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.

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Review: Common Sons: Common threads in the life by Ronald L. Donaghe

Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.

From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.

The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves.

Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Common Sons is the first of the “Common threads in the life” series set in the fictional town of Common, New Mexico, and for those not acquainted with this series it is the recommended place to start.

It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the small, dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there are some fundamental differences between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. They are also in love with one another although, at first neither one of them realizes this.

Donaghe has also done a superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the burdensome heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.

The catalyst is an ill-advised, but quite innocent kiss between the two boys at a Saturday night dance—read ‘a typical coming together of teenage testosterone and beer.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick-up truck, the first such experience for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.

Being the more pragmatic of the two, Joel soon decides that it is Tom he wants; however, Tom has a more difficult time of it. For one thing his preacher father rules him and the household with a fundamentalist zeal that is absolute, and Tom lives in fear of his father’s wrath. Tom is also well steeped in the usual fundamentalist jargon, i.e. “Sins of the flesh,” “reprobate mind,” and “unnatural lusts.” Upon meeting Joel, however, he begins to question his father, the Bible, and his own self-doubts. Also, Joel teaches him the true meaning of love, self-respect, and friendship.

At the same time Joel and Tom must cope with the peculiar form of homophobia that inhabits small places like Common—especially in the 1960s—and Kenneth Stroud in particular. He is the town’s redneck bad boy who has had bad blood for Joel since they were children. Another bigot is Paul Romaine, one of the church’s disciples with latent homosexual leanings of his own, and together these two set out to publicly humiliate and destroy Joel and Tom.

The rest of the plot I will leave for readers to discover for themselves; however I will comment on some of the admirable points that the author has incorporated into the story.

For example, the author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of realism. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular communities like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, for that matter—can attest to how well he has captured the alienation that Joel and Tom experience when they realize that they are ‘different.’ We can also attest to the delight that others took in pointing this out to us.

Donaghe has also given us an insight into the dark ages of psychology, i.e. when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or a ‘deviation,’ at best. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along with fundamentalist, religious dogma.

Unfortunately Religious fundamentalism still exists, in spite of the ‘defrocking’ of many of its outspoken proponents, but it is hoped that fewer people are listening.

Having said all that Common Sons is an inspirational read, and highly recommended for anyone coming out—young or old.

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Review: The Low Road by James Lear

An erotic adventure story for men who love men, set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in war-torn Scotland. Charles Gordon is sold into near-slavery as the plaything of corrupt military officials, but his talents-both in and out of bed-win him powerful friends as well as dangerous foes.

Review by Jean Roberta.

“You’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland before ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.”

– from “Loch Lomond,” Scottish folk song (see explanation below)*

James Lear is a sly dog who subverts the kind of novels that are widely thought of as ‘classics’ by larding their plots with man-on-man sex. The results are surprisingly faithful to the original books, if not strictly faithful to the era in which they are set.

The most obvious model for James Lear’s novel about Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobites (Catholic supporters of Prince Charles Stuart’s claim to the throne of Scotland) at Culloden in 1746 is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, a novel published in the 1880s but set in the mid-1700s and largely read (when it first appeared) as an adventure story for boys. The central character in Kidnapped is a young man whose parents are dead, and whose wicked uncle arranges for him to be taken to sea against his will. In the course of his adventures, the young man grows up and eventually gains his rightful inheritance.

The Low Road picks up the picaresque (adventure-story) and coming-of-age themes and intertwines them with the romance of ‘coming out’ into a society in which ‘sodomy’ is a hanging offense but in which most men enjoy sex with other men. Nineteen-year-old Charles Edward Gordon, the central character, lives with his grieving mother in the family mansion after his father, a brave Jacobite leader, has been murdered. Young Charlie, a physically active but isolated lad, develops a ‘friendship’ with Alexander, the servant who works in the stable.

Charles and Alexander engage in horseplay (literally), which leads to more intimate contact.

For awhile, the lovers live together in bliss, but the country is still in turmoil, spies and English soldiers are everywhere, and danger lurks.

One day, Alexander disappears and a mysterious French ‘priest’ named Benoit arrives to tutor the lad in Greek and Latin. Charles resents him, but grudgingly admires him.

By spying on the strange man in the house (after being spied on himself), Charles sees the “priest” masturbating. Charles confronts Benoit about his hypocrisy. Before Benoit can explain his real mission and his real identity, English soldiers arrive to search the house for ‘traitors’ to the English crown. The soldiers take Benoit away, leaving Charles and his mother. Charles realizes that he must take action.

Charles sets forth to outwit the ‘redcoats’ of the garrison and rescue Benoit. Along the way, he stops at an inn where he encounters a group of men:

‘a rough and ready group, but, I thought, honest-looking Scotsmen each and every one of them. When I entered the inn, they had been joining in a chorus of Loch Lomond — a crypto-Jacobite hymn, as every young Scot knew well.’

Charles is naively trusting. After excessive drinking and sex with the men, Charles loses consciousness and wakes up on board a ship, where he is destined to be the plaything of the crew.

