James Oliver French – Return to Me (Review, Excerpt, Interview, & Giveaway)

Return to Me by James Oliver French

Source: Review by Request
Copy Provided by the Author
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

What would you do if the man you loved vanished without a trace?

Kyle and Todd meet at a party in their freshman year at college. They fall in lust at first sight, then deep in love. In spite of Kyle’s melancholy past, their future together looks bright. Then Kyle disappears, leaving Todd heartbroken and alone, and their dreams in ruins. Fifteen years later, Todd is a successful but lonely psychiatrist. He still hasn’t come to terms with the loss of his first love. When a dangerous amnesiac arrives at the hospital, Todd is forced to confront the past, and is driven to find answers to the questions that have haunted him all these years.

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A beautifully written story of love and heartbreak…

Just like that, the man I love, my first everything, the one I want to be with forever, has vanished without a trace.

I’m not even going to try to pretend this book didn’t wreck me emotionally.
I smiled.
I laughed.
I cried real tears.
I fell in love with these two characters.
I felt the heartache and betrayal all the way to my bones…
I was left with a severe book hangover…

It takes phenomenal talent for an author to touch a reader so deeply.

We know form the blurb that the budding romance between Kyle and Todd is going to come to an end.

I assumed that this would be a fast and hot romance lasting a couple of chapters then jumping to present day. I was so wrong.

We watch an honest and beautiful love grow between these two characters for 47% of the book – yes, the hotness and impetuous youthfulness is there. After all, they are two college students navigating their way through their first relationship… But I knew that Kyle was going to disappear and break Todd’s heart – It says it clearly in the blurb – so I read the first half of the book with a building dread, thinking that at any moment I would be mourning the loss of this sweet relationship between two characters it was so easy to fall for…

When it hit, it was a powerful thing – Kyle does indeed vanish without a trace, and poor Todd (as well as the reader) is completely devastated by the sudden shocking departure. Everything seemed to be going so well in their relationship…

Todd Chambers

It’s like having your soul torn apart or your heart ripped out through your throat. Raw, bleeding and dying. I can’t scream. I can’t move. I’m numb… detached… hollow. I miss him so much, and I would do anything to get him back. Just to feel him next to me one last time.

The entire book is told through Todd’s POV, so we keenly understand the euphoric high and the devastating low of the time he spends with Kyle. Todd went into college as a shy and inexperienced (though openly gay) man. Through his time spent with Kyle he comes out of his shell and fell deeply in love.

15 Years later…

Todd moved on with the help of his family and friends. Once it became clear that Kyle wasn’t coming back, and that the police had no interest in pursuing his missing-persons case, Todd had no choice but to get his shit together.

He completed his studies and became a Psychiatrist with his own successful practice, but he also volunteers his time at a local psyche-ward where the patients truly need his help and the state has little funding.

It’s on his rounds at that facility when he encounters a man who has been passed off from ward to ward. He is an amnesiac John Doe who is prone to violent outbursts…

Kyle Hansen

“You’re a weirdo, Todd Chambers. Of course I want to be your boyfriend.”
He seals it with a kiss.

Fifteen years has left a hollow shell of a man behind, but he still retains the smile Todd fell in love with.

Kyle is finally back.
But this isn’t the same man Todd once thought he’d spend the rest of his life with… The file on Kyle indicates that he was brutally attacked and spent time in a coma before being past around to various hospitals. He has no memory of Todd or much of anything else. Poor medical care and apathy among his doctors have created a case that Todd isn’t sure he can solve.

Todd decides to do what the police refused to do fifteen long years ago: investigate the disappearance of his lover and best friend…

In the process he will retrace Kyle’s steps, confront the pain of his past, and discover how and why Kyle left.

This is a story of young love and loss which will affect you long after you’ve finished. It took me a few days to sort out my thoughts before writing this review, and I can still feel Todd’s loss.

Return to Me seamlessly blends romance and mystery and completely blew me away. Bravo James Oliver French; you have a new fan.

