Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Butterfly's Child by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Published by Dreamspinner Press, December 2010
Pages: 280

Middle-age is a time of change for Cord Bridger, a talented NYC musician who begun to give up on things ... his dreams to become a famous concert pianist, his secure but unfulfilling dead-end job at a piano factory, and a relationship that has made him feel more lonely and unloved by the day. He finds himself returning to his boyhood home in a small remote Nevada town - which held bad memories he never wanted to revisit - due to the death of his grandmother, who had raised him after the death of his mother and abandonment of his father. After the funeral, he learns his grandmother was survived by her lesbian lover, Juanita, and that he apparently has a teenage son, Kalin. The boy's mother (his former girlfriend) quickly leaves Kalin and her younger son Jem with Cord and Juanita, to take care of "some business" with her ex-husband in California. That business becomes Cord's business, as he struggles to win over his disapproving son, deal with potential new love, and keep everyone safe from a threat he may have underestimated.

I've made no secret of the fact that Alan Chin is one of my very favorite authors, and he continues to amaze me with the variety of complex, diverse, character-driven outstanding fiction he manages to write. Though I thought he went a bit "over the top" with this one in parts, it is definitely an exciting, emotional page-turner of a story, and nobody could have done it better. Five stars out of five, in a clear Nevada sky.


The Geography of Murder by P. A . Brown

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by MLR Press
Pages: 273

Jason Aaron Zachary knew it was bound to be a bad day when he woke up next to a corpse who’d hours before had had his head bashed in. But things quickly grew worse as he was yanked to his feet and cuffed by a Santa Barbara Police detective named Alex Spider. A few hours later he was booked for murder one and sent to the county lockup to await arraignment.

Detective Alexander Spider, an openly gay police officer, had an immediate gut level attraction to Jason, but the kid was the kind of punk going down the toilet fast. Jason looked like he was into drugs, hustling , and about to be slapped with an open-and-shut case of murder one. But something didn’t smell right about the case. It seemed too easy, like someone had set the kid up to take a fall.

When things looked darkest, Jason couldn’t believe it when Spider paid him a visit in the county lockup, telling him there was new evidence that proved Jason’s innocence. Hours later, Jason found himself free from jail and riding home with this macho detective stud. Once at home, what Jason thought might lead to some hot sex did, but things got rough, and rougher, and rougher still, until it became clear that Spider intended to beat him into submission, and then own him, body and soul. Jason had leaped from one prison to another. But this new prison had its advantages…

This is not the first P.A. Brown novel I’ve read. So when I picked up this book, I expected a well-plotted murder mystery with the focus on sniffing out clues to solve a difficult murder or two. What I quickly realized was, although there is a murder case for Spider to solve, the guts of this story is a BDMS romance between Spider and Jason – one that takes them from being enemies on opposite sides of the law to painfully exploring the boundaries of a rather kinky relationship.

This story is unusual in that it is told in first person from two different protagonists. Each new chapter switches the narrator, first Jason then Spider, and so on. This POV swapping was slightly jarring at first, but it permitted the author to dive deeply into both characters’ persona, and allowed the reader to know them both intimately. My only issue about this POV switching was that both voices were similar. I felt that the author could have put more effort into making each voice more distinct.

This tale reads fast, and has the author’s usual spot-on attention to detail. The prose is raw, giving insight into the characters behind the words. Yet all too often the author used a word that was so inapt that I was jerked out of the story to ponder the choice of words. One example would be, “He jumped in the car. Cranked it on.” I couldn’t help wonder, how do you crank on a car that was built after 1915? But of course, that is only one of many examples.

The main issue I had with this story was purely a personal one. I didn’t like one of the main characters. I found Spider to be quite the hypocrite. One minute he was on a soapbox making speeches about pedophiles who can’t control their urges, and the next minute he had Jason chained to a wall and whipping him before having unprotected sex. It is difficult to be excited by a romance when you detest one of the players. But like I say, that was purely a personal issue. Most readers will not share my prejudices.

These two characters are drawn together, then struggle to overcome several obstacles. The author skillfully pulled me into their drama, and although there were relatively few sex scenes, they were hot. At times the sex went over the top for my old fashioned sensibilities, but never enough to keep me from flipping to the next page to see what happened next.

P.A. Brown is an exceptionally talented writer, and although I do not consider this story to be on the same level as her other novels, it is a well written, absorbing, and entertaining romance that I can recommend.


Tainted Blood by Sam C. Leonhard

Reviewed by Romance Junkies Reviewer: Christina
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Release Date: May 2010

Blue Ribbon Rating: 5

Gabriel Jordan has lived on the streets most of his life. His only source of income is the occasional jobs taking photographs for a private detective. Gabriel only gets offered the worse jobs that no one else wants and he gets paid practically nothing. As a result, he is barely surviving but he has no other choice. One night Gabriel is standing out in the freezing cold waiting to catch a cheating spouse in the act when he sees something far more interesting instead. Gabriel sees a man jump out a window but instead of falling he floats harmlessly to the ground.

Dr. Aleksei Tennant is shocked but intrigued when he is seen by a young man as he jumps out of an apartment window. Gabriel should not be able to see him. When Gabriel proves resistant to his magic, Aleksei is intrigued enough to invite him home. Gabriel has peaked his curiosity and he is determined to find out why his magic doesn’t work on the other man the way it should.

Gabriel goes home with Tennant despite his misgivings about him. Tennant begins teaching him about the magical world. Tennant is an expert at opening portals that connect many hidden worlds to this one. As they spend time together a friendship begins to form between them. When Aleksei reveals that he is investigating a series of murders Gabriel is determined to help, even though he risks revealing how important Aleksei has become to him.

TAINTED BLOOD by Sam C. Leonhard is a novel that reminded me why I love reading. I was hooked from the first page and I could not put this book down. The world building is creative and richly detailed. I was enchanted by the idea of hidden worlds that exist along side this one, worlds where many different kinds of supernatural creatures live. Humans know about these worlds but they are terrified. Anyone suspected of having the blood of a paranormal creature is persecuted. This world sparked my imagination and felt very believable to me.

Gabriel is an admirable and captivating character. He’s had a hard and lonely life living on the streets. As a young child he was often ignored by his foster parents. He has no idea what its like to be loved or cared for. When he meets Tennant he is understandably wary but as he gets to know the other man he finally learns what its like to have a friend. Aleksei is a unique and extremely intriguing character. He is intense and mysterious. For much of the novel I wasn’t completely sure he could be trusted. Although, it is obvious he cares for Gabriel he also has his own agenda. There is something different about Gabriel and he is determined to discover what it is. Their relationship is somewhat unconventional but very touching.

TAINTED BLOOD also contains an absorbing mystery. Someone is brutally killing people with a mixed heritage. The mystery investigation is well plotted out and held my interest. The murders are chilling. The mystery is interwoven with Gabriel and Tennant’s story in a very realistic and exciting way. The ending of the story leaves room for a sequel. There is still more to discover about Gabriel. I hope I will have the opportunity to visit these characters and their world again.


Monday, December 27, 2010

A Man of Principle by Victor J. Banis

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Amber Quill Press
Pages: 17

After a night at the opera, an elderly man decides to have a nightcap at a favorite watering hole to prolong the inevitable of going home to an empty apartment. But while enjoying the comforts of a twelve-year-old, single-malt scotch, he meets Neal MacIntyre, and they form a fragile bond.

Neal is nursing his well scotch, trying to make it last until closing time. He doesn’t have the money for another drink and he has no place to spend the night. Out of pure kindness and a desire for conversation, the elderly man offers him both – first a drink, then a couch to sleep on for the night. Neal happily accepts. But once the two are at the man’s apartment, Neal begins to tell what events brought him to that apartment. He tells a gripping tale of love and friendship, gain and loss, treachery and murder.

