Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Legend of the Mountain Ash by Ruth Sims

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by Untreed Reads Publishing
Pages: 14

This poignant story starts with these two sentences: There are places in this world where magic and miracles meet, and when they do a legend is born. This is the story of one such legend, and how it came to be.

This simple yet beautiful opening blossoms into a tale of how Ethan and Davey meet in an army hospital during the World War II, after Ethan was brought there courtesy of a German bayonet. It then describes a growing love as the British lad, Davey, nurses the American solider back to health, a love as tender as a young shoot, but with roots growing deep in fertile soil.

Davey follows his lover back to America and they settle in a farming community, but bigotry from the townsfolk forces them to move on. They search for a place where they can live, free to express their love openly, so as to let it grow strong, and toughen into something that neither people nor time could destroy. In the Appalachian hills, they found such a place, a place where magic and miracles meet. The Legend of the Mountain Ash is, as so many legends are, a story of love and loss, sacrifice and redemption.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the most powerful. Such is the case with this tale, and under Ruth Sims’s skillful hand, this story also blends beauty and grace with that power, and she adds a dash fanciful magic to create an inner journey for the reader, a passage that leads to a bittersweet joy. As the lovers scratch out a life for themselves in this backwoods paradise (a reflection of their love), stone by stone, stick by stick, crop by crop, they also build a structure within the heart and mind of the reader.

The characters will pull at your heartstrings. The enchanting prose will tickle your whimsical soul. The ending, although somewhat predictable, will charm and sadden and uplift. This is one of those rare stories that is felt. And long after you put it down, you will continue to feel it, because it will awaken something in you, at least it did for me. I can highly recommend this story to all readers.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Quest for Brian by Jeff Graubart

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by CreateSpace (November, 2010)
Pages: 744

In the early 1970s David Rosen learns that his boyfriend, Brian, lost his job as a teacher because the school board found out Brian was gay. That injustice launches David on a quest for gay liberation, and once on that path he finds the fight a consuming passion from which there seems no escape. But the noble fight for justice does not lift David to a higher plane, rather, he falls farther away from the man he loves and seems to lose every battle, every friend. Because of his extreme and eccentric views, both Brian and the fellow gay liberation fighters distance themselves from David. From Champaign-Urbana to Chicago, to California, and back to Champaign, David descends into a web of obsession, drug addiction and instability.

Much of this story is the author’s memoirs, so the reader becomes witness to actual historical events, heretofore unprinted, starting in the early 1970s and going until the White Night Riots in San Francisco when Dan White got away with murdering Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. This autobiographical historical fiction is an important work, and should raise questions in the soul of every reader, gay or straight, red neck or liberal.

This was not a read I enjoyed, but rather, a read I found interesting. Brian was not a likable character, but he had noble qualities and a sense of justice, which made him a good protagonist. He was a young gay man who somehow linked his unrequited love for Brian Powers with the Gay Liberation Movement, and David’s obsession with both led him down a path of drug addiction and a lust for violent resistance that I found distasteful, as did everybody else in this story. David soon found himself a pariah in the gay community, with nothing to grab onto but the fight.

The story chronicles David’s few successes and many failures throughout this turbulent decade. One of the things I found most interesting was the variety of different gay political groups, and their intrigue, backstabbing and infighting that was a constant theme. Groups would form and dissolve at the drop of a skirt, and seemed more social than political.

The main issue that kept me from enjoying the storyline is that I found the book to be completely over-written. I felt the author could have easily cut out three hundred pages, and the result would be a tighter and more interesting story. As it is, I often found myself wading hip deep in detail that didn’t add much to the story. This was a problem from page one to the end.

This is a long, slow, repetitive, and often entertaining read. I recommend it for those readers who are interested in seeing a unique view of one of the most important and volatile periods in gay history. The following is an excerpt from the book that shows what the political situation was at that time:

In the film Milk, many got their first glimpse of the gay rights struggles of the 70s. Were those struggles an exercise in futility? Consider the following about 1980:
-­It had been just six years since Los Angeles police were ordered to harass and arrest homosexuals.
-­It had been just eight years since many states had special camps for incarcerating homosexuals.
-­It had been just ten years since it was illegal for bartenders in New York City to serve homosexuals.
-­It had been just eleven years since it was illegal in Dade County, Florida, for three or more homosexuals to congregate in public.
-­It had been just twelve years since a Time Magazine poll showed that most Americans despised homosexuals more than murderers.
-­It had been just fourteen years since a respected judge on the Florida Supreme Court wrote in a ruling that Americans would view the death penalty far more favorably if it was used against homosexuals.
So, suppose there was no uprising. Suppose Bryant and Briggs and Walinsky had won. Suppose the religious right was at peak strength in 1980, instead of in tatters.
And then the plague came.

