Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Plain of Bitter Honey by Alan Chin

Rating: 4.75 stars

Buy Links:  Amazon | All Romance
Length: Novel

It’s the year 2055, and the Christian Fundamentalists have taken over the government of America. Those with enough money to flee the country have done so, and everyone else is left to waste away. Anyone considered undesirable, especially gays, have been herded into concentration camp-like ghettos where they are mistreated, malnourished, and barely able to survive. But the Resistance is fighting, trying to bring down the government by mostly non-violent ways.

Aaron Swann is a part of the Resistance, leading a small cell of freedom fighters in missions to undermine the government in any way he can. His twin brother, Hayden, is doing the same. Though while Aaron does it with minor violence and mayhem, Hayden uses his words. Aaron has been under Homeland Security’s watchful eye, and one night they sweep in, determined to break up the resistance cell. Hayden sacrifices himself in attempt to allow his brother time to flee. When Aaron discovers that Hayden is still alive, he will stop at nothing to rescue his twin.

Aaron manages to save his brother, and with a small group of Resistance members, begin to make their way to the fabled Plain of Bitter Honey.  The leaders of the Resistance reside in this hidden place, and Aaron knows that if they can make it there, they can finally be safe. But the journey is treacherous. They must make it hundreds of miles on foot, while avoiding both Homeland Security and a group of rebel terrorists. With Hayden severally wounded, the journey takes even longer. Without the assistance and sacrifice of Gideon Tracker, a Resistance member, they would never make it. And everything is not what appears when they arrive. In the end, Aaron must make the greatest sacrifice, knowing that it’s the only way to finally free the country, and the ones he loves, from the tyranny of a corrupt government.

Wow. Whatever I was expecting when I picked up this book, it is more than it seems at first glance. This isn’t a romance, but love is at the center of it all. It’s the tale of a man who finds out that everything he believed in is not quite what he thought, and then does everything he can to bring about change. Aaron is a complex character. He has such conviction and believes so strongly in what he feels is right. He’s straight, but his twin brother is gay, and that is part of what drives him to fight the government at every turn. His love for his brother outweighs everything else. And when it comes down to it, he’s going to do whatever he has to in order to protect Hayden. I loved this guy. I admired him. I was invested wholeheartedly in his journey, both physical and mental, and I wanted nothing more than for him to persevere and come out victorious.

While most of the book centers on Aaron and his journey, we also periodically check in with Julian Stoller, Hayden’s lover. He was arrested after the raid, and now he faces his own horrors. Prior to his capture, Julian was a painter and, by all accounts, a gentle soul. We barely meet him, and only know that he isn’t a part of the Resistance. But after his arrest, the strength in this character really shines. Even knowing that one false move could result in a severe beating and possibly death, he still does whatever he can to undermine the government and uses the resources at his disposal to try and turn the tide. In fact, it is due to his actions that a series of events are put into place that make a huge difference in the end.

One of the more mystical parts of the plot was the connection between Aaron and Hayden. It transcends what anyone would think of as a normal twin link. They actually have a mental, metaphysical connection. They are able to connect to each other’s minds. It is a truly beautiful thing, and the scenes where this is described are done in such exquisite detail that I found myself believing that such a connection could actually exist. It is this joining that ultimately gives Hayden a second chance at life, and allows Aaron to do what he must to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is also this connection that makes the one ménage scene make sense. Aaron and Hayden are, essentially, one person in two bodies. After Hayden makes a connection with Faith, they need Aaron in order to consummate their relationship. I have to admit that at first, I was scratching my head, but as Chin wove the scene with masterful words, I completely understood why and how this worked. And why it was necessary for all three to be together.

I have to make quick mention of the secondary characters in this book because they were truly fantastic and well developed. Oftentimes, secondary characters can seem flat and one dimensional. That is not the case here. The author really flushes them out, gives us insight into their minds, and makes us care about them too. It made for a really well rounded cast of characters, and that meant I was happy with whomever we were following at the moment.

Really, the only tiny quibble I had with this book was that it occasionally slowed down too much. There were times I was grateful for the break in action, where I needed to breathe as much as the characters did. But there were a few instances where that break went on just a little bit too long, and I was ready to get back to the action before the characters were.

This book was full of surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming. Though not a romance, love and morality were at the heart of the message. In a society where everyone who is different is seen as undesirable, it is those who are different that can effect change. I really enjoyed it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea by Dan Lopez

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Stations Editions
Pages: 51

These tales are five gems floating on a sea of reflection. They are turning points in the lives of five fiercely troubled gay men. Dan Lopez had compiled a collection of moving short stories, all sharing the common threads of water, sadness, and ultimately hope. They are a meditation on loss and loneliness.

