Starting Over: COUNT THE SHELLS–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m wrapping up the spotlight on historical reads with a review for a recently published M/M historical romance from Charlie Cochrane. COUNT THE SHELLS is a bittersweet story of a WWI veteran coming to terms with his losses, and finding new love unexpectedly.

About the book:
Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

My Review:
Michael Gray has had precisely five lovers in his short life, and he’s outlived them all. This is the time just after the Great War, and Michael is still plagued by memories of combat in Flanders and France. He’s come to holiday on the Cornish coast, with his sister’s family. There he relishes long days by the seaside with his young nephew, Richard, and pondering why he survived when all his lovers perished in the war times. His most dear memories are of Thomas Carter-Clemence, his first and only true love, and he’s anguished that they parted on bad terms, never having made up the fight that caused their rift.

While out walking with Richard when motorbike nearly hits them. Michale’s rocked to his core when he confronts the driver and feels as if he’s seeing Thomas’ ghost. Not far from the mark, Thoma’s younger brother, Harry, has taken possession of the family estate, Broch, and is happy to establish their previous friendship; their families were close, and Harry, four years younger, always wanted to tag along with Thomas and Michael on their adventures. As Thomas and Michael were spending their alone time in fast and furious sex, the annoying little brother was often brushed aside, but now he’s eager to establish an acquaintance.

Invitations are made for luncheons and visits, and Michael struggles to reconcile the guilt he feels over losing Thomas to the attraction he feels for Harry–and attraction that seems more than returned. As the days pass, Harry reveals his secret crush on Michael, from their childhood days, and more…secrets. And, Michael reveals his own secret surrounding his “friendship” with Thomas. Both men are astounded and hurt by the new information, and it causes a great deal of tension in their lives, not just their budding relationship.

I really loved the setting and characters in this one. I could see the old world charm, and feel Michael and Harry’s pain regarding their service, because Harry was in the naval service during the war, too. The issues that drive them apart aren’t discussed in malice, neither man expects the other didn’t already know. And that’s a pickle, indeed. It turns out the deepest secrets of their families aren’t actual secrets after all–that the main players already have the information they need, but aren’t sharing it with others openly. Still, it’s awkward, and tense. Michael and Harry seem to make the best of the difficult situation, recognizing that the past cann’t be changed and life is fleeting. If nothing else, Michael’s sixth lover may be his last. At least, if Harry has his way. Expect maudlin moments, and steamy encounters. Michael has a wry sense of humor and he and Harry engage in some rather fun banter laced with cricket innuendoes that made me smirk. The resolution is as good as one could expect, given the family skeletons that get aired out, but I’d expect that Harry and Michael find their new lives very much more satisfying than before.

Interested? You can find COUNT THE SHELLS on Goodreads, Riptide Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo. I read a review copy through NetGalley.

About the Author:
Because Charlie Cochrane couldn’t be trusted to do any of her jobs of choice—like managing a rugby team—she writes. Her mystery novels include the Edwardian era Cambridge Fellows series, series, and the contemporary Best Corpse for the Job. Multi-published, she has titles with Carina, Samhain, Riptide and Bold Strokes, among others.

A member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Mystery People and International Thriller Writers Inc, Charlie regularly appears at literary festivals and at reader and author conferences with The Deadly Dames.

Catch up with Charlie on her website, Facebook, and twitter.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

Out Today! Dangerous Times for THE STATION–Review and Giveaway!

Hi there! Today, I’m sharing a review for a new historical M/M romance from author Keira Andrews. THE STATION takes us back to England in the early 1800s when buggery was a crime punishable by death. Why, then, would a young gentleman incriminate himself to spare the life of his accused stable master? I have loved other period pieces by Ms. Andrew’s including KIDNAPPED BY THE PIRATE as well as more contemporary (A FORBIDDEN RUMSPRINGA) and even paranormal (KICK AT THE DARKNESS) titles.

Scroll down to read my review and enter to win a backlist book for Keira Andrews in the giveaway!
About the book:
Ever since Cambridge-bound Colin Lancaster spied on stable master Patrick Callahan mastering another man, he’s longed for Patrick to do the same to him. When Patrick is caught with his pants down and threatened with death for his crime, Colin speaks up in his defense and confesses his own sinful nature. They’re soon banished to the faraway prison colony of Australia.

Patrick never asked for Colin’s help, and now he’s stuck with the pampered fool. While it’s true that being transported to Australia is a far cry from the luxury Colin is accustomed to, he’s determined to make the best of it and prove himself. Although Patrick learned long ago that love is a fairy tale, he’s inexorably drawn to sweet, optimistic Colin.

From the miserable depths of a prison ship to the vast, untamed Australian outback, Colin and Patrick must rely on each other. Danger lurks everywhere, and when they unexpectedly get the chance to escape to a new life as cowboys, they’ll need each other more than ever.

This historical gay romance from Keira Andrews features an age difference, an eager virgin, hurt/comfort, and of course a happy ending.

How about a little taste?

Waiting only a moment after knocking, Colin’s mother, Elizabeth, entered his room. Colin glanced over from the window seat. He’d been watching Patrick in the meadow exercising the young colt born several days before. “Yes, Mother?”

Elizabeth was forty-two and quite beautiful, with a regal nose and posture and the same thick, chestnut brown hair as Colin. “You haven’t bathed yet? Guests will be arriving within the hour.”

“I was about to, if you’d leave me to my privacy.”

When he wasn’t studying or walking the grounds, Colin whiled away the hours sitting by his window reading novels of thrilling adventures in faraway lands. Sometimes Patrick would appear in the meadow, training the horses. Colin’s book would lie forgotten on his lap as he watched Patrick at work. He seemed as if he belonged in one of the fictional tales Colin devoured. Colin could easily imagine him with sword in hand.

“Of course, dear. I had Charles press your jacket. It’s hanging there.” She pointed across the room, where, sure enough, his formal wear waited. “Katherine was partial to that one, if I do recall.”

Colin couldn’t hold back a sigh. “Yes.”

