Monday, June 22, 2009

Deadly Dreams by Victor Banis

Reviewed by Robert Buck

Victor J. Banis is a prolific writer as well as one of the most versatile and entertaining writers today. In recent years he has given us such gems as Longhorns, Angel Land, as well as the recent Deadly Series of mysteries. Deadly Dreams is the third installment in the series of mystery novels featuring the duo of Stanley Korski and Tom Danzel. In many ways it is the most satisfying book yet of the series. For those who may not be familiar with the series, the two met in the first book, Deadly Nightshade, when the openly gay San Francisco police officer Stanley Korski was teamed with the 'straight' Tom Danzel to solve a series of crimes involving gays.

In Deadly Dreams we find Tom has retired as a San Francisco Police Department detective and he and Stanley have become partners in a private investigation agency. They have also become partners in another way as they are now living together even though Tom is still loathe to openly admit the relationship. Following a prologue that ties the whole book together, Deadly Dreams begins with the death of Stanley's father. Stanley is forced to take a closer look at his past only to discover that things he had always considered to be fact, were not fact at all. His discovery of a family member Stanley never knew existed, takes him on a dark and twisted journey through his childhood in order to unravel not only a past mystery but also a present day mystery. Stanley discovers that little, if anything, from his past was as he had thought it was when growing up. And through this labyrinth of discovery, Tom is right there beside Stanley, protecting him.

Deadly Dreams however should be classified more as a thriller than a mystery as the reader is aware from the first of the book just who the killer is. This does not detract in any way from the book however as there are plenty of tense moments. Banis masterfully keeps the reader on the edge of the seat in this page-turner and even though we may know 'whodunnit' from the start, there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way. But as good as the mysteries are in this series of books, the ever changing relationship between Tom and Stanley is what especially keeps readers coming back for more. Reading Deadly Dreams, one is reminded not only what a wicked wit Banis possesses, as well as what a master of wordplay Banis can be, but one is also reminded just what an urbane writer Victor Banis is in his cultural references, such as the references to the 16th century Italian painter Agnolo Bronzino. Without giving away too many secrets, romance lovers will be highly satisfied with Deadly Dreams, though the destination is not arrived at without some scrapes and bruises to the relationship.

The Deadly series of mysteries started off really good, and each subsequent book has gotten better, so if you like edge-or-the-seat psychological thrillers, or you are a fan of romance, this book should not be missed. And if you are a fan of both you will find Deadly Dreams to be doubly good.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bend in the Road By Jeanne Barrack

Reviewed by Victor Banis

Set in 19th century Poland, Bend in the Road is really two novellas, linked together by common setting and common characters. In the first of the two stories, In The Lion's Den, a penniless vagabond, Aryeh, joins a traveling troupe of Yiddish performers in need of a leading man. Aryeh meets and falls in love with pretty young Dani, who is soon playing the female lead, Esther, in their upcoming play, opposite Aryeh's King Ahasuerus. But Aryeh, experienced in the homosexual life, thinks Dani is too young, and Dani thinks Aryeh doesn't find him appealing.

In the 2nd of the novellas, From Stage to Stage, the troupe is hired by a prominent Jewish merchant to perform for his daughter's wedding, and the group's musician, Yuval, composes a musical version of The Emperor's Nightingale. Yuval, secretly gay, is fascinated by the merchant's homely gardener, Tvsi, whom Yuval recognizes as a kindred spirit, and when he hears Tvsi sing, Yuval realizes that he has found his nightingale – and also the love of his life. But, things don't go smoothly.

The stories are both charming and sentimental, in the nicest sense of the word. The settings are colorfully evoked and one truly gets a sense of sharing the lives of these people. For the most part the characters, even the minor ones, are well limned. Both stories have a folkloric air about them, almost a fairy tale quality, so it is probably less critical than it might otherwise have been that the two villains are mostly one-dimensional, almost the archetypical ogres of old legend. Or, Golems, if you will. Indeed, the stories remind me of fables handed down through generations rather than stories recently penned, which gives them a nice sense of authenticity.

There are, however, inherent problems with writing historical fiction, and they are compounded when the fiction is set in a milieu that might be considered exotic by many. The author must provide enough detail to lend verisimilitude, and not so much as to bog down the story. It is much like cooking: you want seasoning to add to the flavor, but not so much you can't taste the chicken. Here, the author's use of Yiddish phrases and words sometimes threatens to overwhelm the bird. Some of them are familiar enough and some of them readily grasped in context, but some also can have a reader unfamiliar with the language scratching his head. The effective result is that it is likely only those familiar with the language will really appreciate these stories to the fullest.

