Monday, December 19, 2011

Butterfly’s Child by Alan H. Chin

Reviewer: Jack A. Urquhart
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press

Reading Alan Chin’s powerfully engaging novel, Butterfly’s Child (Dreamspinner Press, 2010) put me in mind of Vito Russo’s groundbreaking exploration of homosexuals in cinema, The Celluloid Closet (book, 1987). Employing painstaking documentation, Russo exposed the long and sorry history of homosexuals portrayed in film as creatures defined by their sexuality—men (and a very few women) presented as the butt of countless jokes, as victims of violence, and destructive self-hatred.

The trend Russo decried is, of course, no less evident or long standing in literature; think Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948), Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968), and, yes—Annie Proulx’s wildly popular 1997 short story, “Brokeback Mountain”. Even in so small a sample, the reader is hard pressed to find a single gay character who isn’t brought low by self-loathing or worse, destroyed outright—usually by an act of extreme violence. And while few would question the literary merit of the works cited, it is surely evident that, until relatively recently, there hasn’t been much (at least in literary fiction) that even hints at the possibility of a homosexual “happily-ever-after”.

A few mainstream exceptions do exist; Jane Hamilton’s under-appreciated gem, The Short History of a Prince (1998), Julia Glass’s Three Junes (2002) and its follow-up, The Whole World Over (2006) spring to mind. And now, count Alan Chin among the growing list of artists—more and more of them, self-identified Indie authors—whose work is helping lay to rest the cruel tradition Russo exposed. Witness Butterfly’s Child, Chin’s novel of fathers and sons, gay and straight.

Cord Bridger, the thirty-four year old ‘star’ of Butterfly’s Child, is most assuredly gay; but Chin casts his protagonist in 3-D creating in the process a complex, nuanced, fully fleshed, and yes—ever-so-humanly damaged hero. Cord’s back-story, presented early in the novel, yields suitably operatic clues (a metaphoric link to Puccini’s opera shows up in an early scene) to his psyche. Paternal abandonment, the subsequent suicide of his mother when he was four, and a youth passed on the culturally deprived high desert plains of Nevada, the reader learns, are the precursors to Cord’s adult existence on the fringes of New York City’s gay A-List.

The bearer of formidable musical gifts, including perfect pitch, Cord’s dreams of a career as a concert pianist—flames stoked by his years at Julliard—have long since cooled to smoke and ashes as the novel opens. Instead, Cord has ‘settled’ into a long-term stint at Steinway where he is the senior voicing specialist for the company’s concert grands—a career that brings Cord no closer to fulfillment than the fleeting moments of genius he sometimes experiences in tuning Steinway’s expensive pianos. In many ways, Cord is an instrument awaiting tuning himself, an emotional tuning, that is—a fact that does not sit well with his successful and increasingly dissatisfied lover, Cameron. In short, Cord’s life in NYC seems almost as lifeless and barren as the minimalist perfection of the Central Park West apartment he shares with his seldom-at-home partner.

All that changes when the necessity of settling his recently deceased grandmother’s estate draws Cord back to the Nevada ranch (appropriately named ‘Bitter Water’) that he abandoned years earlier. One could argue that Chin’s novel doesn’t take off until Cord deplanes in Nevada. That is because almost from the moment he returns, Cord confronts a host of jarringly inescapable challenges and responsibilities—not the least of which is the fifteen year-old son (the fruit of a teenage fling) that he never knew he had.

A young man bearing the crushing weight of his own abandonment and long-term abuse issues, Cord’s son Kalin and his seven-year old half-brother Jem soon become Cord’s responsibility in a twist that sets up the series of violent, gut-wrenching confrontations that mark the novel’s climax. Add to the cast a new love interest in the person of Tomeo, a practicing Buddhist; Jesse, the boys’ strung-out mother and her sadistically violent abuser, Jack (as truly a loathsome villain as this reader has ever encountered in fiction), and Blake, Cord’s estranged father, and you have the makings of a bona fide page-turner. It helps that Chin, a skillful storyteller, knows how to string the reader along with scenes that stack up and build—sometimes relentlessly, as Cord, increasingly in-tune with what matters, struggles to build and then protect his new family. The result is that Butterfly’s Child offers an exhilarating, moving, sometimes disturbing journey that nevertheless manages to gallop (literally) to a satisfying conclusion.

Speaking of which, I can imagine that some readers might find Chin’s somewhat tidy, Zen-like finish a stretch (given the formidable violence that precedes it). Likewise, it is possible some readers may stumble over the novel’s arguably un-necessary metaphoric dalliance with the Butterfly (Puccini’s and nature’s own variety) and/or the overlay of Buddhist philosophy that Chin delivers courtesy of several longish exchanges between Tomeo and Cord. But, for my part, these do not detract from the novel’s many strengths; indeed, the mini-dissertations on Buddhism seem central to Cord’s eventual arrival at a place of quiet gratitude and contentment.

As for any possible objections to the novel’s gay protagonist-triumphs-over-all ending, I can only wonder how Vito Russo might have addressed that concern—perhaps with an appropriately dismissive “isn’t it about time”?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: For the Ferryman by Charles Silverstein

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 336

Charles Silverstein is not a name that I’ve heard pop up in discussions about the Gay Rights Movement, yet he quite possibly may have had more impact on securing equal rights for the lgbt community than Harvey Milk and others more famous. In this fascinating memoir, Silverstein uses the first half of the book to recount his career of fighting for gay rights, particularly in the psychiatric community, and he uses the second half of the book to narrate his twenty-five-year relationship with his life-partner, William Bory.

Silverstein’s most important contribution to the gay community was his historic 1973 presentation before the “Nomenclature Committee” of the American Psychiatric Association which led to the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness from the diagnostic manual, which eventually was responsible for decriminalizing gay sex between consenting adults. He went on to establish two gay and lesbian counseling centers in New York, and also was the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, now in its fifty-seventh volume.

Silverstein is best known for co-authoring the groundbreaking 1977 The Joy of Gay Sex with Edmund White, and co-authoring the sequal 1992 The New Joy of Gay Sex with Felice Picano, which brought the original book up to date with regards to the AIDS crisis. Silverstein also authored a book geared to the parents of gay youth: A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality, 1977. So as you can see, the author is no lightweight. He has had a tremendous impact on gay rights, and the personal accounts of his activism are both fascinating and inspiring.

The author’s relationship with William Bory was both touching and riveting. Silverstein speaks candidly of their relationship, their travels to many exotic locations, William’s plunge into drug addiction that included crack cocaine and heroin, and William’s battle with AIDS. The author paints Bory as an eccentric genius that Silverstein loved deeply despite titanic flaws. Their relationship was loving, yet vexing, and the reader is never sure what will happen next.

