Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Two guys, a train, and lots of steam.
Sam Chancellor has been in love with the steam engine Old Bess since he was six years old. Well, maybe not literally, but even when he’s lost everything else in his life, he’s always had her. But now her place in his heart has been unexpectedly challenged. Her new driver, Ryan Saunders, is the embodiment of all Sam’s fantasies.
Ryan has written off Sam as just another geeky trainspotter—until the moment Ryan sees him without his usual shapeless hoodie, and realizes that for a nerd, Sam’s pretty built.
When Ryan overlooks Sam’s awkwardness long enough to suggest a hook-up, Sam seizes the opportunity—and Ryan—with both very eager hands. Finding common ground in their shared love of Bess, their time together is better than Sam ever dared dream.
But there’s a reason Ryan never talks about his past. And when Ryan’s job is threatened, Sam’s well-meaning intervention puts both Ryan and Bess in deadly danger.
It was that train on the cover that was the initial draw for me. I’ve always been a “train” lover. My grandfather worked for Pullman and I had free rides (at age 5 on) on the Silver Comet or Silver Meteor from Long Island to Miami growing up (something that would never be allowed today at the age I travelled by myself) to go see my grandparents. I can still feel those Pullman wool blankets pulled warmly around me and feel the comforting sway and rumbling as the train rolled its way south. Now comes a story about two very different young men brought together by their love for trains, especially for Bessie, or more accurately Elizabeth of Shrewsbury to give that old steam locomotive its formal name. And from the first paragraph, I was lost in this world of trains, small villages in England and two young men on their way to a relationship and love.
What an amazing story….even if you aren’t in thrall to trains as I am you will love this book. Joy Lynn Fielding brings this joy of trains, trainspotting, and Ryan and Sam alive to such a degree that I felt I walked along side of them in town or rumbling along on the rails with Sam, Ryan and Bessie every step of the way.
Honestly, I don’t know if any element stands out more than the others from this narrative, all are so well done. The characters are layered, beautifully defined and, even more, I felt as though I had never met them before on a page in any novel. Sam starts off as a naif. Sam is tall, prone to wearing shapeless clothes and hoodies, living alone in the house bequeathed to him by his uncle. His outlook on life and people is full of innocence, goodheartedness, and simplicity. Sam comes across as though he is someone who has been sheltered from the harder elements of life, which he sort of has.
I’m sure you are thinking…”well, I’ve read characters like Sam before”. But that’s such a small part of who Sam actually is. This character is one that continually surprises you with his depth and grace. And that certainly goes for his impact upon Ryan Saunders, a more jaded, world weary young man who has found his passion finally in life….as the engineer for Bessie as he calls her. Ryan has raised walls of steel, appropriate for someone who spends his days inside a “steel horse”, around himself for protection. Outwardly he projects the hard facade he’s created over the years, mostly due to his upbringing, his father’s attitude towards his son and Ryan’s past excesses as a wild, partying youth. But inside? Something else has started to grow and it started with Bessie. Ryan stumbled by accident into his current profession but now she’s everything to him.
Oh, Bessie or Bess or Elizabeth of Shrewsbury. What ever the name she is called she shines as a major character in her own right. Bessie rumbles her way into your heart just as clearly as she does to Sam and Ryan. Fielding either has a passion for trains, and knows her stuff or her research is so thorough and deep that it flows easily into every part of her story, making Bessie sings as she steams her way through the plot and into our minds and consciousness. The trains are pulled into their “sheds” at night, pull up next to the platforms, walk about the footboards. There are rail enthusiasts’ message boards and train schedules and, oh, when Sam gets started on various explanations as to how Bessie or any type of train works, well, those conversation not only feel believable but you will find yourself grinning with fondness as Sam’s passion spills forth in wave after verbal wave to the bemusement of whatever soul he is talking too. I could hear Sam, I could see Ryan driving Bessie…Fielding makes it all so real and immediate in every scene that you don’t want to put the book down.
Here is the first time Sam ever steps inside of Bessie, courtesy of an invite from Ryan…
With a quick glance at Ryan to make sure he really was allowed, he crossed over to her and reached up to press a hand against her gleaming metal side.
“Hi, Bess,” he said. His voice was supposed to be too low for Ryan to hear him, but it was filled with such love and warmth that he was glad he could hear it. Just yesterday Ryan would have laughed himself sick at the idea of a trainspotter wanting to talk to a train, but now he saw what it meant to Sam, he no longer felt the urge to laugh. Especially not when he remembered the way he always slapped her in greeting and farewell and most days said something to her as he did so. He gave them a moment together, then climbed up onto the footplate.
“You want to come up?” he asked.
