Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Emerald Mountain by Victor J. Banis

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: MLR Press
Pages: 34

A burned-out reporter for a gay rag in San Francisco is given an unusual assignment, to follow up on rumors that there is a gay messiah miraculously healing people in the Castro. His investigation leads him to Peter Lucas Simon, who was recently released from a mental clinic in Ohio called Earth Light, and who has no memory. Simon is a man caught in the present, with no history and no vision into the future. Simon seems too supernatural to be true.

The two men strike up a relationship, and the reporter travels to Earth Light in search of answers to Simon’s mysterious past. But the reporter’s visit only brings more questions. They become involved, but then a disappearance presents an intriguing question. Is Simon real or is he a hallucination fabricated in the reporter’s unhinged head?

One of the hallmarks of Victor J. Banis stories is the unique characters that lure the reader into an enjoyable journey, and this tale is no exception. These characters shine through this intriguing storyline, and charm the reader while the author plays a shell game with the plot that leaves the reader wondering what was real and what was imagined.

In the end, the reader realized that, real or invented, this is a story about letting fear of the unknown grab hold of us rather than accepting what is. This is a beautifully told story that blends religion and mysticism and homophobia. It is a mystery that keeps the reader engrossed and guessing to the last page. I can highly recommend this story.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Shining In The Sun by Alex Beecroft

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Pages: 170

Alec Goodchilde has everything a middle-aged man could want—wads of money, important job, beautiful fiancĂ©, controlling mother—except the freedom to be himself. He’s a prisoner within his own life. But every summer he drives to an exclusive yacht club on the Cornish coast and sails away for a month-long break from his overly structured life. This year, however, when his car breaks down and leaves him stranded on a beach, something inside him is awakened by the sight of a surfer dancing on the waves. The surfer is summer made flesh, freedom wrapped in a lithe package. He is everything Alex secretly longs for.

Darren Stokes’ only joy is riding the waves. He desperately needs a break from his life of grinding work, appalling relatives and hiding from his abusive ex-boyfriend. He sees that break in the form of a rich meal ticket that shows an interest in him. Darren coaxes Alec into an idyllic night together that turns into a life changing experience for both men, but no relationship is an island. The blinding light reality from each of their lives exposes the impossibility of their budding attraction.

At first blush this seems like a rather simple yet well-told story of opposites attract. Beecroft hooks the reader with vividly drawn characters and then draws the reader into a beautifully crafted world where both rich and poor can find a middle ground to protect each other and even flourish for a time. These characters come alive because of their genuine emotions and concerns.

But as both characters’ lives begin to catch up with them, the plot becomes more complex, with twists and turns that give the reader a nice range of emotional experiences. This is no simple tale of rich man meets poor boy. It is a multifaceted web of situations and emotions. The lovers are pulled apart again and again, but they keep fighting their way back to each other. By the end, the reader realizes that it is a story about finding courage. As Alex’s and Darren’s bond becomes stronger, they awaken in each other the pluck to fight back against all the negative influences in their lives that imprison them.

And do they win their battles? Do they live happily ever after? Well, this is a romance and at times a rather predictable one. I will say that I found the ending to be completely satisfying. Once again, Alex Beecroft has proven she is a topnotch storyteller. This is a read I can highly recommend.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Retirement Plan by Martha Miller

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (May 2011)
ISBN-10: 1602822247

An intriguing and engrossing read. Lois Burnett and Sophie Long, two senior lesbians, decide to supplement their meager retirement income with some contract killings. With this premise, I was actually expecting a screwball comedy, but it turns out this is more of a crime/police procedural. There is humor, to be sure, much of it supplied by Myrtle, a friend of Lois and Sophie’s, who is looking for love and trying on new partners like changing clothes in a fitting room.

The killings, however, are handled in a serious manner. The story essentially follows two different threads, that of the hit women and of detective Morgan Holiday as she tries to solve the killings, the two paths leading inevitably to an eventual intersection.

