Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

Reviewer: Jennifer Lavoie
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books (June, 2013)
Pages: 264

Twins Aaron and Hayden Swann are fighting a corrupt government taken over by ultra right-wing Fundamentalist Christians in 2055 America. Each brother fights in his own way, Aaron with bullets, Hayden with words. Then one night their world is turned upside down when they are caught in a government sting and they must both flee north into the badlands between San Francisco and Canada, where the only safe haven is a place called The Plain of Bitter Honey, a refuge where heads of the Resistance operate. But the brothers don’t know that government agents are tracking them to the hiding place of the   Resistance. Can they find the inner strength to survive?

There are some books that are really easy to write reviews for. And there are others that are difficult. Not because they’re not great books, but BECAUSE they are great books. This is one of those. I cannot write my typical spazzing out sort of review for this book because it just wouldn’t do it justice. And this book deserves a lot of careful thought.

The Plain of Bitter Honey takes place in the not too distant future. The America that is painted for readers is very grim. At least for some. For some people, they might like the fact the Christianity has taken over and the States have become a Christian nation. However, it is hell on Earth for many people in the book. If you do not agree with the views of those in power, or if your life and loves are different from what they think it should be, you are placed in ghettos.

I’ll flash back to history here, because what the author has done is draw on the Holocaust. There are many allusions to what happened in Nazy Germany during World War II. It is done masterfully, because it shows just how horrific the world has become.

Aaron and Hayden Swann are identical twins that are part of the resistance. At least Aaron is. Hayden, it seems, is off in his own world of literature. As a gay man, he has to hide the fact that he loves his boyfriend Julian, for fear of either being placed in the ghetto or being treated. While Aaron is very hard and driven, Hayden seems so carefree.

Looks can be deceiving.

What follows is an incredible journey to save the twins, the reistance, and everything they hold dear. There were times when I thought for sure all hope was lost, but the beautiful thing about how is that it’s always within reach if you just keep believing.

The author also weaves in some beautiful moments of magical realism as well, such as when Aaron is training with Twig and he learns to blend into the trees and become a part of them.

The conclusion of the novel is ultimately heart-breaking and beautiful. It is full of hope and you want the characters to succeed. I stayed up past one in the morning to finish because I couldn’t stop, and when I finally came to the conclusion, I put the book down, curled up in the fetal position on my bed, and just cried.

Such a wonderful novel from Alan Chin. He has a way with words that will leave you thinking and praying that this is not the future that we are headed towards. Frighteningly enough, with the current state of our country, it at times feels that way.

I look forward to many more books from this author.

This book will be released in June, 2013, and will be available from Bold Strokes Books and Amazon.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Scribner (2001)
Pages: 273

Set in Ireland during the early 1990s, Declan is dying of AIDS. With the help of two gay companions, he leaves the hospital to spend a few days at the seaside home of his grandmother. There, at the crumbling place of his youth, his sister Helen, his mother Lily, and his grandmother Dora gather after a decade of estrangement.  The three women had no idea Declan was gay, let alone terminally ill with AIDS. Once they recover from the shock, their primary goal becomes caring for Declan, who had always been the binding force in this dysfunctional family.

Like six castaways on a desert island, from different generations and with clashing beliefs and lifestyles, they are forced to face their own dark histories in order to deal with each other to achieve the common goal of keeping Declan alive and comfortable.

The Blackwater Lightship is predominately a story of three generations of iron-willed women from a divided family who reunite to help each other face a tragic situation. It is beautifully told in luminous prose, and with all the tenderness and insight that readers have come to expect from this superlative storyteller. Toibin takes the reader deep into the hearts of a family at war with itself in order to explore the nature of love. It is an emotional study of people grappling with the love and resentments that bind them, and ultimately it is a story of hope, showing love (or perhaps tragedy) has the capacity to heal the deepest wounds.

This is a tragic and moving journey, not for the faint of heart. It is, however, a destination well worth the effort. It moves slowly for the first half of the book, and then builds in intensity until I couldn’t put it down. It is not simply a wonderful story; it is a literary achievement.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Tides by Anne Azel

Reviewer: Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publ (February 2013)
Pages: 268

Meet Jackie Cunningham, a self-described "degenerate, sneaky old coot, and proud of it." Jackie led a remarkable life, childhood during World War II in the UK, being raised in a very nontraditional household, relocating to Canada, developing her love for journalism, a career in which she excelled for many years, one of the first female reporters and anchors on television. Now retired and facing a terminal illness, she reminisces on her colorful life and loves, with some regrets but many fond memories. She teams with her favorite niece and the niece's life partner, and plans to help them achieve their dreams for an ambitious oceanographic research project. 