“Darling, you gave up on Katherine far too easily. Tonight will be another chance for you to win her hand. You’re quite a catch, you know. Off to Cambridge soon. Katherine will want to ensnare you now.”

“Mother, Katherine Crawford has turned her favor elsewhere. She’s moved on.” So had he. Most definitely.

Elizabeth’s pretty face pinched into a frown. “It’s an honor that the Crawfords are attending this evening. You will be on your best behavior. I don’t know what exactly you did to ruin things with Katherine, but tonight you will do your utmost to undo it.”

“Yes, Mother.” He would attempt no such thing, but Colin had learned years before that arguing with his parents got him nowhere. Soon he’d be at Cambridge and he would be able to make his own decisions. Soon he’d have a new life.

Mollified, Elizabeth closed the door behind her. Flopping down on his bed, Colin thought of Katherine and cringed. It wasn’t until a most ill-fated outing with Katherine Crawford several months ago that Colin had admitted to himself that his interest in Patrick was far from intellectual.

Katherine was a beauty, all glossy blonde hair and moist, pink lips. For some reason Colin couldn’t fathom, she had shown an interest in him at a holiday gathering down the road. The courting had begun soon thereafter, with Colin escorting Katherine on various activities. Unlike William, who railed against the inconveniences of chaperones, Colin was grateful for the matrons’ presence.

He liked Katherine well enough. She was intelligent and kind and pleasing to look at. But Colin knew something was missing. Katherine didn’t set his blood on fire, and he rarely thought of her when she was absent.

The absences were as long as Colin could manage while still maintaining the guise of courting. He was a perfect gentleman at all times with Katherine, which he found a simple feat. William and his school chums all needled him in private and made winking suggestions of what was actually going on between him and Katherine, and Colin let them believe what they wanted.

The Lancasters and Crawfords had both been guests at a country estate for an Easter celebration. Colin’s sister, Rebecca, was delighted. On the ride over, she had chattered constantly about the beautiful Katherine and how she might one day be her sister-in-law. Colin loved his sister dearly but wished she’d find a new interest.

Colin had been fast asleep the first night at the country estate when Katherine crept into his room. Despite his protests about the impropriety, she’d insisted he dress and accompany her for a moonlight stroll. He hadn’t really a choice.

It went badly.

Despite Katherine’s obvious beauty and heaving bosom, Colin had remained utterly uninterested. He’d tried. Truly, he did. Under a large willow tree, Colin had kissed Katherine and caressed her soft skin under her skirt, her hand firm on his wrist, guiding him. He had been unable to get excited, and when she’d reached for him to find him flaccid, Katherine Crawford had had quite enough.

She’d stomped back to her room and avoided Colin for the remainder of the weekend. Colin could hardly meet anyone’s eyes. His family had obviously required an explanation, and he’d had none.

When they returned home after a torturous journey, Colin had jumped from the carriage, eager to be away from his inquiring parents and sister, who’d demanded to know how Colin had made such a mess of things. Colin had almost barreled straight into Patrick, who had come to take the horses. At the sight of him, his lean muscles, his maleness, Colin had been struck with the vivid memories of what he’d witnessed in the stable that day long ago. He had to bite his tongue to stop himself from begging Patrick to take him into some dark corner and have his way with him.

That was what he wanted. He would never want the Katherine Crawfords of the world. No matter how beautiful, how rich, how ideal for a wife. Colin wanted a man. Oh, God, did he want a man.

Can I be of assistance?” Patrick had affected a guileless expression, and Colin had realized he’d been staring dumbly.

Awkward and ready to crawl out of his own skin, Colin had mumbled something and hurried off. All the denials he’d repeated to himself had finally been silenced. He’d locked himself in his room, took himself in hand, and, muffling his face in a pillow as he thought of Patrick, attained the most satisfying release he’d experienced since that day at sixteen years old, hiding in the stable.

Remembering now, Colin stroked himself quickly, careful not to muss himself too much before the party. He thought of Patrick, of his Gaelic lullaby and of his grunts as he’d penetrated the man in the stable years before. As he rubbed himself with one hand, legs spread, Colin caressed his lips with his fingertips, imagining what it would be like to be kissed—really kissed. He didn’t even know if men kissed each other, but he would like to try it.

Sometime later, Colin straightened his navy tie and vest under his dark jacket and peered into the full-length mirror in the corner of his bedroom. His large eyes were a deep brown that matched his hair, and his jaw was narrow. His nose was straight and unremarkable. Katherine had once told him that his smile turned her knees to jelly and his eyes were bottomless pools she could stare into for eternity.

Colin doubted it, somehow.

He decided he looked as presentable as he was able to and went to join the party. Naturally, the first person he saw was Katherine. Dressed to the nines in an ornate, yellow, bell-shaped gown and looking lovely, she was laughing gaily at something William had said. Her hand was placed just so on his arm, and Colin saw the flash of her eyes as she spotted him. She laughed again, even louder.

Colin felt like laughing himself. If she only knew. Before he could do anything, Rebecca towed him into the drawing room, her voice low and urgent, grip firm. “Honestly, I don’t know what William is thinking. You mustn’t pay them any mind, Colin. Are you very upset?” Her pretty face, very much like their mother’s, creased with worry.

Shaking his head, Colin kissed his dear sister’s cheek. “I won’t give it another thought. William is welcome to her. Perhaps Father will take some solace if the family is connected to the Crawfords in the end.”

Rebecca, fourteen and very dramatic, hugged him tightly. “Oh, Colin. You’re ever so brave.”

Biting back his mirth, Colin thanked her and pointed her toward her newly arriving friends from down the road. He made his rounds of the soiree, shaking hands and making polite conversation. Dinner was served, and Colin listened to a neighbor tell him about what a wonderful time he’d have at Cambridge. Colin hoped it would be true. The one thing dampening his excitement about finally getting away from home was that he’d also be leaving Patrick behind.

