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: Seducing Stephen by Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon

What does a jaded earl see in a studious, shy man? Everything he never knew he was missing. Their first, scorching hot sessions were about passion, not love, but now Peter is desperate to win back the young man he spurned.

Review by Erastes

This book sort of took me by surprise. First of all, the title doesn’t really fit the book–because I was expecting that it would be about…yanno…seducing Stephen, but considering that Stephen gives it up to the Earl on the first page, he didn’t exactly need seducing! I thought that I was in for a good old sexy romp and not much else, but that’s where I was (happily) wrong, and slowly and surely an interesting and quite psychological little drama emerged from something looks at first glance to be filled with cliché and trope.

First lines are important – and this book has a great one.

“Gads, there’s a boy in my bed. It’s Christmas come early.”

The beginning is amusing and engaging and despite my misgivings I was drawn in, rather fascinated as to why the Earl expected a young man to be in his bed, or at least wasn’t at all surprised. This is soon explained!

As for a good old sexy romp–yes, we get that too. There’s a large chunk of sex, specially at the beginning, but each sex scene has a part to play and marks the progress in the burgeoning affair between Stephen and Peter. As the blurb already hints the affair starts as sex and then moves into more complicated territory and that’s the nice surprise; it could have easily have been nothing more than a sex-progression story, but for a small book it packs a lot more punch. There’s a bit too much “hardening” every time one or the other of them sees the other, or looks at the other but I suppose these things do happen, but sometimes it smacks of satyriasis rather than anything erotic.

I loved the progression of the romance–and for me there was a touch of Dangerous Liaisons at one point, where one of the characters did something really hurtful (even though it was because he considered to be best for both of them.) Sadly, due to the length of the book, this really wasn’t given enough time to develop as much as I would have liked–but it worked pretty well but in this respect it should have been called “Educating Peter” to be honest.

Two of the most memorable characters are a couple that make a brief appearance; two delightful old queens, Foxworthy and Wainwright, who have been living together all their lives, in public view and daring the consequences. I was so pleased to meet these characters because with gay historicals it’s more often the conflict that is the essence of the book–because a book must have conflict–and we forget all too often that some men were lucky enough to live together.

“Ah, to be young and in love.” Foxworthy chuckled. “I don’t envy you the ups and downs, Northrup, not even for the extra passion they engender.”

A little small talk and gossip later, Peter took his leave, noting the tenderness with which Timothy grasped Gilbert’s arm and helped him rise from his chair.

‘You may not envy me, you old codger, but I believe I envy you.’

On the con side – it badly needed a firm Brit Picking. Many non-Brit readers will probably not care, but for those who like their English-set stories to feel English, be warned. Having Stephen’s “ass” pounded just brings up images of donkey mistreatment that I’d rather not have. How can you tell if someone is comparing you to his rear end or his donkey if you don’t differentiate between arse and ass? There are many other Americanisms, such as gotten, whiskey, to name but two and I can’t help it, I get jolted. There were a couple of instances of “bum” too – which always makes me laugh; it’s like someone heard the word on a show and thinks that what English people actually say. Please don’t use this word, unless your knight is asking you if his bum looks big in his armour. (not seriously.)

A few mistakes in the history/details too, “matriculation” doesn’t mean to graduate out of a university, as it’s used here. The foxtrot didn’t exist pre 1914. Little mistakes which again, a harsher editor would have ferreted out.

I would have preferred a more definite sense of time, too. I knew it was probably Victorian (if only from the cover, as the Great Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament was built in 1859) and after the instigation of railways between London and Cambridge – but there was nothing in the story to ground me until Peter’s visit to Foxworthy and Wainwright. That was the first mention of a date, and that was over half way through the book.

But all in all this book is far more than it seems, a little TARDIS of a novel, if you like. Don’t be fooled by what it looks like at first glance. There’s a really nice character-fuelled story here, and characters with real feelings, pride, idiocy – people who make mistakes and say stupid things and regret them. People who hurt each other for good reasons – and for reasons perhaps more selfish.

I’ll certainly be looking out for any future historicals these authors do, that’s for sure.

