Title & buy link: Come Back to Eden
Author: Julian Balfour
Cover Artist: Paul Richmond
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M contemporary
Length: Short story collection (320 pages)
Rating: 1 star out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: Dull, one-dimensional, and samey.
Come Back to Eden: Nature-show host Hank Scott takes offense when photographer Brad Lanier suggests he pose for a nude calendar to raise funds for a bird sanctuary. Then the startup money disappears and Hank reconsiders. Over erotic photo shoots, Brad and Hank fall in love. But the calendar’s publication has consequences neither anticipated, and Brad has to decide how to face them.
Of Knaves, Thieves, and Teachers: After Professor Liam Tate has a confrontation with a sales clerk, the young man, Hoppy Cassidy, ends up in his class. When Hoppy saves Liam’s life, the dynamic of their relationship changes, but Hoppy has a fiancée, and Liam has a rule about student/teacher relationships. Will the time ever be right for romance?
Roger: After his partner’s death, James Rothman put his life on hold. Said life is turned upside-down when he meets the charming young Roger. Then Roger disappears and James pieces together the mystery to get him back. What he discovers will change the course of several lives—most notably James’s own.
A Dandy Potential: Fate keeps throwing Noah Matson and Dan DeLorca together. Noah tries to resist his attraction because of their age difference, but Dan has his own ideas about what makes a good relationship.
Come Back to Eden is a single author short story/novella collection of four titles. Usually I’d review each story individually, but since every story suffers from the same issues, my review will come after I’ve described the various plots.
In ‘Of Knaves, Thieves and Teachers’, Liam Tate, a professor of English Literature, steals a pair of shoes from a Reebok store when one of the clerks is rude to him. Liam sends a note to the store complaining about the clerk’s attitude and sends a donation covering the cost of the shoes to the rehabilitation clinic in the local hospital. When spring term arrives, Liam is startled to see the clerk turn up for one of his classes. The clerk, Harold ‘Hoppy’ Cassidy, is a student in sports medicine and needs to do an English course in order to graduate, so he picked Liam’s as it best suited his schedule.
Hoppy looks like a jock but he’s very smart and always has something new to say in class. One night Hoppy rescues Liam from a road accident while it’s snowing, and as Liam has minor injuries, Hoppy decides to treat him. Despite the thirty-one year age gap, they have a lot in common and get on well. But Hoppy is straight and Catholic, having broken up with his fiancée only recently. She dumped him because after two years he wouldn’t sleep with her, so she accused him of being gay. Hoppy is conflicted about homosexuality, but after more time with Liam, Hoppy makes a pass at him.
Liam turns him down, even though he’s fallen for Hoppy. Then Hoppy’s fiancée reappears and soon Hoppy has set the date for the wedding. Is Liam destined to be alone forever?
In ‘Roger’, respected professor James Rothman is a guest at an annual music conference. Trying to escape the attentions of a fellow academic, he goes to his room and finds an attractive young man naked in his bed. The young man introduces himself as Roger and says that it was his destiny to get to know James better after their brief meeting at the conference last year. James is appalled that Roger has got into his room, never mind that he’s naked and hot, and so he throws Roger out—but can’t get rid of the lingering scent of his cologne.
James doesn’t see Roger next day, but he smells his cologne on another man, a fellow professor at another college. When James goes back to the hotel, once again he finds Roger in his bed. This time he can’t resist the young man and they make love. In the morning Roger has gone, leaving James a mysterious note. James returns to university determined to track down Roger, but the only real clue he has is the distinctive, expensive cologne…
In ‘A Dandy Potential’, writer Noah Matson meets Dan, a new arrival in town. Dan was married to a woman for fifteen years before he came out, yet Noah is the one who’s afraid of making a commitment due to his age. They bond over shared jokes regarding the playwright Edward Albee but the time never seems right for them to be together, despite a mutual attraction.
In ‘Come Back to Eden’, renowned photographer Brad Lanier has a crush on TV personality Hank Scott, who presents a short wildlife and nature segment on a local TV channel. When commercial development threatens part of the lake, Hank appeals to local residents to raise the money to protect the land. The money stops coming in and they’re short of the total needed, so Brad approaches Hank with the idea of a naked calendar.
At first Hank rejects the idea as ‘too gay’, but then he comes round and agrees to it. The calendar is a sell-out success, but Hank’s boost in fame and notoriety brings just as much trouble as it does good.
I wanted to like this anthology. Romances featuring older characters are thin on the ground in this genre, and I’m partial to a silver fox, so I was hoping to enjoy this collection. Unfortunately the writing suffers from multiple problems that show up in each story.
First, the characters. The main POV character in each story is interchangeable. Aside from their professions, you could literally take Liam from the first story and put him into the third story and there’d be no difference. It’s the same character telling the same basic thematic story. Now a lot of authors return to the same theme, telling it in different ways, but this is the same thing done over and over to the point where I could tell what was going to happen when and where.
All the stories deal with an age gap, May-December relationships (the biggest gap is 31 years), so I’d expect some legitimate concerns about how a long-term relationship would work, especially when the younger partner (e.g. Hoppy, who is 23 to Liam’s 54) is still finding himself emotionally. However, when a 40-year old sets his cap at a 64-year-old (‘Dandy Potential’), I don’t expect the reactions to be the same. Reading four stories in a row that all feature an older man who’s famous or at least renowned in his profession who falls for a younger guy, breaks up with the younger because he thinks he’s too old/not good enough/afraid of his emotions, then gets a second chance and starts again—not only is it thematic overkill, but also because there’s very little to differentiate between the characters, it starts to smack of wish-fulfilment.
Interestingly enough, the story that is most successful, ‘Come Back to Eden’, makes no explicit mention of the age gap. Brad still acts true to type, but perhaps because the age gap wasn’t presented as the major issue, this was a more interesting story in the context of the anthology.
At least 60% of each story is dialogue, often without beats to break it up, which made it read very ‘talking heads’. With nothing to anchor it, I found myself skimming pages until something happened again.
All of the stories contain a lot of irrelevant material that seemed to be in there more for the author to show off his own knowledge than to add any depth to the story. This was a particular problem in ‘Of Knaves’ and ‘Dandy Potential’. There’s also a lot of scenes that, frankly, a good editor should have cut out or edited down – whole scenes in which the characters do things but it doesn’t advance the plot. It’s the literary equivalent of watching paint dry; it gives us no new insight into the characters, their motivations, or anything.
The love scenes are brief, but some of the language utilised made me stare in disbelief. For example:[quote]They lay stretched out side by side, clutching each other in alternating frenzy and calm, Roger’s tongue exploring Rothman’s body like a mother salamander soothing her young.[/quote]
I’m not sure which aspect I find worse, the mother/child or the salamander.
I did like some of the secondary characters. Mrs Zemp, the elderly mother of Liam’s best friend in ‘Of Knaves’, was a riot. I’d have read more about her. Likewise some of the characters in ‘Dandy’ were more witty and amusing than the protagonists.
Overall this collection just didn’t work for me on any level. This is just my opinion and other readers may disagree, but I can’t recommend this.