I’d like to include a passage that shows the author’s personal and humorous style of writing:
When God gave out physical attributes, he did not do it equitably. For all-around attractiveness, the Germans cannot be beat (“God’s little joke,” William mused.) The Scots were given the most perfect asses (not that they knew what to do with them the year William and I were in Scotland.) To the Dominicans he gave large, beautiful penises that hung snugly over their testicles like those drawings of male genitalia in anatomy textbooks that make one wonder whether they are the sexual fantasies of the artists. I did not know about this physical attribute until I arrived at the Hotel Victoria.

So as you can see, this book is not some dry recount of someone’s career, but rather a fun and interesting account of two fascinating people during a time when equal rights for the lgbt community was exploding.

This is a book that is mandatory reading for anyone who has an interest in the Gay Rights Movement, politics during the AIDS crises of the ‘80s and ‘90s, or for anyone who simply wants to read an enthralling love story that happens to be true. For The Ferryman is a bold self-portrait of a distinguished and astounding life.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Junction X by Erastes

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages: 198

On the outside, Edward Johnson seems to have a perfect pin-striped life—wife, couple of kids, white-picket fence in one of the better suburbs, country club membership, and works as a stockbroker. He even gets an occasional blowjob from his buddy, Phil, on the morning train into work. Could life get any sweeter?

But then a new family moves in next door, and they have a beautiful seventeen-year-old son, Alex. A slow but powerful attraction grows between Ed and Alex. Ed has never considered himself a pedophile, so he fights the urge to flirt with Alex, but each time they are together, try as he might, Ed can’t control his growing desire for the boy. He stalks the boy until they have a sexual encounter while driving.

Ed is filled with gilt and remorse, and knows he’s going down an immoral path, but at the same time he lures Alex into a steamy affair. But how long can Ed juggle the responsibilities of family, office, and a teenaged boyfriend? And can Alex, being so young and inexperienced, control the volcanic feelings churning in his heart.

The first half of this story reads rather slowly, skillfully building in tension, and seems like a typical romance novel, albeit one with a middle-aged man falling for an underage boy. But shortly past the halfway mark, I realized two things: first, Ed was not the protagonist but rather, the antagonist; and two, this wasn’t a romance novel that would have a happily-ever-after ending. I was right on both counts.

This is a story about how unbridled obsession can ruin lives. Ed begins as a morally upright person with only a few skeletons in the closet. But his passion for Alex slowly leads him into being a pathetic, cheating scoundrel. And of course, he drags everyone connected with him into that same train wreck.

The plot is a simple one, without any subplots to cloud the water. But there is something to be said for a simple story told well, and this story is told extremely well. Erastes has obviously worked hard to improve her writing style and voice, and it shines here.

It is not often I come across a novel written in first person where the narrator is the antagonist. It gives the reader a rare glimpse into an unstable character, giving Edward tremendous depth as the author peals away his layers. He becomes a fascinating character, even as he disgusts. Yes, he’s a train wreck, but the reader can’t look away.

I did have one issue with this story. I felt that in the first ten pages, the author gave away too much, to the point where I knew most everything that would happen in the first 90% of the book. At midpoint, she broadcasted the other 10%. I would have been happier had she given away less and surprised me more.

That said, this is a passionate, emotional story. The characters pull the reader in and keep building the tension until the very last page.

If you are searching for a typical romance that will steam your glasses and make you feel good in the end, keep looking. If you enjoy a serious story of how mistakes cause pain, how passion can injure as well as please, then by all means, give Junction X a read.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

CAREGIVER by Rick R. Reed

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 205

Dan and Mark have their difficulties. Neither are working and Mark seems not to be sexually interested in Dan. The honeymoon is definitely over for this couple. The problem? Cocaine. They had recently moved from Chicago to South Florida in a failed attempt to pull Mark away from his drug addiction.

While Dan beats the bushes for a job, he also finds plenty of time on his hands, so being a giving person, he volunteers at the Tampa AIDS Alliance to be a buddy to people suffering from AIDS. This story takes place in 1991, before the cocktails that prolonged AIDS-suffer’s lives, so there are plenty of buddies to choose from.

Dan’s HIV buddy, Adam, turns out to be light years beyond all expectations. Adam is flamboyant, witty, wise, giving and charming. He is the type of friend one finds only once or twice in a lifetime. The two quickly bond (non-sexually) and become friends for life. In their short time together, Adam teaches Dan several life lessons, including how to be strong and stand up for himself, something at Adam is a pro at.

Dan also befriends Adam’s lover, Sullivan, who is easy on the eyes but a bit standoffish. Dan is attracted to Sullivan, but is too much the gentleman to go after Adam’s man.

All seems well for Dan until Mark falls off the wagon and plunges the couple into an unknown landscape, while at the same time Adam lands himself in prison. The problems (as often happens in Rick Reed’s novels) seem insurmountable. But while this author leads his characters into hell, he always leaves them a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back. But will they?

Having lived my young adult life in an epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and having lost my share of friends and loved ones to the disease, it is clear to me that the author draws from personal experience in writing this gripping story. I found that, although this story is set in the height of the AIDS epidemic, it is a story about friendship, love and finding courage. It is a sad, often humorous, and inspirational journey.

This is a story that resonates with me. I enjoyed the characters and their undertaking, and I can recommend it to all who enjoy a dark and complicated tale.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Deadly Kind of Love by Victor J. Banis

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 215

When Chris Rafferty returns to his room at a posh Palm Springs resort, he finds a naked man in his bed. This is not so unusual considering this gay resort is known for satisfying their clientele’s needs with young hustlers, but this hustler is a little too stiff for Chris’s liking. This hustler is dead. Even before calling the police, Chris calls his good friends, Stanley Korski and Tom Danzel, a gay couple who are San Francisco private detectives.

Once Tom and Stanley take the case, they drive to Palm Springs and meet with PS homicide detective Dick Hammond. The three men confirm that the deceased was a hustler who worked the resort, and that he was murdered and dumped in Chris’s room.

Tom and Stanley check into the resort, and are given the royal treatment while they investigate clues. They have a hunch that the killer was one of the well-to-do gay clients, and that he is watching their every move. The closer they get to identifying the killer, the more bodies pile up until the killer decides to target the detectives. The boys soon find themselves in a deadly game and in over their heads.

Deadly Kind of Love is the fifth novel in the Deadly Series, and the third one I’ve read. It is told with the same delightful voice and quick pacing that Mr. Banis captures with each of these Deadly books. Fans of this series will no doubt enjoy this latest offering, as I did, to follow these sexy investigators through plot twists and turns.

Banis has created something special with this detective duo, and the mystery and motives fall second to the interplay between these characters. Still, I felt something lacking in their chemistry in this 5th book. The magic that I’ve seen in other Deadly books was there, but not with the same wit and intensity. I also felt the author rushed to reveal the killer and wrap up the ending, which I must say was, none the less, exciting.