Lois and Sophie struggle not only with their shootings, but also with an offensive neighbor mistreating his dog, the loss of their grandson, Matt, in Afghanistan, and the return of their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Ruby, who has been in prison on drug and prostitution charges. When Ruby is released from prison, Sophie convinces Lois they must give her another chance, despite some reluctance on Lois’s part.
Homicide detective Morgan Holiday, meanwhile struggles with problems of her own—her fluctuating weight, her own sexuality – despite a lesbian relationship in the past, she has yet to accept herself as lesbian—and a mother with Alzheimer’s who rarely recognizes her and has a penchant for escaping from her nursing home. The humor in these segments is grim.

I had problems with a couple of points, foremost among them it seemed that the two leads choose their retirement career somewhat blithely. I had to suspend disbelief on that score, but no more so than I would have done with, say, a fantasy novel, where I just have to accept the author’s premise that dragons are real. And while the author tries to adhere to the format of the hit TV show, Dexter, where Dexter is a serial killer who more or less redeems himself for viewers via the fact that the people he kills are all certifiable monsters, I thought Lois and Sophie were a little quick on the trigger, so to speak. True, a couple of their hits were undeniable scumbags and there’s little reason for anyone to regret their demise, but some others were not quite so clearly delineated. Deciding to kill someone who is annoying, for instance, even seriously annoying, or corrupting, as in abetting someone to fall off the wagon, falls more into the category of vigilantism than of righteous justice. But certainly plenty of people were ready to cheer Charles Bronson in Death Wish and its sequels, so mine may not be the popular opinion. And it helps here that the Lois and Sophie are well drawn and sympathetic, so that the reader can easily care about them and root for them, even if not always agreeing with their judgments. After all, how often in life do we agree with everything our friends decide?

Despite my quibbles, I found this a well written novel, with believable and likable characters and some not so likable, and plenty of suspense, not of the whodunit style but rather of the will-they-get-away-with-it sort, the answer to which I’m not going to supply here. And while ostensibly a lesbian novel, its appeal is broader than that. The issues with which the characters grapple are, after all, universal ones—the plight of seniors in today’s society, the search for love and acceptance, the failings of the legal system in protecting the innocent from the predators. One hardly needs to be lesbian to recognize these issues, or share in the struggle with them.

All in all, highly recommended.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Match Maker by Alan Chin

Review by Carol Zampa at Miz Love Loves Books
Published by Dreamspinner Press
Page: 388

In the four years since being forced off the professional tour for being gay, Daniel Bottega has taught tennis at a second-rate country club. He found a sanctuary to hide from an unkind world, while his lover, Jared Stoderling, fought a losing battle with alcohol addiction to cope with his disappointment of not playing on the pro circuit. Now Daniel has another chance at the tour by coaching tennis prodigy Connor Lin to a Grand Slam championship win. He shares his chance with Jared by convincing him to return to the pro circuit as Connor's doubles partner. Competing on the world tour is challenging enough, but Daniel and Jared also face major media attention, political fallout from the pro association, and a shocking amount of hate that threatens Connor's career in tennis, Jared's love for Daniel, and Daniel's very life.

Simply this: that at a certain point in each person’s life, he loses control of what is happening to him, and he becomes controlled by fate. It’s so easy to believe. It takes all the responsibility away from us, and we like that. But it is only a lie, a truly insidious lie
--- Alan Chin, “Match Maker”

Words. I need words. But, you know, sometimes words fail, and they’re failing me right now as I try to present my review—oh, wait, I don’t DO reviews, do I? So there. I’m free to gush like a bubbly fountain because I don’t have to critique, I just get to…well…babble.

If Ron Howard and Franco Zeffirelli collaborated to create a story—Howard’s poignancy and emotional grit and Zeffirelli’s lavish, sweeping glimpses into exotic worlds—the result would be a piece such as Alan Chin’s Match Maker.

First of all, don’t let the title or the setting of the book—the world of pro tennis—turn you away from this story. I know absolutely nothing about tennis, if you don’t count my temporary jaunt in my teens when I bought a racket and pretty balls but never used them. But, somehow, Chin managed to propel me into the fast-paced world of the game—fascinating me with the ultra-cool terms and the thrill-of-victory-and-the-agony-of-defeat emotion; and, by the time I closed the book, I was mentally ready to take on Martina Navratilova. The prose, the knowledge of the sport—not boring but extremely exciting—was that vital.