As he spooned his custard, Colin brooded. He knew it was deeply foolish, since the strange affection and desire he had for Patrick was certainly one-sided. He’d only been a child when they were friends. Even if by some miracle Patrick desired him now that he was grown, would Colin really have the nerve to lie with another man? His trousers tightened at the notion, and he was glad for the napkin across his lap.

After dinner, Colin endured the ladies’ singing and gentlemen’s card games. Unable to shake Patrick from his mind as the night wore on, he found himself walking to the stable, unable to stay away. He was almost there when a cry came up. A man burst out from the large wooden doors and fled across the meadow, barely visible in the darkness. In the lantern light from the stable, Patrick tumbled outside, followed by two men Colin recognized as shopkeepers in the next county. Brothers named Harris, he thought.

Colin realized he was running and skidded to a halt just as one of the brothers landed a vicious kick to Patrick’s ribs. “Stop!” Colin shoved the man aside. Blood already streamed from Patrick’s nose and mouth.

The man ignored Colin as if he were naught but a fly, and kicked Patrick again. “Unnatural piece of filth!”

Several other guests who heard the melee drew near. The other Harris brother called out to them. “We need the inspector. A crime’s been committed here.”

“What crime?” Colin demanded.

The man spit at the ground where Patrick lay beaten. “Buggery.”

The world tilted on its axis, and Colin’s stomach churned. He realized Patrick’s breeches were loose, and that the man he’d seen fleeing must have been…

Suddenly Colin’s father was there. In the lantern light, Colin could see the rage on his father’s face, and it chilled him. Edward was short and stout, yet an imposing presence. He issued a terse command to the Harris brothers to follow him and bring Patrick.

Patrick was dragged around the back of the manor house, a growing number of curious guests following. Several women were told to go back to the party, and the servants watched with wide eyes as the brothers hauled Patrick through the kitchen. Inside Edward’s study, a group of men gathered. Patrick was deposited on his knees in the middle of the room as Colin crowded inside with the others. They were soon joined by Colin’s mother.

“What’s going on?” she hissed to her husband. “There are whispers everywhere.”

Edward barely spared her a glance. “This is no place for a woman. An ungodly crime has been committed. Go see to the other guests and tell them everything is fine. We don’t want this getting out.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Tell me what’s happened!” Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed.

The man who’d kicked Patrick spoke. “My wife is feeling ill, so my brother and I went to the stable to ask for our carriage to be brought round.”

“Ill? Not from the food?” Elizabeth appeared horrified.

“For God’s sake, woman, forget the food!” A vein in Edward’s temple throbbed, and Colin feared his father might explode with rage.

“Where’s the other one?” Colin glanced behind him, surprised to hear William’s voice. Apparently the whispers were indeed spreading.

One of the Harris brothers answered. “Gone. I think it was the Nelsons’ carriage driver. Quick bastard, we couldn’t catch him. This one was still tangled up in his breeches. Caught him dead to rights.”

“No need to get the courts involved. Take him out back and hang him from his bollocks,” said one of the other guests.

There was a murmur of agreement, and Edward seemed to seriously be considering it. Colin’s panic increased exponentially as the tension simmered. Many of those present had long been into their cups, and a reckless air swirled through the room. He looked to Patrick, who knelt silently, blood dripping down his face, his hands now bound behind his back. Colin hadn’t seen who restrained him.

“Kill him,” agreed one of the Harrises. To Patrick, he said, “Wouldn’t you rather be put out of your misery now than rot in a jail cell knowing you’re going to the gallows? We’d be doing you a favor.”

The murmur of assent grew frighteningly loud. “Should have expected it from an Irishman,” someone shouted.

“Hang ’im! Save the courts some time and money.” The bookkeeper from the local village reached for Patrick, attempting to haul him to his feet as other men cried their agreement.

“No!” When all eyes turned to him, Colin realized he’d spoken aloud. “No. You can’t kill him.” He thought of that day six years before, when Patrick had raced after him and plucked him from the fleeing stallion. His heart hammered as it had that day.

Edward’s eyes narrowed. “Colin, the punishment for buggery is death. It’s what he deserves. This man—if you can call an animal a man—is a degenerate criminal.”

“Then so am I!”

Silence gripped the room in an instant, as if everyone held their breath collectively. Elizabeth went pale. “Colin, you have no idea what you’re saying.” She pulled his arm, urging him toward the door. “I’m sorry, everyone; he’s had far too much brandy this evening. He isn’t himself.”

Colin yanked his arm away. “No, Mother. I know what I’m saying.” He swallowed, his throat dry and thick. “I am myself.” Perhaps for the first time.

A shocked William spoke up, his eyes wide. “Colin, this is madness!”

Edward simply stared, stunned into silence for the first time in Colin’s memory. Elizabeth pulled at him again, but Colin shook free. “If you will kill this man for his crime, then you’ll have to kill me too. Shall you take me outside and string me up?”

“What in God’s name are you doing?” Patrick spoke for the first time, and all eyes turned to where he knelt. He stared at Colin with dazed astonishment.

The sound of Patrick’s voice seemed to spur Edward out of his daze. Edward turned a murderous gaze on Patrick. “If you’ve laid a finger on my son, I swear—”

“I’d sooner bed a horse,” Patrick sneered.

“And probably has!” a voice called out.

Colin felt a ridiculous stab of pain at Patrick’s words.

Patrick went on. “Sir, your son is clearly not in his right mind.”

William’s father, John, a lawyer, spoke next. He was tall and distinguished, the opposite of his brother, Edward. He seemed to be the only calm person left in the room. “Colin, are you saying you’ve committed acts of buggery?”

“Yes.” Even if it wasn’t true, Colin couldn’t let them kill Patrick. At least not tonight, not if he could help it.

Elizabeth shrieked and collapsed into a chair. “Oh, my son. What have you done? It can’t be true!”

“I’m sorry, Mother. They’ll have to kill us both.”

“Don’t listen to him! For God’s sake!” Patrick tried to stand but was shoved back down by Edward, whose face flamed with rage.

John spoke up. “No one’s killing anyone.” He turned to the Harris brothers. “Did you witness the act?”