Followers of the Deadly Series as well as mystery lovers in general will no doubt enjoy this latest outing from master author Victor Banis.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

True Stories – Portraits from My Past by Felice Picano

This charming collection of memoirs by author Felice Picano is written in fifteen vignettes. The author recounts tales of his childhood, his experiences as a GLBT publisher, his co-founding the now-famous Violet Quill Club, his early years as a journalist, and his encounters with the rich and famous—including Bette Midler, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, Charles Henri Ford, and the queen of Twentieth-Century fashion, Diana Vreeland. For the most part, the author tells his story via his relationships with an array of fascinating people that helped guide his destiny.

I found this read to be compelling and deliciously entertaining. Many of these stories span the gulf between the post-stonewall flowering of gay culture to the harsh years of AIDS. Picano writes with wit, sensitivity and vivid detail. It is still hard for me to imagine that one person could cross paths with so many interesting people in only one lifetime, but the truly remarkable aspect is that he was able to capture those experiences in such a delightful collection of anecdotes and portraits.

Each vignette is equally entertaining as the others. Whether he’s talking about partying down with Bette Midler at the Continental Baths, or a not-so-simple road trip with his father, or caring for a dying business partner, or lunching with the dragon-lady of New York high fashion, I could not put it down. This is a book I will read over and over.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

August Farewell by David G. Hallman

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc.
Pages: 167

In August of 2009, Bill Conklin was diagnosed with stage-four, pancreatic cancer. Only sixteen days later, Bill died. Bill’s partner of thirty-three years, David Hallman, narrates this sixteen-day journey interspersed with vignettes drawn from their rich and varied life together.

For the most part Bill was unconscious during his last weeks, so this memoir is more of David Hallman’s experience of caring for and letting go of his lover after a long and beautiful relationship. This book started as a personal account for David, as he wanted to document the details of those last weeks together before his memory began to fade, and much of it does seem like a personal diary.

I found the book well written with good pacing except for one issue. It is written in present tense. The author states up front that all these events happened in 2009, and then voices his story as if it were happening as he tells it. I found this very jarring, something that bothered me from first page to last.

One thing I found fascinating is that, one week after Bill’s diagnoses, he was bedridden, in much pain, couldn’t eat, couldn’t talk, didn’t even have the strength to suck water through a straw, yet they continued to keep him alive for as long as possible—another nine days of pain. If he were a horse, they would have mercifully shot him. Why, in this day and age, can’t we find the compassion for humans that we have already found for animals?

This is not a pleasant story. It is told with poignancy, humor, affection, and a good deal of tears. But be aware, I found this to be a depressing read. A bright spot is that the author delves into their life together: their commitment to environmental justice, love of the arts, love of traveling, and their deeply felt Christian beliefs.

This is a tale of letting go, a journey through the past to gain the strength to endure the separation. This is not a book I can recommend to all readers. Perhaps to readers who have made similar journeys, or people preparing for their own loss.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bob the Book by David Pratt

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 184

Bob is a book about pre-nineties gay porn, complete with many hot pictures. He is delivered to a Greenwich Village bookstore, where he goes on sale beside another book, Moishe, whose title is Beneath the Tallis: The Hidden Lives of Gay and Bisexual Orthodox Jewish Men. Bob and Moishe fall in love, but are separated by an unlikely buyer.

As Bob journeys through sales tables, used book bins, different owners, and lecture halls, he meets a variety of other books and people, but he’s always hunting for Moishe.

Bob finds himself in a peculiar position; both he and his owner are searching for love. Both seem to find something, but it’s not ideal for either of them. Can Bob, being at the mercy of people, somehow find fulfillment? Can his owner find the same contentment? All I can say is, it’s not easy being a book in love.

This is one of the most delightful stores I’ve read all year, and the fact that it is a debut novel only adds to the pleasure. On the surface it seems like a whimsical love story, both for Bob and his human owner, as well as several other book couples. But under that simplicity, there are some important life lessons to be examined. There is much Zen-like wisdom woven into this enchanting tale, lessons on taking one’s self too seriously, and of striving for things that are not important, just to name a few.

The pace and tone never drags. This story carries the reader along with many funny twists regarding the literature industry. Of course it’s not at all believable, but it is an extremely well constructed love story, both for the books and human characters.

What amazed me most was in the examining these books’ personalities. By giving them human characteristics, the reader clearly sees where humans spin their wheels dealing with unimportant life issues.

Readers who are familiar with the publishing industry will especially appreciate this novel, but all readers can enjoy this wonderfully smart and touching book. Because the main characters are books, it transcends every boundary of gender and sexual orientation, making it an entertaining read for men and women, boys and girls, gay and straight. That’s its genius.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Butterfly Dreaming by Dave Lara & Bud Gundy

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: CreateSpace (Nov. 14th, 2010)
Pages: 334

Banat Frantz is a Jewish boy growing toward manhood in Germany when Adolf Hitler comes to power. At an early age, Banat already feels the animosity directed toward his family. He experiences shame and fear, but doesn’t understand what it is that makes him different from those who hate. His upper-class family is stripped of almost everything before fleeing to Holland, where they think they have escaped Hitler’s grasp. But within a few years the Nazis invade Holland and they are made prisoners and shipped to work camps.

Banat grows into puberty while living in a concentration camp, and what he discovers is that his growing lust is directed at other boys, not girls. By now he knows to hide his feelings of being different than others. But when he meets Dovid, (yes, Dovid with an ‘o’), he falls in love. What starts as an adolescent crush deepens into a consuming love that will sustain Banat through the horrors that await him.

Soon the family is split up, and Banat and his father are shipped to a different camp. Over time they are shipped to several work camps, all the time moving closer to Auschwitz. Banat and Dovid are separated as well. By cunning and trickery, Banat does manage to survive the end of the war, and he goes about trying to track down his splintered family and bring them together again. There are joys and tragedies to be endured, and then the search for Dovid begins. Can Dovid have survived as well? Can the lovers reunite?

This is not an easy story to read, due to the shocking way the Jewish characters are treated by other Europeans. The horrors described both before and in the concentration camps is heartbreaking. But there are joys as well. Even in these brutal conditions and knowing what awaits them, they find love and tenderness, not just with Banat and Dovid, but other characters as well. This story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, and also of the power of love.

Banat is a perfect character, exhibiting both qualities and faults, as he comes of age and maturity within the most brutal conditions. He must fight for survival, yet with his being gay, he can’t confide in his own family. With death and anguish a constant, he must somehow explore the depths of love, need and joy. And he does so with virtue and morality.

But this story goes far beyond the concentration camps. Once the war is over, Banat must continue to strive in order to reunite his family. This brings both joy and sadness, and in the end grows bitter because he finally comes out to his family. Banat turns away from his parents and continues his search for Dovid. He becomes involved with the emerging gay scene in Paris, and begins to explore his sexuality. But the despair of not finding Dovid eventually drives him across the Atlantic, hoping for a new life in America, and a chance to forget. He finds that new life, but in a most unexpected and beautiful way.

