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British Navy

REVIEW: A Sense of Sin by Elizabeth Essex

REVIEW: A Sense of Sin by Elizabeth Essex

Dear Ms. Essex,

Your second novel, A Sense of Sin, came to my attention through the blurb that described the plot.

He Could Be Her Ruin – After a shocking letter and then a mysterious warning about the dangers of unworthy men, Celia Burke is on edge. With her precarious position in society, the merest look could tear her reputation to tatters. And the roguish viscount pursuing her seems interested in far more than just a look…

She Could Be His Salvation – Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, believes the ravishing Miss Celia Burke played some part in his beloved sister’s death. Looking for revenge, he swears he’ll seduce and ruin her – without actually touching her. Yet to win Celia’s trust and ignite her passions, Delacorte must open his hardened heart to her – and in the process, risk falling for the very woman he hoped to destroy…

I love a well-executed revenge story, and A Sense of Sin, set in England in 1794, revolves around both blackmail and revenge. Rupert Delacorte, Viscount Darling, known to his closest friends as Del, is being blackmailed about the circumstances of his sister’s death. The anonymous blackmailer has informed Del that his sister Emily had an affair with her close friend Celia Burke, and that this was what led to Emily’s suicide. If Del doesn’t meet the extortionist’s demands, the blackmailer will make this information public.

Del, mad with grief for his sister, has tried to drown out his sorrow in alcohol and women, to little avail. Now he has decided to seduce Miss Burke, whom he believes to be not only the cause of Emily’s death, but also the blackmailer. Because he cannot bear to touch Celia, Del is determined to seduce her and bring about her ruin using words alone.

But Celia too is being blackmailed — although she was never Emily’s lover, such rumors might be believed and could lead to her ruin — and a confrontation in which Del mentions blackmail leads Celia to believe that Del is the person blackmailing her.

Celia does not understand why Emily’s beloved, grieving brother would blackmail her, but when she learns from a friend of Del’s that Del has also wagered that he can ruin her with words alone, she decides that going along with his seduction is the best way to get him to stop the extortion (Since she never discusses this tradeoff with Del, I wasn’t sure how she arrived at her reasoning here).

Through their conversations, an attraction develops, though both try to resist it. They also bond over shared grief for Emily, and eventually begin working together to catch the true blackmailer.

One of my favorite things about A Sense of Sin was your prose style. You have a lovely way with words that gave the language a smooth elegance not found in many books.

The other thing I loved was Celia. It’s not every day that I find such a virtuous heroine so compelling, but you made me care about her deeply. Celia had an innate kindness and a candor that were as disarming to me as they were to Del. She was gentle and caring, yet determined to learn to stand up for herself. She also had a secret: her serious study of botany, which she feared would be discouraged if her parents learned of it. She was a wonderful character.

I was less keen on Del, despite his interesting past. Although he was a viscount and the heir to an earldom, Del ran away from home as a teen and joined the navy without revealing his title (I wondered how realistic this was). While his parents worried for him, Del corresponded with his sister Emily and encouraged her study of botany. He became a success in his own right while in the navy, a self-made man.

I think Del was intended to come across as a good guy driven by his grief, but he seemed a bit dense to me because it took him so long to catch on to Celia’s innocence. I wonder if I might have felt differently had I read the first book in this trilogy, The Pursuit of Pleasure, before reading A Sense of Sin. I don’t know if Del’s grief over Emily was portrayed in greater depth there, but since it wasn’t delved into as much as I might have liked in A Sense of Sin, Del’s seesawing between his attraction to Celia and his need to hate her came across as immature flip flopping.

There were times when even Celia, who was otherwise intelligent, seemed a little slow on the uptake. I wished that she and Del had caught on to the truth sooner, since the blackmailer’s identity was obvious to me, and the villain was one dimensional.

My other major issue was the pace of the book. Your writing style was very appealing to me, but rather than being drawn to linger over it, there were several times during my reading of the book’s first half when I was tempted to skim, because I wanted something to happen. I felt that the story needed to move faster.

Despite the sensuality of the story, Del and Celia don’t get down to business until the final 20% of the book. Prior to that we have Del’s attempts to seduce Celia with words. The scenes in which actual touching took place were steamy, well-written and well-integrated, but the earlier monologues in which Del described to Celia the ways he wished he could touch her but could not weren’t nearly as effective for me. I was reminded of phone sex, which can often feel artificial in books.