One of them laughed tersely. “Didn’t have to. They heard us coming, and the other one was off and running. But we saw and heard enough to know what was going on.”

John pondered this, and everyone waited. He seemed to have quietly taken control of the proceedings, for which Colin was grateful. He hoped Patrick wouldn’t be harmed any further for the moment.

“No concrete evidence. None in regards to Colin either,” John said after a lengthy pause.

“Because it’s not true!” Elizabeth cried.

John ignored her and turned to Edward. “I have some friends in the magistrate’s office who should be able to help. I’ll go speak to George Crawford and get him on our side. But too many people have heard Colin’s confession. Something must be done.”

Edward nodded grimly, not looking at Colin. He pointed to Patrick. “We’ll keep this one locked in the pantry for the night. Colin will be in his room with a guard placed outside. William, take him upstairs.”

The shock of his actions slowly settling in, Colin didn’t resist as William led him away. They opened the door to the study to find the hallway crowded with party guests. Katherine was among them, her delicate face transformed into a hard mask. “Fiend!” She dashed down the hall, weeping.

Accusing eyes glared from all sides, and William led Colin to the servants’ back stairway, sparing him the spectacle of being marched up the grand staircase. In his room, Colin tried to speak. “Will, I…”

William raised a hand. “Don’t.” He shook his head sadly, his expression deeply wounded. “I don’t understand. I’ve always thought of you as a dear friend. A brother. Now I feel I’ve never known you at all.” He turned his back, closing the door behind him. A moment later, Colin heard the key turn in the lock, and his life as he knew it was over.

My Review:
Colin is the only son of a wealthy gentleman, growing up in England in the early 1800s. He knows he’s different from the other boys his age, including his strapping cousin Will, who is allowed to go to school with the local lads, while Colin must be kept home for private lessons with his tutor. He hates formal education, and struggles to endure the challenges, but his father will make a Cambridge man of him, yet. Colin’s also aware he shares a shameful secret with the stable master, Patrick, because he witnessed Patrick buggering a man int eh stable years ago, and it’s the single most arousing image of his youth. He’d been friendly with Patrick at the time, helping with the horses care and riding for hours on his own horse, but it’s left him with a terrifying crush and a need for space so he doesn’t reveal his unnatural attraction.

As things go, Colin’s family hosts a grand party and Patrick is discovered in the act of coupling with a guest’s coachman. The guests clamor to hang Patrick on the spot, and Colin won’t let this injustice go unspoken. When he can’t dissuade his father, he jumps full stop into the melee confessing that he himself (well maybe not yet physically but in his heart!) is also guilty of the crime. This confession cools the mob mentality, even as Patrick denies Colin’s assertions. Still, the blood fever breaks and Colin finds himself and Patrick transported to Australia as part of a prison work gang. The voyage is long and awful, and many don’t survive. Patrick doesn’t want to be indebted to Colin for saving his life, only to sent to the wilds of Australia, but they reach a rapprochement, with Patrick offering Colin some physical attention, for all his troubles. They do survive the typhoid epidemic, and disembark to learn they’ve been selected for a work program that will take them deep into the heart of the continent–as work men for a woman who is setting up her cattle ranch. Her husband didn’t survive the journey, but the plans were laid, and she can’t turn back. Patrick and Colin were chosen because the guards knew they’d not trouble the widow for sex…

Along the two month cattle run, Colin and Patrick turn to each other for comfort, but Patrick won’t let himself fall in love again, even as Colin’s head over heels for his first and only love. The widow, and their guide, are meant to be jailers, but they aren’t and they aren’t upset by Colin and Patrick’s private affairs; they expected to be at first, but knowing them as men, and seeing they aren’t depraved goes a long way to building relationships.

I really enjoyed the adventure of this novel. It felt so authentic to the emotion and situation of the time. Colin is a boy of pure heart, who only wants to be loved honestly.Patrick is a jaded man who’s been hurt before, and doens’t expect to have more than a passing acquaintance and mutual satisfaction. He puts Colin off time and again, but really does love him. The secondary characters are interesting, and the different settings: provincial England, the wide Atlantic, the barren outback of Australia, are unique and engaging. Colin is a reliable narrator and his desire for love is right out on the page. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough by the end, as cattle rustlers move in to make new trouble. I’d read on if a sequel comes out, for sure.

Interested? You can find THE STATION on Goodreads and Amazon (US and UK).

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a backlist book from Keira Andrews.
Good luck and keep reading my friends!

Keira AndrewsAbout the Author:
After writing for years yet never really finding the right inspiration, Keira discovered her voice in gay romance, which has become a passion. She writes contemporary, historical, paranormal and fantasy fiction, and—although she loves delicious angst along the way—Keira firmly believes in happy endings. For as Oscar Wilde once said, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

You can catch up with Keira on her website, Facebook, twitter, and Goodreads.

Coming Soon: FOUND

Hi there! I’m sharing a teaser for a new contemporary romance coming out Feb 1st from Claudia Burgoa. FOUND sounds like a second (or third) chance for a down-on-her-love gal starting over in Frisco.

About the book:
All I’ve ever wanted was for someone to choose me. My mother didn’t. My father didn’t. The beautiful boy next door, who grew up to marry me, didn’t. Neither did the next man with whom I thought my heart was safe.

Back in the Bay area, three thousand miles from New York City, I can start fresh. Become one with the sea again, rise or fall on the tide of my own choices. But on the first day of my bright new life, the darkest shadows of my past follow me through my office door. The two men whose names are definitely not on my five-year plan.

If I let it consume me—my need for one man, my love for the other—the darkness will swallow me whole. I can’t let that happen. Not again. This time, the waves of emotion crashing against my heart won’t drown me. This time, I get to choose my happy ending.

Interested? You can find FOUND on Goodreads, and pre-order for only $.99 on iBooks and Kobo!