You know I love to expound on characters, and I’m learning I can never choose just one. Well, Match Maker was no exception.

Do you want to know a secret? I should be ashamed, but I was initially drawn to the book by the introduction of Connor Lin, the eighteen-year-old aspiring tennis champ with the familiar overly pushy father, the center of the story. I adore, adore, adore Asian men, and young Connor immediately captivated me.

Oh, come on! Before you wag your head at me, read this description of Connor: I took in the vision before me. His body lay quivering, lean and golden and perfectly defined. I had not seen him undressed before, and his sculpted loveliness stunned me. I understood why Shar couldn’t resist him. His burnt-coffee-colored hair cascaded toward the floor, one arm crossed over his eyes, his other foot braced on the floor. Sweat beaded on his breast and ribs, and under the glistening moisture were cool bluish veins weaving under the pale skin.

Though the book is laden with some of the most beautiful, sensual sex scenes I’ve ever read—and I even hesitate to call them ‘sex’ scenes, as they are not explicit but tender, excruciatingly so, yet still manage to send shivers up the spine and delicious spasms to the belly—the sensual physical aspects of the story are wondrously used to speak the characters’ emotions loud and clear instead of dialogue in some scenes. And, by the careful placement of these scenes, the author proves one of my strongest beliefs: that intimacy IS a language all its own. So, if sex is a language, then Alan Chin, in Match Maker, has created a beautiful, complex dialect all his own.

The heroes of the story are Daniel Bottega and Jared Stoderling, who have been inseparable since their youths. Daniel—although a good tennis player himself—took a back seat to the promising tennis dynamo, Jared; but he was content to do so, he loved him that much.

Daniel and Jared’s relationship is realistic. It’s good, it’s bad. And when it’s really bad, the men are tested, especially Daniel. And Daniel’s heart—through Chin’s mastery of words that pierce the reader’s gut like a knife with those very recognizable hurts and smiles—is cut into pieces by his lover’s fall from stardom at the hands of bigotry in sports.

Of course, I can’t reveal plot. But Daniel’s dealings with Jared’s decline, with Jared’s alcoholism, hurt my heart. Although I’ve never dealt with alcoholism, I still knew the pain. None of us are immune to it.

At one point in the story, Daniel mused, A jolt of panic rifled through me, thinking that this was the moment. The support structure of our relationship had been deteriorating for years, and now it was about to collapse. With so few words, but such perfect words, Chin drove the anguish in Daniel’s heart home to the reader, right smack dab in the middle of the core.

All us humans relate to obstacles in our own way, but I know that few of us are immune to the drive that keeps us tied to our love, that just will not let us walk away. And Chin translated this universal ‘disability’ with clarity. I think—no, I know—very few readers would NOT see themselves though some aspect of Daniel Bottega.

One thing I loved about Daniel was that Chin allowed him to find pleasure in touches and sights of other men, and still not stray from his rock solid love for Jared. That, my friend, is human. And I’m not sure but what Alan Chin is one of the first bold writers I’ve read who allows for this very real facet of human nature—where the hero is tempted at times, yet you don’t want to call him a creep, but you love him for it. Beauty is beauty, in Daniel’s eyes, even if it is in the form of another man. And if there ever was a man who could find reason to roam, it would be Daniel; but he does not. True to his character, his potent, unyielding love keeps him true to Jared.

One thing happens in this story that, when I came to it, I almost closed the book. I thought, oh, no, not this angle. But I’d invested too much of my heart in the characters and I could not abandon them.

And I was glad, so glad, I did not walk away.

Chin took this dramatic surprise and—once the urge to knock him upside his talented head for letting it happen in the first place passed—I realized I’d witnessed story telling in its most sublime form. He turned the event into a triumph which was a far cry from the melodrama it could have become, and wove it into a million reasons for me to fall even deeper in love with Daniel than I already was. Could the man BE any more human, could he BE any more beautiful? I wondered, I truly did.

When I referred to Ron Howard and Franco Zeffirelli, well, you obviously know by now why I thought of a Ron Howard movie. Nobody can dish out the emotion like Howard; well, not until Alan Chin stepped onto the court.