It was the stupidest question ever asked, he realised, as Sam scrambled up after him, his face alight and eager. Gazing at the array of controls in front of him, Sam grinned until Ryan’s face ached in sympathy. He couldn’t seem to stop touching Bessie, his long, sensitive fingers caressing every part of her. Somewhere in the back of his mind when he’d invited Sam to see Bessie, Ryan had thought about pushing him up against her and fucking him, because he was pretty sure Sam would be halfway to coming just from being so close to Bessie. But once he saw the delight in Sam’s face as he looked around, those thoughts faded from his mind, especially when Sam wanted to know how she was to drive. Not just the nuts and bolts of it, but how it felt.
How did he know deep inside that she was ready to start moving? Yes, there were all the gauges, but was there something more? As Sam hung on his every word, warmth stirred inside Ryan at being the recipient of such open, genuine admiration. He couldn’t remember ever being admired for anything except having a rich father or a good body, and the respect with which Sam seemed to regard him felt like spring sunshine after a long, hard winter.
He told Sam how she was a bit crabby first thing in the mornings, how sometimes her gauges said she was ready to go, but she still juddered as the wheels bit and held. And he told him something he’d never mentioned to another soul—the way she downright sulked when the carriages were first coupled to her, despite having more than enough power to pull them. It meant he had to nurse her those first few hundred yards until she got over it and seemed content to puff away happily. Finally, they left the cab and after one final, slow, walk around her, Sam turned to Ryan. “Thank you,” he said, and the depth of feeling in his voice was like nothing Ryan had ever heard before.
Oh, all the emotions and thoughts flowing from those two men standing inside the locomotive they both love. And its just the beginning of the journey for them both to something quite remarkable. There is no case of instant love here. A quiet crush rolls into the walls erected by long time anonymous hookups but that connection only starts to work to pull them together when other outside forces make Ryan look behind the nebbish exterior that Sam projects to the glowing human being inside. As that happens we get to meet even more wonderfully quirky and believable characters, like Mrs. Verity, a old friend of Sam’s and his Uncle Ken, Mabel the spider who lives inside Sam’s shower to Ryan’s dismay and so many others. The town of Cardale is an authentic an element as all the rest here.
But its through Sam’s love of trains, his passion as a trainspotter (what we call train buffs here in the US) and Ryan’s love for his profession as a driver of Bessie that raises this story above the vast sea of romances out there. Trains are a symbolic image for so many things, journeys, sex, power, you name it and you can probably find a passage some place where trains are used as a metaphor or embodiment of an idea. They are romance, and mysterious, and have an allure that has never quite faded. That power is present here in Blowing Off Steam. Its in the descriptions of the trains, of the emotions they engender and the love people feel for them deeply on so many levels.
Here is Sam at the beginning of the novel running to catch a glimpse of a train….
“Gotta go—the London express is due!”
He didn’t quite run, but his heart was still pounding fit to burst by the time he emerged onto the sunlit platform and made his way up the steep flight of stairs onto the footbridge that crossed the tracks. He’d need to avoid the ticket office for the next few days, till she’d got another victim in her crosshairs.
In the meantime, he hadn’t been lying—the London train was due in three minutes’ time. He walked across the bridge until he was standing over the middle of the track down which it would come. And he stood and waited.
He heard it before he saw it. When it became visible in the clear air of early morning, it looked like some mythical dragon with sun glinting on its metal hide as it wound through the countryside and rounded the long curve into the station. He grabbed at the handrail on the bridge as the train thundered down the track towards him. Although he knew it had slowed for safety reasons, it was moving with such force, such power, that it seemed it was coming at him like a cannonball. It swept beneath him, and the deafening sound it made and the smell of diesel left hanging in the air after it had passed were the most perfect things in the world. Its speed and noise had the footbridge trembling slightly, and he knew how it felt—there was something about that much power that left him weak-kneed and gasping.
Blowing Off Steam will make you feel the power of those moments too. I love this story. It brought back so many happy memories and made me want to go grab a ticket and ride the rails once more. Blowing Off Steam by Joy Lynn Fielding also made me feel as though I had never encountered another romance story like hers The men, Sam and Ryan and their path towards romance feels like new territory, an uncharted journey towards love that I hadn’t read before. It sparkled with joy, it overflowed with texture and love and authenticity. It’s a book I will pick up again and again because I love it so and will need a trip back to this universe and couple….and Bessie of course. Blowing Off Steam is highly recommended and I expect to find it among my Best of 2015 at the end of the year.
I will leave you with a Youtube of Steam Engines underway….
Cover art by Syneca is as great as the story behind it. Love it.
Kindle Edition, 184 pages
Expected publication: May 26th 2015 by Samhain Publishing, Ltd.