Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tricks By Rick R. Reed

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by
ISBN 978-1-60820-215-7

Rated 4.5 out of 5

By now readers are surely so accustomed to having Rick Reed scare the pants off them that it must be a welcome change to see him achieve that same result by means of romance. I don’t know if this is Rick’s first venture into the romance genre, but he shows as much aptitude for it as he has always done for horror and suspense, and he can surely get your pants off – or at least down.

Not that this novel is without suspense, but while that element adds a bit of frisson to the reading pleasure, it is really the unlikely relationship between his two protagonists that holds the story together and propels it forward, a classic case of opposites attracting. Think Hepburn and Grant in Bringing up Baby.

The beautiful Arliss, at age twenty two, is a stripper in a gay bar, Tricks. Sean, whose looks are more average, is thirty seven, and on the nerdy side. A breakup with his boyfriend, Jerome, brings heartbroken Sean into the bar one night, in time to see Arliss perform. Arliss takes note of the stranger, so unlike the men who make up the usual crowd and, oddly intrigued, works his way down the bar, intending to check him out more closely—but Sean leaves before that can happen.

Later that same night, however, they meet on the shore of Lake Michigan. Arliss delivers an impulsive kiss and when that proves welcome, he fully expects that they will do the usual and go home for some high octane sex—but to his surprise, Sean, who is not into one night stands, declines. Instead, he makes a date for dinner a few nights later.

So begins a relationship that is entirely unlike anything either has experienced before. A teenage runaway, Arliss has lived on the mean streets and has a decidedly checkered past, yet somehow he has managed to retain a certain virginal air, but Sean is the first person to really tune into this and appreciate Arliss for what he is inside. And in conservative, genuinely kind Sean, Arliss finds a kind of love he has never met before. Being with Sean is like being “home.” Despite their differences, the two become a couple.

Of course, this is a novel, and circumstances threaten. Sean is able (if barely) to put aside his unhappiness at Arliss’s “work” at Tricks, but when an attractive customer suggests something further, things go bad, and from bad to worse. This secondary plot supplies a bit of menace and suspense, but the real interest remains where it was from the first, with this seemingly mismatched couple who turn out to be so exactly right for each other.
A nice romantic read, and a welcome change of pace from this prolific author.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tricks by Rick R. Reed

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by MLR Press
Pages: 191

Arliss had a lot to be thankful for. He had managed to escape the small, nothing of a town and his abusive parents with no more than the clothes on his back and the price of a bus ticket. Now he paraded his sexy, near-naked, twenty-two-year-old body in front of a packed house at a strip club in Chicago’s infamous Boystown neighborhood. He had money in his pocket and was in high demand, burning the candle at all ends. But as thankful as he felt, he had a dream of moving beyond the groping hands and hungry stares at the strip joint. With his limited education, he felt his big break could only come from the male-porn industry. He wanted desperately to become a porn star.

Sean didn’t know what had prompted him to enter the Tricks strip club that night. He had recently broken off the relationship with his lover, and loneliness had driven him from his apartment. Being an intellectual and old enough to have become sedate, he didn’t approve of such places, but he needed to have people around him, to be part of a crowd. Then a dancer – young, hung, gorgeous, with an innocent smile – made him forget his loneliness, and everything else for that matter. His lust erupted, and his embarrassment forced him to flee the club.

Hours later, sulking near the lake shoreline, Sean looked up to see that same stripper. The boy introduced himself as Arliss. Loneliness had driven them both to the same spot, or was it fate?

This is an opposites attract story, which may sound familiar – at least it did to me. What is not familiar is the way the author draws you into each character, and makes you feel their longings in your gut. Mr. Reed has a keen insight into the loneliness and hopes and insecurities that drive people, and he shows off his talents with this story.

The outward plot is not a complicated one, but the inner journey these characters trudge as they traverse the pitfalls of an older/younger relationship is both complicated and hypnotic. The author not only pulled me into the story, he made me believe I was both characters, needing to abandon the harsh world and merge to become whole again. It was a very emotional journey.

At the beginning of this story, Arliss longs to become a porn star, Sean prays to return to his ex-lover’s arms. Saint Therese once said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” which is a theme I’ve often used in my own writing. Mr. Reed skillfully demonstrates this premise for an unforgettable plot twist.