I’ve mentioned before that Victor J. Banis is one of my favorite authors, both for the vivid characters he creates and for his flawless prose, and in A Man of Principle, he does not disappoint. From the first paragraph I was drawn to this nameless elderly man, and could feel his loneliness and need. With a few well-chosen brushstrokes, the author paints a complete and compelling portrait of a man with not much to look forward to – someone who is waiting for something, and who perhaps spends his time savoring his past like his single malt.

With equal skill, he creates a younger man who is running from his past, a past that he can’t really run from. As the story unfolds, these two personalities bond in a unique way that is both touching and sad.

This story made me do something I seldom do: after reading the last word, I flipped back to the beginning and read it again – not for more clarity, but for the pleasure of a simple yarn told with skill and passion. Banis’s gift at crafting short stories is humbling. Take away one word and there is loss, take away any sentence and the beauty is diminished. This is not a story he whipped together in a day or two. It takes talent and patience to produce this kind of quality. This is a story I can highly recommend.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Boy Behind the Gate by Larry Jacobson

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Buoy Press
Pages: 414

As a seven-year-old boy, Larry Jacobson often stood outside the gates of the marina near his home in Oakland, California, staring at the sleek sailing yachts nestled in their births, and dreamed of sailing the seven seas. His fantasy, even at that young age, was to circumnavigate the world. That aspiration remained dormant, wrapped in a cocoon for over forty years, waiting, waiting, but always pressing on his heart. The Boy Behind the Gate is the nonfiction account of the author fulfilling his life-long dream.

This is not simply a sailing story of shimmering white-sand beaches, tropical lagoons, and exotic ports of call. It is the hard and gritty sea tale of overcoming fears and insecurities, of dealing with the harsh and glorious displays of nature, of facing loneliness. This is a story of a gay man who risked everything for uncertainty and adventure, and in the process, reinvented himself. It is an account of personal strength and perseverance. Oh, and did I mention love? Yes, this is also a gay love story, not only of Jacobson’s love for the sea, but also his falling in love with Ken, his first mate.

On December 7th, 2001, Larry Jacobson walked away from a successful career and a long-time lover. He, his first mate, Ken, and a skeleton crew boarded a fifty-foot sailing yacht, Julia, stowed their provisions, made last minute preparations, waved good bye to friends and family, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, and pointed the bow south. They would not see that beautiful orange span again for another six years.

Jacobson had never captained an ocean going vessel before leaving the safety of the west coast of Mexico to cross the Pacific. He was not prepared for what lay ahead, but the unrelenting ocean served as teacher and guide, humbling his ego one minute, inspiring him the next.

Most of the entries of this book are presented as entries from the author’s personal journal and also emails written during the voyage. Don’t expect beautiful prose or lofty accounts of exotic cultures. These are gritty entries of a sailor and adventurer. The author’s mood comes through with each entry. The reader definitely gets his frustrations, fear, loneliness, his surprises and joys.

As a fellow world traveler (although I cross oceans from thirty thousand feet) I found this account fascinating. Jacobson describes many places I have visited, and his descriptions and insights are spot on. He managed to take me back to those destinations and let me relive my experiences there, from lagoons on Bora Bora, to the beauty of New Zealand, to diving the Great Barrier Reef, to the temples of Egypt, and the bustle of Istanbul. I thoroughly enjoyed his accounts of places I’ve been and others I hope for visit.

I only had one issue with this book. While Island hopping across the Pacific, the author seems to fall into a monotonous pattern of describing a fantastic island paradise, then a mechanical breakdown that impends the trip, then a horrendous storm that threatens their lives, then starts the pattern again with a tropical paradise. Not that it’s dull, but he does this multiple times, and, for me, it got too repetitious. And speaking of mechanical breakdowns. In the six-year voyage, everything that could possibly break did. I felt the author dwelled too much on his frustration of these incidents, and felt he could have cut half of them out and still made the point of how frustrating a journey like this can be.

The following is from a poem by the author taken from the book:
I have stood at the edge
Of the oceans.
I have stared in awe
At the power before me,
That pulled and tugged,
Until there was only the sea.
I left my life behind
To become a wanderer.
To explore, to live on the edge,
To search for something.
For that one thing that could satisfy
The urge that comes over me,
To keep moving, to wonder, to see.
I have circled the globe,
Sailed the seas,
Stared into death’s eye.

This tale is more than one man’s account of finding himself. This is a roadmap to finding one’s dream that anyone can follow, no matter what your particular desire is. It will also motivate readers to follow their own dreams at all costs. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever imagined doing something great, something others fear, something that presses on their heart.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: A Taste of Love by Andrew Grey

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 187

Darrel is living the dream life. He had always wanted to own his own restaurant, and that’s what he’s done. He is the main chef and owner of Café Belgie. He has his dream job, good income, stylish home. What could be better? Someone to share it with. Then Billy walks into his café asking for a job.

But of course, things are never that easy in love. Billy is penniless, a decade younger than Darrel, and he is the caretaker of his two younger brothers – five-year-old twins. But then, he’s also gorgeous and charming. This is a romance, so those obstacles to love don’t outweigh the positives, and Darrel jumps in with both feet. But as the story wears on, complications arise, and our hero must fight to hold his family together.

This is a simple, romantic, fast-paced story. It’s what I call a beach read – one where neither the characters nor the plot are too deep, so one can easily follow along without the need to concentrate. It is often funny, often heartwarming, and ends on an up-note. The characters are charming and at times overly sweet.

I came away with two trifling complaints. First, I felt the story, pretty much throughout, was in need of a stringent editor with a red pen to tighten the prose. Second, there are a number of sex scenes that I felt were overly long and uninteresting. I should point out that I seldom appreciate sex scenes cluttering up the pacing of a good story, so this is possibly a reflection of my own prejudice.

The last thing I’ll mention is not really a complaint, but I was slightly disappointed that there were no descriptions of Darrel cooking up fantastic dishes. I had falsely assumed going into this story that much of it would take place in a kitchen, and there would be mouthwatering narratives of preparing exotic foods. There were certainly opportunities to add something of that nature to spice up the story, yet there was almost nothing of the sort.

My slight criticisms did not detract from my enjoyment of this read. It is, in the end, an engaging romance that leads the reader through an array of emotions, and leaves them feeling good. I can recommend this story.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Woman I Was Born to Be by Aleshia Brevard

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Blue Feather Books

I have long believed that of all the peoples gathered under the GLBT umbrella, the Ts—the transsexuals—are the one who garner the least respect. Life in today’s world is certainly not a paradise for the gay male, but in many ways he does have it better than the lesbian. Although I have known a number of bisexuals, I’ve never thought that they had it so bad, although it must surely be painful to know that one does not quite fit in either the gay or the straight world, and is likely to be viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, in both.

But, the poor trannies—and I am going to eschew political correctedness here and admit right up front that I am almost certainly not using the correct terminology because, frankly, I don’t know it. So, when I refer to trannies, I mean them all – the drag queens, the sex changes, the cross dressers. I know they see themselves as separate from one another, but one thing they all share—except among their own, they are too often likely to be scorned by all the others of our supposed community. And even among their own, as this book makes clear, they are not always free from attack.

The Woman I Was Born to Be is Aleshia Brevard’s second memoir, following The Woman I was Not Born to Be. I have not read the first book, but in the second she provides a sort of road map of the events covered in the first. In any case, there is little cause for confusion.

Aleshia Brevard was born Alfred Brevard Crenshaw in 1937. Christine Jorgensen’s sex change (as it was generally called then) in 1952 was headline news throughout much of the world. Alfred Brevard Crenshaw had his own gender reassignment surgery in 1962, after stints as a kept boy for a Catholic priest and a female impersonator at the famed Finnochio’s in San Francisco. What followed was a life of some surprising successes—as a Playboy bunny, a Vegas chorine, and a sometimes actress in movies, television and on stage.