Bonnie Dee’s website Summer Devon’s website

Buy at Loose ID

Review: Queer Cowboys by Chris Packard

“Brokeback Mountain” exploded the myth of the American cowboy as a tough, gruff, and grizzled loner. “Queer Cowboys” exposes, through books by legendary Western writers such as Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister, how same-sex intimacy and homoerotic admiration were key aspects of Westerns well before “Brokeback’s” 1960’s West, and well before the word “homosexual” was even invented. Chris Packard introduces readers to the males-only clubs of journalists, cowboys, miners, Indians, and vaqueros who defined themselves by excluding women and the cloying ills of domesticity and recovers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, and often intimate camaraderie in the fiction, photographs, and theatrical performances of the 1800’s Wild West.

Review by Gerry Burnie

While my usual genre is historical fiction, I am always on the lookout for research of a historical variety. Therefore, although it has been around for a while, “Queer Cowboys: And other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature” by Chris Packard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) is one such work.

The stated objective of this thesis is to explore the “bonds that hold … [same-sex partners, i.e. ‘sidekicks’] together, particularly the erotic affection that undergirds their friendship.” To do this it painstakingly explores the “originary” texts of seminal, nineteenth-century writers who, individually and collectively, created the prevailing stereotype of the devoted same-sex partners. Moreover, the author undertakes to “teach readers how to recognize homoerotic affection in a historical discourse that was free from the derogatory meanings associated with post-1900 evaluations of male-male erotic friendships”—a not overly presumptuous ambition, given that Packard teaches literature and writing at New York University and New School University.

Okay, I am one such hypothetical reader, so let’s see how well Professor Packard achieved his objectives.

At the risk of oversimplifying Packard’s thesis, it starts with an underlying premise that before 1900—i.e. before “the modern invention of the ‘homosexual’ as a social pariah”—cowboy relationships were freely represented as quite a bit more affectionate than they are after that date. Moreover, although the stereotypes generally depicted ethnic warfare; citing the threat of “savagery” as justification for ethnic slaughter, and the freeing-up of territory to make way for European homesteaders, writers like James Fennimore Cooper wrote about friendships, “even marriage rituals,” between members of warring groups based on shared values. In addition friendships between young whites and natives were quite common. These mixed friendships usually had the natives tutoring the boys in the primitive ways of the wilderness, and included rituals of brotherhood, i.e. exchanging blood, and other physical, nuptial-like rites.

Notably absent from this literary same-sex scenario is any role for femininity, which is described by one quoted authority, Walter Benn Michaels, as “…the problem of heterosexuality.”  The ‘problem’ being the threat of reproduction in a period when fear of mixed-ethnicity through sex or marriage was keen in American culture. Moreover, femininity and reproduction ran contrary to the strong, independent, and particularly ‘free’ nature of the cowboy characters.

“Within canonical as well as ignored literature, high culture as well as low, homoerotic intimacy is not only present, but it is thematic in works produced before the modern want him to be queer. America’s official emblem of masculinity is not one who settles down after he conquests … rather, he moves on, perpetually conquering, and repeatedly affirming his ties to the wilderness and his male partner.”

Having thus stated his hypotheses, Packard then goes on to support these with an anthology of mostly “canonical” writings—i.e. Cooper’s “The Leatherstocking Tales,” Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” and Walt Whitman’s poetry.  He also introduces some lesser known examples, such as Claude Hartland’s “The Story of a Life,” Frank Harris’s “My Reminiscences as a Cowboy,” and Frederick Loring’s “Two College Friends.”

While circumstantial, when read from a homoerotic perspective Packard makes a very compelling case, over all.  There are no ‘smoking-gun’ examples, of course, because such blatancies would have been considered excessive by Eastern readers—meaning east of the Mississippi, but it is evident that the implication was there just below the surface. Consequently, he has also taught us how to recognize homoerotic affection in “historic discourse.”

