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About Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. She finally gave in and started reading romance again in 2006, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

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REVIEW:  Another Place in Time by Tamara Allen, Joanna Chambers, K.J. Charles, Kaje Harper, Jordan L. Hawk, Aleksander Voinov,

REVIEW: Another Place in Time by Tamara Allen, Joanna Chambers,...

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Note: All proceeds from the purchase of this anthology will be donated to AllOut.org in celebration of LGBT History Month, October 2014.

Dear Authors:

“Queer people have been left thinking that history does not belong to them — that outside this modern moment was nothing but a blank white space, or worse, nothing but unrelenting condemnation. It’s not good to be left feeling disconnected, as if you have no family and no place in the world, as if you don’t belong,” writes Alex Beecroft in the introduction to this anthology. A powerful sentiment, which left me pretty disappointed that the book contains only m/m stories, when the world of “queer” encompasses so much more. Thankfully, there were few disappointments aside from that.

What I appreciated about this anthology, aside from the high quality of the writing, was that most of the characters face conflicts that have nothing to do with sex. Despite some regrets about necessary compromises, they’re primarily coming from a place of acceptance and not fighting against their sexuality. Each story is definitely a romance, but the focus is less on being gay than on living in a particular time and place, while also being gay.

“Office Romance” by Tamara Allen takes us to the Unites States shortly after World War I, and two young men who are struggling to recover from their wartime experiences, each in their own way. When an efficiency expert pits Frederick Wetherly against his colleague Casey Gladwin in a competition to keep one job, Frederick is disheartened but determined to win. It’s not just that he needs the money to pay doctor bills, but the kindness of his fellow workers has made the office a homey place — and he certainly deserves the job more than Gladwin, who’s always flirting and socializing when he should be working. Then fear of losing causes Frederick to act unethically, and he discovers there’s far more to Gladwin than he had realized.

Narrated by Frederick, the tone of the story is quiet, even ordinary — a sympathetic glimpse at an Everyman who happens to be a gay Everyman. It’s not just a romance, but a story about waking up, rejoining the world, and once again being able to fight for what you believe in. As is typical for Allen, the one sex scene is warm rather than hot — without being at all coy or euphemistic — and seems just right for a 27 page story. The progression to a happy-for-now ending feels a little fast, but forgivably so. B

“Introducing Mr. Winterbourne” by Joanna Chambers takes us to a more familiar historical setting and characters. As the third son of an earl, Lysander is being pressured into joining the Church, when what he really wants is to manage an estate. But to his family, his love for the outdoors is simply “mucking about with horses and mud,” only fit for a child. When he’s asked to show the wealthy but lowborn brother of his soon-to-be brother-in-law around town, Lysander becomes even more aware of the snobbishness and uselessness of his family and social circle. Then a fencing match gets oddly heated, and he senses an opportunity he’s rarely encountered before.

This didn’t grab me; it was a pleasant read, but nothing about the characters or setting stood out. I can’t help comparing it to Beguiled, which has such emotionally powerful and erotic sex scenes; here, there just wasn’t enough built between the characters to make me want to read about them having explicit sex. I was also puzzled by the “gossip rag” opening of the story, which seemed to promise some plot points that never came up again — perhaps this is intended to begin a new series? C

“The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh” by K.J. Charles is also a Regency about a lord’s extra son and a wealthy commoner, but brings an awesome old skool vibe — an intense version of one of those wacky “stake your daughter at the gambling table” plots. Except this is m/m, so it plays out somewhat differently. I was on the edge of my seat as old antagonists Ash and Webster battle in a winner-take-all game of cards in which the stakes get increasingly odd and thrilling — first the coat off Ash’s back, then his shirt, then…? The end result — no pun intended — is blistering in its intensity.

