Sunday, September 10, 2023

Book Review: A Season in Delhi by Scott Alexander Hess

Reviewer: Alan Chin

Publisher: Rebel Satori Press (Nov, 2023)

Pages: 129


Coming Soon - November 12, 2023 from Rebel Satori Press


New Yorkers Brant and Lloyd settle into a posh neighborhood in Delhi to live while Lloyd works a new job that transplanted them to India. While Lloyd travels the country for his business, Brant is left alone much of the time with only a servant to keep him company. During his solitary time, Brant discovers the diary of a former diplomat’s wife, which chronicles her torrid affair with an Indian hoodlum. As Brant reads Carol’s scandalous tale of daring and woe, he can’t help bonding with this lady because of his own infidelity. The more Brant reads Carol’s diary, the greater the attachment he feels with this woman, and the greater his curiosity grows to find out what happened to her. They become kindred souls, sharing feelings and emotions across time. His journey thru Carol’s past beautifully creates a bond that transcends time and culture, empathy and absolution.


This is a tale of temptation, infidelity, loss, and redemption. But ultimately, it is a taut story of crushing loneliness and the fragility of human connections. It also delves into the desperate need we feel to cling to anything that lessens that loneliness. The characters are brutally authentic, and Hess handles them with sympathy and honesty. The reader so easily feels compassion, even becomes them as they face morally difficult choices. 


The author asks the reader to delve deeply into the human nature of illicit love affairs, those complex feelings of yearning, guilt, excitement, pleasure, fulfillment, wonder, and possibly even regret.


With sparse prose, Hess describes the sensual feel of Delhi and Agra. I have visited these fascinating destinations many times, and I can justly say the author took me back there, so rich and true were his descriptions. This is a quick read, but one that resonates in the heart. I treasured each page of this story.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Book Review: I was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein

Reviewer: Alan Chin

Publisher: Knopf (Mar, 2020)

Pages: 400



Harvey Fierstein’s career began at community theater in Brooklyn and then advanced to the experimental Andy Warhol theater company where Harvey was encouraged to let his eccentric, nonconforming inner-being thrive. And he did just that. Working with Warhol’s Theatre of the Ridiculous company, Harvey honed both his acting and writing skills, which propelled him to write and perform his first mega hit, Torch Song Trilogy. Torch Song started as three separate plays, but was later combined into one moving play for an off Broadway run. Torch Song’s success thrust Harvey into the big time, winning him the first of four Tony awards. 


I was, of course, aware that Harvey Fierstein wrote and performed Torch Song on Broadway and made a Hollywood movie, because that movie changed the way I saw myself, a young gay man who was looking for a long-term, monogamous relationship. That movie showed me that there were other gay men who wanted the same thing, and that it was possible to find that. 


What I wasn’t aware of, because I’ve never been a theater person, was the extraordinary career of Mr. Fierstein. Torch Song was only the first of a string of hit Broadway plays. He wrote the playbooks and performed Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, La Cage Aux Folles (which won him his second Tony), Newsies, and Kinky Boots. I had no idea Fierstein was such a giant of the stage. 


But this book is not only about Harvey’s career. He describes his personal struggles and conflicts, his romances and sex during the AIDS crises, his decades of addiction, and the rich New York gay culture of the seventies and eighties. 


I loved this read. Its pages are filled with the wisdom which comes from living a bewilderingly colorful life. It’s the most entertaining book I’ve read in years. 


