Desert Isle Keeper
I’ve often heard/read authors say – ‘this character just took over my brain and demanded their own book’. I don’t know if that’s what happened to Con Riley when she created Charles Heppel, a major secondary character in His Haven, but whatever the case, he’s one of those characters. Vibrant, funny, larger-than-life and a complete scene-stealer, Charles lit up the pages whenever he appeared, and I was delighted when I learned he would be getting his own book.
Charles is book one in the Learning to Love series, and it’s a gorgeously romantic, sexy and poignant story about two quite different men learning not just to love, but about themselves, who they truly are and what they truly want. The writing is superb, the setting is expertly rendered and the characterisation is excellent; I honestly can’t think of anything about this book that I didn’t love or that didn’t work for me.
Readers of His Haven will already know that Charles has a somewhat uneasy relationship with his older brother George – heir to their father’s earldom – and that he goes home to the family estate, as infrequently as possible. When this book opens, Charles is trying to sneak out without George knowing; he’s got a job interview and isn’t in the mood to listen to George criticising (again) his choice of profession (Charles works with pre-schoolers, helping them learn through play) and his lack of success in finding or holding down a permanent position. Alas for Charles, he can’t get away that easily. George catches him and isn’t pleased; he wanted Charles to stay to help him out with the various projects he’s got going on, but Charles knows he’ll only screw up, and that would make things between them even worse.
Glynn Harber is a small, independent school close to The Haven in Cornwall and although the job is another temporary position, Charles likes the place immediately. Unfortunately, the interview doesn’t go well leaving Charles once again feeling like a total failure who is just Not Good Enough.
Heartsick and defeated, Charles decides to go for a walk, taking shelter in the chapel in the woods when it starts to rain. The quiet soothes him a bit, and he sits behind the curtain of the ‘confessional’, allowing himself a few moments of honesty to feel his disappointment. Then he hears someone sit down on the other side of the curtain, and assuming it’s Keir (his best friend) come to pick him up, decides to have a bit of fun and starts to confess his sins, in a typically self-deprecating way:
“Father, first I need to confess about all of the sex I’ve had before marriage… It’s a lot, and we probably don’t have time for a complete run-through but would you pass on my thanks for making me both gay and a magnet to men? Especially to the ones I like best – allergic to commitment like me? It’s made being a man-whore so much easier.”
But can’t keep up the act in front of his oldest friend:
“… it keeps getting harder to do this. I get to know the children, and learn all their maggoty ways. Then I have to leave them. I never, ever get to see any of them flourish. Grow their little wings and take off.”
Of course, it’s not Keir on the other side of the curtain at all – it’s His Holy Hotness, aka Hugo Eavis (whom we also met briefly in His Haven), formerly an army padre who is temporarily in charge of pastoral support at the school. He immediately puts Charles at his ease by sharing something about himself, explaining that he “stepped off the ordination track” a year earlier and decided to take a sabbatical overseas which didn’t end well. He was injured in a shelling attack in Syria, and now he’s at one of life’s crossroads. He’s returned home to rest and recover from his injuries and to work out what he’s called to do next.
While they’re talking, they’re told about a missing child and immediately rush to help. All ends well when Charles finds him, and the combination of Charles’ obvious affinity with young children and the way he’s making Hugo smile for the first time in ages, makes the headmaster of the school extend an olive branch and an offer. He asks Charles to stay to help the very pregnant class teacher until he can find a suitably qualified replacement – but most importantly, Hugo is a dear friend he’d like to see happier… and he thinks Charles is the man for the job.
Charles is, as I said at the beginning, one of those characters who just leaps off the page. He has a huge heart and an equally huge capacity for joy, love and compassion; his dedication to the children in his care is inspiring and it’s clear that not only does he love his job but he has a deeply insightful understanding of the way children develop and how important play is in that development. And yet, owing to severe but undiagnosed dyslexia and low working memory, Charles has been made to feel like a failure his entire life and believes himself to be “shallow as a puddle”, good for little other than a good laugh and a good fuck. Yet he’s so intensely loveable, a deeply good, kind person (to everyone but himself, that is), and his inability to see that his value is beyond price is heart-breaking.
There is so much to love and enjoy about Hugo and Charles’ romance. It’s funny, it’s touching and real and insightful; Hugo is Charles’ opposite in many ways, yet they just click; his unconditional understanding and ability to listen to what isn’t said as much as what is encourages Charles to open up about things he’s never spoken of, not even to Keir, and Hugo’s unwavering belief in Charles, in his ability to change lives for the better – including Hugo’s – and to see him and celebrate him for the man he is give Charles something he so desperately needs, especially at those moments of almost crushing self-doubt. And in return, Hugo flourishes under Charles’ care and support, learning to smile and enjoy life again even as he is trying to understand the true nature of his spiritual calling and to work out what he wants to do with his life.
The secondary characters are wonderfully drawn, especially a little boy named Tor with whom Charles develops a special bond, and George. I adored the relationship between the brothers, and how Charles comes to a new appreciation of what George has been dealing with. It’s clear that George loves Charles dearly, even though sometimes he’s a bit tactless, and Charles realises that he’s been struggling and determines to be a better brother.