With that said, I thought the physical attraction itself was conveyed in a very natural and smooth way. I often find mental lusting intrusive and annoying in books so I was impressed by the natural way Celia’s budding sexual feelings were portrayed. There was a gracefulness to your descriptions whether the subject was attraction or anything else.

I vacillated on what to grade this book because it has both considerable strengths and considerable weaknesses. In the end I have decided that because I closed the book feeling that Celia could have done better than Del, I can only give this book a C+, but I will definitely look for more of your work in the future.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

REVIEW: Hidden Conflict by Various Authors

REVIEW: Hidden Conflict by Various Authors

Dear Authors and Readers.

Hidden250If you will excuse a personal history, you will see its relevance to my review. I enlisted in the Army National Guard after 9/11. I became a US citizen and commissioned (became an officer) in 2003. I accepted a medical retirement in May of this year, at the rank of Captain, after 7  ½ years of service. I never went overseas, but I served in the Katrina response in Louisiana. I was a soldier and damn proud to be so.

But I am also bisexual (with some extra kinks outside the Kinsey continuum). This is the first time I’ve been able to admit this in public (well, I came out on Twitter on National Coming Out Day) since figuring it out because of the US military’s destructive Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. My sexuality in no way affected my service. All outward appearances show a happily married, monogamous, heterosexual soldier, which is mostly what I am. But every now and then the issue came up and I had to bite my tongue. I could have been kicked out of the service if anyone had dug too deep, for a reason that didn’t affect my service or that of others around me.

At a time when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is destroying the careers of loyal, hard-working, supremely competent soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of the American Armed Forces, this fictionalized retrospective of men who serve together and love each other is never more necessary and welcome. I was thrilled to receive it (free) from the publisher (through Jane) and while it did a great job of showing the soul-destroying problem of homophobia in general, I could have wished that it had focused more specifically on the subtle differences of the problem of being gay in the military, rather than just showing gay military men.

“Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft
I don’t know what it is about Beecroft’s writing that ravishes me so. Maybe it’s that her prose is like Keats’ poetry to me: redolent with scent, aching with color, and beautiful with taste and sound. Maybe it’s how she scours me inside with the deeply-felt emotions of her characters. But this story manages to do in 58 pages what False Colors did to me in more than 300.

Set in the late eighteenth century, Captain Harry Thompson, late of her Majesty’s Navy, safely ensconced in Rio, begins a journal of his relationship with his Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton. They met when Harry took his first command of the Banshee with orders to escort three transport ships to Australia. Buffeted by storms, typhus, mutinous convicts, and his own yearning for the free-spirited Garnet, Harry only finds happiness when he and Garnet are marooned for months on their own small Pacific island. The actual sexual activity is minimally detailed, but you feel every prick and rush of longing and satisfaction, the abject fear and bone-deep rightness when the men fall in love. See how much Beecroft can do with so few words:

When we woke, that first morning, we made love. Nothing needed to be said; we both understood it would happen as soon as we had the physical resources to allow it. It was sweet and weary and gentle, and afterwards I held Harry tight and mourned for all the things he had had to lose to make this possible. I wished I might give his prudishness and his confidence and his career back to him. And in a petty part of myself I wished he might have come to me despite them, instead of needing to be ruined first. But I will say that holding on to him afterwards, in the warm glow and satisfaction of coitus, I entertained the inexcusable thought that the past months had been worth it.

Harry and Garnet find their happy ending and record it for posterity, for a time when their love might be celebrated rather than reviled, for a time after their death when they don’t have to pretend. The story is told in journal form, with Harry’s memories interspersed with Garnet’s as they reveal to each other, even after years together, their feelings and motivations in the past, as they reveal them to their reader, who also becomes a character in the story. So even the journaling has a place in their relationship. Brilliantly, perfectly done. Grade: A+