I can highly recommend this story. It’s fun, sexy, emotional, and satisfying. Bravo Mr. Reed.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

P’tit Cadeau By Anel Viz

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis.
Publishced by Silver Publishing
ISBN 978-1-920468-58-3

Highly recommended

The narrator of the story, Ben, is told before he meets Jean Yves that the boy is a simpleton, unemployed because unemployable. He is pleasantly surprised instead to find the young man is both attractive and likable—but, Ben is sure, straight, and he accordingly resists his growing attraction.

This is a highly readable and intensely romantic novel. Anel Viz penned this before the highly acclaimed Memoirs of Colonel Gérard Vreilhac and, to be honest, it occasionally shows. It is a charming and erotic story, to be sure, and the author writes well, if with just a tad less assurance here than later. And, about that title – the petit cadeau is, literally, the little gift that the French hustler mentions at first meeting, to let you know he expects to be paid.

It is of note that the novel is written from the single narrator’s Point Of View, which can sometimes cause writers problems with developing the other characters in the story, but this is nothing more than lack of craft and can (and must) be overcome. As an example, there could hardly be a more resolutely single POV novel than Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 suspense classic, Rebecca. Every character in the book is completely realized—even the dog has a recognizable personality, and the villainess, Mrs. Danvers, is fully dimensional, yet everything and everyone is seen only through the eyes of the unnamed narrator.

How did Ms. Du Maurier achieve this result? Exactly the same as we do in our lives, which after all we each of us live with our own single POV. People tell the narrator things, either directly, or indirectly, remarks are overheard, gestures noted, facial expressions, even silence. One forms opinions, makes judgments, gets a sense of the people with whom one comes into contact. The narrator is only imitating what happens in real life. From such hints, even the single narrator is able to offer the reader a book filled with living, breathing characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

I don’t want to make overmuch of this, but I stress it because every writer who opts to do a novel with a single narrator POV must face this problem and overcome it, or settle for producing something less than his best.

Nor do I want to suggest that this novel does not work because of this lack. It works quite nicely, in fact, because the author wisely focuses on the three essential characters that he has drawn well, and keeps his story closely tied to them.

The narrator, Ben, is beautifully drawn and, really (and appropriately), this is almost entirely his story. So we watch him encourage an unhappy younger man, struggle with his sexual desire and gradually and against his will, fall in love. It all rings true.

The second “character” is Ben’s art, which is something quite apart from the rest of him, but essential to his nature (and a major element in the story) and this is handled with the skill of a master craftsman. By the time I finished reading the novel, I could almost have sworn that it had been illustrated. You can actually see the sketches, the paintings, the drawings, as Ben produces them. And, they are not something tacked on to “show off,” they are entirely integral to the story.

The third character is Jean Yves, the young man with whom Ben falls in love, and he is somewhat less convincing. When he tells about being abused as a child, for instance, I simply did not believe it. But the character is complex, and develops wonderfully in the course of the story, making up for any lapses, and over the course of the pages we see him grow from a young man (much younger it seems, than his actual age of 22) drifting in an unhappy and idle life to full manhood and a successful career. By the end of the tale, Jean Yves seems the senior of the two lovers.

There are some highly erotic passages, some humor, and a wonderful sense of place—Southern France and various locales in Italy come vividly to life. And, as an aside, the cover is absolutely perfect, a rarity.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Murder On Camac by Joseph R.G. DeMarco

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Lethe Press
Pages: 393

Christian historian and author Helmut Brandt uncovers shocking evidence he believes proves that the decades-old death of Pope John Paul the First was not due to natural causes, but rather, the result of a murder plot that links several high-ranking members of the Church. In this day and age, wielding such damning accusations like that could get a fellow dead, and of course, it does just that. Brandt is gunned down in a gay neighborhood of Philadelphia. When the police choose to push the case to a back burner, calling it a typical mugging gone bad, Brandt’s lover, Timothy Hollister, calls Marco Fontana onto the case.

Marco has his hands full managing a bevy of male strippers called Strip-Guyz, who perform at the local gay watering hole. He doesn’t have time for the case, but a suspicious chain of events pulls Marco into combing through the local Catholic hierarchy as well as crawling through the seedy gay hangouts in the sleazy parts of Philly. Marco brings in a colorful cast of characters to help with his investigation, and goes up against an even more imaginative lineup of suspects. Things seem to be going nowhere until Marco’s life is threatened. Dangerous people and powerful forces are intent on stopping Marco’s investigation. Slowly, clue by clue, Marco uncovers a fascinating knot of intrigue, deceit and murder.