Anita Bryant, who was fired from the Florida Citrus Commission, divorced by her husband, ruined in her career as a singer, and driven into bankruptcy; but those who choose to use God to justify their prejudices had better take note.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Butterfly’s Child by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Piet Bach at Wilde Oats eZine
Published by Dreamspinner Press

4 ½ stars

Alan Chin has taken Butterfly and both re-set it in high-desert Nevada and re-imagined it in two different time lines, to stunning effect. Essentially, he has written a sequel to the opera, an opera in prose form. Such an undertaking requires both nerves of steel and a sure hand, and Chin demonstrates that he has both. Some of the dramatic development is unexpected at the very least, but the character development is both subtle and deeply felt. The axis of both opera and novel is the character of Suzuki, which my Japanese friend told me translated as “Perfume of Pines”. As a name, it gives us a hint that the maid will be the strong survivor of the household, and in Chin’s tale it is indeed the maid/companion Juanita around whom the homestead revolves. Tough and resilient as a high-desert evergreen, scoured to essentials by wind and cold and desert heat, she holds the ranch together while disaster nearly consumes the family created by Butterfly’s child. The child has grown into a young man haunted by loss and grief, and whose preternaturally acute hearing has made him a misfit in the Manhattan environment he inhabits. His grandmother’s death and the necessity of returning to the family ranch to settle her affairs uproot him from life in the musical world, setting him on a course of growth and maturation. Along the way he sees one love wither and another blossom, witnesses deep devotion and fidelity, sees others’ loves grow in both romantic and non-romantic forms, learns what it is to be a man, and re-discovers a joy in music that he thought had faded completely away.

The characters of Butterfly’s Child are sensitively drawn; from the novel’s protagonist Todd, to the small boy Jem, they are believable and engaging. As the story progresses, we are pulled into the extended family. In the broadest sense, this is a romance, but it is far more than that. The tale is compelling – I was so transfixed by it, in fact, that I read the entire novel in one long sitting, stopping only when hunger drove me to the table and returning to the book as soon as I set my fork on the empty plate. Short scenes and longer set pieces are intelligently balanced, and the pace never feels either rushed or inhibited. I did feel a twinge of annoyance a couple of times when a passage of recitativo ran too dry: the hero’s ruminations on Zen Buddhism could have been abbreviated without damage to the score. But that’s a minor point. You don’t have to be a fan of Italian opera to respond to this dramatic tale of high romance, just be ready to fall in love.


Tough Guy Erotica by Neil Plakcy

Reviewed by Beth Wylde
Published by Amazon

Occasionally I force myself to find some time to catch up on my reading, especially when I'm feeling low and in a bit of a funk. Nothing inspires my imagination (and the rest of me) like some really naughty erotica. It's hard to stay sad when everyone between the pages are happily getting laid.

When I ran across an offer to read and review the latest collection by Neil Plakcy I jumped at the chance. My poor computer paid the price. I'm finished reading but the poor screen is still smoking.

I do feel like up front I need to warn readers a bit about this book. These stories are intensely graphic. This is gay male erotica the likes of which some of you have probably never seen before. There are no dainty fem guys or delicate gay romps between these pages. No mushy romance or easing your new found lover between the sheets. These men prove that big strong macho guys enjoy having sex with other men just as much, or more, than some of their smaller and gentler gay brethren.

Now that's not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to go into this anthology prepared. If you prefer something a little gentler and less carnal then you should probably keep shopping.

There is no purple prose, no fade to black. Neil uses part real-life inspiration from past adventures and an exceedingly fertile imagination to bring us some of the hardest erotica I've ever seen. Pages of big, muscular, beefy men who are attracted to other hard working sweaty guys, and they like sex. A LOT! With each other!

The sex depicted in this book is raw and gritty and nasty and at times even I could feel my cheeks getting hot, which is a hell of an accomplishment in my opinion. I'll never look at turkey and dressing the same way again. This is not a collection for the faint of heart.

The proof of that is the fact that quite a few of these stories were previously published through some big name publishers of gay erotica. No holds barred. You've got publishers and websites like Cleis, Honcho magazine, and Alyson. Just to name a few, plus some new stories that will leave your fingertips burning long after you've taken your hands off the mouse.

(No, I don't have an e-reader yet so I'm reading on my desktop. Sad, I know)
I did find a few typos but not enough to pull me out of the story the way some books I've read in the past have.

