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Joanna Chambers

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:  Enlightened (Enlightenment, book 3) by Joanna Chambers

REVIEW: Enlightened (Enlightenment, book 3) by Joanna Chambers

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The cruelest duel may not spill a drop of blood…but it could break their hearts. Enlightenment, Book 3 Five months ago, David Lauriston was badly hurt helping his friend Elizabeth escape her violent husband. Since then, David has been living with his lover, Lord Murdo Balfour, while he recuperates. Despite the pain of his injuries, David’s time with Murdo has been the happiest of his life. The only things that trouble him are Murdo’s occasional bouts of preoccupation, and the fact that one day soon, David will have to return to his legal practice in Edinburgh. That day comes too soon when David’s friend and mentor takes to his deathbed, and David finds himself agreeing to take on a private mission in London. Murdo is at his side in the journey, but a shocking revelation by Murdo’s ruthless father leaves David questioning everything they’ve shared. As tensions mount and the stakes grow higher, David and Murdo are forced to ask themselves how far they’re prepared to go—and how much they’re prepared to give up—to stay together. And whether there’s any chance of lasting happiness for men like them. Warning: Men in love, men with secrets, and men armed with dueling pistols.

Dear Joanna Chambers,

We are back with David and Murdo when David is still recuperating at Murdo’s estate. David is growing restless – he knows that he needs to return to his law practice– but he is just so very happy being where he is. As the blurb tells you, external circumstances force David to go back sooner rather than later – his mentor is at his deathbed and he wants to see David. The conversation between David and his mentor leads David to go from Edinburg to London on a mission to help Elisabeth once more, because her psychopathic ex-husband keeps looking for her and David agrees to help transfer the trust in her name to another law office. Murdo has his own goals to pursue in London, and he is not sharing much about those goals with David, except that it may have something to do with getting back at his father, and David ends up going with him. Now that the trilogy is complete I want to talk a little bit about certain things which I saw in all three books.

I thought that the author kept zeroing in on our characters and made the focus narrower and narrower with every book. We start with David defending the weavers and the implications their actions have for society. Murdo was involved too, Euan would not let go of super radical views (-totally understanding but super radical views), and I really loved how the characters’ love story played out against settings and issues which were so much larger than these individuals. In the second book social issues are still there, but we can clearly IMO see how David tries to do what he does best – change the system from within. Meanwhile Euan, while working for a radical newspaper, uses his wit rather his gun which I thought was a huge improvement for him. Then the focus gets even more narrowed down, and rather than change society David puts everything at stakes to help a friend. I liked that shift, because how can we help society unless we keep in mind the needs of its individual members, and if there are people who are decent and want to help people who are more vulnerable than themselves then such society will hopefully survive.

And in the third book the focus is most entirely on David and Murdo – on them learning stuff about each other, on them revealing stuff to each other. Oh there is something else going on in the book, but it was also all very personal, very individual oriented so to speak – I thought it was very different from first two books and I thought it was done by design. This something else eventually helped lead David and Murdo into their happy ending. On one hand I liked it a lot. Both men are even more vulnerable in this book, but to me they never lost believability as two men from different classes, who had a lot in common, enough to fall in love with each other. I thought I finally got a good grasp of Murdo’s character and I liked what I saw a lot.

“I didn’t know I wasn’t happy before,” he murmured. “Before what?” Murdo gave a lopsided smile. “Before you. Not that I was actively unhappy. I had plans. Objectives. Things to acquire or achieve. But—“ He paused, then said simply, “You make me happy, David.” David stared at him, his throat clogged with emotion. “The feeling’s mutual,” he managed at last, his voice little more than a whisper. Then he pulled Murdo down, pressing their lips together in a fierce kiss”

I had a little bit of an issue with their happy ending. Not in the sense that it did not fit the story – it is surely not an easy feat to come up with a believable happy ending in a historical, more than any other romance setting, and I thought the author managed it admirably well. No, it is just that they both sacrificed a lot in order to achieve their happiness and obviously being with each other was more important for them than anything else, but David’s sacrifice kind of made me personally a little sad. Do not get me wrong – Murdo also sacrificed a lot, but he wanted to be rid of what he sacrificed if that makes sense. David on the other hand could have done so much good. I mean, it is not like he still cannot and more importantly he is blissfully happy at the end. I thought their happiness was shining from the pages. It really is a little issue, believe me. There was also a coincidence closer to the end of the story which was not believable to me – in order for David to close certain page from his past a person appeared in the situation David found himself in and I just wondered how likely was that. But this was a very good book overall and I eagerly await the next m/m book from this writer. Grade: B., B+ for the whole trilogy.

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