Review: Promises Made Under Fire by Charlie Cochrane

France, 1915

Lieutenant Tom Donald envies everything about fellow officer Frank Foden–his confidence, his easy manner with the men in the trenches, the affectionate letters from his wife. Frank shares these letters happily, drawing Tom into a vicarious friendship with a woman he’s never met. Although the bonds of friendship forged under fire are strong, Tom can’t be so open with Frank–he’s attracted to men and could never confess that to anyone.

When Frank is killed in no-man’s-land, he leaves behind a mysterious request for Tom: to deliver a sealed letter to a man named Palmer. Tom undertakes the commission while on leave–and discovers that almost everything he thought he knew about Frank is a lie…

ebook and audiobook- 18,000 words

Review by Erastes

Anyone who has read and likes Charlie Cochrane will be expecting quality and a sweet romance and you definitely won’t be disappointed in this book. She is consistently good and I always start one of her books with a sense of pleasure. I have to say I ended this one in that state too.

Frank is everything Tom would like to be. He sees the best in things, and can laugh even in the trenches, in the worst of conditions. To do otherwise, he tells Tom would be a road to madness. Tom is much more realistic and finds the war and the conditions next to unbearable.

Such a set-up could be a very hard read in other hands, but Cochrane deals with it well. Somehow she doesn’t lessen the impact of the horror–makes it very clear to us how badly Tom is affected by events that transpire–but it’s dealt with so wonderfully and subtly that it wouldn’t put the most ardent anti-war reader off. It takes skill to do this–a rare skill–which is why most WW1 books are  a much more harrowing read. Tom is living a life not lived; chances never taken, risks never risked and there are instances in his life which therefore he regrets for inaction. And now he’s in the middle of action of a very different sort, he can’t see beyond the end of the next minute.

It’s almost a coming-of-age story, in a way, as Tom has to solve a little but rather satisfying mystery (as the reader should twig onto the truth a long time before Tom) and when he does his life begins to change and he gets the chance to finally risk all for his future happiness.

Told in first person, Tom’s head isn’t the happiest place to be. He suffers (with a good portion of stiff upper lippiness) with a fair smear of depression although he does his duty, even when it’s unpleasant. He doesn’t particularly want to go and see Frank’s family but he does his duty even though the loss of Frank has hit him hard, so hard that only really his parents know how much it’s affected him.

It’s this repression that Cochrane manages to portray so very well. The fact that Tom and Frank had shared a trench and command for a good while but the repression of both men meant that they knew almost nothing about each other–not really–and they couldn’t trust each other enough to let each other know about their secret lives. She really gets into Tom’s mind and is utterly convincing as he unravels the tangle of Frank’s life.

As much as I enjoyed much of the Cambridge Fellows series, I prefer Cochrane’s standalone books. Her writing gets stronger as she finds her style (although she’s just as capable of contemporary, fantasy and historical) and gains strength and confidence in her writing. This is–to my mind–one of the most mature pieces she’s produced, and is romantic enough for those who seek it but thought provoking enough for those who want a more gritty read.

Author’s Website

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Review: Slaves to Love: 1 and 2 by J P Bowie

Raised in the city of Capua, renowned for its gladiator training grounds—Lucius, a young patrician, is unprepared for the obsessive desire that almost overwhelms him when he first sees Callistus, a captive Gaul condemned to a life, and probable death, in the arena. Unsuccessful in his attempt to buy Callistus and save him from a premature death, Lucius instead follows his career, attending all of his bouts in the arena, including one with Spartacus, the rebel slave. Spartacus incites Callistus and his fellow gladiators to rebel and form an unbeatable army, almost bringing the Roman legions to their knees.

Although torn between his love for Callistus and loyalty to his friends and family, Lucius determines that before one, or both of them might die, he must find Callistus, confess his feelings, and spend at least one night in the arms of the man he loves.

When Damian, a young artist, is commissioned to sculpt the image of Demetrios, Rome’s current darling of the arena, he finds himself falling in love with the handsome gladiator. Despite his father’s vow to disown him, Damian follows his heart—and when he and Demetrios are caught in the conflagration that threatens to destroy Rome, their love for one another gives them the strength to survive the flames.