About the Author:
Claudia is an award-winning, international bestselling author. She lives in Colorado working for a small IT company, managing her household filled with three confused dogs, two daughters wrought with fandoms and a son who thinks he’s the boss of the house. And a wonderful husband who shares her love for all things geek. To survive she works continually to find purpose for the voices flitting through her head, plus she consumes high quantities of chocolate to keep the last threads of sanity intact.

Catch up with Claudia on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or sign up for her newsletter for updates!

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Looking Back on THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE–A Review

Hi there! This week I’ll be spotlighting some sweet historical reads I’ve collected in the past month or so. Today I’m kicking it off with a new historical fiction release, out today, from Melanie Benjamin. THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE calls back to the early days of film, and how women–who’d had a big part in shaping that industry–were often left behind. It focuses on the friendship between star Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion, as a lens to the history of Hollywood. I also enjoyed THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Ms. Benjamin, a novelization of Truman Capote’s life and connections, which is also historical fiction. Other books in this genre that I’ve liked include CROSSING THE HORIZON, and LISETTE’S LIST.

About the book:
An intimate portrait of the close friendship and powerful creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female superstars: Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. An enchanting new novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator’s Wife.

Hollywood, 1914. Frances Marion, a young writer desperate for a break, meets “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, already making a name for herself both on and off the screen with her golden curls and lively spirit. Together, these two women will take the movie business by storm.

Mary Pickford becomes known as the “Queen of the Movies”—the first actor to have her name on a movie marquee, and the first to become a truly international celebrity. Mary and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were America’s first Royal Couple, living in a home more famous that Buckingham Palace. Mary won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a Talkie and was the first to put her hand and footprints in Grauman’s theater sidewalk. Her annual salary in 1919 was $625,000—at a time when women’s salaries peaked at $10 a week. Frances Marion is widely considered one of the most important female screenwriters of the 20th century, and was the first writer to win multiple Academy Awards. The close personal friendship between the two stars was closely linked to their professional collaboration and success.

This is a novel about power: the power of women during the exhilarating early years of Hollywood, and the power of forgiveness. It’s also about the imbalance of power, then and now, and the sacrifices and compromises women must make in order to succeed. And at its heart, it’s a novel about the power of female friendship.

My Review:
Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, not two names I’d say ring loud for contemporary movie aficionados, like me. This historical novel centered on their lives and friendship weaves a 60-year experience into a rich and textured story that left me emotionally hollowed and filled, by turns.

Mary Pickford was an actress at age 5, responsible for earning a living that supported her mother and two younger siblings once her father died. She gave up her childhood to be on the stage, and earn money, and later star in “the flickers” short silent movies that were shown in storefront “theaters” known as nickelodeons. As her career progressed, she became creatively involved, writing, staging and editing her own films.

Frances Marion, a twice-divorced sketch artist, fell in love with the movies when she moved to LA from San Francisco during her second marriage. It was a chance meeting with Mary’s philandering first husband that brought Mary and Frances in contact. Frances wanted to learn all about making movies, and never wanted to be an actress–a plus for building ties with Mary. Mary’d learned some very basic lessons about humanity in her years as a performer, but she recognized Fran for being a solid woman who might be a confidant, and friend, in the business. Mary had few of them in her life. Together, they made a powerful creative team, once Fran got the hang of writing for the screen–a skill Mary helped her cultivate.

I don’t want to divulge too much of the plot. The lives of these ladies intersected professionally and personally a great deal. Fran wrote exclusively for Mary’s films for a time, and helped rocket Mary to stardom, in some ways. Mary, a standoffish person, had trouble believing people were on her side, and lived in mortal fear that making personal choices, like divorcing her cad of a husband, would upset her fans and she’d be back to the poverty she grew up in. What was remarkable was the struggles Mary and Fran suffered professionally still exist for women today. They were fierce women looked down upon by the men who held the money and power in the fledgling world of film. They were pinched, and overruled, and groped, and belittled, and had to keep cheery smiles for the camera–so many of their professional pictures reflected their isolation as the only women in the picture. They did have falling outs, and reunions. Their relationship isn’t all sunshine and Academy Awards. No, they had disappointments and jealousy and needed to lift each other, and themselves, up many a time. They had uncaring husbands, and abusive partners and alcoholism to contend with, but they left a mark on the business that they helped to create and this was beautifully captured in print, not celluloid. Mary was a founding member of United Artists and AMPAS, as well as being the second woman to win an Oscar. Fran helped to form the Screen Writers Guild, and both weathered the transition from silent film to “talkies” in different ways. I’ll admit to being captivated throughout by the resilience of these women. Fran was the first American woman to cross the German Frontline in WWI as she helped film women assisting the US forces. Mary supported her entire family for decades, through famine and feast, from the age of 5 or 6. Astonishing.

I’ll be honest, I’d only barely heard of Mary Pickford, and I’d never heard of Frances Marion before opening this book…and I’m a fan of older movies. My father and I passed many an evening watching AMC Classics when I was younger, yet, I hardly watched any silent film. There’s a reason for that, which the book makes clear: lots of those movies were lost to the vagaries of time and poor storage. Still, I’m a fan of movies, and historical fiction, and stories about strong women, so I began my second Melanie Benjamin book with high hopes that were completely exceeded.

The premise seemed simple, read about the beginnings of Hollywood as told through the lives and friendship of two women who were there at the start. Wow. What an understatement of this reading experience. I know it’s a novelization, and the author clearly states that she fabricates some scenes, but I still feel awed by the lives of Pickford and Marion. They were pioneers, and tried to create an egalitarian Hollywood that struggles to exist today. I remember thinking how the sexism Mary and Fran experienced is reflected daily in the tabloids on my grocer’s checkout. To borrow an adage from my father: the more things change, the more they stay the same. (He surely borrowed that from someone, but I don’t know whom.) And that’s a pretty sad commentary on how far we haven’t come in terms of sexual equality since Fran met Mary in 1914.

Interested? You can find THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo. I read a review copy provided by NetGalley.

About the Author:
Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE and THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, as well as the national bestseller ALICE I HAVE BEEN, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB. THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE, about the creative, feminist friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, icons of early Hollywood, will be out in January 2018. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and is currently at work on her next historical novel.