This story is a fascinating inner journey from adolescence to manhood, from innocence to love. As I said, it is a hard story to read, but well worth the time and emotional turmoil. WWII history buffs will especially appreciate this tale, but this is a story everyone can appreciate and grow from.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Captain Harding’s Six-Day War by Elliott Mackle

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Lethe Press
Pages: 248

In 1967, Captain Harding is working his way up the promotion ladder within the U.S. Air Force. He’s a go-getter with a head on his shoulders and a talent for fixing problems. He is also gay.

The story begins with Captain Harding arriving at his new assignment, the post of executive officer for Wheelus Air Force Base in Libya. It’s a bit of a disappointment for Harding, who knows that he needs a tour in Viet Nam on his record before his next promotion will be approved. His mood takes a nosedive when he realizes his real assignment is baby-sitting the base wing commander, a loose-cannon named Colonel Adger. Harding is stuck taking care of administrative details while Adger constantly flies off to play golf with the bigwigs.

Captain Harding is on base for less than a week before he is bedding and enlisted medic and a rather studly major. Harding makes it clear that he likes to play the field, and is not the type of man to fall in love and be monogamous. And play the field he does, including going to a private party that turns into an all male orgy where he is the center of everyone’s attentions.

During his sexual adventures, he also strikes up a friendship with the American ambassador’s sixteen-year-old son. The two form an instant crush on each other, and Harding must wrestle with the ethical aspects of forming a relationship with a minor. The more his strong moral sense fights the idea, the deeper he falls for this lovely, precocious kid.

While dealing with a series of misadventures—including the murder of a gay serviceman, a flight-surgeon’s drug abuse, the death of his former lover in Viet Nam, and trying to protect a woman accused of being a lesbian because she refused to have sex with her superior officers—Harding must constantly protect himself from being exposed as a gay man. Three officers suspect him, and they attempt to out him at every turn.

In the run-up to Israel’s Six-Day War, a mob attacks the embassy in Tripoli, which takes Harding’s boss, Colonel Adger, over the edge and into madness. He steals a fighter jet and sets out to attack an Arab warship in order to force America into the war. To bring the colonel back safely and keep America out of the war, Harding must out himself while talking the colonel back to base. But can he do that? Can he throw his career away in order to save a man he loathes?

This is a rather compelling book that I have mixed feelings about. It is extremely well written, perfectly structured, and moves at a fast, exciting pace. Mackle captures a brusque voice that suits this military setting perfectly. There is conflict at every turn, and also tender moments.

Yet, I more than once felt I was being set up for something that the story failed to deliver. For instance: the opening pages describe the brutal murder of a young airman who was suspected of being gay. This seemed the perfect hook for a murder mystery, right? But then the story moves on and nothing else is said about the murder until the last twenty pages. I found it rather strange that a book that starts in such a way, simply drops that topic. There is no mention of an investigation, the resolution, nothing.

Then Harding’s last commanding officer, which Harding had some sort of sexual three-way relationship with, sends Harding a note threatening to expose the Captain. However, after the note, it also was dropped and nothing was done to deliver on the promise.

Lastly, the setting itself promised something grand, the Middle East leading up to the Six-Day War. I expected a rather smart, political thriller. Yet, the story focused on Harding’s sexual exploits and his efforts to keep them secret, along with his realization of deeper feelings for that special someone. I felt a bit disappointed that there were only a dozen or so pages that really delved into the war tensions.

Still, this is a compelling read. It is a very sexy story of finding love in the most unusual of places, and also a tale of battling bigotry to save yourself. The author does a brilliant job of defining the protagonists/antagonists. This is definitely a them-verses-us type story, and no matter how little or how much the reader likes Harding’s character, s/he cannot help but pull for him all the way to the last page.

The ending is a bit open ended, and very satisfying. Military buffs will especially appreciate this story, but it is a book that can be appreciated by all readers. It is a story that I can highly recommend.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kaleidoscope by Anel Viz

Publisher: Silver Publishing:
ISBN: 9781920501037
Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
4.75 stars out of 5.

Blurb: In these seven stories, the author explores people's shifting views of each other, of the images they project, and of themselves. Individuals fragment, the pieces fall into ever-changing patterns like bright confetti in the base of a kaleidoscope, and our ideas about sexuality color what we see.

My review:
This is an utterly unique – I can say without hesitation “fascinating”-- collection of stories and anecdotes, like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It is certainly beautifully written and on the surface, at least, written with a great deal of insight into human behavior – but with a disclaimer in the author’s preface, in which he states that “We never truly know another person; we do not truly understand ourselves.” What the author presents here, then, is a never entirely reliable and often changing look at various situations in which various people find themselves, but, he warns us, “None of them are omniscient.” So, this collection is not about some vague “truth,” but rather about perceptions, and these changing perceptions are the kaleidoscope of his title. And the insights may not be insights at all, but erroneous perceptions.

It is both an intriguing conceit and at the same time somewhat distancing. When George, in Polygon, says, “No man would ever talk about the intimate details of his marriage bed with his buddies” which is patently untrue, since men do this all the time, is the author wrong? Or George? Or, maybe just this perception? Nothing, here, is necessarily what it seems – or, if I understand correctly, necessarily not what it seems either.

Well, there are worse sins for an author than ambiguity – Hamlet, anyone? Certainly the stories are thought provoking. And libido provoking as well. There is nothing, really, in the way of raw sexuality and yet sex permeates everything, either in its presence, or in its absence – although we’re not always quite sure if it is present—or absent. Still, these tales are, I should say, as much about sex in its various permutations, as they are about anything. But, sex in many different lights.

It’s worth mentioning that the author covers a lot of ground age-wise, too—teens and high school grads and seniors, and pretty much everything in between. Same with gender and (at least perceived) sexual orientation. It seems, when one has finished, that there must be more than the seven stories the volume includes, but no, only seven, just with much to say.

Proteus is about a gay college professor in his late sixties, and a handsome young student who, we realize gradually, likes older men and is trying very hard to come on to him—but the prof insistently rebuffs the young man’s advances—he doesn’t like younger men and he’s not interested. He says. But, what to make of this passage, which hardly exemplifies disinterest: With Bramson sitting almost directly in front of him, Edmund had a ringside view of the boy and his assets. His legs were a definite asset, muscular and shapely, his thighs big enough so the gym shorts dug into them when he bent his knees. They were looser around his hips, so his endowment did not fill them, but Edmund guessed it was fairly generous. The tank top hugged his upper body, outlining his pecs and nipples, and sometimes it rode up so you could see his navel. The muscles in his arms were very hard, and the hair in his armpits and what little he had on his arms and legs as blond as the hair on his head.
I found this story perhaps the most erotically charged of the collection.