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I’m not the most gregarious guy, so it took a whole lot of convincing from my roommate Lee for me to come along with him to the party tonight. After I finally gave in, he thought it might be best if we had a couple of socially lubricating drinks in our dorm room before heading out, so that I wouldn’t be too socially awkward. What a dick! As I stare across the heaving hordes of partying students, I ask myself, “Why was I so hesitant?” This party is off the hook and I’m wasted … such a good feeling. 
A girl trips and falls onto me, spilling her drink all over my new shirt. I catch her and she stares deep into my eyes like I’m her savior.
“I’m sorry, but I’m gay,” I try to shout over the noise of the crowd.
She slurs, “Hey, Ray. I’m Kirsty.” She belches and almost vomits, but swallows it back down. Not sexy!
“No, I’m gay,” I shout even louder in her ear.
“You’re what?” she yells, cupping a hand to her ear.
“Never mind,” I say and walk off, much to her annoyance. I need to get my shirt dry, and our little conversation was clearly going nowhere.
I squeeze my way through the crowds, and it takes two laps through the house to find the bathroom. I finally have a good look at the damage to my shirt. That dumb bimbo was drinking some vile concoction and it’s stained the fabric deep red. I take my t-shirt off and try to rinse it under running water. The world starts spinning and I wobble on my feet. I have to grab hold of the hand basin to steady myself. Wowzers, I’m drunk. Most of whatever she was drinking washes out, but it leaves behind a bright pink smudge that looks like it’s here to stay. Now my shirt is not only stained, but also drenched. Smart move, Todd. What was it again that everybody always says about alcohol and making unwise decisions?
The bathroom door swings open, and a hot guy with a short military-style haircut, wearing dark blue jeans and a black singlet, walks in while undoing his zipper. He pulls out his johnson before he realizes that he’s got company, and startles when he notices me. I take a step back in surprise too. My eyes drop straight to his crotch and he stares at my bare torso.
“Sorry, man. Didn’t know anybody was in here,” he apologizes.
He zips up his pants, leaves the room and closes the door behind him in a hurry.
I just saw another guy’s dick. Score! I mean, I’ve seen other guys naked before, obviously. But if I’m going to be honest, mostly in porn videos, almost never in real life. I hope he didn’t catch me staring.
I do my best to wring out every drop of water from my t-shirt, then put it back on. It used to cling to my body and make me feel sexy, but now it’s creased and baggy. I look like a homeless person. Ah well, who cares! I’m here to have a good time, right?
Lee finds me lurking in the hallway and drags me into the crowds.
“Where are we going?” I say, ducking out the path of a flying wad of toilet paper.
“To dance off the alcohol. You’ll thank me tomorrow.” He smiles and leads me into the belly of the house, where the lights are down low and the music is pumping.
Within minutes, Lee has his tongue down the throat of some girl he just met. I know he’s going to regret taking her home with him tonight, which he inevitably always does. Probably safer if I don’t go back to our room until tomorrow morning. I’d rather not have to try sleep through the sounds of them doing the nasty.
For a long time I don’t notice the guy staring at me from across the room. He winks, and I smile back bashfully. I’m not used to getting attention from the hottest guy in the room … or any guy, for that matter. Wait a second … he’s the one who flashed me in the bathroom! Standing there in his black singlet, showing off his muscled arms, and swaying to the music: just oozing cool. I cross the dance floor, never breaking eye contact with my handsome admirer.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey, I’m Kyle.”
We shake hands. He’s got a strong grip. I wonder how it would feel wrapped around my dick. Whoa! Where did that come from? Is this the alcohol talking? I’m still a virgin! The furthest I’ve ever gone was heavy petting. I’m a good Christian boy, after all. In high school, my boyfriend and I pledged “no sex before marriage” chastity vows. We even gave each other those stupid promise rings that everyone was wearing a few years back.
“I’m Todd.”
“I’m a big fan of the comics,” he shouts in my ear.
Kyle points at my stained t-shirt with a picture of the Wolverine from X-Men on it. I’ve never met anyone my age who’s even heard about the comic books, let alone been a fan of them. Most people my age are fans of the movies, which don’t even come near to portraying the true depth of the characters and meaningful story arcs. They’re only interested in the cool mutant powers.