I often find books with numerous flashback sequences to be tedious, but this one held my interest with its positive focus, and provided informative insights along the way. You can't help but admire Cunningham's spirit and resolve, something that many of us would aspire to do if we could. While technically a lesbian novel, I (a gay man) enjoyed it immensely, and believe it could be a captivating read for anyone with an open mind. Well written and paced, and I give it five stars out of five.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Time On Two Crosses – The Collected Writings Of Bayard Rustin Edited by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cleis Press (2003)
Pages 351

Bayard Rustin was a key civil rights strategist and humanitarian whose staunch advocacy of nonviolent resistance shaped the course of social protests from the 1950’s through the close of the twentieth century.

Many people today see him only as an African American working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other power brokers in organized Labor and the Democratic Party for civil rights for African Americans. Yet, he was both a black man and an openly gay man, fighting for the civil rights of all oppressed people. Few African Americans engaged in as broad a protest agenda as did Rustin; fewer still enjoyed his breadth of influence in virtually every political sector, working with world leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, President Lyndon Johnson, and Golda Meir.

Yet, for all his influence and all his tireless efforts, Rustin remained an outsider in black civil rights circles because they refused to accept his homosexuality. The very people who he was fighting for shunned him. Yet even though the civil rights powers that often dismissed him, perhaps no other figure contributed so much to the civil rights movement.

Let me share an excerpt from the book as Rustin talks about himself:
“I am Bayard Rustin, Chairman of the Randolph Institue and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is composed of over 150 national groups dedicated to human rights for all.  As one who has been active in the struggle to extend democracy to all Americans for over fifty years I am opposed to any attempt to amend the recently enacted law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

I have been arrested twenty-four times in the struggle for civil and human rights. My first arrest was in 1928 merely for distributing leaflets on behalf of Al Smith’s candidacy for President in a climate of anti-Catholic hysteria. Since that time I have fought against religious intolerance, political harassment, and racism both here and abroad. I have fought against untouchability in India, against tribalism in Africa, and have sought to ensure that refugees coming to our shores are not subject to the same types of bigotry and intolerance from which they fled. As a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council I have fought anti-Semitism not only in the United States but around the world.”

Time on Two Crosses is the first comprehensive collection of Bayard Rustin’s writings ever published, comprising forty-eight essays, speeches, and interviews. Many of which were never widely available. From the birth of nonviolent direct action to the rise of Black Power, Rustin’s writings function as a road map for the meandering course of the black protest movement over the past century.

As a gay man who has suffered discrimination for the last sixty years, I found Bayard Rustin’s writing fascinating and uplifting. They give an unvarnished look into the civil rights movement through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and also a view into the heart and mind of one of the most remarkable men of our time. This is a book every American should read.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Blue Moon Cafe - Audio Book - by Rick Reed

Reviewer: Jon Michaelsen
Pupblisher: Audible.com

I usually listen to audio books (the unabridged versions) via headphones traveling on hours-long plane rides or driving long trips alone. So when a book I’ve had my eye on was released in audio book format recently, I decided to take a chance and listen while in my car – which proved quite often as I found myself looking for places to go, errands that needed doing so I could listen to Rick R. Reed’s suspenseful, romantic thriller, The Blue Moon Café.
Taken from the blurb for both print and audio format: “Someone–or something–is killing Seattle’s gay men...” Something moves in the dark night at full moon hunting and killing gay men in the places they gather. The protagonist is Thad Matthews, a young gay man done with relationships and certainly not ready–or willing–to take yet another dive for the perfect dream that presents in the form of a sexy, super compassionate, masculine, hairy and handsome Sicilian restaurant owner and chef, SamLupino.
Reed begins The Blue Moon Café with his signature terror/horror prose, which he is well-known for delivering, quickly ensnaring the reader–or listener in my case–with heart-racing, pulsating suspense. Vivid detail and full-moon-lit scenery ratchets up anticipation and pushes the listener forward, sans trepidation. Reed tempers the heightened elements of the novel with a strong romance that provides a little distraction from the bloody killings.      
Thad Matthews is unemployed and without purpose. He is every guy’s friend, the boy-next-door type you’d introduce to mother, a best friend always there to support you, even if having to take a back seat. Along with his domineering Chihuahua, Edith (don’t let the docile name fool you!), Thad fills his days looking for a new job, taking care of his neurotic friend, and pining about lost love. Edith, however, comes to the rescue in more ways than one, quickly proving dogs are excellent judges of character and man’s best friend.
Thad treats himself to a night out, which he can’t afford of course, in hopes of finding someone to fill his bed for the night. He dresses for notice and sets out for The Blue Moon Café, where he stumbles upon manly, macho, Sam Lupino

