Friday, March 19, 2010

Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Bristlecone Pine Press

This quartet of novellas explores different perspectives of gay soldiers affected by war and violence. Four stories told by four different authors. Each story depicts a unique situation in a different historical setting, and each is told with a distinctive voice. These stories are not romances, although some have strong romantic threads. They are an interesting study of the issues gay soldiers and their loved ones face while serving in a military that blatantly discriminates against them.

My favorite of the four was Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft, only because I’m a sucker for well-told sea stories. And sea tales set in the Age of Sails, like this one, are a particular favorite of mine. This yarn chronicles the last voyage of the British ship Banshee, which goes horribly wrong and ends in a mutiny. The result lands Captain Harry Thompson and his Lieutenant Garnet Litteton on a deserted island where a romance blossoms. Not a small thing considering the penalty for such relations was hanging from a yardarm until dead.
Even though the author’s rich descriptions and concern for detail often slows the pacing, the author keeps the story interesting while staying within the bounds of historical accuracy. Beecroft uses a rather cleaver device to alternate between two men telling the story, both in first-person. The contrasting personalities vying to tell the story adds interest and humor. These two characters are brilliantly drawn and kept me turning pages.

Mark R. Probst’s Not To Reason Why is set within Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry on the eve of their fateful rendezvous at the Little Big Horn. Corporal Brett Price and Sergeant Dermot Kerrigan serve together in the same unit. Brett develops a crush on his married sergeant, and the hardship of trailing the Sioux renegades brings them closer together – close enough for Brett to confess his feelings to his friend. He is rewarded with a single kiss of loving friendship, but in return must promise to care for Dermot’s wife should something terrible happen during the upcoming battle.
From the first few pages of his tale, the reader knows where it is going and what will happen. But regardless of knowing the outcome, this extremely well-written story kept me engrossed. It is a tale of comradeship, of two men with different kinds of love for each other, of the camaraderie between men trapped in a desperate situation. It blends touching intimacy with soldiers’ horseplay and horrific battle scenes. And believe it or not, the ending is both surprising and uplifting. My one trivial complaint is that the minor characters could have been more fully developed. That aside, the tight descriptions and vivid prose make this a touching and gripping story.

Two British soldiers on the Western Front of WWI are trapped in a bombed out cellar in Jordan Taylor’s No Darkness. Lieutenant Darnell is straight as an arrow, while the injured Private Fisher is gay. While waiting for a rescue which never comes, the two men pass the time by swapping stories of their past. There is no trace of romance between these two, but the private’s sexuality is made clear and they come to an acceptance, and eventually even closeness. They form a tenuous bond while digging their way to freedom, but of course, for some there can be no freedom. This is a dark, and yet fascinating tale.
In many ways I thought this the most powerful story of the four. I was fascinated by their gripping situation. Yet, it had a particularly fatal flaw. With both men trapped in darkness for most of the story, there was little chance for the author to describe the surroundings, or for the characters to have much action. The result was mostly dialog. Because of that, I felt the tension between the characters often fell flat, and the emotional connection just didn’t ring true, or at least it was completely overshadowed by the desperateness of their situation. Still, I couldn’t put it down.

The fourth and final story is E.N. Holland’s Our One and Only. Phillip spends a long weekend at the seashore with his lover Eddie before Eddie is shipped off to England during WWII. On the second round of D-Day, Eddie is killed. This story chronicles forty years of Phillip’s life after Eddie’s death, alone, desperately clinging to the memory of Eddie, and yet not being able to talk about that love to anyone. This story reveals Phillip’s depth of love, pain of loss, and the hardship of recovery. It also demonstrates the torment of having to keep all the grief bottled up inside. It is a moving, rather melancholy story. And although the story is depressing, it ends on a note of hope.
Although this is a compelling and interesting read that I highly recommend, I had two issues with it. The first is the author’s taste for minute detail, which often slows the pacing to a crawl. I felt that the word count could have been cut in half, and the result would have been a much more powerful story. My second issues was that, although Phillip gained my total sympathy early on, as the story progressed, decade after decade, I slowly became annoyed with him for not moving on with his life. Mourning for five or even ten years, I heartily sympathize. Fifteen or twenty years is pure self-indulgence. Forty years? I’m sorry, I lost all sympathy for him. I felt the author stretched a great idea too far. Still, I found the characters richly realized, the feelings genuine. I enjoyed the upbeat ending, and indeed the entire story.

Hidden Conflict is an intriguing exploration of gay men in the military. It is a book I will read again and again. I highly recommend it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

L.A. Boneyard By P.A. Brown

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by MLR Press
Purchase at

For the record, I only review books I like. If I don't like it, I don't mention it. So, you can be sure before you go any further that I liked this first rate police procedural by Pat Brown, albeit with some reservations.

A rock solid plot and mostly brisk pacing keep the pages turning. LAPD detective David Laine is confronted with a pair of bodies buried in Griffith Park, the start of a particularly grisly murder investigation that take the detective from high rise elegance to ghetto drug-slums, with all kinds of stops in between. Brown's grasp of police procedure is awesome, you'd almost think she'd been there, done that, and she brings The City of the Angels so vividly to life it made this old Angeleno homesick for a burger at Tommy's. Both lend the story a terrific sense of believability, as does a fine ear for dialogue.

On the personal side, David's domestic partner, Chris, is in an accident and then out of town, leaving David pretty much on his own for a while. Not a good time for it, either, as David's new detective partner, sexy Jairo, is coming on to him like gangbusters. David loves Chris, and he wants to be faithful, but he's a guy, and there's an old saying about a stiff willy and its lack of conscience. It isn't long before Jairo has David's willy stiff far beyond the point of clear thinking. Like Jimmy Carter, David is lusting in his heart and in no time Chris is sniffing the situation out and having hizzy fits.

