literary society. Indeed, the more outlandish he becomes the more acclaim he receives from a pretentious, gullible public.

Eventually tiring of this masquerade he retires to the country, but legitimacy only makes him less interesting and also vulnerable to his critics, and in a thinly veiled allusion to Oscar Wilde’s persecution he escapes to the United States where his brother wishes to buy property.

Meanwhile, Joshua Jenkyns, the young, slightly psychotic half-breed offspring of a notorious American outlaw is terrorizing the Midwest, learning how to read and becoming enamoured by the disjointed words of one, Douglas Fortescue. In a bizarre turn of events, therefore, these two unlikely characters cross paths and Fortescue is hurried away on horseback to become Jenkyns’ coddled hostage.

Thus begins a process of assimilation whereby Fortescue is stripped of his pretentions, and Jenkyns of his savagery, until they meet in an ethereal love-making scene that is beautifully understated by the author. Any other approach—graphic for example—would have cheapened it.

One of the criticisms that has been leveled at this novella is that it is too short (134 pages) to develop a complex story of this nature; and I agree that it could have been longer. However, in those 134 pages Wunnicke has developed two very unforgettable characters, a unique love story set against a stark, primeval wilderness, and an outcome that is totally unpredictable.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Sam’s Hill by Jack Ricardo

A young man coming to grips with his homosexuality during the latter half of the 19th century, through four years of The Civil War, the Indian Wars with General Custer’s 7th Cavalry, into the rough and tumble town of Cheyenne and up into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

*Available in Kindle format, 382KB

Review by Gerry Burnie

A revisiting of the American Civil War is not a new theme, nor is gay, Union and Confederate soldiers, but “Sam’s Hill” by Jack Ricardo [Amazon Digital Services, 2010] contains some of the best, graphic descriptions of battlefield action I have ever read; the carnage, the confusion, the fear and the impersonal killing are all there in almost tangible detail.

The plot—at least for the first half of the story—is equally well conceived with some quite unexpected twists.

Sam Cordis is a young Union volunteer from New Jersey; green, innocent, seeking to become his “own man” and heading west when the war is over, “…a mere two or three months, he was sure.”

After a taste of war, and the reality of it, i.e.

“The order came. “Tear Cartridges.”

“Sam did exactly that. He poured powder into the barrel of his musket, dropped a metal ball inside, stuffed the ramrod down to push the ball into position, and carefully placed a cap under the hammer.

“When he heard the first shot, the taut skin of his neck strangled his throat, his heart stopped. The woods began bleeding with an indistinct jumble of men in gray yelling ferociously, shooting indiscriminately. Sam wanted to run for cover. There was none. And there was no interference when he lifted his musket.

“He stayed his mind, focussed his eyes, spied his target. He couldn’t see the Rebel clearly. He didn’t know if he was young or old, an officer or a volunteer. He was merely a target. Sam aimed the weapon with ease, as if marking a jackrabbit on the banks of New Jersey’s Rampo River. He pressed the trigger and squeezed as his older brother taught, gently, caressing the tender skin of a newborn calf. The report of the musket was lost in the din.

“Sam didn’t wait to see if the ball hit its mark. He followed the example of the others, crossing the former path, running wide, stumbling, turning, reloading, firing again, this time with haste. As hastily as the enemy fired at him.”

Under such perilous circumstances men frequently bond out of necessity, and the mores of a conventional society are either relaxed or shirked in favour of a new reality. So it was with Sam and his young companion, Davie, when a tender friendship gradually blossomed into love, like a flower amidst the ruin. Just as quickly, however, it was snuffed by a sniper’s bullet, but not before Sam had discovered a love that would not be denied.

As the war dragged on Sam found himself in Savannah, Georgia, with Sherman’s army, and during a lull in the hostilities he is drawn to the docks in search of male companionship. It is a mixture of intrigue and inert desire until he encounters an older man who almost succeeds in fanning his smouldering desire into a flame. However, in an unexpected twist, he is mugged and then rescued aboard a gunboat where the stranger is first mate. Romance nearly blossoms there as well, but when the gunboat is attacked Sam is thrown overboard during the mêlée. Miraculously he is washed ashore on the coast of Florida, and making his way inland he encounters a regiment of Black, Union soldiers, who are themselves captured by Confederate forces.

A forced march then proceeds to a POW camp somewhere in South Georgia—a non-regulation compound where corruption and cruelty prevail. A “King Rat” type-of-character also rules, and he sets his sights on seducing Sam. On the other hand, Sam befriends a badly wounded youth who would otherwise die. These are the characters that will play a significant role later in the story, but for now they are certainly interesting enough.

When peace if declared Sam and the now rehabilitated youth start for their respective homes in the north, where Sam’s several family members await, but first there is another character to be met; an Indian brave named Kehoe.

To this point I would have no hesitation in giving this story a five-star rating. The journalism is first rate, the characters are interesting and credible, the action is breathtaking, and the pace compelling.

Regretfully, the second half of the story begins to bog down under the burden of characters that, in their numbers and complexities, nearly overwhelm the reader. Likewise, to accommodate each of their parts, the story loses its linearity to twist and coil around the various subplots.

There is no question that Mr. Ricardo has a flair for historical fiction, but sometimes less is more. 

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