You can catch up with her on her website, Facebook and twitter.

Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!

Coming Out Soon DOWN BY CONTACT-A Review

Hi there! Continuing my Sports Week theme I’m sharing a pre-release review of a steamy new contemporary M/M romance from Santino Hassell. DOWN BY CONTACT is the second book in his The Barons series and features a quarterback making contact with a former teammate-turned-hater. It’s a standalone, though it features return characters from ILLEGAL CONTACT, the first book in the series. I’ve loved the gritty romances I’ve read by Mr. Hassell, including SUNSET PARK, INTERBOROUGH and CITYWIDE. DOWN BY CONTACT releases Jan 16th, and preorder links are below.

About the book:
Two rival football players begin a game with higher stakes than the Super Bowl in this steamy romance from the author of Illegal Contact.
Simeon Boudreaux, the New York Barons’ golden-armed quarterback, is blessed with irresistible New Orleans charm and a face to melt your mama’s heart. He’s universally adored by fans and the media. Coming out as gay in solidarity with his teammate hasn’t harmed his reputation in the least—except for some social media taunting from rival linebacker Adrián Bravo.

Though they were once teammates, Adrián views Simeon as a traitor and the number-one name on the New Jersey Predators’ shit list. When animosity between the two NFL players reaches a boiling point on the field, culminating in a dirty fist fight, they’re both benched for six games and sentenced to joint community service teaching sullen, Brooklyn teens how to play ball.

At first, they can barely stand to be in the same room, but running the camp forces them to shape up. With no choice but to work together, Simeon realizes Adrián is more than his alpha-jerk persona, and Adrián begins to question why he’s always had such strong feelings for the gorgeous QB…

My Review:
Simeon Boudreaux and Adrián Bravo were teammates and friends on the Predators for a short stretch a few years back, but Simeon got cut, and picked up by the Barons. Adrián blames the Baron’s success against his Predators on Simeon knowing their playbook, but deep inside he’s really angry that he lost his friend. And, he’s using that anger to fuel some anti-gay slurs he makes once Simeon comes out. Adrián’s Predators are all about toxic machismo, and homophobia; Simeon’s glad he left that behind and found a team where he could be himself–and support a fellow out player. He lives his truth and loves his life.

Of course, he’s not happy with Adrián’s trash talk, or with Adrián’s late hit that lands him on the disabled list for eight weeks. Adrián’s suspended, and their PR teams work out a deal to get both players some positive press: have them use their time off to volunteer at a LGBTQ kids outreach center running the sports recreation. Neither Simeon nor Adrián is wild about this arrangement, and the tension is rough. They have outbursts and power trips, and cause more fuss than help. And, somewhere in the hurt they generate, a kernel of desire is born. As neither man is dating anyone, the taunts they let fly turns the tension up to eleven. Adrián is especially struggling with the recognition that Simeon is such a great guy, and soon he’s also seeing his former adversary as a desirable man.

Not that Adrián can act on his impulses. His old school folks would never accept him coming out as bisexual, nor would he find the Predators to be welcoming. But, Simeon is patient even with all the hate sex Adrián is offering. He definitely likes turning Adrián inside-out; his main mission is to turn Adrián into an ally, even if he’s undercover. The press gets wind of their developing relationship, when one of the kids leaks an incriminating photo, and Simeon tries to shield Adrián from the fall-out, but Adrián wants to write his own story. Especially if it includes Simeon.

I always love the gritty, filthy talking, hot-and-dirty sexytimes Mr. Hassell writes. There’s no shortage of those moments here, and the sweet way Adrián comes around to accepting his sexuality is a bonus. I love the urbanity of the writing, and the ethnic dialect and experiences. Both Simeon and Adrián are men of color and they feel culturally authentic and interesting. I liked the football setting, though there are lots of off-the-field scenes, as both players are sidelined temporarily. The banter between Simeon and Adrián is amusing, and filled with athletic trash talk, amidst the flirtatious challenges. Their physical relationship begins with little more than a dare, but it grows more tender the longer they go at each other. Adrián’s fledgling steps into sex with Simeon are a revelation he didn’t expect to find, but the companionship they share fills a void neither man anticipated. It’s unexpectedly sweet. And, the end leaves the reader wondering if the league’s biggest homophobe, Adrián’s friend and teammate, Rocky Swoops, might be protesting just a bit too much. Looking forward to the next book in this series.

Interested? You can find DOWN BY CONTACT on Goodreads, and pre-order it before it’s Jan 16th release on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo. I received a review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author:
Santino Hassell was raised by a conservative family, but he was anything but traditional. He grew up to be a smart-mouthed, school cutting grunge kid, then a transient twenty-something, and eventually transformed into an unlikely romance author.

Santino writes queer romance that is heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.

You can find Santino online on his website, Facebook, and twitter.

Thanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

The Thrills Continue FIVE DARES–A Review

Hi there! Today I’m so excited to share a review for a new contemporary M/M romance from Eli Easton. FIVE DARES is not a sports romance, per se, but the two main characters are athletes and daredevils, and their predicament makes them nearly acrobatic in the bedroom. I have loved all the Eli Easton books I’ve read, including MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. MIGGLES, her HOWL AT MOON books and most recently DESPERATELY SEEKING SANTA. FIVE DARES is another new adult romance, this time between two best friends who secretly love each other, but have to go through hell to connect physically.

About the book:
Andy Tyler has been the class daredevil since middle school. Over the years, he’s convinced his best friend, Jake Masterson, to perform some dangerous-looking stunts with him. But the dare they attempt on the night of their college graduation goes sideways. The firecrackers explode too soon and both of them end up with badly burned palms.

But hey, nothing gets the “terrible two-o” down for long, and they recuperate in style at Andy’s family cottage in Cape Cod. As the weeks go by, both Andy and Jake grow frustrated over the inability to use their hands for all sorts of daily activities—including getting off. So Andy begins a new series of dares that don’t just cross the friendship line, they obliterate it.