The sexual tension between the two policemen is achingly real, in large part because their characters are brilliantly drawn. David's domestic situation is a bit less convincing, because Chris is not so likeable, though that may be partly my personal aversion to a certain type of gay male, the hizzy fit throwers. In which case the author has made him real enough for me to dislike him, so maybe that counts. And, since the novel is mostly plot driven rather than character driven, Chris's actions generally serve to further the plot. So, he obediently goes out of town when needed or has those fits for no better reason than to ratchet up the tension for David and Jairo. Hey, it works, but it left this reader rooting for super cool Jairo, which may not have been the intended goal.

The mostly fine writing sparkles, but there are problems, too. The Dreaded Spell Check Disease, for one, which leaves the book, like so many today, littered with wrong words: Poured for pored, and plateau for tableau, e.g. There's not much of a cure for the disease, either, except greater care. Maybe a sharp-eyed beta reader? But, the truth is, many of these mistakes will go unnoticed by readers, too. The disease is unfortunately epidemic.

Worse by far is the Curse of the Dangling "He". Worse because, ideally, a novel is like a dream shared by author and reader. One wants the reader to forget he's reading a book, and "live" the story. But there's an abundance of those danglers here, and every time I have to stop and reread a paragraph to figure out who's speaking or doing what, I'm yanked out of the spell. Alas, with practice we perfect our mistakes as well as our virtues, which is to say, this is a writing habit that tends to take over if not weeded out of one's literary garden.

Less critical (but still too important for a writer this good not to get better at it) are an abundance of jarring transitions from one scene or setting to another. This too simply requires paying a bit more attention when shifting gears. Yes, it's extra work. Writing is easy. Writing well takes effort.

The reader will find as he nears the ending, that there is an unnecessary coda, the nature of which I won't divulge, but the story actually stops about five pages before the book does, and the reader can also with no great loss.

These are a writer's kind of complaints, however. They matter only in the sense that they keep a good author from being that much better. They are not likely consciously to effect most readers, who will find this a very enjoyable read, and who will almost certainly plow through it as I did in one sitting, turning the pages steadily to the end.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

To Love and To Cherish edited by Beth Wylde and Lara Zielinsky

Reviewed by Victor Banis
Published by LoveYouDivine Press
Anthology, Various Authors, edited by Beth Wylde and Lara Zielinsky
Available in e-book and print format from

I confess, when the idea first came up, of my writing a review for a collection of lesbian love stories, that I had some reservations—not about reading the stories, I felt sure simply by looking at the names of the authors that they would be of a high quality, but rather about my ability to do this important collection justice. I say important because all of the stories were donated by the authors, and all of the proceeds from the book are donated to Marriage Equality USA "which continues the fight in courtrooms around the country to secure civil marriage rights for GLBTQ couples across the U.S." So, important indeed, and surely, I thought, above my pay grade.

Of course, I had no sooner started reading than I realized the fallacy in my thinking. "Lesbian love stories" is, really, the wrong label to paste on this wonderful collection. They are love stories, pure and simple, and love doesn't know the difference. Which is, of course, the whole point of the project. Two women may make love differently from what two men or a man and a woman may do, but it is the height of absurdity to suppose that they don't love the same.

Love is what it is. Some abuse it, some shun it, and not a few have made careers of it, of one sort or another. Centuries of poets and philosophers have tried to define it. Unfortunately, we live in an age that tries to confine it. None of these efforts, it seems to me, have met with unqualified success. Outlaw love as you will, you cannot stop it from springing up in the human heart. There is nothing in the perusal of history to suggest that any social context, whether flagrantly liberal or crushingly priggish has ever significantly changed the numbers of those who are attracted to members of their own sex, though they may be more or less open about it according to the dictates of their society.

The idea of same sex love as somehow unnatural is another absurdity. We know now that same sex couples are commonplace throughout nature, in species too numerous to list here. Most animals don't attach much importance to it. Only humans seek to suppress it. Sadly, in this country, there are those who actively push to keep it outside the sanctity of marriage.

Well, this is a mighty push back, and as exuberant a statement on the beauty of woman to woman love as one is likely to find. There are fourteen heartfelt stories included in the anthology, too many for me to attempt to review them individually. They represent fourteen different points of view and are of varying degrees of erotic intensity—okay, saying it plainly, some of them surely do sizzle.

Setting the parameters, as it were, are two unique stories: Allison Wonderland pens a charming tale, The Felicity of Domesticity, of two little girls who knew already as children that they were destined to be wed. And in This Magic, Meg Leigh gives us a haunting and all too rare glimpse from an older sister's point of view, as she looks back through the mists of time at the love she knew.

But I don't mean to suggest that anything in between those two extremes is at all inferior. The characters here are a wonderfully divergent bunch of women--butch, femme, elegant, folksy, angry and serene, struggling to define their relationships, to come to terms with themselves and with family, and to explore their unique sexuality. The stories are charming, sad, sexy, slapstick funny. There are tales of paganism and wiccan and Native American rituals and the perils of cooking for those who can't, quite. There's hardly a taste in reading or a style in writing that isn't well represented here and I can confidently assure the reader who invests in a copy that she or he will close this book knowing that the money was well spent.

An excellent tribute to a genre, a gender, a lifestyle, and a welcome addition to the literature of love. Well done, all.