The book is slight, in every sense of the word. There isn’t much depth here. It’s mostly of the, “and then I did…” and “then I went…” variety. The Aleshis comes across too often as somewhat self absorbed and at times downright silly, like a caricature of an Auntie Mame type, herself a caricature. On the other hand, she also shows herself repeatedly to be generous and kind, to her peers, her students, even her enemies. And more than once she displays an admirable resilience, even courage, in standing up to adversity. Which is to say, she has her faults, like all of us, but plenty of redeeming qualities. By the time I had finished this book, I felt that I knew her pretty well, and liked her.

The chief interest here, however, is not in reading about the ups and downs of Aleshia’s volatile career or her several marriages, but in watching a self-admitted sissy survive a hazardous childhood and an adulthood punctuated, not surprisingly, with a great deal of bias. This is especially refreshing in the current epidemic of childhood suicides as the result of bullying. Alfred, and later Aleshia, suffers no end of bullying—not only from schoolmates but domestic partners, even from an emotionally hobbled father—but she finds her own kind of triumph and eventually comes to terms with the woman she is. And though she fusses a great deal about aging, if the picture on the back cover is to be believed, the beautiful young starlet turned out to be a handsome septuagenarean.

In short, this is a sort of print version of the “It Gets Better” videos currently going viral. This publisher bills itself as “books by women, for women,” but if I could have my wish, I would personally hand a copy of this to every young person suffering today at the hands of bullies, so they could read this story of how one individual’s life did indeed get better. In the best of all worlds, every one of those unhappy youngsters would benefit from reading Aleshia’s story.

That won’t happen, of course. It seems our society would rather protect them from the positive encouragement they would find here than from the negative discouragement that leads to those suicides we keep reading about with dismaying frequency.
Still, I give this woman a hearty high five and a tip of the cap. She deserves it just for getting through. Lots of others didn’t.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Butterfly’s Child by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Jeff Graubart, author of The Quest For Brian
Pubished by Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 274

Rating: Five Stars

From opera to horse opera, Alan Chin takes the reader on an exciting journey into the rough and tumble West in Butterfly’s Child. In the early chapters, Chin uses his literary skill to make us feel the Zen of piano tuning, much as he did with tennis, in the Match Maker. But, he has a more difficult time exploiting that talent for the Zen of barren life on a dilapidated ranch. Perhaps that is intentional, since there is an undercurrent of violence that runs through the novel like the Bitter Water River runs through the Nevada land.

Although Butterfly’s Child seems to be a formulaic family values western, its greater-than-life heroes are gay men and lesbians. Chin shows us an extended family whose roots are as old as humanity and as new as same-sex marriage. At the same time, he weaves a tale of three fathers and three sons. We are treated to the thoughts of Jem, a seven-year-old boy, as he begins to understand his own sexuality. The close bond between Jem and the hero, Cord, is reflected by the two of them sharing in the telling of the story.

My only criticism of the novel is its excessive machismo. I wanted to strangle Cord when he failed to bring in the sympathetic sheriff for the climactic showdown. But that too, is probably intentional. A gay super hero whose reason is clouded by love for his family is a powerful political statement.

Butterfly’s Child is a pleasure to read. You can read it for pure entertainment or something deeper. Even the title is both an obvious metaphor and several more subtle ones. Alan Chin continues to establish himself as a writer of intelligent and entertaining novels.


Match Maker by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Jeff Graubart, author of The Quest For Brian
Pubished by Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 374

Rating: Five Stars

When Alan Chin describes the Zen of tennis, and shows us his players in action, he is at his best. The nail-biting games, crowned in spiritual wisdom, will keep the reader, even those like me who know little of tennis, on the edge of their seats. Tennis fans will gobble it up.
Chin’s attention to the details of coaching suggests this is a work of autobiographical fiction instead of intensive research. Surprisingly, his biography suggests the latter.

Match Maker is sexy, funny, and exciting. It is about homophobia in the sport’s world and gay pride. It is a love story, but mostly it is about hope, direction and the resiliency of the human spirit. Hollywood never produced Patricia Nell Warren’s Front Runner, but they have a second chance, and a much better one at that, with Alan Chin’s Match Maker. But don’t wait for the movie.


The International Homosexual Conspiracy by Larry-Bob Roberts

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Manic D Press
Pages: 158

The International Homosexual Conspiracy is non-fiction. The author presents a series of cultural polemics on an array of contemporary topics that pokes fun of the gay lifestyle and the absurd homophobic idea that gay’s recruit young people into our community – from gay community, to writing, to popular culture, and mostly on homosexuality in general.

In this collection of short essays, Larry-Bob Roberts offers funny, thought-provoking insights into the absurdities of modern queer culture. The writing is tight and fast paced.

For me, this book was akin to reading someone’s blog entries over the last year. Some topics are purely fun to read, others witty, some made me consider my own behavior. There was nothing earth shattering in these pages, nothing that changed my opinions or behavior concerning life, gay or otherwise.

I found these bite-sized discourses, like I find many blog entries of favorite writers, interesting and engaging. Fans of satire will enjoy this book, and will no doubt fined ample opportunities to laugh, at themselves and everyone else. I can wholeheartedly recommend this book.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Strings Attached by Nick Nolan

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Amazon Encore
Pages: 327

When his mother is sent to rehab for alcohol addiction, closeted teenager Jeremy Tyler is sent to live with his dead father’s relatives. In a matter of a few days, he goes from poverty in Bakersfield to the posh world of Ballena Beach. While struggling to fit in, Jeremy joins the high school swim team, dates a popular girl, and begins to think he’s landed in paradise – until is great aunt Katharine begins to make demands, playing him like a puppet. Then a mysterious phone caller insinuates that his father’s accidental death was no accident.

As Jeremy grows accustomed to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, so grows his curiosity about his father’s death. What he doesn’t realize is that the closer he comes to the truth, the deeper in danger he falls. He must race to unravel the clues before he meets his father’s gruesome fate.

This is an enchanting story. It moves well even though I felt the author went into much more detail than the story needed. It weaves a murder mystery, sexual ambiguity, and characters with hidden identities and agendas into an entertaining tale.

I feel that the closer the reader is to the late-teen/early-twenty target audience, the more enjoyment they will find in these pages. Not simply because this is a coming-of-age tale, but also because that age group won’t mind the thin characterization of the cliché characters. However, there are a few sexual scenes that take it out of the realm of the typical YA novel, which I felt was a mistake on the author’s part. Better to have toned down those scenes for a younger audience, in my opinion, because neither the writing nor the plot is strong enough for a more sophisticated audience.

What made this story for me was the character of Jeremy. Thin, yes. Cliché, yes again. But his youthful confusion, mistakes, yearning and wise cracks are charming and delightful, and carry the read through any shortfalls of the storyline.

I don’t feel that the author’s attempt to emulate the Pinocchio theme is well integrated, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. This is a gay boy’s coming of age yarn, with a somewhat darker tones that I’m used to seeing, but even with these opaque shades, the author keeps the tone light and moving, which makes for an enjoyable read.


Friday, November 19, 2010

The Outhouse Gang By Neil Plakcy

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Untreed Reads, 2010
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Have you ever seen a friend after a separation and not quite recognized him at first glance? That’s what happened to me with Neil Plakcy’s new novel, The Outhouse Gang. In the past, the author’s works, mostly mysteries and some erotica, have been pretty high-test and this one is decidedly low octane.

I like to see an author taking a chance, which is the case here. Artistic courage separates the real writer from the hack. As I’ve said often, only the mediocre artist is always at his best. He reaches a certain plateau and never goes beyond it—often, in fact, never knows there is a “beyond.” But the true artist is never content, is always reaching, striving, trying to get it right, and righter still. Plakcy here has stepped away from his writing “comfort zone,” and that in itself is to be applauded. Did he get it right? Well, yes…mostly.

The story is set in the small Pennsylvania town of Stewart’s Crossing starting in 1963. To give their lives a little punch, a group of men steal an outhouse on the night before Halloween and leave it in front of the town hall. This becomes an annual event and the locals, not knowing who they are, dub them The Outhouse Gang.