In many ways this is a typical murder mystery. It starts with a murder, and evolves to the point where there is perplexing evidence and suspects lurking in every direction you look. Then the list is narrowed until you think you know who and why, but of course, you don’t.

There are, however, a number of elements that make this story stand well above the typical. The foremost is the entire cast of unusual characters. These people are interesting and fun, with characteristics that challenge the reader. Marco in particular is well drawn and as believable as any protagonist you’ll come across. One of the more interesting things about Marco was revealed by the nature of the case; he was forced to examine his own Catholic upbringing and his feelings about the Church. The author uses this to bring added depth to the character in an interesting and intelligent approach.

Another shining element is the dizzying number of subplots that are constantly evolving throughout the story, most notably, the entire managing-the-strippers subplot. It skillfully adds a playful sexiness to an otherwise dark storyline. Normally when I read a story with this many subplots, it becomes confusing and things tend to drop through the cracks, but not here. The author skillfully develops each subplot and then ties them together for a satisfying ending.

I did note two minor issues with this read. The first, I ran across multiple situations that were a roll-my-eyes coincidence that couldn’t have really happened, but was needed to make the plot work. I normally ignore one or two of these in a story, but it makes an impression after three or four.

My second issue was a bit more serious. Through much of the story, Marco interviewed one character, after another, after another. Many of the clues were revealed through long sessions of dialog, which is not necessarily bad, unless it is over done. I felt the author could have introduced more action scenes to break up the dialog and reduce the monotony of all these long interviews.

These two issues, I assure you, are minor. I feel this is a well-written, interesting, fun story that kept me guessing until the last ten pages. I can highly recommend Murder on Camac to all lovers of the mystery genre.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Alan Chin’s Top Ten Review Picks for the 2010

Selecting only ten books from the ones I reviewed this year is extremely difficult, because if I reviewed a book, that means I enjoyed it, even if I had minor issues with it. In addition to the forty-three books that I did review this year, there were another twenty that I did not finish or review for one reason or another.

And let me state that this list is not to say that any of the books on my list are necessarily "better" than the others I’ve reviewed over the year. Not all books resonate with everyone the same way. It's simply a judgment call. These are books that resonated with me, both during and after the reading.

I’ve listed my top ten picks below, in no particular order. I’ve also added an addition five books that I thought were in some way special and deserved an honorable mention.

My Top Ten Reads:

A Man of Principle by Victor J. Banis
After a night at the opera, an elderly man decides to have a nightcap at a favorite watering hole to prolong the inevitable of going home to an empty apartment. But while enjoying the comforts of a twelve-year-old, single-malt scotch, he meets Neal MacIntyre, and they form a fragile bond.
Neal is nursing his well scotch, trying to make it last until closing time. He doesn’t have the money for another drink and he has no place to spend the night. Out of pure kindness and a desire for conversation, the elderly man offers him both – first a drink, then a couch to sleep on for the night. Neal happily accepts. But once the two are at the man’s apartment, Neal begins to tell what events brought him to that apartment. He tells a gripping tale of love and friendship, gain and loss, treachery and murder.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham
West with the Night by Beryl Markham is the autobiographical account of Beryl Markham, the first woman (lesbian) commercial pilot in Africa, back in the 1930s and ‘40s. She describes her childhood growing up on a farm in Africa, and also about learning to fly and becoming a successful commercial aviator. Towards the end of the book, she describes her history-making flight over the Atlantic, flying from Ireland to Canada.

The Secret Historian by Justin Spring
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.

Counterpoint, Dylan’s Story by Ruth Sims
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?

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man is a day in the life of George, a man who recently lost his male lover in an auto accident. From waking up, to having breakfast, to driving to work where he fantasizes and converses with co-workers and students as he goes through his day as an English professor at a state college in Los Angeles. While George steps through his routine, the ghost of his dead lover, Jim, flits in and out, a constant reminder that no matter how many people George surrounds himself with, he is still alone. George is an outsider. He is British living in L.A., gay living in a heterosexual world, brilliant among dull students and colleagues.
George’s day is simple and routine; however, the author creates a rich and complex text where the reader is able to become the protagonist. The reader experiences George’s debilitating loneliness, his anger and resentment with society, and the walls he keeps between he and his “friends.”