“Not to Reason Why” by Mark B. Probst
This is a narrative — a very boring narrative – of Custer’s last campaign, told from the perspective of a corporal (I think? Too bored to go back and look). Brett has the hots for Dermot. Dermot is married to Sarah. Dermot loves Sarah very much, and Brett is jealous of Sarah. There’s absolutely NO indication that Dermot feels anything at all for Brett beyond deep friendship and besides one kiss Brett almost (but not quite) forces on Dermot a few days before the big battle, there’s nothing overtly romantic about this story at all. In fact, there’s nothing covertly romantic either. This is not a romance (especially since it does not end happily); this is a narrative representation of a campaign: They saddled up, then they stopped here, then had dinner, then dicked around in the evening as soldiers tend to do, then slept, then had breakfast, then saddled back up for another grueling day of chasing Indians, then stopped for lunch, then-. Seriously, with a little more detail to prove that Probst had done his research (They stopped under overhanging cliffs. They crossed the stream eight times.), that’s what the story is like. Every now and then Brett will think something emotional for a sentence or two, but then he’ll ignore it and move on. I hate to play to stereotypes, but this read like it was a "romance" written by a man, and hey, look! It was written by a man. Okay, dude, you did your research; now tell me a fucking story.

And seriously, someone please proofread: "Dermot was in line looking none the worse for wear, though Brett could see his eyes were still vacuous from lack of sleep." Really? I do not think that word means what you think it means.

And if we’re going to have a story about a man who runs away from battle, who deserts his troops, then lines like "The heat was stifling and there were times Brett would have welcomed a warrior arrow straight into his heart just to end it all" are not only not helpful, they’re patently wrong.

After Brett does desert, the level of his thought processes about his actions are symptomatic of the level of emotion and characterization in the rest of the book:

The wind and his body heat had dried his clothing and he began to warm up. His thoughts were a jumble of images and confusion. He couldn"t sort it out enough to put together a plan of action. A piercing accusation kept surfacing-’You are a coward and a deserter. Was he? What good would it have done to have stayed and died with the rest? Perhaps a couple more Sioux and Cheyenne may have been wounded or killed, but it would not have saved a single soldier"s life. He longed to be unconscious so he didn"t have to think. After the celebrating quieted and morning drew near, he got his wish and fell asleep, lying on his side on the creek-bank.

Oh! Coward! Deserter! Right, check. Let’s move on, folks, nothing to see here.

The author didn’t seem to be aware of the weight of his words, and coming after Beecroft’s clarity and precision, it was almost painful. At one point, Brett engages Dermot in deep conversation:

"Wrong side?" Dermot frowned. "How can you say that? There is no wrong side against the Indians."

"I mean wrong side, in that it may not be the victorious side."

"There"s nothing wrong with dying to protect your country."

"Dermot, haven"t you ever noticed how these things are reported in the newspapers? When we win they say it"s a victory, but when they win they say it"s a massacre."

Then after the Brett escapes/deserts, he listens to the Indian victory drums: "It went on for hours. The chanting haunted him. He wanted it to stop. It tormented him by constantly reminding him of the massacre. He sat huddled on the riverbank; the drums felt like his own heartbeat." Completely, utterly without irony, Probst uses the word he’d previously questioned.

Dermot was cardboard, Brett was an unlikable, whiny, cowardly turd, there was no romance, no emotion, no connection. What there was was wishy-washiness. Was this deep, thoughtful commentary or just campaign details? Neither. Sorry. Grade: F

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor

Okay, so when the book starts like this:

"Lieutenant Darnell!"

"Sir?"

"Oh, there you are. Why are you skulking, man?" The red-faced, broad-shouldered platoon sergeant did not wait for an answer but plowed on before Darnell could even open his mouth, “Find someone to take with you down to the cellar. There should be half a ton of supplies in this bloody shack and no one seems able to find so much as a tin of jam.”

Private Morgan stepped forward and saluted the sergeant. He had large front teeth and matching ears that reminded Darnell of a corgi.

“Sir,” the private said. “Me and Stokes searched the cellar already. Nothing, sir. No sign anything"s been in there for some time, sir.”

The sergeant walked right past him as if he had neither seen nor heard the private. “Well, Lieutenant? What are you waiting for?”

I’m confused. Unless things are very different in the British army in World War I from the US Army now, lieutenants don’t call platoon sergeants "sir" and platoon sergeants don’t call lieutenants "man" and give them orders. And no one salutes NCOs. So I don’t think much of your research abilities if that’s how the book starts. I mean, seriously. And my father (British AND British history buff) also confirmed for me that the officer corps in 1915 was still very much of and from the upper classes and Darnell is not upper class. He’s almost the opposite of upper class.