From this somewhat slender thread the author hangs a series of vignettes, alternating from the viewpoints of the various men in the group, and covering the years up to 1988. This was a tumultuous time—the Vietnam war, the cultural revolution, hippies, drugs, the increasing independence of younger generations—and it’s interesting to see it as a backdrop (and a contrast) to the small town lives of the characters. This is a big canvas to cover, however, and the cast of characters is large, so much of the story is sketched in where sometimes I would like to have seen it painted large.

There’s some very lovely writing here, as one would expect from this author. Here, for instance, and very early on (giving you a good sense of what is to come) he tells you much about the marriage of the hardware store owner by saying little: “During the day he wore a canvas apron over his plaid shirt and jeans. Stray nails, twist-ties, plastic bags, washers and odd pieces of paper always ended up in the pockets of his apron. He’d take it off at the end of the day, puzzled by how much he had accumulated. It was like that with his marriage, too.”

It’s a joy to see this talented writer stretch his wings, but not entirely an unmitigated joy. A couple of bad habits that pop up here and either weren’t there in his writing in the past, or were so minor as to go unnoticed. For one, he has gotten into telescoping plot developments. We see almost all the punches coming before he lands them. There are very few surprises here.

For another, he tends now and again to talk down to the reader. “‘Remember that prank we pulled last year?’” one of the characters asks another. “Sandy laughed. ‘We stole an outhouse in the middle of the night and left it at the town hall,’ he said. ‘How could I forget?’” In reality, neither the other character nor the reader needed to be reminded of so much information. People talk more in shorthand when discussing something they both already know. Or, he could have edged the remarks with sarcasm simply by adding, at the end, “that.”

Still, the shortcomings are few and minor and most readers will enjoy the book. How well they enjoy it depends upon what one is looking for in a read. If you’re seeking heart-stopping excitement, this isn’t the place to look, and if you want to test wits with the author, you’ll probably have more fun with one of Mister Plakcy’s first rate mystery stories. Much of what I’ve read from this author in the past is challenging, the kind of fiction that charges boldly forward, where this novel tends to meander—like taking a stroll in a small town. Still, it’s a pleasant stroll on which he leads us and familiar to anyone who has lived in a town like this, or anyone who lived through the years covered. It succeeds, and admirably, on charm and a certain nostalgic grace, and those are virtues I think over neglected in today’s fiction-world. And I, for one, am glad to see a different side of the author.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Rest is Illusion by Eric Arvin

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Young Offenders Media
Pages: 186

At a small college in the Midwest, a cast of characters are unwittingly moving towards a night of magic, a night where the stars align, and destinies are changed. On this night, Dashhel Yarnsbrook – a beautiful, yet, troubled gay student – prepares for death. While Dash struggles to find meaning in his life before death takes him, his three friends and one enemy struggle with their own impediments to attaining adulthood. As the story unfolds, each character must travel their own path, and face their own truth. And for some, a touch of Divine guidance helps them along their path.

I was a bit confused by this story. The simplistic plot and somewhat cliché young characters convinced me that this is a YA novel, yet the vocabulary is geared to a much more sophisticated reader. Still, flowery vocabulary aside, this is a wonderful coming of age tale, full of magic and characters stumbling towards adulthood.

The characters, although lacking depth, are likable and I couldn’t help but cheer them on. There are many touching moments, both sad and happy. I felt the blending of magic into the story worked well. It was not overdone like I’ve seen in other novels.

My one issue with this novel is that I felt it was over written. As mentioned above, the flower prose often went overboard, and when it did it pulled me out of the story and made me notice the writing, instead of being absorbed in the story. For instance, the author wrote: “She sensed what was to come before it happened, and in that second, lying outside of perceived time and place, Sarah let out a great sweeping cry of sadness and regret. It flew past all the known realms of sound, and parted the clouds in the sky.” It’s beautiful writing, yet I often found it over the top.

This is a powerful coming of age story for young adults, one I’m sure that many will be able to identify with, and perhaps help them discover that spark of magic within themselves that will help them down their own path. It is a very unique story line that is both entertaining and inspirational. This is a novel I can highly recommend.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Nerdvana, An anthology edited by Fred Towers

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Star Books

4 ½ out of 5 stars

As a general rule, I don’t pick up books of hardcore erotica. That is not a judgmental thing—a few decades ago, I might have approached them with considerably more enthusiasm, but I am an old and well traveled bridge (in the words of a song from WWI, “tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching…”) beneath which a lot of water has passed and today those bodily parts and their various functions hold few erotic surprises for me.

On the other hand, the premise of this one—that the biggest sex organ is the brain—corresponds very closely to my own thinking. I have always found intelligence sexy. What’s more, looking at the list of contributors, I immediately spotted one of my favorite authors, Bryl Tyne, so I knew at worst I could count on at least one genuinely satisfying read.

My expectation was unduly pessimistic, however. What I found was a collection of stories in which, with the majority of them in any event, you could take out or water down the sex and still have some pretty good (if a bit lean) reading. And it is kind of sexy to see writers celebrating the nerds and the geeks, at least to my way of thinking. Hey, you may even recognize yourself. I did. I suspect a great many gay men were nerds as well—more, anyway, than were the hunks and the jocks, however fully they dominate the fictional scene. And to be honest, a slight young thing in spectacles and a ready blush has always been far more of a turn on for me than a football hero.
I’m not going to attempt to review each of the fifteen stories individually, but I would hate not to mention:
Exposed, by Bryl Tyne – yes, just as I expected from this writer, a well rounded and intriguing story, though I confess I’m not very up on computer games. Still, it seemed convincing to me, which is what a good author does, and Bryl does particularly well.

Gan Haatzmaut Yerushalayim by David Muller – I don’t think I’ve ever run across a gay story set in Jerusalem, so I had to give this one marks for that, at least. But it is quite creative apart from that, and the settings felt authentic. It reminded me very much, in fact, of some stories I’ve heard from a friend who has been there. His tales made me wish I could go, and so does this one. If it weren’t for all that tramp, tramp, tramping over the bridge.

A Night in Midgar by Augusta Li – more video games (you see, I really am a dinosaur) but in this instances two con attendees assume the roles of the warring characters, with steamy results. Sort of like if Batman and Robin went at it. Hmm, did they, or was that only in my dreams? If you had the same kinds of dreams, you’ll appreciate this one.

Hardboiled by Landon Dixon – another genuinely creative piece of erotica as the author takes the author in and out of various fantasies – sort of Walter Mitty on a double dose of Viagra. Stylistically very nice, and it does have a hard boiled voice to match the title.

The Bully on the Playground by Helen E.H. Madden – this seems at the start to be somewhat run of the mill, maybe in part because it’s the last story in the book and by then we’ve already come upon (oh, those puns do get away from me) a number of bullies, but the author has surprises in store, and the story goes off on a much darker track. The endings to erotic stories are generally pretty predictable, but this one is not.

That I singled out these few examples is not to suggest that the others in the collection are sub-par; they are not. There’s no pretense of high literature here, whatever that is (someone recently asked me to define “literary story” and the best I could come up with was “tiresome”) but these stories are vastly better than the old Tijuana Bibles that I knew in my salad days. The anthology as a whole is far meatier (another pun!) than your average collection of whack-off stories. Exactly how one will respond to this kind of thing really depends on what a reader is looking for in a book, but if that is plenty of sexy action with a genuine nod to story values and good writing, he will almost certainly be happy with this collection.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Big Diehl, The Road Home by George Seaton

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Publisher: MLR Press
Pages: 407

After six years of service to his country, during which he saw combat duty in Iraq, Big Diehl has received his discharge from the Army and is headed back to Wyoming. His only goal is to confront his father for the repeated molestations he suffered as a boy. But before he can even things with his old man, Diehl finds himself in the center of a homicide investigation and on the run from the law. When it looks like his “adopted” family in Casper can’t help him, he is comforted by a stray dog, who turns into a true friend. Can Diehl resolve his issues and pick up life where he left off six years earlier? Possibly, but that road home is a long one, with plenty of blind curves.