To get to that level of edification, however, the reader has had to wade through an Introduction that I found to be a jumble of complex ideas, confusingly presented and fraught with academic jargon—i.e. “nexus,” “praxis,” “lingua franca,” and so forth. A case on point:

Given the instant and undying popularity of cowboys in U.S. popular culture during a period of rapid national expansion, to identify a homoerotic core in its myth about the supremacy of white American masculinity is to imply that American audiences want their frontiersmen to practice nonnormative desires as part of their roles in nation building. In other words, if there is something national about the cowboy (and other frontier heroes of his ilk), and if there is something homoerotic about American national identity as it is conceived in the American West.

Perhaps I am a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t find the “In other words” any more elucidating than the original statement.

Happily, once he launches into the body of the argument his tone becomes somewhat less esoteric, and apart from belabouring some points—giving a new dimension to the term ‘moot point’—he presents a very interesting and informative perspective on nineteenth-century thought.

Those looking for titillating erotica, however, are bound to be disappointed but well-informed after reading this work.

This review was originally posted on the reviewer’s blog here

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Review: Conflict by Stevie Woods

The sequel to Cane.

Two men, one war. Can love survive when each takes a different side?

Leaving his lover behind to support the abolitionist cause, Piet Van Leyden finds himself leading one of the first all-black Union troops into the heart of battle. Reuniting with free slave and former love Joss brings some comfort, but will his presence tempt Piet into forgetting the love waiting for him at home?

Sebastian Cane wonders how he’s able to go on without Piet by his side. When a series of unfortunate events lands him a prisoner of the Union, Seb knows he must rely on his wits and his love for Piet to survive…and get home to him. 

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

Reader, I was bored. This book echoes, rather unfortunately, my impressions of J P Bowie’s “Warrior Prince”. I know that there are readers for this book, alas, I’m not one of them.

Short summary of what we find here. At the time of the American Civil War, Sebastian Cane, a “Southern gentleman”, his lover and plantation manager Pieter van Leyden, and Pieter’s childhood lover and Sebastian’s ex-slave, Joss, end up in something of a love triangle against the backdrop of the civil war.

Pieter goes off to fight, where he meets Joss again. Sebastian stays behind, moping, until he hears that Pieter is dead, and, seeking death himself now, joins the Confederates.

If I’d have to sum up the impression the book made on me in one word, that word would be ‘repetition’. Everything’s repeated. Both men (Sebastian and Pieter) are approached for sex in the name of comfort. Both men agree, after some soul-searching and angsting, both do the dirty with a stranger/friend, then feel terrible about it and angst some more. Both men are taken prisoners by the other side in the conflict. And so on, and so forth.

The book opens with a lot of backstory, many, many pages devoted to bringing us up to specs about what happened in the prequel, “Cane”, and my eyes glazed over during those long, long passages where absolutely nothing happened, and things were repeated in three different point-of-views – Sebastian Cane gets his version, Pieter van Leyden gets his version, and Joss gets his version, too. Not that any of this is important to the plot, only that Sebastian and Pieter love each other very much and Joss has a connection to both. That could have been told so much faster and more efficiently without boring the reader to tears (who was, in this case, not even aware he was dealing with a sequel).

The history seems okay for the most part. Woods’ main issue is that for the life of the author, they don’t manage to bring any of this alive. This reader didn’t care. It could have happened on another planet – nothing that happened had any impact on me. Instead I wondered why on earth anybody needs three characters telling the same story, when the author chooses an omniscient narrator. Technique here seems lacking; I’m not sure the author chose any point-of-vierw deliberately, because it seemed to want to be third person, but ended up omniscient – and all characters, slave, southern gentleman and plantation manager, sound exactly the same and act exactly in the same manner. Maybe Joss is even more selfless and sacrificing than the other two, but that’s really the only difference I could detect. They speak the same, they act the same, they sound the same when they think. And this reader didn’t care about them just the same.

Another killing blow – the characters have no flaw. Joss is a saint, Pieter is a saint, and, guess what, Sebastian is a saint, too. They are all so good and pure and cute, possessing the pure hearts of five year old boys brought up in a cloister, that I found myself entirely disbelieving I was reading about people. The sex was all cute and nice and totally unerotic – nothing was resolved, there was, quite ironically for a novel called “Conflict” no real conflict, no real progress, no sparks flying, it was all nice and sweet and placid, with bad things happening that never really touched this reader or the characters. The author claimed they were suffering, but these saints bore it placidly, spiced up with lots of angst and luke-warm longing.