In Roomies (this one more a collection of anecdotes than a story), two of the three young men who share a condo, Marty the swish and Denny the butch, go camping together:
Both felt that they shouldn't have sex; both wanted to. Marty was mostly concerned that if they did it would put a strain on their easy relationship back at the condo, not that there was much chance of them becoming lovers and Art ending up left out. Denny was too promiscuous for that. Anyway, Art had a boyfriend. Denny, on the other hand, was afraid that it would leave him feeling unsatisfied since he would want to flip-flop and Marty, a committed bottom, wouldn't.

Which seems straightforward enough—except that the author has already told us that this narrator, like all the others in the book, isn’t omniscient—this is just his take on things. Which is to say, maybe the boys did, and maybe they didn’t. How would he know? Just as in the real world, what happens and what someone tells you happened may not be the same thing.

In Photographic Memories, Tanner was seen leaving a bar with the man who supposedly murdered him. With his photographic memory, Kyle, who saw them leave together, would seem to be the perfect witness—except he isn’t sure if he saw the accused, or someone he knew from his own past. Those perceptions again.

Facing the Music offers us Joe and Max, who more or less stumble into a sexual relationship which quickly gets them in trouble with their homophobic church, and they are sent to a reindoctrination camp intended to make heterosexuals of them. It maybe works. Or maybe it doesn’t.

In Kevvy, we get, Rashomon style, three different versions of the same story about a trio of teens, mostly leading up to gay Kevin giving straight Arthur a blow job, seemingly at Arthur’s insistence. As the author puts it in his preface, “None of the versions of "Kevvy" is entirely accurate however, (Kevin's may have been, but we hear it from Cole, who editorializes heavily)”
Robbie, in Since the Reunion, is perceived by some as straight, by others as bi – and his own perception of himself varies—but, as the author points out, he may be as reluctant to reveal his true sexuality to the reader as he is to the two friends in the story.

So, what on earth is one to make of this? Comic Brother Dave Gardner was wont to say, “don’t tell me your doubts, I have enough doubts of my own, tell me something you believe.” There isn’t much here to believe, it seems. What is there to grab hold of, to anchor one to these people, their adventures? Maybe nothing. Which of course is entirely true to life.

The author is right in his premise that the ambiguity in these pieces reflects real life – it is true, we never really know ourselves, let alone one another. But the best writing—the best in any art—doesn’t merely mimic life, but illuminates it. Art is a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, in the hope that we will see ourselves in a different light—as when walking down a street, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a store window, and both recognize ourselves, and see ourselves differently. Good writing, the best writing, functions as that store window.

Do I see myself in these windows? I see a lot of questions (is that really me?) mostly without answers, or where there seem to be answers, they quickly morph into another question.
Or maybe, the author is suggesting, the question is the answer?

Still, I found this collection intriguing and intelligent, and savored it mightily. Like everything else I’ve read from this author, it’s refreshingly different and I came away from it after two readings (and I suspect there will be many more) with much food for thought and with my sense of how things are somewhat roiled—which may have been exactly what the author intended. This is not—nor do I suppose it was intended to be—for everyone, but for the reader of a certain discernment, it affords considerable pleasure, if mostly of a reflective kind.

One thing cannot be disputed, however: the author’s prose is elegant beyond reproach, as clear and dry—and as bracing—as a good martini – which, perhaps, is the apt metaphor with which to end this review—I found myself shaken, not stirred.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Third Buddha by Jameson Currier

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 322

Ted Bridges, a twenty-something law student, drops out of school and moves to New York to look for his brother, Phillip (“Pup”) who disappeared the day the World Trade Center towers fell. Ted moves into Pup’s Chelsea apartment and tries to piece together his dead brother’s life. Both brothers are gay, but very different. Pup was out and loved to socialize, loved being gay. Ted is closeted and has had little to no sexual experience with other men. Through the process of living in his brother’s shadow, what starts as a search for his brother turns into a search for his own sexual identity. Learning about his sibling and what it means to be gay through Pup’s friends and ex-lovers, Ted, over a period of several months, becomes his own man living a gay lifestyle.

Half a world away in a different decade, two international journalists, Ari and Jim, travel in Afghanistan. They are separated after their vehicle explodes from a roadside bomb. Ari awakes with no memory. He is taken in by hill-tribe Muslims and, for a time, becomes one of them. Jim recovers in an army hospital, and later pulls strings in order to travel back into dangerous Taliban controlled Afghanistan to find his lover, Ari.

These are two very dissimilar stories, both about searching for a loved one, but still very different in character and nature. Ted’s story is told in first person, Ari and Jim’s story is told in third person. These tales are very loosely linked by a few minor characters who live in New York, friends of Pup.

Many stories I’ve read that swing between two or more different plots has one story that intrigues me, and the other doesn’t. The Third Buddha was no exception to this rule. I found Ted’s search to be poignant and fascinating. I felt his pain and confusion, and was pulling for him all the way through his wonderfully convincing character arc.

Jim and Ari’s story I found flat, overly predictable, and often tedious. Currier did a marvelous job of creating a realistic environment of war-torn Afghanistan, and the writing was certainly accomplished, but the author keeps the reader from getting too close to his characters in this part of the story. Currier constantly switches between Jim’s adventures, to Ari’s hardships, to flashbacks of their relationship before being separated (way too many flashbacks for my tastes). This constant fractured storytelling became frustrating. It felt to me like I was following the story from an altitude of ten-thousand feet when I wanted to be right there on the ground. It simply didn’t have the same intensity as Ted’s search for his brother. And the fact that it took no guesswork to figure out exactly what would happen didn’t help.

The title, “The third Buddha” refers to an archeological site in Afghanistan where scientists search for a giant statue of the Buddha. It is near this site where tribe’s people take in Ari. This search for the statue is used as a symbol of the ongoing pursuit for something bigger than ourselves. And, of course, that is what both these stories are about.

Jameson Currier is a talented writer who has created an important and thought-provoking book. These are credible characters who experience gut-twisting emotional hardships and victories. It is a book I can highly recommend, even if it doesn’t find a place on my “favorite’s” shelf.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Woke up in a Strange Place by Eric Arvin

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 978-1-61581-795-5

Joe wakes up in a barley field with no clothes, no memory, and no idea how he got there. Before he knows it he’s off on the last great journey of his life. With his soul guide, Baker, and a charge to have courage from a mysterious, alluring and somehow familiar Stranger, Joe sets off through a fantastical changing landscape to confront his past.

The quest is not without challenges. Joe’s past is not always an easy thing to relive, but if he wants to find peace—and reunite with the Stranger he is so strongly drawn to—he must continue on until the end, no matter how tempted he is to stop along the way.

I confess that I found myself of two minds while reading this book, part of me quite enchanted and part of me – the writing coach part – perturbed by some bad writing habits, particularly in the first 20 or 30 pages. Indeed, I nearly stopped reading and tossed the book into my “No, thanks” pile.

Let me quickly say I’m glad I did not, because once we got past a slow start, the book turned out to be a magical and often highly original interpretation of the mythical journey for the truth, the hero quest.