Normal Miguel by Erik Orrantia
Miguel Hernández leaves Mexico City to complete a one-year teaching internship in the rural hills of Puebla. He is a serious teacher, who traveled away from home and family for the first time. But before he can begin teaching classes, he has a sexual encounter with the local baker, and later meets Ruben, the gay owner of the local candy store. These meetings lead him down a path where it is impossible to keep his private and professional life separate, or even secret.
This is story of Miguel’s self-discovery, which is aided by his students, the director of the school, the baker, but mostly by Ruben, who becomes both friend and lover. But of course, Miguel’s journey becomes rather stormy when people of his small rural landscape begin to notice the bond he and Ruben develop. Homophobia rears its ugly head. Can the lover’s survive the threat of small-town bigotry and the influence of family?

Native by William Haywood Henderson
Blue Parker, the twenty-three-year-old foreman of a Wyoming ranch, has a secret crush on his ranch hand, Sam. The two cowboys are drawn to each other, and Blue makes plans to place Sam in a high-mountain cow-camp for the summer (ala Brokeback Mountain), thinking he will have Sam to himself in this idyllic getaway setting. But before he can act on his plan, Gilbert, a Native American who fancies himself a Two-Spirits (gay), draws a drunk Sam into a lewd dance at the local honky-tonk. The other cowboys begin to suspect Sam could be queer. The result is that Sam is later beaten to within an inch of his life in the alley behind the bar. Once Sam is released from the hospital, Blue moves Sam into his own cabin to care for the younger cowpoke. This move casts suspicion on Blue as well.
The events that unfold in that drunken night on the dance floor will drive Gilbert across the western states looking for his place in society, while Blue must choose between the home he loves and the man he loves, all the while the three men are bound on a second collision course.

Deep Water, A Sailor’s Passage by E. M. Kahn
Gene lives and works in Manhattan, but he spends much of his free time sailing the waterways in and around that metropolis, from New York harbor, to Long Island Sound, to Martha’s Vineyard. He hires a woodworker, Kevin, to work in his shop, and the two soon become lovers. Kevin is a decade younger, a handsome blond, and emotionally needy. Gene considers himself lucky, and commits to this relationship wholeheartedly, even though Kevin likes to sleep around. They manage a fragile relationship.
Although Kevin does not share Gene’s love of sailing, he acquires a small skiff and learns the sport. As their relationship deepens, so does their love for the sea, and for adventure. Gene trades his nineteen-foot daysailer in on a twenty-two-foot boat so that they can take overnight trips. As the years roll by the boats get more seaworthy and the trips longer. Sailing solidifies their relationship. Their love for each other seems bound to their, now mutual, love of adventure on the water.

The Moonlit Earth by Christopher Rice
At thirty years old, Megan Reynolds is an outsider in her affluent hometown of Cathedral Beach, California. She has recently come home with her tail between her legs after losing an altruistic job and her free-thinking boyfriend in San Francisco. Living with her mother, with financial help from her cousin, she finally lands a dream job that will allow her to start over.
Half a world away an explosion rips apart a Hong Kong hotel, killing 60 people. Security cameras partially record this apparent act of terrorism, showing a Middle Eastern man leading an American away from the building only moments before the deadly blast. Watching the media broadcasts, Megan recognizes the American as her beloved gay brother, Cameron.
As the media and the FBI line up to embroil her brother in a terror campaign, Megan is the only one who seems to know he didn’t’, couldn’t, do such a thing. But no one can find Cameron. He has gone underground. Playing the role of White Knight, Megan flies to Asia to find her brother and prove his innocence. Her journey pits her against her mother, her estranged father, a wealthy tycoon, a royal family, and the FBI.
With the clock ticking and bullets flying, Megan uncovers the last thing in the world she was looking for, family secrets so shocking that it will rock her entire universe.

Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian
Impossible Princess is an anthology of finely crafted, edgy short stories that walk on the razor’s edge between camp and noir, exploring both the humors and bizarre sides of desire. There are ten stories, some written solely by Killian and some written by Killian with collaboration from others. The collection has five stories that didn’t appeal to me and five stories I found captivating, sexy, brilliant and a fun edgy ride.

Five Honorable Mentions:

Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell by Kage Alan

The Zagzagel Diaries – Denial by Bryl R. Tyne

Boy Behind the Gate by Larry Jacobson

L.A. Boneyard by P.A. Brown

The 38 Million Dollar Smile, a Donald Strachey Mystery by Richard Stevenson