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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.
Count the Shells, by new-to-me author, Charlie Cochrane, is the sixth entry in Riptide Publishing’s Porthkennack series of standalone romances that are linked by virtue being set in and around the fictional Cornish town of the same name. The series boasts a mixture of contemporary and historical stories, and this is the second historical (the first was Joanna Chambers’ excellent A Gathering Storm), set – I’m guessing, because it’s not actually made clear what the year is – not long after the end of World War One.
Count the Shells is a gently moving, reflective story which opens as a young man – Michael Gray – ponders love and loss as he reminisces about his past lovers, some of whom fought in the war and unlike him, did not come home. Playing on the beach with his young nephew, Michael counts aloud in several different languages as he places shells on the sand, one for each of his five lovers, while thinking about those very different men and the nature of his feelings for them.
Number one – un, uno, eins – on Michael’s list is, and will always be Thomas Carter-Clemence, his oldest friend, the love of his life… and the man from whom he’d parted following a bitter row in the Spring of 1909. Thomas had joined the army not long after that, and had then been killed in the early days of the war; he and Michael had never reconciled but Michael still feels the pain of their parting and his loss and never expects to love so deeply and completely again.
Michael is spending the summer at High Top house near Porthkennack with his sister, Caroline, brother-in-law, Eric, and their eight-year-old, articulate and perceptive son, Richard. The bulk of the first part of the book is spent among the family, and I enjoyed the way the familial relationships are presented and developed, especially the scenes between Michael and Richard, which are gently humorous, poignant and full of affection on both sides. Richard is a precocious boy, but never crosses the line into ‘plot-device moppet’; he’s a charming, inquisitive lad, and it’s clear he adores his uncle and that the feeling is mutual.
Change is in the wind however; Michael and Richard are out walking when they are almost run down by a motorcyclist. Furious and about to give the miscreant a piece of his mind, Michael is stunned when the rider removes his headgear and is revealed as Thomas’s younger brother, Harry. Harry had always been the annoying, gangly younger sibling traipsing about –or trying to – after Michael and Thomas and to be honest, Michael has never really given him a lot of thought. The jolt of attraction he feels soon after meeting him again must, surely, be because of Harry’s resemblance to Thomas. Mustn’t it?
I admit that when I read the synopsis for Count the Shells, I wasn’t sure about the idea of having the protagonist falling in love with the brother of his dead lover. It happens in m/f stories as well, of course, but it’s not a premise that appeals to me for its own sake; however, I decided to read the book and see how things panned out. As it turned out, I didn’t have too many reservations about that aspect of the relationship; Harry is genuinely decent, kind and witty, and reveals to Michael that he has been carrying a torch or him for years. Their progression from being friends to lovers perhaps happens rather quickly, but the author lays the foundations of an emotional connection I was able to believe will get stronger with time.
Michael is charmed by Harry and is surprised at the feelings of happiness that are suffusing him; it’s been a long time since he’s shared himself with anyone, been so comfortable with another person and felt such joy. But when, not long after Michael and Harry become lovers, Harry lets slip a momentous secret in an unguarded moment, Michael’s contentment is shattered as he is confronted with some unpleasant truths that could have serious repercussions on his family. And of course, one secret leads to another until a whole web is unravelling, forcing Michael to reassess a number of long-held memories and beliefs. I can’t say more without spoiling this part of the story, but I can say that the plot is well thought-out and executed, highlighting the strength of the familial connections that the author establishes so well at the beginning of the book. One thing I wasn’t too happy with, however, is the way it seems one relationship is being made palatable at the expense of another; one character has to be shown to have been duplicitous so that Michael can move on.
I enjoyed Count the Shells, although I suspect that the leisurely pace of the novel may not suit everyone. I found it like the best of the sort of lazy summer days on which it is set; warm, comfortable and unhurried, allowing me time to get to grips with the family dynamics and to understand Michael a little. But the book has a number of flaws that are reflected in my rating; there is a little too much telling rather than showing when it comes to Michael’s past relationships – especially his past with Thomas – and that while Harry enters the story like a breath of fresh air, he remains something of an enigmatic figure and we never really get to know him.
In spite of those things, however, I liked the book sufficiently to give it a qualified recommendation. The romance is just one aspect of a story that covers a wider canvas, and while I normally prefer novels in which the romantic love story is the main focus, the author writes the other love stories, the familial ones, so well that I was just as happy to read those while I awaited developments between Michael and Harry.