Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Wingmen by Ensan Case

I began reading Wingmen by Ensan Case on a Saturday afternoon and couldn't put it down until I finished it late the following day. It's that good!

The love story between Lt. Commander Jack Hardigan, USN and Ensign Frederick "Trusty" Trusteau begins in 1943 toward the end of the Pacific conflict during World War II, after Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. The Navy is in the midst of reorganizing the fleet and reconfiguring their strategy against the Japanese. Experienced naval combat aviators are scarce with a majority falling under the young and untried-in-battle classification.

When Trusteau transfers to the VF-20, the fighting squadron of Air Group Twenty, aboard the fictitious aircraft carrier Constitution, he is an inexperienced aviator and his new skipper Jack Hardigan, a hotshot veteran of Midway with quite a few kills under his belt. Trusteau's admiration for Hardigan is immediate and on a grand scale. As events unfold and Fred becomes Jack's wingman, for Jack, the trust that develops between them in the skies translates to everyday admiration of a young man whose flying skills highlight personal qualities, such as loyalty, efficiency and an ability to think on his toes, while on the ground.

Fred is clueless about his sexuality, but knows he’s indifferent to women and doesn’t ‘fit in’ with the other men in his squadron. To fit, Fred follows their lead and has sex with prostitutes, including when he transfers to the VF-20 squadron where he gains the nickname "Trusty" after lasting 17 minutes and gaining a stud’s reputation. But Fred doesn't understand why the other men make such a big deal about women. Yet, Fred does everything in his power to get close to Jack, and although it takes him a while to figure it out, it quickly becomes clear that Fred’s crush on his skipper is enormous. Jack, on the other hand, is dating a wealthy war widow, and for him it's all about company while on leave. There's more of a friendship than a sexual vibe between them, and Jack prefers to spend time with his men than with her. Unlike Fred, Jack fits in with the men and it isn't until much later that he begins to equate his desire for Fred's company and fear of losing him in combat with a more personal attachment.

These are the 1940's, so the feelings that grow between Jack and Fred are kept closely guarded even from each other. There are two intimate scenes between Jack and Fred that take place away from the ship but, like in the old movies, everything fades to black when they hit the sheets. But feelings and emotions go deep for both of them, and before and after their intimate moments even when the two men are alone on the ship, conversations and physical contact are maintained on the buddy level. There's no outward acknowledgment of feelings, particularly under the circumstances since they were at war.

And it’s war! Ensan Case's Wingmen is a plot and character driven novel. His research of what transpired in the Pacific during World War II is fantastic and his take of life in an aircraft carrier is riveting. There is a particular vibrant atmosphere to his portrayal of the life men lead at close quarters on the ship, as well as when they are on leave -- the hard drinking and incessant smoking, the jocular ribbing and womanizing, as well as the desire to distinguish themselves during battle – that allows the reader to know these men. Additionally, Case gives them distinct personalities, making the reader care whether they live or die.

Case also hits the right note when focusing on the politics of command and strategies used by the Americans to hit the Pacific islands -- beginning with Marcus and moving on to Wake, Tarawa, Kwajalein, and Truk -- by incorporating details without, for one moment, slowing the pace or the excitement of the novel. Those details make this novel what it is, as he also incorporates what is critical to the men: the maneuverability of Hellcats, Corsairs and Avengers, dangers of landing on the aircraft carriers, the terrible accidents, lack of supplies. All of those details lead to the strategic air battles in the skies, as well as the one-on-one situations which become some of the most tension-filled and exhilarating moments of the story.

Case ends the book with a postwar section mostly written in letter format that gives the reader a broad idea of what happens to the main characters after the war and an epilogue that ends in 1969. I would have preferred if Fred and Jack’s story had ended a bit earlier, but frankly that did not influence my love of this book one way or another. Wingmen by Ensan Case is a fabulous fusion of historical fiction and romance that I recommend to everyone, but particularly to those who love exciting, well-researched tales set in the Pacific during World War II, as well as to readers who love a war time, tension-filled romance. It is already in my list of 2014 favorites!

Category: Historical Fiction/Gay Romance
Series: None
Publisher/Release Date: Lethe Press/July 2014
Source: ARC Lethe Press
Grade: A


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