I Was Better Last Night is and engaging, outrageously funny triumph.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Book Review: Shuggie Baine by Douglas Stuart


Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Grove Press (Oct, 2020)

Pages: 448


Shuggie Bain is the story of a lonely boy growing up gay in a run-down public housing area of 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. His broken family, due in large part to his alcoholic mother, is on the dole and trying to survive the mother’s destructive lifestyle. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, dreams of a better life, a life of money and love and beautiful things, but her drinking only digs her and her children deeper into debt and misery. Shuggie is the youngest of three children, and the only one who accepts and tolerates his mother. He understands his mother because he is very much like her—someone who takes pride in her looks while all of her peers ridicule her. He does everything he can to keep Agnes going, hoping that someday his philandering taxi-driving father will return to lift them up into a better life. But as Agnes increasingly finds solace in drink, the older children abandon their home to find their own way, leaving Shuggie to care for his mother as her alcoholic binges bring on more destructive mood swings. Agnes is supportive of her son, even knowing the boy is gay. But her addiction eclipses everyone around her, including Shuggie.


A distressing story of surviving in an unsympathetic world where addiction, betrayal, sexuality, loneliness, and love assault you every day. Shuggie Bain is a portrayal of a working-class, dysfunctional family that is rarely seen in fiction. It is a searing debut by a talented novelist who tells an honest and powerful story.


I loved and hated this story. It is a heartbreaking tale that kept reminding me of my own lonely dysfunctional childhood, bringing up one painful memory after another. And yet, the voice was so unique and so compelling that I fell in love with this story. I could not put it down. I’ve heard many people say this book was too repetitive, and there is much of that. However, having lived in a dysfunctional family, that repetition rings true. Over and over as one sees hope, one is knocked down again. That’s why I think this is a story of survival. 


This debut novel was a well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Book Review: The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris


Reviewer: Alan Chin

Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company (July, 2021)

Pages: 358




In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys. But when the white town’s folk of Old Ox hear that the brothers are being paid good wages for their toil, trouble begins, and grows, and violence follows. 

Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, Isabelle emerges as an unlikely trailblazer, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.

I adored this extraordinary debut novel by Nathan Harris. He has created a cast of unforgettable, sympathetic characters who are multifaceted, absorbing, and well-crafted. Each main character is vulnerable, yet also holds an inner strength and a desire to survive. They quickly captured my heart and carried me through all the explosive plot twists to a very satisfying ending. What I loved most about this story was the refined voice the author captures which propels the story along with elegance and grace.

Setting the story in Georgia just as the Civil War is ending gives the read a view into the white-supremacist world of the old south, and shows with candor the uncomfortable truth of human cruelty, and also human compassion. This view reflects race relations today. The author weaves emotion into every page, and every word holds significance. This story will keep you guessing, and keep you yearning for a positive ending for each main character. Harris writes with the skill of a master storyteller.

Haunting and powerful, The Sweetness of Water is an engaging, beautiful read that will stay with you.

About the Author: Nathan Harris holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas. The Sweetness of Water, his first novel, was a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. Harris was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree in 2021. He lives in Seattle, Washington. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Book Review: The End of Billy Knight by Ty Jacob

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Lucky Pony Press (may 2017)
Pages: 454

A rocky tale that explores the relationship between a gay hustler and an aging drag queen, set in the world of 80s porn stars. This is not erotica, but a weak attempt at literary fiction. The characters are tired stereotypes, and because of that they fail to be convincing. The plot is a string of one gay cliché after another. 

The one positive thing I can say is that author must have done a great deal of research into both the 80’s LA porn industry, as well as what it takes to be a drag queen. That said, I was not only disappointed in the story, but doubly so because this same author wrote another book, non-fiction using his real name, titled: An Olive Grove at the Edge of the World, which I loved. After reading his non-fiction story, I built up my expectations very high, and then was disheartened. All the freshness and humor I found in Olive Grove was sorely missing in Billy Knight. The only reason I finished the story was because it was selected by my book club, and I needed to read it all in order to properly discuss the book at the next meeting. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Book Review: Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Liveright, (Feb 12, 2019)
Pages 352

In its heyday, South Bend, Indiana had been one of the industrial revolution’s brightest achievements, a factory town that produced everything from cars to watches. But then like much of the Midwestern rust belt, it fell into hard times, lost almost all its industry, and the young people were escaping to larger cities for better opportunities. The leadership Pete Buttigieg displayed as mayor of South Bend, steered the people of South Bend to rebuild their city into a thriving community. 

