Sunday, July 31, 2011

Haji’s Exile
 by Alan Chin

Reviewed by Cole at Reviews by Jessewave
Publisher: Dreamspinner
Genre: Western, Horses

Length: Short Story (8k words)

Rating: 4.75 stars out of 5

Review Summary: It may not end with an HEA or HFN, but this short story of young and naive love by Alan Chin is beautiful nonetheless.

Nathan has cared for horses all his life, but Haji is the first he’ll train on his own. When the Arabian stallion arrives at Bitter Coffee Ranch, Nathan thinks he is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. And then he lays eyes on Haji’s handler, Yousef. Nathan has much to learn about horses, about pride, and about love, but with the ranch’s hopes riding on Haji, he’ll also learn that all things have their price.

A Bittersweet Dreams title: It’s an unfortunate truth: love doesn’t always conquer all. Regardless of its strength, sometimes fate intervenes, tragedy strikes, or forces conspire against it. These stories of romance do not offer a traditional happy ending, but the strong and enduring love will still touch your heart and maybe move you to tears.

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Chin’s. His words seem to melt of the page and flow through me as I’m reading. His prose is often decadently smooth, with a rolling gait. So it is in his latest story, and aptly, as the story deals with the training of a particularly proud and regal horse.

Nathan is a recent high school graduate who, after falling on hard times, is taking the pace of his father’s foreman and taking over the training of the family’s race horses. The story begins as he sees their newest buy arrive on the ranch — Haji. The beautiful sorrel is from North Africa and brings with him a stable boy, Yousef. Both are thrilling and exotic to Nathan, and as he grows into his responsibilities and his own awareness of his life, so do both of them grow with him, one on the track and one in his bed and as his newfound love. Add to that the harshness of life in Nevada and the racial inequality of the time (which is unmentioned, but could be recent historical or contemporary), and the situation becomes somewhat complicated.

The best part of this story is the beautiful prose. Alan Chin has a way of matching the prose to the story and here I often found the prose very musical, with a tempo that matched whatever action the horse is making at that time in the story — a rolling gait, or the ferocious pounding beats of stampeding horses. Also, I found that the most interesting character of any in the story was in fact the horse, Haji. His story is a parallel to Yousef’s. Though we know very little about Yousef (as does Nathan), we can understand him because Nathan understands horses more than people, and as such can understand Haji. He brings together the two characters, and in the end brings about their separation (you know I won’t say more than that, but it is a Bittersweet Dreams title).

A lovely horse is always an emotional experience for me, the kind that is spoiled by words. All my life I have often talked about horses — hell, most of the time I seem to talk of nothing else — but I have never been able to unravel my love of them using the commonplace adjectives of my limited vocabulary. To me they are a beautiful dream, to be admired but not scrutinized, lest they disappear before I can voice the words.

This is a story of young love, the period that is on the cusp of true adulthood, where your awareness of the world tilts to such an alarming degree. Many things can bring that change about and here it is the awakening of love for another man after Nathan’s whole childhood purely spend on his love of horses. They help him understand the change in his life, and through them they also help him see his naivete when he feels that first sting and the first touch of the coldness in the world.

More than anything, though, this story is really about the love of animals, and how they can define and explain the things in our lives, or help us change them:

I believe with all my fiber that until a man has loved an animal, a large part of his soul remains unawakened.

The Bittersweet Dreams titles from Dreamspinner are certainly not for everyone, and this story won’t be either. I won’t deny that the ending made me quite sad, but I’m also a realist, and I think that Alan Chin does a wonderful job with this story in portraying the shift between the idealistic adolescent and the reasoning adult. At the same time, the story is beautifully written and offers much more than the ending of a love affair. Definitely recommended.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Shattered Wings by Bryan Healey

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: CreateSpace (April 29, 2011)
Pages: 249

John is confident, a bit cocky, and happy with his life. He and his lover, Charlie, are proud parents of a darling little girl. Charlie is a stay-at-home daddy while John brings home the bacon with his mid-level management position in an IT department. John is living the dream in their lovely suburban home. The only thing missing is the sheepdog.

And then an unexpected layoff shows John just how fragile a foundation his perfect life is built on. John’s search for a new job brings only emotional strain. He spirals into despair, which triggers a relapse into alcoholism, lies, and deceit. All it will take to recover his dream is a job—any job—but can he find one in this down economy before he loses everything?

I had a love/hate relationship with this novel. The story itself is simply terrific. It’s like watching a train wreck from close up, and knowing that at any moment the whole damned thing could explode, but there is nothing you can do, not even pull your eyes away. It is a gripping story, and John is a compelling character. He’s both sympathetic and pathetic at the same time, making all the wrong moves for comprehensible reasons.

This is a detailed study of a man slowly disintegrating. He keeps grasping for help, but at every turn, people turn their back on him until he is pushed beyond his endurance. It is a sad story, and bitterly real. I would love to award this tale a five-star rating, but I can’t overlook the numerous issues that annoyed me.

This story desperately needs a competent editor with a large red pen. The writing—with numerous typos, misspellings, bad punctuation, switching from past tense to present and back, and repeated phrases—make this one of the worst written books I’ve seen in print. The writing continually pulled me out of the story, and tainted an otherwise compelling read. It is the curse of self-publishing, and why I generally shy away from writers who publish their own work.