I asked the author about this issue and got this explanation from her, which seems reasonable: "One of the reasons why I included them was because of the very diversity of the members of the troupe. Some might have been speaking Polish or German or Hungarian. Aryeh more often than not would be thinking and speaking English since this was his first language and using Yiddish as a means to increase communication with the other members. Rather than saying, ‘Ruven spoke in Hungarian with a sprinkling of Yiddish words’, I just sprinkled them in. I wanted to let the reader know that what you spoke impacted on your status (for instance, Froy Silberstein's use of German) Also, to translate every word into English to me lost some of the flavor of taking place in another country."

The author adds a glossary at the end, but a good story is a dream shared by the writer and the reader. Ideally, the author wants the reader to forget he is reading a book and, in a sense, live the dream. But when the reader stops to look up a word, the spell is broken, and he is reminded that it is, after all, just a book.

None of which is to say the average reader, without knowledge of Yiddish, shouldn't, or wouldn't, enjoy this book immensely. I would recommend, however, that the reader forego resorting to the glossary while he is reading the stories. Even without understanding every expression, the astute reader will find little difficulty in following where the story goes and what the characters are about, and he can remain in the author's thrall – which is really the end most to be desired.

Notwithstanding this authorial choice of vocabulary, however (and it is just that, a choice, neither good nor bad of itself but simply how the storyteller chose to present her work) it is self evident that this was a labor of love for the author, and ultimately the affection she so obviously feels for her characters and their lives overrules all other considerations. Those who are willing to suspend their questions and read on without undue puzzlement will find it a lovely book, and well worth the reading. Then they can go to the glossary and look up those unfamiliar expressions at leisure. And perhaps gain a useful education in the process.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bend in the Road by Jeanne Barrack

review by Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk

While reading Jeanne Barrack’s Bend in the Road I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Yiddish story teller Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose Yiddish tales of the pre-Holocaust Europe earned him the Noble Prize. One story especially comes to mind, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," in which the girl Yentl, wanting to learn the teachings of the rabbis, disguises herself as a young man and befriends the other young men in pursuing this course of study. Though the latent homosexual traits are obvious to any reader, Singer shies away from exploring the relationship any further…

Not so Jeanne Barrack in her two-part novella, Bend in the Road. In Part One In the Lion’s Den, she explores a relationship between an older male, Aryeh, and Dani, a very young man.

(A digression here but this raises the question of how old should a fictional character be to appear in a sexual novella, 14, 15, 16? --though we’re later told that Dani is about 19 while Aryeh is 30 years old-- yet these fabricated rules are set forth by frightened publishers too scared of challenging the status quo. They assume that all young people are saving their virginity until they hit the glorious legal age of 18. What idiotic rot! My first sexual encounter was at the age of 15 with a man in his 20s or 30s. I was lured into a Newark alley not with an offer of money or good times --none was offered and none expected-- but just a glance that I received and recognized to pursue (even though I threw up afterwards) but it was a look of one I had always been after all my early life (yet I’m sure he saw that halting look in me, too.)

In this same way Aryeh and Dani recognize and know each other, in that mysterious homosexual way: they instantly long for each other even though they are both men. Aryey and Dani are part of an acting troupe in Poland in about the 1880s. Aryeh plays the manly roles, regal and bold, while Dani acts out the wimpy feminine parts. Falling into each other's arms is good as acting parts on stage, but Aryeh is hounded by what he secretly yearns for from Dani, physical closeness without the pretense of acting or playing a role.

In the other novella, Part Two, From Stage to Stage, Yuval and Tsvi are as different from each other as night and day or Christian and Jew. Yuval runs the theater troupe while Tsvi is a lowly disfigured gardener in a home Yuval is visiting. Yuval convinces Tsvi to sing in his company, at least part time, as they prepare for a recital.

Yet each feels he is unworthy of sharing himself with another male. Aryeh goes out and gets a drunkard who demands a blow job from him only to get pummeled by him at the end. Tsvi has an affair with a male prostitute he ends up somehow insulting and is given the boot. For some reason each man feels he in unworthy of sexual pleasure or true physical love; in this they stand utterly alone, tormented by their sexuality, by their aloneness. No wonder there’s a feeling of lost about them, which will persist until they let another into their lives.

These two stories are exquisite, rewarding novellas but with the many uses of the Hebrew or Yiddish words I was forced to flip back and forth constantly for definitions until I began to read it without referring to the dictionary; a wealth of Jewish information to learn in the end. Just to experience what gay avec means (what gay person hasn’t heard that?) is well worth the cost of the book; I would highly recommend these two novellas. You’ll definitely learn something from this book about a long-lived culture that now seems so short-lived before anti-Semitism reared its ugly head once again …but until then at least it was gloriously lived!

Jeanne Barrack has shown us what indeed was a fascinating way of life and that underneath all the poverty and hatred was a powerful resilience, a force of love pushing its way upwards not to the sky but directly straight to God…