I happen to think that George Seaton is a very talented writer. I thoroughly enjoyed his first novel, Big Diehl. And although I liked this sequel, The Road Home, I had a number of issues with it, so I’ll get them out of the way up front.

The thing I was most surprised with, was the extensive back story. I expect a sequel to give some back story to set the scene and remind me of a few plot points of the previous work, but this back story droned on for over a hundred pages, recounting everything that happened in book one. Since I had read book one, I found the recap boring and unnecessary. Even for someone who had not read book one, this back story was, in my opinion, not needed, because the author gives plenty of back ground while he tells the current story.

This author has a wonderful and unique voice. His slow, country-twang voice alone puts the reader in the Wyoming territory. But I found myself getting annoyed at phrases that kept popping up over and over and over. I lost count of the times he mentioned “six years” and “tin house” Those and others felt like a mantra popping up every other page. At one point during a bar scene, the author used the term “tipped his drink to his lips” four times on four consecutive pages. These repeats pulled me out of the story each time I tripped over them. That, along with other minor issues with the text, made me think that the prose was not as polished as the original Big Diehl.

The last negative I’ll mention is that this story centers around a homicide, which brought a great deal of tension and suspense to the story, and was good. It really peaked my interest. Yet, I felt that the resolution to the crime came too early in the story and was too easily resolved. It left me slightly disappointed.

That all said, I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to all readers. As I’ve stated above, Seaton’s voice is a joy to read, and the story and characters kept me turning pages well into the night. This is a story about love, and family, and even the bond between humans and animals. There are so many touching scenes that are handled with consummate skill. The characters pull the reader into their issues, their hopes and desires, to the point where the reader is not sure how s/he wants the story to end. This is a worthwhile read for people who place integrity and family above everything else, but by all means, feel free to skip the first hundred pages.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pelota By Sarah Black

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Changeling Press
ISBN 978-1-59596-839-5

4 ½ stars out of 5
Sarah Black is one of my favorite writers, and like much of her writing, this one is about two young men from different cultures—in this case, Inuit and Basque. Oliver, though he is not Basque, is obsessed with all things Basque. Jack, Japanese American, is equally obsessed with all things Inuit, and neither of them quite fit into the societies in which they find themselves.
When the wreck of a Basque whaling ship is discovered in the arctic tundra, the two young men are separately sent to the isolated and now empty whaling camp of Red Bay in Labrador, to study, from their different points of expertise, the artifacts uncovered in the excavation.

They have the place to themselves and, at first, each convinced that his specialty is the more important, they quarrel over the primacy of Basque and Inuit culture. Did the Inuit game of handball come first, for example, or the Basque version, pelota? They challenge one another to a game, but in no time at all they have discovered a game they like even better, and an even more consuming passion, the pleasure to be found in one another’s bodies. With their growing love for one another comes a growing respect for the other’s point of view. Maybe Basque and Inuit do mix after all. Cultures aren’t meant to stand apart.

It is a sweet story, romantic and sometimes intense. The passions the two young men share seem to reflect the wildness of the setting in which they find themselves. The plot is minimal, but the characters likable and interesting. There’s a tendency to offer more information than a reader might want on the two disparate cultures, and here or there it felt to me like the author was in a hurry, but neither of these criticisms diminishes the pleasure of a good story, well told by an author who knows what she is about.

A fine way to while away an hour or so, and highly recommended.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Short Story Review: Tell Them Katy Did by Victor J. Banis

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Untreed Reads Publishing
Pages: 9

A woman walks home in the early hours after sharing a few drinks at a lesbian bar. On her way, a sexy woman comes up and tells her there are five hoods following. They run and hide in a graveyard, narrowly escaping their pursuers. The woman who saved our heroine turns out to be Katy, but she disappears as quickly as she came out of nowhere. When our heroine visits another lesbian bar, trying to track down this mysterious savior, she finds an unbelievable story behind the woman.

This is a simple story, one that has been told in several different forms. The thing that makes this story immensely enjoyable is the quality of the writing. The author pulls you into the story by the third sentence, and keeps you there until the last word. A mere nine pages, but each page is packed with vivid descriptions and meaning. Every word counts. Remove one word, and the sentence is diminished. Take out one sentence, and the story’s structure falls apart. This is sparse writing at its best. With the fewest words possible, the author takes you on a most enjoyable ride.

I’ve said it before, Victor Banis is a master of short fiction. I can highly recommend this wonderfully-told yarn.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wandering the Rainbow by David Jedeikin

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Holistic Ideas Press
Pages: 304

After striking out in a “committed” relationship, a friendship, and a not so exciting system’s engineering job, David Jedeidin decides to put a little distance between him and his problems. He embarks on a seven-month solo trek around the world. What unfolds is an array of sites and experiences that spans six continents. Traveling as a flashpacker – backpacking with creature comforts – Jedeikin writes about tourist sites, back-alley hangouts, and hooking up in gay nightclubs.

From Big Ben in London, to Table Top in Cape Town, to the ruins at Machu Picchu, Jedeikin’s travels detail everything human in a dozen different cultures. In addition to describing the sites and delving into local hangouts, this travel log gives a very real glimpse of the sometimes lonely, sometimes mind-expanding journey that a lone traveler must face.

The first thing that struck me about this book is the high quality of the writing. The prose is light and breezy, and carries the reader along effortlessly. The superb writing is how this travel log managed to keep my interest all the way to the last page.

As an example of his writing, check out this description of Cairo: “I stare out at the monstrous city, a liquid expanse of lights stretching to the horizon, and ponder the paradox: on the one hand, the cafes, street life, and urban chemistry make it one of the most exciting places on Earth – in many respects, it could be London, Paris or New York with a cultural and climatic twist. And yet…it’s hobbled, a great beast weakened by time and circumstance. Economically the country has been stagnant for decades. It feels as if Cairo is just lying in wait for Egypt to rise again, so it may once more take its place as one of the great centers of the world.”

Jedeikin did a nice balance of describing the sites and blending in his personal experience of dealing with people in foreign cultures. But what I found almost totally missing was the inner journey. Being away from friends and family, dealing with foreign tongues, laws and customs is hard-ass, lonely work. A person goes through radical changes, or should to my way of thinking. But there were only a few places in the book where the author opened up and talked about this inner journey, and how that affected his outlook on the problems he left behind. I was left wondering if the journey didn’t really change him, or if he chose to not discuss those changes with the reader.

Likewise, the author didn’t spend a of lot print giving insights into the local people, their outlook or issues in the world. It was as if he were more concerned about what sites he was seeing rather than the people around him. When he did talk about other people, many of them were Western backpackers like himself, which I didn’t find particularly interesting.

Having twice traveled similar around-the-world journeys myself, one for six months and one for eight, there were few destinations that the author mentions that I have not spent time in – Russia and South America – so I was able to get a pretty clear view of how deeply he delves into the culture at each location. My opinion is that although this book covers an extremely wide range of destinations, it only goes a few inches deep in any one of them. Of course, for Jedeikin to have gone into depth at each spot, the book would have been well over a thousand pages. So perhaps he hit a nice balance to keep the reader entertained.