An aging architect must decide to give up his grief, even if it means losing the vestiges of a lover’s memory. An object of erotic fixation galvanizes men against the isolation of exile on a cruise liner. As he watches the disintegration of his picket-fence fantasy, an ex-soldier looks to the sea for absolution.

Lopez’s writing style and skill of composing prose is nothing short of masterful, making it impossible to believe that this is his debut anthology. The storylines are rather simplistic, yet the characters are so complex the reader feels an intensity seldom achieved with short stories. These stories reach deep into the reader’s heart and embrace that part of him/her that understands despair. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Shoal Of Time: A Micky Knight Mystery by J. M. Redmann

Reviewer: Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Publisher: Bold Stroke Books, 2013
Pages:  284

Five Stars out of Five

New Orleans private investigator Micky Knight is back. While having a late pizza dinner, she happens to meet a group of federal investigators reportedly looking into human trafficking in the area, and Micky agrees to be hired to assist them. She immediately hits it off with one member of that team, Ashley, and they begin a slow but steady flirtation as they work together. It is a frustrating engagement for Micky, because she is only given details of the case on a need-to-know basis, and gets into dangerous situations she otherwise may have been able to avoid. She is also being shadowed by Emily, an FBI agent who likewise seems to have an interest in Micky. During her work for Ashley, Micky also comes into contact with a local madam, who hires Micky to provide some security for her “girls,” and may have connections that can be valuable in finding the traffickers.

While I have read a couple of earlier books in this series, it doesn’t affect my review of this book. To some extent, it is a credit to the author that some of her fans are so deeply involved in her books that they feel they know better than the author about what the characters should be feeling and doing. Obviously, they are losing sight of the fact that each should be reviewed on its own merits … the plot, the quality of the writing, how realistic and plausible it could be, etc. On that level, I can’t fault the book at all, and, as a fan of good mystery novels, enjoyed it immensely. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

With, Edited by Jameson Currier

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Chelsea Station Editions
Pages: 273

Writing short stories is difficult. It takes a gifted writer to condense a story down to its essence, and then tell it with only a few pages of prose. A short story well told is a joy, and the product of a true artist.

In With, several such artists have come together to display their skill. These wonderful stories are not gay erotica, dripping with sex every few pages. These are sixteen artists writing reflective stories that showcase relationships with men: gay men with their friends, lovers, partners, husbands, dates, tricks, BFs, hustlers, teachers, co-workers, family members, and strangers. For many, the plots are as complex as the characters.

There are several stories in this collection that are gems, some of the best fiction I’ve read in a while. Even the tales I didn’t completely connect with were skillfully written and engaging. A few of my favorites were: Andrew Barbee by Dan Lopez. Also, The Beautiful Boy by Shaun Levin, We Are The Revolution by Vincent Meis, and Follow Me Through by Tom Schabarum.

I loved the way William Sterling Walker pulled me right into the streets of New Orleans, something he does better than any writer I know.

Jeff Mann’s story, Eagle Rock is a thirty-page excerpt from his novel Purgatory. It seemed out of place only because I think one needs to read the backstory (I have read the novel) to completely comprehend the depth of feelings in this excerpt.

These are stories that deliver genuine human emotions and attitudes that reflect the many variations of male/male love, romance, and friendship. The list of contributors is a who’s who in gay fiction: David Bergman, Michael Carroll, Lewis DeSimone, Jack Fritscher, Ronald M. Gauthier, Michael Graves, Shaun Levin, Dan Lopez, Jeff Mann, Vince Meis, Matthew A. Merendo, Joel A. Nichols, David Pratt, Tom Schabarum, Stefen Styrsky, and William Sterling Walker.

I can highly recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys finely crafted fiction.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Foolish Hearts – New Gay Fiction Edited by Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. (Becky) Cochrane

Reviewer: Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Publisher: Cleis Press (December 2013)
Pages: 232


I have always been a short story fan. I grew up reading the best ... little treasures I could read in a single sitting. Of course, they were Science Fiction written by authors like Ray Bradbury back then. Today, I'm a lot older and my lifestyle has changed quite a bit. I'm gay, and I like fiction that reflects my way of life. Not the one-handed stuff with sex dripping on every page, but good two-handed fiction that captures genuine human emotions and attitudes in its many faceted ways. And this is what FOOLISH HEARTS delivers!