So let me start by waxing eloquent on what is good—make that very good-- about the book. First, as I said already, it’s a fresh and original take on an oft used theme (though not so often in gay or m/m fiction). Joe, the protagonist, wakes up in what he thereafter insists on thinking of as Heaven, although his spirit guide, Baker, keeps insisting that this isn’t that, at least not in the sense that he perceives it.

And like all seekers after truth, Joe sets out on a journey, without really understanding where it is he’s headed. At the onset, Joe’s memory seems mostly to have vanished, but as he journeys, memories come back to him, he meets people from his past, some of them changed, some of them not, and he sees scenes from his life in a different light.

I can’t get into all of Joe’s adventures here, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. Following them for yourself, taking your own journey, is way more fun, and more instructive, too, but the author displays a vivid imagination, sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, and nearly always charming. It would be very difficult, for example, not to be enchanted by The City of Thought, where people fish in the clouds with crystal poles for dreams and ideas. I’d book a vacation there any day. What gay male wouldn’t enjoy a stopover with “the brethren,” a sort of Heavenly fraternity house peopled with all the drop-dead gorgeous men of one’s dreams, all super endowed, all there for nothing more than the joys of endless sex? Hey, it may not be what they sing about in Sunday school, but it sound pretty heavenly to me. You can have the golden slippers.

Not everything is brightness and light, of course, in this journey any more than in your own life. There are some dark patches, some genuinely scary interludes, and some painful lessons to be learned.

There is that slow start, however, and the problems I mentioned earlier, and while I can’t exactly do a blow by blow (and what would be the point, since the book is already published?) it would be unfair to the writer to mention them and not provide a few examples of what I mean. Anyway, they are the sort of thing that a diligent writer can and should correct, which is to say it will benefit him in the longer run.

First, though, it will help if I explain that good fiction, short or long, is like a dream shared by the author and the reader. The author wants the reader to forget that he’s reading a book, and sink into the dream, experiencing it for himself. So, the cardinal sin for the author is anything that jars the reader out of the dream, reminding him this isn’t real, it’s only a book.

That is why, however clever it makes the author feel, this is not the time to show off one’s impressive vocabulary. The reader may be impressed, but he will also be jarred out of the dream. Even if he doesn’t jump up and rush to the dictionary, it will still give him pause to come across a word that makes him puzzle. Anyway, if he has no clue what “aureate grass” is, you’ve wasted your description. When given a choice between fancy, scholarly words or phrases, or the common language of everyday, choose the everyday. Most of your readers will be everyday people, and they will stay entranced, as you want them.

Victorian writers were fond of addressing the reader directly: “Little did she know, dear reader, when she climbed the stairs…” The author doesn’t do a lot of this, but phrases like “he could remember nothing of before, our hero…” smack of Victoriana. Remember the dream – when you are addressing your reader directly, you are reminding him this is only a book, a story you’re telling him, and not something he’s living as he reads it.

And there’s a lot of just plain old-fashioned overwriting. When Baker extends his hand to Joe, “…it secured a tight grip around Joe’s own…” It would be much simpler and clearer if he just took Joe’s hand in a tight grip, wouldn’t it? Or, when Baker “took a bite from his apple, first remembering to remove the cigarette that still hung from his lip…” I suspect most readers wouldn’t imagine him chomping on cigarette and apple together, but if the cigarette must be dispensed with, couldn’t the horse go before the cart?

Also, the book goes on a bit too long after the real story –which would be Joe’s journey—is ended. There’s an art in knowing when to bring down the curtain. No matter how clever what you add in after that point, it’s doing handstands just to show the reader you can do them. Save that for the lawn party when the book comes out.

Okay, yes, nitpicking, and I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t think the author had a genuine talent – but talent alone is not enough. If a writer wants to get better, he must work at his craft as well. The real problem with these problems is that they are first-book mistakes, and this is not a first book—which raises the question, is the author learning? Or content to slide along? Now, I do know that not every writer wants to get better at it. There are those who really aren’t interested in getting good, just in getting successful – they are two different goals, and don’t always go together. This author is good enough, however, that I can’t help thinking he will want to do better. I hope so.

Still, this is a delightful book, one that I think most readers will enjoy aplenty. And, yes, you will probably guess before he gets there where it is Joe is journeying to. Or perhaps not even journeying to, since the author is offering an alternate universe in which all the logical rules needn’t apply—which is to say, maybe he’s already there, maybe always was, just not conscious of it. I am reminded of Stephen Levine’s description of the desired state of being: “Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be.” Which, maybe, is what Heaven means.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Simple Treasures by Alan Chin

Reviewer: Victor Banis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 136

Only the mediocre artist is always at his best – this is why we rightly judge an artist on the body of his work rather than on a single sample – we may just have gotten the wrong sample, that particular book when the writer’s aim surpassed his reach. It happens, but only to the true artist.

I’m happy to say that this time the goal was not beyond the artist’s reach. Simple Treasures couldn’t be a more fitting title for this offering from one of the best writers in the arena today, Alan Chin – because this is indeed a treasure, though writing this good is never really as simple as it looks. Here, as in his best work (but no, of course, not every time) the author goes beyond the confines of writing and enters the realm of art, and his genre is made the richer for it. As both a writer and a reader, I came away from this tale feeling that my experience—of life, of literature - had been greatly enhanced.

The title character, Simple, is a Shoshone. He has just been released from a mental hospital, where he has been abused essentially for the crime of being different. He is offered a job by Lance Bishop in the town of Saint George, Utah. Bishop’s father, Emmett, is an irascible drunk who has driven away every other caregiver – but in fact, Lance wants his father kept drunk. He plans to have his father committed and take control of the ranch, which he means to sell to developers. At first, Emmett rejects Simple’s overtures as well, but he soon recognizes a kindred spirit. There is a romance, too, between Simple and Emmett’s gothic-gay grandson, Jude.

Emmett is dying of cancer, and the ever present vultures roosting atop the barn provide a Greek-chorus reminder of imminent death. It was his wife’s death that sent Emmett into this long, downward spiral of grief and self-pity. Simple’s memory is dead, too—or as he himself explains it, his memory gets flushed clean each night. And Lance is dead to the pleasures of life or the soul. Even Jude is infected, convinced that for him there is no Life for him here, in this town--that Life exists elsewhere, in San Francisco to which he plans to escape.

But that is only the story as told by the words. The real story is written between the lines, and it is about nothing less than the encroachment of death, and the reaffirming of life, through love, through dignity, and the oneness of all existence. A man becomes a memory, a falcon becomes a man, and love bridges the illusory abyss that separates us one from the other. And how magically the author weaves his story, painting indelible pictures from nothing more, it seems, than mere wisps of smoke.

Deep in the human body—yours, mine, everybody’s—there is just one soul that we all share, as if we’re just tiny pieces of the same puzzle…That’s why we’re here in the first place, to make our sliver of the soul shine like the sun.