My enjoyment of Wander The Rainbow is based on a simple and ancient premise: That the experience of other travelers is our best map to a strange land. Jedeikin’s stories will delight you, warn you, make you laugh, perhaps even shock you. He describes a spectrum of adventures that will deepen your understanding of different cultures and enrich your sense of what it means to be human. This is a book I can highly recommend to anyone who dreams of distant lands.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Eye of Scota: Cinaed by Serena Yates

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 202

The one thing that keeps the priests in power and the planet’s population from slipping into moral decay are the magical Slanach Stones. But when it becomes apparent that the current horde of stones are losing their healing power, The High Priest of Dalriata sends a young priest, Cinaed MacAlpin, to a distant land to gather more stones.
Cinaed’s quest leads him to the mystical Eye of Scota, a portal through space that links with Stonehenge on Earth, and the supposed source of the Slanach Stones. But instead of finding more stones, Cinaed finds Tadeo Banderas, the captain of a space ship from earth. Tadeo has been marooned on this planet, and is near death from an animal attack. Cinaed uses his only healing stone to bring Tadeo back to health, and in so doing, falls in love.
Through the Eye of Scota, Cinaed discovers that there is no need for more stones, because any depleted Slanach Stone will regenerate its power when a healing priest and a warrior, who are soul mates, physically bond. Thus, the only thing that can save the planet is the one thing the Council of Priest forbids under penalty of death.
Cinaed’s quest, with Tadeo at his side, turns into a pursuit to convince his own government to allow, even encourage, homosexual bonding.

I confess I have little experience with either Sci-fi or fantasy, and this story has elements of both, so I don’t know how this tale compares with others in the same genre. It is a light, fun, fast paced, delightful read. It is well written and often touching.

I found the character’s situations and their mystical world rather creative and interesting. The sci-fi elements were well conceived, but I felt the author holding back. For instance, the Eye of Scota is a portal to Earth, and I kept expecting someone to use it to travel to Earth, but that portal was never used. Instead it became an all-knowing voice with plenty of attitude. Another example was Tadeo’s phaser gun, which would have come in handy in the second half of this tale, but was somehow forgotten about.

The main characters are certainly likable, but didn’t have the kind of depth I generally look for in fiction. That could be because the characters’ internal arcs didn’t develop as they worked their way through the external challenges.

The issues I mentioned above are trivial, and didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story. The one complaint I have is that the story felt a bit rushed. I saw numerous opportunities where the author could have expanded the story or gone into more depth, but chose not to. It seemed to me that situations were too quickly gotten into, but more importantly, too quickly resolved. I feel that this story could have easily been expanded into a much more satisfying read.

Still, that aside, there is much enjoyment to be had following these two lovers as they attempt to battle an established religion to bring about sexual freedom and equality, and save their world from decay. I walked away from this book hoping that the author has a sequel up her sleeve. I can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highly creative tales.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Match Maker by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Published by Dreamspinner Press, September 2010,
Pages: 328
$17.99 softcover

The revelation that they were a gay couple forced Daniel Bottega and Jared Stoderling off the professional tennis circuit four years earlier. In the interim, Daniel was marking time as the tennis pro at a quiet country club in San Francisco, while Jared pretty much crawled into a liquor bottle to drown his crushed dreams. When Daniel is approached to train Connor Lin, a promising young prodigy whose tennis game needs focus, he decides to gets Jared involved as well. Besides getting Jared off drinking, it reawakens both of their spirits of competition. Jared goes from just helping Connor workout to being his doubles partner, and both begin to move up the ranks on their singles tournaments.

When the press covering one of the midlevel tournaments gets tipped off about Daniel and Jared's relationship, it results in rumors that Connor is gay as well (He isn't), and the trio experience bias from homophobic judges as well as receiving threats of violence. Determined not to quit again, they continue to compete, supported by good friends and Connor's second generation Chinese-American family. As if the pressure of competition and the homophobia wasn't enough to deal with, all three suffer physical and emotional obstacles that threaten to shatter their dreams.

In a word ... Wow! After reading his previous two novels, I expect outstanding writing from Mr. Chin, but this raises the bar far above any expectations I had. The story will remind you a bit of the gay classic "The Front Runner" in its intensity and "we VS them" conflicts, but I believe the story and characters are even more realistic and relatable here. It's the rare novel you may want to read numerous times, and is a great gift for anyone facing adversity. Beautifully and skillfully done, I give it five match point stars out of five. Bravo!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Secret Historian by Justin Spring

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 478

Drawn from the diaries, journals, letters and sexual records of the novelist, poet, and university professor Samuel M. Steward, this biography is a reconstruction of one of the most bizarre lives in modern gay culture.

An introvert English professor by day, sexual renegade by night, Steward was an intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Thornton Wilder. He also claims to have had sexual relations with a number of famous, or soon-to-be-famous, men, including Rudolph Valentino and Rock Hudson.

For most of his adult life Steward kept a detailed file of each sexual contact, of which there were well over eight hundred, and included the most intimate details of each encounter. As he grew older, he was drawn more into picking up rough trade, and enjoyed BDMS relations with his partners, where he always played the submissive role. Steward hooked up with Alfred Kinsey, and his sex file was instrumental in Kinsey’s landmark sex research.

He finally fled the academic world to make his living as Phil Sparrow, a tattoo artist on Chicago’s notorious South State Street. There he was able to meet a steady stream of sailors and rough trade, and kept the back room jumping. Later in life, during the early 1960’s, Steward moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and through his Tattoo parlor in Oakland, became friends with many Hell’s Angels. Once in California, under the name of Phil Andros, he wrote a number of pro-gay pornographic novels and short stories.

Steward published three significant nonfiction books in his later years: Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos, a social history of American tattooing; Dear Sammy: Letter From Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, a memoir of their friendship; and Chapter from an Autobiography, a memoir of his life and times.

This book should have been titled “The Life and Times of an Underground Slut.” Through his twenties and thirties, he averaged a sexual contact every forty-eight hours, and he was convinced gay men had no business being in relationships. Keep in mind this was decades before Stonewall and gay liberation. Later in life, he enjoyed paying straight hustlers to force him into submission, and even had a one-page typed sheet explaining what treatment he expected of them.

Although I neither approve or normally enjoy reading about such behavior, it is a tribute to the author that I kept turning to the next page to find out more. This is an extremely well written biography. Sometimes funny, often times shocking, always vivid. I couldn’t put it down. Justin Spring is a huge talent, and even makes the most mundane topics seem interesting.

More interesting than Steward’s personal life, was the times that he lived, where being caught with another man could land you in prison, and many a man fell prey to blackmail. It was times when all gay men were driven deep underground, and even the mere suspicion of being gay would lose you your career. The author presents a fly-on-the-wall account of American homosexual subculture and persecution. It does make one appreciate how far we’ve come in fifty years.

This book is a journey, a long one, but well worth the time and effort. I can highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about gay life prior to Stonewall, or simply read the remarkable tale of a man who threw caution to the wind and lived the life he craved.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Lonely War By Alan Chin

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Pubished by Zumaya Boundless
Rating 5 stars

One of my favorite authors, Alan Chin invariably manages to combine an intriguing story with the kind of lush romanticism that seizes the reader and keeps him spellbound. I found his first novel, Island Song enchanting, and with The Lonely War, he has clearly matured as a writer.

A couple of problems got in the way of my full enjoyment of this novel, however, and I might as well get them off my chest. First, the author desperately needs another pair of eyes to look out for mistakes. I don’t mean the sort of typos that have become epidemic in today’s publishing and which I have despaired of ever seeing eliminated, but lapses rather more serious. Here, as one example, is a description from page 6: “he inhaled sharply, catching a whiff of Mitchell’s scent; beneath the pleasant odor of talcum powder he discerned the aroma of sweat moistened skin.” Three pages later, on the whaleboat carrying them to their ship, Andrew notices, “the faint scent of talcum powder mixed with sweat-moistened skin.” It is not simply that this jars, though it does. It is the kind of lapse the big-time critics love to pounce upon. Kirkus once speared me for repeating a description a couple of hundred pages later. They’d be all over this.

