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REVIEW:  The Gentleman’s Madness by Bonnie Dee,Summer Devon

REVIEW: The Gentleman’s Madness by Bonnie Dee,Summer Devon

madnessDear Ms. Dee and Ms. Devon:

An m/m romance between an attendant and an inmate in a Victorian insane asylum… I think I know why this was published after Christmas. It was actually less dark and considerably less dense than I feared it would be, which made it a more accessible read, but also let me down a bit in the end.

He’s been through electric shock therapy, water dunks, an attempted rape for which he was blamed, and the loss of his clothes and writing implements, but fate still holds something worse in store for former professor John Gilliam. When an old friend turns up as part of a visiting group to observe the deviant “Mr. G,” and refuses to acknowledge him, John loses his last remaining shreds of personal dignity. “If he hadn’t been mad before, he had become so; he had nothing left. They had taken his pens, and now they stripped him of his past.” The distraught John is carefully subdued by a hugely strong yet gentle attendant, who promises to try and get his clothes and writing materials back.

Sam Tully is generally kind and sympathetic to the inmates he cares for, but he’s especially sorry for John. “A single glance could tell you the man had tumbled a great distance, down, down, down. All that learning, all that money, and yet here he lay on the floor of of the asylum in one of the padded rooms where they put the most dangerous and damaged patients.” Although he’s wary of being around the homosexual patients — “too close to home” — pity leads Tully to offer to supervise John on his own time, while he uses the oh so dangerous paper and pencil, and John’s gratitude touches him deeply. He knows that getting close to a patient is wrong and dangerous, but he can’t bear to let John down.

As John and Tully become friends, and a powerful attraction grows between them, Tully begins to lose faith in the asylum’s treatment methods. And when their burgeoning sexual relationships puts them in peril, he may be John’s only chance for freedom.

The asylum setting is central to this romance. Gay men in most historical contexts have a huge strike against them to begin with, and John and Sam are also separated by vast class differences. The asylum weirdly equalizes them in a sense, giving them a chance to get to know one another and explore the special gifts each can offer their relationship. The fact that the working class Tully has a lot of power over John in this situation is turned around very neatly, because he’s so worried about taking advantage that he actually helps John recover: “I am not often able to say yes or no in this place and you have given me back that ability. You have given me choice again, Sam Tully.” Their shared experiences also contribute to an unexpectedly strong and believable happy ending.

The setting is also disturbing as hell. What happens to John demonstrates how difficult it is to prove your sanity in a place designed to completely disrupt your sense of self; John can’t even masturbate in peace, because the attendants will check. And this isn’t even one of the worst of the asylums — its head doctor is more misguided and greedy than outright evil. Initially I appreciated that narrative restraint, but I wound up feeling that the book might have been stronger if it had just gone straight for the Gothic jugular. The suspenseful elements in the later part of the story, which should have been utterly terrifying considering John’s captivity, never built up as much tension as I wanted.

I think this will have the most appeal for readers who enjoy seeing opposites attract; the distinct character voices are well drawn, and of course there are strong contrasts between the slender, intellectual John and the huge, calloused laborer Sam. The sex scenes are on the milder side, which feels very appropriate for a shorter novel — the focus stays on the characters and the setting — and the romance comes to full bloom very gently and sweetly at the end. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  Christmas at the Castle by Marion Lennox

REVIEW: Christmas at the Castle by Marion Lennox

Dear Marion Lennox:

I fell behind reading your releases in 2013, but when I saw you had a Christmas novel out in December I jumped on it. From the first couple of chapters I could tell that this was going to be a vintage Lennox, combining a fairy-tale holiday setting and story with a likable, no-nonsense heroine and a sympathetic, aristocrat hero.

Christmas at the Castle

Angus Stuart, Earl of Craigenstone and Lord of Castle Craigie, has a problem. The unwilling inheritor of his horrible father’s Earldom, he wants only to sell up the Castle and its land and get back to New York, where he has lived almost all his life. But his young half-siblings want one last Christmas at the Castle, and with the way their father mistreated them and their mother, he’s having a hard time saying no.

