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.