Add to that a language just as tepid and unexciting, and you get a good idea why I was dreading my commute more than normal (and it had nothing to do with London’s horror or the suffering of morning/evening cattle class). I just didn’t want to spend my time in the company of these weepy little boys. At no point did I feel I was dealing with characters from the time period. The most jarring example is when our “southern gentleman” sounds like a modern-day California porn star during a ‘wet dream’ sequence which I found cringeworthy rather than sexy. I’m talking about this scene, which, in terms of writing, is pretty typical:

It took longer than he expected before Lane was able to check on Cane, but he was relieved to find the man sleeping, and reasonably peacefully. Often delirium caused those affected to sleep very restlessly.

Lane pulled up a stool, taking the opportunity for a few minutes rest; it was for once fairly quiet in the ward. He’d almost started to doze when he heard muttering from Cane, and saw that even though the man still appeared to be sleeping peacefully, his eye movements were rapid. The captain realized he was dreaming and if the slight smile was any indication it was a good one. Cane began to mutter again, a little more clearly this time and Lane could’ve sworn he heard the words, ‘yeah, just there’.

Staring at the man he considered a friend, albeit not a particularly close one, Mason wondered if it would really matter if he listened a little closer. If his guess was correct,

Cane was having an erotic dream and a little titillation wouldn’t do any harm. Damn, but it would do him some good!

The man was well and truly out of it and he’d never even know. Carefully, so as not to disturb the sleeping man, Lane moved his stool as near as he could to the bed.

“God … harder … yeah, that’s … ooooh, fuck!” Cane moaned, tossing his head from side to side. Lane leaned closer. “Deeper, Pieter … more … oh, God.” Cane’s movement stilled, he gave a deep sigh and was silent.

Mason sat frozen on the stool, staring at Cane. He could hardly believe what he’d heard but then a smile broke slowly over his face. He’d wanted titillation and he got more than he bargained for. Who’d have guessed?

“Oh, boy, you and I have got some talking to do when you’re better,” Lane muttered. “Lord, do I hope you don’t die of this thing.”

Taking one last look at the lieutenant as he got to his feet, Lane nodded his head and whistling softly, walked away.

While I’m not an expert on Southern gentlemen and plantation owners in the 1860ies, I’m not convinced this is what one of them sounds like in his sleep. And this is just one example where the characters just weren’t believable.

As I said, the history seemed mostly okay, the main flaw was that I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t engage with the characters, I didn’t care about them. At the end of all these things that happened to them (wounding, long prison sentence, loss of friends), they haven’t changed at all. And I’m not starting on the fact that Sebastian spends many months in a prisoner-of-war camp with not a fruit or vegetable in sight and doesn’t lose his teeth – some creative license can be taken when dealing with the past. One is a bit thinner and greying, the other is tired of war. I’m not sure what the author tries to communicate here. War is hard? War isn’t worth it?

The book is a “historical romance” with a couple sex (pretty tame) sex scenes, so if you just want a nice sweet romance with lots of pining and a war that is mostly used to keep two lovers separated for almost all of the book, go for it. Personally, the book didn’t make any impact on me, the writing and characterisation was just not strong enough for me to get anything from this. I know there are readers out there for this kind of stuff, and at least it has a discernible plot and the research seems mostly ok, but this wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Author’s Website

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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.

Buy the book: Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Madcap Masquerade by Persephone Roth

When Loel Woodbine, Duke of Marche, receives news that his great aunt has engaged him to a young lady he has never met, he’s a little nonplussed. His lifestyle doesn’t exactly lead itself to entertaining the fair sex; in fact, he prefers to devote his attentions to men rather than women. However, Marche owes his livelihood to his wealthy aunt—indeed, he loves the old dragon – and he knows that he must fulfill his duty and marry Miss Valeria Randwick.

Marche never expects to be completely bowled over by his young bride when he meets her at their wedding ceremony, but she is the most beautiful, untouched creature he has ever seen. Given his preference for men, he is extremely surprised by his intense reaction to her. That is, until he finds out that his new wife is actually Valentine Randwick, Earl of Blythestone, who is disguised as his sister in order to distract attention from her elopement with a commoner.