Not only the owner and chef of The Blue Moon Café, Sam is a werewolf in a family of werewolves. He is seduced by Thad’s naive charm, but once drawn to the young man, trouble beings. After a night of hot and heavy love-making, Sam leaves a goodbye note and disappears from Thad’s life. But not for long as Thad can’t seem to stay away from the mysterious man who tells seems to tell lies and hold secrets that prey on Thad’s  insecurities.
I can’t divulge more of the story without ruining the mystery behind the killings, the betrayal Thad and Sam both feel at different times in their rocky relationship. What I can share is that listening to the audio book version, the voice of narratorTopher Samuels, is soothing and calming when necessary and ratchets up the suspense with inflection at thrilling scenes that puts the listener “there”, in the moment staring at the beast with yellow eyes, or making love to a most compassionate man with a wounded soul.
The Blue Moon Café is a horror mystery suspense/thriller and gay romance all in one that will pull you in, scare the crap out of you and have you rooting for the unlikely relationship between human and werewolf. Non-traditional in that it strays from modern-day romantic epics and ends with a shocking surprise that just might break your heart.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Taxi Rojo, A Tijuana Tale by Erik Orrantia

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Cheyenne Publishing
Pages: 210

Lambda Award winning author Erik Orrantia delivers a unique study of overcoming adversities set in the teeming south-of-the-boarder city of Tijuana. Caught in the vortex of two million souls struggling for a better life, fate brings six people together in the back of a taxi rojo. The taxi crashes down a canyon, killing two and connecting the survivors in ways that will dramatically affect each of their lives.

The story follows the lives and hardships of Pancha, a drag queen looking for love while performing at the El Taurino bar; Rigo and Cristian, gay partners in a loving but open relationship in a city where HIV is rampant; Toni, the handsome bi man who uses his looks to dominate others; Derek, the young hustler out to steal whatever he can from whoever he can; and Julia, who works as a domestic for an American family across the boarder in order to support her daughter and disabled sister. The more they battle to put the crash behind them, the more it brings them together.

This is a story of unheroic people struggling to overcome everyday problems. It takes a studied look at important social issues like fidelity, wrestling with identity, self-sacrifice, and finding love where you least expect it. Orrantia skillfully weaves these commonplace lives together in a way that showcases these important and interesting issues. In his capable hands, these characters become real. The reader feels their heartache and their joy. The characters and problems seem so common, that they touch something deep in the reader, because we all at one time or another battle with these same burdens.

The one character I’ve yet to mention is the city of Tijuana. Orrantia has a gift for drawing the reader into the setting. You feel the grittiness of the town, smell the corn tortillas on the grill, hear the arrogant laughter of macho men, and feel the danger of walking the streets at night. The descriptions are vivid and real.

Because these characters seem so ordinary, it took a long time to warm up to them. The story moves along on a low flame for much of the book, drawing the reader in gradually. When the pot finally boils over, the reader realizes how far the story had progressed, without seeming to move at all.

Coincidence, I feel, plays too big a role in resolving the characters' problems. I would like to have seen more planned action from the protagonists in working through their issues. That aside, I can recommend this entertaining story. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Listening To Dust by Brandon Shire

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: TPG Books
Pages: 130

Murder touched Stephen Dobbins long before he reached manhood, and it left him drowning in a sea of loneliness and self-doubt. A chance meeting with a young American serviceman gave him the strength to try a relationship and discover love for the first time since his loss.

For eight months his union with Dustin Earl flourished, until the Dustin was forced to travel back to his small Southern town to care for his mentally challenged brother. Shattered by Dustin’s departure, Stephen journeys three thousand miles to rekindle that love, and make a life with Dustin. What he finds, however, is the excesses of a dysfunctional family gone crazy.

This story is not your average feel-good romance, although it has many touching moments. It is a powerful look at love through the looking glass of tragedy. The story is both beautiful and disturbing, and not for the faint of heart.

It is almost entirely told via the character’s dialog and several long flashback sequences, both of which I find tedious in other novels, but the way the author allowed the story to unfold held my interest throughout. The reader finds himself at story’s ending within the first dozen pages, and then spends the rest of the book discovering how he got there as the author skillfully peels back one layer after another.

This novel is well written and adeptly paced. Although the author occasionally dips into eye-rolling melodrama, I found it a captivating read.