Although John’s character has significant depth, the other characters in the story have little or no depth at all. I kept wanting them to show more of themselves, but that didn’t happen. In defense of the author, this story is told by John in first person, and he is totally self absorbed through most of the story. Yet, I wanted more.

There is one other issue I’ll mention. It seems that half of the book is told in flashbacks. There is a pattern where every four or five pages the author cuts from the current storyline to give several pages of backstory. Back and forth, back and forth. My issue is that too many flashbacks kept breaking the rhythm of the current story. Normally I could overlook that, except that in this case most of these flashbacks did little or nothing to advance the storyline. They seemed to slow the story down for no reason.

My opinion is that this book is not ready for prime time. With significant editing, the rounding out of some characters and the deletion of several flashbacks, this could be a fantastic read.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Harlan’s Race by Patricia Nell Warren

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Wildcat Press
Pages: 325

Years after the shooting death of Billy Sive, Harlan Brown is faced with the arduous task of coming to terms with the loss of his lover. While trying to be a father to Billy’s son, Vince Matti (Billy’s best friend) drifts back into Harlan’s life, and the two struggle to form a troubled relationship. Each person in Harlan’s life—Billy’s son, Vince, Billy’s Father—keeps Harlan tied to his tragic past.

Then the unthinkable happens. Another shooting at another race, followed by a note from the shooter letting Harlan know that the shooter is stalking him. Harlan hires two gay, Rambo-like bodyguards, and their investigation reveals that the killer pursuing Harlan was also involved with Billy’s murder. Harlan goes into hiding, but finds himself constantly looking over his shoulder, waiting for the next bullet.

If all this weren’t bad enough for Harlan, it’s the late ‘70s and he finds that many of his friends are dying of a mysterious new disease that is affecting gay men. Caught between a tragic past that won’t let go of him and a future that holds only death and sorrow, Harlan Brown must find a way to survive the violence and challenges of changing times.

Harlan’s Race is Patricia Nell Warren’s long awaited sequel to The Front Runner.
The author mentions in the forward that she intends to write a third installment in the story featuring Falcon, Billy’s son, when he reaches his teens. Harlan’s Race is a dark bridge between Billy’s and Falcon’s stories.

This is a very dark and moody story. With Billy’s death haunting Harlan, and nothing to look forward to but the AIDS epidemic, there is little to feel good about here. The plot follows Harlan, Vince and others, as they all seem to self-destruct after Billy’s death.

Although the book is superbly written, I closed the book feeling disappointed. This is a murder mystery where the stalker/murderer is revealed at the end, and it is meant to be a shocking disclosure. I, however, figured out who the murderer was halfway through the story, so the ending fell flat for me. Not only was it flat, much of the plot felt too contrived to be believable. Although I must say that there were moments in the romantic bond between Harlan and Vince that were touching and rang true.

Although Harlan’s Race can be read without reading The Front Runner, I think that would be a mistake. Harlan’s character is well developed, but many of the supporting cast are not, and one needs to read TFR as background to these characters in order to fully appreciate the depth of this story.

I have enjoyed reading several Patricia Nell Warren books and think she is a terrific talent, but Harlan’s Race is not a book I can highly recommend. I am, however, looking forward to reading the third book in the series, Billy’s Boy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Song On The Sand by Ruth Sims

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Pubisher: Untreed Reads Publishing
Pages: 19

Tony Dalby is a wheelchair-bound man living his twilight years in a convalescent home. In his youth he had been a Broadway actor/dancer. Now he is a bitter, self-centered, irascible, old man with nothing to look forward to. He keeps his life history in a scrapbook—grainy photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, keepsakes. The staff at the home try to get him to stand, to walk, but he hasn’t the heart to even try during his therapy sessions.

But then Tony notices a sexy young man who shows up daily to visit Jesse, the victim of an accident that has left him a vegetable. After several days of admiring the young man from a distance, a chance encounter allows Tony to meet this young man, whose name is, Drew. Tony discovers that Drew and Jesse are lovers.

Driven to impress young Drew, Tony puts all his heart and soul into his therapy sessions, and over time gets to the point where he can walk with the help of only a cane. But then, for the first time in ages, he begins to think about someone other than himself. He tries to help Drew’s lover recover. As it turns out, Jesse and Tony had both acted in the musical, La Cage Aux Folles. This thin thread, they soon discover, has the power to turn tragedy into an unexpected joy.

Ruth Sims is one of my favorite writers, and once again she has managed to impress. This is a bittersweet tale of finding courage and compassion. It is beautifully written, almost flawless in its execution. The main character is completely believable, and lures the reader into his narrow view of the world, but then lets his world expand, giving both the character and the story greater depth.

Often times I can see where a story is going long before the last page, but throughout this tale I kept wondering how the author could possibly wrap up all these threads. Sim’s did so in a way that was both surprising and delightful. When I finished the last page, I sat in silence for a rather long time, not analyzing what I had read, but simply feeling the wonderful emotions that this story evoked.

Ruth Sims is a huge talent. And Song On The Sand is a little gem that I highly recommend to all readers.