This might come under the header of erotic romance, since there isn’t a whole lot of time for tenderer feelings to develop, but I didn’t feel anything was missing. The backstory was a bit awkward, dribbled out to us in bits, but overall this was a WOW. My first Charles read will certainly not be my last. A-

“Unfair in Love and War” by Kaje Harper is the longest of the stories, taking time to create complex characters and a developing relationship. (As well as multiple sex scenes.) Warren comes home to help his mother after his brother’s death in World War II; exempt from service because childhood polio shortened one of his legs, he’s hoping to find a job that will contribute to the war effort. His return home starts with a bang when he interrupts a laughing group painting a swastika on a neighbor’s door. The new neighbor is Stefan, a Swiss immigrant who is also unable to serve, because of seizures. Assumed to be German, he’s become a target for neighborhood rage.

While helping Stefan repair his damaged home, Warren discovers that the beautiful younger man is interested in him, yet withdrawn, shy, and somewhat traumatized from a previous bad experience. He introduces Stefan to good sex, resolutely bracing himself for when his lover gets bored and moves on. But Stefan is holding in a lot of pain and secrets, and their supposedly casual relationship becomes highly complex.

The romance is nurturing, involving, and emotional, but I also particularly enjoyed the sense of time and place in this story. Like most of the stories, it’s a portrait of a gay man who’s just living his life, yet being gay is a bigger part of Warren’s identity — he’s even out to his family. But it’s not his only identity, and being an American, a son, a brother, and a part of a community all have an impact on his feelings. B

“Carousel” by Jordan L. Hawk is an odd-man-out in the anthology, a paranormal mystery story with a touch of horror. It’s also part of the “Whyborne and Griffin” series, but isn’t hard to follow as a stand-alone. The setting is a fictional town in New England; the time unspecified, but apparently around the 1900s. Noted detective Griffin Flaherty is asked to investigate a child’s disappearance, a task which gets him and his lover Percival Whyborne into unexpected danger.

There’s some effective creepiness to the story, but the romance felt awkwardly inserted; it might read better if you’re already familiar with the couple. The most interesting aspect in terms of history is Griffin’s backstory: he was adopted from an orphan train. Having been rejected by his adoptive parents because of his lover, he’s now torn between wanting to look for the biological brothers he lost, and being worried that they might reject him as well if he finds them. The intellectual, somewhat strait-laced Percival is also intriguing, and I’m curious to read more about him. But I don’t think this story fits the overall theme of the anthology well. C+

“Deliverance” by Aleksandr Voinov is a rewrite of a story that’s no longer available, and follows the novella The Lion of Kent. (Which may or may not be a romance — it clearly doesn’t adhere to the usual rules.) You don’t see medieval m/m that often, for obvious reasons, and the resolution of the conflict here is far from tidy. (A sequel is planned.) But it is a very stirring story, and satisfying in a unique way.

William joins the order of the Templar monks seeking “solace and redemption.” Fighting infidels gives him a sanctioned outlet for his aggressive nature, and six years of complete chastity have tamped down other needs. Then his former lover Guy turns up as a pilgrim knight, and insists on not only reminding him of the pleasure they shared, but on putting up a fight for his soul.

Of all these settings, William’s world is the farthest away from ours — not only in terms of actual time, but in terms of language and mores. The prose does a good job of creating an alien atmosphere that’s still understandable and relatable. (Although William’s mindset can be an uncomfortable one to be in.) The tempestuous, competitive physicality of William and Guy’s relationship gives the story a lot of energy, and though the resolution leaves many loose ends, it fits. B

Although I didn’t love every story, I can’t give an anthology with so much terrific work in it less than an overall B. I should point out that I noticed two minor editing errors, but the production was fine otherwise.

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  A Forbidden Rumspringa by Keira Andrews

REVIEW: A Forbidden Rumspringa by Keira Andrews

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Dear Ms. Andrews:

Ah, star-crossed love. I adore romances in which “forbidden” isn’t just a buzzword in the title.