Chin doesn’t write erotica, but it would be a colder heart than mine that wouldn’t melt sharing Jude and Simple’s “first date” – fishing in Bitter Creek.

Simple’s pole jerked toward the water. “Jesus, I’ve got one.” He hauled the pole back to set the hook.
“Give him line,” Jude said. “Play him.”
Simple leaned out over the water, retrieving line.
With a wicked giggle, Jude shoved Simple, who tumbled into the water and was swept downstream, still holding the rod high over the water. Laughing, Jude ripped off his hat and boots and flung himself into the water. He was swept along, fighting his way toward Simple.
They met in the swirling water and pumped their legs until they stood in the shallows. They shared a sensual hug and kiss. When they broke apart, Simple held up a trout…

Simple sets out to help Emmett transcend his looming death by restoring his dignity and by transferring his spirit into the body of a falcon, and the story climaxes in a stunning ceremony in which man and falcon battle for supremacy while Simple dances and chants himself into an exhausted stupor.

Simple began to dance again. His feet stomped the ground with the same rhythm that Emmett had pounded out with his cane. He chanted and his voice grew in volume…the wind died. Everything went silent—even the crickets hushed—as if the universe were holding its breath. A minute later, the bird shrieked. In the distance, the sound of the wind drifting through the trees grew into a steady pulse, like the slow beating of a heart.

The author occasionally slips into the habit of repeating words where a different word would work better—and although I’m not generally in favor of censorship, I think the writing world would be better for having the word “then” banned from usage by all penmen. And he has developed a tendency to slide into melodrama, which is simply not his forte. Happily, that is minimal here.

Never mind. This is a stunningly beautiful literary effort. In the end, I cannot tell you if the story is a good or a bad one – those are intellectual considerations, but this is not a story told from or to the intellect, it is told from the heart. As Simple tells the old man, Some things can’t be talked about. Words only confuse it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Young Love, Too Soon Gone By Nowell Briscoe

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: MLR Press

A bittersweet tale of, yes, young love, from a refreshing new voice in the genre of gay fiction.

Jack, the narrator, picks his story up more or less in the middle, when young Max sends him a note asking to see him. They meet at a pizza parlor, and as they chat, the story gradually unfolds of the young lovers, Max and Zach – how they met as boys, how friendship became passion and ultimately love – but a star crossed love that ends in a tragedy.

The story does not end with the tragedy, however, as the author cleverly carries us not only backward in time, but forward as well, and gives us, if not a happy ending, one with the promise of happiness to come.

I don’t want to spoil the story by giving too much away, and since the plot is a fairly uncomplicated one, there’s not much I can say about how the early story develops. Suffice to say that the tragedy springs from a family’s blindness to a son’s sexual reality and their insistence on some kind of “normalcy.”

Interestingly, the author manages to create a lot of sexual tension without a lot of sexual activity. To be sure, he and Max share with one another memories of some explicit experiences in the past, but the real sexual tension comes from the attraction that Jack feels for Max and which it appears is reciprocal, and this tension mounts when the pair go from the restaurant to Jack’s apartment to finish their conversation. Neither of them, however, seem to know quite what to do about their attraction—if it is even mutual, and like Jack, we’re never entirely sure of that--and the reader comes away from the scene thinking that after all maybe it was better that they let the moment pass.

What makes this story enjoyable beyond its barebones is the sincerity with which it’s told. One gets a sense that this is something more than a work of fiction, a feeling that the author is simply sharing with his readers his own touching experience. The characters are true to life, and one almost imagines he is in the room with them listening to them talk. I think most of us, like the narrator, have been in those situations where we thought there was a mutual attraction, but we weren’t entirely sure, or weren’t sure how to make anything happen. What makes this work so well is that, just as in real life, we aren’t entirely certain if the other person is feeling the same or if we are just misreading the signals. Make a move, or not? Will I only end up making a fool of myself? Surely we’ve all been there a time or two.

This author also writes a series of columns for his hometown (Monroe, Georgia) newspaper, a series of reminiscences of growing up there, which I have been fortunate enough to read, and the writing in this story is in very much the same voice, more a conversational one than a literary one.

Which only adds to the sense of verity, as if you were catching a glimpse, through a window, of real life. Whatever flaws this story has, it has the great virtue of believability. It rings true, and that is not an easy thing for any writer to accomplish. Hats off to Nowell Briscoe for this, his debut story.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review: A Hundred Little Lies by Jon Wilson

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages: 211

Jack Tulle owns and runs the general store in the sleepy town of Bodey, Colorado. He and his eight-year-old daughter live above the store. For years he has played the doting father, honest businessman, member of the town council, and pillar of the community. He is respected and admired by all.

But then the local saloon announces plans to hold a professional poker tournament that boasts an impressive grand prize. It is sure to draw the West’s elite card players, which could cause Jack Tulle to loose everything he cares about. You see, for eight years Jack has been living a lie, and lies are like termites, where there is one, there is a whole nest. Lies multiply and build on themselves until you’re standing on a rickety platform that could collapse at the slightest gust of wind. And this poker tournament could prove to be a hurricane for Jack.

The author very cleverly reveals Jack’s hundred little lies one or two at a time. The first reveal comes in the form of Tom Jude, a card shark that Jack used to run with. When Tom shows up a few days before the tournament, the two are reunited and the reader realizes they were more than friends, they were—and still are—in love with each other. After some fairly hot sex, the reader finds they were more than lovers, they were partners-in-crime. Both men were card cheats, con men, and always available for an opportune swindle. They were hard drinking, hard fighting scoundrels.

As more old “business acquaintances” come into town for the tournament, Jack finds himself scrambling to maintain his deception by piling on more lies to the town’s folk. But of course the more lies that accumulate, the more truths that are uncovered. And the reader discovers that at the bottom of the heap are some truths that are much worse than cheating at cards and the odd swindle. Jack is hiding something that could send him to prison, perhaps even the hanging tree. He knows he should simply leave town until everything blows over, but he can’t abide leaving Tom Jude again.

And of course Tom Jude has his own secrets, and Jack feels compelled to get to the bottom of them before it’s too late.

This is a funny, moving, delightful romance. What struck me most is the enchanting voice the narrator takes on, reminiscent of Mark Twain, which adds so much pleasure to the experience. The story is skillfully crafted, and because it takes place over just a few days time, the author goes into delicious detail with each scene.

Because of that detail, the reader is able to drill down into the many layers of the main characters and also the secondary characters. As the layers are pealed away, the tensions rise, making Jack and Tom arc, that is, develop as characters, making this a well-rounded and very satisfying story.

In poker terms, this book is an ace-high straight flush; only it’s anything but straight. It is an exceptional debut novel by a writer everyone should keep on their radar screen. I can highly recommend this story to all readers.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Like Lovers Do by Lori L. Lake

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Yellow Rose Books
Pages: 194

Kennie McClain is a security guard/handy person at a Portland apartment complex. Unbeknownst to her tenants at the Allen Arms, she also owns the building. She is still in recovery mode from the loss of her lover three years prior, but she also has eyes for the sexy artist, Lily Gordon, who rents the entire top floor for an art studio.

