Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.
Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.
When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.
Publisher and Release Date: Riptide Publishing, October 2017
Time and Setting: Cornwall, post WW1
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
Reviewer Rating: 3 stars
Review by Em
Count the Shells is the sixth standalone novel in the loosely linked Porthkennack series. The series – comprising a mixture of contemporary and historical romances – started off strongly, but I have to confess the last few novels haven’t quite lived up to their predecessors and sadly, Charlie Cochrane’s entry fares much the same. Set during an idyllic summer on the Cornish coast shortly after the end of the World War I, Count the Shells is a nostalgic trip down memory lane for Michael Gray, a soldier who survived the war but can’t seem to shake off his memories of the friends and lovers he lost.
The novel begins on a promising note. Holidaying with his sister Caroline and her family, Michael is on the beach with his precocious nephew Richard, counting the shells in the many languages he knows – much to Richard’s delight. Ms. Cochrane paints a lovely picture of the pair enjoying a splendid summer afternoon together… until Michael’s counting segues into a mental tally of former lovers. I couldn’t help but wince as Ms. Cochrane juxtaposed the innocence of Richard’s enjoyment with Michael’s memories of sexual partners and liaisons. His thoughts seem off-note to the setting and scene until it becomes clear that the counting ritual is simply the means by which Ms. Cochrane introduces the other principal character of the story, Thomas Carter-Clemence. Killed shortly after the start of the war, Thomas was the love of Michael’s life, and his memories of Porthkennack are linked inextricably to Thomas and his lingering regret over their angry parting before the war.
This first, best part of Count the Shells details Michael’s return to Porthkennack and High Top, the house he where he spent halcyon summers with this family and with Thomas, who lived nearby. This is Michael’s first trip back to Porthkennack since his fight with Thomas, and he’s a bit overwhelmed by memories of a happier, simpler time in his life. Thoughts of Thomas creep up on him unawares and are triggered by the inquisitive nature of his nephew, who likes nothing more than to hear about his uncle’s history and friendships during summers on the coast. Michael is filled with longing and regret for Thomas and the other men he loved and lost over the course of the war. His nostalgia, tinged with regret over Thomas, have prevented him from moving on with his life.
One afternoon walking with Richard, the pair are nearly run over by a motorbike. When Michael angrily approaches the rider, he’s shocked when the man removes his helmet – it’s Thomas. Only it isn’t – it’s Harry Carter-Clemence, Thomas’s younger brother. After getting over their initial surprise, the men exchange pleasantries and Michael feels a frisson of attraction for the younger man, though he assumes it’s because he reminds him of Thomas. Later that day when his sister encourages him to invite Harry for a visit, Michael is anxious – seeing Harry has stirred up long repressed memories of his parting with Thomas, and he isn’t sure he’s prepared to deal with them yet.
Nevertheless, Harry visits and Michael enjoys the visit more than he anticipated and the pair make plans for Michael to visit the Carter-Clemence estate, Broch, the following afternoon. Michael initially avoided a visit – too many memories of Thomas and afternoons sneaking away to make love – but he finds himself eager to spend time with Harry. Reader – are you sensing a theme here? You should be! Michael spends an inordinate time thinking about sex, his former lovers (especially Thomas), and wondering who his next lover will be (maybe Harry?), and truly not much else. Oh, he also spends a good bit of time entertaining his sweet (if overly mature) nephew. But that’s pretty much it. Anyway, the visit goes surprisingly well and as he gets to know the charming Harry – visiting him at Broch, Michael finally begins to feel the return of a sense of hope and happiness. Despite barely giving him a passing thought before the motorcycle incident, the relationship between Michael and Harry progresses quickly (this is an understatement), setting in motion several plot lines, not the least of which is an affair between the men (which apparently seems strange to no one but me). Unfortunately, during a post-coital cuddle wherein Harry admits to having admired Michael for years, he also inadvertently makes a revelation about Thomas that shakes Michael to his core. [Side note: They’re talking about Thomas – Harry’s brother and Michael’s former lover – in bed after having sex. It’s weird.]
Harry’s inopportune words – and the secret he reveals – drive Michael from his bed. Upset, angry and unwilling to hear anything else Harry has to say, Michael returns to High Top determined to ferret out the truth. The secret has profound repercussions for everyone Michael loves, and leaves him feeling bitter and betrayed. I won’t spoil it here except to say that Michael’s reaction and easy assignment of blame, grew tiresome. Thomas, as any astute reader would have cottoned on to by this point, wasn’t perfect. But Michael, who has embarked on an affair with his former lover’s brother, comes across as sanctimonious and hypocritical in equal parts.
I liked the Thomas plot twist. It made sense in the context of the story and I think Ms. Cochrane shows a deft touch as she details Michael’s bewildered response to it – and the reactions of those close to him – as Michael finally begins to accept that Thomas wasn’t quite the man he remembers. Michael’s relationship with his family is particularly well done, and his extended family – especially his kind and practical brother-in-law – are a nice contrast to Michael’s rather mercurial temperament. It’s unfortunate that the same can’t be said of Michael’s other relationships. Thomas was the love of his life, but after a foolish prank, Michael refused to speak to him again. He instead spent the following summer with a different lover (number two if you’re keeping count). Discovering that Thomas also had a liaison with someone else angers Michael – but his inability to see the hypocrisy of his anger, especially in light of his own behavior, is ridiculous. Ms. Cochrane doesn’t spend nearly enough time developing Harry’s character or the relationship he forms with Michael, and in a novel that purports to be a romance, it’s a shame. Michael barely had a thought for Harry even as a boy, but he suddenly develops a tendre for him and after a bit of perfunctory lovemaking, they’re talking about a future together in London. The relationship simply isn’t well developed or romantic… and frankly, it was odd.
The setting, the sense of time and place, and the premise of this story are highlights in Count the Shells. Unfortunately, the central romance is disappointing and underdeveloped, and despite its strengths, the novel ultimately left this reader unsatisfied.