But their future together looks uncertain when Damian, rounded up along with Christians accused of setting the fire, is separated from Demetrios and forced into a fight to the death in the arena.

Review by Alex Beecroft

‘Slaves to Love’ is a beautifully written book consisting of two novellas. The linking factor which connects the two stories is the fact that in each story a youth of a Patrician Roman family falls in love with a gladiator.

In the first story, Lucius and Callistus, patrician Lucius, a rather limp youth, falls for a barbarian warrior, Callistus. Callistus is a barbarian chieftain, captured in the wars and forced to fight as a gladiator. He soon becomes involved with fellow gladiator Spartacus’s rebellion, and clearly leads a much more exciting life than Lucius, who is a (lackadaisical) teacher. The big drawback of this story, to me, is that all the exciting things are happening off camera, as it were. We are riding along in Lucius’ point of view, while he worries about his big brave man away at the war, but we don’t get to see any of the action.

In point of fact, Callistus treats Lucius exactly as a traditional hero treats his lady; he keeps the youth away from any danger, sends him home and refuses to allow him to participate in Callistus’ dangerous life at all. I believe this is meant to be romantic of him, but it’s exactly the sort of example of one person refusing to allow another person to live their own life and make their own decision that the rather heavy handed anti-slavery message of the story denounces. The lovers are so star crossed and so hobbled by Callistus’ refusal to treat Lucius as a man – and Lucius’ spineless acceptance of this ‘chivalry’ – that *spoiler warning* if one of the things you demand in a romance is a happy ending, you’re not going to like this at all. *End spoiler*

J.P Bowie writes with such authority about the period that I hesitate to wonder if any Roman youth, particularly of a patrician family, could be as passive as Lucius. But still I can’t help but find it odd. Taking orders from a barbarian slave? It really didn’t work for me at all.

I was also not at all happy by the fact that all the women in this story were bitches. In a climate where m/m is often attacked as misogynistic, I would find it hard to defend this story.

Which was unfortunate, because as I say the research seems impeccable, and the author has the most beautiful, powerful writing style. I desperately wanted to like the story, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, there is a second story. The story of Damian and Demetrios is much more to my taste. We do start off with a similar setup – Damian is a high class boy starting out as a sculptor, and Demetrios is a gladiator. But almost everything I didn’t like in the first story is overturned in this. Damian reacts to being thwarted by growing a backbone, becoming active in the story and beginning to shape his own destiny. Demetrios tries the high handed ‘I’m letting you go for your own sake’ tactic, but eventually gives in to Damian’s persistence. They go into peril and adventure together, and when one goes into exile the other goes with him. It almost seems a reward for their persistence that this story does have a happy ending.

Oh, and Damian’s sister, Portia, turns out not to be a bitch after all, so even there I have nothing at all to complain about.

I sincerely hope that the second story was written after the first and represents the author growing into a m/m sensibility where nobody has to be the damsel in distress. If that’s the case, the combination of gorgeous writing, wonderful world-building, and likeable characters makes this one a winner and a definite sign of a rising star to come.

Author’s website

Lucius & Castillus  Manloveromance

Damian and Demetrios  Manloveromance

Review: The Silurian Book One The Fox and the Bear by L.A. Wilson

Preview this book
Set entirely in the Dark Ages of post-Roman Britain, The Silurian is narrated in grim detail by Prince Bedwyr, The Fox. The Fox, who tells of his life with Arthur, of his own life and struggles, of the many different acts that make up the power of warriors who live in Dark Age war-bands, committed to their commanders and wielding swords that break. This is the Fifth Century AD, a time of fierce honesty. And these are the words of a young man who lives his life in the blood, guts, turmoil and love of an age that was both brutal and brilliant.

Review by Erastes

There are some books where you read them and you feel unsettled because you don’t know the era and the history and the author doesn’t make you feel safe – but I have to say that L A Wilson didn’t engender this fear with me. It was clear from the first few pages that the author knew this period damn well, and if anything was wrong then I didn’t get the feeling, and I didn’t get the itch to rush onto the internet and check facts like I sometimes do with eras I don’t know.