Scottish-Australian chef Holly McIntosh also has a problem. Her worthless fiancé stole money from their restaurant and ran off, leaving Holly with a mountain of debts and maxed out credit cards. She returns to Scotland and her beloved grandmother for a break and a frugal Christmas.

Angus needs a chef and housekeeper, and Holly needs money and a job. They strike a bargain, but that bargain almost immediately becomes more complicated when Angus tries to reassure his father’s widow, Delia, that the children will be fine at the Castle because Holly will look after them, he goes too far and blurts out that Holly is his fiancée. Holly agrees to the deception but on strictly business terms, and our tale is off and running.

Angus is not your average Earl; he hates being the Earl, he hates having to take responsibility for a Castle, family, and tenants he doesn’t know, and he just wants to get things settled and return to his investment banker American life. But he’s a very decent person, and while he’s just the Lord and not the Laird, as Holly’s grandmother Maggie observes, he’s not actively malevolent like the previous Earl.

Holly is forthright and unimpressed by Earls. She takes pride in her accomplishments as a chef even as she berates herself for having falling for her worthless ex-fiance’s deceptions. But although she agrees to the engagement pretense for the children’s and her grandmother’s sakes, she won’t turn herself into what the Earl thinks an Earl’s betrothed should be. Their trip to an exclusive boutique in Edinburgh (Maggie’s suitcases are, of course, lost by the airline) is a great sendup of the scene in Pretty Woman: the boutique’s salespeople are more than happy to kit her out, but she doesn’t want their twinsets and pearls:

She flicked over a price tag and gasped. ‘If you’re serious about spending thissort of money, or, if you’re serious about letting me be a fiancée, then I reckon I ought to be my sort of fiancée. Does that make sense?’

‘Yes,’ he said cautiously. ‘I think so.’

‘But you like this?’

‘It’s suitable.’

‘You haven’t exactly chosen a suitable fiancée,’ she reminded him.

‘I haven’t exactly chosen…’ But then he looked at the manager’s dour face and he decided enough was enough. He wasn’t about to discuss temporary engagements in public.

‘My mother will probably be coming over…for the wedding,’ he told the man consolingly. ‘She’s American but this style of clothing is exactly what she’d love. That’s why I brought Holly here. If I can leave my car here now, I’ll bring my mother—and her friends—in for a pre-wedding shop as soon as they get here.’

‘Certainly, My Lord,’ the man said heavily, casting a look of dislike at His Lord’s intended. ‘So your mother has taste?’

‘Yes, she does,’ Angus said and Holly smiled her sympathy at the poor man.

‘That’s put me in my place properly,’ she said and she reached out and took the manager’s hand and shook it with such warmth that the man’s disapproval gave way to something that could almost be a smile.

Their next stop is a more appropriate store, where Holly finds:

black leggings, blue leather boots that reached above her knees, a gorgeous oversized scarlet turtleneck sweater and a cute scarlet beret that should have screamed at her copper curls but didn’t.

Much better.

Of course Holly wins over Delia (and vice versa) and of course the children love her, and of course Maggie and her helpers from the village are able to turn a dark, miserable Castle into an inviting, Christmasy home. And of course Angus looks incredibly hot in his kilt. It’s a Christmas fairy tale, so you know how these things work. But the relationships feel real, and Holly and Angus don’t just fall into lust with each other, they talk and share confidences and become friends.

Not everything works perfectly; sometimes the Christmas spirit is a little thick. There is a dog, who belongs to the forcibly retired gamekeeper. They get their happy ending too. Everyone gets their happy ending, except the villain, whose villainy is played for understatement and who doesn’t get punished as badly as he deserves.

The way Angus resolves his obligations to the village and the earldom requires the greatest suspension of disbelief, and it will undoubtedly cross over into sugar-overload-territory for some readers. But this is Marion Lennox’s story, and she manages to balance the sweetness with a few down-to-earth characters. And I’m a sucker for a Christmas story, so it worked for me. Go into expecting to read about a Christmas miracle and it may well work for you too. Grade: B

~ Sunita

 

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