Timothy J. Lambert and Becky Cochrane have assembled a perfect collection of seventeen stories that reflect that many variations of gay love and romance from yesterday to today. The authors are as varied as the stories they tell -- Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, 'Nathan Burgoine, Jeffrey Ricker, David Puterbaugh, Rob Williams, Greg Herren, Paul Lisicky,Taylor McGrath, Mark G. Harris, Tony Calvert,Timothy Forry, Erik Orrantia, Steven Reigns, Rob Williams, Craig Cotter and Trebor Healey. I had my favorites, and you surely will have yours. Good reading all around. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

An Unspoken Compromise by Rize Xavier Timane

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: HawkFish Publishing
Pages: 192

Rizi Xavier Timane was born in Nigeria to proud parents who loved her and who had high hopes for their daughter. The problem was, Rizi was transgendered, a boy trapped inside a girl’s body.  As he grew older, his family and school chums assumed he was a Tomboy, but as he matured into his teens, they began to think he was a lesbian. He was taunted at school and forced to undergo numerous exorcisms by the church to cast out the gay devil living inside him. He always knew, however, that he was not a lesbian, but rather, a male with the wrong body.

Rizi eventually fled Africa to escape his God-fearing parents and the religious wingnuts at the church, first to England for advanced schooling, and then to Los Angeles to live his life without persecution.  But even in L.A., he was shunned when he tried to join church groups. Then, after finding a life partner, Christina, he decided to finally fix his gender issue, and started conversion therapy.

This wonderful memoir chronicles Rize’s journey, first as a lesbian and then as a transgendered male.

I developed a love/hate relationship with this book. The lion’s share of these pages is Rizi’s story of self-discovery, persecution, and resolution. His story is both thought-provoking and heartfelt. He gives moving details of his feelings and his courage, and also gives accounts of how African culture violently crushes anything having to do with the LGBTQ community.

The part I had trouble with was a sizable section of the book that was basically a religious argument (Fundamentalist Christian) justifying why Christians should embrace the LGBTQ community. Frankly, as a non-Christian, I found this part of the book extremely off-putting. I’m sure only non-Christians will have issues with this.

The bible-thumping aside, this is a wonder memoir everyone can enjoy and learn from. It’s a book that can help confused, LGBTQ youth to better understand themselves, and a book that can help parents better understand the challenges their LGBTQ sons and daughters are facing. This book ends on a high note, and is an inspiration.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The House of Green Waters – Southern Swallow Book IV by Edward C. Patterson

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: CreateSpace
Pages:  508

A Brilliant Work that will Linger in your Heart and Soul

This delightful adventure tale is book IV of Edward Patterson’s Southern Swallow series. The House of Green Waters, like its predecessors (The Academician, The Nan Tu, and Swan Cloud) is told by K'u Ko-ling, the amusing servant to the Grand Tutor, Li K'ai-men, who has been living in exile for thirteen years on the harsh, tropical island of Hai-nan.

Set on the broad canvas of Sung Dynasty China (12thCentury), The House of Green Waters is a collage of historical adventure, intrigue, and love. While Li K’ai-men and his entourage suffer in a fly-infested wetland, slogging through jungle streams and unfurled on deserted beaches, China’s political world explodes as a mad prince invades the Sung Empire. It’s a time for heroes and riveting warfare, including the first recorded battle in history to deploy poisonous gas as a weapon.

This story is a passing of the torch, where sons take power from fathers, and a new generation of heroes rise up to sacrifice themselves in the fight against injustice. It is also a deeply touching love story, as Li K’ai-men and his devoted lover, Fu Lin-t’o, come to their last days together, and also reach the pinnacle of their love for each other. The adoration shown on these pages rivals anything I’ve read for its beauty and raw emotion.

I have adored all four books of the Southern Swallow series for a number of reasons. First, I particularly enjoyed the characterizations in this character driven novel. Patterson has created a number of interesting and likeable characters. They are flawed, and struggle to overcome those defects. Even the "bad-guys" developed into memorable foes.

Second, the author skillfully weaves an intriguing plot that holds the reader to the page, blending history, adventure, love, and magic to form an unforgettable tapestry.

The author has created a delightful voice. The tale is told both in third person, and also K'u Ko-ling’s first person narratives. Both voices are distinct and captivating. It is a pleasure reading such well-crafted prose.

Edward C. Patterson is a scholar in East Asian culture. So not only is the storyline based on true historical events, but the descriptions of the cultural settings and rituals ring true.  Patterson has done his homework, and it shows from first page to last.

For anyone interested in reading this novel, I would highly recommend reading books I, II, & III first (The Academician, The Nan Tu, and Swan Cloud).  There is simply too much plot and relationship building that occurs in these earlier novels that is needed to fully understand the situations presented in The House of Green Waters.

Readers who love historical fiction will no doubt treasure this series. But these books can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates fully developed characters and finely crafted stories. This book, this series, is a gem that can be appreciated by everyone.