After rumspringa rebelliousness left three teenagers dead, Issac’s family left their Amish community in Ohio to begin a new one with a much stricter Ordnung. (Regulations about every aspect of life, down to the exact size of bands on hats.) In his previous life Isaac could use a mirror, take a shower, and occasionally get to eat at MacDonalds. (There was even buggy parking.) But in the new Minnesota community, anything with the slightest tinge of “worldliness” is frowned upon. The atmosphere reminded me of the movie “Office Space,” in which a restaurant employee was chided for wearing no more than the required amount of decoration — even just abiding by the actual rules isn’t enough, you have to go above and beyond.

For most youngies — young adults who have yet to officially join the church — having a chance to enjoy some free time with the opposite sex is a bright spot in their hard-working lives. But at 18, even with pressure from his family to settle down, Isaac can’t seem to get interested in courting.

Isaac glanced at Mary Lantz again. She was pretty enough–more than enough, with her kind smile and her big blue eyes that were darker than her brother’s. There was nothing wrong with Mary. But Isaac was beginning to think there was something very wrong with him.

The problem is, Isaac is far, far more interested in Mary’s brother David, who’s teaching him woodworking. The growth of this unspeakable attraction is shown deliciously in many small touches and glances. At one point, David sneaks Isaac into the “English” world to watch a movie, and gives him jeans to wear, with an unfamiliar and forbidden zipper.

‘Do you want me to do it for you?’ David asked.
Isaac could only jerk his head in a nod. He held his breath as David reached down and ever so gently zipped the fly of Isaac’s English jeans. He did up the button at the top, his knuckles brushing against Isaac’s trembling belly. They were standing so close that Isaac could see the flecks of grey in Davids eyes…

But once the first move is made, they quickly move past kisses into an explicit sexual relationship. I found this a little unconvincing; David seems awfully sophisticated and commanding for a virgin, even one four years older than his lover, and with some experience in the outside world. (And he better not be lying, since they know nothing about safe sex!) The emotionalism of the sex scenes sometimes felt overdone, but the tenderness is palpable, focusing on their blissful freedom to be themselves and to adore each other’s bodies. The worry about discovery and hellfire taints everything, of course, as does the increasing yearning for the ability to share their lives completely. Suspense mounts as David insists that once he joins the church, he’ll be able to put these feelings aside and be at peace.

The story is rich with descriptive details that immerse the reader in the unfamiliar environment, and also with moments that highlight the emotional realities of this kind of life — for example, when Isaac inadvertently mentions his excommunicated older brother’s name at the dinner table, and his youngest brother asks, “Who’s Aaron?”

It was like a physical blow to to Isaac’s gut, the realization that of course Joseph didn’t even know of Aaron’s existence. Katie watched them all with big eyes brimming with tears. She’d only been a baby. Had Isaac and Ephraim really never talked about Aaron with them? He wasn’t even sure if Nathan knew his name, but judging by the tension in his frame, Isaac thought he did.

‘No one,’ Father answered.

And that was that.

I’ve never read an Amish romance before, unless you count Sunshine and Shadow, but I have the impression they tend to be idealized portraits. This is very much the opposite, which made me slightly uncomfortable; I felt there should be a little more balance when describing a religious community. The acknowledgments thank “the ex-Amish who so generously shared their stories” but it would have seemed respectful to have a little insight into why some people would want to stay, other than fear of the modern world and the pain of losing their families.

There were parts of the narrative that feel a little too pat, particularly towards the end, but they’re always well set-up. For example, a early scene in which Isaac describes Amish life to a conveniently curious quilt-buyer is interspersed with his uncomfortable realizations about how attractive the man is. Overall this is a very well-realized, touching story, with plenty of heat. (It is also well produced, with nothing that screams “self-published.”) As with many New Adult books, the end leaves plenty of unanswered questions and there will be a sequel, but there’s no relationship cliffhanger, thank goodness. B

Sincerely,
Willaful

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