The captain is an English gentleman who rescues Charles from the attention of uncouth sailors (not that Charles really objects), and decides that he wants to keep Charles for himself. Although he has been commissioned to bring Charles, the Jacobite ‘traitor,’ to a feared English general for ‘questioning’ (torture), Captain Moore sends word that Charles has been killed. Charles does not want to be the captain’s concubine forever, so he escapes.

Charles eventually meets up with the feared General Wade while impersonating a messenger so that he can discover the whereabouts of Benoit. In one adventure after another, Charles uses his healthy young body in the service of Scotland.

Meanwhile, Benoit uses any means at his disposal to write letters to Charles, addressed to him at Gordon Hall and smuggled out by corrupt guards. Benoit has little hope that Charles will ever receive the letters, but writing them helps keep Benoit sane in desperate circumstances.

The letters are interspersed with Charles’ adventures, so the reader can follow the parallel narratives as the suspense builds. The plot proceeds at a gallop despite the frequent sex scenes involving orgies, voyeurism/exhibitionism, spankings, cross-dressing and a memorable banquet in which Charles is the piece de resistance. Charles survives numerous close calls long enough to mature from a sheltered boy to a more sensible man, and all complications are resolved — at least for the major characters, if not for the doomed Prince for whom Charles was named.

For those who love historical fiction and m/m erotic romance, this novel is a treat. The epistolary form seems true to the period, and the episodic plot lends itself to being read in installments. James Lear has such a shamelessly homoerotic take on history and literature that a reader wonders which “classic” he will take on next.

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* From the Wikipedia entry on “Loch Lomond:”

“There are many theories about the meaning of the song. One interpretation is that it is attributed to a Jacobite Highlander who was captured after the 1745 rising. The English played games with the Jacobites, and said that one of them could live and one would die. This is sung by the one who was sentenced to die, the low road referred to being the passage to the underworld.

Another interpretation is that the song is sung by the lover of a captured rebel set to be executed in London following a show trial. The heads of the executed rebels were then set upon pikes and exhibited in all of the towns between London and Glasgow in a procession along the “high road” (the most important road), while the relatives of the rebels walked back along the “low road” (the ordinary road traveled by peasants and commoners).”

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

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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: Two Spirits by Walter L Williams, Toby Johnson

With its sweet tale of inter-racial romance between a young Civil War survivor from Virginia and a Navajo berdache/two-spirit healer of the Old West, this novel demonstrates gender variance as a source of spiritual power and documents “same-sex marriage” as indigenous to the American continent.

Reviewed by Ruth Sims

Two Spirits combines a moving love story with a dark part of American history. Most American know, and choose to ignore, the historic treatment of the peoples who “were here first,” the broken treaties, the broken promises, the broken hearts and lives. It would be silly to pretend that the Indians (if I may use that non-p.c. term) didn’t war among themselves because they did. But they didn’t have machine guns and railroad trains and the belief that God gave them all the land from coast to coast, a.k.a. “manifest destiny.” Two Spirits is about one small group caught on the dark side of that manifest destiny: the people Americans called Navajo, but who called themselves Diné.

In 1864 the Diné were forced to walk 325 miles in winter from their green, fertile homeland in what we call Northeast Arizona, Canyon de Chelly, to what was actually a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner. At least 3,000 of their number died on the way. This was General James Carlton’s version of “pacifying” the natives. Carlton, by the way, was a real person. The U.S. Government allocated what probably was sufficient money for the displaced Diné to feed, clothe, and house them, but the money found its way into Carlton’s private coffers. Not only were the Diné starving and unable to grow crops in the inhospitable land, living in substandard shacks, and dying from illnesses, Mexican bandits regularly struck from what became New Mexico, carrying the Diné children to be sold into slavery. Carlton did nothing to protect his charges.

Into this living hell comes a shy, uncertain and untrained Indian Agent named William Lee from Virginia, a young man kicked out by his father for loving another man. Young Will is truly tested by many fires—both from within and without. He’s puzzled why he’s fascinated and attracted to the beautiful healer and wise woman,

Hasbaá, a loved and revered member of the tribe. A near-tragedy reveals Hasbaá’s physical strength and Will soon learns that the beautiful, spiritual, strong woman is really a man—a two-spirit. Far from being shunned, as she would have been in white society, Hasbaá is considered blessed. Will and Hasbaá fall deeply in love and are joined in a union by the customs of the tribe.

There is plenty of action and danger in this book, as Will, the Diné, and Hasbaá face persecution and annihilation when Will uncovers Carlton’s corruption and evil. He delves deeply into the life and spirituality of the Diné and his beloved Hasbaá.

As an incurable reader of forewords, afterwords, and footnotes, I especially appreciated the commentaries at the end. “About the Historical Accuracy of This Novel” is as interesting as the book itself, explaining as it does about, among other things, the use of peyote, some of the mystical references, and the acceptance of two-spirit people. This is followed by “A Commentary” by Wesley K. Thomas, a member of the Diné. These brief extras are the cherry on top of the sundae.

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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.

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