In this entertaining and insightful book, Buttigieg lays out a blueprint of modern political ideas for transforming and revitalizing our communities. I enjoyed learning about his insights, and how he approached problem solving. And against this backdrop of how Buttigieg renovated the city he grew up in, was the even more enjoyable personal story of how Pete Buttigieg grew into the man who is now altering the landscape of the American political scene by becoming the first openly gay man to run for the highest elected office in the country. 

In my view, the biggest thing to turn the tide on LGBT issues wasn’t theological or political evolution. It was the discovery that many people whom we already know turn out to be part of this category. The biggest obstacle wasn’t religion, or hatred. It was the simple fact that so many people believed, wrongly, that they didn’t even know anyone who was gay. At my high school in the late 1990s, I didn’t know of a single gay student. 

It is easier to be cruel, or unfair, to people in groups and in the abstract; harder to do so toward a specific person in your midst, especially if you know them already. Gays have the benefit of being a minority  whose membership is not necessarily obvious when you meet one (or love one.) Common decency can kick in before there is time for prejudice to intervene. Of course, humans can be cruel to people we know, too, but not as often—and we’re rarely as proud of it.

In the struggle for equality, we do well to remember that all people want to be known as decent, respectful, and kind. If our first response toward anyone who struggles to get onto the right side of history is to denounce him as a bigot, we will force him into a defensive crouch—or into the arms of the extreme right. When a conservative socialite of a certain age would stop me on the street with a mischievous look, pat my arm, and say conspiratorially, “I met your friend the other day, and he is fabulous,” it was not the time for a lecture on the distinction between a partner and a “friend.” She is on her way to acceptance, and she feels good about her way of getting there; it feels better to grow on your own terms than to be painted into a corner.

This well-written, insightful book is a mosaic of growth and hope, both for South Bend and for Buttigieg. Pete delves into his childhood growing up in a decaying industrial town, his attempt to escape that town and the promise that brought him back. He describes his experiences being a Harvard and Rhodes Scholar, Mckinsey alumni, and a talented musician. He tells of his military service, gives a frank and interesting account of coming out at age thirty-three, and also about finding love. 

I found this a fascinating read. I didn’t find him as “presidential” as Barak Obama or Bill Clinton, but I did see a very intelligent, capable, and positive role model who transcends the “gay” stereotype. What comes shining through is his integrity and altruism.  

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Book Review: The Fourth Courier by Timothy Jay Smith

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Arcade (April, 2019)
Pages: 320


Set in 1992 Poland, Jay Porter, an American FBI agent, is asked to assist in a multiple-murder case in Warsaw. He teams up with a gay, African-American, CIA counterpart, Kurt Crawford to investigate three murdered Russians that may have links to stolen nukes. When a fourth Russian body is found, new clues allow Jay to piece together a complex puzzle that involves high-ranking officials, local police, and even Jay Porter’s new Polish love interest. The deeper Jay digs, the more sinister things appear, because all clues point to someone assembling a nuclear bomb capable of wiping out a city and undermining the stability of the entire region. Jay’s biggest problem: he doesn’t know who he can trust.

Smith excels at crafting a post-Cold War Warsaw. The descriptions are vivid and mesmerizing, making the location one of the main characters. The writing was crisp, the dialog spot on, and the plot has all the twists and turns to keep the reader, at least this reader, guessing what will happen next. Indeed, clues and information are doled out in a very tantalizing way.

I found some of the investigative methods and situations implausible, but they did make for an interesting read. My only serious complaint is that I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likable. I found some rather interesting, which kept me reading to the end, but my lack of attachment in the characters put me at a distance from them, and thus at a distance from the story. That said, it is a complex puzzle that I enjoyed solving.