Inaccuracies aside, this has to be one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read. This is precisely why I don’t read stories that aren’t romances with HEAs. Yes, I understand that World War One was a desperately horrible war. Yes, I understand that being gay in the military is terrible. AND, I understand that the purpose of this anthology was not all about the happy endings. But can we have ANY bright points of light? Can we have ANY happiness in the story? Apparently not.

LT Darnell and PVT Fisher get shelled into a cellar with no way out. Fisher’s broken so many ribs he can’t do anything to help get them out. Darnell literally ruins his hands digging them out, but even when they get out, it takes days to find anyone else and of course when they do, disaster strikes. There’s only a relationship between these men on the level of two men who find themselves stuck in a cellar together, trying to get out. The fact that they’re both gay doesn’t really factor into it at all.

What I do think is interesting is that both this story and the last both conform to the melodramatic abjection of the married gay man being the one to bite it. Think Brokeback Mountain, right? Sure, Jack’s more out, more comfortable with himself than Ennis, but he’s the one who marries first and stays married so he’s the one who has to die. Ditto these two stories.

This story isn’t a romance. Not in the slightest. Not that it’s trying to be — and that’s fine, of course. But it isn’t really even a story about being gay in the military. It’s just a depressing story about a horrific war. I don’t know how to grade it. It’s not badly written like the previous story (research abilities aside). It’s just-not something I choose to read. So, I guess…Grade: C-

“Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland
This is the only story that truly deals with the problems that being gay specifically in the military can produce. Philip is Eddie’s lover, but when Eddie dies in France in 1944, Philip is left feeling invisible, able only to admit to being Eddie’s best friend, not able to fully express his grief over his beloved’s death. The story is told over 40 years, at intervals of a decade. We see Philip deal (or not) with Eddie’s death, even though every now and then you want to hit him over the head and say "Get OVER yourself already!" The story shows the expected and unexpected repercussions the life and death of one soldier have on his friends, fellow soldiers, and family. While not amazing, this story is thoughtful, interesting, and eventually has a hopeful ending (not with Eddie, obviously).

One thing pulled me out of the story. In 1954, Philip thinks, "he always thought war was sort of pointless and his feelings only sharpened after Eddie"s death." Maybe this is just me overthinking things, but if there was one “just” war, one necessary war, it was World War Two and I don’t think very many people can disagree with that. Yes, war is devastating and horrible, but with Hitler as an aggressor, there’s not much else that the Allies COULD have done besides what they did. WW2 was not a pointless war; of any war in history, it was the least pointless. The mindset Philip expresses is very much a post-Vietnam mindset and I found it jarring in this story.

Other than that, I enjoyed watching this man through 40 years of his life and I was very happy that he had a hopeful ending "blessed" by his long-lost partner. Grade: B

Overall, while I think that an anthology against DADT, showing the emotional devastation it causes, is a wonderful idea, it was only the last story that really dealt with the peculiar problem of being gay specifically in the military. Because in 1790, 1876, 1915, and 1944, being gay was a problem NO MATTER WHAT. So being gay in the military was no more or less difficult that being gay anywhere else (it might have been easier, perhaps, considering close proximity). I would really like to have seen the awful Custer-era story or the depressing WW1 story dropped, and a story about the Gulf War or even Iraq or Afghanistan added, to make the point that “being gay in the US military” specifically IS an issue NOW, because being gay now is much more accepted than in 1876 and it’s the military that’s ridiculously behind the times.

I once had someone ask me why a gay person would join the US military when they know they’re not wanted, and the question made me shake with rage. Gay and bisexual men and women want to join the military for the same reasons as everyone else: we love our country and want to defend it, we like the opportunities and benefits, we’re loyal and hard-working and honorable people. Just like everyone else. Why should we not be able to serve? We have just as much to offer — more, perhaps, since we’re joining knowing we’re not wanted, joining knowing we’re going to have to hide who we are in order to serve.

Anyway. Overall, I’d give the entire anthology a high C+ or a low B-, but the whole thing is completely and utterly worth buying just for the sublime Beecroft story, "Blessed Isle," with a nice added bonus of the gentle "Our One and Only."

Best regards,
-Joan/Sarah F.

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook version that I could find.