It’s not unusual for me to find myself tearing up or with a lump in my throat while reading an emotional story, but something about this particular story really got to me – tugged at my heartstrings, hit me in the feels, however you want to describe it – and I cried tears of happiness and heartbreak through the last quarter of the book! Charles gradually coming to see himself the way Hugo sees him and really, truly beginning to believe in himself is unforgettable and just marvellously written, as is the moment where he fears he’s been mistaken and he’s Not Enough after all.
I feel as though I’ve barely scraped the surface of Charles: Learning to Love, because there’s so much more to it than I’ve had space to talk about here. Charles himself is a truly memorable character, and watching him falling in love with possibly the most unlikely man makes for one of the most beautiful romances I’ve ever read. This book earns Con Riley another DIK and puts her firmly on my list of ‘must read’ authors.
Buy it at: Amazon
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|Review Date:||July 22, 2021|
|Book Type:||Contemporary Romance|
|Review Tags:||clergy | Cornwall | dyslexia | Learning to Love series | Male/Male romance | Queer romance | Teacher|
I just finished Charles last night after reading the His series over the previous 2 weeks. I actually agree with multiple of the comments already made. I don’t find Con Riley’s writing style to be the easiest to follow. However, I agree with WendyF that the books are so emotional, poignant and romantic. I loved Charles the character from the start in His Haven and loved, loved, loved Charles the book. It’s my favorite so far and I look forward to the next book in the series. I was actually interested in the mention of Ed and Pasha (sculpture garden scene) and thought they might have their own book, which I found (called True Brit) and plan to read next.
Intrigued! Will pick this up soon!
I really enjoyed reading this book. Charles is such an endearing character and he and Hugo are just what each other need.
The fact that Charles’ views on what young children need to learn and flourish chimed completely with my own added to my enjoyment! The scenes with the children at the school were wonderfully well done.
I find Con Riley’s books emotional, poignant and romantic and I really like her style of writing – it seems to speak to me directly, without any extra waffle. Her dialogue is particularly strong, I think, and seems to realistically match how people speak to each other.
Can’t wait for Sol’s story!
Couldn’t have put it better myself! Charles is an amazing character and the writing here is incredibly strong.
You make this book sound so appealing, but I’m unsure about trying this author again. I read His Horizon and His Compass and thought the stories were fine, but I thought her prose was choppy and at times disjointed. I guess some authors’ styles work for me and some just don’t.
Carrie, give After Ben and Salvage a try. These newer stories have been “fine” but not nearly as interesting those two – both are first in a series and the best of each series. If you do read them, would love to know what you think.
Thanks. I see After Ben is part of KU, so I may give it a try. Thanks!
I agree with you about some writers’ styles just not working for you. I don’t enjoy one of the most prolific, well-regarded m/m suspense authors because of how they structure their sentences and put them together. Everyone else who enjoys the same books as me seems to love this author but I just don’t!
Same here. Sometimes it’s the stories some authors like to tell. I’m not a fan of Gregory Ash because he doesn’t write stories I want to read, not because he isn’t a good writer. He’s all about high angst, I’m not. But sometimes it’s the writing itself, like you said,that just doesn’t click. But with so many good authors/stories out there, I have plenty to read! :-)
This author hasn’t worked for me either! I’ve read the same titles as you – did you try Charles? What did you think?
I haven’t tried Charles.
I meant to add that I may yet give it a try. KU is great for just this situation,where you’re not sure you are going to like a book, but want to give it a try. I’ll let you know what I think if I do.
I’ve had After Ben rec’d to me several times, but as is usual for me, I haven’t had time to read it yet. I can’t say I’ve noticed anything irritating about the writing; whatever she’s doing is working for me!
I know you and I don’t have exactly the same tastes, but generally if you like something I have a pretty good chance of liking it, too. But it’s inevitable that individual taste will diverge. Con Riley is obviously working for many people, and that’s great! I have a large TBR pile (for which you are partly to blame), so I won’t be idle. :-)
I actually have problem with her writing style before, but I seem to get over it now and loved this book. But I totally understand what you are saying. Some authors don’t work for me because of the way they “write” like word choices or sentence structure don’t connect with my brain
Agree 100%. I’ve tried all the books in this series and they don’t hit the spot for me. There’s a certain…murkiness to the prose that makes it hard for me to swim easily through the story, but I’m still going too add it to my TBR pile! As others have said, KU makes these “unsures” a much easier sell.
I just started this book. Only Chapter 4 so far and I already had my eyes all teary. This one is going to be great, I know it!
Oooh, I’m really looking forward to reading this.
I’ve been reading from my TBRs this month and finished His Compass last night, started His Haven this morning, so have just met Charles.
I absolutely loved His Compass, and found myself very teary whilst reading it, so will probably be in a right state when reading Charles!
Looking forward to meeting His Holy Hotness…………….
This is SO good – Charles is a real stand-out, a truly memorable character, and those don’t come along all that often. Come back and let me know what you think!