And since I’m carping, I will add that I felt some of the scenes in the Japanese prisoner of war camp strained my credibility. I’m not saying that they might not have happened as described, I have no real knowledge of life in Japanese war camps –for all I know, the author may be describing events that in fact happened in real life—which, alas, is irrelevant. In fiction, the litmus test is not, is something real, but does the author make it seem real for the reader. The Japanese camp, Changi, was reputed to be a hell-hole, but it comes across here sounding pretty cushy compared to my brother’s experiences as a prisoner of war in a German camp. I never get that sense of horror here that my brother’s tales and those of his fellow prisoners engendered, though in all fairness, horrific is not this author’s forte.

So, I waffled a bit over rating this book, because the flaws do diminish its impact somewhat, but in the end, what is good about it is so extraordinarily good that it simply outweighed any shortcomings. The prose is masterful. The characters are well drawn and believable. The pacing is beautiful and the ending is absolutely note perfect. This author always writes something more than just a story – he touches upon the universal truths, without ever becoming preachy. There is enjoyment to be had here, but there is wisdom to be gleaned from the book as well. Only the best writers manage that without short changing one or the other.

The Lonely War is a lovely read, touching, sometimes painful, sometimes humorous, and at all times vivid. Alan Chin remains one of my favorite writers. I always look forward to his next work and he is one of those authors whose work I never hesitate to recommend to others, as I do this one.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Song on the Sand By Ruth Sims

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by Untreed
ReadsRating: 5 Stars

Tony Dalby is 86. Confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, he lives on memories of an almost career as an actor and dancer, and of his one brief brush with stardom as a stand-in for Zaza in La Cage aux Folles. Angry at the world, he makes life miserable for himself and the staff who look after him.

Tony befriends a handsome young man, Drew, who comes to the nursing home every day to visit his “cousin,” Jesse. “He looks awfully young to be here,” Tony says of Jesse. Drew responds, “He’s twenty-nine today, Mr. Dalby. And he can’t even celebrate.” Tony is horrified. “Boys of twenty-nine didn’t belong in a place like this, a depository for old people with nowhere else to go…”Jesse, blind, deaf and paralyzed as a result of an accident, was an actor too, in community theater. Tony begins to spend more time thinking about Jesse and less about himself, and finds his pent up anger gradually melting.

I can’t tell you much more without spoiling the plot for you. Suffice to say, Song on the Sand is sweet, even sentimental, the kind of story that a writer of lesser talent could make sappy and saccharine, but Ruth Sims is too fine an artist for cheap effects. She paints her canvas with a master’s brush, and it would take a colder heart than mine (which is infamously cold) to read this story without a tear in the eye.

I don’t mean to suggest this is a downer, however. It isn’t. It’s about love - not romantic love, but love of life – and about reaching out, of bridging that vast chasm that separates us from one another. It is written with genuine charm, which is not as easy as one might think, but it is written as well with insight and a gentle sympathy for the human condition. Tony and Jesse and their song on the sand will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve finished reading. Highly recommended, but have a hankie handy.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Counterpoint, Dylan’s Story by Ruth Sims

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 314

Near the end of the Nineteenth Century, Dylan Rutledge has two obsessions: composing music and Laurence Northcliff, his history master at the Bede School for Young Gentlemen. When all others turn against Dylan for the wild and unorthodox music he composes, Northcliff is the only one who encourages his dream. The two fall deeply in love, but it is a forbidden love in England, punishable by long prison terms at hard labor.

But Dylan’s passion will not be put down. He alienates himself from family, friends, and country when he moves to Paris to study music and live openly as Northcliff’s lover. Although he finds happiness in the arms of Northcliff, he pays a heavy price being out, even in Paris. At every turn, his career is fraught with disappointment, rejection, and eventually a devastating loss that shreds his soul. Can his music bring him back from the brink? Can the love of a man be the strength he needs to survive?

This book is a joy to read. The story is well structured, the characters are compelling, the prose carries the reader along in a dream. I knew before opening the cover page that Ruth Sims has a gift for storytelling. I found that out in her book, The Phoenix. But Counterpoint is far and away a superior, more thoughtful read. Sims has created something rare, an absorbing read that takes the reader through the entire range of emotions, and then back again.

Does it have flaws? There is the occasional head hopping. There are several opportunities where showing, rather than telling, would strengthened the read. There are other places where the dialog is too on-the-nose. But these minor issues go unnoticed as the reader wraps these characters around himself like a cloak on a cold night, and feels their passion and pain. Upon finishing the last page I wanted to stand, clap my hands and yell, “BRAVO.”

This story was several years coming to print, and well worth the wait. If you’re looking for the kind of hot erotic scenes that have become so cliché in mm fiction today, then keep looking. But for anyone who enjoys passionate characters struggling with basic human needs, alluring prose, and historical detail, then I highly recommend this read.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Final Curtain by Victor J. Banis

Reviewed by Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk

I recently came across Victor J. Banis’ ‘The Final Curtain’ in an upcoming anthology of collected gay stories “Red,” with authors William Maltese and JP Bowie. In his story Banis goes back to a mode of writing that was so popular in the late 19th century to the beginnings of the 20th century: of relating a story within the story itself, as in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, W. Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad among many others.

Banis weaves his tale in a peopled bar with gay men about with the lead character sitting alone in the back and looking up at no one. The story that he relates hooks us in and we’re caught up with what is happening…but can it be retold? How does Gaylord fade away while Nick still has the sin of his disappearance upon him? Or does he? Banis doesn’t tell us but like all great storytellers he pulls us into the story till we’re at the end, more intrigued and puzzled but strangely fascinated to read it over and over again --it holds you that much. Some short stories can be more intriguing than horrendously long novels and Banis has a winner here.

Banis has painted numerous tales over the years, “The Why Not,” “The Man from C.A.M.P.,” “Longhorn,” “Lola Dances,” “Angel Land,” and the best non-fiction book written in some years “Spine Intact, Some Creases,” among countless others. This short story ‘The Final Curtain’ again shows him at his best, playful but serious as he still experiments with his creative powers and melds another tour de force made so alive and active by his talent. A short but mighty read! I recommend this wholeheartedly.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: The River In Winter by Matt Dean

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Queen’s English Productions
Pages: 397

Jonah Murray is a seeker. He lives a comfortable life – good job, nice home, mother who supports him – but after the death of his lover, he feels lost, and needs help finding his way. Couple that with a series of hate crimes, and Jonah is at his wit’s end. He seeks love, acceptance and identity, but is not sure where to look.

Jonah meets Spike Peterson, a porn star who lights a fire of lust within Jonah. But the lust and love that Jonah feels is not returned, as Spike uses Jonah and then tosses him aside. Spike only magnifies Jonah’s need to find companionship.

After having a breakdown, Jonah meets a counselor, Eliot Moon, who seems to be able to help him. He is invited to join a group of gay men, only to find that the therapist and the men in the group are all trying to become ex-gay men. Jonah feels a hard need for the support he finds within this group, but he knows that to be accepted, he must make sacrifices, that is, give up loving men. Can a gay man find happiness through celibacy?

This year’s Lambda Book Award Finalist, Matt Dean, takes us on an inner journey through a rather icy spot in one man’s life. This is a story that uses excruciatingly beautiful language. It is Dean’s remarkable voice and exquisite prose that makes this novel special, and worth reading.

As for the story, it started with an interesting hook, and made me experience a range of emotions, but then it began to wander, much like the protagonist, down a path with seemingly no direction. It didn’t take long before my interest level began to plummet. To compound the wandering, the prose, though quite beautiful, was very detailed in its descriptions, which slowed the pacing to a crawl. I love rich descriptions, but only when it advances the plot, which this all too often failed to do. These two elements combined to make this, at least for me, a dull read.

The story often spouts Christian doctrine, which I personally found distasteful. Christians, however, will no doubt be untroubled by it.