“It’s ruined, though.” I rub at the pink stain.
“I have to apologize for barging in on you in the bathroom earlier.”
“There’s no need,” I assure him, putting my hands on his hips. He smiles and we draw closer together.
We dance for over an hour without saying a word to one another. It’s too noisy to have a conversation anyway. The packed room means that we can grind up against each other without being inappropriate in public, same as all the other couples in the room. I can feel the bulge of his erection rubbing against mine through my jeans. Our lips connect and almost magnetically lock together. Our tongues dance while our bodies merge into one. His kiss electrifies me.
I glance around the room filled with other couples kissing and drunk singles staring with envious eyes at their hooked-up friends. Kyle touches my cheeks with his fingertips and guides my lips back to his. Goosebumps spread across my skin as he touches me. It’s as if nothing exists in the room except the two of us.
Bright light explodes all around us and illuminates the entire room. There’s a deafening silence as the music stops abruptly. Everyone in the room shields their eyes and looks around, filled with indignation.
“Okay, kids, it’s time to wrap this up,” booms the stern voice of a police officer. Several members of the riot squad show up behind him.
Girls start screaming and rushing for the doors. There must have been a hell of a lot of underage drinking going on, because I’ve never seen so many people swarming for the nearest exit in my entire life. It doesn’t dawn on me immediately, but I’m on the honor roll and need to get out of Dodge, pronto. Getting arrested at a party isn’t going to look great on my med school application.
Kyle whispers in my ear, “If I lose you in the crowd—” just as a line of girls pushes their way between us and through the crowd. Kyle is pulled away as we’re swept apart by the sea of people.
“Meet you where?” The pandemonium going on around us drowns out my words.
I lose sight of him and then he’s gone. I stand there in disbelief.
“Move, asshole!” A girl snaps at me as she shoves past. I recognize her from earlier. Kirsty is dragging a skinny nerd by the hand, a guy so drunk he can barely keep his eyes open. She’s found her prey, and boy is she going to be disappointed when he passes out on top of her tonight. I guess that’s what we’re at college for—to live and learn, right? 
I follow the masses out onto the street and decide to take a shortcut through a nearby park. Now I see why the police were called out. A bunch of imbeciles had started throwing bottles at the neighbors’ houses and trashed one of the cars parked on the street. Our night of drunken debauchery has officially drawn to a close. It’s been fun, but now it’s time to go home.
Then I remember—I don’t want to see Lee having sex ever again. Once was enough to scar me for life. I’ll take a walk home and go the scenic route. That should help kill a few hours and burn off what’s left of the alcohol in my system.
As I walk through the park, I wonder if I’ll ever see Kyle again. I feel so alive right now. There isn’t a cloud in the night sky, and the park bench looks like an inviting place to lie down for a moment to marvel at the canopy of stars. It’s a bit more uncomfortable than I imagined it would be, but the view is spectacular.
I get a strange shiver down my leg that gives me a fright. There’s something moving in my pants. I leap to my feet and push out the contents of my pocket. Out falls a phone. It’s an iPhone, and I’m definitely an Android guy, so where did this come from? I pick up the phone. The call is coming from an unknown number.
“HELLO, Todd SPEAKING!” I shout into the phone. My ears are still cottony from the loud music at the party. I repeat myself, more quietly than before. “Um … hello, Todd speaking.”
“Hey, sexy man.”
I know exactly whose voice it is, but I still have to check. “Is this … Kyle?”
“You’re talking on my phone,” he chuckles to himself. “Look, I’ve borrowed a phone from a very kind gentleman who I just became acquainted with here on the corner of I’m-Lost and Middle-of-Nowhere, so how about you come meet me some place we both know? Outside the zoo in twenty?”
“I think I can find it.”
“If you get lost, use the GPS on my phone.”
“See you in twenty,” I say eagerly.
Now where is the zoo? I orient myself and start running as fast as my Converse shoes will carry me.
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Interview with James Oliver French