Having been raised among monks, Valentine is innocent in the ways of the world. He knows that his reaction to the man he calls husband is unnatural, but he can’t deny the intense responses of his heart and his body to the man. Valentine doesn’t exactly enjoy the dresses and the corsets, but if Marche wants to continue the charade, he is willing. Before the two men can settle down into their own version of wedded bliss, however, Marche’s aunt is murdered, and blame is pointed at none other than Marche’s lovely new bride.

Review by Leslie H. Nicoll

I have a feeling that Madcap Masquerade is book that people will either love or hate. For me, my opinion doesn’t go all the way to love, but I enjoyed it and found myself re-reading big chunks of it prior to writing this review, which is always a personal subconscious sign that I liked a book quite a bit.

Now, let’s get some details out of the way. This is a Dreamspinner “Timeless Dreams” title that comes with the disclaimer that, “…these stories celebrate M/M love in a manner that may address, minimize, or ignore historical stigma.” So, historical fiction purists be warned: this book may not be your cup of tea. But if you can get past that issue or don’t really care, you might enjoy this book as much as I did.

I will admit, I started reading this as a “straight” (well, gay) historical. At about the one-third point I thought things were getting a little preposterous and I was feeling annoyed, but I kept going. Then, I looked at the cover: Madcap Masquerade. Aha, I thought—maybe the author’s intention was to have this be a madcap romantic comedy. So I adjusted my thinking and kept on reading. As a “madcap” story it worked better, but this is probably the biggest weakness of the book. I think it is tough to be really funny with themes of murder, embezzlement, and betrayal. Certainly the author kept a light touch but it makes it hard for the story to be completely “over-the-top” which is what it needed to be to truly succeed as a comedy. On the other hand, if you read it as a mostly light-hearted romp and don’t dwell on the serious stuff, it mostly works.

What I liked the best was the interaction between Valentine and Loel and fortunately, they get a lot of page time which went a long way to keeping me interested in the story. They meet for the first time at their wedding, where Valentine is disguised as his sister Valeria. When Loel kisses his bride at the ceremony, she swoons. He takes her into the vestry, locks the door, loosens her corset and realizes that she is really a he. He’s a little surprised at this turn of events but not totally unhappy as he likes what he sees in Valentine, with his long dark hair, coltish frame, and violet eyes.

Valentine, for his part, is totally surprised at his reaction to Loel’s kiss (he had an erection) and Loel’s frank admission that he prefers men over women. But he’s no dummy and he realizes he needs to continue the charade for at least a little while until Valeria is safely married to the man she really loves. Once that happens, Valentine can sort out what he will do with his life and next steps.

Loel decides he wants to get Valentine into his bed but then surprises himself by starting to fall for the young man before the seduction occurs. Valentine also realizes he is developing very strong feelings, very quickly, for the man he is married to. Instead of ignoring each other or their emotions (and having some sort of blasted miscommunication; none of that here, thank God), they talk; Loel tells Valentine he’ll teach him about physical intimacy and “the ways of the flesh” while Valentine, in turn, will teach his husband and ultimate lover what it truly means to love someone. This was the strongest theme of the book and one that I felt was carried through very consistently and made the book work for me. Val and Loel are a good pair and as they get to know each other better and fall deeper in love they ratchet up the banter and witty dialog as well as the heat of their sexual encounters. Like I said, when they were on the page, I devoured every word; when they were absent, I tended to read a little faster.

The writing is colorful. Some may say too colorful to the point of being purple, but it didn’t bother me. I enjoyed the elaborate descriptions of clothing, food, and interior decorations. Granted, during some of the sex scenes there were velvet sheaths and throbbing rods which I know are an instant turn-off for many readers but for me, it worked as part of the overall florid narrative.

All in all, I liked this book and would recommend it with the caveat that it is probably not for everyone. I would suggest reading an excerpt—there is a lengthy one at the Dreamspinner site to give you a feel for the author’s writing style. It appears that this is Persephone Roth’s first book and as a debut, I think it succeeds although as noted above, it’s not perfect. Even so, I look forward to more stories from her in the future. And as a final note, I love the beautiful Anne Cain cover, even though in my mind, I pictured Loel (he’s the blond) as a slightly larger and perhaps more mature man. But that’s a really minor quibble!