If you like your men strong, furry, fearsome and forceful then this is one collection you HAVE to purchase. If you like your erotica a little less graphic then this isn't the anthology for you. If, and when, you do buy Tough Guy, just be sure to have the fire department on standby before you start reading.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Traveling Light By Lloyd Meeker

Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
Published by MLR Press
ISBN: 978-1-60820-318-5

5+ stars – a definite keeper

Summary Review: A unique and wonderful tale of love and wisdom spanning centuries

The Blurb: An eye for an eye…
Ian McCandless is a hospice nurse, training to become a shaman. When his mentor orders him to make peace with his estranged family, reluctantly agrees, anticipating another conflict-filled visit. On their way home from the airport Ian’s older brother, Will, interrupts a convenience store robbery and is shot, dying in Ian’s arms and calling to him for vengeance.
Ian uses his shamanic abilities to track down the killer, but his quest soon turns into a hunt for revenge—forbidden to any shaman. Ian’s pursuit jeopardizes his relationship with the spirit world, endangers the lives of those he loves, and threatens to banish him from the only path that gives his life meaning.

The review:
I confess, when I finished reading Traveling Light, I found myself wondering what on earth I was going to say about it. Well, of course there were certain things that could be and must be said—for starters, that this is a beautifully written novel, an almost perfect marriage of style and story.

But how, I wondered, to explain the story. It is one of those that defies classification, for starters. It’s a gay novel—sort of. It’s a romance—sort of. It’s a two-spirits tale—sort of. It’s a paranormal and a time travel and all kinds of other things…all sort of. In fact, it’s not really much like anything I’ve read before, though that may be more of an indictment of my reading habits than a description of the novel. What it is, for certain, is a wonderfully compelling read.

Ian is an apprentice shaman, in contemporary Vancouver. He is on a trip to try to patch things up with his estranged family in Halifax when his older brother, Will, is shot in a convenience store robbery, and Ian thirsts for revenge—a dangerous emotion for a shaman to hold onto, as his mentor Ang warns him. Nonetheless, angry and determined to find justice, Ian begins to search for his brother’s spirit, and for the man who shot him.

Ta-Kuat is an apprentice shaman in a 13th century Anasazi village whose mentor, Chiyuskanek, seeks something called the Door Stone that he believes will bring critically needed rain and save their village from extinction—but Chiyuskanek’s motives are not pure. He wants to bring the rain so that the succeeding generations of their tribes will sing his praises. And because his aims are not pure, he can no longer do the spirit travel necessary to search for the Door Stone. In his place, Ta-Kuat begins a search for the Door Stone.

Ta-Kuat and Ian meet on the spirit plane, and are drawn to one another. Bear in mind, on the physical level, they are centuries apart, Ta-Kuat dead long before Ian was even born. Now, if, like me, you’re thinking there’s no way they can make it happen on the spirit level, you’re in for a big surprise:
“He couldn’t bear his own ecstasy, yet knew it without effort, just as he knew Ta-Kuat’s. They formed one being, one matrix of power, one undulating wave on the vastness that lifted them, drowning them.

He became vast, permeable, fluid, gas, solid, a tree’s memory, desire fierce as a hawk’s cry…Ta- Kuat was a volcano and Ian an ocean meeting him, infinite welcome. He evaporated and condensed again around the heat of newborn rock, caressing him with his eternal waves…Then, helpless and all powerful, all his chakras flowered open, his body swelled, failing to contain his essence, bursting open into stars rising in a spiral fountain, twining together, together melting and falling—into spent ash, soil, stone, silent water, root, rest—complete.”

Whew! I’m telling you, I was ready to trade in my gonads. And that’s the condensed version.

An evil spirit guide, Sheen, convinces Chiyuskanek that the way to achieve power is to kill Ta-Kuat and replace his heart with the Door Stone. Ian, meanwhile, foresees the murder and tries to avert it—thus interfering in the thread of Ta-Kuat’s life—another mistake for a shaman.

The plot is complex, and evolves on many levels, and I don’t want to give too much of that away here. Suffice to say, there’s metaphor and mystery, and riddles to be solved on many different levels and in many different time spaces. In the end, the author is writing about nothing less cosmic than the beginnings of Time, as we know it. One cannot help but come from this reading experience a bit wiser than before—but that makes it sound a bit too profound and far less fun than it actually is. This is a book to be savored on many different levels.

As to the characters, Ta-Kuat is a terrific creation, as is Ang. Chiyuskanek is particularly chilling because he does not himself see the evil of his ways. There is a wonderful cast of spirit creatures or guides: Shining Woman, Wolf Lady, Rattlesnake, Ghost Woman, Raven and the wonderfully creepy Sheen, a sort of cross between a dragon and a scorpion. Ian seems to me a little slow sometimes to “get it” but he’s endearing in his innocence. In truth, most of the characters in the “real world” – though you will begin to wonder as you read about that designation—are a bit less convincing than their spirit counterparts, maybe reflecting the author’s inclinations. And it may be that the author did this deliberately; I wouldn’t be surprised. The sexual element, e.g., is far more subdued on the physical plane than what I quoted above.

All in all this is a mystical tour-de-force, a spellbinding piece of writing—as I said, like nothing I’ve encountered before—I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this fully. But it does ask the reader to think. The truths that Ian and Ta-Kuat face are universal ones all of us must in time consider.