If you were to describe your book in only one word, what would it be?
Why don’t you give me a hard one to start with, Shurrn? I’m going to say “hopeful”.

What would you say inspired you to write it?
I was brainstorming an idea for a gay romance when this story popped into my head that was so heartwarming, and then so utterly tragic, that I knew I had to write it. I can’t say what exactly was the inspiration behind the story because it simply bubbled to the surface.

What was the source of inspiration for Todd Chambers?
I think there’s a bit of me in Todd, but only a little bit. Because the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style from his POV it was impossible not to project my own personality at times, but for the most part he’s a character with his own ideas and opinions, some of which, I don’t agree with.

What about Kyle Hansen?
I wanted to create a character that the girls and gay boys would swoon over, and straight guys would be envious of, but who doesn’t even realize just how hot and incredible he is. He’s that good-looking, gentle soul who your mother always wanted you to marry.

 What kind of research did you do to prepare for writing this book?
You’ll probably laugh at this confession, but I had to learn how to write in first-person present tense. It’s not a natural storytelling tense, and I turned to successful books in the genre like The Hunger Games, for guidance. I was fortunately able to draw on my background in psychology for the more technical aspects of the story, but I did some additional research into the latest brain stimulation techniques to satisfy my own curiosity. Magnetic brain stimulation is a hot topic in psychology and neurology at the moment.

I feel like this book haunted me long after I finished reading it – what did you do to step outside of your writing while working on this project? Was it easy to walk away from the story?
While writing the book I embraced the emotions. I believe that it helped me to write Todd’s responses in a more believable way. If I felt angry, sad or depressed it came through in Todd’s words. But I don’t feel as if I’ve been able to walk away since finishing the book. Whenever I read the last line of the book it brings tears to my eyes. I don’t expect that to change.

Was there ever a time, during your work for this book, when you felt like giving up? What made you change your mind?
From the beginning I was committed to this book. I’ve got a natural tendency towards multitasking on several projects and I knew that if I didn’t focus on just one book that I’d end up like those writers who take ten years to produce their debut.

What does your day-to-day life consist of? What else do you do, aside writing?
I’m transitioning between careers at the moment. I spent six years working as a software engineer before going back to university to study medicine. I should probably be studying instead of writing books.

Have you ever been hit by the infamous “writer’s block”? What did you do to escape it?
When I’m faced with a plot element that isn’t working, I tend to brainstorm for a while and then move on to something else. I know that an idea will strike me somewhere down the track. With Return to Me I was very lucky. Whenever I sat down to write, the words flowed.

How do you deal with bad reviews or acid criticism? What would you advise other authors to that effect?
It hurts. But you can’t please everyone. We have a natural human tendency to place more value of negative words than encouraging words, and I try to be mindful of that. And it doesn’t matter what field your work in, there will always be critics. I also remind myself that everyone is entitled to an opinion. After I’ve got over the initial horror of being publicly lashed, I try to see if there is any constructive criticism buried beneath the harsh words. Often there is something I can take away from it.

What do you have stored for us in the future? What are you working on/planning on next?
I’m really excited about my next project. It’s a twisted short story about a class of elementary school children who take matters into their own hands and deal with the teacher from hell. The story is told from the perspective of a dying man, who makes a shocking confession to his grandson. At the same time I’m putting the finishing touches to the plot outline of a YA novel set in ancient Greece. For now the sequel to Return to Me is on the backburner while I pursue other projects.

How long did the production part take, from the moment you began working on the manuscript to when you hit “Publish”?
Ten months in total. I grossly underestimated how long it would take to complete everything. The book was written in seven months, followed by three months of beta reading, editing, and proofreading. Once I’d committed myself to a pre-order date I had no choice but to meet the deadline.

What’s the longest time you’ve spent working on a project?
I have stories plotted out that I wrote sixteen years ago. Do those count? Of the projects I have completed, the longest I spent was just over a year working on a screenplay.

Did you hire professionals for editing, cover design, formatting?
I had decided that I wanted to go the self-publishing route for a variety of reasons, most of all because I wanted to be in control of the process. I am a bit of a geek when I embark on a new venture (my partner says I’m a control-freak). The advice I found was that an editor was something that was non-negotiable, and I followed that advice. Thanks to my editor’s insightful story analysis, I was inspired to take the book from 60k words to 75k words. The book went through two rounds of editing. The cover was an image that I found on a stock photo site. I spent hours researching font combinations and cover design tips, and decided to go with something very simple, to let the picture do the talking. Formatting was handled by Scrivener, the software I use for writing. I had to research how some of the more intricate settings worked, but I’m pleased with the results – the paperbacks look amazing!

How did you decide who to hire, if you worked with pros?
I used one of the freelancing websites and put out a call for proposals. Michelle Browne of Magpie Editing stood out among the crowd of responses I received. I had a gut feeling that she was going to do a great job. I also subsequently discovered that she had edited books for one of my favorite new authors Nicholas Sansbury Smith.

Where is your work being distributed? How did you decide which one(s) to go with?
The book is available on Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, iTunes, Google Play, Kobo, All Romance eBooks, OverDrive, Oyster, and some smaller sales channels available through Smashwords and Draft2Digital. I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket, and I have already seen good sales through several channels.

What is your all time favorite book?
I hate to admit it, but possibly The Devil Wears Prada. I read it at a time in my life when I wasn’t very happy. Every night when I climbed in bed and opened that book, Lauren Weisberger made me laugh.