And Zeffirelli? Well, Chin takes us all over the world, from San Francisco to the Mediterranean with its blue skies, bleached white structures and clear, gorgeous champagne-colored water. I felt the sun on my face, the sand beneath me, the breezes wafting into the bedroom while I made love to Jared. Wait! Sorry! I didn’t make love to Jared in the sun-drenched bedroom, that was Daniel. See? It was so real, so divine, so sensual, I took a free flight across the globe, courtesy of Alan Chin.

Daniel Bottega’s story is a treatise on survival against the odds, love that just won’t quit, even when the object of the affection unconsciously tries to snuff it out. It’s a beautiful commentary on survival, heartbreaking-but-ultimately-heart-swelling-with joy hanging on to what you know is there, what you KNOW is worth hanging on for. It’s a symphony on self-esteem, and on the many factors that can wreak havoc on it. It’s a lesson on how to regain that self-esteem.

Most of all? To me? It’s a beautiful poem on love. After all, love is—even though we don’t really realize it—at the core of everything, one way or another. And Chin paints across this canvas with such beauty, such softness, and then lets you step back and take a deep breath, a satisfied breath. And you know you just fell in love with Daniel and his gang, but mostly Daniel.

The ending alone is so happy, so powerful….can I give you a hint…the game is on. And, when you’ve finished the book and read those words, and know what they mean and what they cost, I’ll bet you a million dollars that you’ll cry. I did.

I’ll stop with one of the most beautiful thoughts in the book:

Everyone weaves a unique tapestry, using threads of happiness and sorrow, honor and shame, to create a multi-colored landscape that is our past. The secret is knowing that the tapestry is a mirage. It doesn’t really exist. There is only now and what is to come. It is life’s mystery—and its blessing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Ted Bacino

Reviewed by Alan Chin
Published by AuthorHouse
Pages: 288

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a historical novel that unravels two mysteries, and then weaves the pieces back together to reveal what could be the most scandalous deception in the history of literature.

Mystery #1: How could Chrisopher Marlowe, England’s foremost playwright, be suspiciously murdered and quickly buried in an unmarked grave only days before he was to be tried for treason?

Mystery #2: How could William Shakespeare replace Marlowe as England’s greatest playwright virtually overnight, when Shakespeare had never written anything before and was merely a little-known actor?

Did Shakespeare really write all those fantastic plays, or did he have a ghostwriter by the name of Christopher Marlowe? Read the book and decide for yourself.

I must admit that the author wheels his facts like a sword to make a pretty convincing story of how Christopher Marlowe faked his own death to escape the hangman, and then with the help of his benefactor and lover, continued writing plays that William Shakespeare took credit for. But Bacino not only presents a convincing theory and backs it up with facts, he tells an interesting, exciting and funny love story that is full of plot twists. It is an amazingly fun read.

The premise and the characters are deliciously unique. I especially like the way the author paints Shakespeare as a buffoonish rogue who doesn’t know a comma from a camel. The love story that unfolds between Marlowe and his benefactor, Thomas Walsingham, is both touching and inspiring. There is much to love about this story.

Set in 16th Century Elizabethan England as the Black Plague ravages the country, these characters traverse grand country estates, the underbelly of London, the torture chamber of Bidwell prison, as well as a seven-year manhunt across Italy. It is a tale of murder, mayhem, loyalty, and love. The author presents what I believe to be an accurate glimpse of the political strife, religious supremacy, and gay society of the time.

Within the first few pages, it became clear to me that his novel was adapted from a screenplay. The whole book reads like a screenplay, which means there is little delving into the characters’ heads and hearing their thoughts. This is one of the few books I’ve read that could benefit from a little more telling rather than showing. Although I must say that as the story progressed, the writing continued to grow stronger. There were a few minor holes in the plot, but they were easily overlooked.

One thing that struck me was the historical accuracy. Bacino has done his homework well, and even includes fifty pages of supplemental notes and historical data to support his argument. There is also a number of comparisons between Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s writings that are too numerous and too telling to ignore.

The Shakespeare Conspiracy is a fast, fun, engaging read. I highly recommend it to everyone who loves a good, eye-opening romp through history.