The facts seem to be similar to Geoffrey Monmouth’s history of Britain with some changes (such as Uthyr being brother to Lot, and not Ambrosius) – but as I say, I’m not an expert on the Dark Ages, so it bothered me not a wit and I was just involved in the story being told.

Prince Bedwyr (not really a prince per se as we know it today, but the son of a tribal chieftain) is a complicated and likeable character. Deeply flawed and realistic, I was drawn to him immediately. He’s in love with Arthur; they’ve been raised together as foster-brothers due to Arthur’s father Uthyr having rejected him and they’ve both been placed in the army together. However, as much as he loves Arthur, he holds his love back, confused by the emotions that he feels. He hides his love under fraternal devotion and it’s heartbreaking to read, especially as Arthur, with typical teenage lust, fucks his way around Britain.

Both young men (and the Mordred character, Medraut) have father issues which range from pride to incest, and much of this first book is concerned with Arthur’s rise through the ranks and subsequently taking control of the armies of Britain. There are a lot of political machinations, as you would expect, but they are never dull and over-involved. Wilson manages this by narrating from a viewpoint other than Arthur’s – so we are there to listen to Arthur for all his hopes and fears, rather than being involved in the plots and policto-manouvering. This works well and keeps the action moving along nicely.

As a fan of bad boys, I was charmed and delighted by Medraut, who is written as a most engaging character. He’s blond, extremely handsome and personable and is charismatic where Bedwyr is difficult for people to get to know or understand. As the book progresses though, we see that Medraut – whilst also being in love with Arthur, but for different reasons than most other people – has a dark side and his idea of loyalty is skewed and wrong. He’s pretty frank about his homosexuality in a time when Christianity was leeching across Britain and subverting the tradition of male-love, and whilst he’s not reviled for it, it doesn’t make him popular either. If I have any gripe about Medraut, it’s that I objected to more open homosexual of the saga to be the official baddie, and sado-masochistic to boot.

Understandably, in a saga this large, many characters are introduced in short order but they are well drawn, and unlike some multi-character plots it’s easy to keep track of who is who. That being said, perhaps a glossary would have been useful, in light of what I’m about to say next.

What the book really lacked though – was a map. I like maps, even in my fantasy reading – and because this is writing entirely using original names of tribes and towns (the only one I recognised was Londinium) and because there is so much travelling described from one end of Britain to the other, I felt a map was essential. Perhaps it’s something that the author can address in further printings.

i DID enjoy it, but I had to make myself continue to read it, I’m afraid. For my money the major drawback with this book was the fact that it needed a severe edit with a ruthless red pen, as the mistakes are legion and someone with less patience (or not possessing the punctuation blindness as I appear to have) would have given up fairly early on. Semi colons are used instead of many commas or full stops. They proliferate like bunnies as the book progresses and some of the many many typos are inexcusable. This is a real shame because if this book had been clean and well edited, I see no reason why any historical publisher wouldn’t have picked it up, as it smacks of the period and is a darned good story.

I have the remaining two books of the trilogy and will certainly give them a read. If you can excuse the editing, then I do recommend this book – particularly for those with an interest in the Dark Ages – but I can’t rate it higher in terms of stars, I’m afraid, as the editing really pulls it down.

Buy the Book: LULU
(there’s an extensive preview of the book here, so you can make up your own mind)

Review: Frontiers by Michael Jensen

The year is 1797. John Chapman, an impulsive young man and a sexual outlaw, forsaken in the bitter winter of the Allegheny Plateau, clings to his one tenuous dream: to claim a future in the Western outpost. Unarmed and near death, Chapman is on the brink of giving up when an unexpected rescue changes his course in life forever, and he discovers the true meaning of survival.

The mysterious savior is Daniel McQuay, a loner whose overpowering bond with Chapman is as shifting as a shadow, as dark as the prairie tale he spins for the impressionable young man. For Chapman, McQuay’s story of a deranged killer clings to his transient soul like a nightmare, tracking him further south and into the safe haven of a gentle Indian woman named Gwennie. His journey also takes him into the intimate deliverance of Palmer, a brash but irresistibly innocent seventeen-year-old settler.