What made you pick that one above all others?
The Devil Wears Prada took me through the entire spectrum of emotions. By the end of the book I was rooting for Andrea. I guess going through all those emotions has made the story stay with me, which is strange because I’m more of a sci-fi/horror/thriller guy as my GoodReads profile will tell you.

What made you decide to become an Author?
Always wanted to work in the movie industry. I grew up in South Africa with no chance of getting there as an actor, director, producer, etc. but I knew that people anywhere in the world could become a writer and sell a screenplay. So when I was thirteen years old I started writing. Somewhere along the road life got in the way and for about eight years I didn’t write anything. After reading an amazing action-adventure novel (The Atlantis Gene by A. G. Riddle) I was inspired to write again, this time books, which I knew was a medium that I could use to tell my stories and people wouldn’t have to wait for the movie to get made.

Would you say becoming an author has changed you? In what way?
I’m probably more introverted than I used to me. Writing occupies a lot of time that I used to spend socializing. Also studying full-time means that I have to be selective with what I do in my spare time.

What would you say was the toughest part?
The final push towards getting the book published. There were a lot of very late nights spent editing, tweaking, trying to get things just right. It was very stressful.

If you could turn back in time and do things differently, would you? What would you change?
I would have given myself an extra couple of months to prepare everything. I would have liked the paperbacks to be available at the same time as release (they’ll be out in mid-December), and I’m only halfway through building my website – oops.

Fun facts:

If you could wish for any one thing, and it would immediately come true, what would you wish for?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. A spell to make all politicians tell only the truth? 

If you were stranded on an isolated island, what’s the one item you’d absolutely wish to have with you?
Soap. I’m a total clean freak. I’ll confess that I’ve never been camping because the thought of being away from a nice bed, running hot water, and bugs everywhere makes my OCD go haywire.

Name your favorite fruit.

Favorite season?

How about favorite time of the day?

Were you a Boy Scout?
I was a Boy Cub. Does that count?

Favorite food for breakfast?
Weet-bix with strawberries and banana.

What is the latest book you’ve bought and read?
Atlas by Becca C. Smith. It was a fun supernatural action novel.

What was the last book you absolutely fell in love with?
Orbs by Nicholas Sansbury Smith. I was angry when the book ended because I was enjoying the story so much. I love books like that. I’ve got the sequel on my Kindle ready to read once I’ve finished The Hurricane by R. J. Prescott, a New Adult romance that has had me gripped since page 1.

Is there a book you keep meaning to read, but haven’t gotten around to it? Don’t worry, we all have ridiculously long TBRs!
Maze Runner by James Dashner. I scared because of the mixed reviews, but I read the first chapter and now I want to know what happens.

Do you recall the first piece of Erotica you ever read?
Hahaha. Something from the old Nifty Archive. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about. Soooo long ago.

Do you collect things, like stamps, or key chains, or shoes?
Oh man, I don’t collect anything. Does that make me weird?

Favorite color, you know you want to tell us!

Coffee or tea?
4/5 coffee, 1/5 tea

Sweet or salty?

Drama or comedy?

Cats or dogs?

Dinner by candlelight or a night out clubbing?
Dinner by candlelight. I’m a romantic at heart.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?
*snigger* of course I do. I also love having a hot chocolate with two marshmallows every night before bed.

Favorite Swear Word?
Can I say it? Okay, here it goes … no I can’t say it. I binge-watch Game of Thrones each year and by the time I get to the last episode of a season it’s become part of my normal vocabulary. You can probably guess what it is.

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James Oliver French has graciously offered to give an eBook copy of this breathtaking novel to one lucky Smutsonian reader! Click here to enter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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About the Author:

James grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Christchurch in Aotearoa several years ago, where he now lives with his wonderful partner. He has been a writer since his early teens, and has written numerous screenplays and short stories for his own enjoyment. When he isn’t hard at work writing, he’ll either be seeking inner zen at a yoga class or trying to satisfy his insatiable appetite for good film and television.

9 thoughts on “James Oliver French – Return to Me (Review, Excerpt, Interview, & Giveaway)

  1. When I first started reading the excerpt from the book I wasn’t too impressed, but by the end I was ready to go to Amazon.com and buy the book for my Kindle. Hope I win it so I don’t have to wait a month to purchase a copy. My book budget for this month is long gone.

    Liked by 1 person

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