But what might be mere sexual relief to Andy is serious business to Jake, who only recently got over years of secret pining for his straight best friend. Inevitably, the burns heal, summer ends, and hearts are broken. To fix things, Andy will have to face the greatest dare of all.

My Review:
Andy and Jake have been best friends for a decade or more. They grew up together in the Boston area, went to school together and have been roommates for four years now at NYU, from which they’ve just graduated. As kids and adults, Jake has had a secret crush on Andy, the wild and charismatic son of an esteemed lawyer and a financial planner. Andy has a penchant for planning outrageous dares that Jake has been a part of as well, either as the front man egging him on and ginning up the crowd (at Andy’s behest) or as a co-participant. Jake gets a thrill out of being Andy’s closest confidant, but he’s wanted more for a long time now. Jake’s anxious to move to the west coast, knowing that he’ll leave Andy behind, so that he can maybe get the space he needs to find a boyfriend who can love him, unlike Andy who he believes is happily heterosexual.

Andy plans a spectacular dare for a big graduation party–and for once it goes horribly wrong. Andy and Jake end up with second degree burns on their palms, and Jake’s unable to leave for his new job; they both need eight weeks of rest to allow their skin to heal. Andy’s father is frustrated that Andy pulled another stunt, one that sabotaged his summer internship before he starts Harvard Law school in the fall, but Andy’s somewhat thrilled. He gets his father to let him and Jake their family cabin on Cape Cod in which to recuperate. They have daily nurse visits, and the cabin caretaker’s willing to make some meals for them while they both remain bandaged and a bit surly through recovery. Andy didn’t want to see his best friend leave, and this affords them a chance to have some uninterrupted time together before the next phase of their lives begins. Andy’s known that Jake is bisexual, at the very least, for more than a year, and he doesn’t understand why Jake never told him. Doesn’t Jake trust him? Doesn’t Jake want him? Should Andy want Jake to want him? It’s a hornet’s nest of jealousy, in Andy’s mind.

As the days and weeks pass and the boredom sets in, Andy comes up with a new dare, one that will scratch his itch for Jake’s undivided attention: that they combine forces to get each other off. They have no other sexual outlet, and can’t use their own hands to do the deed, not with all the bandages in the way, but some careful positioning might just allow for physical release. Jake’s not down with it, though, because he’s already too in love with Andy, and doesn’t want his heart smashed just for some experimental fling. The thing is, Jake’s been well-trained to go along with Andy’s dares, and this time he’s going to get more than a rush out of it. They only have a handful of weeks left together. And they make the most of it…until the next dare: falling head over heels in love.

This is such a sweet friends-to-lovers story. They history is carefully added in a series of vignette flashbacks that really demonstrate the bond between Andy and Jake, a bond Andy didn’t recognize was love until he’d almost lost Jake, and himself, in his new and lonely future. Andy’s father is a stern taskmaster and Andy can’t see veering of the path they outlined years ago, when Andy was still just a teen. But he’s not happy, and he misses Jake terribly. Their summer of love ended too soon, and his heart can’t take the thought that Jake will move on without him. Andy hadn’t considered himself bisexual, at all, until their summer together, but he’s miserable when Jake moves on to his new job. Jake isn’t doing much better, even though he likes his job and reconnecting with his sister, with whom he now lives. That said, he’s moping over the separation, and had to cut all contact with Jake in order to heal his busted heart. Naturally another dare brings them back together–not a good one, actually, but the more they chat the more Andy recognizes the reason for all his dares, stemming for the very first one, was gaining Jake’s attention and admiration. From then it’s just some career-plan gymnastics to reunite this couple for real.

There’s so much tenderness on the page, and some really steamy bits, too. We get both Andy and Jake’s point of view, so we can see all the internal anguish they manage as their relationship morphs. It was cool how Andy reached out to his mom for help, and advice, and how their conversation allowed Andy to re-evaluate his life goals and tailor them to his current dreams. He’s always been super athletic, and the branch of law he’d initially chosen wasn’t suitable to his outgoing and active personality. Plus, what’s the point of playing it safe all the time? For a dare-master like Andy it’s go big, or go home. And he’s never just gone home. It’s probably why he and Jake fit so well; their mutual love of the thrills in life. It’s a happy ending all around.

Interested? You can find FIVE DARES on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo. I read a review copy provided by NetGalley.

Eli EastonAbout the Author:
Eli Easton has been at various times and under different names a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, an organic farmer, and a long-distance walker. She began writing m/m romance in 2013 and has published 27 books since then. She hopes to write many more.

As an avid reader of such, she is tickled pink when an author manages to combine literary merit, vast stores of humor, melting hotness, and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story. She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time. She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, two bulldogs, several cows, and a cat. All of them (except for the husband) are female, hence explaining the naked men that have taken up residence in her latest fiction writing.

Eli currently publishes with Dreamspinner Press and has a few self-pubbed titles as well. She also publishes thrillers under the pen name: Jane Jensen.

Catch up with Eli on her website, Facebook, and twitter.

THanks for popping in and keep reading my friends!

Double Trouble and BLEU BALLS–Review and Giveaway!

Hi there! Today I’m sharing a review and giveaway for a new contemporary M/M romance from Tara Lain. BLEU BALLS is the seventh book in her Balls to the Walls series which I have devoured. While they are all standalones, you can check out my reviews for VOLLEY BALLS, FIRE BALLS, BEACH BALLS, FAST BALLS, HIGH BALLS, and SNOW BALLS to see if any of these mancandy books tickle your fancy. BLEU BALLS features identical twins looking for love and finding it…despite their shenanigans.

Scroll down for an excerpt, my review and to enter the $15 Amazon GC giveaway!
About the book:
Double trouble. The McMillan twins, Robin and Bobby, are renowned for their talents—both as fine artists and for thrilling the various men who catch their eyes. As different in style and personality as their DNA is identical, they’re nonetheless best friends who divide and conquer, with Robin doing the serious painting and Bobby adding the sunny salesmanship.