Disclaimer: Erastes sent me this book as a PDF for review but I ended up buying the Kindle version for myself (nicer formatting) since I enjoyed it so much and wanted to have a permanent copy in my archive.

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Review: Bys Vyken by Syd McGingley

Jack saves Nehemiah from drowning, or worse, on the Cornish coast, surprised to find he has an American in his midst. He’s also afraid that his fellow villagers will kill Nehemiah rather than look at him, all for the peridot ring on his finger. He takes Nehemiah in, sharing his home, and eventually his secrets.

Pressed into the navy, Nehemiah is lost at sea, and lost for words when Jack pretends to rob him when he washes up on shore. Close quarters makes for close companions, though, and his growing feelings for Jack make it hard for Nehemiah to return home when he has the chance. Can they find a way to stay afloat?

Review by Erastes

Bys Vyken means “for ever” and is most associated with “Kernow bys vyken” meaning “Cornwall for ever”, and obviously using a double meaning here.

The story starts in a dramatic way, miners streaming out from a mine, a ship foundering off the rocks, and our protagonist Jack has his heart in his mouth because he doesn’t want to take part in the “wrecking” (the concerted efforts of a community to act on the law of salvage – all the goods and chattels belong to the finder…as long as there is no-one left alive on the ship) but his position in the village is precarious, and so he needs to put on a good show. It’s a great beginning and one that kept me very interested–bloodthirsty reader that I am, I think I would have liked a bit more tragedy, particularly considering that Jack is a Good Guy and isn’t going to murder anyone.

The pair discover their mutual interest pretty quickly, as would be expected in a story of around 60 pages, and what I liked about the sex is that it struck me as quite masculine.  Jack had refused to “take the woman’s part” in his previous relationship which strikes true in many sodomitical partnerships, there was still a stigma in taking it rather than giving it.  And I liked the way that Nehemiah referred to his cock as “my lad” as that seemed very fitting.  Men DO refer to their cocks as individuals and you don’t see it often enough in fiction.

It reminded me a little of Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s lover, and there’s a sweet scene after Jack comes where I was reminded of this again, because of the learning experience that they go through, experimenting with each other’s bodies.

I’m not sure where Syd lives, but if not in England, there’s been a lot of research done regarding Cornwall, and the story, setting and language is convincing and keeps one grounded in the time and place. The research into tin mining is impressive, too – when it’s a subject I don’t know I tend to research as I’m reading, and found nothing to contradict, which left me free to enjoy the book, feeling I was in a safe pair of hands.

There’s some interesting comments about America by Nehemiah – who is a first generation American:

“…our nation is free of a Church dictating our conscience. That it is our nation.”
Jack blinked. “That’s, that’s—”
Nehemiah kissed his mouth. “That’s freedom. Neither Crown nor Church to yield to.”

Which is very redolent of a young nation, and I’m very glad he’s not around to see what his nation is like now!

Those of you who shy away from the harshness of life in historical times will probably prefer to stay away from this, as it pulls no punches when Jack measures his life without mining and wonders how he’ll stay alive – there’s not much hope for him without it, and with it, he won’t live past 40.

The whole insularity of the community is well documented, too.

Jack was pretty sure it was only twenty or so miles to Falmouth

Which brings home the way these people lived–in their community, rarely going further than the next village.

I think I was less convinced by Jack’s immediate latching himself onto Nehemiah, if they’d stayed sex-buddies and gone onto adventure because of it, I would have liked that, but a loving relationship after two days seemed unlikely — however it’s a romance and that’s what many people expect, and the end is romantic as any that one would expect.

All in all, a good, solid historical read and one I really enjoyed.  I liked the smattering of Cornish within the book – now officially pretty much a dead language – and the slight fervour of Cornish nationalism, which was pretty much extinct, even in 1808.   An unusual setting, and I think many people will like this as much as I did.

Author’s website

Buy from Torquere Press

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