This story was sometimes poignant, and made me examine my own feelings I experienced during troubling times, and it did so with wonderfully gorgeous language, which is why, no doubt, it earned a Lambda Finalist Award. For readers who like a slow, beautifully written journey, with rich descriptions on every page, I can recommend this read.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Lonely War by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Bob Lind (Echo Magazine)
Published by Zumaya Boundless

Andrew Waters is a Chinese-American young man, who grew up in China, schooled by Buddhist monks. His family is forced to leave China at the start of World War II, and he enlists in the Navy, where his personality and intellect make him clash with most of his shipmates. His latent homosexuality also surfaces, and he develops a strong crush on one of the officers, who empathizes with his situation. When the ship is destroyed and the crew is taken to a Japanese P.O.W. camp, Andrew makes the difficult decision to agree to become the base commander's lover, in exchange for food and medicine needed for his shipmates - including his crush, who was attacked by a shark in abandoning the ship. He tries to keep his role a secret, using the story that he is simply cooking for the commander, as he did on the ship. But his true role is revealed, and Andrew is ostracized as a traitor by most of the men. As the war starts to draw to a close, Andrew also learns of plans that could jeopardize all of their lives.

I first became aware of Chin through his "Island Song" novel, which I thought was exceptionally creative and emotional. This is in the same vein, with complete and realistic characterizations of both the ship's crew and their captors, reinforcing the truth that nobody really "wins" in a war. Andrew is torn by his sense of honor and need to excel, now tempered by the realization that some people won't like him, no matter what he does, and further complicated by his budding sexual attraction to an officer. It's a roller coaster of conflicts, fears and desires, all rolled together in a well-written war novel you won't be able to put down. Five stars out of five.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review: Gailias: Operation Thunderspell by Kage Alan

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Zumaya Boundless
Pages: 221

Nicholas and Anthony are not only secret agents working for the U.S. government, they are also lovers. Yes, a pair of gay 007s. Nicholas is the brawn of the duo; Anthony is the brains. They are opposites in almost every way, including the fact that Nicholas is Caucasian and Anthony is Chinese. And do opposites attract? Don’t bet on it. Only one thing is certain, when they come together, sparks fly.

They are paired up with Debora, a razor-tongued agent, and sent to a resort island in the Philippines where some very shady dealings seem to be going on, having to do with a new terrorist organization, ever-so-descriptively called, the League. But it’s not your typical sun-sand-surf resort island, it’s an S/M theme park, where all of the guests play a role as either a master or a slave. On this island, the Asians are the masters and the Caucasians are the slaves. Anthony is given an undercover guise that lets him be a master, while Nicholas must submit to being a slave. While Anthony has it easy, Nicholas falls under the brutal hand of The Ball.

Things become more complicated when they find they are not the only secret agents on the island. It seems that Rice and Christian are also there to acquire information; although it’s not certain which government they are working for. In all the confusion, bullets fly, buildings explode, helicopters are blown out of the sky. But do the good guys win? Do we even know who the good guys are? The only certainty is a surprise on every page.

Kage Alan is an extremely funny writer, and this novel shows him at his best. It’s much like watching a Marx Brother’s film, that is, if the Marx Brothers had been gay. Or more appropriately: a gay I Spy vs. Scooby Doo. Nicholas and Anthony spend the novel dissing each other, as only two witty and bitchy lovers can do. The only time they are not dissing each other is when they gang up to diss someone else. This novel has all the wit and banter that Kage Alan fans have come to expect.

There is nothing here to take seriously. It is a lighthearted romp with a couple of razor-tongued queens. The protagonists are in their thirties, which is a departure from Mr. Alan’s previous books. This humor is geared to an adult audience. On the one hand I appreciated the more mature humor. On the other hand, I think this book lost much of the sensitivity that Mr. Alan’s previous novels had, when Andy Stevenson was dealing with issues of coming out.

Still, if you're in need of a good laugh, page after page, then set your sights on Gailias: Operation Thunderspell, and be prepared to be entertained.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Princess Of The Andes by Victor J. Banis

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Untreed Reads Publishing

The Princess of the Andes is a freighter registered in Ecuador, making a trip from Los Angeles, through the Panama Canal, to Haiti. In addition to cargo, she also carries passengers looking for cheap transportation to Latin America. One of these passengers, Randolph Letterman, has signed on for the whole cruise to Haiti, and back to L.A.

Everything starts off fine. The weather is grand and they make good time. But as the trip progresses, Randolph makes himself into a bit of a bore. In an effort to be social to Captain Herrman and the crew, Randolph becomes too talkative, too much of a know-it-all, until he has everyone aboard avoiding him. The situation gradually becomes worse until Captain Herrman threatens to throw Randolph overboard so he can enjoy his meals in silence.

It is then that the ship’s doctor comes up with a plan. In his estimation, Randolph is a lonely, older, gay man who desperately needs to get laid. The Doctor suggests, that if they are to get any quiet, then someone from the crew should volunteer to satisfy the old man. That alone will shut him up. The Captain is willing to try anything, but whose to bell the cat?

For several years now, I have been a fan of Victor Banis’s work, whether it be a four-hundred page novel or a ten page short story, Victor puts the same level of artistic talent into everything he writes. And needless to say, I was not in the least bit disappointed with The Princess of the Andes.

I love his superlative voice, his quirky characters, his well-constructed plots. This story is a joy to read. It carries the reader along, and then gives him/her a playful little slap in the face at the end.

I’ve said it before, that I think it takes more talent to craft a short story than a novel, and Victor shows his considerable talent in spades. If you want to spend a joyful half-hour, read The Princess of the Andes.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Tales My Body Told Me by Wayne Courtois

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Lethe Press
Pages: 303

Paul Lavarnway lives a comfortable life with his partner, Eric. Then Paul meets and becomes infatuated with Richard, a man he meets at the local gym. They have an affair that begins as car-sex at the gym parking lot, and progresses to a date at Richard’s house. Of course, after lying to Eric about his activities, Eric finds out about the affair and leaves Paul.

Thus begins a series of events that leads Paul to East Oak House in the town of Two Piers, Maine – a group home for “recovering homosexuals”. The house is a seedy place Paul shares with four other men trying to go straight with the help of a live-in counselor. The author turns this situation on its head, however, when the inmates begin to have nightly orgies. But there is something else amiss, and even though Paul is kept in a drug-induced mist for most of the story, he determines that something is terribly wrong. The question is, can Paul figure it out before things turn deadly?

This story is essentially a murder mystery, although the reader doesn’t realize that until nearly the end of the story. The plot, although clever, is difficult to follow and seems to wander aimlessly for the first two-hundred pages. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the narrator is drugged and not thinking properly. His memories are disjointed, and he struggles to make sense of his life. The reader sees Paul’s world through his confusion. As Paul begins to see his life more clearly, so does the reader. The author manages to pull all the seemingly lose ends together in the end and make sense of it all. It is an ambitious plot, and a clever way to structure the story.

The thing I most enjoyed about the story was the author’s voice. Written in present tense, the prose is often impeccable. It carries the reader along as if in a dream. I think Wayne Courtois has one of the finest voices in modern fiction.

As much as I enjoyed reading his prose, I had numerous issues with the story. The main problem I had was that I didn’t care for the protagonist until the last fifty pages, and by then it was too late to care about his story. He comes off as a shallow and unsavory character, not the kind of person a reader normally wants to invest their time in.

I also had an issue with the pacing. Even though the prose was lovely, the story delved into uninteresting detail that drastically slowed the story to a crawl. I was often tempted to skip pages in order to move the story along.

There were a number of scenes with graphic sex, which I thought did little to move the plot forward. For me, that detracted from the story.

The last thing I’ll mention is that, in tying together all the plot points, the author presented several situations that were either way too coincidental, or simply unbelievable. It made the whole of the story seem false, at least in my eyes. That, more than anything, was disappointing. I expected more from such a talented writer.

Tales My Body Told Me is a bold story that breaks the mold of gay literature. It tells the story of a middle-aged man, struggling in a world that doesn’t appreciate him. In many ways the story is brilliant, and one is inclined to overlook the flaws. This is a book I can recommend to readers who like something quite different, and relish a challenge.