But when their most important client decides Bobby must wield the paintbrush, the brothers revert to childhood tactics and switch places. Then along comes Micah, a handsome doctor who’s attracted to Bobby but invites Robin out to try to please his homophobic brother, and Paolo, the pain-in-the-butt client who thinks he’s wooing Bobby when he’s actually after Robin. Paolo harbors his own hidden pain that weirdly intersects with Robin’s, but pride and privacy conspire to produce what will either be a masterpiece—or end up as Dogs Playing Poker?

How about a little taste?

“Hey, gorgeous, want to dance?”

Bobby looked up at the attractive guy who’d been eyeing him for the last hour. “Oh, I don’t know—”

“Come on, Bobby, go. Go!” Rodney pushed Bobby out of the chair.

He smiled, but it took some effort. “Okay, so I guess yes.” He followed the man’s trim ass in nice summer-wool slacks toward the tiny dance floor in the lounge at the Rose. Jerry and his honey, Mick, were already dancing. The two big firefighters took up more than their share of the available boogie space, but they looked so happy it made Bobby tear up.

The guy turned and pulled Bobby into his arms. Clearly he intended to lead. Okay with me. “I’m Aaron, by the way.” The guy had nice hazel eyes and carefully brushed brown hair.

“Bobby.”

He started a not-very-complex box step. “You’re an artist, aren’t you?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“I saw you at the Sawdust. I really like your stuff. Very unique.”

“Thank you.” Come on, be charming. “What do you do?”

“Stockbroker. Let me know if you need any investment tips.”

Bobby laughed. “Believe me, artists need tips on keeping their rent paid, although I’ll admit, we’re having a good summer.”

“We?”

“Me and my brother. We paint together.”

“Oh. Interesting. Keeping it in the—holy shit!”

Bobby looked up at Aaron and followed his line of sight to the door—where, sure enough, Robin had just walked in. Bobby waggled his fingers and called over the piped-in music. “Hi, dear.”

Robin waved back.

Aaron said, “But you two are identical.”

“Yes, of course. We’re the McMillan twins.”

Bobby felt Aaron react—somewhere between a jerk and a laugh.

“What?” Bobby looked up into a face that had been pleasant and now leered.

“Fuck, why didn’t you tell me you were Double Trouble?”

Bobby frowned. “Was I supposed to?”

“Shit, yes. I mean, what does it take to get some backroom action from you two? Hell, I can pay.”

“Pay?” Bobby pressed his hands against Aaron’s chest and shoved. “Get your hands off me, you pervert.”

“What?”

Bobby turned his tail and flipped it back to the table—but his insides rolled with anger and nausea.

Robin saw his face and sprang up. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“Nothing I don’t deserve. He saw you and realized we were Double Trouble. He said he’d like to pay us.” Robin clenched his fists, but Bobby put a hand on his arm. “You can’t blame him for getting the wrong idea.”

“Oh? Watch me.” Robin stared pugnaciously across the dance floor.

My Review:
This is the seventh book in the Balls to the Wall series, but easily enjoyed on its own.

Robin and Bobby McMillan have come from modest beginnings to be moderately-known artists on the Laguna art scene. They recently bid on a large mural project that would pay large dividends, if they get the gig. However, on the day of the big proposal, bubbly and pleasant Bobby is too ill to make the meeting, and Robin tells off one of the main buyers once his short-temper is lit. Robin’s been downhearted a long time, but most recently he’s sad that he and JJ, from SNOW BALLS, didn’t make it work. Bobby’s been looking for a steady guy, too, even though this sexy duo is known for their freaky bedroom (or bar bathroom) skills as a tag team sex dream.

Robin’s shocked that they get the commission, but just as quickly dismayed that the buyer wants Bobby to be the lead artist. While they often work together, Robin does the bulk of the painting, while Bobby handles the customer relations. And, with them also selling at the local arts festival, it’s impossible for Bobby to be in both places at once…until they dye tier hair to match, and Robin masquerades as his more affable twin.

Meanwhile, “Bobby” catches the eye of their disgruntled patron, and Bobby falls for their new doctor, a man who’s struggling to gain his family’s acceptance. Some mismatches occur, but love is on the horizon for Bobby and “Bobby”–I mean Robin. This was mostly fun, but also tender, as Robin learns to love himself more, and stand up for his own needs. Bobby dims his light just a bit, but he shines all the brighter when facing off against prejudice, and working to keep Robin positive. I like how Robin’s love interest had a dark past, and a troubled family that colors his interactions. While he and Robin are initially at loggerheads, it’s mostly because they are more alike than different. And, when they come together, it’s soon apparent that Robin has many folks in his corner.

This was another fun read, with both heat and heart. We get to see a lot of our pals from the previous books, but it’s a double love story front-and-center. Bobby, Robin and their love interests take turns narrating, and the reader gets an inside view of their motivations. Which aren’t necessarily honest, but felt very real. I definitely enjoyed this one, and wonder what’s in store for the sexy Laguna boys.

Interested? You can find BLEU BALLS on Goodreads, Dreamspinner Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and Kobo.

****GIVEAWAY****

Click on this Rafflecopter giveaway link for your chance to win a $15 Amazon gift card.
Good luck and keep reading friends!

About the Author:
Tara Lain writes the Beautiful Boys of Romance in LGBT erotic romance novels that star her unique, charismatic heroes. Her first novel was published in January of 2011 and she’s now somewhere around book 23. Her best­selling novels have garnered awards for Best Series, Best Contemporary Romance, Best Ménage, Best LGBT Romance, Best Gay Characters, and Tara has been named Best Writer of the Year in the LRC Awards. In her other job, Tara owns an advertising and public relations firm. She often does workshops on both author promotion and writing craft.

She lives with her soul­mate husband and her soul­mate dog in Laguna Beach, California, a pretty seaside town where she sets a lot of her books. Passionate about diversity, justice, and new experiences, Tara says on her tombstone it will say “Yes”!

You can find Tara on her website, blog, Facebook, twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.