As the three adventurers carve a new life out of the endless wilderness, they face the ultimate enemy — man — in a life-and-death struggle that unfolds in the shadow of a legendary and avenging evil.

Review by Mark R Probst
I have a great deal of affection for Michael Jensen’s unique retelling of the origin of Johnny Appleseed in his pioneer adventure novel Frontiers. Since in reality Johnny Appleseed is more folklore and legend than historical fact, the character was a perfect vehicle for Jensen to mold into his own creation. In an interview from his website, Jensen talks about how through research he found that John Chapman (Appleseed) never married nor had a sweetheart but when he did occasionally settle down, it was always with a man. So it’s not that much of a stretch to presume that Chapman might have been gay.

Frontiers begins in 1797 with the 23-year-old Chapman heading to western Pennsylvania, an advertisement in hand offering free supplies and land to encourage western expansion. The giveaway is to occur in the spring but Chapman has arrived early, so he spends the winter with the overseer of the supplies for the management company. There is some sexual chemistry between the two men holding out the long winter in the small cabin, but I won’t spoil the twists and turns that occur. I’ll only say that a discerning reader will probably figure out the surprises, but I didn’t, and in retrospect I felt rather dense in that I couldn’t see what was coming up. But kudos to Jensen for fooling me! Once the winter is over, John takes over an abandoned claim complete with a furnished cabin and food store, close to the nearby settlement of Franklin. He becomes acquainted with the frontiersmen and women who are fired up by the town’s Native-hating preacher and anti-ecology mayor to kill all the trees and Natives (that is the ones who won’t convert to Christianity, though they are never really given a chance.) Palmer, the 17-year-old brother of the preacher, is the town rebel and not only is he sickened by the destructiveness of the townsfolk, but he is also an atheist and secretly, a sodomite. He takes a shine to John and gives him a lot of insight into the true nature of the town, all the while becoming more intimate. As John farms his land, Gwennie, a Native-American woman known as the “Apple Lady” because of the orchards she has planted and maintained, teaches him how to plant his own orchard, in a foreshadowing of what he will become. The end of the story is fraught with peril and I won’t spoil it to tell you any more.

I found a lot to like in this novel. Jensen’s breezy style is easy to read and the high adventure briskly rolled along with flourishes of humor and some really well-handled suspense as well as a few erotic scenes. Many have mislabeled this story as a Western. It really is not, since it is set in the early pioneer days before western expansion really took off. As part of the legend is John’s love of animals, I found the following particularly endearing.

Scowling, he flung a bag on the table. “Bloody hickory nuts from a squirrel’s nest.” Chocolate-hued nuts scattered across the table. “I figured we at least could roast them.”

“Sure,” I replied, unable to help wondering what the squirrel was going to eat.

Though I’ll have to admit it’s a little disheartening that every single animal John cares about meets a grisly death. Another tiny quibble I have is just my own personal dislike for the scenario where one goes to great lengths to save someone from a perilous situation only to have them killed off later. It’s also interesting to note that while legend has John as a man of God and perhaps even a minister, Jensen shows him as struggling with his faith.

As I have read a few complaints from readers regarding modern language, I will give a word of warning. If modern language in a historical is a particular pet peeve, I’d say you probably shouldn’t read this book. While Jensen did pepper the text with some relevant language from the time period, there are enough anachronistic words and phrases to lead me to believe that is was an editorial decision to use such modern language. It really wasn’t a problem for me, as I just treat it as though the modern words were a translation of what the characters really would have said.

I enjoyed my time spent with Johnny, Palmer and Gwennie and as this story only covers what led up to Chapman becoming Johnny Appleseed, naturally I was left wanting the story to continue so it’s nice to know that there is a sequel Firelands waiting for me. I, for one, will be curious to see how the legend plays out as well as how Johnny resolves his religious strife.

After I finished the book, for fun, I decided to pull out my Melody Time DVD and watch Disney’s interpretation of Johnny Appleseed for comparison. Here are the words of the narrator: “Workin’, singin’, carefree and gay, that’s how Johnny spent each day tendin’ to his apple trees.” I couldn’t help but smile, wondering if Michael Jensen had watched this as a young boy and that’s where he first got the notion that Johnny was gay.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

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