Lily is beautiful, stylish, and a nationally-acclaimed painter. She also has a hard-as-nails, detective girlfriend who will stop at nothing to protect her relationship with Lily.

A series of events lead Kennie into Lily’s bed for a night of blissful lovemaking, which opens Kennie’s heart for the first time in years. Kennie’s emotions begin to bud, but then Lily’s girlfriend steps back onto the scene to nip that relationship before it can blossom. Kennie is thrown back into her protective shell and struggles to deal with her disappointment.

When things look bleakest for Kennie, Max, an abused teen, comes into Kennie’s life, and she finds herself in a nurturing role. Within this new role, Kennie shows both the reader and Lily the goodness of her soul. But will it be enough to win back Lily?

I don’t often get a chance to read f/f fiction, so this was a treat for me. Like Lovers Do is a well written, detailed study of loneliness and longing, and a potent lesson in the Karmic message that good things eventually rain down on good people, but only if they maintain their goodness through a period of drought. This story is heart-warming and uplifting, and what makes it so is the multi-layered depths of the characters Lori Lake has skillfully crafted. The author made me care about the characters, compelled me to pull for the protagonists and despise the antagonists.

There were several questions I had about the story that were never answered to my satisfaction. For instance, I never understood why Kennie kept the fact that she owned the building a secret from her tenants. It made no sense to me, and if it was explained, then I missed it. None of these types of questions kept me from enjoying the story, however.

Although there is a lot of story packed into these pages, the author does not hurry. The story moves at a leisurely, measured pace and offers enough detail to paint vivid pictures of each scene.

This is a story that will appeal not only to fans of f/f, but also to all readers who enjoy a heart-warming romance. I can highly recommend Like Lovers Do.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Moffie by Andre Carl van der Merwe

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Europa Editions
Pages: 364

Like every gay boy in 1970s South Africa, Nicholas van der Swart must hide that part of himself that is different from other boys, especially from his father. Nicholas grew up fearing his tyrannical father, an abusive Afrikaner devoted to apartheid and all things manly. And Nick grew up being ashamed of himself, thinking he was an abomination against God.

Nick is conscripted into two years of mandatory army life when he turns nineteen years old. The military goes against everything Nick feels at his core. He is a pacifist, but the lure of freeing himself from an oppressive home life helps him cope with the reality of becoming a soldier fighting for a cause he doesn’t believe in.

But Nick finds that the nightmare of living at home is nothing compared to the hell of boot camp. Within his company, he is labeled a Moffie (a queer), and his superiors stop at nothing to destroy him. At the same time, he makes three close friendships, and even falls in love. Nick finds that the one thing that is more terrible than the physical abuse he endures every day, is the mental torcher of not being able to tell his close buddies and the person he loves what he really feels for them. He must keep that secret locked deep in his heart, or risk being shipped off to a mental hospital for shock, drug and hormone treatments.

After boot camp, Nick and his friends are shipped to the boarder where South Africa is at war with Angolan terrorist. On the battlefield, Nick learns a valuable lesson: to not ask God to help him, but merely to put his life in God’s hands, become an instrument of the Almighty, and accept God’s will. Within the depths of this military torture, bloodshed and his new religious faith, Nick is able to acknowledge his homosexuality and come out to the men he cares for. His coming out somehow helps him find the strength to survive.

I found it hard to believe that Moffie is Andre Carl van der Merwe’s debut novel. This is a powerful, emotional, well-written gem. This author writes with all the polish of a seasoned professional.

The story grabbed my gut on page one and didn’t let go. It starts with the protagonist fighting a hopeless and heartbreaking home situation, then the reader watches Nick’s life disintegrate from there as he free-falls deeper and deeper into hell. The reader shares his anguish, and craves revenge against an unjust world. And just when it seems that Nick has reached the lowest level of purgatory, the reader realizes there are deeper regions yet to discover.

I did have two minor issues with this story. First, I felt the author relied too heavily on clichés. It starts with a rather cliché battle between a gay teenaged son and the hard stoic father who wants his boy to go into the service so they will make a man of him. The mother, of course, is overly protective—more cliché—followed by the company Sergeant who takes a disliking to the hero and tries to break him. It’s all been done so many times before.

My second issue is that sprinkled throughout the storyline are numerous flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood to demonstrate the battles and hardships of his development. I felt most of these flashbacks added little or nothing to the story, and were a distraction to the main storyline.

Both of these issues are easily overlooked. This is a tale of survival, of love, and of finding the light of courage when the world is pitch black. The story is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a pleasant beach read, then keep looking. Moffie is a gritty, brutal, poignant, gut-twisting read, and the reader will surely feel a euphoric sense of accomplishment upon completing that last chapter as the writer skillfully lifts the reader back into the light.

This is a somber drama that I thoroughly enjoyed, and can highly recommend to serious readers.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rite of Passage by Bryl R. Tyne

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages: 80

John Ashley Price is a celebrity author who has gone into hiding to escape the constant hounding from paparazzi and fans. He wants to become an island unto himself where he can write in peace and not have a soul in the world who knows who or what he is. His publisher, Carol, finds him the perfect getaway within the forested mountains of Colorado—a hick town named Divide.

Alone at his mountain retreat, John finds that his constant companion, extreme anxiety, refuses to leave him in peace. He must still take a regiment of pills to control his mood swings, and he finds he has a merciless case of writer’s block. On top of all that, he finds his cabin is not as remote as he anticipated. There is a neighbor within a stone’s throw, and the neighbor turns out to be just the kind of man that twirls John’s skirt—Mid-twenties, handsome, muscular, a silent cowboy type.

To pass the time and to do research for his next novel, John volunteers his time to help out at the local wild animal clinic. He does odd jobs but his real purpose is to research wolves and their habitat. What he finds instead is that he is being studied by the clinic foreman, Pat Smith. Then a series of strange coincidences unravel John’s new world, beginning with John discovering that Pat is in fact his sexy neighbor. John soon realizes there is some kind of plot afoot, but what could it be?

This story is a fun, romantic romp that had me smiling throughout and often laughing out loud. Neither the story nor the characters are overly complex, but it doesn’t matter. This is a fast paced, delightfully sexy tale.

What I loved most was the voice the author was able to capture and maintain. It has a Western twang, rough around the edges, yet reads smooth as silk. It described even mundane things in the most humorous ways. This is a funny story, without being slapstick or stupid, and yes, there is enough romance to warm your heart and enough sex to get your blood pumping.

Admittedly, there is no mystery here. The plot was pretty clear early on, but again it doesn’t matter. It is the delivery that makes this a fun and sexy read. Bryl R. Tyne is a huge talent. I can highly recommend this novella to all readers.